Common Tyrants

“Common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not intitled to obedience from their subjects.”  The words aren’t mine, nor are they from this century.  That, however, makes them no less true.  Jonathan Mayhew was an eighteenth-century clergyman arguing that Bible’s admonition to obey government officials did not apply to those who abused power.  In reading these words I felt a sense of loss in a very basic way.  No, I’m not a fan of turning back the clock—it can’t really be done anyway—but when the word of a single book was not disputed those tempted to follow tyrants could be made to justify it with a Good Book that could also be used to refute it.  We no longer have a common frame of reference, but tyrants still exist.

Shouting matches have been substituted for discussions because those who support tyrants can’t see how they are also being oppressed.  It’s one of the ironies of history.  This internet age has only found a way of magnifying people’s differences on the political scale, even as it has brought us to the common marketplace of culture.  Who doesn’t use Amazon?  Tyranny, by definition, is the arbitrary use of power.  One might think of, oh, declaring a national emergency when none exists just to get what one wants.  One might think of surrounding oneself with criminals against the nation just to get what one wants.  One might think of business practices meant to ruin others just to get what one wants.  There seems to be a common theme here and it’s one on which the Bible has a great deal to say.  The only Scripture that gets quoted is that which supports tyranny, eh, Mayhew?

When the debate was about the Good Book we were largely all on the same page.  Not all colonials wanted to break with King George III.  Some profited from the connection.  Others thought Holy Writ prevented revolutions rather than inspiring them.  Tyrants have always been with us.  You’d think that with all the media we have these days that we’d be able to spot one fairly easily.  The camera, however, has a way of giving the lie to the Good Book.  Anyone can say they read it.  Or claim they obey it.  Its own test seems to be “by their fruits you will know them.”  The words aren’t mine.  They’re from a distant century past.  But it seems the fruit is dying on the tree, even as spring begins.

Culpability Defined

What seems to be lacking in the United States government is any realization that actions have consequences.  While in Christchurch, New Zealand at least 49 people have been murdered only for being Muslim, Trump feels that tweeting “heartfelt” condolences somehow exculpates him from fostering an atmosphere of hatred.  Indeed, the main shooter in that travesty cited Trump as an inspiration.  The sickening lack of awareness that deeds have consequences has once again led to a body count.  Meanwhile in these states the Republican Party refuses to condemn the daily and consistent message of racism coming from an edifice that is more and more appropriately called the “White House.”  Do you have to pull the trigger to be guilty?  History will decide.  

Politics has always been a crooked game, but until 2016 most elected to the highest office—God help us, even George W. Bush—realized that the office had responsibility associated with it.  It wasn’t a place you could play loose and easy and tweet from the hip and think it was your right as “just another citizen.”  Muslims have been part of American culture from very nearly the beginning of this experiment in colonialism.  Freedom of religion was one of the pillars of democracy that Trump has been chopping down like a cherry tree while tweeting “No I didn’t.”  The GOP applauds.  Here’s how to instill one religion as the norm, not considering the consequences.  Massacres in the name of Christ don’t make you Christian.  Not cutting history class should be a requirement to run for elected office.  Or at least taking basic civics.  Instead we have a government that refuses to recognize that it can inspire murderers around the globe and then offer heartfelt condolences with no apologies.

Where is the condemnation of racism?  Where is the line between black and white?  Where is the sense of any culpability for creating and sustaining the warm, moist environment where the bacteria of hatred thrives?  When you awake to the news that yet another white supremacist has taken inspiration from an angry white man who has nothing to be angry about and has consecrated murder as patriotism how can you look the world in the eye?  Hiding behind a tweet does not bring back the dead.  How do we get the message through?  Millions of us have repeatedly marched in protest.  We flipped one house of congress and we daily sign petitions until our fingers bleed but no response comes from those who won by a mere technicality.  If there are indeed ghosts in this world there will be mass immigration and it shall be richly deserved.

The Rules of Waiting

Tom Petty must’ve been a commuter.  On a winter’s morning after switching to Daylight Saving Time, waiting is the indeed the hardest part.  For a bus, that is.  In the dark.  The saving grace is that humans are rule-makers.  Before I even began commuting into New York I’d been instructed in the etiquette.  Those who get there first leave some kind of avatar—a briefcase, an umbrella, a lunch box—in their place in line and then sit in their cars.  Being the paranoid sort, and also thinking myself tough, I’ve always just stood at my place as the chill wind finds its way down my collar and then buffets me almost off of my feet.  With the time-change, however, I decided to do like the commuters do.  I walked out to the line of objects to find one widely separated from the others.  Being a law-abider, I put my lunch down after the errant water bottle.

“Hey,” a stranger called me on my way back to my car.  “Somebody just left that water bottle—you should move your bag up next to the backpack.”  Thanking him, I did so.  Not only was this person I didn’t know watching me in the dark, but he was also keeping the rules.  Indeed, when the bus crested the hill and commuters lined up next to their possessions, the water bottle remained unclaimed.  It was still there fourteen hours later when I got off the returning bus.  Now, I’m not a big fan of anarchy, but this incident demonstrates just how inclined we are toward civil behavior.  There’s no bus stop police force to ensure nobody jumps line.  Even at the Port Authority waiting in the queue at the end of the day the rules are mostly self-governing.  Those who don’t obey are scolded by their peers and generally comply.

There’s a natural sort of ethic among those who catch the bus before 5 a.m.  We’ve all been awake earlier than nature would seem to dictate.  We’re in a dark, isolated location outside town.  We look out for one another, realizing that any one of us might easily lose our place in line should the rules break down.  I was struck by the kindness of this caliginous stranger.  Or perhaps it was just his love of order.  Had my representation been out of place, other commuters might’ve grown confused.  The system might’ve broken down.  The last thing anyone wants is chaos before cock-crow.  I decided to interpret it as kindness, however, as I made my way back to my car to put on Tom Petty to face the hardest part.

If It Itches

The problem, or rather a problem, of growing up Fundamentalist is taking things literally.  I suppose we’re all born naive realists, learning only later that things aren’t what they seem.  One of the dynamics of finding something new to say about demons involves an unconventional method of research.  Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted is a case in point.  Being part of a series called “Theology for the People,” this book is not an exploration of literal demons or the Devil.  Well, it kinda is and kinda isn’t.  It is an engaging and often insightful treatment of the question of evil and what to do about it.  Evil is a question, but most of us, at least pre-Trump, could recognize it when we saw it.

Beck is a professor of psychology.  This meant that at several points I found myself pausing to consider some of the points he was making.  Some parts didn’t work for me—welcome to the world of reading—but others were eye-opening.  One thing that all books about the Devil seem to have in common is the observation that evil is clearly present in our world.  Governments, and Beck uses Rome as an example, easily become oppressive and harmful to the weak and powerless.  As a volunteer in a prison ministry, Beck knows whereof he speaks.  When governments are run by the unstable (think of the one with a toothbrush mustache or any other who declare themselves geniuses) oppression follows.  Evil not only bobs in the wake of oppression, it is oppression.  Beck has a Christian anchoring—call it theology—behind this, but it clearly works even without that.

Getting over my literalism, I know that academic books about demons or the Devil come with more serious titles and more hefty price-tags.  The value of a book, however, has to do with more than the cash you shell out for it.  Beck does a service by offering a theology that isn’t too theological.  I’ve known many candidates for the ministry who lost their compassion by getting tangled in the weeds of theology.  Even to the point of making sarcastic remarks to someone who wanted to help them when they fell on the ice.  I know myself, and I have to learn to trust those who practice theology in ways that I do not.  This may not be conventional research, but it is important reading.  Old Scratch, after all, is not just in the details.

Checkmate

March has been designated as Women’s History Month.  Since history has been written, well, historically by males, women have frequently been excluded.  History as a serious attempt to describe “what actually happened” is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Yes, men (mostly) have been writing their views of what events meant from the days of the Bible and the Classics on.  A few females had made their way into the narratives, but reading history often makes it seem like males were the only people of consequence.  I was thinking about this the other day after I read a reference to the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll.  Chess, I realized, is a game with a message.  Now I don’t often have time for games, but this felt important.

I’m not a good chess player, but I know that if you lose your queen you’ve got to be far better than I am at it to win the game.  In fact, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board.  Now if you plan to come back with something like “using the bishop, knight, and rook you can surpass the power of the queen” it suggests two things.  One, you’re better than me at chess, and two, you’re missing the point.  The queen can move in both perpendicular and diagonal lines.  She can land on either color.  The range of her motion is limited only by the size of the board.  The bishop is limited to one color square only and the rook takes two moves to equal the queen’s diagonal skills.  

Think about the king—he moves one space at a time, and mostly only to avoid capture.  The queen is out there defending the realm.  Even as a kid learning to play chess, it was obvious that the queen did far more than a bishop limited to his ecclesiastical domain, or the rook with his brute force.  The knight makes a move the queen cannot, but his range in limited.  If a player retained only a queen the opponent’s king could still be captured, in my mind.  Chess should be a queen’s game.  

History is a way of looking at things.  Although it involves facts—and this is where the government narrative goes off the rails; the denial of facts is an autocrat’s game—it’s not the same as facts.  History is an interpretation of facts.  The fact is that male history of the world just could not have been possible without women.  It’s time not just to acknowledge it, but to celebrate it.

Learn and Let Learn

My wife often works weekends.  Generally this involves trips to New Jersey, and since my unconventional schedule means we see each other awake only a brief time during the week, I often tag along.  The colder months of the year, and general economic caution, mean things to be done around the house can wait.  Most of the locations where she works have nearby bookstores, but even a guy with proclivities like mine finds it hard to spend more three or four hours in one place, even in such a welcome environment.  It finally occurred to me that one need not be a resident to find shelter, and free wifi, in the public library.  I’ll pack my laptop, and if it’s going to be a full day, a sack lunch, and head to the library for a change of scenery.  It has led to a kind of renaissance for my spirits.

Public libraries generally do not house the books I read.  The source of my jouissance has rather been discovering how well used the libraries are.  In both affluent and more modest neighborhoods, people willingly spend part of their Saturdays in buildings dedicated to learning.  Not all are there for the books, but they seem comfortable surrounded by them.  We gather in a temple to the human mind.  And everyone’s generally quiet.  Mentors coach young people who want to learn.  Some even dress well, as if the library might be a place to be seen.  In a nation where education is under attack, I always leave refreshed without spending a penny.

Such opportunities are a rarity.  Before the library opens, if we happen to be at her venue early, I may need to find a Starbucks.  They more or less assume you’ll consume to utilize their free wifi, but beyond that a day at the library comes without cost and considerable gain.  A variety of ethnicities are always present, and nobody’s right to be here is questioned.  It’s a microcosm of what we could be as a nation, had we the will, the desire to learn and let learn.  People generally have a difficult time with silence—just ask any introvert.  I suspect this is one reason not everyone shares my enthusiasm for a cloistered experience of a Saturday.  Libraries are where we’re forced to be relatively quiet to respect the needs of those actually there to read.  Hoi polloi prefer to be loud, as any bar on a weekend afternoon will reveal.  But the libraries remain, and even in their own way, are buzzing hives of the life of the mind.

Mostly Clear

“Chiasm” is a literary technique based on the name of the Greek letter chi, shaped like a latinate X.  The idea is fairly simple and generally resembles a sideways V more often than an actual X.  It goes like this: a poem, or story, begin at a large, or wide premise, narrows down in steps to a center, and then, by corresponding steps, again out toward a larger, or wider resolution.  Another way to think of it is a set of Matryoshka dolls; first you take them apart, and then you put them back together.  David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a chiastic story.  Starting on a cross-ocean voyage at an indeterminate time in the recent past centuries, it moves on to a Briton on the continent in about the turn of the last century, then a mid-twentieth-century American investigative journalist, a late twentieth-century or present-day rogue publisher in Britain, a clone in future Korea, and finally, to a planet of the apes-like Hawaii of the distant future.  Not really finally, though, since after the center of the X, it moves back outward through the nesting stories to bring us back to the beginning.

I’m not going to attempt to retell the story here, so don’t worry—it doesn’t get any more complicated.  There are, however, a couple of remarkable things about the tale.  In the brutish, nasty, post-collapse future that marks the center of the narrative, religion is central.  Some of the Hawaiians have come to believe the protagonist of the nesting story, the clone mentioned above, was a god.  To find her story, however, you’ll need to read the book.  Suffice it to say, that origin myth is part of the overall complex structure.  The second of the remarkable features, and one that makes this book very salient, is that in all the ages the issue of accepting those who are different is central.

In the outside framing story, the initial and terminal points of the chi, one of the characters is a missionary.  He’s trying to “improve” he life of Polynesians by making them into slaves, whereby they benefit from the largess of Christianity.  Quite a bit of the narrative draws its energy from the eventually faltering sense of superiority of the AngloSaxon “race.”  In that sense it’s definitely a parable for our time.  A story that deserves to be read.  Defying easy genre identification, Cloud Atlas is a thought-provoking novel that doesn’t fear religion and its larger implications.  A couple of the nesting stories have exquisite twist endings worthy of the Twilight Zone.  This book will make some demands on your time, but its message makes it a sound investment in a world rapidly heading toward a future that reveals just how troubled our species is.