Tag Archives: Caligula

Dominus Flevit

I couldn’t believe I was actually there. Ever since I was a child I’d read about this place. The city conquered by David and visited by Jesus. The city around which most of the Bible rotated. Jerusalem the golden. One of the perks of working on an archaeological dig was the opportunity for weekend travel, and here I was, amid camels and cars and churches and synagogues and mosques, in Jerusalem. No amount of reading prepares you for such an experience. Suffused with the rich mythologies of three major religions, this city is like a dream. So much had happened here. The church I was attending at the time was only the latest in a long succession that informed me that God himself had actually been killed here and had risen again. The ultimate game-changer. The once in forever event of all time had taken place right here.

Gnu Jerusalem from WikiCommons

But this was not a city at peace, despite its name. There was a bombing the first weekend I was there. Young men and women in military garb carried scary looking weapons openly in public. Even civilian bus drivers wore pistols. Jerusalem had a long history of violence, but that didn’t justify it. If God had really been here—in either Jewish, Christian, or Muslim contexts didn’t matter—how could this city be so prone to terror? In the old city old men sat around hookahs, placidly smoking. Tourists, many bearing crosses, thronged. Jerusalem, however, was also a very political place. The fragile, Christmas bulb-thin peace of the region involved the city being divided up and not being claimed by Israel alone. Even that man driving his goats through these ancient streets knew that.

Trump, to the cheers of evangelicals who want nothing so fervently as the end of the world, has said he’ll recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This political move of weaponized ignorance will almost certainly lead to war in the Middle East. Another war. An illegitimate presidency leaving a frothing sea of corpses in its wake. Negotiating in this part of the world is like haggling with that street vendor for a pair of sandals. You go back and forth on the price. You act insulted and walk away. You come back and haggle some more. It’s a delicate dance. This is no place for egomaniacs who can’t understand such subtleties. Just ask the last Caligula who wanted his statue set up as a god in this city. Jerusalem is home to too many jealous gods, and those who are self-appointed divinities will only leave the city, the world, in tears.

American Caligula

In the days before the American Caligula, the Trump family disgusted average Americans. I mean specifically one of those whose songs are considered essential Americana. Woody Guthrie is perhaps best known for his song, “This Land is Your Land.” Many of us were taught to sing it in school, back when public education was still a thing. Some of us were taught that Guthrie was the Dust Bowl crooner who railed against social injustice. The lyrics to “This Land” are not celebratory, according to those who knew Guthrie. They’re a condemnation. But then, it’s just like later interpreters to prettify the words of a prophet. “A young lady will conceive,” for Isaiah meant the horrid crisis of Assyria’s attack on Jerusalem would soon be over. A couple centuries later it was made into an angelic birth announcement. But I digress. Guthrie often wrote and sang about social injustice. He was known to perform with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” appearing on his guitar.

Photo credit: Al Aumuller/New York World-Telegram and the Sun, from Wikimedia Commons

Those of us who write are never far from our notebooks. You don’t always have time to write out in full form ideas that come to you like a gray matter receiver, often at the most inconvenient times. Recently it was discovered that Woody Guthrie wrote a song called “Old Man Trump.” The song castigates the racism for the Donald’s father whose Beach Haven was once Guthrie’s home. Beach Haven was built to house returning veterans of World War II. It was off limits to African Americans. Guthrie responded in the way he did best, with poetry. The story of and words to “Old Man Trump” can be found in a Washington Post story written by Justin Wm. Moyer during Trump’s campaign. Although Guthrie never wrote the music, the song has been subsequently recorded, and in the light of the last few days, needs to be widely played.

Republican leaders, still hoping to profit from Trump, refuse to outright condemn his open and obvious racism. “This Land is Your Land” was written to protest just this kind of privileging of one “type” over another. It took some time before Romans realized their third emperor was insane. They may have know earlier, but there’s a social embarrassment to admit that the most powerful man in the world is off his rocker. Insanity and racism may not be the same thing, but neither is acceptable in a world leader. Ryan Harvey has put “Old Man Trump” to music and has made it available to the world. Give it a listen and think about where we are.

Beyond Redemption?

NonbelieverNation The Roman emperor Gaius, it is said, was insane. He perpetrated such antics as declaring war on the North Sea, making his horse a senator, and appearing in public dressed as various gods. Better known as Caligula, Gaius is often presented as evidence of the decadence that would eventually lead to the fall of the Roman Empire. Civilization, we’re told, has progressed enormously since then. We put people on the moon, and we carry in our pockets technology that appears, to mere mortals, as if it’s magic. We have elected an African-American to the White House and men have magnanimously granted females the right to vote. Oh how far we’ve come! And yet, in the midst of our self-congratulation, we have not one, but a plethora of high-ranking politicians in all three branches of the government who believe the world is only 6000 years old. They firmly believe Jesus will return on a white horse (presumably to be made a senator) any day now. And there will be a massive battle of good (us, or at least some of us) versus evil (those not evangelical in orientation) that will lead to the end of the world. And they are easily elected. Is that a knowing smile I see on Gaius’ face?

David Niose, president of the Secular Coalition for America, has written an important book entitled Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans. Before you run for your shotguns, be assured that Niose is—like most secularists—not trying to do away with religion. Secularity is all about the founding principles of this country: freedom of conscience, the right to believe what we will. Or won’t. Up until the 1950’s the secular aspect of this country was taken more or less for granted. Tellingly, Niose opens his book by looking at the presidential elections of 1912 in which not one of the four candidates had a problem with evolution and even the most religious of them was very much a moderate. A century later and we have rampant Fundamentalists well funded and ready to push other nations toward initiating Armageddon. “Well, they started it!” And still, secular Americans are consistently portrayed as insidious snakes in the garden, trying to destroy everything.

It is difficult to read Nonbeliever Nation and not feel embarrassed as we see the promise of an advanced nation winding back its clock to the point that the educated are presented as ignorant at best—or more likely, evil. Where churches and corporations are increasingly difficult to tell apart, and where basic civil liberties for women and gays are still considered somewhat suspect, as if they hadn’t cleared the desk of the Big Man upstairs. Yes, he does have a beard and a son. And yet, despite the message of that putative son—known as a pacifist with radical ideas about social equality—the faithful bar the way for the oppressed while building the most massive arsenal in the world’s history. Rome, they say, was not built in a day. It didn’t even fall until 476, but already in the first century, large cracks had begun to appear. The difference is that America is far more religious. Does that give us any better chances, or worse? Read David Niose and decide. And, since global warming is real, the North Sea will eventually win in the end.