Loneliness of Long-Distance Runners

1988. I was standing along Boylston Street, in Copley Square, watching the Boston Marathon. As the weary first place runner trudged by, I somehow neglected to take a photograph. I did snap one of the number two winner. I always have had an affinity for those who don’t win. Those who try, only to be beaten by others. His name didn’t stay with me, but I still have that photo, a moment in time, when everyone was excited about the culmination of a long tradition. When I heard that there was a bombing at the marathon yesterday, I experienced a different kind of culmination. I wondered what kind of people we had become. The Boston Marathon, a long-time symbol of endurance and pushing oneself to the limit, came to a crashing end. Along with another chapter in the innocence of a world gone mad. Just last October, I posted a photo on this blog that I had snapped near where one of the bombs went off. As I write this nobody has a clue as to who was responsible or what they were trying to prove.


The NRA gun barons were not on hand to stop the terrorists, I note. Funny how they always show up too late. Perhaps we should all start carrying hand-grenades. We all have a choice whether to do more good or evil in the world. To leave behind a better place or a worse one. The Boston Marathon is an international event, with long-distance runners from around the world competing. More against themselves than against anyone else. Just to finish the grueling course. Who would want to hurt just anyone, including several children—those who love to race and dream and hope for a better tomorrow?

The news saddens me, for we like to think we live in an enlightened nation. Maybe a little soft around the middle, but generally a congenial place. We hold events like the Boston Marathon to celebrate human achievement—those who push themselves to the limit but then keep going. Standing in the crowd in 1988, I remember how we clapped for those who seemed too exhausted to trudge those last few yards to the finish line. We wanted them to succeed. I couldn’t tell you one of their names, but we were all wishing the best for them. That is the human spirit. It takes a coward’s coward to plant bombs amid crowds and then not even claim your own evil victory. Terrorism, already heinous, without even trying to make a point. And yet the runners run on. Like the marathon itself, we must keep believing that we can reach that ribbon and that the vast majority are hoping for our success.

Evolving Leadership

Simple answers are seldom correct. Unfortunately many people will accept a simple answer rather than try to sort through the complexities that life in the universe provides in such abundance. I was given cause for hope by an interview that I saw on The Upworthiest. Zack Kopplin, a student only nineteen years old, is taking on the creationists in the south. It’s not an easy thing to do. As Bill Moyers points out in this interview, 46% of Americans believe in creationism. In a land where everything is a matter of choice, it seems, science is just one of many options. Also, Fundamentalist clergy are among the most gifted spin-doctors ever to have evolved. By pairing evolution and atheism and values that are dangerous to their beloved lifestyle, the message goes out from thousands of pulpits that evolution is a lie and that the Bible is a science book after all. And people, easily led, will follow. For many decades scientists and religionists alike refused to even address creationism, supposing illogical thought would eventually die out. What they were actually witnessing was a match thrown into a kindle-dry forest after decades of drought.

Even the case of Zack is a demonstration of this. When a law passed in his native Louisiana making it easier to teach creationism in the public schools, those who knew better did nothing. It took a nineteen-year-old to try to change the law. One could argue that full-grown scientists and other professionals have too much to do to waste their time on such foolishness. The problem is, as Zack is keenly aware, the creationists are well funded, strategic, and insidious. Fueled by self-righteousness, and supported by at least 16 years of presidential administrations that approved of creationism as a form of science, this movement is as much a threat as the NRA is to a peaceable kingdom. Maybe more of a threat because nobody takes them seriously. There is a plenty of history documenting the growth and development of the creationist movement, and, as Zack knows, it is not a fad. Most serious scholars just don’t bother to read it.

Creationism thrives by its own sense of victimization. Science offers us no cuddly deity who will make everything right at the end of a life of toil and turmoil. That is fine for science, but we must never forget that people are people. We need something to hold onto. It is this that creationists understand. Instead of calling it delusional, perhaps scientists need to step back and realize that it is a profoundly human need. That doesn’t make creationism right—not by a long stretch—but it might help to understand why it just doesn’t seem to go away. Instead of ignoring, science must address creationism. And so must those with serious training in religion. Creationism doesn’t survive close scrutiny by either scientists or religious specialists, but it sure does offer a feel-good ending. Until we admit that they’ve done their homework, those who oppose creationism are going to find themselves being led by nineteen-year-olds with a sense of what’s really at stake. And that’s complicated.

Yes, they will attack the prophet

Yes, they will attack the prophet

Witnesses All

Witness“Only the bad man. I see. And you know these bad men by sight? You are able to look into their hearts and see this badness?” The words of Eli Lapp in one of the most memorable scenes in Witness often come back to me. While the lifestyle of the Amish strikes me as somewhat extreme, I have always admired their conviction that a simple life is a better life. The finer points of Anabaptist theology don’t always agree with my Weltanschauung, but their pacifism is the closest thing to Jesus’ Christianity that I can imagine. So as the NRA pulls out its big guns, arguing that the solution to children being massacred is to provide even more guns, I say they should watch Witness.

The year is 1985. In the movie Samuel Lapp witnesses a murder and when detective John Book finds out, he is chased to the Lapp’s Amish community where he hides out. One day young Samuel finds his gun and the camera angle is so oblique as the weapon in the foreground fades out to his grandfather Eli’s face, that you sense some violence has already been done even in the smelting of the metal to cast the revolver. “This gun of the hand is for the taking of human life. We believe it is wrong to take a life. That is only for God. Many times wars have come and people have said to us: you must fight, you must kill, it is the only way to preserve the good. But Samuel, there’s never only one way. Remember that. Would you kill another man?”

At this point all the fuss is only about limiting assault rifles. There is no sane reason that private citizens (my convictions go even further, but let’s not be too idealistic here) should have assault rifles. Not even a grizzly bear attack would justify it. The only effective weapon against violence is education. But look at one of the first budget items to get slashed when times get tough. Imagine a world where people were taught to solve their differences with discussions rather than violence. Even most crime, I suspect, would vanish if people didn’t feel themselves unfairly disadvantaged. Our violent legacy may go back to our common ancestor with the chimpanzees, but we like to imagine we’re better than they are. Are we?

“I would only kill the bad man.” So Samuel says with the conviction of a child. Badness is a fraught concept. It is often one of those qualities that we are not fit to judge in others, because we all know the directions our own thoughts take from time to time. Eli’s grandfather is a voice of wisdom here. But Samuel has the last word in this poignant scene, “I can see what they do. I have seen it.” If we exegete this just a little, however, I think we may be surprised at just who the bad really are. Think about it.

No Year’s Eve

So the world’s supposed to end tomorrow. Again. These apocalypses have been coming thick and fast lately; it’s getting so that each end of the world is within sight of the previous end. Of all the strange ideas that religions have given us, the end of the world is the most insidious. While some may choose not to believe it, many politicians of record have actively attempted to provoke the end of time to force the divine hand at bringing a little bit of heaven to earth. Scary thing is, some of them had the power to annihilate us all in the process. Unlike past eschatons, however, this one derives from the interpretation of Mayan artifacts, strangely making it more believable to some people. Those exotic peoples of the past! They just knew so much more about worlds ending than we do. And I know otherwise intelligent people who believe that this is the last day of the earth.

Of course, if we take the earth’s temperature there does seem to be some cause for alarm. That’s not the Mayans’ fault, though. Some of these self-same fracking politicians have insisted that since the Second Coming is near it is alright to destroy the ecosystem that supports all life on the planet. Those are pretty high stakes if they turn out to be wrong. Oh, but they can make a healthy profit margin on the side, so at least they can go out in style. But what would a Mayan apocalypse mean to the firmly committed Christian? It would be very hard to recover from that, should Q’uq’umatz be behind it all.

The events of the past week have been more than a little rough. And the self-same politicians line up on the side of the NRA as they campaign for Jesus’ early return plan. The overall prognosis seems iffy at best. It is like the feeling the dinosaurs must’ve had on the evening of the asteroid. Some of them had brains the size of walnuts, an allegory too plain to require spelling out. What these eschatological episodes teach us is that human life is fragile. Madmen with guns remind us of the same point. I’m expecting, however, that things will be pretty much the same as ever tomorrow morning. I’ll be expected at work, the wheels of the sluggish economy will turn ever so slowly, and politicians will keep doing what they do best. Those counting on Mayan counting will find themselves in the company of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Harold Camping. All of us will find ourselves in a world where religion is perhaps the only power actually capable of total destruction. But if we wake up with aliens swarming the planet tomorrow we’ll honestly be able to say that we’d been warned.

The face of things to come?

The face of things to come?

Rachel Weeping

“In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.” I just can’t get it out of my head. The tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut is the madness of Herod repeated over and over again. I stand outside my daughter’s room and weep as she sleeps, terrified of what we’ve become. For the right of one person to own guns, twenty-eight are dead. The balance of power is way off-kilter, like a fishing vessel in a perfect storm. Those who protest are those who are unarmed who wish to remain that way. The bravado of the NRA says, “I would protect them, if I were there.” If I were there. I would feel no safer. Where was the NRA in Stockton, California, Iowa City, Iowa, Jonesboro, Arkansas, Littleton, Colorado, Red Lake, Minnesota, Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, Blacksburg, Virginia, DeKalb, Illinois, Oakland, California, or Newtown, Connecticut? Polishing their rifles in readiness, no doubt.

The time has come to put an end to easy access to guns. Life was more civilized in the days of the flintlock and musket—at least people had time to react or flee before another shot was loaded. Instead we tell people they will be safer if they can squeeze off forty-one shots before that crazy idiot shoots another. Drop to your knees and beg for mercy, you’ll be safer. While you’re down there, say one for a nation that loves its firearms more than its children.

Days like this it feels like God has us in his sights. The longer I ponder this the blacker my thoughts grow. We may blame the madman, but it is society that allows this to happen. Herod was king, and even the mother of God fled. But what of those left behind in Bethlehem? They paid the price for a man in love with power. I see a man in a cage, being sprayed by an upright ape holding a firehose. The man is one of the most vocal supporters of the NRA, but now he is the inferior being. “It’s a madhouse!” he cries. Yes, Mr. Heston, it is a madhouse indeed. Only those aren’t apes outside the cage, and those are firehoses in their hands. On further reflection, perhaps they are truly apes. Rachel is weeping for her children, while Herod reloads.

Slaughter of the innocents, 2.0

Slaughter of the innocents, 2.0

Loaded Symbolism

Perhaps it’s all the politics in the news, or perhaps it’s the very long nights of January, but death comes to mind during the winter. One of the enduring preoccupations of religion is the issue of death. Christianities teach of wonderful rewards or horrendous punishments after the sloughing off of this mortal coil. Many eastern religions suggest the even scarier idea of reincarnation—we are doomed to repeat this sideshow over and over until we get it right. Since the universe has billions of years to go, that’s plenty of time for errors. When we finally depart, however, we leave our loved ones with the dilemma of how to handle our remains. Burial goes back to the Paleolithic Era—simple, effective, little fuss. Nature reclaims what we have borrowed for a century or less. This is the preferred Christian end, for, believing in the resurrection of the body, a body must remain. In some form. Other religions, noting the cleansing power of fire, prefer cremation. Those original Zoroastrians still prefer exposure of the dead to carnivores. It is, however, generally our religion that dictates our final disposal.

Enter the entrepreneur. The corpse becomes a commodity. You’ve got a problem and you’ll pay well for a satisfying solution. Some years back I saw ads for a company with the scientific, yet romantic concept that, as carbon, our corpses could be pressurized into diamonds. It is a costly procedure, but you could wear your beloved around your neck or on your finger as a chunk of the hardest substance on earth. A few weeks ago I found a more affordable solution on the website of Holy Smoke. Once you have made the decision to go with cremation, what do you want to do with that urn of ashes? Holy Smoke offers a solution: you can have your loved one’s remains loaded into ammunition shells. Taking care to handle the ash with profound respect, Holy Smoke will place the remains into either rifle or shotgun shells (one pound of human ash fills about 250 shotgun shells). You can then be shot toward eternity by loving relatives at their convenience. Gunpowder-propelled toward Heaven itself. Holy Smoke is located in Alabama.

Welcome to eternity

The problem of human remains is perhaps the most religious one of all. Our faiths give us the hermeneutic we need to face that great portal. As we consider the number of useless deaths brought on by Bush’s personal war in the Middle East, a kind of macabre closure can be seen through the smoke. After all, the NRA endorses the Republican Party. So does the Religious Right (unless, of course, they nominate a Mormon). Perhaps if we loaded our guns with our dead instead of live ammunition, the symbolism might finally hit its target. Holy Smoke could be offering a valuable service here to be shared between religious enemies. Instead of the kiss of peace, well, use your imagination. Perhaps it’s the very long nights of January, or perhaps it’s all the politics in the news.

Zombie Friday

New Jersey is known for its zombies. Last October Asbury Park gained admission to the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest zombie walk (exception is made, of course, for daily life in Washington, DC). The movie zombie, in its now classic form, was reborn in western Pennsylvania, but New Jersey is the place where strange afterlives appear to gravitate. Yesterday Stephen Finley was sentenced. Finley, a mortician, had been convicted of selling the healthy organs of his dead customers to earn a little extra on the side. Given that the governor, Chris Christie, might rival Vlad the Impaler in his zeal for chopping, this really does not surprise me at all. Is it not the ultimate triumph of the free market to consider human beings commodities to be packaged, used up, repackaged and resold? Moral rectitude is on the side of the strong arm.

As someone who has been on the receiving end of the chop more than once, and reduced to a zombie-like state of perpetual job-insecurity, I think I know how the undead feel. Not having a place in the normal world of the living, but not quite dead, the zombie wanders about looking to feed on brains. This idea of brain-lust seems to stem from the cult classic The Return of the Living Dead, although, not being a film specialist, I would welcome correction on this point. Nevertheless, like the modern zombie I hail from western Pennsylvania and nothing satisfies me like a good brain (metaphorically, of course).

The idea of harvesting the organs of the powerless dead also suggests the endlessly referenced Soylent Green. Here the staunch NRA promoter Charlton Heston fights against the establishment that is turning (spoiler alert) people into Soylent Green, the ultimate solution to food shortages! For, after all, are people not just commodities? America’s thirst for zombies reflects our growing sense of victimization: the zombie is primarily a creature without a will, brought back by powers beyond its control. In the original vodun context the zombie was a source of cheap labor. Is it any surprise that West African slaves brought the concept to the New World with them? Today, of course, those with the cash may simply purchase the organs they desire, cutting out the middle man and going straight to the source.