City of Lights

As the civilized world struggles to make sense over the senseless attacks of ISIS in Paris, the question of where to turn emerges. An attack has taken place. Innocent people have died. We are in mourning, and we want to analyze what happened to make the world feel a little less insane. As my wife pointed out an article on CNN, I was shocked by the terms in which the attacks were described. Here I read about ISIS extending its global reach. Top leaders, we’re told, planned the attack. And ISIS is “getting into the international terrorism business.” These phrases are common in just about every business meeting I’ve ever attended. This commodification of terror frightens me. The way we’ve chosen to handle terror is by making it into a business. These are human lives that have been lost—futures of the most promising kind. Not only are we the victims of blind terrorist groups, but we are victims of a world that can’t see beyond capitalism.

Terrorism is not a business. It is evil, but in a world where religious value is never invoked outside the few who still find meaning in matters of the soul, the vocabulary has been lost. How do we deal with ISIS? Just like you would any business. A hostile takeover bid? Gather your resources, make some deals, and if retaliation takes innocent lives, well, some bonds and chattels aren’t worth that much anyway. Have we lost the ability to describe the world in anything other than economic terms? Is humanity simply another business?

Paris_SPOT_1017

I do not wish to downplay the horrible events that took place in Paris Friday night. At least 120 are dead for doing only the kinds of things people do on a Friday night. Yet there is a terror that has been creeping through the world that refuses to be named. When it feels threatened it clears out Zuccotti Park. It has taken over our institutions of higher education. It buys political offices and rewards those at the top until the rest of us become commodities. Yes, some goods are lost or damaged during shipping. We need to have a metric to measure that. And when our eyes are streaming with tears we grasp the nearest—the only way we have of describing what has happened. A new business has come to town. When terror becomes a business all hope is already lost.

Guy Fawkes

“Remember, remember the fifth of November,” so begins the poem that haunts my every autumn with V for Vendetta. As a colonial, I never really peered too deeply into the Gunpowder Plot. We were all told that Guy Fawkes was the bad guy and that he got his in the end. Recently I delved a bit deeper and learned that this was a religious conflict. Part of a conspiracy to restore a Catholic monarch to the throne of England, Fawkes was captured as he guarded the actual gunpowder of said plot, and the rest, as they say, evolved into V. The iconic Guy Fawkes mask, sometimes sported by members of Occupy Wall Street and other protest movements, has moved away from its Catholic roots and on into the realm of wider social justice. We know that blowing up our enemies is not a viable solution (we too remember, remember the eleventh of September), but the metaphorical destruction of oppressive systems may be the only way to vindicate the demands of social justice.

Dystopias have been heavily on my mind lately. Looking across the socio-political landscape I see many concerned people with no power to displace the impacted one-percenters. Politicians court money, and sociological studies show that young people don’t bother to vote and have no interest in entering politics because it is so widely known that it is a corrupt and inefficient system. While laws are easily enacted to protect extreme wealth, social security finds itself on the block as seniors are increasing in poverty almost as fast as they are increasing in numbers. In my own life I have experienced being cut off from retirement plans because I wasn’t “vested,” which I translate as “saving money for those at the top.” Still, we blithely press on, wondering if V really exists at all. We don’t need to seek out dystopias. They will discover us.

November is that graying period between the colorful burst of vindictive playfulness that is Halloween to the long night of the solstice. During this time we will vote in vain and await a better future that never seems to come. We, like V, have been an experiment of the state over the freedoms of the individual. The market, we’re told, has recovered. The average citizen has not. Every year as the evenings grow longer and the winds begin to howl, I come back to V for Vendetta and hope against hope that corruption will meet the fate of Guy Fawkes. Ironically, few turn to religious organizations any more in the never-ending search for social justice. The trenches in which many denominations have chosen to die are those of sexuality and male dominance. Meanwhile, women and men both are aging, and the very structures we put in place to ensure they could rest after lives of hard work are being eroded. Behind every mask, it seems, hides the face of a politician.

Photo credit: Vincent Diamante, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Vincent Diamante, Wikimedia Commons

Sacked!

Higher education has made the headlines of the New York Times, page one. Of course, it has nothing to do with education, but with sex and sports and money—a kind of Trinity that has come to embody what truly drives education in the United States. Sports have long been associated with fitness, and fitness has a role to play in mental acuity. Games like those of the ancient Olympiad, however, were not part of the symposium as much as they were a deterrent to warfare. Representatives from towns all over Greece could see where the best martial skills resided (the games were modeled after behaviors of utility on the battlefield) and those who made the best showing were likely not wise to quarrel against. I suspect some vigorous sex followed the heroes of the sports field after the games. They were Greeks, after all, and laurel leaves are fine and good, but not so tangible as a reward.

I’m not a sports fan. I know very little about sports figures and even less about statistics. It was, however, impossible to grow up in Pennsylvania and not know the name of Joe Paterno. He made the news so often that no matter which college you attended he felt like your coach. (I am guessing here.) Even as an undergrad, asked to name one faculty member at Penn State, I would have fumbled. I could tell you the head coach of their football program, however, without having ever watched a game. As a society we decide by our accolades where our values will reside. There can be no question that sports prowess is highly regarded. Those who supposedly teach guys to do it better are like gods. When was the last time academic achievement at a university made front page of the New York Times?

Back in my ill-fated days at Nashotah House, believe it or not, I was on the seminary football team. Our season was one game long; we played the rival, “liberal,” and now disbanded, seminary, Seabury-Western. I was recruited because our student body was so small and I was relatively fit for a faculty member. If I am to be honest, a strange transformation took me over on the field. Those who don’t know me will have to take my word for it that I am a pacifist, a gentle and very shy person. Although the game was flag football, I earned more respect with the one flying tackle I perpetrated than I ever did by my teaching acumen. Where your treasure lies, there will be your heart also. So Paterno has been sacked. Join the club. If there were any cosmic justice we’d next see his god-like face at Occupy Wall Street. Instead, I imagine his consultant and endorsement fees will more than make up for a paltry lost job in higher education. Go Nitanny Loins!

Bonfire of Vanity

“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder, treason and plot…” V for Vendetta is movie that gets me every time. It is not that I want to see venerated buildings destroyed, but I do want change. Very badly. When visiting Occupy Wall Street last week, I saw protestors wearing Guy Fawkes masks, made popular by the movie V for Vendetta. Verily, I had to smile. We may remember the Gunpowder Plot and how the victorious forces of the monarchy stopped Guy Fawkes just in time, but how often do we remind ourselves that the story revolves around religious liberty? Finding their religion outlawed, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators tried, in a very unorthodox way, to make a very valid point: conscience cannot be legislated. Indeed, in the movie, the political powers claim that it is “Godlessness” that has led to the villainy, the decline of society. In fact, however, it is that the vices of the rich and powerful have turned them against their voiceless commoners; vanity has led to this dystopic future.

Once more we find ourselves at vespers on Bonfire Night with wealth firmly in place, political, religious, and economic powers secure. And many cold, hungry, and without a vestige of hope. I’m not sure there is a solution to this problem, but if religion has taught any lesson of value at all, it is that we must try. We must venture to make the situation better. Even those who wallow in the status quo want growth and development, albeit for themselves, claiming it only a venial sin. If the human race is not to go extinct, ossified before its computer screens, iPhones, and televisions, we must use our voices. We must stand, and it is vital that we stand together.

“An idea can change the world,” V tells Evey near the beginning of the film. Once the leaders of the government take military control, the freedom of expression is soon vanquished. Books are not to be found, visual art is considered dangerous. Questioning those in power is the very stuff of treason. In my short time I have seen us coming dangerously close to that mentality and calling it visionary. When people are afraid they will close in around the virile leadership of guns and violence. But fear may be vanquished in another way. When we recognize that we are part of something greater, when we relinquish what is “rightfully” ours to help others, when we join in that great collective called humanity, fear itself will vanish. It is not just vaunted Wall Street that must be occupied. No buildings have to vacillate and fall. We must Occupy our Minds, for rage as they might, the wealthy and powerful cannot control a venerated idea. “Remember, remember, the fifth of November…”

Villain or visionary?

Twin Towers

The newly opened World Trade Center memorial in Manhattan is truly a solemn place. Staring into the seemingly endless holes into which the water forever pours, one feels the emptiness of loss like a thousand graveyards. Like watching the Titanic sink from a lifeboat. In the chilly late October morning hundreds were huddled about, looking at those reflecting pools with an undefined sadness in their eyes and a sense of frustration in their souls. So much loss. And for what? The American way of life has its towering foibles as well as its nobility. The protesters of Occupy Wall Street are mere blocks away in Zuccotti Park, reminding the nation that we have forgotten the principles of human decency even while we honor the fallen dead. It seems an appropriate epitaph for All Hallows Eve—a peaceful park where hundreds died just blocks from where hundreds camp in the cold. It is not too late to stop this ship from striking the iceberg.

Ground Zero

The symbol of peace, given to us by the Bible, is the olive branch. Actually the olive branch comes from the story of the flood; it is less a sign of peace than it is a sign that some of us have survived the wrath of God. Read into that what you will. The olive branch only comes after all but eight people pay the ultimate sacrifice. It is peace on the terms of a vengeful deity. Near the center of the memorial, one tree stands out. It is not an olive tree. After the devastating attacks of 9/11, workers found a living Calleri pear tree among the rubble. The scorched and battered plant was taken to a nursery where it recovered. It stands now in the midst of the peaceful reflecting pools, bearing not olives, but pears. The tree was saved by human effort, a symbol of peace, survival, and endurance.

A different kind of tower

I spoke with one of the protestors in Occupy Wall Street, and gave him encouragement. I suffered unemployment for long years when the weight of the flood crushed me to my own ocean floor. Loss and more loss. I was moved to tears in the World Trade Center memorial. The decision not to build again on the site where the Twin Towers stood is a symbolic statement to those who believe that evil triumphs in the end. The god of those who destroy others in the name of their faith is the god who destroys innocent and guilty alike in worldwide floods. This is a god who offers people with no knowledge tempting fruit that they are not permitted to eat. Nowhere in the Bible does it state the species of the tree of knowledge. Is there anyone left innocent enough to tell? Artists like to use an apple, an idea based on the similarity between the Latin words for evil and apple. I believe that loss of innocence was the price of maturity, and I believe the tree of knowledge might just have been a Calleri pear.

Peace

Conversation with Solomon

“The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for, not by labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country,” wrote George Baer of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company. In 1902. Along with Melville I’ve been thinking about old Ecclesiastes and his gloomy prognostications. The writer of this neglected book of the Bible claimed that nothing was new under the sun; what is has been before. I read the quote above in David DeKok’s Fire Underground (on which more later). I thought of Occupy Wall Street and the supposed great wisdom of the “Christian men” that God “himself” has appointed to towers of wealth for our benefit. As long as we keep our mouths shut and our hind-quarters out of Zuccotti Park. The data, Old Solomon, I must admit, are depressing. The staggering wealth of the top one percent is beyond unconscionable. Solomon? Are you still listening? After all, as one of the Lord’s chosen, Solomon was also a king. In his day, according to the book of Kings, silver was as common as the dust in the streets. Is that rain, or just drool from the towers of power?

Old Ecclesiastes said the more that things change, the more they stay the same. He also inspired the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn.” As a society we have become reluctant to turn. Where did all that wealth go, Solomon? Did it not go to the temple and the palace? Seems there was a Religious Right even back then. As soon as Solomon died the common folk revolted. The chosen people split into two kingdoms that were never again reunited. Turn, turn, turn. The Christian men to whom God has given control have abandoned their posts. They’ve taken the cash and shared with their friends. Yes, America has kings. When the disparity is so great no other name applies.

“Cast your bread upon the waters,” Old Ecclesiastes says, “and it will come back to you in time of want.” I doubt that Solomon was ever unemployed. After working for “the Christian men” for over a decade, I was cast out on the waters, never to return. My stint of unemployment wavered in and out for six years. And I am one of the lucky ones. In that time I don’t recall feeling any wealth trickling down. I sure spent a lot getting the requisite degrees for a job that never materialized. So I sit down to read Ecclesiastes. Those who are addicted to wealth and power simply never took the words of the old sage to heart. We can excuse them, I suppose, since most clergy ignore him as well. When in need of some honesty, it is nice to know there’s a book in the Bible that is unafraid to utter the truth.

Preoccupied

I wonder if I’m the only one who feels uncomfortable with the proliferation of armed military guards in public places. I know the rhetoric that “freedom is not free” (what is it then?), but when the coffee hasn’t really kicked in yet and I walk by guys young enough to be my kids holding machine guns in the bus terminals and train stations of New York, I really don’t feel safer. Sometimes I might look like a radical. Sometimes I don’t get my hair cut as often as convention dictates I should. Sometimes I forget to trim my beard. Some days I throw on my denim jacket as I head out the door in the predawn hours. Some days no one sits next to me on the bus. Am I the enemy here? I don’t like the idea of strangers seeing me naked in airports—even if only electronically. I do like the freedom of expression, but it is no longer really free.

I suppose that’s why I’ve noticed the other peacetime occupation going on in New York: Occupy Wall Street. It is time that people say “enough!” The religious leaders with the loudest voices declare this a dangerous thing, “class warfare” they say. The wealth that lines the very upper crust, however, is simply obscene. Was a day when wealth came with a healthy dose of social responsibility. They just don’t make Andrew Carnegies any more. A few Octobers ago my family visited Sleepy Hollow, New York. The cemetery made famous by Washington Irving (who is buried there) also houses William Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. On the top of the most prominent hill is a classical style, opulent mausoleum for the Rockefellers, overlooking all others. Down at the base of the hill, hidden away in a humble, quiet corner is the modest tombstone of Andrew Carnegie. I am certain that Carnegie was no saint, but he did not let his wealth go without doing some good for his fellow citizens.

Freedom is not free, but excessive wealth is tax-free. And Jesus was a venture capitalist, I’m told. We are a nation occupied in peacetime. We are occupied by our own military and their commanding officers in the towers of Wall Street. The GOP can’t support Occupy Wall Street, for it will alienate the moneyed vote it so craves. Call it “class warfare” instead. Those uppity middle and lower class bums! When the select few human beings climb too high in their towers to see the suffering of those down below, images of Babel come to mind. Babel is code for Babylonia in the Bible—the wealthy, powerful oppressor of the poor and displaced. If wealth breeds superiority, we are all in very deep trouble; the battle is already lost. In the meanwhile, I suspect Jesus might secretly be on the side of those camped out in sleeping bags, waiting for the sign of Jonah. And it has nothing to do with being swallowed by a whale.

Or maybe it does.