Social Horror

Some books get you thinking in ways you don’t expect.  That’s one of the pleasures of reading.  Lindsey Decker’s Transnationalism and Genre Hybridity in New British Horror Cinema may sound terribly specific—there are a lot of qualifiers in that title—but it actually has some very broad implications.  I was reading it specifically from the horror angle for a project I’m currently working on, but I was surprised at the social commentary I found while doing so.  One of Decker’s main ideas is to show that British horror is, well, transnational while maintaining its Britishness.  She focuses mainly on five films in the book, only two of which I’ve seen.  Very aware of the history of British cinema, she points out many characteristic features and situations that make British horror what it is.

The social commentary comes in when discussing “hoodie” horror films.  These are movies showing how the working class, particularly the youth, are dangerous and anti-society.  The more I read the more it occurred to me that imperialist, capitalist systems are built on the corpses of the poor.  Even good kids from bad situations have difficulty getting ahead in life and those above them on the “social ladder” more or less despise them and make policies to keep them in poverty.  This leads to anger and resentment, and often, in reality, this spills over into violence.  It all comes down to those who benefit from the system refusing to make it more equitable.  When the inevitable happens—those pressured without sufficient means boil over—they are blamed for their own circumstances.

Having grown up in a working class system and having struggled all my life to somehow maintain a comfortable existence for my family, I know the kinds of obstacles faced.  In my particular case, retirement is not a likely outcome.  I’ve worked, except for (and often even) when I was in higher education, since fourteen.  I’ve seen others with connections, educated parents or influential friends, get ahead.  I’ve also watched while many of us get shunted aside because, well, who are you?  Some people wonder why I watch horror.  There are many reasons for it, and at times I think maybe I’ve seen enough.  But then I look around at the corpse-strewn foundations of our current system and I see how reality plays into that fear.  Decker, I’m pretty sure, was meaning for her words to apply to mainly the fiction of horror, but there was a different kind of hybridity there as well, at least for me.


From Russia

A New York Times headline recently caught my eye.  “Russia opened a murder investigation into a car blast near Moscow.”  I wondered how a country that’s an aggressor at war, killing civilians in Ukraine every day, would be interested in something so petty as murder.  Then I saw the rest of the headline: “that killed the daughter of an influential ally of President Vladimir Putin.”  So there it is—some lives are more valuable than others.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m saddened by this (and any) murder.  And the use of violence to get what one wants is unethical.  Justice in this world, however, is based on unequal standards.  The supporters of Putins and Trumps matter more than any other people.  Death should not effect them the same way it effects civilians being missiled and shot.

Throughout all this we might wonder where the voice of the church is.  Churches, as institutions interested in power, are political players even when there’s no state religion.  The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church supports Putin implicitly.  With the power of Russia, the power of the church rises.  A few thousand dead civilians, well, let God sort them out.  Churches become corrupt when they become politically powerful.  Politics is one of the most polluting things humans can do.  Long ago Lord Acton put it this way: “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Churches got into power-brokering in the fourth century and we’ve seen the results ever since.  It’s not just Christianity, however; Islam makes it political and yes, even Buddhism and Hinduism incite violence when they become politicized.  A religious body that takes its mythology too seriously becomes dangerous when it tastes political power.  The world has many mythological figures.

What really took my breath away, however, is how many state resources will be devoted to finding and prosecuting those who killed one government supporter—we must find and punish those responsible—while thousands lie dead with the Russian government as their killers.  Other nations are just as guilty of course, but there’s a karmic imbalance when that nation is an aggressor in war.  Would you have ever expected a fair trial in Nazi Germany?  Does not unprovoked war make a mockery of the very concept of justice itself?  Justice, of course, means fair treatment.  For all.  She’s pictured as wearing a blindfold, after all.  She’s perhaps one of those mythical figures as well.


Burdens

Listening is very important.  Sometimes there’s nothing really to say but “I hear you.”  This kept occurring to me during All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake.  Tiya Miles is a history professor, and she helpfully includes an afterword telling how she came upon the topic for this book.  Ashley’s sack is just that, a sack.  On it, the owner, a female descendent of enslaved African-Americans, stitched a short inscription about the history of the sack, how her grandmother had given it to her mother when the latter was a child under ten, sold away from her mother in South Carolina.  This isn’t an easy book to read.  I have difficulty being faced with what “religious” “white” folks did to Blacks and justified themselves that people can be bought and sold.  Listen, I told myself, just listen.

Those who would deny that any of this ever happened need to learn to listen.  In order to capitalize on the resources this country offered, our ancestors engaged in morally reprehensible acts.  And the cruelty didn’t end with the shipping and the selling.  The treatment of unfree Black people itself was a crime, and their white captors knew full well what they were doing.  Preventing their slaves from having nice things while they themselves lived in luxury.  Beating, raping, and murdering when they didn’t get their way.  Selling their own offspring born of slaves to make a profit.  All the while claiming to be good Christians.  It’s often this part that I have trouble understanding.  Even a literalistic reading gives no license for treating other human beings this way.  Only money does that.

The style of history in this book isn’t that to which many of us are accustomed.  At the point of raising mental critiques I repeated, “You must learn to listen.”  Those who have made the rules showed themselves to be corrupt, and they must be willing to consider alternative ways of telling a story.  Miles makes the point that the history of unfree Blacks was largely erased, leaving the possibilities for histories and heritages slim; if the regular rules are themselves oppressive then it may be time to listen to those of others.  It seems impossible in the age of the world-wide web and all that it implies that we live on a planet where people repeatedly deny their sins while clutching their Bibles in their fists.  We need to learn to listen.


First Images

I awoke to an image from the James Webb Space Telescope.  Looking at the universe at it was 4.6 billion years ago is a humble and terrifying experience.  Our universe is so incredibly vast and we are tiny.  As we on this planet bicker and kill and destroy, out there something truly wondrous looms.  Those tiny pinpricks of galaxies.  Our own galaxy so massive that we can’t comprehend it.  Our own midsize star large enough to hold more than a million earths.  Our own planet big enough that no human being can see it all in a lifetime.  What in the world are we fighting for?  This image is just a patch of sky about the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length.  How many grains of sand would it take to fill the visible sky?

Many people argue that such things are a waste of money.  Yes, there are very real, human-created problems right here on earth.  The siren call of space, however, has the potential to save us.  If we look into that immense universe just out there and realize that we are part of something larger than ourselves, we can stop fighting and hating and electioneering.  Keep looking up instead.  Costs, after all, are relative.  Our entire economic system is arbitrary.  We decide what’s valuable and what’s not.  We make rules that allow individual human beings to control the lives of countless others based on nothing more than agreed-upon principles.  Food could be freely distributed.  Medicine could be given to the sick.  What’s required is perspective.  If looking at the universe doesn’t provide perspective, what can?

I often wonder about life in those distant galaxies.  Given the sheer numbers it’s practically impossible that life evolved only here.  We’re told that teleological thinking is wishful and naive, but looking at the way life behaves I have to wonder if that’s true.  Life may be seeking goals.  If it is, than intelligence may be among them.  We’ve got billions of years and billions of lightyears to work with.  And when I look at the headlines I find those of the James Webb Space Telescope to be the most hopeful of all.  Galaxies are all about possibilities.  Stars being born where the outcomes may be better than one gender assuming it’s better than another.  Or that the “right to bear arms” means  stockpiling assault rifles to kill others in a fit of pique.  No, this money’s not wasted if only people might listen and pay attention to the stars.


July Forth

Independence Day.  What does it mean in a nation on the verge of a fascist takeover?  Supreme Court justices, themselves appointed by crooked but technically legal politics, have just struck down the independence of half the people in this country.  Independence Day for whom?  Originally a celebration of freedom from monarchy, one of our political parties has opted for authoritarianism—the objection to which was the very reason the Revolutionary War was fought.  The colonists wanted religious freedom, but now we find religiously motivated politics driving the bus off the cliff.  If you’re not a white evangelical these rulings are not for you.  Your religious freedom has been compromised by politics.  So we gather in grassy places to watch fireworks.    We celebrate the independence of the wealthy.  Those who can break the law and buy the results they want with lawyers without scruples.

I think of Independence Day from the perspective of our Black siblings.  Freedom to be shot for a traffic stop or to be publicly strangled to death for petty crime.  To be redlined and kept in poverty.  Independence from literal chains only to be shackled in bureaucratic ones.  Being sentenced to prison for things a white can easily afford to pay off.  Independence Day in a nation with over 40 million people in poverty and where just three white men own more than the bottom fifty percent of Americans.  Give them fireworks and firearms and let the bottom half work it out for themselves.  When is the last time a Supreme Court justice had to worry about having enough for both rent and food?  Freedom, those on the top tell us, is not free.  Watch the pretty lights.  Hear the loud booms.

What of American Indians, still awaiting freedom?  What is Independence Day to them?  Kept out of sight and in poverty, we don’t want to be reminded.  No, we only want freedom to get more for the white man.  As a child in the sixties I had some hope that we might be making progress.  Freedom and protest were in the air.  There was at least hope for some justice.  The privileged white leaders now give us a day off work.  The wealth can still flow upward, even if we take a brief hiatus from labor.  Women, Blacks, the poor, American Indians, and many others who make America what it is are nevertheless denied basic freedoms.  This loss of independence at least comes with a light show.  Just watch it and be grateful.


Worth Reaching For

At a recent meeting with a community-building group, the question was raised: what causes can we focus on without triggering the extreme divisiveness that seems to characterize post-Trump America?  There are plenty of things that used to be non-partisan, but that list is growing smaller all the time.  One thing I think we can all agree on is that childhood starvation is a great evil.  Sharman Apt Russell has written an important, and ultimately hopeful book about it: Within Our Grasp: Childhood Malnutrition Worldwide and the Revolution Taking Place to End It.  This is a wide-ranging book with a general orientation toward Africa and a somewhat more specific emphasis on Malawi.  Not limited to that nation, it also addresses childhood nutrition in countries such as India and Vietnam and Brazil.

Russell points out the many developments taking place through the selfless efforts of mostly doctors who’ve seen the effects of malnutrition first-hand.  These individuals aren’t content to let things take care of themselves—their names and organizations are in this book, if you are able to help—and have worked on producing solutions.  One is ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF).  These are inexpensive, fortified compounds that can be distributed to severely malnourished children and very effectively prevent stunting and starvation.  Russell points out that efforts have been made to make such products profitable, otherwise even companies that have some vestiges of social consciousness tend to stay away.  There has to be a way of making money or shareholders just won’t like it, no matter how many children are saved.  Alas, we live in a capitalist world!

A standout, for me, is how much such efforts rely on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).  Governments are often too busy concentrating on power.  We see this world-wide.  Although this book was written before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one of the things Russell points out is that war is one of the primary causes of childhood malnutrition.   The Putins of the world initiate wars for their own selfish reasons and condemn children to death.  It’s the NGOs that step in and try to make the world a place of a little less suffering.  When I worked in Manhattan this was written on the skyline.  Buildings dedicated to helping were small brick structures huddled next to corporate profit-making giants.  Guess which is dedicated to making the world a better place?  This is a hard book to read at times, but it is ultimately hopeful.  Progress is being made, but we can do more.  And one way to do so is to spread word about Within Our Grasp


Haunting History

It’s difficult to do without feeling guilty, even if you personally had nothing to do with it.  It does seem that “Whites” have to take the initiative to dismantle systemic racism before any kind of fairness can settle on the world.  Toni Morrison is a great example of why that’s so important.  Beloved is perhaps her best-known work.  Although it involves a ghost it’s not so much a ghost story as it is a haunted story.  Black experience has been one of enforced poverty, after the emancipation proclamation—much like the American Indian experience.  Morrison represents this in a non-accusatory way, but she indicates in her story how the pain and mistreatment persists.  Her work is more important now than ever.  White supremacists are controlling the narrative in much of the country although they are the minority.  They need to read this book.

There will be spoilers here, if you’re even later coming to Beloved than I am.  Sethe was a slave.  The novel is set just after manumission, but she escaped before that.  She had four children and when she was sexually assaulted she realized this could happen to her children and she decided to spare them that fate.  Although she was stopped before she could kill all four, her first daughter, Beloved, was her victim.  This story is about what happens when Beloved returns to live with Sethe and her remaining daughter.  It is a haunting story.  No “boos” or jump startles, it sets up a sad atmosphere of a woman falling apart because of guilt.  Guilt for an event that would’ve never happened if she’d been treated like a human being.

Apart from the schoolteacher and his cohort, the whites in the story are kindly to Sethe.  Her “owner” was a slaveholder who gave his “possessions” respect.  She was saved from hanging after the death of Beloved by a local white man who understood what slavery might do to a person’s mind.  Even so, these kind people think of Blacks as servants rather than as people in their own right.  It’s difficult to read books like this.  That’s one of the reasons that it’s important to do so.  There is a lot to analyze here, much to reflect over.  If we put books like this on reading lists instead of banning them, it would help to bring understanding and sympathy rather than hatred and fear.  The future only improves when we admit our past errors and move to heal the scars we continue to inflict.


Free Research

I’ve lost track of how many times it’s happened, but it has been relatively few.  Someone I don’t know will approach me and ask me to post about something on my blog.  Sometimes they’ll even send me a book to highlight.  Perhaps not the most effective way to build a library, I’ll admit.  And some of the books haven’t been great.  I admire them nonetheless.  It takes great effort to write a book.  And not a small amount of faith, too.  Many books—perhaps most—never get published.  A great many are self-published.  (Those who work in publishing can be a stuck-up lot sometimes.)  Even those professionally published can use a push from time to time.  On this blog I’ve actively resisted the urge to make it about one thing.  Why?  Is life just one thing?

In a recent conversation I laid out for someone new what had been my research agenda as a young professor.  It had a direction still reflected in some of the categories you’ll find on the right column of this blog.  After writing on Asherah, I was going to give similar treatment to the other ancient goddesses attested at Ugarit.  This was perhaps ambitious for an academic waif at Nashotah House, but it was well underway.  My book on Shapshu was making good progress when the market (that dragon to every St. George) led friends to suggest turning biblical, which led to Weathering the Psalms.  A new research agenda—explore the weather terminology (the meteorotheology) of other biblical books—arose.  There were storms, after all, becalmed over lakes.  Horror entered in the jobless period and beyond.

And social justice.  I’m not a thrice-failed minister for nothing!  In fact, a recent freebie was a book on social justice.  I have a colleague as interested in monsters as me.  This particular scholar had decided to focus on the cause of the poor.  Even economists are starting to say the unequal distribution of wealth is hurting us.  While the rich fly to space on personally owned rockets, the rest of us have trouble filling up at the service station, even if we have jobs.  So it is that this blog is eclectic.  A friend told me early on that it would be more popular if I just stuck to one topic.  That’s probably true, but my mind can’t settle down like that.  And when people send me things to talk about, I’m happy to do so, if it fits somewhere in my mind.


Shopping Screed

Capitalism is insidious.  Those of us with modest incomes—and I’m quite aware that many, many people are poor—are constantly being bombarded with new schemes to get us to pay a little each time for something that used to be free.  Look, I realize the economy was hit by the pandemic.  We’re all paying for it.  Still, even basic stores you’ve used your whole life now want you to sign up for schemes that will only cost you a dollar each time and which never really pay anything back.  The one that’s got me thinking about this is a drug store.  Like it’s a surprise that you’ve decided to buy something at a drug store.  They get you to sign something you vaguely understand as you’re trying to rush out the door with your prescription and then they send you daily emails telling you how great it’s going to be.

And surveys—the endless surveys!  They sound more neurotic than I actually am.  Did we do this right, and could we have done it better?  It’ll only take a quarter hour of your time.  Each time you stop in.  And please do that daily.  The last time I did one of these surveys for the promise of a prize worth $90, I ordered their version of a fit-bit as my prize.  I’m curious how many steps I take in a day and no, I don’t carry my phone with me everywhere.  The “prize” arrived late and when I charged it up and turned it on (it came with no instructions readable in my native language) it worked for a total of literally 3 seconds before the screen died a pixelated death.  Now that same company wants me to answer surveys weekly and pay an extra dollar each time I come in.  It’s enough to make me want to use the other drug store, but they’ll probably do the same.

The thing is it’s not just pharmacies.  All the stores are doing it.  You shopped here once?  Look what else we’ve got!  Some of us shop for what we need.  We live on a budget.  If you’re going to start charging me for the privilege of shopping at your establishment I’ll have to start going somewhere else.  The items on offer for promotional plans are things I just don’t buy. If you want me to spend more, then reframe your economics and pay me more.   And I don’t have money to just give away.  Have you even taken a look at your last heating bill (thanks Mr. Putin)?  I’ll come to the store again as long as it’s free to shop there and it has something that I actually need.

Photo by Bruno Kelzer on Unsplash

Maudren Saint

Saint Maud is one of those movies that requires some thought.  (And I’ve been giving it plenty.)   It follows a brief time in the life of Maud, a hospice nurse who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of one of her patients.  Maud has direct experiences of God, like Teresa of Ávila but the film doesn’t make it clear, until the very end, if she suffers delusions.  After the traumatic loss of a patient at the beginning of the film she becomes a devout Catholic and when she feels she isn’t succeeding in her mission she punishes herself by using medieval-level means.  She hears God talking to her and what he (yes, he’s male) demands makes the viewer wonder if she’s found the correct spiritual entity.  Moody, edgy, and theological, Saint Maud is another example of how horror and religion work together.

It’s one of those movies that, when you finish it you start looking around for someone to talk to about it.  Of course, I watched it alone, wearing headphones, so I had dialogue with my own imagination.  One of the founding principles of cinema was the realization that viewers liked to discuss what they’d just experienced.  The other horror fans I know tend to be academics far removed from here.  I don’t know any of them well enough to pick up the phone, or call up on  Zoom, and say “Hey, let’s talk about Saint Maud.”  The thing is, I understand some of the doubts and motivations of Maud.  It’s always that way when religious interactions are with an invisible, petulantly silent deity.  Kind of like watching horror movies alone.

Horror has proven to be a kind of therapy for me.  The stresses of life are many and unrelenting.  Watching someone even worse off can help, as long as it’s fiction.  The world we’ve created is a very unfair place.  Many people suffer so that a few can enjoy more than they deserve.  Their lifestyle is protected by lawmakers that they buy while others suffer.  I’d just spend a day hearing about such injustices, and then paying hefty bills, and it seemed that some weekend horror was just what the doctor ordered.  I’ll probably watch Saint Maud again once I’ve had time to recover, and to think about the implications of the story.  Horror and religion have a viable partnership.  Such films occasionally become blockbusters, but sometimes they’re smaller affairs waiting to haunt us on weekends after hearing about the sad state of the Frankenstein world we’ve all created together.


A Haunting Story

The last book I finished in 2021 didn’t quite make it under the wire for my year-end blog post.  It was the second Stephen Graham Jones novel I read in the year.  I guess I’ve been reading a lot of American Indian books lately.  The Only Good Indians is a horror story and more.  There’s reconciliation.  There’s tradition.  There’s hope.  As part of the privileged “white” class, I’m always a little afraid that writers from oppressed cultures will take it out on me.  It may’ve happened here, but if so it was done in a way that I didn’t feel the sting.  This is a story of friendship, mistakes made, and a monster who has a righteous cause.  There’s a lot going on here.

One of the persistent cultural fears of the unwoke, I suspect, is that there’ll be payback if all things were to become equal.  Perhaps on the scale of karma that’s true, but in reality the people that’ve been oppressed simply want the oppression to stop.  To be recognized and acknowledged as being human.  As if that decision is up to white folk to make.  This novel simply deals with American Indian life as it’s lived.  The characters all pretty much live in poverty but they lack the greed so many white protagonists have.  They’re happy if they have a few hundred dollars, or even a few twenties.  Life is more than playing the capitalist game.  It really all comes down to relationships.  And family.

Stephen Graham Jones writes with a deft hand.  He offers some humor amid scenes of violence and loss.  He speaks plainly and without pretense.  And there are parts of this novel that are genuinely scary.  Since I had no idea how it might end, I wasn’t even sure even while I was on the last page.  

The best monsters are those that teach us to be better human beings.  Quite often they teach us that the truly monstrous ones are those who look and act like people usually look and act.  We take the natural world, assuming it’s ours.  We think our small problems are those of the entire world.  Monsters help to fix our perceptions.  Without them we carry on as if it’s business as usual.  This is a good novel to read in the midst of a pandemic.  There’s hope here that we’ll come out of the crisis better than we went in.  Perhaps scarred and changed for good.  In every sense of the word.


Great Resignation

Although many people my age are retired, I’m looking at a couple more decades of work at least.  A large part of this is because I specialized in a field I didn’t realize was dying.  I suspect clergy in the eighties, when I had to decide on majors and education choices, thought the declines in church attendance were a blip—a statistical anomaly until things went back to the way they “usually were.”  I majored in religion as an undergrad and then went on to seminary and finally to a doctoral program, all along that trajectory.  At every step of the way I was assured there would be jobs.  I’m seeing now that religionists don’t always look ahead.  It’s important to look back, but society begs to differ.

The reason this comes to mind, apart from being part of my daily reality, is an article a minister sent me.  The piece by Melissa Florer-Bixler  in Sojourners is titled “Why Pastors Are Joining the Great Resignation.”  It explores a number of reasons around pay and working conditions that ministers are quitting.  My thought, unscientific but logical, is that many of them are realizing society has moved away from the standard church model.  They recognize that the insistent biblicism that led to a past of Americans being in church under threat of Hell has diminished.  “Worship,” as it is generally done, no longer speaks to people.  I’ve experienced a great many worship styles and venues.  (I still attend them, but I’m a creature of habit as well as obligated by profession.)  When the realities of the world sink in you start to see the old model of praising an angry God because he demands it just doesn’t make sense.  People like Trump get elected anyway, so what’s the point?

Many pastors are underpaid.  Unless you run a mega-church budgets are tight and the need of people is great.  Much of the effort of the congregation I attend is directed to social justice causes.  There are so many.  So very many.  People are in need and the pat answers of call to worship, opening hymn, and sermon just aren’t doing it for them.  Congregants need pastoral care, as do people unchurched.  I’ve been through seminary and a professor in one long enough to know that few really get the idea of how to inspire by their words.  These are folks looking for a living who don’t fit into the capitalist model.  So there’s a decline.  As I read the piece I wondered what jobs they were switching to.  If my experience is anything to go by, the options are limited.


Sects and Violence

Important books often suffer because of poor distribution.  There are really only five publishers in English (“the big five”) that can reliably get their books into commercial bookstores.  I was reminded of this when reading the very important book Sex and Religion: Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths, by Dag Øistein Endsjø.  The book is virtually unknown here in the States for a number of reasons.  It was originally written in Norwegian.  The author isn’t a household name.  The publisher who bought English rights is British.  It’s not comfortably priced.  None of this, however, gainsays its importance.  This book has much to teach us about hypocrisy and how religions codify prejudices, and, despite rhetoric, still value women less than they value men.  Religion is intimately connected to sex.  As I’ve written before, no religion ignores it completely.

Endsjø offers here a reasoned, logical, and religiously expert analysis of several aspects of human (and to a degree, animal) sexuality.  Contrary to much monotheistic teaching, sex is often treated as a good thing—within limits—in world religions.  Of course, that allows monotheists to step in and claim all others are pagans and debased, a tactic as old as the Good Book itself.  Religions’ real enemy, it seems, is education.  We should be open to compare what others believe—the wisdom their elders have passed down, just like the disciples.  And we should be honest about the fact that we change the rules to suit our situation.  One of the starkest examples of this Endsjø points out is that the Bible is much more stridently against divorce (which evangelicals now freely use) than homosexuality.  But guess which is the political issue?

Religions change, no matter what any true believer says.  We adapt to all kinds of new situations and new information, except when it comes to sexual behaviors we don’t like.  Even though most religions prohibit murder, the punishment for sexual offenses is frequently more stringent.  In other words, as Endsjø points out, religions care less for human life than for their own sexual prejudices.  The fact is just about all monotheistic religions have a male god and favor males over  the other half of the human race.  It even seems likely that Muslim over-reactions to homosexuality arose from copying evangelical Christians in the west.  This is an important book and if religious leaders of all stripes read and comprehend it, we would find ourselves in a much more human, and humane, world.


Justice Hungry

Social justice is very important to me.  At the same time I realize I’m just a single individual, and a small one at that.  I have a little group of internet friends (rather strangely called “followers”) but what I do and write has barely an impact with so much wrong in the world.  I suspect most people fall into this same dilemma.  A recent thread on the local Nextdoor app, for instance, reminded me how much people care for strangers in difficult times.  I side with Batman here—people are generally good.  Most of us are easily led, however.  And as we were taught in kindergarten, just one bad person spoils it for everyone.  So we find ourselves in a world disastrously off kilter and with nobody able to fix the problem.  Problems.  There are so many that it’s overwhelming.

Democracy seems like a good idea.  The problem is that the system is easily gamed by autocrats.  World news shows us the Hitler’s playbook is alive and well, even, if not especially, among “Christian” nations.  Jesus had no political power.  As soon as his followers gained it, the message of their master faded.  Today it’s unrecognizable.  “Bible believing” Christians who violate every principle in the Good Book to retain power is hardly something the carpenter from Nazareth would’ve advocated, or even, I venture, comprehended.  Bullies with only their own interests in mind take up the reins of state and convoluted laws allow them to do so.  The selfish win.

Photo by Sarah Ardin on Unsplash

I have great admiration for the people I know who work for social justice incessantly.  The kind of people you tremble to see coming because you know you can never measure up to their level of commitment.  Needed change, however, comes in small steps.  People are fearful and don’t welcome overnight paradigm shifts.  I admire social justice warriors even as I admire hose who throw themselves in front of buses or trains to save others.  I find myself watching their heroic action while calculating the best way to help, overthinking the problem.  I’ve marched in a number of protests, and it felt good.  I’ve not been able to free myself from capitalism long enough to really make a difference, I fear.  An idealist, conceivably, but not, I hope, an unawoken one.  So I struggle for justice and contribute what I can to right causes.  At the same time I’m compelled to acknowledge and thank those who do it so much better than I ever will.


Prophet Margins

One of the most misunderstood of biblical phenomena is prophecy.  One of the reasons it’s so misunderstood is that other ancient peoples came to associate it with predicting the future.  Now, what prophets said often had implications for the future, but they were more forth-tellers, as they say in the biz, than fore-tellers.  Amos, for instance, was a prophet concerned with social justice.  We know little about his life, but we can discern that ancient prophets could be paid to become “yes men” (“yes persons” just doesn’t sound right, and most were male) for the establishment.  Kings then, as now, surrounded themselves with sycophants who would tell them their policies were approved, or even ordained by God.  Amos was not one of those.

Amos points out in the book attributed to him that he was no paid prophet.  He was an honest worker with a great concern for social justice.  He lived in a prosperous time, but the wealth disparity between the rich and the poor troubled him.  (Amos has never been a favorite among prosperity gospelers, since his message has always been recognized as authentic among both Jews and Christians and he condemns the inequality rampant in society.)  Many in the eighth century BCE believed ceremonial actions—like, say, holding up a Bible in front of a church—pleased God.  Amos boldly declared such things sickened God as long as society favored the rich at the expense of the poor.  There’s a reason Evangelicals and Republicans tend to avoid Amos.  “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream,” is not an easy thing to hear when you’re busy giving tax breaks to those who earn more than enough while refusing basic health care to the poor.

Prophets tend to speak of the future in conditional terms.  If your ways don’t change, then this will happen.  Some Christians, anxious to prove that Jesus was the messiah, came to see prophets as great predictors of the future.  Amos would likely have taken exception to them.  Even in his own day Amos made people uncomfortable.  His favorite image for God was that of a lion ready to attack.  His contemporaries told him to shut up.  Amos then made the famous statement that he was no professional prophet.  He would not adjust his message so that the comfortable could feel good about themselves.  If Amos were in America the last four years would’ve had his throat raw with pointing out to “Christians” how they’d come to misrepresent everything the prophets stood for.  We need more like him today.