A Spiritual Autobiography

I wrote the below spiritual autobiography a dozen years ago as part of a servant leadership study group.  While it definitely needs updating, it serves well as a brief overview of my spiritual history and development over much of my life, particularly my early years.  Fortuitously, my humor remains righteously irreverent and my faith grows.

RUTTS
by Alex Haley
(that’s just my pun name)

The year was 1961. Preceded by John, a child was conceived, fathered by a closeted gay man, in Bethlehem, on the outskirts of the city of brotherly love. In my mother’s womb, I was transported to Haiti, where my parents, as doctor and nurse, were beginning their service as medical missionaries with the Mennonite Central Committee. A dozen (and a half) generations ago my ancestors had fled religious persecution and military conscription in Germany to settle in America. For a new beginning, they were gifted with land from William Penn. This land was some of the most fertile in the world; so fertile, in fact, that even gay men father children there! Though now in Haiti, they were soon to be counted again among the privileged of the world. I was born. And on this journey, Joseph followed. Continuing my heritage as a sojourner in a foreign land, I was born a true child of the 60s.

I have no specific memories of those first couple of years in Haiti. However, only in recent years have I realized my ideal vision of serenity as sleeping without a care late in the morning in a mountain cabin while the rain pounds on the tin roof likely came from memories as a baby (now, if only I can figure out why I have a pleasant association with the smell of skunk!). Also, I am told that I was scared of most white people. Strangely, I am still haunted by white people on occasion.

After a brief stint in Detroit, perhaps explaining my love of urban life, I grew up in a small town in Michigan. The town was Mennonite-free, so I was raised a United Methodist. My childhood was strikingly trauma-free (only striking in retrospect). I knew safety. I knew predictability and caring. Our family always ate meals together, beginning with a prayer too short not to recount here: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for our food. Amen.” A lot more theology in that prayer than I usually give credit. Our family participated in worship and church functions regularly. Worship was generally boring. One of my few memories was a teenager with a guitar, singing “Blowing in the wind.” I guess that would have been contemporary music, huh? And that was before Bob Dylan was a Christian. I attended Sunday school, vacation Bible school, and youth group. I only vaguely remember confirmation. I remember good times. Except for a desperately poor matching of gifts by placing me in a children’s choir – my first, and really only, experience with “playing hooky.” I loved summer camp. First there were church camps, then Boy Scout camps. My younger brother and I earned Eagle Scout ranking (the highest in Boy Scouts) in record time. Our scoutmaster was easygoing and playful. Perhaps paradoxically, it was easy to achieve in that environment. If “achievement” had been required of me, I probably wouldn’t have done it, or at least wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much. When we later moved and joined another scout troop, which was probably better organized and certainly more rigid, we dropped out after a while.

My understanding of diversity was child-like. I knew that Catholic families were the ones with five or six kids. Good families to play with. My best friend’s dad was Cuban. He also had two older half-siblings. In retrospect, this was the only somewhat non-traditional family I recall; though I don’t recall giving it much thought.

I was baptized at age eleven. Apparently, I was out of the country at the time such events usually occur. Fortunately, my understanding of baptism was still pretty much that of an infant, so it worked out well. I was confirmed a year later. About this same time, I was in little league baseball. In an attempt to deal with performance anxiety, I kept a pocket-sized New Testament in my back pocket. This crude attempt at spiritual osmosis was discovered by my brothers who with little affection labeled me “Bible boy.” I didn’t like this. I remember that my parent rebuked them.

When we moved to Dearborn, Michigan, before my ninth grade, my parents looked for a church nearby, but had little success – “too suburban” I think. Not surprising, considering we lived in a nice home with a pool, only 100 feet from a golf course. They decided to return to their church from earlier years, Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit, 20 minutes away. Central is the oldest Protest-ant church in Michigan, and has been called “the conscience of the city.” Always a leader in social justice, their most widely known pastor preached pacifism before, during and after World War II. I was soon to be raised on 45+ minute sermons, truly epic sermons. A turning point happened to me sometime during my high school years when my mom took me to a peace conference at church. My eyes were opened and my heart would soon follow.

I went to Hope College, a small, private, liberal arts school. It was a Christian College, as were most of its staff and students, mostly Reformed and Christian Reformed. However, it was unlikely that I would ever be Reformed; conservatively speaking that is. My college years began with my father lightly warning me of these Calvinists. I didn’t know what he was talking about. My first roommate and I, who were boyhood friends, unknowingly were matched because we were both Methodists – apparently, a rare breed thereabouts. Early on, I must have been an easy target for an overabundance of evangelism. A friend invited me to Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. I went to what turned out to be a practically diversity-free zone; even ALL of the other persons in my small group were named “Kathy” (though probably a diversity of spellings). Later, when I saw out my dorm room window the friend who invited me, I said, “hello.” She asked me what I thought of the meeting. I shouted from the second floor window something to the effect that it was “too religious.” I did like church, and I went willingly. I even went to chapel services three times a week – religiously. I was also on part-time staff of the campus ministry. Though a biology major, I was frequently mistaken for a political science or philosophy major. Apparently, I was succeeding at the liberal arts (or at least the art of being liberal).

I very soon got involved with a small group of students known as the World Hunger Committee. Being a United Methodist, I must have known that there would be a committee for that! This formally launched my work in social justice, and my personal interest in stewardship, vegetarianism and nutrition. That first year, God brought together this son of a Mennonite with a Hope graduate who was a Mennonite (perhaps the only one). I told him that I was concerned about President Carter re-instituting draft registration. He said, “Why don’t you start a peace group?” I said, “Yes.” Fortunately, I didn’t now what I was doing. So, I helped found “Hope for Peace.”

For my own concerns, I hooked up with a Viet Nam war-era draft counselor. To make a long story short, when President Reagan broke his campaign promise to end draft registration, I was identified in the Detroit News as a non-registrant. Being the only publicly-identified non-registrant in Michigan, I garnered much media attention. Eventually, the Reagan ‘get the government off your back’ regime and his Attorney General, Edwin ‘people are only hungry by choice’ Meese III, saw that out of millions of non-registrants, I was number 13 to be prosecuted. In the end, six years later, after heroically losing half a dozen pre-trial motions (with the help of a volunteer team of legal experts), my older brother dying, graduating from college, getting married, having a son, graduating from graduate school, and getting a job, I defended myself before a jury of my peers (though none of them were subject to the law I was defending myself from). I lost. But what did I win? (that is, beside three months room and board at the taxpayers’ expense) I learned to live in good conscience. I learned to refine my beliefs, even amidst great public scrutiny. I learned about civil disobedience, or as A.J. Muste, a great American pacifist and Hope College graduate would have said, “holy obedience” (in my write mind I say, “wholly obedience). I learned that the U.S. government has the absolute authority to draft any citizen regardless of conscientious objection. Any exception to this is due only to “legislative grace.” I learned to live by God’s grace even when it exceeds the grace of my government. Actually, I presented my case at the Detroit Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, in conjunction with a resolution to support young men’s consciences who were subject to draft registration laws, whether their conscience led them to register or not. The resolution failed. So, I learned to live by God’s grace even when it exceeds the grace of my denomination.

During college, after guest preaching at my home church in Detroit, someone came up afterwards and said, “I didn’t know that you were in seminary.” Nonetheless, I consider myself a theological mutt. I have drawn from many Christian traditions. I have studied Asian religions, and I am drawn to Buddhism. I am an amateur philosopher (that is, until someone pays me) and I am intrigued by the angst of existentialism. I have experienced a spiritual re-awakening in Alanon, which has given me things that my church could not. I believe that “religionism” may be the ultimate “-ism,” preventing us from experiencing the oneness of God. I may be a leading candidate to be voted, “most likely to be heretical,” by the powers that be. This is my orthodoxy. I believe that paradox lives in the neighbor of truth; and we should love our neighbors. In true Zen-like fashion, I find that irreverence is often the highest form of reverence. Among my heresies is my unabashed appreciation of “The Simpsons” (but, as the Hindus would say, “Don’t have a cow.”).

After an intense summer working for Bread for the World as an organizer, and days before my senior year began, my brother John was killed in an avalanche in Western Canada; but only after dropping out of college while on foreign study, wandering, rock-climbing and working (pretty much in that order) for a couple of years in Africa and the Western U.S. His death has given me a much greater sense of mortality and the preciousness of life each day. I actually find funerals as fruitful opportunities for reflection and renewing my sense of “living in the moment.” I have undervalued such opportunities. One of the few regrets in my life was missing three of four funerals of my grandparents.

My paternal grandparents were particularly religious. Only upon the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary (and doing the math) did I realize that my father was a near-bastard child to a teen mom. Years later, when my sister was pregnant and out-of-wedlock at age 19, my grandfather said, “The sins of the grandfather are being visited upon the granddaughter.” My thought: get over it! Well, at least, I can now understand why my gay father was closeted until his parents were either dead or demented. While I didn’t see healing in my grandparents, I saw that having an understanding of God under construction is a good thing, and sometimes demolition work is required.

That brings me to my marriage. To make a long, and usually happy, story short, my marriage of 11+ years ended 10 years ago. Nonetheless, we were blessed with two wonderful children, Joshua and Kathryn. I love being a parent. It may be the closest I’ve been able to experience what God must feel in His/Her unconditional love for us. Kate’s life is an ongoing miracle since she was born with multiple heart defects. She underwent two heart surgeries, and at one point with surgical complications, a doctor, trying to be optimistic, said, she has at least a 50/50 chance of living. A brush with death. There’s that mortality thing again. Not unlike death, I thought I had no problem with divorce – as long as it was happening to other people. Accepting our divorce was the most difficult thing I have ever dealt with.

Being out of a “relationship” for a number of years helped my re-develop my relationship with myself and with God. This came more through Alanon than church. Now, being in a relationship for eight years with a wise and beautiful woman has taught me to appreciate life as it comes, one day at a time – with both of us half single, half single parent; no longer with in-laws but ex’s. I’ve learned that God makes all things new, and often faster than I want. God never gives me what I want; God always gives me something better!

My career. God brought me to a career in public health, as I savored its roots in social justice. God brought me out of public health, re-naming me “Top Pun,” and appointing me as a jester for peace, where the pun is mightier than the sword, and justice is no yoke. My canvasses are buttons, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and the World Wide Web. My business, by definition, is good – that is, maximizing prophets. My business is exactly on schedule; though I don’t know what the schedule is.

God brought me to Central’s neighborhood, and a few hours later, to Central. Centralites were my kind of people. Some happened to be Christians who were gay. Through my social justice work, not my public health work, God brought me to work in the fight against HIV/AIDS. This opened further opportunities to work with persons who happened to be gay. My dad “came out.” My parents divorced. God had prepared me.

I have issues with money. I aspire to live simply, gracefully facilitated by my recent poverty-level earnings. Living with less financial security has inspired me to give today because I may not be able to give later. Whatever old car I’m driving facilitates my prayer life (of course, no “auto”-biography would be complete without a mention of my car).

I am a mystic at heart, journeying as a gifted rationalist, Caucasian, male, father, lover, businessman, American, etc., etc., yada, yada, yada. While embracing the enigmatic, I hope these few words will offer you a clue as to who I am. Hopefully, these few words will offer you a clue as to who we are. One of my favorite poems is from Muhammad Ali: “Me. We.”

In all, God has never left me; except for an instant in 1981, but that’s another story…

POEM: Another Martyr Bides The Dust

Another martyr bides the dust
And I was a stray
Beside myself
In the fog
Of yet another mourning
The missed over my heart
Feeling only that ephemeral beaten
The wait on my brain
Fueled into thinking of the dread only
And the little I no
Of what remains
As the truth is bared
In ash holes with names
Temping to soil
Won an other’s life work
Un-till arising from hour grounding
Ready ourselves for a human race
Wear blood is thicker then water
Tearing at our soles
And water thicker than heir
The salt of the earth bides
It’s time
Too clear the weigh
Of what thou dust
Ahead razed for awe
As be holding the sons rays
Bringing a bout of sunshine
An enduring lightness
Out shining
Any faux
How ever clan destine
In efface of such shrouding allowed
In countering any illicit clout
Ever looming
Whatever we’ve
Got together
With standing any in thralling strayin’
Rapping up awe that is frayed
For whatever may seam
Know longer

I wrote this poem a while back, but I’m publishing it now to honor the passing of Father Daniel Berrigan who died over the weekend at age 94.  Father Daniel Berrigan was the first priest arrested for peace and anti-war civil disobedience — or holy obedience.  As recounted in the National Catholic Review:

Berrigan undoubtedly stands among the most influential American Jesuits of the past century…

A literary giant in his own right, Berrigan was best known for his dramatic acts of civil disobedience against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons. He burned draft files with homemade napalm and later hammered on nuclear weapons to enact the Isaiah prophecy to “beat swords into plowshares.” His actions challenged Americans and Catholics to reexamine their relationship with the state and reject militarism. He constantly asked himself and others: What does the Gospel demand of us?

“For me, Father Daniel Berrigan is Jesus as a poet,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote. “If this be heresy, make the most of it.”

“Dorothy Day taught me more than all the theologians,” Berrigan told The Nation in 2008. “She awakened me to connections I had not thought of or been instructed in—the equation of human misery and poverty with warmaking. She had a basic hope that God created the world with enough for everyone, but there was not enough for everyone and warmaking.”

In 1963, Berrigan embarked on a year of travel, spending time in France, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rome, South Africa and the Soviet Union. He encountered despair among French Jesuits related to the situation of Indochina, as the United States ramped up military involvement in Vietnam.

Berrigan returned home in 1964 convinced that the war in Vietnam “could only grow worse.” So he began, he later wrote, “as loudly as I could, to say ‘no’ to the war…. There would be simply no turning back.”

He co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship and the interfaith group Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam…

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966), Merton described Berrigan as “an altogether winning and warm intelligence and a man who, I think, has more than anyone I have ever met the true wide-ranging and simple heart of the Jesuit: zeal, compassion, understanding, and uninhibited religious freedom. Just seeing him restores one’s hope in the Church.”

A dramatic year of assassinations and protests that shook the conscience of America, 1968 also proved to be a watershed year for Berrigan. In February, he flew to Hanoi, North Vietnam, with the historian Howard Zinn and assisted in the release of three captured U.S. pilots. On their first night in Hanoi, they awoke to an air-raid siren and U.S. bombs and had to find shelter.

As the United States continued to escalate the war, Berrigan worried that conventional protests had little chance of influencing government policy. His brother, Philip, then a Josephite priest, had already taken a much greater risk: In October 1967, he broke into a draft board office in Baltimore and poured blood on the draft files.

Undeterred at the looming legal consequences, Philip planned another draft board action and invited his younger brother to join him. Daniel agreed.

On May 17, 1968, the Berrigan brothers joined seven other Catholic peace activists in Catonsville, Md., where they took several hundreds of draft files from the local draft board and set them on fire in a nearby parking lot, using homemade napalm. Napalm is a flammable liquid that was used extensively by the United States in Vietnam.

Daniel said in a statement, “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.”

Berrigan was tried and convicted for the action. When it came time for sentencing, however, he went underground and evaded the Federal Bureau of Investigation for four months.

“I knew I would be apprehended eventually,” he told America in an interview in 2009, “but I wanted to draw attention for as long as possible to the Vietnam War and to Nixon’s ordering military action in Cambodia.”

The F.B.I. finally apprehended him on Block Island, R.I., at the home of theologian William Stringfellow, in August 1970. He spent 18 months in Danbury federal prison, during which he and Philip appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

The brothers, lifelong recidivists, were far from finished.

Swords Into Plowshares, Isaiah 2:4 PEACE BUTTONOn Sept. 9, 1980, Daniel and Philip joined seven others in busting into the General Electric missile plant in King of Prussia, Pa., where they hammered on an unarmed nuclear weapon—the first Plowshares action. They faced 10 years in prison for the action but were sentenced to time served.

In his courtroom testimony at the Plowshares trial, Berrigan described his daily confrontation with death as he accompanied the dying at St. Rose Cancer Home in New York City. He said the Plowshares action was connected with this ministry of facing death and struggling against it. In 1984, he began working at St. Vincent’s Hospital, New York City, where he ministered to men and women with H.I.V.-AIDS.

“It’s terrible for me to live in a time where I have nothing to say to human beings except, ‘Stop killing,’” he explained at the Plowshares trial. “There are other beautiful things that I would love to be saying to people.”

In 1997 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Berrigan’s later years were devoted to Scripture study, writing, giving retreats, correspondence with friends and admirers, mentorship of young Jesuits and peace activists, and being an uncle to two generations of Berrigans. He published several biblical commentaries that blended scholarship with pastoral reflection and poetic wit.

“Berrigan is evidently incapable of writing a prosaic sentence,” biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote in a review of Berrigan’s Genesis (2006). “He imitates his creator with his generative word that calls forth linkages and incongruities and opens spaces that bewilder and dazzle and summon the reader.”

Even as an octogenarian, Berrigan continued to protest, turning his attention to the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the prison in Guantánamo Bay and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Friends remember Berrigan as courageous and creative in love, a person of integrity who was willing to pay the price, a beacon of hope and a sensitive and caring friend.

While technically, Fr. Berrigan is not a martyr, he sacrificed much and lived courageously in the belly of the beast called the United States of America of which he called its militarism and imperialism.

While I wrote this poem with a male character, this may not be truly representative of the martyrs in this world.  Soon after penning this poem, Berta Caceres, whose activism reverberated around the world, was assassinated by a Honduran death squad, shot in her own home.  This poem is dedicated to her as well, a well of hope deeper than any dam corporations.  As recounted from Alternet:

On March 3, assassins entered the home of Berta Caceres, leader of Honduras’ environmental and indigenous movement. They shot her friend Gustavo Castro Soto, the director of Friends of the Earth Mexico. He pretended to be dead, and so is the only witness of what came next. The assassins found Berta Caceres in another room and shot her in the chest, the stomach and the arms. When the assassins left the house, Castro went to Berta Caceres, who died in his arms.

Investigation into the death of Berta Caceres is unlikely to be conducted with seriousness. The Honduran government suggested swiftly that it was likely that Castro had killed Berta Caceres and made false statements about assassins. That he had no motive to kill his friend and political ally seemed irrelevant. Castro has taken refuge in the Mexican embassy in Honduras’ capital, Tegucigalpa. He continues to fear for his life.

Berta Caceres led the Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), one of the most important critics of government and corporate power in her country. Most recently, she and COPINH had taken a strong stand against the construction of the Agua Zarca dam on a river sacred to the indigenous Lenca community. This dam had occupied her work. It was not merely a fight against an energy company, it was a fight against the entire Honduran elite.

Desarrollos Energeticos, SA (DESA) is owned by the Atala family, whose most famous member is Camilo Atala, who heads Honduras’ largest bank, Banco Ficohsa. By all indications, the Atala family is very close to the government. When the military moved against the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya Rosales in 2009, the Atala family, among others, supported the coup with their means. They can cut all the flowers, but they can never stop the spring -- Pablo Neruda quote POLITICAL BUTTONThe Honduran sociologist Leticia Salomon listed this family among others as the enablers of the coup. They backed the conservative National Party, which now holds the reins of power alongside the military. Berta Caceres’ fight against the Agua Zarca dam, then, was not merely a fight against one dam. It was a battle against the entire Honduran oligarchy. Her assassination had, as her family contends, been long overdue.

May we be inspired and encouraged by the fearless lives of those who have gone before us.

POEM: Nazi Murder Trials, 1963

Courting the truth
Their stories were tolled
Not simply for just us
But for awe of them
Beyond monumental
To re-member
A broken body politic

http://toppun.com/Political/A-Nation-of-Sheep-Soon-Beget-a-Government-of-Wolves-Edward-R-Murrow-Quote.gifThis poem was inspired by the 2015 German movie, Labyrinth of Lies, about a young and idealistic public prosecutor in post World War II Germany learning about Nazi war crimes and their endemic impunity.  As one reviewer summarizes:

“Powerful and haunting, Labyrinth of Lies turns over a rock and watches the vermin crawl out in a disturbing and rarely talked about footnote to German (and world) history. The rock is Germany’s massive effort to forget the past under National Socialism and move on. Real Eyes, Realize, Real Lies - POLITICAL BUTTONThe rats are the former Nazis who, after the war, found acceptance and protection in comfortable positions of importance in the German government at a time when the country was on its way to reconstruction and cultural renaissance. The movie centers on the handful of brave men and women who dedicated themselves to an uncompromising search for the truth in the investigation that led to the Auschwitz trials from 1963 to 1965 in which Germans prosecuted Germans at last. It’s one of the most important and revelatory films of the year.”

got fascism? POLITICAL BUTTONThe first line in this poem, Courting the truth, has multiple references and meanings.  The movie is a prosecutorial investigation leading to the 1963 trial of Nazi war criminals for murder (which doesn’t have a statute of limitations) which was the largest trial in German history and considered the pivotal event in Germany coming to terms with its haunting past of Hitler’s reign and the tsunami of obedience by the overwhelming proportion of German citizens.  “Courting” refers to the culminating courtroom drama which the story preludes.  “Courting” also refers to the courtship of the truth and of the love affair portrayed in the movie between the lead character, the lead prosecutor, and his wife-to-be.  The courtship of the truth, which reveals reams of human ugliness, stands in sharp contrast to the love affair.  Or does it?  The love affair is romantic, even magical, until in drunken despair the prosecutor confronts his wife with the reality of her own drunken father who fought with the Nazis in Poland: “Ask him why he drinks?”  She tells her husband to get out, for good.  The allusion is that she continues in denial about her father.  The full-circle carnage is complete as the drunken despair was triggered by the idealistic prosecutor’s daring to look at his own father’s war records, only to find out that he was a member of the Nazi Party.  Resistance Trumps Fascism [Royal Flush] POLITICAL BUTTONThe literal image of his father, a picture inscribed to him with the implied command, “Always do the right thing,” was now only an idol hypocrisy.  The merciless truth of endemic Nazi collaboration couldn’t be clearer.  Or could it?  Among other revelations, he learns that the activist journalistic pushing for the Auschwitz investigation was, in fact, a guard at Auschwitz, making a somewhat-late and partially-muddled attempt at amends for his own presumed war crimes.  Courting the truth offers unsatisfying justice as the original horrific injustices and decimation of humanity could never be fully restored.

The second line in the poem, Their stories were tolled, is the best answer offered to such overwhelming tragedy and criminality.  Simply to have some of the countless untold stories of uncounted victims was the only path to honor the murdered and begin the healing of a war-ravaged nation.  The damning awe of the truth cannot be successfully covered up by however neat or sterilizing monuments over which the dead are encrypted from the light of day.  The terrible truth must be tolled — exacting unpayable pries.  Good People Disobey Bad Laws POLITICAL BUTTONThe river of denial must give weigh to the river of blood teeming underneath “A broken body politic.”  That a broken body politic can re-member at all is the only redemption realizable.

May we never forget the lessens of war and its many patriotic and cowardly crimes against humanity.  May we have the necessary courage and bounding love for humanity to empower us to defeat the scourges of nationalism and that bastard of patriotism: fascism.

POEM: Until Hell Frees Us

Be very frayed
Terrorism comes
From know where
Deep in the recesses
Of kindergarten bullying
Capital vocations
And martial lawlessness
Awe rapped up in won’s highest I deal
Those unspeakable prophets
In security
Detained indefinitely
Until hell frees us
Ever more reckoning
The other
Who war like
A mirror reflection
Knot of won self
But a puerile of grate wisdom
Selling all
Having bought it
With bigger barns
Taking life easy

This is my third published poem in a row on the theme of terrorism.  You might say that I’m on a role in combating hypocritical fearmongering and conveniently overlooked accountability for vicious cycles of violence plaguing our whirled.  War: What Are We Frayed of?  ANTI-WAR BUTTONThe prison of necessary evil is the bedrock upon which militarism is built.  Of coarse, the jailbirds sing oft-repeated jingles of in-group unmistakable righteousness and the presumptively incomprehensible evil descending upon their already worrisome state.  Fear is the only effective tool to fuel such jingoism and blind obedience to longstanding systems of oppression that conveniently turn justice into just us.  That such fear can swirl in a sea of privilege is the fundamental disconnect that makes chronic injustice passable.  Pointing out profound privilege and hyperbolic fears is heretical to the god of war.  Not surprisingly, the god of war, Nike, is well characterized by the slogan, “Just do it!” which has a singular ring to rule all idioms.  The inescapable prison of the permanent war on terrorism, with violence begetting violence begetting violence, based on the damnable logic of necessary evil, can only end with the absurdity “When hell frees us.” As Dante, in Inferno, signaled in his sign at the entrance of hell, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”  How can we free ourselves from this parent prison of necessary evil that infantilizes our moral development, and stultifies children of God into spawn of the devil?  How burden some is at the crux of this issue.  What must we sacrifice?  What must we cede?  What must we feed?

Bringing about peace and justice to the whirled is formidable work that takes a lot of time to cede itself and seed itself.  In the mean time, there is a need to endure sum violence, as an existing reality with its own inertia.  This brakes the cycle of violence.  As well, we need to address the causes and grievances powering violence and dis-empowering nonviolence.  This is required to prevent violence from seeding itself, and to feed nonviolent alternatives.  This breaks the cycle of violence.  This is not easy.

That violence can save us is as owed as life and death itself.  The myth of redemptive violence is deep-seated in human history and culture.  Walter Wink put it best: “The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has even known.”

This poem ends with a tip of the hat to two of Jesus’ parables.  First, the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) who has so much that he tears down his barns to build even bigger barns, only to have his “eat, drink, and be merry” life on earth end precipitously.  Next, the parable of the hidden treasure, a pearl of great value, for which we will trade all we possess for it (Mathew 13:44-45).  That pearl of great price is peace.  May each of us be barnstormers for peace, not barn-storers fore violence.

Our lives can begin the long weigh to peace when we get beyond the myth of redemptive violence.  May we each critically examine our own privilege and personal hurts that prompt us to take the low road of violence.  May we each meditate and daily work on awe the things that make for peace and a whole, new world.

POEM: Brew Aha

In the mettle of this
Brew aha
Beside myself
I took a stand
In countering
Such ponderous courting
How civil this obedience
Wear black
And white lies
Segregated
Only spotted
As if
Sent out to posture
Presumptuous in a sense
Hankering and pining
For a lessen in manors
A peace of cake
Where there cannot be
Moor to see
From the grate beyond
Beyond boarders
Is it sow untoward
A peace of meet
Only Abel
Too illicit
Just a position
In a neighborly weigh
Only taken in
Buy such con text
The privilege of preaching to a pact crowd
Per chased by background checks
Belting out promissory notes
Not worth a single digit
Nor circling the wagons
In a parent blackface
Falling off
Won’s bluff
Of unending figuring
For a fraction of pi
Her ratio
Of protracted circumference
Over the shortest distance between points
Ever present friend
Over cunning counsel
More than subject
To this hamlet
Their I stood
Quiet a seeing
As others
Might due
The riot thing
For wanton reason
And only if
My silence aloud
My batter judgment
Too get the best of me
Admitted to a transcendent hospitality
As dumb found patients
For which we stand
The qualm before the storm
Overcoming that which is
Fast fooled
Bringing order to the unrule he
Untold smiles to go
For better than even
As they crack me up
Or split my side
I live
For that aha moment
Heart and neck stretching
All the wile
Rapping accord
That can’t be broken
So I’m tolled

This is a poem about white privilege and racism, social justice and civil disobedience, and quite literally, putting some skin into the game.  The brew aha theme offers a lighter, more ethereal tone to the poem.  This poem addresses the immanent dangers of being deeply rooted in both transcendent realities and harsh physical and social realities.  Race is the species argument driving this narrative.  White privilege is the real dope here.  Only such unmerited advantage can inspire such twisted rationalizations for ongoing supremacy and gross injustices.  The challenges are great for both those to renounce unmerited advantage and for those to swim upstream against deep-seated oppression.  Though there is no doubt that the ultimate accountability for justice rests with those who hold unmerited advantage over others.

From a literary point of view, I am quite enamored with the blending of mathematical pi with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Horatio in:

Falling off
Won’s bluff
Of unending figuring
For a fraction of pi
Her ratio
Of protracted circumference
Over the shortest distance between points
Ever present friend
Over cunning counsel
More than subject
To this hamlet

Amidst the endless, fruitless scheming in Hamlet (Falling off/Won’s bluff/Of unending figuring/For a fraction of pi), Horatio (Her ratio) defines the whole of pie fully in his loyal and unpretentious friendship with Hamlet (Of protracted circumference/Over the shortest distance between points).  And with that last phrase, perhaps I’ve even invented a new poetical form: die a meter.  Of course, Horatio (mathematically) proves his loyalty, offering a true home for Hamlet, more than mere pandering to royalty (Ever present friend/Over cunning counsel/More than subject/To this hamlet).

As recounted elsewhere:

At the end of the play, Horatio proposes to finish off the poisoned drink which was intended for Hamlet, saying that he is ‘more an antique Roman than a Dane’, but the dying prince implores Horatio not to drink from the cup and bids his friend to live and help put things right in Denmark; “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, / Absent thee from felicity a while, / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story.” Hamlet, speaking of death as “felicity”, commands Horatio to wait “a while” to tell the story; perhaps Hamlet dies expecting his friend to follow as soon as the complete story has been told.

Perhaps one of the greatest honors we have in life is to witness and re-tell the stories of others.  May we each live lives worth re-telling…

POEM: The Game of Life

One day
I realized
The game of life
And going back
In the box
Only to find
The rules had been lost
Long a go
And still
The game goes on

This short poem plays with the notion that life is a game.  Of course, there are many different types of games, each with their own set of rules.  Even if there is one monolithic set of rules that defines reality, it appears that there are countless games that can be played within that set of rules.  A wise person realizes that each of these sets of rules, for whatever game chosen (or implied in one’s actions), possesses a certain arbitrariness.  Such arbitrariness lacks a full claim in ultimate reality.  Any such partial claim, when lifted to sacred status, deserves and invites mocking.  Such playfulness and mocking delves into the wondrous paradox that irreverence can be the highest form of reverence in a given situation.  Irreverence playfully invites us to a fuller and more sacred view of reality.  And such playful invitations can harness the awesome character of pointing out high truths without the downer of overzealously demanding obedience.  Such playful invitations abide by a sacred respect for higher truths as demanding obedience in and of themselves, without contrivance or brute force.  In the games of life, there is often a negative connotation with playing in the sense of “games people play” — when we treat other players as objects in the game, not an equal or full players.  I prefer a more positive connotation, as elucidated by Zen Buddhism’s nonseriousness, apparent foolishness under-girded by wisdom:

“There is a certain quality of foolishness in a real wise man. Why? Because a real wise man contains the opposite. He is both together. He is more comprehensive. A wise man who has no foolishness in him will be dry, dead. His juice will not be flowing. He will not be green. He will not be able to laugh; he will be serious; he will be a long face. A wise man who is just wise and in whose being the fool has not been integrated will be very heavy. It will be difficult to live with such a wise man. He will be very boring. He will be boring to you and he will be boring to himself. He will not have any fun; his life will not know any joy. He will be completely unacquainted with laughter. And when laughter is missed, much is missed.

And one can never know God without laughter. One can never know God without joy. One can never know reality just by being wise.

The fool has something to contribute too — the laughter, the joy, the nonseriousness, the quality of fun, delight. The fool can dance, and the fool can dance for any reason whatsoever — any excuse will do. The fool can laugh. And the fool can laugh not only at others, he can laugh at himself.

When the wise man and the fool meet together in a consciousness, then something of tremendous value happens. There are foolish people and there are wise people. The fool is shallow; the wise man is serious. The fool does not know what truth is, and the wise man does not know what joy is. And a truth without joy is worse than a lie. And a joy without truth is not reliable. A joy without truth is momentary, cannot be of the eternal.”

Nonseriousness and humorlessness are linked to fundamentalist religious faith and militancy.  Militancy — including militarism — and violence are anathema to good humor:

The overarching difference is between the mental rigidity of religious faith and the mental flexibility of humor.

1. The first contrast is between the respect for authority in religious faith, and the questioning of authority in humor. In faith-based religions, people believe what they are told, and do they do what they are told, by a leader, typically a patriarchal leader. God himself is pictured as the ultimate patriarchal authority, the Lord, the King of the Universe.

The psychology of humor, by contrast, involves questioning authority. The humorist’s role, from the court jesters of ancient China to today’s standup comedians, has been to think critically about people’s language, about their reasoning, about their actions, and about the relations between all three. From the days of ancient Greek comedy, the creators of humor have looked for discrepancies between what political and religious leaders say and what they do. Aristophanes poked fun not only at political leaders but at intellectual leaders like Socrates, and even at the gods.

2. The second contrast is between the simple, often dualistic, conceptual schemes of religious faith and the more complex conceptual schemes of humor. Faith-based religions offer believers simple concepts with which they can classify everything they experience. Master categories include “good and evil,” and “us and them.” Osama bin Laden’s speeches and George W. Bush’s speeches are full of name-calling based on such simple dualistic categories. As Bush has admitted, he “doesn’t do nuance.”

Comic thinking, on the other hand, is more complex and messy. The world doesn’t separate neatly into a few categories. In comedy, there aren’t any all-good people, nor any all-bad people. Even the best person involved in the best kind of action is likely to be tainted by some selfishness, foolishness, and maybe even hypocrisy. When characters appear in comedy promoting simple conceptual schemes, they are often satirized as fanatics or fools.

3. The third contrast is between the militarism of religious faith and the pacifism of humor. Religions based on faith tend to feel threatened by other world views and so tend to want to eliminate the proponents of those views. And so they often justify violence against “the heathen” or “the infidel,” as General Boykin and Osama bin Laden do.

From the beginning, however, comedy has been suspicious of calls to eliminate those who think differently, and has been suspicious of violence as a way to solve problems. Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata satirized the insanity of the constant fighting between the Greek city states. In modern times, the futility of war has been the theme of dozens of comedies, which have lampooned the willingness to kill or die on command. Comic heroes are usually good at talking their way out of conflicts, and when that fails, they are not ashamed to run away. The comic attitude here is captured in the old Irish saying “You’re only a coward for a moment, but you’re dead for the rest of your life.”

4. The fourth contrast is between the single-mindedness of religious faith and the willingness to change one’s mind in humor. The person of faith treats alternative viewpoints as possible sources of doubt, and so something to be suppressed. Once they make a divinely sanctioned choice of action—as in George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, they “stay the course” no matter what happens. They do not look for mistakes they might have made, they do not try to think of how they might proceed differently, and they tend to be defensive when they are challenged. Faith-based religions tout what Conrad Hyers (1996) calls “warrior virtues”: courage, loyalty, duty, honor, indomitable will, unquestioning obedience, stubborn determination, and uncompromising dedication.

In comedy, by contrast, the person who has an idée fixe is portrayed as foolish. Comic heroes do set courses of action, but they are adaptable after that. As situations change, they can too. Their plans are not set in stone but are contingent and reversible. Often, the comic hero has not even determined in advance what will count as success or failure.

5. The fifth contrast is between the idealism of religious faith and the pragmatism of humor. The rhetoric of faith-based religions is full of abstractions like Truth, Faith, and Freedom. On the enemy side are those who love Evil.

Comedy, on the other hand, is based not on abstractions but on concrete things, people, and situations. Comic heroes are concerned not about Truth and Freedom but about their next meal, and getting the one they love to love them in return. Not longing for some utopia, they are at home in the world as it is.

6. The sixth contrast is between the convergent thinking of faith-based religions and the divergent thinking of humor. Convergent thinking aims at reaching the correct answer. In divergent thinking there is no single correct answer, but dozens, maybe hundreds of possible good answers. A standard exercise in divergent thinking is to think of thirty uses for a building brick.

With their simple conceptual schemes and their emphasis on thinking in traditional ways, faith-based religions do not encourage creativity or cleverness. A good example is George W. Bush and his wife Laura. On a TV interview program, Laura Bush was asked if she and the President had pet names for each other. She said, “Oh Yes.” “What is your pet name for him?” the interviewer asked. “Bushie,” she answered. “What is his pet name for you?” “Bushie,” she said again.

Unlike such unimaginative plodders, people with a rich sense of humor are creative. The master skill of the comedian is to look at something familiar in a new way.

7. The seventh contrast is between seriousness and playfulness. Faith-based religious visions of life are paradigms of seriousness, and humor is a paradigm of nonseriousness. It is persons, I take it, who are serious in the basic sense of the word. Issues and problems are called “serious” because they require persons to be serious about them. For us to be serious is to be solemn and given to sustained, narrowly focused thought. It is also for us to be sincere in what we say and do. We say only what we believe, and act only according to our real intentions.

Seriousness is contrasted with playfulness. When we are playful, we are not solemn and are not given to sustained, narrowly focused thought. We are not bound to sincerity in what we say and do. We may say something outlandishly false for the mental jolt it gives us and others. We may impersonate someone, or feign some emotion, just for the fun of it.”

I suspect that an accurate reading of reality would call out for more Irreverends than Reverends.  Religion, institutionalized spirituality, must perpetually wrest with its own laughableness.  For any institution branding itself with any given set of “authoritative” creeds, must be able to laugh at itself, and accept mocking in good humor, to even hope for greater authority — an authority forever lying outside any gaming.  Yet, the show must go on!