Month: December 2016

Populism and the destructive thirst for solutions

What follows is an essay totally gone wrong… which is to say I can put it in my own lumpy blog, but no one will really want to read it. The entire essay speaks to the exact problem introduced in the first few paragraphs of personal decline. If written well these disparate topics might go together but now it is just a blathering mess. So enter at your own risk. I should have gone to spend more of the day with someone. As it is I spent it on my own, thinking about a few things, watching a movie, resting, reading, and writing this. But none of it very productive. I guess you could call it a sort of vacation day, but pretty much my whole life is this sort of vacation day. I’m really lost. I should have gone and spent the day with someone. …

It is a restful day in a non-descript hotel in Dar. When I say restful day, I probably really mean wasted day. I just don’t quite know how to live in this world anymore. I don’t mean that in the sense that I don’t want to live or something, I’m actually not feeling all that depressed right now. I just don’t quite know how to live in the world any more: how to find time for rest, for writing, for work, and then the time to maintain relationships with friends etc. I scan through facebook, and feel overwhelmed as usual, I think about research contacts and things like that that I should be working on, and it just doesn’t feel like quite the right day for that, even though I know there is no time like the present. …. I’ll get back to the whole populism question, but hey, this is my blog, so I’m going to wax solipsistic for awhile.

This general feeling is a result, I suppose, of my failed marriage, and other odds and ends of failures over the years. But it has been sort of a downhill slide since I turned away from a previous relationship. It is not the fault of anyone but me, it just sort of put me on the wrong path in life, I have been depressed and defensive ever since. At some point I took a seemingly irreversible turn away from the serious pursuit of life (which is to say passion and conviction), and I’ve just been drifting ever since. I was able to maintain a productive facade for some years until I could get my and Angie’s life stabilized, but by the time that happened I was sort of stuck in the facade and unable to escape. The escape, I suppose, is just to put aside all my moping about my life and just get to work. That is what sustained me for a long time, and what sustains most people I imagine. In fact that is an insight for the latter part of this entry, the social importance of work beyond all economic considerations (economic considerations themselves being, at the philosophical level, basically social).

I just need to get back to work. But for that I need to come to terms with the habits of bad decision-making which just seem to pile up in my life. Little things, like the decision to leave Arusha yesterday rather than today. There were several reasons why another day in Arusha would have been good, but by some hypnotic spell I felt the need to catch a ride back to Dar with the family I rode up with. No real reason, it just didn’t strike me to ask around for a bus for today. I can’t explain it. And that basic process accounts for so many bad decisions, both small (travel today or tomorrow) and large (marriage and divorce). i just set a trajectory and then feel compelled to continue in that trajectory even if it is a bad idea. Then I only fully realize in retrospect that it was a bad idea, and I can’t figure out how I wound up there. It feels like a curse of some kind. But to rebel against these trajectories feels like sin and destruction, even though it is only in retrospect that I see the sin and destruction was inevitable in the trajectory, and that rebellion is what was called for.

That’s why it feels like a curse. But maybe it is just a result of being a little too pliable, a little too relaxed about my own life, a little too unwilling to stand up for myself. These are habits developed probably 25 years ago as I found ways to suppress my thirst for life for the sake of trying not to hurt parents who were more fearful about my future than I was. And I can’t blame them. It’s not as if we get practice at parenting. The fault was mine. I was afraid of throwing myself into life. I told myself that caution was a virtue. and perhaps it is. But as with other virtues, it can become a closed logic. It can become a prison. Some, like me, devolve into sort of an inert passivity in prison, while others violently explode.

Maybe there is some insight here into populism, although that was not my intention in blathering on like this. I wanted to write this week about Star Wars, after the death of Carrie Fisher. Something a little bit more light-hearted. Even if we consider it critically, I am endlessly impressed by the glorious populist artistry of the first Star Wars, and its noble sequel….Anyway, I will comment on Star Wars soon, with its wonderful palette and my enormous wonder about how Lucas pulled it off.

But now to populism. I write about this today after watching an excellent hour-long piece about Boko Haram on Al Jazeera (which is consistently good on world news, better than any of the other news stations).

http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/specialseries/2016/11/boko-haram-rise-nigeria-armed-group-161101145500150

(But now I’m totally distracted watching George Lucas’ student film “Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB” on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PAePOxImiM… If this can be an inspiration…I do have ideas and the intention to set aside time to write scripts for movies about John the Baptist and the Hehe chief Mkwawa. I need to believe in myself to do so, I need to believe that is a worthwhile use of time…and it is certainly a better use of time that all the time I currently waste…but I need to re-wire my brain which is currently in that intertly passive prison state…and escaping such a state coincidentally just so happens to be the topic of Lucas’ wonderful student film, and perhaps it is this among other things that liberated him to produce, for better or for worse, Stat Wars…what is most interesting to me right now is the sound track of the student film, which is entirely sort of radio chatter as faceless technicians attempt to monitor this guy trying to escape some sort of Orwellian maze…what is striking also, is how Star Wars escaped from Orwellian fears of the future and embraced an optimistic heroism, he did this by casting the past as the future, which itself was an act of creative liberation… and also maybe a hint towards the attractions of populism.)

Anyway….on Al Jazeera, they did a nice history of the Nigerian radical Islamic movement, Boko Haram, which included lots of video footage of the early leader of Boko Haram, a young preacher named Mohammed Yusuf, who preached that the solutions for the impoverished lives of people living on the fringes of Nigeria’s corrupt state lay in Islamic revival and the imposition of so-called Sharia law. This is not unprecedented in the history of the region. There were multiple Islamic reformist movements in this region, going back centuries. In the early 1800s an Islamic preacher called Uthman dan Fodio led a “jihad” to overthrow the old Hausa kings in the area who were seen as corrupt slave traders.

Without going into the details of this whole history, and Boko Haram, what struck me is that this is just another aspect of what seems to be a global populism, which raises questions about populism itself, but also about global communication systems, terrorism, and the construction of mass psychologies in ways that go beyond mere propaganda. We are vulnerable to similar pressures, because of globalization: and this is not merely the globalization of the boogiemen of capitalism and inequality, although that is part of it, it is also the globalization of mediated experience, creating global waves of obsessions, fears, and explosions….what is the fundamental difference, I am asking myself, between the origins of Boko Haram and aspects of the Trump campaign? Boko Haram, before ISIS, turned to brutal rule-by-terror over an impoverished and traumatized civilian population, who are tempted to believe the terror is necessary.

To begin with Boko Haram, as a name for the movement, was originally a mockery of those who thought “boko boko” (books, as in western books, as in western education and thinking) was “haram” (taboo, sinful). This became the popular term for the Association of the Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad (Sunnah referring to the orthodox “traditions” concerning the prophet Muhammad and his acts that are not documented in the Quran). So it is only subsequently that the group began to take on this derogatory term as its identity, in direct response to polite society, in direct rebellion against respectable mores. At some point this went beyond the preaching of its charismatic founder and turned into mere populism.

This rebellion against polite society seems to me to be at the core of populism, it is both its virtue and its curse, but it is the identifying marker. Polite society is perceived to have failed a group of people and regardless of the ideology that promises a victory over this sense of oppression. There is some relationship between the sense that polite society has failed you, and the communication of the anger that this inspires, through impolite outpourings of vulgarity.

Here is where all the really off-the-hooks left-wing conspiracy theorists may be on to something: that an entire structure of society is built up for the cause of oppression and exploitation, a whole structure that acts to establish an order of production that mobilizes labor for the sake of those (us) who are thereby allowed to live leisurely lives…if any life outside of a small group of heirs to the superrich can be called leisurely… It is a more complicated exploitation to be sure, as even the ostensible beneficiaries of this social order feel stressed, overworked, and depressed. It is not so much a deliberate construction, but a more organic result of the struggle to survive. Most of us subject ourselves to working within the social order for the sake of stability and survival.

That order, or at least shifts within that order, or possibly the mere inability of the order to adjust to population growth and scarcity, creates victims. There are many classes of victims, but the soil of populism is found when the minimal guarantees offered to the majority class fail to materialize, for whatever reason: economic crisis, climate change, war, population growth. The group that had been the guarantor of the existing order begins to rebel against it, not in an orderly “rebellion” as we might imagine, because such a rebellion inevitably looks too much like the order it seeks to replace, but it begins in the will consistently disbelieve the promises of the social order. This disbelief then opens the conceptual space for entertaining an alternative social order. The alternative must offer solutions, power, and the reinforcement of emotions related to the sense of crisis that provoked the disbelief. The solution must find roots in the culture of that downwardly mobile majority class.

So how is it that those roots must also re-emerge accompanied by expressions of vulgarity? The vulgarity represents the rejection of the old order, an order recognizable through its sense of propriety. The vulgarity then continues on its trajectory in parallel to the new ideology proposing the basis of a new order. In both cases the habit of rebellion is to replace power with power. And power is a competition that happens principally with words. One establishes power within an order, old or new, with ideas and verbal cues that most effectively disarm all competitors and attract the most followers. This is not to say merely that the best wordsmith is the winner (in which case Chris Rock would probably rule the world), as part of the competition is also the construction and stabilization of the order itself, and the marks of loyalty to that order. In most orders the banal will trump the eloquent because the eloquent threatens the order itself, so the banal is preferred. Rebellion requires a moment of eloquence (a word which carries many positive connotations, but here used merely as linguistic expertise). The competition for eloquence (and I’m feeling so ineloquent right now…too much time on my hands…I actually write better when I am under pressure I realize), requires the competitors to outdo each other in their testimony to the proposed order, this leads to extremism. The competition to reject the former order requires competitors to outdo each other in their willingness to reject propriety as the sign of the old order.

Darn it….I’m getting totally lost in my thoughts here, just trying to do too much, and I’m not quite adequately disciplined or prepared to do it.

What I want to say is this: we have the William Julius Williams sociological studies on “When Jobs Disappear”, and a whole set of social dysfunction seems to follow with that. There is a fundamental loss of dignity which makes any loyalty to the old social order questionable if not impossible. In the case of America’s “inner cities” this rejection of the social order is incomplete, and constantly the object of attempts at social reform. The rejection, and its vulgarity, is a rebellion in the sense that it makes participation in the existing social order impossible (and perhaps, with the ability of vulgarity to grab attention, it prompts reform). Thus, you have “inner city” communities in which vulgarity becomes a point of pride (think the general aesthetic of the most crass of hip hop culture) as it demonstrates the willingness to reject any participation in the existing order, and, perhaps, it expresses the sense of disorder that the social collapse has induced. Something parallel has been happening in rural American communities. Jobs disappear, social dysfunction grows, drug use, abuse, broken families…and vulgarity. In the case of the “inner cities” this vulgarity and the rebellion it signals, is constrained by a broader power structure, a broader society etc. In the case of the “rural communities” you have a larger population, and one that for various ideological reasons (not the least of which is this class’s enthusiastic participation in the official armed forces), has more power in American society. The meanings attached to race are a part of this whole structure, but not the only thing.

So, we have a parallel. Jobs disappear, and with the ensuing social dysfunction, vulgarity emerges as a sign of presence and loyalty to the collapsing community as the broader social order changes. It is in this dynamic that Donald Trump found purchase. It is for this reason that his vulgarity was a source of political strength rather than weakness. He is speaking to a rebellion, a populist rebellion.

What struck me in the Boko Haram documentary is that it (and ISIS for that matter) is also a populist rebellion against the social order. Its vulgarity is expressed in atrocity, which perhaps is the ultimate expression of all vulgarity. Verbal vulgarity is merely a more polite expression of violence. The utility of verbal vulgarity is in signaling violence without actually acting out violently; it signals the capacity to exercise violence, the capacity to flout polite order, the capacity to be unaccountable…whereas propriety expresses support for the order and the unwillingness or inability to dismiss it.

ISIS, and Boko Haram, various aspects of Russian aggression, Donald Trump and the current Philippine president Duarte are all populists. Their vulgarity is the sign of their aggression against polite order. But their vulgarity also goes hand in hand with some distant ideology: Islam, capitalism, social tranquility. For the same reasons as vulgarity, ideology also trends towards excess, because power comes in the ability to outdo the competition in a statement of the ideology, the ability to capture social frustration in a statement of the ideology.

What is it about this age of populism then? Is this a Facebook effect? Possibly that might explain its global nature, not just the marketing of particular ideologies, but the popularization of extremism as a response to threat. One extremism engenders another. But it is certainly partly a result of a globalized economy creating parallel cases of jobless communities and attendant social dysfunction. ..

I’ve totally lost my train of thought… suffice to say that these populisms are destructive, and also self-destruct, but only after causing much harm. That destruction may be necessary, and a normal historical event (like the peasant rebellions of Martin Luther’s time), but destructive nonetheless. Hopefully this destruction can spur the articulation of new ideologies and orders that can incorporate the losses that first incited the rebellion and then the losses that the rebellion caused.

If I were more clear-headed today (and I can’t figure out why I am not, except for the sad reality that I have not really left my hotel room today), I would tie together the thoughts about my own decline, and the need to incite some sort of internal populist rebellion, even at the risk of the destruction it would cause, then the thoughts about Star Wars and its populist appeal to a higher-minded generalized rebellion against “empire” (so ironic of course to rebel against empire in the US in the 1970s, but no less the spectacular for it, it is such creativity that is America’s great virtue). in other words, I need a much more inspired essay on populism. This one could have gone very differently, but I need to create new conditions for my increasingly wandering and lazy mind. Even at wasted expense, I need to get out of the house to do serious work.

Trying to find Christmas

On Facebook I posted a few lines from the nativity account in Luke’s gospel, and then a little later went back and added a few introductory comments:

– – –

It is told so reverently and poetically that it is easy to ignore how miserable this experience was for them, and reminds us of the plight of refugees and military occupations everywhere, which is exactly why God came into the world in this manner:

“It was the first time a list was made of the people while Quirinius was governor of Syria. So Joseph went also. He went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea. That is where Bethlehem, the town of David, was. Joseph went there because he belonged to the family line of David. While Joseph and Mary were there, the time came for the child to be born. She gave birth to her first baby. It was a boy. She wrapped him in large strips of cloth. Then she placed him in a manger. There was no room for them in the inn.”

– – –

The piece from Luke’s gospel should speak for itself, and the reference to Syria should adequately make reference to current events. But nonetheless in the ruckus of Facebook it seemed to want an introduction, but the problem is that the introduction then politicized it because it then enters into the tension between personal and political posts that makes politics more about establishing loyalties as debating the world.

What does “politicize” mean in this case? It means constraining the gospel story to make it speak to narrow contemporary concerns. It means making the story a command to act in a certain way in the world today. There is no doubt that believing in Jesus as God should spur action in this world, but there is also something more eternal at work. It is a story that ennobles the banal oppressiveness, the tragic shocks, of life among humans.

The point of the introductory comments was not to engage in a commentary about what to do about Syria or Syrian refugees, but to simply take note of how our familiarity with the poetic language of the gospel and the pastoral nativity scene blinds us to what this story is really telling us. It is telling us something about the eternal tragedy and hardship of life. The world into which Adam and Even were symbolically cast as a punishment. This is the world of adult life.

In this story, we can imagine village authorities in Galilee walking through the streets with a drum and a crier, announcing the imperial order for all people to report to their natal home for the census. This act was just another reminder of the occupation by a violent, macho culture that was offensive to local sensibilities. The occupation by these pork-eating, feasting, uncircumcised, soldiers, who seduced, prostituted, and otherwise forced local women into sexually entertaining their casually brutal soldiers, veterans of years of colonial wars.

We can imagine Joseph, with his young fiancee, not yet married but heavily pregnant with child. He is certain the child is not his. She says it is God-given, and he loves her and takes her at her word. Mary is conscious of the scornful looks and mocking gaze of people in the village; she is conscious, and embarrassed, by those who seek to find a centurion who they can only assume must have raped this child of the village, a quiet teenager, now considered ruined. Or maybe, at least, it was just Joseph after all, and the young couple are respectfully and maturely trying to avoid scandal. Joseph is conscious and resentful of all those gossipy stares. In some ways it is a relief to pack up for the journey to Bethlehem for the census, and get the hell out of Galilee for a while.

It was a 90 mile journey to Bethlehem, a week’s journey on foot, and with Mary’s condition, maybe more like two weeks. They stopped in villages along the way, staying with distant relatives or maybe paying a bit of meager savings to stay on the floor of a boarding house…Holiday Inn was not yet in business. They were exhausted when they reached Bethlehem with a long line of palestinian (so the Romans called the area) villagers streaming into the little town for the same reason. The journey hastened the pregnancy and young Mary was not quite sure what to make of the pains in her belly. Without her mother and aunts around, she had no one to ask, and she was afraid. Was she about to lose the pregnancy? Joseph certainly wasn’t much help, and just kept pushing on to Bethlehem promising that he would splurge for a boarding house there, not mentioning to her that none of his distant relatives had expressed much interest in hosting them.

Bethlehem was full of people come in for the census. Roman soldiers and administrators had taken residence in the best spots in town, resentful of spending (if the timing of the story is accurate) their Saturnalia holiday in this podunk town. This meant that the wealthier of the Jewish residents claiming descent from the legendary David…now humiliated as they obeyed orders to report for the census of a gloating foreign emperor…had taken up all the decent rooms that remained, and so even the most destitute hovels were filled with the census visitors.

Seeing Mary’s condition, perhaps looking at the clouds threatening rain, one innkeeper found a place for Mary in his stable. It stunk of piss and shit, but that was not such an unusual smell for Galilean villagers. It wasn’t really clean, but it was shelter, and the scraggly sheep and donkeys kept brought some warmth to the drafty little room. They spread some clean straw on the floor near the wall, and put down some woolen blankets, still damp from the rain they encountered two days before. It wasn’t so bad. The innkeeper brought out some lentil stew for them, and told the clueless young Joseph that his wife was in labor and he better find a midwife.

We don’t know if Joseph ever found a midwife. Maybe he went walking around town, afraid to leave her side for too long. Maybe he went and talked to shepherds in the hills who told him of a drunken vision of angels. Maybe one of them came down and said he could help deliver the baby, given his experience with sheep. Who knows? One way or the other she delivered the baby that night in the stable. The innkeeper running in and out with some boiled water and clean cloth, in between attending to his other customers in the house. They laid some more straw down in the feed trough and shooed away the sheep. They laid the baby down, while an exhausted Mary rested on the damp blankets and Joseph tried to comfort her. He prayed for her.

I just wanted to remind us of that story. A story about hardship, the whims of governments, and the imperial sense of the disposable lives of its subjects.

For those who believe in the story of the virgin birth that brought the divine God into human life, it is important to remind ourselves of the inglorious, trudging hardship of this story. For those who don’t believe, one might still ask: what does it mean to base a religion upon this ignoble circumstance and its depressing end in little-noticed Roman execution 30-some years later? It is not much of a story of a hero, and only works with some pretty significant theological/philosophical effort. It requires a logic built on compassion for those whom society despises. This is why it strikes me as such an ennobling vision of the divine.

Other religions have unexpected heroes, considered holy for surprising reasons. The transcendent Buddha, the glorious orphan Muhammad, etc. It always struck me that the intended lesson of all of Islam’s early conflict is not the continuation of conflict as the Islamic literalists of today take it, but rather the tragedy of conflict, the difficulty of its resolution, and the foolishness of people. Revisiting these religious tales without the garb of poetry, piety, and philosophy helps us appreciate the rationale of belief as a means of ennobling human life.

Merry Christmas

Jesse, Gentiles, and the Gentility of Good Government

I ache to comment on John the Baptist who so richly deserves a movie full of wild passion….but I will focus today on a different theme. The readings this week congregate around the trope of the branch of Jesse who will come to command the loyalties of people from all the nations. The metaphor of the tree is at work, opening the Old Testament passage with an image suggesting genocidal violence: “Jesse’s family is like a tree that has been cut down… A new little tree will grow from its stump.”

From this new little tree will come a branch that will produce fruit and it is upon this branch that the spirit will come to reside. Christians take the fruit-bearing branch to be Jesus the Messiah, and the fruit to be faith, because after all, Jesus bore no fruit in the form of children to inherit whatever authority he might have claimed. An odd response to genocide.

I write this as I listen at comfortably loud volume to the Silly Sisters, a mid-1970s duo of English folk singers, whose voices retain a rough strain (catterwalling said a perennially dyspeptic friend of mine), and the instrumentation, a loose folksy slightly intoxicated rhythm that no longer seems quite attainable in this day and age. These are people who grew up in some other era, survived the 1960s which freed them to express the tones of their village youth without the self-conscious concern for perfection. The recording was done with good microphones in what seems to be a sleepy pub in the morning hours still reeking of spilt pints, and the lack of post-production leaves us still in that imperfect room with its deep bass resonance. I love this sound. And they sing these devil-may-care songs of men who’s “got no courage in him” (can’t get it up is the winking implication), of five servant girls to carry the milking pail and five labouring men to use the spade and flail, they all kissed each other, and Humphrey with his flail and Kitty she was a darling girl to carry the milking pail – – such wonderful working-class eroticism – – and of a woman heroically raising funds to free her injustly sentenced lover:

“There was a battle in the north, and nobles there were many, and they have killed Sir Charlie Hay, and laid the blame on Geordie.
Though he was chained in fetters strong of iron and steel so heavy, not one in the court was so fine a man as Geordie.
An aged lord at the king’s right hand says noble kings, but hear me, let her count out five thousand pounds and give her back her dearie.
Some gave her marks, some gave her crowns, some gave her dollars many, she’s counted out five thousand pounds, and she’s gotten again her dearie.
She glanced blithe in her Geordie’s face, says dear I’ve bought thee Geordie, but the blood would have flowed upon the green before I lost my laddie.”

There is something Biblical in these old songs, they arise I suppose from Christendom, but that is not the reason. The reason is that they speak to a world described ruefully recently by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who writes sensitively about losses of society, culture, identity, amid 20th century horrors and ambitions of war and migration. She described her aspirational sense of America despite its hypocrisies: “refreshingly free of that anything-can-happen existential uncertainty so familiar to developing nations.”

This does seem to capture the comfort of these ostensibly “developed” countries where by contrast a certain kind of predictable political order has been established that constrains unfiltered emotional violence from wielding the instruments of collective power. But…occasionally that iron facade falls, primarily in outpourings of fascist rage, overwhelmed by the anxieties of those with the most to lose from change, those who might just fall through the cracks if things change…not the ones already below the glass ceilings, they’ve already learned how to survive. Adichie, is of course concerned with the “anything-can-happen” air surrounding the recent election, with its howling screw-faced crowds and president-elect who pays attention to little except his thin-skinned and lustful emotions. (Old Bill is full of lusty emotions, yes, but there’s a difference. He knows they belong behind closed doors and are satisfied through seduction, not assault).

These songs, and the Biblical stories and concerns are from a society where that “anything-can-happen” sensibility still reigns, where the arbitrary emotions of empowered elites are still enough to sentence a scapegoat to death, and then demand nothing more than a bribe to release him. Men without principles, whose principle is merely the right to exercise the power that they happen to hold.

From the safe perspective of an orderly society, there is something enervating, even noble, about imagining the existential courage of life in such a society where it can hardly be the concern of anyone to uphold the principles of order for anyone beyond one’s small group of friends and the local institutions that give shape to their lives. In a land governed by a tyrant our civic responsibilities shrink significantly. Few take upon themselves the foolish courage to face that dangerous disorder lurking just beyond the boundaries of the local lord’s fields. Better to deal with his arbitrary emotion than the risks of bandit violence in the no-man’s land beyond.

And then we imagine the warrior-hero, going boldly into that no-man’s land to live by his strength and his wits. This is the cowboy, the knight, the missionary in a certain militarized imaginary of militant Christianity today. This action-hero fantasy, whether amidst apocalypse, Indian wars, or medieval goblins, is of course a dangerous if let to break from the bounds of the imagination. It lusts after a disorderly world in which this warrior-myth can be enacted. We lust for a Trump who will break apart polite order and allow our fantasies to roam free, of race wars, vigilante revenge, the conquering hero who gets to fuck the girl in the end.

But for those living on the frontiers of no-man’s land, this is an ugly reality from which few benefit except perhaps the odds and ends of strongmen-psychopaths who thrive amidst disorder. The fantasy of the people is for someone to impose a more gentle order that allows something other than mere muscle to reign.

Of that branch, Isaiah prophecies:

The spirit of the Lord will help him to be wise and understanding. He will help him make wise plans and carry them out.
He will help him know the Lord and have respect for him.
The Branch will take delight in respecting the Lord.
He will not judge things only by the way they look.
He won’t make decisions based simply on what people say
He will always do what is right when he judges those who are in need. He’ll be completely fair when he makes decisions about poor people.

This thin branch will govern not as a strongman full of arbitrary mercy for scapegoats, for criminals, for businesses that do as he says, but as the judge who wants to ensure the predictable enforcement of the rules such as they are, that allow people to make decisions about life, even if they be lowly milkmaids and fieldworkers, accepting that rules set limits upon the lowly, but also the haughty.

When he commands that people be punished it will happen.
When he orders that evil people be put to death, it will take place

And amidst this order, the fearful threats of bandits and pychopathic strongmen become no more. Gentility becomes possible.

Wolves will live with lambs
Leopards will lie down with goats
Calves and lions will eat together
And little children will lead them around

The passion and violence of human life are unquenchable, but can be contained, governed, and the world becomes a little boring once you’ve lived in such an order for too long. And so we have these barking crowds, so ungrateful for the society which has served them for so long, shouting “lock her up” , “Trump that bitch,” and where men calling themselves “the crusaders” call Somalis “cockroaches” and planned to plant a bomb that would “wake people up with a bloodbath.” We have a delusional ex-marine training self-satisfied Christian missionaries in SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) tactics so that they can go heroically into those no-man’s lands as crusaders rather than apostles. This entrepreneurial nut-job is almost certainly behind what I can only suspect to be a hoax, at some level, of the abducted Aryan Sherri Papini.

The fantasy of the no-man’s land hero is a powerful one, so much more macho to be Rambo, the man with no name, or the raging crusader chopping off infidel heads before falling in tragicomic grandeur upon the battlefield. So much more macho than the apostle. Let the crusaders go crusade among the jihadis in Somalia. Both find themselves in the end the servants of the strongmen.

Paul the Apostle, this week writes to the Christian community in Rome, to whom he writes knowing that they live in the relatively orderly belly of the beast. Despite the frontier violence and the spectacles of blood and gore fed to the raving masses, Paul knew he could call upon the law as a Roman citizen, and their persecution was predictable, he knew what he risked. It is for this reason, despite their violence, that Paul granted earthly authorities, and the order they could offer, divine sanction. Because he had seen his own Pharisaic compatriots screaming for the blood of a non-violent prophet, forcing the hand of the rule-bound Roman governor.

The Romans of Paul’s time were still products of the Republic, the complex balances of power between the elite democracy of the Senate and the tribunal representatives where the masses had their voice, and their veto. Rome was only beginning its long fall into the arms of strongmen who gave birth to the grimy illiterate warlords who we now imagine to have been knights in shining armor. This fantasy blinds us to the real Christian message.

Christ has accepted you. So accept one another in order to bring praise to God. I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews. He teaches us that God is true. He shows us that God will keep the promises he made to the founders of our nation. Jesus became a servant of the Jews so that people who are not Jews could give glory to God for his mercy. It is written, “I will praise you among those who aren’t Jews.”

Paul, we recall, speaks as a Jew. When he speaks of Jews, he speaks of his own people, he speaks in that sense to all of us who are afraid to make accusations against our own. When he speaks of non-Jews, he speaks to all of us who fear the power, the threat, the pollution of those who we regard as foreigners. More than any of the early Christians, Paul, who had been their persecutor when he was a self-empowered Pharisee, Paul is the one upon his conversion who convinced this small Jewish sect to open up to the totality of Jesus’ message. And he proved it by giving multiple quotes from the old Jewish scriptures showing that the message of peace to all people had been there from the beginning, even amidst all the rage and blood of those ancient histories.

I will praise you among those who aren’t Jews, I will sing praises to you (2 Samuel 22:50; Psalm 18:49)
Again it says, “You non-Jews, be full of joy. Be joyful together with God’s people” (Deuteronomy 32:43)
And again it says “All you non-Jews, praise the Lord. All you nations, sing praises to him” (Psalm 117:1)
“The Root of Jesse will grow up quickly. He will rule over the nations. Those who aren’t Jews will put their hope in him.” (Isaiah 11:10)

This slender “Root of Jesse” (branch technically), is who Paul recognizes as Jesus, who produced no fruit other than the revolutionary words that establish the possibility of a non-violent order that can over come the most fearsome of the strongmen. A conquest like that of a lover, a welcome new presence rather than an assault.

Other translations use the word “Gentiles” for “non-Jews”. For us Christians, we should substitute the word “non-Christian” every time we see the word “Gentile”. For us liberals, we should substitute “non-liberals”, and Republicans should do the same. I hold little hope for rabid “alt-right” racists foaming at the mouth. I doubt they will ever be able to read the word Gentile as anything but a symbol of their own unearned privilege and go on hating Jews by taking the Bible in the most literal and ignorant sense. But they are among the “non-Christians” to whom Paul calls us to go to in love. The reference to the Gentile in the Bible is the dare to go into no-man’s land not as an enemy, but as a friend.