Month: December 2018

Zecharia and His Vision of Old Men and Children

This is a quick comment, on a Sunday afternoon, on the Prophet Zechariah. The Old Testament reading this morning came from Zechariah, a minor prophet of the Old Testament whose memorializers helpfully cited a clear historical timeframe for his prophecy in the first few years of the reign of the Persian king Darius, whose father had freed the Israelites from their captivity in Babylon.

Zechariah calls for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and I was moved by the most humble aspect of his vision for a renewed city: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city will be filled with boys and girls playing there.” This strikes me as the core vision of any peaceful society. A place where old people and children fill the streets with wisdom and life, living in community and security. These vulnerable ones of society walk and run in the streets without fear, nor do their parents and children fret over their safety. It is a society in which paranoia has been shunted to the shadows, and the hard tasks of securing the city are accomplished quietly with dignity and mercy.

“This is what the LORD Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of the people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” Such a simple vision, for a people who had faced two generations of conflict and exile and who moved back into an orphaned city where a lack of government had lefts its streets to be ruled by bandits and gangs, where old men and children feared to walk through the narrow streets. So, to those who had come to accept that life of insecurity, a place where children run free and old men and women chat amiably into the night, this is a miracle. And, as with all such social miracles, we have first to imagine it, or allow God to imagine it for us. What is so endearing here is the humane vision that is imagined. Not a rousing conquest, but a community at peace with itself and its neighbors.

In such a community, rather than the enforcement of a politicized holy truth, there is just the joy of that most basic of human needs: community. “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.” That is all, people will come and believe for the simple desire that their elderly might sit in peace with their friends, and children may run freely and rambunctiously through the streets.

One pauses at this vision, a vision which the United States has accomplished at least at certain times and certain places. And I’m not saying it every accomplished it for everyone, or accomplished it justly. But it accomplished it in certain times and certain places. And even poor children, even minority children, in certain times and certain places could run the streets in joy. Amidst all the violence and injustices, we should not forget that we can accomplish this. And here we are also reminded that whenever someone refers to the “Jews” in the Bible, they are referring to the readers of the scripture, and today, for us Christians that means us. We are the audience to whom the Bible writers speak. When they speak to the Jews, for better or worse, they speak to us.

And here, we might be reminded, that when immigrants come to our borders, airports, and crossings, they are saying to us: “Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.” That is what they are saying. And for that we might want to accord them the holiest welcome we are capable of.

Zechariah then goes on to some poetic visions, and here that same vision of the most humble of all conquests, is repeated in more metaphorical terms. “See your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

It is even a vision that cannot be fully understood by his audience. This is, of course, a key passage of the Old Testament, testifying to Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. His was the conquest, a conquest played out in his humiliation and public execution…betrayed by the “Jews”, which is to say, betrayed by us. That is the cruelty of human society, and it starts with the inability to see the glory in humility, the glory in a city of old men and women and children in the streets, and a king riding on a donkey through those very streets, with children skipping beside him.

The LORD, voiced by Zechariah the prophet, continues: “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nation. His rule will extend from sea to sea.”

Listen: he will take the warhorses from Jerusalem. That very place that he promises to restore. That very place where the old men and women and the children will roam the streets without fear. That is the place who will be stripped of their warhorses, whose battle bows will be broken. We have to return again to His earlier words: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of the people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” God can accomplish all things, including a joyful city of safety and life, bereft of battlements.

Later we have visions of war, visions of rebellion against leaders who are compared to bad shepherds. Visions in which God miraculously protects Jerusalem from Assyria and Egypt.

In contrast to that vision of what will be necessary of the bad shepherds, Zechariah contrasts them with a good shepherd. God told him “Shepherd the flock marked for slaughter.” Zechariah says, “So I shepherded the flock marked for slaughter, particularly the oppressed of the flock. In one month I got rid of the three shepherds.”

He got rid of the three bad shepherds, the ones who took the best of the flock, the ones who took only those destined for their profit in wool and not those marked for slaughter, the ones who promised great conquest and doomed Jerusalem to unending battles. And those flocks, upon finding themselves under the guidance of this gentle Zechariah, he tells us “
They detested me, and I grew weary of them.” In frustration he cries out an oath, a curse, “I will not be your shepherd. Let the dying die, and the perishing perish. Let those who are left eat one another’s flesh.”

It is a very human reaction to rejection. And it highlights all the more what it means when we call Jesus the Good Shepherd, for He accomplished what Zechariah prophesied, a Jerusalem of peace, a king on the donkey. And yet, Jesus was also rejected by those whom he came to save. In the same way they detested him. But he did not reject them, he did not curse them. Instead he died for them.

Zechariah goes on, and it is only in retrospect that we recognize that he prophesying not of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, but of Judas, the impatient one, who upon facing rejection, cursed his flock. Zechariah says, “I told them, ‘If you think it best give me my pay; but if not keep it.’ So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.”

And the LORD then is fully of fury against him: the one who came as a good shepherd, and cast out the bad shepherds, but who, when his flock curses him, he curses them back. The LORD then says: “Woe to the worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock! May the sword strike his arm and his right eye. May his arm be completely withered, his right eye totally blinded!”

And at that point, he says “Awake, sword against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me! Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones.” A fearful vision of vengeance for a small minded people. And again we have the story of the Passion foretold, and the scattering of the disciples.

There is no way we would understand this vision in and of itself. But in retrospect we see that when the prophecy is that “I will bend Judah as I bend my bow and fill it with Ephraim. I will rouse your sons, Zion, against your sons, Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword.” Here, we can only understand the metaphor. That the bow is Judah, and the sons are the arrows. They go, like arrows, metaphorically, into Greece in the Great Commission. They are the first missionaries, arrows not of destruction but of good news. Arrows not to kill, but to pierce the heart in its metaphorical sense, pierce it with the words of love.

That is the meaning I take from this. The conquest proclaimed by the man on the donkey is not one of arrows and warhorses, but of words and love.

Re-Hashing the “Baby Cold Outside” Debate…Please don’t bring this up during Christmas

Below is a Facebook post I wrote three years ago in response to people “reassessing” their entire opinion of David Bowie because it was publicized that a former groupie had written about a sexual encounter with him when she was underage. I’d like to write something new and original today for Christmas, but because this silly issue has now made the New York Times, and inspired an expletive-laden response from the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan that I’m dying to read, I am writing up this quick preface to an old Facebook post. MacGowan’s song “Fairy Tale of New York” is under fire because one of the low-life characters whose conversation forms the song uses the most prominent anti-gay slur to rhyme with maggot in a line that is a tumble of loving insults. It’s a bad word. I’ll leave it at that, as does he. But he makes the argument that songs tell stories and the characters should speak in credible voices (thus also the “Gentleman Soldier” who is anything but a gentleman, and the drug-addicted protagonist of “Old Main Drag” who takes a “swift one up the rump” for some “cheap pills”, and so he goes through life: “I’ve been spat on and shat on and raped and abused, I know I am dying, but I wish could back, for some money to take me from the old main drag.” It is a portrait of despondency and abuse, and rightly vulgar as it bears witness to human tragedy and the class-based structure of its abuse. His “Fairy Tale of New York” takes a couple characters not far removed from that victim of the Old Main Drag and allows them a moment of celebration for an ancient holiday that combines multiple religious traditions into one moment where we can believe in some sort of salvation from the tragedies and abuses of this world, and for many that will be an expletive-laden exclamation of rare joy.

And at least “Fairy Tale of New York” IS a Christmas Song….”Baby It’s Cold Outside” is NOT, and is also not offensive in any way shape or form…if one is willing to pause for a moment and think about the 1940s cultural context in which it functions…and even then IT IS NOT an endorsement of date rape drugs… gosh… Only a willful misreading of the song, its ironies and flirtations and anxieties, can lead one to take offense. I’m probably rarely in agreement with William Shatner on anything, but here his response “you’ll be clutching your pearls” over rap is right on target in its quotation of a line meant to shame old biddies of the 1940s in a tizzy over jazz.

Anyway, here’s the unedited three-year old Facebook post, enjoy 🙂 … (that would be a sadistic grin)…and Merry Christmas

Hijacked by our own Creation

This is a quick post, because often I don’t post at all because I’m intimidated by what it will take to write the intended essay. I would love to write an essay about all the old songs we sing in church, (most of) which are a sort of greatest hits of the last 500 years of European and American religious music. Songs like “Wake Awake for Night is Flying” are so profound both lyrically and musically, and I would like to comment on that, and perhaps by the end of this essay I’ll have at least one thing to say about that.

But this is just a thought that came to me while listening to NPR commentary on the Brexit travails, it is not directly related, but it is clear that our own current political problems are closely related to the refusal to acknowledge realities that is represented in the “to be or not to be” Brexit deliberations. It strikes me that, here in America, we are hijacked by the success of our own political system. We are justly proud of our Constitution and its checks and balances and its longevity, and it takes a good bit of work just to keep its ideals functioning, and there is the (by-design) dynamic of power swinging between different branches of government as each branch games the system to seek its own interests. And this design builds directly on the Adam Smithian era in British political-economic philosophy, and the idea that clockwork structures can be put in place that function in balance with an innate selfish drive in humans that can then give the machine its motive force.

It is quite a machine, and a side effect of its (again by design) conflictual functioning is that we are also in a constant state of conflicted anger, as the political fortunes of our own ideas and representatives rise and fall. And the ugliness of our political firmament is part-and-parcel of its design and its dependence on our worst instincts in a continual quest to find an institutional expression of our best instincts. By that measure it is a crazy contradictory system.

And this is all well and good as far as I’m concerned, American politics is bound to be ugly because of the assumptions about human nature that are at the root of the system. And what is beautiful about American politics is its rare ability to rise above that human selfishness and greed and accomplish good things on behalf of the society as a whole. In a profoundly Pauline way we acknowledge our sinful nature and then are blessed with political stability and peace by some power of grace beyond ourselves, or in a secular sense, we bind ourselves in a patriotic belief to the constitution and we abide unhappily by its rules and are granted an arena of non-violent war for control of the most powerful state on earth. By that measure it is humbling.

So, it works, in its own patterns of fits and starts. But, I do have the sense that we have been hijacked by its success. At minimum we take its stability for granted, and we increasingly confront the Constitution in a spirit of constipated legalism. We bicker over every word and every clause, and use every opportunity to question its most evident meanings, and we abuse its ambiguities for the narrowest of interests. As noted before in this blog: we “litigate” elections now, rather than holding them. Everything has become a lawsuit awash in technicalities.

This “litigation” mode is happening at the level of consciousness, and that is why I call it a hijacking: the pilot seats of our very selves have been occupied by ways of being in the world that our conscious selves would recognize as dysfunctional. This “self-hijacking” is of our own creation: our dependence on a legal document to construct and defend the legal order of our society has a self-referential, circular quality to its logic that, if untouched by other forms of consciousness, consumes itself like the ancient symbol of the snake eating its own tail.

But there is another level that this hijacking takes place, and that is in the Constitution’s concept of time. The Constitution created 2, 4, and 6-year terms for various elected offices, and state constitutions have split the difference with 3 year governorships and the like. But this leaves certain types of issues completely beyond the horizon of politics: the national debt, immigration, climate change and the environment more broadly. These issues, and others, have effects and processes that occur over the course of people’s lifetimes. The political system, as structured, cannot address these issues, as the whole motive force of self-interest that lies at the base of the system cannot address issues that transcend self-interest merely by their timeframe.

While self-interest is the motive force of the clockwork Constitutional concept, citizen behavior and voting patterns need not be bound by self interest. What is perhaps the greatest insight is that, on occasion, people can conceive of their self-interest in transcendent ways, so that their self-interest lies with the society as a whole, and can take on issues beyond immediate interests. So, by that measure, when society can be sufficiently mobilized, it can conceive of policies that transcend individual interests: civil rights, environmental legislation, etc.

Such mobilization has to depend on a level of consciousness that is bigger than Constitutional electoral politics. There has to be a level of philosophical sophistication in the society to achieve this. And it cannot be a mere elite philosophical orientation, it cannot be a PhD-level debate because that could not be inclusive of the whole society. The restrictions of a PhD level debate is not a question of mere “intelligence” and an assumption of who may or may not be able to participate in such a debate. The debate itself is political (as with the climate science debate today) and for that reason never quite amenable to mere reason. Any philosophical debate at that level will be vulnerable to class inequalities and biases, and that is the accusation made in numerous high-level policy debates today, and partisans have so thoroughly confounded (strategically so) class biases and political interests that they are nearly impossible to untangle now.

It is a deeper philosophical transcendence that is needed, that is not merely about policy or even conceptions of how the world works. I’m not quite sure where that transcendence can exist in a democratic society. Once upon a time, and perhaps even now, this could be conceived in the most literal sense of “civil religion” which is to say the old mainstream Protestantism of the George HW Bush type and his like, expandable to modern Catholicism. But, for obvious reasons, this cannot be sufficient to a diverse society. And yet, religion has a stronger emotional claim on eternity than science does. Science can only foresee some end to the Big Bang expansion of the universe, either in a cold fizzle or an explosive contraction that may happen on a time scale far beyond the life of the planet.

Religion envisions an eternity that is also immediate and present. We can pray and talk to a figure conceived as eternal, we can imagine our own entrance into an eternal state upon death, we can feel the presence of an eternal spirit pulsating within a short-lived body. This intimate concept of eternity is present in all (most, one cannot be sure) religions, and it most likely marks the core utility of religion as a societal concept. It not only legitimates politics, but it also conceives of transcendent political goals without which no political system can function, including our own.

We can only suppose that societal consciousness is directly related to moral consciousness, and it is at that level that temporal political systems, especially ones with such a short time-scale as ours, can make decisions for future generations. The mere invocation of “our children” will rarely be enough to over come the temporal tragedy of the commons in which all political systems are trapped.

Perhaps the Constitution by itself provides a sufficient scripture for a civil religion, but I doubt it for the reasons above. It can only be worshipped or litigated, and probably not both at the same time. Even less can it inspire the awe of mystery that accounts for the human humility necessary for societal achievement. But then again, the mystery of its contradictory functioning may sufficient after all, and thus we worship not the document but its gloriously messy effects.

I should end there, but let me give this illustration based on some meditation on the basic human decency of George HW Bush, despite his prejudices, shortcomings, and tolerance dirty (destructive) electoral tricks. His record will bear him out as a pretty positive force in American politics, at least as President. Anyway, I don’t mean to turn off those who would criticize him or those who would venerate him even more highly. My point is just this: is it conceivable in any way that Michael Dukakis would have handled the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union better than George HW Bush? And by that same token, is it conceivable in any way that George HW Bush would have been subject to the sort of wide-ranging investigation of a sitting president by a special prosecutor for trivial personal shortcomings, and thereby provide the precedent for a similar investigation of a sitting president for possible treason?

Democracy is messy, and sometimes its worst moments are in fact the seeds of its best.