Cartoon cross and dollarsAlthough Americans have a prevalent national faith, Christianity, we have another at least equally as fervent: Capitalism. In America both are mythic  and fundamental, which means they’re bound to our psyches like barnacles and cannot easily be shaken off —not that millions of us would want to.

Of these two faiths I’d argue that capitalism is the stronger and more fervent. I may be wrong about that, but these faiths have at least become so enmeshed in our mythic indoctrination that if you threaten one you threaten the other. A non Christian may be merely “unsaved”, which may be considered a foolishness of omission. But a non-capitalist is automatically a socialist or worse, a communist (both of these are considered sins of commission) —regardless, unsaved, socialist or communist, all are thought ungodly.

How capitalism became almost synonymous with Christianity in the United States is a tale of confusion wrapped in inherent practicality. How the story of shared loaves and fishes found in the New Testament became the tale of two cities: the Shining City on a Hill and the impoverished one at the base of the hill, is an example of Jesus’ ongoing battle with America’s 18th,19th, 20th and 21st centuries’ practical politicians as they co-opted the teachings of that 1st century Nazarene bleeding-heart —as they re-defined them while clawing their way to the top. In the United States a capitalist cocooned in a corporation can do no wrong even while she or he is poisoning your water, contaminating your air and robbing you blind with payoffs to your legislators.  She or he is legally and (to some minds) morally invulnerable no matter how corrupt they might be.

But maybe, just maybe, we’ll break out of our nation-wrecking stupor soon enough to avert the most extreme effects of it. But it will first take an epiphany followed by an immediate commitment to de-toxify.

A good starting point would be to imagine a future free of our Christian-capitalist conflation. As writer Justin Smith muses, “I’m still dwelling on how ironic all the feverish proclamations of capitalism are going to look someday.”  I think it won’t be pretty.  We’ll see that more clearly once we’re freed of having dumpster dinners at the corner of Wall Street and New. We’ll know we’re on the psychic mend when we’re finally not sold by a Coke sign’s faded blush —when we’re embarrassed at how it thrusts itself from desiccated dollar dunes.

Just yesterday I came across an article that reported how in California, now in the midst of a drought severe enough to elicit predictions that the state will be out of water in a year (short of  a miracle that some foolishly rely upon), the Nestlé Corporation continues to bottle city water to sell back to the public at a big profit, local activists charge.  A Sacramento environmental coalition spokesperson, Andy Conn, said, “This corporate welfare giveaway is an outrage and warrants a major investigation. For more than five months we have requested data on Nestlé water use. City Hall has not complied with our request, or given any indication that it will. Sacramentans deserve to know how their money is being spent and what they’re getting for it. In this case, they’re getting ripped off.” 

It’s really not surprising City Hall is in hunker mode. There’s a zealous, capitalist mindset in US government at all levels that makes such things possible.

I can’t help but wonder how we’ll feel about having added our own breaths to the cyclone that slew the sacred cow as gangs of suited crooks blew through. As their fingers itched to milk her dry until there was nothing left to suck or bust. Will we be coy then and beg mercy from our god, Capital —or the other one? You gotta wonder.

But I have a sense there’s finally beginning to be a wider appreciation that we’re in trouble. I have a sense that more Americans are realizing that climate-change-global-warming deniers like Senator James Inhofe (R- that OK) are, at best, well-meaning people who are innocently and sincerely stupid —scientifically stupid at least. People like Inhofe are so caught up in their peculiar anti-scientific, mystical doctrines they simply refuse to read the actual signs of the times: the arctic ice melts, the accelerated calving of the Antarctic glacier, the weird weather patterns, the warming oceans leading to rising seas.

So like Justin Smith I’m anxiously curious how all the feverish proclamations of capitalism are going to look someday. In the meantime I still hope that all of this capitalist religious fevor will finally be rejected by Americans and that the force  of what’s coming will be mitigated by clearheaded commitments to change the way things operate. I’m hoping that enough people will change their belief in the infallibility of this capitalist model and say, “I’m done. We’ve lurched too long through spoiled earth as Gabriel’s Mad(ison) Ave. apocalyptic horn more croaked than blew.”

by Jim Culleny


Burning Bush

March 8, 2015

burning bushCommenting on two photos posted online that compared youth activities in the 1970s (guitar playing/singing) to today (screen viewing/texting), I got in trouble with a younger friend who accused me of judging the earlier to be superior to the later.  He said he was tired of older people whining about how it is compared to how it was. He had a point, but at the risk of being called an old whiner, I do think it’s useful to bring past and present together for a little practical contrast.

Although things may seem just-of-this-moment as we stand in it, the past is at least as present as our hippocampus. That memory-sorting center of our brain is our gateway to the past. Keeping this brain-presence of the past in mind it’s probably a good idea to regularly plumb earlier moments — as long as they don’t completely supersede what’s happening now. Why do we have memories, if not to thumb back through them to assess and reorient? There actually may be something to learn from bygone days without pitting then and now against each other in a dog fight. Tradition, innovation— they’re both vital to who and what we are.

For instance, as a carpenter at age 20, I danced the tops of walls. I was as at ease atop a second story stud wall nailing off joists as the Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky was in his ballets. I’d likely fall and break my neck, or worse, if I tried that now, but there was a time when it was true. How my dancing and Nijinsky’s come together has to do with a few words attributed to him.

“God is fire in the head,” Nijinsky said. “I am alive as long as I have a fire in my head.”

When I read that, I thought, “now there’s a definition of god I could live with.” It spoke of fresh experience not tangled in theology, or even msticism; an experience as direct and awesome as Moses’ burning bush as told in the Bible, but without the tortured literalism often brought to it. Nijinsky’s god was in his head, firing-up his vitality, his creativity. It was a blaze that made him dance.

Brilliant — god was a fire in the brain! That, I thought, is as close to the truth as anything a dancer might dance with a bonfire burning in his head. Nijinsky’s god was not remote, was not incarcerated in scripture the way god typically is even today. That same fire burned in 20-year-old Jim as he danced on walls, lifting sticks to be placed and nailed as he held their tails against his boot, as he walked the wires of gravity’s net as a spider commands the filaments of her web. That same fire energizes even the humble spider.

Today we Lilliputians are still prone to bind god with our oldest, tiniest ideas, water-boarding god to extract answers we’d most like to hear. We redact truth instead of appreciating this spectacular world of which we are integral, this miraculous but lethal world which often returns less welcome replies to our queries.

We’re often so trained in narrowness of vision we can’t see beyond our box of holy books and cramped skulls. We place more stock in the thoughts of ancients than we do in our own, as if they were not exactly as ignorant as we are when it comes to stuff unknown. Like them we obsess on single grains of sand and refuse to scan the wide beach.

Some of us are certain of our grasp of the unknown to the point of lunacy. Some would like to dictate the terms of others’ lives based upon their personal beliefs of what is essentially unknown, beliefs founded upon the three or four thousand year-old speculations of ancients.

But our brain-blaze is as real as that which scorched the insides of the skulls of cave dwellers, creation myth writers, scientists and artists — flames that also combusted in the muscles of carpenters and all workers from then to now. Having that fire hasn’t been the problem, understanding and directing it has been the rub.

While the past is the foundation upon which we build, the present is where young thinkers and carpenters with fires in their heads do their work:

—sweatskin slickkening in the light
breath as sure as the bellows of god

biceps built by the truth of weight,
muscles doing their natural jobs:

arms of sinew, bone and grit
reaching to haul the next board up

to be lifted and laid wall to ridge
and fixed by hammer blows on steel

fueled by blasts of the burning bush
in the orchard of god that has ever spun

like the fire that made big Moses reel
the burning bush we call the sun

Successfully joining old fires to new understanding is what makes the world work. Failing that, we resort to the hoses and axes of fire departments and the keyboard clicks of insurance company clerks.

by Jim Culleny
for the West County Independent