Preacher’s Grace

November 21, 2015


Reading this passage from The Grapes of Wrath
I got to thinkin’ (as the preacher did) how appropriate
to the planet’s moment Steinbeck still is.
“I ain’t sayin’ I’m, like Jesus, but I got tired like Him, an’ I got mixed up like him, an’ I went into the wilderness like Him.

Night time I’d lay on my back an’ look at the stars; morning I’d set an’ watch the sun come up; midday I’d look out from a hill at the rollin’ dry country; evenin’ I’d foller the sun down. Sometimes I’d pray like I’d always done. Only I couldn’t figure out what I was prayin’ for. There was the hills, an’ there was me, an’ we wasn’t separate no more. We was one thing. An’ that one thing was holy.

“An’ I got to thinkin’, only it wasn’t thinkin’, it was deeper down than thinkin’. I got thinkin’ how we was holy when we was one thing, an’ mankind was holy when it was one thing. An’ it only got unholy when one miserable little fella got the bit in his teeth an’ run off his own way, kickin’ and draggin’ and fightin’. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang—that’s right, that’s holy. An’ then I got thinkin’ I don’t even know what I mean by holy.”

“I can’t say grace like I used to say. I’m glad of the holiness of breakfast. I’m glad there’s love here. That’s all.”

by John Steinbeck
from The Grapes of Wrath


Divine Kalashnikov

November 14, 2015

kalashnikovIt’s only been a day since the bloody attacks in Paris and though, initially, it was not certain who planned those attacks, we all recalled a similar but smaller attack 11 months ago, again in Paris, at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and we knew that those perpetrators credited their god for that brutal work. But now, a day later, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for attacks that killed 127 people in Paris, and promised more if their political demands were not met. But divine credit or blame are often flip sides of the same coin, it’s just doctrinal or political need that determines which side is weighted.

Historically, God has been a convenient foil used to make a bad thing look good. Politically, God has been the rationale for many massacres as well as for much hurt short of massacre. But in each case the issue has never really been about God, but about power. God has been the traditional sheep’s clothing draped over “ravenous wolves” —sometimes church wolves, sometimes temple or mosque wolves, but always wolves. To paraphrase Voltaire, “Wolves who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

France is said to be the most secular country n Europe, so it’s not surprising that it’s been the target of attacks by 21st century, fundamentalist god-wolves, in this case the power-despots of their particular god, who brandish and use God as a divine Kalashnikov. But western smugness and self-righteousness should give way to the truth that the God of western tradition has been as misused as any other to justify power grabs and the death and destruction characteristic of them. The gods of death are many, it’s just that they operate in different historical and geographical contexts —keeping them at bay is always the problem at hand. There’ve been ancient, medieval and, now, modern death gods, but they all share a human face.

In the USA at this moment our politics is seething with god-rationales to justify excesses of many varieties. The word ”god” rolls off the tongues of politicians as if it sanctified every human will to power. 

In his book Superchurch: The Rhetoric and Politics of American Fundamentalism, Jonathan J. Edwards, says, “When fundamentalists and evangelicals rally against abortion or same-sex marriage, for example, it’s not primarily about their right to stand on a street corner and preach good news to the unconverted. It’s about their right to authoritatively define the fundamentals of truth and public morality, based on an authoritative interpretation of an authoritative Bible.

“The truth-demands of fundamentalism stand in sharp contrast to notions like compromise and pluralism …”

It’s not about teaching. It’s about power. The truth unwanted by some (as Edwards notes) is that “As democratic citizens we all have to ask ourselves: What is fundamental? And who decides?”

Throughout the history of the United States we’ve been anything but united. We’ve struggled with pluralistic ideals for several centuries and fought small and large wars to make our way through the messes humans make. Now, through the power of technology, pluralism must be seen through a global lens and the provincial troubles of national pluralism have reached global proportions. As Edwards suggests, “As global connectivity increases, religious belief continues to wield tremendous influence.”

“Religious voices and images flood public media; political leaders seek religious audiences and institutions; and religious leaders enjoy growing political influence around the world. Many religious beliefs and communities are easily adaptable to European or American-style secular politics, but others are not. As scholars, students, and citizens, we have a responsibility to take serious account of fundamentalisms and fundamentalist arguments as we collectively determine what the limits, exclusions, and fundamentals of our collective politics can and should be.”

Sometimes the idea of God (big “G”) seems comforting and sometimes absolutely nutty —but there are big things none of us know whether we believe we do or not. However, one thing I’m pretty sure of is summed up in a poem I wrote soon after the Charlie Hebdo murders. It’s called:

Fundamental Misunderstanding

everything ever written or said
everything drawn or played or sung
every headline that cried or bled
every fresco, every poem
everything wrung from our cranial sponge
every inky insult flung
every instrument ever made
every expletive blasted from lungs
every face on a canvas hung
every righteous canto prayed
…. that pounded the planks of heaven’s floor
every school Kalashnikov-sprayed
every smartass quote with bite
every thought of rich or poor
every Icarus grasping at height
…. whose waxy wings soon came apart
every joke and laugh and snort
every misbegotten poison dart
every sentiment or thing
…. that burst from brain’s well-tensioned spring
every sura, gospel or verse
every prayer that followed a hearse
every love, lost or won
every song and every hum

every murmuring merciful must
that reached the sky or bit the dust
are not of a glad or angry God
but of life that thrusts,
from inner to outer,
the stuff of us

by Jim Culleny