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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Goodness and Courage

I was up at 5 a.m. this morning, and heard on the BBC that Saddam Hussein had been hanged not long before. I found myself initially exultant, but then I began to think about whether it matters. This is because the thought entered my mind that people like Hussein are simply extensions of the ignorant, murderous tribal impulses that seem to have plagued man from the beginning.

I began to wonder whether we lie to ourselves when we make a big show of putting someone like Hussein on trial, as if he is an aberration. We want to believe that he is exceptionally cruel by dint of personal qualities, as opposed to exceptionally successful at exercising a widespread instinct for cruelty. How many men raised in the brutal tribal mentality that governs much of the world would not do the things Hussein did, given the opportunity?

The BBC reporter called him "President" Hussein. I love when people refer to some dictator as a president, or leader, as if there had been debates and discussion, followed by a free choice among competing candidates. It's even more precious when the same euphemism-spouters imply that George Bush, Jr., ought to have an asterisk by his title.

But then maybe an election isn't that important. I always felt a special connection to President Ford, because when I was eight years-old my grandmother took me to the little Winston-Salem airport, and we stood in a long line to greet him, and when he passed by she told me to stick out my hand so I did, and he wrapped his gigantic hand around mine and shook it. Here was someone who ascended to power without being elected president or vice-president, and yet he behaved with relative honor.

I like that he pardoned Nixon, even though I'm not a fan of much Nixon did beyond skewering Alger Hiss, which probably shouldn't count because he did it as a congressman. I like that Ford pardoned Nixon, because he did it knowing people would howl. He knew it would damage any hope he might have of being elected president, and yet he did it anyway, because he believed it was right. I don't think that exists much any more, the doing of something unpopular simply because it is right.

Doing the unpopular is certainly rare in public life -- can you imagine Joe Biden or John Kerry or Trent Lott so much as tossing out the opening pitch at a Little League game without first poll-testing to see which style of pitch is most popular with swing voters? But unpopular action is rare in private life as well, as evidenced by a Saturday afternoon trip to your local mall, where you will witness repeated variations on the theme of parents pleading with their children to behave, or simply ignoring bad behavior, because to confront it might plummet their standing in the kiddie polls. Most of us are guilty, it seems, of giving bread and circuses to our constituents at least once in a while.

This is why the two elected officials I admire most right now are Joe Lieberman and George Bush, even though I probably disagree with much if not most of the policies they seek to advance. I admire them because, at least some of the time, they try to do what they believe is right, regardless of what people think. Though he's no longer in office, I admire former congressman and 9/11 Commission member Tim Roemer for the same reasons. He has goodness in him. He has the courage to pursue what he believes is good.

One might argue that Hussein, too, pursued a worldview -- however twisted -- because he believed it was right. The difference turns on the fact that he was in fact evil, and his worldview was evil. Shove aside all the sophistry and nonsense that attaches itself to nihilistic post-modern political theorizing, and you cannot escape the fact (if you have a brain in your head) that the political goals of some people are profoundly, undeniably evil. The raw brutality with which Hussein pursued his political goals reminds us that the concept of evil can't be banned from the public arena without denuding our discourse. No matter how much the chattering classes mocked the notion of an Evil Empire, or an Axis of Evil, both observations were true, and there is something deeply admirable about people who are willing to say such true things.

Courage and goodness. When I think about the content of those terms, the future appears hopeless indeed, because courage and goodness in our public sphere seem to be rare and dissipating qualities. We have only ourselves to blame, of course, because we wallow in ignorance and we worship the ignorant, and because we are loathe to suffer discomfort, all of which means that we find ourselves repeatedly empowering and rewarding immoral, gutless panderers.

Later this morning on NPR I heard an interview with a man who studies rats. The journalist asked him what he's learned from his study of rats. He responded that rats, like people, are creatures of the earth. He said that rats mostly want the same things that people want. Rats don't like people any more than people like rats. And so on. It reminded me of James Clavell's King Rat, about inmates of a WWII prisoner of war camp.

I wasn't sure if the rat scientist's point was to elevate the rat or reduce humanity. Certainly rats don't worry over raising their children to be moral creatures, or leap onto grenades to save their fellows, but neither do they torture their enemies. Rats are capable neither of goodness nor evil. Man is capable of both, but he seems to revel in the latter. He redefines it, builds a religion or a moral code to support it, and then he revels in it. And he abhors, with especial hatred, the good or courageous person who says: "what you do is evil."

Yet there persist those few with courage and goodness. Sometimes I fear that there are fewer of them than we think, and more latent Husseins and Goebbels and Pol Pots than we care to believe. The heart of man is a terrible dark thing, a fact to which I can attest after careful study of my own. I draw hope from what Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning:

"Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips."

They say Hussein muttered a prayer before his neck was snapped. I suspect he is surprised to find himself in Hell. I suppose most of its recent inhabitants are, because we have lost the courage, as Unabomber victim David Gelernter noted, "to call evil by its right name." And yet it endures, and we endure it, and occasionally we put someone on trial, as much to tell ourselves that evil is not in us as to exact justice. Yet as Solzhenitsyn observed, the line between good and evil "divides the heart of every man."

The encouraging thing about that idea is its suggestion that the kernels of goodness and courage reside within each of us. Though we have a nasty habit of choosing evil and cowardice, we don't have to. We don't have to do wickedness -- the grave or the petty -- any more than we have to do good. It doesn't have to be this way, in other words.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can't change the world, and for every Hussein we hang there will be another thug, and another after him. We can't fix the world by ourselves, but we can change the terrain of our hearts. So I'll make a deal with you. In 2007, and all the years I have left, I'll try to live with more goodness and courage, and you do the same. Because it doesn't have to be this way, you see. It can be better. We can be better.

I pray for you a peaceful end to this year, and a new year with a little more courage, and a little more goodness.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Mary's Son

This Christmas season I've been thinking about Mary as much as Jesus. I know this is unusual for a Protestant, especially a Protestant inclined to theological ruminations. We like to snicker as the Catholics do acrobatics around passages referring to Mary's other children, or slowly shake our heads when they treat her as a mediator between God and man. In our haste to dethrone her we neglect to consider how changed must be a life that carries God within it for nine months. Man who is transformed by a whisper from his Creator should not be so quick to dismiss she who knew not simply God with us -- Immanuel -- but God in me.

I don't think this gave her supernatural power, either during or after her death. She was indeed Mary full of grace, but she remained Mary the farm girl, the gentle creature on whom Christ last looked before gasping to his friend to take care of poor mother, cast down and broken as she was on Golgotha.

I think of how scared she must have been, even after the angel's visit, as her clothes stopped fitting and the whispers began. We forget how easily the grind of day after day in the muck of earth can wear away any remembrance of those rare holy times, so that even the most grace-filled of us finds himself muttering what first brought down mankind: "did God really say?"

And then she and her husband, poor Joseph who stuck by her only because he too had been visited by a figure in glowing white, set off across strange countryside, without their families, it seems, carrying the God-child though only children themselves. Did they share their stories of angels, or did they travel in grim silence, each keeping buried within the secret that would have unlocked joy in the heart of the other, as so often we do?

So the baby was born. The poor virgin descendant of kings and slaves strained and cried and pushed out divinity to join the rest of us in this earthly muck -- and surely this must be a theme of the story as much as kingship, because it strikes right at the tongue of every priest and preacher who would separate us again from God. Remember the muck of the stable, because it refutes the lie that our Savior was born because the salvation of the elect somehow pleased him in the cold and distant way of an alien god. He wallowed with us in the muck because he loves us as fiercely and desperately as Mary loved her baby.

They lived for a time in Bethlehem, where they were known by their neighbors as that nice young couple with the healthy baby boy who liked to crawl away from Mama, prone to wander even then, no doubt. Joseph worked with wood and Mary kept up their hovel and Jesus saw the world of his Father from inside a baby's skin, and marveled at it as he must have marveled when first it was made.

One day strange and regal men appeared at their gate, men who would in no other circumstances stoop to speak to such as Mary and Joseph and their grubby little crawling baby. But these strange and regal men dropped down to their faces in front of that smiling child. Perhaps he sat transfixed at the spectacle, as were his parents and their neighbors, or perhaps he caught hold of the nearest wise man's hair and gave it a tug.

I wonder if Mary screamed when they brought out their gifts for the child King. First there was the gold, more money than she and Joseph had ever seen. How changed would their lives have been had this alone been the gift. But then there was the strange offering of frankincense, as if she and her husband lived in a temple. And finally there was the gift that reminded Joseph of the angel's words, perhaps neglected in all this talk of a new King: "He will save His people from their sins." If Mary did not gasp at the gold, or chuckle at the frankincense, she may well have screamed at the embalming ointment, the tool of undertakers.

We think of these as the first Christmas presents, as simply three more of the strange names and habits of that time and place. Yet were Jesus born today, it would be as if the Pope, the President, and a handful of Nobel laureates rolled to a stop in their limousine outside a welfare tenement, searching for the chubby baby in 3B. And finding him, they would do something very unstately and unscholarly; they would grovel and weep at his sight. Finally, to the amazement and horror of his parents, they would lay before him the draft book to a fat Swiss bank account, an ornately carved altar, and a coffin.

I wonder, when Mary saw that coffin, did it pass through her mind that God had arranged for her baby to be born in the place where sacrificial sheep are raised? In the book of Luke we read that she kept the words of the awe-struck shepherds in her heart on the night of the baby's birth, and pondered them. Did it strike her as odd, even before seeing the coffin, that men whose job was to raise lambs for the slaughter would come to see the newborn child, as if appraising a new addition to their sacrificial flock?

So there lay the jar of embalming ointment, and lingering in the air was the sorrowful look of the man called by God to bring it, even as he and the others turned to leave by a different route, that Herod might not find the Christ child before an angel could shepherd this tiny family to Egypt.

And to Egypt they fled, but surely not so far that word of the slaughter of innocents couldn't reach them. As they wept and prayed the night they heard, Mary must have thought again of that jar of myrrh, tucked into their little sack of possessions, wrapped even more tightly and secretly than the gold, as if to banish it from her knowledge. Now it would be never far from her mind, afflicted as she was with the knowledge that the world sought to murder her child.

Perhaps then Mary, alone among all the others on Golgotha except for her gasping boy, was not surprised. Perhaps she had carried it all these years, seeing it draw closer as her son grew distant, called up into the whirlwind of his mission, this knowledge that she would bury her firstborn child. Maybe she even spied this day from thirty-odd years out, when it was just she and Joseph and a muck-covered newborn mewling in a stable, and the faintest sound of what seemed to be a choir in the clouds.

So I've been thinking about Mary, and how invested with holiness was everything around her, even the blood and muck itself. And I think about how we have divested everything of holiness, even this season, and lent ear to the question: "Did God really say?" I recall that though he was the Lamb, it is we who are the sheep, all of us gone astray, and him given over as a sheep to the hungry shearers, that we might gather at Christmas and sing, "O Holy Night" and "Immanuel," and that some of us, if only for a fleeting moment, might actually believe the words, every single one of them as precious as the gold of the Magi, and as solid as the wood in that empty coffin, that coffin sized for you and for me.

When I think of poor Mary holding that jar of myrrh, watching the wise men leave in a cloud of dust, it becomes more real for me, the birth and murder and resurrection of her child. So I think on Mary, and on that baby born in the muck of a stable, in the hometown of a king and the gathering place of sacrificial lambs. And when I hear that whisper, as we all do at times ("Did God really say?"), I think to myself, yes, he did. He said it so loudly that we think it a myth, and so quietly that we cannot hear it behind our chatter, but there it is nonetheless, like the star in the silent night, drawing the lowest of the low as well as kings and wise men, to Mary's baby.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)