Thursday, December 27, 2012

A curious juxtaposition

I haven't written anything here in a while. The reason is that I've been struggling to get through the holiday season, which holds so many memories of traumatic events from last year, and I just haven't had the energy. Today I reached a kind of closure with the first anniversary of Barbara's funeral, and I've decided to take a few moments to pause and write a final blog post for this year.

What I want to write about is the deeply ironic juxtaposition we've all just witnessed of two completely opposite world views. From a Christian perspective, I would simply describe them as heaven and hell. Yes, I do believe in hell, and I do believe that a powerful spiritual struggle is going on around us in which we all have a stake so important that we can't afford not to recognize it.

Let me take a few minutes to review the nature of that struggle. In doing so, I am going to use terms that are widely used by religious writers but that I'm convinced few people really understand, since we put so much unnecessary emphasis on their literal truth that we forget to ask about what they mean. In Karen Armstrong's terms, we privilege the logos or kerygma over the mythos or dogma of religious discourse, to the extent that both "myth" and "dogma" have become terms of derision.

Take the virgin birth. It is very clear to me what it means. Something happened two thousand years ago that impregnated the world with divinity, raising the entire human race to a new, previously inconceivable level. Such a thing cannot happen naturally. Its very reality defines it as something that occurs, as a medieval hymn writer put it, "praeter rerum seriem:" outside the natural order of things. What happened is often described as the birth of a baby under precarious circumstances: the father barely sparing the mother a life of disgrace; the birth taking place among lowly animals because the inn had no room; the king jealously striking out against all newborn boys, with the miraculous baby surviving only by another miracle. All the powers of this world—the social, the political, the military—were arrayed against this fragile birth, and yet it survived and flourished. Such things can only happen against all reason, and can only be recalled by extraordinary faith.

That miraculous baby, we are told, grew up to be an adult who turned his back on the powers of this world. He did so by completely rejecting the terms of imperial control by which his world was organized and making it clear that there was another way to live. That way involved rejecting coercion or violence of any kind. It is this complete refusal to play by the established rules that led to the events of Good Friday that we will acknowledge in the coming months.

But I am getting ahead of myself. What I want to stress is the utter contrast of what I have just described with the story that dominated the news in the week before Christmas. In that story, we seemed to be learning that our world is controlled by random violence. Then, just four days before Christmas, we were told by a leader of a prominent national organization that there is a way to respond to that violence and assert ourselves in its wake: the way of violent resistance. We must solve the tragedy of violence in our schools by putting more guns there and arming more and more people, so that we can live in this transient life with the illusion of control, no matter the spiritual and moral cost.

Or, to put it in religious language, Wayne LaPierre, the Vice President of the National Rifle Association, laid out for us all to see exactly what it would be like to live in hell. He seemed to actually relish the opportunity to describe a world in which our own delusions of grandeur have exploded to such horrid proportions that every classroom is dominated constantly by the prospect of armed violence, which can be deterred only by the fear of further violence used against it. It is easy to imagine this nightmare vision expanding and engulfing our entire world, to the point that the prospect of random violence anywhere is matched by the much more terrifying prospect of planned, retaliative violence in every corner of our lives. America, in Wayne LaPierre's vision, would be transformed into a real, living hell in which all of us would be imprisoned any time we venture out of our front doors.

So let me repeat that this Christmas season has laid out two completely, radically opposing visions of how the world can operate, and has placed them next to each other so that the contrast can be clearly understood. They are, quite simply, the hell of endless retaliative violence on the one hand and the hope of miraculous, heaven-sent transformation on the other. I am writing this because I want my readers to understand that we have a choice which way we are going to go. As I venture into the new year I will do my best to speak for the side of the angels.

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