On History and its Symbols

History is a long and tortured story of hatred, violence, racism, starvation, and misery. There are no exceptions. There are few good guys. Gandhi molested young girls. Thomas Jefferson slept with [probably raped] his slaves. Martin Luther was an anti-semite. There might have been three celibate popes in 2,000 years of church history. Name a hero, and I’ll show you a flawed person. Show me a “great nation,” and I’ll show you a group of hateful bigots.

“A celebrated people lose dignity upon closer inspection.” -Napoleon

That’s because we are all hateful, bigoted people inside. We have inherited our bigotry from thousands and thousands of years. If there is anything that truly approximates “original sin,” it is this: the lack of compassion we have for other people.

Open-minded progressive types are bigoted against people of conservative religious views. They often seethe in their anger and frustration with the ignorant. The Russians hate the gays. The Polish hate the Russians. The Muslims hate the Americans–and the Americans hate them back. The Greeks hate the Germans, the Germans hate themselves, and everybody hates the French.

The world is full of hate. Every human symbol has been used as a symbol of hatred for somebody, somewhere, sometime. Every one of them. From the Cross to every national flag. Because people do heinous things in the name of symbols. They want salvation at other people’s expense. They think that if there is a heaven, there must be a hell, and it’s their job to send somebody to it–just to keep the universe balanced. Whether that hell is here on earth or somewhere after death is an irrelevant detail. Some want their enemies to live in both. Some express their hell-lust with insidious language of “love.”

In the Genesis narrative, the story that is told after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden is of Cain killing his brother out of envy–a grand metaphor for understanding our native impulse to react with violence against our fellow human–against our brothers and sisters for disgustingly trivial reasons.

I think envy is deeply misunderstood. It is simplistically conceived of wanting something somebody else has, but I think envy is more complex. I think envy also includes a desire to see somebody else involuntarily deprived of something they have–it may not even be a thing desired by the envious.

Historically lots of gods were involved in such envy. Some people had a god, other people wanted to take that god away. “No, no, ours is better.” Such attitudes are derived from a form of envy. People envy others’ freedom. They say “you can’t be free to be left alone to do something I won’t do because it makes me look stupid or wrong or I actually want to do it and am angry that I have imposed on myself arbitrary restrictions. So now you have to convert to my way of thinking–OR ELSE!”

Now we like to mix it up a bit. You don’t want to adopt my political views? To hell with you! [Literally]. We don’t like which piece of cloth you fly over your government buildings–you must die! You don’t eat vegan–eternal suffering to you! Your people have old symbols and remnants of something we despise–we destroy them! We have a dark spot in our history that you keep reminding us of–sanctions against you!

The thing is that the way I’ve written the foregoing paragraph, I could be writing about ISIS destroying the Palmyra shrines, the Confederate Flag controversy, the Armenian Genocide, or a whole host of other recent news headlines. Today, if you go to Washington D.C.’s Dulles International Airport, you can see the Enola Gay on display–a symbol of the worst single instance mass murder in all of human history.

If all of our symbols are so full of hatred and violent past, what do we do–destroy them all?

This has been the view of every radical project of Modernity–from the French Revolution to Fascism to Communism to ISIS. Destroy every reminder of the past. Replace everything with new language and new symbols. [It is ironic to see American Christians today bemoaning ISIS’s destruction of the Palmyra shrines, which were built to none other than the Old Testament idol Ba’al.]

This doesn’t seem to be a positive way forward. The cultural heritage of the past–regardless of what it represents–should be preserved in some way as a reminder of where we have come from, and why we don’t want to go back. There was no golden age in the past where people were virtuous and life was idyllic. None.

The Coliseum represents slavery too, and a brutality anathema to modern sensibilities, yet [I hope] nobody is calling for it to be torn down as an offensive symbol.

Here we arrive at our problem. Should we display the Enola Gay, but not the Confederate Flag? Should we tear down the Palmyra shrines and the Coliseum?

There appear to be no clear or easy answers.

If it were up to me, the Confederate Flag would come down, and the Enola Gay would be displayed with photos and stories of the evil perpetrated by the American government against thousands upon thousands of Japanese civilians. The Coliseum and the shrines, and the Buddhas in Afghanistan would all be preserved because we have so few old things left in this world, evidence and reminder that we humans have been doing things for a little while–a very short while admittedly–that we have been coping with this thing called existence in different ways, and we still haven’t figured it out.

Maybe I’m wrong though. Maybe I’ve arbitrarily drawn the line in the wrong place. That’s the thing–it’s not simple to draw the line. There’s no right place to draw it. So wherever we draw it, we have to do so with humility and respect–especially respect for people we vehemently disagree with. Respect for precisely those people who in our genuinely honest moments we would say “the world would be better off without them.” Because we have to inhabit this planet with each other, and we aren’t doing a terribly good job of it.

But what we shouldn’t do is look at any of these past symbols of violence and bigotry and say “look how far we’ve come.”

We haven’t really. We are still so hateful to each other. So bigoted. So cruel.

I literally weep almost every day, scrolling through my Facebook feed because of this cruelty. From ISIS drowning people in cages to Baptist preachers lustfully envisioning the lake of fire for gay people to Donald Trump spewing filth about Latin American immigrants to the way people interact with one another in the comments to all of these things. I weep at the fact that I myself spent so much of my life with these same cruel intentions and feelings toward so many of my fellow humans. I weep at the fact that all too often I react with unthinking cruelty to perceived offenses.

There is a difference of scale between these things, but essentially they are the same, with the same roots, and can lead only to the same outcome–poisoning ourselves and each other.

“A man is not called wise because he talks and talks again; but if he is peaceful, loving and fearless then he is in truth called wise.” –Gautama Buddha

“A great nation is like a great man: When he makes a mistake, he realizes it. Having realized it, he admits it. Having admitted it, he corrects it. He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers. He thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.” –Lao Tzu

“O Almighty! May there be Peace! Peace! Everywhere!” –Ishawashya Upanishad

“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged.” –Rumi

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” –Jesus of Nazareth

My final thought is this: whatever we do with our symbols of hate from the past, let us strive to cease creating new ones in the present.

You Can’t Love Ironically

There was an article in the NYT Opinionator blog that I read today entitled How to Live Without IronyI posted it to Facebook with an endorsement and one of my friends suggested that he would rather hear what I had to say on the subject. So this is a formulation of my own rejection of the ironic culture of Hipsterdom, which whether we like to admit it or not, has subsumed the rest of our culture.

The article talks about irony as being a self-defense mechanism and a manifestation of risk aversion. This is quite true, and it is for these reasons that we find the truly cancerous nature of it: it precludes the possibility of love.

Love cannot be defensive. Love cannot be averse to risk. Love cannot be ironic, because love requires authenticity. Love requires suffering, because love is oriented toward growth, and there can be no growth without suffering.

We are uncomfortable loving and expressing love, for many reasons. We fear it may not be reciprocated. We fear it makes us weaker. We fear its loss. And so, we armor ourselves against these outcomes, but in doing so, we armor ourselves against love itself.

Love is woundedness. Love cannot be disinterested. Love requires the focused and fused engagement of both intellect and compassion.

The ironic culture says “You can’t hurt me because I don’t care.” It says “Nothing human, so I don’t have to put out an effort.” It says “What matters are impersonal Others, the faceless corporations and governments I criticize, the impersonal ‘planet’ I say needs to be saved, the ‘peoples’ of different cultures I say are being oppressed.” These are as far removed from love as you can get.

There can be no love within the sterile confines of irony.

We say “Love you” instead of “I Love You”

We say “Thanks” instead of “Thank You”

We say “Appreciate it!” instead of “I appreciate You”

This is not mere short hand or convenience, it is the outworking of our fear to express genuinely, to bind ourselves, to commit ourselves. Indeed, the Ironic is the ultimate abdication of commitment, and we undoubtedly live in the least committed society the world has ever seen, with loose ties and fleeting interest dominating our human relationships, our careers, and even our perception of our own Identity.

Thinking does not precede Behavior, and Behavior does not precede Thinking. They are mutually reinforcing. If we behave a certain way over time, we will eventually think that way. If we think a certain way over time, we will eventually behave that way. I fear that we are losing the capacity to feel, to mourn, to yearn authentically enough to carry out the difficult business of love.

We cannot love humanity, only humans. And we can only love humans by extending ourselves for the benefit of their growth. It’s simply something that cannot be done ironically.

Triviality Awareness

There are striking similarities between the core messages of Socrates, the Hebrew Prophets, and the prophetic message of both John the Baptizer and Jesus. The core message of all these spiritual men was essentially this: we are in grave error, we care about trivial things instead of the things that matter, and in doing so we are in ignorance and in the Judeo-Christian context, we are in sin.

Socrates went around Athens interacting with people he encountered in the streets, talking to the Athenian decision makers on their way to council, and challenging them on their basic assumptions about life. Jesus and the Hebrew Prophets essentially did the same thing. As with all prophets, they were all ignored by the vast majority of the people they encountered.

The awareness of our trivial endeavours (I resisted the temptation to say ‘our trivial pursuits…’), our own vanity and egotistical motivations, is the awareness of our sin, our fallen nature, our separation from the kingdom of God. Kierkegaard referred to sin as the “sickness unto death.” When we become aware of this, we are suddenly appalled at the meaninglessness of our previous way of living, our prior occupations and preoccupations. We are almost punished at every turn by the banal conversations and concerns of the majority of people we encounter, and yet it is from the bleakness of our death-bed that we can peer into the kingdom of God and see that it is within reach.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus frequently used the phrase “the kingdom of God is at-hand.” I find the use of this peculiar English idiom in the King James translation to be quite interesting. I was discussing this subject last night with one of my closest friends and asked what the translation was in Spanish, which he said is “el reino de Dios esta cerca.” Or, the kingdom of God is near/close. The essence, which is communicated in both translations, is that the kingdom of God is within reach. The continue usage of the phrase in the Gospels indicates that the kingdom of God is not far off in the starry universe, but is rather in parallel to us here on earth, and within our grasp. But if we are preoccupied with trivial things, we will never find it. Tolstoy wrote a famous account of this line of thinking in his non-fiction work “The Kingdom of God is Within You.”

Whether one is a Christian or an agnostic/atheist, or an adherent to some other religion, there is little doubt that we are all enriched by first becoming aware of the extent of our concern for the trivial and the questions of grave importance we overlook because of our trivial concerns. It is a painful process, but a cleansing one. We must extricate ourselves in most cases from the social circumstances to which we, by default, have dedicated our time and efforts. We reckon with the painful reality that most of our human relationships are predicated on such triviality and are injurious to our own humanity (and, if I am permitted to say, divinity).

What then, should we pursue that is opposed to triviality? St Paul, in his letter to the Philippian Church, gives us a pretty good starting point:

“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man on the things of others.”