The Lily Feels No Thirst, No Dread

 Tuesday

I write today about a personal problem. Our lake has been increasingly invaded by watershield and our neighborhood association isn’t sure what to do about it. It took out our water intake system so that we had to switch over to city water, and it makes swimming and boating difficult. If left to its own devices, it will turn parts of our beautiful Lake Eva into a marsh.

We tried stocking the lake with sterile carp but saw little evidence that they found the stuff tasty. Now that we no longer get our drinking water from the lake, I suppose we can try something chemical, but that idea excites no one. To add insult to injury, watershield (see picture below) lacks the glamor of water lilies. Please send along suggestions.

In the meantime, here’s a Helen Hunt Jackson poem from her Calendar of Sonnets that finds water lilies to be the one consolation for the killing heat of July (see picture above). All other plant life may wither in the heat, but “white lilies float and regally abide.” Unharmed by the blistering sun, the water lily “lifts her queenly face and head;/ She drinks of living waters and keeps fair.”

It sounds like a good guide for growing old.

Some flowers are withered and some joys have died; 
The garden reeks with an East Indian scent 
From beds where gillyflowers stand weak and spent; 
The white heat pales the skies from side to side; 
But in still lakes and rivers, cool, content, 
Like starry blooms on a new firmament, 
White lilies float and regally abide. 
In vain the cruel skies their hot rays shed; 
The lily does not feel their brazen glare. 
In vain the pallid clouds refuse to share 
Their dews, the lily feels no thirst, no dread. 
Unharmed she lifts her queenly face and head; 
She drinks of living waters and keeps fair. 
watershield
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Rapinoe Rises to the Occasion

Rapinoe after scoring championship-winning goal

Monday

For many Americans, the women’s World Cup victory was a refreshing break from our Trumpian nightmare. The win itself is wonderful enough, but in the context of our misogynist president it takes on special meaning.

For instance, the back-to-back titles can in part be chalked up to Title IX, the anti-gender discrimination law that emerged from the 1970s feminist movement and that led to an explosion in women’s sports. I also liked that the team was agitating to be paid comparably to the men’s team and had the finals crowd chanting, “Equal pay!”

And then there’s the fact that Trump began sparring with American star Megan Rapinoe after she said she would not be visiting the anti-LBGTQ White House if they won. In response to Trump’s subsequent attack, teammate Wendy Krieger tweeted, “I know women who you cannot control or grope anger you, but I stand by (Rapinoe) & will sit this one out as well.” As someone observed, Rapinoe served up a great ball and Krieger headed it home. 

America’s tournament began with a victory over Thailand so dominant (13-0) that at one point I thought of how Sam Spade humiliates Gutman’s bodyguard in The Maltese Falcon. After disarming the man, Spade delivers him to his boss:

Gutman opened the door. A glad smile lighted his fat face. He held out a hand and said: “Ah, come in, sir! Thank you for coming. Come in.”

Spade shook the hand and entered. The boy went in behind him. The fat man shut the door. Spade took the boy’s pistols from his pockets and held them out to Gutman. “Here. You shouldn’t let him run around with these. He’ll get himself hurt.”

The fat man laughed merrily and took the pistols. “Well, well,” he said, “what’s this?” He looked from Spade to the boy.

Spade said: “A crippled newsie took them away from him, but I made him give them back.”

Thailand was America’s only opponent that seemed entirely outclassed, however, and a string of competitive games followed, especially against Sweden, Spain, France, and England. In the finals, however, the United States were back to being their dominant self. Only a sterling performance by the Dutch goalkeeper kept the score from being more lopsided than it was.

As the U.S. sent shot after shot on goal, the poetic line that came to me was from Byron: “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,/ And his cohort was gleaming in purple and gold.” Only in this case, the colors were red, white and blue.

Or pink. The image we will probably carry away from this World Cup is the pink-haired Rapinoe striking her classic pose following her cold-blooded penalty kick. Trump told her to win the championship before she talked about visiting the White House so, as if in response, Rapinoe (1) kicked the championship-winning goal, (2) won the Golden Boot for most goals, and (3) won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s most valuable player.

Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” therefore, may be the poem that fits best. Angelou is writing as a black woman but much of what she says applies to an out and proud lesbian like Rapinoe. And also to a team that came in with swagger and went out on top:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
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The Christian Right’s Faustian Bargain

Goethe’s Faust signs over his soul with his blood

Spiritual Sunday

Like many liberal Christians, I am baffled by Donald Trump’s popularity amongst rightwing evangelicals. How can anyone square the president’s behavior and his policies with Jesus’s teachings? A recent Atlantic article provides a compelling explanation: feeling embattled, the Christian right has traded core Christian principles for power.

In a post written a year ago, I called this a Faustian bargain, applying Goethe’s Faust to the humanitarian crisis at the border as it was then. Things have only gotten worse in the twelve months since.

First, to assure people that not all Christians applaud Trump, my Episcopal church has put together for next year an adult Sunday school program on “Practicing Faith in a World in Need.” (I am on the committee.) Our guiding passage will be Luke 4:16-21:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
 and recovery of sight for the blind,
 to set the oppressed free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

In our program, experts will expound on such topics as sex trafficking, medical outreach to poor communities, prison reform, pollution, family care, dialogue across difference, and the economics of poverty.

Jesus’s call “to set the oppressed free” would include listening seriously to asylum requests and granting them where they are warranted. (Even better would be to work seriously with the troubled countries so that people don’t need to emigrate in the first place.) An important first step is caring for these people as individuals, which was the subject of last year’s Goethe post.

From what I can tell, however, rightwing evangelicals are turning their backs on the children separated from their parents and on those packed into cages and mistreated. The Atlantic article explains that rightwing evangelicals see themselves in an existential battle for their survival and consequently are willing to embrace a man who employs cruelty to deter asylum seekers. The president unintentionally revealed that strategy this past week when he tweeted, “If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!”

Author Peter Wehner points out that rightwing evangelicals feel they are involved in an existential struggle for their survival. Many

are deeply fearful of what a Trump loss would mean for America, American culture, and American Christianity. If a Democrat is elected president, they believe, it might all come crashing down around us.

And:

Many evangelical Christians are also filled with grievances and resentments because they feel they have been mocked, scorned, and dishonored by the elite culture over the years. (Some of those feelings are understandable and warranted.) For them, Trump is a man who will not only push their agenda on issues such as the courts and abortion; he will be ruthless against those they view as threats to all they know and love. For a growing number of evangelicals, Trump’s dehumanizing tactics and cruelty aren’t a bug; they are a feature. Trump “owns the libs,” and they love it. He’ll bring a Glock to a cultural knife fight, and they relish that.

In the course of his article, Wehner interviews one Karel Coppock, a conservative who, while sympathetic to rightwing evangelicals, abhors their Trump embrace. As he sees it, they have allowed their faith “to become politically weaponized”:

Coppock mentioned to me the powerful example of St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, who was willing to rebuke the Roman Emperor Theodosius for the latter’s role in massacring civilians as punishment for the murder of one of his generals. Ambrose refused to allow the Church to become a political prop, despite concerns that doing so might endanger him. Ambrose spoke truth to power. (Theodosius ended up seeking penance, and Ambrose went on to teach, convert, and baptize St. Augustine.) Proximity to power is fine for Christians, Coppock told me, but only so long as it does not corrupt their moral sense, only so long as they don’t allow their faith to become politically weaponized. Yet that is precisely what’s happening today.

Something similar happens to Goethe’s Faust. In his case the villain is an 18th century capitalist rather than a Trumpian xenophobe, but both have contempt for those who help needy strangers. I owe the application to a fine essay by one Kirsten Ellen Johnsen, who writes about Faust’s war on Baucus and Philemon, Greek mythological figures who represent hospitality:

In The Metamorphosis of Ovid, Baucus and Philemon are an elderly couple who live in a homely hut by a stagnant marsh. A beautiful linden tree grows nearby. When the Olympian gods Jupiter and Mercury wander on their journeys “in mortal guise,” they are refused shelter “at a thousand doors.” Finally they are welcomed by a humble old couple. Baucis and Philemon are poor, but invite the strangers in and feed them what they have available. As their wine bowl begins to replenish itself, the old couple realizes their guests are not ordinary. “Begging pardon for food so meager… they got set to kill their only goose.” To prevent this act of self-sacrifice, the gods reveal themselves. In return for their great hospitality, the hut of Baucus and Philemon is transformed into a temple in the middle of the swamp. Jupiter offers them a wish to fulfill, and they simply ask to serve the temple as long as they live, and once their time is up, they simply wish to die together. The story of Baucus and Philemon is a famous tale of the sacred honor of hospitality to strangers and the power of love. They are the original border keepers, welcoming refugees with warm hearts. Their story speaks of the gift of the stranger: the arrival of God at the door. To welcome the stranger is to tend that temple.

Baucus and Philemon, however, stand in the way of Faust’s development plans:

Faust is enraged at Baucus and Philemon’s resistance to his plans to requisition their shoreline. “That aged couple must surrender/I want their linden for my throne/The unowned timber-margin slender/Despoils me for the world I own.” His plans to drain the ocean he considers his “achievement’s fullest sweep” as a “masterpiece of sapient man. Before Faust’s will to conquer, even the bloom of the linden tree annoys him. Listening to Faust’s complaint, Mephistopheles eggs him on, “one has to tire of being just,” he cajoles him, “have you not colonized long since?” Mephistopheles is, of course, well aware of the significance of Faust’s decision to clear Baucis and Philemon from their ancient, mythic home in his closing line of the scene: “There once was Naboth’s vineyard, too.” Mephistopheles is referring to the Old Testament story of murder and betrayal of a man of God for his land by the the vilified Canaanite Priestess-Queen Jezebel. Complying with Faust’s wishes, he and his lackeys visit the old couple and set their hut ablaze.

In my previous post, I noted that a Melania Trump visit triggered Johnsen’s essay. While visiting the detention centers, the first lady wore a jacket inscribed with the words, “I don’t really care. Do U?” Care is Goethe’s major concern in his play. After Faust destroys the hut, the four gray crones of Want, Debt, Need and Care arise from “the vapors of the ashes.”

Faust can fend off the first three but he can’t dismiss Care. Care would mean, say, not deliberately abusing asylum seekers. Faust, unlike the president, acknowledges the power of caring but, like Trump, chooses not to care. Johnsen writes:

Revealing herself, [Care] demands of him, “Am I unknown to you?” Faust refuses her. “All I did was covet and attain/and crave afresh, and thus with might and gain/stormed through my life,” he preens, with the excuse that an able man may seize and “stride upon this planet’s face.” Care has given him one last chance to repent, but he has failed. “Desist! This will not work on me!/ such caterwauling I despise.” Even as he finally rejects her, he admits, “yet your power, o Care, insidiously vast/ I shall not recognize it ever.” Care then curses Faust: “Man is commonly blind throughout his life/ My Faust, be blind then as you end it.” Faust’s own proclamation is his curse: “I really don’t care, do U?”

Johnsen’s conclusion reveals what is at risk for rightwing evangelicals when they accept Trump’s treatment of the immigrants:

It is the act of hospitality that humanizes us. This is where we are leveled. The capacity for compassion, for Care, breaks open one’s heart. To destroy the Sacred Guest — the sacred act of recognizing the heart of another human being — is the ultimate mythic sacrilege, for in this betrayal lies the seed for all crimes against humanity. Care may be the only Gray Crone who might slip unnoticed into the hearts of the rich, but Goethe does not suggest that the rich might save the world through finally discovering compassion, or even worry. He is saying that the moral failure of willful, blind uncaring ultimately portends spiritual downfall.

 In the Atlantic article, president of Fuller Theological Seminary Mark Labberton spells out the implications for American Christianity:

The Church is in one of its deepest moments of crisis—not because of some election result or not, but because of what has been exposed to be the poverty of the American Church in its capacity to be able to see and love and serve and engage in ways in which we simply fail to do. And that vocation is the vocation that must be recovered and must be made real in tangible action.

Labberton’s reproof does not apply to Christians like the Rev. William Barber, who heads the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival. Those who choose resentment over love, however, have condemned themselves to Faust’s loss of soul.

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I Will Write Your Name, Liberté

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People

Friday

With July 4th fireworks still ringing in my ears, I share Paul Eluard’s poem “Liberté,” which was written during World War II. Copies were dropped by the British Air Force into parts of Nazi-occupied Europe with the design of rallying the resistance.

Early on during his rise to power, Hitler ordered books to be burned, including works by Kafka, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Remarque, Hugo, and Gide. It seems fitting that literature fired back.

In 1995, when as citizen of one of the allied nations I read Walt Whitman’s “Oh Captain, My Captain” during Slovenia’s nationally televised V-E Day celebration, a French woman read “Liberté.” It’s a poem that lends itself naturally to such occasions.

It so happens that Eluard admired Whitman, and “Liberté” is a Whitman-style list. For the French poet, liberty refers not only to political liberty but also to liberty from what William Blake called “the mind-forged manacles”—which is to say, the shackles we internalize. As a surrealist, Eluard takes aim at restrictive customs and structures.

Sometimes Eluard writes “liberté” on the school notebooks that indoctrinate him, sometimes on “the crown of the king” that oppresses him, sometimes on “the whiff of daybreak” that promises a new day. “Liberté” gets written both on the lit lamp that shows us the way forward and the unlit lamp that needs to be awakened. It doesn’t matter that the word will sometimes vanish at the very moment he writes it, as it will when it is written upon “the sands of snow,” “the froth of the cloud,” and “the sweat of the storm.” Such poets don’t put a lot of stock in permanence.

By the final stanzas, where the images are of crumbled hiding places, sunken lighthouses, walls, ennui, bloodless abstractions, and the marches of death, he appears to use “liberté” to save himself from despair. “Liberté” will renew his life.

When he writes, “I was born to know you, /To name you,” he is talking about our deep longing to be free, as well as our equally deep longing to give our longing a name. The yearning to be free reaches deep, especially when we live in troubled times.

Liberté

On my school notebooks
On my desk and on the trees
On the sands of snow
I write your name

On the pages I have read
On all the white pages
Stone, blood, paper or ash
I write your name

On the images of gold
On the weapons of the warriors
On the crown of the king
I write your name

On the jungle and the desert
On the nest and on the brier
On the echo of my childhood
I write your name

On all my scarves of blue
On the moist sunlit swamps
On the living lake of moonlight
I write your name 

On the fields, on the horizon
On the birds’ wings
And on the mill of shadows
I write your name

On each whiff of daybreak
On the sea, on the boats
On the demented mountaintop
I write your name

On the froth of the cloud
On the sweat of the storm
On the dense rain and the flat
I write your name

On the flickering figures
On the bells of colors
On the natural truth
I write your name

On the high paths
On the deployed routes
On the crowd-thronged square
I write your name

On the lamp which is lit
On the lamp which isn’t
On my reunited thoughts
I write your name

On a fruit cut in two
Of my mirror and my chamber
On my bed, an empty shell
I write your name

On my dog, greathearted and greedy
On his pricked-up ears
On his blundering paws
I write your name

On the latch of my door
On those familiar objects
On the torrents of a good fire
I write your name

On the harmony of the flesh
On the faces of my friends
On each outstretched hand
I write your name 

On the window of surprises
On a pair of expectant lips
In a state far deeper than silence
I write your name

On my crumbled hiding-places
On my sunken lighthouses
On my walls and my ennui
I write your name

On abstraction without desire
On naked solitude
On the marches of death
I write your name

And for the want of a word
I renew my life
For I was born to know you
To name you

Liberty.
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What Makes a Nation Strong?

Archibald Willard, Spirit of’ 76

Thursday – 4th of July

Despite a D.C. celebration featuring tanks and planes, presided over by a preening president with special seats reserved for rich Republican donors, we know in our hearts that none of these define America. For that, I turn to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who understood our country as well as anyone ever has.

A few years ago, Emerson’s “A Nation’s Strength” would have struck me as self-evident. Now it seems urgent and timely.

What makes a nation's pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?

It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.

Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.

And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.

Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor's sake
Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly...
They build a nation's pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.

Amen.

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Trump’s Satanic Plans for July 4

Both Trump and Milton’s Satan are into pageantry (Gustave Doré)

Wednesday

As Donald Trump will be doing his best tomorrow to transform our nation’s celebration of its founding ideas into a celebration of himself, I turn to another figure who is just as narcissistic. I’ve written in the past how both Satan and Trump are driven above all by spite. Today I focus on how both revel in self-promoting pageantry. The two of them enjoy presiding over the hoards that they can command to parade before them.

Opening Book II, Satan sits on a magnificent throne above his followers, whom he has just brought together for a counsel of war:

High on a throne of royal state, which far 
Outshone the wealth of Ormus [Arabia] and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,
Satan exalted sat…

The gold has been mined in Hell, which has a lot of it.

Soon had his [Satan’s] crew 
Opn’d into the Hill a spacious wound
And digged out ribs of gold. Let none admire
That riches grow in Hell; that soil may best
Deserve the precious bane.

So much for the reviewing stand. Now for Satan’s living quarters. With the precious metals, the fallen angels have built Hell’s version of Trump Tower. Both Trump and Satan like their living quarters gold-plated:

Built like a Temple, where pilasters round
Were set, and Doric pillars overlaid
With golden architrave; nor did there want
Cornice of frieze, with bossy sculptures grav’n
The roof was fretted gold. Nor Babylon
Nor great Al-Cairo such magnificence
Equaled in all their glories, to enshrine
Belus or Serapis their gods, or seat
Their kings, which Egypt with Assyria strove
In wealth and luxury. The ascending pile
Stood fixed her stately height , and straight the doors
Op’ning their brazen folds discover wide
Within her ample spaces, o’er the smooth
And level pavement: from the arched roof
Pendant by subtle magic many a row
Of starry lamps and blazing cressets fed
With  naptha and asphaltus yielded light
As from a sky…

Finally, when he speaks, Satan elicits the kind of response that Trump would like to get from the troops parading before him (will this actually happen?). While Satan’s troops hurl defiance against God, Trump would like the assembled ranks to rage against Democrats:

He spake: and to confirm his words, outflew 
Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
Of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze
Far round illumined hell: highly they raged
Against the Highest, and fierce with grasped arms
Clashed on their sounding shields the din of war,
Hurling defiance toward the vault of Heaven…

This is the July 4th of Trump’s imagination. Milton is not impressed but knows well how such displays can dazzle the masses.

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The Children’s Hour

Eastman Johnson, Christmas Time

Monday

I am retooling a post that I wrote five years ago to apply to yesterday’s visit to my four grandchildren. As the three oldest, Esmé (7), Etta (5), and Eden (3), swarmed over me on their playroom floor, I recalled Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour.” It too features an elder man being swarmed by three girls.

The 1863 poem was one that, for decades, children were required to memorize. I encountered it first when my father read it to me as a child and later when I saw Don Martin’s Mad Magazine spoof of it. Martin, of course, took shots at its sentimentality.

But Mad wasn’t the first publication to question “The Children’s Hour.” Lillian Hellman in 1934 played off against the poem by using its title for her own play about a disaffected girl in a boarding school. In order to avoid being sent back to the school, she accuses two of her teachers of having a lesbian love affair, thereby destroying their lives. In other words, so much for the innocence of little girls.

Oversentimentalizing children doesn’t do justice to their full personhood. When one has rigid expectations of innocence, one doesn’t give children room to breathe. When we expect them to be angels, we have trouble handling those times when they are devils.

I therefore feel somewhat suffocated when the narrator of Longfellow’s poem talks of trapping his three daughters, even though the trap is “the round tower of my heart.” That image, it’s worth noting, follows up a genuinely disturbing image of Bishop Hatto being eaten alive by the mice that invaded the tower where he was hoarding grain from the starving peasants. I wonder if some part of Longfellow doesn’t feel nervous about how vulnerable children make him feel.

But that being said, I felt no cynical distance when I was wrestling with my three granddaughters. Instead, “The Children’s Hour” affected me as Longfellow no doubt intended. I was totally sentimental. Here’s the poem:

The Children’s Hour

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Between the dark and the
daylight,
     When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
     That is known as the Children’s Hour.
 
I hear in the chamber above me
     The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
     And voices soft and sweet.
 
From my study I see in the lamplight,
     Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
     And Edith with golden hair.
 
A whisper, and then a silence:
     Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
    To take me by surprise.
 
A sudden rush from the stairway,
     A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
     They enter my castle wall!
 
They climb up into my turret
    O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
     They seem to be everywhere.
 
They almost devour me with kisses,
     Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
     In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!
 
Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
     Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
     Is not a match for you all!
 
I have you fast in my fortress,
     And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
     In the round-tower of my heart.
 
And there will I keep you forever,
     Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
     And molder in dust away!
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Why We Fear the Outsider

Robert Duvall as Boo Radley

Spiritual Sunday

My friend Sue Schmidt recently alerted me to a homily, by associate rector the Rev. David Henson at Trinity Episcopal Church in Asheville, North Carolina, that highlights a curious moment following one of Jesus’s exorcisms. Rev. Henson draws on To Kill a Mockingbird, Home Alone, and unspecified Harry Potter characters to explain the public’s negative response to the miracle.

Last week’s gospel reading involves a man possessed by devils who identify themselves as “Legion.” He frees them from “the abyss,” giving them permission to enter a herd of swine instead. Perhaps even crazier, however, is the public’s subsequent reaction:

Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Unwilling to reveal any Harry Potter spoilers, Rev. Henson doesn’t tell us who he has in mind, but (since this blog is filled with spoilers) I’m guessing Severus Snape is the main character he has in mind. In any event, the homily accentuates how we fear, not the Other, but ourselves.

By Rev. David Henson, Trinity Episcopal Church, Asheville NC

If you have known me for any length of time, you likely know that I am a little obsessed with Harry Potter. It’s not just me, though. My whole family is obsessed. Back in January, we finally made that holy pilgrimage to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, and let’s just say, we were all in Hogwarts heaven.

But it’s not just the fantasy and magic that draws me into the seven-book series by author J.K. Rowling. It is also the novels’ consistent ability to subvert my expectations about who is a hero and who is a villain. In most of the books, the villain is rarely the most menacing character. Not infrequently, a supposed enemy saves the series’ main characters. Or a character assumed to be black-hearted exposes the actual evil that was at work in the story all along, but behind the scenes, unnoticed.

Unfortunately, my children have banned me from revealing who these characters are in Harry Potter, because, you know, spoilers. Thankfully, though, this remarkably effective theme of characters who, while they initially frighten and unsettle us, are in actuality friends and allies can be found in some of our greatest stories: like Boo Radley, the reclusive boogeyman in To Kill a Mockingbird or Old Man Marley, the feared, enigmatic neighbor in that classic film Home Alone. And like the Gerasene demoniac in today’s gospel story.

Like Boo Radley, Old Man Marley, and those characters who shall not be named in Harry Potter, when we first encounter this demon-possessed man, he is truly frightening, unstable, and malevolent. He’s been driven out of town and confined to the borders, living among the tombs in a graveyard. He walks around naked and dirty. The town has attempted to lock him up, to shackle him in chains, to keep watch over him with armed guards, yet he had broken free and overpowered them each and every time. Even the name of his demons is chilling. “I am Legion, for we are many,” he says, a name taken directly from the Roman Army. It calls to mind not only how many demons are inside him but also just how militantly violent they can be.

Up to this point, we have the makings of a classic ghost story, the kind of scary tale you might share around a campfire, of a wild, demonic man living in a spooky graveyard and haunting the good, innocent townsfolk nearby. But I’m convinced, as with Boo Radley, there’s more to this demon-possessed man and more to this story than initially meets the eye.

That’s because the fear in this story is completely out of place. Did you notice? The townspeople are terrified only when they see the Gerasene demoniac has been healed and restored and is sitting next to Jesus calmly and quietly, clothed and in his right mind. They are so scared, they want Jesus to leave immediately.

It seems an odd reaction. Wouldn’t you think the townspeople would be overjoyed, or at least relieved, that this terrifying demon-possessed man will no longer haunt the borders of their community, will no longer skulk naked among the tombs of their loved ones, will no longer be that strong terror who can break through the chains they shackle him with? For me, that misplaced fear is the first clue that maybe this demoniac isn’t the only one in the Gerasene region possessed by something scary.

Maybe Jesus suspects as much. Perhaps he knows that a society’s most obvious sicknesses are almost always symptoms of an even deeper illness, an even more terrifying evil. Perhaps that’s why, unlike most exorcisms, Jesus negotiates with the demons. They beg Jesus not to send them to the abyss but instead into a herd of pigs. And he actually listens to them and does what they request.

It’s a striking, arresting thing to consider that, in this moment, Jesus treats the demons with greater mercy and compassion than the townsfolk have ever treated the demon-possessed man himself.

I suspect the Gerasene people, like many communities with scary outsiders, has come to an uneasy peace with the demoniac because, like many outsiders, he has become a useful, easy target for blame whenever things go wrong— whether it is crops failing, bandits attacking, or epidemic illnesses striking. Not unlike Boo Radley is for the folk of Maycomb, Alabama, the Gerasene demoniac is a convenient and reassuring scapegoat, the collective dumping ground for the town’s evil.

By healing the demoniac, Jesus disrupts this arrangement and destabilizes the town. When the townspeople arrive and see the man without his demons, they realize a few things about their town and about themselves. Because for the first time, they see him as a human being and not a scary boogeyman. For the first time they see him as one of them, not as an outsider or other.

By seeing him as a human being and not a scary boogeyman, the townsfolk finally see their own treatment of the Gerasene demoniac for what it has been. They have rejected, dehumanized, and treated this man worse than an animal, all in the name of their own safety, security, and peace of mind. For years, this abusive treatment has persisted and been justified as a moral and social good. Because they didn’t consider the demoniac to be human, they didn’t believe they were required to treat him as such.

But, in truth, the demoniac wasn’t any less of a human being sitting there in his right mind next to Jesus than he was all those years when he was possessed. He wasn’t any less of God’s child healed than he was sick. His scary condition and awful circumstances didn’t make him any less God’s own beloved.

So when the townspeople come face-to-face with this man, it reveals their own possession by an evil far quieter, yet far more disturbing. Like so many great characters in literature that begin as supposed villains, the Gerasene demoniac — the presumed embodiment of evil in the story — reveals the true evil at work in the region.

In that one terrifying moment, Jesus turns their town upside-down and their understandings of themselves inside-out. The townspeople are revealed for who they really were. It fills them with great and terrible fear because they realize they have been the kind of people, the kind of community, the kind of society that could torture, brutalize, demonize, ostracize someone who troubles and scares them.

If we look around at our own world, it’s easy to see how we too are living in this same Gerasene region today. As a society, we are possessed with a need to demonize, brutalize, and ostracize God’s children in the name of our safety, security, and power. The truth is that folk secretly tend to prefer these pet demons because things are always so much easier when we can blame those we disagree with rather than speak to them.

For the Gerasene people, and for us perhaps, it takes seeing the dehumanized as human for the first time to finally realize their sin. But the people refused to admit it, fragile as they are. Instead, they demand that Jesus leave rather than come to terms with it. They don’t want to face the people they have been revealed to be. In fact, it seizes them with great fear — a word often associated with demon possession itself — and they demand that Jesus leave.

And he does, eventually. But the miracle isn’t finished. The healing is incomplete. It has never been just about the demon-possessed man. Because for Jesus, it isn’t just about a single illness. His miracles rarely are. They are about all of us, the restoration not just of individuals into his kingdom, but whole communities, all of society, all of earth becoming as it is in heaven.

So before Jesus departs, the healed man begs him to take him along. He knows just what these people are capable of. He might have been possessed all those years, but it doesn’t mean he’s forgotten or is any less wounded by his treatment. He remembers the shackles, the armed guards, the abuse, the exile, the shivering nights without clothes or blanket.

It’s a heartbreaking scene, because he is now the terrified one, scared of the everyday, respectable town folk because he knows the truth of them.

But Jesus, having redeemed this man, has a mission for him. To bear witness. To make them see the story from his perspective, not theirs, just like Scout finally does standing on Boo Radley’s porch at the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. So that the Gerasene people won’t forget just what they are capable of and to call them, by his witness, to confession, to repentance, to a better way, to reconciliation, to the way of God, the way of love and welcome, even if at first it all seems a little scary.

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