music: Terry Allen, “Xmas on the Isthmus”
Here it is, almost Christmas, that day when so many of us celebrate the birth and teaching of a man who said “You cannot serve both God and Mammon” )Matthew 6:24). For some reason, this has become a time of year to give people lots of things, although Jesus, the ostensible centerpiece of the occasion, also is reputed to have instructed his disciples to “sell all you have and give the money to the poor” if they wanted to follow him. And sure, the story tells us that “the three wise men” gave Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but these are traditional offerings to a venerated being or deity, unlike, say, an Xbox or a Victoria’s Secret gift card.
But the American economy is dependent on xBoxes and Victoria’s Secret, not on incense or even gold, for all its potent symbolism. The Christmas season is when money changers in the temple, excuse me, I meant to say merchants, count on earning a substantial chunk of their annual income. Christmas has become a peculiar crossbreed of a holiday, with Jesus on the outside and Mammon on the inside. That is because, for all our culture’s protestations about Jesus and Christianity, when you come right down to it, it really is money that we worship.
Let me quote to you, verbatim, one of the dictionary definitions of “worship”:
extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem <worship of the dollar>
There is no question that money, and the accumulation of more of it, is what far too many Americans esteem, admire, and are devoted to. Decisions about land use, to take just one example, are generally made on the basis of what will, in the short to medium term, generate the most money. “Land use,” of course, includes not only “real estate development,” but “resource extraction,” and when it comes to resource extraction, be it wood, coal, oil, or good ol’ fashioned gold, we have demonstrated again and again that we put next quarter’s financial profits far ahead of the long-term health of local ecosystems and, ultimately, the planet itself. Here’s a couple more fairly self-evident examples: the wealthier you are, the more lightly you will be punished for committing a crime; and, if you are sick and wealthy, you will receive better health care. All this in a culture that claims to revere someone who, said, it is said
whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
“The least of our brothers and sisters,” at least to my way of thinking, doesn’t merely mean poor and homeless human beings. It means all the beings with less complicated brains than ours, the ones for whose stewardship we are ostensibly responsible, according to the same book that glorifies Jesus and his teachings. Considering that many biologists say we are now in the “sixth great planetary extinction,” it seems we are not doing a very good job of caring for “the least of our brothers and sisters.”
Not to mention the oft-mistranslated line about it being “easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Gee, maybe that does mean we should be kind to the wealthy, since they’re going to hell for it. On that note, let’s take a music break.
Richard and Linda Thompson, “Poor Little Beggar Girl”
The Protestant Reformation was a bold evolutionary step in many ways, but it also threw out some babies along with the bath water. The first of those babies was the notion that wealth and temporal power were not necessarily signs of God’s grace. I’m not going to get deep into that tonight, as I have on other occasions, but it is fairly well documented that one big difference between the Catholics and the Protestants was that the Protestants saw worldly success as evidence of God’s grace and approval, while Catholics, at least in theory, understood the virtues of holy poverty. This led to the notion that material wealth was somehow a God-given right, which leads to the incredibly arrogant, self-centered sense of entitlement we see in America these days. One of the many Bushisms that Obama has continued to express is that “The American Way of Life is Not Negotiable,” at least for the one percent. If they will only give it up when it is ripped from their cold, dead hands, well, so be it. Their destruction will take place soon enough, and no, I’m not calling for violence. Nature not only bats last, she wields a heavy bat on those who attempt to stand in her way, usually just when they–or more likely we–least expect it. But, I digress. Back to our cultural poverty since the Reformation.
The other important cultural artifact that was destroyed in the Reformation was the widespread practice of large numbers of young people entering religious orders. This has had multiple negative effects. It vastly increased the number of young men who were available for military service, enabling larger armies and bigger wars. It also increased the number of young people of both sexes who were part of the breeding pool, prompting a surge in population, ultimately giving rise to, and a supply of workers for, the corporate factory system. Just as importantly, the demise of the monastic system closed a door out of civil society. leaving no place for those who would not or could not fit in. The monastic system was a vital safety valve, and the fact that it has been stuffed shut for several centuries is one of the many factors that have increased the dysfunction of contemporary Western culture. The Islamic clerics who rail against “Western Secularism” have a point, even if they don’t have a good answer. Hey, nobody does, at least on the question of how to desecularize and resacralize our society.
All throughout human history, some of us have chosen to walk away from secular society and, alone or in groups, live simple, quiet, devotional, contemplative lives. You can’t do that any more. The monasteries that remain are few and choosy, and all the land is owned. Even if you can afford a few acres in the middle of nowhere, that doesn’t preserve your isolation. Ted Kaczynski tried it, and later wrote this about what happened to his forest retreat:
The best place, to me, was the largest remnant of this plateau that dates from the tertiary age. It’s kind of rolling country, not flat, and when you get to the edge of it you find these ravines that cut very steeply in to cliff-like drop-offs and there was even a waterfall there. It was about a two days hike from my cabin. That was the best spot until the summer of 1983. That summer there were too many people around my cabin so I decided I needed some peace. I went back to the plateau and when I got there I found they had put a road right through the middle of it… You just can’t imagine how upset I was. It was from that point on I decided that, rather than trying to acquire further wilderness skills, I would work on getting back at the system. Revenge.
And thus was “The Unabomber” born, and there, but for the grace of my strong convictions on the importance of nonviolence, go I.
That brings me to our latest domestic tragedy, the Newtown school shootings, which are at least the thirtieth such incident in the U.S. since 1999. All the talk of ending “the glorification of violence,” of “gun control” and “increased mental health services” misses the point, at least from my perspective. We can’t merely suppress the culture of violence or confiscate America’s two hundred million guns with legislation. We can’t psycho-medicate, let alone provide talk therapy, for every young man who fits the “alienated loner” profile. And no, NRA, putting armed guards in all our schools is not the answer. The violent fantasies, the fear factor that leads people to purchase and hoard guns and ammunition, and the alienation that leads people to the decision to use them against friends or strangers all stem from deep structural faults in our society, faults that could only be corrected by deep changes that would radically alter it. Those faults go unaddressed because the changes they demand would not merely threaten, but overthrow, the values and power relations that make our society what it is. The revolution will not be televised, or in any way given a forum or a fair depiction in our country’s mass media. You can count on it.
After all, if I come out and say that we need to re-establish deep, open, multi-generational family ties, clear, serious rituals of initiation for young men and women, that we need to re-establish life paths that do not involve marriage, a business career, and a household of one’s own, and that we as not just a country but as a culture need to step back from a broad spectrum of behaviors and attitudes that bully the weak and vulnerable, and that we each and all need to reconnect personally with the miraculous, apparent uniqueness of life on Earth and re-cognize our sacred duty to preserve this planet as a place where life can flourish, I am clearly being an unrealistic utopian dreamer, aren’t I? How could We possibly motivate enough people to do what needs to be done? The steps to take are well known. It’s motivating the masses that’s the big question.
I don’t know to do that. I wish I did. There is a level of dissociation in this country that drives me to tears. U.S. foreign policy caused the deaths of three-quarters of a million children in Iraq during the 1990’s. Unlike the young men who have killed much smaller numbers of children, Madeline Albright, one of the chief architects of this mass murder, has not been arrested or taken her own life, says “it was worth it.” The media treat her with respect, and there is no national outpouring of sorrow and outrage over her role in those children’s deaths, or the deaths themselves. U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and drone operators in Nevada kill Afghan, Pakistani, and Yemeni children and civilian adults on a regular basis, but are generally not arrested as slaughterers of the innocent. If we killed them, they must have been militants, right? Occasionally, some lower-level member of the team gets punished, but on the whole they are fed, paid, and guaranteed a pension by our tax dollars and the U.S. government.
And here we sit, all bound together in a culture that preys on the weak and helpless, whether they are children or the ecologies that support our existence on this fragile, apparently unique planet. We know what we should have done, we know what we could still do, and we know where inaction will take us, and yet we, as a culture, do what amounts to nothing. All you and I, as at least somewhat aware individuals, can do, is give our best effort to changing our own attitudes and actions in a way that extracts us from the spider web of the planetary death culture, and hope we inspire some of our brothers and sisters to do the same. Perhaps, on the other side of the now more or less inevitable planetary climate crash, there will be an ecological niche in which the human experiment can continue, purged of its currently prevalent foolishness. I certainly hope so.
Eliza Gilkyson, “Tender Mercies”
John Fahey, “In Christ There Is No East Or West
Jane Siberry, “In the Bleak Midwinter”
Carlos Nakai and Peter Kater–“If Men Were At Peace”
Jane Siberry, “An Invitation To Be Well,” “Imagine a World,” “Sheep May Safely Graze”
Incredible String Band, “Job’s Tears“