Critics Poll 27 — One final bit

Rock star. And I like rock stars, don’t you?

Hey, rocker, remember the Summer of Love? Well, this sure ain’t it. That Age of Aquarius that was supposed to be coming?, that needs a jump-start. Today you may feel more like Neil Tennant in “Dreaming Of The Queen” — no lovers left alive, and no one with any humanity in a position of ultimate political power.

Fascists are on the march all over the globe. They’re poised to elect collaborationist governments in places (like America) where people are supposed to be too smart and too cultured to let that happen. The National Front stands a very good chance of winning the next election in France. The Philippines are now run by the sort of guy who’d trip you in an alley for no reason and laugh. The prime minister of Hungary wants to stuff refugees into shipping containers, and it looks like this charmer is going to get his sadistic wish. Russia really did just decriminalize domestic abuse; that’s not a joke or even hyperbole. I’m sure you’re painfully familiar with ISIS, a fascist-bro purification movement of the most overt, blow-your-deviant-face-off kind. All over the world, it is springtime for jerks and thugs. This, I am afraid, is what democracy looks like — maybe not every time an electorate speaks, but increasingly often, often enough to elect and empower cruel regimes that do awful things to the weakest among us. Call it temporary if it makes you feel better and keep your faith in populism if it’ll help you sleep, but do not deny that something terrible has happened to the people.

Or maybe we were always this way. Maybe it’s just easier now to take the measurement of our deepest desires and cater to our darkest demands. I always feared that this is where direct democracy would take us: mob rule driven by sectarian hatred and ancient grievances, ugly people doing ugly things to teachers and scientists and religious folks whose faiths were outvoted. The Cultural Revolution, basically, or Animal Farm once Napoleon became entrenched. I’m always taken aback when someone talks glowingly about people power because… well, I’ve met people. I myself am one of them. I know rather intimately what people are like, and I assure you they’ve got quite enough power already, thank you.

As it turns out, there is a large institution that has always been consistent and forthright about its belief in human depravity. That institution is the Church, and I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that its head is the one remaining world leader who agrees with you. The Pope agrees with you about your civic requirement to treat refugees and immigrants with compassion. He agrees with you that the world’s wealth ought never to be concentrated in the hands of a tiny group of people. He agrees with you that we need to be better stewards of the planet and that we have a serious responsibility to care for the Earth before we turn it over to the next bunch of occupants. He agrees that ethnic and religious prejudice — which I guess is back in vogue now — is both idiotic and unethical. About social issues I don’t guess he agrees with you much, at least not publicly. But since he’s taken over the Vatican, he’s tried to do what he can to reorient the Church’s attention away from your pants and back on to Matthew 25:35-40 where it belongs.

You are leery about the Church and you have reason to be. The child sex-abuse scandal discredited clergy worldwide; straight-up obliterated their status as moral referees. This was a far bigger factor in the elections than people realize. Catholics did not follow the guidance of their priests or their Pope, and that’s at least in part because they don’t see paragons in the pulpit. They see pederasts. Beyond that, the office of the Pope has not always been, to put it mildly, a force for good. The Vatican is chock full of old guys who are fixated on the preservation of the nastiest elements of Christianity as it is practiced by imperfect humans. The New York Times recently reported that Steve Bannon has been in close touch with the reactionary Cardinals who’d like to undermine Pope Francis’s liberalization effort. He’d like to help them along. That he recognizes the Pontiff as a powerful foe ought to tell you what you need to know: you and the Church are presently in the same corner. Welcome home, heathen.

This could all change overnight. The same cruel tide that has inundated governments worldwide could swamp the Vatican, too. Pope Francis is 80 years old, and physics suggests that his successor will ride the pendulum back in the other direction. But right now he’s hale and reasonably jolly and unafraid to speak out, and he’s been generous enough to take many giant steps in your direction. Yes, you. He’s been dragging the Church toward you. There he is, right on the corner, with his arms open and his cross out, representing every single thing that the current vile regime in Washington isn’t. Don’t be shy; he’s already done most of the hard work. All you’ve got to do is open your window and say hello.

You don’t want to do this. When you were growing up, the Church made you feel lousy about yourself. Me too, buddy. Me too. Our local churches did not treat young me fairly. But Pope Francis is attempting to push open some heavy temple doors for us — doors many of us believed had rusted shut. We can’t afford to sneer at the olive branch he’s shaking in our direction. As Animal Mother memorably said to Jokerman in Full Metal Jacket, we’re fresh out of friends.

Because what better options for leadership do we have? The Democratic Party? Please. We’ve seen where that gets us. The comedians? Laugh the blues away if you can, but do recognize that pithy one-liners and 140 character witticisms are not going to get us out of this one. The social scientists? Bless them all; they’re working hard to demonstrate exactly how and why that we’ve gone off the rails. You and I believe them. Sometimes we even love them. But because they tend to be indirect, and because they present their evidence without the force of moral authority, they’re all too easy to dismiss. The Church, at its best, relies on two thousandyears of ethical precedent and hard-won wisdom, and its most effective operatives don’t tend to mince words. Your neighbor came to you in need and you spurned him? He was hungry and you didn’t feed him? That’s a sin. You’re a wealthy person who won’t share with those less fortunate? That’s a sin. Envy has hold of your heart; you’re treating God’s earth like your personal trash disposal unit; when you should have opened your heart, you built a wall instead. Those are sins — some of them mortal sins.

Do you see how elegant that is? How delightfully direct and economical, how powerful, how balls-out unequivocal in its condemnation of bad actors, whether peasants or kings? Calling out evil is what the Church does best, and when it speaks, it does so with all the cathedral bells ringing in the cloister. Talk from the Church floor and you’ve got centuries of history — not to mention volumes of scripture — backing you up. Yes, churches of all denominations are now larded down with bad readers who want to use the Word to punish their enemies, but that’s only been allowed to happen because we’ve abandoned our pews and ceded the floor to jerks. They’ve been so loud and so offensive in the name of God that they’ve convinced us that the Church is lost to us forever.

I have come to believe, strongly, that this is wrong. We could take the Church back if we put our minds to it. I think it would be quite a bit easier than reclaiming the legislatures, which have been gerrymandered to the point of illegibility and permanent disfunction, or the mass media, which currently has eyes only for clown shows and celebrity trainwreck stories. The Church is our natural ally because the monotheistic religions, when practiced the right way, are absolutely 100% anti-fascist. Real Judaism, Islam, Christianity?, the real articleis as anti-fascist as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, or Mr. Michael Render, or kissing your girlfriend. That’s what those religions are there for. They’re designed, on part, to knock a little humility into recalcitrant humanity, and to check our tendency toward selfish, beastly behavior.

I suppose it is arguable that there’s so much toxic waste in the pool that the unsearchable riches of the monotheistic religions are now irretrievable. Maybe so. Should we take on this clean-up job, we’re going to have a lot of work to do. But if we don’t do that work, we’re giving the power of the Church — the bells of the cathedral and the scriptures and all the authority that goes along with them — to a bunch of angry dopes who don’t know the first thing about religion. And they don’t deserve it. There are pundits who have never read a word of the Koran or the Muslim philosophers who’ll get on TV and make sweeping statements about Islam anyway. The Devil couldn’t ask for better helpers.

But you can be different. Here’s what I ask you to do in 2017: set your preconceptions aside, pick up the Holy Bible, start at Page 1 of Genesis, and keep going until you get to the end of the Book of Revelations. I promise you it will be the greatest ride you’ll ever take. I’d wager that you will be surprised by what you find there: not a conduct manual, or a self-help book, or a how-to, but a tale of mankind’s encounter with and brutal struggle against God, or ultimate reality, personified in these pages as Yahweh and Jesus Christ. It is the bedrock of Western literature, the skeleton key to history and culture, and a set of profound statements on the nature of existence. Right now, this towering literary artifact is in the hands of fundamentalists who don’t understand how reading and representation works. We’re all suffering from that. Pry the Bible away from these people. You wouldn’t let them ruin Herman Melville, would you?

I was 21 years old when I first read the Bible. I did it for a selfish, superstitious, and fundamentally irreligious reason: I was about to get on a plane to Washington State, and if we plowed into a mountain like I expected us to, I didn’t want to go to my grave without learning what the Bible said about the other side. I figured I’d get something like a Westernized version of the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, which I also hadn’t read, but which had been badly summarized to me by a hippie in Northampton. What I got was nothing at all like what I was told to expect; instead, I found a much deeper and more vivid engagement with the same philosophical questions my political science professors were asking me to entertain. Who governs?, the Bible asks, over and over, and by what authority? What gives a man, or even a God, the right to tell another man what to do? Is it just pure, earth-shaking, locust-swarming power? If so, how can morality ever develop? Who has the prerogative to create, or destroy?

The Bible was composed over many centuries by many authors with different agendas and worldviews, and it contains many wild guesses and outright contradictions. But from time to time, the smoke from the burning bush clears, it comes to an enduring punchline that reverberates through the centuries. King David, one of the Bible’s great characters, after years of triumphs and horrifying screw-ups delivers his weary farewell in the Second Book of Samuel. And wouldn’t you know it?, he says the same damn thing Pope Francis has been trying to say for the past few years. He that ruleth over men must be just; ruling in the fear of God. On justice and humility all governing authority rests; anything else is just a bully move. More than that: it’s sinful. Let’s never be afraid to say so. We’ve got the big guy behind us.