Giving Thanks

     Today is Thanksgiving.  It also, by a coincidence of calendars that is both happy and exceedingly rare, the first day of Hanukkah.  The root meaning of that Jewish holiday is to give thanks to God for all the gifts that He has given us.  Each holiday, in its own way, celebrates a people being rescued from oppression and persecution.  We all too easily forget the unspeakable savagery that groups driven by hate and bigotry have exercised against fellow humans in the name of ideology, politics, and even in the name of God.  Lest we too forget, lest we allow the racists and bigots and bullies to once again work their violent wills unchecked, I offer the following thoughts of a man who lived through the very worst of such violence.

     Emmanuel Levinas was born in 1905 into a Jewish family in a small town in Lithuania.  At the age of seven, he and his family escaped a pogrom (a violent massacre carried out by Christians against Jews) and fled to Russia.  In 1917, he and his family were driven out of Russia by the anti-Semitics of the Communist Revolution.  Levinas eventually achieved a doctorate in philosophy and began to teach in France, but shortly after being recruited into the French Army to fight the Nazis, he was captured and sent to a labor camp for Jewish officers.  He lived in that camp from 1939 until the defeat of the Nazis in 1945.  After his liberation, and for the rest of his life, Levinas developed and promoted a philosophy of peace, based on the observation that all human meaning arises from our fundamental responsibility for other human beings, a responsibility limited only by our own finite assets.

     In one of his many writings, Levinas paused to consider what he learned from all of these atrocities, and most particularly, from that complete abandonment of morality, that free exercise of rape and torture and murder and butchery exercised by the Nazis and their collaborators.  He asks, “Beyond the incommunicable emotion of the Passion in which all was consummated, what should or can one transmit in the form of a teaching?”  There are, he says, three truths that he wants to impart to those who were born after the Atrocity, the Evil of all times, truths that are “necessary to the new generation.”  I have neither the ability nor the right to set forth those three truths in better words than his, and so I quote them here.

     “To live humanly, people need infinitely fewer things than they dispose of in the magnificent civilizations in which they live.  That is the first truth.  One can do without meals and rest, smiles, personal effects, decency and the right to turn the key to one’s own room, pictures, friends, countrysides and sick leave, daily introspection and confession.  We need neither empires nor purple, nor cathedrals, academies, amphitheaters, chariots, steeds … In that world of war, forgetful even of the laws of war, the relativity of all that seemed indispensable … suddenly became apparent.


     “But — the second truth…:  in crucial times, when the perishability of so many values is revealed, all human dignity consists in believing in their return.  The highest duty, when “all is permitted,” consists in feeling oneself responsible with regard to these values of peace.  In not concluding, in a universe at war, that warlike virtues are the only sure ones; in not taking pleasure, during the tragic situation, in the virile virtues of death and desperate murder; in living dangerously only in order to remove dangers and to return to the shade of one’s own vine and fig tree.

     “But — the third truth — we must henceforth, in the inevitable resumption of civilization and assimilation, teach the new generations the strength necessary to be strong in isolation, and all that a fragile consciousness is called upon to contain in such times.  We must — reviving the memory of those who, non-Jews and Jews, without even knowing or seeing one another, found a way to behave amidst total chaos as if the world had not fallen apart.”

     In these days, when war seems woven into the very fabric of human life, when prejudice and persecution are so often paraded in pretty sophistries and even as the word of God Himself, these truths stand as both a prayer of thanksgiving for those fragile gifts of peace and comfort and a prayer for the strength to be always vigilant against the insidious intrusion of the hate and bigotry that would, given free reign, inevitably destroy that peace and all human value with it.

     Thanks.  Thanks.

On Being a Christian

     Life, as Scott Peck once informed us, is difficult.  If I were teaching a writing course, and I wanted to give an example of understatement, that is the observation I would use.  What makes life difficult is we demand of life that it have meaning. That is not strong enough. We do not just demand that our lives have meaning. We crave it. We lust for it. We cross continents, climb mountains, swim oceans for it. We search, strive, fight and die for it. A life without meaning is more terrifying to us than the worst torture or most brutal death. A life without meaning is as frightening a prospect as being buried alive. It would be as if we were of no more consequence than a wave on an unpopulated ocean, as if we were stranded on some lifeless planet with no prospect of rescue. The search for meaning fairly defines what it means to be human. If there were no hope for meaning, we might as well not even exist.

But just what is meaning? Answering that question is difficult. In fact answering that question is precisely why Peck’s statement is so obvious. The entire tension of human life is taken up with a search for meaning. It would be so much easier if someone would just hand me a manual, a book that contained all the answers. Here, here are the answers. Just follow the rules in the manual, and your life will have meaning. Sad to say, there is no such manual.

Ah, say some, but there is such a manual. There is such a book, and it has all the answers, and you only need follow that book and you will have meaning, and the name of that book is __________________. Fill in the blank: “the Bible”, “the Torah”, “the Koran”, “the Vedas”, “the Book of Mormon.” There are others, and I apologize to those whose book I have not listed here. There are some remarkable similarities in the contents of these various books, but it is not their content that matters. What matters is that there is such a book, and that it is my book that is the one. My journey is over. The search is done. My worries are gone. My concerns are resolved. Here is the book, and all truth lies within. Believe in the book and you will be saved. Don’t believe in the book, and you will be lost. Worse, you are an unbeliever, a heretic, an infidel. You are the enemy of truth, my enemy.

Why does this happen? Why do people make such rabid commitments to a book? And why does that commitment result in so much hatred and persecution and war? I put it to you that the reason is that the struggle to find meaning is so painful that we are constantly tempted to give up the search, and, since meaninglessness is unacceptable, the only way to give up the search is to declare that we have the answer. It is actually a constant temptation of the mind, a process that I have elsewhere given a fancy name — “eidetic displacement.” We are constantly replacing reality with our image of reality. Why? Because it is so exhausting to keep an open mind. So, at some point and on some level we just say, “That’s it. I see it this way, and I’m not going to think about it anymore.” From that point on, all our judgments are made based on that pre-existing commitment. Our judgments all become pre-judgments. We judge, not by reason, but by prejudice. This is the birth of doctrinal religions, that is, religions based, not on moral conduct, but rather on commitment to a certain set of doctrines. Believe and you are saved; don’t believe and you are lost, which typically means you are condemned to some form of eternal suffering.

Recently, the new pope, Pope Francis, has come under fire by some members of the Roman Catholic Church, because he has put morality over doctrine. He has, for instance, said we should be more concerned with caring for the poor and th elderly than be “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines.” This, say these members, puts Pope Francis on the verge of heresy, and renders him a dangerous revolutionary trying to effect a fundamental change in the Roman Catholic Church. He has even gone so far as to say that we should show respect even to atheists, even, believe it or not, to gays and lesbians!

I am a Catholic. Because I am a Catholic, I am a Christian. Because I am a Christian, I am a Jew. Because I am a Jew, I am a human being, and being a human being means being called outside of myself to a meaning, a signficance beyond myself. I find my meaning in responding to the call of others. If some scholar somewhere has somehow shown that my response to the call of others, my meaning, includes some doctrine, then I will say that, to that extent, and only that extent, I believe it. I have absolutely no idea what is meant by trans-substantiation or the Communion of Saints or the Trinity or a host of other things listed in the canon of Roman Catholic doctrines. I do know that, on the night before he died, Jesus announced one rule, the same rule that defines Judaism and Islam and Mormonism and a long list of other ism’s: Love one another. Be responsible for one another. Take care of one another. If Pope Francis is guilty of defining the Roman Catholic religion as a commitment to that one rule, then I hope and pray that this heresy will sweep the world.

What We Really Owe our Veterans

The Veteran’s Day Parade in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is impressive, taking more than an hour for all the participants to pass a given point.  Bands, military vehicles, motorcycles, vintage cars, prominent local figures, and groups of veterans from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan, and all with vintage fighter planes flying overhead.  I cannot help but wonder, as  they all go by, at the incalculably huge sacrifice that so many men and women have made to keep this country together. We certainly owe them our undying gratitude for all they, and their fallen comrades in arms, and their families, have given to us as citizens of the United States.
There is something else that I wonder. Have we ever apologized to them for sending them off to war for the worst of reasons? Has anyone ever apologized to the veterans of the war in Vietnam or Iraq for putting them in harm’s way, and making them die or suffer horrendous physical and psychological damage for completely unjustifiable political, or, worse, financial reasons? Even in sending them off to the so-called “good” wars, has anyone ever apologized to them for making them do things that would scar their psyches for the rest of their lives?
He who thinks engaging in armed combat is glorious has never done it. We who have never taken a gun or a hand grenade or a cannon or a bomb and aimed it at other human beings have absolutely no clue what that does to a person. Talk to any veteran who has been ordered to do it, and you will very likely get a picture far from glory.
So I have a new reason today to celebrate these veterans that parade before me. We celebrate them, we surround them with bands and flags and planes and tribute, not because they are glorious heroes, but because we know that we have sent them off to do things that we do not want to think about, things that we likely could never do ourselves, things that no human should have to undergo. We have sent them off to take orders even when those orders violate everything they were ever taught in childhood. We have sent them off to do things and see things that will wake them in the night for the rest of their lives. And, far too often, we have sent them off to pursue wars with no purpose, or, worse, with purposes that serve, not the ideals of this country, but the selfish interests of men who, when called to serve, avoided it to serve, as the most nefairous of them once said, “other priorities.”
I think the greatest thing this country could do to honor the men and women of our armed services, past, present and future, is to swear to them that we will never again send them into harm’s way unless we have no other option and unless we are absolutely sure that the single motive in doing so is to serve the American ideal of equality and inherent and unalienable human rights. They have at least earned that.

Oh the Humanity

     On a recent PBS newshour, there was an interview of a representative of the conservative Heritage Foundation and a representative of an organization providing food to the poor.  The moderator was asking about a recent cut in food stamps.  The Heritage foundation rep confidently declared that it was really no big deal because it represented only a fraction of one percent of the assistance available to the poor.  The food bank rep stared in disbelief.  Poor families, she replied, would, because of this cut, be unable to feed their children for the better part of a week.  Millions of children, she said, would go hungry because of this cut.

     This exchange perfectly illustrates the disconnect in the arguments between right and left in the United States.  They are two trains passing in the night, neither one asking the same question, neither one answering the other’s concerns.  The food bank rep was addressing the question how we can, as we must, make sure that every American has enough food to eat.  The Heritage Foundation rep was asking the question how we resolve the issue of the government’s massive debt.

     It is very easy for me as a liberal to mock the Heritage Foundtion rep as a heartless beast (he was a big fat white male, which makes it even easier).  How, I might say, could one be so heartless to try to solve our debt on the backs of starving children while insisting on letting the rich continue to get richer?  It is just as easy, however, for a Heritage fan to mock the seeming humane generosity of the left by arguing that we cannot continue to spend money we don’t have because if we do then we will all end up starving.

     These are examples of what I call arational speech, that is, speech grounded not in reason but in rhetoric, propoganda.  We keep talking past each other, and our response to the speech of the other side, rather than reason, becomes argument from force.  That way lies the insanity of violence.  If you don’t believe it, look up the two-part history of the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile that was recently run on Turner Classic Movies. 

     The one thing that both sides seem to agree on is that we are headed for disaster.  The right says that disaster will lie in national bankruptcy.  The left says that disaster will lie in the destruction of the middles class and the impoverishment of the least advantaged among us.  Both are correct, but each for the wrong reason.  The real disaster lies in creating a rift between two factions in the United States that, as a matter of policy, refuse to address each other’s concerns in a rational fashion.  Why do they refuse?  Pick your own reason.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that, without rational discourse, the factions will have no other recourse than violence.  And we are far closer to that than anyone might think.