Monday, April 07, 2008

Mattson: Finding the Prophet in His People

Finding the Prophet in His People
by Ingrid Mattson

I spent a lot of time looking at art the year before I became a Muslim. Completing a degree in Philosophy and Fine Arts, I sat for hours in darkened classrooms where my professors projected pictures of great works of Western art on the wall. I worked in the archives for the Fine Arts department, preparing and cataloging slides. I gathered stacks of thick art history books every time I studied in the university library. I went to art museums in Toronto, Montreal and Chicago. That summer in Paris, "the summer I met Muslims" as I always think of it, I spent a whole day (the free day) each week in the Louvre.

What was I seeking in such an intense engagement with visual art? Perhaps some of the transcendence I felt as a child in the cool darkness of the Catholic Church I loved. In high school, I had lost my natural faith in God, and rarely thought about religion after that. In college, philosophy had brought me from Plato, through Descartes only to end at Existentialism — a barren outcome. At least art was productive — there was a tangible result at the end of the process. But in the end, I found even the strongest reaction to a work of art isolating. Of course I felt some connection to the artist, appreciation for another human perspective. But each time the aesthetic response flared up, then died down. It left no basis for action.

Then I met people who did not construct statues or sensual paintings of gods, great men and beautiful women. Yet they knew about God, they honored their leaders, and they praised the productive work of women. They did not try to depict the causes; they traced the effects.

Soon after I met my husband, he told me about a woman he greatly admired. He spoke of her intelligence, her eloquence and her generosity. This woman, he told me, tutored her many children in traditional and modern learning. With warm approval, he spoke of her frequent arduous trips to refugee camps and orphanages to help relief efforts. With profound respect, he told me of her religious knowledge, which she imparted to other women in regular lectures. And he told me of the meals she had sent to him, when she knew he was too engaged in his work with the refugees to see to his own needs. When I finally met this woman I found that she was covered, head to toe, in traditional Islamic dress. I realized with some amazement that my husband had never seen her. He had never seen her face. Yet he knew her. He knew her by her actions, by the effects she left on other people.

Western civilization has a long tradition of visual representation. No longer needing more from such art than a moment of shared vision with an artist alive or dead, I can appreciate it once more. But popular culture has made representation simultaneously omnipresent and anonymous. We seem to make the mistake of thinking that seeing means knowing, and that the more exposed a person is, the more important they are.

Islamic civilization chose not to embrace visual representation as a significant means of remembering and honoring God and people. Allah is The Hidden, veiled in glorious light from the eyes of any living person. But people of true vision can know God by contemplating the effects of his creative power,

Do they not look to the birds above them,
Spreading their wings and folding them back?
None can uphold them except for The Merciful.
Truly He is watchful over all things
(Qur'an, 67:19)

If God transcends his creation, it is beyond the capacity of any human to depict him. Indeed, in Islamic tradition, any attempt to depict God with pictures is an act of blasphemy. Rather, a Muslim evokes God, employing only those words that God has used to describe himself in his revelation. Among these descriptive titles are the so-called "99 Names of God," attributes that are recited melodiously throughout the Muslim world: The Merciful, the Compassionate, the Forbearing, the Forgiving, the Living, the Holy, the Near, the Tender, the Wise…. Written in beautiful script on lamps, walls, and pendants, each of these linguistic signs provokes a profoundly personal, intellectual and spiritual response with each new reading.

Deeply wary of idolatry, early Muslims with few exceptions declined to glorify not only God, but even human beings through visual representation. Historians, accustomed to illustrating accounts of great leaders with their images captured in painting, sculpture and coin have no reliable visual representations of the Prophet Muhammad. What we find, instead, is the Prophet's name, Muhammad, written in curving Arabic letters on those architectural and illustrative spaces where the sacred is invoked. Along with the names of God and verses of the Qur'an, the name Muhammad, read audibly or silently, leads the believer into a reflective state about the divine message and the legacy of this extraordinary, yet profoundly human messenger of God.

Words, written and oral, are the primary medium by which the life of the Prophet and his example have been transmitted across the generations. His biography, the seerah, has been told in verse and prose in many languages. Even more important than this chronological account of the Prophet's life are the thousands of individual reports of his utterances and actions, collected in the hadith literature. These reports were transmitted by early Muslims wishing to pass on Muhammad's tradition and mindful of the Qur'an's words: "Indeed in the Messenger of God you have a good example to follow for one who desires God and the Last Day" (Qur'an, 33:21). Eager to follow his divinely inspired actions, his close companions paid attention not only to his style of worship, but also to all aspects of his comportment — everything from his personal hygiene to his interaction with children and neighbors. The Prophet's way of doing things, his sunnah, has formed the basis for Muslim piety in all societies where Islam spread. The result was that as Muslims young and old, male and female, rich and poor, adopted the Prophet's sunnah as a model for their lives, they became the best visual representations of the Prophet's character and life. In other words, the Muslim who implements the sunnah is an actor on the human stage who internalizes and, without artifice, reenacts the behavior of the Prophet. This performance of the sunnah by living Muslims is the archive of the Prophet's life and a truly sacred art of Muslim culture.

I first realized the profound physical impact of the Prophet's sunnah on generations of Muslims as I sat in the mosque one day, watching my nine year old son pray beside his Qur'an teacher. Ubayda sat straight, still and erect beside the young teacher from Saudi Arabia who, with his gentle manners and beautiful recitation, had earned my son's deep respect and affection. Like the teacher, Ubayda was wearing a loose-fitting white robe that modestly covered his body. Before coming to the mosque, he had taken a shower and rubbed fragrant musk across his head and chin. With each movement of prayer, he glanced over at his teacher, to ensure that his hands and feet were positioned in precisely the same manner. Reflecting on this transformation of my son, who had abandoned as his normal grubbiness and impulsivity for cleanliness and composure, I thought to myself, "thank God he found a good role model to imitate."

In my son's imitation of his teacher, however, it occurred to me that there was a greater significance, for his teacher was also imitating someone. Indeed, this young man was keen in every aspect of his life to follow the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. His modest dress was in imitation of the Prophet's physical modesty. His scrupulous cleanliness and love of fragrant oils was modeled after the Prophet's example. At each stage of the ritual prayer he adopted the positions he was convinced originated with the Prophet. He could trace the way he recited the Qur'an back through generations of teachers to the Prophet himself. My son, by imitating his teacher, had now become part of the living legacy of the Prophet Muhammad.

Among Muslims throughout the world, there are many sincere pious men and women; there are also criminals and hypocrites. Some people are deeply affected by religious norms, others are influenced more by culture — whether traditional or popular culture. Some aspects of the Prophet's behavior: his slowness to anger, his abhorrence of oath taking, his gentleness with women, sadly seem to have little affected the dominant culture in some Muslim societies. Other aspects of his behavior, his generosity, his hospitality, his physical modesty, seem to have taken firm root in many Muslim lands. But everywhere that Muslims are found, more often than not they will trace the best aspects of their culture to the example of the Prophet Muhammad. He was, in the words of one of his companions, "the best of all people in behavior."

Living in America, my son's role model might have been an actor, a rap singer or an athlete. We say that children are "impressionable," meaning that it is easy for strong personalities to influence the formation of their identity. We all look for good influences on our children.

It was their excellent behavior that attracted me to the first Muslims I met, poor West African students living on the margins of Paris. They embodied many aspects of the Prophet's sunnah, although I did not know it at the time. What I recognized was that, among their other wonderful qualities, they were the most naturally generous people I had ever known. There was always room for one more person around the platter of rice and beans they shared each day. Over the years, in my travels across the Muslim world, I have witnessed the same eagerness to share, the same deep belief that it is not self-denial, but a blessing to give away a little more to others. The Prophet Muhammad said, "The food of two is enough for three, and the food of three is enough for four." During the recent attacks on Kosovo, there were reports of Albanian Muslims filling their houses with refugees; one man cooked daily for twenty people domiciled in his modest home.

The Prophet Muhammad said, "When you see one who has more, look to one who has less." When I was married in Pakistan, my husband and I, as refugee workers, did not have much money. Returning to the refugee camp a few days after our wedding, the Afghan women eagerly asked to see the many dresses and gold bracelets, rings and necklaces my husband must have presented to me, as is customary throughout the Muslim world. I showed them my simple gold ring and told them we had borrowed a dress for the wedding. The women's faces fell and they looked at me with profound sadness and sympathy. The next week, sitting in a tent in that dusty hot camp, the same women — women who had been driven out of their homes and country, women who had lost their husbands and children, women who had sold their own personal belongings to buy food for their families — presented me with a wedding outfit. Bright blue satin pants stitched with gold embroidery, a red velveteen dress decorated with colorful pom-poms and a matching blue scarf trimmed with what I could only think of as a lampshade fringe. It was the most extraordinary gift I have ever received — not just the outfit, but the lesson in pure empathy that is one of the sweetest fruits of real faith.

An accurate representation of the Prophet is to be found, first and foremost, on the faces and bodies of his sincere followers: in the smile that he called "an act of charity," in the slim build of one who fasts regularly, in the solitary prostrations of the one who prays when all others are asleep. The Prophet's most profound legacy is found in the best behavior of his followers. Look to his people, and you will find the Prophet.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Tutu: Palestine and Apartheid

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Friends of SABEEL Conference
Boston - 27 October 2007



Dear Friends, it is a great privilege to be with you again since 2002. As you know, my address then has recently been in the news because on the basis of a distortion of what I said, President Dease of St Thomas University decided I shouldn’t visit his campus. It is good that he has since reversed his decision. I commend him for his courage in admitting publicly that he was wrong. It is never easy to do that. I hope that he will reinstate Professor Cris Toffolo. I have received the President’s invitation in which he makes a very handsome apology which I have accepted. I am happy to accept his invitation provided it can be fitted into my schedule and if Professor Toffolo is reinstated with no adverse comment in her academic file arising from this unfortunate episode.

I thank God for my Hebrew antecedents. I thank God that I too am a descendant of Abraham. I give thanks to God for the gift of the Holy Scriptures made up substantially of the Hebrew Scriptures forming what we conventionally refer to as our Old Testament. Even our New Testament which would be distinctively Christian, is incomprehensible without taking its Jewish setting seriously. For instance Jesus is the Greek for Joshua who led God’s people into the Promised Land and Christ is the Anointed One, in Hebrew - the Messiah, whose coming was predicted in the Jewish scriptures and who was longed for so poignantly by the Jews.

I tell you nothing you do not already know. I refer to it all only to assert that spiritually I am of Hebrew descent. That legacy has been of crucial importance to me in our struggle against Apartheid.

Our Anti-Apartheid Struggle

At the height of the struggle when apartheid’s repression was at its most vicious and it seemed indeed as if the apartheid rulers were firmly ensconced in power, when they had all but knocked the stuffing out of their opponents and they were strutting the stage as invincible cocks of the walk, then we turned to the inspiration of our Hebrew tradition and antecedents.

We were able to revive and sustain our people’s hope for their vindication and the ultimate triumph of good over evil, of freedom over injustice and oppression by our references to our biblical traditions. It was often quite exhilarating. I remember once when there had been a massacre in one of our townships which had been instigated by a sinister Third Force linked to the apartheid security apparatus, our bishops suspended a session of Episcopal Synod to be there as Ezekiel had been with the stunned exiles, to be there in a ministry of presence, and we held a service in one of our ghetto township churches. The people were stunned, devastated by the naked violence of the massacre. I preached and used Exodus 3:1-9, God’s words which Yahweh asked Moses to announce to the children of Israel, I said, “Our God is not deaf – our God has heard our cries; our God is not stupid – God knows our suffering; our God is not blind – God has seen and sees our pain and anguish and….yes, our God will come down and set us free.” Yes, our God will come down to open the prison doors and lead our leaders from prison, lead them back from exile. For we had learned from our Jewish tradition that God, our God, is notoriously biased, forever taking the side of the weak, the oppressed, the downtrodden against the kings and the powerful oppressors. Our God had been met first, not in the sanctuary, but in the mundane world of politics, taking the side of a rabble of slaves against the mighty Pharaoh. God is not neutral, God sided with Uriah the Hittite against his favourite, King David after his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. Thou art the man. Anywhere else the king could have got away with both actions, but not in Israel. It really seemed as if the Jewish scriptures were written specifically for us. The story of Naboth’s vineyard and King Ahab and Jezebel being confronted on Yahweh’s behalf by Elijah seemed to have been written especially with our situation in mind, where blacks (not exclusively, but overwhelmingly) were shipped in their millions like so many pawns in population removal schemes and dumped in poverty stricken Bantustan homelands, hardly able to eke out a living, cut off from the more affluent so-called white South Africa.

The widow, the orphan and the alien, who in most traditional societies would be the weakest of the weak seemed to be particular favourites with God who appeared to have a soft spot for them. And so worship of God’s people however elaborate and ritually correct would be dismissed as an abomination, unless it made the worshipper have the sensitivity to care for God’s favourites (Is.1:11-16). Even something so obviously religious as a fast was rejected out of hand by this God who could declaim that the kind of fast He wanted was that which fed the hungry, set free the captives – all thoroughly secular activities but which confirmed Yahweh’s bias in favour of and concern for those who were hard done by, who were at the end of their tether, who were so low they could crawl under a snake. We could multiply references to the prophets Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, et al. It reverberated throughout the prophetic writings, this concern for the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden, the widow, the orphan, the alien.

But it was not just in the prophetic oracles. It was so also in the Pentateuch, the Torah, the scriptures par excellence for God’s chosen. Extraordinarily in what was perhaps the book most concerned for cultic ritual matters, Leviticus, where holiness referred most frequently to ritual cultic purity, the worshipper, the Israelite is bidden to be holy as Yahweh is holy and just when we imagined that this would be concerned with ritual holiness, we are brought up short that this is a holiness that plays itself out in a concern for the hungry, the poor. “Be holy even as your God is holy”, and so you must not glean your fields clean at harvest, leave something for the poor and hungry too (Lev.19:1,98). Fantastic – God’s special people must be holy but this is a holiness that expresses itself in mundane acts of caring, of kindness and compassion, of humanitarian concern. In Deuteronomy the motive for doing acts of kindness to God’s favourites, the widow, the orphan and the alien is not emulating God’s holiness, it is the memory of their former status as slaves in Egypt. That memory, it is implied, would prevent them from inflicting on others the kind of anguish they had experienced. They would never do to others, it is assumed, what had been done to them.

I think they are words to be written in letters of gold as pertinent to the situation we are in.

Deuteronomy 24:17-22

“You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge; but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.

When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.

You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.”

That is how the people of this God were expected to behave. If you were set to rule over these people as king these were as it were your marching orders, your manifesto, found in the book of Psalms (Psalm 72:1-4,12-14)

“Give the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness to the royal son!

May he judge thy people with righteousness, and the poor with justice!

Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness!

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor!

For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper.

He has pity on the weak and he needy, and saves the lives of the needy.

From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.”

The three sections of the Hebrew scriptures – the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings are unanimous in their depiction of the nature of the God revealed in these books.

It was exhilarating preaching to the oppressed and downtrodden. The well to do, the powerful often complained that we were mixing religion with politics and we would declare that we were doing no more than in fact preaching the Gospel. We would be accused of being political and I retorted “I don’t know which Bible you are reading” and “I must say I have never heard the poor complain”, “Bishop Tutu now you’re being political!” If anything they could possibly have said, “You are not political enough.”

And God vindicated us. Apartheid’s rulers bit the dust as all oppressors have done always, for this is a moral universe, right and wrong matter. It cannot happen that evil, injustice and oppression can have the last word. No, ultimately goodness, justice, freedom – these will prevail.

What is this to the point?

I could have spent a great deal of time rehearsing what we all know. How I experienced a deja vu when I saw a security check point which Palestinians had to negotiate most of their lives that I was reminded so painfully of the same checkpoints in apartheid South Africa, when arrogant white policemen treated almost all blacks like dirt, or, when someone pointed to a house in Jerusalem and said that used to be our home, but now it has been taken over by the Israelis, which made me recall so painfully similar statements in Cape Town by coloureds who had been thrown out of their homes and relocated in ghetto townships some distance from town. I could have bemoaned the illegal wall that has encroached on Palestinian land, separated families, divided property and made what used to be a short walk to school turn into an expensive nightmare voyage running the gauntlet of checkpoints, etc. I could have said there were things that even apartheid South Africa had not done, for example collective punishment.

I have not gone that route. No, I have chosen a different approach. My address is really a cri de Coeur, a cry of anguish from the heart, an impassioned plea to my spiritual relatives, the offspring of Abraham like me – please hear the call, the noble call of your scriptures, of our scriptures, to be with the God of the Exodus who took the side of a bunch of slaves against the powerful Pharaoh, be on the side of the God who intervened through His prophet Elijah on behalf of Naboth, hear the plea of your scriptures and stand with the God who intervened through his prophet Nathan on behalf of Uriah against King David. Be on the side of the God who revealed a soft spot in his heart for the widow, the orphan and the alien, be on the side of the God whose “Spirit sends us out to preach good news to the poor.” Don’t be found fighting against the God, your God, our God who hears the cry of the oppressed, who sees their anguish and who will always come down to deliver them. Be not opposed to the God whose Spirit when it anoints you makes you concerned for the poor. This is your calling . If you disobey that calling, if you do not heed it, then as sure as anything one day you will come a cropper. You will probably not succumb to an outside assault militarily. With the unquestioning support of the USA you are probably impregnable. But you who are called are they who are asked to deal with the oppressed, the weak the despised compassionately, caringly, remembering what happened to you in Egypt and much more recently in Germany. Remember and act appropriately. If you reject your calling you may survive for a long time, but you will find it is all corrosive inside and one day you will implode.

A recent report by a clinical psychologist Nufan Yishai Katrim at the Hebrew University speaks of how Israeli soldiers were gratuitously cruel and carried out acts of brutality to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. When you uphold an unjust dispensation it corrodes your humanity. In South Africa a former Cabinet Minister showed this. When told of the death of Steve Biko in detention, he said it left him cold.

Thanks be to God for the many, many Jews who know what their divine calling is and who want the Israeli Government to live it out. We believe in a two state solution – of two sovereign, viable states each with contiguous borders guaranteed as secure by the international community. We condemn acts of terrorism by whoever they are committed. The suicide bomber has to be condemned for targeting innocent civilians. But equally must the Israelis be condemned for their acts of indiscriminate reprisal. We say please learn at least one positive lesson from apartheid South Africa. Under Mr F W de Klerk who must be commended for his outstanding courage, they decided to negotiate, not with those they liked but with their sworn enemy and they found the security that had eluded them for so long and that had cost so much suffering and blood. It came not from the barrel of a gun. No, it came when the legitimate aspirations and human rights of all were recognised and respected. That was thirteen years ago and the peace is still holding. Many had predicted that South Africa would be overwhelmed buy a catastrophic racial blood bath. It did not happen. It did not happen because they negotiated in good faith with their enemies.

Somebody has said if something happened once then clearly it is something possible. It happened in South Africa, why not in the Middle East?

The world needs the Jews, Jews who are faithful to their vocation that has meant so much for the world’s morality, of its sense of what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what is just and unjust, what is oppressive and what sets people free. Jews are indispensable for a good compassionate, just and caring world.

And so are Palestinians.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Paradigm Shift Shifts into a Higher Gear

"Nothing is so unworthy of a civilised nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct."
-- Die Weisse Rose (The White Rose), from the first leaflet

Opposition to U.S./Israeli neoconservative warmaking, slaughter, and profiteering the Middle East is growing in every state, city, and community across the nation. It is growing, too, among the members of every political party and persuasion and every religious group: liberals, progressives, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Native American religionists, and non-believers as well. What we are witnessing may be the beginning a paradigm shift of historic proportions. There is certainly a more general recognition and appreciation of, and a desire for the practical application of, the ethic of reciprocity in human affairs. The change has been a long time coming. Two thousand years ago, Jesus promised that the meek would inherit the earth. "No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought," wrote philosopher John Stuart Mill well over 100 years ago. More recently, the late Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychologist Carl Jung said, "One thing is sure. A great change of our psychological attitude is imminent. That is certain."

A confluence of distrubing developments has grasped the attention of vast numbers of people around the globe and persuaded public opinion of the necessity of significant cultural adjustments. Alarming evidence of an array of truly daunting problems is everywhere seen: global warming and changes in weather patterns; environmental pollution, ecosystem degradation, and the attendant negative effects on plant and animal life; oil shortages, rising energy prices, and a developing energy crisis; inequitable, unstable, and unsustainable economic systems; overpopulation, over-crowding, food and water shortages; a return to Cold-War-era weapon systems proliferation with the associated risks and political tensions; and dangerous deterioration in the areas of interfaith and international relations. In short, we are confronted by the most complex and challenging set of difficulties human civilization has ever faced, leading to the realization that these problems represent a serious threat to the uninterrupted progress of human civilization, and a growing recognition that these are shared, complex, and interconnected problems that humanity can hope to find solutions to, and survive without unimaginably catastrophic loss of life, only through our cooperative and concerted efforts.

"We all have enough strength to endure the misfortunes of other people," observed Fran├žois Le Rochefoucauld more than two centuries ago, but today, for the first time in history, humanity has overarching shared interests and common goals of undeniable importance. Mankind also possesses well-nigh instantaneous communications systems that span the globe. Too often, those commnications systems are used for crude and deceptive political and commercial purposes, programming that instills fear, desensitizes, and dehumanizes vast numbers of people, while stereotyping certain groups. Among the audiences most vulnerable to manipulation and social destabilization are our children. Employed responsibly, those same communications systems could facilitate re-humanization processes that reconnect people and knit together various groups, peoples, nations, and cultures by educating us about important issues, informing us about our shared interests and common goals, and assisting us in focusing on universal values--issues, interests, goals, and values that can no longer be ignored, that clearly take precedence over all petty partisan and sectarian concerns. If ever the time was ripe for a spiritual awakening across the traditional boundaries that have long divided humanity, this is it.

Surely our world is now truly quivering on the brink of one of its most amazing and enthralling epochs of social adjustment, moral quickening, and spiritual enlightenment. And our purported leaders' answer to all of this? Can you believe it? Bush and Cheney offer only a discredited scheme for world domination and more questionable intelligence cooked up in a cracked pot, in conjunction with a well-organized campaign of hateful propaganda and threats of yet another ill-conceived, illegal, and unnecessary war, this time against Israel's enemy, Iran, and perhaps with nuclear weapons, coupled with a deal to give Israel $30 billions worth of U.S. weapons and military hardware and plans to give billions more in military aid to other Middle East governments. Which is to say that official Washington is presenting irrefutable evidence of the utter and complete intellectual, moral, and spiritual bankruptcy of the Bush administration and the Israeli-centric U.S. foreign policy establishment. "They who defend war must defend the dispositions that lead to war, and these are clean against the Gospel," wrote Desiderius Erasmus some 500 years ago. His words ring true today.

Will Americans rise to the challenge and lead change by thwarting the neoconservative cabal's plans for war against Iran? Or, must our country suffer yet greater disgrace and dishonor on the world stage for the sake of the arrogance, greed, and vanity of leaders who have embraced the tyrannical and most destructive uses of power? Will we stand idly by as the Middle East is convulsed by wider war and political upheaval, as more hundreds of thousands die needlessly, their bodies bloodied, battered, and broken by America's already overstretched war machine? Must the economy of our nation and the world collapse in a shambles before the paradigm shift shifts into a higher gear, as, sooner or later, it will? Because so many of our so-called leaders have failed the great test of idealism, the answers to these questions are turning out to be up to ordinary people from all walks of life, people who are committed to the traditional American ideals of equality, justice, and fair play, peacemakers who are joining with their friends and neighbors to shoulder the burdens of civic responsibility in support of domestic and foreign policies based on human rights and the principles of equal treatment under the law and self-determination.

Thus we have before us both the challenge, and the opportunity, of the age.

"Tis true that we are in great danger;
The greater therefore should our courage be."
-- William Shakespeare

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Shetterly: The Language of Dead Bodies

The Language of Dead Bodies
by Robert Shetterly

everywhere instead of a name there is a lie…
-W. S. Merwin

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars
of light …
- Mary Oliver

I’ve been cutting trees. The woods on the north side of my house is thick with gray trunks of dead fir and spruce. Neither old nor particularly large, these trees have been dead and dying for some time, killed by acid rain or spruce bud worm or something complex and harder to diagnose. Besides being aesthetically unappealing, they are a fire hazard. Some are still standing. Many have blown over making walking in the woods very difficult — like traversing a giant’s game of pick-up-sticks. With my chain saw I topple the standing trees, then cut everything into moveable pieces, and carry and drag the logs and branches back further into the woods, pile them up, building sanctuary for the red squirrels and deer mice, refuge for the winter wren. What’s left is an open woods with a few healthy oaks, tamaracks, and maples.

It’s hard, sweaty work — especially for an aging guy like myself. Some of the logs are old and dry, nearly as light as the paper they might have been made into. Others are dense and heavy. But the work is not so hard or all-engaging that I stop ruminating. Yesterday, as I picked up each log, cradled it in my arms against my chest, and marched with it back into the woods, I was thinking about other things that I have embraced like that, or things that I might have. Memory and imagination are often stimulated by such a simple gesture.

I remembered times, returning late at night from trips, when my children had fallen fast asleep in the back of the car, and I carried them, cradled against my chest, into the house and put them to bed, pulling off their sneakers and pulling up the covers. Holding the logs against my chest, I also imagined they were artillery shells, that I was about to slam them into the breach of a cannon whose explosive destination might be homes and schoolyards where children just like mine played. And I imagined that I was in a market in Baghdad in the aftermath of a truck bombing carrying away the broken, burned, dismembered bodies of children. Or, maybe the leg of a man, the arm of a woman. My comfortable, old sweatshirt stained, not with perspiration and sap, but soaked with blood. I thought of the slash piles I was building in the woods as though they were heaps of bodies and body parts in an Iraqi morgue. Here I was, on a beautiful summer day, having the luxury to work in the woods, dripping with grief and anger.

You remember Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal written in 1729 in which he satirically suggests that the problem of poverty and hunger in Ireland could be eradicated by employing the practical expedient of cannibalism — breast-fed infants, even of the poor, being plump, tender and nutritious. Swift even offered recipes. I’m not in a satiric mood, though. Particularly in regard to overfed Americans whose overweening appetite for collateral damage is largely abstract, the un-named, uncounted bodies consumed to clear the way for imperialism. And even if Julia Child had written it, I doubt that there would be much of a market for the Collateral Damage Cookbook. Denial tends to deaden the taste buds. Even Oprah couldn’t sell it.

I’m thinking instead of a real, political utility for all these civilian bodies, especially the children. However, where they would have the most political advantage is the least practicable. Having Tony Snow lay out the Fed-Exed body of a blasted and still bleeding Iraqi girl on the president’s oak desk in the Oval Office every morning is unlikely. Nor is having every senator and congressman’s desk similarly graced anything that could be arranged. Visas, even for the dead, are bound to be tied up in red tape. And these responsible parties could hardly be counted on as sponsors.

But, in deadly seriousness, I would suggest to the Iraqis that after each bombing they lay out their dead — in rows, in jumbled piles — at the gates of the Green Zone. In my imagination I can see parents carrying the remnants of their children cradled against their chests and depositing them, as is, against those impermeable, medieval-like walls. Children bearing the heads and hands of their parents, neighbors the legs of their friends with the shoes still on, sisters their shrapnel lacerated brothers. Slash piles.

Why suffer in private? William Sloane Coffin exhorted his parishioners to “improve the quality of their suffering,” use their suffering to unite with and console others. Why not, when no peaceful or violent appeal to decency, morality, and rationality has any effect, why not use the bodies most contorted by violence for the most un-contorted of moral speech — Stop!

Let the dead speak.

Let the dead bear witness.

Insist that the hobgoblins of the Green Zone handle the fruits of their labor. Let’s see who would dare to come out to clean up this mess. Let the limp dead be battering rams against the implacable lies. Lies are finally no match for reality. And the reality of a sliced open child’s head, its brain covered in blood and flies, its one remaining eye still asking why, can be persuasive, perhaps more persuasive than a senator with a non-binding resolution, more persuasive than the measured duplicity of an imperfectly born-again Colin Powell, more persuasive than a Democrat who wants to keep the war going to run against it in 2008.

I appeal to the Iraqis to lay the bodies of children and loved ones out like a moat, a sacred circle, a noose around those walls. What could be more eloquent?

I know full well that such an idea is grotesque. What parents wouldn’t want to lay to rest a dead child with dignity, respect, and sanctity even if they can’t find all the parts? A little peace, a resting place apart from the obscenity of indiscriminate bombs. A private place to grieve separate from the marketplace of death. Who would want to lay down a mutilated sister at the base of the anonymous and arrogant edifice behind whose walls electricity runs, beer is cold, air conditioners bathe the generals in air as cool as the Rockies, pretty young women jog in red, white, and blue halter tops, pizza has all the toppings, the wages are high, and not a word is ever said anymore about wining hearts and minds. Would I, crazed with anger and grief, abandon my own dead son or daughter at the imperial gates of the Green Zone?

I don’t know. There is grotesque and then there is grotesque. And then there is the grotesque that may stop this monstrosity.

I have a mask from the Ngala tribe in the Congo. It’s large and dark brown. The woman’s features are sketched in with pale white paint. The downcast eyes are weeping white tears down the round cheeks. It’s a “Women sue for Peace” mask. When the men have been fighting too long, the women don the masks. I wonder if it ever worked. You might say it’s the mask that Cindy Sheehan wore in Crawford. Surely it wouldn’t work in Baghdad.

Reverend Coffin said, “Improve the quality of your suffering.” Sometimes only an act born from the most outrageous grief and love, an act that tears your own heart, can actually do that — save the life of a not yet shattered child.

Robert Shetterly lives in Brooksville, Maine

Monday, July 31, 2006

Flannery O'Connor: Questions and Answers from Beyond the Wood

One morning some months ago I woke suddenly, inexplicably impressed with the idea that I needed to read something by Flannery O'Connor. It seemed a strange impulse; I hadn't read or given much thought to O'Connor's work in years. I was introduced to her stories by Prof. Stanley Trachtenberg, whose Harvard Summer School course, American Short Story, I took in 1987. I could recall some vivid imagery from "Good Country People", and when I found the course text on the bookshelf in the living room, my notes confirmed I'd read that story and another in the collection, "Judgment Day", during that halcyon summer that now seems so very long ago. A week or so later, when our annual family vacation took us back to Cambridge once again, I found a Signet Classic, Three By Flannery O'Connor, in the basement of a bookstore on Mass. Ave. across from the university.

Flannery O'Connor occupies a special place, a unique place, in American literature, and her body of work, though small, seldom disappoints. One scholar, Patrick Galloway, has written that O'Connor achieves what no other Christian writer ever has, "a type of writing that stands up on both literary and the religious grounds, and succeeds in doing justice to both", with a "seamless narrative style that breathes not a word of agenda, of dogma, or of personal belief." Another, Douglas Jones, writes, "Flannery O'Connor is easily the most important and talented and self-consciously Christian short story author of the twentieth century. Nobody else is close. I've seen her stories revolutionize people's lives, and yet most Christians have never even heard her name." Yet there is more of the influence of Flannery O'Connor in American life and popular culture than many of us realize. Her first novel, Wise Blood, which she began in 1947 while working as a teaching assistant at the University of Iowa after earning her MFA in the Writers Workshop, was adapted to film by the late, great John Huston in 1979. Anyone who is familiar with O'Connor's work and who has seen The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a powerful 2005 film drama written by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, who also starred in the film, may have been reminded of O'Connor's use of the grotesque. This should not surprise, as Jones wrote his senior honors thesis at Harvard on O'Connor's fiction 1. Alice Walker, who credits her with being the first great modern writer from the South, has written of O'Connor's fiction: "If it can be said to be 'about' anything, then it is 'about' prophets and prophecy, 'about' revelation, and 'about' the impact of supernatural grace on human beings who don't have a chance of spiritual growth without it." A posthumously published book of O'Connor's occasional prose, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald and titled Mystery and Manners, includes essays, lectures, and articles that are undoubtedly among the most interesting, insightful, and compelling ever written about the art and the craft of fiction writing.

In any case, O'Connor wrote about what she knew best, and what she knew was the South, its culture and its manners, and the grace of a loving God. Her fiction, two novels and thirty one stories, reveal the grace of God at work in the lives of people caught up in sudden and surprising violence, ruthless brutality, terrible confusion, stultifying ignorance, obdurate selfishness, galling stupidity, and potentially soul-destroying sin. One of many on-line resources dedicated to O'Connor describes as "masterful" her "explorations of religious themes and southern racial issues" featuring "absurd situations and grotesque southern characters of varying psychological extremes."

On its surface, Flannery O'Connor's world is often dark, stark, and brutal, and many of her characters are ugly, grotesque, deluded, selfish, and evil, not unlike the world we see before us today and some of those who act as if they own and operate it. But O'Connor's world is not what it seems. Like Jesus, who loved even his enemies, O'Connor loves her ugly, grotesque, deluded, selfish, evil characters. If O'Connor's dark grace is relentless, and it is, if it hunts down her characters, and it does, isn't that a reflection of spiritual reality? "The fact that souls are lost only increases the interest of the heavenly Father" 2. ". . . the Father and his Son go forth to search for those who are lost, and in this search we employ all influences capable of rendering assistance in our diligent efforts to find those who are lost, those who stand in need of salvation" 3. Though "It is true that wisdom does often restrain his love, while justice conditions his rejected mercy" 4, by all means let's be clear here: God's grace is not itself violent. "God is never wrathful, vengeful, or angry" 5. Injustice, cruelty, and violence are inevitable results of God's endowment of imperfect intelligent creatures with creative free will. O'Connor's dark grace reminds us that even in the very midst of man's inhumanity to man, God's immutable love, mercy, and grace are present.

In Flannery O'Connor's world, grace is likely to visit smug, selfish Southern Christians suddenly, violently, and when they least expect it. Much of the action in "Revelation," a near-perfect gem and the last story she saw appear in print before she died at the age of 39 of lupus, O'Connor set in a doctor's waiting room. The unlikely agent of grace in "Revelation" is a fat, ugly, surly teenager, a Wellesley College freshman with a bad case of acne. Her name is Mary Grace, and we find her "scowling into a thick blue book . . . entitled Human Development." The central character, spiritually blind and in need of salvation, is Mrs. Ruby Terpin, a supremely self-satisfied Christian lady who considers herself superior by virtue of her religion, her race, and her position in the community. She and her husband Claud own a home, a few acres where they grow cotton, and raise some chickens, hogs, and white-face cattle. Sally Fitzgerald, who edited her friend Flannery's letters, described Mrs. Terpin as "a country pharisienne, a monument of complacency and self-congratulation, who observes and categorizes the others according to a system of her own that reflects all too sharply the social stratifications more widely accepted than most of us would like to think" 6. Like all who see themselves as especially and, perhaps, exclusively favored by God, Mrs. Terpin has lost sight of the fact that the heavenly Father loves all his children, without favoritism. Though she does not know it and would never guess, Mrs. Terpin is in need of a vision of living faith that recognizes every man as a brother, every woman as a sister.

Mrs. Terpin's encounter with grace explodes in violence as she speaks to Mary Grace's mother and others in the doctor's waiting room, saying, "When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, 'Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!' It could have been different!" As Ruby Terpin revels in emotion that takes the form of a prayer of thanksgiving but is in reality utterly selfish, without warning Mary Grace hurls the thick blue book at her, striking her "directly over her left eye." Suddenly the enraged girl's fingers are sinking "like clamps into the soft flesh" of the ample Mrs. Turpin's neck. When finally the girl's mother and the doctor pull the teenager off and restrain her, Mrs. Terpin leans forward until she is "looking directly into the fierce brilliant eyes. There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time, place, and condition. 'What you got to say to me?' she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation."

"The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Terpin's. 'Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,' she whispered." The words strike home.

In the afternoon, back at her small prim house surrounded by flower beds, the respectable, hard-working, church-going Mrs. Terpin's rest is disturbed by the image of a razor-back hog snorting in her mind's eye. Try as she will, she cannot deny the power of Mary Grace's assault or repudiate the force of her terrible command.

Late in the day, after an unsuccessful attempt to re-inflate her opinion of herself by explaining the attack to field hands whose obsequiousness she has cultivated, Ruby Terpin squares her shoulders, marches down to the pig pen, and confronts her God. Furious, she asks the heavens, "'What do you send me a message like that for?' . . . 'How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?' . . . 'It's no trash around here, black or white, that I haven't given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.' . . . 'You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. If trash is what you wanted, why didn't you make me trash?' . . . 'Go on,' she yelled, 'call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put that bottom rail on top. There'll still be a top and bottom.' . . . A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, 'Who do you think you are?' The question carried over the pasture and across the highway and the cotton field and returned to her clearly like an answer from beyond the wood. She opened her mouth but no sound came out of it."

Finally, God gives Ruby Terpin her vision. She looks to the heavens and sees, well, you'll have to read the story to find out what she sees. Suffice it to say that Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation" illustrates the grace of God in action, "the divine searching for all who are confused, confounded, or otherwise spiritually blinded by the material cares and accumulations of life" 7. It illustrates how God's grace can deal with those who lose their way. Ruby Terpin is utterly convinced of her own righteousness, and her convictions are based firmly on her view of herself, her class, her race, and her religion as superior to others. Then the agency of grace disturbs her and disturbs her deeply. Grace penetrates the accumulated layers of self-respect that have blinded her and bursts her over-inflated opinion of herself. The vision revealed to Ruby Terpin is intended to burn away what she mistakenly thought of--and cherished--as her virtues, in order that she may be restored to the service of her God and her fellows. "Revelation" leaves Ruby Terpin's eyes "fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead." This uncertain but hopeful note--at least she is looking toward the future--leaves the reader contemplating the lineaments of human selfishness and the limits that mankind attempts to place on God's love, mercy, and grace.

As one who was born and raised in the South, I have to say I wonder if it is possible to begin to truly understand the strange, tragic--grotesque is not too strong a word--role of that peculiar strain of Southern religiosity that has become a driving force in American politics, foreign and domestic policy, and current events without reading and studying the works of Mary Flannery O'Connor. During the last several months of her life O'Connor labored over a novel that she was unable to complete. It was to be titled "Why do the Heathen Rage?" 8. One chapter or fragment was published as a story under that title. It's final sentence, "Then it came to her, with an unpleasant little jolt, that the General with the sword in his mouth, marching to do violence, was Jesus", points directly to the anger at the heart of the eruption of Christian nihilism that O'Connor's writing foreshadowed by three or four decades. It is a nihilism that rejects the core teachings of the religion of Jesus in favor of schemes of material conquest based on warped visions of apocalyptic glory and the imminent return of an avenging God of wrath. Unlike O'Connor, who wrote in 1963 that "while the South is hardly Christ-centered it is most certainly Christ-haunted", and most unlike Jesus, the authors of the global war on terror, who would spread sudden and violent social, economic, and political change 9 across the Middle East and Southwest Asia in the name of God, make the mistake of confusing schemes of material conquest with the establishment of the kingdom of Heaven on earth. Could it be that, as the predictable and indeed predicted results of the actions of our political leaders become increasingly evident, we Americans are beginning to re-discover a sense of the tragic, "the awe that the Athenians felt toward Oedipus or the Elizabethan groundlings toward Lear" 10, and, perhaps, a little humility?

This much is certain: No king, no politician, no bureaucrat, no general, no war-profiteering CEO, no media mogul, no fanatical leader of any religion can prevent our praying that we and our leaders will be graced with a new vision. May it be a vision that fixes their eyes and ours on a future made possible by those "self-imposed restraints [that] are at once the most powerful and the most tenuous of all the factors of human civilization--concepts of justice and ideals of brotherhood" 11.

1. Cash, Jean W., in Flannery O'Connor: A Life, p.320
2. The Urantia Papers, 169:1.2
3. Ibid. 169:1.4
4. Ibid. 2:6.7
5. Ibid. 2:6.7
6. Fitzgerald, Sally, in Three by Flannery O'Connor, Introduction, p. xxx
7. The Urantia Papers, 169:1.15
8. Ibid. 155:1.1
9. Ibid. 81:6.40
10. Life, Dec. 23, 1946, Editorial, p.32
11. The Urantia Papers, 118:8.10