Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

     Overcoming the world

I’ve been enjoying Christmas more intensely this year because my sense of good things being threatened has been getting stronger. On Christmas Eve a solemn troupe of pompous old men believed by themselves to be among the most powerful in the world voted to put themselves in charge of physicians, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and all of us. That they lack the wisdom to do what they have promised matters less than that they have no real intent to deliver on those promises. Though some claimed privately to be uncomfortable with the carnival of lying and theft, like good Stoics they wore their masks and did what they had to do.

Theirs, after all, is a tragic world. The thing to do, maybe, is to get money and power and to find ways to keep it.

The corruption and collusion were well-publicized, the deceptions were easily discerned, and the opposition of most citizens was duly recorded. It seems, for the moment, not to matter. In the foreground the gray heads stood in television lights paying public homage to goodness by insisting that what they did they did for the poor–assuring us it was a noble accomplishment–trying, vainly it seemed to me, to distract us from the ancient rituals of thievery, bribery and threats going on in the background, not quite respectably hidden. I don’t know whether they know what they do.

In such a time I turned with heightened gratitude again to the story of a baby in a manger, to the endless memory of a birth that left the Olympians stranded, power draining from the tawdry myths. The age of petty gods with doleful powers, of bestial nightmares demanding appeasement, began to recede.

No one is free to ignore that miraculous birth. The most venal little king who has gained a throne through the pettiest methods now feels compelled to justify his rule by speaking of victims, by pretending to act out of compassion. It wasn’t always so. Alexander thought it enough to provoke awe. Concerning himself with the plight of the poor didn’t–couldn’t have occurred to him.

Ancient societies did have the ideal of compassion–but it was chiefly within defined groups, the boundaries strewn with victims. For centuries people had depended on scapegoating and ritual sacrifice for cathartic moments, driving Satan out through cyclical violence that relaxed the tension, refocused the rages that come of living against one another.

Jesus changed the game. In his story we are confronted with a god who came willingly among us to suffer, to accept the full measure of violence orchestrated by the Olympians who needed to refocus and pacify the mobs, and then to teach us a profound truth about this world, giving us the key to peace– if we want it more than we want lesser things. He was born into a faith that had long taught that every person is an immortal soul, equally valuable to God. Being condemned by the world in a pattern of violence that even his staunchest disciples could not resist, he was tortured to death.

But the story does not end. Jesus disrupts the cycle. He returns from victimhood with a simple message: “I am innocent. I have overcome death.”

The consequences of that moment ripple through the ages. Mists dissipate. A pattern hidden in endless cycles of violence since the beginning of the world comes into view.

Today’s world is dominated by a commitment to compassion. We all feel compelled to care about others, or to pretend that we do. Compassion is now understood as a universal claim upon us all, including the rulers of the earth. And there’s no real doubt about where that revolutionary idea entered history. It comes from the Jewish and Christian story:

“Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you to drink, a stranger and welcome you, naked and clothe you, sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:34-40)

Such a teaching shook the world to its foundations. Of course, the powers and principalities against which we contend, of which Paul spoke, didn’t simply go away. Indeed, they have never been more powerful. The modern totalitarian spirit finds itself forced to pay homage to Christ, taking up the cause of victims, claiming the mission of redemption as its own. Judas, among the first to oppose Christ, serves as a model. When Mary anoints the Savior’s feet, Judas protests that instead of buying perfume the money should have been given to the poor. “He said this, not because he cared about the destitute,” John tells us, “but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the moneybag and would steal what was put into it.” (John 12:4)

“Why wasn’t the money given to the poor?” asks the thief, the willing instrument of murder. He parodies the master. It’s the pattern of the great ideologies of the twentieth century, which, while speaking of helping “the people” and promoting the common good, made that century the bloodiest in history. What they offered was a parody of the kingdom of heaven. They promised money and food and healthcare, but in practice the promises failed.

In truth, an individual counts for nothing to the socialist masters. Their vision is grand and abstract. Individual persons are stifled, flattened and hollowed out, having little left to do but to comply. Amid the vast machinery assembled in the name of compassion, people soon find themselves quite alone, quite powerless, quite desperate, with nowhere left to go. Modern totalitarians talk of a future city of man, an egalitarian cage of mind-numblingly complex design, where the authorities have outlawed poverty and fear as they continue their work of perfecting society through applied and enforced reason, in a nightmarish parody of heaven.

It becomes more clear day by day that Christianity is the main obstacle to this vision. The work of the kingdom of heaven is to perfect every person, to invite all of humanity into a universal family of equals who have educated their individual wills through a recursive process of sin and repentance to be able to live with freedom and dignity, at peace with all.

It also becomes more clear day by day that people who understand this need to talk about it explicitly. Most who support the totalitarian spirit are sincere in their desire to live in a compassionate world--many of them are merely deceived. Those who authentically desire peace will be drawn to the continuing story of a baby born to topple the princes of the earth by living moment by moment in love and friendship with all he met. They need to hear that story, and they need to see its consequences in the lives of neighbors. Our work now is to discern and denounce the decoys–the seductions–that turn souls away from their divine source to lose themselves and their liberty in a phantom kingdom, the sound and fury mounting, and to live by the rules of the better world that is being born–

to ask forgiveness, to take upon ourselves the name of Jesus Christ, and to take responsibility for doing the things he would do.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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