Saturday, March 16, 2019

When We Meet Face To Face

Note to visitors:  This post springboards off Jeff Sessions repellent "zero-tolerance" immigration policy of separating children from families at our Mexican border.  Officially, that policy ran from April 2018 until June 2018, when it was shut down after widespread condemnation.  In actuality, zero-tolerance was in effect from October 2017, with a pilot program running in El Paso from July 2017.

In a June 2018 speech, Jeff Sessions justified this degeneracy by citing scripture; specifically, St. Paul's letter to the Romans: 13.  Turns out ripping open families was sanctioned by God.  Who knew?

Months later I remain stunned by Sessions' callous arrogance, and this post attempts to articulate a response.  In it I contrast two writings by St. Paul: Romans 13 –– which Sessions cited –– and 1 Corinthians 13, which a different Jeff Sessions in a different United States might have cited.  I then extend that contrast by comparing 1 Corinthians 13 to C.S. Lewis's novel, Till We Have Faces.  

All Biblical quotations are from the King James Version.  My treatment of St. Paul is admittedly a 21st century extrapolation of a 1st century work.  Still, if Sessions can resort to Bible-thumping, why not some counter-thumping?

My apologies, but there are no music players at this time.  The website I use to embed music players is discontinuing its service, and I've yet to install alternative players.  Ordinarily I'd wait to publish a post until the music was in place –– but following Donald Trump's declaration of a national emergency to allocate billions for a border wall, I'm feeling a pressure to express myself.




We live in fact-challenged, politically unhinged times.  Donald Trump's descent from campy mugging to vainglorious sociopathy ought to take the Republican Party down with him; the modern Republican Party, that is.  That's because Donald Trump is no outlier, no outer-orbit planet in a Republican solar system –– he's its sun.  And when 90% of registered Republicans support his conduct in office, I assume that we're witnessing the fall of the Republican Party as a serious entity.
Chicanery and demagoguery have moved from its fringes to its core; gravitas and moral center, to its fringes.  In time, such a besoiled party becomes irrelevant.


Jeff Sessions
84th United States Attorney General 

The cruelest policy from Trump's sulfurous White House was the 2017–2018 separating of children from their families at our southern border.  Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was the architect of this "zero-tolerance" policy, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen its implementer.
Their actions grip and stupefy. When it registers that many of these children were infants and toddlers, fitting language eludes me.  What words can compass such moral vacancy?  How would you render the casual creation of a generation of trauma victims and attachment disorders?


In crimes this foul, ethnicity seems an afterthought.  Still, these were Latino families that Sessions and Nielsen sliced open: families constellated around children, families whose children nest within kinship networks, families whose children are their hearts.  On my TV set these families look more dark-complected and dark-featured than, say, the average Minnesotan.  This begs the question, would Sessions and Nielsen have exacted their intolerance upon bands of Norwegians at our borders?

Kirstjen Nielsen
6th United States Secretary
of Homeland Security
The perpetrators of this barbarity are guilt-free, even as their actions debase our nation.  “We will not apologize for the job we do, or the job law enforcement does, or the job the American people expect us to do.” said Nielsen In a June 18, 2018 speech in New Orleans.  

It is one of those freezing WTF moments so typical of this Trump administration.  We'd call it depraved indifference save that Sessions and Nielsen are too uncomprehending to grasp what they’ve done.  And when you’re that obtuse, you can’t really be labeled depravedly indifferent.

Alternatively, what if Sessions and Nielsen knowingly predicted the repercussions of carving apart families?  What if they factored in those repercussions as permissible fallout?  And what if these loyalists went ahead and gutted those families anyway, notwithstanding the horror they knew to follow?  We'd then be squarely in the domain of Hannah Arendt's banality of evil.

These then are our choices: unintended horror wrought by imbeciles versus instrumental horror wrought by loyal apparatchiks.  Some choice –– and please bear this in mind: be they imbeciles or tools, these are Americans.  Their actions stain us, their disgrace disgraces us.  
To cite no less an authority on cruelty than the Marquis de Sade, “One is never so dangerous [as] when one has no shame, than when one has grown too old to blush.”



Now here's a galling coda to Sessions' policy of sundering families.  In a June 14, 2018 speech in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Sessions actually justified zero-tolerance with a scriptural reference to Romans 13:
"First- illegal entry into the United States is a crime—as it should be.  Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution.  I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. 

Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.

Our policies that can result in short term separation of families is [sic] not unusual or unjustified.  American citizens that are jailed do not take their children to jail with them. And non-citizens who cross our borders unlawfully —between our ports of entry—with children are not an exception. 

They are the ones who broke the law, they are the ones who endangered their own children on their trek.  The United States on the other hand, goes to extraordinary lengths to protect them while the parents go through a short detention period."  (Justice News, DOJ, June 14, 2018: click for full text.)
Sessions is in high-martinet mode here.  Not only that, I think I've caught something, a kind of moral scabies.  I've this itch now, the same itch I feel whenever some sanctimonious narcissist invokes scripture to sanction degeneracy.  And I think it best to scratch that itch from within the text Sessions is citing, Romans 13.  If Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III can wade into Pauline waters to claim moral authority, let's get wet ourselves and see what we see.

First, let's go to the text.  Here are the first three verses of Romans 13:
1   Let every soul be subject unto the
higher powers. For there is no power
but of God: the powers that be are ordained of
God.
2   Whosoever therefore resisteth the power,
resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that:
resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
3   For rulers are not a terror to good works,
but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of
the power? do that which is good, and thou
shalt have praise of the same:
We'll skip over Sessions' muddling of church–state separation here.
It's enough to call out that muddling for what it is: a tired, xenophobic, nativist trope that God is on our side.  But we can't be blind to Sessions' self-serving and surgical use of this trope to authorize moral rot.  When the architects of zero-tolerance
are the powers that be –– with their judgments ordained by God –– then ipso facto those powers are beyond reproach.  God is on the side of the Trump administration: case closed.

Sessions' surety in his truth is striking in its malignant narcissism.  
Such an easy blending of grandiosity and cruelty snatches the breath.

Not for the first time, I am wishing that certain professed Christians would work on their humility and compassion.


Sessions' scriptural defense is also not the first time Romans 13 has been used to prop up evil.  The racist proponents of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
countered abolitionist protests and justified their Act by referencing Romans 13.  In Nazi Germany, the German Christian Church defended its accommodation to the Third Reich by citing the same scripture.  In South Africa it was used by the Dutch Reformed Church to justify apartheid.  I think it fair to judge Sessions' character by the company he keeps.

Some scholars believe these cited verses in Romans 13 are biblical erratics, out of context with the entirety of Romans.  The verses don't fit and their meaning is thus unclear –– although evidently clear enough to Jeff Sessions, who cherry-picked them to make a political argument.  Moreover, these ambiguous verses clash not only with Romans but with the tenor of all seven epistles (from an original thirteen) undisputedly ascribed to Paul by modern thinkers.  Others find these verses to be authentically Pauline, but think they refer solely to governments that are honorable.  Still others argue that the "higher powers" in question were never specifically identified as secular powers in the first place; instead, they represent divine powers. 

I like a viewpoint anchored in the historical context of Paul's epistle.
Insofar as Paul
was fostering nascent 1st century Christian communities, he would have prioritized their very survival.  Because those communities fell within the purview of the Roman Empire, and because Paul's epistles coincided with the emperor Nero's reign (AD 54 - 68), Paul would have sensibly urged adherents to pay their taxes, follow the rules, and tone it down around their Roman overlords.  

Whatever the exegesis of Romans 13, I know this: there is no credible way Jeff Sessions can spin the gutting of Latino families as God's will.  A true Christian would viscerally grasp the immorality of zero-tolerance.  A true Christian would not condone corruption from the safety of a biblical bunker, placidly rationalizing evil instead of showing contrition.  Tua culpa, Jeff, tua maxima culpa.



Bartolomeo Montagna: 
St. Paul (circa 1482) 
But here's the thing, I don’t think Romans 13 is St. Paul’s best work anyway.

I'd like to offer an alternative Pauline path that Sessions might have taken, a path that would have ennobled, not demeaned him.
Instead of promoting obedience to an "ordained" authority
, Sessions might instead have scooted ahead one New Testament book, from Romans 13 to 1 Corinthians 13.

What's the difference between the two?
Well, here's a preview: we can recruit scripture to bolster the status quo in a partisan world, or we can recruit scripture to sponsor love in a world where partisan loyalties are simply the shiny upsides of delusions about difference.  Since the underbelly of our nationalist "America first!" regime is a "Strangers, keep out!" intolerance, we have a choice to make.  We can toe the line of authoritarian groupthink,
 or we can ignore the line, question orthodoxy, and free up curiosity to dispassionately get to know strangers.

Let's take a look.  Here are the first four verses of 1 Corinthians 13:
1   Though I speak with the tongues of
men and of angels, and have not charity,
I am become as sounding brass, or
a tinkling cymbal.
2   
And though I have the gift of prophecy, 
and understand all mysteries, and all 
knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I 
could remove mountains, and have not charity,
I am nothing.
3   And though I bestow all my gifts to feed
the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
4   Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.
Charity –– modern versions of the Bible substitute “love” for the word “charity".  Its essence is Greco-Christian agape: the selfless love which, in the Christian story, is seen in God's sacrifice of his only son Jesus, and in Jesus's selfless acts on behalf of the world's riffraff and castoffs, and in his ultimate sacrifice of himself.  The love of 1 Corinthians 13 is thus a selfless, boundless love.  It transcends brotherly love, it is universal.  No one falls outside the pale, no one is lesser or undeserving of love; quite the reverse, in fact.

Where Romans 13 emphasizes obedience to authority, 1 Corinthians 13 emphasizes limitless love.  When Jeff Sessions (who once taught Sunday School in Mobile, Alabama) chose obedience to the regime, he simultaneously chose to maintain a Republican fantasy –– that a "them versus us" struggle exists between home-grown Americans and heathen hordes at our gates.  Had Sessions been a charitable man, he'd have seen beyond demagogic fictions of better and lesser peoples, he'd have resisted Donald's Trump's racism and divisiveness.



Let me elaborate this charity-theme, once again using 1 Corinthians 13, as well as the parables of Jesus, and C.S. Lewis's novel, Till We Have Faces.

Consider these closing verses of 1 Corinthians 13:
 8   Charity never faileth: but whether there be
      prophecies, they shall fail; whether there     
      be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be     
      knowledge, it shall vanish away.
 9   For we know in part, and we prophesy in    
      part.
10  But when that which is perfect is come,
      then that which is in part shall be done away.
11  When I was a child, I spake as a child, I
      understood as a child, I thought as a child: but
      when I became a man, I put away childish
      things.
12  For now we see through a glass, darkly; but
      then face to face: now I know in part; but then
      shall I know even as I am known. 
13  And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these
      three; but the greatest of these is charity.
I lack St. Paul’s faith, so verse 10 and verse 12's closing line are a stretch for me.  But I needn't believe in an afterlife to grasp the existential clarity of 1 Corinthians 13.  Which is this: all our isms and perspectives are partial, we never see the big picture.  Whatever we think we know –– whatever our "prophecies" and "tongues" –– there's more to it than that.  In varying degrees, we're all fumbling in the dark.
Imperfect vision is our default state.  

When we swallow whole –– without chewing over –– lies that immigrants are rapists, murderers, gang members, freeloaders, then we participate in our sickening.  Without a thoughtful filtering of what's entering our systems, we'll not distinguish food from offal.  We'll darken our own "glasses".  Our perceptions of a caravan of Hondurans will be colored by these introjected toxins and, reasonably enough, we'll be fearful.  Our posture towards these invaders will necessarily be defensive.  We'll want to ward them off, take cover behind a wall. 

Image: Being Liberal 3/18/17. image adapted: original
quote replaced with same quote in different layout.
Click for text of Asimov's Newsweek article,  
"A Cult of Ignorance".

Why would we be so gullible?  Reputable news outlets and informed research still exist, after all, but they are outshone by a newsy facade of slapdash fact-finding, noisy argument, and outright sham.  Truth has given way to what Stephen Colbert aptly terms “truthiness”: an alternative-facts world where highlights eclipse context and drama shouts over reasoned analysis.
Daily, we are buffeted by a "breaking" news-cycle surf.  Reeling from that turbulence, we struggle to keep our footing.  We've little time to simply sit with our thoughts.


Noisy journalism is nothing new, but in our digital age of virally transmitted "facts" we are mired in sensationalism and chicanery.   Alarmingly, even as the ooze rises, a chunk of our citizenry appears unequipped to differentiate between a demagogue and a pedagogue. A recent survey by PBS Newshour, NPR, and the Marist Poll, reported that 30% of all registered voters will definitely support Donald Trump in 2020, 57% will definitely not support him, and 13% are undecided.  If we're waiting for that 30% to awake from their nationalist dreams –– stirred by antidotal exposure to factual news –– then our wait will be lengthy.
 
Ours, then, is an age of "sounding brass" and "tinkling cymbals".  We need look no further for signs of this cacophony than Donald Trump’s tweets, specious ramblings, and incendiary rhetoric.  

It wasn't always like this.  There was a time thoughtful news analysis was more influential than it now is, a time when media outlets were more sober, less shrill.  There was also a time when institutions of higher learning contained programs of study broader than today’s STEM-focused and humanities-challenged curricula.  (Note: I mention this last not as an aside, but because if ever there were a time for lawmakers to be washed in the humanities –– minimally, some history, geography, anthropology, developmental psychology –– now would be that time.)

Nowadays, and in certain quarters, factual analysis will consign us to a smear-bucket where we'll sit cheek by jowl with coastal elitists and boohooing “snowflakes”.  In case it's not obvious, that smear-bucket will come from the political right.  Mind you, left-wingers are capable of slinging invective themselves, but it's not their strong suit.  Most liberals and centrists are inclusive in outreach and philosophy.  They are typically empathic, accepting of difference, and too polite to trash-talk opponents.  By contrast, inclusion, empathy, openness to difference, and politeness are not obvious hallmarks of the modern GOP. 

Although historically the Republican Party was a "big tent", this is no longer a 21st century reality.  The modern Republican Party is a far smaller tent, and its core composition tilts toward white people, males, evangelicals, and the non-college educated.  Many have seen their economic security shrink while a "browning" of America expands.
Trump's
fear-mongering about immigrants resonates.

It is this demographic that so notably swallows and disseminates undigested understandings of topical issues.  Yes, the credulous have always been with us, but their cohort has swollen of late.  Our national conversation today is suffused with foolishness –– as regards climate change, vaccination risks, planned parenthood, immigration threats, first and second-amendment rights, separation of church and state, stand-your-ground laws, the arming of teachers, trickle-down economic policy (“No, Virginia, a rising tide will not lift all boats”), capitalism versus socialism, and on and on.  Not all this listed foolishness is dedicatedly Republican but, with the exception of the non-denominational ignorance of anti-vaxxers, there is much overlap.

Donald Trump rally in Alabama: 
Chicago Tribune 8/22/2015
And then there's this: ignorance is not the only problem.  The marchers in Trump's band enjoy his clown show.  Their drum major's cocksure strut, grinning snark, and spangly showmanship don't put them off.  Nor do his "character" issues.  In fact, these marchers are obdurately loyal.  Their Donald Trump invigorates and inspires.  His showboating is savored as self-confidence, conviction, and forthright engagement.

Trump supporters in West Virginia chanting 
"Lock her up": Vox 8/21/2018
Especially relished are flare-points when their champion replaces discourse with one-liners and arrogations of others' identities.  Each time Donald Trump reduces Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and James Comey to caricatures, crowds roar. When Trump replaces the names of opponents with nicknames –– Crooked Hillary, Pocahontas, Slippery James Comey –– his audience choruses in lockstep chants of "U.S.A.", "Lock her up", and "Build the wall".

There is a call-and-response pattern to this.  Trump rallies mimic the "Give me an Amen!" calls of old-time revival meetings.  To watch Donald Trump incite the faithful and the fearful in his congregation is to witness a pageant of Come to Donald moments in a Church of the Damned. 



Trump's base does see through a glass, darkly" –– but in their defense, and if you're St. Paul, they are not alone.  My Pauline inference about our modern era is that, given our darkened "glasses", we are all prone to jumping to conclusions.  That's what we humans do, that is our nature.  We reflexively recoil from writhing snakes –– only to then catch ourselves, look about, and notice that we're at the zoo.

By the way, this last is the optimistic scenario –– that we are capable of eventually coming to our senses, rousing ourselves to notice a wider vista.  But our wakening is not guaranteed.  Some of us will never discover that the world is not so scary after all.  That's because lies and fear-mongering too easily succeed in eliciting our worst selves; and once fearful, we tighten and harden our cognitive boundaries.  Thinking, memory, and judgment are significantly compromised, the mind holds its breath.

  
In particular, we deaden curiosity about the unfamiliar and the strange, thereby forestalling any openness to being surprised.  We do this reflexively because we believe we already know what monsters lie in wait beyond our borders. Lacking curiosity, we can't amend preconceptions or be proven wrong.  Thus we remain in darkness.

Now the biggest secret about strangers that we'll not discover is that they are largely just like us.  Barring that discovery, we are shut off from our better selves.  Fear trumps love.  Why would we be loving towards lethal interlopers pouring in from shithole badlands?
 
   
Not only that, far from being loving, we're apt to go off on a witch hunt, and feel quite righteous about it too since our Truth is blindingly self-evident.  And once we've gone off a-witching we'll surely find what we're looking for –– witches.  Prejudice, bigotry, and violence will rise as our fear rises.  Last November, the New York Times reported a 17 percent increase in hate crimes between 2016 and 2017, and "nearly three out of five were motivated by race and ethnicity".  The FBI
reported a 37 percent increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes in that same time period.  The
Southern Poverty Law Center just reported a 30 percent rise in hate groups in the United States over four years, from 748 in 2014 to 1,020 in 2018.

Trump supporters at rally in Oregon: 
The Intercept 3/25/17
Most of these hate groups endorse a nativist, white supremacist ideology.
Ironically, the
dangers to our nation turn out to be not murderous brown people, talking in foreign tones and streaming across our border.
Our dangers are home-grown demagogues –– nativists, racists, fascists, anti-semites, anti-muslims, white supremacists –– who speak in debased tongues and stream through home towns and right-wing media outlets.


There is more danger in the Twitterverse and the dark web than in El Paso.



There is a biology to this.  Our fear of strangers expresses a hard-wired, primitive alarm system.  Archaic midbrain structures fluidly highjack prefrontal cortices and signal threats where none exist –– activating fight, flight, freeze reactions to shadows in the woods.
Imaginary goblins curtail imaginative curiosity about foreigners and we are uncommonly stupid about the natures of those dissimilar to us.
We spot differences but not likenesses, and these differences unnerve us, prompting a scurrying for the safety of walls.


But what if, instead of differences, we noticed similarities?  What if we saw not different races, ethnicities, and creeds but people like us, fellow human travelers living on the same planet and coping with identical issues?  We're all mammals, after all; we're all living under a death sentence and getting by as best we can on our single, fragile, overheated planet.  

Psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan (1892 – 1949) put it this way:
"We are all much more simply human than otherwise, be we happy and successful, contented and detached, miserable and mentally disordered, or whatever." (Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry, 1940, p. 7)
Sullivan called this principle a "one-genus postulate", and he felt that the only relevant differences among humans were differences in relative maturity.  To imagine that an entire category of humans, white nationalists, is innately more mature than another category of humans –– Honduran immigrants, say –– is delusional.  To believe that we Americans occupy a higher perch on some international totem pole is hubris and paranoia.



For St. Paul there is one quality which affords a wider arena than that afforded by our narrow preconceptions.  This quality opens us to the mysteries of others, especially those whom we have initially feared. 
Whether we call that quality love, charity, or agape, it grounds us.  We may be in the dark but we can reach for a stranger's hand in that darkness, and we can do that reaching selflessly, without thought for personal gain or personal harm.  This reaching requires the courage to suspend preconceptions, hit the pause button, and think before joining a lockstep mob.  Not all fins in the water attach to sharks, and we're likely safer than we know; indeed, safe enough to even chance the deeper waters, those where monsters are said to dwell. 

So this kind of love isn't warm and fuzzy, it's warm and brave.  It goes out on a limb, it's intrepid.  And that's because it's hard work challenging fear-based preconceptions.  It would be easier to not walk into the woods to check out scary shadows than to do so.  It would be easier to stay rooted to a parochial spot.  Attempting a "one-genus" openness takes guts. 

St. Paul employs a now and later rhetorical format in 1 Corinthians 13 as he teaches us about this love.  In our mortal lifetimes "now", we live amidst darkness, impermanence, and a confusion of competing "prophecies" and "tongues".  We are effectively children, with limited understandings and presumably the childish certainties that accompany limited understandings.  But "then" –– in a spiritual adulthood in heaven –– we will know ourselves transparently and be open to others transparently.  

Now how often does that happen in daily life?  How often do I show a face to myself or to the world that is transparent, a face unetched by unformulated hungers, fears, evasions, a face with no need to disguise itself, a face which is my own true face?  And how often are others visible to me in that same way, in a concordant transparency?  How many times do we humans encounter one another that openly, "face to face"?  Not often, I'm thinking.  Which is why the times we do manage to meet one another face to face are times we cherish, because more than meetings of minds, they are meetings of souls.
Perhaps this is as close to heaven as many of us get.

For St. Paul, though, that "then" time definitely occurs in a "perfect" world after death.  In the meantime, while we wait down here for that "then" time, we can do three things.  We can keep faith in our eventual arrival in the light, and we can hope for that promised illumination –– but the greatest thing we can do is love, right now, right here, amongst our fellow benighted travelers.  

It is love that sees past delusions of difference and turns strangers into fellow travelers on a shared mortality-road.  It is love which ultimately turns strangers into companions.  It would have been a loving act had Jeff Sessions been capable of "opening" to immigrants as persons much like himself, fellow companions on life's mortal journey.  

Companionship is a lovely thing, and sometimes in life we have unexpected moments when it occurs, when groups of strangers become companions.  We've all sat, for example, with fellow passengers, delayed perhaps in some airport boarding area, when quips and conversations spontaneously break out amongst strangers.
Sometimes it doesn't take much for our affiliative sides to emerge and our competitive cautions to recede.  (Note: companions are etymologically those with whom we break bread: 
Latin com'together with' + panis 'bread'.  It is an ancient, cross-cultural and broadly human practice to break bread with strangers.)



The Balmaclellan Mirror
(AD 75–200: Iron Age Bronze,
found in Scottish bog)

Interestingly, today's Bible scholars speak of the "glass" in 1 Corinthians 13: 10 as referring not to glass as we understand it, but to what two millennia ago would have been a polished copper or bronze mirror

Eyeglasses proper were a 13th century innovation out of Pisa, Italy, and spyglasses an early 17th century Dutch one.  For St. Paul, when we see through a glass darkly we are not looking outward through smudged spyglasses, but gazing instead at dim images of ourselves in reflective metal surfaces. 

The difference is this.  If I mistake an immigrant caravan for a cadre of MS-13 marauders, it's one thing for me to realize that I was wrong, that I'd been viewing the caravan through a flawed perspective, a smudged spyglass.  But will that realization be enough to prevent my making that same mistake again?  Maybe, maybe not –– automatic attitudes have a way of, well, automatically recurring.  It's our default setting, remember, to get it wrong.
  
Woman with a mirror, 1st 
century AD: Naples National
 Archaeological Museum
But what will help me is introspecting about my flawed perspective.  Where did it come from?  Why now was I primed to use it?  Was my use of it so habitual that I never even questioned it?  Was my perspective truly my own or was it an import?
And if an import, what was in it for its importer?  Finally, was there some benefit
I gained by adopting that limited perspective –– perhaps a felt "Don't Tread On Me" solidarity with others in peril, a feeling of strength in holding firm against lawless marauders?  

If I sit with myself and ponder these questions, my darkened parts ought to lighten, leaving me in better control of my passions and turning me from tool into thinking subject.

The point is, we are not open books to ourselves, not transparent, and our behaviors towards others originate, to some extent, from unplumbed depths.  There is more to the nature of Honduran migrants than our narrow schemas allow us to grasp.  Once we unpack why we think immigrant families are murderers, rapists, drug-runners –– and especially how it was we came by those beliefs –– we'll be positioned to more accurately assess those immigrants.  This was a proto-Freudian insight on St. Paul's part. 



Now if we could embrace strangers at our borders, we'd not be hunkering down behind walls to shield ourselves from their heathen ways.  There'd be no need.  Nor would we be launching crusades into Shitholia to export our prophecies and isms.  Were we to recognize the darkness in all of us, we could accept our common human fallibility.   In "An Essay On Criticism" (1709), Alexander Pope famously wrote that, "To err is human; to forgive, divine".  This strikes me as a Pauline sentiment. 

Simply put, what clarifies our darkened mirrors and attendant misperceptions is knowledge about our own and others' natures.
Love's engine is its capacity to be eyes-wide-open curious.


Caravan of Honduran Migrants: 
LA Times, 10/16/18
And should we succeed in becoming curious about immigrant populations, we will notice at least three shared commonalities: (1) we are all soldiering on as best we can, adapting to and surviving in our respective environments; (2) we never know for certain where our paths will take us; (3) we follow identical life-cycle trajectories, ending in our deaths.

Where we will differ from immigrants will be in local conditions: customs, creeds, cuisines, languages, economic theories, political systems.  And even within these differing cultural "skins" there will be common aims.  Our gods may differ but our ethical systems will overlap.  Our tongues may differ but they will express identical concerns.  Our clothes may differ but they will serve identical functions of keeping us warm, dry, modest, and in style.  


As for our "respective environments", I await a time when parochial rivalries give way to planetary identities, when we meet one another as cohabitants on our shared, imperiled Earth.  That's when we'll "put away childish things" and grow up.

Safety is the pivotal variable here if we are to grow up.  To love others we've got to feel safe around them.  To feel safe around them we've got to do something paradoxical: we've got to study them, even when we'd rather not, especially when we'd rather not.  Otherwise we'll be reflexively circling our wagons.  Knowledge obviates the need to wall ourselves off from phantoms because we learn to appreciate that behind our isms and tongues, we're all the same.  When it comes to immigrants at our southern border, the only significant difference between them and us is timing: these newcomers arrived on the scene a few boats after our own.



Having a mindset open to being surprised crosses the aisle, so to speak, and connects us to those who are different.

El Greco: Christ Healing 
the Blind Man (1570)
I'd now like to cite an authority on love, Jesus, whose ministry showed precisely this loving ability to cross the aisle.  Were Jesus here today, he'd not be deterred from hanging out with the unpopular kids in the cafeteria.  Two thousand years ago he sat down with various outcasts: a leper, a palsied man, a blind beggar, publicans, the woman at the well who'd had five husbands and was living "in sin" with a sixth.

The importance of these parables is not their portrayal of supernatural miracle-working –– such as when Jesus caused a palsied man to walk.
Their importance is that Jesus even showed up in the first place, that he sat at the marginal people's table, that he talked to the guy.  The actual healing of the palsied man, as well as that man's faith, these are secondary to the fact that Jesus was first able to cross borders and commingle with society's rejects.

Such a man would not have been put off by destitute and exhausted immigrants, arriving from another desert in a later age.  Nor should we.

When St. Paul speaks of the transience of our isms and tongues, he's describing not just impermanence but divisiveness.  Division is the necessary fallout of our isms and tongues –– because any philosophy implies its counter-philosophy; any belief, its counter-belief; any political system, its counter-system.  We will always live amidst those with different prophecies, tongues, and identities, be they from distant lands or from across town.  But what cuts across these divisions and promotes unity is love.  Love is a unitive affection, it holds us together, it literally comprehends our disparate parts (Latin comprehendere, from com- 'together' + prehendere 'grasp').

Curiosity and knowledge thus dissipate fear and sponsor connection.
We're less afraid of shadows in the woods once we venture into the woods.




We will leave antiquity now, and move forward to an equally spiritual but 20th century rendering of the delusions that darken human understandings.  Consider this passage from Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis (1898 -1963):
"When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words.
I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer.  Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean?  How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?" (1956
 edition, p. 305)
Till We Have Faces is a dense novel of self-discovery with an aggrieved and unreliable narrator.  I will only sketch its plot and themes here.

The "speech ... at the center of your soul" refers to the lifelong delusion that has driven the actions of Orual, the narrator.  Orual is a princess in the Kingdom of Glome (a place name reminiscent of "gloom").  Her organizing delusion is that she is inherently hideous and unlovable.
She's been told repeatedly by her father that she is ugly and unlike her sister Redival and half-sister Psyche –– the latter, a woman so exquisite that the citizens of Glome worship her and the god of the Grey Mountain marries her.


Through much of the story, Orual wears a veil to hide her face and her shame.  Although the veil hides her ugliness from others, it also renders her unknowable to them, a mystery figure.  Convinced she is ugly, Orual fails to notice that certain principal figures are actually quite devoted to her welfare.  


Her glass is half-empty: she notices what's not available versus what is, she privileges absence over presence.

Orual's felt deprivation in turn feeds a tormenting jealousy towards third parties, persons who threaten the exclusivity she craves from three cherished others: her tutor, the "Fox"; the captain of the guard, Bardia; and especially Psyche.  In these relationships, Orual tries to secure love by making herself indispensable.  Compulsively sacrificing for these others, she seeks to turn her relationships into exclusive twosomes.  As a consequence, Orual can't share her beloveds with others because those others are rivals.  


She complains to the gods and seeks their guidance but –– as gods are wont to do –– they don't answer.  As an old woman, Orual belatedly realizes that she has drained her beloveds of their autonomy through her relentless affections.  What had seemed to be protective devotion on her part had obscured an underlying, controlling possessiveness.  What she had taken for selflessness was selfishness.

This shift in Orual's self-awareness parallels a shift in how the gods are identified in the novel.  Throughout most of Till We Have Faces, the gods are archaic, barbaric gods who demand human sacrifice as appeasement.  They are also distant gods, residing outside of human affairs, with their dictates mediated to Glome's citizenry via a Priest.
By novel's end, the gods' nature changes.  They become internal and merciful watchers who foster self-awareness, versus hungry gods who eat their subjects.  Simultaneously, Orual (whose name is one vowel away from Oral) becomes conscious of her true nature –– that her love has been a greedy, devouring love.

Till We Have Faces is an extended allegory.  At book's end, Orual finds herself –– via a vision –– in the courtyard of the gods.  She is commanded by a veiled judge to remove her veil and recount her complaints (which she has set down in a book).  As she does so her voice sounds strange to her, yet it is disturbingly her voice.  She sees herself from the outside then, in a detached observing-ego way.  It's an epiphany: once Orual hears her longtime complaints from the perspective of a dispassionate outsider, she recognizes that her complaints have been false ones.  It was not the gods who sponsored her misery, it was her own deluded self.  She knows then that the gods can't "meet us face to face" until we have genuine faces to show them.  When we take off our masking veils, when we distinguish seflessness from selflishness, we become in some sense divine. 



Let's now link the C.S. Lewis of Till We Have Faces with the St. Paul of 1 Corinthians 13.

When we awake from our blinkered sleeps, we realize how latent hungers, entitlements, and evasions have clouded our readings of ourselves and others.  Alternatively, so long as our deluded "prophecies" remain unexplored, they'll continue to control us, and they will do so automatically.  

This is why Jeff Sessions and Kirstjen Nielsen feel no guilt.  This is why Jeff Sessions can so blithely claim divine authority.  A man with an actual face could make no such claim.  Only a man wearing a veil could say, "I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order".

Finally, however it is that we humans have come to delude ourselves, it is nonetheless our responsibility to get over ourselves, to grow up. Our uncritical loyalties to nationality, gender, race, status, and creed amount to identity-fetishes.  Our blind adherence leaves us in shade.
And until we grow up, the faces by which we are known will be small, parochial ones.  We will forever be facing off against others, or losing face, or making a face, or getting in or out of someone's face, or putting on a face.  


A larger face –– one in the spirit of St. Paul, C.S. Lewis, or Jesus –– would be a simply human face, unpegged to narrow-gauge identities and evasions. 

In the end, the only thing that really matters is kindness.  That’s what we can offer one another down here, on this mortal plain, where so much is confusing and impermanent.  A physical immortality would be astonishing, of course –– but if our only immortality is to live on in the hearts of others, that will be because we were kind.  Ten years or ten minutes after our deaths, nobody's going to care much if we were big shots.  What they'll remember is our kindness, and I’d gladly swap making America great for making America kind.



I'll end these musings on curiosity, love, and morality with an 1877 poem, "Pied Beauty," by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  The poem is a prayer, not a wishful prayer but a grateful prayer.  It praises a god of generous multiplicity.  We are all dappled and strange in our own ways.  Let's honor that.

         Pied Beauty 

          Glory be to God for dappled things – 
             For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; 
                For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; 
          Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; 
             Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough; 
                And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim. 

          All things counter, original, spare, strange; 
             Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) 
                With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; 
          He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: 
                                          Praise him.



5 comments :

Anonymous said...

Hiya Kit. I enjoyed reading your post very much. "To believe that we Americans occupy a higher perch on some international totem pole is hubris and paranoia." This perceived, believed and advertised "exceptionalism" is quite similar, I think, to British overconfidence, the UK perpetually punching above its weight. This whole Brexit malarkey is a comical demonstration of the United Kingdom's failure to understand, or properly redefine, its place in the world. Here in Greece, people like to think of their country as "exceptional" too – as many citizenries do – but at least Greece doesn't bang on about it with deluded superiority. Greece is the "cradle of democracy" but Greece is also an economic failure with massive debt. Here's to honouring pied beauty. KP

Unknown said...

Wonderful, scholarly, lyrical analysis, Kit. I too yearn for the day when this blinkered era of Trump has faded into obscurity. I'm somewhat comforted by the thought that he -- and by extension, his minions -- know no history and won't realize that he will never be recognized as a part of it.

By the way, Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of my two favorite poets (Dylan Thomas being the other), and "Pied Beauty" is my favorite of all of Hopkins' poems. I also love "Spring and Fall: to a young child," largely because it leaves religion out of the equation. Thank you for your thoughtful scholarship. Greatly appreciated!

Best,
Lolly

Kit said...

Thank you, Kendon and Lolly. Kendon, the superiority-dream (in both the U.S. and in its U.K. Brexit form) reminds me of high school. Sort of like our school's great, our team's great, our coach is great, while the other school sucks, its team sucks, and its coach has paid off the ref. Lolly, thank's for the reminder that in the long span of History, these corrupt fools will be little recognized –– except, that is, for the damage they've wrought. Glad you admire "Pied Beauty". It was the first poem assigned me in a Religion and Literature class at Union Theological Seminary in the mid-60s. It was decades later before I "got it". (Didn't attend UTS, as you likely know, but was able to take courses there.)

nita said...

Kit! You write so well and so passionately; these phrases especially hit home: "we can recruit scripture to bolster the status quo in a partisan world, or we can recruit scripture to sponsor love in a world where partisan loyalties are simply the shiny upsides of delusions about difference." And I love the humanity and tolerance in "Alarmingly, even as the ooze rises, a chunk of our citizenry appears unequipped to differentiate between a demagogue and a pedagogue." But above all, "In the end, the only thing that really matters is kindness." Your kindness shines through every line of this monumental piece as you grapple with the cruelties of our troubled times; it inspires and uplifts; may it radiate back to you.

Kit said...

Thank you so much, Nita, for your gracious comments. It means a lot.

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