Saturday, April 07, 2012

Miles To Go

I'm sure I've probably told this story before, but it is pertinent, so bare with me. Not quite ten years ago, I purchased the CD Believe by the heavy metal band Disturbed. The second song on the release, "Liberate", is a marvelous call to stop waiting for something external to relieve us from all that afflicts us, lead singer David Drayton - who wrote most of the lyrics in the wake both of 9/11 and the passing of his grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi - quotes the Hebrew Scriptures in his call for all of us to live in the Law, which is love.

Needless to say, I ate this song up.

I was introducing it to Lisa, and when it was over, she asked me, "Why do they have to be so angry?"

The thought has been bouncing around my mind, in particular as we have moved through Holy Week on our way to the Easter announcement of the Eighth Day, the first day of the New Creation. With so much for which to be joyful, why is there so much rage? Not just out there, but within myself. I find myself, more and more, with barely contained anger at so much that I read and hear and see. I would be lying if I said that giving vent to this rage wasn't a marvelous flood of feelings.

All the same, there is just so much to enrage us.

John Derbyshire at The National Review:
(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.
(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).
(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.
(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.
(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.
(10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.
(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.
(10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.
(11) The mean intelligence of blacks is much lower than for whites. The least intelligent ten percent of whites have IQs below 81; forty percent of blacks have IQs that low. Only one black in six is more intelligent than the average white; five whites out of six are more intelligent than the average black. These differences show in every test of general cognitive ability that anyone, of any race or nationality, has yet been able to devise. They are reflected in countless everyday situations. “Life is an IQ test.”
Ann Coulter.

The persistence of abject poverty and hunger not somewhere else, but right here in the United States.
The operation of the US economic system The operation of the US economic and political system has led to certain people/groups being relatively disenfranchised.

The normal operation of the economic system will create a significant amount of poverty.

First, in a free enterprise economy, there is competition for jobs, with jobs going to the most qualified. On the other hand, there is almost always a significant amount of unemployment, so that not everyone will get a job, with the major unemployment falling on the least qualified. It might be tempting to identify them as 'unemployable' but what is in fact happening is that the private enterprise system is not generating enough jobs to employ everyone.
Secondly, the top echelon of business has the power to allocate the profits of the enterprise, and certainly they have allocated these profits to themselves in recent years.
The operation of the US political system, The US political system, which should address the major problems of its citizens, is to a great extent not focused on fundamental concerns of poor people, but on other concerns.

Military and security expenditure represent half of US federal government discretionary expenditures, much larger that expenditures to assist poor people, and this budgeting is assisted by a strong web of political and financial connections which has been termed the "military-industrial complex."
Corporations and the rich, through their ability to lobby Congress and the Administration effectively by such means as spending large amounts of money on lobbying efforts and on political campaigns of elected officials have succeeded in establishing their priorities, including tax breaks and subsidies..
The Democratic party, which used to be a party of the 'working class' has now set its sights on the 'middle class' as the target base of voters it must appeal to.
The culture of inequality

People are typically segregated by income and often race.
Jobs are low paid and scarce. This can lead to crime as a way of obtaining income, and also to unemployed men not willing to marry, which can play a significant role in developing a cultural model of single parent families.
The lack of income, as described in the poverty section above create problems, including poor housing, lack of food, health problems and inability to address needs of one's children.
As a result of their situation, people living in poverty can themselves have patterns of behavior, such as alcoholism or a 'life of crime' that are destructive to them.

The Second Congo War (the dates in the link are wrong; the war continues, with all the horrors such a war drags in its train).

I could continue, but I think the point is clear enough. For all that tomorrow is a day of celebration, joy, and thanksgiving, there is far too much evil and violence in the world to rest easy. I'm angry not because politics makes solutions difficult; I'm angry because not enough people are involved, are working to set things right, to make of our world a place where the Risen Christ can be seen and whose Reign will be acknowledged.

I'm angry because we are, alas, a people who, while free from sin, are still immersed in its clutches. Ours is the time between the Times, as a young Karl Barth wrote nearly one hundred years ago. We have a long way to go before our world, in big and small ways, can be said to shine with the light of New Day whose arrival we celebrate tomorrow.

Anger is a healthy reaction to so much around us, I usually wonder why more of us aren't seething with rage. All the same, we need to set that in abeyance, in the early hours of tomorrow's sunrise, as we gather to remember that, despite the horrors around us, they do not have the last word. Ours is a Creation claimed by the crucified and risen Christ; our task is to live this out best as we can.

Taking A Breather

I was going to be really lazy and just reprint what I wrote last year. I really like the following, even if I do say so myself:
What constitutes the character of this obedience is nothing more or less than taking in to very existence of the inner life of the Triune God that which cannot be, that which was before God created, chaos and lifelessness. Matters of Hell and Gehenna, of Purgatory and Limbo, not only cross a line where speculation rooted in misunderstanding and silence should calm our nervous spirits, but in any event continue to see the Passion as something rooted in human existence, human needs. The being solidary with the dead is part of the Divine desire to be in relationship even there, with the dead in the nothingness, the powerlessness (he quotes the Hewbrew refa'im, those who are powerless, to emphasize the utter passivity of Jesus even in death) which is their lot. Salvation is not only God's act for Creation. Considering the death of Jesus within the context of the Trinitarian life of God leads one to see the fullness of God's desire to take in to that mysterious love of the Three for one another that which cannot be a part of it. The Passion becomes, through the emptiness and silence of Holy Saturday, more clearly understood as a working out of the depth of the Three Persons for One Another in the world God created, even to that which denies creation.
I'm not sure what else to say about this day of vigilance, this Sabbath rest for those of who wait and wonder, knowing what is coming, believing it to be a New Thing.

As a side note, I think one of the existential results of this theological exploration of the death of Jesus within the context of the inner Trinitarian Life of God is to strip from death the hold through fear it has over us. While this is finally accomplished in the resurrection (and any thoughts about this day would be empty, even blasphemous, without the reality of the resurrection as a basis), even here we realize that Death, Hell, abandonment by God are no longer things to be feared. God in the Second Person has taken the full measure of death's dark reign, venturing to the furthest country possible, lying in that most passive state possible - death - experiencing the non-experience, in solidarity with those who are not precisely because, being dead, he, too, is not.

The proclamation of the Psalmist has become real in Jesus, as God in the Second Person makes real the Divine Presence in the Place of the Dead. We no longer need fear death as separation from God. While we shouldn't seek it out, nor strip from unjust or untimely or unnecessary death the condemnation that comes from mourning and rage and sorrow, we should never fear that with this final reality we have come to an end without recourse.

As we wait and watch, not in fear like the first disciples but in faith, anticipating joy as those who live in the light of what is to come, let us remember those who have gone before us. Death, being timeless, knows no boundary; Jesus is with them, even with us in our own deaths, silencing the boasting of the grave through his own silence. Be of good cheer, for those who have gone before us, those who will go long after us, and even we are there in death with Jesus, awaiting the Glory of the New Day whose arrival brings with it the cries of all Creation awaiting its fulfillment.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Holy Week Through The Daily Lectionary

Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above;
John 19:-8-11a
[W]hat [the author of the Fourth Gospel] means is that what actually took place in this use of the statesman's power was the only possible thing that could take place in the fulfilment [sic] of the gracious will of the Father of Jesus Christ! Even at the moment when Pilate (still in the garb of justice! and in the exercise of the power given him by God) allowed injustice to run its course, he was the human created instrument of that justification of sinful man that was completed once for all time through that very cricifixion [sic].
Karl Barth, "Church And State", in Community, State, and Church, p.110
The traditional name for this day is often understood as confounding, even paradoxical. How can it be good that this man, blameless in act as he was sinless before God, was wrongly accused and convicted and executed? How is it good that the power of the state to decide who lives and who dies - what is quaintly called "a monopoly of violence" - became greater than the power of the God we claim created the Universe? Many mysteries and cross-threads and questions come to this particular point - and hang there, demanding an answer.

Politics is more than a hobby of mine. It has been, longer than I can remember, something I have passionately followed, sought to understand, decode, translate, and work through toward a particular goal. The stated end of politics is social benefit. Yet it is in and through unique instances and events involving individuals that the state demonstrates both the means it chooses to move toward that goal, and by so choosing, the actual, historical end it seeks. My own passionate belief in greater justice, not in the abstract but in the very tangible senses we consider for that word - legal, social, economic, political - has always made me less than tolerant of those who pursue politics as an end in and for itself.

I know people who are fascinated by the Great Game, seeing in the intricacies and tactical and strategic maneuvering of various players little more than a real-life variant of chess. I have watched young men and women, their eyes shining with a light very close to hunger, even lust, as they talk about and watch various political actors go through the various motions dictated by power. It is frightening to see that; the game is, indeed, seductive. Yet, much like chess, new players in the game forget they are just that, and most players exist to be sacrificed to protect the King. Perhaps that is why I have never been a very good chess player; I am far less concerned with the game than that for which the game exists. I'll happily sacrifice even a king if it brings greater justice for the pawns, the knights, the bishops, and the rooks.

We Christians have a difficult time being clear about the relationships among our beliefs, our practice of the faith, and our attitude toward the worldly powers that govern and dictate the boundaries of our lives, individually and collectively. Whether one self-identifies as conservative, orthodox (small "o"), a liberationist, liberal, Roman Catholic, or some particular sub-species (Reformed, Lutheran, Evangelical, Wesleyan, neo-Orthodox, yadda-yadda), our much vaunted ability to be clear breaks down when we confront what should be, in practice, the most pressing question we face: How do we as the Church, the Body of Christ, relate to the authorities over us? Considering these same powers broke, then killed, the physical Body of Christ, one would think this a not-unimportant matter.

Too often, we start with St. Paul's statement in his Epistle to the Romans that we are to pray for the authorities because they have been appointed over us. Many over the centuries have protested this seemingly facile, even insulting command. Even at the time St. Paul was writing, local, regional, even Imperial authorities were killing Christians; how unfeeling to insist we are to pray for those who would seek to kill us! The growth of liberation theologies in the last century put this question even more starkly; with the systems of the state subject to much more exacting scrutiny (although, I believe this is a modern conceit that shouldn't bear up; I'm figuring oppressed peoples pretty much at any time and place understood all too well the interlocking structures that had their feet on the backs of their necks), the demonic heart of these systems couldn't be more clear. How is it possible to pray for them? Isn't it blasphemy to insist that God has placed these authorities over us?

Wasn't it Jesus who insisted we are to pray for those who persecute us? Wasn't it Jesus who asked us to love our enemies? Wasn't it Jesus who said we are blessed when we are pursued and oppressed and even killed for our belief in him?

In the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate, the many questions that highlight these matters rise up, giving them clarity. When Pilate insists he controls the levers of state power, the decision of life and death for Jesus as this moment, Jesus makes clear that this power is not Pilate's at all. The decision whether Jesus is to live or die rests not with Pilate, but in the Will and work of the one Jesus called Father, the God who in this moment chooses Divine Glory over contingent justice; the Father chooses the salvation of this broken world God creates and loves over the life of the Son, the eternal Love with which the Father shares in and through the Holy Spirit, that third person that forms the Triunity of God. Never denying the injustice of the whole affair, we affirm with a great nevertheless that the structures of state power are acting as they have been intended. As the machine grinds on, with Jesus strapped down in its path, we hear in Jesus' words the affirmation that his own powerlessness, and Pilate's assumption of power and authority, are such only because the Father has willed it to be so for the greater glory of God and the salvation of all creation.

The never-answered question of this day - What is truth? - shows the disregard the state must have to reality if it is to perform in the way it is designed to perform. Pilate understands Jesus is innocent. Pilate has no desire to see him die. If Pilate is to do what needs to be done, what has been Divinely ordained no less than contingently manipulated, he must disregard the question of truth even as it stares back at him in the bloody, exhausted face in front of him.

As we Christians celebrate and remember this day, injustice looms large in our land, as it does in all lands, and we face it with all the fear, bewilderment, and anger Christians have always done. As we meditate upon the bleeding and dying form on the cross, we see reflected back all those whom the state has deemed worthy of death, whose lives are ill-suited to the ends of the state that considers the illusion of its power to be real. We should always remember, however, that this death, as unjust as it was, was a death God freely chose. Without resolving the conflict between the state and its victims, we clearly see on this day more than any other, why it is we are to pray for our persecutors; why it is we are to celebrate our oppression for our faith; why it is we are to love our enemies, even when our enemies are systems and institutions created to sustain a power that, in fact, does not spring from itself. Our prayers, always preceding and accompanying our lives in the world in pursuit of justice, are rooted in our faith that this unjust act, this execution of one in whom there was neither sin nor crime, is God's Act for us. This resolution of injustice in justice demonstrates the path we are to tread in pursuit of the Church's work for God's Kingdom moves through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, a place where we have been promised, in the Psalms, Divine Presence, receiving both guidance and comfort.

The pursuit of a more just, more humane world, a place where all human beings are recognized as human beings, worthy of concern and compassion, is not going to resolve itself. It is not going to be resolved through the Church choosing one side or another in the Great Game. It is not going to be resolved through some innovation in one or another technique - financial or economic, industrial or scientific. Real justice, which springs from the singular recognition of Divine governance embodied in the Person of Jesus Christ whose unjust death we remember and celebrate - yes, celebrate! - this day, will come only when we are willing, in our rage and disgust and fear at the many ways human beings find themselves hanging on various crosses around the world, to continue to pray for those in authority over us, precisely because they have been so placed by God to perform the work they do.

Good Friday is not the end of the story, to be sure. It is, however, a necessary step on the way. For this reason, Easter poses its own set of problems and possible answers. Which is why this will be continued on that Sunday we celebrate the eighth day.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Holy Week Through The Daily Lectionary

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table,* took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet,* but is entirely clean. And you* are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants* are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him,* God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
John 13:1-17,31-35
There's an old child's hymn I remember from summer camp. "They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love." Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of volumes and millions of words have been spilled on Christian love. Even as we try to extricate the Christian understanding of love from the post-Romantic purple sludge of sentimentality in which it is trapped in our day, we continue to hold it up as the sine qua non of the Christian life.

Yet, how often we fail at it. On its face, nothing could be simpler. Love one another. Yet, two thousand years later we are incapable of this most basic commandment, this final plea from Jesus as he is about to embark on the longest, and last, sixteen or so hours of his life. We denounce one another, declare this or that person or group or even whole denomination or confession as outside the bounds of God's grace. Catholics and Lutherans and Reformed all killed one another; all of them ganged up on Anabaptists. When the Crusaders reached Byzantium, they raped and pillaged in no small part because the Orthodox were different kinds of Christians. The Cathars and Waldensians, Jan Hus and John Wyclife, St. Joan and St. Thomas More were all pursued and killed because someone, somewhere, insisted they weren't Christian and therefore were worthy of death.

As for Mormons, their persecution at the hands of the American people and government is a disgraceful moment (among so many others) of betrayal of one of our founding principles - the freedom to proclaim and practice one's religious beliefs without interference from the state.

As with so much else that he taught, Jesus' insistence that we Christians love one another has been impossible to honor. We would rather make up excuses as to why it's so much easier to ignore this commandment, why the targets of our fear and hatred are not worthy of consideration under its mandate, why the suffering and death of fellow Christians need not concern us in the least.

As we begin to move through the set-piece of the trial, the torture, the execution, and the surprise ending of the resurrection, it is worth noting that in this, as in so much else, we betray Jesus to worldly authorities no less fully, and no less crassly, than did Judas Iscariot. For our birthright - the love followers of the crucified and risen Jesus are commanded to have for one another - we are willing to trade the approval of those who think like us, the easier, wider way that seems to make sense, and the rewards from those around us rather than the only reward that matters from the One who is ever with us. On this Maundy Thursday, my fervent prayer is that we hear this commandment from Jesus and repent of our many failings and betrayals of it in our lives. When it is neither easy nor convenient to love others, that is when the force of this commandment should sound all the louder. It would be far better, I would think, for a rock to be tied to all of us and we cast ourselves in to the sea than that we forget those three simple words: Love one another.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The War On Drugs

Of all the things the Obama Administration has done, whether they've pleased me, infuriated me, or frustrated me, few have left me with the thought, "What the hell do they think they're doing?!?" than this.
The doors to Oaksterdam University in downtown Oakland were blocked by U.S. marshals and yellow tape following the early morning raid by agents with the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Agents carted trash bags of unknown materials out of the school as protesters gathered to condemn the action. A museum connected to the school and a nearby medical marijuana dispensary operated by Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee also were raided.


The raid was the latest move by the federal government to crack down on California's thriving medical marijuana industry. Federal prosecutors across the state joined late last year to shut down dozens of dispensaries by threatening to seize landlords' property if they did not evict marijuana retailers.

The government's action came as a surprise to medical marijuana advocates because the city of Oakland has been somewhat of a safe haven for pot clinics. The city has long allowed four medical marijuana dispensaries to legally operate under city ordinances and recently awarded permits that would allow four more to open.

"Oakland has one of the most highly regulated systems for distributing medical marijuana in the state," said Stephen Gutwillig, California's director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We think this is a campaign by the U.S. attorneys not just to limit but to kill access to medical marijuana in California."

Others countered that pot advocates are mistaken if they believe the Obama administration wouldn't take action.
Perhaps the most aggravating part of this story was a quote from a former adviser to an unspecified Administration's "Drug Czar":
"This is a warning signal to any city including Oakland that they should tread very carefully when sanctioning an illegal activity," said Kevin Sabet, a former senior adviser to the president's drug czar and an assistant professor at the University of Florida. "The brazenness of Oakland and other cities like this has actually made them a target."
I want to take this guy by the hand and whisper in his ear, "It isn't illegal in California."

The decision by the Obama Administration to dedicate resources to cracking down on the medical marijuana industry in California is amazing in its stupidity, its short-sightedness, and its wastefulness. Yet another example of Obama's essentially Rockefeller Republicanism - not for nothing were New York's draconian drug laws called "the Rockefeller laws", pushed through the legislature by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller - is the dogged pursuit of a largely irrelevant and horribly named "War on Drugs". One would have thought, all things being equal, Obama would be smart enough and savvy enough to distinguish between activities perfectly legal under various state laws and, say, nationwide distribution of opiates and methamphetamines. A bunch of clinics operating under the strict controls of California's medical marijuana laws seems ill-suited to the jack-bootery of the DEA.

This is not to argue federal law enforcement has no role in interdicting drug trafficking in this country. It is only to wonder why the full force of federal law enforcement is landing so heavily on some folks growing weed under a state-licensed program to distribute it to people to whom it has been prescribed. The myopia of federal officials on this, as on many issues when it comes to drug policy, would be more comical if not for the draconian sentences that accompany conviction even for the mildest drug offence. Some folks growing cannabis under the protection of California law suddenly find themselves facing years-long terms in federal prison? This is justice . . . how, exactly?

What happens when California, or Illinois, or New York, or some other state decriminalize the distribution, sale, and use of marijuana? It's going to happen. It's come close in both California and Illinois in recent years. Are folks enjoying a quiet evening with friends and a joint going to find themselves facing ten years in prison? The whole notion is frightening, ridiculous, obscene.

Wouldn't it be nice if all those people screeching about the 10th Amendment to the Constitution over things that don't apply took a moment or two to complain about this abuse of federal authority? The folks in California are acting legally and properly under a legal regimen approved by that state. That the feds insist on punishing them when there is clearly no matter of interstate jurisdiction involved is as blatant an abuse of power and authority as one can imagine.

It's time to reset some priorities. Going after people providing a legal, medical service to others, under the cover of federal law enforcement, is little different in kind from bombing an abortion clinic.

Holy Week Through The Daily Lectionary

After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’* So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot.* After he received the piece of bread,* Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him,* God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
John 13:21-32
I've always been intrigued by the portrayed villainy of Judas Iscariot. The Christian message has always centered on the necessity and goodness and divinely ordained nature of Jesus' death and resurrection. The person who gets the ball rolling, however, is portrayed as a scoundrel; the Fourth Gospel in particular goes out of its way to show him as a lying, hypocritical thief. Reviled and despised through the centuries, the matter of Judas Iscariot is not easily settled in my own mind, particularly if we are serious about the central reality of the Gospel - that Jesus came to die and rise again for our sins. Judas, while certainly not an innocent lamb in the contingent act of getting the ball rolling as it were, hardly stands alone as one accused of betraying Jesus.

Isn't part of the whole Passion story our role in Jesus' death? Are we not those who share bread with Jesus at a table set for us by God? St. Paul wrote, "Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. That proves God's love for us." This simple pair of sentences, containing as it does the entirety of the Gospel message, Christian theology, the very heart of our faith, also makes clear that the Passion was a freely chosen act on Jesus' part. However it was to be accomplished, it was to be accomplished not by the contingent reality of Judas betraying Jesus. It was to be accomplished by the freely chosen obedience, glorifying God in and through that obedience, in which Jesus goes from the Garden to the trial and tribulation to the Place of the Skull to a tomb then back to a Garden as the sun rises on the first day of new creation.

We are Judas Iscariot. Lying. Hypocritical. Thieving. Whatever the contingent reasons for being such - and so much more - it not Judas who put Jesus on through what follows; it is all of us. When we confess our sins, we are confessing our role in the betrayal that leads to Jesus suffering, death, and resurrection.

We are Judas.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Defenders Of George Zimmerman

Their theme song, ladies and gentlemen, taken without the deep irony inherent in it:

Holy Week Through The Daily Lectionary

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people* to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Messiah* remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’

After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.
John 12:20-36
"After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them." Yet again, rather than answer a straightforward question with a simple "Yes" or "No" - Phillip and Andrew come and ask if some Greek Jews may see him - Jesus makes his way to an answer by the most circuitous route, taking the reader through a seed parable, a declaration of his own fear, the announcement of the Son of Man, and, finally, the use of an earlier "I Am" statement, "light", as a metaphor for himself.

Through all this, Jesus is pretty much beating in to the disciples' heads that he is about to die, and isn't exactly at peace with coming events. Yet, through it all, despite his own voiced fear, he recognizes the deeper need, the more important thing, the first thing to be sought: "Father, glorify your name." This is followed by an event similar to what occurred at his baptism, where the voice of God is heard as thunder, confirming Jesus in his person and work. Yet, it is not a voice of consolation and comfort; it is, rather, a confirmation that the Father has been, and will be, glorified.

In and through all this, we find little with which to console ourselves. As those who live on the other side of the events to come, we search for a word of reassurance, a scrap on which to hang our hopes that the coming Passion may prove victorious.

Instead, Jesus recaps his ministry, recalls his baptism, declares his Divine Personhood, counsels them to follow him - with the reminder that so doing involves hating one's life - and then goes off and hides from them. It is, in short, the whole Gospel message. Jesus is there, he's teaching, he's baptized, he declares the presence of the Son of Man, then he's gone.

How are we to follow in the light when the light is hidden from us? How are all our questions to be answered, when even the most simple one - can we see you? - results in this rather long, tangential exercise in plot recap? How do we make any sense, find any meaning or worth, in our lives when we are told we must hate our lives in order to be counted among the disciples?

The questions and mysteries pile up, as the reader struggles to understand what, precisely, is happening here. As the time of the Passion comes ever closer, as even Jesus declares in this passage, we are presented with a series of reminders that "seeing Jesus", "being with Jesus", is not something that is ours to ask. At least, it may well be ours to ask, but we have no idea what it is we are asking, who it is we are asking to see, or what it will cost us to see him.

The general consensus - barring the odd, evidence-free speculation of N. T. Wright that it is both the earliest and most faithful of the depictions of Jesus' ministry - is that the Fourth Gospel is both the latest of those included in the canon, and one written not for a specific Christian community, but rather for reasons of mission and catechesis. The line near the end, "These things are written so that you might believe", is often interpreted as showing the purpose of this particular Gospel, its role as instruction manual for new believers, or even unbelievers. There is much internal evidence to support this view of St. John's Gospel, and keeping that in mind, this passage raises the whole question of seeing God.

Divine presence, whether through ecstasy of some kind or merely possession an idol or token, was thought to be both relatively easy and comforting. We continue to act and think that way today, even about the God proclaimed in this passage to be a God who seeks God's glory rather than our comfort and peace. It is not for nothing that it is Greeks who request an audience with Jesus. It is these same Greeks - a general title for Gentiles in this time and place - who are the principal original readers of this Gospel; these same Greeks who form the core of believers of what is to become the Christian Church; these same Greeks who have been raised with a very different understanding of Divinity, Divine Presence, and the comfort and hope and reassurance Divinity gives to those who bask in the Divine Presence.

Jesus recaps his ministry, the most important of his teachings, the fundamental reality of his coming death for the sake of the one he calls Father, and admonishes them to follow in the light only to run and hide, denying them the light, to drive home the point that the God the world sees in and through Him, the Second Person in the flesh who calls the First Person Father, is not offering a message of peace and presence. This God whose presence we seek, in whom these Greeks so desperately wish to believe, is very different in every conceivable way from the gods to which they're used.

Seeking the presence of Jesus, seeking to see Jesus, to be with Jesus, leaves us without seeing Jesus. Ours is not a religious practice of seeing the God in whom we believe, finding comfort in and for our lives in the presence of this God. Our lot is not our own comfort, but the glory of the Father. That is the end of belief in God, the end of the journey of and with Jesus, the reason we are to hate our lives rather than find ourselves reconciled to and in and with our lives.

The comfort grows colder the closer we come to the Cross.

Monday, April 02, 2012

The Week It Got Ugly (UPDATE)

The murder of Trayvon Martin has become a focal point of national attention, which has brought in its train in my week's absence from news of the outside world (even as close to the scene of the crime as I was in Orlando, I purposely tuned out every bit of news I could; I even ignored the weather reports) the ugly, evil parts of our country, the unhindered Id of racial hatred and bloodlust that linger in our national psyche. It is far too easy, I think, to point fingers at "those" racists, at the "Other" white supremacists, and declare them outside the bounds of our national polity. Whether the gussied-up bigots of the "respectable right" on the Internet or the unabashed dregs of humanity from Stormfront and other such nooks and crannies where our worst selves propagate, we are seeing and hearing in and through them the deepest part of ourselves, stripped of our defensive refusal to admit our own racism, our own fear of the Other. To be American is to live with the uneasy truce between this unbridled Id and our Ego's insistence on order in chaos, our national Superego telling us that, with the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr's life and the election of Barack Obama, this ugly past is behind us.

All it takes is the murder of a young black man to remind us how phony this truce is. The maggots crawl over the corpse of the better angel of our collective nature, and we see and hear who we are, who we may always be unless we own it, and in owning it, demand it silence itself.

While I was away, a commenter insisted that new facts had come to light that mitigated my complaint that describing the murder of Trayvon Martin as a tragedy was wrong. I fail to see anything I have read of what has come to light in the past week somehow justifies George Zimmerman killing young Trayvon Martin. Unless, as Charlie Pierce writes in what may well be one of the most beautiful, damning, pieces of writing on this matter I have read, there are just way too many people in our country who believe that some human lives are expendable.

I would also point out that Pierce is spot on highlighting Ta-Nahisi Coates' writings, in particular this piece.

What the future holds in reference to events in Sanford, FL is unclear to me at this moment. What I do know is a young man is dead. He was a young man like all young men, full of contradictions and cross-currents in his life as he struggled to come to terms with his identity; that a seventeen year old might have once been caught with marijuana isn't so much shocking as it is irrelevant. That a young man once flipped off a camera isn't proof of his danger so much as proof he may well have had a sense of humor. We will never be sure how these facets and bits and pieces of his personality might have come together to make Trayvon Martin a man, because George Zimmerman shot him and killed him.

I sit in mourning with Trayvon's family, wishing only this - that someone in a position of authority would say he should not have died that February afternoon, that George Zimmerman's act of violence deserves, at the very least, to be investigated as a crime, and that young Trayvon Martin should not be remembered as anything other than what he was: a young man full of promise that will never be fulfilled because it is still far too easy and convenient to see a young black man as a threat, rather than a human being.

UPDATE: I referenced above what was purported to be a photo of Trayvon Martin flipping the bird. The photo, apparently, was not of Trayvon Martin at all. Even this attempt to portray the young man as some kind of threat has failed utterly and completely. I apologize for repeating the slur without checking my facts first.

Holy Week Through The Daily Lectionary

With Holy Week upon us, I have been thinking of ways to reflect on this final set-piece, this last moment of high drama in the Gospels, as the young, miracle working carpenter from Nazareth faces off with the local and imperial leaders who see in his promise of peace and love and community a threat in need of final destruction. The Oremus Bible Browser is a marvelous tool, including the daily office readings. I think I'll use it as the source for my reflections this week.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them* with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii* and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it* so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
John 12:1-11
In this passage, it is what Jesus says at the end that sets the context for understanding. The contrast between Mary's extravagant, boundary-crossing, sensual attention to Jesus and the portrayal of Judas as a hypocritical, lying thief pushes many questions to the forefront as we consider how we, travelers on this Lenten journey, are to understand this in light of our on-going disciplined preparation for the Passion to come.

Jesus' rebuke of Judas is often misused, a way of dismissing the needs of the poor. Yet, it is part of a verse from Deuteronomy that sees in the prevalence of poverty and need our obligation to serve them. Jesus is not dismissing Judas claim that the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds used to help those in need; he is, rather, changing the subject. Mary, it seems, understands that Jesus' presence with them is not something to take for granted. The nearly invisible line between sex and death, between honoring a beloved friend and displaying desire, between religious and sexual ecstasy in Mary's actions need not be pulled apart here; Jesus is neither shocked nor even surprised by what she has done.

In the anointing of his feet, in using her hair to spread the oily perfume around not only to cleanse Jesus' feet but to prepare Jesus for his coming death, Mary grasps the heart of the conflicting emotions at the remembrance - the anamnesis - of Holy Week. Like Mary's household, we celebrate the presence of Jesus in our lives. The arrival in Jerusalem surely signals the end of our disciplined journey through Lent, a time to break our fast, to join with our fellow disciples and be about the work of serving the poor. We are brought up short by Mary's act, and Jesus' rebuke of Judas, however, not because of its intimacy. Rather, because Jesus reminds us that arriving in Jerusalem, like the Lenten disciplines, are not an end in themselves. Jesus has come to Jerusalem for a reason, a purpose.

He is here to die.

Mary's act is as much one of mourning as of celebration; of preparing for the tomb as preparing for a night together in bed; of the recognition of loss as the celebration of living in the presence of a beloved Other. Jesus breaks the mood of celebration by reminding us that we are still in Lent. We still have days to go before the story reaches its conclusion. We should remember to seek God's Kingdom first, God's righteousness first; serving the poor, should it be among our gifts and blessings, will be added to us as long as we, like Mary always seems to do, remember the first, and better, thing. Because Jesus will not be with us in the flesh, we must celebrate this remembrance of his presence with a tinge of mourning, with the foreknowledge we have that it is but an instant, another step along the Lenten journey that leads us, inexorably, sometimes against our wishes, to the foot of the cross on Friday, to the ground before an empty tomb on Sunday.

We are still in Lent. We still need to practice our disciplines preparing us for what lies ahead. Just as Mary prepares Jesus for his grave, even as she celebrates his presence with them in her household.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

No Way Out? A Review Of Basil Davidson's "The Black Man's Burden: Africa And The Curse Of The Nation-State"

Imagine a well-meaning, concerned self-professed devout Muslim who produced a video about the Enron collapse. Calling the video Enron2012, the video's producer would still have ample access to people victimized by Enron's various criminal acts, out their life savings with no chance whatsoever of recovering them. Such a video, presented as the work of a group of Muslim adults and children concerned only for the cause of social justice, their hearts and minds with the victims of the massive fraud that was the essence of Enron - its only real business model - is offered to the world on YouTube as a way of raising awareness around the world about the silent victims of a gross injustice that can never be made right.

Most Americans would, I would think, be outraged at the ignorance, the ridiculousness, and the irrelevance of such a video. Which is not to say there aren't millions of Americans even now who turn red with rage when the word "Enron" is uttered. On the contrary, the lack of serious action against Enron, its managers and board of directors, or the accounting and investment firms that advised and oversaw its various alleged businesses, was a prelude to our on-going "Let It Be" attitude toward the perpetrators of what can only be called Enron, Part II, wherein massive business fraud nearly destroys not only the nation's but the world's economy and those who brought this about are not only still walking around free, but enjoying the fruits of their questionable business practices while millions continue to lose their homes, look for work that isn't there, and we face the prospect of a fourth year where, as should be clear by now, our economy does little to right itself.

Americans would be outraged at the thought that such a project reflected the reality within which they live, and rightly so. Without denying the gross injustices of the failure to punish Enron for its crimes, our demands would focus on our current reality, far different from a picture presented by such a well-meaning but ill-informed attempt by an outsider to paint a portrait of America as it is. Such, I submit, is the reason for the meteoric rise and fall of the Kony2012 project. In no small part due to the Ugandan people's demands that their current situation is far more complex, and in need of far different solutions, than the pursuit of a single criminal, what was meant as a sincere attempt to inform an ignorant United States of the depredations of Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army has become a bad joke, a reflection of the ignorance and racism of white America.

An alternative "awareness-raising" project, while itself even more dated than the Kony2012 project, is Basil Davidson's The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State. Published in 1992, the fruit of forty years studying and writing about the vagaries of a continent that went from imperialist playground to seed-bed of a world-wide hope for a new birth of freedom to a decrepitude borne of kleptocracy and a misnamed "tribalism" - Davidson prefers "clientelism", with overtones of a kind of gangsterism reminiscent of parts of ethnic enclaves in the US under the thumb of various organized crime syndicates - Davidson always maintains the tension inherent in any consideration of "Africa". A continent of over fifty nation-states, hundreds of recognized indigenous ethnic and national groupings, whose record of achievement prior to the arrival of European traders in the mid-15th century is remarkable precisely for the many environmental and political burdens they faced on a continent not having vast stretches of arable land, whose jungles harbored death in a variety of diseases unknown anywhere else, and yet who nevertheless managed to create stable polities, some vast that lacked the one thing the Europeans had - an ability and willingness to dehumanize, dispossess, and kill on a scale Africans, in their dealings with Arab and Indian traders, had yet to experience.

Davidson's thesis is a simple one, if in need of a bit of historical explication. Using a variety of examples, principally from British West Africa - Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria in particular - Davidson paints a picture of populations, under pressure from foreign trade missions yet willing to deal with them on the basis of equality that are at first gradually then, in the 1890's quite rapidly, ignored as indigenous homelands are, one after another, invaded, their lands stolen, their traditional rights and privileges stolen, and every scrap of wealth wrung from both land and people with neither consent nor return, only to be told, in the decade of independence from the mid-1950's through the mid-1960's, they were now on their own. In the intervening decades, Africans were told they had no history, no society, no political sense, nothing of value in their own experience from which to draw to set about the difficult task of creating nations they could call their own.

This old-wives tale - that Africa is a land without a history - was bought by the few lucky Africans allowed to study in London and Edinburgh, in Paris and Brussels, who returned to their homeland flush with the lessons drawn from Europe's torturous centuries of assembling itself in to a rough, working continent of two dozen or so nation-states, each sovereign in respect to its laws and traditions, whose inviolate rights to national integrity all other nation-states are bound to respect. The problem of the artificiality of the imperial borders, largely drawn in a happy ignorance of local realities, was something to be pushed down the road, something the new generation of state builders seemed would become a matter of course once constitutions were ratified, leaders were recognized, and treaties with fellow nation-states became ratified and part of local law. That this entire process ignored both the wishes and needs of the local populations was not even a matter to be discussed; the arrival of liberation meant, of course, the arrival of the nation-state, with all the demands of patriotic feeling and legal obligation inherent in devotion to one's homeland. One could be Asante, to be sure, as long as one were Ghanaian first.

Tacking a system of domestic and international governance on to the African reality that ignored both the local political realities, as well as the varieties of local needs, created, from the get-go, a situation in which the needs of the state became divorced from the needs of the society. The privileging of the nation-state, domestically and internationally, created the basis for the on-going troubles nations as different as Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique continue to face. That these allegedly sovereign nations operate without any regard for the needs of the people in whose names they supposedly govern, too often at the behest of the World Bank, the IMF, and transnational capital whether in corporate form or in the collective demands of the Chinese, whose presence across the continent is as much a cause for political concern as it is humanitarian concern, has become a truism without any more serious reflection among elites than the shrug that says, "It's Africa. What are you going to do?"

The alienation of Africans from their indigenous realities and histories wrought by indifferent imperial powers has led the great hope of liberation to sink in to the squalor of terror regimes in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Uganda and Zaire, with much of the continent under the fiscal thumb of international and transnational finance who are all too willing to overlook local criminality as long as debt payments are made. Thus, the on-going situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in which a weak "national government" is in fact powerless to deal with invaders from Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, and other countries. The past decade has seen "Africa's World War", millions of deaths, principally in DRC, as these states have set up enclaves, for all intents and purposes, to rape the Congo of its natural wealth, particularly in mineral resources. That these "informal" economies and trade networks are tolerated, not least by international agencies allegedly in place to oversee "development" tells any even moderately intelligent observer they are as much a part of the problem as the various actors, too often labeled "warlords" and "tribal leaders" by outsiders who have no reason to look in a mirror and see the source of so much of the continent's misery.

Davidson's book was published in 1992. The intervening twenty years have, in many ways, borne out his thesis with a plethora of examples, from the Rwandan genocide to the collapse of Ivory Coast, through the short civil wars in Ghana and Kenya, to the barbarism and kleptocracy in Zimbabwe. At the same time, while the continent continues to be ravaged by environmental threats faced by no other land, from desertification to the ravages of diseases from AIDS and malaria through infant diarrhea and nodding sickness, there is the growing willingness of the African Union to demand states conform to some semblance of international norms, as was the recent case in Ghana, to the relative stability of states such as Tanzania and Botswana who demonstrate what might be possible given patience and imagination.

It would be easy to think of "Africa" as some odd, alien "other place", inhabited by strange beings possessing neither the skill nor imagination to overcome the many burdens, tricks, and traps placed in their way by, in turn, imperial powers bent on stealing as much native wealth as possible; by world powers who see in the continent the possibility of transferring at least some of their conflict as far from domestic eyes as possible; and neo-colonialist powers such as the IMF who govern with neither consent nor even jurisdiction, creating thriving cultures of theft and what Davidson calls "piracy" as well as the above-mentioned "clientelism" in order to fill foreign coffers with the stolen wealth from local inhabitants. The work goes a long way toward reminding readers that, being human living in communities that spanned hundreds of years of more or less stable continuity, the various indigenous polities of Africa could have been, and may yet be, a rich resource for a continent who reliance on the already senescent nation-state has failed it in every conceivable manner. This is not to argue for a return to some mythical status quo ante imperium. Rather, it is to remind readers that Africa is not without resources for extricating itself from the many burdens placed upon it over too many centuries of domination.

The recent introduction of some one hundred or so "American military advisers" on the prowl for Joseph Kony is reminder of how we continue to do precisely the wrong thing in regard to addressing local matters, wherever we insist on sticking our overlarge guns and noses. Which is not to say that the problems many places across the continent of Africa face are massive, and require not least assistance from outside, not least because so much indigenous wealth has been stolen over the centuries. It is only to suggest that the black man's burden will continue to be, as it has for far too long, outsiders who chase phantoms in the jungle while all the local people wish is to be left to live their lives, conduct their business, praise their gods, and conduct their affairs on their own terms.

"I'm So Happy!": Some Thoughts On A Family Vacation

Last Friday, the family bundled itself into my Kia Spectra and drove from our little home out here on the prairie to the bustle and crowd of a Disney Resort Hotel - Pop Century - for six days at Disney World Parks. We arrived on Saturday, March 24 amid sunshine and temperatures in the mid-80's, surrounded by lush vegetation, various local birds like ibis's and egrets, even those little lizards that crawl over everything, and immersed ourselves in the Disney Corporation's vision of what a vacation should be.

For the second year in a row, I can honestly say I can't believe what a marvelous time the four of us had.

The trip itself is enjoyable, even if this year, I must admit, I personally was far more focused on getting there than enjoying the drive. One thing that detracted from the drive south was the weather on our first day. Much of the drive, south through Indiana and Kentucky on I-65, then east from Nashville on I-24, was spent in driving rain. Particularly in Kentucky, it became blinding. From Nashville to Chattanooga, TN, we switched from bad weather to bad traffic. Bumper-to-bumper for over 120 miles, averaging around 40 miles an hour, it was, to say the least, frustrating. At least it was sunny. When we finally arrive at our hotel, on the southeast side of Chattanooga, having picked up I-75 and sitting smack dab on the Georgia border, the weather was sunny and warm, the city green and alive with spring flowers, the dogwood and redbud trees in full bloom. Chattanooga is a beautiful city, one it would be enjoyable in which to spend time; the drive from Nashville goes through the beautiful mountains of central Tennessee, including a drive right over Mont Eagle, with its downslope dotted by truck run-out lanes should a big rig lose its brakes.

The drive through Georgia takes a driver through the foothills of the southern end of the Appalachians through Atlanta, a vibrant, busy city that, like Chattanooga, seems inviting to curious tourists. My wife spent time there training as a US-2 and had nothing but happy memories that included spending the night in a homeless shelter, having been given nothing more than enough money to get some soup and coffee. The red clay of the soil bursts through further south; beyond Macon, the landscape flattens out until, when you hit northern Florida, it resembles a tree-lined version of the prairies that run past the horizon here at home. One thing I can honestly say, I had no idea there were so many cattle ranches in Florida, a land an outsider like me links more to orange and other citrus groves.

The Disney experience is, should one pay attention, one of total immersion. From the moment one passes underneath the sign welcoming one to Disney's resorts, you are enveloped in a not-quite-stifling, benevolent paternalism that offers respite from the world to which one is used. Mickey Mouse is omnipresent, overseeing your experience in way that offers the reassurance that reality is plastic; here, it seems, a simple line drawing by a struggling movie producer from the late 1920's suddenly becomes the beneficent god of Vacations and Family Entertainment. Everything and everyone smiles. The grounds of the tens of thousands of acres are kept immaculate; the sight of litter is rare enough that you remark upon it, and it disappears soon enough. The employees at the resort are friendly and helpful; even in the hustle of the dining area, which are crowded each morning with thousands of tourists wanting only their free coffee, and maybe a quick bite to eat before heading off to one of the parks, can seem harried at times, but are also helpful, smile, and always remind us to "have a great day".

A great day. A magical day, even. That is the tag line you get at the parks. Magical. It was Walt Disney's intent to transfer to visitors his own experience that it is possible to retain in to adulthood the wonder and enjoyment of an imagination not hindered by experience that views the world through a thick haze of skepticism. While one can and does spend part of the first day pointing out the creakiness of the very old animatronic parts of various rides, the quaintness and even dated quality of so many of the rides and attractions, the ominpresence of the demand visitors let go and have a little child-like fun without looking for the monster's zipper - to suspend disbelief, in other words - soon overcomes this tendency. Whether one is in the Magic Kingdom, with its nostalgia-tinged Main Street USA, its quaint and outdated vision of "Tomorrowland", and the sheer over-the-top pressure from every square inch to sit back and enjoy oneself, it becomes impossible not to suspend disbelief. Standing in line for one or another ride - pick a park, any park; pick a ride, any ride - one finds oneself immersed not in a line for a thrill ride, but preparations for entering in to an alternate reality, a few minutes when the excitement of the ride combines with the overall atmosphere to transport the rider from whatever mundane realities in which one finds oneself to the world created by Disney Corporation. For the Pirates of the Caribbean, you move through the beautiful upstairs of an island villa through the dungeon where pirates have been housed, including a pair of skeletons who died playing chess in their prison cell until you find yourself riding through the film version of the old ride, complete with Barbossa shelling the fort at Port Royal, while various miscreants search for an animatronic Captain Jack Sparrow in an equally animatronic Tortuga where we are presented with a harmless, even funny, view of life spent killing, destroying, raping, and otherwise living outside the law in the 18th century.

Multiply this by tens, and include even the places you walk through to get from one spot to another, and this is the Disney Experience. The attention to every possible detail is a wonder. Walking down the glossy rebuild of Sunset Boulevard from a California tourist board photo shoot from the mid-1940's, all art deco and shiny with chrome, through the long gangway that leads to Space Mountain, with its various images and once-upon-a-time marvelous panels that pull one in to the world of the ride through the fake Safari park - the real Safari park at Animal Kingdom, I learned, is as large as all of the Magic Kingdom, a bit of information that took my breath away - the entire experience has been created in order to give the waiting park visitor the chance to escape, to let one's imagination's run wild, to enjoy not just a momentary ride but an entire experience where imagination, not the mundane rules of the world outside the parks, governs what is and is not true.

If one is willing to let go, take Mickey by his over-large gloved hand, and let him lead, it is impossible not to enjoy yourself. Even in the press of tens of thousands of people, the heat and humidity, the lines that can create nearly two hour waits for some attractions, if you relax and give yourself over, the whole experience becomes exactly what Walt, in creating his first amusement park in the mid-1950's, wanted - a place where the whole family can come and enjoy some time in a place where dreams really do come true.

Not everyone is so willing, however. The number of people walking through the parks, their ears or eyes glued to their cell phones as they chat or text with people outside the parks is amazing. Parents, harried by the long waits, children not taught to look around and see the world, let their children play their games on their iPods and phones, chat with friends back home, or even give themselves over to our contemporary version of distraction, rather than trust Walt Disney and those who inherited his vision to provide us with entertainment.

A word of advice. If you are a parent with small children, younger than eight or nine or so, please think twice or even three times before traveling to Disney for a vacation. The overwhelming nature of the thing caused more small children to experience meltdowns than I can count. It's hot. The sun, in late March, has the feel and look of July (at least to this child of the northern climes). There are tens of thousands of people walking, talking, singing, pressing against you, cutting in front of you, bumping in to you. The experience very often is one of hurry-up-and-wait, trying the patience of adults and children alike. Most of all, between the sounds from the parks and the thousands of people talking, laughing, and occasionally screaming, its very, very loud. After my second day, I wondered why my voice was so hoarse. Until, that is, I arrived at the park and realized I spent most of the day talking VERY LOUD in order to be heard above the din. A day in the park is exhausting, an assault on the senses that, provided one manages these things well, merely wears on you. Small children, even with the best parents, are hard-pressed to manage the overwhelming nature, and quickly express themselves through tantrums designed to coerce their parents to remove them to someplace quiet and cool, a spot away from the too much that the parks represent.

Pay attention to your children. One long-line became an hour-long experience in frustration as a man, on his own, ignored the five children around him who variously climbed on this or that part of the surrounding attractions, touched everything instead of just looking, and spread themselves out in order to create a zone of comfort in the press of people in line. Instead of walking along staring at a spot in space, only speaking when spoken to, gather your children around you, point out how the whole line has been constructed to create the illusion one is someplace else, someplace where dreams can come true half a world away, a place that no longer exists if it ever did outside the fever dreams of imperial powers or disdainful foreign officials (this latter is the case for the Jungle River Trek, the Kali River Rapids, and the Safari Ride, which are filled with what appears to be renderings from the perspective of invading whites rather than locals who might well offer a completely different view of the experience one is about to have).

Finally, don't argue with the folks at the park. If you have a Fast Pass for a ride, don't demand to be let in before the time on the ticket. Don't continue to argue after you've been shunted out of line. If your party's been broken up, that is not the park's fault; my family managed to wait five extra minutes for entry to a couple rides because our Fast Passes had different times on them. No amount of argument is going to give you special privileges; there are just way too many people to start providing exceptions. Also, it shows one is not, in the end, surrendering to the benevolent authoritarianism of the park. Here, everyone is special so, as Syndrome in The Incredibles says, no one is.

For some reason, the presence of so many families with small children became a distraction at times. At one ride, a woman holding a child that, as my wife pointed out, could not be more than a month old, was escorted out of line, complaining the whole time, because her infant was too small to ride. One wonders what people like that are thinking, carrying a small infant on a ride that will be loud, presents dangers the ride's designers clearly sought to mitigate by limiting it to people of a certain height and therefore physical maturity to endure. There were a few others who also played on our combined nerves, insisting in this or that small way they be privileged in some way the park just couldn't accommodate.

On Thursday, our last full day, we spent the day at the poorly named Magic Kingdom. Wandering through the press of people, the sun beating down on our sunburned skin, one would have thought the four of us, on our sixth day in a Disney Park, would be exhausted, overwhelmed, cranky with one another and the people around us. Instead, we were wide-eyed with wonder and excitement. My older daughter took picture after picture, in particular of Cinderella's castle. We made our way first to the poorly named "Tomorrowland", which presents a quaint and largely moot "vision" of the future from forty years ago that, in its aluminum and chrome dressing, can appear overwhelmingly drab and cold. I was surprised that Moriah, at fourteen the epitome of the cool contemporary teenager, insisted we wait half an hour to ride the hokiest of Disney rides, the "Astro-Orbiter". Because Miriam insisted on riding with her mother, Moriah rode with me. Sitting in front of me, she had control of the handle that gave riders the ability to raise or lower the car as it spun its circle around the post. Yanking back on the wheel as the ride began, she shouted the title of this post with so much joy it made me cry even as I laughed at the wonder I felt. Which gave me pause to think that even the simplest, even what I consider "hokiest", of Disney attractions, offers people the opportunity to let go the pressures from the outside world and just be happy.

For that moment, I was thankful. I was thankful for all we had endured - the long drive through crappy weather; the days and weeks of anticipation as the day for our departure crept closer; even the long line for this particular ride - because in my daughter's unmediated expression of wonder and joy, I understood that all of us had, indeed, given ourselves over to the parks, and were, for a few hours more, letting Disney dictate reality for us. That single moment made everything else worthwhile. And everything else, as St. Thomas said of a different experience in his own life, is straw.

Virtual Tin Cup

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