Friday, February 26, 2016

A Conversation With Hitler About Donald Trump

There's a great deal of anxiety out there among my fellow Americans about the rise of Donald Trump as a political force.  Sure, Trump's buffoonery was amusing for a while, and his ability to stir endless gossip and buzz with one outrage after another kept us all entertained.

But now it's getting more serious.  The Grand Old Party has courted it's "base" so long that it's become debased, a caricature of conservatism.  It's fertile ground for a demagogue, and Trump is that man.
 
His willingness to tap into the dark recesses of resentment and anger, his profanity, and his seeming obliviousness to common decency?  His teasing around the edges of violence?  They stir deep fears of the rise of fascism, of the beginning of a dark and monstrous chapter in American history.

"This is just what it must have been like in Germany when Hitler was on the rise," or so goes the refrain.

But is it?  How would we know?

Fortunately, as a level eight Presbyterian pastor with advanced training, I had a way to find out.  In addition to my classes in hermeneutics and exegesis and ecclesiology, my passing through the Crucible of Endless Process and my signing of the mystic Book of Obligation permits me to travel to Hell once a year to chat with one of the souls there.

I figured, why not just ask Hitler himself what he thinks of this whole mess?

So I performed the necessary rites and rituals, invoked the necessary seraphic protections, and, being Presbyterian, filled out my HT-7603b form in quadruplicate.  One copy to Presbytery, one to the General Assembly Office of Infernal Relations, one for Limbo customs, and one for my records.

Prepped and ready, I descended into hell.

I passed through customs in Limbo, which is run by the same folks who oversee Miami-Dade International Airport.  That finally accomplished, I transited to the lowest plane of Hell.  It had been a while since I'd been to the Pit, so I spent a few minutes chatting with the archdaemon overseeing Hitler's eternal fate and intertorment counseling sessions.  Gaelbog the Rectifier is actually pretty chill by demonic standards, and we talked shop and about our shared love of role playing games for a while.  After the requisite pleasantries, I was permitted to enter the interfolded pocket of multiversal reality where Hitler's soul resides.

I found myself by the side of a road, just outside of the Polish town of Lodz.  It was the fall of 1928, and the sun was bright in a cool afternoon sky.  Gaelbog had told me who to look for, and there she was:  Hala Goldberg, tall, slender, and birdy, with an easy laugh and big brown eyes.

She was in her twenties, and in less than a decade would die in a frozen ditch outside of Lodz, bleeding out from a gunshot with her dead daughter in her arms.  Once completed, it will be the sixteen thousand, four hundred and seventy fourth full life that the soul of Adolph Hitler will have been obligated to live out in its entirety.  It's what all of hell is like, actually.  None of this "fire and brimstone" stuff.  You just have to live every life you've directly touched, feeling and knowing everything that soul knew.   It's set up exactly the same way as heaven, truth be told.

Hitler has another sixty seven million, four hundred and ninety two thousand, six hundred and four full lives to go.

"Adolph," I said, loudly, and she looked momentarily startled as I spoke the Word of Unveiling.  The breeze stilled as time froze, and her face shifted, and there he was.  He was utterly exhausted, his soul worn and frayed with the suffering of thousands of lives.

"What," he said, the word a long juddering sigh.  "What do you want?"

"I'd like to ask you about Donald Trump," I said.

"Oh."  His eyes rolled in her head.  "HIM."

"So, well, is he like you?  I mean, we're getting worried up there."

There was a reluctant pause, and a deep inhalation of breath.  I could see him thinking.  "I suppose, yes, I suppose it would be good to have a moment."  He squatted down on her haunches, set down her basket, and motioned me closer.

"The answer is yes, and the answer is no."

"You're going to need to unpack that, Adoph," I said.

He gave me a glare, a flash of the old blind fury. Then it faded, and the weariness returned.  "Of course."

"Yes, because he taps much of the same darkness.  The fear and anger of a people who do not understand what is happening to them, and why they are struggling.  He gives them a story, a sweet lie that speaks in their voice, stirs them with his anger.  And then there is distorted pride in nation, a bright clear falseness of nation.  He talks of violence, encourages violence, teases violence.  He mocks and belittles, finds enemies everywhere.  He celebrates war, war as if it is a beautiful thing."  Hitler snorted.  "This from a man who has never known combat, who has no martial prowess, who imagines war is just a business deal."

"And he is only passion, just raw emotion, the purity of it."  He looked at me, a strange hunger still glimmering beneath the existential fatigue.  "I remember it.  It is so strong, the fire of a moment's passion.  So intoxicating.  So certain.  I...was deceived."  He looked away, and fell silent.

"You said, yes and no," I said.  "Why no?"

He laughed, or, rather, made a short sobbing bark that may have been a laugh.

"Because he's AMERICAN," Hitler spat.  The young woman's face twisted with his unhidden disgust.  "Pride in the Volk?  What pride can a mongrel, upstart, decadent culture have in their Volksgeist, when they have no such thing?"

"Well, we..."

"Silence!  You asked me a question.  Let me answer it, and get back to my...to my..."  He giggled, giddily, the brown eyes strangely bright.

"I WAS Germany.  I WAS Austria. I was the Father of the Fatherland.  Pure and noble and...I...I...let myself...become...."

The voice faltered, choking on the words.

"...all that was proud and wrong about those cultures. Their darkness.  Their shadow.  He is American.  The shadow you cast is not the same.  We had a vision, of the Thousand Year Reich.  He has a vision of his own ego.  He is nothing but bluster and ignorance, greed and devouring selfishness, the profane violence of sprawling appetite and unchecked libido."

She stood, slowly, until she was ramrod straight.  "We brought order and PURITY.  He?  He brings chaos and fragmentation.  Undisciplined, unfocused, his followers a RABBLE.  Can you imagine them, lined up in perfect order, banners perfectly aligned, every boot perfectly polished and moving as one?  They can't even spell.  They disgust me."

"So what's going to happen?  If, you know, he wins?"

"If he wins?"  The mask of the young woman's face contorted.  "I can't tell you that.  You know I can't tell you that.  It will not be the same.  It will be American.  Your story, not mine.  Perhaps you should ask Andy Jackson, as he forever walks the Trail of Tears."

"Can you tell me if..."

The woman's hand moved to my lips, silencing me.

"Please.  No more.  I have...I have so far to go.  So much to...endure."  Her eyes brimmed with his tears, and he placed her hand to her chest.  "I didn't know.  We want a daughter, so much, so much, she and I.  I can't believe...that...she will...I just didn't know how much this would hurt.  And it goes on and on and..."  He looked at me, one last time.

"And what happens in your time?  It isn't up to me, what happens."

She took up the basket, and the breeze rose again and played through her hair.

"It is up to you."   And he faded away, and the young woman walked on, wondering at the wetness on her face.

Hell is a hard place to visit.  It is worse still if you choose to live there.


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Judge Me

There's a saying that's come to have popular acceptance in American faith discourse:  My faith is between me and God.

We've been hearing a bunch of that lately, particularly from those seeking power, who bristle at the idea that anyone has a right to call their assertions of faith into question.

What right does anyone have to judge the faith of anyone else?  Faith is spiritual, this one-on-one relationship between you and The Cosmic Kahuna, and no-one has a right to critique what is an entirely private matter.  Faith...and Christian faith in particular...is just a "personal relationship."  It is separate from every other relationship we have.

To which I say, as a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, [bovine excrement.]

My Teacher/Lord/Savior/Friend makes it abundantly, inescapably, inarguably clear.  If you're claiming to be a Christian, what matters is not a binary relationship between you and God.  That is not the whole of the One Law.  Neither is it dogmatic adherence to orthodoxy, or being rooted in your own beliefs about your worthiness/specialness.

There's only one measure of Christian faith:  Do you love God with all your heart, your mind, and your strength, and your neighbor as yourself?  If you do, then you're doing what Jesus asked.  If you don't?  Then you can't accurately call yourself a Christian.

Period.

Everything else is subordinate, because that is the fundamental ground of what Jesus taught.

Can you assess the first part of that relation?  No, because you are neither God nor are you me.

But if I claim to be a disciple of Jesus, you can and should judge me relative to the second part of that command, because you are my neighbor.

You are my neighbor.  If you're an immigrant or a lesbian or a tea-party activist, you are my neighbor.  If you are a meth addict or a prisoner, you are my neighbor.  If you're from Manhattan, NY or Manhattan, KS, you are my neighbor.  If you are an atheist, you are my neighbor.  If you are a Muslim, you are my neighbor.

If you are my enemy?  My duty remains unchanged.

Do I bully you?  Do I mock and belittle you?  Then you are permitted to judge me as failing against the heart of my professed faith.  Do I treat you as a means to an end, or as an object to be used for my own power or pleasure?  Then you have a right to judge me as a hypocrite, huckster, or charlatan.  Do I care only for my own greed, my own hunger, my own ego, to the point where you may as well not exist for me?  Then you can call me a liar.

Because you are my neighbor, and if I fail to show you grace, mercy, and love, then any talk of Jesus coming out of my mouth is just noise.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Disruption and Integration

This is the year of "disruptive leadership."   Both of parties that comprise the dysfunctional false binary of American politics are wrestling with insurgencies from folks who aren't technically members of said parties.  Sanders, after all, isn't a Democrat.  And Trump?  Lord, I don't even know what he is, other than possibly one of them thar signs o' the 'poacalypse John of Patmos was always ranting about.

When a system is stuck, what current conventional wisdom shares is that we need "disruptive" leaders.  You've got to tear it all down, to shatter dysfunction, to blow it all up.

That, we are told, is what good leadership does.  I hear that, particularly, in church circles, as yet another of the impossible list of expectations that are heaped onto pastors.

Here, though, I find myself doing an empirical-reality gut check.  Because the call to disruptive leadership seems loudest and most clear in the portions of Christianity that are withering away.

Of course, one might say.  That's necessary.  You need to shatter a failed paradigm in order to make room to build a new one.

But leadership that conceptualizes itself as primarily disruptive has trouble with the "building" part.  If your fundamental orientation is deconstruction, and the conceptual tools you apply to life are those that critique and tear down, you ain't gonna build nothin'.  Just ain't gonna happen.  When the only tool you've got in your toolkit is a wrecking ball, the best you can do with continued application of said wrecking ball is pound the rubble into finer and finer powder.

The goal, instead, is for a leader to articulate a vision that embraces and gives courage to the best graces and possible futures in a community.  And sure, that disrupts what is.  But it also works with the reality that leader is encountering.  It reflects purpose, a purpose that is shared and spread.

Sure, things need to fall away for the new life to come into place.   But the purpose of that act is not the disruption itself.  It's just part of the integrative process of building up.

And for communities that serve the Way, at least, building up is far more important than tearing down.  It is, in point of fact, the whole of our purpose.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Liking Nino

He's being buried today, somewhere in my hometown.  "Nino," his friends called him.

Antonin Scalia's passing was, well, it was kind of a strange moment.

Because, on the one hand, I disagreed with him about just about everything.  I viewed him as a reactionary, someone whose views...about the methodology for interpreting the Constitution and just about everything else...were remarkably, significantly wrong.  And about nontrivial things, like corporate power, race, and the rights of sexual minorities.

On the other, damned if I couldn't help but like the man.  And not in the abstract.  If asked, last year, which American political figure I'd like to sit down and sip a scotch with, he'd have been probably my first pick.

Specifically and because I didn't agree with him, I found him...likeable.  He had a sharp wit.  He was genuinely funny, in an unguarded, apolitical way.  If you opposed him, what mattered wasn't that you fought.  It was that you fought well.

Because as firmly as he held on to his beliefs, he legendarily did not let them get in the way of his personal relationships with others who disagreed with him.  That fundamental trait was memorialized in The Originalist, a politically nonbinary stageplay last year at DC's Arena stage.  He was human, and as a human being, he was complex.

Nino'd have been thoroughly entertaining to be around.  I just can't help but think that.  There are people like that, folks I know and like on many many levels, whose humanity I can't reject simply because I know how wrong...genuinely wrong...they are about things.

I wonder, in this age of media-polarized demonization, if that's even permitted.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Face of American Socialism

The word "socialism" gets thrown around a whole bunch in our life politic lately.  It's a catch-all slur on the right, so overused and dumbed down that it might as well mean nothing.  If you've reached a point in your thinking where you can't tell the difference between Canada and Stalin's Soviet Union?  Honey, it's time to reconnect with reality.

But socialism also gets dreamily misrepresented by the left.  Even setting aside the gulag and the reeducation camp, the dismal slog of procedure and protocol-driven bureaucracies is a very real thing.  It's a lifeless, artless, joyless horror.  Doing our life together right...in a way that preserves our humanity...is a challenge.

There's been a meme circulating recently among my leftist friends that highlights that conundrum.  It's the "socialist snowplow" meme, in which a line of giant department of transportation trucks with plows affixed rumble down the highway.  "Look!  You benefit from Socialism!  You conservative morons!"

Or something lovely, polite, and bridge-building like that.

Here's the thing.  The face of socialism in America will never be a giant state owned truck.  If socialism ever has a snow-face in America, it'll be the face of a Ford F-150.

Why?  Because I've watched the way my purple state has managed snow the last few years, and I've been honestly impressed.  I grew up in Virginia.  It's my home.  It's where I met my wife.  It's where I went to high school and college and where I've raised my family.

Back when I was a young man, the state exclusively took the big plow route.  Giant trucks, with huge plows, part of the Virginia Department of Transportation fleet.  They did a good job of the highways, but there weren't enough of them to get back to the roads where people lived.  Plows would come through days after a storm.  You'd wait, and wait.

That's changed.

Now, my state still has those big trucks.  But it also works with what must be thousands of small contractors. During the recent blizzard...a huge, huge storm, 32 inches of snow hitting a southern state...the first wave of trucks hit at the height of the storm.  What we saw in the neighborhoods were not Big State Trucks.  These were working men, contractors and landscapers, driving the trucks that they use in their day to day labors.  F-150s, 250s, and 350s, mostly.  None of them gussied up with leather and nav and the coddling farkles.  Just 4x4, and room to move a crew.  Honest working trucks.

Those humble Fords hit and hit and hit again, multiple passes every day, buzzing around like worker bees.  Within 24 hours after the last flake fell, for single largest snow I have seen in my lifetime, the roads were passable.

It worked.

And that, I think, is the challenge of blind ideological responses to anything.  What should matter, if we are American, can't be ideological purity.  It's reality, the simple, honest reality of getting things done to make life better, doing them well, and doing them together with a sense of common purpose.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Hamilton and Progress


Hamilton is such a peculiar thing.

Here, a Broadway musical, a raging success, sold out shows stretching out to the horizon.  The concept, so wildly and remarkably unlikely as a triumph.

Hey, says the playwright at the party, I'm writing a hip-hop musical about the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton.

Uh huh.  You can almost see the eyes rolling.

And yet it's soaring.  As it should be.  It's engaging, it's funny, it's historically grounded, remarkably subtle and intelligent.  It was written by a Latino, intentionally cast in the rich warm hues of American diversity, using the forms and styles of both classical Broadway belting and rap.  Mostly rap, which I don't usually listen to now that it's descended into subsentient misogyny, consumerist grasping, and the celebration of violence.

But it does this odd thing.  It embraces the fundamental humanity of the American creation story, staking a claim on that narrative.  This is part of my story, the musical sings.  It is the story of the immigrant.  The call to shake off the chains of oppression?  That's a common story.  The human mess of love and conflict that lead to Hamilton's death at the hands of Aaron Burr?  That's human.  Being human, it's a story we all understand.

How to process it?

For all of its retelling of the Founding Story, it sure isn't right wing, not by the standards of borderline fascism that have come to define the shout-radio fueled madness of American conservatism.  Here, a willful recasting of the American narrative, shattering expectations of color and race.  Here, a musical that defiantly celebrates immigration as central to the American experience, at the same moment that off-the-rails conservatism seems to have forgotten that completely as it throws its love to fascist demagogues and race-baiting charlatans.  Hamilton, in form and intent, resists the shallow, false idol that the right worships in place of the American dream.

But neither is it a creature of the left.  The radical left has only contempt for the founding narrative of the United States.  It was just the monstrous self-interest of racist oligarchs, wealthy white men who understood "freedom" no further than their own power over their land and the souls they claimed the right to own.  Or so I've heard, sitting in the back of classrooms and listening.   From this perspective, America was always a lie.  That's all it ever was.

There is a hint of truth in that spin, truth that lies in the painful dissonance between revolutionary ideals and the bitter realities of racism in the creation of this nation.  But it is not a binary truth, as much as the radical left snarks at Hamilton.  "You're forbidden to recast this tale," leftism fumes, in full commissar-thought-police dudgeon.

And yet, honestly, recasting and building on founding stories is the nature of progress.  If you cast them in stone, they cease to live.  When you endlessly tear them apart, they do not live.  But when those stories are allowed to live and change and grow?

They're how things change for the better.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Illusion of Choice

Over the last few weeks, I've been blazing my way through the postapocalyptic wastelands around Boston, as I've played through Fallout 4.  As with most of the games I've played coming out of Bethesda Softworks, it's great fun to play, brilliant and well written, with a sequence of interrelated stories and a single core narrative.

It's been a hoot, only, well, now I'm reaching the end of the central story, and I've encountered one of the tantalizing limitations of this kind of game.  The main storyline branches out in a number of different ways, with different endings.  How you act and the choices you make determines how the story ends...up to a point.

And as I reach that point, the illusion of choice becomes harder and harder to miss.  Not choice, but the illusion thereof.

As the story progresses, the pre-established decisionmaking trees grow further and further away from what I'd actually select.  I'll look at the options presented to me, and think: I wouldn't do any of these things.

No, I don't want to kill that character.  No, I don't want to destroy that thing.  I want to use suasion and patience to change the story for the better.  I can see how that would work.  But I'm not given that option.

I've had this challenge with other "open" games, like in a painfully unnecessary conflict at the end of the Fallout: New Vegas expansion.  Dang it, that didn't have to happen!  I could have made it not happen!

But this being a game, and not reality, it's not actually open.

Funny, how that reminds me of American politics.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Reputation

It was the strangest feeling.

We were scampering around on a recent Friday night, racing from place to place and juggling multiple simultaneous events.  A meal had to be secured, and so we stopped in at Chipotle.  It had been a while.

I knew, in the back of my head, that Chipotle had been struggling after a series of food-related illnesses had hit their restaurants in other areas of the country.  But there'd been none anywhere near our metropolitan area, and I'd honestly not given it a second thought.  Our regional supply chain and practices, I figured, were most likely unrelated to the problem.

As a vegetarian, it's a great option, and I am simpatico with their corporate ethos.  The only issue I'd had with Chipotle: the lines were too long.  Particularly on a Friday night, when the place would be packed.

That wasn't even close to the case.

Though it was peak dinner rush on a Friday, there was almost no-one in the place.  We walked right up, and ordered.

Convenience aside, it was a little unsettling.  And a reminder.

When organizations lose their reputation for something, when the perception of their place or role shifts in the cultural narrative, the impacts can be substantial.

If your product is tainted, or your service is flawed?  Crowds vanish.  Lines disappear.  If you lose sight of your core narrative as a faith community?  Formerly crowded pews sit empty.

And repairing something as precious and ephemeral as reputation is a difficult thing indeed.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Darwinian Economics and American Christianity

As I've studied and meditated in preparation for leading a retreat exploring the interplay between faith and science, those cogitative ruminations...or is is ruminative cogitations...have played interestingly against the background roar of American presidential politics.

I've been reading up on Darwin, and on the for-some-reason-still-active debate about evolutionary theory. And as I'm doing so, I'm reminded that there's a familiar but remarkable irony at play in American politics.  That irony is this:

The American political party that is home to most conservative Christians is socioeconomically Darwinist.

The ethos of the radically free market, and of allowing market forces their "natural" course in determining our lives together?  As an economic system, it works under the same operating assumptions as Darwinian evolution.  Meaning, it's an essentially blind, reactive process, in which the weak fail and the strong survive.

This is the "system" most vigorously defended by the American right wing, which wraps it up in the language of liberty and freedom.

From this standpoint, any effort to shape the direction of our oikonomia...which means the "rules of the house," or our life together...from a sense of moral or national purpose?  It must be rejected.  "Let market forces do their work," we are told, by those who most benefit from this arrangement.

Yet God is self-evidently not present in the dynamics of globalized free-market capitalism.  The moral assumptions that arise from the teachings of Jesus--compassion, humility, mercy--do not have any impact on this quarter's profit margin.

Instead, we are offered a process as unforgiving as the Serengeti at the height of the dry season, as brutal as a Jack London story, a peculiar mix of entropy and the raw and purposeless dynamics of self-serving power.

It's the market, red in tooth and claw.  It's Darwinian natural selection, writ in the harshest way into our lives together, and for some reason, the majority of American Christianity has decided that's all fine and dandy.

That most of those same souls also reject evolution?  It's a dissonant, peculiar thing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Between My Face and Your Face


I'd stopped into the big box electronics emporium for a gift, and as I browsed, something caught my eye.

It was a demo headset, a virtual reality jobbie, one designed to take one of the giant Android slab-phones and turn it into an immersive 3D experience.  Virtual reality, right there on a table to sampled.  I'd never experienced VR, and so on it went.

It wasn't much at first.  Just floating menus, and a couple of simulation programs that failed to run each time I fired them up.  One after another, they crashed. It felt very beta, a rush-to-market job.

But then one of the demos actually worked.

It was a Cirque De Soleil tie-in, because heck, is there anything they won't do for money?  The idea was a simple vignette: you're standing on a stage, surrounded by dancers and gymnasts and acrobats and Vegas-clowns.  They are behind you and above you, reaching towards you, pointing, almost touching.

It wasn't perfect.  It was a little pixelated, the best image possible with the kludged-together phone-based system.  You couldn't move around in the space, other than rotating on the spot.

That didn't matter.  The illusion was surprisingly effective.  Not real, not yet, but close.  There was a disorienting sense of place and presence, the visual and audio cues coming close to creating an Uncanny Valley experience spatially.  As you moved and shifted, so did the "space" around you, in ways that felt almost...almost...right.

I felt faintly dizzy afterwards, both physically and existentially.

Because this is the future, not the distant future, but the very near future.  With the Oculus Rift headset releasing this year for Windows, and the PlayStation VR headset coming from Sony, the human experience of media is about to take a very significant leap.  It's a leap I intend on taking.  There's some astoundingly creative stuff in the works for this new medium.   Not to mention some mindbogglingly fun games, the kinds of games I would dream of as an Atari 2600 playing kid.

But as I do so, I do so with caution.  Sure I'm leaping.  But into what?  Here, a medium that is a sea change, as much a shift as those first films by the Lumiere brothers, as marvelous and fearsome as that train rushing towards the station.  It's a medium that can connect, but that also can place us at a remove from the real.  It can inform and delight, but it can also be used to obscure and distract.  I've mused on this before, a couple of years back.

Now, having experienced a first taste of it, I find myself reminded of one of my Hebrew classes in seminary.  We were translating the Ten Commandments, and the professor offered up an interesting spin on the First Commandment.

"You shall have no other gods before me," is how we usually pitch it, as the I Am That I Am lays down the law.

But, she suggested, the Hebrew could be legitimately interpreted to mean "Place no gods between My Face and your face."

Let our relationship be unmediated, unfiltered, without the falseness of idols and fabrications.

And as we pull our headsets over our eyes, and plug our ears with the sounds of our own songs, I wonder at how that will shape our souls.