Oh, to be a Hedgehog or a Fox?

I’ve had Dietrich Bonhoeffer on my mind a lot lately. If you’re not sure who that is, Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian who at the cost of his life had the courage to speak out against injustices of the Third Reich. He was eventually accused by the Nazis of his participation in a plot to assassinate the Führer.

Bonhoeffer really throws a kink into how I understand what it means to be a Christian. Here was a guy who had every reason to denounce the religion altogether. In his context, Christianity had become a silent supporter of the Nazi Party. So, there’s obvious heroism in Bonhoeffer’s willingness to speak openly against the Nazis, but what I find perhaps more shocking and heroic about Bonhoeffer (looking back from my 21st century context) is that he remained Christian, that he never allowed the culture to determine what Christianity meant to him.

I’m not sure we live in a world that affords us that courage anymore. Culture overpowers us. If we don’t like the culture of something, we run from it rather than confront or change it. We attempt to divorce ourselves (and others) from that identity and take on something new. Bonhoeffer confronted Nazi Christians; we run away from Christianity over homophobia and bigotry. Lately, I’ve caught myself doing just that – trying to distance myself (through language) from “Christians” I don’t like. In the midst of Obama saying that “ISIL is not Islamic,” I’ve agreed: ISIL is no more a part of Islam than West Boro Baptist, or the KKK, is Christian. But then there’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose life seems to say otherwise. That is, it makes it a lot harder to say that “ISIL is not Islamic” simply because they’re extremists. In a way, Bonhoeffer was an extremist, too, just the kind of extremist we happen to agree with today.

My working theory up until now has been that as one’s ideology approaches an extreme on any given ideological scale, the likelihood increases that he or she ceases to adhere to their claimed ideology to instead favor a new set of principles altogether. Seems logical enough, right? But the kink in the theory is that it relies entirely on cultural perception. Who defines ‘extremism’? Who defines the “norms”? Some of the most renowned religious figures throughout history might well be “extremists,” or at the very least counter-cultural enough that they questioned the norms of their religion and traditions. Kinda like Jesus.

So, does it all just boil down to self-identity? I am who I say I am and, for each of us, that’s final? We may choose to say “ISIL is Islamic,” because they say so, but judging by their actions it seems that they’re just really, really bad at being Muslim. Or, perhaps the KKK is Christian – simply because they claim to be. They’re just really terrible Christians (in the opinion of many). To say as much is a commentary on their actions – the how, not on their identity – the what. To put that another way, if we were to separate the how from the what, we’d be saying that a person’s “true” identity is not really our judgment call. Or that we can judge a person’s actions based on the evidence of harm but cannot judge their inner reasoning or their heart. To make that argument is ultimately to say that a person’s identity is left to themselves – or to God or to Allah. But I don’t find that satisfactory. I want to believe we can strip people of the labels (and, thereby, the power) they claim lest we devolve into some kind of Sheilaism, or new age relativism. But who am I to strip anyone of their label? What a shame it was those who silenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or those who tried to silence Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s easy to say we want to strip people of their identity when the people we’re talking about are beheading innocents. But what happens when we’re the ones doing the beheadings?

And yet, ironically, Bonhoeffer had no qualms calling Hitler the antichrist, because to him, that’s how Hitler lived. Perhaps because of his encounter with social judgment movements of American Christianity, the young theologian didn’t separate the inner identity (faith or “the what”) from the action (practice or “the how”) the way some of us might today. On this note, one author writes:

…as an undergraduate, Bonhoeffer joined a university fraternity, the Hedgehogs. The Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided the world, intellectually, between the ‘Fox’ and the ‘Hedgehog.’ While the Fox’s worldview draws upon a diversity of ideas and experiences, the Hedgehog claims to know one big, supremely important thing. Theologically, Bonhoeffer may have had the Fox’s broadmindedness, but in his highest convictions, he was a Hedgehog. His one big thing was that Christianity is not merely a matter of what one believes, but of how one lives.”

And that seems to be my dilemma here. It’s said that “πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα (the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing),” and those are the two worlds I juggle. Am I to be the Fox proclaiming, “To each his own,” the way our postmodern world beckons us or the Hedgehog melding faith and works with a set proclamation that “right is right,” and “I know it when I see it“?

The truth is, I fear, even if I could find some way to be a fox, I’d probably be a hedgehog about it.

It’s not that “ISIL is not Islamic;” it’s that ISIL shouldn’t be called ISIL at all

There’s a lot of buzz right now in the social media world surrounding Obama’s statement that “ISIL is not Islamic.” If they’re called the “Islamic State,” the argument goes, doesn’t that make them “Islamic”? But that logic seems a bit absurd. Is West Boro Baptist Church a church? Is it Baptist? Baptists are, generally-speaking, Christians. Are the members of West Boro Christian? After all, they’re technically using the same holy book as Christians. And they are steeped in much of the same language Evangelical Christians use. But most Christians would distance themselves from a “church” that protests at military funerals. Some might even argue that Christians don’t share the same holy text with West Boro, since the passages that are most important to West Boro focus solely on wrath and vengeance. It’s as if they’re working with a different “canon within a canon” that everyone else is using.

Of course, if we decide that West Boro is Christian, just an extremist version of Christianity, it’s worth pointing out that West Boro isn’t cutting off anyone’s heads or surrounding anyone’s towns until they starve. If they were, would they still be Christian extremists? At what point does an extremist view of an ideology become a separate ideology altogether? Moreover, who decides when that line has been crossed? To confess an ideology in name only, while simultaneously doing the opposite of what most people come to expect from that ideology, seems a good reason to call it something else.

And in fact, if I have a beef with Obama saying “ISIL is not Islamic,” the beef is that we shouldn’t allow “ISIL” to call themselves “the Islamic State” in the first place. I’ve written about this before when pointing out the dangers of letting extremist groups like the “Taliban,” or the “students,” or the “Shabaab,” or “the youth,” hijack language without a fight that counters their use of that language. George Bush was actually good at this when he employed terms like “evildoers.” So, why not call them something else – something that more accurately depicts what they’re doing? We’ve gone from “ISIS” to “ISIL” to “IS” anyway and all in deference to what the extremists are choosing to call themselves.

And just as we have the power to call them what we want to call them, I think it’s worth noting whose responsibility it is to deal with them. That is, while I reject the notion that West Boro Baptist is a Christian church, it’s very much a Christian problem. And an American problem. Because those are the cultural contexts that birthed West Boro. If a child in a family does something terrible, the family has two choices: either disown the child or bring the child into line. In the case of West Boro, I’d argue they’re already disowned in that most Christians would not associate themselves as being “brothers and sisters” to the members of West Boro unless those members indicated a desire to change their ideology. So, too, if a group is extremist enough, sometimes you have to go beyond merely disowning them in name and find a way to remove them from society or from harming others, as well. Similarly, the “Islamic State” is, to me, both an Islamic problem and a Western problem. Because those are the cultures that birthed this form of extremism. To say “ISIL is not Islamic,” is the clarification – in case anyone needed it – that they have been disowned. Now comes the harder task of removing them from society so they can harm no more. And maybe it’s best to begin this task by disempowering them from the very language they might use to describe themselves, especially when that language is the opposite of who they really are.

Caffè e Tavolini: ‘think about stories with reason and rhyme circling through your brain’ – ndrake

she sat in the corner
and watched the grey world
go by,
and out the window,
one person lost in thought at a time,
another gabbing on the phone,
walking on,
as she bit into her cookie
and let it be all that mattered,
and laughed quietly, thinking
to herself
how nice it was to think
nothing
beyond this latte
and the crumbly chocolate chip,
messy as it was,
but for once a mess
she could handle –
five minutes, maybe ten
in the corner, all pretend
that this chaotic bliss
of coffee
is enough.

Crickets: ‘crossin the desert when I lost the caravan; I found a compass in a box buried underneath the sand’ – mtaxi

there are still crickets in the city
if you listen,
chirping to the hum of the halogen lamps,
and behold, the concrete gods there
above them have collected
what the sun once willed for a field of grass,
but now it’s nighttime when the moon peeks
thru the sultry summer city,
and the steel-and-glass are planted
where the cornfields died,
what for crickets goes remembered
is forgotten by the chirping
of alarm-bells ringing when the sun would rise,
and I wonder as they silence,
all the crickets of the city,
are they lonely, lost-and-found there
round the cement pond,
the blades of green all sparse and browning
are a haven for a cricket chirping
all too grateful, all too happy
for what is and not what’s not.

God [Bless] You

A week or so ago, on my way to the metro in downtown St. Louis for a ride to the airport, I was stopped by a man who begged me to buy him a meal. I don’t usually offer anything to beggars, partially because I don’t have anything to offer and partially because I worry that doing so creates systemic problems of dependence. Every once in a while, though, empathy gets the best of me, so I reached into my pocket and gave him all that I had at the time – three bucks. “Three bucks?! I can’t do nothing with that! Give me some more,” he demanded, and I walked off a little stunned.

[Before going any further, I should pause to make two worthwhile notes: The first is that my last experience with begging happened in North Africa while I was a Peace Corps volunteer where, for the most part, if I handed someone the equivalent of 6 cents American (50 cents in Moroccan dirham), they usually responded with, "God bless your parents," and moved on. While North African beggars could be persistent until you told them a phrase in Arabic that roughly translated, "God ease your burden," I never carried fear of beggars there. After all, it would be pretty strange to come across a Moroccan beggar who had a knife, let alone unheard of to come across any Moroccan carrying a gun unless they were a soldier. So, maybe it's because of the reality of that fear and how different life is in America, or maybe it's some kind of inherent racism you're bound to be born with if you were raised in the south, but I feel like it's important to acknowledge that I'm an incredibly privileged white dude who was carrying out these conversations with poor, black men (one of whom I stereotyped to be gay) in an area with a history of violence, and to say my fears weren't fueled by stereotypes isn't owning up to those realities. So let's start there.]

Burned by the lack of gratitude at first, I gave a rather forceful “no” to the next beggar that asked. And even though I knew it wasn’t fair to carry the stereotype from one experience to the next, I had a tough time shaking the shear chutzpah of the man who demanded more after seeing my wallet empty. In response to my “no,” the next man glared at me and said in a sarcastic tone, “Well, God bless you, then.”

No one had sneezed. He said, “God bless you,” I heard, “God has blessed you, and yet you do nothing.” I heard, “God blesses you but curses me.” I heard in his tone not the word “bless” at all but the word “curse,” and in the tone, I realized just how interchangeable the two words are. So many blessings, so many curses, all right before us and many are one in the same. The curse of being privileged is the real risk of forgetting or misunderstanding what it means to be blessed in the face of those who have endured so few blessings.

There’s a scene early in the Book of Job where the blameless Job has already lost nearly everything that matters to him. His children are tragically killed and now even with failing health and “boils” showing up all over his skin, he scratches at them to remove them one-by-one with a pottery shard. His wife looking on kind of mocks him in 2:9, “Are you still holding onto your integrity? Curse God and die.” In the English of this text, the word “barech,” or barak, is translated as “curse,” but – and here’s the interesting part – it also (and more frequently) means “bless.” In the Hebrew, much the way “God bless you” was spoken to me on the streets of St. Louis, the antithetical “curse” was what was meant. It gives you a good picture of the tone of Job’s wife: “Yeah, sure Job, everything will be better if ya just keep scraping off all those boils like that. Why, you should just bless your maker who’s given you this abundance of awesomeness and go on ‘living.'” Needless to say, I bet Job’s wife and I would’ve gotten on well.

Because, in a sense, Job’s wife hints at a deeper meaning that there is no blessing without a curse. Nor is there a curse without a blessing. That’s kind of how I read the whole Book of Job. I don’t like to think of Job [spoiler alert] being rewarded in the end with a new family and riches all as a result of his faith so much as it is a recognition that life is bound to deal out this endless cycle of blessings and curses all meshed together for which anyone might endure regardless of what they’ve done or who they are. To walk the streets of St. Louis, no less the streets of Morocco, is to encounter that two-sided coin, of which everything is, and to live in the tension of never really knowing which side of the coin you’re giving or receiving. And even when the answer is almost always “both,” that doesn’t really clear a whole lot up. Though privileged, I am not a person without trials or temptations or without my own baggage constantly being schlepped around with me. So too, I do not know the in-depth, personal trials of those who walk the streets hungry, wanting, faced with desperation. Have they known what it is to be cursed? Surely to God and sadly, and yet, I suspect, they’ve known better than I what it is to be blessed at times, as well. The great challenge of this stupid, beautiful little life is to see not merely each other’s blessings nor simply each other’s curses but to lovingly accept the painful beauty of both.

At the Ford: ‘shaking the wings of their terrible youths freshly disowned in some frozen devotion’ – hozier

I look down my Death
and stare her in the eye
sometimes,
and it’s when I know she comes for me
that I am wont to draw the sword,
to meet her dead on,
engaged on the battlefield
for a fight entirely up to her,
even though I live for pretend
that I could knock her hip out of socket
there,
where the creek ripples over the ford,
but, for what I fear,
she might baptize and
name me something new,
which, after all, is what Death is prone to do
if you choose
to meet her vis-à-vis.

Some Thoughts on Robin Williams

When Robin Williams died a few days ago, I got a text asking if it was real and was a little bombarded by all the Facebook commentary about it. I didn’t want to think about it; I didn’t want to acknowledge it had happened; I didn’t want to write anything about it, and all that’s mostly because I didn’t think it should really affect me that much. I mean, I didn’t know the guy. He wasn’t my friend or yours, and though I suppose it’s always tragic when a beloved comedian or actor dies, I don’t usually dwell on it, so why was this different?

The simplest answer is that we come to know an actor not by who they might really be but by who they portray (although, to a great degree, that is who they are), and throughout (most) of our childhoods, Robin Williams portrayed some of the more compelling characters – the very characters that reminded us of who we really are or who we really wanted to be. He was the inspiring teacher who wanted us to love the world with words or the good-natured, brilliant doctor who taught the medical world that patient’s are people. He dived into the depths of heaven and hell and took us into that fantasy land. He confronted the issues of broken families and made some poor choices in an effort to keep the family together. He was once a boy who never wanted to grow up, but somewhere in there, changed his mind and lost all the innocence of childhood only to find it again years later in his children. Or, he was the only therapist experienced enough to help a brilliant, young man – abandoned but arrogant – find his way out of a book and into embracing the world. And in just about every one of those characters, the man we met was a man who encouraged us to live a life of empathy, a life that acknowledged that loving other people, as well as loving ourselves, is hard but important. He added to a culture that gave us that incredibly important message, and dare I say that there’s a whole generation of us now who want to love the way Robin Williams and his characters loved. But that means we may very well be a generation who hurts the way he and his characters hurt, too.

I think that’s why it hit me, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. A dear friend of mine who, like Robin, can carry about her own tormented soul messaged me after some of the dust of his death had settled and said, “I can’t help but feel like… if Robin Williams can’t beat depression, what hope do I have?” I don’t really think that’s fair. To Robin Williams or to my friend. No one, no matter what amount of happiness they’re capable of giving to the world, is exempt from having that happiness snatched away. The important lesson of Robin Williams’ death is that things like addiction or depression or suicide can grab hold of even the best of us, the ones of us who might on the outside seem the happiest. But that shouldn’t mean there’s no hope. To the very end, Robin Williams sold us a message of hope, a message he was right about despite his ability to hang onto it when, one day, his pain outweighed his ability to cope. I read recently, and it’s worth saying again, that “when pain exceeds pain-coping resources, suicidal feelings are the result. Suicide is neither wrong nor right; it is not a defect of character; it is morally neutral. It is simply an imbalance of pain versus coping resources.” And so, to that end, I think it’s worth saying that there’s always hope because there’s always going to be coping resources – in other people, in literature, in the very kind of comedy and film Robin Williams gifted to us. Robin’s decision in the end doesn’t wash away the coping resources that are out there. But it makes it all the more important to ensure people know what they are and how to find them.