Towards Christmas in the Spirit of Thomas Merton

Merton

Readings for Third Sunday in Advent: IS 61:1-2A, 10-11; LK 1: 46-50; 53-54; I THES 5: 16-24; JN 1: 6-8, 19-28.

Three years ago, I had an important spiritual experience that’s relevant to today’s liturgy of the word. I had the privilege of visiting the hermitage of St. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist mystic. (See my reflections here.)

It all happened in New Haven, Kentucky, just down the road from the Maker’s Mark distillery – far from any great urban centers and nearer to places with names like Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch. The experience inspired counter-cultural thoughts about Christmas. It made me struggle with the question (still unresolved for me): is it possible to once and for all break with this annual orgy of consumerism so counter to the gospel’s commitment to the poor?

At Fr. Louis’ Gethsemane, twenty of us sat in a circle in his living room absorbing the Life Force that still hovers over his simple cinderblock cabin. Trappist Brother Paul, the convener of the Merton Study Group responsible for the event, marvelously channeled “Louie’s” spirit by reading Brother Paul’s own poetic reflection on Matthew’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Paul’s thoughts connected nicely not only with Merton, but with this morning’s readings for this third Sunday of Advent. There, John the Baptizer, his predecessor Isaiah, and Jesus’ own mother Mary reiterate the essential connection between Jesus’ gospel and standing in solidarity with the poor not only in spirit, but in actual fact. As Christmas approaches, the sentiments of the Baptizer, Isaiah and Mary suggest counter-cultural ways of commemorating the birth of the prophet from Nazareth.  I wish I and my family were strong enough to entertain them seriously.

For me those culturally eccentric suggestions began emerging when in the course of his remarks, Brother Paul recalled Sister Emily Dickinson’s words that reflect the mystical dimension of Matthew’s (and presumably Jesus’) understanding of both spiritual and physical poverty. As for the former, Brother Paul defined spiritual poverty as the emptiness reflected in Monk Dickinson’s words,

“I am nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too?

. . . How dreary to be somebody.”

Those words almost paraphrase what John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel selection. When asked who he is, the one identified by Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived (MT 11:11) says in effect, I am a poor man in Emily Dickinson’s sense. I’m a nobody – merely a voice out of nowhere. I am “a voice crying out in the wilderness.”  Only an empty vessel can be filled with the Holy Spirit.

So forget about me, John says, and focus on the one who is to come. His words will set you on fire that will sear everything in you that is not of the Spirit Jesus embodies – everything that separates you from your brothers and sisters, especially material wealth. That kind of self-denial and openness to Jesus’ Holy Spirit is the very definition of Matthew’s spiritual poverty.

And the specific message of the One to come?  (And here’s where material poverty enters the picture.)  Jesus announces the Divine Spirit’s preferential option for the actually poor and its rejection of the materially rich. That bias towards the actually poor is reflected in today’s first reading. As remembered by Luke in Jesus’ preview of his own career, the words of the prophet Isaiah read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (LK 4: 16-22)

Here Jesus’ focus is real poverty and people subject to captivity and oppression.

As for the Holy Spirit’s rejection of the rich, that is clearly stated in the revolutionary poem attributed to Jesus’ mother and read today as our responsorial hymn. Mary describes her understanding of God with the following words:

“The Mighty One . . . has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

These are truly revolutionary words about dissolving the ideological mind-sets that unify the rich (“the thoughts of their hearts”), about overthrowing the powers that be (removing them from their thrones), about ending hunger, and rejecting wealth on principle.

The class consciousness reflected in this categorical rejection the rich as such reminds us that in the eyes of Jesus’ mother and (the record shows) of her son, there is something intrinsically wrong with any wealth that differentiates rich from poor. This implies that for Mary and Jesus, poverty is not the opposite of wealth.  Rather, the opposite of wealth is God’s justice – a new order possible in this here and now, in this “year of the Lord’s favor,” as Jesus puts it. There, the rich will be necessarily unseated and the poor will have their fill.

If all of this is true – if God’s salvation means eliminating differences between rich and poor – what are we to do in this world of income gaps, torture, racism and militarized police?  The question is particularly apt at this Christmas season. And Thomas Merton’s monastic spirit along with the testimony of his ascetic counterpart, John the Baptizer, implies answers.  It suggests that at the Christmas season we might do well to:

  • Generally withdraw our allegiance from the cultures of New York and Los Angeles and in spirit draw closer to Paint Lick, Gravel Switch – and Merton’s Gethsemane.
  • Consciously simplify our Christmas celebration this year.
  • On the feast commemorating the birth of a homeless child whose mother saw so clearly the opposition between wealth and justice, imitate John’s simple vestment (and that of the Trappists) by giving our gifts of clothes not to the already well-attired, but to the poor.
  • Imagine what would happen if we took those gifts so carefully wrapped and placed beneath our tree and simply gave them away unopened and at random to poor people and their children as we meet them on the street.
  • In the spirit of John the Baptizer, located far from Jerusalem’s temple, boycott church this Christmas, especially if your community (after distributing its de rigueur Christmas baskets) ignores Mary’s summons to social revolution in favor of “Christmas as usual.”
  • Instead make up our own liturgy (around the Christmas tree) to replace the normal orgy of material gift-exchange.
  • Boycott entirely this year’s “white Christmas” and (in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement) celebrate Kwanzaa instead – telling our children why this year is different.
  • Make a Christmas resolution to at last get serious about changing our lives in 2018 by beginning (or intensifying) the regular practice of prayer (or meditation) in the spirit of John the Baptist, Jesus, his mother and Thomas Merton.
  • Realize that inevitably the cultivation of spiritual emptiness (“nobodiness”) resulting from such regular spiritual practice will lead us to serve others in a way that will address the seemingly intractable problems of poverty (both spiritual and material), hunger, captivity and oppression.

I’m not suggesting that any of this would be easy. Going counter-cultural, especially around an event like Christmas, involves a certain self-emptying. It involves detaching from cultural expectations (not to mention those of our children and other family members). In some sense, it means becoming nobody in front of those who expect us to do what everyone else is doing. In other words, going counter-cultural at Christmas conflicts with what Sister Emily calls our dreary attempts to be somebody.

In fact, the cultural pressures are so strong, that it might be impossible for most of us to withdraw cold-turkey from Christmas as we’ve known it. Still, if we desire to be change agents like John the Baptist, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus and Thomas Merton, we’ve got to start somewhere.

I’m still trying to inch towards something like I’ve just described. Do you have any suggestions that can help me move more quickly?

I’m Not Racist!

Here is a must-see video. It’s Joyner Lucas‘ hip-hop dialog between a white man and a black man. When I saw it yesterday, I couldn’t help thinking how good a discussion-starter it would have been in courses I’ve taught.

See what you think.

I only wish that there had been a third participant in the dialog —  someone who might helped the principals see that their anger is misdirected.  They are not each other’s enemies.

No, the real enemy is the system of capitalism run by the 0.1%. Its underlying ideology of extreme individualism, and vicious competition keeps everyone’s eyes off the ball by pitting blacks and whites against one another. Meanwhile, the system enriches the few while failing miserably to provide adequate jobs, wages, education, housing and health care for the majority.

This is an example of the system’s “divide and conquer” strategy that works every time.

Through your comments, please share your reflections.

The Effing Morons Have Taken Over: It’s Time for Revolution!

Moron

Recent events have shown that our government has no legitimacy at all. None.

As a result, we should all be out in the streets every day. We should be joining a revolution in response to the incendiary words of the Declaration of Independence identifying the right and duty of citizens to dethrone abusive governments:

“. . . when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce (the People to) absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

With this posting, I’m inviting us to think about rebellion in the light of the most egregious of the “abuses and usurpations” we have been made to endure.

And here I’m not just referring to the outrageous Trump administration whose “tax reform” ignores the country’s majority and which is in the process of looting our national treasury on behalf of the already filthy rich. Just watch: they’ll soon be coming for our Social Security and IRAs.

[By the way, do you know what that tax plan represents? It’s not just a refusal to tax the rich to pay for schools, hospitals, roads and bridges – and those ridiculous wars. Rather, it’s a plan to borrow from the rich to pay for those senseless conflicts. In other words, instead of having the 1% pay for their oil wars; we’re paying them! Taxpayers borrow from the banksters to meet those “unfunded mandates,” and then PAY THEM INTEREST rather than COLLECT THEIR TAXES!! The result will be an additional $1 trillion in debt over the next 10 years. What a scam on the part of those liars who up until the Trump election were deficit hawks!]

But that’s not what I’m addressing here.

Neither am I referring to Trump’s completely arbitrary, unlawful, and severe provocation of Muslims across the world by his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Everyone knows that Zionist repression of Palestinians is the root cause of Islamic terrorism. Yet (to avoid Rex Tillerson’s more explicit designation) this effing moron is in effect inviting further 9/11s. (Remember that when the inevitable attack comes and everyone’s asking again, “Why do they hate us?”)

I’m not even referencing climate change and the ignorant decision on the part of “the most dangerous political organization in the history of the world” to unilaterally deprive our grandchildren of nature’s abundance. (Those are the words of Noam Chomsky. Regarding such despotism, he has famously said, “The party is dedicated to racing as rapidly as possible to destruction of organized human life. There is no historical precedent for such a stand.”)

No one has the right to commit such outrage.

All of those acts (and many others) should be enough to persuade us that any trace of democracy we may have once enjoyed is gone. The man in the White House and these criminals in Washington don’t represent any of us – just their club of plutocrats that includes Democrats as well as Republicans.

But even their latest acts of gross ignorance and unprecedented kleptomania are insignificant compared to their greatest outrage.

And here I get to my main point.

It involves not just the Trump administration, but all of the criminals who have run our national horror show since the end of the Second Inter-Capitalist War (aka World War II). They’ve all been terrorists and mass murderers. ALL of them: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and now Trump.

According to Daniel Ellsberg’s new book, The Doomsday Machine: confessions of a nuclear war planner, every one of them stood ready to use nuclear weapons to incinerate 98% of the world’s population in one fell swoop. Ninety-eight percent! (Ellsberg, of course, is the most famous whistle-blower in history – the one who released The Pentagon Papers in 1971. Now his new book reveals what he learned during his stint as an insider formulating U.S. nuclear war policy.)

That policy was not just about deterrence or response to a first strike by the Soviets. It involved a policy of FIRST STRIKE now so dear to Mr. Trump’s heart. Eisenhower, for instance, was firm in his insistence that in time of crisis there could be no waiting for a Russian attack. For him (and subsequent occupants of the White House) our country had to strike first. In Eisenhower’s mind and in those of his successors, “first strike” was best and “second strike” was a distant second best. “No strike” when provoked was unthinkable.

Guided by such policy, from the early ‘50s onward, plans targeted every city of over 25,000 inhabitants in Russia and its satellites, and in China too.

The planned destruction is mind boggling.

How many people would be killed? How about 100 Holocausts – 600 million? That was the Pentagon estimate when the world’s population was 3 billion.

And it didn’t even count deaths resulting from Russian and Chinese retaliation!

Neither did it take into account the smoke and debris that would be swept up into the atmosphere blocking out the sun and causing nuclear winter. That climate change would make food production impossible and have any survivors starve to death (except perhaps about 2% of the world’s population near sea coasts that could provide mollusks and other ocean foods).

Pentagon estimates are that about 2/3 of the planet’s population would perish. Actually, (counting deaths from Russian and Chinese responses) the figure would be far closer to 3/3.

No one should have decision-making power like that. In Jefferson’s words, its arrogation by morons amounts to “abuses and usurpations” designed to reduce us all to circumstances equalling “absolute Despotism.”

But it gets worse. According to Ellsberg, no single person had the power to initiate a nuclear war. Many people did (and do) — down to the rank of Major in the field or Pacific Fleet commanders in the navy. If communication were cut off, and if those morons judge they are under nuclear attack, they have the power to respond in kind.

Is that terrifying enough for you? “Abuses and usurpations” anyone?

The fact is we are all effing morons for allowing this non-government to survive without rebellion.

So what should we do in response to such outrages? At this point, I’m not sure about particular steps. But at the very least we should

  • Throw the bums out. In 2018 truly drain the swamp. Get rid of ALL Republicans and their Democrat enablers.
  • Replace them with Bernie Progressives – with a goal of reviving the New Deal that provably raised living standards for all Americans, not just the rich.
  • Institute a special war tax to fund the on-going war on terrorism – to be increased with each new conflict.
  • Before imposing such taxes, hold nation-wide binding referenda on their advisability.
  • Stop dead our country’s nuclear weapons modernization program.
  • Begin serious world-wide negotiations for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
  • Force Israel to honor U.N. Resolution 242, thus removing the major cause of international terrorism.

And if none of that works, make discussion of rebellion and revolution respectable again – in the name of Jefferson’s brave words. It’s our patriotic duty!

 

That Gun in Men’s Pockets: Sexual Assault & Our Militarized Culture

Mae West

Recent furor around the sexual harassment of women by famous men has reminded me of the old Mae West tag, “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

It’s made me wish that all of us were as perceptive as Ms. West in implicitly connecting aggressive male sexuality and gun violence – especially in our militarized culture. Such sensitivity might help rid us of danger posed by real guns, which is far greater than “the boss” flashing or fondling his metaphorical counterpart in front of understandably shocked and repulsed female underlings.

In other words, I’m waiting for the day when the female-led sea-change we’re now witnessing around the gun in men’s pockets might attach itself to the weapons in their holsters and on missile launch pads. It would revolutionize our world. There mostly white misogynists currently shape not only Hollywood stories, news reporting, music, and comedy, but also our country’s domestic and foreign policy. There the male solution to everything seems to involve guns, bombing, and threats of violence.

Think about it: Both the gun referenced by Mae West and real guns are pretty strictly male things. Anatomically, women simply can’t exhibit the pocket gun. And strutting about with a Glock on their hips or an AK 47 on their shoulders seems fairly distant from most women’s reality. I find it hard to even imagine a mass shooting perpetrated by a woman. Has one ever occurred? (In fact, mass shooters tend to be white middle aged men with actual records of domestic abuse.)

Why this male fixation?

Feminist commentators as far back as the ‘70s had It figured out. They said that male exhibitionism and aggressiveness with that gun in their pockets isn’t really about sex. No: it’s about power.

After World War II, men resented the entry of women into the public sphere. Harassing them sexually was one way of putting them back in their place. “You don’t belong here; get out” was one message. Another was, “Unless you ‘put out’ for me, you won’t be hired or advanced.”

Both messages drove many women away or into jobs like teaching or nursing where female community was easier to find.

In other words, sexual harassment represented male response to female threat to their traditional territory and power.

Might something similar be said for men’s love affair with real guns – for their fascination with their size and power and capacity for multiple bursts? Is it a response to a world where women and other outsiders have entered white male bastions?

Consider the evidence provided by the most testosterone-soaked bastion of all, the U.S. military. There at least 25% of women report having been sexually assaulted; 80% say they have been sexually harassed. And, of course, rape of “enemy” women has long represented one of the spoils of war – including for U.S. servicemen. If they are so willing to sexually assault their colleagues, what do you think our soldiers do with enemy women?

The answer for all of this is a profound change of patriarchal systems designed to denigrate, harass, intimidate, silence, devalue and assault not only women, but anyone who threatens male privilege. The answer is for men to take the lead in betraying our fondest ideas of masculinity and our reliance on weapons to solve political problems. It is to deconstruct completely our misogynist culture.

That means imagining and crafting a world run by women – or at least where without harassment or assault, women are allowed to achieve proportional representation in national assemblies. In such a world, diplomacy, dialog, and compromise, would predictably represent the default diplomatic position rather than immediate resort to military hardware.

Simply put, our militarized patriarchy isn’t working on any level. Predatory masculinity has been exposed in the workplace. For those willing to see, the harmful failure of its martial equivalent also stands evident in the world at large.

Acknowledging that exposition and countering it with female energy would change everything.