Antichrist

picture-of-antichristI began my ordained ministry at a parish in Alabama, where the Antichrist was a Thing. People worried about the Rapture, or hoped for it; they read the Left Behind books; they saw themselves as spiritual warriors.

One man, who haunted our parking lot, seemed to have been driven mad while reading Left Behind. He wasn’t there often, but I came to know that if my day was going wrong in a certain kind of way, if the pastoral or ministry needs were cascading out of control, then the last thing that would happen as I was leaving the church was that he would accost me in the parking lot and demand to speak with me about End Times. I did not find it a redeeming conversation.

At the time, I thought much of this activity was fatuous; it was a way for people to feel that they were being religious while focusing their energy on something that was completely out of their own control and which would have no positive impact on the world. At its worst, as in the Left Behind series, this fixation was probably even unspiritual: it allowed people to feel superior to others, whom they felt free to torment and degrade in their imaginations, believing that it was all part of God’s plan. This is not the behavior that I believe was modeled by Christ.

Today, however,  I would point to a different danger: that in directing our attention toward the Antichrist, we miss the point that there are many antichrists, that, at times, each of us is opposed to the will of God in our lives and in the world.

A brief Google search on images of the Antichrist will pull up images of Obama, Trump, Putin, George W. Bush, and Pope Francis, together with Adolf Hitler, Desmond Tutu, and assorted mullahs. This is, at least, remarkably ecumenical, but it points toward the ease of using this term as a label for whatever we dislike or find objectionable in the world around us and in our leadership.

Its real purpose, I think, by which I mean its only fruitful purpose, is to ask us to think deeply about what is of Christ and what is not, which is a rather different question than asking who is of Christ and who is not. Jesus commands us to care for the poor, to feed the hungry, to visit the prisoner, to heal the sick, to gaze in reverence and wonder at the lily, the bird, all the beauty of this earth. Whatever in our life and in our culture supports these commandments is pro-Christ; whatever undermines our individual or collective capacity to live into them is antiChrist, at least in the small-A sense.

The issue is not who does things that oppose the will of God, because we all do them, most of us frequently. As Solzhenitsyn reminds us, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  Our work, and particularly in this Lenten season, is to foster the good and to turn from what is evil, not because it will never recur in our heart, but because it will recur, over and over again, and the only thing we can do as people striving to be holy is to turn away each time.

There is a need, in this work, for mutual accountability. When we see one person tending in a strongly unChristlike direction, we do need to point it out, to protest, to remind them of the best that we are called to be, that being human involves caring for the least of us, each day. But we won’t get there by demonizing people as Antichrist. We will only get there by speaking to the Christ in them, no matter how deeply buried it seems to be.

And if they are utterly resistant, then it is the work of the rest of us to protect the vulnerable and aid the victims, for in truth, there will be casualties if cruelty becomes the new normal. What is antiChrist is, ultimately, not a matter of doctrine, but of our humanity. We can be human, or we can be antiChrist. Let us choose humanity.

 

What is good

Last week, I spent a few days in the home of a long-time friend, who is dying. She was fragile and gaunt, could barely move her body in its bed, had not eaten in weeks. Together, her husband and I tended her: took her to the bathroom, smoothed her bed, brought her cups of water. When she dozed, we talked.

He is a philosopher, one of the better-known ones of the late-twentieth and early twenty-Jeffersonfirst centuries. And so, when he read about the new healthcare proposal, he leapt right over the details of what was and was not in it, and summed up the situation: We need a more robust debate about public versus private goods.

I was amazed. I tried to think of the last time I had heard an issue summed so succinctly, and could not. But, of course, he was right. When the founders of our nation crafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they sought to create a republic, a respublica, which means, “a commonweal,” or “a public interest.” Both words imply a sense of shared good: that there are good things, desirable and necessary things, that we cannot have alone; things that we can only have if we give them to one another.

In the United States, of course, that ideal has always been in tension with another ideal: cowboythat of the independent individual, the loner who needs no one and nothing to survive. The first Europeans to come here needed that mentality: they were leaving behind everything that made life “civilized” — their homes, communities, extended families, books, land, commerce, furniture — in order to seek something else that they had not found: wealth, freedom of conscience, adventure, a different kind of liberty. (I omit mention of the slaves who first came here in 1619; I’m not sure what they were seeking, but coming here wasn’t a choice they got to make. Once they arrived, I’m guessing they were seeking to make the best of a bitter lot, or to break away and try again.)

The thing is that both of these ideals are good ones (minus the slaves): We flourish best under circumstances that allow some self-determination, and we also need the good things that come with community: education, friendship, infrastructure, the fruits of trade, support when things in our lives go badly wrong.

During my lifetime, however, the discussion of public goods has developed an odd character. Often, those goods are spoken of in derogatory ways, as if they were good enough for those who need them (but only those who are damaged would really admit the need). We privilege the car over the train or bus; the homeschooler over the families who use public schools; the desires of the sports enthusiast over the need of communities to keep their children safe from gunfire; the right of the industrialist to pollute over the common-weal of clean water and breathable air (without asking how necessary the product of that industry really is). In all these things, our public conversation allows the so-called “rights” of the individual to predominate over the “goods” of the community.  And if anyone dares to speak up for the common goods, we have a rejoinder for him or her: “that’s redistribution.”

And if it is, is that a problem? Generosity used to be seen as a virtue. It was considered good to help others, righteous to meet the needs of the poor, virtuous to contribute to the upbuilding of the community. No less a figure than St. Paul, upon leaving the city where he had expended more missionary effort than in any other place, reminded them, “You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:34-35)

The rub is in that one word: weak. No one wants to be among the weak, but the truth is, none of us can avoid it forever. Illness, unemployment, dislocation, war, pain, the demands of caring for others, even the urgencies of love, will, inevitably, mean that, at some point, we need something from one another. I cannot drive my car out of the driveway without someone to build a road; cannot give birth without someone to attend me; cannot see my friend to a peaceful and holy death without the ability to purchase medicine to ease her pain. Does this make me a “taker”? Of course it does, but in other ways, I give.

That, of course, is what a respublica was intended to be: a common space in which our gifts and ideas can be shared with one another for our mutual flourishing. It was intended to be mutual, and it was intended for more than mere survival. In caring for one another, we live into our fullest vocation as human beings.

Of course, there is a secondary debate here: whether it is ennobling to give when that giving is compulsory (as in a national system of taxation). In a world of small towns and villages, that might be a relevant question. In such a world, we would most likely know who was in need; we’d know them by name and be able to reach out, one on one. But the truth is that many of us (most of us?) no longer live on that scale. Our cities are too large for the intimacy of that kind of giving, our countryside too spread out. The Europeans settled their land in villages, clusters of homes surrounded by fields, but we settled ours in ranches and plantations, in which one family often lives hours from their nearest neighbors, even by car. We no longer know who is in need or how to help them; that’s why we build networks of care in order to do the work that keeps us human.

It may sound corny, but when I pay my taxes, I am glad to think of children going to school, of policemen patrolling streets, of clean water running from taps all over this nation because of the check that I am writing. More: I am proud to think of people in South Sudan being fed, of scientists working to cure ebola or limit the spread of the Zika virus, of refugees building new lives, just as my grandparents and great-grandparents had to do.

Martin Luther King, Jr., used to speak of the Beloved Community, which is another name for a Republic. It takes the idea of a republic and emphasizes its moral and spiritual foundations. “In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.” (from the King Center website)

The African word, ubuntu, has a similar sense. It means, “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.” Or, put another way, “In your welfare lies my welfare.”  Try looking that up in Google, and you’ll find a lot of individualist memes, things like: “Don’t Worry, I’m working my ass off every day so you can drink, smoke and tattoo your welfare & unemployment checks away; it’s OK, really!” (That’s one of the more polite ones.)

Is that the world you want to live in? Or is it time to remember that the root of “commonwealth” is “commonweal”? What things should be shared goods? What dignity can we bring one another through what we offer and through what we receive? In what ways are we impoverished when we care only for “our own”?

081a8e2cfa23bfd37f37185214502e1e

“How Can We Sing in a Strange Land,” by Bobbi Baugh, at bobbibaughart.com.

 

 

What we need

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
— William Carlos Williams

I apologize for my long silence. I was praying at Eucharist one day, a few months ago, and heard the words, “hidden with Christ in God,” and so I have been living into that for a while. What drags me back into the light today (at least, into the light of electronic communication) is — improbably — the President’s budget proposal, which begs a question of anyone who truly seeks what is sacred: What does it mean to be a human being?

Put simply, the proposal suggests a brutalist answer, one which focuses attention on our most basic needs, and which uses a limited definition of both “basic” and “need.” The brutalistBrutalists were architects in the mid-twentieth-century who sought inexpensive solutions to the problems of low-income housing, shopping centers, and government office buildings. The result was a series of cheap concrete buildings, often made up of repeating modular units: heavy, blocky, utilitarian, uninspiring. The ones that still litter our landscapes. The ones no one wants to live in.

We have one at my college, a dorm built in the 1960’s. We used to have animated debates about it: was it better to live in it, or to live across from it and have to look at it? Opinion was strongly divided, but it all focused on one question: how could one best avoid it?

To be fair, brutalism had its points: it was cheap. It allowed necessary structures to be built. It did allow the poor to be housed, although often in conditions they found degrading. No one loved it. I think, at some unspoken level, we recognized it as inhumane.

famineBut what is humane? The proposed budget removes all funding for arts and humanities. This implies that they are “extras,” the icing on the cake, less necessary than food or heat. From one perspective, that is undeniably true. Without food, any of us will die in a few weeks. Without water, only about three days, and that’s in a cool climate. Many of us — even those who are artistically engaged — go longer than that without visiting a museum or taking a paintbrush in our hands. We can survive without art.

But art is a force that creates us. It always has. Go back to the dawn of humanity, go back cave art 1
all the way to our Neanderthal cousins, and you will find us making things. Something about the act of creating is inherent in our humanity; it points to the more — to the thing that separates us from other animals, however much we may have in common.

Food, drink, a modicum of safety: we all need these, but to make them the sum of what we need is debasing. It misses something fundamental about human beings. We are more than the needs of our bodies. We are more than the sum of our labor. Give us meaningless work; give us repetitive tasks; take away our creativity, and you have taken away something of who we are.

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. 

The miser does not miss out by obsessively counting his gold. He misses out by failing to notice what is not his gold. Not everything can be bought and sold. What is most worth having is truly beyond price.