This post has links to my current reading, to things I have stumbled across on the web by chance and things I encountered while searching for something different. It involves some of my deepest pains and passions. It is about yesterday, today, and always.
Rembrandt's Prodigal Son
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
This photo was just taken in my hallway
where a print I bought at the Hermitage hangs.
I want to begin with the most striking take on the familiar parable of the prodigal son that I have ever encountered. The story comes from commentary on a current crisis in a seminary, but that is not part of my story today.
[The commenter] was once doing a bible study on the Prodigal Son, asking each member to share with whom they identified -- the older son, the younger son, or the father, and why. One person had not shared, so [I] invited her to speak. "No," she said, "what I have to say is stupid." [I] assured her that it was not, and her reflections were as valid as anyone else. "I identify with the Fatted Calf," she said. "Think about it: the Fatted Calf is the only one in the story that didn't do anything. The younger son ran off, the older son was resentful, the father gets to be the good guy. The fatted calf was happily eating his slop one day, next thing you know, he's dead. He suffers because of the decisions others have made."
It seems that most humans throughout history are in the situation of the fatted calf, suffering poverty or war or oppression because of the decisions of others. I just finished reading the opening argument between Agamemnon and Achilles in the Iliad. Each of them gets his fee-fees hurt, as we now say of big bad persons whose delicate feelings are disturbed and then proceed to make a huge stink about it. For that the Trojan War is prolonged and many die horrible deaths. For that matter, the entire story of the Trojan War traces back to bruised feelings. Eris is not invited to a feast, a golden apple sets up rivalry, and then all hell breaks loose.
But Achilleus weeping went and sat in sorrow apart from his companions beside the beach of the gray sea looking out on the infinite water. (Iliad I.348-350, tr. Richmond Lattimore)
He had been publicly humiliated, though he gave as good as he got when it comes to insults. So more death ensues, including death of comrades.
Whenever we read of mighty deeds by glorious heroes there is usually an ineluctable consequence: death. Who pauses to think of the "common" person, the innocent victim, the collateral damage? Do U.S. drones protect us in any lasting sense or merely sow the seeds of future terrorism, a harvest that must one day be reaped? For any talk of surgical strikes we know there is no such precision. People die for the decisions of others, by instruments guided from the other side of the world. And the decisions of others, throughout human history, are not always rational but rather driven by our deep passions and dark anxieties.
"The First Funeral" in the Petit Palais, Paris. I took this photo in 2012. Adam and Eve first taste death in the loss of their son Abel, victim of his brother's envy.
Almost a century ago the world witnessed, though some of it still denies, the Armenian genocide. I grew up among survivors and their descendants.
Genocide in Darfur, South Sudan.
The Holocaust under Hitler. And I lived among survivors and descendants of this genocide.
The Killing Fields of Cambodia under Pol Pot. I also worshiped and ministered among survivors of this genocide and their descendants.
The muddy fields of Passchendaele, WWI.
Rwanda, the genocide we all ignored.
Perhaps it is easier to step back from the mass horrors, they are so overwhelming. Yet even one human lost because of the passions of others remains tragic. I posted a while back about how this sculpture touched me as I was becoming sexually aware but continues to move me deeply as it captures the dying moments of a warrior far from home. And what of the wounded warriors who return but cannot leave the battle behind them? Ever.
The Dying Gaul, Palazzo Nuovo, Campidoglio, Rome
But if we move to the particular we find ourselves facing the individual, the personal, the familiar: people we know or have known. These are the loved ones, the relatives and friends, the friends of friends, the neighbors, the men and women we see in our communities or transiting through airports. We know some of their stories. Or, more likely, we will never know because they are unable to tell them. What has been called shell shock or battle fatigue is now named post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
What deadly sacrifices do we insist on making, generation after generation?
I had to scroll back quite a bit to see where I posted this on Facebook:
Think / Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices / Are fatherred by our heroism. Virtues / Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.In spite of all I am writing here, I do believe in a true heroism. This is seen in sacrificial action in the face of, not the denial of, fear. I believe most heroes are those who do the kind and generous and true and noble thing in everyday life, even when it costs them in time, effort, anguish, pain, and doubt. Especially in moments where there are no easy answers.
--T. S. Eliot, Gerontion (1920)
But then there are the dark demons that tell us we are doing something noble, important, and worthwhile. And we sacrifice to those demons. Not only ourselves but we sacrifice others.
Rembrandt again: The Sacrifice of Isaac
Not all the stories have a happy ending. I have no problem saying I do not believe in any deity that would make the demand narrated in Genesis 22. It is too horrible a story, though it is also far too true in human history. I believe in a God who never needs, and never required, to have honor satisfied or arbitrary justice fulfilled, to demand sacrifice to be placated, or to see the blood of Jesus to make everything all right. That God in Christ bled and died to satisfy our blood lust: that I grasp all too well. I was raised on the most awful atonement theology and a sadistic streak runs through it, speaking of our own need for something terrible. It has troubled me all my life and I gradually came to reject it and I totally renounce it.To father’s gods and demons sacrificed,Whose bonds were never mercifully slicedAnd thus became themselves the offered lamb:This mount was surely never sacred ground;Just one more evil spot upon the earthWhere death could reign instead of joyous birthAnd witnesses were deaf to victim’s sound.The Lord did not provide. You bore the flameOf your own holocaust and hauled the wood.You both assembled stones and then you stoodAnd wondered what would happen. Then it came:The moment when all filial trust was brokenAnd you, yourself, became the demon’s token.Paul E. Strid20 March 2014
And so we join Rachel, weeping for her children. She is another Eve from The First Funeral, only now her children are more numerous and senseless slaughter has multiplied. She is the Sorrowful Mother.
I do not know the ultimate source of the words that follow. I came across them on tumblr.
e piangevo, perchè sapevo che l’avrei sempre avuta dentro, quella tristezza che mi fa sentire vuota, che non si può speigare
[and I wept, because I knew I would always have within me this sadness that makes me feel empty, that I cannot explain]
This is a crucifix attributed to Michelangelo in the Basilica of the Holy Spirit, Florence. It is the bookmark I am using as I read the Iliad. It keeps me mindful of the cost of our passions.
Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever. --Hebrews 13.8Just as suffering and slaughter as a result of the decisions of others is the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.