the doe and the angel: thoughts on the empty tomb post Easter

In the beginning I find I want to remember Paul Robeson, whose birthday occurred on April 9. Even though I’m late, I thought I’d post this little video again in honor of the occasion. It stirs up something I want to say after a relatively dry period.

Politics aside, Robeson was a great singer and a phenomenal talent in many other ways, a consensus All-American football player and eventual hall of fame inductee who played in the old NFL, a graduate of Rutgers University where he was class Valedictorian, and of Columbia law school, an international star. If you’re not familiar with his life or know of him only as a name associated with communism, you might like to read a short biography. A couple of not bad ones are here, and here.

Robeson ended his life in sad obscurity, but his reputation revived in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. Given our country’s present neofascist turn against civil rights, Robeson’s life and example, not to mention his voice, can serve as at least a small reminder of the civilized people we might have been in the united States of America and of a part of what we have now willfully thrown away.

I told the story of making this video here. It has not been unpopular, and it presently has more hits than any other performance of “Joe Hill” listed at You Tube. I think that may have as much to do with the way the song fits Robeson’s voice as with anything else. When I think of “Joe Hill” and the singers I admire who have been associated with it recently: Luke Kelly, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen—none has quite the eloquence or the authenticity of the Robeson performance. I think of it as I sometimes remember this, a guitar pick and a Wobbly membership card left on the step at Mother Jones’s grave some years ago when I was there.

It’s important to me that such people be remembered, now that most of our founding narratives have failed us in this country. I believe they are reminders, not of who we are, or were, but of who we might have been. This month’s issue of Orion, a magazine I can’t recommend too much, carries a lead article by Paul Kingsworth that evokes the historical trough I’ve thought about in a good many posts on this blog. Kingsworth takes up Karl Jaspers’s old idea of an axial age and suggests that we may be living in another one now, a time when all the old ways of thinking and doing are open to new and urgent questioning and the future of the experiment with life on this planet seems to hang in the balance.

But in the final analysis Kingsworth is both too optimistic and too nostalgic for me. I don’t think the old stories will save us from ourselves. For many of us the old stories only reinforce popular bigotry and the violence of extractive capitalistic practice. That is why I am coming to believe we should think of Robeson and Jones and Dr. King and perhaps even the prophets of Jasper’s axial age, Jesus and Buddha and Socrates and Mohammad, as witnesses to who and what we might have been, and reminders that we can no longer be those things in the ways we thought we could when I was young.

We shall now have an entire new overcoming ahead of us as our modern liberal societies rebarbarize. And as the planet that nourishes us becomes less and less hospitable because of our willfulness, we shall need new stories and new prophets to teach us how to live upon a ruined earth. We’re like some mythic witness of the sacrifice of Isaac. Everything in the world hangs on the moment as the knife begins to move and the the angel cries out, No! Or as Apollo rebukes Achilles in the Olympian assembly after the hero has brutalized Hector’s dead body:

Let him take care,
or, brave as he is, we gods will turn agaist him,
seeing him outrage the insensate earth!

For dust we are, Hector made of the same dirt as Adam. Martin Heidegger famously predicted that only a god could save us in this present crisis, which he more or less foresaw. But what if God doesn’t hear or comes too late or thinks we’re not worth saving? What if the angels stay home? What if Abraham had killed his son in a godless world and burned the boy’s bleeding body when nothing aside remained but his own conscience and self-loathing? The old stories push the narrative of human destiny to a limit the other side of which is nothing recognizably human and then provide an escape, the angel and the ram, the political machinations through which Achilles returns Hector’s body to his father and saves his own pride, the empty tomb.

Kingsworth argues that we are at a religious turn in history. I think I agree but don’t find much consolation in the fact, if fact it is, today. Kierkegaard argues that God injects a radical new command into an ordinary act of conventional piety in order both to suspend and to reground Abraham’s sense of the ethical. Gone is Abraham’s naive normative ethics in which his love of his son is grounded in his sense of family and community. But in exchange he gets to love his son again as the gift of God who, we are told, in another epoch sacrificed his only son, completing the figure.

It seems a cruel bargain on all sides, but it has the virtue of recognizing the cruelty that seems to run through our experience of the world from beginning to end. I’ve said elsewhere that I sometimes think the rift in nature is aboriginal. In the story of Isaac’s sacrifice, Abraham has a choice, and that too may be aboriginal. Indeed, had Abraham withheld his son, as Genesis presents the nature of his dilemma, he would have chosen as the Olympian gods finally demand of Achilles, having themselves abetted the hero’s excesses and marooned him morally.

But on Good Friday there’s no Olympian colloquy and especially no empty tomb, only this:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My mouth is dried out like a pot-sherd;
my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
and you have laid me in the dust of the grave.

Another Orion piece this issue is called The Doe’s Song. It begins with the story of a car hitting a doe on a night road. Her leg is broken, and she will die. She frantically resists the ineffectual efforts of distraught humans to help her and runs away into the woods by the side of the road, the broken limb dangling uselessly. Human choice, especially the modern choice to inject inhuman agency into the cosmic balance of life and death and perhaps to have altered it permanently, has at at the very least introduced a radical post-Edenic cruelty into our experience of the world. The doe’s death is an accident, like a crucifixion.

Perhaps Abraham made the wrong choice. Perhaps Kierkegaard’s affirmation of it is wrong headed. Had Abraham made the choice Achilles made, perhaps a better angel would have appeared to explain to him that God desires mercy rather than sacrifice, as in Hosea where the ground of piety seems to shift. Or perhaps Abraham’s obedience is correct and the Angel a poor translator. On Good Friday the nails of crucifixion may be yet many iterations of Abraham’s knife, turned mad as the sword of Achilles and rending flesh like the giant engines that presently torture Canadian tar sands. This past Good Friday, though we may not realize it yet, we Americans have made Abraham’s choice, the knife, the nails, over the possible better angel.

That is why this story won’t save us—and one more thing. The empty tomb is not a talisman of the coming of spring. That is what Lent is, lent being the Old English word for spring. ‘Lent is come with love to town’ wrote an anonymous monk of the fourteenth century. So, the earth experiences the yearly round of renewal. I understand the poet’s need to call it love. But the empty tomb is a tallisman of another love altogether. “Only a god can save us,” Heidegger exclaimed. Human wullfulness and its devastation have so altered the normality of that first love that only a radical intervention, something like a resurrection, can put things right. This is what John Updike must have meant in a well-known Easter poem that has always given me trouble.

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

Such may be taken for hope by the pious, but the conventional appropriations of the old stories by churches and the hopeful humanism of modernity represent a refusal of the judgment leveled against us by knife and nail and their modern analogues, and by the poor dangling limb of a dying doe. Some deaths in which we are implicated as modern humans did not, do not, have to be. Some cruelty, and let me hear no suggestion of collateral damage as we willfully continue to channel the horror of the twentieth century into its successor—some cruelty is but the will of humans who will be neither controlled nor reproved. Here is Updike’s conclusion.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

If there is hope. If the possibility of our salvation remains in the midst of the ruin of our stories and now of our planet, that hope, that possibility will require a miracle to be achieved. The renewal of our planet and the turning of our hearts required for its enabling will not occur in the natural course of things. Hope may be real, but judgment is radical and now.

Big pig, little pig

I Win, We Lose:
The New Social Darwinism and the Death of Love, and Other Writings

by John Hall Snow
edited by Frederick Stecker
229 pp., Wipf and Stock, $34

White Trash:
The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

by Nancy Isenberg
476 pp., Viking, $28


During the years I worked at Fort Bragg I had various old cars as companions along the country roads of North Carolina. I’ve already written about my 1959 Porsche in another context. But I drove and fiddled with a Karman Ghia coupe for a while as well. The Karman Ghia had a tendency to throw fan belts, and I always carried a couple of spares with me.

One night when I was on my way home to Durham the little VW engine began to overheat. I pulled over, turned the car off, and opened the rear boot to let the engine cool a little. Then I got out some tools and sat down on the shoulder with my legs underneath the back of the car.

My head was fairly close to the edge of the boot cover, too, as I bent into the engine compartment; and that turned out to be important in a few minutes when I was startled by some strange noises coming my way from an open field just off the road. I straightened up suddenly, banged my head on the boot cover and knocked myself out.

When I awoke after what I took to be just a few minutes, I didn’t worry about what had startled me, and I was too shaken up to finish the work on my car. I locked things up, hitchhiked back to the base, took some aspirin for my headache, called home, and spent the night on a cot in my office that I kept there for just such emergencies.

The next morning early I hitchhiked back to my car. When I got there I saw that there was a small herd of medium sized hogs in what I had taken for an empty field the night before. They had been turned out to forage in the stubble of whatever crop had been harvested in that field and were still snorting around quite contentedly.

That was my introduction to the practice of turning hogs loose to forage in fields and woods. I didn’t know then but do now that the practice has a long and complex history that has been productive of culture of various kinds. It has given us songs about the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and the War of 1812, songs about cowboying, prospecting, going to Texas, being seduced by fancy men, and other profundities, in addition to providing us with lots of feral hogs. It has also given us the expression, “Root, hog, or die”—self reliance or nothing, you’re on your own old buddy—which might have meant something to me on the road back then if I had thought of it. Here’s a verse from an old song, for which I am indebted to Wikipedia.

I’m right from old Virginny wid my pocket full ob news,
I’m worth twenty shillings right square in my shoes.
It doesn’t make a bit of difference to neither you nor I
Big pig or little pig, Root, hog, or die.

The speaker would appear to be a slave, “worth twenty shillings right square in [his] shoes.” Though it dates the song 1856, the year of its first copyright, Wikipedia traces the expression “Root, hog, or die” to a time “well before 1834,” that date being the date of the publication of Davy Crocket’s Autobiography, which quotes the expression as “an old saying.”

Before he became enshrined in Texas history as one of the heroes of the Alamo, Crocket had a considerable career as a politician in Tennessee and served in the United States House of Representatives. He was a tireless defender of squatter’s rights and of the landless poor. Nancy Isenberg attributes the saying to Crocket that “It’s grit of a fellow that makes a man.”

In her new book, White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class In America, Isenberg also writes of the complex and racially charged history of social Darwinism among us, whose cultural roots are probably older than any songs about them. Indeed, the cluster of ideas we subsume under the social Darwinist rubric has been around in America since before we had a term for it, before Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), and before the career of Herbert Spencer, who gave the phrase “survival of the fittest” its characteristically modern spin.

On the other hand, the Rev. John Hall Snow’s analysis of social Darwinism, as revealed in a new book edited by the Rev. Frederick Stecker, doesn’t explore its folkloric or other cultural antecedents, perhaps because Snow seems less interested in social Darwinism’s American history and more interested in the corporate consequences of the faith (after it had become a faith), particularly in its having resulted in a culture of winners and losers. Indeed the most telling and interesting sections of I Win, We Lose concern how winning came to be the American conception of “survival of the fittest.”

Fr. Stecker found the manuscript of this little book among Fr. Snow’s literary remains together with a number of unpublished sermons. Indeed, some of the most valuable parts of this book are to be found in the sermon excerpts that Fr. Stecker includes as commentary on the main text. I’ve read Fr. Snow’s other books since reading I Win, We Lose. Two of them, The Gospel in a Broken World and A Vocation to Risk specifically address issues of preaching to times of great change: the first in relation to the massive social changes wrought by the 1960s and the second in relation to late twentieth century culture, which Fr. Snow perceived to be in spiritual decline. The effects of social Darwinism and the American culture of winning are themes to which Fr. Snow returned again and again in his writing and preaching.

The importance of winning grows out of competitiveness through the introduction of an adversarial component into all human relationships, according to Snow. The chapters of Snow’s book detail the effects on education, racial justice, marriage, institutional life, and environmental ethics of a cultural paradigm that views social life in all its forms as a series of sites for competition. Winning is promoted and winners are rewarded with major or minor celebrity, money, etc. This is the meaning of success in America. Losing, normally identified with performance that falls short of accepted standards of achievement, but also with wage earning and poverty, is rewarded with shame. The social consequences have been devastating, as Snow details them. His understanding of the losses to public education brought about by the competition paradigm, which Snow alleges have “removed the last vestiges of true learning from the educational process” prefigure present day concerns about high stakes testing and the unfortunate social consequences of our so-called meritocracy, for instance.

For the culture of winning requires that most will be losers. “Winners are defined by the symbolic power of what they own as well as what and how much they consume.” And as the win/lose ethos expands into the creed of American exceptionalism it comes to require “the aggressive accumulation of natural resources, wealth, and technical-scientific information for the single purpose of denying them to the rest of the world as the guarantee of the survival of those currently self-defined as the most fit, namely the richest and most powerful.” Acceptance of this view and the corollary views it requires in contemporary American life puts Christians in a particularly difficult position, because “No vision of reality could be more in conflict with what Christians believe,” according to Fr. Snow. Yet American Christians have defended slavery, Indian removal, the destruction of Appalachia and other environmental devastation by extractive industry, as well as the pervasive growth of destructive technologies the world over, as beneficial and necessary to the survival of “the most comfortable, elegant, liberated life-style in the history of the world . . . .”

Professor Isenberg has other fish to fry. She traces the history of American scapegoating of the poor and the persistence of destructive class-consciousness in America to English colonial policy and practice. Our former British rulers viewed their North American colonies not merely as a source of wealth but also as a dumping ground for human trash, for the hordes of landless paupers, “vagrants, idlers, highwaymen, Irish rebels, known whores and convicts” that filled England (particularly English cities) with what the better classes termed human rubbish. It was settled British colonial policy to transport these persons to the new world for centuries, a fact amply illustrated by the history of Jamestown as Isenberg tells the story. After 1776 the newly constituted United States adopted and extended this policy through the various stages of continental expansion. But far from being valued as pioneers and settlers, the landless poor remained objects of scorn, in some cases more scorned than people of color, described as sallow, diseased, and malformed, an inferior breed of human beings.

It is a widespread conviction that Jefferson’s ringing affirmation of human equality at the opening of the Declaration of Independence entitles Americans to believe that we have created a society without invidious class distinctions. But that belief is everywhere deconstructed by the actions of Americans past and present. We tend to perceive and address the cognitive dissonances entailed by the belief by reference to the category of race in our present-day life and to erase other manifestations both from our perception of and discourse about inequality; yet we have never successfully discriminated between the natural inequalities that abound in our experience of one another and forced or artificial inequalities that are social constructions. This blurring has contributed to our history of demagogic exploitation of inequality for political purposes. Professor Isenberg provides a wealth of examples of the political exploitation of inequality from colonial times to the present in a thick social history that lends substance to Fr. Snow’s argument. Just as race has marked many as socially inferior in our history, so extreme poverty has marked others as deserving of exclusion from the goods obtained through our social contract. Historically, those identified as white trash have been regarded as naturally inferior to their more affluent betters, along with people of color, especially in the South, and their putative natural inferiority has a long history of association with partisan attempts to exclude them permanently from society’s benefits. In its most extreme form, the belief in the natural inferiority of some humans has resembled fascism in all but name.

I owe recognition of the relevance of one of his sermons to our own historical moment to Fr. Snow’s daughter, Lydia Field Snow, who called attention to it in a recent Facebook post. I quote only part of the passage to which she refers.

The precise situation that creates fascism is where society is demoralized, where the conscientious are paralyzed with guilt and leadership believes that it is no longer accountable to anyone, where social disorder is everywhere and that this disorder is everywhere met with more police using more force. It occurs when the law is set aside in the name of order and humans find that the fear, the tension, the chaos, and the guilt become unbearable. It is at that moment when the human spirit is tempted to say suddenly, “No! Wrong is right, evil is good, ugliness is beauty, repression is true freedom, and the important thing is to be on the side of the strong. This is nature’s law – the weak, the stupid, the ugly, all those people who are not like me are destined to be destroyed, they are a drag on us, the truly strong. We’ve wasted enough time on them – let’s get it over with – why put up with their nonsense?”

There was a time when I didn’t believe the Republican Party really wanted to destroy the social contract. That was then, before they paraded a collection of proto fascists through a series of elections that ended up requiring all those who survived to pledge ever more stringent scenarios of social harm and that produced a final round of so-called rallies that fostered a lynch-mob ethos. Faced with the recent consequences of that ethos, we shall hardly need the renewed rallies to sustain the country’s angry mood. Our President ran for office in the familiar role of outsider, attacking government as ‘the problem’ in the tradition of Ronald Reagan. But his authoritarian approach to governing promises a police state, and as it develops it isn’t hard to predict a time when his régime will declare itself free of all obligation to ordinary human decency and give itself carte blanche to complete destruction of the social contract. And one further thing is clear. His appeal is deeply rooted in the American culture of winning. Here’s the President speaking to that point.

You’re going to be so proud of your president if I get in—and I don’t care about that—we’re going to start winning again, we’re going to win so much, we’re going to win at every level, we’re going to win economically, we’re going to win with the economy, we’re going to win with military . . . we’re going to win with every single facet, we’re going to win so much you may even get tired of winning, and you’ll say, ‘Please! Please! It’s too much winning! We can’t take it anymore! Mr. President! It’s too much!’ And I’ll say, ‘No it isn’t! We have to keep winning! We have to win more! We’re going to win more! We’re going to win so much!’

There’s some cognitive dissonance between the spectacle of Americans winning on such a scale and the destruction of the social contract that the Republican hard core desires, but winning in the presidential rallies was and is imaged as Fr. Snow described it: We need not concern ourselves with “the weak, the stupid, the ugly, all those people who are not like [us].” As the Republican program unfolds, particularly as the Affordable Care Act is repealed and great numbers of citizens lose access to health care while the middle class and the wealthy are given substantial tax breaks, it will become clear that Republican scapegoating doesn’t stop with Muslims and other immigrants but targets the poor as a social class as well. As Representative Roger Marshall (R – Kansas) put it in a recent interview, “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us,’ . . . There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves . . . .”