Monday, April 28, 2014

The Road to Damascus

Easter Sunday is a new beginning for everyone who has been paying attention. For the historic church, it was literally the beginning of an evangelistic outreach that transformed the Roman Empire and the world. The book of Acts is about conversion.

A central figure in the Book of Acts is Paul the apostle, who was known as Saul of Tarsus while he was still an enemy of the church.  How did Saul, an ethnocentric partisan who was complicit in the stoning of Stephen, become St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, and the author of the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians with its 13th chapter on love, the greatest of virtues?  Who or what brought about this amazing transformation?

What kind of man was Saul?  We know he was well educated, a Pharisee, the disciple of Gamaliel, who in the book of the Acts, is a prominent member of the highest tribunal of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Gamaliel is represented in Acts 5:34, advising his fellow-members of the Sanhedrin not to put to death Peter and the Apostles, who had continued to preach despite warnings against it. Gamaliel’s advice, however unwelcome, was acted upon, because of his authority with his contemporaries.

Saul of Tarsus wasn’t as tolerant as his distinguished teacher.   He assented to the stoning of Stephen, and he was on his way to Damascus to bring back Christians in chains to be prosecuted in Jerusalem. I think we all have known some religious people who are committed and fervent but hard edged in their zeal or plain meanSaul, we would have to admit, was a fanatical advocate for the ideology of his party, the Pharisees.  Were he living in our time, what would be his equivalent persona? He was respectable but dangerous, a scholar and tradesman--he earned his own living.  He is willing to use force to crush the new sect growing within the mainstream of his loyalties. He is not wealthy, but he is influential.  I’ve been trying to find an equivalent persona.  Something to think about.

There are persecutors of the church in North Korea and the Middle East.  But, Saul’s equivalent is any advocate who solidifies loyalty within his faction by targeting for destruction those who deviate from the ideology or faith.  We are surrounded by advocacy of this kind in politics, business, and religion.  Think of our national elections.  Most of the advertising is negative and stigmatizes those of the opposing party.  It is politics of fear-mongering and moralistic criticism.  Those in the opposing factions are not only wrong but evil.  Name your poison.  The church has it with a vengeance.  Schism and lawsuits transform assemblies of bishops into verbal brawls, scapegoating, and fear mongering about the evil liberals or the evil conservatives, one or the other of which is about to bring down the house.

Or, maybe Saul would be a power brokering manager in a corporation.  Networking is the same in business as it is in politics. The way it is used is different in degree, but not in kind, from that of Saul of Tarsus in his attempted purge.  Solidify the network by scapegoating individuals or factions.  Now that he is dead, we like to idolize Steve Jobs, but his employees were afraid to meet him in the hallways. If he didn’t like the way you looked at him, he would fire you on the spot.  It is a technique that resembles that of Joe Stalin, who occasionally had somebody taken out and shot to keep everybody else in line. Forbes Magazine recently had article on psychopathology among upper management that cites a study comparing the percentage of psychopaths in upper management to that of the prison population.

If you want the whole story on this syndrome, read Violence and the Sacred, by RenĂ© Girard.  The frightening thing about this kind of religion or ideology is that it works, at least for a while.  Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia are conspicuous examples.  Loyalty is solidified by demonizing “Jews” or “capitalists”.  People are afraid, angry, grasping at things that don’t calm their anxieties. Finding somebody to blame suppresses conflict within the ranks.

So what is the antidote to this kind of power networking?  The drama of the Gospel narratives!  Power mongering and advocacy justify the community of the faithful against the factions subverting everything worthy of loyalty.  But, in the Gospels the community is guilty.  The scapegoat, Jesus, is innocent, and his followers are innocent.  The religious motif of the Gospels turns paganism and tribalism, of the ancient or modern version, upside down.  If the Pharisees and the Sadducees are guilty of conspiring, even with Romans, to crucify an innocent man, the victim starts to be seen in the tradition of the prophets and patriarchs who suffered for their faith and testimony.  The mechanism of maintaining solidarity by character assassination of opponents, or literal assassination, is undone.  It has taken centuries for this truth to gain credibility in Western culture. The church, whenever it gets power, has to continually relearn that victimizing the opposition makes the community into an oppressor instead of a liberator.

Saul of Tarsus learned this truth in a matter of days after his Road-to-Damascus encounter with Jesus whom he persecuted in his attacks on Jesus’ followers.  Saul the fanatic was converted.  He became an apostle of the love of God incarnate in Jesus and in the new Christians.  The same man who stood by at the stoning of Stephen wrote the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians and the letter to Philemon, a letter that is a plea to the master of a runaway slave for clemency and acceptance of a brother in Christ.

The book of The Acts of the Apostles includes quite a number of dramatic transformations of ordinary people into saints.  Most of us, fortunately, don’t have to learn the way of the Gospels through a conversion like that of Saul of Tarsus.  In my case overzealous commitment has not been the problem.   Quite the contrary, I have had trouble going full speed into any activity.  I came of age in the 1960s.  If you are old enough to remember that decade, you probably remember that a lot of us thought we would never grow old.  The world was on the verge of a nuclear holocaust, or if that was somehow averted, we would likely pollute or overpopulate the world and die in some Malthusian catastrophe.  For me, sometime between junior high school and college, this fear mongering—remember the people writing this stuff had to sell their books—kept me from a single minded trajectory toward any legitimate goal.  I took refuge in the church. It verges on bad faith when one uses an apocalyptic view of life in this world to evade decisions or commitment.

 In absence of strong ambitions there was time available for outdoorsy sports like skiing and mountain climbing.  In college the absence of goals left me free to learn a lot of things that formerly I didn’t know existed.  I took year-long sequence courses in English literature and philosophy.  I had learned to sing in church, so getting into the college choir wasn’t so difficult.  The choir sang Bach, Handel, and Mozart.  I was hooked.  I found out in a strange way that he who loses his life will find it in new options that appear when the normal ambitions go away.

 I was left with a bunch of passionate interests, none of which were very practical.  I found out that I could write.  All the books I was reading had an effect.  I thought being a writer would be nice, somewhere in the mountains with my books and recordings.  That pipe dream dissipated with the various jobs I had to find to pay the bills.  A lot of years and a failed marriage proved that in spite of nuclear bombs, the population explosion, and a growing hole in the ozone, that I was going to have to work for a living just like my father.  I kept writing and singing, mostly for the fun of it.  Eventually my new wife taught me how to use a computer.  She then had a real job.

I found that I liked programming, and I read George Gilder, who said that pretty soon—this was the mid 1990s—that anybody would be able to publish anything without sending manuscripts to New York, mainly for rejection slips.  Gilder is optimistic about technology.  You can read him to dispel a lot of fear mongering by people who have to get grants to sustain their research.  I learned to program computers.   Microsoft was hiring anybody who could program and speak English.  I worked as a tester, and my English is pretty good, so I became a programming writer.

But we're looking for Road-to-Damacus experience.  I’ve had a number of them, not very dramatic, but interesting.  Ten years ago I read an advertisement that claimed copy writers could make big money writing advertising.  It must have been the old hankering for time to write like Hemingway in the Sun Valley Lodge that got me to order the correspondence course on copy writing.  I’d find out how to work twenty hours a week and then pursue my real passions.

The course arrived, and when I opened the first book, I found the answer to a question that had been plaguing me since high school.  Why are there always so many prophets of doom?  I opened the first book and read the secret of selling just about anything: If you want to motivate people to act, you have to appeal to very basic human emotions.  Logical arguments, no matter how flawless, will not get people off the dime.  You have to appeal to basic emotions.  The most dependable are fear and greed.  Suddenly the sky opened before me and I understood everything.   I knew very well the desperation of the writer to publish and sell articles, books, and documentaries.  Academics have to sell their books.  Their careers depend on it.  Why do we have one crisis after another?  Think about the people who write the news, whose careers depend on being read.  Think about the academics whose careers are based on the dictum “publish or perish”.   Greed is easy.  How much junk mail do you get every month that is written on some variation of the theme? How you can profit from the coming Financial Holocaust.   The energy crisis is over, but now we have global warming and GMO food.  Maybe one of these will kill me, but for now I’m going to keep my job.  I can make music with the choir.  If the end does come, I’ll be singing in a better choir anyway.