Manic mode. Press conference tomorrow; today many phone calls to make. Five a.m. and bitter cold. Full moon looking in over my right shoulder. The monkey in my mind – no, screw the tired buddhist cliche – the gray squirrel in my mind is already stirring. Stirring? Hell, she’s racing about in 108 different directions at once!
There’s been a very interesting discussion going on over at The Cassandra Pages for the last three days now (click here for the permalink). It was sparked by a moving & very understated essay in which the author contrasted hearing a sermon by the newly installed New Hampshire Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson (he whose ordination threatened to split the Anglican church), with a visit afterwards to a typical American mall. How to practice the “radical hospitality and infinite respect” the bishop preached surrounded by such soul-destroying craving and consumerism? How to love the people who manufacture and peddle all this stuff? The message strings are very lively because it’s not just Christians talking to Christians; the Buddhists and agnostics are chiming in, too.
One comment in these discussions was along the lines of, “I don’t believe in higher powers. I guess that’s why I’m not religious.” But it seems to me that questions of how to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” “love thy enemy” and give welcome to the widow, the orphan and the stranger are precisely the beginning and end of religion. I agree with Confucius: metaphysics is a sideshow. Life after death? Don’t be such a baby! You’re going to die. Odds are you’ll suffer quite a bit before you get there. Deal with it.
Faith/trust in [insert name of idol here], at its best and most essential, should mean cultivating a deeply conscious openness toward the world and toward each of its flawed inhabitants – even (or especially) when they are DEEPLY EVIL CYNICAL PSYCHOPATHIC RUMSFELD SADDAM MOTHERFUCKERS WITHOUT A SHRED OF HUMAN DECENCY.
I notice that (as of last night) none of the participants in the discussion had really dealt concretely with “radical hospitality”; they were mostly just exploring the ramifications of “infinite respect.” O.K. But this is a major flaw in our culture, I think. I wonder if our collective tone-deafness toward this most ancient of virtues has something to do with our national origins, in genocide and chattel slavery. But be that as it may, I think the practice of hospitality is one of the things we could most stand to learn from Muslims and/or Arabs. It is very painful to read descriptions of American troops behaving like the Gestapo, abusing the abundant hospitality they are shown when they enter houses unannounced, frightening and insulting their would-be hosts. We just don’t know how to be good guests! It is equally painful to hear about how we have begun fingerprinting every non-White visitor to the U.S.; imprisoning resident aliens and keeping them incommunicado for months for traffic violations or lapsed visas, then deporting them without even giving them a chance to say goodbye to their American families. We don’t know how to be good hosts.
Returning to my evolving midrash on Jacob and Esau (see “history and freedom” entry): the less biblically literate among my readers may not perhaps realize the full import of this tale. And the deeply particularistic language of the Old Testament makes it easy to forget: these are not just individuals, but “corporate persons” – ancestors of two neighboring and usually warring peoples, Israel and Edom, at the time this story was given its final form. In later millennia, Jews of the Diaspora read “Edom” as code for “Christendom.” That’s the background/baggage of this apparently simple story of reconciliation between brothers, with all the grand gestures of radical hospitality and infinite respect.
There’s something else that strikes me. In terms of the structure of the narrative, Jacob’s weird nocturnal wrestling bout comes at the very same place where many years previous, as a mama’s boy fleeing his brother’s wrath, he took a stone for a pillow and dreamed his famous, epiphanic dream. In those terrible sugar-coated Bible Stories For Children that have been the cause of so many former altar boys and choir girls turning their backs on religion, Jacob’s Ladder is right up there with Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors and David and Goliath. The scholars tell us that rather than a ladder we should envision the stairs on a ziggurat, but never mind.
The point to me is that the two stories have a dialectical relationship. Where before Jacob had a dream of a strictly vertical order, with angels going up and down and the Lord standing above all and thundering his promise to multiply Jabob’s descendents – a future market-dominance by his corporate personhood – now we have sleeplessness. A dark night of the soul, a cloud of unknowing. “A man came and wrestled with him until daybreak.” Not (as in Bible Stories for Children) some fluffy-winged angel. God or demon? He doesn’t give out his name. We know only that, the next day when Jacob finally meets up with Esau, he sees the face of God. “And Jacob called the name of the place Penuel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Gen. 33:30)
Okey-dokey. But then comes the awful 34th Chapter of Genesis: the first recorded genocide against the inhabitants of what is now called Palestine, perpetrated by Jacob’s sons to avenge the “defiling” of their sister. Has Jacob learned nothing from his two, very different epiphanies?
Actually, he takes no part in the massacre, and in fact chastises his sons. But his rebuke has a decidedly self-serving ring to it: You’ve given me a really bad reputation among the natives here, he says, “and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house. And they said, Should he deal with our sister as a harlot?”(Gen. 34:30-31) God is conspicuously absent until the very end. The pious people who divided the Bible into chapter and verse at a later time put in a chapter break when at last Yahweh speaks up.
“And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel” – that’s where the stone pillow epiphany took place – “and dwell there: and make thee an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother.” (35:1) The voices in my head are saying we gotta go now, quick! And by the way, we better clean up our act. “Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments” (35:2) and they do so. And “the terror of God” comes upon all the cities in their path. Strong stuff.