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“Love Gerald,” a Short Play by j. Snodgrass

I was honored last month by the Off-Off-Broadway premier of my short play “Love Gerald,” produced by Love Creek Productions.  I actually wrote this about ten years ago, while taking a Seminary course about the literary origins of the Gospels (hopefully this short play is fun, but it was also a seminarian’s attempt to boil down hundreds of pages of John Crossan, Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar into an educational sketch/skit).  I would not normally post a play-script here, since I find them hard to read, but this one is pretty easy to follow, it just goes back and forth between two characters at a bus-stop.  And I believe this story fits in well with the themes and content of this site.

 

 

LOVE GERALD

By j. SNODGRASS

The Characters :

Sherry, 9

Rachel, 9

These girls are fourth-graders, but should be played by young adults.

The Setting : A Suburban Sidewalk, an early morning in September.

At Rise : SHERRY is standing there in a Catholic school uniform with her bright lunch-box and backpack next to her. She is reading from a beat-up spiral notebook, a childish drawing of a kayak on the cover with stars around it. She wears a necklace with a crudely carved wooden kayak on it. RACHEL walks over to her, also carrying a lunch-box and backpack.

RACHEL :

Sherry!

SHERRY :

Rachel.

RACHEL :

It’s so good to see you! Ready for the first day of fourth grade?

SHERRY :

I guess…

RACHEL :

When did you get back from camp?

SHERRY :

Two weeks…

RACHEL :

Two weeks! But you didn’t answer your walkie-talkie.

SHERRY :

I haven’t been taking calls…

RACHEL :

Oh. Well at least it must be nice…back in your own room again. With all your stuff.

SHERRY :

I haven’t been back to my old room. I told my parents I’ll be living in the attic. Stuff is just…stuff. Now I have this. And this.

(Shows RACHEL the notebook and necklace.)

RACHEL :

That’s a great necklace – you made it at camp?

SHERRY :

Yes.

RACHEL :

It’s a…banana?

SHERRY :

Oh, you of little understanding. It’s…a kayak… All the kids made them. Even after the counselors told us not to. “Arts and crafts is for crosses,” they said “Make another cross.” We carved these in secret…after lights-out…

RACHEL :

…But aren’t Christians supposed to…love crosses?

SHERRY :

Christians talk a big game about crosses, but have you ever seen them get on one? All my life I’ve listened to Father Houlihan talk about how he loves the cross, like he wants to spend the rest of his life hanging from it. But I’ve seen his hands. He’s never even tried.

RACHEL :

…All your life? Sherry, we’re nine years old.

SHERRY :

My birth certificate would say so. And the fact that I’m about to start fourth grade. But this summer, I’ve… This summer I’ve become a woman.

RACHEL :

Oh. I hope you didn’t do anything gross.

SHERRY :

No. …Actually, I did touch a dead bird with a stick, but what I really mean is… We’re friends, right?

RACHEL :

Best in the world. Except this last two weeks when you’ve been home but haven’t answered my calls…

SHERRY :

I’ve needed to be alone, dedicating myself… Rachel, something wonderful has happened…

RACHEL :

…Well?

SHERRY :

While I was at camp, one of the junior counselors…Gerald… He died.

RACHEL :

Oh my goodness.

SHERRY :

I know.

RACHEL :

And he was a jerk? And that’s why it’s good news?

SHERRY :

No, no of course not. He was…the coolest junior-counselor ever.

RACHEL :

Better than–?

SHERRY :

The best. Greatest. Coolest. And then one night, he… Well, it was hard to get details, but someone over-heard that he drank something and took a kayak on the river, and… And they found him the next morning…dead in the water…

RACHEL : (Hugs her)

I’m really sorry. This was right before you came home?

SHERRY :

What? No, it was our second week there. We had almost the whole summer to remember him, and think about him, make beautiful new words for old camp-songs…about Gerald…

RACHEL :

And you made kayak necklaces?

SHERRY :

All of us. Because we knew…he died for us… And all summer, the staff kept trying to tell us about Jesus who lived, like a million years ago in China or something. And we kept trying to tell them, now someone else has died. Right here, recently!

RACHEL :

But, I mean, didn’t Jesus…do special stuff?

SHERRY :

Gerald did special stuff. Stuff no-one else could do. Like on taco-night? He broke the all-time camp record by eating twenty-one tacos. We all saw him do it. And then he left the mess-hall, because he had to be alone. And I heard one of the other junior counselors say he was praying…to the porcelain god…

RACHEL :

Wow… What is it? The porcelain god. An idol?

SHERRY :

Nobody knows. Maybe his father…is one of those famous white statues…

RACHEL :

Well I guess that’s…pretty cool… Breaking the taco-record…

SHERRY :

And he could do more than just eat tacos. Once this little boy Jimmy fell down some stairs, and said his leg was broken? But Gerald touched it and said… “Yeah right, that’s not broken.” And then the little boy was fine! He even got checked out by the nurse – his leg was totally healed!

RACHEL :

Maybe it hadn’t broken in the first place.

SHERRY :

Well you can go ahead and explain it away with your fancy science. My dad said Jews like you never believe anything anyway. But I know what I know…

RACHEL :

…Jews like me? What’s that supposed to mean?

SHERRY :

Well…you know…

RACHEL :

No. I don’t.

SHERRY :

Well if you don’t know, then…then how should I know?

RACHEL :

I don’t know. But you’ve never said something like that to me before, and I’ve known you your entire life.

SHERRY :

That wasn’t my “entire life.” That was my past-life, my childhood, I don’t even think about those days anymore. My story started over because of Gerald. And I only told you about it because I thought you might understand.

RACHEL :

Well I want to understand. Because I haven’t seen you all summer, and now you’re acting different. And calling me a Jew – and you don’t even know what a Jew is.

SHERRY :

Of course I know. They killed Jesus and then tried to take over Germany or something, and then…went camping while everybody else fought a big war.

RACHEL :

Sherry, I can’t believe I need to say this, but… I’d appreciate if we would not discuss my religion.

SHERRY :

…Wow… Isn’t that what you said to Lindy last year on the playground?

RACHEL :

It’s what my parents taught me to say to anyone…who insults our people. And now you’ve made me say it to you…

SHERRY :

I…I can’t believe… I mean, you– We’ve always– You know what? You know what Gerald used to say? “Be chill.” That’s what he said. “Be chill.” And now I know you’ll never understand him, or me, because you can’t be chill. I have some reading I’d like to do. And when the bus comes, let’s… Let’s find separate seats, if there’s any left.

(SHERRY continues reading from the notebook.)

RACHEL :

Is that about…Gerald?

SHERRY :

I’m not talking to you. Not until you apologize.

RACHEL :

For what? You were calling me names.

SHERRY :

…Oh. Then I guess… Then I apologize. Yeah, it’s about Gerald. It’s the whole story. I mean, from the beginning of the summer until he…died…

RACHEL :

And you wrote it?

SHERRY :

We all wrote it. Everybody said what they remembered about him, and this one older kid wrote it all down and put it in order.

RACHEL :

But that’s your hand-writing.

SHERRY :

Yeah, we all had to make our own copies. Because the staff kept taking them away. Saying we should really be reading the Bible. But that book weighs a ton! And the words are so tiny! Who would sit down and say “Now I’m going to write this billion-page book, with little tiny letters no-one can read”?

RACHEL :

At least yours is in English. Another couple years, I’ll have to learn Hebrew. And people have always written it backwards.

SHERRY :

Alright.

RACHEL :

…Alright what?

SHERRY :

You tell me you don’t want to be picked on, and then you say you’ll have to learn to read backwards in another language.

RACHEL :

Tell me more about Gerald…

SHERRY :

I was just reading this chapter again, about the day before he died. We played Capture the Flag, and nobody realized it at the time, but really it was a game about how soon the whole country’s gonna be in on this.

RACHEL :

Worshiping Gerald?

SHERRY :

Yeah. Can’t you see? Capture? The Flag? And our team totally won, with Gerald as the captain, and afterwards we poured a pitcher of bug-juice over his head. Like they do at football games, to wash the coach from all his sins. And later Gerald…shared his whole collection of licorice jelly-beans with the team.

RACHEL :

Yuck. I hate licorice!

SHERRY :

He said he’d been putting them aside a long time. The pile didn’t look that big? Like maybe we’d each get one? But by the time he ran out we were practically all sick. He had enough for everyone…

RACHEL :

Probably because he hated licorice too.

SHERRY :

No, it was because… Because they were like a part of him, and eating them would have been…eating himself. It was our last meal together… And later that night, while we all slept, he snuck out of the cabin…

RACHEL :

This guy slept in a girls’ cabin?

SHERRY :

I meant he snuck out of the boys’ cabin, where he stayed. And he drank something called ‘the beast,’ and probably prayed to the porcelain god one final time, and then got into a kayak and said… “I’m doing this for kids everywhere. And life is like a river. And you can’t spell ‘children’ without ‘chill.’ And from now on, everyone who wears a kayak will remember me. And forgive people who don’t know what I’m doing.”

RACHEL :

…How do you know he said all that?

SHERRY :

Well, we had to use our imaginations a little bit, because no-one else was there. Actually there were a lot of ideas that didn’t get used. I thought he should’ve said something about how Santa and the Easter Bunny were secretly working for him all along, but then this kid Benny said there was no Santa and we got into this…like two-hour argument, all of us, anyway I wrote it into my copy. Here, along the side of the page… And if you like it, you could write it into…your copy..?

RACHEL :

My copy?

SHERRY :

Yeah, silly. That’s what we’ve been having this whole talk about. So you could learn to love Gerald too.

RACHEL :

Well Sherry, I don’t know…

SHERRY :

It’s a little late for not knowing. Why else would you have asked to hear the whole story? Or even talked to me in the first place?

RACHEL :

Because we’re best friends, and we always talk while we wait for the bus.

SHERRY :

You saw the kayak. This is all I talk about now. The new me.

RACHEL :

Yeah, I’ve noticed. The old you would’ve at least asked what I did this whole summer.

SHERRY :

I guess. But standing around talking about all that time would just be…living in the past. Gerald is all about the future. “I believe that children are the future.” I think that’s something he would have definitely said. As a matter of fact, that belongs in the book. All in favor? Aye. Okay. (Writes it in)

RACHEL :

When we were younger, we used to pretend we were aldermen, or hockey-players or fashion models. And that was fine, but… If we’re going to play pretend now, couldn’t we pretend something more exciting than…religion?

SHERRY :

Wait a minute. Are you calling my faith a ‘pretend religion’?

RACHEL :

…Well, I just watched you make something up and add it to the sacred scripture…

SHERRY :

Rachel, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… I would appreciate it if we did not discuss my religion.

RACHEL :

Alright, I get it. I’m sorry. So…we can talk about something else?

SHERRY :

Fine. Tell me about your summer. Catch any cool bugs?

RACHEL :

Well no, not if you say it like that. We spent the summer here, all except this one weekend me and the twins had to go stay with my aunt Leah. She eats a lot because she’s lonely, and she’s lonely because she eats a lot.

SHERRY :

Maybe if she knew about…tacos…

RACHEL :

When we got back, half the pictures on the wall, and half the furniture, and all of my Daddy were gone. Mom said he wanted to spend time with someone closer to my age. So I don’t know, maybe I’ll have a big sister soon.

SHERRY :

Where is he looking? Shouldn’t a sister come from your mom?

RACHEL :

We still see him. Every few days he comes by, saying he forgot something, like a book or something. And Mom says “Eli, you know full well you packed that book. If there’s something you need to say then say it. Otherwise go back wherever you’re staying.” And she acts mad, but then she closes the door and cries.

SHERRY :

That must be really sad, to watch…

RACHEL :

It is. Especially for the twins. Then Esther asks when he’s coming back and Mom cries some more.

SHERRY :

You know, when I first saw you this morning, I wondered… Why? After all his time, and how I’ve changed, why am I running into her again?

RACHEL :

…Because we live on the same block?

SHERRY :

Yeah, but in the meaningful sense. Why? And now I know. I can help you and the twins. Gerald wants me to. He sent me to you.

RACHEL :

Sherry…

SHERRY :

We tell our parents to set up a sleep-over, we don’t need to tell them anything else. And then after lights out, you and the twins and me, I’ll bring some bug-juice, find some black jelly-beans

RACHEL :

…What is bug-juice, anyway?

SHERRY :

I don’t know, I don’t think it’s made from bugs. But I brought a canteen of it home with me. And, I mean, you don’t have to pour a whole pitcher over your head, just a few drops. And then you and the twins can be full members of Gerald, like a beloved member of his body, and it’ll help you to be chill.

RACHEL :

Sherry, I know you’re serious about Gerald, but… My Daddy leaving home is sort of…more serious…if you understand…

SHERRY :

Gerald died. For us. What could be more serious than that? At least your Dad comes over to ask for books. Gerald…never asked for anything… Except more tacos… “Keep’em coming,” he said. Don’t you see?

RACHEL :

Yes, he ate a lot of tacos.

SHERRY :

But he also meant… More importantly he meant that more kids should come to believe in him. “Keep’em coming.” It’s like he looked into the future and saw you and the twins in a room, and me sleeping over and all of us accepting him as our junior counselor of light. Because he died for us…

RACHEL :

Nothing in your story says he died for anything, except the speech you made up.

SHERRY :

It’s true, we don’t know why he was in that kayak, only Gerald and the porcelain god know that. But he was probably on his way to get something for us, or find a new camp for us to settle in where we wouldn’t have to sing songs about blood. What’s important is that he was probably rowing against the tide, and that can mean all sorts of important things.

RACHEL :

Or maybe it doesn’t mean anything.

SHERRY :

That’s a matter of faith.

RACHEL :

But what can he do? Can he bring my Dad back home?

SHERRY :

He could be your new father. He understands all kinds of kid sadness. And if you start believing in Gerald, maybe… Maybe the porcelain god could be your father too. We’re still working out the exact relationship–

RACHEL :

But I don’t want some statue showing up at my soccer games…

SHERRY : (Pulls a kayak necklace from her pocket)

Rachel, the bus is almost here. I want you to take this…I made it, now I realize, for you…wear it, and just… Just see how it makes you feel…

RACHEL :

I… I can’t.

SHERRY :

Of course you can. And you can borrow my book, and read the story for yourself.

RACHEL :

No, Sherry. I’m sorry, but… I don’t think Gerald is what I need right now.

SHERRY :

He loves you.

RACHEL :

I appreciate it.

SHERRY :

I’ve dedicated my life to Gerald. And it’s made me everything I am.

RACHEL :

I’m happy for you.

SHERRY :

And if you can’t accept that… If you can’t accept Gerald into your bosom, then…I don’t see how we can be friends anymore…

RACHEL :

Then I guess when the bus gets here…we should find separate seats…

SHERRY :

I’ll be in the back, with the cool kids, harvesting a flock.

RACHEL :

I’ll be in the front with the sad kids whose parents split up this summer.

SHERRY :

Then I guess this is good-bye.

RACHEL :

Yes. I’ll miss you. The old you.

SHERRY :

And I’ll miss the you that…could have been.

(They embrace.)

THE END.

 

 

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THE SECOND COMING (CAPTAIN AMERICHRIST)

THE SECOND COMING

In 1845, Frederick Douglass wrote in Life of An American Slave, Appendix “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels… I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me… They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy… Such is, very briefly, my view of the religion of this land…revealed in the words, deeds, and actions, of those bodies, north and south, calling themselves Christian churches, and yet in union with slaveholders. It is against religion, as presented by these bodies, that I have felt it my duty to testify.”

In 1919, William Butler Yeats wrote a poem called “The Second Coming”

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand…

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

 

CAPTAIN AMERICHRIST

Christopher Columbus once declared, “God made me the messenger of the New Heaven and the New Earth of which he spoke through St. John in the Apocalypsis.” Columbus sailed at a time when the Old World, Europe, was collapsing under the weight of its own greed. Overpopulated and environmentally degraded, soon to erupt in massive economic wars thinly disguised as theological disputes between Catholic and Protestant. Suddenly beyond the unknown waters a new Eden appeared, filled with innocent naked Adams and Eves for the Catholic Spaniards to corrupt and infect and rob and enslave and slaughter in the name of Christ. Thor would have been proud, Zeus and Marduk and Ra would have been impressed. If there was a Devil, he would have been tickled pink. But Jesus might have been a little bit confused. “Um, so you met these people who lived like the birds of the air, like the lilies of the field, and you…what? And you said my name while you did it?”

It can get very confusing, looking at the career of Christianity here in the New World – a resume written in native blood, slave-ship manifests, ledgers of crooked money-lenders, houses of prayer heaped with the last pennies of widows. As a Bible teacher, it looks to me like the confusion comes from imagining that the Israelite Jesus has something to do with the New World Christ. The mental acrobatics involved in relating the swarthy vagabond of Galilee with the triumphant platinum Christ of America will only give you a headache. The New Heaven and New Earth Columbus stumbled upon would need a New Christ, and as we’ll see the American Christ grew right here on American soil, and has adapted with us as an expression of our cultural ideals. Today the American Christ is economically competitive, politically conservative, militaristic, racially exclusive, judgmental of women, disgusted by the poor and the outcast. Captain AmeriChrist loves the flag, the fetus, and the rifle. In the South they think the Second Amendment is one of the Ten Commandments: Thou Shalt Own GunS. And by “South” I mean “South of Canada.”

Before we roll into this, I should make a few things clear. First of all, I am a Seminary graduate, but I don’t get a commission for selling subscriptions to salvation, and I don’t know or care which franchise chain-church sells the best crackers. Second, I’m not here to painstakingly explicate a cosmic Christology, nor to explore who Jesus might have been “historically” in his own sociopolitical cultural context – right now I’m interested in exploring American proposals and sales-pitches about the Christ. Jesus “the answer” has been continually reshaped as new questions have arisen in American social and political history. Americans view Jesus through a kaleidoscope of mirrors, reflecting our highest ideals and lowest desires. And whether you believe in him or not, we all live in Jesus-country.

SWEETEST FRIEND

We are told that Jesus landed on the shores of North America with the puritans but it’s not really true – when we read the documents, the covenants, the letters and sermons of Pilgrims we see a startling lack of references to the peasant Jesus or the kingly Christ. Puritans were far more interested in the Torah’s Old Covenant God who promised land in exchange for righteousness. The Pilgrims were delivered across the waters and, like the freed Egyptian slaves, found a land filled with nature-loving pagans and quickly set about to purify the new Promised Land in the name of a conquering God.

The American Jesus was not really born until over a century later, and he was born right here in Western New York during what scholars call “The Great Awakening.” Gloomy pilgrims in drab colors would grimly reap their harvests, then leave their farmsteads and villages, swarming into the wilderness for camp-revivals – the Woodstock Festivals of Puritanism, people shouting and swooning and speaking in tongues (also some anonymous sex in the woods – a good way to keep Puritan towns from getting too inbred), whipped into frenzies over fire and judgment with tag-team preachers raving about an angry God dangling sinners over the pit of eternal flame. And just when it seemed all hope was lost, the preacher would mention a friend, a humble and idealistic young attorney named Jesus, willing to speak in your defense at the Judgment. If you paid his retainer.

It’s hard for us today to appreciate the originality of Jesus the frontiersman’s friend, characterized by a soft-cheeked, sad-eyed sweetness. Because Protestants rejected the Catholic mother-worship of Mary, frontier Jesus had to combine the virgin-mother and son. We can still see this androgynous, sometimes clearly effeminate demeanor in their hymns and paintings. This period’s image of Jesus is most historically significant in the counter-reaction it produced: the American Christ briefly experimented with gender-bending, and fathers have been whipping him into shape ever since, forcing Jesus to become more and more manly for three hundred years.

CIRCUMCISION

The American Christ was secretly circumcised by the Father of Modern Biblical Scholarship, Thomas Jefferson (who, in his free time, was also President). In the Capital at night, Jefferson sat up with eight Bibles and a razor-blade, trimming the magic from the Gospels until he’d carved a slim document – The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth (1804). Jefferson himself explained, “In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests…as instruments of riches and power [for] themselves… There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man…which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” But a strange thing happened – Jefferson with his razor had circumcised Jesus, but it was the stuff he cut away that would be kept and adopted by the new American Christianity, while the teachings and sayings and justice of Jesus were left behind, like throwing out the baby and keeping the foreskin.

In 1823, the American Christ was reborn in one of his most fascinating manifestations about eighty miles from here, in Rochester, when a farmboy named Joseph Smith claimed to have met with a glorious angel named Moroni who lent Smith special glasss to decode mysterious hieroglyphics in a solid-gold book, and reported that the true natives of America were actually Hebrews who fled Israel during the Babylonian Invasion in 586 BCE. Some were then cursed with Red skin for breaking the Jewish Covenant, they vented their fury in viciously persecuting the true white-skinned Israelite-Americans to near-extinction. Fortunately, after the Christ’s resurrection, he came to America and reconciled them in the glorious name of himself. But then the redskins relapsed into their pagan ways and killed off almost all the white Israelites. In desperation, Moroni hid their sacred book in Rochester for fourteen hundred years until he could reveal it to young blond handsome Joseph Smith.

Whether or not we accept this as fact, we must acknowledge the very real historical response. In the 1830’s, with a lot of people feeling guilty about the Indian genocide, Smith’s visionary scenario offered an answer to some very pressing questions: If Christ was king of the world, when did he find out that America existed? And if he knew, why not try to save them? Answer: he had, but most of them refused to listen. And shouldn’t Christians feel bad about Indian genocide? Answer: if the Indians were guilty of Christian genocide fourteen centuries earlier, then it was only fair. And why was the Biblical worldview so confined to the Middle East, if the true Christian Manifest Destiny was here? Moroni’s golden book revealed that the Biblical Garden of Eden was actually located in Missouri.

There is some possibility this was snake-oil, but it was powerful medicine for the guilt and shame of the Native Holocaust. Smith’s vision had the power to bend time and space, change the past, alter the genes and cultural identities of ancient peoples, a brilliant experiment in what we today might call “alternative facts.” Whatever we think his raw material was, Smith the alchemist turned it into gold, and it was no fad – the Church of Latter-Day Saints boasts 15 Million members today (add up all the Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans? Mormons still outnumber them). And it’s no surprise that Joseph Smith’s trusting flock turned out for Trump, after the failure of their own Mormon candidate Mitt Romney.

THE GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT(S)

In the 1840’s, another Christian fire was lit here in Western New York that still burns brightly today, and would dramatically re-shape American Christianity. A man named William Miller spent two decades studying scripture, particularly the books of Daniel and Revelations, and found a message that was both thrilling and disturbing: Daniel 8:14 says “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller then deduced that the days were actually years, and if you started counting when Atraxerxes of Persia commanded the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple in 457 BCE, then the Biblical Apocalypse must be in 1843! Or 1844! Now I don’t want to get you all worked up and frightened, so I’ll just say right now that Miller’s many followers experienced what religious historians call “The Great Disappointment.” They showed up to exult in rivers of blood, plagues, earthquakes, disasters, and Jesus riding on a horse with a sword coming out of his mouth, slaughtering non-Christian men, women and children, as we read in Revelation 1:16. But God disappointed them with a fine spring day.

But then a miracle happened – after the disappointment from Miller’s original prediction that Christ would destroy the world by March 21, even more people showed up for his corrected prediction that Christ would return on April 18th. And after that disappointment, even more people showed up when he predicted that it absolutely must be October 22, 1844, which…spoiler-altert, also didn’t happen. Finally, William Miller concluded that the Bible itself must have contained an error, due to some ancient copyist’s mistake. He died five years later, but gave unto American Christianity a valuable lesson: the Apocalypse sells, and no matter how many times you’re wrong in predicting it, you still get paid and even more people will give you even more money the next time you predict it. The Millerite movement did lose some of its members, but it did not die – actually, disappointed Millerites spawned a new church called “Seventh Day Adventists,” based on the belief that Christ could come at any time, and today there are twenty to twenty-five million of them.

In the 1860’s, Americans got excited about the Revelation again, when Jesus’ end-time prophecy seemed to be coming true with “wars and rumors of wars…Nation will rise against nation…Brother will betray brother to death.” (Mark 13:7-8, 12) The Apocalyptic fury of the Civil War was so great that when Abraham Lincoln was martyred for the sins of the people, his cadaver was actually resurrected by taxidermists and put on a train for a national farewell tour. And so began the long, bleak period known as Civil War Reconstruction, which began in 1865 and ended in November 2016 when the Confederacy was finally fooled into believing it had taken over America. …Just kidding about that – the Civil War Reconstruction period will not end until America is history.

CAPITALIST CHRIST

In around 1882, a Baptist minister struck gold by writing a lecture called “Acres of Diamonds,” which launched him on a forty-year world-wide tour in which he delivered the speech over six thousand times. The man was Russell Conwell (the name should have been a tip-off) and he delighted audiences with what became, essentially, the American Sermon-on-the-Mount: “I say that you ought to get rich, and it is our duty to get rich… Money is power, [and] you can do more good with it than you could without it… If you can honestly attain unto riches, it is our Christian and godly duty to do so. It is an awful mistake of these pious people to think you must be awfully poor in order to be pious… I sympathize with the poor, [but] to sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong, no doubt about it, [and] let us remember that there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings… It is all wrong to be poor, anyhow.” (Russell Conwell, c1882)

Conwell was a brilliant man who preached that great wealth was a sure sign of God’s great trust in one individual, and poverty was a sign of God’s punishment (his announcement that the poor were impoverished because of their own sins and weakness would have been fascinating to recently freed slaves, but most were too busy job-hunting and share-cropping to attend these lectures). We may not remember Conwell’s name but his truth is marching on – as a matter of fact, it has only grown more powerful, with millions of impoverished Christians fooled into voting for politicians who will slash the social benefits of the poor to fund massive tax-breaks for the wealthy. Jesus did once say “Whoever has [much] will be given more; whoever does not have [much], even what they have will be taken from them.” (Mark 4:25) But he was talking about faith, not finance. Worse yet, these poor voters have been bamboozled into blaming their financial problems (caused by the Wall Street they voted to deregulate) on even poorer people – minorities and refugees.

Many of my college students today believe that Jesus was comfortably middle-class (fascinating, since the “middle class” was not invented until 1914, and only lasted a hundred years). The Bible clearly tells us Jesus was homeless and unemployed. And most of my black college students still can’t help but see Jesus as a Germanic caucasian with blue eyes and blonde hair. But once we’ve seen some of the ways in which the Christ seed, planted in American soil, has produced unique plants and strange fruit undreamed of in Galilee or Rome or Europe, it’s no stretch to imagine any number of fantastical mutations – Jesus the gun-toting redneck, Jesus who loves the fetus but lacks compassion for the hungry child, Jesus the fiscal conservative, Jesus who rejects evolution but embraces social-Darwinism. Jesus who wants to “bomb the shit out of” the Middle-East.

Today we’ve glanced at only a few of many strange mutations of Captain AmeriChrist, and each of these has contributed an important piece to our present situation. Because it’s been building here in the dark heart of America, a desire for this new Christ to finally manifest himself in the flesh. A Second Coming of Christ with blonde hair and ruthless business skills, a Christ who could destroy the Chief Priests of news and the Scribes of government, bull-whip the scientists from the Temple, tear it down and rebuild it as his own theme-park. A new Christ who could bend time and space, changing the very nature of “truth” and “fact,” re-molding intellectual foundations. And maybe, just maybe, this new Christ would succeed where the old one had failed – to destroy the world itself, as the Bible promised (nevermind that the book of Revelation says people will be ruled by a demonic, capitalist Anti-Christ for a while before the real white-Christ returns).

Donald Trump is a savior and messiah, and although there is not a single Jesus-bone in his body, he is the physical manifestation of the American Christ. It’s been gestating, festering and mutating for centuries and every time it’s popped its head out we laughed, but it never disappeared, it only went underground to gestate and fester some more, and now that it’s emerged into the light we find it hideous, we’re horrified because we don’t know the history. Donald Trump is the real American Christ, and the Christians who elected him were not confused or misguided – it’s ridiculous to ask “How could you vote for someone so different from radical compassionate peasant Jesus?” American Christianity has no place for Jesus the Palestinian rebel (if he came back today he’d be tied to a rack in Guantanamo Bay). And as we gasp in horror that Trump has lied or broken something or hurt someone or stumbled us closer to human extinction, his supporters only love him more because he is manifesting the Christ power they want him to have. You want to shake people and shout “Think about the future!” But they are – an apocalyptic pie-in-the-sky future for which they consider themselves well-prepared.

Some of us talk about plague and famine and global meltdown as if they were bad things, but like everything else it’s a matter of opinion. Even to say “It’s true that humanity wants to live another generation” or “It’s a fact that hatred will not produce happiness” or “It’s illogical to put the foxes in charge of guarding the chicken-coop.” You’re bringing a pillow to a gunfight – religious fanatics will not be swayed by profane earthly trifles like “truth” and “fact.” Religion will not be reasoned with. Trying to understand Christianity today… We all know some reasonable, compassionate Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, but this is a tiny disappearing fraction of the Church. The growing, overwhelming majority of American Christianity is an apocalyptic death-cult, clamoring for a blond Messiah to light the fuse and make the whole thing go boom.

In October 1844, a man who’d heeded the call of William Miller and traveled to see the Biblical apocalypse with all its burning and plague and famine and earthquake and massacre and atrocity, stood heartbroken as the sun shone and the birds sang. He later reported, “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before…We wept and wept until the day dawned.” Scholars call this “The Great Disappointment.” The failure of Jesus Christ to destroy the world in the 1840’s. And if our new Christ, Donald Trump, fails to destroy the country and the world, Christian American will weep and weep – they’ll call it the Great Disappointment Part II, and like most sequels it’ll be less funny than the original. The good news for the rest of us is, Donald Trump is really good at disappointing people, especially people who put their faith in him. And if he should fail to destroy this world, and the Christians wail and gnash their teeth while birds sing and the sun sends its rays through the clouds, I think I’ll be okay with that.

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ALIENS IN AMERICA!

 

ALIENS IN AMERICA!

j. SNODGRASS

March 2017

AMERICAN PIE

There’s an old joke about a space-alien who beamed down into a seedy motel and demanded that a couple there show him how Earthlings reproduce. The couple protested at first, but finally agreed to do what they were there to do anyway, and when they were done the woman said “and that’s how we make babies.” The alien looked puzzled: “So? Where is it?” “Oh, now it takes another nine months to gestate.” “Nine months?” the alien asked, “So why was he in such a hurry?”

We’re hearing a lot right now about the dangers of “Aliens” in America, but North America has already seen plenty of “Alien Invasions.” But before we get to space-creatures and refugees, it makes a certain sense to begin with an immigrant who’s done so well here that most of us think of it as a native and couldn’t image America without it. I’m not saying “it” because I consider immigrants inhuman, but because the immigrant I’m talking about is the apple. Our modern apple was originally a native of Kazakhstan, an on-again-off-again section of Russia, and from there it spread by traders on the old Silk Road through Asia and Europe, where it swapped pollen with some native trees, sowing its wild…apples… The Chinese learned to select desirable traits by grafting trees together, and traded this knowledge to the Romans, who cultivated twenty-three types of apple on plantations throughout Europe.

The apple got a bad reputation because of the whole “Garden of Eden” thing, but actually the Bible never names the forbidden fruit. It does clearly say that Adam and Eve were standing under a fig-tree when the crime went down, and it’s only Christian logic that deduced the anonymous fruit under the fig-tree must have been an apple (the misunderstanding comes from Latin, “Malus,” apple, resembling “Malum,” bad, giving us the phrase “bad apple”). Which doesn’t mean apples didn’t have certain pagan associations – in English legend, King Arthur’s magic sword Excalibur comes from Avalon, literally “the island of apple trees.”

The English brought their grafted apple trees to America, but ran into a problem – the immigrant trees, like the immigrant settlers, did not do well on this new soil. The apple-tree, like the English colonist, would have to adapt to this new world, go a little bit wild and native, becoming something distinctly American. We’ve all heard the story of Johnny Appleseed, wandering around planting apple nurseries (from seeds – it sounds like a great coincidence, but actually “Appleseed” was not his last name). But we can forget that when you eat an apple, you can’t grow that same tree from one of the seeds inside – actually the five seeds in an apple will grow five different trees, and the odds of any of them producing fruit like the apple you ate are astronomically small. There’s an expression, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” but actually, every seed in every apple will grow a different tree, diversity is the apple’s reproductive strategy. So why was Johnny Appleseed canoeing around young America planting random trees totally unlikely to produce edible fruit? Because early Americans didn’t eat apples – they drank them, in the form of alcoholic cider and applejack whiskey (remember, the only way to keep apple-juice from turning to alcohol is refrigeration, which was still a hundred years away). Michael Pollan writes that we’ve mythologized Johnny Appleseed as an American Saint Francis, but really he was closer to the Greek god of wine, Dionysus.

Although the apple is immigrant, there is also something distinctly American about it: European and Asian trees could not grow here, offspring of lofty aristocrat breeds withered and disappeared, but random nameless seeds could mingle in these American soils and climates, persevering, experimenting, and one day, maybe a generation or two down the line – Jackpot! Spawning a tree of apples that could be picked and eaten – some of these random-chance winners are the celebrities of the fruit world: MacIntosh, Jonathan, Golden Delicious, and they’ve since been grafted and cloned all over the country (and in some cases, clones have been exported to grow in Europe and Asia as well). This humble immigrant, working hard, adapting, succeeding and spawning massive franchises is so American that we use the apple as a standard of patriotic comparison, saying something is “American as Apple Pie.”

But now I should really shut up about the apple being an immigrant – I’m afraid Donald Christ is going to uproot the trees, deport the orchards back to Kazakhstan, where they’ll immediately be executed for acting too Westernized. “You were once proud bitter Russian, now you are sweet, round American.” “No please – I’m still red! Don’t shoot!”

SPACEMEN?

Can you imagine if aliens came to Earth now and said “Take me to your leader”? “No, your English is not so good – what you meant to say was ‘Me take your leader.’ Go on – take him. Please!” How embarrassing for our species. If they came I’d be tempted to say “Um, I’m a chimpanzee, I voted for Bobo. Not my president.” (It’s all you hear today when you walk past the zoo, all those animals in their different languages chirping and roaring “Not My President” over and over). Full of immigrants, the zoo, all the super-stars, the Lions, Elephants, Zebras, Hippos, Apes, all African and mostly Muslim. They come to America as refugees and immediately find themselves in concentration camps. “Um hey – I was a certified nurse in my herd of Zebras, do my credits transfer here? You don’t speak zebra? Alright um, could you send someone who does? I’ll just be waiting…in this cage.”

I never have been much interested in space-aliens. I believe that other forms of life exist on other planets because there’s an infinity-to-one chance they do, and a one-to-infinity chance they don’t. But our whole idea of aliens coming down and inspiring the Egyptians, Mayans and Babylonians sounds to me like a flimsy excuse to blame someone else for the great fascist Empires in history. But I still enjoy alien movies – when I was a child I loved Star Wars. Then it was time to grow up and admit that Star Trek is cooler.

Our cultural entertainment representations of alien life teach us interesting things about ourselves. We generally expect aliens to be basically human in shape because it’s cheaper for special-effects, and we can’t imagine that anything else could represent a fully-formed intelligent being – we even use the word “spaceman,” as if any extraterrestrial life must still be essentially human (the most common exception is when we see aliens in insect-form, representing the next in line to inherit the earth – exo-skeletal telepathic insectoid aliens are the most frightening to us). But even in insect form, your average space-alien stands upright, between five and seven feet tall. If there is life on other planets, who’s to say it’s not microscopic to us? Or that we and the Earth wouldn’t be microscopic to it? And why would it come looking for us? We imagine aliens on a cultural and technological trajectory parallel to ours, maybe ahead or behind us but on the same basic path – why? And if there is life on a billion other planets, was it also created by our American God and did white Jesus die for its sins?

Were ancient Egypt, Babylon and Mexico visited by high-tech aliens? I don’t know or care. But I do know the American continent was visited by high-tech alien zombies called Columbus and Cortez and John Winthrop and William Bradford. They arrived from a dying Old World in fantastical ships with futuristic weapons and microscopic alien germs that decimated the Native population. A swarm of zombie-Christians, controlled by insectoid queens like Isabella and Elizabeth, “You will be assimilated, resistance is futile.” I read recently that Native Americans suffer from “post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder.” It’s what comes from being corralled in third-world nations called Reservations. Naturally it’s our nightmare that the same thing will happen to us, whether from the Middle East or from Mars.

In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both sons of Jewish immigrants, created a fictional immigrant icon. They gave him a name hearkening back to Nietzsche‘s ideal man, the worldly hero who would rescue humanity from otherworldly Christianity and its lust for destruction. This concept and character had the German name of Ubermensch, loosely translated into English as Superman. A refugee whose parents sent him in a tiny ship from a dying planet (recalling the old Hebrew story of Moses in the basket). And arriving on Earth he performed two incredible feats: one, he saved the world a zillion times as a flamboyant flying superhero. But his other spectacular act was even more impressive: he put on a shirt and tie, got a job and paid his taxes as the bland, forgettable American citizen Clark Kent, the perfect legal alien.

This was the great immigrant story – he didn’t come to change America into his homeland, even though he had great powers and some people wanted him to be a god, he did not use his abilities to undermine or destroy or replace truth, justice and the American way. He became an icon of truth, justice and the American way. Yes, he also became a sort of fashion-icon, and sometimes children will tie a bed-sheet around their necks and jump off the furniture (dangerous!). But even after eighty years of Superman you don’t see that many people on the sidewalk wearing their underwear outside of their pants. Superman is so American that we can forget he’s a space-alien – and a secretly Jewish alien! He remains a testament to the Jewish immigrant’s dream: to not get harassed and killed, and if that works out, get a steady job and help people when you can.

Superman is a fictional character (although most of us know more about Superman than we do about the person living next door, even if we’ve never opened a comic book). There are countless other immigrants and refugees who have lived a similar story, including the alien in my life, my Mom. With her parents, she crawled under a barbed-wire fence to escape from Soviet Hungary in 1956, at the age of eleven, and passed through Ellis Island into America. She quickly learned the English language, went to school and college and seminary, married a soldier and then a minister (and later, a former Intelligence Agent). She spent most of her career as a social-worker, assisting displaced home-makers to enter the workforce, and her four adult children are two lawyers (one of them a veteran), a minister, and a college teacher. Now she is a grandmother – I married the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, my sister married a man from India, and our combined five children are strong and adorable as only mixed-race kids can be.

My mother is not a terrorist (except insofar as all mothers are terrorists to their young). And neither she nor any of her offspring has ever spent one day on welfare – we have not been a burden on the system or the taxpayer. We work hard like immigrants do. And we pay taxes so that obese diabetic inbred hicks can sit around cashing welfare checks, watching reality TV, swilling Mountain Dew, talking trash about mongrel races, and voting for fascists. And when I hear about refugees from Syria, Somalia and Mexico, I think, that’s my mother, she wants to work hard and raise children in America, tomorrow’s doctors, lawyers, ministers, teachers, soldiers and social-workers. And to be the parents of a new crop of beautiful mixed-race babies.

BACK TO THE APPLE

Fascist captain of automotive industry Henry Ford wanted America to be a melting pot – being a steel-man he imagined a forge in which metals melt, “impurities” burn away and steel is homogenized. But America is more like a stew of international spices, a genetic jambalaya. And we humans aren’t the only ones doing it. We don’t necessarily think of trees as sexual beings but they are, and apple-trees are particularly sleazy and promiscuous, you could even say…seedy (terrible role-models for our children, terrible). A commune of apple-trees, which, by the way, is a nudist colony for half of each year, they’re not just standing around with their balls and blossoms hanging out, they’re actually having apple-sex. What we politely call an “orchard” is really an orgy. At the risk of saying something crude, and really it’s not inappropriate because it’s a biological fact: an apple is a tree’s testicle. You wish you hadn’t heard it, but you know it’s true.

Prohibition laws targeted apple orchards, wild ghettos of sexual abandon, known to produce sour spitters good for nothing but the distillery. Orchards were targeted for their use in producing alcohol, but the result was also the neutering of the American apple. In the last hundred years, American apple-growers have forbidden promiscuity and (gasp) mixed marriage of the natural apple, insisting instead on cloning a few sweet breeds, the famous MacIntosh, Delicious, Granny Smith, etc. This is why you can buy the same six apples anywhere in America, but it’s very hard to find any of the untold thousands of other varieties. Most of today’s American apple-trees are direct clones cut from six or seven original trees (which were, themselves, once mutants).

Unfortunately our squeamish insistence that all American apples be good Christians, virgin-born and consubstantial (yes it’s a word – look it up) has created some unforeseen side-effects. Today, America’s apples are as inbred as Trump voters (a majority of American apples actually voted Republican. Because they don’t know that they’re children of immigrants. And now he’s gutting the EPA, which is the only medicare trees get, they’re starting to use words like “im-peared,” and “im-peach” – that’s apple humor, nobody thinks it’s funny but they don’t give a fig). Genocidal purges of apple diversity and massive cloning of a few types are causing the American apple-tree to become more vulnerable to evolving fungus and bacteria, insects and viruses – modern American apples require more pesticide than any other commercially grown food. An apple a day used to keep the doctor away…now it will give you cancer.

The fate of the apple is uncertain. Our experiment in weeding out apple diversity to promote genetic uniformity bears an eery similarity to Ireland’s reliance on a single breed of potato in the early 1800s. If we refuse to allow the apple to enact its own survival strategy of reproductive freedom, we may well see an apple-famine in our lifetime. And if we deny the mixing, merging, melding of human immigrants that has made America successful, we will summon a genetic and intellectual and cultural famine – inbred Americans are far more susceptible to parasites called “Republicans,” and highly contagious viruses like ignorance and bigotry.

What makes America strong and healthy is the same thing that brings strength and health in the plant world: diversity. We nevr were meant to be a stagnant indoor pool, but a flowing river fed by many streams. If America ever was great, it was because of reckless and exuberant experimentation. And that is the only way we can “make America great again.” Some of us might want to support diversity because it’s philosophically “right” or because it’s “nice” or “friendly” – that’s fine, I’m proud of that, but I’m just too selfish to do it. I support diversity for selfish reasons – because it’s viable, because it’s healthy, because it works. I support diversity because it’s good for my children, I want them to benefit from the best of every culture, every genetic strength and immunity, every flavor of food and art and literature and philosophy. Diversity isn’t just “nice” and “good,” it’s also an essential part of our survival, like putting different colors on your dinner-plate. If history and biology teach us anything, we thrive from diversity and wither without it. Also – eat an apple every now and then.

SOURCES

Michael Pollan – The Botany of Desire

And a bunch of other stuff.

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IN (what) GOD (do) WE TRUST (?)

IN (what) GOD (do) WE TRUST (?)

Almost two hundred years after America’s revolutionary war against the British Empire, there was an independence movement by another English colony (which, ironically, had also once belonged to Indians). But as India looked at its options, with a keen eye on the success of its elder cousin America, one of the freedom-movement leaders urged caution. Muhatma Gandhi warned: “That you cannot serve God and [wealth] is an economic truth of the highest value. We have to make our choice. Western nations today are groaning under the heel of the monster-god of materialism… I have heard many of our countrymen say that we will gain American wealth but avoid its methods. I venture to suggest that such an attempt if it were made is foredoomed to failure.”

Gandhi – he’s so cute. Close your eyes, see his face – he’s adorable, like a muppet. But it turns out India didn’t just love him for his looks. He also thought things and said things and wrote things. I guess when I was young I thought he won independence by flashing that endearing smile. That’s not just because I wasn’t paying attention in school. It turns out his face is welcome in our culture but his voice is not. He was dangerous. Even in this little fragment. He starts by quoting Jesus, “you cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13). Though Gandhi was a Hindu and not a Christian, he really admired Jesus the non-violent protestor against Roman impirial domination. But Gandhi does not say that Jesus is the god of America – instead, he refers to a “monster-god of materialism.” As if we all worship some capitalist Cookie-Monster. Now I know what you’re thinking – “Whoa there, Geronimo, a Hindu accusing us of having ‘monster-gods’!? Who worships the six-armed dominatrix and the elephant-headed belly-dancer? You’re the one with blue gods that eat cookies!”

But let’s hold onto this for a moment, because I think the monster-god of materialism spawned a robber-baron-messiah and sixty million American Christians dumped old gentle Jesus to worship him (now, strictly from a business perspective, as a contractor assigned to destroy the world, Jesus has been chronically late – maybe the new Platinum Christ can get the demolition done faster. With the full thrust of his earth-shaking tweets). We’ve had our doubts about Jesus – bearded Palestinian, you say you’re from Nazareth but you were born in Bethlehem and then traveled to Egypt and back? Show me the birth certificate. What a strange thing to celebrate Christmas 2016 when the USA has just changed its motto to: “There’s no room at the inn.”

Gandhi warns that no nation can have America’s material wealth without groaning under the heel of this monster-god (and India, like many other “developing” nations, has since learned that American-style wealth for a few must come with American-style pitiless poverty for the many).

Maybe this is going too far, letting a Hindu from India describe America’s god, so let’s turn to another famous Indian…American Indian…man, that’s so confusing. One native author notes, at least Columbus wasn’t sailing around looking for Turkey. Anyway, the legendary Chief Seattle observed, “Your God loves your people and hates mine… The white man’s God cannot love his red children or he would protect them… Your God seems to us to be partial…your religion was written on tables of stone by the iron finger of an angry God.” Is the white man’s god an angry judge? I guess we can’t necessarily count on a Native American to be unbiased on the subject, so let’s just pick an American at random. And to prove how random, we’ll choose an American whose last name means “unknown.” Malcolm X. He said, “This is who she means when she says ‘In God We Trust’ – that blue-eyed god, that blonde-haired god, that pale-skinned god who blessed them to kidnap you and me and bring us here and make us slaves.”

AMERICAN CIVIL RELIGION

In 1967, Robert Bellah, wrote a groundbreaking study proposing that “while some have argued that Christianity is the national faith…few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.”

Is Americanism a religion? I don’t know. As a Religious Studies teacher I always start and end the semester by telling my students I don’t know what “religion” is – I can’t really define it, I just know it when I smell it (and most of them smell old. Although ironically it’s the earliest religions, the primal tribal ones, that still smell fresh. Anyway…). Does Americanism have the stuff that other religions have? If you stripped out all the Christian stuff, the Christmas decorations and Easter goodies and trick-or-treat, which are all actually pagan traditions… Does Americanism have temples, myths, rituals, scriptures, hymns, holidays?

Aside from Christianity America still has plenty of holidays: Labor Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July. Some that center around bonding the community through animal sacrifice – the 4th of July pig and Thanksgiving Turkey who die for our sins. Once every four years we celebrate Inauguration Day – the root word “Augur” meaning to divine the future by conjuring spirits, generally by touching something that belonged to a dead person. You may have noticed – in American Civil Religion, in court-houses and presidential inaugurations, people put their hand on the Bible but that’s got nothing to do with reading it or knowing what’s inside. The Bible is strictly there as a fetish, an idol, a devotional object, touched to make a connection with the dead.

The Bible is not the sacred scripture of Americanism (some people want the Ten Commandments in courthouses, but American Law only prosecutes three of them). But we do have ancient cryptic writings, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Starr Report. We have hymns, the National Anthem, “America the Beautiful,” “Friends in Low Places.” Goodness knows Americanism has a debatable creation-story and loads of mythology – George Washington is so mythical that I don’t even know if he technically existed. Americanism has martyrs, Lincoln, King, Kennedy and scores of fallen soldiers who die for our sins (or get stuck in long lines at the Veterans’ Hospital for our sins).

American Civil Religion has Temples, the Greek Temples of Zeus-Abraham-Lincoln and Apollo-Thomas-Jefferson in the Capital, the Egyptian Obelisk Washington Monument. America has a totem animal – Benjamin Franklin suggested the generous turkey, but the idea was shot down in favor of the predatory Eagle, which was promptly hunted to near-extinction.

The great Robert Bellah did a much better job of explaining this than I just did – he had years of research, I just said a bunch of stuff that popped into my head. But his point, that Americanism is a religion on its own, distinct from Chrsitianity, with its own myths, totems and rituals, remains a fascinating avenue of thought (and yes, I admit I’ve done some drunk driving on that intellectual avenue). But if Americanism is a relgion apart from Christianity…then who is the god of American Civil Religion?

IN WHAT GOD?

Should there be prayer in public schools? A contentious issue in America today. And yet when I hear about it, I can’t help thinking, “but there’s already prayer in schools – the pledge of allegiance, which requires American children to worship a totem.” My children break three of the Ten Commandments every morning while saying the pledge to the flag – worshiping other gods, worshiping an idol, and taking the Lord’s name in vain. If they mindlessly recite the pledge without knowing what it means? Then they’re also bearring false witness. And if they knew that I object to children saying the pledge? They’d be dishonoring their father too – half of the Ten Commandments broken before ten in the morning! What a start for the day. I’m surprrised they haven’t murdered someone by noon.

The Pledge of Allegiance was first drafted by Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy in 1892: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It did not mention “God” but still it was controversial because it allowed girls, blacks and immigrants to say “my flag” (this was later fixed) and “liberty and justice for all” – Bellamy’s Socialism rearing its ugly head at the end, and stangely enough this still remains. Then, ironically, it was Cold-War anti-Communism that got god into the pledge. In 1954, president Eisenhower declared, “From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty…. In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”

Eisenhower explains that the words “under god” were inserted to “strengthen…spiritual weapons” – religion was added to weaponize the pledge of allegiance (later it was Eisenhower who warned against the spiritual influence of the Military Industrial Complex…but he did not foresee the Spiritual Industrial Complex with its creeping militaristic influence). “One Nation Under God” was a weapon against the heahten Communists with their dangerous, heretical “Do Unto Others” and “Give to the Poor” mentality. The pledge still affirms with a sneaky stridency that only “One Nation” is “Under God.”

But what god is this? Perhaps the answer is on our dollar bill, right between the Egyptian Pyarmid and the Roman Eagle (notably absent is the Christian cross). The Yankee dollar used to be a check representing ownership of a certain amount of America’s hoarde of gold. But then the dollar was switched from the gold-standard to the god-standard, its value now is determined only by how much China believes that god loves America. When China believes god loves America best, the dollar is up, when China believes that god is cooling on America the dollar goes down. Not only is the dollar-value totally mythological, but we don’t even get to determine the value of the myth. Still we desperately trust god to love America best, because without that the almightly dollar would be powerless.

In what God do we trust? Who is this god who holds our nation together? At last we must turn to the scriptures, the sacred documents. The Constitution is silent about god, but the Declaration of Independence contains four fascinating references, first to “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” that support human independence. Then to the “Creator” who endows all men with certain inalienable rights. The third is a nod to “the Supreme Judge of the world,” and the last declares “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”

We may hear the word “God” and affix all manner of colorful, kid-friendly ornamentation like “love” and “father” and “salvation” but none of these attributes are in the Declaration. In this document, god is the “Creator,” Provider, Protector and “Supreme Judge.” Bellah points out the irony that god in the Declaration is more like the legalistic Torah-God of Judaism than the loving savior-god of Christianity. This is the austere disciplinarian who endows “all men” with equality and rights, except for women, slaves, natives, etc – when the Declaration was penned, “all men” was only about one fifth of the population. This could be called the “One Fifth Compromise” – in which four fifths of Americans would not exist in the eyes of America’s god. And this has not dramatically changed.

George Michael, who passed away on Christmas day, once wrote a song called “Hand to Mouth” about Amerians driven to desperation by poverty, and one of them declares, “I believe in the gods of america. I believe in the land of the free. But no one told me that the gods believe in nothing. So with empty hands I pray. And from day to hopeless day, they still don’t see me.”

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The Red Menace (A Thanksgiving & Election Sermon)

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How America Was Discovered (According to Seneca Chief Handsome Lake)

A great queen had among her servants a young minister. Upon a certain occasion she requested him to dust some books that she had hidden in an old chest. Now when the young man reached the bottom of the chest he found a wonderful book which he opened and read. It told that the white men had killed the son of the Creator and it said, moreover, that he had promised to return in three days and then again forty but that he never did. All his followers then began to despair but some said, “He surely will come again some time.”

When the young preacher read this book he was worried because he had discovered that he had been deceived and that his Lord was not on earth and had not returned when he promised. So he went to some of the chief preachers and asked them about the matter and they answered that he had better seek the Lord himself and find if he were not on the earth now. So he prepared to find the Lord and the next day when he looked out into the river he saw a beautiful island and marveled that he had never noticed it before. As he continued to look he saw a castle built of gold in the midst of the island and he marveled that he had not seen the castle before. Then he thought that so beautiful a palace on so beautiful an isle must surely be the abode of the son of the Creator…

So the young man went boldly over [and] knocked. A handsome man welcomed him into a room and bade him be of ease. “I wanted you,” he said. “You are a bright young man… Listen to me, young man, and you will be rich. Across the ocean there is a great country of which you have never heard. The people there are virtuous; they have no evil habits or appetites but are honest and single-minded. A great reward is yours if you enter into my plans and carry them out. Here are five things. Carry them over to the people across the ocean and never shall you want for wealth, position or power. Take these cards, this money, this fiddle, this whiskey and this blood corruption and give them all to the people across the water. The cards will make them gamble away their goods and idle away their time, the money will make them dishonest and covetous, the fiddle will make them dance with women and their lower natures will command them, the whiskey will excite their minds to evil doing and turn their minds, and the blood corruption will eat their strength and rot their bones.”

The young man thought this a good bargain and promised to do as the man had commanded him. He left the palace and when he had stepped over the bridge it was gone, likewise the golden palace and also the island. Now he wondered if he had seen the Lord but he did not tell the great ministers of his bargain because they might try to forestall him. So he looked about and at length found Columbus to whom he told the whole story… Soon a great flock of ships came over the ocean and white men came swarming into the country bringing with them cards, money, fiddles, whiskey and blood corruption.

Now the man who had appeared in the gold palace was the devil and when afterward he saw what his words had done he said that he had made a great mistake and even he lamented that his evil had been so enormous. [Parker, Archur C Seneca Myths and Folktales (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 1989) p. 383-385]

The Red Menace

j. Snodgrass

November, 2016

Chief Handsome Lake’s story of “How America Was Discovered” is not what I read in school history books as a child, and neither of my school-aged children has reported hearing it in their history lessons. I found it in a book called Seneca Myths & Folk Tales, which is where I suppose it belongs – it’s got that mythical quality of a divinely commissioned quest accomplished with magical charms and a surprise ending: the wise old man turns out to be a trickster making mischief, and he is punished with eternal regret. Clearly this story should be classified as folk-tale and not history.

School History classes taught me a more sober and dignified version of how America was discovered. The intrepid captain Columbus overcoming the ignorance of old-world investors, opening vast new horizons of profit and proselytization. Then the persecuted Puritans, leaving England in search of religious freedom, landing in a wilderness of untamed forest and nomadic savages who played a strange game of attacking them, then throwing them them a big dinner-party, then attacking them some more for no reason. And though the Pilgrims tried their best to teach the savages how to be settled, intellectually enlightened, Christian farmers, reaping and sowing and storing food like the blessed raven, the natives refused the gifts of salvation and civilization, preferring to wander shirtlessly through the New England wilderness, hunting and foraging because they were too lazy to build real towns. Eventually the Settlers gave up on teaching the Indians how to self-govern and had to civilize them by force, providing them with land and law-courts and hospitals and Pottery-Barn. But the Indians were still lazy and drank all the time and opened Casinos to trick white men out of their hard-earned nickels.

But this story of the enlightened Europeans trying and failing to civilize the savages is also a mythological folk-tale. We’ve softened the story. For the sake of the children, we tell ourselves. And to alleviate our guilt on Thanksgiving day, when the feeding frenzy ends, the last fork clinks on the last plate, the lively bustle of conversation shrivels and everybody gets that dead-frog look in their eyes because they’ve eaten too much and a putrid cloud of silence rises like a stink of old decay and everybody thinks it but nobody says it, “yeah, we killed them. (Ribbit.) We killed them.” We’ve softened the story and told ourselves we’re protecting the children, but really we’re protecting ourselves from the look in our childrens’ eyes when we tell them the truth. But the fairy-tales, pleasant fictions and lies we tell our children are not harmless. Lies are never harmless.

IMMIGRANTS

So I’ve decided this Thanksgiving I’m going to tell my children about the first time the settlers were fed by the Natives. Which, I’ve discovered in my research, was not turkey and pumpkins. Actually the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by English settlers, starving in an unfamiliar land, digging up fresh graves and eating Indian cadavers. But I’m not going to say “cadavers,” especially right after Thanksgiving dinner, instead I’m going to say “chief jerky.” It’s not necessarily as pretty as coloring-book the story of the first Thanksgiving, but it’s factual and gives a clearer sense of where the Native/Settler relationship was headed.

Then I’m going to tell them about when the Pilgrims started to meet some live natives, who took pity on these grave-digging Christian cannibals and decided to help them out. The first thing the natives noticed about the Pilgrims was that they smelled bad. Not just from their eating habits, but also because Puritans at the time believed it was both physically harmful and spiritually sinful to bathe. Where washing was concerned, they’d pretty much been baptized and that was it. The Natives tried to teach Pilgrims that they would be healthier and feel better if they occasionally took their clothes off and got in water. And thus the Pilgrims decided that the Natives were all damned and doomed, trying to corrupt them. But distrust of the Indians’ insidious and sinister cleanliness did not stop the Pilgrims from accepting the feast that was offered. The Natives were celebrating their annual harvest of corn, squash and beans. When I say “harvest” I don’t mean that they’d foraged them in a forest, but that they had painstakingly cultivated these crops over centuries of farming experimentation. The Natives in the Thanksgiving story are not nomadic savages – their foods prove it, they were sophisticated, settled agriculturalists.

From the Native perspective, it was the Europeans who were savage nomadic foragers, who had left their ancestral lands to wander the Earth a while and then wander off to their final destination in the sky. The word “Pilgrim” literally means someone on a journey, just passing through. As a native later said – we had no idea you intended to stay.

But this leaves us with more questions – if the Indians had fed the Settlers, why did they also attack them? Here we run into another mythological element in our story: who were the settlers, our immigrant forefathers? Presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke of immigration, saying “When Mexico sends its people [to the United States], they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Actually this would also be a good description of the English settlers who came to make tobacco fortunes in the New World. Our American mythology tells us that they were good people, Puritan pilgrims seeking religious freedom, and some of them were. But then we have to wonder – how did these gentle pilgrims perpetrate all those atrocities against the Natives? The answer is that Pilgrims were only a small minority, maybe a fifth, of the colonists of the New World. Most of the people who came were pirates and profiteers, out to make a fortune by any means necessary (actually we could call them “rugged individuals” or “venture capitalists,” like the bloodthirsty pirates and profiteers of modern corporations).

And of course the radical fundamentalist Christian Puritans may have vowed to establish a perfect society in which religion dictated politics and law, but that doesn’t mean their hearts were always filled with Christian love – it was the marriage of religion and law that spawned the Salem witch-hunts in which bad dreams were accepted as hard evidence, nineteen people were hanged, a man was crushed to death and two dogs were executed (yes, they hanged two dogs as accomplices). Some people today say we need more Christians in the Supreme Court. I don’t know. Our pet dog is a total pagan, but I don’t think she should necessarily be hanged for it.

But the wacko fundamentalist Puritans were always a minority (and hopefully, always will be). When we think of the majority of settlers, people who got chased or kicked out of England and decided to settle peacefully with their idyllic plantations full of happy slaves farming harmless tobacco, we can also forget that tobacco was immediately declared illegal in parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Our settler forefathers were the equivalent of modern South American drug-kingpins. Bad hombres. Oh, and it turns out tobacco is more dangerous than heroin. England was not sending its best. It was sending criminals and drug-dealers, and a few of them, maybe, were good people.

We’re hearing now about immigrant criminals and rapists and I imagine the Native Americans would agree. But I wonder – If Indians elect Donald Trump, will they then force him to deport himself? As a dangerous immigrant?

HOW THE NEW WOLD TAUGHT THE OLD

In school we hear about the Settlers’ attempts (and failures) to civilize the natives. Actually while European guns, germs, cockroaches and rodents were spreading through the New World, New World ideas began spreading through the Old World. Rumors of an Eden-like paradise in which there were no kings, courts or jails, where government was of the people, by the people and for the people. Letters from Amerigo Vespucci circulated through Europe with rumors of noble savages who governed themselves without kings or money – one avid reader was Thomas More, who incorporated elements of this into his 1516 book Utopia, which then spread the ideas even further.

Thomas Hobbes heard a great deal about “primitive” native Americans, but had never been to America to see one. Nonetheless, he wrote at length in his Leviathan about the dangers and privations of life without kings: “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe [it is] every man, against every man…. There is no law…no arts; no letters; no society…and the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Actually when I think of someone with “no arts, no letters, nasty, brutish and short,” I’m more likely to think of rednecks than redskins.

We are taught that Democracy was a white man’s invention, coming from Athens to Rome to Europe to America, as if Democracy was Sleeping Beauty for fifteen hundred years, waiting for a kiss from Thomas Jefferson. It’s true that “Democracy” is a Greek word, and that for a couple centuries Athens did experiment with a government in which citizens could vote – but “citizens” never made up more than 20% of the Athenian population (the other 80% being landless peasants and slaves), and most of these Athenian “citizens” were women and boys who could not vote. (The US Constitution did a little better, giving almost 25% of “We The People” the right to vote) Rome was a republic, briefly ruled by wealthy senators who acted on behalf of wealthy people, but the European inheritors of Romanism, the Spaniards, French, English Etcetera were neither Republics nor Democracies, they were strict monarchies. The colonizers of the New World had never seen Democracy. Until they witnssed it among the Natives.

Here in Western New York it was the elder women of the Iroquois who nominated Sachems, leaders, who then had to be approved by the tribal members. The grandmothers would choose hard workers who could lead by example and respect (and if the leader then became a bully, they could revoke his authority and give it to someone else). And he would then represent his tribe in the grand council of the Iroquois League which was like the modern United Nations except that people weren’t allowed to interrupt each other (I guess it was like the Model United Nations they do in high schools)

Benjamin Franklin, inventor of bifocals, inventor of electricity, legendary inventor of the phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned” is also generally credited with inventing American representative government. But Franklin himself did not take credit for it. As the official printing-press operator of Pennsylvania he was responsible for type-setting and publishing transcripts of Indian treaty negotiations, which included Indian speeches on Native government. Curious, Franklin became Pennsylvania’s Indian commissioner so he could learn about Indian diplomacy firsthand.

As the Iroquois grew tired of having to negotiate separately with thirteen different colonial governments, a Chief named Canassatego spoke up at an Indian-British assembly in 1744 to say “We heartily recommend Union and a Good Agreement between you our Brethren… Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the [Iroquois] Nations; this has made us formidable, this has given us great weight and Authority with our Neighboring Nations. We are a powerful confederacy, and, by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore, whatever befalls you, never fall out with one another.” The symbol of the Iroquois Confederacy was an eagle clutching five arrows (one arrow can be easily broken, but five arrows together are harder to break), which was adopted and adapted as our National Seal.

After taking notes on Canassatego’s speech, Benjamin Franklin wrote “It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to execute it in such a manner than it has [lasted] ages…and yet a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.” (1754)

In 1777, a curious young intellectual named Thomas Paine served as a secretary at meetings between colonials and Iroquois leaders. Finding that peace and prosperity were possible without kings (and nearly impossible with them) he was inspired to write his book Common Sense. After the American Revolution he brought his good news of kingless peace to France. And the rest, as they say, is history. But even as the French decapitated their kings Paine was still disappointed, writing “The fact is, that the condition of millions in every country in Europe, is far worse than if they had been born before civilization began, or had been born among the Indians of North America at the present day.”

Thomas Jefferson studied Iroquois culture and we can still see its influence in his “Notes on the State of Virginia.” Of course there were bound to be some amendments to the Iroquois code. Among the Iroquois, only women could claim land, and only women could vote. Among the Colonists it was very much the opposite. Imagine the outcome, in this current election, if only women had the right to vote. Fascinating.

But votes for women, which the Iroquois had for centuries before the United States granted it, was not the biggest difference. The American Founders differentiated most sharply with Iroquois culture on the topic of private property (we must remember here that our “enlightened” forefathers believed even human beings could be property). Though the Constitution bears certainly unmistakable characteristics of Indian democracy, it is still built around the Holy Trinity of Americanism: “Life, Liberty and Property” – and when in doubt, “Money Talks.” And quickly America’s political debt to the Natives was forgotten like so many broken treaties.

A century after the drafting of the US Constitution, another European intellectual took up the study of Iroquois community organization and adapted it to the circumstances of industrializing Europeans. His name was Karl Marx, creator of Socialism, who admired Iroquois Communalism and the sharing of resources without private property or oppressive government control. He spent the last years of his life compiling notes to propose the Iroquois League as a model for Europeans to emulate, and his findings were assembled after his death by his cowriter Friedrich Engels. Ironically, the “Red Menace” of Socialism that was so greatly feared in America was actually a Native American system – not some Specter seeking to infiltrate and invade America from Russia, but a locally grown egalitarian political system looking to come home. Thomas Jefferson and Karl Marx were, in a way, twins at the common intellectual nipple of Iroquois community structure. But like all sets of siblings the systems they proposed are defined by their differences instead of their similarities. Why did Socialism turn into Communism and fail? Again, because of property. Removing property from private hands meant that it had to be accumulated and held by the state, but Socialist states then became very private about “public” property, and like dragons in a Tolkien Novel, the Socialist governments all caught the sickness of gold, which corrupted them into Communist monsters. As one Iroquois chieftain put it, “Both superpowers took our ideas, but neither got them right.”

DISCOVERING AMERICA

We still cling to the myth of our forefathers trying and failing to civilize the Natives, even while knowing that it was the Settlers who robbed the Indians of their land (and by extension, they culture). The forced devolution is our great national tragedy. And the darkly comical irony at the end is that really it was natives who tried and failed to civilize us. But it’s not too late, every day we immigrants have a chance to acknowledge that we still have much to learn from the real Americans.

I keep hearing that our country is tearing itself apart. In this current election one party will win and another will lose, but the problem will not go away because this election is not the cause of our nation’s deep divisions, it is only a symptom of how divided we are. We are still a nation very much in need of Chief Canassatego’s advice from 1744, “We heartily recommend Union and a Good Agreement between you our Brethren. Never disagree, but preserve a strict Friendship for one another… Our wise Forefathers established Union [and] by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore, whatever befalls you, never fall out with one another.”

I believe that we can still learn from the Natives, the real architects of Democracy. And that maybe then, finally, we can really Discover America.

(SOME) SOURCES

Weatherford, Jack – Indian Givers (How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World)

Wright, Ronald – Stolen Continents

Parker, Arthur – Seneca Myths & Folk Tales

Daniel Quinn – The Invisibility of Success

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Adventure Capitalism – The Myth of Christopher Columbus

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MYTHOLOGY

After studying numerous High School American History textbooks, James Loewen compiled the following composite biography (or perhaps more accurately mythology) of Christopher Columbus:

“Born in Genoa, of humble parents, Christopher Columbus grew up to become an experienced seafarer, venturing as far as Iceland and West Africa. His adventures convinced him that the world must be round and that the fabled riches of the East—spices and gold—could be had by sailing west, superseding the overland routes, which the Turks had closed off to commerce. To get funding for his enterprise, he beseeched monarch after monarch in Western Europe. After at first being dismissed by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Columbus finally got his chance when Isabella decided to underwrite a modest expedition. Columbus outfitted three pitifully small ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, and set forth from Spain. After an arduous journey of more than two months, during which his mutinous crew almost threw him overboard, Columbus discovered the West Indies on October 12, 1492. Unfortunately, although he made three more voyages to America, he never knew he had discovered a New World. Columbus died in obscurity, unappreciated and penniless. Yet without his daring, American history would have been very different, for in a sense he made it possible.” -James Loewen

ADVENTURE CAPITALISM (THE MYTH OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS)

In the mid 1980’s, most of America agreed that Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays could be merged into “President’s Day.” Which is fascinating. Washington, a Virginian land-baron, plantation-owner with hundreds of slaves, and Lincoln the emancipator who crushed and scorched the South – would these guys have been friends? I certainly feel like I see a lot of pictures of them together. The Presidents’ Day merger, also known as the “Forget-that-Other-Day-Off” Compromise, had an additional ironic result: Now there are only two historical persons who have an American Federal holiday named after them. Columbus and Martin Luther King. I don’t think I ever, in all my childhood, saw one single coloring-book picture of Martin Luther King and Christopher Columbus together, like shaking hands, or just standing side by side looking in the same direction. I don’t believe that those two could have been friends. Every year Columbus Day is surrounded by contention and indignation. Here in the North, anyway. There are still pockets of the South where Columbus is a hero and they grumble about Martin Luther King day.

In 1989, George Bush senior said “Christopher Columbus not only opened the door to a New World, but also set an example for us all by showing what monumental feats can be accomplished by perseverance and faith.” Today, there are some Americans, a remarkable number, who would not call slavery and genocide “monumental feats.” But George Bush was a CIA operative, who’d spent his career overthrowing elected South American governments and installing tyrannical dictators to extort natural resources for foreign investors. So we can understand his admiration. To the CIA, Christopher Columbus is like a god. “Wow – look at how he processed those foreign savages. They told him everything.” They still hold on to a little piece of Cuba, where they can celebrate their hero by torturing brown people the way Columbus once tortured the island’s natives.

Some, perhaps many of us, in this room today are not CIA operatives, and I imagine we have some mixed feelings about Christopher Columbus. Mine for example are indignation mixed with disgust. Also, admittedly mixed with “man I need a day off, and if I get one because of this mass murderer? God forgive me but – thanks, Christopher. Cristobal, whatever.”

DISCOVERY

Why do we celebrate Christopher Columbus? Your average high school graduate would likely respond that he was the first man ever to sail the ocean blue. So much for our education system. Water isn’t blue! Also, not only was Columbus NOT the first man to sail, he was also not the first person to discover America.

The first Europeans to enter and settle the land were Siberians who crossed the land-bridge to Alaska more than twelve thousand years ago. And I read recently that some of their descendants, Native Americans, later sailed across the Atlantic and got shipwrecked in Holland in 60 BCE, almost sixteen centuries before Columbus’ voyage – but nobody ever says that Native Americans “discovered” Europe. One might conclude that in our culture, discovery doesn’t count unless a white person does it. But then what about the ruddy Vikings who established villages in Canada centuries before Columbus? Recently I read that Columbus was not the first, but the LAST man to “discover America.” So why do we celebrate him?

And do we really celebrate the historical man at all, or do we celebrate a mythological creature called Christopher Colubumbus that we, ourselves, invented? For the answer to that, we’ll need to sort through some of the messy myth and midrash surrounding the famous explorer.

Biographers agree that Christoper Columbus was born, but then sources disagree about whether his family was “poor” or “prosperous.” The humble background sounds more impressive, so we go with it. The only thing we can say for certain about young Columbus and poverty is that he was Italian, but Italy had never seen the tomato or the red pepper before (they’re both new world crops). Now imagine young Cristobal growing up on all sorts of Italian foods, but now imagine these foods without the color red. That was the real poverty in Christopher’s childhood. Columbus discovered gold for Spain but he also discovered red for Italian cuisine, and that’s a gift we can all share. As a matter of fact, if someone said there was one man we could thank for introducing the tomato into Italian food? I’d say “There should be a Federal Holiday to celebrate that man.” And it turns out there is.

Columbus wrote, “With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project.” But the Lord was in no rush to open the purses of any European monarchs to finance the expedition – Columbus was ready to sail the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and eighty six, but queen Isabella handed him off to a committee of Roman Catholic bureaucrats who discussed his proposal for five years before rejecting it. Shocking headline, “Church Committee Votes to keep Things the Way They Are,” I almost had a heart-attack when I read it. But then again it’s the Church we can thank for 1492 rhyming with “blue,” I for one never would have passed High School without that useful memory-trick.

Isabella later convened another committee who also rejected the proposal, but then something fascinating happened – she decided to go ahead with Columbus’ proposal anyway. Imagine the headline, “Uppity Woman tells Church Committee to stuff it.” Why didn’t that get into our American mythology? My daughter should be coloring in a picture of Isabella dissing the bureaucrats. And it turns out, the wizened committee actually did know that the world was round, they concluded that a ship could sail west to India, but they did not believe that he would be able to sail back. Which may sound ridiculous to us, but that’s because we have a very different idea about the “round”ness of the world. Christopher Columbus and other Christians of his day believed the world was round, but not a ball. In a journal entry he described the world as being shaped like a woman’s breast, and he believed the nipple at the top would be Eden. Like every great man on every great voyage he speech-ified his lofty aims but his heart carried the deeper, secret hope of seeing tits.

Our mythology tells us that the three ships were “pitifully small” and that the voyage was “arduous” – again, sources disagree (Columbus’ journal says the weather was fine), but it’s harmless padding to keep children listening. Especially children whose hopes of worldly success are pitifully small. The mythographers also invented the near-mutiny by the crew, to give the story a little more dramatic spice, but here we should be wary of accepting the story: first of all, if these experienced sailors really thought they were going to sail over the edge of the earth – how did he get them on the ships in the first place? A coloring-book author might say the idea of the superstitious, cowardly crew harmlessly shines a more favorable light on their visionary captain, but a sociologist might argue it denigrates labor while exalting management.

We want the Columbus story to have some drama. It’s not a story about a man against the sea (which would be even more boring since the Ocean was even less interested in him than I am). It’s a story about a visionary against cowardly investors and cowardly workers. It’s a story about capitalism. It’s a mythical story about a low-born visionary with a great idea about a new way to gain wealth – but first he must contend with dim-witted investors who slow him down, then he must contend with dim-witted lazy workers. But through his perseverance…gold! Gold! Enough gold to put a cap on every tooth in the entire medieval world. Apparently that’s not what they did with it but it wouldn’t have been a bad idea. There’s a Christian expression, “Let go and let God,” and that was the state of dentistry in Medieval Europe.

…But wait a minute, what’s this? The fairy tale ends with our brave little sailor dying poor and forgotten… Nonsense. We know he was appreciated because the Spaniards immediately sent him back with more ships, he hit the mother-lode of Gold in 1499 and died rich with a magnificent title, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” that he handed down to his son. If the historical Columbus died wealthy, why must the mythological Columbus die in obscurity?

Here again, it’s a myth in support Capitalism. And if Capitalism knows anything, it’s that not every good idea will be accepted, not every innovation will be adopted, and definitely not every determined dreamer who perseveres to his last breath will get rich. The myth needs Columbus to die poor, because Capitalism needs most hard-workers to die poor and unknown.

The myth might also be a little uncomfortable with how Columbus got his fabulous wealth. Certainly he was paid handsomely by Isabella, but she gave him only a tiny fraction of what he got for Spain. And the way he got it, enslaving the friendly natives and forcing them to mine gold, cutting off their hands when they failed to meet their quotas and punishing insubordination by burning natives alive or crucifying them in rows of thirteen (in honor of Jesus and the disciples. Was Jesus in Heaven saying “Isn’t that thoughtful? Wow, thanks Chris.”). This is why we see so much discord on the subject of Columbus day – which, by the way, they don’t celebrate Columbus Day in Mexico, even though Mexico is a lot more Spanish than North America. Columbus never even set foot in North America!

But we need Columbus. Or at least the high priests of Capitalist American Nationalism need the myth of Christopher Columbus. Because his mythical biography tells us to dream big, work hard, persevere against cowardly investors and lazy laborers, forge ahead toward our golden ambitions, and if we completely fail to get rich…it doesn’t mean we were wrong, maybe we were ahead of our time. It tells us to keep our great expectations in check. I actually like that myth. Because I am a firm believer that you cannot measure success in recognition or gold – for goodness sake, I’m an adjunct professor! And for my dream I must contend with fastidious bureaucrats and dead-beat college students, and then probably wind up broke and forgotten. Unlike the real Christopher Columbus, but like the mythical hero we celebrate in October…

And that would be a really crummy ending for this sermon. It’s the major challenge of speaking about Christopher Columbus, the only suspense is – is this guy going to stop talking now? …Maybe now? Yes, Columbus finally landed, we must be getting close to the end of the story. Well I have a confession to make. I enjoy a good biography, but my heart belongs truly to economic history. And so let’s take a look at fourteen hundred and ninety three, when metals crossed the deep green sea.

CAPITALISM

The Spanish raped and pillaged and enslaved the natives to mine for gold, but they did not settle America. Spain passed on the chance to remake the New World in their own image because they had bigger plans – to remake the old world in their own image through wars of conquest. And thus, much of the stolen Spanish gold accumulated in the hands of arms merchants. The “Arms Race” of the time was naval, and so Spain’s stolen gold went to a small island known for its ship-building: England. The same English who developed superior warships for themselves, eventually trashed the Spanish fleet and took control of the high seas. So much for Spain.

But this flood of New World gold and silver changed Europe in another unforeseen way – in feudal Europe, the basis of wealth was land. But land could only be traded locally, and transporting the goods of agriculture and livestock for foreign trade was a bulky, cumbersome enterprise. The arrival of precious metals from the New World tripled the Europe’s supply of gold and silver in just fifty years, giving rise to a new measure of wealth: capital. Mass-produced silver coins induced a whole new era of world trade. The flood of silver quickly destabilized the value of African gold and middle-Eastern silver, breaking the economic power of Africa and the Middle East. Almost overnight, primitive feudal Europe became the nouveau riche, snubbing the educated, refined Middle East to the point that our culture has forgotten that the early centuries of Islam were an intellectual renaissance. And the Muslim nations, disgusted by tacky European sensualist commercialism, responded by becoming the restrictive, conservative cultures we associate with Middle-Eastern Islam today. It’s a historical irony that Christopher Columbus was looking for a sea-route to trade around the Middle East and Africa, and his voyage inadvertently crippled their economies. The African gold-trade was hurt so bad that some African nations chose to stay in the world-trade game by selling human beings.

This era of World Trade, gold and silver and human slaves packed in boats, capital on the move, required whole new systems – this was not the peasant market of bartered goods and services, this was a complex global economy. Within two centuries of Columbus we see the first multinational corporations, world-banks in Amsterdam and England, the first stock exchange opened in 1602. Karl Marx commented “the discovery of gold in America [and] turning Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”

Christopher Columbus wrote that “all of this Christendom should feel joyful and make great celebrations and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity [first for] the salvation of so many peoples to our holy faith and, secondly, for the material benefits which will bring refreshment and profit.” Whether Columbus saved any souls is debatable – he certainly sent God a lot of souls to sort out. But there’s no arguing about the material benefits – Christendom entered the age of Capitalism, and Capitalism has shaped our mythological narrative of Christopher Columbus. Capitalism remade Columbus in its own image.

CONSOLATION PRIZE

I don’t know who Christopher Columbus really was. I never said I was going to reveal something shocking about the “real” Christopher Columbus. I should have. I should have lied. But I didn’t. That’s why I’m wearing a dead man’s shirt, 99 cents at the Salvation Army. And someday when the shirt goes back to the Salvation Army, having been owned by two dead men, that’s what it’ll say on my tombstone: he should have lied.

But there’s a great quote from Columbus, something he may have said when his eyes first fell on the coast of the New World: “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth, of which He spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John after having spoken of it by the mouth of Isaiah, and he showed me where to find it.” I’d like to think that his first thought was of the re-creation…spoiler-alert: the Bible doesn’t just end with destruction, it ends with God re-creating the world, starting over. And world 2.0 is a cube. Maybe Columbus, weary of the nipple-search on a breast-shaped world, longed for a flat earth where God had smoothed all the rough edges and pulverized all the jerks. Maybe he really believed the world could be new again. And when he then didn’t see that dramatic revelation-change, maybe all that gold was just a consolation prize.

The first thing Columbus did when he saw the friendly natives was to give a prepared speech, in Spanish, to let them know that they had to become Christians and that neither he nor Spain were legally responsible for any harm they did to the natives if they refused. Columbus could have discovered a “new world” of minds untainted by old greed, but he didn’t because as soon as he saw someone different from himself, he started talking, speech-ifying. If he could have shut up and listened to someone different, he could have discovered something far more valuable than gold. The real “treasure” of the New World is the beautiful and practical wisdom of its natives, something some of us are just beginning to acknowledge, appreciate, five hundred years after first contact.

And yet we live in a time when everybody wants to shout, nobody wants to listen. We’re still being taught, and our children are being taught by the people on TV – when you see someone who looks or thinks differently from you, cover your ears and start shouting. You don’t even have to think about what you’re going to say, it doesn’t even need to make any sense, just for God’s sake keep shouting. The one who interrupts the most times is the winner.

I want this sermon to end with a joke, so here it is: A guy in a tie stood up and talked for twenty-two straight minutes, and at the end of it he said, “We as a culture, before we launch into long diatribes, we need, first to learn how to listen.” Because if history has taught us anything we can learn more by listening than by talking. That’s how we learn. That’s how we grow.

 

 

Main sources consulted:

Loewen, James Lies my Teacher Told Me (New Press, New York 1995)

Weatherford, Jack Indian Givers (Fawcett Columbine, New York 1988)

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AFRAID NEW WORLD (9/11 and Labor Day Sermon)

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AFRAID NEW WORLD
j. SNODGRASS

There’s a knock-knock joke my brother loves to tell…
“Knock knock.”
“Who’s There?”
“Nine-eleven.”
“Nine-eleven who?”
“You said you’d never forget.”
And we haven’t – those of us who remember that day remember the feeling of vulnerability, fear, anger, maybe even a hint of betrayal. A feeling that God, the one we trust with the value of our dollar bills, our vigilant God who’d kept war off American soil for a hundred fifty years…had abandoned His post. Had our protector been distracted? Snuck off for a power-nap? Did God go out bowling? And we all remember the aftermath of September 11th, the wars of reckless revenge, pictures of Middle Eastern civilians being dug from the rubble, and again, feelings of vulnerability, fear, anger, betrayal. Against the wishes of many US citizens, the military went out bowling, with bombs. Maybe that’s why they call them air-strikes.

Some of us may remember exactly where we were, what we were doing when we first heard about the towers. I have two very clear memories from that day. One, I was living in Yonkers, and I wondered – are they going to attack Yonkers next? Blow up our beloved Yonkers train station, and then we’ll be stuck this bankrupt, crumbling slum forever? That was a question on a lot of minds in tiny American towns you’ve never heard of – are the terrorists gonna come to Allegany and blow up our one traffic light? Plunge us into the darkness of chaos?

My other recollection is that I did something I never do. I actually sat down and watched the news. And on the news, I’ll never forget it, on the news was best-selling espionage novelist Tom Clancy. The reporters were asking Tom Clancy – why did the terrorists do what they did? It turned out, I suppose, that our greatest national resource for understanding Islam was a white multi-millionaire fiction-writer. As a matter of fact, I guess if anything good came out of that day, it’s that in the months that followed, some media outlets in our culture did eventually let Muslims start speaking for themselves, instead of asking Tom Clancy. But that day, I remember, watching the news for a few minutes, it was a reminder of why I never watch the news.

I wonder if some terrorists were sitting around one day, plotting over espresso and asked, “What would frighten this guy Snodgrass?” “If we make him wake up as a giant cockroach?” “No, too expensive. What if we put him and all Americans on trial, with only a vague, hazy sense of what they might be guilty of?” “You guys have got to think outside the Kafka box. What if we make it so every time he goes to an airport, he has to take off his boots and belt, and then an overweight woman in uniform waves a beeping black plastic phallic-symbol at him?” “That’s a winner. Give this man a biscotti.” I don’t fly. Not because I’m afraid of terrorists crashing the plane into a building. But because I hate taking off my boots. I hate being processed. I hate being treated like a terrorist.

I remember being told over and over that 9/11 was an attack on Liberty, and kept wondering – if the attackers hated liberty so much, why did they fly right past the Statue of Liberty? It was standing right there, one mile away from the Trade Towers. Was it really an attack on American liberty? Actually, if the terrorists indeed loved fear and hated liberty, they sure succeeded in getting the US government to spread fear and suspend civil liberties. It was scary when extremists hijacked those airplanes. But it was more horrifying when extremists hijacked the US government and military, leading us into war.

A “POST 911 WORLD?”

My college students, who were toddlers in 2001 remember September 11th because they’ve heard about it in school and seen the videos. Some would say they’ve grown up in a post-911 world (I don’t know – I wouldn’t say I grew up in a “Post Disco Inferno world”). But they haven’t heard about the pre-911 world. Every semester I ask them, “what was the big news story on September 10th, 2001?” Who remembers it?

It was the nationwide demonstrations against the World Trade Organization – the W.T.O., which some protesters called “The World Terrorist Organization,” a cartel of banksters and corporations using the US military as mafia enforcers to extort natural resources and cheap labor from the poorest nations on the planet. On September 10th, 2001 I was wondering – could American citizens actually convince the US government to stand up to the World Trade Organization? And then on September 11th the picket signs disappeared, replaced by millions of American flags, weeping in the streets, mourning the loss of our beloved World Trade towers.

I wonder, what if Tom Clancy had written a novel where one day everyone was protesting against the World Trade Organization and the next day some airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, causing parades of World Trade solidarity..? What would his publisher say? “Tom, you’re not known for your subtlety, and whatever crap you put your name on will top the best-seller list, but… Seriously? You think anybody’s gonna think this was not a conspiracy?” But truth, I suppose, can be stupider than best-selling fiction. And for the next several years anybody who said anything negative about “World Trade” was immediately accused of hating the heroes – the police and firemen and the troops. My heart goes out to the victims in the planes and the towers, the rescue-workers and the soldiers who died, but when we list the casualties of 9/11 I insist that we also “Never Forget” the protest movement that died that day.

LABOR DAY

Another thing I’ve wondered – if we’re so obsessed with “never forgetting” 9/11 – why is it not a federal holiday? And then I remember – because it was so close to labor day, the holiday when we “never forget” to stop wearing white shoes. Seriously, there’s no way the government would give workers two Mondays off in a row, it would be un-American. Labor Day is so easy to forget, it’s sort of a phantom-limb holiday, even for me and I belong to a powerful union. For me, Labor Day is just one more day when my abundantly fertile wife might go into labor.

What is Labor Day? When did it get started, and how? This year I finally decided to look.

The Civil War had been immensely profitable for industrialists and manufacturers (many of whom had paid the $300 for someone else to fight in their place, including JP Morgan, John D Rockefeller, Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie and James Mellon). They built massive fortunes on the backs of immigrant laborers, and then when the Civil War ended…Jackpot. Slaves were released into the workforce, veterans came home looking for jobs, and the competition in the flooded labor market introduced a whole new frontier of what employers could get away with in terms of low wages and crooked contracts. The government, always on the side of capital, did nothing to alleviate this exploitation. And so we see, slowly, workers begin banding together to press for worker’s rights. Ironically, the labor movement had victory in its grasp, but the most powerful unions refused to admit African Americans and some other minorities – banded together they would have been unstoppable, but racist divisions hobbled the movement.

It was in 1882 that an American Labor Day was first proposed, and unions began holding parades of solidarity in places like New York City’s Union Square. It was a peoples’ movement, protesting against a cartel of banksters using the US military as mafia enforcers to extort natural resources and cheap labor from the poorest people in America. Declaring a federal holiday in 1894 to honor laborers might seem like a government gift in support of the movement. Actually it was something else. 1894 was the year of the Pullman strike, when workers had called a boycott of Pullman train cars because of the company’s nightmarish treatment of its workers. Then police officers and militia opened fire on a protest, killing thirty American workers. This was when a federal holiday was declared, to stop American workers from escalating the conflict.

Ironically, in modern times, Americans celebrate Labor Day by flooding into shopping-malls to buy clothing manufactured by human slaves in Asian sweatshops (I guess the Labor Movement did succeed in getting industrialists to seek their cheap labor elsewhere). And buying pencils and notebooks so our American children can go to factory-modeled, assembly-line-style school buildings and learn to be good citizens of Capitalism. This is what I get to deal with on September mornings, wrangling my kids into school uniforms, “I don’t want to be industrious! Can’t I just forage the food I need?” “No – you’re always foraging in my refrigerator. Now get on that bus and don’t come back till you’re Henry Ford.” What is Labor Day about? As far as I can tell, it is a day in which we celebrate capital’s victory over the Labor Movement.

What a mess. Who would have thought that a September 11th sermon might somehow turn out to be a real downer? Is there any good news on this day? Actually, I would say yes. In the Snodgrass family, this is not only an anniversary of the Trade Towers, it’s also a birthday. On September 11th, 2010 my sister gave birth to her son Jacob in New York City. My siblings and I, our mother came to New York City from Hungary, and our father emigrated from the small savage nation of Chicago. The refugee met the pioneer in New York City, were they started making babies. And about thirty years later in New York City, my sister met an immigrant from India, and they made a new baby, Jacob. Imagine that – a confluence of pioneers and refugees and immigrants merging to create this new life in New York City. In these days of distrust and ugly nativism, baby Jacob is a reminder of what I like best about New York City and what I like best about this country. To me, he is a symbol of hope and unity. Like all of us, I have complex thoughts and emotions about September 11th and its aftermath. But I also look forward to the part of this day that will be spent celebrating baby Jacob.

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