Thursday, November 12, 2009

Desmond Tutu and the Christian "Yes" to Life

As an anecdote to the melancholy musings of Simone Weil, I looked up some speeches and interviews of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Aside from being extremely moved by his commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation, with which we are all familiar, I was especially struck by his manners, affect and humor as the pure embodiment of joy. Indeed, one has to ask the question, what is Desmond Tutu laughing about? Born and raised in the evil regime of apartheid, Desmond Tutu watched his people experience daily humiliation, imprisonment, torture and abuse. Even after the extraordinary moment of liberation for black South Americans and the initiative of peace and reconciliation, South Africa is still plagued with corruption, the AIDS epidemic, and violence. But it is clear from the speech he gave at UC Santa Barbara that Archbishop Tutu laughs, tells jokes and dances - in fact, much more than the average white Americans who have not come even close to experiencing the evils that he has witnessed in his lifetime.

Christians so often fall into trap of warm-bath pseudo-theology (how nice it is to be told once again by some feeble-minded preacher that "God loves us all!" "Jesus loves us all!") that it would be easy to mistake Desmond Tutu's radical Christian rhetoric of hope as one of false optimism. But there is nothing easy about Archbishop Tutu's claim that God loves Bin Laden and George W. Bush, too. It is not easy because he is not saying that they are not guilty. Nothing can be farther from the truth than the claim that Desmond Tutu is indulging the brutal white oppressors. He makes it clear that he is far from granting them innocence. In fact, the concept of forgiveness would have no meaning if the forgiven person were to be found innocent. Responsibility being an urgent question in modernity (nowadays it seems that every criminal has the right to his or her crime based on his or her childhood traumas and adolescent misadventures), Desmond Tutu is holding the criminals responsible yet holding open the door.

Desmond Tutu's feat lies in his application in the political realm of two Christian notions that on the surface look like the most a-political notions of all: forgiveness and confession. These two notions do not sound as political as "the first will be last, the last will be first," the notion that makes the Christian roots of socialist revolutions unmistakable. Both forgiveness and confession are about surrendering power and rights. To forgive, as Desmond Tutu puts it beautifully, is to jettison one's rights to revenge. To confess, one admits one is wrong: both in the confessional booth or in mass, one is asked to kneel in order to display a physical sign of humility. Both confession and forgiveness give away power, which is why they are much more unpopular than their weaker kin, namely justice.

The word "justice" holds much more power in secular society, both as a name for our legal apparatus and for our so-called humanitarian activities, which often has "social justice" written all over their brochures. One wonders if the enormous satisfaction we get out of watching television shows about the court or the police has also to do with the momentary exhilaration of watching the bad guys get caught, prosecuted, etc. What is radical about Desmond Tutu's theology and political action is that he wants to go beyond justice, because he knows that justice does not restore equilibrium and harmony. There is almost something ecological about his way of handling human affairs: the issue is not so much who are the evil-doers, who threw the poison into the river, but how do we get the poison out of our community so that we all may drink good water again.

Without in any way disagreeing with Hannah Arendt's assessment of Adolf Eichmann as a buffoon, I wonder how the 1200 or so pages of his testimony (the inanity of which made Arendt laugh out loud instead of cry) would have been different if he were asked not to defend himself but to confess. I wonder if Arendt could have been spared her enormous irritation with the sob stories of victims (the very irritation that got her in trouble with the Jewish community all over), if they were not asked to perform their victimhood, if it was acknowledged as the premise of the trial that they had been hurt. Obviously this would not have been a conceivable model for the Jerusalem court, but is there any surprise that the defendant should always be someone who closes oneself off to the accusing party, for defense means no other than closing one's fortress, closing one to truth? Is there any surprise that a system based on justice and retribution would require that the accusing party to demonstrate their grievances?

Desmond Tutu's radicality lies in his transformation of the system of justice from the defendant-plaintiff model to the confessor-forgiver model, whose political value lies in its openness. What is interesting is that Archbishop Tutu's "political ecology" is only possible with a notion of evil that is not attached to a person but is something that takes a person hostage. It is a system that assumes that all human beings strive for life and the good the way plants strive for the sun and water. Nietzsche famously accuses Christianity of slave mentality, and whether he is right or not, he is calling attention to the inherent pessimism and perhaps masochism in a religion that is based on the idea of turning the other cheek. But in Desmond Tutu, we are reminded that if the good is on the side of the oppressed, it is also on the side of joy, harmony and peace. While the image of Eden might be a dangerous trap for the kind of utopian thinking that leads to bloody revolutions, it can easily be mobilized in Desmond Tutu's ecological ethics as the imaginary in comparison to which oppression and evil cannot but appear as an aberration. Eden, as an image of flourishing, of life, of harmony, is not so much our dream but "God's dream for us." Maybe the image of Eden is the secret to Desmond Tutu's seemingly perpetual smile, a smile that is as warm and genuine as it is enigmatic.

In listening to Desmond Tutu, one is struck by the sense of exaltation that permeates all his speeches and interviews. The use of metaphors such as an eagle being let free off the cliff, to "fly, fly, fly" certainly presents a very different image of Christianity than the "no to life." If only Nietzsche could have seen, instead of depressed, myoptic, crouching German Protestants of the 19th century, this African elder who laughs, who tells jokes, who shouts "Ubuntu! Ubuntu!" who leads his people away from violence, revenge and destruction and into the joy of life. No doubt, Nietzsche is right that Christianity as a tradition is itself largely responsible for secularism, disenchantment and the nihilism that ensues in the west. But it is perhaps not so much the presence of Christianity but the absence of "Ubuntu," the being of person through other persons, that made the white man so depressed, alone and full of resentment. Perhaps this is all the more reason that the white man needs the man of color to bring him back his humanity. The individualist white man needs the black man to teach him once again that life is joy only when it is not simply "my life" but the life principle itself that every being shares.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Peasants and Beggars

Jackie asked me about articles on beauty in urban neighborhoods, so my mind wandered as I thought to myself, "But what do we really mean by beauty? Whose beauty? The Anglo-Saxon ideal or the African-American ideal?" (The recent exchange on music in the church included a comment by Jackie that some folks can't get beyond the 19th century, which I assume to be Victorian, Edwardian culture, etc.) I then started to think about why the contemporary discourse on poverty, illness, old age and death is so insufficient in this era of speed, beauty and health. We have no patience for melancholy (psychiatric over-prescription is a real problem), for old people who walk and talk slowly, and needless to say, for the poor.

Beauty is indeed the question; I have been advocating it in my last posts as part of elite Episcopalian social responsibility. I am not taking those thoughts back, but I wonder if we should also think about representations of the socially marginalized. I did a quick search for images of the beggar in the history of western art, and intriguingly I found that pre-modern depictions of beggars and cripples are usually absent of any psychologism or sentimentality. More importantly, as demonstrated by the great northern painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting, Peasant Wedding, there is no fetishization of the poor as the "other." Where are the "poor" in this painting? The decor of the room is bare and simple; the celebrants of the feast are in humble peasant attires and their manners naive and rough; the food looks like soup. By our standards, these northern European peasants of the 16th century would be poor. But in this painting, they are the hosts of a feast; moreover, they're letting the beggars into the party in the upper left hand corner. The beggars, for that matter, don't seem to look as miserable as the modern bourgeois would like. We are more used to romanticized depictions of near naked children, bare-footed yet doe-eyed, sitting on the road. If they happen to be dark-skinned, it sets them even farther away from our comfortable lives and allow us to shed even more tears of pity. But this painting presents a raucous scene of festivity that is completed by the entry of the beggars. If they are taking away resources, the beggars also add joy and merriment.

Pieter Bruegel represents a school of painting that is relatively indifferent to the aesthetic standards of the art academies, which in Italy and France began to flourish based on a systematization of artistic achievements of southern Renaissance. Instead, Bruegel is known for enigmatic, ludic scenes that derive from the vernacular, the folkloric. He is the painter of the peasants and their non-ideal faces: crooked noses, fat chins, missing teeth. Yet no one who has spent some time looking at Bruegel's paintings could remain untouched by the unruly tenderness that he gives to these figures. They are paradoxically both ugly and beautiful: they occupy the ambiguous zone between the real world and the fairy tale. In this strange way, this painting does not separate the world into the rich and poor, the beautiful and the ugly. Instead, it divides the world into the hosts and the guests, both of whom have a right to fill the house where food abounds. I wonder if there aren't some things to be learned from such a view of the world.

The need for beauty is human, but it is also essentially fascist and totalitarian (there are hundreds of books and articles about fascism as the aesthetization of the world), unless we commit ourselves to loving only what is both beautiful and good, and what is good must be real. Crooked nose and missing teeth are real; the uncouth manners of the peasants are real; the bare benches and pots of brown-ish soups are real; and the disruption of the party by the hungry beggars is real. But Bruegel seems to be charmed by such realities; he muses on them; he transforms the beggars and the peasants, not by idealizing them as 19th-century bourgeois novelists would do, but by distancing himself just enough to give us a totalistic view of how the world is composed.

I think this painting is the perfect image for Jackie's community kitchen, because it includes the beggars into the world. Ultimately, homeless people and bourgeois people still belong to one world, they still tread the same ground on God's earth - this is the greatest mystery of all.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Elation. Elegance. Exaltation."

This past Sunday, All Saints Sunday, Christ Church Cathedral in Houston hosted a jazz mass featuring an improvisational piece called The Gospel According to John Coltrane (based on "A Love Supreme") in lieu of the sermon. The composer's jazz quartet performed the majority of the service music gleaned from African American spirituals and Americana: "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," "Let Us Break Bread Together," and a rousing "When the Saints Go Marching In" at the end of the service. The composer of the Love Supreme piece also arranged the music for the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.

As I glanced through the bulletin while listening to the bassist tune his instrument and the saxophonist warm up, I had my doubts. Not only had I had my own personal spirituality-and-Coltrane horror story (imagine a seminar on African American religion in which the students had to lie down on the floor and listen to "A Love Supreme"). I also got the sense that the cathedral's highbrow choir and congregation are much more notable for their appreciation of exquisite traditional song settings than improvisational music paired with Coltrane's psychedelic lyrical musings about how all thoughts and vibrations trace back to God. They might appreciate Coltrane in the abstract, but this was a different animal.

Early on, it became clear that the cathedral was getting pretty full - almost to Christmas and Easter numbers - and that it was a mix of people, including a good number who aren't the usual Sunday crowd. The opening hymn was a traditional Ralph Vaughan Williams accompanied by the organ, and then came the Gloria. An upbeat gospel tune. The presiding priest continued with the Collect, adding in some extra phrases (oh yes we do!) as she prayed in her Texas accent, and the congregation chuckled and then laughed loudly as we all sat for the first lesson. Clearly the jarring presence of this kind of music, the fullness of the church, and the awareness that we were mostly white folks had created a level of nervous energy that needed some release. Charismatic we are not.

Things settled down after that, and then, instead of the sermon, the Love Supreme piece began. Like the original Coltrane recording, it was a four-part piece that combined spoken word (a choir member reading of the words of Coltrane's poem from the liner notes - words that are also "spoken" through the saxophone), the choir singing certain phrases, and, of course, the quartet's music. The most jarring part: the extended drum solo. The most moving for me: the duet between the saxophone (moved to the rear of the church), and the trumpet, still in the front. From wailing and mournful to ecstatic, the two instruments played off one another, filling the entire building with their plaintive cries. All throughout, Coltrane's four beats (the part where he softly sings "a love supreme") continued, driving the music forward underneath all of the improvisation - the choir softly sang "we thank you God" from time to time as well.

I was sitting next to an elderly woman and a visitor there for the jazz (he didn't take communion), and I realized that this is what church should be. This is what Episcopalians can offer: openness and experimentation some Sundays, Anglican plainsong on other Sundays - a whole range of voices and experiences that speak to a whole range of people. If anything, I felt a strong and stirring sense of community with everyone who was in the cathedral experiencing this unusual and striking mixture, and all of this came together even more poignantly when the presiding priest proclaimed that All Saints Day was for mourning and for celebrating life - she listed all of the names of those who had died in the past year, and we renewed our baptismal vows.

The service ended perfectly with a very New Orleans version of "The Saints Go Marching In" - the choir, instead of processing, gathered at the front of the church, next to the jazz quartet, and clapped, as did we all. Somehow reconciled with this uncharacteristic display of joy in church, everyone burst into extended applause at the service's end.