Category Archives: essays on culture

Who Is My Neighbor: the Quality of Mercy

A young man in his blue linen cloak paces the dimly-lit room, then looks out the window at the crowd gathering in the village square. His ambitions exceed his current station, but he expects that to change after today. He is a lawyer, which is to say he occupies a lower rung in the religious order. He steps down the mud brick stairs of his house to the courtyard, then walks through the arch and onto the street.

Shielding his eyes against the sun, now glowing white in a molten sky, he can clearly see the plaza. There are more people than he expected. Surprises irritate the young man, but he consoles himself that the larger audience suits his purpose. He walks briskly to the village square–he always moves briskly–thinking over his scheme to confront, and perhaps trap, the itinerant rabbi from distant Nazareth. His superiors cannot fail to be impressed.

Near the well, Jesus is talking to a small circle of men. As the lawyer approaches the crowd, he feels his hands sweating. Moving through the throng, he strides up to face the rabbi. After a modest  introduction, he asks, “How can I attain eternal life, Teacher?” He expects that Jesus’ answer will offend the orthodox and prove his undoing. The crowd is silenced by the lawyer’s boldness, just as he had hoped.

Jesus’  expression takes no note of the lawyer’s sarcastic tone and his voice is mild as he  turns the question back on his inquisitor, offering him a dialogue. The lawyer knows the law by rote and so he confidently quotes its letter. Jesus’ response, now provocative, exposes a chink in the lawyer’s armor. The lawyer tries an evasion. “Who is my neighbor, that I am to love?”

The crowd waits for their teacher to take up the challenge, perhaps with a sermon like the ones they have heard him deliver. Jesus smiles thinly, a knowing smile, but in his eyes there is a flash of anger. He has faced so many of these inquisitions–meant to trap him into some blasphemy–over the last year. The rekindled memories leave him inwardly seething. He has thought about the answer to this question, or one very like it, through cool, dark velvet nights with only the flickering fire as companion, and so He retains his composure.

Masking his anger with an even voice, Jesus tells a tale of two pious men who pass by a wounded stranger on the robber-plagued Jericho road, not even approaching him to see if alive or dead; and of the third traveler who stops to assist the man, bathing his wounds in oil and taking him to an inn for shelter. Jesus faces the lawyer, but the crowd is his real audience–and when mentioning the solicitous man, He calls him a Samaritan. Even his close followers glance at each other–did he really say Samaritan? According to Jewish tradition, Samaritans are despised outcasts; there is bitterness and enmity between the two peoples. A Samaritan as role model does not sit agreeably with the crowd, but Jesus had warned his followers that he had come to bring a sword.

His parable completed, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, sir, was neighbor to him that fell among the thieves?” In the telling of the tale, his anger has faded; his voice is almost serene.

The lawyer’s arrogance has wilted in the Light. “He that showed mercy,” he replies, leaving unspoken the distasteful name, Samaritan.

Jesus’ voice is a friendly invitation. “Go and do likewise.”

As the Samaritan ministered to the injured man, so Jesus discerned the wounded spirit of the lawyer inside the cynical shell. He treated his foe with acceptance, but with the parable challenged him to think anew. In so doing, He placed before his audience a gift, allowing them to see, if they chose, that the quality of mercy is for outcasts as well as members of the tribe, for the reproachful as well as the faithful.

Sometimes a story’s meaning is inside, like a kernel in a husk; and other times the story’s most eloquent message is revealed by the manner of the narrator.

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Dr. King: Hew out of the Mountain of Despair a Stone of Hope

April 4, 1968, America lost Dr. Martin Luther King to a sniper’s bullet.  That evening, ignoring police warnings of violence, Robert Kennedy spoke to the black community of Indianapolis in the most  heartfelt speech I have heard   He spoke in words of anguish, yet he offered hope for America, thus echoing Dr. King’s call to “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”  While rage at Dr. King’s murder exploded into riots in scores of American cities, Indianapolis was spared violence.  Perhaps because people there  believed a leader actually cared?  Robert Kennedy’s voice, though silenced 2 months later by an assassin, speaks to us today.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

Conversion while Witnessing the Flames

For International Women’s Day, a story of a pioneer, Frances Perkins, first female U.S. Cabinet secretary, architect of the New Deal,  and the day that changed her life.

One spring day in 1911, Frances Perkins witnessed one of the most heart wrenching scenes in American history. The epiphany she then experienced led her to a path less traveled, as she became  the first female Secretary of Labor and the leading architect of the 1930s New Deal.

She was lunching that afternoon with friends at a small café in the Greenwich Village district of New York City. Nearby, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory occupied the upper floors of a grimy, rundown building. In crowded quarters, young immigrant women sewed clothes in nine hour shifts, six days a week, for paltry wages.

The Witness

While Perkins was sipping tea and conversing, a hidden fire smoldered in the lint and scraps of cloth  in the factory. When it flared up, the women ran to escape.  The fortunate discovered  a  way out, but many workers found exit doors impossible to open. Banging and pounding on the doors proved futile, and their desperate pleas went unanswered. One hundred feet above street level, they were trapped with the flames. The Triangle owners  had locked doors from the outside, so they could control the workers leaving the plant.

Smoke poured from the upper floors, and Perkins went into the street to see what was happening. Women climbed out of the windows and stood precariously on the  ledges, hoping for a miracle. The fire trucks arrived, but their ladders did not reach high enough. The firemen watched helplessly as women began to jump to their deaths, driven by the searing flames. One hundred forty-six workers perished. The youngest among them were fourteen year-old Kate Leone and Rosaria Maltese.

In a civil suit resulting from the fire, the plaintiffs were awarded $75 per deceased victim.  Two years later, one of the owners was found guilty of again locking factory doors during working hours, and he was fined $20.

The Path Less Traveled

Perkins, then 31, was a social worker by profession, but after watching the horror of the Triangle fire, she chose a  new direction. She threw herself into political reform to advocate for the working class. When women won the right to vote in 1920, more doors opened for skilled and dedicated women to rise in the progressive movement.

Perkins joined the administration of Governor Franklin Roosevelt in New York. When FDR became president in 1932, with the country prostrate and demoralized in the Great Depression, Frances Perkins became the Secretary of Labor. She was the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. She found herself right at home in the rough and tumble of national politics.  Perkins was tough, but she was also persuasive. She knew how  to work with people on their terms—an invaluable skill, particularly for a woman in the 1930s.

Perkins became the New Deal’s chief policymaker, overseeing reforms that would allow blue collar workers greater participation in American life. The American middle class flourished in this fertile soil. In the process, Roosevelt’s Democratic Party grew to be a broad coalition, with the working class as an integral  partner. This realignment of American politics endured for two generations.

The Charlatans

In 1968, a young man wrote a book entitled Revolution for the Hell of It. Abbie Hoffman was a leader of the late 1960s counter culture and the icon of a new social type, the celebrity protester. He was famous for being famous, and the television cameras, like faithful puppies, followed him from protest to protest.   His remarks, however inane, regularly made the evening news.  As his book’s title implies, Hoffman mocked the diligent efforts of reformers in the mold of  Frances Perkins. He was, indeed, openly derisive of the American working class and its culture and values.

It has been remarked that as the Vietnam War became more unpopular with the American public, the anti-war protestors became even more despised.   While this might seem a paradox, the attitude and behavior of the Abbie Hoffmans of that era dispels any apparent contradiction.  Although the vast majority of anti-war protestors demonstrated peacefully, the fringe who instigated violence were always sure to attract the media’s attention, and the American public reacted.  The provocateurs’  contempt for working class Americans goes a long way to explain the election of conservative Republican Richard Nixon as president in 1968 and his landslide re-election four years later.

Yet, a strange thing happened after the Democratic Party’s presidential election debacle in 1972. As the years went by, through the 1970s and the 1980s, the attitudes held  by the 1960s extremists migrated from the fringes to become more  prevalent in the Democratic Party. Perversely, repeated defeats led to a doubling down on failure.  Instead of a searching self-examination, Democrats of the leftist persuasion blamed the  voters, especially those in the working class who were white. This arrogance was no longer confined to the activists, but came to permeate the party leadership.

Frances Perkins would have been appalled, both on a personal and political level.  The Democratic Party had not only turned its back on her constituency, but it had also eschewed her politics of persuasion.

Conversations with Athena

 

In the conversation that followed, we recalled the June day, over ten  years ago, when we had first sat next to each other in a public speaking class.  She teasingly reminded me how shy I had been.

I pictured her back then, sharing scenes from her social life: her stories a playful medley, drawing me in, subverting my best defenses.   High school I had spent seeking refuge in a social cubbyhole. Finding myself seated next to this blonde, lissome girl proved a culture shock. I might as well have shared a desk with the goddess Athena; our early conversations had been that one-sided. Linda had been patient with her shy neighbor, and gradually our conversations became a partnership. Through getting to know her, I had stepped into the sunlight. Seeing her again, I wanted to share this, but it came out this way: “I still think of our conversations before class. You were quite the raconteur.”

Fate and Heroism; a Musical Storm

Tacquamenon Falls, Michigan

As Georges Danton was to the French Revolution—“Audacity, audacity, and  always audacity!”—so Ludwig van Beethoven was to music in their time.

Beethoven battled to create a musical revolution, to free  the present from the past, a revolutionary tempest deposing  aristocratic elegance.  On an autumn evening,  I looked forward to Sturm und Drang in musical form, courtesy of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

With a biting chill in the night air, winter served notice that its arrival was not far off, and the mild, sunny days of fall must give way.  Inside Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, with its elegant decorations and muted light, warmth would well  up from the music on  stage .

The evening’s musical program began with a pleasant surprise, a mood piece unfamiliar to me.  A discordant modern arrangement followed, with the evening’s anticipated musical sparks to be struck after the intermission.

After the brief respite, the musicians, in their black-and-white formal wear, returned to their places.  The conductor strode briskly to the podium to generous applause.  When he raised his baton, the orchestra came to life, like toy soldiers suddenly animated in a Christmas fantasy.  The string section played the most recognizable opening bars in music, the staccato notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  Fate knocking.  Drawn in by the magnetism, the audience leaned forward in their seats.

The ominous tones of Fate were–after some lighter fare– answered by the clarion call of Heroism in the final movement, sung in shining tones  by the brass instruments.  In a liberation  of emotion, the Hero triumphed in aggressive chords driving to  the finale.  The audience, released from the music’s grip, responded with its own storm of applause.

The symphony is symbolic of Beethoven himself, or of the Revolutions of his time, if you prefer.

Strolling out again into the crisp night, I found myself reflecting that the heroic spirit of Beethoven’s Fifth lies dormant in our time.  It is perhaps sleeping in a vault with old clips of John F. Kennedy speaking, his finger jabbing the air.  Or captured on grainy film of Jackie Robinson dancing on the base paths, and  facing down the racists as he broke major league  baseball’s color bar.

Today, we are in desperate need of men and women to take up the baton, to show audacity in the face of today’s pervasive cynicism and nihilism.   Fate is knocking, yet we await Heroes to answer the call.

Where There Is No Vision, the People Perish

Be sure you put your feet in the right place; then stand firm.   —Abraham Lincoln

In the gray half-light before the dawn, a leader offers a vision of moral clarity, while avoiding the trap of self-righteous moralizing.   As the Proverb teaches, where there is no vision, the people perish.  Yet, a leader often has to rein in his more zealous followers in service of the broader cause. Otherwise, the zealots by their intolerance will repel many of the undecided who could still be persuaded.

Abraham Lincoln mastered the  political craft during decades of seasoning in the rough-and-tumble of local politics before he took his trade to  the White House.  Although influenced by the racial prejudice common to white people of his day, his conviction never wavered that, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”  Lincoln’s clarity on the immorality of slavery was a beacon for his countrymen, and his sincerity  was his bond with the common people.   Having found his own solid ground, he stood firm in curbing the excesses of the  Abolitionists, whose rigidity would have sabotaged the Union’s cause before battle with the Confederates had been fairly joined.

If the trumpet is uncertain, asked St. Paul, who will answer the call to battle?  Times of great change, whether in Lincoln’s day, our Revolution, the New Deal, or the New Frontier, call for leadership that provides moral clarity, and keeps the movement  to the straight and narrow path, rather than straying into  self-righteous posing. To America’s  sorrow, no such leader has come forward for almost 50 years.  This lack results in an  impasse:   “The old is dying, yet the new cannot be born.”

Close Encounters: Spiritual Aura Shines

The hope symbolized by light from the heavens is that renewal awaits us, if only we remain open to the mystery and take the opportunity to appreciate the wisdom abiding in the spiritual.”

(Repost)

Earth's aura and crescent moon (NASA photo)

Earth’s aura and crescent moon
(NASA photo)

The arts offered a space where we could pause for reflection, and perhaps glimpse a faint glow from over the horizon, amidst the malaise weighing on 1970s America. That most innovative of film makers, Steven Spielberg, slipped the bonds of science fiction’s conventions in a visionary movie. He portrayed an alien spaceship with a spiritual aura, like those Renaissance religious paintings where the radiance from above promises a hopeful future and a chance of renewal.

“Children Opening Doors to Beautiful Sources of Light”

When the 1977 film Close Encounters opens, a luminous space ship dazzles airline pilots by its unearthly maneuvers, while air traffic controllers in the American heartland try to make sense of what they see on their screens. Unable to reconcile what they are witnessing with their familiar experience, they dismiss the extraordinary, rather than seeking its meaning. As the story unfolds, an aged Mexican villager with a beatific smile tells scientists that the sun came out at night and sang to him, as a Madonna might to her child. When the scene shifts back to Indiana, the specter reappears, and Spielberg sends a curious, not fearful, child chasing an elusive orange vapor into the prairie night. What is hidden from the wise and learned is sometimes revealed to children. As Spielberg later explained, “Close Encounters is all about children opening doors to beautiful sources of light.” It is difficult to imagine a more numinous response to the angst then afflicting America.

In Close Encounters, the viewer is from the opening drawn into a world of light, music, and wonder, which captivates the senses more than the intellect. Instead of intrepid explorers, we meet ordinary people, tentative in their search for the strangers. They are warm and approachable, unlike the steely glint of heroism. The viewer can identify with their uncertainty in the face of the astonishing. Close Encounters shares Hamlet’s response to the dreams and phantoms of other worlds: as strangers, give them welcome.

As the story begins, a utility company repairman, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), heads out in his truck when the spaceship’s over flight turns out the lights and plunges Muncie, Indiana into an eerie darkness. He gets lost in the outer burbs, but the aliens seem to find him, and he looks up to a dazzling white glare before the ship glides off into the night sky. Although rattled, Neary listens to the cacophony of voices on his CB radio so he can track the ship’s path, and pursue it. Throughout the movie, this Everyman follows his inner voice, strange and compulsive though it may be, to search for the unknowable. Does obsession lurk in the shadows of the deepest religious experience? Implicit in the movie is this ambivalence.

Enlightened guide and a counter-vision

Although the events in the film unfold as seen by the Everyman character, we have to focus elsewhere to approach the essence of the film. A marvelous work of art, or an idyllic scene in nature, when truly taken in by the viewer, can inspire a sense of awe, but a more profound appreciation flows from knowledge. Similarly, a childlike wonder may inspire a quest for the mysterious light, and Neary’s obsession may pursue it, but only an enlightened guide can enrich the numinous experience.

In Close Encounters, the awareness is provided by a scientist, Claude Lacombe–although what variety of scientist remains nebulous. The actor is an icon of French New Wave cinema, Francois Truffaut, who had expanded the frontiers of film creativity in the 1960s. As the refrain in the movie goes, this means something.

Lacombe’s point of view gives permission to the viewer to reflect on the mystical light. “The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” Through Lacombe’s perspective, we are invited to wonder and perhaps to begin to understand; what the radiance might represent is left to us. Given the increasingly materialist and secular outlook that was emerging in the 1970s, and since then has become increasingly dominant, this signifies a counter vision.

Consider that Lacombe is not an American pragmatist, but a French intellectual with a philosophical hue. He is drawn to the mystery, and his métier is the illuminating question. Yet, he is neither conducting an investigation nor solving a problem–that is the province of the technician. Lacombe might well agree with Einstein that scientific thinking involves a free play with concepts. He has the brilliant intuition to use several musical tones as the language to reach out to the aliens, relying on child’s play in the most fateful of communications. Recall the Mexican villager’s description of the ship: the sun that sang. Where a film involving space travel might well focus on the technology, the crucial tool in Close Encounters is simple music, and the goal is communication with strangers.

Quest and possibility

The scientist has set out on a quest—as have the child, Neary’s everyman, and, through identifying with the film’s characters, the audience. Each has taken a risk, even if it is only the hazard of unsettling their comfortable thinking, in hope of being renewed.

Lacombe’s philosophy accepts the possibility that there are things in heaven and earth that dwell beyond the realm of facts. He is like Einstein, who once said that he developed his relativity theory because he was still able to ask childlike questions about space and time. Lacombe has retained the child’s sense of wonder, yet he has cultivated the detachment necessary for insight into the shining enigma. William Blake wrote that the child’s toys and the old man’s reasons are but the fruits of the two seasons. Close Encounters’ script mirrors this: Lacombe is the adult companion to the Indiana boy who opens the door to the beautiful light. Not by force of logical argument, but through being open to creativity and inspiration, he calmly persuades his colleagues of the potential inherent in reaching out to the visitors. Lacombe is a prophet without self-righteousness.

No longer through a glass, darkly

With the majestic arrival of the mother ship at Devil’s Tower, a light from above shining in the darkness, time seems to be suspended, and the spiritual quest of Close Encounters reaches its apotheosis. We are by now alerted to the interplay of light and music that bounces back and forth between the ship and human technology. Emerging at last, the aliens appear, bathed in a diffuse white light. Neary and other explorers ascend into the ship, but the viewer does not follow them into the inner sanctum. What waits beyond the pale is left to the imagination, as each individual’s spiritual vision is her own. We no longer look through a glass darkly, but we are not yet seeing face to face. In Close Encounters, there is enlightenment, but no revelation—no definitive answers, only intimations. The hope symbolized by the light from the heavens is that renewal awaits us, if only we remain open to the mystery and take the opportunity to appreciate the wisdom abiding in the spiritual.

© Tom Schultz, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent from this blog’s author is prohibited.