Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Atticus Finch, Donald Trump, and Dragons

“It’s like being a caterpillar in a cocoon, that’s what it is,” [Jem] said. “Like somethin’ asleep wrapped up in a warm place.”
~Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
There have been times in my life that I thought a fire-breathing dragon would be the best thing that could happen to my hometown. At a young age, I was more ambitious, desiring outright invasion, nuclear war, or perhaps a nice plague, just to shake things up. Of course, my conception of these disasters remained mostly in the abstract, literary plane. Once North Korean nukes had eradicated all the cities (not much of a loss), we Appalachians would be left to survive by our wits and discover adventure apart from the conveniences of civilization (think Red Dawn, but with Southern accents). What I really wanted was for someone to take our sleepy, complacent town by the scruff of the neck and shove its face in reality.

The South has never taken much to revolution. That fact is both our curse and our protection. While the rest of the country flies over a moral cliff, we remain, clinging to remnants of 1950s culture and virtue. But if a visionary rides into town and suggests some of our customs may be downright wrong, we retreat into reactionary suspicion. We expel the sinners and stone the prophets.

In the process, our Christianity has become so apathetic and hidebound that it has forgotten its very roots, polarizing into ignorant fundamentalism or the milquetoast emergent church. Abandoning our duties, we seek cultural gladiators to represent us on the national stage, observing the combat safely from behind TV and computer screens.

Of course, apathy is not exclusive to the South. It's more ubiquitous than ever in our dying nation, but the South's sin is particular in that it compounds its inaction with hypocrisy. You see, we're supposed to be the Christians, and Jesus had his harshest words for the apathetic religious: "They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger" (Mat. 23:4). But in the South, comfort is the unspoken cardinal virtue. Stability. Security. And therefore, apathy.

As I've grown older and encountered the reality of dragons, I've learned to love safety myself. It's not easy to be out of step with your peers and society, for the sake of justice (an idea which becomes terribly abstract in the moment of danger). It's exhausting and lonely. But being a Christian means we can't and should never be comfortable in this world. We should not disdain but rather expect and prepare for trouble and hardship.

What happens when we don't? Harper Lee knew very well. To Kill a Mockingbird is about a man who follows his conscience - but like A Man for All Seasons and High Noon it is a story which focuses just as strongly on apathy as it does on heroism. When Atticus Finch loses his case in a flagrant act of injustice, his son, Jem, sinks into depression. A tough-minded old lady, familiar with the ways of people, rebukes him:
 “I simply want to tell you that there are some men in this world born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them.” 
“Oh,” said Jem. “Well.” 
“Don’t you oh well me sir,” Miss Maudie replied, recognizing Jem’s fatalistic noises, “you are not old enough to appreciate what I said.” 
Jem was staring at his half-eaten cake. “It’s like being a caterpillar in a cocoon, that’s what it is,” he said. “Like somethin’ asleep wrapped up in a warm place. I always thought Maycomb were the best folks in the world, least that’s what they seemed like.” 
“We’re the safest folks in the world,” said Miss Maudie. “We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.”
Lee perfectly captures the desire to foist our responsibilities off on others: we've got men like Atticus to go for us. It's no wonder The Hunger Games resonates - not because we're a nation of young, scrappy, and hungry rebels, but because we're all willing to elect a chosen one (a "tribute") from among the masses, to lead and intercede on our behalf - feted and celebrated by the media - a sacrifice to keep the wolves away. The everyman remains back in the districts, safe and sound.

It's happening now. We Christians put our faith in politicians who promise to "protect Christianity," in leaders that hawk quick fixes to hard problems, in celebrities who seem to make Christianity cool, and in government programs that will spread the consequences of compassion as thinly as possible. Why do we do this? Because compassion always has consequences, and we'd like to leave that side to Christ.

But Christ didn't save us so we could stay home and let him fight our battles for us. Does that sound presumptuous? Well, maybe it does, but it is also doctrine. From the very beginning, God's relationships have served this purpose: "I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing" (Gen. 12:2, emphasis mine). We are not to be passive observers of evil and mayhem - and if we are - then when our freedoms are wrested from us by a depraved culture, we will deserve it.

Harper Lee understood about dragons - and many of the same fire drakes she painted so vividly still thrive today: racism, injustice, cowardice, lack of character. We cave to ignorance and populism - the twin results of spiritual laziness - and prostitute our principles at the altar of expedience. The greatest tragedy of To Kill a Mockingbird is not unmasked, explicit racism, but the silence of Christians, content that men like Atticus fight their battles for them.

Because, you see, the dragons are already here.
"I'm breathing . . . Are you breathing too? . . . It's nice, isn't it? It isn't difficult to keep alive, friends - just don't make trouble - or if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that's expected. Well, I don't need to tell you that. Good night. If we should bump into one another, recognize me." 
~The Common Man, after executing Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons



  1. It is slightly challenging—forgive me for this, but I assure that I do indeed remember how it was to be twenty years old—to respond to an article that says "[a]t a young age" and "[a]s I've grown older" whose author is a marvelous twenty years old. (How I think of that marvelous age, and not infrequently.) I know very well and with no small sympathy that it would have rubbed me in all the wrong ways to have been told back then by someone considerably older that I suffered to some degree from the ingenuousness of my youth, but I must say that we are not faced with any unusual crisis here, and perhaps a bit of more aged perspective could be instructive. So Mr. Trump is a cartoon? As I have tweeted (of my own ingenuousness), my mother, may her memory be eternal, lived with soldiers of the Wehrmacht occupying her home during World War II, and she became a U.S. citizen at the same time that a coup d'état had taken over her country. Our current turmoils in America are nothing. We have had crummy Presidents before (perhaps we have one now), and yet still we live very comfortably, and all talk that some political cataclysm will ruin our lives tends to have no real basis.

    Your mention of Atticus Finch losing a principled case—forgive me for yet another indulgence here—hits home with me too. I've lost cases that I shouldn't have. Justice often does not prevail. No new thing is under the sun, as Solomon would counsel us.

    The origin of a word you use a couple of times here is worth mentioning too. Apathy. Of course the modern English word has its own meaning, and one cannot deride usage or lexicography, but it is nonetheless worth noting that in Greek ἀπάθεια means dispassion, and it is a virtue. The Church Fathers of Orthodoxy Christianity have a few things to say about it too. Perhaps we become too passionate in our regard for the evils of our age and of our own roles in its drama and thus of the world's and our sins. Sin and passion, in Orthodox Christianity, mind you, are intimate kinfolk.

    Do we deserve what is happening? Who knows. Surely not in many cases anyway. Not for us to judge in every instance, though. Just as indeed it was not for any of prior countless generations to judge. (Consider Job.) The commandments are not a call to "activism" (lest we be judged deserving of our political outcomes on account of our passivity, as you say), so much as they are a call for—another fine Greek word—μετάνοια. The Lord also told Abraham that He would, besides blessing those who blessed Abraham, curse those who cursed him. We have no expectation of this in this life now, though, and we cannot correctly reckon that we deserve anything that we get.

    1. You are quite correct to say I am wrong to cavalierly proclaim whether or not we deserve judgment. I am well rebuked. (I couldn't help but think of this passage in Tolkien: I'm still mulling this over, and while I think I agree mostly with you, I'm struggling a bit with how to reframe an argument for activism (which I think must still exist). But I admit, it's certainly a problem that, in encouraging activism, I leave out the role of repentance, and you're quite right to point that out. This is a bit of a rambling way to say - thanks for the comment, I need to think more before I write more. :)

    2. Sorry it took me a while to reply - midterms have pretty much crushed my ability to think clearly. In addition, it's been rather strange going back to read this piece after a week or two. I started it about a year ago and decided to finally publish it in the wake of Harper Lee's death. And I also published it while we were in the middle of an argument with some extended family members who support Trump, which was quite difficult to bear. It strikes me now as rather poorly argued and relying far too much on generalizations and personal animus. There are still fragments I think worth preserving, and basic ideas I accept, but it’s framed in a too apocalyptic way.

      I do think Christians a tendency to fob off responsibility on pastors or politicians or the government or even God. It’s not a question of lacking passion, necessarily—it’s more a matter of accepting our individual responsibility (or even corporate, as the body of the church), and rejecting the idea that Pastor So-and-so is the only one who is able to tackle bigger social issues (social structure in the South exacerbates this strongly). Evangelical culture does the same on a broader scale by buying into celebrity culture as the way the church should run.

      But how widespread is this? I’m not sure. I find it heartening to learn that most of Trump’s “evangelical” support comes from Christians who rarely attend church—and hope that means populism has not swept American Christians completely off their feet. Even when I published this, I didn't think so - my purpose was less to proclaim Trumpism the end of the world and Christian history, but to mourn what seems to be a tendency in mainstream evangelicalism to embrace America's belief in comfort - a tendency which fosters Trumpism.

      And I know that it isn’t everyone. I just know that when I was the only person in a classroom defending key, basic doctrines of the faith, I felt very alone sometimes. That’s why the anecdote from To Kill a Mockingbird resonated so strongly with me: and if I had this post to write over again, I’d have focused on that.

    3. There is no need to apologize for the delay. Even those of us far past our academic years have burdens not unlike midterms to draw us away from rational thought. ;-)

      Let me begin by noting that you may have (please correct me if I am wrong) misunderstood my reference to passion and dispassion. In Orthodox Christian discourse, lacking passion (ἀπάθεια) is a virtue. Passion (πάθος) is subjugation to intense feelings or desires that are bound to this corrupt world. I would heartily credit any parishioner or voter who performed his or her electoral deeds with ἀπάθεια, because this would indicate acting without enslavement to the corruption (and passions) of this world. Are not indeed the supporters of Donald Trump enslaved to the passions of this world?

      On that note of our enslavement, consider also the hullabaloo over a recent article for National Review by Kevin D. Williamson, and in particular consider one of his concluding remarks in that article on Mr. Trump's base: "They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul." In this, as you may know, he is referring to impoverished white, mostly male, Americans, whom he characterizes as drug addicts, welfare frauds, and the perennially unemployed. In noting that some (by no stretch all, mind you) are addicts, deceivers, or akediasts, he may not be terribly off the mark, but what of his prescription for their malady? Get a U-Haul, he says. What you need to do is uproot yourself from your current state and move on to something better. The incongruity of his insipid and rambling essay is that, while he claims a certain mythology of America is false, he bows fully to a very famous mythology of America: namely, that all it takes is to pick yourself up and show some rugged individualism or else be decimated as you would so richly deserve for your laziness.

      You perhaps have some acquaintance with the kind of folk he is talking about. I will admit that I too have some acquaintance. I myself am a middle-class kind of akediast, but, more important, I know the kind of rural folk, as well as some urban dwellers, whom he describes. Many of them are clients of mine. So, forgive me, what kind of damned "hot take" fool thinks that it is such a simple hard-and-fast decision for a man in such circumstances to make: just get out of town and make your life better. The circumstances and their onerous burdens that oppress our spirits (and indeed inflame our sinful passions) are far greater than so easy a choice. Donald Trump offers an easy, nebulous, and facile solution, and one of his chief opponents offers insight equally or indeed even far more easy, nebulous, and facile.

      Comfort, by the way, is not a synonym to complacency. Is it, in any case, a strictly Southern virtue or foible to seek comfort or, on the other hand, to be complacent? And could your commentary also not be informed by (please forgive me for this) your own dawning sense as a twenty-year-old that comfort is not so easy to come by in the adult world? So you have been lonely in the classroom, and you have felt bereft of communion as you have observed the habitual sins of your beloved fellow man in Appalachia: this is, my friend, human life in this entire rotten world as it always has been. You may well be able to pronounce key doctrines of your faith to those who have no knowledge of it or inclination to contemplate it, but—and truly I say this with the utmost delicacy—get used to that. Ordinary people are not theologians. They are trying to get by, and many (including, to be sure, the author of this lengthy comment) have no idea how to do so. And no eloquent enunciation of doctrine or U-Haul truck can fix that. Nor indeed will any Donald Trump Presidency, as absurd as it would be, either ruin or solve it. This entire fight may very well be largely just an illusion.

    4. I'd like to first note that you might have seen me defending Williamson's piece on Twitter. I was under the mistaken impression people were referring to an earlier article: "The White Ghetto." I haven't even read the other one: it’s paywalled.

      However, I live right at the center of the White Ghetto, so I can offer some insight. I know the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality can become far too enshrined a concept among American conservatives, but it's not completely wrong. Can I truly claim that our situation is exceptional? Maybe not, but I’m not living in a bubble, and my opinion is not necessarily the product of youth. I’m saying the same things my father (who works with the town) has been saying for years.

      My granddad, as a boy, made illegal moonshine to survive, he worked at a factory for years to fund my dad’s education. Our family has lived here a couple hundred years, poor farmers. The only way we got out of poverty was by the promise of a better life. I agree with you that Williamson’s solution is wrongheaded — but not because he encourages people to better themselves, rather because he should encourage them to invest in where they are, not move away. (On the other hand, given the scarcity of blue collar jobs around here, it’s sometimes hard to argue for that either.)

      Still, investment is needed — and around here, hopelessness and victimhood (these are the phenomena Trump feeds on) cripple people’s ability to change themselves and their community.
      Williamson may be too harsh in his indictments (I haven’t read it, but I got the vibe the infamous “deserve to die” comment was about the system, not the people), but a refusal to blame them for any part of their situation is just as unhelpful. I know these people and I sympathize with them and I have, for my part, helped clean their house so it will pass inspection (I’m not writing this from an ivory tower) — but I can’t keep that house clean. Those roaches underneath every surface are ultimately a problem I can’t fix. They’re the only ones who can fix it, by walking across the room and dumping food in the trashcan instead of in the floor. So yes, I would encourage them to show some rugged individualism.

      But if you think my piece is aimed at the drug addicts and the unfortunate, you’ve badly misread it. A social expectation for them to try to change is a good thing, but I recognize that it’s incredibly difficult without the support of a community. I know enough about government to know the only community that’s likely to truly effect change is a church. And the church is not helping. They might throw money at problems occasionally, but get out and get their hands dirty? That’s rare. Church is more of a club than a community.

      My ire isn’t aimed at those struggling to keep afloat, but the middle class, complacent churchgoers who are quite ready to condemn me for reading the wrong type of bible (a man stood up and publicly castigated my dad for preaching a brief homily out of the wrong translation), but do little to alleviate the suffering of those around them. The people in that classroom were quite willing to flock to watch God’s Not Dead, but refuse to raise their hand when the teacher asked if they opposed abortion. I’m not asking them to know every tiny point of doctrine, but it’d be nice if those who complain so loudly about the loss of their Christian heritage would make a bit of an effort towards preserving it, and those who brag of their conservative principles wouldn’t sell out to the first conman who panders to their frustrations. That classroom wasn’t full of the poor, the ignorant, or atheists. It was full of middle class Christians.

      I don’t find this shocking — of course I don’t. I know the world is frequently like this and my world has pretty much always been like this. But even Jesus got frustrated with Pharisees sometimes.

    5. Please forgive me, Hannah, for having mentioned your youth too much.

      The Kevin D. Williamson piece, by the way, was mentioned by a good many in my Twitter timeline (mostly in the negative, I'm glad to say). Lest you think Mr. Williamson was not getting personal about those who should depart this land, I offer this further quote:

      The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.

      I did not take it that your original essay above or your further comments were principally about the drug-addicted, but read Mr. Williamson there and make what you will of his own take on that. You may also have noted the tenor of the piece (well typified in that excerpt), and let me point out one further detail. If these communities are to die, as he asserts, how do we think that takes place other than for the members of those communities either to leave (which is in most cases unlikely or impossible) or to destroy themselves? You are charitable, to your credit, in assuming without reading Mr. Williamson's essay that his remarks were not personal, but a view of them reveals clearly that they absolutely were.

      And on his fascinating with heroin needles and OxyContin, I offer you this further excerpt:

      If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — …

      But, no, I did not think in my previous remarks that you were chiefly concerned with the most hopeless of cases, such as folk who love their OxyContin or communities that deserve to be decimated. I was, rather, fascinating by the concept of apathy as it pertained to the classical understanding of the word, and I was interested in how your essay and further commentary was directed at the complacent and spiritually illiterate (or lazy, as you phrase it in your essay).

      I think I've spoken sufficiently about apathy in the sense of dispassion already, but let me just note this about another thing you have written: that a large part of the problem is foisting responsibility upon others. Surely you are right that some Donald Trump supporters do this, seeing him as their "cultural gladiator" (as you also artfully phrase it), but is their problem that they lack this so-called rugged individualism and do not better themselves? or is it more that their communities have failed them? They may be foisting their responsibilities upon a conman in this Presidential candidate, but should there not be some responsibility foisted upon, or assumed by in any case, more honest souls who have the time and the intimacy to help? You note that you think churches are better than governmental bodies to help the needy. I am sure that you are not just talking about sweeping and garnishing the house in a vain effort to keep demons from occupying the premises. What is, in fact, deplorable about many assertions of "rugged individualism" is when they make no mention of the forces, largely circumstantial or familial but never individual, that make an individual rugged. You show some insight into this above those more simplistic assertions. The unfortunate National Review piece I have cited as, let us call it a foil, does not.

    6. (2/2)
      Christ did indeed rebuke hypocrites, but did they not tend to be those so hard of hard and also, crucial to note, erudite of mind, that He spoke more for the benefit of everyone else who would hear or read His rebuke? And perhaps it was not so much that He was frustrated with the hypocrites as it was that He found the need to cite their example negatively or answer their charges in some way. Surely He knew what sort of folk they were and expected no better of them. And, again, the Pharisees were well-educated, authoritative Jews. Most of our KJV-only and other sorts of rigid, depressingly narrow Christians as well as our fair-weather Christians (the fundamentalists and milquetoasts, as you put it) are of a less well-educated variety. Christ's success with simpler souls was not by harsh rebuke, it seems to my recollection of Scripture.

      Indeed, if—to return to my initial apology for the sadly insensitive of my remarks—I made any note of your youth, it was merely because I was reminded of the youthful zeal of hoping to cry out against hypocrisy and think that ordinary, uneducated hypocrites (as opposed to Pharisees) would take any heed. I think you're more correct to talk about loving churches and other intimate associations helping ordinary folk. And, of course, I think our hifalutin political pundits would do a greater service if they spoke of ordinary folk with a bit more sympathy for their ordinary troubles. In this I see virtually no difference between Donald Trump and the vast majority of conservative commentary, even the commentary that staunchly opposes that Republican front-runner.

    7. These days, I’m more than usually aware of my age and inexperience, so I’m not upset about it being a factor for criticism – but I would note it’s difficult to contradict without sounding defensive or taking a page from Elihu son of Barachel’s book (to that end, I am, actually, perfect in knowledge, so maybe we should just give up now XD)

      To return to the concept of churches as helping organizations, I do think that’s the key to any lasting change here. I found myself rather amused by your description of KJV-onlyists as a sort of odd sect—it would be nice to live in a place where that’s the case. Here they are the majority. True, it’s stronger in mountain churches that lean conservative, but that describes most of the churches in SW VA. Education is not necessarily a contributing factor: I know many incredibly intelligent KJV-onlyists, some of whom have gone through higher education. But there is a basic intransigence about them, a worship and passive acceptance of a nostalgic bygone culture. They’re quite willing to overlook such platitudes as “God can’t save a lazy man!” when shouted from the pulpit by one of the good old boys (that happened: I was about sixteen, and I felt sick to my stomach to see the cheers he received).

      Far more concerning, however—and the root cause of that phenomenon: there is no serious effort towards discipleship on the part of church elders or pastors. Because of that, no one has the discernment to pick the sheep from the wolves when it comes to false teaching (and nobody needs a college degree for that: I’ll defend the intelligence of the mountain people till my dying day). I can plead experience here too: I came to Christ early in life through the witness of my parents, but remained under the impression that I needed to keep seeking for a spiritual (read: emotional) experience—which was what I heard from Southern preachers. Even after a few emotional events in my early teens, the churches which welcomed me “getting saved” offered nothing in the way of the next step. There was much rejoicing by the many wonderful people who attended that one church when I read the sinner’s prayer, and they never mentioned it again, and I came weekly to a Sunday school which offered nothing but a mix of moral therapeutic deism and conservative mores.

      Can this be chalked up to ordinary people who aren’t interested in intellectualizing their faith? A lot of it can be, but it’s being encouraged by leaders who offer nothing but weak milk, no solid food. Not all of them are Pharisees, but it’s a climate in which Pharisees rise to the top—and no one is equipped to stop them. If you want to genuinely grow in the faith, you’re pretty much on your own.

    8. I once said to a young KJV-only girl that there was really no difference between "Thou shalt not" and "You shall not." She insisted, and so she opened up her dictionary to consult the definitions of the pronouns. She then turned no me with a nervous and ingenuous smile.

      In Greater Cleveland we have a wealth of sects, KJV-only among them. In rural Ohio the KJV-only phenomenon is more pronounced, most notably in my intimate experience among Independent Baptists. I am sorry if I made it seem as though I regarded it as an oddity. I am acquainted with it more than passingly.

      I once knew a KJV-only preacher who carried the same Bible I rather treasure: an 1833 edition of the 1611 text with marginal notes. Indeed we both had the same printing of the thing. He had an advanced degree from an unaccredited Bible college. He was very intelligent. When he was curious about Eastern Orthodoxy, he found the first anti-Orthodox page he could find on the Internet and verified all of his conclusions (and his pejoration of my state of salvation) based on that. I am also sorry if my remarks in my last comment about erudition seemed like remarks about intelligence. I did not mean them that way. The kind of rural and independent, even if longstanding, churches we are talking about here, however, are not Pharisee-like bastions of learning and ancient erudition. That would, I fear, be an insult to the Pharisees. I scarcely think the pastor I knew could have read one word of Greek (or Hebrew) without flipping through the pages of a concordance.

    9. There's no need to apologize - it really *would* be nice to live in a place where it's a minority. And of course, they do vary in how dogmatic they are. I know some who consider the KJV divinely inspired in the same way as the Greek or Hebrew, but they're more radical exceptions. But your description sounds accurate - there's a vast amount of ignorance and very little desire to correct the situation.


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