Friday, December 2, 2016

#NotNormal: Choosing Normalcy As the Not-Normal Prevails

In what is becoming an increasingly dark moment of global history, due to the determination of economic elites to pick one last time over the carcass of a defunct late-capitalist economic system built on the exploitation of the many to put more wealth into the pockets of the already grossly rich, what do we who believe (whether in any formal religious sense or not — this matters not a whit) in the possibility of a more humane world do? Those rapacious economic elites are crashing democratic systems of government everywhere in the world. They're doing so deliberately, since their rapacious picking over the carcass of late-capitalism — which is to say, over the carcasses of all of us — depends on their having total control of the mechanisms of national and international government, so that there will be no checks and balances on their rapacity and cruelty.

This means, of course, control over the flow of information and over what is regarded as valid news, as truth or fact. A trend we are already seeing, and which we'll now see on steroids as this dark assault continues throughout the world, is the deliberate conflation of "news" — of truth, of fact — with mindless propaganda in the service of the elites now seizing final control of governments throughout the world. Up is becoming down, "pro-life" is now equated with death-dealing assaults on social safety networks for many living on the margins of society, war is peace, and the good news of Jesus Christ has morphed in the mouths of many of his most prominent handlers in the world today into nationalistic triumphalism, white supremacy, and draconian amoral might-makes-right ideology.

What to do as the backlash to long-delayed movements extending human rights to women, LGBTQ people, people of color and others speeds up, not merely halting these movements around the world, but actively, deliberately turning back their hard-earned gains? What to do as religious leaders in many places in the world act as cheerleaders for the economic elites controlling this process of backlash against human rights and of final economic rapacity? What to do when religion itself becomes one of the primary covers for, apologias for, the process of cruel rapacity by which economic elites are allowed, without any checks and balances, to pick over the carcass left by a defunct late-capitalistic economy (again: to pick over our carcasses)? What to do when religious leaders excuse, glamorize, and lie about the cruelty and rapacity of the masters they are serving in order to shore up their own waning power?

What to do when religious leaders lusting for power and control, and furious at women's (and LGBTQ folks') challenges to heterosexual males' longstanding control of religious bodies, cheer on those assaulting the humanity of increasing numbers of human beings throughout the world in order to place more wealth — one final, decisive time — in their pockets? What to do, I'm asking, when religion itself becomes so problematic, such a vehicle for the demonic — what to do if one actually believes in the redemptive possibility of religion?

What to do when lay intellectual and journalistic leaders of one's own religious group, along with its institutional leaders, normalize what cannot be normalized, selling out the core values and core message of a religious tradition in which one has invested oneself because of commitment to those core values and that core message? 

At least part of the answer to these questions seems to to lie in a refusal of believers to permit the prophetic strands of our belief systems to be obliterated or compromised — by anyone, leader or not. This is precisely what is going on right now with the normalization of Donald Trump by the media, by core institutions of American culture, by leading intellectuals and religious leaders, including many lay Catholic leaders in the U.S. and the U.S. bishops as a body. It will continue, because, sad to say, this is the métier of these leaders: it's how they typically behave.

In his work on the important prophetic strands of Judaism and Christianity which are absolutely indispensable to Jesus' self-understanding and to the gospel he proclaimed, Walter Brueggemann tells us repeatedly that we should never be surprised to see religious people and religious leaders normalizing what absolutely must never be normalized, if their power and comfort and influence are served by such normalization. This is simply how many "leaders" act. Always.

Brueggemann insists repeatedly that the prophetic tradition of Judaism and Christianity stands over against such to-be-expected normalization, as "religious" people and "religious" "leaders" gleefully climb aboard the normalization train, trading the authentic power of their prophetic message for the gimcrack, gaudy, costume-jewelry glitter of worldly power. The prophetic tradition and its power do not reside in self-proclaimed prophets or elites, as opponents of the prophetic tradition love to insist, dismissing and combatting the prophetic by claiming that those who insist on pointing us to it are acting out of moral elitism.

Its power resides in the fact that it's there, standing over against the constant tendency of many religious leaders to collapse the core message and values of their institution to whatever powerful movement comes along in history at any given time, promising those religious leaders little gold thrones of their own if they'll only collude with the powerful. It's there, and it's central to the lives, mission, and message of key figures in the tradition of various religions including Judaism and Christianity, from Moses and Miriam through Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, to Jesus and his mother Mary in her magnificent magnificat.

As we think about all of this, here are some passages from works I've read over the years that strike  me as worth pondering — note the recurring word(s) that stitch the passages together:

John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (NY: HarperCollins, 1994):

In any situation of oppression, especially in those oblique, indirect, and systemic ones where injustice wears a mask of normalcy or even of necessity, the only ones who are innocent or blessed are those squeezed out deliberately as human junk from the system's own evil operations (p. 62).

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (London: Bloomsbury, 2002):

But I was beginning to understand something about normality. Normality wasn't normal.  It couldn't be. If normality were normal, everybody would leave it alone.  They could sit back and let normality manifest itself. But people—and especially doctors—had doubts about normality. They weren't sure normality was up to the job.And so they felt inclined to give it a boost (p. 446).

Derrick Jensen, The Culture of Make Believe (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2002):

Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, "normal," chronic state — where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised — to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized. Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remain underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode (p. 106).

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1987):

It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself (p. 75).

Rumi, "Masnavi: A Deep Nobility," in The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems, trans. Coleman Barks (NY Harper, 2002):

Dont be the kind of ecstatic who feels ashamed when he or she comes back to normal.  Be a clear and rational lunatic whom the most intelligent human beings follow.

Pat Barker, Another World (NY: Viking, 1998).

It's too easy to dismiss somebody else's lived experience as a symptom of this, that, or the other pathology: to label it, disinfect it, store it away neatly in slim buff files and prevent it making dangerous contact with the experience of normal people (p. 270).

Dorothee Sölle, Of War and Love, trans. Rita and Robert Kimber (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1983):

The vast majority of our population [i.e., in the developed nations] lives in apartheid, enjoys a culture of apartheid. For us apartheid knowledge, apartheid feelings, and apartheid ideology are normal (p. 123).

Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What's So Good about the Good News? (NY: HarperOne, 2007)

The contemporary fear gripping America seems to be a fear of the normalization of homosexuality.

Margaret Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (NY: Continuum, 2006):

The solution to the gender divide, however, does not lie in an uncritical notion of "complementarity." No one of us is complete as a person, and maybe not as a gendered person. Yet when all determinations of, for example, masculine and feminine "traits" prove nonuniversal; when these characterizations of what is normatively a woman or a man prove deeply culturally constructed; when women, for example, do not find themselves in the descriptions of the traits they are supposed to represent; then we must see these characterizations as what they are: social and cultural stereotypes that promote hierarchical relations, and that do not, in the end, succeed in making us complements across a gender divide (156-7)

And, of course, we must also not forget the important question Jeanette Winterson poses us in the title of her memoir (and she repeats it throughout the book: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (NY: Grove Press, 2011).

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