by Ken Sehested
“I believe the light that shines on you will shine on you forever . . .
though I can’t guarantee there’s nothing scary hiding under your bed.”
—Paul Simon, lyrics in “Father and Daughter”
This Advent I feel more like the dumbfounded cleric Zechariah, of Luke’s nativity drama, than any other character. I have little more to say to supplement the abundance of commentary on this season’s reckless folly. Here are but a few footnotes.
1. Presidential candidate Donald Trump is a buffoon—a dangerous one, to be sure, but no less a caricature. It would be a mistake, though, to thus characterize those who find his screech appealing. They are a symptom of incendiary political forces—of disaffiliation and cynicism—which tear at our social fabric. Trump incarnates what the Apostle Paul referred to as “principalities and powers,” transpersonal realities which wreak havoc in our body politic and beyond. Such forces cannot be squelched. They cannot be drained or addressed before they are mapped and root causes attended.
2. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’ Muslim caliphate contender, is a beast—a deadly, dangerous one, but no less a caricature. It would be a mistake, though, to thus characterize those who find his screech appealing. They are a symptom of incendiary political forces—of disaffiliation and cynicism—which tear at our social fabric. Al-Baghdadi incarnates what the Apostle Paul referred to as “principalities and powers,” transpersonal realities which wreak havoc in the Middle East’s body politic and beyond. Such forces cannot be squelched. They cannot be drained or addressed before they are mapped and root causes attended.
3. The photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body, which galvanized global attention to what is now our globe’s largest forced-displacement in history (55 million as of the end of 2014, according to the UN Refugee Agency), represents a parallel nativity scene for the Christian season of Advent. His posture on that Turkish beach, surreally like that of a child peacefully asleep, is the appropriate lens through which we should read the baby Jesus story. The terrifying backdrop of Palestinian misery—of Mary’s travail, Joseph’s confusion, the shepherds’ shivering and the Magis’ dangerous pilgrimage amid Imperial Rome’s occupation and Herod’s rage—have largely been purged from our decorative props.
4. The first Advent was a time of terror. Which is why minor-keyed music is Advent’s signature choral fare. Such music is for people capable of singing in spite of, rather than because of, facts on the ground. Then as now, the future was up for grabs, stakes were high and messianic claims multiplied. In our day, Trump and al-Baghdadi have two of the louder trumpets. Santa Claus, with his apparently bottomless bag of goodies—Dow Jones bounty for the righteous, Hellfire missiles for everyone else—rules December’s festivals as well as its funeral processions.
5. Then as now, there is little-or-no room in the inn for displaced Semites like the Syrians and others from kindred conditions in other conflicted regions. Reports of hijab-snatching assaults on Muslim women (as young as a sixth-grader on a school playground) now come from across this nation and around the Christian-flavored world. The reason for the season has devolved to tribal loyalties, racial-ethnic assessments and fearmongering done in the name of national god-pretending mascots and public polling trends.
6. When the saving work of Christ is stripped of the servant practice of Jesus, God becomes yet one more carnival barker selling snake oil and striptease; yet one more bullying deity in a neighborhood already crowded with calloused buffoons and beastial saviors.
7. Not even devoted warriors believe we can “kill our way to victory,” as Admiral Michael Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in testimony to Congress in 2008. That sentiment was repeated this past February by State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf, saying “we cannot kill our way out of this war [against ISIS].”
Truth is, we are making enemies faster than we can kill them. What we need to mobilize are poets and lyricists and storytellers, to tell a different narrative. “The shortest distance between a human being and Truth,” as Anthony de Mello wrote, “is a story.” Our destiny is shaped less by wars won and lost than by stories loved and lived. As that revered missionary hymn says, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations,” one that “will shatter the spear and sword.”
Maybe we should elevate one of the church’s ordinary-day hymns—“This Is My Song (O God of all the nations)”—to Advent status.
“My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean / and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine; / but other lands have sunlight too, and clover / and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.”*
Maybe we could learn that cherishing one’s nation—one’s people, tribe, land and tradition—does not require denigrating others.
Maybe the tragic image of Aylan Kurdi’s surf-lain body will reinvigorate the story of baby Jesus, reminding us that Herod-hearted massacres are still the way of a world in need of a different story. The most effective complaint against the sway of buffoonery and beastly rule is costly devotion to the things that make for peace.
“Nothing can save us that is possible,” the poet W.H. Auden wrote amid the darkest days of World War II. “We who are about to die demand a miracle.” But his lines were not a call to passivity in the face of calamity. “All I have is a voice / to undo the folded lie.”** Turns out, that’s all we need, for the universe has a corresponding Word that, when joined to ours, has wonder working power.
Advent’s waiting is not listless. With training, death’s threat need not unnerve us. Fear not, though folded lies await.
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