Thursday, December 17, 2015

What is it about "Divine right"?

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As John & I prepare our Christmas celebrations, am remembering all the years - so many - when I wondered, "Is this our last Christmas?  Where will our country be next December?"  

For some reason, those thoughts particularly arose while trimming the tree - back in the early '60s, after Mike was part of the Cuban Blockade & even more intensely after President Kennedy's 11/22/63 assassination;  during Vietnam, during the tumult of the early 1970s, the Beirut bombing, the 1987 Stock Market crash, 9/11.  How many times did I worry there might not be a next Christmas?  Enough to teach me that there is no gain in anticipating the worst, only loss & misery.

Instead, this year I keep finding my thoughts turn to the concept of ruling by divine right.  Naturally, images of Louis XIV keep dancing in my head, since he embodied the concept.  From antiquity, monarchies were idealized as ordained by God. They wielded God's power on earth.  Since monarchs received their power from on High, their authority was absolute, responsible to no one except God.  

Americans always scoffed at the idea of the divine right of monarchs;  we freed ourselves from the shackles of the British monarchy.  But what keeps flittering about my head is how many of my fellow countrymen have an absolute belief that the United States of America is imbued with its own sense of divine right.  

It sure seems a lot of folks across this great land of ours believe that the USA went beyond being founded upon divinely inspired principles, to being brought into being by the actual hand of God.  It was the idea that we are a divinely ordained nation that fueled the concept of Manifest Destiny, which drove our expansion westward (and gave respectable, even patriotic, cover to a multitude of grievous sins).  It's a concept that seems on the upswing in our present day & age.  

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The idea of America as being imbued with certain divine rights frees us to act in ways we'd find inexcusable in others.  Which gets me thinking about sharks.  

Wherever there's a shark attack, be it along the Jersey Shore or near the Great Barrier Reef, it's world news.  Sharks are our enemy, out to kill as many humans as they can.  Last year, 3 people died from a shark attack.  That's 3 people, worldwide.  Over the same year, conservative figures peg the number of shark deaths, worldwide, by humans at 100,000,000.  

We ridicule the belief in a divine right of monarchs, yet our leaders have held to similar concepts - "I am president, ergo I can do no wrong."  Richard Nixon stated that, without equivocation.  Decades later, so did Dick Cheney, albeit a bit more guarded, but just as clear in his belief that the president can, if he believed the situation required it, act outside the law & - as Executive in Chief - be outside the law.

We Americans think of ourselves as humble folk, salt of the earth & pioneers at heart.  But a vast number of Americans hold that no one involved in the unprovoked attack of Iraq should be held responsible for their actions, which lead to the deaths of over 4,000 American men & women and a half-million Iraqis

Imagine if the average American was told that a government would attack another sovereign nation without provocation, resulting in the deaths of so many Americans & an appalling number of others, then asked if the leaders should be held blameless.  They'd call for justice, for at least a war crime tribunal.  Just not if the perpetrators are American. 

Richard Nixon famously told David Frost, "When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal."  Like Louis XIV, he believed the Supreme Commander is responsible to no one.  He is president, ergo what he does is legal.  

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Many Americans seem to feel much the same.  We consider a shark attack against a person to be worldwide news, but worldwide humans kill 100,000,000 sharks.  

We are a nation beset with fears of terrorist attacks, while our government launches drone attacks across the Middle East that kill countless innocent people.  But they are them & we are US.  

Three human deaths v. 100,000,000 slaughtered sharks.  Where is our love of protecting lives?  Oh, yeah - OUR lives.  What's true for sharks sadly seems true for many "others," too. 

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I might be one of relatively few Americans who are not worrying this Christmas season that it might be my last.  Through years of worrying, I've learned to remain at peace.  

One of my Christmas wishes is that Americans become less myopic, that they start to at least be curious about why people around the world are so angry at America - and their reasons go far beyond "because we love freedom & liberty."  

Another is that we distance ourselves from any concept of the USA has being a nation founded through the direct grace of Almighty God, who will protect us if only we stay true to our most fundamental interpretation of the Bible, especially the Old Testament.  

A third is that we, as a nation & a people, learn to have a greater sense of humility, to step past our obsession with "others" as alien & ourselves as somehow allowed to act without fear of retribution.

The whole mash-up of divine rights & grace leads only to wretchedness.  We need to see that it exists in our nation, need to acknowledge it is about as anti-American as can be, and give it the boot.  Let there be peace on earth & let it begin with US!

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Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Mortal Storm

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 The voice-over at the beginning of Frank Borzage’s 1940 film,  The Mortal Storm:   
“When man was new upon the earth, he was frightened by the dangers of the elements. 

He cried out: ‘The gods of the lightning are angry, and I must kill my fellow man to appease them.’ 

As man grew older, he created shelters against the wind and the rain, and made harmless the force of the lightning. 

But within man himself were elements strong as the wind and terrible as the lightning. And he denied the existence of these elements because he dared not face them. 

The tale we are about to tell is of the mortal storm in which man finds himself today. Again he is crying, ‘I must kill my fellow man!’ Our story asks, how soon will man find wisdom in his heart, and build a lasting shelter against his ignorant fears?”

Although I've only seen The Mortal Storm once - decades & decades ago, long before I married my John  - certain lines have always stayed with me.  

The film starts out in 1933.  In spite of its complexity, the plot is a simple story at heart, the tale of a German family living in a small Bavarian university town.  The mother is from the German patrician class.  Her second husband, a university professor, is "non-Aryan" - presumed to be Jewish, as is clearly also their children, a young boy & a recently engaged young woman.  There are two boys from an earlier marriage, presumably to another German patrician.

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The line - which I am possibly mangling, but gives the gist - is delivered near the beginning, with the gentle mother hearing rumors of the dirty dealings of her nation's new government.  She protests - I think to a idealistic but aware Jimmy Stewart - that such things could not be possible, "in a land that produced Goethe."  

The disbelieving wonderment on her face & her utter rejection of such a possibility still haunts me.  It never dawned on me, hearing that line, that I'd get to experience anything similar.  

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Many a progressive can identify with the challenges her "non-Arayan" husband experiences as he protests against the "New Order's" disavowal of science & pesky facts.  His ancestry, even more than his refusal to accept Party doctrine, makes him a marked man.  All these decades later, I still can hear Frank Morgan say to one of his two stepsons, whose been in his care for obviously close to twenty years, "I've never prized safety, either for myself or my children. I've prized courage."  
The film did a quietly masterful job showing his slide from beloved professor - feted by family, friends & students on his birthday - to suffering ostracism by fellow townsfolk to the pain of a student boycott to arrest & ultimate death in a concentration camp.  

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The other story line involves his daughter.  The young woman realizes her finance has embraced beliefs that chill her soul.  After she breaks the engagement, she growing closer to his best friend, who (unlike her former fiance & two stepbrothers) refuses to join the Nazi party. 

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Due to Freya's "tainted" ancestry, she's refused permission to leave the only lightly identified Germany.  She & her new love set out to ski their way to freedom, through a mountain pass, a squad of soldiers - reluctantly lead by her former finance - in hot pursuit.  With their goal within reach, she is fatally shot, dying in her beloved's arms just after crossing the border.  

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It's possibly forty years since I saw that film, just the one time, but the lines & the story have stayed with me.  In 2015, it has new meaning for me.

How many of my friends are like the mother, unable to accept what they see happening within their beloved Republican party?  I am not equating it to the Nazis, but there does seem a direct corollary between her incredulity at what's happened in her country & their acceptance of what's happening within their party.  It's just crazy to see perfectly intelligent friends embrace a party that seems increasingly to disavow science or once irrefutable facts.  Like the mother, they seem to be rooted in a reality that they can't see has ceased to exist. Gentle, genuinely compassionate conservatives who play along with Donald Trump, who are drawn to the quiet mannered & soft-spoken Dr. Ben Carson, who see hope against Hillary in Carly Fiorina.  I know my friends - if you'd told them ten years ago that they'd find those three individuals viable candidates for the presidency, they would have been shocked, if they managed to believe you at all.  

Conversely, I have many friends who hold themselves to be staunch members of my birth faith who consider it outrageous that our ministers refuse to marry a same-sex couple.  Again, they seem to be holding onto something that seems impossible to align.  A chief belief in the faith is that true married love is the precious jewel of the union of one man with one woman.  I can understand supporting same-sex marriage & I can understand belonging to my birth church, but am at a total loss how anyone can do both.  Those friends who do - who are many - seem just as unwilling to look realities in the eye as conservative friends who balk at seeing the flawed candidacies of Trump, Carson, Fiorina & even Cruz.

I look around & see people accepting beliefs that seem utterly out of alignment with what's always appeared to be their heartfelt values.  It is scary seeing people apparently put more faith in a group identity than to their bedrock principles.

It's not easy, distancing yourself from a group or set of beliefs that no longer connect to your own.  A while after Mom passed, when it became clear that I was not a standard example of my birth faith, I cried out to John, "If I'm not a New Churchwoman, what AM I?"  To which he calmly answered, without skipping a beat, "That's easy - you're a Buddhist Unitarian."  A dear friend further id'd my heart beliefs. She disagreed with John's assessment, pointing out that I have integrated my church's teaching in ways I'd never fully understand - she tagged me a "Buddhist Unitarian Swedenborgian Love Goddess of the Universe."  Thanks, Vishali - it suits.  

My point - I'd never have gotten to a clearer understanding of what really makes me spiritually tick if I hadn't first said, "I'm no longer THIS."

We live in a Unites States where people are following one candidate who uses outlandish statements as a political flame thrower, another who makes equally outlandish statements albeit in a soft & reasoned voice, a third who condemns while refusing to substantiate & a fourth who's close to a flat-out anarchist.  And the people who are staying silent are sane, well-grounded, princlpled friends.  

We live in a time where standing firm for traditional marriage is considered by many, perhaps most, progressives to be politically ethically morally incorrect.  That includes people who also believe, just as passionately, that true marriage love is rooted in the union of one man with one woman.  I have sane, well-grounded, principled friends who don't seem to see the two as contradictory, who believe it's possible to accept both.  

Personally, I believe in civil unions for all same-sex couples & marriage for those in churches who put it on par with a traditional union.  But that belief is itself tempered  by the knowledge that condemning individuals is never an option.  

I stand with Professor Roth, the father in The Mortal Storm, who tells someone trying to convince of the righteousness of the Nazi party, "May we not believe as we choose & allow others to do the same?"

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Years ago, I would have scoffed if anyone had told I'd have first-hand knowledge of what it's like when people seem to be guided more by entrenched ideology - be it conservative or progressive - than the brains in their heads & the common sense in their hearts.  Yet, here we are.

The question is - how closely will our story hue to Phyllis Bottome's book will be interesting to see.   

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Voice-over at the end:
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: "Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown." And he replied: "Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way."

(King George VI used this same passage to close his Christmas Eve 1939 broadcast to his people.)