Friday, January 18, 2008

Even in the Court of Herod Choose Life

We think of Eastern religion as more otherworldly than our own – thin yogis stretched into pretzel like contemplation, as the poor swirl around in the endless oppression of the karmic wheel. But that may only be because we don't know how to approach it. In a scene from the HBO series, “Rome,” one of its main characters, the centurion Lucius Vorenus, is sent to handle a trader from India who may or may not be behind in his debts. Vorenus’ companion remarks, “It is said that Hindus cannot be killed. Let us test that belief!” With this, Vorenus is ordered to kill the Indian in cold blood. This is ironic, I suppose. I suppose it added shock value to a series which capitalized on being shocking. All that this scene revealed to me was unshakable faith the Romans placed in the power of death and its unwillingneses to consider other kinds of powers. “Suns may rise and set again,” wrote the poet Catullus, “but once our brief light has set, night is a perpetual sleeping.”

The story of Herod, which seems to slip into the Gospel of Matthew, is a profound meditation on this same Roman authority. Earthly violence shadowed both the beginning and the end of Jesus’ bodily life. Kill something and it will go away, says this power, but in both cases, it did not go away. Jesus survived both attempts on his life, even when Rome succeeded in killing him.

Murder is an insidious illusion of victory. The community that raised up Herod had built itself upon a foundation of broken bones: breaking the bones of decency and loyalty to family, faith, kindness and the spirit. Having little interest in the human capacity for goodness, the empire of death wanted its officials sullied. It did not exist to bring out the best in men, but the worst. It is said that Jews were made to prove their loyalty to Rome by eating pork, a petty betrayal that opened the door to far larger ones. Rome did not wish to glory in the diversity and brilliance of its subject peoples. It wanted standardization.

The prophet Isaiah warned that things get really bad when a people makes a covenant with death. It is easy to overlook warnings such as these, because it is hard to know what the prophet even means. Humans are mortal and many of the covenants we make with death look on the surface like strategies to prolong life. Rome had its problems, yes, but it was a system of law and order. It is easy to dismiss the evils that arise from law and order as “necessary,” or “collateral” or “realpolitik,” or “the way things are which would only be worse if the empire were not here to save us from ourselves.” But, the wise ones tell us, we should not dismiss anything. Moses says, simply, “Choose life, so that you and your children might live.”

To choose life, of course, means to choose everything, to live without contradiction and yet embrace paradox. Unfortunately, this is impossible. In our normal state of consciousness, we are completely partial and so we can see only partially. Writing about the Greek philosopher Herakleitos, Thomas Merton reflects: “The heart of Heraklitean epistemology is an implicit contrast between man’s wisdom, which fails to grasp the concrete reality of unity in multiplicity and harmony in conflict, but which instead seizes upon one or the other of the conflicting elements and tries to build on this a static and one-sided truth which cannot help but be an artificial fiction. The wisdom of man cannot follow the divine wisdom. . . yet it aspires to a universal grasp of all reality. In order to “see” our minds seize upon the movement around them and within them, and reduce it to immobility.” (In A Thomas Merton Reader, p. 263)

Immobility is precisely what happens to a body when it dies.

So, not surprisingly, for millennia, humankind has placed more faith in the fact of death than in mysteries of life. Not even the resurrection of Jesus could change our minds. Not even the fact we meet the dead in dreams or that most of us, when children, have had vivid memories of former times. Our society wants to make sure that this is educated out of us as quickly as possible. Power wants to close the door to heaven, bolt down the hatches, make sure our vision is limited so that we can “get on with it,” without any surprising incursions from the Divine, thank you very much.

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