What does it mean to be a Christian?

It is fashionable today in right-wing circles to cloak oneself in the mantle of Christianity, and to proclaim a lot of decidedly un-Christian things in his name. Selectively quoting the Bible will get you far.

Silly me, I thought (think) the cornerstone of Christianity was the Sermon on the Mount, not telling others what they can and can’t do in their homes and doctor’s office.

I was raised as a Christian and liked some things I heard but was appalled at the hypocrisy I saw. I didn’t want to identify with people who proclaimed one thing on Sunday morning for an hour and did something else the rest of the week.

I found a couple of books by my bedside while cleaning. They are the work of Kent Haruf, who writes of life in a fictional small town in Eastern Colorado. The books were “Eventide” and “Plainsong”. Haruf writes in a simple, spare prose. The books sound like the windswept plain and hardscrabble lives of which he writes. After reading them I wanted more. I learned that he had written a third book and that they formed a sort of trilogy – each stands alone, but some of the characters (it being a small town) appear in more than one book and the books follow a chronology.

“Benediction”, the third in the series, concerns an old man dying of cancer. He owns the town hardware store. Other stories are interwoven, as are the lives in a small town. One such story is that of the pastor, Lyle, who has come to their town after leaving his prior post under unspecified (but apparently less than stellar) circumstances. I want to quote a long passage, as I can’t say this better than he did. Of note, the author does not use quotation marks to differentiate speakers. You’ll figure it out.

From “Benediction” by Kent Haruf. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013

[At the Sunday service, the minister has just read the Sermon on the Mount from the gospel of Luke.]

“This passage, he said, is usually referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Augustine first called it that. It appears in the gospels of both Matthew and Luke but the texts differ somewhat… but the most important of these Bible texts say essentially the same thing. These are the ones I’ve read just now. The crux of the matter for us. The soul of our lesson and the very essence of the teaching of Jesus.

Love your enemies. Pray for those who harm you. Turn the other cheek. Give away money and don’t expect it back.

But what is Jesus Christ talking about? He can’t mean this literally. He must have been speaking of some utopian idea, a fantasy. He must be using a metaphor. Suggesting a sweet dream. Because all of us here today know better. We are awake to reality and know the world wouldn’t permit such a thing. It never has and never will. We can be clear about that right now.  

Because here we are at war again. And we know the inescapable images of war and violence so well. We’ve seen them all too often.

The naked young girl running in terror toward us, crying and screaming, away from fires behind her.

The boy in the hospital room with his little brother and their frightened mother. He’s been blinded, his face is scarred. Am I ugly now, Mother? he says.

We see the pictures of the headless body dumped out beside the road in a ditch.

We’ve seen the soldier, the black stiff grotesque thing that once was a man, burned now and hanged, dragged through the streets behind a truck.

We’ve watched in horror the human figures leaping out of the windows of the burning towers.

And so we know the satisfaction of hate. We know the sweet joy of revenge. How it feels good to get even. Oh, that was a nice idea Jesus had. That was a pretty notion, but you can’t love people who do evil. It’s neither sensible nor practical. It’s not wise to the world to love people who do such terrible wrong. There is no way on earth we can love our enemies. They’ll only do wickedness and hatefulness again. And worse, they’ll think they can get away with this wickedness and evil, because they’ll think we’re weak and afraid. What would the world come to?

But I want to say to you here on this hot July morning in Holt, what if Jesus wasn’t kidding? What if he wasn’t talking about some never-never land? What if he really did mean what he said 2000 years ago? What if he was thoroughly wise to the world and knew firsthand cruelty and wickedness and evil and hate, knew it all so well from firsthand personal experience? And what if in spite of all that he knew, he still said love your enemies? Turn your cheek. Pray for those who misuse you. What if he meant every word of what he said? What then would the world come to?

And what if we tried it? What if we said to our enemies: We are the most powerful nation on earth. We can destroy you. We can kill your children. We can make ruins of your cities and villages and when we’re finished you won’t even know how to look for the places where they used to be. We have the power to take away your water and to scorch your earth, to rob you of the very fundamentals of life. We can change the actual day into actual night. We can do all of these things to you. And more.

But what if we say, listen: Instead of any of these, we are going to give willingly and generously to you. We are going to spend the Great American national treasure and the will and the human lives that we would have spent on destruction, and instead we are going to turn them all toward creation. We’ll mend your roads and highways, expand your schools, modernize your wells and water supplies, save your ancient artifacts and art and culture, preserve your temples and mosques. In fact, we are going to love you. And again we say, no matter what has gone before, no matter what you’ve done: we are going to love you. We have set our hearts to it. We will treat you like brothers and sisters. We are going to turn our collective national cheek and present it to be stricken a second time, if need be, and offer it to you. Listen, we –

But then he was abruptly halted. Someone out in the congregation was talking. Are you crazy? You must be insane! A man’s voice. Deep throated. Angry. Loud. Coming from over on the west side of the sanctuary near the windows. What’s wrong with you? Are you out of your mind?

He stood up, a tall man in a light summer suit, staring at Lyle. You must be about as crazy as hell! He turned fiercely and grabbed his wife’s hand, pulling her to her feet and gesturing angrily at their little boy. They came out of the pew and went hurrying back up the aisle through the doors and out of the church.  

The congregation all watched them leave. Then they began to look around at one another. They looked again at Lyle.  

What do the rest of you think? Lyle said. What do you say? He was standing next to the pulpit now.

I’m not afraid to say, a man said. You’re a damn terrorist sympathizer. He rose up in the middle of the sanctuary, holding on to the pew-back ahead of him. A big heavyset man. We never should of (sic) let you come out here. You’re an enemy to our country.

[Most of the congregation walks out. During the course of the next week, he walks the streets of the town at night. One evening, two men get out of a pickup truck and one slaps him hard across the face. He then reaches back and slaps him again across the other side of the face. The men make it clear that they don’t want him in their town anymore. The next week he goes back to the church, stands at the pulpit very briefly, and says goodbye to the congregation. He leaves the church and goes out driving aimlessly in the countryside, finally ending up at the home of two older women who had defended him in church. He asks what happened after he left church and they tell him his wife told the congregation she was leaving him.]

I think I’m done.

You don’t mean that, Willa said.

Yes. I’m finished as a minister. I haven’t done much good.

But people will get over this.

Probably they will. But I won’t. People don’t want to be disturbed. They want assurance. They don’t come to church on Sunday morning to think about new ideas or even the old important ones. They want to hear what they’ve been told before, with only some small variation on what they’ve been hearing all their lives, and then they want to go home and eat pot roast and say it was a good service and feel satisfied.From “Benediction” by Kent Haruf. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013

And that is why, as a teenager, I left the church.

Tundra swan; for no good reason except that I saw a flock while racing the snowstorm to pick up the car across town. My water bottle was frozen by this time, with 10 more miles to ride.

If you could have dinner…

with any person, living or dead, who would that be? The last time I addressed this question, I chose Donald Trump – dead. While cleaning our adopted highway today, I gave the matter more thought.

My favorite spot from a few feet further back, so you can’t see the road – but that’s our adopted highway just beyond the framing trees.

Another version of this posits it as a dinner party, allowing you to invite more than one person. Two of my heroes died recently, so I started with them.

Ernesto Cardenal – poet, priest, mystic, revolutionary (1925-2020). In Hora Cero (Zero Hour), he addressed the assassination of Augusto Cesar Sandino. In Cántico Cósmico (Cosmic Canticle), he addressed the history of the universe in 581 pages of verse, beginning with the Big Bang. If you think about it, that in itself is revolutionary – a Roman Catholic priest acknowledging that the universe was not created in 6 days by a god, but evolved and continues to do so. He also wrote shorter works (Epigramas and Salmos – Epigrams and Psalms). Among my favorites is this (written pre-ordination):

 Ésta será mi venganza:
Que un día llegue a tus manos el libro de un poeta famoso
y leas estas líneas que el autor escribió para ti
y tú no los sepas.

My own translation:

This will be my revenge:
That one day a book by a famous poet will come into your hands
and you will read these lines the author wrote for you
and you won’t know them.

He studied at the Gesthemani monastery in KY with Father Thomas Merton. He founded the peasant contemplative community Solentiname on an island in Lake Nicaragua. He served as the Minister of Culture in the Sandinista government. He left the government and the party when it was taken over by Daniel Ortega and ceased to be a revolutionary movement.

Image from Commonweal Magazine

Robert Marchand – bicyclist, logger, firefighter, trucker, union member, communist (1911-2021). He worked on three continents. In his youth he wanted to race bikes. At age 22 his coach talked him out of it because he was too small (5 feet, 115 pounds), so he became a gymnast and boxer. As a cyclist in 1946, he finished 7th in the Grand Prix de Nations, the unofficial world time trial championship (later won by such luminaries as Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil [9 times], and Bernard Hinault [5 times]). At 81 he rode from Paris to Moscow. At 100 he set the 100km record for the over 100 age group and at age 102 he broke his own record. At age 106 he set the hour record in the over 105 age group and rode his last race in 2018. I hope to break that record. It may be my first race.

Francis Hole – Agronomist, Quaker, conscientious objector (1913-2002). For a local angle, I added Professor Hole. As a soil scientist (agronomist) he was responsible for Wisconsin adopting a State Soil (Antigo silt loam – the soil responsible for the potato industry of central Wisconsin, but also providing sustenance to our pine forests). He completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Geology and Biology (Earlham College), a Master’s in French (Haverford College), and a PhD in Soil Science (University of Wisconsin). He was a conscientious objector in WW II and did alternative service clearing trails in the Great Smoky Mountains. He also served as my draft counselor and he played the violin. He signed his name Francis Hole, TNS (Temporarily Not Soil).

Giulio Girardi – Priest, philosopher, professor of metaphysics (1926-2012). Girardi is is the author of Sandinismo, marxismo, cristianismo: la confluencia (1987). You can probably translate that into English yourself. Written in Italian, a Spanish translation followed quickly. To the best of my knowledge it has not been published in English. The book helped shape my thinking and understanding when I worked in Nicaragua. Girardi compared the teachings of Jesus with the teachings of Marx and Sandino, asserting that putting the teachings of Christ into action on a societal level is the aim of a Marxist/Sandinist system and that we need to live in a Christ-like way individually in order to do so as a society. (I am paraphrasing some 35 years after reading.) I (very) briefly worked on a response: Sandinismo, marxismo, buddhismo: la confluencia. I compared the Marxist/Sandinist concept of the “new person”, with the Buddhist experience of the four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Image from El Nuevo Diario

Marxism/Sandinism recognized that transforming society requires more than transforming government. We have to think and interact differently if we are going to form a truly egalitarian and inclusive society. We cannot be free of oppression until we learn not to oppress others and how to live without oppression. Buddha experienced that (my wording):
1) All life is suffering.
2) Suffering arises from desire.
3) To end suffering requires letting go of desire.
4) This is possible.
People tend to rebel at this, insisting that they lead a happy life. Another way to look at this is that we spend life chasing after things we want and avoiding things that we don’t want. We might call the first “pleasure” and the second “pain”. But is pursuing pleasure the same as experiencing it?
He posited the Eightfold Path to let go of desire. Briefly, this is:
1) Right Understanding,
2) Right Thought,
3) Right Speech,
4) Right Action,
5) Right Livelihood,
6) Right Effort,
7) Right Mindfulness and
8) Right Concentration.
This was to be a book, not a blog entry, so I will leave it at this. It is not enough to want to be a “good person”. Transforming self and transforming society, require actual transformation, not just incremental change. Why do you think they call it revolution?

This was one of two dinner parties I thought of that day. The other will follow. How about you? Who would you choose to talk with, if it could be anyone from any time?

[Addendum: While reading someone else‘s blog, I thought about another person to add to the mix. My recently-retired State Senator, Fred Risser, was the longest-serving legislator in US history. He was first elected in 1956 and retired in 2020. He authored the state’s “Clean Indoor Air Act”, which restricted indoor smoking. In an expansion of the “Wisconsin Idea” he authored a bill to allow those over the age of 60 to take university courses free of charge. He annually rode his age for his birthday. Here is an excerpt from his 2018 press release: “State Senator Fred Risser, who turned 91 years old May 5th, said that on Thursday, May 17th, he had completed his annual ritual of biking his age in a single day. Risser said he started his 91-mile biking trip at 7:15am at the State Capitol and returned at 6:15pm after an 11-hour ride, stopping only for lunch and rest breaks.”]