American Manicheanism at the RNC

Before Augustine of Hippo acceded to the pleas of his besainted mother Monica and St. Ambrose, he was a Manichean. This religion was a melange of Zoroastrianism, folk traditions, and Buddhism. But above all it was heavily dualistic, visioning the world as a fierce, clear battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In some ways they were not unlike the Essenes that some scholars believe influenced John the Baptizer. The traces of the Essenes are not seen as heavily on Christian theology as are the large stains of dualism, and much of that has to do with Augustine’s misreadings of Paul’s epistles. While he didn’t create the notion of original sin, he did propagate the term concupiscence which essentially characterizes the human experience as being an ongoing battle between the lower appetites (what Paul calls sarx or flesh) and the soul; in this way the human person is a microcosm of the heavenly macrocosm, which will play itself out in an apocalyptic battle. Hatred of the body can be laid at the feet of Augustine, although not him alone, and by the Middle Ages flagellation and other bodily mortification were prevalent ascetic practices for monks trying to overcome the power of the flesh to elevate the spirit. This was borrowed directly from dualistic traditions of the ancient world. See, for example, the War Scroll of the Qumran community, which foretells the impending clash between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The scroll depicts graphic scenes in which the enemies (the Sons of Darkness) are laid to waste by the heroes (Sons of Light). As they awaited this war, the members of the community lived under strict conditions and practiced extreme austerity. While this paragraph blurs some lines and loses nuance for the sake of expediency, it is safe to say that Gnostic influences can be found all over the formative years of Christian theology and tradition.

One might think that with the advent of science, philosophy, history, and knowledge over the last two millennia human religion–especially Christianity, which has under its umbrella an estimated 33,000 denominations— would have evolved beyond fantastical visions of an Earth that will be little more than a massive Risk board for God and Satan. One might think, but one would be wrong. Gnosticism is on full display at the Republican National Convention that sadly is being hosted in my beloved home state of Ohio. I thank God I am on the other side of the Heart of it All lest I be attacked.

Gird up your loins and give this a look. Or, if that’s too much read the text below. Or both. Your choice. I pride myself on service.

RNC prayer

Derrick Weston has written a good piece on how this is bad theology; Mark Sandlin has offered how he would have delivered the prayer; and the New York Post has reported that a Muslim-led prayer in the same place was met with screams of derision. I don’t want to rehash what has already been done well, but I do want to offer a new perspective that, perhaps, can add to intelligent conversation.

It seems clear that the GOP has abandoned even extreme Evangelical Christianity  in favor of what I’m calling American Manicheanism, a mix of nationalism, apocalyptic Christianity, and a heavily dualist view of politics, society, religion, and policy. It is evident not only in the prayer offered by Burns–notice all the blame assigned to one side; the descriptors are violent and divisive; and the name of God is invoked in a call to destroy so that peace may come–but also the language of Trump, for whom people are either winners or losers. Seriously. The New York Times ran an article detailing the 239 people Trump has dumped upon. We have seen Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, and a whole host of other people have tried to get back into Trump’s good graces to once again be labeled a winner. Ted Cruz, it seems, did not achieve that with his non-endorsement of the nominee on Wednesday evening. Trump made his displeasure known.

gettyimages-578133654.jpg    Shudder. I keep expecting him to release the flying monkeys. 

These sort of quasi-intellectual posts might be fun, or an opportunity for me to momentarily stop crying over the nearly $150k student loan debt I’ll have by the time I finish the doctorate in early 2018 and show that all this education is not for naught. I can be witty and sarcastic with footnotes! The average person probably does not care that what we are seeing is a repeat of what has happened for millennia when empires begin to teeter. It might make me feel witty to quip that Commodus is about to take over for Marcus Aurelius. Time for guffaws is long over. We are faced with a terrifying situation. Out of fear, the GOP has retreated to their corners to prepare for an epic battle; they believe themselves to be led by a higher power who has charged them with defeating an enemy, one that is sly and difficult to detect. One that is close, familiar, and perhaps was once a friend. They have cast complicated issues as either/or propositions, and depict the world as dark and dire with suffering to come, unless those who are in the right gather together behind a leader and overthrow the demons.And have done so with a buffoon as a candidate who, according to experts, could create chaos in the world.

This is pretty much what messianic expectations have detailed for thousands of years. A time of crisis; fear gripping the land; and the cries to God to send an agent of delivery. Take a look at Burns’ prayer again; look familiar? But gone are the subtleties and finer points; absent are notions of grace, compassion, and love; peace is pitched as occurring only in the wake of destruction. Blessings are bestowed only upon those with the secret knowledge, the proper pedigree, the anointing of the divine. Hope is placed in the idea that the destruction of the many is necessary for the salvation of the few.

And Trump is expected to win the Evangelical vote.

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On behalf of my people…

I am a white male. Ten years ago, I added Christian to that self-description. While not wealthy, my family is financially stable; my parents grew up in working class homes and, because of the availability of state-funded scholarships and the low price of tuition, both secured excellent educations. As a result, I grew up with food on the table and a roof over my head. To be sure, I have had a job since I was thirteen years old, but I have never known true poverty. For most of my life, I have lived paycheck to paycheck, but when the bottom has dropped out, my family has been able to swoop in with a safety net. I tell you all of this because I want to make one point crystal clear: I have never known what it is like to be in an economic, racial, or gender minority. As a white, Christian, American male, I’ve most often walked into a room and seen people who look like me; turned on the television and seen people who look like me; and, on the whole, I grew up idolizing musicians, actors, and other celebrities that look like me. I have never known that it is like to “represent” my gender, race, or faith tradition. I’ve never had the pressure of being the only white, Christian male in a classroom, or been the first white, Christian male to perform a specific job or join a particular group. And while in primary and secondary school I was bullied and teased about as much as anyone else, I was able to slink into the background because, well, there were plenty of other white males around me.

So this is new for me: I would like to apologize for my people.

This has nothing to do with liberal white male guilt. It really doesn’t. But it does have to do with the fact that white, Christian males have really been stinking up the place lately. From Representative Darrell Issa’s sham of a “hearing” on women’s health to Rush Limbaugh’s disgusting attacks on Sandra Fluke (the Georgetown law student charged with being a “slut” and a “prostitute” by El Rushbo because she had the audacity to point out that birth control pills can help prevent the development of ovarian cysts), I have found myself wanting to go up to every woman I meet and explain that not all of us are Neanderthals with no understanding of the female reproductive system. While Issa argues for smaller government, he and other white males in legislatures both State and Federal want to insert (literally) Uncle Sam’s influence into the vaginas of women across the country. Yet, many of these males—I return to his rotundity, Rush Limbaugh—seem to have a basic ignorance about the inner workings of the female anatomy. Rush and Bill O’Reilly think that a woman has to take a birth control pill every single time she has sex, as though it operates like a tablet of Viagra. To wit, Rush has screamed repeatedly into his microphone of hate: “Did it ever occur to you [women who find it difficult to pay for necessary contraceptive care] to stop having so much sex?!” Every time I hear this sound bite, I want to run up to a random woman and say, “I’m so sorry for my people. But I can assure you, I understand the difference between a Fallopian tube and a drinking straw. I paid attention in my government-funded health class, and I work hard at my church to make sure that boys are able to say vagina without giggling and that they don’t regard menstruation as ‘Satan’s doing.’”

I fight the urge to really do this, of course, because , once started, it would be impossible to stop. If I apologize for the trans-vaginal probe bills and my people’s basic ignorance of the female anatomy, I most certainly will need to apologize for the nonsense coming out the mouths of Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney. Only white men who have never really known persecution can, with a straight face, accuse the first African-American president (who, in the spirit of full disclosure, is a member of my Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ) of oppressing Christians. Only men who each have multiple graduate degrees can accuse a self-made man like President Obama of “being out of touch” and call him a “snob.” I can see myself, depleted of fluids, hallucinating from the sheer exertion required to continue my apologies, crawling from household to household, crying and gnashing my teeth, assuring the good people of this country that not all of us are so ridiculous. That we not only pay attention to history, but that we place it in its proper context. Assuring all who will listen that there are not vomitoriums across the country filled to overflowing because we just now read President Kennedy’s 1960 speech on the separation of Church and State.

So I apologize, America. I know a good number of white Christian males who are solid, reasonable people. And I am not trying to assume the mantel of a “minority.” I understand that I am still a white Christian male. But I do, in some way, feel like I am surrounded by a bunch of people who are so different from myself. Suddenly, individuals of the same gender and who are covered by skin of the same hue don’t look like me. I have a hard time finding myself in the Congress and on the airwaves.

So the next time you see me or one of my ilk, and our behavior is different from those other white, Christian males you see on television, I totally understand if you turn to your friends and say, Well, he’s not REALLY a white, Christian male.  

An Open Letter to the Republican Presidential Candidates

I am an American citizen, 35 years old, and I rely upon the federal government. The fact is, we all do. Our roads, post offices, libraries, public schools: these amenities come from tax dollars and are the product of our social contract. But such arguments have been made time and time again, and seem not to gain much traction. So let me speak from the heart.

I rely upon federal assistance.

I am an American citizen who is quite upset by the tone coming out of the GOP debates. To wit, Mr. Gingrich’s recent standing-ovation-receiving comment that President Obama has put more people on food stamps than any president in history, a line that seeks to identify a lazy entitlement class established by the so-called “liberal elite.” Gingrich touts an administration will that convert food stamps to paychecks, ala Jesus changing water into wine. Certainly, this is an admirable goal, but the trope overlooks a basic fact: A vast majority of Americans who receive food stamps are children, the elderly, or those who are disabled; in other words, those who can’t work. Further, a great number of recipients  do work. Sometimes two or three jobs. The simple fact is, wages have not kept up with inflation and cost of living increases.[i] But pointing this out constitutes “class warfare” or “socialism.” If one is to defend these programs, one is frequently accused of selling out “real Americans” who “work” for a living. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney intensifies the charge. He claims that President Obama is dividing the country with the politics of envy. And given the fact that Mitt Romney has not held a job, by his own accounts, for four years, I do not see how his income from capital gains—which are taxed at only a 15% rate—constitutes “work.”  But maybe that is just envy speaking.

So, in summary, two of the major candidates accuse Americans who receive assistance (or perhaps,  only those who support President Obama’s policies) of both laziness and envy.

Doesn’t really make one want to run out and vote for you, candidates.

I stated above that I rely upon federal assistance. My continuing education would not be possible without the FAFSA loan program. If Congressman Ron Paul is to have his way, this program will be cut.[ii] This makes sense, because if you can’t afford to go to school in order to get a well-paying job you don’t deserve the education that will secure you that job. So if you are on food stamps or other forms of public assistance, good luck pulling yourself out of the systemic poverty that keeps so many Americans from realizing that ever-elusive American dream. While Mr. Paul may have been able to work his way through medical school without accruing debt, that is not an option for well over 99% of people who pursue graduate degrees. Times have changed; wages, unfortunately, have not. Most of us have crushing student loans debts that rival mortgages, and little hope of paying off said debt in a timely manner. Most of us will carry our debts for decades.

I am an American citizen. In fact, I am the “average voter” that so many of the GOP candidates want to target. I am a white male, culturally middle class, and a Christian. I have held a job since I was 13 years old, and I am a hard worker. Just ask any of my friends who frequently tell me that I work too hard. But I don’t have a retirement account. I moved back in with my family because I cannot afford to pay both my student loans and rent at the same time. To be sure, I also help my aging parents, and I do so gladly. I have knowingly chosen a career path—a theology professor and, God willing, a pastor—that does not result in vast dividends. I willingly make the necessary sacrifices because I believe in what I am doing, and my treasure is not to be quantified in monetary terms. But I resent the idea that I or others like me are asking for a handout. I, and many others I know, work multiple jobs. Yet we rely on Medicaid, SNAP, WICA, FAFSA, and a variety of other programs because we are the generation that has been left behind. And the GOP is demonizing us, calling us lazy and envious. Telling us that the brass ring is there is we just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. But many of us don’t even have boots, or if we do they are owned by Bank of America. Corporations can receive bailouts, can have the status of personhood, and seem to get all the privileges of citizenship without any of the responsibilities, but we do not.

I must ask, Do you really want to live in a country where citizens go hungry even while they work? Are you so out of touch that you do not realize that the minimum wage is neither minimum nor a wage? We can do better. We must do better. But until we do, social safety net programs have to stay in place. And humiliating those who utilize them is not the answer.

According to the recent rhetoric, we who rely upon social assistance or entitlement programs, apparently, are not American enough because, at the end of the month, what we owe exceeds what we have taken in. We have to make a decision between food or rent, education or heat. When we note that such a choice does not seem congruous with the promises given to us—that an education will lead to a good job, stability, and rewards for hard work—we are told to shut up. We are told to love it or leave it. We are told that we are failures.

This is not hyperbole; it is fact.

I am in a better situation than are a lot of people I know and a great number of Americans who are struggling right now. I am able to live with my parents, and my fiancée has agreed to marry me and move in to the family home. I really have no other choice if I want to pay off my debts and contribute to society as a whole. I do not want to be taken care of; I am not lazy; I am not envious. I accept the fact that my yearly vacation, most likely, will comprise of a stack of books and a long Netflix queue. I have realized that quite a few of the “necessities” in my earlier life are no longer necessary. I use my yearly tax return to pay down my debts. I do what I need to do in order to make ends meet. But I don’t like being called lazy. I don’t like having my American-ness challenged. I don’t like the fact that I can see the writing on the wall, and when I read it aloud, I’m told that I am filled with envy. I don’t like needing to rely on FAFSA, just like the people I know who utilize other assistance programs don’t like having to do so. We wish things were otherwise. We wish that education was not so expensive, or that companies would receive incentives from the government to keep jobs here rather than to send them overseas. We would happily pay more taxes if it meant that average wages could be increased so that the dignity of an honest day’s work could be rewarded with the luxury of a filled refrigerator and a consistently heated home. We would love that, but for many of us this is not the reality.

So I will not accept the politics of feudalism. I will not be a silent vassal that does what the overlord demands. I will not sit by as the gilded class seeks to dismantle the social safety net our forbearers wove for us so that we may not know the horrors of child labor, or unregulated food, or millions of elderly and disabled people starving on the streets. Because that is what the GOP candidates seem to be gunning for; and most horrifyingly, it receives a standing ovation.

I am an American citizen. No matter what you say, GOP candidates, you cannot take that away from me. I will not allow you to disrespect the work a vast majority of us perform, day in and day out, with no expectations of praise or standing ovations. I will not accept charges of envy and laziness, when many of you earn more money by delivering one speech, calling me lazy, than I do in an entire year working hours that would make you collapse. Stop saying that you speak for me when your speech seeks to ridicule and marginalize me.

My name is Aaron Maurice Saari, and I approved this letter.