Sunday, March 03, 2013


The image of the saintly battle chaplain -- like the four who gave away their life jackets to the enlisted sailors and died on a sinking ship while singing hymns -- is pretty well destroyed by now, replaced by the evil old man who molests choir boys, the female evangelist in boudoir-wear with her arms raised and tears streaming down her face while she makes miracles happen, Elmer Gantry, Lucifer with a reverse collar and a tail hanging out his backside, etc.  Much informed by Satan in goat-foot boots with a cape swirling around him and a black leopard on a leash.  No wonder people go batshit!  Who wouldn’t like to strut that way?  (Although, I’ve always fancied a green wool Irish cape and a calico cat in my arms.  But no one respects that image.) 

By now you’re onto my fav juxtaposition of the wildly, savagely, mind-blowingly extreme against the homely humble detail.  Let me try it again.

Annual General Assembly for the Unitarians alternates between college campuses and major city hotel conference centers -- possibly resorts.  The clergy are always divided according to economics: the guys (always) who have big churches with generous budgets see the occasion as a chance to blow off steam and enjoy themselves, so they go for the city.  The ones who have the small churches (beginners and women), maybe with no travel allowance at all, beg for the cheap campus.  

This particular year the venue was a fancy hotel.  I walked into the little convenience shop with a personally wealthy female colleague who looked just like Cher.  She left Chicago seminary to avoid freezing to death in both the physical and emotional sense.  Her ministry (thirty years now) has been a huge success but not a political one.  In this shop was an old woman in obvious distress.  Her daughter, late middle-age, was desperate for help.  They had been on a tour and the box lunches had given the old woman uncontrollable food-poisoning.  Aside from nearly losing consciousness, she was gripped by diarrhea she could not prevent from streaming down her legs and pooling on the polished floor.  

“Cher” and I helped her sit on a stack of newspapers while the shop owner, also a woman, railed and scolded about not being able to sell them -- think of the money lost!  She had called the hotel manager, who was making arrangements with the daughter to put the old woman in a room where she could recover.  The daughter went to get the hotel’s wheelchair.  In those days there was no impulse to call EMT’s for help.  I’m not sure there was such a thing. 

So “Cher” threw down a twenty on the counter (more than the value of the papers), and we tried to think of comforting things to say about the utter helplessness, humiliation, and shock of the old woman -- about how it happens to everyone, that it’s simply not anything that can be controlled, that it’s unpleasant but not evil, and so on.  Gradually things resolved.  The mop and bucket came, etc.

What is still vividly in my mind is the memory of big-shot male ministers hanging in the doorway, laughing, mocking, making no move to help.  Over the next few days they teased Cher and I about how dumb we were for not just getting out of there.

I’m not sure whether that was the GA where the San Francisco minister -- a big name in a big church -- stood in the ministers’ meeting to face his Jonah moment.  He had been told about Jonestown before that congregation moved to Guyana but after the practice of victimization and sexual assault had begun.  In fact, earlier, Jim Jones had come to this UU minister to investigate whether he could get credentials in the UUA.  He couldn’t -- only because he had no BA or BS, a prerequisite for seminary.  It would not be until after the mass murder/suicides that the confessing alpha minister realized the woman who had come to him for help, relating incredible events, had been telling the truth.  But he just couldn’t bring himself to get involved by investigating.

In case you don’t know the Jonah story, it recurs several places:
Book of Jonah (Old Testament)
2 Kings 14:25 (Old Testament) Makes mention of him.
Matthew 16:4 (New Testament)
Luke 11 29 &;30 (New Testament)

The set-apartness of clergy was once taken for granted, though it could be used as much to evade ordinary life as for empowered intervention.  We used to let chaplains go into prisons and nuns counsel death row inmates.   The Red Cross was sacred because it was a Christian symbol.  It has become a target.  Now the tendency is to erase special privileges.  In the Sixties the clergy insisted they were entitled to be human -- that they could get divorced, hooked, insane, greedy just like everyone else.  And the people believed them.  The confidentiality of the confessional disappeared from the state laws.  (NOT the confidentiality of the lawyers -- who do you think the legislators are?)  Now clergy are just social workers.  There is no sanctuary.  There is no martyrdom, not even the Tibetan monks who self-immolate or the idealistic young tartars who strap on bombs.  They're just considered nuts.

The Pope is a joke.  Jesus is just another rabbi.  The shaman is a drug pusher.  All sacredness is emptied in a diarrhea of the soul.  We contaminate the planet.  People confess self-hatred and speak of suicide.

But not all of them.  If there is no separate class of priests, then we are all priests.  If there is no big Humanoid we can expect to set things right, then we’d better get busy ourselves, and we are.  But let’s be practical.  It costs, there will be clean-up, and some people will stand apart to laugh and mock.  

The Great Falls Tribune ran an editorial by a man claiming that there is NO hunger in America because poor people are fat.  He sees them buying food with their welfare debit cards.  Unless he sees skeletal people, he figures everything is okay.  He’s inside the Big Fish.  He sees nothing but fish guts.  He doesn’t go where the hollow-eyed, barely walking, sore-ridden poor live.  (If they can be said to live anywhere.)  I suspect that he DOES pass homeless people, but takes no notice.  He doesn’t help out at the food pantry or the Salvation Army.   He doesn’t walk along the railroad tracks or go into ghettos.  When he goes through the rez, he locks the car doors.   And he never reads National Geographic where he might see famine and refugee camps.  Or the squats where homeless kids hide out.

So we need photographers who DO go there.  Witnesses and testimony.  Not in court -- on YouTube.  Songs, dances.  And we need to own our own fish puke, our own bat crap.  You don’t see what you can’t name, so we need names, vocabulary, either written or spoken.   A new theology.   It used to be that this was the work of clergy.  Now it’s everyone’s job.   

(Wouldn’t want to leave you depressed, so I’m linking to a jolly song.)

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