In May, Another Easter

Somehow, it is May 16, 2019.

May 16 already.

Ten days ago, my cousin would have turned 38. His beagle, who is now my beagle, is whining in his crate. Beagles, if you don’t know, are beautiful and complicated and a little bit of mess. Beagles are like people when it all comes right down to it.

Last week I had a dream about my cousin. We were driving and catching up. We both knew that he had died. “Yeah,” I said, “but tell me. What’s it like?” I was pointing to the sky. I felt bad for asking, like I was violating some secret. It’s not that I needed certainty, but here I was, staring at it. Here I was, staring at Easter.

“Yeah,” I said, “but tell me. What’s it like?”

“You can’t even begin to imagine,” he said.

“Good,” I can picture myself saying. “Good,” I said. “I thought so.”

The Gospel of Mark as Sudden Fiction

Sudden fiction is another term for flash fiction, but the two aren’t simply synonymous, at least not to my ear.  Don’t read too much into the title of this post.  I’m not making some argument that the Gospel of Mark ought to be thought of as fiction or non-fiction by modern definitions.  I’m talking about effect.   Where does the writer mean to take us, and why?  How do we know?

The Gospel of Mark is short, but it’s also very sudden.  Replete with “immediatelys,” the narrative is constantly moving.  Like a good short story, it feels meant to be read in one sitting.

I’ve just finished a sudden read in this manner.  My sudden thoughts follow.

In Mark, Jesus is concerned with telling anyone who will hear that the kingdom of God is at hand, the kingdom of God is here, and that this news is good.

Often, his message gains traction through healing and exorcisms (these may or may not be the same).   He is clearly opposed to entrenched religious systems and values, but not to the teachings of Israel’s prophets.  His je ne sais quoi  has precisely to do with his vision of God and God’s kingdom in the context of Rome’s empire, Herod’s puppet vassal, the Sanhedrin’s religious hegemony, the temple-merchants’ guild and the common-place fiefdom of first-century mores, beliefs, and expectations often beguiling his disciples or other parts of the general public.  Often, those outside his immediate circle understand him best.  He is arrested, tried, and crucified quickly.  He even dies quickly.  His tomb is found empty, and his followers are instructed by a heavenly presence to meet him, the Risen, in Galilee.  No big deal.  Biggest deal ever.

We shouldn’t be surprised.

Doubt, Depression, Dread-Mornings of the Soul

From 2014:

I’m trying to write a new post about depression and doubt. One does not do this without referencing Leonard Cohen and Ernest Hemingway. I looked up some old posts for reference, only to find that I’d written this almost a year ago to the day:

https://chriscocca.com/2013/02/08/rockstars-and-whetstones-and-ssris-steven-hyden-and-a-bunch-of-other-stuff/

I can’t say that my medical situation is exactly the same as it was then, but I feel a year better, at least, about almost everything.

Below is what I started with this morning before going back.

For me, doubt is never about the veracity of some narrative.  I suppose that’s because the living Christ is the only thing I really believe in.  I suppose it’s because I feel connected to the prophetic witness and movement of the Holy Spirit.  Or perhaps I am drawn to these realities specifically because I can’t fathom the idea that the salvation of the world depends on getting this or that narrative right.  I want to experience what Jesus experienced of God, and what his followers experienced of him.  I want to do what he did.  I don’t have time for anything else.

For me, doubt isn’t waking up and fearing that the stories we were raised on aren’t true.  I don’t care about that.  Doubt, for me, is far more insidious.  It has to do with waking up and worrying that everything I fought for yesterday doesn’t matter, or, worse, would embarrass Ernest Hemingway.  I’m talking about a specific, latent, and under-discussed anxiety that often turns young Christian or Muslim or just plain earnest men into misogynists: the fear of spiritual conviction as masculine failure.  In the West at least, men are inevitably trained to worry about this.  We are trained not only to believe that our worth as men or as people has everything to do with supposedly gender-bound responsibilities of provision to our families and sexual gratification to ourselves, but that the bald pursuit of both at any cost is somehow noble, right, and good.  Spirituality (like nurturing) is better left to women.  When we do pursue spiritual matters, God (God!) forbid we allow ourselves to cede equal ground to women or their equal standing before God.  God forbid we affirm the radical hunches of Paul or the radical directives of Jesus.  If we’re already concerned that spirituality (or anything not manifesting as apathy) makes us cruiser-weight chumps in the war of each against all, we’re not likely to admit women (or gay men, for that matter) can do that shit as well as us, period.

If you’ve ever felt this way, please know that hyper-masculine Neo-Calvinism won’t help.  This isn’t about embracing a beefed-up vision of Jesus but about reclaiming an honest one.  He fought the law and the law won.  And then he won.  On the dark mornings of my soul, waking up means having to remember that the radical potency of insubordination and insurrection isn’t just the point of Jesus’ witness, but of this “work in progress called life.”   The point of life, as best as I can see it, isn’t found in the catechisms of J.M. Barrie, Martin Luther, or Ulrich Zwingli.   It’s found in the life and work of someone like Jesus, killed for daring to free the world from the scarcity model.

That’s no small thing.  It’s nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed of.   It won’t net you a sports car or pension or the kind of disposable relationships we sometimes crave.  It may, however, net you some life and in that sense, abundance.

Jesus, Toure, Theology, etc.

I can’t speak to the meat of this piece, and the piece it opposes, as it relates to post-blackness.

On the other hand, ethnographically, I do know something about the immigrant experiences of my own kin, and people like them, in the history of 20th century Americanization.  Clearly, I cannot (and have no reason to try to) equate the struggles of my brownish Italian ancestors, who came here in the figurative chains of the most extreme forms of European poverty, with the experience of black slaves and their (and their descendants’) struggle for community and freedom.  At the same time, it seems to me that the expatriate experiences of slave and immigrant narratives have in common what the writer at Liberator identifies as the longing of the expatriate community to retain ancient values that stand in sharp contrast to the political and economic machinery of the America they were sold on or sold to.  In these ways, post-blackness might be something like what classically poor and marginally white ethnic communities have long mourned in their third, fourth, and fifth generations.  I know something about that.  These experiences are far from identical.  But for the vowels in my last name, which are changeable, and the radical values, which are not, I could blend into the WASP elite largely unnoticed.  Color, and, I take it, blackness, is something different and has been something different since the beginning.

As a white man with an ethnic memory and as a follower of the radical called Jesus, I’ve thought a lot about what’s being said in the Liberator piece about the possibility and necessity of maintaining cultures and communities that stand in opposition to the neo-liberal or libertarian modes of capitalism destroying our poor (increasingly more of us) and our planet.  The instinctive drive of expat communities to retain their cultures and values is not unlike a religious witness:  we can and do oppose you forces of injustice that seek to rend our families, exhaust our world, and feed us, all of us, like so much fodder to the socioeconomicpolitical array.

There’s a saying, which I think goes back to James Cone, that “all theology is black theology.”  These are reasons why.  In the American context, black people are and always have been the most marginalized of expatriated groups.  If Jesus is for the margin, and if, by God, Jesus is what the early first-century hymn says:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

and if those who follow are to use this model as a basis for treating each other with this same mindset (Philippians 2:5), then we must follow Jesus into quintessential Otherness vis a vie the power structures of our day.  In a figurative way, Jesus followers of every background must be made cruciform.  Is it too much to say we must all retain a kind of blackness?

In my own ethnic context, Robert Orsi notes that “Vecoli has portrayed Italians as fierce anti-clericals, angry at the church and looking for leadership to the radical political thinkers who emigrated with them and took up residence in the Italian colonies [in American cities].”

The important part of this quote, for me, is the alignment of Italian American immigrants with the radical political thinkers expatriating with them, and their penchant for living their spiritualities in the home and in street.  In The Madonna of 115th Street, Orsi shows the political/spiritual unit of the the domus (the family, the home life), standing in contrast to the demands of a newly industrialized West and in American urban settings.  Our cities were and are rife with abject urban poverty, an experience made even harder to bear by the grim contrast it bore against the comparatively wistful graces of abject rural poverty in Southern Italy: generational connections to domus, piazza, culture.   This is not to say that pre-Columbian or pre-industrial cultures were uniformly just and good (far from it) or that it was better to die of hunger in Campania than of a broken heart in Brooklyn.  It is to say, however, that in the rush to Americanize, my people have lost something vital, something ancient, and something that might serve as an alternative to the money-loving monoculture we’re relearning to resist.

All Christians must be expatriates.  All Christians must, like Christ, be immigrants.  This is what Paul means when he talks about being in but not of the worldy power structures.  This is no raptured absence from the realities of the the mess we’re in.  Instead, it’s a stubborn, radical insistence that there are other ways of doing things: black ways, Italian ways, Latino ways, Polish ways, Middle Eastern ways, Asian ways, and diverse seas within them.  There are Old World ways worth reexamining, the teachings of our ancestors — and the teachings of Our Lord — among them.

Bartleby, the Carpenter; Bartleby the King of Pop: The Inevitability of Jesus and Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson died in 2009.  This post is from 2013. 

I enjoyed this recent post from Wandering Mirages about the eponymous hero (or something) of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener.   Wandering Mirages concludes that Bartleby is all things at once:

But, in the end, in the tragic and evasive end, the novella had proved itself to be anything but simple and he was none of this and all of this, of course. He was probably the essential human present in the most inscrutable of strangers, in the inner life of the other. He might also be the scion of capitalism, a representation of its many wonders, and an idle. early sacrifice at the altar of pacifism and non-violence. He was some mysterious combination of the heroic and the ironic, and the rest too, in all probability – of the incongruous and the inevitable. A Gandhi without an audience.

Just before Christmas, I was talking with a friend about Michael Jackson.  I’ve been trying to put into words exactly how it is that Michael Jackson’s later life and death were in certain ways inevitable: that somehow, Michael Jackson is precisely what we do to people in the pop age, the age of celebrity cults and ever-massive media.  (Ever-massive is incorrect, but I like the way it sounds.)  Michael Jackson is our Joker: he was formed by the dynamics of his family and then by the pathologies of the second half of the 20th century. We’re not entirely at fault:  the machinations have been moving since the printing press, since cuneiform.  But in another way, MJ died for our sins as much as his.  Everything odd or evil  about him was leavened with the grist of our corporate fascinations: in whiteness, in youth, in being thin, in being rich, in child stardom, in the facilities of fame, of fortune over health.  That he was born black and poor in 1958 in Gary, Indiana is essential: none as gifted or as tortured would emerge from white suburban basements. Jackson’s migration from black to white was, he said, genetic, but it was also an indictment of our racist predilections and expectations of goodness and beauty.  The man who transcended the color barrier on MTV and in popular music more than anyone before him was black, and we demanded greater whiteness.  He obliged.  Abused in youth and adolescence, this eighth child of the Jackson clan knew a thing about survival, keeping peace, being poor and not wanting to go back, about the weight of family needs and expectations.  Unlike our Bartleby, Michael did what he was told.  It killed him anyway.

Clearly, I’ve thought of Jackson as a kind of Christ figure for our repulsive age.  And Wandering Mirages reminds me that Bartleby may just as well have been The Carpenter, one who is all things to all people, one sacrificed like Jackson on the altar of what the old hymn calls God’s “children’s warring madness.”  If Bartleby was killed for his refusals (first to do as he was told, then to protect himself and his interests), so too was  Jesus.  While Bartleby may have been “the most essential human present in the most inscrutable of strangers,”  Jesus came, according to tradition, so that we might see God in one like us.  Fully human, he was treated as a stranger.   The mirror-Leonard Cohen.  And yet he is also, in my experience, a “mysterious combination of the heroic and the ironic, and the rest too, in all probability – of the incongruous and the inevitable.”

Michael Jackson was inevitable.  So was King.  So was Jesus.  Whether you believe he was from Nazareth or God or some mystic union of both, the incongruity of his life and message with the power values of the system in which he lived, the system in which we live, made his sacrifice inevitable, subversive, and, for those who find life in him, full of saving grace.

The deaths of Bartleby, King, and Jackson indict us all.  So too the death of Jesus.  But when Christians talk about his resurrection, I think we mean that there’s a point to unwarranted suffering, to refusing to compromise our core convictions about the economy of justice or the economy of God even in the face of our destruction.  This is the power of a flower in a rifle, of one lone citizen refusing to move before a procession of tanks.  Of a dying God refusing to come down from his cross, to call down all his angels, as it were.  This is holy irony, and a saving kind of subversion.

The Good News is Supposed to Be Good

And Jesus said “the time has been fulfilled.  The Kingdom of God is has come near. Repent, and believe the good news.”

“Master,” they said, “what is the good news? Tell us, so that we might believe it.”

And Jesus answered them:  “the time has been fulfilled.  The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe the good news.”

And Jesus ministered in Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.

Until the Sea Shall Free Them

Reminds me of “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen. Excerpt:

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said “All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them”
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.