Thursday, November 27, 2008


The images keep flowing into my mind, and it’s impossible not to be reminded of the Godfather. You all remember the scene; it is arguably the most powerful in celluloid history. One moment, we’re witnessing a symbol of holiness – a Catholic priest baptizing an infant. In this case, however, the infant is Michael Corleone’s nephew, and Michael is standing as the child’s godfather. At the same time that the Corleone family celebrates this rite of worship, Michael is consolidating his grip over the “Five Families” and taking out an uppity Jew for good measure. One hood after another is murdered – Stracci, Cuneo, Greene, Tattaglia, and, ultimately, Barzini (who gets it in the back after witnessing the shooting of his bodyguards). It is a perfectly-orchestrated orgy of bloodshed carried out amidst a backdrop of spiritually-enunciated Latin. Evil and good, mixed together, seamlessly, as if they are inexorably linked. Perhaps the most artistic touch is that nobody is killed until after the Latin stops and Michael is asked to “renounce Satan.” Then come the first shots, after which Michael utters the words “I do renounce him.”

Does Michael really renounce Satan? Can he renounce the devil at the same time that his men are implementing his orders to slaughter one rival after another? Sure, why not? Such is the human capacity to rationalize just about every monstrous act imaginable. No doubt, Michael saw himself as doing God’s work, soldiering against the enemies of the Father. Resolute, strong, thoughtful, powerful, heroic – Michael must have seen himself as all of those things. When the priest ended the scene by telling Michael, “Go in peace and may the Lord be with you, Amen,” the new godfather must have felt that he had earned his title of honor and was ready to bear its responsibilities with dignity.

The baptism scene was supposed to have taken place in the mid-50s. So let’s fast forward half a century – and leave the world of fiction for a place that is often even stranger. Today is Thanksgiving. It is perhaps the most religious of the secular American holidays, at least to those of us who don’t happen to be Christian. On this day every year, most Americans give thanks to the God of their choice for allowing us and billions of others to enjoy one more year of life on this planet. Since we’ve chosen not to do ourselves in, we presumably value our lives and are appreciative of the One responsible for the bounty that sustains us. Certainly, when the Pilgrims founded this holiday, they had in mind praying every bit as much as feasting.

This year, we have even more to be thankful for than usual. And yes, I’m talking about the election of Barack Obama. But for those of you who supported John McCain, please don’t take that as a slap at your candidate. Perhaps the more experienced McCain was the better option. Let’s stipulate that for a moment. It would remain the case that this election symbolizes how far this nation has come that its majority would be willing to consider electing a black man to hold our highest office. That doesn’t mean that those who voted for McCain are racist. But it does mean that millions of Americans whose ancestors would never have voted for a black candidate (due to racism) were finally able to view such a person in a color-blind manner. For that, we should all be thankful.

And, while we’re giving thanks, let’s also recognize that in the weeks after the election, Barack seems to be conducting himself beautifully. His nominations are gaining such rave reviews that even Republicans are publicly marveling at their wisdom. In fact, no sooner did the stock market appear to be headed into free fall than Barack cleared his throat and held a couple of press events, and somehow, almost magically, Americans are buying stocks again. I’ve never seen a leader inspire more bi-partisan confidence. In a time like this, a time when the words “Great Depression” have been in the back of our minds, how can we not be thankful that our President-elect exudes such competence?

So yes, it is time to give thanks for life. For living on a planet that is habitable – providing food, drink, and a climate that sustains us. And for the great minds among us, be they scientists, artists or statesmen. It is also time to give thanks for the newfound wisdom that so many people have gained – including the knowledge that our “natural aristocrats” come from all races, colors and creeds. In short, it is time to give thanks that we live in the Age of Obama.

But, as if on cue, something happened yesterday to remind us that we do not live in the Age of the Messiah. In fact, I would argue that something happened to remind us that there never will be a Messianic Age. Stated simply, religions may speak in terms of black versus white, good versus evil, or heaven versus hell, but a deeper truth was implicit in the Baptism Scene of the Godfather: you might be able to isolate those polar opposites in labs, or even in the movies, but in reality, you inevitably find them mixed together. Love mixed with hatred, pleasure mixed with pain, hope mixed with fear, life mixed with death. That’s the way it has always been, and I suspect that’s the way it always will be. U-topia literally means no-place. And indeed, just as the death of Christ didn’t usher in an age of eternal peace, neither will the election of Barack Obama. Killings, as Jesus might have said, will always be with us.

I’m referring, of course, to the city formerly known as Bombay. Bomb-bay indeed. Now, in the 21st century, it would hardly be reported if seven or eight people were killed, as in the Baptism Scene. Well, OK, I’m exaggerating – a domestic slaughter like that would make the news. But if it happened overseas, and certainly in the Indian Subcontinent, it would barely merit a ten-second mention. If you want international coverage, you’d better kill on a larger scale, with weapons more in keeping with the times. You’d better fly airplanes into buildings. Or set off explosives and fire bullets all over town – killing scores and injuring hundreds. I can only imagine how long it took the lunatics who perpetrated the Mumbai attacks to plan it out, but now that they’ve been “successful,” I still have to ask myself: why? What was possibly accomplished? What coherent message was sent?

If I were to ask that question to God, and if God could respond in English, I can imagine what would be said. “Why indeed? Why have I buried so many people alive in earthquakes? Why do I continuously require children to receive chemotherapy? Why did I turn Weimar Germany, that shining celebration of modern intellectual life, into Nazi Germany, and arm it with the ability to invent ever-expanding methods of mass murder?”

If you forced me to supply an answer to those questions – other than saying “how the hell do I know?” – I would have to quote a passage from the Appendix to Part I of Spinoza’s Ethics:

“To those who ask why God did not so create all men, that they should be governed only by reason, I give no answer but this: because matter was not lacking to him for the creation of every degree of perfection from highest to lowest; or, more strictly, because the laws of his nature are so vast, as to suffice for the production of everything conceivable by an infinite intelligence…”

That might not be the kind of God you’ll find priests talking about during baptisms. It’s not the kind of God to which people customarily give thanks. It might not even be a God that merits the moniker “omni-benevolent.” But it does seem to be the kind of God we’ve got, if indeed we have any at all.

Tonight, when you carve the turkey – or the Tofurky, as the case may be – humor me. Don’t just give thanks. First, think a bit about who or what is the object of your gratitude. Then, think a bit about the world for which you are thankful. In the past, religion has been devoted to thanking the God of our ideals with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might. Today, I ask that we thank the God of the real with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might. The “God of the real” gave us Auschwitz, Mumbai, and the Great Tsunami, every bit as much as Jesus, Moses and Gandhi. Go ahead, my theological friends, try to create theodicies to rationalize that fact. Utter such cop-outs as “God works in mysterious ways,” or “God needs to create evil in order to provide for the conditions whereby we can choose the good.” For my money, though, Samuel Johnson was right when he said “As far as human eyes can judge, the degree of evil might have been less without any impediment to good.”

Oh hell, let me not beat around the bush. If you ask me, Neitzsche killed the Cosmic Santa Claus once and for all. To believe in that God on Thanksgiving makes no more sense than believing in Kris Kringle on Christmas Eve.

1 comment:

Benedict S. said...

The "choir" will love this. The congregation will miss your point. But then, the congregation did not vote for a black man. Even when they pushed the lever for Obama, they were voting their paycheck.