Celebrating Advent in a Culture of Fear
Old Soviet Joke: A new Politburo member is going through his new office drawers and finds two envelopes addressed to him. One envelope says "Open me when you have your first major crisis." Some weeks later, tractor production drops sharply, the New Politburo member is blamed, and he's in deep trouble. He remembers the envelope, opens it and reads, "BLAME THE CURRENT CRISIS ON ME, YOUR PREDECESSOR." He does so, and his job is spared. However, there remains the second envelope, which reads, "Open me when you have your second major crisis."
Sometime later, a tractor factory in Minsk explodes and the New Guy gets the blame again. He rushes to read what’s in the second envelope. It says, "FIRST, GET TWO ENVELOPES..."
So it goes. Our Ruling Classes always love to take credit for whatever is good and blame their opponents for what is wrong—and to teach us to do likewise. So, we have President Son of Man declining in the polls and doing the same Standard Politician trick. Even as he is showing himself to be Bush III in attempting to establish the Great Society with drone strikes, he is compounding the problem at home with the marvelous budget-busting skills that made the Bush Administration such a dazzling success story. So what does he do as he flounders in his amateurism? Blame his predecessor, of course.
Meanwhile, those folks who enabled and supported the Bush Administration as it spent us into the ground exporting the American Abstraction abroad while it presided over bankruptcy and bailouts at home and declared “Deficits don’t matter”: what are they doing? Blaming Obama for everything, of course! History began on 1/20/09.
There are, of course, a few shreds of health left in this approach to What’s Wrong with the World. The biggest one is the acknowledgement that there is, in fact, something wrong with the world and that it even involves actual human responsibility for sin. True, the goal is to put the blame for the sin on That Guy Over There. But this is at least an improvement on the squishy attempts of brainless relativism to deny that there is any such thing as sin or squishy therapeutic doubletalk about how everybody agrees that it’s nobody’s fault. But it’s still an act of blame-shifting that goes all the way back to Adam pointing the finger at Eve, Eve pointing at the serpent—and the serpent having no fingers to point with. At the end of the day, it avoids saying “I have sinned through my own most grievous fault.”
Suppose, just for a moment, that we apply a Catholic worldview to all this. Suppose you walked into your confessional this week and explained that everything wrong with your life was due to your older brother or sister who screwed everything up. Suppose you blamed it all on your predecessor at work, or Adam, or your father. Suppose you then followed it up with endless boasting about how right you are, how nobody appreciates your wisdom, goodness, and sincere dedication to helping other people.
Would you describe that as a spiritually healthy approach to life?
Me neither. But that is standard American discourse on both sides of the aisle and in our entertainment culture as well. And we somehow expect something good to come of it. We seek Manufacturers of Culture, whether in DC, NY, or LA who will flatter us, not tell us the truth and emphatically not call us to self-examination and repentance. We seek prophets who will assure us of how delightful we are to a grateful God as we pursue our pleasures and hide from our responsibilities. We want to be told that everything that is wrong is the fault of Those Guys Over There and everything good is due to us. We want Manufacturers of Culture who urge us to judge Those Guys Over There by what they do (or by what we suspect they are doing). We demand those same Manufacturers of Culture urge everybody to judge us by our intentions, whatever the results may have actually been.
And, increasingly, we want somebody else to handle things because we deserve a break today. If you don’t believe it, all you have to do is look at the percentage of Americans who actually vote, or watch one of those depressing Jay Walking videos where Leno asks the Man in the Street who the President is or where Iraq is. An large and growing number of Americans know far more about what is happening on Desperate Housewives or Wife Swap than have the slightest idea what is going on in Washington or, still less, between the pages of the Bible. We are, increasingly, a Paris Hilton People in a world where Heaven and Hell remain the realities with which we must deal.
For the truth is this: if a people will not have justice as king in their city, then they shall be ruled by pleasure and pain whether they will or no. Yet this is exactly what our TeeVee-driven, abortion-on-demand, salvation-through-leviathan-by-any-means-necessary culture has opted for and our ruling classes, ever keenly alive to what it takes to seize and maintain power, behave exactly as though they are acutely aware of it. Not surprisingly, the pattern of governance that emerges over the past decade is tailor made for manipulating such a people. Repeatedly, we see pols scare the daylights out of everybody with some sort of world-endangering threat and then use the panic to stampede us toward this or that consolidation of massive power while posing as our saviors. So far, in the past decade, we have been panicked about how Iraq is going to kill us all with WMDs, how some cave dwellers in Tora Bora are going to take away our freedom, how ticking time bombs on fantasy suspense shows mean we have to prostitute ourselves to torture, how swine flu or ebola is going to decimate the population, how peak oil is going to doom us all, how Iran or ISIS is just about to destroy the world, and, of course, how Climate Change means that we have to immediately impose a global one child policy so that our Ruling Classes can continue to jet around in private planes and impose more draconian restrictions on the poor and weak.
And we put up with it. We increasingly behave like members of a tired democracy who prefer being stampeded to thinking and it is this, and not primitive barbarism that is, according to Chesterton, the best and most fertile ground for tyranny:
If there is one fact we really can prove, from the history that we really do know, it is that despotism can be a development, often a late development and very often indeed the end of societies that have been highly democratic. A despotism may almost be defined as a tired democracy. As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty; and they prefer to arm only one single sentinel to watch the city while they sleep.
A people like ours with no historical memory—swayed by the demands of stomach and groin and petrified of losing our comforts and toys—is a people who are perfect prey for this increasingly popular form of governance. A culture like ours that increasingly denigrates the notion of sin and repentance as a "Christian guilt trip" while exalting self-affirmation to the sky is a nation well-positioned to be full of fat, dumb and ignorant suckers for every flattery and threat some advertiser, prosperity gospel huckster or politician (but I repeat myself) wants to sell us. Only a people capable of self-criticism in the harsh light of revelation can hope to survive.
This fact is demonstrable from experience. Civilizations, like people, that lose the ability to criticize themselves usually imagine they are casting off the shackles of shame and guilt and becoming “strong”. In reality, they become living laboratories that demonstrate Jesus’ great warning that those who seek to save their lives will lose them. Great tyrannies (i.e., those who take this resistance to self-criticism to the uttermost) tend, over time, to follow the way of the Nazi leadership in April 1945, or the lunatics in charge of North Korea and lose contact with reality. Why? Because people who reject self-criticism and notions like repentance believe the banana oil in their own press releases about their Will to Power and the nobility of their self-created greatness. They tend to become blind to weaknesses in their position.
We are not (yet) a great tyranny here in the West. But our growing hostility to the Christian tradition can only end that way if we do not repent. Because inability to practice self-examination and repent is, quite simply, stone blindness and complete dependence on those who can (or say they can) see.
Meanwhile, as those who are immersed in the pleasures of this world continue feeling better and better about themselves and the confessional lines continue to shrink due to our sinless wonderfulness, the poor and weak have to take it on the chin, face the music head on, and learn to actually deal with what’s wrong, both in their circumstances and in their hearts. Otherwise, they are finished. That's what makes Israelite literature unique in the ancient world. In the Old Testament you don’t get a whole lot of speeches about how great Israel is. To be sure, she is described as the apple of God’s eye, now and then. But even those descriptions make clear that Israel is Eliza Doolittle to God’s Henry Higgins, not some self-made character in an Ayn Rand novel who pulled herself up by her bootstraps and went around kicking butt till God was overcome with admiration and applied to be the national deity of a Great People. Indeed, the most striking feature of Israelite literature is the books of the prophets, filled with sharp denunciations of Israel’s sins, complaints about Israel’s perfidy, and an endless litany of fiery complaints about Israel’s lousy fidelity to the covenant. Compare it with the happy talk about The Greatness of Our Nation that is routinely served up by rulers from Sennacharib to whatever came out of Washington this morning. And yet Israel survives while Assyrians, Babylonians, and the sundry oriental despotisms of antiquity, with their literature of self-flattery and boasting, are all gone.
The Catholic tradition, ever counter-cultural, has preserved this tradition of self-examination and frank assessment of sin by pronouncing a blessing on the poor who take it on the chin and discover the kingdom of heaven in their lack of insulation against reality that blinds the rich. It also preserves the Tradition by giving us not one, but two seasons each year, Advent and Lent, where we focus on the fact that we are not a great people admired by a God who hopes to be worthy of us, but are instead sinners who come from a race of sinners. Yet it does so in a way that is far removed from the fear-mongering of our present culture. Indeed, the Holy Father, in contradistinction to the panic mongers of our Manufacturers of Culture, urges us to be be sober and not stampeded around by fear-mongers. This is one of the curious ways in which the Church speaks to us. When the world is jubilant about some bit of ephemeral junk like an economic boom, the Church says, “Memento Mori.” When the world is like a drunk on a jag of despair or panic because of an economic bust, the Church reminds us that Christ has beaten death and everything will be fine if we trust him. That’s because God respects us human beings and treats us as such even when we would prefer to sink into our animal natures and be left alone.
Psalm 32 is a penitential psalm that calls us, among other things, to rise above our mere animal natures and act like human beings again. The whole thing is great but the closing verses strike me as peculiarly appropriate in this season of Advent that winds up the Decade of Fear:
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Be not like a horse or a mule,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not keep with you.
Many are the pangs of the wicked;
but steadfast love surrounds him who trusts in the LORD.
Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice,
O righteous, and shout for joy,
all you upright in heart!
The penitential psalms of Advent are God's way of saying there is hope for us. We don't have to be slaves to the culture of death and fear. We can know the freedom of the children of God. Let's take him at his word!