In the Absence of Tragedy

<h1> By: Mark Belista<h1>

By: Mark Belista

Date: September 5, 2018

While I lived in Oregon, I had a blind date with a Jewish historian. A mutual friend of ours thought we should meet. It was at about this time of year, right before Passover and Easter. I have to say there was no romantic chemistry between us but I am indebted to him for our conversation over dinner which has helped me to make some sense of our faith. I had said to him that I envied the Jewish ritual celebrations of Shabbat and Passover as I also did the ritual remembrance of the Passion of Jesus in Christian churches. 

The idea of participating every year in a lifelong, centuries-old repetition of events like the tasting of bitter herbs at the seder or walking the stations of the cross, or breaking bread and sipping wine in remembrance of the Last Supper of Jesus, events that changed religious history and united a people, is very moving to me. I said that while we have many stories including those of Judaism and Christianity, and while our denominational history is Judeo-Christian, and while we are an activist faith proudly in the tradition of Hebrew and Christian prophets and reformers, we did not have any such centering story and spiritually deepening ritual in contemporary Unitarian Universalism. In fact, some observances like serving communion became deeply controversial.

Ralph Waldo Emerson left the ministry of the Unitarian Church he was serving in Massachusetts in the early nineteenth century because he could no longer, in good conscience, serve communion. Modern, predominantly Christian, Unitarian and Universalist churches serve communion at some time other than the regular worship service so that everyone has a choice whether to participate. West Coast and Floridian UU churches tend to avoid the whole business altogether as not worth the controversy. Personally, having grown up Presbyterian with fond memories of the passing through the congregation of trays of tiny tinkling glasses of grape juice and perfect squares of white bread to the tune of stories of the Last Supper, I feel regret that my skepticism and critique of portions of both religions has made my occasional recent participation in these rituals feel insincere. The word “sincere,” from Latin derivation, means without wax. My practice of the Passover seder and of communion is “with wax.” It feels patched together, piecework, taking this and not that, keeping intellectual distance as I watch hands, tongue and voice perform the rituals I still wish would hold their power for me.

My date, who was an admirer of our UU public activism and an observer of our history, replied that Unitarian Universalism seemed to him to be a religion characterized by “an absence of tragedy.” I’ve been turning this idea over ever since, because his description immediately rang true to me. I wonder if our avoidance of Christianity, even open rebellion against it, is an avoidance of the hard demands of the life of the cross. I wonder if the reminder of the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt runs too close to home for Americans who wish to forget our history of enslaving and persecuting people of color: blacks, Native Americans, Japanese and Mexican farm workers to be specific.

Moving this week into the both tragic and liberating events celebrated by Palm Sunday, Passover and Easter seems a good time to reflect on the importance of tragedy and suffering in the formation and practice of religion. Listening to NPR yesterday with three speakers on the life of faith in a time of war makes it all very real. I am led to question whether, in not claiming the centrality of a crucifix, for example, we have found any compelling alternative.

What is tragedy anyway? And, how could I possibly agree that we are a religion without tragedy? While I was serving our congregation in Hillsboro, Oregon, one man in his thirties became sick with meningitis and died within four days of becoming ill. He was divorced, his two small children lived with his former wife. He had struggled to find steady and meaningful employment. He was not an easy man for folks to befriend so was often isolated. I had just had lunch with him the week before this happened. He had a new job. He was beginning to find friends. His visits with his daughters were good. I left feeling his life had just turned in a positive direction for him. And then, out of nowhere, he got sick and died.

A couple in their forties in the congregation with two teenage sons, went out in their car for a rare dinner out without the kids. A car, driven by a young woman jokingly passing some friends in another car on Cornelius Pass Road hit their car head on. Chris was killed instantly and Bryan was in a coma for weeks. His body recovered over years. Their congregation and I are still trying to make sense of it all.

These were tragedies, senseless tragedies, tragedies that could befall any of us, any day. But, tragedy is not only an unfortunate or calamitous event like illness or accident. The tragedies of the Greeks or of Shakespeare are dramas in which the actor faces conflict with the forces of destiny or circumstance or character or society by which he or she is inevitably overcome. These dramas represent a whole worldview, an approach to life, the polar opposite from a Shakespearean “As You Like It” or “Midsummer Night’s Dream” which depict a comedic world view where everything always works out for the best in the end. In the tragic worldview, there are forces like those of the Fates or of God which are beyond our control.

Judaism and Christianity contain tragic events, a culture of suffering or sacrifice to Higher Powers and a strong message of explaining human life with a tragic worldview. Judaism is marked by a history of hardship in a society is characterized by racial prejudice against those of Jewish heritage. The central ritual of Judaism recounts the tragedy of exile and slavery in Egypt. The recitation of tragic events in the Passover Haggadah has been compounded in modern history by the Holocaust in Germany and Europe and the protection of an embattled Jewish state in Israel. As we have been urged recently by the production of films such as “Schindler’s List,” “Sophie’s Choice,” and most recently “The Piano,” the Holocaust is a tragedy of such dimensions and of such risk of repetition, as we know from hate groups in the United States and even Germany, that we must repeatedly be reminded of it so as not to repeat it, human nature being what it is.

The central event in the midst of much of Christianity is the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross following betrayal by fellow Jews, even his own disciples. Peter, who denied he knew Jesus three times from the time of the Passover meal until the cock crowed the next morning, is the rock upon which the Christian church is built. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is his extraordinary monument. In much of Catholic and Protestant Christianity human beings are born sinners and can only be saved by accepting Christ as their personal Savior. Furthermore, the world as we know it will come to a tragic end, an apocalypse. For some the wars in the Middle East are the fulfillment of that inexorable destiny.

Even Buddhism, a non-theist religion, arose in response to the awareness of tragedy by Gautama. Gautama’s wealthy father endeavored to keep his son from experiencing suffering or the awareness of poverty, aging and death. It was only when he escaped his father’s enclosure of denial of anything but plenty and happiness that Gautama sought to wander the earth in pursuit of a way of in which he could stay present to the whole of life experience. Buddhist meditation encourages a full awareness of all the positive and frightening feelings to which we are prey, but then teaches the practice of non-attachment. Non-attachment is a way to remain present in the midst of suffering with loving kindness and compassion.

There are modern cultural examples of a tragic worldview too. The conflicts in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan are centuries old. The people of Kosovo and Kabul are caught up in a history they were born into and events egged on by a dictator or a Taliban they did not elect, living in a world where bombs are the Clinton and two Bush administrations’ treatment of choice for aggression. It is as if fate dictates their destiny. Our only option, in a tragic worldview, is to submit to forces beyond our ken and beyond our control. Fighting divine authority is hopeless. We must put ourselves in their care, as in the will of God, the dictates of the Bible or practicing traditional rituals, faithfully, and hope that “God will provide” or that “Father knows best.” When you hear the phrase, “God willing,” or “Inch/Allah” listen for an underlying tragic worldview.

I believe, the tragic worldview underlies the continuing resistance to legislating compassionate dying. Jack Kevorkian was convicted of second degree murder for giving a lethal injection to a man dying of the devastating Lou Gehrig’s disease. In fact, if he is guilty of murder, it should have been a first degree conviction for his act was clearly premeditated. ALS is a disease in which the mind remains absolutely clear and unaffected but you watch while your nerves fail to send signals to more and more parts of the body until you cannot walk, you cannot eat or talk, you, finally, cannot breathe. Opponents to medical euthanasia may offer legitimate drug-induced relief of suffering, but the underlying justification is that our life is God given and it is not right to take it away by human hands even our own hands. Calling upon the Hippocratic oath as if nothing has been learned in medicine about the quality of life since Hippocrates, is a call to an authoritarian religion, an enforcer of fate, a fate worse than death, that of unbearable suffering. UU work in support of compassionate dying says we can take our life and death into our own hands.

While one of us may wish to experience all of life even our particular natural death, another may, with a terminal disease, wish to end their life while they are still aware and comfortable and before their body wastes away or pain can only be relieved by the dulling of the senses through increasing doses of drugs. For all we might wish that Kevorkian’s persistent media-enticing tactics would just go away, his intent is to change our laws toward compassion

Persistent peacework in the times of détente often becomes annoying. Many of us, myself included, would like not to look at the presence of violence all the time. I’m busy. I would prefer just to deal with it when it comes towards me, not when it is affecting someone else or some other nation. And if I can duck when it does come, I’ll duck, even after 9-11

I am often in good company. In America, Unitarian Universalism and most of American Civil Religion as well as secular culture has lost its willingness to confront suffering and thus has ironically succumbed to a tragic world view. Accepting the affluent life as normative, many UU’s have unwittingly bought into the predeterminism of Calvin. We are preordained to be among the elect for whom tragedy is mostly absent or hidden, or merely personal. Social tragedy has been ghettoized on streets other than suburban streets where most of our congregations reside. On television, violence has been dissociated from suffering. It has become more stimulant than pain. Personal illness and death are often relegated to specialists: doctors, retirement homes, hospitals and sanitized funeral homes. We are often stunned by death in a way an Emily Dickinson or a Ralph Waldo Emerson of yesteryear, or an urban poor black family or an Iraqi of today are not. Ironically, President Bush believes he can overcome Fate and change the tragic shape of the Middle East. But his method of violence against violence is anything but a transformation. It is more of the same.

When I am honest, my avoidance of peace work in times of détente is also an avoidance of suffering and the hard work of creating non-violent alternatives to aggression for managing conflicts. Rather than say, I am helpless in the face of a world which only understands military might, we can do better. We can, if we have courage and passion for the task, overcome the will of a God, shaped on the metaphor of all-powerful kingship, and the history of nations whose boundaries were decided by warfare. Gandhi had that kind of courage and passion. Martin Luther King did too. Both men came, it is true, to tragic personal ends, but neither man had a tragic world view. Gandhi denied that the culture of caste and the culture of colonialism would define the way he would lead his life. He drew from a religion and a Conviction, capital C, centered in compassion, not Fate, the wherewithal to overturn oppression.

Rosa Parks refused to accept segregation as ordained by fate, bible and history. Martin King supported her defining action with a movement for civil rights and economic justice.

Gandhi, a Hindu, which, in many ways, is a religion close to modern Unitarian Universalism, wrote, “If you want something really important to be done, you must not merely satisfy the reason. You must move the heart also. The appeal to reason is more to the head, but the penetration of the heart comes from suffering. It opens the inner understanding.”

If there is to be an alternative to future wars, such as that in Yugoslavia and in Israel, there will have to be an international peace movement that begins with the children and thus with the families of people the world around. Only when we have a worldwide mission of peace and armies of non-violent activists instead of bombers, will peace have a chancePlease don’t misunderstand me. I am not arguing for a pursuit of suffering or masochism, but I want to observe aloud, in this passion week, that a religion based on the avoidance of the symbols and martyrs of suffering and humility runs the risk of losing the emotional power to act.

What then can I offer?

Both Moses in Exodus and Jesus in the Gospel accounts argued against fate, which in their worlds was the will of God. God told Moses to save his people from the Egyptians. He told Moses to say God said so. Moses demanded to know God’s name if he was to take on such Godly power as to save his people. God said, “Tell them ‘I am who I am’ sent me. But Moses said “they’ll never believe me.” So God promised him three signs: a staff turned to a snake, a hand turned leprous, and if all that failed, water turned to blood before their eyes.

Then Moses said, God, you know I have a speech impediment. They’ll never understand me. And God jumped back with the suggestion that Moses tell his brother Aaron of God’s message and then Aaron who is a good speaker could repeat the message to the people. Moses’ resistance was real and human. But an ironic, as opposed to a tragic, God wouldn’t let him get away with it.

Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane. He spoke to God in prayer. He wanted to be sure he had heard God correctly. It took three times hearing the message in his head before he accepted that this was the right path, this path to the cross. I see these stories as building a partnership with God, as the route toward liberation and justice, not of obedience to a dictator God or Fate.

When we choose stories of partnership in the work for justice, like the story of Moses in argument with God, we are left more with a feeling of joy and determination than of sorrow even in the midst of inevitable suffering. When we gain inspiration from a tale of Jesus riding a mere donkey before crowds strewing his path with palms in Jerusalem, we may become willing to acknowledge our own privilege and learn we too can humble ourselves enough to make a difference in this world. We can base our religion not on the joy of consumption but the joy of relinquishment; not on the primacy of suffering but the goal of reducing the suffering of others; not on a solitary hero, but on a human community of faith with a mission.

Our challenge is to fashion a covenanting community where there is love so great that we can admit the presence of tragedy and survive; where as, in Marvin Baumel’s last night recounting of past good deeds and misdeeds, we can laugh at ourselves and determine to do better. It is through remembering exile and slavery that the people can come to freedom; it is through the desolation of Good Friday that the people can come to Easter; it is through the experience of suffering that people can come to Understanding. It is in the arms of a communal love greater than any of which we are individually capable that we can be comforted, strengthened and go on.

Benediction for Palm Sunday
God calls out of the burning bush,
scarlet with camellias, golden embers at their centers.
“Moses, Moses,” God says;
“Rachel, Rachel,” God says,

“Jesu, Jesu,” God says.
And, when God sees that we have stopped to notice,
God calls our names also.
And, when our fear has subsided,
when the clouds of confusion have cleared,
when we are moved to speak, we say,
“Here I am!”

Then God says, “Remove the sandals from your feet
for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
Barefooted, we stand stark still, listening, listening.
Then, when we are moved,
Then, when we are moved to speak, we say,
deliberately, we say,
“Here I am. Send me.”


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