A Hymn before Dying

392px-Executiondock

Dig down deep in the well of your soul
till you find that the well’s run dry
Stretch your wings, cut the strings,
and hope dead birds can fly
We’ve all tapped out of an empty ring
at the height of an ongoing battle
and we can’t even choke; the only sound in our throats
a hollow and meaningless rattle

Nobody’s right until everybody’s wrong
You can’t write these lyrics if you already know the song
When those who believe don’t really belong
It won’t be long till we’re gone.

They say they want our words, our voices,
these referees of our silence
In the name of peace they command that we cease
with threats of respectable violence
Lest we speak, lest we compromise all,
they offer up stairs to the top of the wall
only to pull out the rug from our feet,
handing out blame as we fall

Nobody’s right until everybody’s wrong
You can’t write these lyrics if you already know the song
When those who believe don’t really belong
It won’t be long till we’re gone.

Whatever ghosts we fear the most,
they pale next to the shadow
of freedom offered by those who have it
to those whose fields lie fallow

‘Cause nobody’s right until everybody’s wrong
You can’t write these lyrics if you already know the song
When those who believe don’t really belong
It won’t be long till we’re gone.

The Potter in Me

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hey, my eyes aren’t glistening with the ghosts of my past!

– Harry Potter

It is December 2007, and I’m standing across George IV Bridge from The Elephant House in Edinburgh, one of the several places J.K. Rowling frequented while writing her Harry Potter books.

At the time, I wasn’t nearly the Potter fan I am now. Mind you, I’m still not the Potter fan some people are: I don’t own a Ravenclaw scarf, and I’ve never taken a quiz to find out which Hogwarts house suits me best. But I am a big enough fan to reflect more seriously upon what it means, why it appeals so strongly to young and old alike–and why so many fear its “corrupting influence.”

Simply put, we all live for the moment in which our Hagrid comes for us, the moment we realize we are not Muggles after all, that we are really all magical beings, witches and wizards in the making. The moment we realize the sorcery that is part and parcel of being human: our magic may be metaphorical, but it can still change the world.

The Harry Potter series is about the breaking of chains, both internally and externally imposed. Perhaps one was raised in a severely restrictive household, not unlike the Dursleys’. Or, conversely, perhaps one was, as a child, perceived as “different,” whether through temperament, inclination, or physical limitation, and thereby came to perceive herself as in some way limited or less-than.

These are those of us to whom the Potter books speak, and the reason they speak so universally is that all of us, from the biggest nerd to the biggest jock, from the math club to the cheerleading squad, we all feel our limitations. Each of us in a different way, but each of us, nonetheless.

A good book frees the imagination, and Rowling’s are good books. Will they stand as “great literature”? Who cares? “Great literature” is for eggheads in academia (although I suspect that the eggiest of heads sometimes wishes himself in the rush of a Quidditch match). Rowling’s are great books, books that touch us on a visceral level: we want to be free to be who we really are. We want to feel that our differences, the ways in which we stand out from the crowd, are our strengths. That in the battle between good and evil, we all have a wand to wield.

The Dark Lord is real, and he is legion.

The Dark Lord is embodied in the ways in which society forces upon us prescribed images of “who we’re supposed to be.” Erich Fromm wrote of the “marketing character,” the insidious manner in which the capitalist ethos seeps into our consciousness and compromises our will to authentic self-representation. We are induced, in the name of individualism, to renounce our individuality in favor of the “norm,” to sell ourselves on the stock market of impersonal choice. To become whoever or whatever others want us to be, in the desperate hope that we won’t be left on the shelf, or discarded in favor of a better model.

The message? Go along to get along, so that society can move along. And whatever you do, DO NOT ROCK THE BOAT!

The Dark Lord is systematized within all the nomological structures by which the status quo is enforced on a daily basis, from the Ten Commandments to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” We ascribe to the law of God and of the market protection against that which we fear as humans: that one soul brave enough to stand up and step out of line. Because, as John Hughes taught us, if one gets up, we may all get up. And then where would we be?

In the end, the reason people hate Harry is the same reason people love him: he is the poster child for seeing things differently, for being brave enough to be ourselves, even when the rest of the world doesn’t approve or understand. For allowing our imaginations, rather than our fears, to dictate how far we can take this thing called humanity. In short, in the wizarding world we find the key to being better Muggles.

The truth is, all our eyes are glistening with the ghosts of our past. But such is the magic of life, a magic inherent in each of us, Muggle or no: the magic of transcendence, of unlocking the present in ourselves (Alohomora!) so that we may overcome the past, so that we may learn from it without becoming trapped in it.

This is the gospel according to Harry Potter:

The Firebolt is not a broomstick. It’s a state of mind.

Being Here

232

If there is a light you can’t always see
And there is a world we can’t always be
If there is a dark within and without
And there is a light, don’t let it go out

– U2

In 1985, two displaced Romanian families came to Marshfield, Missouri, having defected from the Soviet bloc. At the time, my dad (the guy in the back row with the stripey tie) was minister of music and youth at First Baptist Marshfield. All the teenagers you see crammed into the picture were members of his youth group. Scattered throughout are the Borza family–mother Maria in the back center, son Audie in the second row, and daughter Diana beside me and my Smurf.

That Christmas (which is when this photo was taken), First Baptist decided to pull together gifts and supplies for the newly arrived families, to help them feel more connected to our community. And I had an idea: I raided my toy box. There was this Transformers car (or Go-Bots–I don’t remember which), a little blue convertible number, that I absolutely loved, and I seized on that as the perfect gift. I don’t remember if Mom wrapped it or not; I just remember the feeling of happiness that came with handing it over to my new friend. Strong enough that today, almost thirty years after the fact, it’s still clear as a bell in my mind.

The world is full of so many lonely souls. That moment of connection with the Borza boy was an eight-year-old’s first inkling of the truth of that statement. At the time, I didn’t know from communism or dictatorship or political repression. It would be years before I could formulate a decent definition of the Soviet Union, and by the time I could it didn’t even exist anymore. But here was this kid, not so different from me, a kid who enjoyed Christmas presents and little toy cars every bit as much as I did. A kid who, given other circumstances, might have been me, and I him. And for the briefest of spaces, our lives intertwined, became one. And I learned, albeit unconsciously. As I told my friend upon relating the story, I couldn’t even remember the family’s name, not until I read it off the back of the photo. Couldn’t remember the year. Just the faces. And the feeling. Of connection. Of camaraderie. Of compassion.

Perhaps this explains the fervor with which I approach the ongoing confrontation between fear and human decency that is the Syrian refugee crisis. I have been there and done that. And I would gladly do it again. In a heartbeat. My friendship with the Borza kids (there was even some teasing about a young crush I might or might not have had on Diana) is a foundational memory, one of the basic building blocks of who I am today.

Lest I be misunderstood, this is not about religion or spirituality. The part played in this story by my dad’s church is purely incidental, the conduit whereby I was connected with the Other, who turned out to be not quite as Other as we sometimes expect. Really, this is about recognition: staring into the face of a stranger only to discover it’s your own face in disguise. A refugee by any other name…is Me.

The events of the last few days have yanked this memory back into the forefront of my brain. I’m glad for that: it keeps my humanity alive, in the face of overwhelming odds. It reminds me of the blood that runs, and the hearts that beat alike, in their chests and mine. We are brothers, sisters, prójimos. We are One.

I understand the fear; I understand the hatred, the instinct that begs for the immediate release of violent and fiery retaliation. These voices whisper to me as much as to anyone else. Which is why this is so important: freedom is meaningless until we willingly set it aside for the sake of others. Courage is just a word until we face a threat, and act anyway.

The Borzas call to me from the past, and the Syrians call to me in the present. What is my answer? I am here.

I can’t just urge my governor to reverse his stance on this issue unless I’m willing to step up and reach out. I am here.

These people need friends, shelter, guidance, hands extended in welcome. I am here.

Governor Abbott: Need a sponsor?

I am Here.

Religiocracy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Your Catholic blues, your convent shoes,
Your stick-on tattoos now they’re making the news
Your holy war, your northern star
Your sermon on the mount from the boot of your car.
Please, please, please
Get up off your knees.

– U2

It’s not me; it’s the Bible.

I have had just about enough of the line of reasoning that, after admitting freely that same-sex marriage represents harm neither to the social fabric or the institution of marriage, still insists that same-sex relationships must be opposed, because scripture says so. Or the Vatican. Or whatever.

When I ask for your position on a given issue, I’m not looking for a quote from the catechism, or the Pauline letters, or the Baptist Faith and Message. I’m asking for your position. If you must resort to the aforementioned sources, then I would humbly suggest that in reality you have no position. You may have subscribed to someone else’s, but you don’t really have one of your own.

Furthermore, there is something fundamentally wrong with a religion that is, as the old cliché goes, so heavenly-minded that it is no earthly good. With a God who makes his bones by setting people against each other instead of making them one. Anybody can promise pie in the sky by and by; it takes a real “person” to effect change for the better in the lives of individuals right here and now. With the former, there is no burden of proof; with the latter, proof is the burden.

There is something even more fundamentally wrong with a religion that preaches love while practicing discrimination in the name of love. This is the “milk” of scripture on which we’re raised: we must ensure inequality now in order to guarantee equality in heaven. We must forsake the self-evident present to ensure the all but imaginary future. Not to put too fine a point on it, but what the Hell kind of sense does that make?

No less an historical figure than Augustine himself embodied perfectly the double standard upon which this approach to “freedom” is based: when we are persecuted by them, persecution is evil, but when we, given the upper hand, persecute them back, it is the essence of Christian charity.

If, therefore, we wish either to declare or to recognize the truth, there is a persecution of unrighteousness, which the impious inflict upon the Church of Christ; and there is a righteous persecution, which the Church of Christ inflicts upon the impious….Moreover, she persecutes in the spirit of love, they in the spirit of wrath; she that she may correct, they that they may overthrow; she that she may recall from error, they that they may drive headlong into error (The Correction of the Donatists).

In this spirit of self-important benevolence, we greet the world. Give us freedom, that we might give you less.

On the one hand, we follow a teacher who promises life in abundance (not then; now), while on the other we insist on a hermeneutics that takes it away. We are living a “faith” that subsists on inequality and division, in the hopes that one day, way beyond the blue, when the roll is called up yonder, we’ll still be around to care.

Why?

Because we believe. Or so we’re told…