An Anglican, a Russian Orthodox Mystic, and a Catholic Mystic walk into a bar

 

What I enjoy about reading books written two or more generations before me is the issues present today were present in the past. There is some comfort in knowing we’re facing nothing new, but the despair sets in when the criticisms are ignored; or worse yet, very little is done to solve the issue. These authors wrote from different continents and countries which mean the problems we face are human instead of cultural. What issues do I speak? From my own American context the issues are misogyny, violence against LGBTQ (of which I am a part), violence against people and immigrants of color, violence against any religion outside of a white, heterosexual, patriarchal Evangelical Christianity, marginalization of the poor, disregard for the elderly, destruction of the environment, and so on. What makes theses matter so terrible is the political leaders who espouse a belief in Jesus legislates these disparaging policies; and 82% of Evangelical Christians with 52% of Catholics execute these policies with the backing of the government; but not Jesus. He never taught such disgusting practices, and these people know nothing of his work. The writers that come to mind whose books stood in contention against such attitudes are Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, and Jack Kerouac. All three were Christians, but with minor differences. Dickens was affiliated with the Anglican Church, but detested organized religion with its practice of condemning people, and saw the poor attendance in churches as a protest to the negative behavior of The Church of England. Leo Tolstoy was Russian Orthodox, and a mystic, who became disgusted with the leaders of the church collaborating with the Czar and blessing the execution or imprisonment of those who refused to participate in mandatory military service due to their Christian convictions. Jack Kerouac was a French-Canadian Catholic brought up in the small New England town of Lowell, Massachusetts. He lost his taste for the religion of Catholicism and stopped attending mass at the age of twelve. According to Kerouac, The Catholic Church droned on with their lip service lulling to sleep even the priests. He lived a life of drink, women, drugs, and songs documented in his books, but that life was spent searching for the God who ran out of the sanctuary and wandered the American frontier as a hobo. What these men wrote still speaks to us and still encourages us to carry on in their work and seeking.

Charles Dickens experienced first-hand how oppressive his English society in Portsmouth behaved towards the poor. His family had been put in debtor’s prison until his father paid back what he owed, and young Dickens left school to work in a factory to survive. As an adult he saw the same suffering of the poor he endured and the people of affluence who ignored the poverty or increased the suffering. Dickens wanted to change society to improve the conditions of those in poverty; and he believed his writing could inspire that change. Through his novels he criticized the upper class for their lack of Christian charity by creating characters based on real people he worked under or the people who put his family in prison. Granted, the stories were fiction, but they were real enough and had the biting venom he wanted to deliver to his own oppressors. Dickens gave the harshest critique through the Ghost of Christmas Present to Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, “’Man,’ said the Ghost, ‘If man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is, and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!” This sentiment can be expressed today towards the Republican senators led by Paul Ryan, a professing Catholic, who push bills to take away the arts, affordable health care for the poor, a woman’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, travel bans against Muslims, and instituting a school to prison line for minorities. Who are they to decide a person’s dignity and rights? Unlike these political leaders, Scrooge’s heart is completely changed after his journey with The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come; and he takes care of Bob Crachit and his family. He also gives his wealth liberally to help those who are poor to have a happy Christmas and a happy life. Dickens criticisms do not stop at condemnation, though, but with encouragement arguing that grace can change even the most vile of people, such as Scrooge, into a vessel of healing. There is hope for them, but if they don’t change, their low quality of life and poor death is on them.

Leo Tolstoy, though, took a different stance with his criticism. In War and Peace, Tolstoy addressed the issue of men who refused mandatory military service who, due to their Christian conviction, disagreed with fighting and killing for the state because such acts contradicted with what Jesus taught his Sermon on the Mount. The Patriarch—or what we in the West would consider a Bishop—stood with the Czar who made threats of imprisonment and execution if the conscripted did not do join the military. The Patriarch would cajole the individual with veiled threats, and as the man was lead to his death the Patriarch would be there giving him his last rites. Tolstoy elaborated more on this distortion of faith in The Kingdom of God is within You where he stated outright that “any man who pledges allegiance to the state denounces his own Christianity.” This sentiment is not historically new, but can be traced back to the practice of The Church between the ascension of Jesus and the fourth century when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Any man who was a Christian who joined the Roman military faced immediate excommunication when he joined—furthering the empire of Rome contradicted the furthering of God’s kingdom. Tolstoy did not limit this behavior to his own Russian Orthodox Church, but extended the same criticism to the Catholic Church and Protestant churches throughout Europe and America. This book was first published in Germany in 1894, and the arguments and criticisms are still relevant especially when many American Evangelical Christians and Catholics wave the American flag transforming themselves into the image of the Republican Party rather than the image of Christ.

Jack Kerouac did not offer criticisms outright, but voiced the discontent of many in his generation and their search for something better than what they had been given. When President Truman ordered the atomic bombs to be dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima the cultural landscape had changed; and a cold war began with Russia. In America the exhaustion of the war, the anxiety over annihilation, and the pressure of conformity to the military industrial complex were met with the platitudes of Dale Carnegie, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Norman Vincent Peale who taught positive thinking and a desire for America’s glory days—whatever they were. Theologians like Paul Tillich and philosophers like the Niebuhr brothers called for a different approach to the world. Humanity had reached a point where self-extermination was a possibility and could not be met with golden age fairy tales or optimistic thinking. Churches in America bought into the gospels of Carnegie, Sheen, and Peale, and became compliant with the rules of the anti-humane culture. Many people like Kerouac traveled America and parts of the world looking for God because God could not be found in the sanctuaries or in the hearts of the religious. His wandering was not limited to the physical, and discovered Buddhism as a means to understand his own Catholic faith; but he wasn’t the only one. Many of the Beats in the 1950s were disaffected Christians who saw Buddhism as a means to become more Christ like. That was the essence of his search. In her book, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac,  his ex-girlfriend, Joyce Johnson quoted him saying he wished he elaborated on the characters of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road as “two Catholic kids looking for God.”

We don’t live in a Post-War environment as did Jack Kerouac, but the similarities are there in our own Post-9/11 world as many people leave churches or faith because their own faith traditions preach hate and intolerance to anyone deemed an enemy by the American state. Today 23% of the population is in the category, The Nones by not affiliating with any religious denomination. This group is made up of agnostics, atheists, and people who are still spiritual but do not align themselves with any part of organized religion. They may not be wandering the global landscape, but they are certainly wandering on the outskirts of the spiritual landscape. Many books and authors besides the ones I have mentioned here address the same feelings in similar situations, and the comfort found by the reader is they are not alone; nor is their situation unique. There is the possibility of finding a place in our story within the context of the stories before us, and through their ideas we can find a new perspective to address an old problem.

 

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