Imelda Marcos, she of the thousand pairs of shoes and former First Lady of the Philippines, has been called a kleptocrat, though some could argue that this is not technically true, as her husband was the one plundering the common good. Fortunately, the definition of kleptocrat has evolved, as it is sometimes hard to tell where someone is lying, cheating and stealing from the nation and where they are lying, cheating, and stealing as a business model, a problem we are coming to know all too well. So a kleptocrat can best be understood as one who uses any powerful government position for corrupt and enriching purposes.
An oligarch is a very rich person with a tremendous amount of political influence, and given the porous nature of government, an oligarch might become a kleptocrat for a time and a kleptocrat might retire to the leisurely life of an oligarch. We like to pretend that these two classes of loathsome creatures were native only to third world countries, to China and Russia, though we are lying to ourselves.
If you are a New Yorker, you hear a lot about Chinese and Russian kleptocrats and oligarchs, for they have been buying up Manhattan real estate at an alarming rate, driving up prices and inspiring developers to bulldoze and build to meet the soaring demand. After all, an apartment overseas held by a shell corporation may be safe when the revolution finally comes, and it is surely coming. The result has been that fewer and fewer New Yorkers can actually reside in Manhattan, as these new buildings, advertised in the most fashionable publications, sit mostly empty. The displaced then move to neighborhoods in the other boroughs, driving up prices there and bringing things like artisanal cheese and cold-brewed coffee.
But affordability has been a New York City problem for a rather long time, even before the kleptocrats, or at least the Russian ones. Long before Hamilton tickets were selling for $462 for the back of the top balcony, people couldn’t afford the rent, and Rent was the name of the musical of the day. Jonathan Larson’s masterpiece is set in the East Village, and includes the struggle of latter-day Bohemians to pay the rent as the neighborhood gentrifies. Inspired by and modeled on La Boheme, at the end of the first act, a vacant lot is being cleared of the homeless to make room for a cyber-arts studio, ending with a riot. In fact, the year before Larson began collaborating on the project that would eventually be his alone, there was an actual riot in the East Village, on August 6th and 7th of 1988 at Tompkins Square Park, which, among other things, was being cleared of the homeless.
The park had become a mess, filled not only with the homeless, but also with drug dealers, squatters and punks. The neighbors were not amused. In an effort to control the problem, the local community board set a 1:00am curfew for the park. The response was a protest rally on July 31st. The police were called about the noise, and by the end of the evening, several protesters and police officers were injured. A week later, when a follow-up rally was planned, police were there looking for trouble. When protesters arrived at 11:30pm under a banner that read “Gentrification is Class War,” conflict broke out leaving 38 injured. Poet Allen Ginsberg was among those who witnessed the police assault on innocent bystanders.
The Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988 had a musical connection too, with two groups, The Backyards and Missing Foundation, actively involved.
That 1988 riot was not the first at Tompkins Square, and surely will not be the last, assuming anyone still lives in Manhattan in the future and it is still above water. The first Tompkins Square riot was in 1874. A second riot would occur in 1967, an East Coast eruption of the Summer of Love.
It all started during a concert over Memorial Day weekend. The police asked that the volume be turned down. Somebody threw something, the police reacted, and the rest is history. There were thirty eight arrests and Mayor John Lindsay lead a public debate about the “threat of the hippie.” It is estimated that about 50,000 flocked to New York, half of the number in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury. Other Summer Of Love-inspired events would happen as far away as London. Hippie culture was contagious.
In the end though, Hippie culture, so closely tied to opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft, would fade away by the time the war ended, leaving a legacy of music and little else. They inconvenienced those with power for awhile, but by 1980, the white patriarchy had regained control.
The Occupy movement would, in many ways, surpass the Summer of Love, for while it was tone-deaf and largely devoid of music, it did manage to change the national and even international conversation, or to start a conversation, more accurately, about inequality. Like France on the eve of revolution, we are now keenly aware that there are two different Americas, the 1% and the rest of us. You couldn’t tune in to Occupy on your local AM station, nor could you buy Occupy fashions, tie-dye and flower prints, but Occupy protests spread to 951 cities in 82 countries. The jury is still out on whether the cultural shift signaled by Occupy will survive, though I think the odds are good. Maybe, in the end, the Hippie movement was too centralized in San Francisco and became too tied to commercial radio to take hold. Though, you know, props to those musicians.
What is the difference between a fad and a movement? Why do some last and some fade? Why did people buy 1.5 million pet rocks, literally rocks with glued-on plastic eyes, in 1975?
Why are we still talking about a cantankerous prophet in the national religion of a defeated people two thousand years later?
How much longer will we be talking about a cantankerous prophet in the national religion of a defeated people?
Christianity is dead in Europe. Sure, there are still those big beautiful buildings, maintained with tourist income and tax money. And some regions still have a nominal faith at least, Catholicism in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, the Orthodox Church in Greece. But the buildings are mostly empty on Sunday morning. And the US isn’t far behind.
Every major Christian movement is on the decline, even the Evangelicals and the Catholics. The decline of the Roman church has been masked by the influx of Catholic immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The Southern Baptist Convention, that church formed in support of the institution of slavery, reports more churches, but actually lost approximately 200,000 members in 2015, the last year data is available, and the 9th straight year of decline. And things are even worse in the Protestant Mainline, the location of our United Church of Christ.
It may seem stupid or masochistic to enter ordained ministry, to leave a lucrative career and spend about $100,000 to enter a new career that doesn’t pay with few full-time jobs to serve a failing institution largely seen as irrelevant in our culture.
And maybe it is stupid or masochistic. But you see, I’m not here because I was brainwashed as a child. Most of what I was taught as a child about God and Jesus no longer matters to me. I don’t believe in some of it, don’t care about much of the rest. Parting of the Red Sea? It was a reed sea, and chariots sink in the mud. I’m here because I believe in the power of the gospel to make the world a better place. Not in the ability of the institutional church to make the world a better place.
The Hebrew people were constantly innovating and learning as they encountered the divine in creation. Sometimes they got it wrong, like that whole “God loves us better than the rest of you schmoes” thing. Sometimes they got it right, like a God who could care less about sacrifices, about burnt rams, much less burnt sons, who simply wants us to be just, kind, humble… no sacrificing our sons. Remember that part.
Because along came Jesus, one more prophet in a line of prophets.
And yet, something else entirely.
He didn’t tell us that that God was petty, vindictive, mean. He didn’t tell us that life was suffering so just suck it up. He didn’t tell us that an intergalactic dictator named Xenu blew up a bunch of Thetans in a volcano, though people believe that nonsense.
His message was pretty simple. God is not what they, those with power, tell you that God is. Their understanding of God is about them, not about God. And things are not what they appear. Yes, it looks like the bad guys win. Yes, it looks like the kingdom belongs to an impulsive little madman. But it doesn’t. The kingdom belongs to God, and while your body may be crushed, your spirit is more. You are loved. You are loved. God wants you.
Certainly that was an attractive message to those who were being crushed. It is no wonder that peasants and slaves and women flocked to this good news. But it didn’t just attract the oppressed. It attracted people with power, like Nicodemus and Joseph. It was a pointer to what might be, to what we might be. It was an arrow pointing at eternity.
And it has been hijacked. First it was hijacked by empire itself, yoked to the lust for power and wealth, to colonialism and slavery. True, there have been those in every age who walked among us and rose up out of the muck and mire to show us the likeness of Christ, but all too often, as today, the words of life are corrupted by the Pharisees, self-righteous and filled with rage, Franklin Graham holding the cloaks and egging on the mob as Stephen is murdered.
Do you believe that God is good? That God is beyond our control, an explosion of life force, or transcendent and serendipitous creativity? That love, the ability to move out of the swamp of self and to align our hearts with that great force for life, is a reflection of the divine in actions, that we are called to reflect the divine in action.
Maybe fear was never a good motivation for aligning our lives with God as known in Jesus, God-with-Us, and in a world where we have postponed death and hidden it from sight, maybe it makes sense that the faith is dying. If faith is about dying.
But if faith is about living, then maybe it can survive. Maybe, instead of whimpering into extinction, we should be turning up the volume. People will tell us to turn it down, just as they told Jesus to turn it down when he engaged in a protest entering Jerusalem, just as they told the protesters to turn it down in Tomkins Square Park.
Could it be that our manners are killing the gospel? Could it be that contagious ideas are meant to be loud, that you have to be loud to be heard in the world, even more now in an age saturated with noise and memes?
Oh heck, maybe we could just start by reminding ourselves that are lives are better for being for Jesus, not “for” the church. Minus Jesus, the church is just the Lions Club with an organ. For Jesus.
Is your life better for being for Jesus?
In a world of greed and blood lust, with petty and vile men in charge, one person dared to declare a revolution of love. Dare we?