In an age of dangerous tweets, we can easily forget that our hyper-connected world is not the first to see relationships and anger ping-pong across the globe, though admittedly things are way faster today, much too fast for some of us. In fact, there were key people, connectors if you will, long before six degrees of Kevin Bacon, people who seemed to know everybody even before Facebook “friends” and SnapChat, especially in small elite worlds like those of royalty, the super rich, and the arts.
Let us start with the British naturalist Gerald Durrell, who spent an important part of his childhood on the Greek island of Corfu, seen in both the BBC television movie “My Family and Other Animals,” named after his first autobiographical work, and in the recent ITV and Masterpiece co-produced mini-series “The Durrells of Corfu.” Gerald’s career was one of only two distinguished careers in the same family. His older brother Lawrence was a novelist best known for his Alexandrian Quartet, at one time seriously considered for a Nobel Prize. And it is Lawrence, not Gerald,who appears on the list of lovers of that infamous 20th century connector, writer, memoirist, and sexual revolutionary Anaïs Nin, best known for her liaison with the novelist Henry Miller and possibly his wife June.
I was surprised to find another novelist on Nin’s list of lovers, Gore Vidal, for I thought of Vidal as a gay man, one who was in a committed relationship for 53 years before he died. I recently watched a 60 Minutes segment profiling Vidal in 1975. Howard Austen, already Vidal’s partner for 24 years at that point, was described as “friend, cook, and social secretary,” a bitter reminder of an age when love was denied, when “longtime companion” was the lie of the shamed. Vidal himself denied his romantic connection with Nin, though no one could deny his very un-romantic connection to another novelist, Norman Mailer. And it is finally to this rivalry that we arrive, only three degrees of separation from Gerald’s zoological adventures on Corfu before the war to the set of The Dick Cavett Show in December 1971, where the writer Norman Mailer allegedly headbutted the writer Gore Vidal backstage.
It is by no means the worst violence to erupt in a literary feud, after all, the French poet Verlaine actually shot his younger lover Rimbaud, but literary rivalries usually play out in the book review section and rarely on national television, only rarely involve actual assault and battery.
Both men, Vidal and Mailer, were brilliant writers and pompous arrogant jerks, and that on a good day. Mount Mailer’s 1971 eruption was caused by a combination of alcohol and Vidal’s harping on the fact that Mailer had stabbed his wife, which was absolutely true, though Vidal’s bad review of a Mailer work was probably the real issue, because what is a little violent misogyny between rivals…
Mailer said to Vidal on air “I’ve had to smell your works from time to time,” while Vidal, responding to the backstage assault, proclaimed that “once again, words failed Norman Mailer.”
These were grown-up men, public figures and intellectuals, who made their living writing, who made their living with words. It is a shame that both men died in the first decade of this century. They would have thrived in our current environment of non-stop vitriol, when so many embrace violent rhetoric and violent action.
The two men had much in common, as is often the case with the bitterest of enemies. They were both activists, political and progressive, both creators and networkers, much like Nin. Yet, somehow, they placed one another on a list of manufactured enemies and rivals, like Samaritans and Jews, heck, like so many of us, for we all too often manufacture enemies out of those who should be our companions along the way.
And here, in today’s reading, we have the manufacturing of enemies, though we know now, reading scripture through the lens of scholarship and history, that the manufacture of enemies is running both ways, not just the Pharisees manufacturing an enemy, but the early Christians manufacturing Jews as enemies. This will have devastating results that will spin out across the centuries, from ancient Palestine to the death camps run by white Nationalists in Germany, the streets of Charlottesville, the doxing by cyber-bullies that makes normal people the target of hate-speech and SWAT teams.
The healing of the man born blind from birth is one of the signs in John’s series of escalating signs meant to prove that Jesus has divine power and is therefore an incarnation of God. The story offers us a bit of a theological problem, for it encodes a belief that was already being challenged, but that has, alas, survived. The primitive Hebrew faith was transactional, earthy righteousness resulting in earthly reward, the same flim-flam as today’s prosperity gospel.
Hebrew belief had started to evolve away from this notion of a transactional faith, for it did not cohere with their experience of the world, didn’t actually work in real life, and the Jesus movement would move further still away from this faith of quid pro quo, divine ego and divine blessing, replacing it with unearned grace and love. But then Jesus goes and says that the blind man was born blind purely so Jesus could come along and heal him as an adult, which is a different sort of problematic understanding of God. Right, he’s not blind because his parents sinned. Check. But he has been blind for years, grew up blind, just so God could prove a point? Back up the loving God train a second! This does not look like a good God. It might not be transactional, but it is certainly manipulative in a way that leaves uncomfortable questions.
There is a lot of this going on in John, manufacturing situations in which Jesus can perform a miraculous sign. Just wait until we get to Lazarus!
But we have to move beyond the particulars because this is a human story told by humans who are doing their best to interpret their experience and traditions, their story of a man who was somehow God-with-us, and if God is willing to insert God’s-self into human history, then why not ascribe to God human-like schemes? We have to move beyond this stumbling block, beyond this projecting on to God, and look at the meta-narrative, the deeper story that is unfolding in the gospels. We must hold that deeper story up against our actual experience of the world.
Experience tells us that sometimes babies are just born blind and sometimes good people die, and it has nothing to do with whether they or their parents deserved it, had sinned, has nothing to do with a God that arbitrarily doles out health, disease, and disability. God still doesn’t send hurricanes to punish us for marriage equality, the only cause and effect at play when it comes to hurricanes is carbon emissions.
God is that ultimate mystery beyond all mysteries and life is mostly good for most people most of the time and creativity and love and transcendence happen, and you did not call yourself into the world and neither did I, so let’s stop trying to shrink God to our size.
A man was born blind and Jesus had the power to heal him, so a little mud on the face, a little wash in the pool at Siloam, and badda-bing, badda-boom, vision where there was none. I once was blind, but now I see.
And then along come the Pharisees, also called the Jews in this passage. This use of the term Jew is ahistorical, inaccurate, as is the notion that those who follow Jesus were being thrown out of the synagogue, something that wouldn’t happen for several more decades.
The authors are projecting back onto the gospel story the situation of their own later time, when the new Rabbinic Judaism that would be founded by the Pharisees after the First Jewish War and the destruction of the Temple would, in fact, expel those who followed Jesus from their synagogues. But not yet, certainly not while Jesus was still alive.
In fact, “the Jews” as in those of Judean descent describes every single person in this story, Jesus, his followers, the man born blind, his parents, the Pharisees. The gospels are very clear in identifying those who are not part of the Judean and Galilean lineage, who are “other,”, folks like the Samaritan woman at the well, the Syro-Phoenecian woman who touched the cloak of Jesus, and the Centurion who asks that his servant be healed. The use of the term Jew in the gospels should always be a red flag for us.
If the Jews are a manufactured enemy, so too are those Jews, actually members of the Pharisaic movement that opposes Jesus, manufacturing Jesus as an enemy. They are convinced that only their interpretation of faith is an acceptable interpretation, and they are willing to force that interpretation on everyone else, much like the American Taliban, those religious authoritarians that grew out of opposition to desegregation, the racist root of the American “evangelical” movement, that today wield their pick-and-choose gospel as a weapon, picking-and-choosing only those passages that authorize their racial and gender power and privilege. And just like today’s radicalized American Christians, those ancient Pharisees appealed to law and order, chose legalism over compassion, for law and order is the go-to tool of authoritarians in every place and every age.
What business is it of theirs, these Pharisees who are happy to cite chapter and verse to condemn this man of love and healing? The only thing that was harmed in the miraculous healing of this blind man was the ego of the Pharisees, their sense of control over the lives of others, their power. Are they somehow vulnerable if they are not in control?
They act as if life were a zero-sum game, but then again, don’t we all, all the time, from the PTA to Congress.
Life is not a zero-sum game. Not even with something as concrete as economic globalization and migration, the current bogeymen for today’s fearful and angry.
I’m no fan of our capitalist system that insures that jobs go to the places where there are the fewest protections for workers and the environment, but even in that corrupt system, globalization did not simply move the pieces of the pie across the border. Yes, you can look at isolated instances and say that factory X closed and was relocated, but in the end, globalization is not about re-distributing pie. It creates more pie. Which is why we have seen less poverty and less premature death worldwide. That Mexican worker is not your enemy, no matter what side of the border he is on. There are enough real dangers without us making up new ones, manufacturing enemies.
Education and empowerment for women and marginalized communities doesn’t mean less pie for rich white males. Nobody is stealing your pie. It just means we’ll make a whole lot of new pie, because more smart people and more creative people means more, not less. Knowledge and creativity are not finite resources.
Making the blind man whole does not steal the sight of the Pharisees, because vision is not zero-sum. So why are they manufacturing an enemy? Why do we manufacture scarcity? How do we shift from scarcity and enmity to abundance and grace? From brokenness to blessing? From fearful animal to transcendent being?
It matters what story we tell, what story we tell about our world, what story we tell about ourselves. If life is transactional and zero-sum, we can neither truly love nor truly live, for we are always on our guard. No wonder choosing that narrative for ourselves produces an angry and transactional God. No wonder that narrative tells us that blessing is in short supply.
Maybe if we chose a different story and hated ourselves a little less, we wouldn’t find it necessary to hate others quite so much. I’m not talking about the sort of self-love that you can find in the Hamptons, sociopaths in Gucci and worse, who think they are apart from all other humans, better, more deserving. I’m talking about fully connected humans who understand that we are utterly dependent on who knows what, something we call God and one another and the winds of history, that we are not self-created, are vulnerable, biologically vulnerable, socially vulnerable, for love is vulnerability. Despite this utter dependence and vulnerability, some still dare to shout out with their lives “I matter. I am created by love. I have agency, can make decisions and act. I am not a victim of life but a recipient of life. I have the potential to love and to create and to change other lives. My sense of self is not threatened by the fact that you matter, are created by love, have agency. I choose love.”
Maybe, just maybe, if we believed the stuff we say we believe…
Not empty affirmations from some self-help guru on a 1990’s episode of Oprah. Not the ridiculous narrative we have spoon-fed a generation of children, for you can’t become anything you want to become no matter what lies we tell them. Some of us are never going to play in the NBA or be as rich as Scrooge McDuck swimming in gold, and we don’t all need a participation trophy. No, I’m talking about a belief that is grounded in the goodness of God and the goodness of creation and a sense of observation and wonder, of choosing to spiritually see what is around us, not just the healing, but the miracle of the mud itself, for soil is a miracle and water is a miracle, and we are the stuff of stars. Choose to see the miracle of parents who stood up to the law and order bullies and said “he is our son.” Choose to see the mothers who stand at the podium and say “He was my son.”
We don’t need to manufacture enemies. We don’t need to hate. We don’t need to headbutt someone backstage.
You did not call yourself into being.
Sometimes you are going to feel vulnerable and afraid. It is going to happen. It is called being human. It is called being awake. And you have to be awake to see.
In a world of walls and legalism, you are here now, and you have a choice.
You are loved. You are capable of love. Know this. Go out into the world. Be a connector. Leave loving mudprints on everyone you touch… Amen.