Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Letter to ?W?

By John Rember


If I were a fundamentalist Christian, I would be more worried about the halftime show at this year's Super Bowl than I was about Janet Jackson's exposed nipple. Because this time the image burned into millions of viewers' frontal lobes wasn't a bit of Borg-modified flesh. Instead, cast upon a billowing sheet was a back-lit image of Satan, complete with his two most famous appendages, only one of which was his tail.

I've seen enough Batman movies to know that when a shadow is projected against the sky over Gotham, it's a call for serious Bat-action. So if a shadow of Satan is broadcast the world-over, I'd be worried that it was a signal for The Artist Formerly Known as the Prince of Darkness to fire up the tricked-out ATV he uses for missions to Earth.

Fortunately, I'm not a fundamentalist anything. I'm a student of history, which means I don't see Satan in everything that goes wrong. Instead, I see human nature, with all its accoutrements of greed, lust, envy, sloth, anger, pride, and gluttony, as the invisible hand in our world. The Super Bowl had to do more with encouraging excessive consumption and making money than extending Satan's rule on Earth, although if you believe in Satan, the Superbowl halftime show might be one way of helping him out.

Students of history sometimes get mistaken for cynics, but we're not. It's just that history shows us that the Seven Deadly Sins—deadly because they inhibit spiritual development—often get in the driver's seat, and once they're there, it's hard to get them out. So Greed, Anger, Sloth, et al. can take over a country and lead it to murder, as they did in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1938. Or they can take over religion and end up burning innocent folks at the stake, as they did within the Catholic Church during the Inquisition. Or they can let a quarter of the populace spiral into soul-killing poverty, as they did in this country during the Great Depression. In the end, everybody's spiritual development is set back for lifetimes.

Sigmund Freud, writing in the early 20th century, suggested that every human being intrinsically hates civilization but can't consciously face that truth. Instead, we project that hatred, along with our other evils, onto other people. Some of those people, like Stalin or Hitler, or Savonarola, richly deserve those projections. But we should remember that at the moment when Hitler was murdering Jews at Treblinka and Stalin was setting up the Gulag, and Savonarola was burning the art treasures of Florence, they thought they were defending civilization. Worse, they were surrounded by people who told them they were defending civilization.

Maybe the eighth deadly sin should be projection.

We students of history, in order not to become cynics, have to balance every Stalin with a Lincoln, every Hitler with a Ghandi, every Savonarola with a Teilhard de Chardin. It's a useful and cheerful exercise, good for your spiritual development, but one you cannot do while the Super Bowl commercials are running. It requires a lot of reading, mostly in books with fine print and no pictures. It's not for the slothful.

To understand a Lincoln, and not just use him as a talisman to justify your foreign policy, you have to read what he wrote in his last year, when his guilt about the Civil War was transformed into mercy for suffering, fallible humanity. To understand Tielhard, you have to know enough theology and science to see the stunning synthesis of the two that he created. And to understand Ghandi, you have to appreciate his need to illuminate the human spirit against a world that conspires to throw it into darkness.

Here's Ghandi's list of the seven deadly sins, and his phrasing gives a hint of how to resist them:

· Wealth without Work.

· Pleasure without Conscience.

· Science without Humanity.

· Knowledge without Character.

· Politics without Principle.

· Commerce without Morality.

· Worship without Sacrifice.

Which brings me back to Fundamentalist Christianity. If I were really worried about evil being called into this world by a Super Bowl halftime show, I'd think that Ghandi's implied virtues—work, conscience, humanity, character, principle, morality, and sacrifice—would do a lot to blunt its thrust. And if I could achieve enough self-consciousness to stop projecting my worst qualities onto my enemies, I wouldn't end up seeing myself mirrored in the eyes of the people I hate.


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