Sunday, July 24, 2011

Frankenstein's Pledge Puppets

Former Virginia governor (and current U.S. senator) Mark Warner describes a failure to halt a debt default as "the single most irresponsible act, almost unprecedented, in American politics." New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has stated that "The biggest threat to the United States this summer probably doesn't come from Iran or Libya but from the home-grown risk that the nation will default on its debts."

Once again Speaker Boehner has walked away from a deal with the president because of the fact that 95 percent of Republicans have previously signed a pledge put forth by the Republican strategist, Grover Norquist, to oppose any legislation that involves tax increases, including the elimination of tax loopholes. Despite Obama's having offered Republicans a deal that gives away the store from the Democrats' point of view, at the last minute Boehner defected yet again and walked away.

"I've been left at the altar a couple of times now," the president responded, rueful but distinctly peeved. And who wouldn't be?The truth is, Boehner couldn't get his Frankenstein Freshman clones, the pledge puppets, to go along with the deal, and so, rather than lose face by admitting to the real problem (which would likely cost him his job), he did what Republicans always do in the Age of Obama: raise the gun smoothly, look over to his right, and then in full view, shoot down the president.

I have to agree with Andrew Sullivan who states "The GOP believe they can destroy the U.S. and global economy and from the wreckage ensure Obama is not reelected. That is their sole guiding principle. They terrify me....What Cantor and Boehner are doing is essentially letting the world know they have an economic WMD in their possession. And it will go off if you do not give them everything they want, with no negotiation possible."

While I was writing this, NPR did a quick interview with Norquist, who stated that it had not been necessary to twist anybody's arm to get them to sign his Taxpayer Protection Pledge before the 2010 election. "They are all true believers," he said. Whenever you increase taxes, he further explained, politicians spend more--and that is not the way to shrink government. For the record, Congress first agreed to raise the debt limit in 1917 to fund World War I. Since then it has done so 102 times without ever being a partisan or a contentious issue, or being used as a tool to blackmail the president.

Norquist's influence in all of this cannot be overstated. However, when asked if he was worried that perhaps he might get the blame if the government defaults or loses its triple A credit rating, he responded, without missing a beat, "No. Obama will." Defending himself earlier in a New York Times op ed this week, Norquist wrote: "Contrary to the hopes of some that I am somehow softening the pledge, it is stronger and more important than ever: it has made it easier for members of Congress to credibly commit to voters that they will refuse to increase taxes and instead focus on reducing the cost of government."

I've asked myself several times already in these pages the question of when intractable obstructionism from Republicans that damages American interests morphs into treason. The answer, I see now, is never--or only when it will be too late, which at this point in time, could be as soon as next week. Mark Halperin of Time magazine writes: "It will probably take a market crash to get enough House Republicans willing to compromise." In Washington's current GOP, compromise is the new dirty word. "When Grover Norquist, the de facto head of the Republican Congress, has defined bipartisanship as 'date rape,' and any tax increase as heresy." a regular commenter to the New York Times' columns wrote recently online, "you can see why the GOP has boxed itself right into a corner."

Finally, allow me to indulge in the poignant words of yet another reader's comment: "If I hear Boehner or that creep Cantor moan one more time about not putting a 'tax burden' on the wealthy who create all these wonderful jobs, I'll vomit." To which I would add that maybe, when all is said and done, THIS is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a vomit.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Infusing Hope Into the Dark Night of Our Species (2): The Annunciation

Following up on my previous blog referencing Andrew Harvey's book "The Hope," I want to recount the particular mystical experience that jolted Andrew's life-long journey as a spiritual seeker into a new realm of what he calls "sacred activism," and caused him to dedicate his life from then on to relieving the world's suffering. I believe it was an Annunciation of sorts that led him to his future role as a "sacred activist."

By his own account, a Divine intervention occurred in Andrew's life at the time when his father was dying in Coimbatore, India. In conversations they had at his deathbed, his father told him how he had come to see that the future of the world was in danger and that only a revolution of the heart, expressed in action, could transform the situation. "I hope to God we still have time," his father kept on saying.

While his father was dying, Andrew went to a local Catholic church nearby, on the feast day of Christ the King, where he heard the priest sermonizing about the power of the resurrected Jesus, whose fiery love no cruelty could deter or defeat. The priest informed the congregation that this was the model for what would resurrect the world from its suffering, poverty, despair, and apathy.

"After the priest finished talking and sat down," Andrew writes, "I looked up at the statue of the resurrected Christ at the end of the church. The only thing i can say about what happened next is that the statue became alive. For almost 15 minutes I saw the Christ in majestic, radiant golden light...It was both an ecstasy and an agony beyond anything I had ever known or even imagined." He goes on to describe how the fire streaming between his heart and the heart of the resurrected Christ felt like a knife plunging again and again into his heart--and that what was being revealed to him was the cosmic force of Divine Love and the potential divinity of all human beings who would allow themselves to be possessed and transformed by Divine Passion. This fire was what it will take for us to survive the coming ordeals and cataclysms, according to Andrew. "This was the fire in which a new world would be created out of the smoldering ashes of the old."

As he emerged from the church, Andrew saw an emaciated man with no arms or legs, "planted in a filthy puddle." Thinking he saw the re-embodied Christ in this figure crucified by suffering and poverty, he ran towards him to offer help. It was then that he heard a voice, which seemed to come from inside him, speak. It began by upbraiding him for his selfish spiritual ways-- exploiting mystical teachings for his own personal pleasure and career, when what he needed to be doing instead was devoting all of his actions and resources to ending the horror everywhere around him.

"The world," the voice said, "is burning to death in the fires of greed and ignorance. All of animal and human life is now threatened. This being you see before you is one of billions in anguish. See behind him and around him the burning forests, the polluted seas, the vanishing tigers and polar bears. The Divine is being crucified again and again by a humanity obsessed with its own needs and driven dominate and control and exploit everything."

At that point, I couldn't help thinking of the Republican blowhards sitting in the West Wing, even as I wrote this, and playing Russian roulette with the debt ceiling, their pretzel brains working overtime to corner and defeat the President politically under the camouflage of claiming to want to reduce the budget deficit. (Despite their current posturing, Republicans voted seven times to raise the debt ceiling during George W. Bush's administration, even while Bush was busy doubling the national debt.) Then, quite unexpectedly, I had my own epiphany. Teleported straight into the White House, I crashed one of these meetings, ongoing exercises in Republican futility. I looked hard at Eric Cantor, John Boehner, and Mtich McConnell--who, whenever a bipartisan agreement is within reach, turn on their heels and leave the president holding the bag--and I read out loud to them the final comments spoken to Andrew by his mystical voice:

"Everything you are and everything you do from this moment on must help human beings awaken to their inner divinity and to its responsibilities of urgent sacred action. The only questions you will be asked when you cross over the waters of death are 'What did you do while the world was burning? How did you work to heal the horror of a world on fire? What did you love enough to risk and give your life for?' Nothing else will matter. Understand this now."

The voice then advised Andrew to turn away from everything he had been and done and believed, and to dive into the furnace of a Divine Love that embraces all beings. It demanded that he give his whole life to spread and embody the message of its passion to the world. The only hope, both for him and for humanity, is to take up the challenge of the Divine and put the fire of Divine Compassion into radical action in every arena of the world."

Would it have any effect, make any difference? Probably not with these guys. By his own account, the call to action dramatized by the "voice" terrified even Andrew. "It left me nowhere to turn and no self-justification to cling to. I felt vulnerable, naked, broken, and exposed, a fraud and fool, absolutely inadequate to what was being asked of me, afraid of what the voice was revealing about the world," he writes.

I found myself wondering if anything--or anyone--could ever make men like Cantor, Boehner, or McConnell feel vulnerable, naked, broken or exposed--much less a fraud or a fool.

"If I," Andrew continues, "who had pursued spiritual truth for 20 years, could be so resistant to a vision I knew came directly from the Divine, how would others...even begin to receive the message, let alone act upon it?" The question cannot be improved upon, and it begs answering. Annunciations, it must be said, are all-encompassing. Once they strike, you cannot really avoid their imperative. You can recoil, but you cannot really refuse them.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Infusing Hope Into the Dark Night of Our Species

When he was 41, Andrew Harvey met Father Bede Griffith, a renowned mystic and teacher living in India, who was 85 years old at the time. Harvey, a serious seeker, mystic, and teacher himself [check out his particulars on Amazon or at www.andrewharvey,org] spent 10 days at Griffith's ashram, taping interviews with the Master for a friend's documentary film. One of the first things Father Bede said to him was "You know, Andrew, don't you, that we are now living in the 'Hour of God'?" Andrew asked him to explain what he meant by the 'Hour of God'."

"I mean that humanity has come to the moment when it will have to choose between trying to play God, with the catastrophic results we see all around us, and trying to become what all the true mystical traditions know we can become--one with God through grace in life. This is a dangerous yet wonderful and hopeful moment because if enough of us can choose the latter, the birth of a wholly new kind of human being, and so of a new world, is possible."

This is where I always have my fatal stumble with spirituality today: its presumption of a new kind of human being and a new world that will miraculously unfold after humanity has traversed a near-deathlike dark night of the soul. Standing lonesome watch as I do when I often feel like I am live-blogging the end of the world, what I see is one unforgiving catastrophe unfolding after another. It seems relentless. (Check out the new oil spill currently polluting the Yellowstone River.) From these circumstances, the leap into envisioning "a new kind of human being and a new world" frankly eludes me. I feel only dread at what awaits the human race.

Reading Andrew's book "The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism" this summer, however, is helping me to pass, like a fitful camel, through the eye of that needle. The words he writes and the stories he tells have made me feel less alone in my heartbreak. This is because Andrew minces no words when he describes the depths of his own dread and despair, and how difficult it has been to confront them. "How could any half-conscious human being NOT feel dread at the enormous suffering that is erupting all over the world?" The extremity of it is overwhelming.

"Dread," Andrew writes, "is the most paralyzing of all human of all human emotions and the one I, and everyone else I know, will do almost anything to avoid. Facing the depth of my dread has threatened me, at times, with hopelessness. What I have found, however, is that acknowledging my dread and treating it not as a weakness to be repressed at all costs, but as an inevitable response to real circumstances, has helped me start to heal it."

Personal disclosure: I haven't read too many people willing to be that unflinchingly frank, and so I clutch onto this book as I would to a life raft. I relish the company of someone who writes the way I would like to write, who thinks the way I would like to think, and when I read him, I know myself a little better. Harvey asks questions the way no one else would: "How exactly do we acquire a 'lover's heart" [he is paraphrasing Rumi here] that stays 'a rose garden' however 'choked with thorns' our circumstances become?" I feel a little less lost in emotional Siberia when I read him.

It was Harvey's own "radical descent" into a fierce and angry disillusionment with humanity, he claims, that ultimately saved him. To experience this disillusionment, he now believes, is to face without denial the reality of the evil that we as a race have done to ourselves, to the animals, and to Nature. He catalogues the list of evils we have perpetrated thusly: brutal wars, genocides, the systematic rape of Nature, the creation of a free-for-all financial system that makes an elite few obscenely rich while billions of people live in terrible degradation--with the result that humanity is now in danger of losing its conscience and soul just when it needs them most. In the end, Harvey is convinced that only by "weathering the storms of grief and heartbreak and the hopelessness of a long, hard look at our crisis, the state of humanity, and the state of my own character" was he able to alchemically transmute the hopelessness and the heartbreak into an infusion of more illuminating energy.

For me, the lesson learned here--and there will be more of them to recount as I make my way through this remarkable book--is that hope is not some giddy, feel-good, Oprah Winfrey thing meant to spackle over your despair and keep you comfy while you go on about your daily business. Given where the planet is at this point, hope must be earned, by walking on the hot coals of a crisis-ridden world and running the gauntlet of a sickening chagrin and dismay. Only then can an authentic and embodied hope bloom into place and become a realistic possibility. Any hope, according to Andrew, that "glosses over the reality of evil or does not respect its power will not be of any use." And so, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. [To be continued.]

The illustration above was sent to me by my friend Jane Vance, who says it is the torso of a poor village Indian who saves and befriends animals, a detail from a painting-in-progress called "What Light Does to Fish."