“My soul is among lions: and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.”
All times are desperate in their own way, and our time is no exception. What characterizes our age? A madness that takes itself seriously, that fosters delusions and obsessions that require extraordinary expenditures of energy to maintain. Is there anything more exhausting than the self’s efforts to promote itself about all other selves? Who are we trying to impress? The answer: anyone who can be taken in by us. The result is, in Thomas Merton’s words, “an awful pattern of lusts, greeds, angers, and hatreds which mix us up together like a mass of dough and thrust us all together into the oven.” We can’t even have a rational conversation anymore. Go to a party and notice the lupine expressions on people’s faces. What can we learn from them? That human beings are to be devoured and disposed of when they no longer serve a useful purpose.
Never in my lifetime have we needed the scholar warrior more than we do now. His or her words are needed to slice away falsehoods and to impart reason to a fanatical world. Such a warrior will not shun conflict in the service of truth. He or she will call a thing but its right name no matter who’s offended. Most important, the scholar warrior won’t succumb to flattery, honors, or the admiration of others, since these things offer a temptation to forsake one’s moral courage.
Some people would maintain that the scholar warrior is woefully out of fashion. I would maintain there’s no greater evidence of the need for him or her. Our first line of defense against the lies we tell ourselves is a language that won’t let itself be denied, that refuses equivocation. Connie Zweig describes how such language comes into being:
My pen is bokken, sword of discrimination, ruthless as it follows certain lines of thought onto the page and ignores others into nonexistence. My pen gives life or death to words. My pen cuts through partial truths, slashes weak verbs and, sparring and paring, uncovers a rare, gemlike mage. My pen knows the ancient practice of ‘Neti, neti,’ not this, not that.
The African American writer Ishmael Reed puts it slightly differently. He says, “Writin’ is fightin’.” And no less than St. Augustine calls writing a “contest” in which the writer must wrestle to discover “visible forms of an invisible grace.”
Who would deny that gracelessness describes much of the language surrounding us today? The reason? It is language without truth and therefore without beauty. Yet, how can there be truth when there are no truth tellers and no one willing to listen even if there were? C.S. Lewis notes that in past ages just such conditions inspired the rise of the scholar warrior. Of these, the most famous was King Arthur. Who was Arthur? He was no single person; he assumed a different incarnation in every age. Several of him could walk the earth at once, often in disguise. His appointed task: to expose lies and to restore words as manifestations of the Divine Word. Like the One who came before him, he did not fail to answer the call when forces conspired to ensure that the hour had grown late.
“Who whet their tongue like a sword, and bend their bows to shoot their arrows: That they may shoot in secret at the perfect: suddenly they do shoot at him and fear not.”
The problem of evil is always with us and, like Augustine, I despair of ever understanding its sources. What I know is that there are people who insist on hating and being intolerant and, for some reason, feel no compunction about trying to bend others to their wills. Even now at my college, there is an intense young man in his thirties, a veteran of the military, who makes a point of subtly harassing a friend of mine, a middle-aged woman and fellow faculty member, who is also a sponsor of Pride, a student gay rights group. The first time the young man in question made himself known to this woman, I had to intervene, confronting him directly. It is clear that he is irrational and that an observance of civility means nothing to him. He feels under no obligation to respect anyone’s authority but his own.
Such sociopaths make life unpleasant and potentially dangerous for the rest of us. In my exchange with the young man, it was clear to me that the only thing standing between his ferocity and my friend was the unspoken threat of force that I posed. I don’t want to be put in that situation. I deplore having to stand in that place because of someone’s Godzilla-sized ego and absence of conscience. But I don’t know what else to do.
I want to live peacefully, and I will exercise as much restraint as someone will let me. But I will not tolerate bullying of those unable to defend themselves against the viciousness of those who don’t give a thought to hurting others. I will just have to deal with the spiritual discomfort of being the sort of person I don’t like. God forgive me, but I’ve never known a bully to back down of his own accord. Going out of one’s way to avoid such people only seems to bring them out of the woodwork.
I try to keep in mind that this young man isn’t the first, nor will he be the last to believe that special accommodations are required for his moods and demented thinking. I also recall the psalmist’s assertion: “So they shall make their own tongue to fall upon themselves.” As for me, I need to wrestle with my own dark passions over this one. There is much an “enemy” teaches us about ourselves that we’d just as soon not know. What’s increasingly obvious is the extent to which I can’t afford the luxury of such ignorance.
“O thou that hearest prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come.”
Yesterday my wife and I sponsored a living room dialogue for a group of international peace builders. Four in all, three men and one woman; they’d come to the U.S. from India, Nepal, and Burma. After pleasantries, the conversation settled down to America’s role in world affairs, especially our penchant for involving ourselves in wars in faraway places. The visitors wanted to know whether the American people were as bellicose as their leaders.
I said that I was sorry to have to admit it but that I suspected most Americans supported the current war for reasons only vaguely familiar to them.
“But don’t they know what effects these wars have on our countries?” asked a Harvard-educated doctor from Burma.
“Most don’t even know where your countries are located,” I said.
They looked stunned.
“Keep in mind,” I continued, “that one in ten Americans can’t locate the United States on a map. Only forty percent of graduating high school seniors know in what century the American Civil War took place. And only one in six Americans reads one book a year, with book defined as a mystery novel or Harlequin romance.”
Clearly my guests were embarrassed for me.
“So, you see,” I ventured, “Americans are not acquainted with the long-standing traditions of democracy and literacy that were once the benchmarks of our society. If anything, Americans now have contempt for these traditions.”
“Then why do they insist on thinking that they’re patriotic?” the young woman from India asked. “Unfortunately, Americans no longer think in anything but slogans – the by-product of our insatiable habit of believing our own marketing hype. Critical thinking is at a standstill. We are T.S. Eliot’s hollow men,” I said, knowing that the well-educated foreigners would grasp the allusion.
“But what you Americans don’t seem to understand is that we in other countries admire your democratic traditions and look to you for inspiration,” said the man from Nepal. “That’s why it’s so hard to defend the action of your country to our neighbors when you engage in preemptive strikes and torture of prisoners. We expect such atrocities from petty dictators but not from the greatest democracy in the world.”
They wanted me to assure them that only a minority of Americans supported such heinous actions and that the majority of our populace was peace-loving.
“I wish I could do that,” I said. “I’m not sure I can.”
With that grim admission of uncertainty, the talk turned to conditions in their own countries. In particular, the young man from India, who had spent time there in a Jesuit seminary and who now ministered to refugees from Sri Lanka, remarked on the severe problem of child prostitution in his part of the world.
“Poor families will sell a child for two or three dollars. The children will be forced to become prostitutes even before they reach puberty. The unfortunate result is that many HIV patients still believe the misconception that they can be cured by having sex with a virgin. AIDS then spreads back and forth from the adult to the child population.”
“How does western tourism contribute to the situation?” I asked, recalling how I’d recently heard a conservative radio commentator argue that American businessmen shouldn’t be convicted by the legal system for having sex with children in other countries.
“It’s a factor. Westerners on holiday have no qualms about partaking in these activities. They even justify them by saying they’re contributing to the countries’ economies. Of course, everyone knows that Bangkok is the worst city in the world for these transactions.”
For a while we all sat in silence, trying to embrace the enormity of the situation. Unsuccessful, we at last began sharing our ironic perspectives of the human situation.
“In our part of the South,” I said, “we have people who handle poisonous snakes as part of their religious observance.”
“I bet they never tried to handle a cobra,” said my friend from India. “Let them come to India. We have plenty of snakes they can handle!”
We laughed and ate and continued to talk until our time together was over. Knowing we would probably never meet again, we hugged each other, hoping we’d given something important and lasting to one another’s understanding.
On the way out the door, Ashtok, the young Indian social worker, thanked me for my hospitality.
“If there’s ever anything I can do for you . . .” offered this young man from one of the poorest places on Earth.
“There is one thing.” He appeared surprised but happy to oblige.
“Pray for us,” I said, betraying an instant of anguish.
He smiled and nodded with what I could only guess to be a recognition of contradictions that trouble the sleep of children everywhere.