Brother Mike [pastor at Shenandoah Bible Baptist Church] would say my soul is troubling me and that I need to be washed in the blood and redeemed by the grace of him who bled for our sins. I’d say that I am troubled by the distinct impression of approaching tri-horned fascism – part Christian, part military, part corporate.
– Joe Bageant, Deer Hunting with Jesus
In this pandemic time with its debilitating effects on mental health, I am indebted to Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, for pointing out in an online message the phenomenon of holiday depression. Or rather, my soul is grateful; I can’t speak for others, but in me during the holidays, unwelcome feelings get thrust down inside, often under more-than-normal amounts of wine, ambitious food preparations and (now limited) social gaiety, and dutiful shopping. After many years of cultivating a relationship with my creative soul, I regard her as a distinct entity. That “least one” in me, who thanklessly fields the dark unwanted feelings I’d rather not know about, was grateful for an ally speaking her truth! What my despondent soul usually gets from me, especially now as pandemic and holidays combine, is Sweetie, I know you feel terrible, but here, I’ll drink some sauvignon blanc; you’ll feel better.
Rabbi Lerner has my gratitude because I (we) live in a materialist culture in which dark feelings are unacceptable no matter what the time of year. Dominant, ruthless secularism is psycho-spiritual oppression, a major contributing cause of the spiritual sickness, prevailing weakness and lack of exuberant, resurgent energy in liberal society. Repressing and denying so much, it’s difficult to find energy leftover for imagining a common good. Easier to want nothing so grand as the utopian dream of community (radically inclusive enough to include oneself!); to instead, allow these ideals to remain abstract and impersonal, not blood-deep, and energizing. Easier, then, to vote for the lesser evil and fool yourself into believing it’s for the greater good.
In previous years, he tells us, Rabbi Lerner has offered group counseling services for people suffering this malady. That such groups exist, fulfilling a need, provides evidence for his claim – the depression, though not supposed to be – is real.
Not that I need evidence. My melancholic temperament, during the pandemic, has gone off the charts. I’m not sure I will live long enough to retrieve the baseline of what I used to call being “happy,” or just reasonably “content.” However, over a 2 ½ -decade conscious relationship with my depressive nature, I have come to appreciate it and to actually trust it for keeping me honest. Even the pandemic has not convinced me (so far) I should get a prescription for an antidepressant! The recognition one is depressed prompts an inquiry – where is the black devouring mood coming from? Such a probe, depending on one’s temerity, or perhaps on the mirror held up to one by an undeceived loved one – leads further to deeply meaningful discoveries. It leads, in fact, to one’s true story, that is, not to the dominant story you stuck to loyally for the sake of others, but the one of what really happened to you, growing up in “the greatest country in the world” (in which your real felt experience was/is, cruelly, denied!).
Suppression of feelings is a way of life in America, intensified at the holidays when due to the contrast between insurgent feelings and the happy music playing at the shopping center, with Christmas lights and trees popping up everywhere…one’s depressed state is unmistakeable. The other day I remarked to Orin that the only friends who have ever risked revealing their gloom to me, not treating depression as abnormal, were friends who are artists. Perhaps artists can be more tolerant toward Saturn and “the Blues” because melancholy is a useful goad to the creative process.
Another person my soul thanks is author Chris Hedges, who, from his position as ordained minister, has called out the mainstream Christian churches’ failure to denounce the heresy of the fascist Christian right’s “prosperity gospel.” In so doing he, like Rabbi Lerner, points to a matter that is akin to the liberal world’s tendency to discount darker feelings. That is, because liberals assume ourselves to be post-religious, matters of religion or theology are regarded as arcane, inapplicable and uninteresting in the modern, techno-dazzling world. To the contrary! Just as denial of the soul’s function – i.e., feeling things – is injurious to personal well-being, the fact that people on the progressive secular left cannot understand the seriousness of this theological issue dooms our chances of effectively treating the social sickness of fascism. Bourgeois liberalism that favors a chipper disposition, not to be bothered with darker feelings however true they be, also cannot see that fascism, and not anything “leftward,” socialist, or universal-good oriented, is the favored child in the neoliberal “family;” i.e., “Daddy” will always like the tough bully best, and rely on the most vulnerable accepting their inferior, expendable place.
The most serious matter facing “the left,” a term I use to identify an entity that refuses to be “One Thing,” and therefore is mostly “No Thing,” is its incapacity to unify. We cannot seem to agree upon what it is we want for the political reality. We will talk about and act for environmental justice, racial justice, an end to militarism and colonialist exploitation (and identity oppression of course) etc., without agreeing that capitalism and class are the root of what’s wrong. The problem remains that leftward activism – excepting movements coming out of peoples’ directly experiencing oppression – tends never to gain the enthusiasm of the many solidly behind it. Christian fascists, on the other hand, have shown they know what they want politically – power – and to a remarkable and menacing degree they have been successful at attaining it. They are winning the hearts-and-minds fight, while we are losing. We must not forget: in this election with its gratifying turnout the enthusiasm was not in the vote for Biden, but in the votes for and against Trump.
In liberal reality, power, like white supremacy, is assumed, though never admitted. Having no political agenda with a higher priority than preserving the Democratic Party’s Wall St. friends, liberals are blindsided by the phenomena, over and over, of the political successes these really “stupid people” are capable of, reaching a crescendo with Amy Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court! Christian extremists have brought fascism into “respectability,” subverting entirely liberalism’s cherished assumption that no such movement ever could take hold here. Brilliantly strategic, they have become what they needed to become in order to win: policy wonks, lawyers, supreme court judges, etc., drawing people into conservative ranks by the very strength of their conviction and will to win.
Liberals, on the other hand, are liberals, following our own career trajectories, expecting only that the context will stay nice and supportive (for us) while we do so, at our best concerned about immigrants, hydrofracking and the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. At worst, tragically unconcerned as the relationships that make up “the good” in society become increasingly shredded and incohesive, not only between blue and red, but in every local community, its neighborhoods and businesses, and in every family, including our own. That is, following June Jordan, if you let bad things happen in someone else’s neighborhood (factory closings, job outsourcing, meth and heroin addictions, etc.) as if relatedness and interdependence are conditional rather than absolute, as if class distinctions are tolerable, the very same woes will come to yours.
The problem liberals face, then, in order to regain political enthusiasm sufficient to defy the absolute dominion of capitalism, is to restore unconditionality to relationships. This being the domain of despised religion, leads to my outrageous ‘modest proposal.’ Secular progressive atheist-leaning liberals who profess to hold out for peace, love and our Mother the Earth, must now see we’ve gone as far as we can treating ideals as if using the words makes them real enough, as if we can refer to “interdependence” as a fact even though we deny its metaphysical basis. Those who still profess, against the zeitgeist, to be steadfastly for the vision of the common good must take an unprecedentedly outrageous vanguard action against hegemonic rationalism (however, no more unprecedented or outrageous than Rev. MLK, Jr.’s denouncement of capitalism!): i.e., place their bodies in the places where interdependence is fact, but ever a spiritual, not scientific one.
Although our loyalty to liberalism has qualified for us the unconditional personal and family-centered focus of the churches, we continue to acknowledge – albeit conditionally – the unitive vision of compassion and peace for which it is the churches’ acknowledged social role to speak. Thus, to remove the ages-old inclusive vision from conditional to absolute, to be able to oppose capitalism on the grounds of its radically evil disregard for the truth of relatedness, by all rights we ought to be in church, testifying bodily to the vision of charity for all, and “what you do for the least of these you do for me.” Never mind the fact you don’t “believe in God;” forget the theological queaze about calling Jesus Lord and Savior; this is about that vision of the good for all, that has not for a long time in America – since the Wobblies, possibly – driven activism on the left. Authentic zeal for the core truth of interrelatedness, all creation one and sacred, baptizes, for surely that is the core of Jesus’s message!
Churches, like our politics, fall to those with conviction; we can wait no longer for the left to get back conviction but now must engage in the fight “body and soul,” or it will continue piecemeal and ineffective. Where Christian fascists have used their “passionate intensity” unabashedly to restructure power arrangements, the left must find its moral intensity not top down, but bottom up, which is where the true gospel message issues from, and how it gained the hearts of so many. That is, it offered the incomparably powerful allure of making people feel seen, all people, from the smallest children to the most decrepit geezers, black, brown, yellow, red and white, from the most wretched and despised to the rich young man who won’t make it through the eye of the needle, from people trying to make it from paycheck to paycheck, to people who can travel the globe (but should not if they are considering the good for all unto the 7th generation.)
Trump Republicans have their “base” in those angry, demeaned and hardworking white people CounterPunch alumnus Joe Bageant wrote so well about. The liberal “base” is located in the creative souls that are equally demeaned and discounted in liberal reality; when that base is reached, hearts and minds will be caught in that net of the common good. Each liberal soul that feels those darker, unwanted feelings of never-confessed sadness, fear and rage, is sensitive to this message; each one yearns to at last be seen. I hurt, therefore I am. No matter how profoundly it has been repressed under the bourgeois regime and reward system, the soul, the heart, wants its recognition and its voice. One way it can be reached is by means of art, making something beautiful out of pain. Another is by means of the profound truth preserved in religious tradition that the liberal world finds it convenient to forget.
It’s time, now or never, quite literally, for all good lefties to see they can’t make it on alone being “right,” but must surrender to a more inclusive “right,” embodied in religious language and purpose, that has authority behind it. Liberals must enter the “fray” of frayed human relationships now experienced only by those on the bottom. No longer can the fiction be maintained – not so different from the prosperity gospel – of being above it. The waters of social disintegration are rising; soon we’ll be treading water in the drowning seas with everyone except the corporate elite that owns the lifeboats. There’s no real mystery to what I’m saying; without a vision, the people perish, and this is what we see now as society unravels. BLM will not save us; if white middle class educated people on the left cannot find their own purposive zeal to equal that on the fascist right, there will be no contest!
The hitch – and there is one – is this. The surrender cannot be “lip service” only. Each “convert” must have the very experience of the poetic soul (“the Holy Spirit”) Jesus had – that changed his life. Read poetically, just as Jesus knew God the Father in his solitude, each convert can and ought to have the same confidence in direct, subjectively ‘gnostic’ knowing. Among other things, such experience, when real, allows a person to understand “God” as metaphor for the powerful, unitive, transcendent experience. This is not the objectionable “personal God” that Christians pray to to answer personal prayers, watch over their side in battle, bless their families but sometimes not immigrant – or socialist – families etc., but the impersonal experience of oneness and inclusiveness that exists in every heart’s imagination, authoritative over every egoic defense.
Since there could be no more potently meaningful surrender for educated post-religious white people, to absolute, rather than conditional truth, than joining a church, this must be part of the strategy. A long overdue swallowing of pride is needed in order to take up that life of church attendance, hymn singing, bible-reading, etc., the object being not to proclaim one’s difference from the others, but to claim true commonality with the others. Moreover, mainstream churches, long-suffering from the hemorrhaging of members to fundamentalist megachurches, and from their own timidity – could use the transfusion of utopianist blood.
The Christian message has been hijacked for a purpose entirely opposed to the one of relatedness and love. It may be time for a new generation of individualist prophets to take it back, and at the same time (win-win!), to rescue our own souls from the moral oblivion of bourgeois liberalism; to have, once more, the fire of conviction to inspire the ones who desire that utopian world of common good, and are prepared to practice in their lives – once the pandemic clears – a simpler, lowlier, “lower class,” family and community-centered way of life. Not based in ignorance – no need to oppose the intellect and its joys against the joys of the heart – nor in fundamentalist rejection of the goods of technological progress, but weighing them carefully against the good for all. This lowlier way, more communal, more interdependent and locally-based, will be something good and worth defending against the siren call of liberal aspiration to career success and social supremacy that is the left’s own shadowy, unchallenged prosperity gospel.