Camelot and the King

Only one completely isolated from the world could have missed the fiftieth anniversary this past Friday of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  The media was inundated with stories—some nuanced history, others conspiracy theories—about the President and that tragic event in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza.

Camelot

Camelot

There were also stories this week that focused on President Kennedy’s family: beautiful Jackie, sweet Caroline, and precocious John who loved to salute his daddy, both in life and in death.  One article related the family weekend the Kennedys spent together the week just before that fateful, and fatal, trip to Dallas.  It evoked images of sun and health and idyllic joy.  Fifty years later, we still speak of that family as if from a storybook, and when describing them, we still use the mythic, royal term, “Camelot.”

But ours is a selective memory of that time and even that family, isn’t it?  We now know the kinds of things about President Kennedy’s private life that today would be regular media fodder but in Kennedy’s day were kept discreetly private.  And there was the Bay of Pigs; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the beginnings of American involvement in Vietnam; and domestically, just two months before Kennedy’s assassination, the racially-motivated 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham which killed four little African-American girls.

I want to be careful and clear at this point: I don’t raise any of these things to besmirch the memory of President Kennedy, whom I greatly admire.  I do so to remind us all that the Camelot storyline for the Kennedy presidency and family was not one that existed concurrent with those events.  Camelot was an image created, launched, and cultivated later, almost immediately after the assassination in fact.*  Camelot was not a description of the Kennedy era, in other words.  It was—and is—a mythic yearning for a “once upon a time” in which lives are not snuffed out in the millisecond it takes to record a frame of fuzzy film; in which the good triumphs, families are preserved, and love rather than terror carries the day.

An indelible image in our collective memory

An indelible image in our collective memory

Which brings me to the other fiftieth anniversaries we observed on Friday, November 22.  Two other internationally notable figures died on that day in 1963, but their deaths were but an afterthought to the assassination of an Arthurian president.

The first was Aldous Huxley, who died from laryngeal cancer and whose dystopian novel Brave New World was required reading when I was in school.  Huxley wrote Brave New World in the midst of the Great Depression, when, after the excesses of the 1920s, the world seemed to deteriorate toward utter collapse.  He wrote the novel in Italy, as he experienced first-hand Benito Mussolini’s fascist answer to a world out of control.  Huxley’s book is set five hundred years in our future, during a time when human beings have traded creativity and joy in favor of social stability and material well-being.  They live as drones in an artificial society run by one called, appropriately, “The World Controller.”  Huxley identifies with a character in the novel named John but usually called simply “the Savage,” one who is raised outside of the controlled dystopian society.  When the Controller explains to the Savage that the Controller’s society ensures stability and comfort, the Savage replies, “But I don’t want comfort.  I want God, I want poetry…I want freedom, I want goodness.”

Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley

It is Aldous Huxley’s desperate cry for his own kind of Camelot, for a kingdom in which the reigning king is good, and in which goodness itself reigns.  It is a vision Huxley believes to be forever out of reach, both in his book and in our real world, and in the end his Savage hangs himself.

The final person to die on November 22, 1963 was none other than C.S. Lewis.   Lewis died of renal failure fifteen minutes after Huxley and an hour before Kennedy.

No less than those who grieved John F. Kennedy, no less than Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis imagined a mythic alternative to the reality we experience in our daily world.**  But whereas the Kennedy Camelot was nostalgia for something that never fully existed, and whereas the agnostic Huxley was ultimately hopeless, Lewis’ vision—which permeates virtually all of his books—is one on which he’ll stake his soul.

In the fourth book in Lewis’ Narnia series, The Silver Chair, a mysterious queen traps the book’s children in a dark and dreary, underground kingdom called “Underland.”  She convinces them that their surface world of light and life is false, something they’ve dreamed but that never really existed.

Puddleglum, a wonderful, frog-like Lewis character who is the children’s companion, refuses to fall under the queen’s spell.  He responds, “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things: trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones…We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.”

Puddleglum

Puddleglum

I bring up these three remarkable men not primarily because of the concurrence of their deaths, but because of the alternative images of reality they invoke.  And these images are particularly important on this day not primarily because of the anniversaries of their deaths, but because this is Christ the King Sunday.  Today is the one day of the year we are encouraged particularly to focus on what it might mean to call Jesus the king of our world.

Too often when people claim the kingship of Jesus they are really hearkening back with wistful nostalgia to a Camelot-like religious world that never quite existed, in which people were God-fearing, values were upheld, and the threat of people different from ourselves was kept at bay.  But in truth, that world was as fraught with danger and uncertainty as JFK’s political world, and Jesus no more ruled hearts of men and women then than he does now.

Others, including many Christians (perhaps some of us), punt the idea that Jesus reigns altogether.  Theirs is a fatalism gentler than Aldous Huxley’s to be sure, but in less guarded moments they’ll acknowledge that, while they wish a world of goodness and grace existed, they hold little hope that it ever will.

Lewis’ vision is different.  Make no mistake; though Lewis wrote seven children’s books, he is no Pollyanna.  Lewis saw death and despair in the trenches of World War I.  He experienced the Blitz.  He lost a wife to cancer.  And his scene in The Silver Chair, in which Puddleglum chooses to hang onto a vision of the surface world even if it’s a dream, is not C.S. Lewis merely making Pascal’s famous wager that it is safer to bet on God’s existence than against it.  Rather, Lewis is revealing—as he does over and over again—that Jesus is the King when we live as subjects.  There can be no more important message in our world, in our church, and in our lives.

The call of Jesus the King is to quit pining for a past that never was, to quit shouting into the darkness of a hopeless world, and to choose—to commit ourselves to—the vision of a world in which Jesus reigns.  It is the world St. Paul articulates today, in which Christ “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of [light].”  It is the world in which God is constantly, actively working “to reconcile to himself all things.”  It is the world in which Jesus the Christ—who is nothing other than the embodiment of grace—is “that for whom all things are made, and in whom all things hold together.”

When we commit ourselves to this vision, we become subjects of this king.  And when we live as subjects of this king, the vision begins—person by person, heart by heart, action by action—to become the world’s reality.

In Lewis’ work, even a swamp-dwelling, frog-eyed amphibious biped like Puddleglum can be the subject of this king, the courageous voice that declares the supposed victory of despair we see around us to be the false reality, the one who says the vision of light and life is ultimately real and will ultimately triumph.  Even Puddleglum; even us.  We are subjects of Jesus the Christ, you and I, and we seek not Camelot but the kingdom of God.

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*For the origin of the Camelot image with regard to the Kennedy administration, see:  http://www.thenation.com/blog/177333/kennedy-week-myth-camelot-and-dangers-sycophantic-consensus-journalism#

**Though I’m not usually a fan of Ross Douthat’s column in The New York Times, Mr. Douthat keyed me onto the juxtaposition of Puddleglum and the Savage.  In my first draft, I utilized The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to exemplify Lewis’ alternative vision for the world, but Douthat’s insight about Puddleglum works much better.  The specific quotes I employ from both  Brave New World and The Silver Chair are also from Mr. Douthat’s column:  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/opinion/sunday/douthat-puddleglum-and-the-savage.html?ref=rossdouthat&_r=0

Thrown in a ditch, bleeding and alone

A twenty-something young man from the highlands of Scotland had recently moved to New York City.  He lived in a mid-rise with paper thin walls.  After a month, his mother called to see how he was getting on.  The man replied (in a Scottish brogue I can’t mimic), “It’s okay, I suppose, but the neighbors are a bit daft.  The woman on one side of me screams and cries all night, and the man on the other side keeps banging his head against the wall.

“Never you mind,” said his mother, “Don’t you let them get to you.  Just ignore them.”

“Aye, that I do,” the young man replied, “I just keep on playing my bagpipes.”[i]

BagpiperNeighbors.  The great novelist and theologian G.K. Chesterton famously said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”

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Today’s Gospel passage from Luke begins with Jesus’ “Great Commandment,” that upon which all the law and the prophets hangs.  A lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And Jesus responds by directing the man back to God’s truth in Judaism, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Both Matthew and Mark offer versions of this account as well.  In Matthew’s version, the account ends right there.  In Mark’s version, Jesus effusively congratulates his conversation partner, and then the account ends.  Neither Matthew nor Mark ring true to me.  It seems unlikely that Jesus would let his questioner off the hook at that point, just as it seems unlikely that the inquirer would be satisfied with what is a vague, even though profound, commandment.

Not so in Luke, but then again, of all the Gospels Luke’s is the most earthy and real.  Today, after Jesus hearkens back to the Jewish proclamation of faith, the inquiring lawyer pursues, “But just who is my neighbor?”

This is the pivot point of the conversation, and we mustn’t be fooled.  The lawyer is not asking this second question because he has interest in seeking out his neighbor and extending holy and sacred love.  No.  The lawyer is setting limits, parameters.  He’s trying to establish the fence line, so that he knows just how far past his own property he must love without going one step farther.  The lawyer asks the question in order not to discern who he should love but to know who he can exclude.  He hopes Jesus might answer like the leaders of the religious establishment and say, “Your neighbor is your brother Jew,” limiting the lawyer’s obligation to the religiously observant males of his caste.

houses with fences

He’s trying to establish the fence line, so that he knows just how far past his own property he must love without going one step farther.

Or, Jesus might say, “Your neighbor includes the widow and orphan,” which would put Jesus in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets.  Even that answer wouldn’t surprise the lawyer or give him too many fits.

But Jesus turns the tables.  He doesn’t answer the question at all, not the question the lawyer asks, anyway.  Instead, Jesus tells a story, the parable we have come to know as the Good Samaritan:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw the man, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw the man, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  The next day the Samaritan took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of this man; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”Good Samaritan

Usually when this parable is read and preached, the take-away is that we are to be like the Samaritan, to reach out to the person in need, rather than walking by on the other side of the road.  The person right in front of us, wherever we find ourselves, is our neighbor.  That’s a good message, a Gospel message.  Indeed, laws encouraging citizens to provide such aid are called “Good Samaritan laws.”  But that is actually the secondary message Jesus is conveying.  What is the primary message?

Jesus is a Jew speaking to a lawyer who is also a Jew.  And who is the Jew in the parable?  None other than the man “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” the man who is beaten and thrown into the roadside ditch.  In other words, we are not first to identify with the Samaritan who provides care; we are to identify with the man stripped naked and left vulnerable, who is at the mercy of whoever might pass by on the road.

You see, before Jesus can answer the lawyer’s question, the lawyer has to open his eyes to what he himself needs in order both to become and recognize a neighbor.  The lawyer must be stripped of his pretension.  He must give up the quest to set rigid and protective boundaries that shield him from danger.  He must quit his attempt to figure out who he can exclude.  He must recognize that he—that all of us—are vulnerable.  We are but one encounter away from having our world stripped from us and finding ourselves in desperate need.  Only once we realize this can we begin to grasp that love of neighbor is characterized by solidarity with neighbor, by a willingness to receive grace and care wherever and by whomever it is extended, which only then transforms us into people who desire to give that same grace and care to all those we meet, without boundaries.

Let me put it this way: Jesus sets up his parable to ask, “If we found ourselves in the ditch, bleeding and alone, from whom would we be willing to receive care?”  And Jesus chooses the most provocative character possible in order to drive home his point.  After the priest and the Levite (socially-acceptable neighbors both) walk away from our plaintive cries, the Samaritan approaches us without hesitation.

is, to present-day Jews, the Palestinian.  He is, to Southerners not so long ago (and maybe still today for some) the New England Yankee.  To the conservative Republican, he is the MoveOn.org Democrat.  Or to the liberal Democrat, he is the Tea Party Republican.

The Samaritan is, to present-day Jews, the Palestinian. He is, to Southerners not so long ago, the Yankee. To the conservative Republican, he is the MoveOn.org Democrat. To the liberal Democrat, he is the Tea Party Republican.

For a first-century Jew, the Samaritan is the worst of the worst.  He is a heretic. In a culture that prized ethnic purity, he is the interracial product of Jews who intermarried with pagan foreigners.  He has been on the opposite side of grudges and wars.  He is, to present-day Jews, the Palestinian.  He is, to Southerners not so long ago (and maybe still today for some) the New England Yankee.  To the conservative Republican, he is the MoveOn.org Democrat.  Or to the liberal Democrat, he is the Tea Party Republican.  To the Jewish lawyer to whom Jesus tells this parable, the Samaritan is worthless.

And yet, it is from the Samaritan that the man in the ditch must receive aid, if he is to receive it at all.  He must receive the Samaritan’s tender touch, the Samaritan’s balm to soothe his cuts and bruises, the Samaritan’s money to pay for his lodging.  Would you be willing to receive your life back from the person you most loathed, the person you most disdained?  Would you be vulnerable enough to accept that grace and mercy?

These are the questions Jesus is posing, and it is only when we grapple with them and respond with a humble “yes” that we begin truly to grasp the scope of what Jesus means—what God means—when he tells us to love our neighbors.  When we have recognized our human frailty, when we have acknowledged our vulnerability, when we have imagined ourselves at the mercy of those of whom we are most suspicious, then we begin to understand both the risk and the grace of what it means to be loved and to love.

Would you be willing to receive your life back from the person you most loathed, the person you most disdained?

Being a neighbor is not about putting up fences and stingily deciding to whom to open the gate.  Being a neighbor is about stripping down fences and all other defenses and seeing as neighbor even those most different from us.  Loving the neighbor is receiving his grace and extending it back to him.  And lest we forget, loving the neighbor is tantamount to loving God.


[i] From the internet.

Washing away a name

In Memphis National Cemetery, very near my hometown, ten thousand American servicemen are buried, including one of my own great uncles.  Within the cemetery, one finds row upon row of white markers engraved with “Unknown U.S. Soldier” on the marble.  There are more unidentified troops buried at Memphis than anywhere else in the country except Arlington National Cemetery.  That seems an odd fact for a military graveyard in a mid-sized Southern city, and I always wondered why it was so.

Row upon row of what markers engraved with "Unknown U.S. Soldier" at Memphis National Cemetery.

Row upon row of what markers engraved with “Unknown U.S. Soldier” at Memphis National Cemetery.

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Today is All Saints Sunday.  But for Easter, it is my favorite Sunday in the church year.  Today we remember all those who have graced our lives, living and dead.  We celebrate the champions of the faith, the martyrs and the prophets, those who have moved us with words and music, who lift our spirits to God.  Today’s first reading, from the Apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus, gets at the heart of All Saints Day perhaps better than any other:

Let us now sing the praises of famous men,
our ancestors in their generations.
The Lord apportioned to them great glory,
his majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,
and made a name for themselves by their valor;
those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;
those who spoke in prophetic oracles;
those who led the people by their counsels
and by their knowledge of the people’s lore;
they were wise in their words of instruction;
those who composed musical tunes,
or put verses in writing;
all these were honored in their generations,
and were the pride of their times.
Some of them have left behind a name,
so that others declare their praise.

Yes, indeed.  On All Saints Day we celebrate those larger-than-life saints whose names we will praise until the end of time.

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The Sultana, burdened by almost ten times the number of people she was designed to carry.

The Sultana, burdened by almost ten times the number of people she was designed to carry.

It was April 24, 1865.  Just down the Mississippi River from Memphis at Vicksburg, Mississippi, a long line of weary soldiers waited to board the 260-foot paddlewheel steamboat Sultana.  These were Union soldiers, many of whom recently had been released from the Cahaba and Andersonville Confederate POW camps.  The Sultana had left New Orleans three days earlier with ninety passengers on board.  She’d been built to carry 376 people, but even so, one of her boilers almost immediately began leaking.  By the time the Sultana reached Vicksburg, her captain determined that the boiler was a safety hazard and needed to be replaced.

There was, however, the competing problem of a schedule.  The Sultana had been hired to carry all those POWs back north to their homes.  The Army insisted that she make good time, so the captain allowed two thousand additional troops to board the Sultana at Vicksburg–the boat creaked and groaned under their weight–and he noted that he’d replace the boiler when they reached St. Louis.

On April 26, the Sultana docked in Memphis and amazingly took on another three hundred passengers.  A boat designed for the weight of less than four hundred people now carried twenty-five hundred.  Every square foot was covered with human beings, packed tightly indoors and on deck.  And at 2 o’clock in the morning, as the weary soldiers slept, the cracked boiler exploded in a ball of deadly metal and flame.  The boat’s wreckage quickly sank into the muddy waters of the Mississippi.  Men already weakened by war and imprisonment were burned, drowned, and died of hypothermia.  The carnage was massive.  The official death toll was 1,547.  That’s thirty more people than died on the Titanic.

The Sultana ablaze

The Sultana ablaze

And so it was that many of the soldiers arrived in the North for burial rather than a homecoming.  Many more, though, were slated to be buried at the new Memphis National Cemetery, with full military honors.  Their bodies were placed in wooden coffins and lined up on a railroad depot platform to await the short train to the cemetery.  Their names were carefully written in chalk on the caskets to ensure that their permanent grave markers would be correct.  Then it began to rain.  Water poured down, immersing the caskets, running in torrents over the chalk.  The soldiers’ names—their identities—were washed away.  And now they reside in row upon neatly manicured row at Memphis National, one after the other an “Unknown U.S. Soldier.”[i]

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This morning’s reading from Ecclesiasticus goes on.  After we’ve praised the larger-than-life heroes of the faith, we read:

But of others there is no memory;
they have perished as though they had never existed;
they have become as though they had never been born,
they and their children after them.

At first this seems melancholy, wistfully sad that the mass of the faithful die, ultimately nameless.  It hits us hard: the realization that it will someday be as if we had never been born.  But then we remember that All Saints is also a baptismal day.  Between the 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Eucharists, we will baptize a total of ten new saints today.  And in baptism, we already wash away our old identity.  We are washed clean of the world entirely, and we emerge somehow new.  Anne Lamott describes baptism this way:

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

“Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under.  But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s also holy, and absurd.  It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched…And in the Christian experience of baptism, the hope is that when you go under and you come out, maybe a little disoriented, you haven’t dragged the old day along behind you.  The hope, the belief, is that a new day is upon you now.”[ii]

The hope, the belief, is that a new day is upon you now.  The hope, the belief, is also that a new identity is upon you now.  It is indeed true that the day will come when our names—my name, Barkley Stuart Thompson—will be washed from human memory just as the chalk was washed from all those caskets on a Memphis train platform.  But then again, Barkley Stuart Thompson is not my true name after all, not ultimately.  I have been baptized, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.  My name, your name, and very soon the names of ten new children is Christian, a named washed onto us indelibly through the waters of baptism.  For those on the Sultana, the waters of the Mississippi were waters of death unto death.  For those in the church, the waters of baptism are waters of death unto new life.

That is what All Saints Day is all about.  The Ecclesiasticus reading ends:

But these also were godly men,
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
Their offspring will continue forever,
and their glory will never be blotted out.
Their bodies are buried in peace,
but their name lives on generation after generation.

You see, in the heart and mind of God, no saint is ever lost or forgotten, not those young men in Memphis National Cemetery, not those we’ve loved and lost, not you, and not me.  And even in this world, our name—Christian—will live on so long as those with a steady commitment to the Gospel sow row upon row of grace in this world; so long as we are willing to live as saints during our days and pass on this precious charge to our children and our children’s children.

That is worth celebrating this day, as we remember all the saints who have gone before, in your life and in mine, and we honor them.


[i] The story of the Sultana comes from Andrew Carroll’s book, Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History, 34-40.

[ii] Lamott, Anne.  Traveling Mercies, 231-232.