Sunday, July 05, 2009

Why do the heathen rage?

Taking a leaf from Chani's Sacred Life Sunday series, our text this morning is Psalm 2:1. In the words of the King James translation, it runs "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?"

There used to be a religious advertisement in The Washington Post that contained a small "column" sermonette by some Protestant evangelical that was perennially headlined Why Do the Heathen Rage? Even when I believed in Christianity I could never get very far before the sheer kookiness of the writer overwhelmed me. The author was a Southern preacher right out of Flannery O'Connor.

Turns out that among O'Connor's papers was found a draft novel 378 pages long, titled precisely “Why Do the Heathen Rage.” It is clearly an unfinished work that reveals O'Connor's literary mind in its 17 -- count 'em -- versions of a single porch scene.

O'Connor, like me, was a Catholic; like me she was intrigued by Protestant preaching, particularly the rambling low-church evangelical genre predominant in the South where she lived. To her the idiom must have been familiar; I still need subtitles for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

All the above goes to say that this question is resonant to most of humanity that I have come across. Let's hear the Psalmist once again:
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying, "Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us."
The thought came to me when Dubya could come to power unelected, order wiretapping on Americans, out his own country's intelligence officer and imprison people indefinitely without trial, all in defiance of his oath of office to the Constitution ... all with utter impunity.

Pace, Republicans! I imagine a similar outrage must have struck GOPers when Bill Clinton managed to accede to the male Holy Grail of oral sex at the office, without the tablets of family values parting a Red Sea of blood from his body. Not only that! His enemies were forced to resign. Among them, you will recall, one Newton Leroy Gingrich was found cavorting with a church choir singer while his wife lay dying of cancer.

Not all of us, however, take part in hijinks in the Oval Office or under the Capitol's dome.

To most of us the "heathens" (the Douay translation says "Gentiles") are ordinary folk, such as the lazy but imperious boss who gets acclaim for one's work, the colleague who gets raises undeservedly, the myriad of salespeople who sell us defective products under deceptive terms, the lover who cheats on us and yet "wins" the approval or envy of peers. And so on.

We do everything right, we tell ourselves, yet the other guy (it's usually a guy) overtakes us from the slow lane.

The Bible's solution doesn't quite do it, either. Take Psalm 2:4-6:
He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.  Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.  Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.
The Psalms have this thing with a king who will reign forever and "smite" anyone who even looked at us the wrong way. So? I want my smiting done right now!

Actually, to me, quite apart from Christianity or faith or dogma or anything of that sort, the question means something entirely different, something quite fitting now that I am an avowed apostate.

Why do I, the heathen, rage? Why did I, the heathen in believer's clothes, rage when I laughed at the author of Why Do the Heathen Rage?

How dare I rage at Dubya, when I defied the oaths I have taken?

Here the Bible, an anthology of certainly valuable writings that, at a minimum, display a whole history of thought and emotions and lives and human experiences, does come in handy.

Unzipper thy Olde Bibles and open to Isaiah 37:28-29 and read (a little out of context because I am not interested in the possible grand Christological issues underlying the passage) the following
But I know thy abode, and thy going out, and thy coming in, and thy rage against me.
Because thy rage against me, and thy tumult, is come up into mine ears ...
This reminds me of a T-shirt I bought one summer at Rehoboth Beach. On a black background it features a silver skull engulfed in golden flames. Over the years I came to call this image the picture of my inner, raging daemon.

It was my Oedipal daemon, the sprite of wounded professional pride in the face of failure or shortcoming, the fury of furies set loose on those I thought mocked my efforts or set arms against them and the final Götterdämmerung at the summit, when all is left but the descent to Hades.

There was an inner dialogue similar to that Isaiah sets up between God and the heathens. The divine voice in me knew perfectly well the rages of the demonic voice. I was a demigod, willing my own defeat as I ordered the Earth scorched to cinders.

That was all before I became a man, realizing that, heathen though I may be, I do no longer rage, for it serves no purpose for what little life remains. Perhaps that is why we all ask this question so insistently.
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