Spin and Propoganda

Good humor can provide the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, whether most delightfully or not.

After his death, Stalin was greeted at the gates of Heaven and taken on a tour by St. Peter. Stalin found the quiet and pious life of the people there disagreeable, and requested permission to go to Hell. Complying with his wish, St. Peter took him to the gates of Hell and handed him over to Lucifer. Stalin was led to a noisy bar, where there was much revelry and dancing going on. “This is for me,” declared Stalin, but Lucifer’s reply was to lead him into the kitchen where he was popped into a kettle of boiling oil. Stalin protested and asked to be returned to the bar. “Brother,” replied Lucifer, “that was just propaganda!”

Satan and his minions are masters at public relations, spin, and propoganda. They effectively make the worst, most distasteful, painful, and destructive things to appear irresistibly necessary to life. The anecdote well expresses what our mortal foe is about when he tempts us. Agreeing with the temptation and acting upon it never delivers what the temptation promises; rather it brings pain, disappointment, shame, and spiritual darkening. We should have learned from our experience.

Someone has defined ‘insanity’ as trying the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. We listen to the same old lines, accept the same tired old tempting thoughts, and expect somehow to avoid sin or have a different outcome. In fact, sin is insanity; it is not being in our right mind. And it is to this insanity that our enemy would lead us. Witness the man possessed of the legion of demons in the Gospel and how Christ cast them out and restored to him his right mind.

A fellow priest who once led a workshop on preaching for the priests of our diocese likened temptation to a chocolate-covered dung ball. It looks good, it smells good, it even tastes good when you first put it in your mouth. But the chocolate cannot compensate for the vileness it encompasses. How many chocolate-covered dung balls have we eaten? And how many more will we attempt to consume? May God grant us more discriminating taste!

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Published in: on Sunday, 15 March, 2009 at 21:22  Comments (2)  

Today on National Public Radio (NPR) was broadcast an interview with Donovan Campbell, a lieutenant and platoon commander in the Marines, a Princeton and Harvard Business School graduate, who served in Iraq in 2004 and has written a book, Joker One, about his experiences.

Something the lieutenant said about how he learned to cope with the constrant threat of wounds and death and the weight of responsibility he bore for the members of his unit struck me. What eventually kept him from being paralyzed by fear of constantly-threatened death was the thought experience taught him to embrace: that he would not be going home, that sooner or later, before his tour in Iraq ended, he would buy the farm. His acceptance of the inevitability of his death in the line of duty did not deaden him, as his interviewer suggested, but rather liberated him. It liberated him to focus on his daily duty and not worry about the future. It freed him from fear to function as his men’s commander and do his best by them to get them through their tour of duty alive and in one piece.

The acceptance of death freed Lieutenant Campbell. It also freed another officer in another service, Captain Solzhenitsyn of the Red Army. Arrested in 1945 for incautious remarks about the Great Leader in a private letter, he was interrogated and imprisoned for eight years. Years later in his Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reflected on his own experience and that of many others he had interviewed of the Soviet interrogation system, which was designed to extract a confession from you whether you were guilty or not and to get you to implicate other innocent people as well in the hope of saving yourself and your family. How can one stand up and maintain one’s honesty and integrity in the face of a relentless, pitiless process of sleep deprivation, starvation, and torture brought to bear against one to compel the bearing of false witness against oneself and others? The answer is that of Donovan Campbell.

So what is the answer?  How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared?
What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap?
From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you.  At the very threshold, you must say to yourself, “My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it.  I shall never return to freedom.  I am condemned to die – now or a little later.  But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better.  I no longer have any property whatsoever.  For me those I love have died, and for them I have died.  From today on, my body is useless and alien to me.  Only my spirit and conscience remain precious and important to me.”
Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble.
Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory. [A.I. Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 2, “The Soul & Barbed Wire”; chapter, “The Ascent”]

Christian life in the world is properly governed by the same attitude. St. Paul says “I die daily.” St. Antony the Great comments on St. Paul’s words in his advice to his disciples:

‘Wherefore, children, let us hold fast our discipline [askesis, ascetic discipline, life of self-denial], and let us not be careless. For in it the Lord is our fellow-worker, as it is written, “to all that choose the good, God worketh with them for good.” But to avoid being heedless, it is good to consider the word of the Apostle, “I die daily.” For if we too live as though dying daily, we shall not sin. And the meaning of that saying is, that as we rise day by day we should think that we shall not abide till evening; and again, when about to lie down to sleep, we should think that we shall not rise up. For our life is naturally uncertain, and Providence allots it to us daily. But thus ordering our daily life, we shall neither fall into sin, nor have a lust for anything, nor cherish wrath against any, nor shall we heap up treasure upon earth. But, as though under the daily expectation of death, we shall be without wealth, and shall forgive all things to all men, nor shall we retain at all the desire of women or of any other foul pleasure. But we shall turn from it as past and gone, ever striving and looking forward to the day of Judgment. For the greater dread and danger of torment ever destroys the ease of pleasure, and sets up the soul if it is like to fall. [St. Athanasius the Great, Life of Antony, 19]

The man who lacks this perspective will cling to life by any means, compromising any principle, ducking any duty just to survive. Christ speaks of the man who ‘gains the whole world but loses his soul’–and this is indeed the cost of clinging to life and the things of this world above all else. At some prices, to live is a luxury we can’t afford.

Patrick Henry asked, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” For many, chains and slavery and worse are worth it to prolong their existence under the sun just a bit longer. But a true man, a Christian man, an honorable man understands that there are some things worse than death [a major theme in the Harry Potter series].  A man’s clinging to life is sometimes the only leverage his enemies have against him; embracing death is liberation. And as death will come for us all, we must embrace it and not delude ourselves that we shall escape it. Sooner or later, it will come for us. May it not find us craven before it in that meeting.

Published in: on Thursday, 5 March, 2009 at 22:45  Comments (1)  

Marcus Aurelius for Today

The Meditations of the Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, although founded on a pagan worldview and the way of life consequent to it, offers much benefit to our time for those seeking a more thoughtful way of life in accordance with man’s nature.

Given our current economic and geo-political uncertainty, these words provide some context for us, if not comfort.

Consider the past; such great changes of political supremacies. Thou mayest foresee also the things which will be. For they will certainly be of like form, and it is not possible that they should deviate from the order of the things which take place now: accordingly to have contemplated human life for forty years is the same as to have contemplated  it for ten thousand years. For what more wilt thou see? vii.49

As Solomon said three millennia ago, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Unless human nature has changed, we can expect more of what has been. Modern man caught of in the notion of progress (towards what end? we do well to ask) tends to think that man’s nature has changed, has evolved, and so that what we face now is new and unprecedented.  The increase in the sophistication of man’s tools and the comfort of his life does provide support to an argument that man’s nature has changed, and one asks for evidence of a ‘new man.’ We saw the Soviet attempt to create a “new Soviet man” founder on the rock of the same old fallen human nature.

Christians believe the Christ has come to restore to man fullness of human nature, to heal it, so that man does not remain caught in an endless cycle of repetition, but it is far from evident that the bulk of the human race is entering the fullness of  life in Christ. Man has an escape, but refuses to use it.

It is encouraging to think that given the length of human history and the multitude of books documenting it, that one could contemplate human life for forty  years and get a grasp on the whole. One need not read all that has been written to gain wisdom.

This is also why an elder who has lived forty years or more in a monastery has much deeper insight into man and the world than those who live in the world: the elder has keenly observed and experienced the depths of human thought and motivation and seen how thought translates into action. Although observing life in a limited theatre, what he learns readily illumines action in the world at large, even though he is not reading the newspaper or the most recent scholarly study.

I shall not venture any predictions for the future, but I will venture to say that we should not assume we are exempt from the hardships of the past.

Published in: on Friday, 20 February, 2009 at 11:03  Leave a Comment  

It’s ‘On the Horizon’

I love  Soviet-era Russian humor. This anecdote reveals what is really being said when politicians of any stripe talk about something being ‘on the horizon.’

Two Russians workers were talking about how near they were to socialism. One said, “The Party told me that socialism is on the horizon. I didn’t know just what that meant. So I looked it up in the dictionary and read that a horizon is an imaginary line which moves further away from you as you approach it.”

Published in: on Friday, 30 January, 2009 at 21:58  Comments (1)  
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Aesop Speaks to the Blogger

A man once read to Aesop some silly stuff that he had written, containing a lot of boastful talk about himself, and he was anxious to know what the old man thought of it.

“I hope you don’t think,” he said, “that I am presumptuous or too cocksure of my ability.”

The man’s wretched trash made Aesop sick. “I think you are quite right,” he said, “to praise yourself. You will never find anyone to do it for you.”

Published in: on Thursday, 29 January, 2009 at 13:15  Comments (1)  
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