About Last Night

First off: headlines screaming “PROTESTS TURN VIOLENT” are distortions that follow the same warped narrative that got us here. Without any clear evidence that the thousands of peaceful protesters from all over Boston had anything to do with localized and sporadic violence after dark, we need to question the assumption that there was a continuum or connection between the protests and whatever followed. The assumption that they are connected by anything except the presumption on the part of those engaging in violence after a day of peaceful protest that that connection would be drawn is specious. 

Like most people I know, I’ve had some experience with protests, mostly when I was in college. We’re talking first Gulf War. Like, back in ‘91. Ancient times, but I suspect much of the story and the characters remain strikingly the same. That summer I lived in a tent city set up by war protesters in Dunn Meadow on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington. I had long curly hair, wore flannel, and looked like Eddie Vedder. I will not be providing photographic proof, but here is a reasonable facsimile:

Basically me, more or less, rocking the protest mic in Dunn Meadow, c.1991.

There were a series of protests that summer, over the whole agonizing build-up to military action, and over time a group of preppy kids took to antagonizing the grunge kids camping out in the meadow. This antagonism had more or less nothing to do with the war or the substance of the protests. It likely had more to do with dirty hippies taking up the meadow, which was a favorite spot among Chad, Brock and the ultimate frisbee set.

One night a group of twenty or so of the latter, dressed to the teeth in pink oxfords and boat shoes, ambushed our little tent city, raised a ruckus, overturning our tents, and chasing us — there were probably twenty or so of us as well — down past the Student Union to Showalter Fountain, where, probably owing to burning off the adrenaline rush in the sprint to the fountain (which was, frankly, exhilarating), it turned into one of those shouting debates that always seem to erupt among protesters and “counter-protesters” on college campuses. I would rather it had ended in some sort of ‘60s lovefest, but this was the ‘90s, and in the ’90s you had to pay for that shit. 

After we’d all blown off some steam, we went back to our tents, they went back to Frat Row, and a few days later Operation Desert Shield went off as planned.

Later in the mid-aughts I did some organizing, and what I can tell you about any protest is that there will always be that group of shitty white kids from the suburbs who call themselves “anarchists” and want to hijack whatever it is you’re protesting (in my case it was public transit fare hikes) to quell the screaming maw of boredom of their meaningless existence. In the case of last night, we know suburban Nazis are stirring shit up, with the President’s encouragement, because they really want their race war, and he really wants them to have it. They know they’re not going to be held accountable. They know if anything goes down it will be: “PROTESTS TURN VIOLENT.” 

This is not new information, is what I’m saying. Protests like these have been happening since the dawn of modernity. If you’re just now tuning in, that’s your problem. Point being: unless the media can verify who was responsible, making assumptions about “protesters” turned rabble-rousers is irresponsible. It also plays into a relentless and false narrative that associates protest with violence and justifies more militarization and brutality. And the band plays on.

I took a ride downtown this morning, by the way, to see what I could see of the aftermath, and, yeah, there were some smash-n-grabs last night, for sure. It sucks, because we’re heading into an economic depression — I lived through ‘70s stagflation, too — and those boarded-up shops: they’re gonna stay boarded up for years. I know just yesterday I was saying we can’t be for “Back to Normal.” At this point, I don’t think we have to worry too much about that happening. 

The Audacity of Hopelessness

Jonathan Bachman’s iconic image from the July 2016 protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, days after police shot and killed Alton Sterling at close range, captured Ieshia Evans silently confronting heavily armed riot police. She later said she wanted her silence to convey: “I’m human. I’m a woman. I’m a mom. I’m a nurse. I could be your nurse. I could be taking care of you. You know? I’m here. We all matter. We don’t have to beg to matter. We do matter.”

I have so many thoughts and so much anguish about the horrific week just past, about the lynching of George Floyd, the latest in the seemingly never-ending assaults on black and brown bodies, and promises of more from this administration. It seems inadequate to just post something on social media, but at the same time silence in the face of innocent suffering is complicity in the act itself. It just feels numbingly like “thoughts and prayers”: a performative gesture with no real connection to systemic change. 

While Democrats condemned the latest lynching, reaction from the administration has been to pour as much jet fuel on the flames as possible. I’m not saying the Democrats’ reaction has been adequate, or that the current administration is the cause of this, but when the president gleefully tweets “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” it is clearly weaponizing these incidents and doing what it can to escalate them, presumably for what it hopes will be political gain. This is the shock and awe, the state of constant trauma that we were warned would be this administration’s MO. The chaos we are witnessing daily is a deadly combination of bad faith and ill-will. Much of it is absolutely carelessness and incompetence — scary enough — but the rest: strategic inattention to complex systems, and then weaponizing their collapse for profit — is truly terrifying.

Add to all of this the scorched-earth tactics of an election year. Brian Levin, director of the Cal State San Bernardino Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, told the LA Times in January: “with an election season coming up, we really have to be concerned because over the last decade, the three worst months were all around politically charged events.” I have been through enough of these election cycles in my life to have seen the “political violence cycle” with my own eyes, and how it usually impacts people of color, women, immigrants, religious minorities, and LGBTQ folk. We already know that this regime does not value all human lives equally, and that they are committed to keeping power at whatever the cost. Again, a president who tweets: “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” is encouraging political terror, whatever prevarications or excuses his handlers offer for his messaging.

It’s already a lot. And we’re not even into the real thick of it. The chaos can blind us to the patterns beneath. We are overwhelmed by evils on all fronts, and our outrage can silence us into complicity. There’s plenty of reason for despair, and that can lead those of us with privilege to withdraw. Many of us worry that we are playing a part in spreading violence by participating in a culture that relies on us to amplify it, but gives us very little in the way of solutions. There is value in witness, but when the spectacle of cruelty and violence is a tool of those in power, we become simply an audience for it. I wish I could say turning off the telly and engaging in self-care until things “get back to normal” was the answer. But “Back to Normal” is the moderate, good white people version of “Make America Great Again.” Back to normal, as we have seen, involves unrelenting systemic violence against people of color. 

When it was “revealed” that Amy Cooper was a “Buttegieg liberal,” it was no surprise to me. Blue cap. To be clear: all white Americans benefit from systemic racism. All white Americans have internalized racial privilege. They may not even realize it until it’s “activated.” As Christian Cooper suggested in several interviews, it comes out in “stressful” situations, where that privilege is questioned, even if only by the innocent presumption of equality by a person of color. Amy Cooper’s racism was reflexive. The logic of privilege is conditioned over a lifetime by systems of oppression that our unquestioned participation in makes seem organic and ineluctable. This does not mean that she, or any of us, is not responsible for participating in and perpetuating, in our millions of tiny everyday ways, this great evil. I’ll quote again, as I often do, from Marjorie Suchocki’s The Fall to Violence:

Ingrained attitudes of passive acceptance of a great social evil … is sin, and entails guilt. It is original sin, in that it is a pre-given structure of ill-being through which we view the world, inherited as the very stuff that forms the world as world. It becomes personal sin when, having the ability to question the structure, we fail to do so, and thus support and perpetuate the structure.

“…When, having the ability to question the structure, we fail to do so.” It’s very hard for “good white people” to stay focused on this, to really grasp the myriad ways we individually benefit from the systemic oppression of black and brown people. When we say that Amy Cooper “knew what she was doing,” we’re saying she knew what all white people know. Her acting on this knowledge is the flipside of our own ongoing inaction on it. As long as racism for us is little more than a “distraction,” however tragic, from other agenda items, black people will continue to be lynched in the streets; black and brown kids will continue to grow up in cages, separated, likely forever, from their parents, mostly forgotten among the multitudes of other victims of the human rights atrocities that are the human cost of our “normal”; and the powers that seek to profit from cruelty, violence and division will continue to provide content for audiences, outraged and otherwise, for their atrocities. The ratings, as our reality game show host-in-chief likes to say, are “through the roof.”

It feels like we are at war, doesn’t it? Everyday we wake up to devastating stories involving the loss of innocent lives. There’s good reason reasonable people shy away from the rhetoric of warfare, of course. We know that acts of retaliatory violence will only result in greater violence toward those who are already suffering. So, what’s the answer? We want to believe that our system of electoral politics, which we know to be flawed, if not broken, will rescue us from what that same system has wrought. We long for the “normalcy” of “before.” But we need to stop pretending that the normal we want to get back to was “at peace” just because we weren’t targeted for violence, because the systems of oppression and violence benefited us. I’ll say it again: “Back to Normal” is the blue cap version of “Make America Great Again.” 

I’ve watched as good white people have hoped against hope that someone or something would bring down this cruel, corrupt regime. Remember Robert Mueller? Now we wait, a little impatiently, a little put out, for November’s “blue wave,” urging our friends and “followers” on social media to remember to register to vote, to do the right thing! All the while dread and doubt eating at us, as we diligently follow the news, watching helplessly as those in power chip away at the transparency and fairness of our electoral system. The disbelief that any of this could really be happening is far outpaced by the fact that much of it has already been accomplished. We are like the search party, meticulously gathering clues in the dust, while the body rots in a ditch ten feet away.

Social ethicist and professor of Latinx Studies Miguel De La Torre, has written about embracing hopelessness. He is interested in “the function of hope in reinforcing oppressive structures and reining in revolutionary tendencies.” The “hopey, changey thing,” which has been a staple of the left, may, perversely, be serving an oppressive status quo. De La Torre suggests that as long as that hope exists, unchallenged, even the least of us may feel that we have something to lose, “and thus will not risk all to change the social structures. The realization that there is nothing to lose,” he says, can be the most powerful catalyst for change there is. It brings to mind the American president’s pitch to black voters in 2016: what the hell have you got to lose?” Maybe it’s time we all de-centered our hopes of returning to normal, and started fighting for the world we want as if our own lives depended on it, as if we, ourselves, have nothing to lose.

A Culture of Practice Based in Principle

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It somehow doesn’t surprise me that many of our practices in Restorative Justice have come to us from New Zealand. Within days of the recent terror attack in Christchurch, the nation had acted on gun laws. What this tells me is that there is some connection between a moral and political will there that is broadly lacking in our own culture and society. MacRae and Zehr talk about using Family Group Conferencing for Restorative Justice in “serious and complicated cases, and the power of practice based in principle.” This last part is what I have struggled with since coming to seminary: do we really have a culture of “practice based in principle” in the US right now? We have cultures of practice based in principle, but I think, especially where it counts, they are the exception.

NZ passed their landmark Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act with provisions for FGC in 1989. In the US today we not only incarcerate youth (unsurprisingly: disproportionately black youth) in staggering numbers, many in adult facilities, but, according to the Sentencing Project, only 21 states (and the District of Columbia) “do not have any prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, either due to laws prohibiting the sentence or because there are no individuals serving the sentence at this time.” A majority of states still allow the sentence, with 3 — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Louisiana — accounting for nearly 2/3 of all JLWOP sentences.)

We could not be further from NZ on this.

I was reading this great article about African Prisons Project from ideas.TED.com. The program, founded in 2007 by then-law student (now a barrister in the UK), Alexander McLean, provides “high-quality legal advice, training, and education to those living and working in prison” across Kenya and Uganda. Through highly structured training programs, legal support services and “empowering Changemakers” in the short-, medium- and long-term, APP seeks to “place the power of the law into the hands of the poor, enabling them to make, shape and implement the law.” It’s pretty incredible, transformative stuff, and not just in theory.

So I’m reading about this and I come across this quote from John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Baz Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations:

Certainly in the US but also from what I’ve seen globally, most prisoners weren’t given adequate educational opportunities to begin with. The most fundamental reason why a society needs to give education to people in prison is because it failed them in the first place…. It’s a moral issue at heart, but it also makes sense economically, with numerous studies that show how it’s cheaper to educate than to incarcerate. If we don’t want to keep recycling people into and out of an expensive system, then education is key to reducing the recidivism rate.

I agree with all that, but it was the last sentence that caught me. Who is the “we” there? I think Dreisinger probably means, “we” as in “society”. But there are plenty of stakeholders in the current system and society who clearly do want to recycle people (mostly people of color) into and out of this system, and that’s the piece we need to reckon with.

The truth is: the economics can work for the people who need the economics to work, not only for the profits but also the perpetuation of white power. But the profits are there. From the local economies that are conned into hosting prisons, to the corporations and private contractors who build, maintain, and provide services to them and the businesses that use cheap (or in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas: free) prison labor. Those numbers are great for business!

So are we being disingenuous or credulous when we make arguments about the “inefficiency” of slavery for the slavers? Or about the cost, which society, not the slavers, bear? Michelle Alexander talks about the need for a “great awakening” — not to the facts, which we possess — but to the evil to which we’re a party. The arguments against mass incarceration that focus on economics seem laughable, based on the outrageous lie that the economy is supposed to function for all of us, that vast sectors of the economy that enrich the few don’t actually flourish on widespread poverty, oppression and racial inequity. The Slave economy of the American South worked very well for slaveholders:

by 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.

Why do we continue to pretend otherwise? This is not a rhetorical question. Treating it as such is a kind of compound cynicism. If we want to create a culture of practice based in principle, to re-establish some connection between a moral and political will, we have to keep speaking our principled truth, explicitly, in a loud, clear, prophetic voice. The economic argument is not going to win this one.

Intolerable Civility

Valentin de Boulogne, Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple, c.1618

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ (John 2:13-16 NIV)

I can hear it now, can’t you? “What has happened to civility?” “Couldn’t he have just asked nicely?” “Here’s this guy who hangs out with publicans and prostitutes, and all the sudden he can’t handle a few money-changers in the Temple?” “What a hypocrite!” “Yeah, where’s the tolerance?” Pretty sure that’s how this would go down on Meet the Press.  

It is probably no coincidence that the “civility movement” always seems to gain steam when the marginalized have been pushed so far they must raise a ruckus simply to be heard. But we know as well from recent events that even silent protests, like “taking a knee,” can provoke charges of incivility when the message is one that threatens privilege. As Vann Newkirk wrote in the Atlantic last year when the immigration and family-separation crisis sparked outrage: “Civility is … wielded as a cudgel against those already facing obliteration that dictates to them how they must face it” by “a majority inclined to ignore the violence done in its name—because in the end, they will be alright.”

Like the language of civility, that of tolerance can be a kind of cudgel as well, an “iron fist in a velvet glove.” Tolerance speaks even more frankly than civility of inequality in the social order. Think of the profound asymmetry of the active and passive of the verb: while we may feel pride at our ability to tolerate others, how does it feel to “be tolerated”? Tolerance remains a pillar of the political life of a secular society, but like the language of civility, it is inadequate — I would argue inappropriate even — for communities of faith and coalitions of conscience.

Whether in our own communities or in interfaith conversations, tolerance, aside from indicating entrenched (if implicit) bias, is the language of spiritual scarcity. And if you doubt this, think again of a verb in the active and passive that communicates true abundance: to love and be loved. The language of tolerance is too often used in religious settings to begrudge admittance to those whose whole humanity we are unwilling to engage with our own. It often substitutes without our even realizing it for the language of abundance that truly opens up possibilities of transformation.

The language of tolerance and civility not only glosses over the difficult work of justice and equality, of radical love and hospitality to which our transformative communities really owe their existence and to which they must continually and explicitly recommit themselves, it also makes the work itself harder to conceive. Our uncritical use of language that continually reinforces power and privilege can actually silence the language of abundance out of which flows the courage and conviction to live in abundance with one another.

Language matters. In the beginning was the Word. Relying on the language of tolerance and civility limits what we can expect from encounters across difference and makes us complicit in the world of scarcity that this language depicts. That the language and life of abundance can embrace difference, encourage us to work together through difficulty and discord, and provide us with tools to navigate conflict in the pursuit of transformation is, for me, a fundamental article of faith. In fact, it may be what faith itself is for.

Happy Valentine’s Day?

It being Valentine week, I thought I’d look into the human and environmental cost of the popular romantic holiday! Spoiler alert: this is kind of a “Mike Ruins Everything” post.

Depending on whom you ask, Americans spend between $18-20b on V-Day flowers, chocolates, plushies and foil or “mylar” balloons to prove their affection. Obviously all of these have environmental and human costs.

We’ll start with balloons and plushies. Latex balloons can take up to four years to biodegrade (don’t get me started on mylars, which are “metalicized polyester” and not classified as biodegradable) but it is their release into the environment that wreaks havoc on wildlife (if you need a good cry, check out the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s blog post on the subject, but be warned, there are pictures. )

Those cute little plushies are problematic, too, at every stage of their production. Most are made of materials derived from petrochemicals, some containing heavy metals like lead and cadmium. The manufacturing process “can result in harmful wastewater and other types of pollution”, and the toy industry has long been known to employ child labor.

Americans consume 58 million lbs of chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Most of the cocoa comes from West Africa, where, because 1 cocoa tree produces only about half a pound of chocolate a year, and global demand is so high, tropical forests are often clearcut to make way for this cash crop. Child labor is another ongoing reality of chocolate production, with an estimated 2+ million West African children involved in harvesting cocoa.

And those Valentine’s Day roses? Around 2/3 of them come from Colombia, where labor laws (including, again, child labor laws) and environmental regulations are lax. One study found that floriculture workers (2:1 female to male) “were exposed to 127 different types of pesticides. The female workers as well as the female partners of male workers experienced an “increase in the prevalence of abortion, prematurity, and congenital malformations … for pregnancies occurring after the start of work in floriculture.” This is particularly horrifying, given the product and its intended purpose and message.

The good news is there are plenty of sustainable ways to celebrate Valentine’s day! Because, honestly, loving someone to the end of the earth doesn’t need to be a literal thing.

Travelers on Church Street

Keleti Station, Budapest.

I work as the Church Street Ministry Coordinator at First Parish Unitarian Universalist on Church Street just off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., and one of my jobs is to educate the Congregation on issues of housing and food insecurity in our neighborhood and beyond. I wrote the following for our monthly newsletter after having been asked by several congregants how to approach individuals they assume to be homeless in the neighborhood. 

One of my favorite things to do when I was a young teacher in a little village in Eastern Hungary in the mid-’90s was to take the train 25 miles East to the Provincial Capital, Debrecen, near the Romanian border. It was a beautiful city, to be sure, but it was that hour traveling by train across the plains of Pannonia, the great Hungarian Puszta, that was the real attraction for me. The landscape, “flat as an ocean,” in the poet Sándor Petőfi’s words, reminded me of my Indiana home, and being a stranger among strangers on the old no-frills Soviet-era intercity train was oddly calming. Whenever I was homesick I could ride my janky old bicycle (provided at no cost by the local gimnázium) to the station, hop on a train, and I suddenly felt right at home amongst the rabble.

It’s good to be at home among strangers, and despite growing up in suburbia, where the appearance of a stranger is often cause for suspicion if not outright alarm, I think it’s in my blood. I recently became mildly obsessed with ancestry.com, and what struck me after doing a little research was the staggering scope of global displacement over the last several generations. Take my great-grandparents, who, like so many of their compatriots fleeing the grinding rural poverty of their Southern Italian home, arrived in New York around 1900 in what’s known as The Great Arrival. But while “L’America” was a land of opportunity, the story my genealogy tells of the century that followed was one of even greater fragmentation and displacement, with two World Wars and the Great Depression, and a relentless push West that saw relatives scattered from New York and Pennsylvania to Indiana, Texas and California. Growing up I hardly knew my relatives on my father’s side at all. I met my grandfather once. We’ve been in this country for 120 years.

First Parish Cambridge has been here much longer, of course. Many of its current congregants can no doubt trace their lineage back 400 years as well. One thing I’ve learned in my own short time in New England: folks take enormous pride in being of a place. I do it, too. Each September when the next freshman class floods in from parts unknown, despite only having lived here a mere 15 years, I’m suddenly a native. We often draw the arbitrary line of belonging to a place from the moment we arrived, whether it’s the queue for our morning coffee or Plymouth Rock. We take great, sometimes comical umbrage at strangers and newcomers, puffing our chests as if to say: “we were here first!” And when it comes to the line at Starbucks: yeah, ok, fair enough. But when we telescope out a bit, things get a little more complicated. Here isn’t always here. Take First Parish. In our first 200 years the Congregation moved five times (not to mention the much greater trek from Calvinism to Unitarian Universalism that accompanied all those moves.)

We are a people on the move, a species of travelers from the beginning, for whom “home” is a fairly recent adaptation. The first shelters may have been built as long ago as 400,000 years, but the first proto-houses did not appear until just 15,000 years ago, give or take. We would do well to keep that in mind when we think about homelessness. Like “displacement,” “homelessness” is a word that hides its privilege in plain sight. We rarely dig too deeply into the root — “home,” “place,” even less so “placement” — when we think of those who are homeless or displaced. We sometimes lament that they (and they are always a “they”) have had to leave their homes, but we invariably conceive of “home” as the place they are from, not the place they are in. It is a way of reinforcing that they are “out of place” here and now. The fact that many have had to leave the place they are from doesn’t mean that they need to feel or be treated as out of place where they are. We sometimes assume that those we encounter on our streets have nowhere to be without considering how it is that we have found our place here, on the same street where they are. They are here, we sometimes seem to be saying, in the place where we belong!

But home is not just an ephemeral and transient idea for them, as much as our own good fortune in having found a place for the moment might suggest to us. I say this as a renter in Boston who has been forced to move eight times in the past 13 years. And that’s stable compared to friends earning the minimum wage. In Cambridge today they’d have to work 145 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom rent. If we zoom out to the even bigger picture, we are in the middle of an epoch of global displacement, fueled by radical income inequality and unstoppable climate change. A recent study from the Union of Concerned Scientists warns that rising sea levels will, by the end of the century, cause a third of the homes in Cambridge to face flooding every other week.  A third of Cambridge underwater. (It seems likely this will only exacerbate the housing crunch.)

We have one home, not many. That much is obvious. It can be hard to remember that in moments of encounter with those who seem out of place to us in the here and now. When I forget, myself, I like to hop on the train. It doesn’t really matter where to. It’s just good to be at home among my fellow travelers.

 

“So you’re a divinity student, huh…?”

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I haven’t even started classes yet, but I had my first, “so you’re a divinity student, huh…?” conversation last night.

You know the one: where someone says “so you’re a divinity student, huh…?” and you say, “uhhh…” and they launch into a forty-minute monologue about life, the universe and everything that inevitably ends with the Ancient Aliens guy.

Because I work in a Church setting (I head the Church Street Ministry of First Parish Unitarian Universalist, which works with home- and food-security in Cambridge, Mass.) this isn’t a totally unexpected  scenario, and because it’s UU, the Ancient Aliens thing is also, um, not totally unexpected. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love talking to people about Ancient Aliens. See, I’m particularly interested in the individual and vernacular “deviations” from creeds and practices, their origins in oral traditions, nascent religions and religions like Christianity in their oral, incipient stages. I am always fascinated by how people are interpreting and utilizing the received wisdom of religious traditions, de- and re-contextualizing them, mixing, matching, recycling, re-purposing, and tweaking them for their own ends.

And while I am, in fact, delighted to hear from people about their beliefs, let’s call them, although we don’t really live in an age of belief so much as credulity, I emphatically reject the idea that divinity students have any more “insight on divinity,” as one friend recently put it. You can talk to literally anyone about literally anything and get insight into divinity. That may, in fact, be the main takeaway of divinity school for divinity students (I’ll let you know in three years when I finish my MDiv).

So, yeah: the conversation started with that ominous “so you’re in divinity school, huh?” And I knew immediately where it was headed. But it’s the journey, you know?  And this one started with a visit to a Catholic shrine where my fellow pilgrim observed a worshiper in deep thrall to a statue of the Blessed Virgin.

“Isn’t that idolatry?” He huffed.

I treated this as a sincere inquiry, not a rhetorical question, which I’m guessing is, like, Day 1 of Divinity Student 101, right? (Again, I’ll let you know).

The Cult of the Blessed Virgin is right up my alley, a great example of one of the developments of early Christology so central to the establishing of orthodoxy on the nature of Christ that borrows from ancient archetypes. It took 400 years to sort that out — it was not until the Council of Ephesus in 431 that the cult of the Virgin as Mother of God was finally sanctioned. It was in committee for half a millennium.

My traveling companion was more interested in the general issue of idolatry and pagan influence, as he saw it, as evidence of an inherent and irreconcilable internal contradiction (not to say conspiracy) in the Orthodoxy of the Church. (We’re about 1/5 of the way to Ancient Aliens, for those of you keeping track of our mileage.)

“Worshiping the likeness of the Virgin Mary,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “when, hey, didn’t God say something about ‘graven images’?”

I was like: “I mean, technically it came from the Finger of God rather than His Mouth, but, yeah, something like that.”

And then: “But here’s the thing…”

I’d just been reading about the Hellenization of Christianity in those first crucial years, and suggested nascent Christianity’s break from Judaism, particularly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and its incorporation into the imperialist project of the Roman Empire might have something to do with the more pagan elements of worship that have come down to us today. Early Christians distanced themselves from their Jewish roots, partly because their roots were ripped out of the ground. 

He pricked up his ears at the mention of Jerusalem, and, wresting the wheel, he took a sharp turn to the right, pulled into a dark alley, and picked up Louis Farrakhan, whom I had not even seen on the side of the road there! I mean, bowtie and all!

“Why,” he asked, a note of heightened indignation creeping into his voice, “do the Jews think that’s their land?” He didn’t wait for an answer, instead repeating Minister Farrakhan’s inflammatory contention that “the State of Israel has ‘no home’ in the Middle East and that the Holy Land does not belong to the ‘white Jew.’”

Now, I suppose I could have said WHOOAA. HEYYY. HEY NOW NO. PULL OVER. LET ME OUT OF THIS CAR.

But this is, as they say, The Work.

And anyway, we were now halfway to Ancient Aliens. I mean, let’s ditch Farrakhan at the next Gas Food Lodging. But I might as well stick it out, right? I could almost make out the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlán peeping up over the horizon up ahead, as we raced past a thousand years of Secret History via The History Channel.

“There are written records they don’t want us to see hidden in a room somewhere!” my comrade cried, his eyes bright as a fire worshiper on the twelfth day of Izcalli. “They’ve kept the truth from us!”

Not to be gendered about this, but I feel like the belief that there’s always a windowless room somewhere with the truth hidden away in a desk drawer is a very mansplainy way to look at truth. Because if it’s all stuffed in a file cabinet on Skull Island or whatever, you can always Mission: Impossible that shit, right? Just, like, bust in guns blazing and catch the Illuminati by surprise, steal back the truth and save the day!

I get it. The idea — you might even call it faith — that there is hidden proof is one of our species’ most persistent idées fixes. It may come from our early days digging for tubers and cracking the shells of nuts with stones.

The certainty that a staggering Truth is being hidden and withheld is part of our popular understanding of the forces of oppression at work in our world. It’s also a way we’ve been conditioned, or maybe condition ourselves to deny the power of our own truths. But what if what’s really being hidden on Skull Island is not the Truth that No One Must Know but the Truth That Everyone Knows?

My fellow seeker nodded sagely.

“Yeah,” he said, appreciatively. “You know, how is it that they’ve never found human remains in any of those pyramids in Mexico.”

I was like: “uhhh, I’m not sure that’s… ”

He gave me a significant look that cut me to the quick. We had arrived.

“I’m not saying it’s aliens, but…”