One of my favorite literary characters is Zorba the Greek. Zorba is a daring, brash, risk-taking, fun-loving rascal—all things I admire but am too chicken to try. Zorba is described in the novel bearing his name by Nikos Kazantzakis. The novel is narrated by a character Zorba calls “Boss” because the boss hires Zorba, ostensibly to manage a mining operation for him. In reality, The boss hires Zorba so he can live vicariously through him for a little while.
Zorba is based on a real life Yorgis Zorba that Kazantzakis met on an actual mining venture and the boss, a writer and spiritual seeker/philosopher, is Kazantzakis himself. Zorba chides the boss for being a book worm and “quill driver” because he merely writes about life instead of living it. My love affair with Zorba and Kazantzakis’ other work began 45 years ago when I discovered them in the syllabus of a course on “Theology and the Modern Novel.” I fell for Zorba, but I identified with the boss. I’m much better at observing and reflecting on life than living it in person with gusto.
That same theme shows up in a much more controversial Kazantzakis work, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Critics of that novel and the movie of the same name mistakenly assume it’s about Jesus being sexually tempted by Mary Magdalene, but they miss the point. Our suppressed attitudes about sex often distract us from more subtle and deeper issues. In The Last Temptation what entices Jesus to abandon his divine mission is not lust, it is the desire to live a “normal,” safe life as a husband and father. Those roles are not wrong, of course, they were just not what Jesus was called to do and be.
On a trip to Boston recently I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. As a child of the ‘60’s it was good to relive a bit of that turbulent period of history. There is the expected pro-Kennedy bias to the museum, of course. There was no mention of the young, martyred president’s human frailties or moral weaknesses. Like all mortals, especially powerful ones, he had has share. But there was also a sense of altruism and service in the Kennedy-Johnson policies so sorely lacking in today’s populist political posturing. JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” may sound like a cliché or hopelessly naïve today, but it is far nobler and more Christian than racist slogans to “make America great again.” And it has endured as one of the most famous lines in an inaugural address because Kennedy lived those words he wrote.
No one short of Jesus or Mother Theresa has totally pure motives, but with all their faults, there’s a quality of public service and commitment to justice exemplified in the Kennedys and others of wealth and privilege all the way back to Washington and Jefferson that seems lacking in today’s political atmosphere. JFK failed his physical for military service for a variety of chronic health issues that would have kept most of us on the sidelines. He didn’t have to and probably should not have gone to war. But he used his privileged status, not to avoid service, but to pull strings and join the navy in spite of his medical problems because he felt it was his duty. He’d lived in Europe as a young man in the ‘30’s and knew first-hand the evils of Nazism while most of America was still in favor of isolationism.
After the war Kennedy felt called into politics, not for what it could do for him, but for what he could do for his country. He was already a twice published author and Pulitzer Prize winner (for “Profiles in Courage”) but chose not to be a safe and comfortable spectator/quill driver and instead became an active participant in causes he believed in passionately.
Kennedy’s achievements in his 1000 day presidency are truly remarkable: avoiding nuclear disaster in Cuba, signing the first nuclear arms control agreements, launching the Peace Corps, taking on organized crime, and advancing civil rights and social justice causes than extended American ideals in very significant ways.
He made mistakes in Southeast Asia and domestically, but one does not have to agree with every action or consequence of his policies or legacy to affirm the altruistic spirit of his life. He overcame great physical pain and ultimately gave his life for the country he loved because he chose to be a “profile in courage” instead of just writing about others who did.
In another part of the JFK library is a display I didn’t expect devoted to the life and works of Ernest Hemingway. I was surprised by that until in good quill driver fashion I had time to reflect on why the two share that space. The factual/historical explanation is that Hemmingway’s tragic suicide in 1961 occurred during JFK’s presidency and Kennedy helped assure that Hemmingway’s papers and original manuscripts were collected and preserved.
With all the cold war, domestic and political turmoil on Kennedy’s plate, I asked myself, why would he take time to preserve some quill driver’s papers? My guess is because like Kennedy, Hemmingway was not just a writer; he was a larger than life Zorbatic actor in the narratives he wrote about. He was able to write about the horrors of war because he lived them as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in WWI. Like Kennedy he foresaw the coming of WWII because he lived in Europe and described the Spanish Civil War as a precursor to another world war.
Why does all that matter to me? Other than the obvious political connections between then and now, a lot of “normal” life has been going on for me since I last wrote here. Grandchildren graduating, having birthdays, my beloved United Methodist Church going through its quadrennial soul searching and public embarrassment about social justice issues, spring time challenges of yard work and gardening chores, coping with the challenges of aging – mine and my father’s; and all the while wrestling with my own temptation to play it safe, enjoy a “well-deserved” retirement, and avoid the conflicts and confrontations of social activism.
All that is far from a new struggle. Twenty plus years ago I wrote a paper about that tension in graduate school and called it “They Shoot Prophets, Don’t They?” Fear is a great excuse for cowardice. “Normal” life concerns and creature comforts are seductive temptresses to avoid faithful living and prophetic witness. Before retirement I often thought I was compromising my values for a parsonage and a pension. Now that only one of those two remains I feel somewhat less constrained to say what I think and feel.
All of that surfaced for me as I reflected on my Boston trip and the realization that “normal” life has kept me from writing here for the last few weeks. With all the critical issues confronting our world and the church right now, that seems like a shirking of my responsibility as a citizen and disciple. Life is a balancing act of tending to both personal and communal needs, and that is very hard work, at least for me.
Part of our responsibility to the larger community is to be informed and think critically about issues that affect the common good. Far too often we have a very limited perspective and base our beliefs and values on what is best for me and those close to me. It’s much harder to think across class, race and social boundaries to ponder and act on what is the just and right thing to do for all of humankind and beyond that to all of creation. We have a tendency to stay within our different comfort zones because, well, they’re comfortable. Intentionally or unintentionally we tend to live, work, go to school and socialize with people who look and think like we do. Historically when immigrants have come to this country, and that includes all of us or our forebears unless we are Native Americans, from the first settlements in this “New World” different ethnic groups, different faith groups, different classes settled together in different locations.
The American melting pot has in reality been more of a collection of separate but unequal boroughs, ghettos, subdivisions, colonies, and territories, from our inception. Now we are engaged again in that struggle Lincoln described so well at Gettysburg to see if a nation conceived and dedicated to unity in diversity can long endure. Unity does not mean conformity. We tend to forget that when we choose up sides and turn our differences into debates instead of opportunities to learn from each other. Our win-lose culture is based on economic and political systems where in order for one side to win someone else has to lose, even though that “losing” side might be 49% of the population.
We saw this win-lose struggle again at the recent United Methodist General Conference where stalemate and status quo left no one satisfied. A truce was called by the Council of Bishops to prevent division of the church and a special commission authorized to study the issues of sexuality that have consumed far too much time and energy and prevented other critical kingdom work for more years than Moses and the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness. I hope that commission will practice what Krista Tippett calls “generous listening” in her book, “Being Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.” Her insights are so important I want to quote several passages from Chapter 2: “Words: The Poetry of Creatures.”
“Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability—a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.”
“Our cultural mode of debating issues by way of competing certainties comes with a drive to resolution. We want others to acknowledge that our answers are right. We call the debate or get on the same page or take a vote and move on. The alternative is a different orientation to the point of conversing in the first place: to invite searching—not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side, not on whether we can agree; but on what is at stake in human terms for us all. There is value in learning to speak together honestly and relate to each other with dignity, without rushing to common ground that would leave all the hard questions hanging.”
“But the pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other. And we don’t understand each other.”
“More importantly, you have got to approach differences with this notion that there is good in the other. That’s it. And if we can’t figure out how to do that, and if there isn’t a crack in the middle where there’s some people on both sides who absolutely refuse to see the other as evil, this is going to continue. There’s a lot of pressure, and it’s much easier to preach to the choir versus listening to people who agree with you. But the choir is already there; the choir doesn’t need us. The crack in the middle where people on both sides absolutely refuse to see the other as evil—this is where I want to live and what I want to widen.”
Not bad advice for Congress and our political process either! But generous listening takes time and critical thinking skills that cannot be achieved in a 5 minute speech or a 140 character tweet. It requires a willingness to practice what we write/preach, to be in the words of Jesus and James, “doers of the word and not just hearers.” I want to simply close with those words and encourage all of us to read them with new eyes and generous ears and pray for inspiration and guidance to be both wise observers and daring actors on the stage of life.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” Matthew 7:24
“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves[a] in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:22-27