Past is Prologue: Part 2

I’m sitting on a musty old train rattling south from Paris to Florence. A priest in a black robe is sitting across from me. “It was God,” he says, “who brought us together.”

The priest is spry, in his late middle age, Australian. There’s a glint in his eye, and a friendly argumentativeness that came from a previous life as a lawyer. He’s on his way home to the Vatican; I’m on my way to Corsica, to do some hiking. It’s a long trip. We talk about politics, and we talk about religion. I’m still protestant, so he’s trying to convert me.

“If you accept the authority of the Bible,” he says, “you have to accept the authority of the Church. Scriptural canon was decided by church fathers — scripture can have no authority unless the men who chose it did too.”

Studying history in a religious school meant that I had studied Church history, but always from the perspective of the modern American evangelical church. We saw ourselves as the spiritual successors to the first-century Christian churches of the east Roman empire, not operating under any one authority, but allied as part of the body of Christ. The unified hierarchy of Catholicism was anathema to the ground-up democratic impulse of the American church, and I’d never seriously considered it.

I leave the priest in Florence, after he makes me promise to visit him when I get to Rome, but I think about my conversation with him for a long time after that. Something bothers me about what he said, and at least part of it is due to a nagging suspicion that he’s right.

When I was a child, the world was a simple place. Heathens controlled much of it: the Muslims in the middle east, the atheists in Europe, the communists in China and Russia. The church, my church, was the scrappy underdog in a global spiritual war that raged through the whole of human history. We were the candle in the dark, the city on the hill, the last glimmer of light in a dark and turbulent world. The story of the human race was one of villains and heroes, of good fighting evil, and I was on the side of the good. The grown-ups I knew scoffed at notions of moral relativism, of gray areas, and of multiple viewpoints; history, as they were so fond of pointing out, was His-story. America, despite the attempts of the liberal intellectual elite, was the world’s last bastion of Christian values and freedoms, and the Evangelical church was going to take it back.

And now here was a priest who believed that the Catholic church was that last bastion, with better reason than any I’d heard in an evangelical church. How could that be possible? I knew from my own studies that the history of Catholicism was rife with war, corruption, and division, and that orthodoxy was often decided by which faction had the biggest army. It all looked like the work of men fighting for power; could these all too human conflicts really be the work of a God larger than time itself?

God grant me wisdom, and the opening of my eyes.

I’m in Belfast, in an upper-floor apartment down by the wharf. Two separatists are talking to each other in Irish while a loyalist makes fun of them from the couch. My host is neither; he’s part of northern Ireland’s green party, and he supports independence both from Britain and from Ireland proper. Despite the political divisions, all four are good friends.

“It’s not as much an issue with people our age,” the loyalist admits, “but you meet an older bloke in the pub, and the first thing he’ll ask you is, are you Catholic or Protestant?”

“Why does that matter?”

“Because if you’re Catholic,” he says, “you’re separatist. And if you’re Protestant, you’re a loyalist.”

I accepted Jesus Christ into my heart when I was four years old, again at five, and twice at six. I guess I wanted to make sure it would stick. I grew up thinking I’d had a choice then, that I could have just as freely decided to be a godless heathen. I must have had a choice. If I hadn’t, what was the point? I could accept pain and suffering as the result of human free will, our decision to sin rather than follow God’s plan. Even natural disasters, like the great earthquake that broke Voltaire’s faith in a just God, could be traced back to the sins of Adam and Eve. But to work, the choice to obey or disobey had to be truly free, truly individual; surely that choice couldn’t simply be an accident of birth? So I had faith. Faith like a child, that I was free to choose, and that I had chosen correctly.

But here in Belfast, religious faith was political identity. It was impossible to be Catholic and support English rule, or be Protestant and support independence. How could religious choice be free if choosing meant picking sides in a fight Christ had nothing to do with?

God grant me wisdom, and the opening of my eyes.

In a run-down hotel in the desert in northern Syria, an old bedouin man is showing me how to tie a keffiyeh, a checkered head scarf, while a dozen or so others drink tea, smoke, and make laughing comments in Arabic.

“Like this,” the old bedouin says, wrapping the keffiyeh in a loose turban, “Bedouin. Like this; city arab. Like this, Yassir Arafat.” He wraps it tighter, pulling one loose end across my face so only my eyes are visible. “Like this: Shahid.”

“Shahid?” The word sounds vaguely familiar.

“Yes,” he says. “You go Israel, and …” he mimes aiming an AK-47 and pulling the trigger.

Then I get it. In Arabic, shahid means ‘martyr.’ To most Americans, it means ‘terrorist.’

They say that God is in the details, but it is in the details that God seems most absent. If you know only the broadest outlines of history, it’s easy to add a Christian interpretation to it: Rome rose because God needed it to spread Christianity, and Islam rose because Satan wanted to stop it. The Crusades were just another proxy war in that eternal campaign, as would be the war for American independence, the second World War, and the Cold War. The Israeli state is on God’s side, because God gave the land to Israel.

But in the details, Christian kills Christian, Muslim kills Muslim, and every atrocity the world has ever seen can be attributed to greed, to hunger, to vengeance, to fear, and to blind devotion. In the details, the grand narrative of Good and Evil fades to one of a few sparks of humanity in a sea of petty desire. That multitude of everyday evils is all the more terrifying for its normality; the holocaust was everyday racism writ large, the crusades everyday greed, the horrors of the first World War everyday blind, unquestioning obedience.

In the details, the land on which Palestinian Arabs have lived for nearly two thousand years was torn from their control by the British Empire and handed over to the Jews emigrating from Europe. The Palestinians were left without control over their identity, without representation in the Israeli government, and at the mercy of powers beyond their control. The ancient pagan gods took sides in human conflicts, but how could the Creator who breathed life into the entire human species favor one nation over another?

God grant me wisdom, and the opening of my eyes.

I’m sitting at a taverna in the Exarcheia district of Athens. The buildings here are covered in graffiti condemning the 2008 police shooting of a young unarmed boy, an event that kicked off the first riots of an unrest that has continued ever since. The beauty of the paintings stands in stark contrast with the ugliness of the moment they remember.

“My grandmother,” says the girl sitting across from me, “smuggled anti-fascist newspapers under the Nazis. She would put them in the basket of her bicycle and ride past the soldiers every day. None of them thought to stop a twelve-year-old girl for questioning.” The girl stubs out her cigarette and lights another. “My father was in the university when the fascist tanks smashed through the gates.”

“And you?” I ask.

She shrugs. “I’m only myself,” she says. “What can I do?”

My religion taught me that God has a plan for the world, that He appoints kings and sets authority in its place. Obedience, obedience, obedience: we are sheep, the Bible tells us, who need a shepherd. One might interpret this as a command to distance ourselves from a sinful world, but all this seemed awfully convenient for the Roman emperors under which the Christian new testament was codified. If all authority is divinely appointed, who were the Greeks to resist the Nazis? Who were the Irish to want freedom from British rule? For that matter, who were we Americans, upstart colony that we were, to start a war over taxation without representation? I wanted to tell the girl that she should do something, could do something. But who was I?

God grant me wisdom, and the opening of my eyes.

“They burned our fields, our houses … they moved us to the cities, where the Turkish police could watch us more easily.” I’m talking to a Kurd, in a small town in eastern Turkey. His eyes have deep lines under them, and he takes a long, sad drag on a cigarette, then leans forward, confidentially. “I have a radio under the shop,” he says, “for Kurdish news. The Turkish army, it tries to block it, but it can’t.”

I take a sip of my tea. “You can’t listen to Kurdish radio?”

He shrugs. “The Turks, they have a Kurdish station. But it is only histories of Ataturk, in Kurdish!” He tells me more. Over the past few decades, leading Kurds, or even those who just speak out, have vanished. In the past, Kurds have been killed for their desire for independence, and today, the Kurdish political party is banned from Turkey’s parliament. I ask the man how to say “I love Kurdistan” in Kurdish.

Ez hezdikim Kurdistanim,” he says. “But you must be careful. It is illegal to say in Turkey.”

The shop’s door open, and a portly man in a police uniform walks in.

“My friend!” the shop owner says, full of false good cheer. “Can I help you?”

“Just looking,” the policeman says. All the police in eastern Turkey are Turkish, not Kurdish. The shop owner goes to get more tea, and the cop sits down next to me. “What is he telling you?” he asks me, in a low voice.

“Just asking about carpets,” I say.

The cop wanders out, and the shop owner brings me a new glass of tea. “He’s gone?” I nod.

The shop owner smiles, and pats me on the shoulder. “Fuck him,” he says.

The most terrifying thing history has to teach is that evil, true evil, is as everyday as breathing. The Nazis were, for the most part, normal men and women. Just, like the bombers who opened their bay doors over Hiroshima, following orders. People aren’t evil; people are obedient. People believe what they’re told. If a charismatic, popular leader like Ataturk decides to nationalize the Turkish people, committing atrocities against the Kurds and Armenians in the process, the people raise no objection, for they have faith: faith like a child, that they are free to choose, and that they have chosen correctly. Evil is not some grand scheme on the part of an immortal fallen angel. Evil is the accident that occurs when human greed and human stupidity collide.

But for all that, we can sometimes be brilliant. In the midst of vast inequality, a teacher in Roman Palestine tells his followers, “give everything you have to the poor, and follow me,” and the world changes. In British India, an old man takes salt from the sea, and the world changes. On a bus in Alabama, a black woman on a bus says no, and the world changes. In the midst of a cultural struggle between two empires, a man sets foot on the moon, and we, as a species, catch our breath and glimpse something bigger than politics and the fear of war. If our greatest evils are human, so are our greatest victories.

I ask myself: where is God in Kurdistan?

Grant me wisdom, and the opening of my eyes.

I am in an apartment full of light. A warm mediterranean breeze blows in through the open doors, carrying the sounds of a local theater performing in the courtyard below. For months now, I have been asking questions, framing them as ever more desperate pleas to a silent God. Instead of His answer, there is only the clamor of a thousand human voices, all claiming to be His representative on earth. God is Love, says one; God is Just, says another. God forgives, God punishes, God builds up, God tears down, God giveth and God taketh away. God is on the side of the English and the Irish, on the side of the Turks and the Kurds, on the side of the Israelis and the Palestinians, the reason to kill and the reason to stop killing. The God of these humans is many things, but above all he is Convenient.

I close my eyes and lean on the wall. Where is the God that can make sense of the whole of human history? Where is the God for whom that history is an eyeblink? Where is the God of galaxies and supernovas, of black holes and continental drift? Where is the God whose truth is universal, whose love is free to all? God, I ask, where are you?

The answer is silence. And, in that moment, my eyes open. God didn’t make us in his image; we made him in ours. We made a God so we could fight for him, so we could kill for him, so we could speak for him. We made a God to forgive us of our sins and forgive us our trespasses. We made a God to hold our hands in the dark. We are children made tiny by a universe beyond our comprehension, made insignificant by time measured in the lifetimes of stars. The answer is silence, because Truth is silent; as soon as it is spoken, it becomes fragmented, subjective, human.

There is no God but the universe, and no one is its prophet.

I step out onto the sunlit balcony and take a deep breath. The weight of my doubts, my fears, my guilt, lifts, and I am light. I am no longer a soul fallen from paradise, or one of the elect in a doomed world. I am simply and merely human. I am free. I look up at a perfect blue Aegean sky, and make my last prayer to the silence: Thank you.

This entry was posted in Philosophy, Travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Chris Ponder

    Tim, I believe that God is in each and everyone of us. It boils down to the love and compassion that we give to other living beings, whether Catholic, Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist. Safe travels my little friend.

  • Paul Morin

    The dissonance between what is and what ought to be is one of life’s inevitable tragedies. We appear to possess a common, natural disposition towards what ought to be, and yet, our attempt to craft a coherent standard by which to realize what ought to be into what is often comes up short. In Christianity, we speak of such things as doctrine, orthodoxy, and canon, but these attempts to better understand, perceive, and give body to Truth frequently lead to more conflict, not less; more questions, not fewer. Even so, it would appear that our endeavor, as finite creatures, to understand fully the essence of Truth, something both transcendent and infinite, is doomed as a matter of necessity.

    However, we can take solace in what we do know of Truth. We experience Truth through the manifestation of its spiritual fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We perceive Truth through beauty, order, and a sense of wonder. We appreciate Truth through logic, communication, and imagination.

    Do these experiences, perceptions, and appreciations necessarily satiate the questions that remain unanswered when Truth is silent? No – but perhaps they are enough to give us hope that, despite our finite disposition, Truth might further reveal itself to us through our ongoing struggle to make sense of this nonsensical world.

    Good post! As always, your thoughts are refreshing and intriguing. I also enjoy reading about your travels. I have to admit that I’m quite envious of your many adventures. I hope all is well, and I look forward to reading your next post. Take care my friend!

    - P.M.

  • Odysseus Drifts

    What if God had answered you, just once in your life, in such a way that you could not doubt the connection between yourself and the Divine? That happened to me. Only one time, many years ago, but it was enough. I’m no good at arguing theology (or anything, really), but I do think that many, many people have used God as an excuse to justify their personal — or even national or racial — desires, and that this is evil, and not a fair representation of God. The commandment about not taking God’s name in vain? I don’t think it’s talking about dropping a brick on your toe and then yelling “Oh my God!” I think it’s referring to the people who use God as an excuse or who use him as a way of manipulating the people who do believe in him. You’re right; people are obedient. And I do think it’s important to question things, as you do, rather than just blindly stumbling forward with the crowd.

    Anyway, this post is beautiful and sad and touching, my friend. :)

  • Josh

    Just beautifully written I don’t have words for how moving this was. Keep it up my good man you have a real talent. Sauce be upon you.

  • David_Weintraub

    This piece has left me stunned. Just beautiful.