The Moment of Courage and Despair

One of the things that people commonly underestimate is the depth of grief and despair to be found in the works of JRR Tolkien. This is, without a doubt, a big part of the huge impact that his work had on me, starting as an early adolescent to the present day. I could either say that I struggle with depression, or that I perceive the world around me and feel tremendous grief and despair about it, and either one, or both, would be true.

A friend recently @ed me on Twitter, wondering what I had to say about eucatastrophe, as I’ve written and thought about it in the past. Eucatastrophe is, in brief, a “The eagles are coming!” moment, as found at the climax of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is an idea that Tolkien first described with that term, but not an idea original to him by any means (of course). Tolkien learned it from Christianity, and would say that his idea of eucatastrophe is merely patterned after the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, he argued that we find ideas like eucatastrophe compelling precisely because they mirror the great story of God saving the world. It come up in his poem Mythopoeia, if you look for it, and in many of his writings. Dig in – I’m not going to cite everything here.

My friend said the following on Twitter:

“Because Holy Christ, do we need a little eucatastrophe right now. I honestly don’t know how else a deliverance from global social media-fueled capitalist fascism will occur.”

Now, this is a Unitarian Universalist saying “Holy Christ,” so you know it’s serious and they’re at wit’s end.

Since he asked me, I thought about what I might say on the topic of eucatastrophe, because I definitely share his despair about the situation of the world. And rightly so – if you are optimistic about the next 100 years for humanity and the natural world, I’m comfortable saying that you are ignorant of, or willfully ignoring, a lot of things. And to be clear, I don’t blame you. If you can’t escape the burning house, you can try to make sense of the flames. Maybe that’s all we can do.

The eucatastrophe is by definition unexpected – it is something you did not anticipate or even imagine happening. Even if you don’t believe that Jesus came back, you can probably agree that after his crucifixion, no one around him expected him to come back. None of his followers behaved as if he was going to come back – not even the women, who were clearly the smart and courageous ones.

Let’s say my friend and I are right, and only an eucatastophe can save us, and millions of other species as well, at this juncture. That means that our current moment is some moment before this eucatastrophe. But what is the moment before eucatastrophe like? The main eucatastrophe scene in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings occurs while the point of view character is unconscious, but let’s look at the one from The Return of the King, starting with preparation for the last battle at the Black Gate in the chapter “The Black Gate Opens.”

During their preparation for the last battle, Gandalf says this:

‘We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dur be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless – as we surely shall, if we sit here – and know as we die that no new age shall be.’

Bilbo growing in courage is a theme of The Hobbit, and courage without hope is a theme in The Lord of the Rings, becoming a more dominant one as the story progresses. Even the small glimmer of hope that Gandalf clings to here is snuffed out in the same chapter, as we will see. But this is the kind of decision-making that occurs before the eucatastrophe – no reasonable hope of victory or success exists, and yet they resolve to see the fight through to the bitter end.

Here we get the admixture that is found in many places in Tolkien’s writing – a combination of faithfulness and fortitude in the midst of a hard task. Here Tolkien drew upon his understanding of Roman Catholic moral theology and virtue, as well as the grim courage in the face of certain death that typified the Germanic heroic literature which was his professional life. It is, in the best sense I think, martyrdom. It is something we can see reflected in, for example, Daniel chapter 3:

16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 17 If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.[b]18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

Like many of the heroes we see in The Lord of the Rings, including Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, Theoden in Helm’s Deep, and now the Captains of the West preparing to march on Mordor, here we have the heroes of the story resisting not because they expect victory but because they simply refuse to give up. Being faithful to what they value and believe is more important than winning, and even the hopelessness of their situation cannot turn them aside.

But even the small hope that Gandalf holds out is later extinguished.

When they reach the Black Gate, neither the Captains of the West nor the first-time reader knows what has happened to Frodo and Sam, but the Mouth of Sauron relishes the opportunity to crush everyone’s hope:

The Messenger put these aside, and there to the wonder and dismay of all the Captains he held up first the short sword that Sam had carried, and next a grey cloak with an elven-brooch, and last the coat of mithril-mail that Frodo had worn wrapped in his tattered garments. A blackness came before their eyes, and it seemed to them in a moment of silence that the world stood still, but their hearts were dead and their last hope gone.

As the moment before eucatastrophe is drawn out, even small hopes are extinguished. The hopes of the strongest, the leaders of this last desperate attempt at buying time for true victory, are crushed. Not long after this, battle is truly joined, and everyone’s hope is lost. Now nothing seems to stand between them and a painful, meaningless death.

The wind blew, and the trumpets sang, and arrows whined; but the sun now climbing towards the South was veiled in the reeks of Mordor, and through a threatening haze it gleamed, remote, a sullen red, as if it were the ending of the day, or the end maybe of all the world of light. And out of the gathering mirk the Nazgul came with their cold voices crying words of death: and then all hope was quenched.

And we, as the reader, are privy to Pippin’s last thoughts, which hint at eucatastrophe for us. But from Pippin’s point of view, this is his death, ending in defeat as he thought would happen all along, crushed and suffocated beneath the weight of a troll-corpse, one more lump of carrion for the crows.

‘So it ends as I guessed it would,’ his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear. And then even as it winged away into forgetfulness it heard voices, and they seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far above:

‘The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!’

For one moment more Pippin’s thought hovered. ‘Bilbo!’ it said. ‘But no! That came in his tale, long long ago. This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!’ And his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more.

We see that there might be some hope to keep us reading, as we look at see that we have 3/4 of the book left to go through (including Appendices) before we’re done. We know the story continues, but Pippin does not. As far as he knows, all of his friends are dead or will soon be killed, and the Shire will be destroyed, and all the known world will be plunged into darkness.

Wrath, Grief, and Ruin

The moment before eucatastrophe is a time of wrath, grief, and ruin. Wrath, as we see Gandalf seize the tokens from the Mouth of Sauron, in memory of his friends, and then he drives the ‘Messenger’ off in terror. Fine. There is no hope. Gird up your loins, then, because we are coming for you.

Grief, because in learning that Sam and Frodo are apparently captured, sentenced to long, slow torture spanning years until they are utterly broken, Gandalf is losing two beloved friends and companions. Not only the hope of the world was with them, but Gandalf’s love, concern, and friendship. Pippin can’t help but cry out, revealing that they know to whom those things belonged, and the Mouth of Sauron delights in their pain as eagerly as if he was wearing a red MAGA hat.

Ruin because this was the end. At that point, no one in leadership had any expectation of survival. They came to terms with the fact that all they had left to do was to go down fighting.

So then, if we are in a similar moment, what is it that we can look toward that will save us from social media-fueled capitalist fascism?

Nothing.

Fight anyway.

The Means at the End

This is a dangerous place to leave the discussion, because one could easily imagine the MAGA-bomber giving a similar answer – that wrath, grief and ruin drove him to the last desperate act of political assassination. Any number of people, driven to horrific violence, might tell a similar story of perceived loss, and of what they saw as courage in the face of terrible odds.

For this reason, any movement that seeks to resist social media-driven capitalist fascism, or however else you imagine the looming end, must be nonviolent. 

Because a terrible end to this human story seems so inevitable; because the odds are so overwhelmingly stacked against any such resistance; because the forces of evil are so thoroughly ascendant, there is no other option that has any hope of leading to moral ends. In the story of The Lord of the Rings, violence didn’t work. It didn’t bring hope or lasting victory. In our current story, we thought that we defeated the Nazis back in 1945. Little did we know that millions of Americans would support a President who our own Nazis would see as their last, great hope, who would sing the praises of authoritarian dictators and vilify the press, campaign on explicit bigotry and nativism, and basically follow the blueprint of 1930s Germany.

In the face of wrath, grief, and ruin, driven to extremity, human beings who hold up violence as an option will almost invariably turn to violence. This is where the imagery in The Lord of the Rings falls short in applicability to our situation today. We aren’t fighting orcs, we are fighting other human beings who are on the wrong side of history for some human reason. They are not driven by the supernatural will of the emissary of a fallen angel, but driven by recognizable, human motivations like fear, addiction, greed, cowardice and apathy.

The means with which we fight must be humane above all else. 

Here, radical ideologies are often unhelpful, but Christianity might be a powerful resource. Earlier, I described the moment before eucatastrophe as martyrdom from Tolkien’s Roman Catholic point of view, and the martyrs, as far as I know, died resisting nonviolently. (Know a lot about martyrs? Comment below)

To live in this moment before eucatastrophe, we need much more MLK Jr. than we need Aragorn. But to see and understand this moment, I think we can look to the works of Tolkien, to understand our current moment. If it is the moment before eucatastrophe, we will of course not know, but the heroic thing is to fight anyway, with or without hope.

Epilogue

‘Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.’

The above quote from Gandalf is not quite accurate, given climate change, but important nonetheless I think. There is always another evil – we are only responsible for the fields that we know.

On Being A White Male

I know, no one cares. Way too much is about being a white male already. That being said, I can’t fully understand what it is like to be anything else. And being a white male is distinct from whether I understand what it is to be a white male – which I continue to try to do. 

My dangerous TL;DR: it is clearly easier to be white and male than non-white and non-male in American society. That being said, I think it is common to overestimate how easy it is to be a white male.

One way to sum up American society would be: America is made by white males, for white males. I’m not arguing that point, it is clearly the case. What I do want to do is to add two Mad-Lib blanks to the statement and then fill them in and explain why. So the statement would become America is made by _____ white males, for white males _____.

I would fill in those blanks with the following, to make a more accurate and telling statement: America is made by rich white males, for white males to destroy ourselves and everything around us.

If you are not rich, America is not for you

Why is race as a social construct not overwhelmingly rejected as obviously false and harmful? Perhaps at a time when ignorance let us pretend that it had some basis in science, 100 or more years in the past. But why isn’t race categorized with phrenology, where it belongs?

One short answer is that the social construct of race is enough to divide poor white folks from poor people of color, so that they don’t realize that they have the exact same interests, which are in complete contradiction to the interests of the wealthy and ownership class. This is why millions of white Republicans vote against their best interests, and have for four decades solid. You can sit a white Republican down and point to how their votes lead to policies that materially make their lives measurably worse in every way, and yet there is no change. Why is that? Tribalism is part of it, but race is a huge element. Why do Red States publicly, vocally detest public assistance while simultaneously needing more public assistance than Blue States? Because public assistance is, in their perception, racialized. It is something lazy black and brown folks get from the Democratic Party, which is of course why they overwhelmingly vote Democratic, in this view.

Why is Silicon Valley doomsday-prepping? Why are they researching how to create Gault’s Gulch on Mars, or how to automate their home defenses, or how to mind-control their employees? Out of the understandable fear that a large segment of the population will realize that this whole system is designed to harm the vast majority of us for the profit of a few.

If you do not destroy yourself, America is not for you

The moment you decide to stop participating in societal self-harm, you will be pushed. As soon as you stop over-working and under-sleeping and self-medicating and emotionally anesthetizing, things start to fall apart fast. As soon as you ask, “Why would I sacrifice for a company that won’t sacrifice for me?” the cracks begin to show. Right when you decide that productivity and efficiency are not moral values – that they may very well be immoral ones – America turns ugly, is revealed in its ugliness.

Even dipping your toe in, asking, “Wait, what would a good life look like? What would flourishing look like?” brings a swift answer – it looks like nothing  you have ever experienced thus far. Asking that question, you are in uncharted territory. The system is not designed for you to flourish, and when you start trying to flourish, the system will push back.

Clearly, our society is made for white men, but it isn’t made for us to find joy and flourish and live good lives. It is a “blueprint for self-destruction”, to quote Utah Philips as I often do. It is a hand-grenade with a slow fuse, but the pin is pulled.

If you do not destroy everything around you, America is not for you

In 2018, it is impossible to even participate in our economy without materially contributing to the destruction of everyone and everything around us. With tremendous effort, and insight, and sacrifice, and planning, it might be possible to live a zero-sum life where the good you do and the harm you do are balanced out. I’m saying it is possible in theory, but it is so difficult that I’m not sure how one would do that. People who try end up looking absurd to those around them.

The system we have now is rocketing downward at such a break-neck speed that our brains haven’t evolved to even comprehend it. 21 Trillion dollars unaccounted for in war spending; species going extinct up to 10,000 times faster than they would be without us; ten football fields of rainforest burned and clear-cut every day; gallons of water wasted to produce every pound of meat – we are not capable of understanding the damage we are doing. The facts of our system beggar the imagination.

And as white men, what we’re offered is the chance to be in charge of this absurd horrorshow. That’s the carrot; that’s the dream. Someday, if I work  hard and keep my nose clean, I can rise to the upper reaches of this charnel-house of misery, exploitation, and the destruction of beauty.

…yay?

America is made by white males, for white males, but not by the vast majority of white males, and not for our flourishing. It’s like being born as Edward Scissorhands. As long as you are called upon to cut or stab people and things, including yourself, you are well-suited, even rewarded. This is just what we built you for. The moment you try to stop cutting and stabbing people and things, you find out that you have a serious problem on your hands (pun intended). You have been shaped in a way that doesn’t let you flourish, and that even keeps people around you from flourishing.

I think this is where some of the bitterness that white males express toward Feminism and Black Lives Matter comes from, the push-back and hostility when some people talk about “White privilege.” Because 99% of white males, just like 99.9% of everyone else, are living in the midst of a society that destroys them, and pushes them relentlessly to destroy the people and things around them. Occasionally we snatch some joy or meaning from life, but it’s such a battle. It seems like only a judgmental asshole would call this privilege, especially at first. (I get why that response is infuriating to everyone who isn’t a white male, too.)

The big disadvantage of being a white male

There are innumerable advantages to being a white male – sort of. Advantages in a horrifying system that is destroying all of us are…still advantages. But the big disadvantage of being a white male in America is that nothing I’ve said so far is intuitive or obvious. In fact, it is profoundly counter-intuitive and only realized with significant struggle. What is probably screamingly apparent to people who are not white and male is genuinely not apparent to us without some degree of effort – sometimes a ton of effort. We are white, and the world is bleached. We are male, and the world is chauvinized (enjoy my neologism).

At first glance, and at two-hundredth glance, America seems like just the place for us. Just look at it! We’re represented in all media. We’re in control of everything. We’re assumed to be competent when we are not, and assumed to be extraordinary when we are merely competent. If there is any place where we should be flourishing, surely this is the place!

Only we’re not. More of us are giving up on life, and committing suicide, and becoming nihilists. It’s shitty here and the fight to make our lives anything but shitty is a real one, and many of us lose that fight. If you take the “Red Pill”, then the reason for this lack of flourishing is “because Feminism.” If you are racist, or racist-adjacent, then the reason for this lack of flourishing is “because minorities.” Neither one is at all true, but figuring that out takes another whole round of struggle.

If you aren’t a white male, I imagine that it is much more apparent that this place is not for you and your flourishing. You’re under-represented. You’re not in control of anything, or hardly anything – not even your own body! An obviously shitty situation that is unfair, and infuriating, and dystopian, and claustrophobic – but easier to see clearly from the start. Or so I guess.

One response to this is clearly, “I demand a seat at the table.” And you fight for generations, and perhaps get that seat. And then you have a seat at the table where they create a world that pushes us to destroy ourselves and each other. I imagine it takes a while to realize that, and then what? All that long struggle to be at or near the top of the dystopia instead of the bottom.

But this is a post about white males.

The only way out

The only way out I can see is for white men to join the movements for liberation of women and people of color, not as self-sacrificing Saints of Woke-ness, but for our own survival and self-interest. Not so that we all have a seat at the table, but so we smash the table and burn down the shitty building it’s in, and build something else that doesn’t drive us to destroy ourselves and each other. Misogyny and racism are weapons used against us, just as they are weapons we are taught and encouraged to use against others.

And in the short term, maybe the foreseeable future, this will probably have to look like getting everyone a seat at the table. Because there is no way forward, no hope at all, in smashing this table, this system inimical to human flourishing, without the help and leadership of those who are not white and who are not men. And there are absolutely those white men and others who act in bad faith, climbing the ladder and pulling it up behind them, for reasons ranging from bigotry to perceived self-preservation.

This place is really fucked up, and it wasn’t made for 99% of us. We can’t flourish here unless it changes. And we have so many allies in fighting for that change, if we get our heads out of our collective asses and realize that it’s long past time.

I was going to write about the White Ethnostate and MGTOWs, but I’ll leave this here. I imagine I’ve said something here to upset everyone, so that’s fun.

Part 1: Orc Is A Process

There is a lot of speculation out there as to where orcs come from in the Tolkien legendarium. There are a lot of answers to this question. The slimy mud-pits of Peter Jackson’s Isengard come to mind, for example.

Some things we “know”: there seem to be no orc nor goblin women at all. There are no children, adolescents, etc. No orc villages where they grow up and raise crops. We have no idea what they eat in Goblin Town, when they can’t get dwarves and a hobbit. Orcs are, when we meet them, either singing tormentors or war-wearly soldiers who fear the secret police. We know that over time, mountain tunnels re-fill with orcs. They breed, if they breed, in secret, like vermin. They are described as “…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (Letter 210) (I’m not going into the implicit racism here and elsewhere in Tolkien’s works – but there it is) In an unpublished letter to a Mrs. Munsby, he said, “There must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. Not much was known.” The ambiguity is increased by Tolkien’s method with his own legendarium, which I appreciate – treating it like a set of documents with multiple authors and a lot of uncertainty.

I just re-read The Lord of the Rings for the many-teenth time, and part of what was on my mind was this whole orc question. The text itself does not answer the question, and even reading Tolkien’s other writings and letters gives no clear, definitive answer. One theory found in the Silmarillion is that when Morgoth captured elves he twisted them, by slow torturous arts, into the first orcs. We know that Morgoth, and by extension Sauron and Saruman, cannot create new forms of life but can only twist what already exists. In the context of the Silmarillion, this is presented as a theory among the elves that they don’t know to be true.

So, if that is true, how did Saruman begin to create the half-orcs and goblin-men we see as early as when the hobbits first reach Bree? We can look at the White Wizard because, unlike Morgoth or Sauron, Saruman created orcs and goblins over the course of the story we know, and I think that the way his creations are described gives us insight into where orcs and goblins come from.

There must be some mid-way point between non-orc and orc that Saruman was able to reach while working in secret. Now, one assumption is that he bred half-orcs, meaning he presumably kidnapped humans and forced them to have sex with orcs. So the pits beneath Isengard would have been rape-pits. Now, Tolkien is famously uninterested in where dwarf-children come from – the only implication that dwarf-children even exist is that dwarves who used to live in Dale were highly-skilled toymakers. In this, Tolkien is simply drawing on his source material: Germanic myth and legend, equally uninterested in where dwarf-babies come from. (Come to think of it, all of his elvish characters also enter their particular stories as full-grown adults, and the elf-children tends to refer to elves who lived near the creation of the world rather than literal children.) But Tolkien is no more interested in dwarf-children than the Norse Sagas and Eddas were, and this disinterest is also applied to orcs.

My theory is that orcs are the result of torment. This explains a lot of things in the story, while bringing in the theory (attributed to the elvish creators of the stories Bilbo presumably translated in The Silmarillion as Translations From the Elvish by B. B.) that the first orcs were born of elves, twisted and tormented in the prisons beneath Angband in the First Age.

It Explains Goblin Town

When we first meet orcs, it is in The Hobbit, and they are called goblins. What do we learn about them? They are tricky – they have a clever trap designed to help them capture travelers who take refuge in a particularly desirable cave. Once the goblins have captured the dwarves, they sing a song about how they are going to drag them down underground to work as slaves, presumably until they die. In An Unexpected Journey, the Goblin King goes into greater detail, spelling out the torture as well as slavery that the dwarves have to look forward to.

But what if the reason that the caverns beneath the Misty Mountains slowly fill with goblins and orcs over the years is because they are capturing travelers, like the dwarves, and tormenting them underground until they become orcs themselves?

It reminds me of the short story of a person who is tortured by a devil in hell. Eventually, the devil hands the person the torture implements, because they have become a demon, and then a new person is sent to them in order to be tormented. Hell is self-sustaining.

It Explains Sauron’s Control of the East and South

We are told more than once in the Lord of the Rings that Sauron holds sway over the Haradrim, Corsairs of Umbar, Easterlings, and similar peoples living south and east of Mordor. Then why, one wonders, would he use orcs at all? Why not just bring up human conscripts, as he does during the War of the Ring, all the time? Why are his minions almost invariably orcs?

In my theory, he has control of these regions so that he always has a fresh supply of people to torment and turn into orcs. Additionally, this explains why orcs are racially coded as dark-skinned and/or Asian – just as people living in the East and South of Middle-Earth would be. If all of the living orcs were descendants of the first elves Morgoth captured and twisted to his own purposes, why would they have features reflecting the lands that Sauron controlled? They would all have twisted elvish features, one would assume.

One can speculate, perhaps, that Sauron lacked the power to capture and twist elves the way that Morgoth, most powerful of the Valar, could. Maybe Morgoth’s orcs, some of whom are still clearly around (note the conversations Sam overhears in the tower of Cirith Ungol between orcs who seem to remember the First Age), were superior, and Sauron is only able to round up humans who are easier to corrupt, to create his own orcs. That would fit with the overall theme, in the ancient world and in Middle-Earth, of decline over the centuries on all sides.

It Explains Why Mordor Is So Awful

Mordor, as a stronghold, makes no sense. High walls, literally raised by Sauron’s power and by his orcs after the fact, sometimes manufactured out of slag and industrial waste, encircle this land, keeping foes out and allies in. Within those encircling mountains is a horrific land where almost nothing grows, where the water is almost undrinkable, and the ‘air itself is a poisonous fume’ as Boromir explains in the first Peter Jackson film.

Mordor is precisely the kind of place that orcs would create – wherever we see them, they trample and harm and vandalize – but why would Sauron create it? Mordor makes no sense if orcs are just another species of being, like elf or dwarf or hobbit, but Mordor makes perfect sense if orcs are created by torment. They have to live in a perpetual hell in order to remain sufficiently orcish. The walls have to keep the orcs in as much as keep foes out, because torment is what makes an orc.

It Explains Saruman’s Half-Orcs

This is precisely why Saruman is working with what appear to be half-orcs or goblin-men – he has not had the time to twist his own slaves sufficiently to make them into full orcs. They are larger than normal for orcs, who are described as smaller in stature than most humans, and they are still able to move around freely during daytime, but they are sufficiently orcish to have all of the cruelty he desires in a personal army. This is why he is able to send some of the less-goblin-looking north as spies and, later, as ruffians serving the Boss Lotho. The orc-ing process is not complete. Throughout The Scouring of the Shire, the impression we have of Lotho’s men (really Sharky’s men) is that they are orcish humans. They have the racially-coded features, and the seemingly innate small-mindedness and cruelty, but are not so orcish that the hobbits know to resist them at first they way they would if they were invaded by a small army of goblins. (Ask Golfimbul)

It Connects Orcs to Wraiths

Wraiths are once-great humans, kings of Numenorean descent, twisted and warped so profoundly that they lose their physical bodies and all sense of individual will. They are called wraiths very intentionally, as wraith shares an Old English root word with wreath and writhe – to twist, or to be twisted. Orcs created by ongoing torment would fit the strong theme in Middle-Earth that evil can only corrupt what is and cannot create something new.

Against Authoritarianism

Not only are orcs twisted and cruel, but they are also thoroughly authoritarian, especially in the case of the orcs of Mordor. During the chapters following Shelob’s attack on Frodo, Sam overhears a lot of orc-talk, and it is almost always preoccupied with bosses, punishment, secret police, traitors, and so on – orcs here would fit perfectly well in a dystopian story like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. This is a connection that Tolkien made intentionally – he said once in a letter that his own political leanings were more toward anarchism, as in the ‘abolishion of control.’ The heart of evil, for Tolkien, was the will to dominate other people. But in orcs, we have a people who are dominated and truamatized so thoroughly that they replicate their trauma wherever they go.

We all know of people like that, I think.

Trump Makes Orcs

Tolkien wrote to Christopher in Letter 71:

Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction: your vigorous words well describe the tribe; only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For ‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory’, and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels. But it does make some difference who are your captains and whether they are orc-like per se!

To Tolkien, orcs were realistic, much as they have been panned since as irredeemably evil cannon-fodder. I’m not sure about entirely realistic, but if orc is a process, as I believe, then we can see that process at work wherever we look.  For example, who could possibly work at a concentration camp that served as a detention center for small children stolen from their asylum-seeking parents?

Orcs, that’s who.

And who is currently flourishing? Who is getting their way? We have a whole, large contingent in the United States of people who seem to mainly take pleasure in other’s suffering and discomfort. We have the vapid, nihilistic cruelty of Internet trolls, waves of rape threats aimed at any woman who dares appear in a science fiction film or comment on…anything, and a President who seems to have been elected solely to tear down various institutions. It is easy to see this as an age of orc-behavior, hurting for the sake of hurting, combined with growing comfort with regard to fear and authoritarianism.

In his refections on the Fourth Age, the so-called Age of Men, Tolkien talked about how he saw a rise in “orc-mischief,” that is, non-orcs behaving in orcish ways. A young cult arises in Gondor decades after the death of King Elessar – one can imagine such a cult arising on 4chan or through Breitbart. Hell, it already has. It’s called the alt-right by people who have forgotten what “Nazi” means.

The story of the Fourth Age never got off the ground for Tolkien, so among other things, we don’t know from his work what can be done about orcs, short of fighting them. This is where the presentation of evil in Middle-Earth is limited, as it is in any story. We only have the stories we have.

Perhaps the question is, what is the torment that has created these particular orcs? Because if I’m right, and if this is a meaningful comparison at all, then ending that torment, whatever it is, might be the way to halt the orc-process.

Another question that I’m thinking through, given the idea that orcs are created by torment, is why are almost all of the people engaging in orc-behavior in our day and age white? Even a cursory glance at American history reveals a panoply of torment aimed at non-whites by whites. Genocide and slavery and exploitation and apartheid. So why are all of these Trump-voting orcs white?

Thoughts on this interpretation of orcs? Of our current situation in the US? What do you think is the torment and its source? 

What is “Biblical” at the Border?

Here’s what I wrote for the church newsletter on the topic of what would be “Biblical” at our southern border. If you suddenly see a lot more blog posts in the near future, it’s because they ran me out on a rail, as my church includes plenty of Trump voters. We’ll see.

In our ongoing national argument over our borders and how to maintain them, there is a periodic claim on one side or another that a particular view is “Biblical.” This is often confusing or frustrating for me, because the Bible is a library, and contains dozens of different voices that we know about, spanning at least 1500 years of texts. To simplify a claim down to “Biblical” or “not Biblical” is possible, but difficult, and requires a lot more work than pop culture and cable news programs allow. More work, in fact, than this Perspective article allows, but I wanted to say something – to put my own thoughts in the mix, so to speak.

Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of those who followed after him included a great deal of boundary-crossing. He crossed geographical boundaries and social boundaries as well, naming enemies as neighbors worthy of giving and receiving love, and listening to those who were silenced by the people around them. At the same time, the Hebrew scriptures in particular have a lot to say about boundaries, borders, and their maintenance. In particular throughout Joshua, with references in Exodus and Proverbs and Ezekiel, there is the idea of the Promised Land, a land in which, within certain borders, God’s chosen people would be able to flourish.

I don’t want to focus on the boundaries themselves, however. In the Bible there are a number of texts, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, that seem to say that God ordains and draws boundaries for the various peoples of the time. On the other hand, the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament have a large number of passages calling on people to cross boundaries and knock down walls – sometimes literal walls, usually metaphorical ones. One very consistent message of the Bible, however, from cover to cover, is how we are to treat people who cross our borders.

The Hebrew term that the Bible uses to describe people who cross borders is most often ger, a word that is translated into English as sojourner, alien, resident alien, refugee, immigrant, indigent person, wanderer, migrant, and stranger. The idea, put simply, is that of someone who is not from around here. In my reading, the overwhelming message of the Bible is that we are called by God to treat ger as neighbors, with every consideration we would have for someone we know well, who comes from where we come from. Just a few of many examples to consider:

  • Exodus 22:21 and 23:9 both say “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 22:21 adds “You know the heart of the sojourner”)
  • Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
  • Deuteronomy 10:18-19: “He (God) executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
  • Psalms 146:9: “The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”
  • Malachi 3:5: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”
  • Matthew 25:27-40: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
  • Hebrews 13:1-2: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

These are just the briefest sampling of dozens of passages that have the same message, over and over again. We called to treat ger, sojourners, as we would treat a neighbor, with compassion. The most common reasons given for this call is either that God’s people are sojourners in this world, and have been from the very beginning (Adam and Eve were driven out of their homeland to wander; Abraham wandered; Moses wandered), or that God’s nature is to call sojourners, and watch over them, and when necessary execute justice on their behalf. Frequently the command to respect and care for ger, for sojourners, simply ends with the reminder: I am the Lord your God. In the Gospels, we have Jesus’s insistence that however we treat the least among us is how we treat him, and that we will be judged based on that treatment.

In recent weeks it has been widely reported that thousands of children have been taken from their parents and placed in camps, prisons, and other places like abandoned office buildings. These children range from less than a year old to adolescence, and include children of asylum-seekers who entered our country legally, and others who entered our country illegally (which is a misdemeanor). This policy of family separation is expressly undertaken as a punishment, and there is clearly no sufficient plan in place to reunite these children with their families. In many cases, there is no record or paper trail for these families, and the children have been relocated multiple states away. (One local example: dozens of asylum-seeking fathers, who entered the country legally, are currently incarcerated with their children in Berks County, PA, and have been for a few years now). These children, including infants and toddlers, will now need to go to court alone, without any family, while immigration courts try to determine their status and, we hope, seek to reunite them with their families when this policy ends. Even that will be a monumental task, given the lack of care and documentation. There is no question that some of these families will have lost their children forever, which is an unimaginable heartbreak. There is also no question that some of these children have been trafficked, abused, and mistreated.

I know that among those of you who read this perspective of mine, there will be some who disagree with me about immigration, and refugees, and asylum-seekers, and others who agree, and some in-between. I hope that we can agree, however, that not only is this policy of family separation inhumane, it is also entirely against the message we find in scripture as to how we should treat sojourners. We are forgetting that our ancestors in faith were refugees and asylum-seekers, who crossed borders seeking safety; we are forgetting that our Lord and Savior and his family crossed borders seeking asylum when he was a small child. We certainly don’t have to abolish borders, or make them un-secure, in order to treat people humanely.

The Cult of the Gun

I don’t have anything left in the tank, so here is what I wrote for the church newsletter. 

Luke 22:35-38

Jesus said to them, ‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’

As I was preparing for our Ash Wednesday service, the news came through – yet another school shooting, this time in Florida. Speculation, and then numbers began to come in, the body count of the wounded and the dead. Newscasters on the radio were crying, unable to finish their own sentences. On Twitter, kids who have survived their own school shootings were trying to talk these kids in Florida through what was happening happening, giving them advice on how to survive, while the shooting was ongoing, and after. Terrified school kids sent texts, like, “If I don’t make it, I love you.”  

The final count seems to be 14 wounded, 5 of whom suffered life-threatening injuries, and 17 dead.

This is, according to Everytown for Gun Safety’s records, the 18th school shooting so far in 2018, and the 8th school shooting to result in fatalities. (1) As I write this, it is only February 15th, so by the time you read this Perspective article, that number of school shootings will already be higher. Every 2 or 3 days, on average, we can expect another school shooting, and every 5 days or so, a school shooting in which children and educators are killed.

I have long since lost track. I am not even able to grieve these shootings, because they happen so often and so relentlessly. And each time, there are tears, and questions, and “thoughts and prayers”, but no change.

The school safety industry is now a nearly 3 Billion dollar one, as companies scramble to develop curricula and training programs around mass shootings. We can no longer, I think, act surprised when these shootings happen. School shootings are now a normal part of life in the United States. All over the country, in elementary and middle and high schools and colleges, kids are going through regular training in how to respond to an active shooter. All the way from Poppy in kindergarten in Royersford to my friend Carol’s daughter in high school in North Carolina, children are training in how to survive a mass shooting.

I wish I had hope that our situation would improve in this country, but I think back to the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, where 20 children were killed, along with 6 teachers who died protecting them. At the time, a British journalist reflecting on our lack of response wrote the following: “In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” We decided, in particular our political leaders decided, that we would rather endure the deaths of hundreds of children than change our relationship to guns.

Since Sandy Hook, more than 400 people have been shot in more than 200 school shootings.

I know that a pastor taking up this issue for a newsletter article is a risk. It seems risky to bring up gun control and gun violence in the United States. But on the other hand, we are not having a gun control debate. We are not having a gun violence discussion. We have decided.

The research on gun violence is compelling, and it is summed up in a November 7, 2017 article in the New York Times titled “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest An Answer.” The article is available online if you’d like to read it, but the shortened version is that mental health has no correlation to gun violence (actually, a negative correlation). Video games and other media have no correlation to gun violence. The racial makeup of a nation, whether it is homogeneous or diverse, has no correlation to gun violence. The rate of non-violent crimes has no correlation to gun violence.

The only thing that correlates to gun violence, worldwide, is how many guns are in a society, and how easy it is to get them. Switzerland is a country where an above-average number of people own guns, but it is much more difficult to become a gun owner there than in the United States. Yemen is the only country on earth with anywhere near our number of guns per capita, and our ease of ownership, and they have a comparable problem with gun violence. (And we must remember that Yemen is in the midst of a man-made humanitarian disaster and civil war) We are a society with over 270 Million firearms, and we have the fewest restrictions on gun ownership of any country on Earth. And we are the only country on Earth that has the mass shooting problem we are seeing, and the only country on Earth with the school shooting problem we are seeing. In fact, our gun homicide rate is 50 times higher than countries with comparable wealth and standards of living.

Other countries have mental health issues, and violent video games, and violent media, and ethnic diversity, and crime, even at higher levels than we do. But none of them have the relationship to guns that we do. I would call that relationship, if I’m being honest, an idolatrous devotion to guns.

The passage from Luke that I quoted above is Jesus at his most warlike in all of the Gospels. This is the most approval Jesus ever gives for carrying or using any weapon. Every other time Jesus mentions a weapon, it is clearly metaphorical, but this time, he seems almost literal when he says ‘sell your cloak and buy a sword.’ There are three problems with seeing this passage as Jesus approving of owning weapons, however.

The first problem is that the “sword” in question, in Greek machaira, commonly referred to a large knife used for slaughtering animals. Picture a butcher’s knife, maybe at most a machete, and not a military weapon. A tool, not designed for killing people but for cutting up meat. (The Greek word for the war-weapon a soldier would carry was spatha)

The second problem is that, when presented with only two such knives, Jesus immediately says “It is enough.” In the NIV translation, they are more clear, and translated the Greek as Jesus saying, “That’s enough!”

The third problem is that, if Jesus really is promoting weapon ownership among his followers, it is in direct contradiction to everything else he has taught and done throughout his entire ministry. When Simon-Peter wields one of these butcher knives to wound a servant of the Temple, Jesus immediately rebukes Simon-Peter, and heals his enemy. That single wound is the entirety of Jesus’s followers’ violence and use of weapons.

So, my reading of this passage is actually that Jesus is speaking of swords metaphorically, the way he has done in other passages. A couple of his followers take what he says literally, holding up butcher knives as if they are part of some great army, and Jesus says “That’s enough!” Did Jesus think that two butcher knives were enough to overthrow the Roman Empire? I doubt it. He was also mindful of prophecy, and I believe this is an instance where he is doing and saying things so that they fulfill prophecies that referred to him, and would tell people what would happen (though seemingly none of them quite understood).

What I’m left with, for us, is the question: when will we have had enough? Sandy Hook wasn’t enough. The 200 school shootings since Sandy Hook have not been enough. The 400 deaths in those school shootings have not been enough. I doubt this most recent shooting in Florida will be enough, and I doubt the next shooting that will inevitably follow will be enough. We will get “thoughts and prayers”, and partisan bickering, and then a few days later, the next school shooting will happen.

Jesus hit his limit when two of his disciples pulled out butcher knives, and the moment someone actually used one of those butcher knives on another human being, Jesus rebuked the wielder and healed the enemy. If he is our example for what our relationship to weapons should be, where does that leave us?

At the beginning of Lent, traditionally a season of repentance, I think this is a good question with which to begin.

 

(1) Some people see the number 18 as inaccurate, and don’t agree with how Everytown defines “school shooting” as any time a weapon is discharged on school property, so I included the count of 8 that included fatalities.