These grand and fatal movements toward death: the grandeur
of the mass
Makes pity a fool, the tearing pity
For the atoms of the mass, the persons, the victims, makes it
To admire the tragic beauty they build.
It is beautiful as a river flowing or a slowly gathering
Glacier on a high mountain rock-face,
Bound to plow down a forest, or as frost in November,
The gold and flaming death-dance for leaves,
Or a girl in the night of her spent maidenhood, bleeding and
(I would burn my right hand in a slow fire
To change the future . . . I should do foolishly. The beauty
Man is not in the persons but in the
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.
I hope you will forgive me but, although this is the first Sunday in Advent I’m going to postpone my first, obviously Advent address until next week because I think I can now say something genuinely helpful about how we, in a liberal religious community such as this, might respond appropriately to the dreadful attacks we witnessed in Paris two and a half weeks ago.
|Fugitive slave, Anthony Burns|
Thoreau’s main target in this essay is the imposition in the North of the Fugitive Slave Act which allowed for the capture and return of runaway slaves (without recourse to trial) to their Southern owners. The act was part of a complicated and morally bankrupt compromise between Northern and Southern states ordered by the Supreme Court of Missouri, hence Thoreau’s mention of a “Missouri Compromise” to which nature has been no partner.
As you will read, Thoreau is murderously angry towards his own country and State because of their betrayal of such basic human freedom and justice but it is not upon this that I would like you to concentrate today. Instead I want you to look at how, as my friend the philosopher, Ed Mooney puts it in his new book Thoreau is able to cultivate,
“. . . latent delight as he refuses an inundating dark. He lets moments of joy forestall any crushing dominance of cruelty or suffering. That there is suffering, cruelty, and decay is one thing. Whether it grinds the soul to dust is another” (Excursions with Thoreau, Bloomsbury, 2015, p. 21-22).
It is this ability that I wish to foreground as we seek to formulate our own responses to the murderous violence we witnessed in Paris two weeks ago and which, never let us forget, forms part of the daily life of those living in places such as Baghdad and Beirut.
SECOND READING: from “Slavery in Massachusetts” delivered by Henry David Thoreau at an Anti-Slavery meeting, at Framingham, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1854:
Art is as long as ever, but life is more interrupted and less available for a man’s proper pursuits. It is not an era of repose. We have used up all our inherited freedom. If we would save our lives, we must fight for them.
I walk toward one of our ponds; but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.
But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity. It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth. I think I have plucked the first one that has opened for a mile. What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man’s deeds will smell as sweet. Such is the odor which the plant emits. If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the water-lily. It is not a Nymphoea Douglasii In it, the sweet, and pure, and innocent are wholly sundered from the obscene and baleful. I do not scent in this the time-serving irresolution of a Massachusetts Governor, nor of a Boston Mayor. So behave that the odor of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere, that when we behold or scent a flower, we may not be reminded how inconsistent your deeds are with it; for all odor is but one form of advertisement of a moral quality, and if fair actions had not been performed, the lily would not smell sweet. The foul slime stands for the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity; the fragrant flower that springs from it, for the purity and courage which are immortal.
Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them: even they are good for manure.
THIRD "READING": Eagles of Death Metal: Complexity
To round out the overall picture I hope to give in this address so you have a proper notion of what the 1,500 young fun-loving concert goers went to hear before 89 of them were gunned down, in a moment I want to play you the single from their current album, “Zipper Down”. As I, your reverend, "slip you some boogie" (to quote their song "The Reverend") you’ll hear the music is not “death metal” at all and just a little research reveals that the band’s name is a splendid joke. The story is told that they were in a bar watching a man dance to the song “Wind Of Change” by the Scorpions which, as some of you might know is a painfully MOR, soft-rock number, the kind of song you used to hold up lighters to during concerts in the 80s. Anyway, when they asked the guy what he was doing, the man yelled, “This is death metal, dude!”, to which Homme replied, ”No it’s not. This is like the Eagles of death metal.” Cue laughter here from knowing music fans because “The Eagles” are the epitome of MOR country-rock and the Scorpions could easily be imagined as being the Eagles of death metal. Anyway they decided to christen their band after this ludicrous and wonderfully silly bon-mot. The “Consequence of Sound” website brilliantly sums their sound as a mix of “Chuck Berry and Elvis’ rock and roll foundation, onto The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet–Exile on Main St. period, The Ramones’ reliable immediacy, and some This Is Spinal Tap satire thrown in for good measure.”
So, here is the official video of the lead single, "Complexity", from their current, album.
|"Eagles of Death Metal" taken by Sylvia Bo Bilvia|
It seems that all the nominal “sides” in this conflict (IS and European and US governments and their middle and Near-Eastern allies) are now inextricably committed to the same beat that the American poet Robinson Jeffers called “the disastrous rhythm” which provided the rhythm for an appalling dance of the masses towards death in 1935. Looking on the unfolding events that seem by now to have their own unstoppable momentum wholly out of any genuine, rational control — just as Jeffers looked at the events leading to the start of the Second World War — ordinary folk like us are just beginning to wake-up to the fact that we are, for the moment anyway, almost powerless witnesses to tectonic political movements that are forcing us onto the slopes of a very dark mountain indeed, one analogous to that imagined by Robinson Jeffers. I look on all this and admit that I often despair; I, too, “would burn my hand in a slow fire to change the future” but I know that right now this would do nothing useful.
But this recognition leaves me — someone with an explicit religious and pastoral rôle — with a difficult job to do, namely, to figure out what genuinely useful and practical help I might offer up to us all caught on the dark mountainside so that we are able to maintain a way of being-in-the-world that will help us survive with decency and hope what is to come?
My task is made even more difficult by the fact that the main tool in my own religious toolkit, reference to traditional concepts of God, is utterly broken and next to useless, for me and for many of the people I know. I note in passing that in the wake of the attacks in Paris even the Archbishop of Canterbury now has to admit this fact, too, as in his admission that he has doubts about God’s existence. It may be true, of course, but it is also true that even if it is not he has to say this because he would get little or no hearing from most of us were he blindly to assert from the outset his unshakeable faith in the reality of such a being — that kind of faith contributes, after all, to the nightmare situation we are in. Of course, later he goes on to defend his faith in such a divine being; but note well, even he has no choice but to begin, like me, with the utter unlikelihood of God’s existence.
But as a tool, reference to the God of monotheism is also broken for me (and many others) because it is intimately related to the conception of God being invoked by those knowingly murdering innocent people (including countless Muslims) in cities across the world. Really, “Allahu Akbar”, God is great? I don’t think so. We need only look, as we will in a moment, to the human bravery, love and compassion displayed by the band “Eagles of Death Metal” and their fans at the Paris club, the Bataclan, to see that this worldly, good old, divine and sacred rock and roll is unimaginably greater than such a broken conception of God.
Indeed, I find that, even as someone still deeply committed to finding an appropriate religious response to the fact of our existence in this extraordinary natural world, I have no choice but to confess to being tired almost beyond measure of nearly all God talk — remember that it was “In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Beneficent” that IS claimed they attacked “the Bataclan theatre for exhibitions, where hundreds of idolaters gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice.” (Remember also that, in return, this same God — though with a different name — will be invoked many times by people in European and US contexts to speak about and justify their own responses — good and bad — to the violence.)
However, listening to the touching human words of the two main members of the “Eagles of Death Metal” in an interview conducted a week after the horror do not tire me, nor do their words stick in my mouth. In fact, far from it, they inspire me and give me hope that there is a decent way through these events that doesn’t require more violence but only more rock and roll.
In a second I’m going to play you a section from that interview in which band members Jesse Hughes and Josh Homme from the “Eagles of Death Metal” indicate how they feel they are going to go in hope. If you are offended by superficially bad language, then stop your ears, but I hope you won’t do this because Hughes’ language, properly interpreted, reveals a bravery and a compassion, a love and thankfulness that, like Thoreau’s water-lily emerging from the slime and the muck of the swamp pushes effectively against the truly offensive actions of the three IS terrorists who brutally murdered 89 innocent victims before the band's very eyes.
(I highly recommend watching the whole interview but the section I played to those in church this morning starts at 16' 30" and finishes at 20' 05" — if you prefer to read the text you'll find it below the video).
“I pledge every person who loves rock and roll to join me . . . I may be scared, and maybe I went through some bad shit, but I’m breathing, I get to talk to my son tonight. And I have a house that is paid for because rock and roll’s blessed me, it’s been very good to me, and I’ve been blessed with beautiful friends. I feel like I have a life of blessings and I’m not gonna walk around like it sucks. My grandmother and my mother raised me never to give a shit what an asshole thinks. If Adolph Hitler hates you, that’s awesome, you want everyone to know that that that asshole hates you. You know I don’t want to spend my life trying to appease or not appease assholes, I want to spend my life smiling with my friends and entertaining them. I cannot wait to get back to Paris to play. I wanna come back, I wanna be the first band to play in the Bataclan when it opens back up . . . because I was there when it went silent. Our friends went there to see rock and roll and died. I’m gonna go back there and live.”
Picking up on his friend’s powerful words and referencing IS’s attempt to recruit more young people to the their evil cause, Josh Homme, the other main member who wasn’t there that night, said, “We’re gonna recruit people too, we’re gonna recruit people to be part of life, citizens of the earth.”
Jesse Hughes and Josh Holmes are, believe me, no whiter-than-snow angels — and I have no doubt we'd disagree on some things (but, perhaps, not many) — but I have to say that, right here and right now, in their immediate responses they are, I think, genuine, white water-lilies emerging from dark muck and slime that is the brutality of IS.
Better to show you what I mean, bring your mind back to Thoreau’s story of the water-lily told in “Slavery in Massachusetts”. Here is how my friend Ed Mooney comments upon this story:
“The odor and glimpse of beauty amid ugliness redeems a moment of paradise amid hell. The hegemony of hell is broken. A lily, not a mood, makes the difference. The reality of injustice and cruelty is not erased, but for a moment it is not the only reality. If all we had were inescapable, bottomless, all-pervasive injustice, then Concord would in fact be utter desolation. Outrageous moral facts are not all that obtrude. Injustice is neither all-pervasive nor fully triumphant in its reign. The lily brings Thoreau’s heart alive — even as [the unfreed slave] Dred Scott breaks it” (Excursions, p. 21).
Let me unpack these words in the immediate context of this address.
We see that, even in hell of the Bataclan, Jesse Holmes and many others bore witness to moments of human beauty. In the interview Holmes tells that, Nick Alexander (from Colchester) who was manning the band’s merchandise stall during their European tour, protected one of his friends by “staying quiet and never call[ing] for help until he bled out, because he didn’t want anyone else to get hurt”. Holmes also said that “A great reason why so many were killed was because so many wouldn’t leave their friends” and that “many people threw themselves in front of other people.” Greater love hath no one than this, that someone lay down their life for their friends. Holmes decision to return to the club with the band on the day it re-opens reveals that what he saw helped him see that the gunmen’s “hegemony of hell” can, indeed, be broken.
Ed Mooney then says, “A lily, not a mood, makes the difference.” We can, I think, take this to mean that in the presence of such tangible love, comradeship and compassion on the bloody dance floor we are not simply witnesses to the presence of a passing, ineffable mood, but of something which, though not eternal, is still very stable and present in our world, something that persistently reoccurs in season, something we can go up to time and time again and all experience directly. This something always-already makes all the difference. It is real, loving supportive people doing real, loving supportive things for each other — in this immediate context it is to see rock and roll at it’s best as a bringer together of people who so clearly “refuse an inundating dark”.
Of course, throughout the night of Friday 13th November and beyond it remains utterly clear that the “reality of injustice and cruelty is not [thereby] erased” but, equally, we can see through the eyewitness accounts that despite what the gunmen wanted us to believe, their’s “is not the only reality” and it never will be.
If, as we looked on the events in Paris and elsewhere in the world, “all we had were inescapable, bottomless, all-pervasive injustice” then we would be facing only “utter desolation.” But that is not what we see — this was especially true at the “Eagles of Death Metal” concert in the Bataclan. Standing before the gunmen’s “outrageous moral facts” we see these facts are not “all that obtrude[d].” Indeed we can see clearly that their “injustice is neither all-pervasive nor fully triumphant in its reign.” The love, kindness, compassion and bravery of those who faced, and faced down the killers are the facts that, like the lily, bring our hearts alive even as the gunmen breaks them.
As Ed Mooney says, “That there is suffering, cruelty, and decay is one thing. Whether it grinds the soul to dust is another” (Excursions, p. 21-22).
The Eagles of Death Metal and their fans offer us a powerful example of those who are going to refuse to let themselves be so destroyed; as Holmes says, “Our friends went there to see rock and roll and died. I’m gonna go back there and live.”
Let’s make sure that, in our hearts and minds, we go with them all and live.
Long live rock and roll.