Culture On A Cross

This election cycle is nothing short of a circus. Our current political and social climate is the polar opposite of good. A simple scroll through my Facebook news feed makes me feel like I’m back on drugs. You could play CNN non-stop to one those “Rage Virus” test monkeys in 28 Days Later and it would do the trick. Sometimes, I feel like lighting a joint and max-voluming Norma Jean’s “The End Of All Things Will Be Televised” (great band and song, by the way).

Life just feels like a vacuum.

Both parties are toting candidates with the lowest approval ratings in history and I cannot direct you to a point, at least in my lifetime, in which people were so angry with one another and divided. Now, political theory is not usually a focal point in my writing, and it isn’t one in this blog, it’s just that there are some good people that I thought I knew that I no longer recognize and now have a serious spiritual concern for. So, I have spent the last week or two with all these different ideas as to how I should approach this Hellscape that has become American culture.

I had a few already in the chamber. A little rant against most sides via Plato’s “Republic”, but it was way too obvious. So it came down to “Trump vs. Hillary: A Battle Over Nietzsche’s Slaves”, “The Death Of All Parties: Camus’ American Rebellion Against Existence” or a G.K. Chesterton-themed spiel based upon his timely and perfectly appropriate essay “‘The Voter and the Two Voices”. But then I thought, “Who is best to explain this problem of angst and anxiety, and better yet, who is best to direct the reader to its required solution?”

Well, Kierkengaard, of course!

It was settled. “Kierkengaard on Trump”! I began re-reading “Sickness Unto Death”, “Concept of Anxiety”, “Either/Or”, etc. and was on track for a real treat, both personally and for my very lucky 20-something followers (it’s an exclusive club, what can I tell you?).

But then I rediscovered a portion that, long ago, shaped me in a personal yet abstract kind of way. Honestly, I don’t precisely know why or how it is relevant to the issue at hand, but I know that it is. A strong shot of sobriety is required in order to see it and apply to ourselves as we are. That somehow, somewhere along the lines we have drawn in the sand, we play at least one role in this story Kierkengaard asked us to envision. In “Practice in Christianity”, he writes:

“Imagine a child, and then delight this child by showing it some of those artistically significant but for children very valuable pictures one buys in the shops. This man with the look of a leader, with a waving plume on is hat, and riding a snorting steed at the head of thousands upon thousands whom you do not see, his hand stretched out in command, “Forward,” forward over the top of the mountains that you see before you, forward to victory- this is the emperor, the one and only Napoleon. And now you tell the little child about Napoleon.

Or then this man dressed as a hunter; he is leaning on his bow and looking straight ahead with a look so piercing, so steady, and yet so concerned. It is William Tell. Now you tell the child a little about him and about this remarkable look, that in the same look William Tell has an eye for his beloved child lest he shoot him and in the same look an eye for the apple, which is on the child’s head, so that he will hit it!

And in the same way and to the child’s unspeakable delight you will show the child several more similar pictures. Then you come to a picture that you have deliberately placed among the others. It portrays one crucified. The child will not immediately, not even quite simply, understand this picture; he will ask what it means, why is he hanging on such a tree. Then you explain to the child that it is a cross and that to hang on that cross means to be crucified, and that crucifixion in that country was the most painful death penalty, moreover, a disgraceful death penalty that was used only for the most flagrant criminals.

How will this affect the child?

The child will feel uncomfortable; he will probably wonder how it could occur to you to put such an ugly picture among all the other lovely pictures, the picture of a flagrant criminal among all these heroes and glorious people. For just as to spite the Jews, the inscription over his cross was “The King of the Jews,” in the same way this picture, which is continually being published “this year”, is, to spite the generation, a recollection that it can never and shall never get rid of.

He must not be represented in any other way. And it must seem as if it were this generation that crucified him every time this generation for the first time shows this picture to the child of a new generation, explaining for the first time how things went in the world, and the child, the first time he hears it will become anxious and afraid for his parents and the world and himself. And the other pictures, indeed, as it says in the ballad, they will all turn their backs, so different is this picture.

However-after all, we have not yet come to this crucial point; the child has not yet come to know who this flagrant criminal was- the child will very likely be inquisitive, as a child always is, and will still ask who it is and what did he do, what?

Then tell the child that this crucified one is the Savior of the world. But the child will not able to attach any definite idea to this.

Therefore, just tell him  that he was the most loving person who ever lived.

Ah, it goes so easily in ordinary associations where everyone knows the story by rote, in ordinary associations where a mere word dropped as a hint is enough, then everyone knows it. But truly it must be a strange human being, or rather an inhuman brute, who would not involuntarily drop his gaze and stand almost like a poor sinner the moment he is going to tell a child this for the first time, a child who has never heard a word about this and of course has never suspected any such thing.

At that moment, the adult stands there as an accuser who accuses himself and the whole human race!- What impression do you think this will make on a child, who naturally will ask: But why were they so mean to him, why?

See, now is the moment; if you have not already made too powerful an impression upon the child, then tell him now about the one who was lifted up, who from on high will draw all to himself. Tell the child that this one who was lifted up is this crucified man.

Tell the child that he was love, that he came to the world out of love, took upon himself the form of a lowly servant, lived for only one thing- to love and to help people, especially all those who were sick and sorrowful and suffering and unhappy.

Tell the child what happened in his lifetime, how one of the few who were close to him betrayed him, the few others denied him, and everyone else insulted and mocked him, until finally they nailed him to the cross–as shown in the picture–desiring that his blood might be upon them and upon their children, while he prayed for them that this might not happen, prayed that the heavenly Father would forgive them of this guilt.

Tell it very vividly to this child as if you yourself had never heard it before or had never told it to anyone before; tell it as if you had composed the whole story, but do not forget any feature of it that has been preserved, except that you may forget as you are telling it that it has been preserved.

Tell the child that a notorious robber lived at the same time as this loving man, that the robber was condemned to death- it was his release that the people demanded- it was for him they cheered and shouted, “Long live Barabbas!” but for the loving one they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”, so this loving person was not only crucified as a criminal but as such a monstrous criminal with this loving person that the notorious criminal became an upright man of sorts.

What effect do you think this story will have on the child?

But to illustrate the point of the discourse properly, make a test, continue the story of this crucified one, that after that, he rose from the dead on the third day, then ascended into heaven – make this test, and you will see that at first the child will almost ignore it; the story of the suffering will have made such a deep impression on the child that he will not feel like hearing about the glory that followed.

To be able to grasp immediately at the loftiness, one must be considerably warped and spoiled over many years by having carelessly learned by rote the whole story of his abasement, suffering, and death, without having any sense of being halted by it.

So what effect do you think this story would evoke in the child?

First and foremost, that he would no doubt completely forget the other pictures you showed him, for now he would have something totally different to think about. And then the child would no doubt become profoundly amazed that God in heaven had not done everything to prevent this from happening, or that it happened without God’s having rained fire down from heaven in order to prevent his death, if not before, then at least at the last moment, or that it happened and the earth did not open up and swallow the ungodly people.

And this, indeed, is also how we adults would have to understand it if we did not understand that it was voluntary suffering, therefore more severe, that he, the abased one, at all times has it in his power to ask his Father in heaven to send legions of angels to him to avert this terrible thing. This most likely would be the first impression.

But gradually, as the child went and thought about this story, he most likely would become more and more passionate; he would think and talk about nothing but weapons and war- for the child would have firmly resolved that when he grew up he would slay all those ungodly people who had treated this loving person in that way; the child would have made this decision, childishly forgetting that it was over eighteen hundred years since those people lived.”[1]

He closes the story with a prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, you did not come into the world to be served and thus not to be admired either, or in that sense worshipped. You yourself were the way and the life- and you have asked only for imitators. If we have dozed off into this infatuation, wake us up, rescue us from this error of wanting to admire or adoringly admire you instead of wanting to follow you, and simply be like you.”[2]

I don’t know exactly who I am in this story. Am I the child looking for a hero or leader achieving a victory that I can more easily understand? Perhaps.

Do I grasp at whatever or whomever confirms my most base desire to offer praise or blame in hopes of self-preservation? Perhaps.

Am I the child that, even after knowing the full story, is still so focused upon the injustice done to this abased character that I have no genuine regard for the glory that followed? Perhaps.

Am I in the crowd that shouts for degradation, willing to twist versions of myself into versions of justice at any cost? Perhaps.

Can I, like the child, not grow up and understand the true meaning of such a story? Perhaps.

Like I said, I’m not positive about every element that you should gather from this story, but I do know it is an important one.

Although I think it would probably help to believe the story, I don’t think that you have to be a Christian in order to find it’s correlation to our individual psychological disposition and present set of group mentalities.

If you do believe this story, then it ought to be the lens from which you view everything, and I mean everything, else. Be like the abased one, don’t pretend to be him.

What is also important to know is that what we feel is beautiful and right is often ugly and wrong and who we are in this story can make a positive effect on us and the toxic environment we find ourselves in.

As long as we understand that we are not the abased ones.

[1] KIERKEGAARD, S., HONG, H. V., HONG, E. H., & KIERKEGAARD, S. (1983). Practice in Christianity. Print.

[2] KIERKEGAARD, S., HONG, H. V., HONG, E. H., & KIERKEGAARD, S. (1983). Practice in Christianity. Print.

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