Chris Hedges has been there. A war correspondent for many years, he carries a burden of closely-observed horror for which the term PTSD pales. You can see it in the hollows around his eyes.
Chris Hedges has also been through hell with religion. He’s not “religious” now in any conventional sense. Yet he’s not “anti-religious” either. He can’t leave the subject alone. In books and columns, he delivers impassioned oracles. One of his recent books is, “I Don’t Believe In Atheists.”
Anybody who is comfortable with their religion can benefit from hearing and reading Hedges. He had a column on Truthdig entitled “After Religion Fizzles, We’re Stuck With Nietzche”, and the May 10, 2010 column was a modern hellfire and brimstone prophetic rant.
Looking it over nearly a decade later reminds me of my class in Old Testament prophets– folks like Isaiah and Jeremiah, the real doom-and-gloomers who got books named after them in the canon were not hailed as God’s messengers in their own day.
They had competition from other “prophets” who went around Jerusalem shouting that “Thus Saith The Lord” — things were really okay and Israel and Judah were the Apples of Jehovah’s eye and it was going to be just fine, the bad guys would leave them alone, don’t pay any attention to these sourpuss pessimists, who were probably secretly being paid by “foreign powers” to undermine the king in his glory.
It was only a generation or four later, when the grandchildren of the Babylonian invasion, still “interned” as captives, somehow rediscovered the collection of sheepskin scrolls that survived the disappearance of the men who delivered the messages which now rang truer, such that scribes and rabbis rolled them into the collection of readings that helped keep their community alive through its long trials, and later congealed into the incendiary heart of the Bible.
Time seems to move faster now, so maybe nine years is enough to take a second look at Hedges. Seems to me that many of his pronouncements have been echoed by continuing events, which was one of the tests. Here are some samples, opening with lines I rearranged as if they were poetry; yeah, the best prophets were poets.
These religious institutions are in irreversible decline.
They are ruled by moral and intellectual trolls.
They have become arrogant and self-absorbed.
Their sins are many.
They protected criminals.
They pandered to the lowest common denominator and illusions of personal fulfillment and surrendered their moral authority.
They did not fight the corporate tyrants who have impoverished us.
They refused to denounce a caste of Christian heretics embodied by the Christian right and have,
for their cowardice,
been usurped by bizarre proto-fascists clutching the Christian cross.
They have nothing left to say.
And their aging congregants, who are fleeing the church in droves, know it.
He was vehemently ecumenical about the institutional rot in both Catholicism, and the evangelicals who even then were the core of the religious right:
It is hard to muster much sympathy over the implosion of the Catholic Church, traditional Protestant denominations or Jewish synagogues.
But he didn’t think the world would be a better place for their demise and their weak-kneed liberal rivals:
These institutions were passive as the Christian right, which peddles magical thinking and a Jesus-as-warrior philosophy, hijacked the language and iconography of traditional Christianity. They have busied themselves with the boutique activism of the culture wars. They have failed to unequivocally denounce unfettered capitalism, globalization and pre-emptive war.
The obsession with personal piety and “How-is-it-with-me?” spirituality that permeates most congregations is narcissism. And while the Protestant church and reformed Judaism have not replicated the perfidiousness of the Catholic bishops, who protect child-molesting priests, they have little to say in an age when we desperately need moral guidance.
Nor is Hedges’ anger based on abstractions. He is a child of organized religion :
I grew up in the church and graduated from a seminary. It is an institution whose cruelty, inflicted on my father, who was a Presbyterian minister, I know intimately. I do not attend church. The cloying, feel-your-pain language of the average clergy member makes me run for the door.
The debates in most churches — whether revolving around homosexuality or biblical interpretation — are a waste of energy. I have no desire to belong to any organization, religious or otherwise, which discriminates, nor will I spend my time trying to convince someone that the raw anti-Semitism in the Gospel of John might not be the word of God.
The institutional church, when it does speak, mutters pious non-statements that mean nothing. “Given the complexity of factors involved, many of which understandably remain confidential, it is altogether appropriate for members of our armed forces to presume the integrity of our leadership and its judgments, and therefore to carry out their military duties in good conscience,” Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, wrote about the Iraq war.
It makes no difference to me if Jesus existed or not. There is no historical evidence that he did. Fairy tales about heaven and hell, angels, miracles, saints, divine intervention and God’s beneficent plan for us are repeatedly mocked in the brutality and indiscriminate killing in war zones, where I witnessed children murdered for sport and psychopathic gangsters elevated to demigods. The Bible works only as metaphor.
Oh yeah, war. Or rather, the wars. The elephant so settled in our living rooms that we don’t even notice much anymore. When Hedges wrote this piece, the “peace movement” I grew up with had already been dead for three years, and it hasn’t even produced any zombies.
I recommend you not argue with this. Meditate on it. If Hedges despises the religious right, he’s no friend of us liberals either. He points to Friedrich Nietzche as the model for what comes after religion’s decline.
As we devolve into a commodity culture, in which celebrity, power and money reign, the older, dimming values of another era are being replaced. We are becoming objects, consumer products and marketable commodities. We have no intrinsic value. We are obsessed with self-presentation. We must remain youthful. We must achieve notoriety and money or the illusion of it. And it does not matter what we do to get there. Success, as Goldman Sachs illustrates, is its own morality. Other people’s humiliation, pain and weakness become the fodder for popular entertainment.
He predicts it, but he’s not recommending it, anymore than the prophet Jeremiah wanted his home town of Jerusalem to be destroyed.
We live in the age of [Nietzche’s] Übermensch who rejects the sentimental tenets of traditional religion. The Übermensch creates his own morality based on human instincts, drive and will. We worship the “will to power” and think we have gone “beyond good and evil.” We spurn virtue. We think we have the moral fortitude and wisdom to create our own moral code. The high priests of our new religion run Wall Street, the Pentagon and the corporate state. They flood our airwaves with the tawdry and the salacious. They, too, promise a utopia. They redefine truth, beauty, morality, desire and goodness. And we imbibe their poison as blind followers once imbibed the poison of the medieval church.
This is what a prophet looks and sounds like.
And here’s an update, with a hat tip to Charley Earp:
In 2014, he wrote:
Thirty years ago I stood in a church in Albany, N.Y., with my father, a Presbyterian minister. I had graduated from Harvard Divinity School and had purchased a one-way ticket to El Salvador, where the military government, backed by the United States, was slaughtering between 700 and 1,000 people a month.I had decided, as George Orwell and James Baldwin did earlier, to use my writing as a weapon. I would stand with the oppressed. I would give them a voice. I would describe their suffering and their hopes. And I would name the injustices being done to them. It was a decision that would send me to war for two decades, to experience the worst of human evil, to taste too much of my own fear and to confront the reality of violence and random death.
But going to El Salvador as a reporter was not something the Presbyterian Church at the time recognized as a valid ministry, and a committee rejected my “call.” I told my father, who was waiting outside the meeting room, that I was not to be ordained. It must have been hard for him to see his son come so close to ordination, only to have it slip away, and hard to know that his son was leaving for a conflict in which journalists had been killed and would be killed. What the church would not validate he did. “You,” he said, “are ordained to write.” . . .
[George] Orwell, like [James] Baldwin, disdained the hypocrisy of the institutional church. He acidly observed that pious Christian capitalists “do not seem to be perceptibly different” from other capitalists. “Religious belief,” he wrote, “is frequently a psychological device to avoid repentance.” Moses, the pet raven in his “Animal Farm,” is used to pacify the other animals, telling them they will all go to an animal paradise called “Sugarcandy Mountain” once their days of labor and suffering come to an end.
“As long as supernatural beliefs persist, men can be exploited by cunning priests and oligarchs, and the technical progress which is the prerequisite of a just society cannot be achieved,” Orwell wrote.
And yet, like Baldwin, Orwell feared the sanctification of state power and the rise of the manufactured idols that took the place of God, those who promised an earthly rather than heavenly paradise. Orwell struggled throughout his life to find a belief system strong enough to oppose it. “If our civilization does not regenerate itself, it is likely to perish,” he wrote shortly before publishing “Animal Farm.”
That regeneration, at least in Europe, he said, would have to draw on a moral code “based on Christian principles.”In “The Fire Next Time” Baldwin wrote: “Life is tragic simply because the earth turns, and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death — ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.”
On Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014, after several years of volunteering as a teacher in the New Jersey prison system, I entered into the formal embrace of the church to continue my work with the incarcerated. But in my own mind, and in the mind of my father, I was ordained long ago. I was possessed by a vision, a call, to tell the truth, which is different from reporting the news, and to stand with those who suffered, from Central America to Gaza to Iraq to Sarajevo to the United States’ vast archipelago of prisons. “You are not really a journalist,” my friend and fellow reporter Stephen Kinzer once told me, “you are a minister pretending to be a journalist.”
Life is a circle. We return to our origins. We become who we were created to be. And my ordination, at which the radical theologian the Rev. Dr. James Cone preached and Cornel West spoke and the Michael Packer Blues Band played, makes that circle complete. It was an affirmation of an inner reality, one that Baldwin and Orwell understood.