The Scum Also Rises
by Bruce Patterson, January 25, 2017
“Don’t get the idea that I’m one of these goddamn radicals. Don’t get the idea I’m knocking the American system… My rackets are run on strictly American lines and they’re going to stay that way.”
— Al Capone, 1929
Beware of towns that have more churches than saloons. In places where even the Christians can’t agree on who exactly is a Christian, maintaining domestic tranquility means that virtually all conversation is reduced to small talk. Consider our homegrown Church of the Latter Day Saints. Even though their creation myth, doctrines and dogmas are, to say the least, unorthodox, they see themselves as True Christians and, given the size and fervency of their congregation, their wealth, power and prestige, few care to dispute the point. Contrast that treatment with how our tiny Millennial (Jesus the planet killer?) sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses (each sect asserts that The End is Near and that they alone own the escape capsule) have been denounced and ridiculed by newspaper columnists and cartoonists since long before a young Benjamin Franklin penned Poor Richard.
“To each his own” is the American Creed and that’s in accord with the moral teachings of Jesus. It’s also the ethical underpinning of our forgotten American Bill of Rights—a single-page treatise so revolutionary that even today its promises remain just promises. But this doesn’t mean we can’t poke fun at our homegrown cornucopia of pompous Sectarians and the lengths they’ll go to deny the evidence of their senses. Also, let’s face it, everybody everywhere is mighty peculiar to somebody somewhere. If you doubt that, go check out the “cultural diversity” they’ve got on the island of New Guinea. Better yet, check out the feasting Holy Wall Street Warmongers armored with pieces of silver enthroned atop a Manhattan mausoleum built to rival the Taj Mahal: a monumental tomb to dwarf the aborted Republic’s.
Myself, I was Baptized Catholic of the Slovak sort, a fact I wasn’t particularly keen on advertising back when I was a boy. I grew up in one of the world’s few English speaking countries, and I was taught to idolize old world WASPs, especially those transplanted Captains of Industry and Philanthropy swimming in their daddy’s money. Or—here’s a Madison Ave. myth (like Santa Claus and the reindeer) that’s grown into an object of religious devotion—the Self-Made Man living a life of luxury and debauchery. Or, if you prefer, luxury, Chastity and Purity.
Growing up, I never once saw the people around me as anything other than “white.” Excepting, of course, those that weren’t. Like the clan of Armenians and the extended family of Bronx Italians living on my block. Three doors down lived a childless couple of Polish Jews who’d survived Europe’s Concentration Camps. Across the street from them and down a couple more houses, lived a big kid whose uncle was Duke Snyder of the now El Lay Dodgers (I once saw The Duke getting out his Caddy and disappearing inside the front door with an armload of X-Mas presents). So White Anglos, Saxons and Protestants were, like the Okies and the Jack Mormons, just more Joe and Josephine Blows as far as I was concerned.
Now the Catholic Church is the original Christian church and that proves it’s got at least some doctrines worth listening to. Having been around since the beginning, and having spawned so many imitators, the Catholic Church has evolved over the centuries like an ancient Mission grapevine sprawling across a trellis shading a Mediterranean patio. The official Catholic sects are properly called Holy Orders and, if you think they’ve always gotten along, or that all Catholics obediently bowed to Rome (the Irish, for one, objected) you’re sadly mistaken. Sorry fact is that even Catholics can’t agree on who is a Real Catholic.
Somebody once wrote that Christianity lost whatever moral authority it once had when it became the State Religion of the Roman Empire (our new patron, Vlad Putin, like any patriotic ethnic Russian and devout Russian Orthodox Christian, sees Moscow as the planet’s Third Rome). And I remember that some godless Modern—I think it was Plato channeling Socrates—once declaring that living in a big city makes people crazy, and somebody else once declaring that Catholicism is the religion of the big city.
So maybe today’s generic American Drive Thru Supermarket tabloid Christianity is the religion of the Freeway and the Shopping Channel. Maybe the Pharisees scheming to maintain our grips on other people’s hearts, minds, affections and possessions. Maybe, all together now, we’re the hissing gossips in the marketplace, Centurions, Legions and Caesars as military dictators taken as God Kings: St. Lucifers with burning worldly ambitions. Maybe we’re the money changers haggling on the temple steps; the otherworldly sounds escaping from the Tower of Babel. The Garden of Eden, Jerusalem, Vatican City, Mecca, Constantinople, Moscow, Wall Street, 5th Avenue.
In 1970, while driving through Burgos, Spain, me and my girlfriend (Baptized and “Born Again” in the Tennessee River, she’d evolved into a Secular Humanist, Feminist and Free Thinker) stopped to tour the town’s famous Cathedral. Begun in 1221 and consecrated in 1260, it’s built of limestone in the French Gothic style and it holds the tomb of El Cid, the martyred father of Castilian nationalism. After we parked our rig and reached the Cathedral’s steps, a gypsy woman about our age approached us, showed us her diseased and emaciated baby bundled in her arms, looked me in eye and started pleading for money. After I handed over a generous sum, we beat it up the stairs and escaped into the sanctuary.
The Cathedral is a famous pilgrimage site and, of course, within its vastness’s, silence is golden. By and by we came to the tomb of El Cid and his wife, and nearby was a maybe half-scale statue of him clad in medieval armor and astride his War Horse. Made of gold, silver and precious stones plundered from the peoples of the New World, the artifact struck me as sacrilege. In the eyes of that gypsy woman outside, I’d seen bone-weary Vietnamese refugees rushing on foot like a trail of ants, and I saw terrorized, barefoot boy POWs staring at me from behind a wall of concertina wire, a GI machine gunner relaxing in a lifeguard tower watching over them.
While my squad was guarding a bridge on Hwy. 19 in An Khe Pass during the Tet Offensive, I saw a fatherless family of Highland Montagnards hoofing it through the dust under plump hemp sacks, their eyes glued to their flip-flopping feet. On one arm of what looked like the great grandpa was displayed a dozen engraved brass bracelets made of melted down American shell casings, and I offered to buy one. He named his price, I paid double (in the jungle, money is worthless) and then he and his walked on without any but the youngest boy having touched eyes with me, and him only for a blink.
I wore that bracelet until, one summer day alone in Carolina’s piney woods, I buried it in the sandy soils with my hands. To Hell with war’s booty; to Hell with war’s souvenirs. Father forgive me for I have sinned.
Although we spent three weeks touring through Morocco, never once did we see anybody even resembling that haunted gypsy woman holding her dying baby. Morocco wasn’t living under Generalissimo Franco’s Fascist Church State, and just because they had no money didn’t mean Moroccans allowed Moroccan children to starve. That goes against Islam.
Some say the moral code laid out in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the essence of Christianity. Those who do their upmost to live according to that single sermon are genuine Christians, some say, and the rest are either uninformed, misinformed or imposters. Regarding Jesus’ supposed use of mysticism and “Biblical Prophecy,” nowadays most Christians can take or leave that stuff because by your actions—and not your words and ideas—you shall be judged.
When a Christian does a Good Deed, it’s because it makes him or her feel good. They take pleasure in making the world an oh-so-slightly better place (the smallest pebble makes perfect ripples in glassy waters). If, by some chance, they die and go to Heaven, it’s a bonus. It’s a bonus so long as, if and when you get bored stiff with Everlasting Bliss, you’re allowed to cancel your ticket and rejoin the stardust. Seems to me that option would hafta be readily available in any place calling itself Heaven, even if its streets are paved with gold, its longhaired, robed and sandaled citizens sport snow white halos, cruise around on ultra-soft, auto-propelled clouds and get endlessly serenaded with harp music. (That last bit is a paraphrase of Mark Twain, by the way: “Letters from Earth”).
Then we shouldn’t forget the possibility that we as individuals just may get condemned to Eternal Damnation. You want a Heaven, you’ve gotta take the Hell along with it—says right there in Rule #1. One God must have one Devil in order to account for all the evil and misfortune on God’s Green Earth. If God really was All-Powerful, there’d be no Devil and no place to put him if there was. So preaching Fire and Brimstone—I think the style originated in Scotland to help keep them knotty-haired, bare-kneed Scots tribesmen warm during their howling winters—some folks still like stuff like that. Then I admit it has its plus side: teenage girls saddled with iron-heeled parents scared of hellfire are usually far more adventurous than their parents can imagine.
Speaking of America’s glacially advancing “Traditional Values Conservatives” of the Puritan sort, somebody once observed that those people—yes, those people—live in terror of the prospect that somebody somewhere is having sex just for the fuck of it.
Since today the party of the Southern Baptist Wall Street Ancient White Zillionaires has declared itself the USA’s Party of God—who else has nightmares about that coven of lesbo witches casting evil spells in Planned Parenthood?—I do wish they’d have enough common decency to self-deport themselves to the Holy Land. Or, to put it in a more mildly, “out-sourced” themselves. Plenty of God and Country-loving Holy Warriors over there for them to blend into. If they worked at it some, they’d soon feel right at home. They all share the same “God,” after all.
We American of the safe and sane variety should never forget that the world’s first totalitarian tyranny was under the world’s first slave-driving God King. We should never forget that the proudest achievement of our revolutionary founders was their constitutional separation of Church and State, thus formalizing and legitimizing the promise made by Martin Luther some two centuries before: you don’t need a church to show you the way to God.
England’s Mad King George illustrates how our revolutionary fathers saw God Kings. Had His Highness set foot in the American colonies during the War of Independence, there would have been plenty of colonists more than willing to bow down to him in the name of God. Yet, poor old George likely would have gotten himself captured, or worse, before very many of them got the chance.