Richard Rohr Meditation: The Story that Defines Us

There are several levels of knowing and interpreting reality—a “hierarchy of truths,” as Pope Francis calls it. [1] Not all truths are of equal importance, which does not mean the lesser ones are untrue. So don’t fight useless battles against them. Something might be true, for example, on a psychological, historical, or mythological level, but not on a universal level. Fundamentalists think the historical level is the “truest” one, yet in many ways literalism is the least important meaning for the soul. Facts may be fascinating, but they seldom change our lives at any deep level. I do believe the “historical-critical” method of interpreting Scripture is a helpful frame [2], without which fundamentalists create a fantasy that looks a lot like their own culture and preferred class perspective.

Scholars since Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) have been making good use of a distinction between logos, or problem-solving language, and mythos. Logos language includes facts, data, evidence, and precise descriptions. Rob Bell describes how “logos language and thinking got us medicine, got us airplanes. . . . For the past three hundred years we have had an explosion of logos language. . . . But the problem is, there are whole dimensions of our existence that require a different way of thinking.”

Bell rightly says, “The Bible is mostly written in mythos language. . . . Good religion traffics in mythos. . . . Mythos language is for that which is more than literally true. . . . Evolutionary science does an excellent job of explaining why I don’t have a tail. It just doesn’t do so well explaining why I find that interesting!” [3] We need mythos language to express the more-than-factual meaning of experiences like falling in love, grief, and death.

Good religion, art, poetry, and myth point us to the deeper levels of truth that logos can’t fully explain. Early Christians knew this; but the Western Church spent the last five centuries trying to prove that the stories in the Bible really happened just as they are described. For some Christians, it’s imperative that the world was created in six literal days, otherwise their entire belief system falls apart. Christianity came to rely heavily on technique, formula, and certitude instead of the more alluring power of story, myth, and narrative.

The whole point of Scripture is the transformation of the soul. But when we stopped understanding myth, we stopped understanding how to read and learn from sacred story or Scripture. Children delight in hearing the same fantastical stories over and over again because they are open to awe, mystery, and discovery. Oh that we could all read the creation story with similar childlike wonder and open-heartedness!

The Myth of the Kindly General Lee

The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed.

The strangest part about the continued personality cult of Robert E. Lee is how few of the qualities his admirers profess to see in him he actually possessed.

.. The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.

There is little truth in this. Lee was a devout Christian, and historians regard him as an accomplished tactician. But despite his ability to win individual battles, his decision to fight a conventional war against the more densely populated and industrialized North is considered by many historians to have been a fatal strategic error.

 But even if one conceded Lee’s military prowess, he would still be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are black.
.. Then there are those whose reverence for Lee relies on replacing the actual Lee with a mythical figure who never truly existed.
..  Jack Kerwick concluded that Lee was “among the finest human beings that has ever walked the Earth.” John Daniel Davidson, in an essay for The Federalistopposed the removal of the Lee statute in part on the grounds that Lee “arguably did more than anyone to unite the country after the war and bind up its wounds.”
.. In the letter, he describes slavery as “a moral & political evil,” but goes on to explain that:

I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy.

.. emancipation must wait for divine intervention.  That black people might not want to be slaves does not enter into the equation; their opinion on the subject of their own bondage is not even an afterthought to Lee.

.. “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”

.. “in their eyes, the work of emancipation was incomplete until the families which had been dispersed by slavery were reunited.”

.. Lee’s heavy hand on the Arlington plantation, Pryor writes, nearly led to a slave revolt, in part because the enslaved had been expected to be freed upon their previous master’s death, and Lee had engaged in a dubious legal interpretation of his will in order to keep them as his property

.. When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well.” Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.”

Every state that seceded mentioned slavery as the cause in their declarations of secession. Lee’s beloved Virginia was no different, accusing the federal government of “perverting” its powers “not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.” Lee’s decision to fight for the South can only be described as a choice to fight for the continued existence of human bondage in America—even though for the Union, it was not at first a war for emancipation.

.. During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property. Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” with the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”

.. Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender.

.. The presence of black soldiers on the field of battle shattered every myth the South’s slave empire was built on: the happy docility of slaves, their intellectual inferiority, their cowardice, their inability to compete with whites. As Pryor writes, “fighting against brave and competent African Americans challenged every underlying tenet of southern society.” The Confederate response to this challenge was to visit every possible atrocity and cruelty upon black soldiers whenever possible, from enslavement to execution.

.. Nor did Lee’s defeat lead to an embrace of racial egalitarianism. The war was not about slavery, Lee insisted later, but if it was about slavery, it was only out of Christian devotion that white southerners fought to keep blacks enslaved.

.. that unless some humane course is adopted, based on wisdom and Christian principles you do a gross wrong and injustice to the whole negro race in setting them free.

.. Lee had beaten or ordered his own slaves to be beaten for the crime of wanting to be free, he fought for the preservation of slavery, his army kidnapped free blacks at gunpoint and made them unfree—but all of this, he insisted, had occurred only because of the great Christian love the South held for blacks. Here we truly understand Frederick Douglass’s admonition that “between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”

..Lee told Congress that blacks lacked the intellectual capacity of whites and “could not vote intelligently,”
..To the extent that Lee believed in reconciliation, it was between white people, and only on the precondition that black people would be denied political power and therefore the ability to shape their own fate.
.. his life as president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee) is tainted as well. According to Pryor, students at Washington formed their own chapter of the KKK, and were known by the local Freedmen’s Bureau to attempt to abduct and rape black schoolgirls from the nearby black schools.
.. There were at least two attempted lynchings by Washington students during Lee’s tenure, and Pryor writes that “the number of accusations against Washington College boys indicates that he either punished the racial harassment more laxly than other misdemeanors, or turned a blind eye to it,” adding that he “did not exercise the near imperial control he had at the school, as he did for more trivial matters, such as when the boys threatened to take unofficial Christmas holidays.” In short, Lee was as indifferent to crimes of violence toward blacks carried out by his students as he was when they were carried out by his soldiers.
.. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866; there is no evidence Lee ever spoke up against it.
.. The most fitting monument to Lee is the national military cemetery the federal government placed on the grounds of his former home in Arlington.
.. There are former Confederates who sought to redeem themselves—one thinks of James Longstreet, wrongly blamed by Lost Causers for Lee’s disastrous defeat at Gettysburg, who went from fighting the Union army to leading New Orleans’s integrated police force in battle against white supremacist paramilitaries.
.. But there are no statues of Longstreet in New Orleans.
.. Lee was devoted to defending the principle of white supremacy; Longstreet was not. This, perhaps, is why Lee was placed atop the largest Confederate monument at Gettysburg in 1917,  but the 6-foot-2-inch Longstreet had to wait until 1998 to receive a smaller-scale statue hidden in the woods that makes him look like a hobbit riding a donkey. It’s why Lee is remembered as a hero, and Longstreet is remembered as a disgrace.
.. The white supremacists who have protested on Lee’s behalf are not betraying his legacy. In fact, they have every reason to admire him. Lee, whose devotion to white supremacy outshone his loyalty to his country, is the embodiment of everything they stand for. Tribe and race over country is the core of white nationalism, and racists can embrace Lee in good conscience.

The question is why anyone else would.

Richard Rohr Meditation: Redefining Success

Much of the teaching and culture that has emerged in recent Christianity has much more to do with Greek philosophy and Roman mythologies than the Gospel. This is not all bad, but we must acknowledge these influences. The ego is naturally attracted to heroic language, and so we focused on the heroic instead of transformation: Zeus instead of Trinity, Prometheus and Ulysses instead of the Suffering Servant foretold by Isaiah.

.. The scandalous thing about Jesus is how free he is. He is not a ritualist, legalist, or into any form of priestcraft. The things we usually associate with religion are not what Jesus emphasizes—at all.

“Star Wars” Is Really About Feminism. And Jefferson. And Jesus.

Christianity

Anakin Skywalker is the product of a virgini birth. He has no human father. He turns out to be a Christ-like figure, dying for humanity’s sins, which he incarnates and symbolizes. Star Wars is an imaginative reconstruction of Jesus’s life, in which the Jesus figure is the sinner — unable to resist Satan until the very end, when he sacrifices everything for his child, and symbolically for all children.