“Things fall apart, the center does not hold…” W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming” 1919
Ninety-three years ago in January 1919, Yeats published “The Second Coming” in the aftermath of the war to end all wars and the Spanish Influenza pandemic, two events that destroyed millions of lives and the hope of progress which the 20th century had promised. Now in January 2012 we can look back at Yeats’ classic poetic idiom with a deeper and more profound appreciation for its prophetic impulse. While we cannot imagine the agony and fear of the times described by Yeats’ warning, we are survivors of the even greater historical cruelties since Yeats, and we are drawn to his insight with a heightened sense of responsibility.
The current malaise of polarization has lost its traction of crisis; we seem to have accepted the discourse, terrorizing lies, gridlock of governance, and residual hopelessness as simply the way it is. We read Yeats and acknowledge the tone of his poetic desperation without admitting that in our time that the center does not hold because we cannot find the center, because we are collectively giving up on the risk of finding a center and the even greater risks of anchoring and sustaining the center—if we ever found it—through dialogues, compromise, sacrifice and commitment to community over individual desires.
Reviewing the headlines of the last 30 days provides an exhausting surplus of things that have fallen apart and we seem to have forgotten that there used to be a center. Religious nationalism nurtured by the equally toxic delusions of scriptural interpretations and messianic yearnings steeped in political gridlock has sparked Israelis attacking Israelis. Settlers attack members of the Israeli Defense Forces who are legally required to dismantle illegal settlements and ultra-Orthodox men spit on a defenseless 8-year-old girl whose dress in 21st century Israel does not meet the frustrated standards of 15th century Poland.
Presidential politics both encourages and permits wild even hysterical statements about evolution, sexual orientation, immigrants, contraception, and even the mystery of life’s actual instant of beginnings. Ninety-three years ago when William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming,” no one could have imagined that persons claiming the abilities needed to serve the people would permit the arrogance of today’s zealot politician. Now individual religious commitment is more than a resource of personal leadership; uncontrollable fanatic advocacy groups evaluate it as a litmus test of future policy.
Some potential leaders feed these fanatic advocacy groups with discourse that is so sanctimoniously certain any hope of actually discussing how this policy or that denial of rights has anything to do with democracy.
The dangerous mixture of religious doctrine, abusive scriptural interpretation, and electoral baiting continues to produce extremist declarations that debase honest engagement of religious thought and the civic/civil projects of 21st century communities. If it were only one or two shrill voices or a rare episode of faith being used to exclude reason, then this blog entry would itself be part of the problem being parsed, but tragically this early presidential political season has gone from shrill to hysterical without triggering any internal shut-off mechanism.
This past week offers us a stunning “snapshot of the Zeitgeist,” a juxtaposition of such extremes that we should stop and reflect on how zealots and fanatics are being viewed without any critical perspective.
Tim Tebow has somehow become a NY Times front page cultural prism for the media, religion, sports, and satire that has itself been used to affirm the discrimination of Christians. At a moment in world history, soon after the 7 billionth person has been born and the gap between the 99% and 1% is globally actually even worse: 99.8% — 0.2% of wealth, access and power, we have found a person whose zealous faith and compulsion to publicly express gratitude for his achievements now mocks the meaning of God’s presence for some and not for others. I wonder if one of the eventual defenses of the 4 US Marines for their public and filmed desecration of bodies could be war zone “tebowing?” The behavior of these Marines is an example of wartime, battle-exhausted, still adolescent, and trained to objectify the enemy solidarity extremism. Fighting fanatic Muslim insurgents in the extreme terrain of Afghanistan ten years after 9/11 with an all-volunteer armed force, requires men and women who zealously believe that their cause is just, and therefore their Muslim enemies are anti-American fanatics. As disgusting as we find the video, our current polarized environment does not critically repudiate acts of religious extremism and yet, demands we acknowledge even the most obnoxious claims by one zealot as equally legitimate to another fanatic. Why are we so quickly and hypocritically claiming that one act is absolutely and universally vulgar, while the other a healthy religious affirmation of blessed purity?
If the video had shown 4 Marines using Tim Tebow’s kneeling pose of Christian gratitude, maybe the fanatic Muslim Taliban would be even more incensed that four Christian Americans would defile Muslim bodies with such a proclamation of religious supremacy.
Here a zealot, there a fanatic, everywhere an extremist, a reality that we acknowledge but simultaneously refuse to engage. Every faith community must claim responsibility for its own refusal to constantly call out every act of extremism. On January 20, 1942, Nazis met at Wannsee and agreed to the Die Endlosung, the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem, an agreement to create the mechanisms needed to exterminate all the Jews. These fifteen Nazis were zealous fanatics and possibly the most extreme human beings ever assembled. Seventy years later, the moral impact of their extremist views and the radically evil results of their decisions have still not chastened us that fanatics, zealots and extremists of every faith, ideology, and nationality represent a threat to meaningful religious identities.
Joseph A. Edelheit is Director and Professor of Religious Studies at St Cloud State University and has served in various capacities as a Reform rabbi since 1973.