Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

In the sidebar of this blog, I feature an important quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
— source:  The Gulag Archipelago (1973)

The quote is regrettably relevant. It needed to be said in the context of the communist U.S.S.R. and it needs to be said in America, post 9/11.

Aleksandr_Solzhenitsyn_1Indeed, Solzhenitsyn was a fierce critic of western capitalism and materialism. He denied that western democracy is a pancea for the world’s ills. But he was lauded for his determined campaign to expose the crimes committed by his own government, at considerable personal risk.
(He had already spent eight years in labour camps for making disrespectful remarks about Joseph Stalin in a letter.)
Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel prize in literature in 1970, died on Sunday at the age of 89. Here are some other examples of his wisdom, gleaned from Wikiquotes.

  • A state of war only serves as an excuse for domestic tyranny.
    — unsourced
  • Violence, less and less embarrassed by the limits imposed by centuries of lawfulness, is brazenly and victoriously striding across the whole world, unconcerned that its infertility has been demonstrated and proved many times in history. What is more, it is not simply crude power that triumphs abroad, but its exultant justification. The world is being inundated by the brazen conviction that power can do anything, justice nothing.
    — undelivered Nobel lecture, 1970
  • Let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone:  it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE.
    — undelivered Nobel lecture, 1970
  • In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State.
    The Observer (29 December 1974)
  • You only have power over people so long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you’ve robbed a man of everything he’s no longer in your power — he’s free again.
    — Bobynin, The First Circle
  • One should never direct people towards happiness, because happiness too is an idol of the marketplace. One should direct them towards mutual affection. A beast gnawing at its prey can be happy too, but only human beings can feel affection for each other, and this is the highest achievement they can aspire to.
    — Shulubin, in Cancer Ward
  • We have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity …. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession:  our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.
    — Harvard University commencement address (1978 )
  • I have spent all my life under a Communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either.
    — Harvard University commencement address (1978 )

Let me conclude with a brief remark on the topic of patriotism.

There is no doubt that Solzhenitsyn loved Russia; he was a true patriot. He was expelled from Russia in 1974 and spent 20 years in exile in the West. Despite such bitter experiences, Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994, four years after his citizenship was officially restored.

But Solzhenitsyn’s patriotism did not preclude fierce criticism of the government. On the contrary, the true patriot makes a distinction at this precise point:  he speaks out against the government, as necessary, to promote the best interests of the nation. That is one of the important lessons to be drawn from the life of this great man.

Aleksandr_Solzhenitsyn_2(source: New York Times)

Rev. Billy decries Christmas consumption

Yesterday was one of the biggest shopping extravaganzas of the year. Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on a Thursday, and most of them take the Friday off work, too. En masse, they head to the shopping malls to begin buying, getting, consuming:  spending themselves into massive debt to commemorate the birth of the baby Jesus.

baby Jesus Christmas presents losing balancing

Rev. Billy doesn’t like it. Not one little bit!

We’re trying to get people to back away from the Walmart; back away from the Target; back away from the Home Depot! … Backing away from the product, slowing down your consumption is a spiritual act. … Stop shopping, children! Amen!

Rev. Billy is a persona created by performance artist and activist Bill Talen. He is featured in a movie, What Would Jesus Buy?, which is produced by Morgan Spurlock (who scored big with Super Size Me).

What Would Jesus Buy? is built around a 2005 documentary of Rev. Billy’s activist hi-jinks. The original documentary was made by Rob VanAlkemade, the director of What Would Jesus Buy?. Footage from the original documentary alternates with interviews and commentaries from experts and everyday consumers.

According to SignOnSanDiego, the movie’s message makes it a tough sell to potential distributors:

“Major distributors have backed away because Wal-Mart pushes half of their DVDs,” VanAlkemade said after a sold-out screening of the movie Sunday at the Silverdocs documentary festival near Washington.

Starbucks — a frequent target of Rev. Billy which got a court order to keep him out of its California stores — pulled out as a sponsor of Silverdocs. The festival is presented by the American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel.

Festival spokeswoman Jody Arlington said Starbucks expressed discomfort with the movie and raised security issues, but it let Silverdocs keep the sponsorship money even as it withdrew its logo. Starbucks Mid-Atlantic manager Carter Bentzel denied the decision was linked to the movie.

This is a good illustration of the potential negative impact when enormous, multinational stores like Walmart control the lion’s share of a particular market. So much for supply and demand as the sole regulatory principle of a free market! If Walmart doesn’t like your movie, they can pretty much turn the lights out on you.

Rev. Billy comments, “The multinational corporations have got as much control over us as the Roman Catholic Church in the 1300s.” Then again, there’s always the democratic power of the World Wide Web:

VanAlkemade pledged that the movie will find its way to audiences despite the marketing challenges. … “Maybe someone shot this screening today and we’ll see it on YouTube tonight. It’s worldwide distribution. It’s instantaneous.”

How will Christians respond to the movie? I haven’t seen it; but as I watched the Youtube clip, I alternated between laughter, cringing, and shouts of “Hallelujah! God bless Rev. Billy!” Christianity Today offers a generally positive take on the movie:

Aside from a few more serious, melancholy scenes, WWJB is more or less a comedy. It’s hard not to laugh at the confused faces of holiday shoppers as a robed choir marches through Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret stores, singing about the impending shopocalypse as hovering security guards call for reinforcements. It’s classic agit-prop theater — using humor and stagy gimmicks to shake things up, entertain, and provoke. It’s a creative brand of protest, certainly, and according to the choir director (and Rev. Billy’s wife) Savitri D, it’s a protest grounded in Christian tradition: “Jesus was preaching within a tradition of theater as activism.”

… Some critics have noted that the film’s playfully sacrilege use of Christian forms and traditions may alienate some audiences. Rev. Billy’s character is clearly modeled after a sweaty, breathy, over-the-top southern televangelist (Billy name drops Jimmy Swaggart) who prances around in polyester suits and occasionally “speaks in tongues” or is “slain by the Spirit.” Catholics might also take offense at some of Rev. Billy’s antics, whether he’s in a makeshift confession booth on a city sidewalk (taking “confessions of shopping sins”) or “baptizing” a baby outside of a Staples.

Yes, it’s condescending. Yes, it cheapens Christianity. But the whole argument of the film is that our commodity culture has already cheapened Christianity.

Aint that the truth! Amen! Amen!

But would it be appropriate if I bought copies of the DVD for everyone I know, as Christmas presents?

Saying goodbye, part 2

I should begin by explaining where I knew Tom from. I used to work at Christian Horizons, providing support for people with developmental challenges. Tom was our behavioural consultant:  he would come to the residence once or twice per month to help us devise a strategy for responding to problem behaviours.

Tom wasn’t conventionally religious. He described himself as a spiritual person, but he didn’t believe in God.

Nonetheless, allow me to use a verse from the Bible as a framework for my thoughts. As I talk about it, it will become clear why I think it’s a suitable way to express my respect for Tom.

The verse is, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”.

Tom was a problem solver and a peacemaker. At Christian Horizons, people would sometimes get upset over everyday, routine things. Taking a bath, getting dressed, getting into the van to leave for day program — those sorts of things could be very upsetting.

It was upsetting for everybody. It was stressful for staff, but it was also stressful for the individual involved. They weren’t happy. They were frustrated or angry or otherwise miserable. So we needed to find a solution for everyone’s sake.

Tom had an arsenal of professional skills that he could bring to bear on the problem. With his help, we would carefully analyze the behaviour to identify its precise trigger and come up with a strategy to manage it better and avoid conflict.

I think I can honestly say that Tom’s intervention made a difference every time. No matter how challenging the problem was, Tom was able to effect an improvement.

It wasn’t just a matter of professional training:  it was who Tom was. People don’t go into this line of work to get rich. They go into it because it reflects their values, their temperament. And you could see that with Tom:  he was soft-spoken, patient, quick to laugh, a good listener.

He was a problem solver and a peacemaker, as in the verse I quoted above.

Let me interpret the second half of the verse for you. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God“.

Jesus is referring to a family resemblance here. It’s like a newborn baby, when people look at it and they say, “He’s got his father’s chin”:  or “She’s got her mother’s nose”. Even though the baby is only a few days old, people can already see a family resemblance.

No one has a physical resemblance to God; but we can have a spiritual resemblance to God. And that’s what Jesus is referring to here. God is a peacemaker; Tom was a peacemaker. You can see a spiritual resemblance between the two of them, a family resemblance.

But that’s not how Tom would put it, I know. Tom didn’t believe in a personal God. So let’s think about this concept in a way that Tom would be comfortable with.

Tom believed that the fundamental principles (or forces) of the universe were positive. In particular, he believed that love and peace are the core realities of the cosmos.

It takes a kind of faith to look at things that way. If we look at the universe from one perspective, we see a lot of ugliness. We see conflict, violence, misery, and death. Coincidentally, today is the anniversary of 9/11. You could be excused for thinking that ugliness and darkness is at the core of the universe.

But Tom didn’t see it that way. He looked at things from a different perspective:  a perspective that appreciates the sublime beauty of a song sung in four-part harmony, or a convivial evening spent with friends in the local pub, or a hockey game played at the local arena.

Tom was a big Beatles fan. We were reminded of that last night:  when we got together there was Beatles music playing. And what did the Beatles sing about? Everyone knows the answer to that question:  the Beatles sang about love more than they sang about anything else.

Later in his career, John Lennon turned his attention to the cause of peace — he used his celebrity to wage a campaign to promote peace.

Those were Tom’s values, too. He believed that love and peace are the fundamental principles of the universe. That’s why Tom was a problem solver and a peacemaker. He aligned himself with those positive, fundamental forces.

I began with a verse from scripture. Perhaps it would be fitting to conclude with a few lines from a Beatles song (a poem, really):

Limitless undying love
which shines around me
like a million suns,
It calls me
on and on
across the universe.


Tom died of cancer last week, at 56 years of age. I’ll be speaking at his funeral this afternoon.

The original “Saying goodbye” post, remembering my sister Kathy, is here.