31 October 2000

Karras of Thebes

Fiction contributed by Kay Goodnow

We are the ones we have been waiting for. — Oraibi, Arizona, Hopi Nation

I went back in time.

I awoke in a semi-darkened room. For a moment, I could not identify my surroundings and I experienced a feeling of disquiet that edged on fear. The familiar sound of wind stirring the palm trees just beyond the limits of my vision triggered the awareness of reality. I was, then, fully awake. And I was at home.

The room brightened slowly as the sun added luster to the river outside my door. Sounds of the morning prevailed and brought with them the knowledge that I had lived through another night, only to wonder how I would survive another day. I lay still, certain that any movement would reactivate the pain and yet hopeful, somehow, that the pain had gone away. Nights had grown to mean escape, release from the entrapment of the day. This night, as in the many nights that had preceded it, there had been no dreams.

It would soon be fully day and the people, my friends, would be coming with their questions, just as they had been coming here since I had first become an answerer. They would want to know the news of my journey. I closed my eyes and tried not to remember, tried not to think, tried not to feel.
The journey had been very difficult. The pain that was always present in my lower back and legs had been nearly unbearable. It had increased with each day of travelling and had made sleep nearly impossible. I should not have gone and would not have gone, but my friend Arius felt that it was important.

Arius.* His name alone brings memories of happier times, of youth and laughter and a drive to live. Although Arius is older than I, he is, in many ways, much younger. He had first come to Thebes when I was a youth. I had listened to his words and his message had spoken to my heart. When he went away I became the answerer and that was over two decades ago, nearly three. A long time, too long. No, I should not have made this journey, even though Arius had come back to Thebes with his eyes bright and his love as constant as it had been from the beginning.

Arius had come back to talk with the people. He had come back to explain to them the things that were happening on the distant side of the world. There had been pain in him, the pain of disquiet and unrest. He spoke of peril and dissent. His words had seemed incredible to most of us, although there had been rumors from time to time, brought to us by the merchants.

I sat up, slowly. The pain returned. It was good to be home, good to be in familiar surroundings. Good to feel the heat of the sun and the wind and the sand, good to be joined again with the azure peacefulness that is the Nile. The palms continued to stir gently as though whispering reassurance. "I am glad to be home," I sighed, "It is good to be at home." The pain eased, lulled for the moment by the contentment experienced in familiar surroundings.

The Council had met for many days and each was longer than the last. After the long journey I had believed I would find rest in meeting with other answerers. But when I asked after Arius, I had learned that he would not be present. It was believed that there were five of us from Egypt, possibly more. I wondered if the others from my country were feeling his absence. I was incomplete and, to a degree, lost.

There had been talks, hours of talks, and much of what was said had been incomprehensible to me at first. The talks continued until the tapers gave no more light, until darkness settled around us. Each day was the same but not the same. The tone changed, fluctuated. An aura of hostility appeared, disappeared and then reappeared. Friends argued and were no longer friends, enemies became friends.

I shuddered, remembering. I should not have gone.

My time had passed. There had been, as yet, no young answerer who had come along to take my place. There had been no signs of interest among the people as to leadership, not as yet. I believed that the people wanted and needed their answerer, and perhaps someone would come forth just as I had, on that long ago day, when our old answerer had died. Arius would know what to do, if only he were here. But that was impossible. Impossible!

I shook my head and felt the vague sting that signifies tears in my eyes and in my heart. It was difficult to move, even across the room to the door, just as it had been difficult to move in the Council room with its rows of long tables and ceaseless conversation. I had tried to count the number of answerers there one day, and had to stop shortly after counting one hundred. The dimness that lives in my eyes would not permit a counting of the rest.

There had been so many things to hear, so many people talking, saying things that I had never needed to question and which no answerer could explain. No explanation was necessary. I had wondered at the questions and even from the start had sensed stirrings from inside of me that I had never felt before. I am an answerer. The others are answerers. There is no need for these questions, as the answers are known within me, within each of us. At first I had spoken with some of the others and I had asked them why they were questioning. They had looked at me in the strange way that foreigners look. "Why do you question?" I had asked, "Do you not feel the answers within? Why is there wondering?" They had shaken their heads, and they had walked away and, finally, I stopped asking.
As the days passed, tension mounted. Anger was exchanged openly among the answerers. I had never seen anger in an answerer before and I had felt fear. I wished I had not made this journey and I longer for the solace of Arius.

I watched the many whispered conferences and the fear in me grew. Slowly I realized that the answers that were being accepted here were not the right answers. The questions were wrong, yes, but once asked they had to be answered. The Council had so decreed. But the answers were wrong, very wrong. I could not understand why the others did not know this. I could not understand why, one by one, they seemed to accept this decision and keep silent. The opposing sides seemed gradually to merge together, forming a mass of acceptance of which I could never be a part. I held on to hope for as long as I could and felt the fears grow beyond description as I let go of hope. These things were wrong.

Nearly at the end, fatigued from the pain what was a part of me always, eyes dimmed by the smoking tapers and the many people in the room, I had risen to state my beliefs and there had been silence, even from those I considered to be friends. The foreboding silence screamed of danger and peril, both before and after I spoke. Arius had indeed been correct. There was a threat here such as I had never known, even in my three decades as the answerer. The threat was isolation, loneliness.
That evening, as I lay fitfully in my room, wishing to be back where the Nile weaves forever they came to visit me. There were six in all, and they were of the group that call themselves ‘Episkopos.’ I had difficulty rising to meet them, the pain was fierce and it had traveled to my heart.

One of them spoke. "Dear friend," he said, in the customary greeting (and I wondered why he called me friend when he knew that I was not his friend) "We have come to counsel and to consider. Please understand that what we say is meant to help you in this difficult time."
I did not hear all of what they said. There were times when all of them had talked at once and what I heard was like the buzzing of the bees in the warmth of the spring. They smiled with their lips and threatened with their eyes. They talked of Constantine and of battles waged and won under the shield of Jesus. "Surely," they said, "It is God who wins these battles. Therefore if Constantine decrees that Jesus is God, it is because God wishes it so. Would you go against God?"

I did not answer. I thought of Arius, and of the messages he had brought, and of the years of questions I had answered through that same message. These things were not necessary. It did not matter at all. The Christ had brought the message, and it had not included Constantine or battles fought beneath the banner of the church.

Even as I thought of Arius, the Episkopos spoke of him. "He is banished," one of them said, "Constantine has so decreed. He can never again return for his answers are impure and not as we would have them. He is in exile and you will never see him again. Arius is a fortunate man. If Constantine had not fought beneath the banner of Christ, Arius would have been executed for his answers."

Fury rose within me and I had great difficulty repressing it. Age and the pain eased it to some extent. When I did speak it was only to ask the question and, even then, to know ahead of time what the answer would be.

"What kind of message is this?" I asked, "That would banish an answerer from his people, separate him from his beloved friends, exile him from the home of his manhood? What kind of message does battle in the name of the Christ whose message speaks of love? Who answers in this way, with the anger of questions that have no answers? What is it that you fear?"
They did not answer. They stood quietly for a moment and then they turned as one person and they walked away. One of them came back and in his eyes were the dark coals of slumbering hatred.

"Those who follow Arius," he said, "Will also be exiled."

I had tried to sleep then, that last night in Nicaea, this time believing that possibly I would not have to rise again. The buzzing in my head had become a roar and I finally slept. That night I dreamed a thousand dreams that had no end. Morning came too soon. I was one of the last to enter the Council chamber and I could hardly bear to sit.

Most of the night I had struggled with what my response would be. I saw Arius in my dreams, exiled into a cold and dark place, alone. I thought about my own exile and dreamed again of a place that held no light and had no walls; dreams changed to nightmares and I woke screaming. I could not face exile! I knew myself to be too weak. And so I entered the Council chamber knowing that I would agree to this pronouncement, even though I knew it to be wrong. Arius would understand. In many, many ways he was much younger than I.

The vote was taken in the Roman way, with "ayes." There were no "nays." There was not even the vaguest sigh of a "nay." I considered the possibility that Constantine is greater, even, than God. But knowing my own decision and the reasons for it, I decided that there were probably other decisions with other reasons. Reasons which were a part of each answerer and which were unknown to me.

Perhaps they too know fear.

Throughout the voyage home physical pain blended with emotional pain. Many times I believed I would not be able to pass another hour, even take another step and I had hoped for the end. Asking God for the blessed mercy of death, I knew that it was not the pain from which I needed to be free, not the physical pain, but the black pit of compromise. I had sold my own heart in exchange for the home in which my body could die.

Today is the morning of the sixth day since my return. The people are coming, as they do always on the sixth day. I can hear them outside and it is time to tell them, but it is not the time to answer. For the first time I cannot answer. For the first time I will not be able to answer their questions.
I go slowly through the door. Although the sun is bright I see dimly through my tears. They greet me with cries of welcome and call for the story of my journey and of the great Council. But first, they want news of Arius.

I speak, but the buzzing in my head is intense and it is difficult to hear my own words. I love them and they feel my love. And somehow, inside of them, without having to ask the question, they know that today I will be unable to answer, to satisfy their wonderings. They are silent. I feel their love and it warms me.

"Dearly beloved," I begin, "It is nearly three hundred years since the Christ died and in that time there have been many questions and many answerings…"

The bees in my head make it impossible to think. I hesitate in direction. From the crowd there comes the cry, "What news is there of Arius?" They wait, expectantly.

I began again. "Some of the wonderings that are not questions have caused alarm with the church and the Council met to answer them. These wonderings are not new to the church in Thebes, for we have always known the answer as brought forth by the Christ. Three hundred years is a very long time, and the message does not seem as clear for others as it does for us…"

They were silent. My head ached, weighted as with the stones of the pyramids. I could feel Arius there with us, silent and strong, and I knew that what I would say would be right and that another answerer was even then preparing to follow behind me.

"Constantine the Great, along with the Council called to Nicaea, has given answers to some of the wonderings that should not be questions. Because of the answers, Arius if in exile, never to return…"
Tears blinded me. The pain in my back and legs went away, replaced by the pain in my heart and in my head. My arms felt heavy, my hands numb with cold in the dry heat of the morning. I looked for the sun and realized that it had dimmed considerably. Some of the murmur of the people reached my ears, but it was vague and distant. I choked on the words that I both wanted and needed to say, choked as I began to explain that I too had been a part of that decision. My legs gave way.
I saw a figure break from the crowd and come forward, placing a strong arm around my waist and helping to support me. I felt within me that here was the answerer, come forward as needed, even as I had gone forward years before.

His voice was soft and gentle, yet, he spoke with quiet authority, I could see that he was as I had been, and that his life was young and that this was to be his way.

"Beloved Karras, rest now. The journey has been long and painful for you. It is good to have you home again!" His words were gentle on my mind, soothing, blending with the whispered qualities of the breeze high among the palms. "I can see that you are troubled. It is a long time since there has been trouble, but we must not forget that trouble brings peace, just as in the time of Jesus. Beloved Karras, with the message comes knowledge of the meaning of the words ‘I am with you always, even until the end of time.’ God is present now, just as He always has been, and the answer that troubles you is the answer of men and not of the message. It will change, again and again, until it is the right answer, even as we know that our answer is what it must and always will be."

His words brought me strength I had not felt for a very long time. He was like Jesus and he was like Arius: gentle but strong, honest but loving, a leader chosen to follow.

The beehive in my head quieted and I lay there on the ground, knowing that my world was filled with peace and with love. I had come home to die, had given Arius exile because of my own fear of being alone, away from my people.

"It is time," I said, as the sun faded to night and the whisperings of the palms became crescendos and the Nile rose up to meet me.

"He is gone," the young answerer said, "So shall it be. For the answer to the wondering that should not have been a question could not be a part of his reality. All in time, in time. What possible difference can it make?"

I returned to my own time, seventeen hundred years later. I felt the spirit of Karras as peaceful. I sighed, and woke to the reality of a friend watching me closely. I was at the office and it was midday. Just for a moment, the rays of the sun were red.

"Daydreaming again?" she asked quietly, her eyes full of humor. "You have been staring out that window, ignoring telephone and typewriter for at least ten minutes now!"

I smiled my ‘guilty’ smile and mentioned that it had been a very long journey and that, for some reason, I felt tired. Because she is my friend, I did not need to explain why.

"I want you to know," I thought to the voice in my head, "That it made one whale of a difference!" "I do know," said the voice in my head, and it was filled with the love that whispers like the wind in the palms, "I do know."

* Arius taught that Christ was not God, but a creation of God, half human and half Divine, like the demigods of pagan Rome. Had Arius prevailed at the council of Nicaea, Christianity might have died as one cult among many. But Christianity existed for 300 years before Arius, and before even the notion of the Trinity. The first Christians did not ask in pagan, mystical-philosophical terms who Christ was. They simply knew. - Scooper

30 October 2000

Abortion Plank

I nominate Dragnet's philosophy for the basis of moral public policy. You remember..."Just the facts, ma'am," as Joe Friday used to say. Because manipulation of the facts, from distortion to disregard, seems to be the hallmark of the anti-abortion and the anti-anti-abortion parties to our still to be resolved national debate, beginning with the names they choose for themselves: "Pro-Life" and "Pro-Choice." To which I say bullshit. Neither side is as much pro- anything as they are anti-each other.
That was fact one. Here is fact two: It has yet to be established objectively that an early-term embryo is a person, "endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these being the right to life" to quote the US Declaration of Independence. Rather than explore the deep philosophical issues in this short space, I simply acknowledge the widespread and bitter disagreement on this point. I pause to note, however, that except for abortion, we refrain from acting if there is some chance that a person might be harmed. Even though we don't know for sure that an embryo is not a person, we go ahead.
Fact three: It is obvious, on the other hand, that an early-term embryo is, biologically, a living human being. We know it is alive because it grows, it moves, and it responds to stimuli. We know it is a distinct being apart from its mother because, if you wait long enough, it borrows her car keys and reproduces. And we know it is human because it carries the human genome.

Fact four: The main reason anyone chooses to have an abortion is to kill a living embryonic human being before it becomes undeniably a person (which otherwise it would rapidly do) with legal claims to support, nurturance, and protection — and a moral claim to our love. In other words, getting or performing an abortion must lie on a continuum of evil with murdering a child at one end.

Now if a Pro-Choicer can't go this far with me, I maintain that he or she lacks the courage to face and name the facts squarely, regardless of what the opposition might make of them. Such Pro-Choicers preclude the development of national consensus on abortion, because their opponents know that it is foolhardy to negotiate with liars.

On the other hand, if the Pro-Life people try to base public discourse on stronger statements, they must admit that they are going beyond what can be universally agreed on as fact. Otherwise they also preclude development of a national consensus on abortion, but in a more insidious way. As the noted Christian, C. S. Lewis, said in The Problem of Pain (Collier Books, New York, 1962, p 64),
Even a good emotion, pity, if not controlled by charity and justice, leads through anger to cruelty. Most atrocities are stimulated by accounts of the enemy's atrocities; and pity for the oppressed classes, when separated from the moral law as a whole, leads by a very natural process to the unremitting brutalities of a reign of terror.
Given the violence that some Pro-Lifers encourage and others commit, it is reasonable to conclude that many Pro-Lifers don't want consensus — they want to win. They are more interested in getting their way than in examining the consequences, and their opponents know that it is foolhardy to negotiate with bullies.

But the cruelty of the Pro-Lifers is more subtle than bombing a clinic, or assassinating a doctor. They want to limit the creation of what they see as dead babies by banning abortion, a public policy that will lead to the creation of dead women, instead. Now they may argue that the dead babies were helpless and innocent, while the dead women will have been guilty of disobeying the law by having illegal abortions — i.e., that the dead women will have made a bad choice and gotten what they deserved. And that's cruel — it is substituting one class of dead body for another. True, there will be fewer dead women under an abortion ban, than there are dead babies without one, which some may claim is the greatest good for the greatest number. But they should remember Caiaphas' line, "It is expedient that one man should die, rather than the whole nation should perish," spoken as he proposed the execution of Jesus Christ.

We as a society won't win by substituting one evil (dead women) for another (legal abortion). We'll win by reducing the incidence of both. And that can't be achieved while we continue to make abortion a political power struggle — an issue over which one group tries to force its will on another by garnering a majority of votes.

We need to let abortion die as a political issue, and to resurrect it as a moral and social issue. Leave the coercion aside, brothers and sisters on the right, and I think you will find common ground with our brothers and sisters on the left. We all know that there is no sharp line dividing abortion from murder — there is a gray zone, into which any of us should shudder to step. For example, although some of us are comfortable with the idea of abortion nine days into a pregnancy, all of us would convict a woman and her doctor of murder for an abortion done at nine months. Perhaps we can reach a consensus that permits early abortions, but prohibits abortions after 20 weeks (five months) except for conditions that could permanently damage the health of the pregnant woman.

This is an issue for which we need to put aside the blunt instrument of the law. We need to have thoughtful public consideration of good and evil, rather than a political power struggle. We need publicly to consider the responsibility that comes with our freedom, and of how the failure of some to be responsible in their sexual and reproductive behavior undermines the freedom of us all. And for those who are considering having an abortion, we need more ministry and less moralizing. We need either to help them shoulder the responsibility of caring for their soon-to-be-born children, or to have the decency to do as we expect of our government — to let people make their choices, while we refrain from mandating what we are unwilling to support.