When my famous poet friend’s wife died recently, he was devastated, overwhelmed by grief. We saw how much she’d meant to him, and had been his whole life. Though I wasn’t close to her, her death reached into my heart too, on a deep symbolic level. All kinds of irrational fears seemed to rise up from the open casket there in the church, and cluster around us like ghosts. I felt that the world we knew was also disappearing. Did we poets have any relevance? Were my friend’s dazzling abilities in literary scholarship of any value anymore? What was left for us? What were my emotions telling me is lost? I offered him our love and consolation. I said, you may not believe in a soul, my friend, but “you have a big heart.”
He and his wife, both poets, were strongly affiliated with the old San Francisco Beatnik community, the alternative vision created by the counterculture back in the 50s and 60s that continued on as the hippie movement of the late 60s/70s. Our vision, for indeed I shared it, was of a country more at home with its diversity, representing and protecting the rights of all of its citizens. We hoped for a true freedom of religion based on the constitutional separation of church and state, even the freedom to not have a religion. My hope in those long ago days was that non-Christian schools of thought, Buddhist, Hindu, Daoist, Muslim, could claim their proper place in this America of expanded freedoms. Experience had taught me that some in the counterculture wanted to put an end to religion just as the French Revolution had attempted in the 18th Century, replacing it with a “Cult of Reason.” The culture wars have been marked by inter-generational, political, ideological, often hateful, and mostly hurtful spiritual conflict; I don’t wish them to continue but the divisions remain unresolved.
Because counterculture politics were left wing socialist, the Koch brothers early on mounted their opposition to groups such as ours; I don’t think many of us even knew who Charles and David Koch were back then. Influenced by Justice Lewis Powell’s pro-business memo of 1971, warning that “the American [free enterprise] economic system is under broad attack,” they devoted their fortunes to defeating the left wing liberal agenda. It is true that we hippies and beatniks wanted a redistribution of wealth, a fairer share of the economic pie for all. Even Jesus in The UB, “did frequently call attention to the injustice of the unequal distribution of wealth … He recognized the need for social justice and industrial fairness, but he offered no rules for their attainment.” (140:8.15)
A superior result would have been that the rich recognized the need. If there had only been more “compassionate conservatives,” to partner with wealthy liberals such as Ted Kennedy, to express empathy for the poor, act on behalf of the disenfranchised, the unempowered. But it didn’t happen. So through political means, we continually sought that government use legal powers to enforce compassion, the professed ideal of a “Christian” nation based on the teachings of Jesus who “unfailingly impressed upon his associates that they must "show forth love, compassion, and sympathy." (The UB, 137:7.13, Matthew 9:36) You can’t “legislate morality” they say, but shouldn’t all legislation have a moral purpose? Or, doesn’t it already?
In the 1980s, Chappell and I witnessed the death of this hope for social change. Not completely by coincidence we went to work for spiritual change instead, at the Family of God Foundation (FOG) led by Vern Grimsley. I had been immersed in a rock and roll milieu where there was no moral center. I was hungry for it. We were intimately acquainted with the flaws of the left-wing community, had witnessed the left’s embrace of the goals of self-gratification. “Self-maintenance builds society; unbridled self-gratification unfailingly destroys civilization (The UB, 68:2.11). The rise of secularism which displaced the Father’s kingdom in the world; “secularism has assumed a more militant attitude, assuming to take the place of the religion whose totalitarian bondage it onetime resisted. Twentieth-century secularism tends to affirm that man does not need God.” (195:8.5)
Glimmers of another sunrise of our political hopes did happen off and on, Carter, Obama, but they were followed by a lowering sky, sunset on our dreams.
So my wife and I, a California Democrat and a Canadian leftie, joined a group in which the majority were Reagan-era Republicans. We’d never imagined this to be our fate. Though we perceived the irony of the situation, we worked together willingly for a common purpose—a “spiritual renaissance,” based on the passage in The UB that Vern made famous. He fully embraced the slogan as his organization’s purpose, recruiting “these new teachers of Jesus’ religion who will be exclusively devoted to the spiritual regeneration of men” (195:9.4).
To be honest, we were often uncomfortable with the politics and points of view of the group. Sometimes caught up in emotional discussions on our drive over to Berkeley for the weekly meetings, we’d ask ourselves, should we continue with this volunteer work, or depart gracefully? When Vern’s messages about WW III were announced in 1983, our skepticism grew. The opposition to him, even from old friends, increased. Within the year we left FOG, not with as much grace as hoped. Something, yes, another ideal had died there too. We did have this promise, “Jesus’ life is the everlasting comfort of all disappointed idealists (126:5.4).”
I am reliving this story in the new darkness of Donald Trump’s ascension in US politics, and the unresolved, festering, primordial, diabolic burn of the culture war. My friend’s wife’s death this year has come to represent yet another death of our ideals, after having been through several.
There is hope that we could be more like our master teacher and hold on to our faith. “Great things happened not only because people had faith in Jesus, but also because Jesus had so much faith in them (171:7.8),” a hard road, a steep hill to climb. Because of Jesus, that may be the calling, the best true choice open to us, faith in each other and ourselves. Problem is, we haven’t devoted much to that goal lately. We are way out of practice.
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