Tuesday, March 30, 2010

An Unholy Brotherhood: reflections on Phoebe Prince and the Passion of our Lord

I was unpleasantly surprised this morning, when in my spare time I checked one of the political blogs that I often read, and read about a horrible story that happened earlier this year in South Hadley, Massachusetts. It centered around a young girl of 15, named Phoebe Mary Nora Prince, who had started as a freshman last fall at South Hadley high school.

The Boston Globe article commemorating her death, on January 14th, started this way: "Like a lot of kids her age, Phoebe Prince was a swan: beautiful but sometimes awkward." She had just emigrated with her family, from Ireland to western Massachusetts. She had been at that age when most of us feel terribly insecure, nearly all the time, and when what is paramount, on which our happiness and self-confidence depend, is being welcomed and liked by others. She had found a few friends in Hadley, and had briefly dated a senior on the football team- and shortly before her death, had been asked out by another boy. Things could have been happy for her, and in a better world she would have been welcomed, loved, and made to feel at home. Unfortunately, a clique of boys and girls at the school felt that she was getting above herself, and set about to make her life miserable. They tormented her by calling her an 'Irish slut', abusing her verbally and physically, and in general made her life miserably. According to some claims she was sexually assaulted as well, and two older boys have been charged with statutory rape.

If she had lived three more years she could have escaped all this, but three years, when you are fifteen, can feel like a lifetime. And that lifetime was too much for this young, vulnerable Irish girl to endure.

On January 14th, as she was walking home, a group of teenagers threw a soda can at her, and called her names. This was the straw that broke the camel's back, and that afternoon, in a closet in her home, tormented, alone, and despairing, Phoebe Prince hanged herself. Her body was discovered by her twelve year old sister later that day.

This is one of the many times that I consider myself glad that I found Christ in my early 20s, because it allows me to hope that for innocent victims like Miss Prince, who were so cruelly treated by those around them, that the future life may bring a recompense for all the sufferings that they endured in this one. I'm glad that I can pray, with other Christians, this prayer, and mean it with every fiber of my being:

Into thy hands, O merciful Saviour, we commend thy servant Phoebe. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a lamb of thine own flock, a sheep of thine own fold, a sinner of thine own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

But beyond praying for Phoebe, and for her sister and parents, now returned to Ireland from the country that brought death to their daughter, this sad, and horrible story made me think deeply about human evil. This is a good time to have such thoughts. For the story of the Passion, which we commemorated on Palm Sunday and will remember again this Friday, is perhaps the most stark and vivid example of human evil that Scripture gives us. On this day Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the Divine Man, the only truly innocent human being in all of history (with the possible exception of his mother) was put to death by crucifixion, and through his torture, agony, and death, became a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. In his death all of us are implicated, for my sins, and yours, as much as those of David and Solomon, as much as those of Haman and Sennacherib, put him there.

I had the opportunity to attend Palm Sunday services at St. Paul's on K Street this weekend, a beautiful Anglo-Catholic church in D.C., presided over by a young priest named Fr. Nathan Humphrey. In the reading of the long Passion narrative (it was from St. Luke) I was struck by a few things. One of them was the reconciliation of Herod and Pilate.

"And Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate. And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves."

Herod and Pilate...what an unlikely pair of comrades. The hereditary monarch and the agent of a supposedly republican empire, the domestic ruler and the foreign procurator, the embodiment of decadent corruption and the embodiment of harsh and efficient militarism. Luke tells us that they hated each other and it's not hard to see why; they probably despised each other in the same sense that the French and Arab Algerians, or the Russians and Poles, or the British and Irish despised each other. A foreign army ruling over a cowed people in a backwater province tends not to have good relationships with its subjects. Yet they both found something common to bond over, in their shared response to Christ. They loved quite different things. Herod had given himself over to adultery and incest, to the sins of the flesh; Pilate had given over his soul to political and economic oppression, to the sins of the world. Yet the sins of the flesh and of the world both eventually trace their origin to the same place. Pilate and Herod were divided over what they loved, but they were united in their shared sense that Christ might be interesting, fascinating, worthy of interrogation- but at the last, he had to be killed.

Both of them are, in a sense, tragic figures, because they had the opportunity to redeem themselves, and came so close. Neither of them particularly hated Christ to begin with; Luke tells us that Herod tried to talk to him, and demanded to see miracles done in his presence, and St. John tells us how Pilate interviewed him and asked, with all the stylish weariness of a postmodern intellectual, 'What is truth?' Pilate had the chance to free Christ, as Herod had had the chance to free St. John the Baptist, but at the last they both embraced cowardice and their own darker impulses, and sent him to his death. And in the aftermath of that fateful decision, they became 'friends'.

We are told that this had happened earlier, as the Pharisees and the Herodians joined together to make common cause to put Jesus to death. "The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him." Could there be a stranger friendship than that? The fiercely nationalistic Pharisees and the decadent, collaborationist Herodians? These two, again, loved very different things but were united by what, and by whom, they hated. In their shared contempt and fear of Christ, they were drawn together in a kind of diabolic simulacrum of friendship, united not by love but by hatred.

Because the nature of fallen man is that one of the quickest routes to friendship and popularity, and one of the quickest ways for people to bond, is through their mutual pleasure in hurting, putting down or excluding another person. This is the lesson that the tragedy of Phoebe Prince tells us. Why did so many young people in that school join together in tormenting her? Some of them probably took pleasure in it, but many more probably were more interested in seeming cool or popular, and knew that they could gain valuable popularity points by making a witty joke or a cutting remark at her expense. Others no doubt knew that by being loyal and sycophantic towards the cool kids, they could move closer to being accepted at least as part of the fringes of one of those high-status circles. All of them, whether through the hatred of the Herodians or the cowardice of Caiaphas, purchased their own popularity at the cost of someone else's suffering.

C.S. Lewis, in his essays and his great book "That Hideous Strength", talks a lot about the phenomenon of the Inner Circle. The desire to be well-liked, and to be part of the inner ring, to be welcomed, to belong, is at the heart of a great deal of childhood nastiness. It reached some quite ferocious heights in the boarding schools of his time, and in our own time it has reached even more terrible heights, as we saw this winter when Miss Prince was driven to kill herself by the cruel and callous taunting of her high school classmates. Lewis, in his aforementioned book, draws a connection between this phenomenon in the school environment, and its (generally) more influential and dangerous counterpart in the adult world. In business, in politics, in statesmanship, in the life of the mind, in the arts, we all know of people who are more than willing to bury their love for kindness, mercy, and truth in order to get ahead and to be welcomes as part of an in-group. For it's hard to build a genuine, cohesive in-group based in true love and dedication to pursuing something good; it's much easier to build one based on mocking and excluding those on the outside.

The world experienced this in a big way in the mid-20th century. It was often commented on at the time, and has often been remarked on since, how little the various Fascist powers had in common with each other. After all, what could possibly tie together men as different as Stepan Bandera, Mussolini, Franco, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Ezra Pound, Marshal Petain, Codreanu, assorted Christian clerics who gave their support to fascism, and Regent Horthy? Many people couldn't believe a Fascist alliance could last, as each country was fiercely nationalistic; wouldn't they all end up at each other's throats sooner or later? How could fanatical nationalists from traditional enemies like Hungary and Romania, or from Germany and France, or from Christian and Muslim clerical establishments, find themselves on the same team?

The answer is, of course, that they all stuck together for quite some time, because they all hated something more than they hated each other. While they all had quite different aspirations and goals, they shared one thing in common, their hatred of the Jews. Hatred of Socialism, and of the idea of a world of equality and justice, was part of it too, but above all, it was the hatred of the Jews that appealed to millions of people across Europe, inside and outside the German-speaking regions, and that for a few dark years seemed as though it would be the key to allowing the Nazi armies to become the world's dominant power, and to establish an empire of tyranny and mass murder that would last for many centuries. The Nazis knew what many of us then and now have forgotten, that hatred can be a stronger unifying and driving principle, and the basis of (at least in this world) tighter bonds between people and nations, than love, and that evil can constitute a kind of deeper and more lasting fraternity then good. Because, as we are told by the Beloved Disciple, the Enemy truly is 'prince of this world'.

This is just an example of a more general problem of our fallen world: that we so often seek friendship and community at the expense of others. As Orlando Patterson has argued, the idea of freedom grew out of the experience of slavery, and the great and classic prototypes of liberal democracy- the United States and ancient Greece- were built on the labor of slaves, worked to death for the pleasure of others. The American melting pot, that brought white people together from Slovakia and Greece, Germany and Italy, Ireland and England, and forged them into a unified people with a shared culture, did so by reminding them of one simple fact: that they weren't black and they weren't slaves. In their shared contempt for black people, and in part for the despised and dispossessed Native Americans, they all had something in common, and out of that bond came a kind of unholy brotherhood.

Christ came, among other things, to bring us out of ourselves and into friendship with one another, and just as his presence at the wedding in Cana sanctified marriage, his presence at the Last Supper, among his friends the Apostles, sanctified friendship. The medieval Grail romances call the Apostles the greatest society of friends that the world has ever known, and Christ presented his relationship with the apostles as the archetypical friendship: "Henceforth I call you not servants, for the servant knows not what his master doeth, but I call you friends....". Christ brought some very, very different groups of people into friendship with each other: uneducated fishermen and highly educated scholars, Roman centurions and pacifistic hermits, impoverished lepers and rich men like Joseph of Arimathea, pessimists like Thomas and optimists like John, Gentiles and Jews, and soon after his death Persians and Ethiopians, Germans and Arabs. In their shared love for Christ, and in the love that Christ taught them to show to one another, they saw each others as fellow travelers along the way, and that shared purpose made them into friends and brothers.

The enemies of Christ, too, had their own kind of brotherhood and their own commonalities. Herod and Pilate, the authorities of church and state, had little in common but were united by their enmity and contempt for the good. As in the twentieth century the great powers of Europe were happy to set aside their differences and form a mutual alliance based on contempt for socialism and the Jews, the powers of the first century set aside their differences when they saw, in Christ, something that they feared and disliked because of the threat that it posed to their way of life. Such 'brotherhoods' or 'friendships' may be ephemeral- they almost certainly are, because the city of man is ultimately divided against itself, because greed and hatred are ultimately divisive and not unitive, and because love cannot exist, in the last analysis, in a place from which the source of all goodness has removed Himself. The Persians, who more than any other nation believed that evil was a self-existent power, coeternal and coequal to good, nevertheless had the wisdom to see that in the long run, the defeat of evil is, and must be, assured. The mutual 'friendships' of men like Herod and Pilate, based on shared guilt and hatred, are ultimately unstable, and in the life to come, where all things good and evil achieve their true nature and measure, they will no longer be able to exist. In the here and now, however, such corrupt imitations of true love and true friendship can be powerful, long lasting, and can seem to triumph, for years and even centuries, powers of evil triumphed on Good Friday.

Most of us have experienced this phenomenon in a small way. One of my personal vices is gossip, and I've certainly, to my discredit, often told stories that I shouldn't have. Usually because they were good stories- but I suspect there was often a hidden motivation too, which was to make myself, as the storyteller, seem more interesting, as someone who had something to say, to enliven the conversation. Most of the gossip was harmless, and I've never betrayed things that were spoken in confidence, but there's a reason St. Paul tells us that gossip is a sin, and the reason is that almost inevitably we slide into revealing details- maybe inadvertently- that come at someone's expense. When we do this, to make ourselves seem more interesting or cool, we are, in a small way, trying to pursue friendship in an unhealthy and deformed way. Because true friendship, like that of Christ and John the Beloved, is based not on tearing other people down but on building them up, not on sarcastic or witty jokes at other's expense, but on the much harder and more difficult path of sharing mutual concern, mutual interests, and mutual dedication to a good cause. When we do this, in a small way, we become like Pilate, and recapitulate the sin for which Dante put him at the vestibule of hell, subtitled 'the Great Refuser'.

This is the lesson of the Passion, it's the lesson of tragedies like that of Phoebe Prince, and it's the lesson of the great evils of human history: that at a very deep level, we like to have someone to kick around, and that we can sometimes feel most united and like we are sharing something at the deepest level, when what we share comes at the expense of someone else's suffering. This is the evidence that at the core, something within us is corrupt. Good Friday is a great time to remember it, and to remember the depth and darkness of evil in this world. We can take comfort, though, in remembering that after Good Friday comes Easter Sunday, and that in the last analysis we can rest assured in the promise that- not today, or at anytime in this life, but in the great cosmic drama- good is ultimately stronger than evil, and life stronger than death.

Incarnate Word of God, you who spilt your blood on the cross for our salvation, have mercy on us. Have mercy especially on those of us like Phoebe Prince who suffer from oppression and abuse, as you suffered; unite their suffering to yours, and as they share in your pain and death let them share in your resurrection and in your eternal kingdom, where there is no more death, no more sorrow, no more mourning, and no more tears. Amen.


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