... the brain is the only organ where it is preferable to be the donor than the recipient. --Daniel Dennett

The Joke

First Posted: Sept. 9, 2019, 4:23 p.m. CST
Last Updated: Nov. 18, 2019, 11:33 p.m. CST

There is a joke. A survivor of Auschwitz dies of old age and goes to heaven. He tells God a holocaust joke, and God scowls and says in a thunderous voice, "that's not funny!" And the holocaust survivor shrugs his shoulders and says, "eh, I guess you had to be there."

Somewhere between Gethsemane and Calvary, I lost my way. I was lost between two stations; between who I was and who I should be. I have not lost my faith. I struggle with it. When I first got out of the Marines, I thought I had lost my faith. But now, I don’t believe I did, I was still able to reclaim it as my own. When Lieutenant Lewis Puller committed suicide in 1994, I was reading his book, “Fortunate Son,” in community college. It was an inspiration to me and a lot of Marines and other veterans. His struggle over his injuries and his tireless fight for veteran rights. His suicide shook me as it did many of his fellow vets, we had held him up on a pedestal and we forgot he was human. You can be strong, but no one can be 100% strong, 24-7, forever. The Rev. Robert Prichard delivered the eulogy for Lt. Puller. Rev. Prichard quoted Lt. Puller and said that Puller envied those people “who had faith without any sorrow, faith that came without wavering.” The reverend continued, “He envied it for others, but he couldn’t claim it for himself.” When I struggled with my faith in the past, I felt the same way. I questioned my worth as a ‘good Christian.’ Because I did not have that kind of faith – a faith without sorrow; a faith that did not waver. I believe that is at the root of the joke. It rattles your bones and questions your faith. But now, I realize that faith without sorrow, without wavering, is not faith at all. My faith is tested by sorrow, by those moments when I waver. It is strengthened by it.

I think of that joke every time I find myself struggling with my faith. How do I reconcile a God who did nothing to stop the Holocaust, with the God who I pray to help find my lost wallet? If Nietzsche would have lived to see and experience the holocaust, he would have loved that joke. Poor Friedrich, SO misunderstood! The blame for Hitler and Nazism was laid on his feet as well because of his writings on the Ubermensch. But like Voltaire, Nietzsche was a man of reason, a deist who loathed fanaticism, superstition, idolatry and most of all the fact that men are capable of killing each other in wholesale numbers to defend a religious doctrine that they scarcely understand, whether it be Christianity or Islam. Nietzsche admired the Jewish culture and claimed that the Germans owed their “greatness” to the “Polish blood in their veins” and saw German nationalism as a dangerous joke. He ended relationships over his disapproval of anti-Semitism, including ones with his sister and the German composer Richard Wagner. But Nietzsche was of the classical school of Stoics and Cynics. Aristotelian philosophy often underpinned many of Nietzsche's philosophies including the one tattooed on my wrist: Amor Fati. If there was an inconsistent thread in your argument or ideal, he would have been compelled to pull on it like an unmedicated OCD patient until your entire sweater was a tangle of yarn at your feet and you were laid bare to the elements.

I think the joke sums up a question we all ask ourselves quietly, but not in the open - out of fear. But not because we fear God is listening, but because we fear a "good Christian" might be listening. God is far more forgiving than a good Christian. Many have been shackled and burned at the stake by good and pious Christians only to become postmortem saints and martyrs of the very church that happily sent them to their death.

A peasant and a friar where in attendance of a fine inquisition. The authorities intended to burn at the stake a Biscayan, convicted of having married his god-mother, and two Portuguese, who while dining refused to eat pork at a local tavern. It was a fine to-do. There were fife and drum, public lashings and much fanfare. The mood was festive. The peasant asked quietly of the friar, “Brother, what if the Holy Mother Church was in error in her judgment of these men?” The friar replied, who had more than his share of the sacramental wine, replied, “The Holy Offices makes no such error, but if it should, by Saint Joan, they shall all be saints, and the pious shall make pilgrimage to their homes.” The two crossed themselves and continued with the festivities.
Then there was the ridiculous French Revolution. The triumph of Reason. The masses revolt against the oppression of a despotic Monarchy based on the premise of the “Devine Right:” the king is God’s hand on earth. In repayment of their oppression scores of hundreds of clergy, nobles, and officials were themselves acquainted with the Guillotine and their lovely heads were parted from their officious bodies. One side cried “Mercy, sir, turn thy cheek!” The other side responded, “an eye for an eye!” Both waving a bible in their hands. Voltaire on his deathbed was receiving his last rites from a priest and the priest asked him, "do you renounce the devil?" And Voltaire, true to form, replied, "come now, Father, this is not a time to be making enemies."

Having spent a time in the Maghreb and having a suspiciously significant number of Muslim friends, I am occasionally asked if I am a Christian. I often reply "in so much as Nietzsche was a Christian, you can count me as one as well." Of course, what they imply is "am I a good Christian?"

But what is a good Christian? Someone who clocks in and clocks out religiously at church every Sunday? Is Salvation based on attendance or seniority like a job? So many of us in the post-industrial pre-apocalyptic neo-modern world do act like "on the clock" and "off the clock" Christians. We are devout anchorites within the sanctum of our modern "gated community" churches, with our guilt free low fat sermons, but quite different in the office or at a bar or restaurant, or even as we pass each other on the street.

Nietzsche knew that we lived in that ever-greying area called the dissonance between what we believed and how we behaved. He saw through the masquerade. Nietzsche may well be "blamed" for the rise of Nazism because he penned the ubermensch and will to power, but the good doctor did not act or participate in any actions or rallies by nationalist or racist organizations, unlike Wagner or Nietzsche's sister, Elisabeth. Elisabeth was a proper and baptized Christian, who married an anti-Semite and German nationalist. And who herself was an active member of the National Socialist party; she was an Aryan Nazi. If Nietzsche is complicit by such thin threads, then the Vatican is just as implicit for its policy of conciliation, impotence and complicity during those dark and dangerous years. As one French survivor of the Nazi camps said, "how could such a monstrous crime be committed in the heart of Christendom by baptized Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox who were never rebuked, let alone excommunicated? Where were the Christians?"

The good Doctor Nietzsche would agree. Where, indeed, were the good and pious Christians? Nietzsche wrote these words about the piety of Christian charity, "they say ‘judge not,’ and yet they condemn to hell whoever stands in their way." The crusades, the inquisition, the witch hunts and wars on terror. It’s wrong to kill a fetus because life is sacred, but when you kill a doctor who works at Planned Parenthood or performs abortions, you're killing for God. When others do it, it's an abomination, when we do it, it's God's will: Deus Vult. What's the difference between 9/11 and a drone strike on a compound full of women and children? How do we justify the collateral damage? With Liebnizian Optimism? That all is well in the best of all possible worlds?!? The bumper sticker to Leibniz's optimism. It does not sit well with a malcontent like myself.

I don't cotton to blind fate and neither did Nietzsche. I suppose that is how we became friends. Late night discussions at Getchell then later at the Matheson IGT Knowledge Center - an obscenely glorified monolith of a gravestone to some rich donor. That's all Uni is today, a living graveyard of obscene tombstones to the rich. All the while the youth of our nation scramble around them like ants at a picnic. But I digress. This is about a joke.

We all have our moment in Gethsemane. Instead of questioning my faith, Nietzsche strengthened it. Not like an apologist, but by critical examination. Not by blind faith, but by true faith. He strengthens it like iron is tested by a crucible of fire.

Nietzsche wrote and published a treatise called "Antichrist." Many good Christians are quick to quote this and his other works when they feel the need to condemn the good doctor. They say, "judge not," yet condemn to Hell anyone who disagrees with their belief. But those who do fail to see that which Nietzsche was truly criticizing. He was not criticizing Jesus, but us. He wrote in that treatise that the word Christianity is already a misunderstanding; that in truth, there has only been one Christian, and he died on the cross. And Nietzsche was right, the rest of us just play at it.

Stephen Colbert said that if this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition, and then admit that we just don't want to do it.
When I first read his works at Uni, I was a reluctant student. I was filled with the bias of my church and faith. He was a heretic of the first order. A blasphemer. But the more I read, the more and more, his words transcended my prejudice. But that is what education does, yeah? Overcomes bigotry, ignorance and prejudice. I started to read his works outside of class. I read it on my own time. I started to see that his criticism was not about Christ or God, but about us; about our dismal frailty and the hypocrisy. Nietzsche did no more than Martin Luther before him or even Jesus with the Pharisees or at the money changers. Nietzsche was a baptized Christian, the son of a Lutheran Pastor and had studied theology. He was on his way to becoming a pastor himself, but somewhere between Gethsemane and Calvary, he lost his way. Or maybe not.
Nietzsche criticized what Colbert pointed out above. Just like his predecessor, Martin Luther who nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Nietzsche said out loud what most of us struggled with quietly. A populist pastor of the Christian faith, Paul Tsika, asserted that for one to become a leader, one must be prepared for criticism. That it is necessary in the life of a leader. At some point in a leader's life he or she will have to give or receive criticism. Tsika said that how a leader handles criticism determines the leader's growth, maturity, and how the leader adds value to people and how people add value to the leader. How we handle criticism becomes either a testament or an indictment of our character.

I believe that applies to faith as well. Jesus did not fall short of critics, neither did the early apostles. There are several case studies in the bible of how Jesus handled criticism - from his own family and neighbors to Pontius Pilate and the Sanhedrin. But today, to question...to criticize the church and doctrine is to question power, and that is a dangerous endeavor. As Voltaire once warned: It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong. I think Jesus can attest to that. The bible is a tableau of martyrs and prophets who were put to death for defying the established authorities. In practicing religion, one must be able to excise faith from power; and know the difference. For the goal of each is very contrary to the other. The crusades had nothing to do with God, the Civil War was not about slavery and the War on Terror has nothing to do with freedom. Yet these conflicts that span centuries, a millennia, are all about the same thing. The same reason Cain smote Abel.

Since my cousin Marco’s death last month, I have found myself struggling with my faith. My tosser of a stepdad who has since married my widowed aunt was at the service. That makes him my uncle stepdad. A lifelong alcoholic and abusive wanker of the first class. He beat my mom unconscious on a drunken rage for almost two decades. He would kick in our bedroom door at one or two in the morning just to beat me and my brother. I remember lying in bed and when my Mom’s crying and whimpering came to a silence, it would be our turn. I remember the waiting. I remember the cool darkness. I remember listening to my brother sleeping. I remember counting my breaths before the sharp crack of wood and explosion of light. This went on for two decades. In high school, I was able to fight back. I joined the football team and the wrestling squad so I could use the weight room. But he was an ex-featherweight boxer from east London. Every punch was a closed fist from the shoulder. They were devastating hits that would send me tumbling down the one and only hallway in our double wide trailer. Here was this ghost of a man, still alive, still the unrepentant alcoholic, still abusive. This cunt twaddle of a man sat amidst all my relatives and families to mourn the passing of one of the gentlest people in my life. I have never heard Marco utter a word in anger. So, you see why I find the joke so funny. I empathize with the old survivor in the joke. We have all had our moments in Gethsemane have we not? On bended knee, white knuckle praying for this “cup” to pass from our lips, alone, with the wolves circling and the barbarians at the gate.

This article was written by Joaquin Rafael Roces. "In my youth, chased dragon flies as they danced through sunbeams. I found myself lost in the dark woods. Some where between Gethsemane and Calvary, I lost my way. I was a man lost between two stations, who I was and who I should be. In that journey, I was many things, and I was not always honorable, certainly not dignified. As a bull rider, I never won a rodeo or a jackpot. I never walked away with sparkly spurs and a polished buckle. But what I did do is that every time I was bucked off and ended up with a face full of dirt I got up again. And again. And again. My friends call me Scar because I carry on my person the scars of my folly. Wounds and scars from the Marines, rock climbing, bull riding, snowboarding and skate boarding. Life is not a race to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body. As Hunter Thompson declared one should skid in broadside in a cloud of dust and smoke, completely spent, and totally worn out. Life is not a spectator sport, you don't watch it from the sidelines or the bleachers. It is a contact sport. Get your feet wet, your nose bloodied and your hands dirty. That's who I am. I get a kick out of life, even if it's a kick in the teeth." --Joaquin Rafael Roces

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