Saturday, April 25, 2015

NON-JUDGMENT DAY: AGAINST PUNISHMENT

WILD IRIS

Here’s what slipped into my heart:
that crested yellow tongue

down the runway of parched truth:
and those petals’ pulsing blue,

the excitable color of now:
like coming on a meadow of wild iris.

Long ago in dank woods,
I blundered on a dell

of lilies-of-the valley:
white lovers palm to palm

between leaves. That’s why God
must be forgiven, and why Dante puts

those who weep when they should
rejoice in a muddy pocket of hell

near the wood of suicides. After youth’s
‘love is pain’, that blue-purple flight.

On Non-Judgment Day, in the Valley
of Saved Moments,

I will bloom, the wildest iris.

~ Oriana, © 2015

One flower redeems the world — yes, I believe this. Against all suffering, the beauty of one iris. Because pain passes, but beauty remains.

To me beauty is the kind of consolation that religion never was. Religion was about being manipulated by the carrot and stick: the pie in the sky (pardon the mixed metaphor) versus eternal torture in hell. Beauty made no demands. I didn’t have to go down on my knees and beat my breast: my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault. Beauty has been an unconditional gift.

“After youth’s ‘love is pain’, that blue-purple flight.” I wouldn’t be able to find that meadow again, especially with the drought. But it is enough to have seen it once.

Still, the most important phrase in the poem is “Non-Judgment Day.” This signals perhaps the most important shift in the history of humanity. As I explain later: “Arguably the most important revolution in modernity has been away from seeing people as evil sinners who need punishment rather than as wounded human beings who need healing.”

Do we have the right to punish people? Billions would reply “Yes” without hesitation. Parents certainly think they have the right to punish children. “Justice” is just a nicer word for revenge. Of course it sounds better to say, “We want justice” than “We want revenge. We want the “bad guy” to suffer enormously. Yes, even forever. Payback!!

And yet I think that at least in terms of the “creeping enlightenment” I’ve observed over the decades, there has been a movement away from cruelty. It is not as legitimate as it used to be. We seem to have finally understood: THE WISH TO PUNISH STEMS FROM THE DESIRE FOR REVENGE.


A strange thing, our punishment! It does not cleanse the criminal, it is no atonement; on the contrary, it pollutes worse than the crime does. ~ Nietzsche, The Dawn
 


It’s not just corporal punishment that’s increasingly in disfavor. Flogging was once a standard practice; now it appalls. Bullying and emotional and sexual harassment are behaviors we struggle to eliminate, not accept as part of life. Rather than yell at a child and hit him, a parent is more likely to try to explain that certain behavior harms others — and thus, ultimately, ourselves —  and invoke the Golden Rule. Respect for children is one of the frontiers in the battle against the “might makes right” mentality. It’s been said that we are entering the “dignitarian era” marked by respect for the humanity of another rather than desire for revenge.

Note the word “entering.” We are mere beginners when it comes to addressing problems in non-punitive ways. B.F. Skinner, an atheist psychologist appalled by the concept of hell, was one of the under-recognized founding fathers of the anti-punishment movement. He was a strong advocates of using rewards instead. Animal training changed radically due to Skinner’s influence. Eventually children benefited as well, though his name is rarely mentioned in connection with more humane child-reading practices. Of course plenty of other psychologists emphasized the importance of affection and the harm caused by the punitive approach. 

B.F. Skinner in pale color. Why only B.F.? Because his Calvinist parents called him Burrhus Frederic -- another example of parents putting some "ideology" -- perhaps wanting to honor an ancestor named Burrhus -- ahead of the child's welfare.
 
Religion and punishment were closely related in my mind as I was growing up. The deity presented to us was the god of punishment, his power resting on the threat of eternal torture in a demon-filled hell. (Actually, that’s what the power of the church rested on, but I was too young to differentiate.) I came to see myself as a hopeless sinner and lived in the dread of hell.

At 14 I had the insight that changed my life: “It’s just another mythology.” But for quite a while I still admitted the possibility, small but terrifying real, of being wrong. I decided that if I was wrong and the Judeo-Christian deity existed, filling hell with billions of "wrong-believers," then I was ready for my fate rather than worship a monster much worse than Hitler.

Of course the odds that such a cosmic being exists are essentially zero, and it helps to re-read the excellent chapter in Dawkins “Why God Almost Certainly Doesn’t Exist” should the "hell trauma" revive even for seconds (at some point I did reach certainty that the monster did not exist). The teachings about hell are not only child abuse, they are emotional abuse across the board, including adults. And those who have been abused tend to become abusers or perpetual victims — unless they are healed and transformed, inclined to show affection rather than to punish (verbal abuse counts as abuse). Arguably the most important revolution in modernity has been away from seeing people as evil sinners who need punishment rather than as wounded human beings who need healing.

A car with bad brakes is not “punished” for being an evil, sinful, fallen (LOL!) car. It’s taken in for repairs. It’s only common sense.

The whole notion of punishment still needs a lot of review. Modern psychology sees people as basically good, but likely to have been damaged by negative experiences -- fundamentalist parenting included (funny, I never clearly put Catholicism in the fundamentalist camp, but Catholicism is fundamentalist in its essence; it couldn't be called "liberal Christianity"). A damaged person does not need punishment; s/he needs healing. The only god I could accept would understand this 100% and deliver healing. Not even Hitler (most likely he was mentally ill) would be punished.

It would be a turning point for humanity if someone radically re-wrote the story of Abraham and Isaac. First Abraham should try to negotiate — he showed himself to be good at that. If Yahweh still insists, then Abraham should say, “Fuck you, Yahweh. I'm not going to murder my son to please you or prove anything. My boy's life is more important than you are, you swinish monster. No Führer or Supreme Leader comes first, no ideology, no tribal religion of exceptionalism, no Great Cause, no country. Human life is more important than any of these. I'm not going to worship you, you impostor with no empathy and no ethics. No father worthy of the name would sacrifice his child, so fuck you, god.”

Apologies for the language — it’s needed for impact. A god who tells you to kill your child, or harm any living thing, is not worthy of respect, much less worship. 

The bloodthirsty archaic cruelty must vanish from human mentality.


Getting rid of the violent, vengeful god means seeing the bible as the work of men livingwithin the confines of their Ancient Near East culture. As one former priest put it:

“Belief in infallible bible leaves us stuck with a violent God, which can instill fear that’s carried through life like a mild depression, only to become worse when facing death and the thought of appearing before this vengeful God. However, this can be avoided when we understand the bible to be inspired but not infallible, written by humans from a different culture who had an agenda.”
http://www.leavingthepriesthood.com/August_2013_Violent_God.pdf

 
Rembrandt, Abraham and Isaac, 1634
 
That the concept of hell even exists in the 21st century is disquieting. I predict that it will be more and more confined to the lunatic fringe. That's why I also occasionally post on Facebook about those semi-insiders, like ex-priests, who are trying to drop the concept of vengeance and punishment, and instead conceptualize an all-loving Christ (I prefer to use "Christ" in this instance because of greater distance from all the Jesus baggage, especially the Second Coming and Last Judgment that will finally, for all times, divide the small in-crowd of the Elect from the multitudes of those supposedly in the clutches of Satan).

The “sanitized Christ” is just as imaginary as any other deity, but for those who have a great emotional need to worship someone invisible who's totally idealized, a figure of non-judging, non-punishing gentleness is much better than the vengeful god of punishment.

**

What about those who are a danger to society? Just as we wouldn’t allow someone to drive a car with faulty brakes, we need to protect society from those would would indeed be a danger. Even under the best conditions, we’ll probably need some form of incarceration. But instead of thinking in terms of punishment, we can shift the focus to protection (and that would mean safely isolating the offenders) and efforts to rehabilitate those who harm others (often because of having been abused — “we are the victims of victims.”

*

WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHO FEEL NO NEED FOR GOD?

For me, the beauty of the world — of the universe — is enough.

Recently I re-discovered this ancient poem of mine:

B FLAT

A black hole hums as it spins,
astrophysicists announced. It sings
one melancholy note, B flat —
many octaves too low

for the human ear, tuned in
to mother’s voice,
birds predicting the weather,
a creak of a branch.

Perhaps the low B flat
is a greeting to other black holes,
singing to each other
across the black void.

*

That’s before the yet undetected
birth song of new stars being born
in the nest of the black hole,
not just the mournful anthem

of everything leaving everything —
galaxies rushing off
to more important places;
a lover quickly walking away.

~ Oriana, © 2015

~ You can tell this poem was written during the phase of my life when love was still mostly pain — before the discovery of love as a pact of nonaggression and non-abandonment. There are circumstances under which it might be best to leave a lover — but it can be done in the spirit of nonaggression, respect and gratitude.

The positive message of the poem is that new stars are being born: our consolation is beauty and creativity.

 
“NOTHING TO FIGHT FOR, NOTHING TO DIE FOR” — BUT PLENTY TO LIVE FOR

John Lennon’s “Imagine” is still totally radical. Not even in the West have we admitted that human beings come ahead of not only an imaginary god, but ahead of loyalty to various “great causes.” No cause is great enough to justify the slaughter of war (unless self-defense in the case of invasion; some would argue that some ideologies are just too vicious and must be exterminated, but this is a very difficult separate topic).

There remain many things to live for. For me, it’s simply poetry and beauty. For a scientist, it’s the pursuit of knowledge. For a physician, it’s healing — and so on. In addition, there are people and animals we love. Whatever it is, we must cultivate our garden.

And — have you noticed? — life is basically unfinished. We rarely run out of things to do, things to live for. Here is another early poem — I yield to this kind of temptation perhaps too easily. Reader, be warned: I hate the very concept of punishment, but I do love poetry. 


UNFINISHED HOUSE

I walk through a skeleton forest,
the ribs of studs and crossbeams.
I pass through doorless doors,
lean from the empty bay window,
climb the unrolled staircase.

There’s a smell of wounded wood,
sawdust and nails on the floor.
I think of men balancing on planks,
laying pipes and cables.
Soon this will be an ordinary house.

Unfinished, it could still be a castle.

*

For years I’ve had a dream
of wandering through a house,
discovering new rooms,
walking through unfinished
solitudes.

These are not guilty
labyrinths, but sanctuaries.
I want to find
not the way out,
but the way deeper in.

The cabinets are empty,
a state of grace.
My study has no furniture.
I stretch my arms
and lean against the light.

I walk on, the house multiplies:
walls divide, corridors
lead to doors. At last I
understood: I build these rooms
just by entering them.

*

A copy store clerk who secretly
read my work once asked,
“Are you a poet,
or are you only learning?”

~ Oriana © 2015

Not ‘only learning’, but ‘always learning’. And mostly just by entering. 


I have gotten away from the theme of punishment, but I like this shift from the theme of aggression and punishment to learning by entering. After all, life is not about reward and punishment. Mainly, it’s about learning. And learning should be an unpredictable adventure, and a  joy. 



“HEAVEN IS A PLACE WHERE EVERYONE IS KIND”

Michael:

In 1989 the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and opened it to signatories. The CRC requires member states to “act in the best interests of the child.” The world seems to agree we’ve evolved to a better understanding of how to do this—well, most of the world—190 countries have ratified the CRC, and it is binding under international law. Significantly and admirably, Sierra Leone was the seventh country to sign. As of 2009, only three member states have not signed: Somalia, South Sudan, and—embarrassingly and shamefully—the United States. This is ironic because the US was a participant in drafting the CRC. Such is politics.

The religious right and home-school lobbies have had the power to stop the US from signing. Ironic, isn’t it, that Christians, fearing the loss of their god-given right to beat their own children (Spare the rod, spoil the child…), indirectly increase the suffering of all children. There is a bumper snicker that reads, Jesus is coming, and boy is he pissed. Add this to the reasons why.

In the US, parents, before physically punishing a child, would often say, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” As children, we thought this stupid and wrong. But there is some truth to it. Those violating another human being violate themselves. When we move beyond physical punishment, everyone wins.


Oriana:

When I was around twenty, I had a sudden insight: We have no right to punish anyone. It was more  an intuitive feeling rather than a reasoned argument, and it seemed esthetic more than ethical: it was so ugly to leash out at another with deliberate malice. It hurt to watch. It isn’t only the victim who suffers. The violation goes both ways, and includes passive witnesses as well. Thank you, Michael, for pointing it out.

Now I know some supportive arguments, based mainly on the view that we are not evil sinners by nature. Studies of infants showed that we are essentially good, wired for empathy and cooperation, and have an innate sense of fairness (this is typical of social species, and we are the most social among such species). Alas, we are vulnerable to damage from negative experiences, especially if we don’t get empathy after the traumatic event. “We are the victims of victims” and it’s not easy to break the generational cycle of passing on emotional damage that results from child abuse. Cruelty breeds cruelty — until a mother or a father discovers the joy of kindness and breaks the chain — or a child manages to enter an environment where kindness is the rule.
As I've already mentioned, at first my insight that we have no right to punish anyone seemed esthetic rather than ethical. I instantly understood what Oscar Wilde meant when he said, “I know why America is such a violent country. It’s because your wallpaper is so ugly.” A household that cultivates beauty will not be a brutal one. 

A washing machine helps. Carpets and vacuum cleaners are allies of less-punitive culture. Even soft toilet tissue helps. Kindness includes kindness to oneself. 

A harsh environment "hard times" — poverty, warfare, crime, threats of any sort increase stress. More stress results in more cruelty — simply because parents are more likely to have "melt-downs" and scream and hit whoever is too weak to hit back. The abused children then become parents themselves. 

But wait — it's not entirely hopeless and automatic. Less stress helps. More pleasure helps. Awareness helps. It can take centuries, but then it can take only one generation to produce a huge cultural change. Make people's lives easier, decrease stress, and children will get more love and less punishment. Organized religion, as always, will try to oppose progress, but eventually old clergy are replaced and religion becomes "softer." The god of punishment is gradually pushed off his throne that's rooted in hell.




*

It is a horror, that “god-given right to beat one’s child.” As Sam Harris observed, religious moderation is the result of taking the “holy” scriptures less and less seriously. He asks,”So why not take it less seriously still? Why not admit the the Bible is merely a collection of imperfect books written by highly fallible human beings?” The men who wrote the bible lived in a world permeated with cruelty. Harsh punishment even for minor crimes only added to the burden of cruelty. The horrible treatment of those at the bottom of the hierarchy perpetuated the “nasty, brutish, and short” condition of their lives.

Thinking about it, I sometimes wonder how we in the West made it to modern consciousness after all. I used to be puzzled: no more floggings — when did we decide it was barbarian? And effective law enforcement to stop and prevent most violence — when did it dawn on us that a safer world is worth the tax money it takes to pay the police? Not that things are perfect; nevertheless, we are enjoying the most secure period in Western history. With less hardship and less menace in the environment, we can focus on the beauty of life and enjoy gentle child rearing and gentleness in human relations in general. 


Again, things are not perfect — a snarly medical receptionist does not promote a kinder world — but in general, yes. There is more respect for the rights of others than a century ago — not to mention the horror of two or three centuries ago where roving gangs of thugs made city streets too dangerous for walking.

It takes many factors, such as a healthy economy and a social safety net, AND a conscious collective effort to create the kind of culture where people are mostly kind to one another. I wish I remembered who said it: “Heaven is a place where everyone is kind.” 


Michael:

I hope one day a politician will have the courage to take on prison reform — one of the next frontiers for reform of misplaced/unjust punishment.

Oriana:

I am not holding my breath. But maybe half a century from now . . .  It will be revolutionary to get away from the concept of punishment. But note that the mentally ill used to be treated with utmost cruelty. Treatment still falls short, but progress in the field of mental health gives me hope that prisons will be next.

Charles:

This is the most powerful and shocking blog yet. Shocking because of "F U God.”
At the same time there is so much truth and wisdom.
In Rembrandt’s Abraham and Isaac, notice how feminine Isaac.
Most of ll I love your segueway from punishment to beauty.

Oriana:

Vulgarity was the strongest way I could state it, and it needed to be stated with utmost clarity. We have to stop making excuses for the archaic god. Granted that any deity is a human concept, a concept of a cruel god must be condemned as completely out of keeping with modern ethics. Nightmare stories of obeying a voice telling you to kill your son keeps reinforcing the idea that obedience to god comes ahead of everything, even the parent’s duty to protect the child. This translates into obedience to the clergy, prophets, and cult leaders. No way!

The story can still be told as part of a mythology — with the explanation of how it reflects the culture of the Ancient Near East (deities were routinely appeased with sacrifice; altars flowed with blood; animal sacrifice at the Jerusalem Temple continued until the Romans destroyed the Temple), and how the myth was created and eventually written down by fallible men.

I suppose that Rembrandt wanted to emphasize Isaac’s tender youth and beauty.

And speaking of beauty, I am so glad that the rather wild transition worked for you. For me, there is a connection between being able to appreciate beauty and kindness. Beauty and ugliness are involved in how others are treated.
 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

DANTE: “THE WOUND OF FORTUNE FOR WHICH THE WOUNDED ONE IS OFTEN HELD ACCOUNTABLE”

DANTE IN NORTH PARK

In rain and fog I drove past a sign:
DANTE’S CAFÉ.
SAME-DAY SERVICE.
I blinked: no, it said
Dante’s Laundry.

I imagine the bard of the Inferno —
the ambitious jutting chin,
laurel wreath upon his brow —
stooped over the long counter, 
folding socks and underwear.

Oh vengeful Alighieri,
in which circle of hell
do you find yourself?
Do you believe your torment
was ordained by the infinite love

that moves the Sun
and the other stars
?
Or have you become so numb
from folding and picking up,
that you no longer think at all?

Oh, you were subtle as the serpent,
but never harmless as the dove.
Beyond the stench of brimstone,
the garish glow of the flames,
you created perfect, geometric pain.

Now in this laundry you know:
hell is the death of the soul.
The dryers churn concentric
circles of towels, panties, shirts,
bras flayed with static,

smelling of mortality and detergent —
while you stand and fold
other people’s bottomless laundry.
And will do so until
you remember mercy.

~ Oriana © 2015


I wrote this rather judgmental poem on Dante’s judgmentalism and sadistic vengefulness without asking myself what shapes people this way — long before I understood the consequences of a wound that never heals.

The recent article by Robert Harrison — “Dante on Trial,” in the New York Review of Books — made me all the more acutely aware that the growing lack of compassion for the sinners that Dante the Pilgrim shows in his journey through hell — his hardening of the heart being supposedly the mark of his spiritual growth — stemmed both from the cruel temper of his times and from Dante’s great personal wound. Though he saw that it was circumstances that doomed him to the infamy of exile, he never appears to understand the role of circumstances in the life the sinners. If they acted out of their unhealed wounds, that’s too bad — off with them into this or that circle of hell.

For Dante the injury of exile went deeper than the hardships of poverty, homelessness, and loss of social status, about which he complained bitterly in his letters and the works he wrote after being exiled.2 It also went deeper than the loss of citizenship, which he cherished more than any other earthly blessing (see Paradiso 8: 115–117).

What hurt Dante the most was the “infamy” of his conviction, based as it was on hearsay evidence that resulted in a permanent defamation of his character. Alluding to the way many Florentines simply assumed he was guilty as charged and unleashed a public outcry against him, Dante would later write about wandering all around Italy “displaying against my will the wound of fortune for which the wounded one is often unjustly accustomed to be held accountable.”

The shame and indignation Dante felt at being chased from his nest by his fellow citizens never diminished with time. At the end of his life the wound remained as raw in his psyche as when disaster first struck in 1301. The Divine Comedy was conceived and completed within the dark, lacerated depths of a pain that Dante transmuted into a poetic rage against the machine—the defective machine of earthly justice that had unjustly condemned him and that he believed stood in desperate need of rescue, the way his pilgrim needed rescue in the dark wood of Inferno 1. (Dante soon became convinced that only a sovereign emperor who was above partisan politics and did not share temporal power with the church could administer justice properly throughout Europe).


 
I like some of the sinners better than some of the Elect. In particular, I like the sweet-spoken Francesca da Rimini better than Beatrice, a dominatrix who excels at verbal humiliation. Here is the ending of the article:

“[Beatrice] foretells the damnation of Pope Clement V, who “shall make him of Alagna go deeper still.” The reference is to the mode of punishment reserved for corrupt popes in Inferno 19. In a parody of apostolic succession, they are planted upside down with burning soles in a hole in the rock of the eighth circle of Hell. Each new arrival pushes his predecessor farther down into the hole. Thus when he dies, Clement will thrust Dante’s arch-enemy Pope Boniface VIII — “him of Alagna” — deeper into the rock.



No matter how often one reads or teaches the Paradiso, these words of Beatrice — her very last words — never cease to shock. They are wholly incongruent with the poem’s ecstatic vision of the Empyrean. As the great Dante scholar Charles Singleton wrote in his commentary, with obvious exasperation: “Has the wayfarer learned no lesson of Christian charity in the long journey to God, and does he, being now so near to God, not love his fellowman, not forgive?” The answer is no.


http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/feb/19/dante-trial/

And Beatrice is the female savior of the Commedia. Not Christ, but Beatrice. That’s Dante’s great heresy, and I bless him for that. An idealized love object can have an uplifting effect. But aside from beauty, and her willingness to save Dante’s soul, is Beatrice the kind of person anyone would want to have a lunch with? She might be the perfect date for those who want to lose weight, since being scolded for your sins would probably take away appetite.

But again we must remember that Dante lived in cruel times and most likely had a harsh childhood — that was simply normal. A childhood filled with punishment provides a rich material for imagining many kinds of infernal punishments.

Even more important, we must understand that until fairly there was little understanding of psychology. You were a sinner, not a product of genes interacting with circumstances. Notions like social conditioning didn’t exist. One feature of the Middle Ages (and several centuries beyond, alas) was the belief in free will in its worst form — you are responsible for all evil that befalls you — it’s divine punishment.

But theology is indeed subtle as the serpent. If no sin could be proved, then the misfortune was actually divine grace: “God sends suffering to those he loves.” Such suffering is then a kind of purgatory here on earth, making you more fit for heaven. This attitude survives even today, among those who claim that suffering ennobles a person.

What a gift suffering is! Indeed, given that he regarded himself as innocent, it’s somewhat strange that Dante did not express gratitude for his exile. Right there Catholic theologians could accuse him of spiritual immaturity.

As we descend deeper into Hell, the torments become greater and our modern sensibility finds it difficult not to take offense at them. The heart-breaking “forest of suicides” canto doesn’t have a single line of compassion in it, even when it mentions the circumstances that drove the damned to such a desperate deed.



And then there is this strange encounter in the Seventh Circle of the burning sand and rain of fire which punishes the “sodomites” (Canto XV).

EXPECT NO PARDON

Brunetto’s face is burned — Dante calls it
cotto, cooked; he strains to recognize
the one who stretches to him
his scorched, smoking arms.

My son, may it not displease you
if Brunetto Latino walks with you a while.
 

Dante begs him to sit down —
If any of us takes a moment’s rest,



he has to lie still for a hundred years, 

unable to brush off the flakes of flame.
On a high ridge, Dante walks above
the plain of burning sand,



conversing with the spirit who taught
how men might become eternal —
who from that starless pit cries,
Follow your star, and you will arrive

at a glorious port.
And Dante
puts him in hell. In unending
torment. The beseeching flowers
of the Tesoretto win no mercy,

nor the scholarship of scholars. 
Expect no pardon for your pretty songs,
Dante warns, stumbling, spiraling down
the dim paths of hell. Not unless the Love
 

that moves the sun and the other stars
is a greater poet than even
Dante — and we are the poems,
to be revised until we are music.

~ Oriana © 2015


Brunetto Latini was Dante’s beloved teacher and mentor, his guardian after the death of Dante’s father. He was also married and a father of several children (though only a daughter survived to adulthood). Scholars continue to be puzzled by the lack of any evidence that he was a homosexual. Not even rumors can be traced. He was a statesman as well as a writer, and his tomb can be found near the high altar in Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence.

But suppose Dante did know something that remained hidden from the scholars. He still had the option of placing Brunetto in Purgatory rather than Hell. The cordiality of the meeting and Brunetto’s best wishes for Dante’s glory also don’t seem to fit. No other soul is Hell is honored the way Brunetto is. Dante calls him “a radiance among men,” and recalls “that sweet image, gentle and paternal, / you were to me in the world when hour by hour / you taught me how man makes himself eternal.”

In desperation, scholars have suggested that Dante is trying to say that even quite wonderful men, kind and accomplished, can be guilty of private sins such as being gay. Yet even after acknowledging that Dante was a man of his times and regarded homosexuality as a mortal sin, we can’t explain why he didn’t place Latini in the Purgatorio. I suspect the reason was esthetic: Dante needed an interesting and eminent soul to converse with in the Seventh Circle, a pattern we see throughout the Inferno.

As for causing emotional distress to Latini’s family (and Dante did assume the Commedia would be famous and widely read), well, art comes first.

 

COMPASSION IS A MODERN VIRTUE

We tend to forget that compassion is a recent virtue. We assume that it was born with Christianity. The innumerable examples of the cruelties committed by Christians are dismissed as  “imperfect practice.”

But the problem may be deeper. My eyes were opened when I read an article, “Christianity is not about being a good person.” After all one can be a good person without being a Christian, the minister explained (this is extremely progressive thinking, as ministers go). Instead, the minister continued, Christianity is about sin and salvation. Christianity is not about being a good person; it's about seeing yourself as a bad person deserving eternal damnation, but saved from that by the "bloody ransom" paid by Jesus.

The clarity of this stunned me. All those years I've been unable to define Christianity in any concise way, to answer the question, What is the most important thing about Christianity? (my try was "forgiveness"). But there it was, using the simplest words, none of theological abstract mumbo-jumbo like kenosis. Forget kenosis! Christianity is about sin and hell and salvation. The “god of punishment” (don’t be taken in by false praises of his mercy) has to be appeased by the “bloody ransom.” A god of mercy would not need to be appeased by anyone’s suffering, much less his own son’s death under torture.

But isn’t Christian ethics about being a good person? That’s a misconception, the minister argued with impeccable logic. A Christian’s first duty is to god, not to fellow men. End of argument.

I remember the unencumbered time before my first religion lesson. Not idyllic happiness, not paradise; I think the best word is indeed “unencumbered.” I knew I wasn’t a perfect little girl, but I didn’t think of myself as a bad little girl either. Then came the story of Adam and Eve, and the phrase “the original sin” — of which we too were guilty, by virtue of being human. We were born in sin, in the clutches of Satan. The concept was elaborated in subsequent lessons until I did come to see myself as a bad little girl. I would probably end up in hell. The anguish began. 


A deep, real anguish caused by something entirely imaginary. Years after leaving the church, it's difficult to comprehend that I could have ever believed such pernicious mythology. But I was a sensitive, people-pleasing child, and such children are easily intimidated. I have to forgive myself, and forgive those who saw children and others as punishment objects.

But I digress. My only excuse is to be able to quote Nietzsche again: “Religions are, at bottom, systems of cruelty.” No childhood trauma or other extenuating circumstances are admitted: humans are simply evil and deserve to be punished with utmost severity.

In earlier times, the sadism of Christianity was more open. Thus, Tertullian (c.160 - c.225) wrote that Christians should not attend gladiatorial fights in the Circus, but not to worry: they will have much better entertainment in heaven, watching the torments of those in hell.

But again I digress. Don’t waste your time on Tertullian. Read Dante, who really was a great poet, even if his moral understanding does not meet our standards. 

 



Boticellli, Dante and Beatrice Meet in Paradise