A Saint Without God
Issue #21, September 1995
This essay is dedicated to my mother.
'Kiss someone you love when you get this letter and make magic. With love all things are possible.'
Thus began a chain letter I received recently. Chain letters are interesting, if scummy, examples of what might happen to us if we let faith overrule other sides of our character. Someone, often a perfect stranger but sometimes, sadly, a so-called friend, offers us a chance at riches, if we only put our faith in the person who has sent us the chain letter. All we have to do is part with some of our hard-earned money, and as long as we can find enough chumps who, like us, are stupid enough to unthinkingly put their faith in others, we will make far more money than we are giving up.
This particular chain letter, which arrived, as far as I can tell from reading it, from St. Jude himself, differed from others I have seen, though, because this one wasn't asking me for money. No, all I had to do was kiss someone, and then send the letter along to twenty other people, and everything would start going my way, because 'with love all things are possible.' 'This is no joke,' read the letter, 'Send copies to people you think need luck.' At this point, I begin wondering which of my friends was thinking of me when they saw this line; clearly someone out there thinks I 'need luck,' or I would never have gotten the letter in the first place.
'Don't send money,' I was told, for 'Fate has no price.' I've been thinking about that last sentence for awhile, now, and can't decide if it is extremely deep or merely obscure. But if I have faith, its meaning will be irrelevant, since I'll be rewarded with great riches, just for kissing someone and for believing that with love, all things are possible.
'This is true. Even if you are or are not superstitious.' This is faith: I believe something is true, whether or not other people believe it. If I have faith, I will be rewarded. In this case, my faith is magnanimous, it is a faith that asks only to be shared, even with non-believers. If we all at least pretend to believe, if we all keep the chain from breaking, we will all be rewarded with riches. And we don't send any money, we just kiss someone.
'Do not ignore this letter. IT WORKS!!!!!!!' I'm an unbeliever, but I'm not going to ignore the letter. Oh, I never got around to sending it to twenty friends (although I did kiss someone I love). But I've been thinking about it off and on ever since it arrived; at this point I couldn't ignore it if I tried. Because it's about faith, it believes in something, it wants to share its good fortune with others, and it seems to leave room for an unbeliever like me. I am forced to break the chain, of course, if I am to remain true to my non-beliefs, but I'll honor the spirit of faith that drives the letter by thinking a little more about the Patron Saint of Lost Causes who sent it to me.
We Are Bad Subjects
The more I look at the paragraph above, the more I realize I could be talking about Bad Subjects just as easily as I could about chain letters. Bad Subjects is about faith. Bad Subjects believes in something. Bad Subjects wants to share its good fortune with others, and it seems to leave room for an unbeliever like me.
Faith requires a belief in the future, a sense that what happens tomorrow will be different from today in some critical manner. Last year at this time, Bad Subjects ran 'The Apocalypse Issue,' and for many of us writing then, the apocalypse evoked discussions of the meaning of faith. I wrote in that issue, 'At some basic level, all believers desire an apocalypse, a utopia, a definable, different, perhaps distant future where our beliefs will be proven true.' Believers have faith in that future; indeed, without such faith, action would seem irrelevant, unnecessary. It requires a leap of faith to believe a kiss and twenty sealed envelopes will lead to riches; it requires a leap of faith to believe that a critical analysis of the politics of everyday life will change the world in some central fashion, whereby our utopia will eventually be realized. It is exceedingly difficult, in fact, for any of us to work towards the future without having any real belief in that future. One could even argue that a belief in the future is a prerequisite to living itself, in that we might surely give up the ghost and waste away if we didn't have faith that the next second would be worth living. However, as I argued in these pages a year ago, our need to believe does not, in and of itself, make that which we believe 'real.' Our faith is real; the object of our faith may be real, or may be an illusion. That is to say, anyone who sends along St. Jude's chain letter is believing, at least a little, in the potential power of the letter, but the letter itself is probably only that, a letter. And anyone who works towards a better tomorrow believes in the potential power of their work ... but their work is possibly only that, work, and not necessarily guaranteed to bring about utopia, no matter how much faith we have.
And so faith in utopia, in the future, inspires us to act in the name of that future. We believe in the future, and we apply our critical tools to the understanding of the future in which we want to believe. The present becomes merely the prelude to the future; faith allows us to sacrifice today in the name of tomorrow.
And here I ask for the indulgence of longtime Bad readers, who may have tired long ago of my frequent contemplations of the writing of Albert Camus. Jean Tarrou is a character in Camus' great novel, The Plague, an allegory about (among other things) the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. Late in the novel, Tarrou asks the hero, Doctor Rieux, if they might 'take an hour off' from their work fighting the plague that has infested their town, 'for friendship,' as Tarrou puts it. He then proceeds to tell Rieux a story of his life. Tarrou's father was a prosecutor who sent many men to their deaths, a fact which, when realized, deeply disturbed Tarrou, who decided 'to square accounts' with the criminals in the dock. He became an agitator, working against a social order 'based on the death-sentence ... by fighting the established order I'd be fighting against murder.' He understood that on occasion the people with whom he worked would themselves place a death sentence on an enemy, but Tarrou managed to live with the contradictions involved in those sentences, until he saw an enemy executed and made an explicit connection between that enemy and the criminals in the docks of his father's courtrooms. At this point, he says, 'I came to understand that I, anyhow, had had plague through all those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I'd believed with all my soul that I was fighting it.' His comrades make 'excellent arguments to justify what they do,' but for Tarrou, 'my concern was not with arguments,' but with the men in the docks.
This makes it impossible for Tarrou to work with those comrades, of course. 'Once I'd definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. I leave it to others to 'make history'.'
What Tarrou decides is that he can no longer sacrifice the present in the name of the future, can no longer do that which he hates in the name of a faith in what might come. He recognizes the limitations this places on the ultimate usefulness of his actions, but he opts against ultimate usefulness in favor of living as properly as possible in the present. 'I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace,' he tells Rieux, 'And today I am still trying to find it.' Tarrou's life becomes purposely smaller in its scope, for he has moved outside the bounds of 'making history.' Now his life is simpler, if no closer to utopia: 'All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.'
Faith and Propaganda
Tarrou's comrades had faith. They believed in their vision of the future, believed with enough certainty that they could justify behavior which mirrored that of their enemies. They were revolutionaries, believers in a cause, dedicated to making history. Tarrou answers their faith with only a recognition that we all have plague, and a desire to, 'so far as possible,' refuse pestilent forces.
Recently, the Bad Subjects Mailing List has featured a fevered thread on the contemporary issue of affirmative action. Bad Subjects, being critical in the past of some of multiculturalism's flaws, and the Bad Mailing List, where like-minded people (and some not-so-like-minded people) hang out to critique the politics of everyday life, are enlightening places to analyze the complicated issue of affirmative action in the mid-1990s. Some of us have faith. We believe in our vision of the future. That vision, informed in part by a ruthless criticism of everything existing, leads us to question the very roots of affirmative action and the multicultural movement. Our faith in the verity of Marx' challenge to be ruthless led many on the Bad List to construct effective, well-stated objections to affirmative action, objections that in their intelligence did much to advance the debate on the topic, at least among list members.
But in the meantime, it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. To quote Doctor Rieux in The Plague (as I have done far too often in my short life), 'For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing. Later on, perhaps, they'll think things over; and so shall I. But what's wanted now is to make them well.' Let others with more faith take care of making history. Later on, we will all benefit from their faithful efforts to remake the world in the image of the believed-in utopia. But for the moment, the forces of pestilence are upon us, they have the upper hand ... and sick people need curing now.
And so some on the Bad List suggested that this was not a time when we have the luxury of ruthless criticism of everything. The plague is upon us now; faith in the future won't do much good for those who are the targets of our enemies in 1995. Faith, to paraphrase, is the opiate of us all; it deadens our ability to feel what is happening right now, allows us to become what we hate in the name of the future. Faith is a luxury we can't always afford, even though it seems most appealing at just the moment when we need to reject it most violently.
And so, with Tarrou, I move outside the bounds of making history and concentrate on curing the sick in the here and now. For me, in the fall of 1995, this means that I fight against those who would destroy affirmative action.
A Saint Without God
'Do not ignore this letter. IT WORKS!!!!!!!'
How ironic that my chain letter 'came from' St. Jude. How exactly does it work, being the patron saint of lost causes? If they are lost, what can a saint do? 'Can one be a saint without God?' Tarrou said to Rieux. 'That's the problem, in fact the only problem, I'm up against today.'
A saint without God. Living without faith. Somehow reconciling the desire to cure the sick, with the crushing knowledge that we all have plague. When you've got a lost cause, you can always pray to St. Jude. Have faith, and no cause is lost. With love all things are possible. Do not ignore this letter. It works!!!!!!!
Steven Rubio thinks it's hard to be a saint in the city.