In an unlikely series of events, the true machinations of which are known only to that mysterious and terrifying organization, I have become president of the Board of Directors of my local Unitarian Church in the scenic, doughnut-rich, and fire-scarred Verdugo Hills of Southern California. As such I am called to write a monthly column for its newsletter. What better way to begin the year than with The Slaughter of the Innocents?
In such an ugly time, the true protest is Beauty
On Christmas morning, 2017, I was driving to work and was lucky enough to hear a rebroadcast of an interview with the Canadian poet and troubadour Leonard Cohen. Cohen died in 2016 and the interview had been recorded a few months before he took off. He knew he was dying, was in great pain, yet gamely bestowed a lovely, poignant, and oftentimes hilarious valediction.
Leonard Cohen’s Final Interview, September 2016
Among other things, he credited his approach to pain management to his decades-long association with an “alternative” Buddhism in a compound atop California’s Mt. Baldy. Cohen said, “It makes whining the least appropriate response to suffering.”
Pain and suffering are certainly things to complain about, but the only things we can truly control are our reactions to them. As we make our way into the second year of a presidential administration that at times seems both inevitable and the biggest joke ever played, I think of an exquisite protest song Cohen released in 1969—the year I was born—that puts the slaughter of innocents in a Biblical perspective.
“The Story of Isaac” takes the Old Testament tale of Isaac and his father, Abraham, and turns it into an anti-war message. Though he never mentions the Vietnam conflict raging at the time Cohen, speaking as Isaac, tells “you who build these altars now/To sacrifice these children/You must not do it anymore…A scheme is not a vision/And you never have been tempted/By a demon or a god.” Isaac’s father, on the other hand, was poised to kill his son for “The Beauty of the Word.”
The Story of Isaac, Leonard Cohen
Cohen’s simple arrangement of “The Story of Isaac” echoes the 14th century “Coventry Carol,” a story of the Nativity that’s about as far from “Jingle Bell Rock” as you can get. The “Coventry Carol,” as we have come to know it, is a lullaby sung by the mothers of ancient Judaea to their children who are about to be put to death under the orders of King Herod. And how will Herod know of these children? By virtue of the census that is bringing Joseph and soon-to-be teen mom Mary to Bethlehem. The Carol is also known as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”
A Cohen contemporary, the late songwriter Phil Ochs, was fond of saying, “In such an ugly time, the true protest is Beauty.” I’m not alone in thinking that the way we respond to ugly things can often be just as ugly. Social media helps this tendency, as they are data-mining, ad-supported force accelerators. We feel justified in leveling the playing field, scorching the earth, rather than “going high,” as Michelle Obama said. We must not do that anymore.
I might not believe in “a demon or a god,” but I like the high bar Isaac set for sacrificing the innocents among us, whether those be innocent of wealth, innocent of education, or even innocent of common sense. And I would like to make the righteous protests of my future beautiful ones.
Have a beautiful year.