“Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.” This ancient proverb wrongly attributed to Euripides is almost too like a common cliche to apply to our president now, even as applicable as it seems to be.
But the question is, Who is being made mad? Is it the president alone, or is it those being drawn into his vortex of madness, as being sucked into a maelstrom? Doesn’t this include almost the entire Republican Party leadership by now? Doesn’t this include almost the entire rockstar hypocrite leadership of the so-called evangelical church, much less the already-initiated racist and bigoted Americans who are the backbone of the movement that placed this Donald the Mad into power?
There is a dynamic to Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (1320 A.D.) that often gets lost in the translation. Many have read at least part of the first of the three books it includes, “The Inferno.”
That great work helped shape the rise of the Renaissance and Italian city states like Florence because it captured a great human existential and emotional truth. It wasn’t just the sequence of horrible things that the poet describes on his descent into the Inferno.
No, it wasn’t just the horror. It was about the process of descent into Hell. It wasn’t just a reaction to horror, but an incredibly crafted journey, a journey that becomes overtaken by a growing tug of the descent into the vortex, that increasingly cannot, after a point, resist its power driving the process.
Yes, and at the very bottom of Hell is found not the most grotesque mass murderer or cannibal, but is Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Jesus in the Biblical accounts. Living for eternity with the gut-wrenching realization of how he’d betrayed his loving leader was defined in The Inferno as the most horrid human experience possible. The pain is way too deep, too profound, too total to qualify as merely physical.
In betraying Jesus, he betrayed Jesus’ message, which clearly affirmed the will of the Creator with parables like the Good Samaritan and the admonition that “Whatever one does not do for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, needing clothes, sick or in prison, whatever one did not do for the least of these, did not do for me” (Matthew 25).
Just as Dante’s Inferno was also littered with well-known political, religious and moral leaders of his day, so the relevance of that poem is acutely profound in these dark days. What are the names of the Republican leaders marching, now, in lock step with Trump, who belong on the pathway to the pit of Hell in these times?
What are the names of the so-called evangelical leaders, undoubtedly cast to even deeper levels of Dante’s Hell because they’ve betrayed their faith, and the leader of that faith, Jesus, in such contemptible ways?
Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote this week about so-called evangelical leaders in the orbit of one John MacArthur who crafted something called “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” whose purpose is to purge the Gospels of any social justice responsibility whatsoever, thus, in Gerson’s words, being “discredited by rank hypocrisy” to advance “close ties to an angry, ethnonationalist political movement” (Trump), displaying “complete spiritual blindness.”
All of this is in such stark contrast with what can be called “mainstream” faith, that borne out of a faith informed by the spirit of the Enlightenment that finds in the accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus an enhanced appreciation for first causes and uplifted lives and purpose.
Such was the word that John C. Dorhauer, since 2015 the general minister and president of the 1.2-million member United Church of Christ (UCC), brought to the Rock Spring Congregational Church in Arlington, Virginia, last Sunday.
In his remarks Sunday about “a future in which you matter,” he proclaimed that “God’s spirit is as close to us as our next breath,” affirmed the UCC’s “extravagant welcome,” that says, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here,” closing with a liturgy based on the message in Matthew 25.
Dante spurred a Renaissance in his time. Maybe he will again.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].