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My Farrakhan Obsession

Florence Hamlish Levinson, author of the brand new and pretty darn good[1]Looking for Farrakhan (Ivan R. Dee, 305 pp.; $25), is perplexed. "How," she asks, given her subject's obvious intelligence, shrewdness, and force of character, "could it have happened that he was seduced by some of the most hare-brained theories of his or any time, theories that allegedly explain most of the ideas we live with?" That's a good question, though Levinson never gets to the bottom of it. Farrakhan refused to speak with her as she prepared her book, as did most of his associates (the few who did speak with her were unhelpful). Even most of those who know Farrakhan but have no current connections to him declined to be interviewed. Hence Levinson's title, and hence the feeling one has at the end of her book that, for all her trying, she never really got close to "finding" him at all—which is a shame. For there are a few of us who, for some strange reason, are almost obsessed with this guy.

Louis Farrakhan (formerly Louis Eugene Walcott, Louis X, and Abdul Farrakhan) and I have a few things in common. We both grew up in lower-class black neighborhoods; we both ran track and excelled at it; we both aspired to be professional musicians; and we both have spent chunks of our lives in the Episcopal church. (It didn't occur to Levinson that Farrakhan's early involvement in an Episcopal church might have something to do with his conversion to the bizarre theology of the Nation of Islam. I went to the Episcopal church for the first time as an adult, after having Christian orthodoxy thoroughly instilled in me by the Southern Baptists. I am thus opposed to children being raised in the Episcopal church. Just look at what happened to Farrakhan.)

Of course, Farrakhan and I are dissimilar in many ways as well. For one thing, I like white folks (which makes sense, since I am one); he considers them "devils." He plays the violin, and quite well; I play the bass guitar. He goes for colors like mauve; I like dark blue. So the differences between us are, one might say, profound. Which gives me all the more reason to want to figure him out. And it was because I wanted to figure him out that I subscribed to his newspaper, The Final Call, in November 1995.

While newspapers and magazines across this continent are struggling to stay afloat, the Final Call is expanding. Just after the Million Man March in October 1995 it was transformed from a bimonthly into a weekly; it is getting thicker; members of the Nation have appeared on the streets of Canada's capital selling it only in the past year (they share sidewalk space with Pentecostal street preachers and Communists).

The Nation says that the Final Call's circulation is about 500,000, which at first sounds like a wild exaggeration. But then how has Farrakhan managed to attract ever-larger crowds to his events when the only real press he gets is his own? And how is it that the Final Call shows up in my mailbox week after week some 18 months after my subscription to it lapsed? I'd be willing to bet that someone in Chicago looked at my address in small-city Quebec, decided that I was a missionary case, and ordered that the newspaper be sent to me whether I pay for it or not. (My guess is that it will stop coming after this little essay is published.)

So why is the Final Call expanding; why are good-looking African immigrants peddling it on the streets of Ottawa (Ont.); and why, really, did the white guy who is writing these words subscribe to it in the first place? Is the situation in places like my old neighborhood, where my parents still live, so bad that Farrakhan seems to be the only black leader able to do something about it? Well (gulp), it does sometimes seem like it.

Suffice it to say that I remember Jesse Jackson coming to town and having us kids chant that we were "somebody"—and, aside from a bit of temporary hoopla, it amounted to nothing. And I remember the social workers and other ideologues who passed through my schools preaching false self-esteem; and lenient school principals; and churches devoted to a socially active though theologically challenged Jesus. And, not surprisingly, the violence went on, and the neighborhood continues to spiral slowly but surely downward. So if Farrakhan can get the kids there off drugs and into work, an increasing number of people seem to be saying nowadays, that's good. "But he's an anti-Semite," one responds. "True, but he also got my ex-con brother off the dole."

Here's a point most middle-class Americans may not get: namely, it isn't primarily racism, a belief in UFOs (i.e., the Mother Wheel from which the long-dead Elijah Mohammad speaks to the Nation), or Farrakhan's now smooth, now explosive demeanor that attracts most lower-class blacks to the Nation of Islam. It is rather the desire to have peace on their streets, to have their kids off drugs, to be a part of something important. Looking for these things, many of them turn to Farrakhan.

Which is to say that the Christian churches have a lot to do and a lot to repent of.

Preston Jones is completing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Ottawa (Canada).

1. Pretty darn good, but not excellent. Levinson ignores a lot of thoughful stuff that has been published on Farrakhan in intellectual journals and magazines; she all but calls Clarence Thomas—and by association all blacks who happen to be conservatives—an Uncle Tom; and in an especially silly digression she likens Republican welfare policy to Farrakhan's racist harangues.

Give Me a Word

A monk once came to Basil and said, "Speak a word, Father," and Basil replied, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart"; and the monk went away at once. Twenty years later he came back and said, "Father, I have struggled to keep your word; now speak another word to me"; and Basil said, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," and the monk returned in obedience to his cell to keep that also. —Benedicta Ward,
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Hermeneutics" is so dauntingly sober a word that I seldom use it, except in jest. It literally means to draw out what is hidden, and it is used extensively in the field of biblical studies to convey a method of interpreting the Scriptures. The hermeneutic of the early monastic tradition may be summed up in a phrase: "Abba [or sometimes Amma], give me a word." A monk who was younger, in terms of monastic life, would approach an elder and ask for a word, usually a phrase from the Scriptures. The monk would then attempt to put the biblical word into practice in daily life. As Douglas Burton-Christie points out in The Word in the Desert, his study of the use of the Bible by these monks, this method of interpretation did not amount to trying to escape one's own problems through blind obedience. The monks clearly knew how difficult and even dangerous it could be to attempt to embrace the words of Scripture, and also that it would take time.

There was a considerable element of trust involved in the process, not only trust that the biblical word would be effective, but that the elder would nudge the monk in a direction that would bear fruit. In contemporary, therapeutic terms, the younger would be expected to approach the elder believing that he would give him a word appropriate to his particular situation, and his stage of psychological development. The method was considered to be particularly useful when monks were dealing with the everyday temptations toward anger, lust, or greed, desires that could cause such trouble in the harsh desert environment. Today, we might talk things out. The concern of the monks, however, was not with therapy but with a salvation that could not come through talk alone. And they were especially wary of too much talk of Scripture as it could mislead a monk into taking pride in his intellectual or spiritual acumen while avoiding that which needed attention in the nitty gritty of daily life.

When spiritual seekers came to them, asking for a "word," their response usually boiled down to: drop the pretensions, and get real. A classic story concerns Abba Poemen, a monk renowned for his wisdom. A monk from another country, also of considerable reputation, comes to visit him. But when he begins to speak of the Scriptures, he finds to his surprise that Abba Poemen turns his face away and says nothing. Disappointed, the man leaves Poemen's cell and asks another monk why this has happened.

The monk goes to see Poemen, reminds him that the visitor has come from a distance to see him, and asks why he has said nothing. "The old man said, 'He is great and speaks of heavenly things and I am lowly and speak of earthly things. If he had spoken of the passions of the soul," meaning the temptations he struggles with on a daily basis, "I should have replied, but he speaks to me of spiritual things and I know nothing about that." This is explained to the visitor, and, chastened, he returns to Poemen, saying, "What should I do, Abba, for the passions of the soul master me?" The old man then says, joyfully, "This time, you come as you should. Now open your mouth concerning this and I will fill it with good things." Poemen does not lack knowledge of Scripture—in his answer he has paraphrased Psalm 81—but he is well aware that too much discussion of Scripture and spiritual matters can foster an illusory sense of holiness in people who have not yet faced themselves.

The monks had an essentially practical orientation to Scripture, something they have in common with many Christians today. Living in a small town, I know all too well the damage that gossip can do. In one of the most helpful sermons I have heard since joining the Presbyterian church here, the minister suggested that we go on a Lenten fast and practice not back-biting or indulging in malicious gossip for the next 40 days. Anyone I know here—the priest, the newspaper editor, the bartenders—might appreciate the wisdom of Abba Hyperechius, who said, "It was through whispering that the serpent drove Eve out of Paradise, so he who speaks against his neighbor will be like the serpent, for he corrupts the soul of him who listens … and he does not save his own soul."

But the difference between the world-view of these monks and our own is not something we can simply imagine away. Theirs was an oral culture, and thoroughly religious. Silence was a presence, not merely an absence of noise that busy people have to seek out. They read the Bible allegorically, aiming, as one monk I know has said, not at the letter itself, or the literal, but in the direction to which it points. I suspect that these monks would have found baffling, if not downright comical, our either/or mentality, our fussing and fuming over whether Scripture is literal or symbolic, historical or fantastical. Although their access to scholarly tools was primitive compared to what is available in our day, their method of biblical interpretation was in some ways more sophisticated and certainly more psychologically astute in that they were better able to fathom the complex integrative and transformative qualities of revelation. Their approach was far less narcissistic than our own tends to be, in that their goal when reading Scripture was to see Christ in every verse and not a mirror-image of themselves.

The monks understood that biblical interpretation was not something to be mastered quickly in a classroom but had to be absorbed slowly and be tested by experience. I believe it is this existential quality that makes their method accessible to any person, of any time or place. If there are no desert monks handy, the Bible itself will give you a word, and a community of faith can help you to interpret it over a lifetime. A brief passage in the Gospel of Mark, for example: "She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying" (Mark 14:8, kjv).

The verse portrays Jesus defending a nameless woman against his outraged disciples; she has made an extravagant gesture, anointing him with expensive oil, and they feel that the money could have been better spent. When my brother's church in Honolulu was celebrating the 101st birthday of one of its members, he asked the woman if she would care to name a favorite Bible verse. She cited the verse from Mark and said that it was one she had chosen to memorize as a child in Sunday school, and that all her life it had provided her with a word to live by. Jesus himself had given it, allowing her the hope that her faith, and whatever service she rendered to the church, would not be in vain. When asked what it was about the verse that had so captured her attention as to hold it for over 90 years, she replied, "She did what she could."

Kathleen Norris is the author of Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and The Cloister Walk. This commentary is taken from her new book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, published in March by Riverhead Books. Reprinted by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright 1998 by Kathleen Norris.

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