The death of Charles Manson is not good news to me. I find no joy and no solace in it. In fact, no matter how putrid the moral failings or heinous the crimes of the deceased, glee over death – any death – always makes me sad. I understand the visceral reaction people have about cult leaders, serial killers, abusers and perpetrators of all sorts of nefarious acts. On a gut level, I understand – and even sympathize – when people espouse their hatred for those souls that show us how dark the human mind and heart can become. I understand in my gut why radio DJ’s, co-workers and thousands of people on social media celebrate the demise of one such man. I get why so many people feel certain that if there is a Hell, Charles Manson is now there. I do. I mean, I have found myself – at my worst – wishing a car accident on someone who cut me off in traffic. I am not proud of that. It reveals the darkest parts of my reptilian brain when slighted, and I am firing on too much caffeine and too little sleep. But it does not reveal my heart.
My heart breaks, for a world that relishes in punitive justice much more than it does restorative justice and reconciliation. The death of Charles Manson is essentially meaningless. A highly charismatic and tortured man who as a kid was abandoned by his mother didn’t know his biological father found a way to inflict his pain on the world. There were 7 horrific murders carried out by his following. Several people are still rotting away, awaiting their own death in prison. And many more people – the loved ones of the victims – lived or continue to live out their lives with a wound that no one, no one can ever heal.
The death of Charles Manson has me wishing I still believed in Jesus. Not the punitive, scary Jesus ready to send anyone to hell for being born into the wrong culture or for not saying the right prayer, that I believed in as a youth. But the Christ. The one of whom Paul said, “one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” The one whom for Irenaeus “became what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself.” The Christ I once truly believed was going to recapitulate, reconstitute all things great and small and reconcile them to God, to the earth, and to each other.
Charles Manson stole a song title from the Beetles and preached “Helter Skelter.” He somehow convinced his followers that a great race war was coming, that their crimes would be the catalyst for this apocalyptic event and that he would be at the helm of leading a new society. He was a severely flawed and failed messiah figure. Jesus preached Euangélion (Greek: εὐαγγέλιον) or the Good News that the kingdom of God was at hand, that it was dwelling among us. Sure he preached a lot of really judgmental sounding things about hell too, and his own sort of impending Armageddon. But somehow, many of his followers including the Paul of the 7 authentic Pauline letters, some of the Church Fathers many Eastern Orthodox and Catholic mystics and more than a few liberal Protestants took the stories about Jesus’ life death and resurrection to mean that God was reconciling the whole cosmos in this one man. That’s where I was in my last days as a minister of “the Good News.”
A severe lack of grace in humanity, raging injustice in the universe, a lack of divine intervention (the kind that would and must break forth if God had really broken through), multiple Christ-like myths that long predate Jesus of Nazareth, glaring contradictions and obscene moral flaws attributed to God (in the Bible and in any other religious text I have ever read) and Ivan Karamazov and his damn speech about the children. These things simply will not allow me to believe that the lion will lay down with the lamb. They no longer permit me to believe that somehow, someday, God’s light will flood the earth and be so pervasive that even Sharon Tate would embrace Charles Manson. But on days like today – honestly almost every day – I find myself wishing it were true.
I am tempted to despair. And some days I do! I don’t know what to believe or even wish about the universe we find ourselves in. And for the most part that all seems so futile now. But there are things I can do and even reasonably hope. We are so inundated by bad news: corrupt politicians in international collusion to skew elections or sell uranium, new sexual assault cases revealed daily against the saints of Hollywood and those masquerading as proponents of “family values” in the church and government, and mass murders every few months. It is understandable how in such a sick, cynical society where evil sometimes seems destined to be eternally cyclical folks can find themselves cheering for the death of one bad guy.
So I must force myself for intervals of time to step away from the bad news when being informed and educated on what’s going on turns to wallowing. I must force myself to remember that some truly verifiable good news does happen in the world. I must remind myself that the negative news cycle – while all too real – is designed to pull you in and make you spend hours online or in front of your tv to advertise products to us we don’t need. I must remind myself that Danica Roem recently became become the first openly transgender woman elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Not only did she win, but she defeated an incumbent who introduced an anti-trans “bathroom bill”!!! I must remind myself that this Thursday, adherents of various religions and non-believers alike will file into churches, food banks, schools, and restaurants to feed the homeless. I must remind myself that a beloved fellow artist my community is always working to shed a light on the hunger epidemic. I must remind myself that almost every week someone approaches me, to tell me that my poetry or the open mic community that many of us have tirelessly worked to create has made a difference in their life. I must remind myself that I am deeply loved by more people than I am probably aware of. I can and I must go forth and “love my neighbor as myself.” And as has always been the case – even if seldom realized – none of us can do that unless we actually love ourselves.
So this is me, pushing back from the news cycle for the rest of the day, for a hot shower, a beer and an earlier bedtime than normal. I need some rest. This Thursday I get to have way too much food with people I love, who also love me and who would strongly disagree with me about Charles Manson or Jesus. And dammit, I am determined to love them well.