King Richard III, V, 3, 180-198: …Soft, I did but dream. O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me?The lights burn blue. It is not dead midnight. Cold, fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh. What? Do I fear myself? There’s none else by. Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I. Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am. Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why: Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself? Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good That I myself have done unto myself? Oh, no. Alas, I rather hate myself For hateful deeds committed by myself. I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not. Fool of thyself speak well. Fool do not flatter.
This soliloquy comes from Shakespeare’s “King Richard III,” recited by Richard himself on the eve before the climactic battle. But it might as well have been said by King Herod in a quiet moment of indecision before ordering John the Baptist beheaded. In both men, we sense the pricked conscience. Richard’s apprehensions come from visitations of ghosts all night of the people he murdered in his ambitions to be king. Herod’s apprehensions come from his genuine enjoyment of John the Baptist. Despite John’s insistent condemnation of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herod “liked to listen to him.” For some reason, even a ruler as despotic as Herod enjoyed John’s upbraiding of his character. Perhaps it was amusement. Perhaps self-torture. But judging by his reluctance to behead John, it seems that there was some part of Herod that genuinely did feel remorse, did derive some kind of pleasure from hearing the truth, even if he had no intention or wherewithal to act on it.
This, of course, is the power of literature, both in scripture and Shakespeare: that we can relate to Richard and Herod. It is also why the Bible is written using story, parable, and poetry, and is not written like, say, an operating manual or a book of laws. Shakespeare’s goal, like Mark’s, is not to tell us that murder is wrong—who doesn’t know that?–but rather to have us experience what being a murderer is like. With Richard, we feel the “Cold, fearful drops standing on [his] trembling flesh.” With Herod, we feel the pit in his stomach as he weighs his obligations to his daughter against what he knows to be an unjust beheading. We know those feelings because we too have done things we know are wrong.
So if Mark intends us to experience the depraved moral complexities at play for Herod, then the next question is not “what’s the lesson?” but rather a much more practical “what do we do?”. For when we find ourselves in moral dilemmas, we are not looking for a sermon so much as a solution. I’d say there are two common solutions for the problem of the murderous king: one religious and one political. In the religious solution, the king’s conscience is aroused and he turns to God, perhaps kneeling in prayer, confesses his sins, and pledges his life to Jesus. He rises born again. In other words, the religious solution to the depravity of kings is conversion.
Now, I’ve heard—and I assume you have too—many people relay their life experiences in this formula. And while I think a conversion story should not be the only way we think about Christian faith, I do think they happen. In fact, I’d say one of the smartest things a person can do when feeling guilty or lonely or depressed is get down on one’s knees, pray to God, and wait patiently for God’s presence. Although one should not use prayer as magic, certainly prayer has its place and I cannot imagine knowing peace without it. So I don’t mean to suggest that this approach fails on the level of fact; certainly these events do happen. I mean to suggest that this approach fails on the level of strategy. We can’t just bank on God converting every bad king. That’s why for hundreds of years the growing consensus with regard to murderous kings has not been ever more persistent conversion, the religious solution, but democracy, the political solution.
Rather than converting kings, the idea is to just not have kings. Winston Churchill famously remarked that “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Perhaps this is why democracy—the political solution—also does not seem to totally satisfy the dilemma raised by Mark and Shakespeare. These passages are not just about the guilt of Richard or Herod; they are about our guilt; those same instincts dwell in us. In a democracy, who is to say we aren’t trading rule by one murderous king for rule by three hundred million murderous citizens? This year, spending a few late nights in the Appropriations committee of the legislature, allegedly the locus of democracy in our state, I’ll admit feeling not great about our democracy.
For those of us interested in fighting the Governor’s massive cuts to MaineCare necessary to finance his tax breaks for the rich, we had a terrible choice to make. We could either accept a deal to make some, but not all, of the cuts. Or we could reject the deal, try to hold out for something better, but risk theRepublicans finding a procedural move to go around us and get everything they wanted. It was as if we were on a game show, and behind door number one we knew a certain number of people would die.Behind door number two, either twice as many people would die, or none. It was a life or death choice based on a guess. During those late nights, I would remember one of the thousands of personal messages we relayed to members of the committee from Mainers opposed to the cuts.
The Governor wanted to deny MaineCare to any adult that didn’t have children, no matter how poor they were. One of those childless adults wrote that she was severely mentally ill, relied on MaineCare for prescription drugs, without which she literally could not be sane or physically survive. She chose at a young age not to have children, because she thought that was the responsible thing to do. Now she found out that her choice to not have children could literally end her life because she would be cut from MaineCare and unable to get her prescriptions. In the final deal, childless adults weren’t explicitly cut. Instead, the program was frozen. That doesn’t sound so bad until you learn that freezing the program means defacto cutting it in half. Turnover is so high and the paperwork is so challenging to that about half the people on it will likely lose their health care just because their income went up a little bit—even temporarily—or they just missed a form in the mail. I wondered what I would say to her if our organization decided to support that deal. I wondered what I would say to her if we didn’t.
Eventually, we did oppose the deal. Making that recommendation was by far the hardest decision I made last year, and maybe one of the hardest in my life. When I read: What? Do I fear myself? There’s none else by. Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I. Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am. Then fly. What, from myself? I cannot help but recall the indecision and inescapable guilt I felt that night as the committee took its vote. It was not because I thought our organization’s decision would make or break its passage. It was because I knew our organization had far less pressure in this situation than the lawmakers, and even with less pressure it was still so enormously difficult to see the ethical way forward. Yes, I did pray. I prayed the whole drive back, that night, and the next morning. I prayed before I talked to legislators who disagreed with our decision. I prayed before I talked to legislators who agreed with us. It did help me find peace. It did not give me certainty. Prayer was a source of strength, but not a real strategy for protecting people MaineCare. But nor was democracy necessarily.
It was democracy that elected the Governor that proposed the cut. It was democracy that elected the legislators that approved it, and it was democracy that governed every vote from the committee through the House and Senate. I do not wish we lived under a king, even a benevolent one. But I also think democracy by itself does take us all the way to where we need to go. How then do we get there? I think Reinhold Niebuhr has a clue. Niehbuhr, Reinhold. Man’s Nature and His Communities. Charles Scribner and Sons, New York: 1965. 125. He writes “the law of love is indeed the basis of all moral life… [It] can not be obeyed by a simple act of the will…, [and] the forces which draw the self from its undue self-concern are usually forces… which prompt the self to [think of] its social essence…”
I take that to mean our good behavior does not come from us pulling ourselves up by our moral boot straps. We can’t just will ourselves as individuals to obey the law of love. Our neighbors must push us to love our neighbor. They must be the forces that draw us from our individual selves to our social selves: in other words, from an individual negotiating with other individuals to an individual that recognizes that it is impossible to be well when others are not well. And the process of this realization is not an easy one in which a person, alone and of their own volition, realizes right and wrong. It is a process of force, where the claims of others push on us, grab our consciences, capture our imaginations, even haunt our dreams.
It is only when the ghosts of those he murdered visit his dreams that Richard’s conscience erupts. It is only when John the Baptist prophecies against Herod that Herod is bothered about marrying his brother’s wife. Conversely, it is when no one speaks up in Herod’s court that he guiltily musters the courage to have John killed. It is when MaineCare recipients are not in the back rooms that their health care is cut. Our conscience, in the end, is not our own. Our conscience lives when others claim it. Our neighbor’s conscience lives when we claim it. Neither God nor democracy will do the claiming for us. We must do that claiming for others; and our salvation depends on others doing it for us. After all, the doctrine of original sin—what some have called the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine—means that we have lost our moral boot straps. We cannot pull ourselves out of our nightmares alone. Our neighbor must wake us. We must wake our neighbor.
The secular term for this is community. In the labor movement, this term is solidarity. The religious term in the Christian faith is communion. True community, true communion, occurs when we realize we cannot live without one another. This is different than friendship, or just knowing one’s neighbors, or just trying to do the greatest good for the greatest number. It is not exactly religious, because you don’t need any kind of particular tradition of worship to grasp it. It is not exactly political, because it is impossible to write it in a law or hold an election about it. It is tested in the moments of deep ethical complexity, such as around the MaineCare cuts. But the acts it prompts are as simple as saying “no” to a cruelty the world has deemed necessary in its so-called realism. In fact, the defining moments of community or solidarity or communion come when we are tempted to trade the few for the many because, we are told, the world is as it is and it is the best deal possible. It is in those moments when we discover whether we truly have a community of love or a community of numbers; a community based on the actual, lived experience of love-claims we place on each other, or a community based on the idea of other people, where people are numbers on ledgers that can be added and subtracted from one another.
If all this seems abstract, Wendell Berry(Berry, Wendell. Citizenship Papers. Shoemaker and Hoard: Washington DC, 2003. 92-94.) gives a beautiful, practical example of the difference between a community of love and a community of numbers. He uses the parable of the ninety-nine sheep and the one to explain the different mentalities shepherds can have, depending on whether or not their relationship to their flock is defined by the community of love or the community of numbers. He describes the mind set of the shepherd to his flock of numbers as the “Rational Mind” that sees his flock this way: …it certainly would not be rational to leave the ninety and the nine…. Wouldn’t it be best to consider the lost sheep a “trade-off” for the safety of the ninety-nine?…. Would it not be good to do some experiments to determine how often sheep may be expected to get lost? If one sheep is likely to get lost every so often, then would it not be better to have perhaps 110 sheep? Or should one insure the flock against such expectable losses? The annual insurance premium would equal the market value of how many sheep? What is likely to be the cost of labor of looking for one lost sheep after quitting time? How much time spent looking would equal the market value of one lost sheep? Should not one think of splicing a few firefly genes into one’s sheep so that strayed sheep would glow in the dark? And so on. Then Wendell Berry describes what it is like for the Shepherd who does not see his community of sheep as numbers, but feels the claims of their love on his soul.
He calls this mindset the “Sympathetic Mind.” [The] shepherd…embodies the sympathetic mind…. He does not hang back to argue over risks, trade-offs, or market values. He does not quibble over fractions. He goes without hesitating to hunt for the lost sheep because he has committed himself to the care of the whole hundred, because he understands his work as the fulfillment of his whole trust, because he loves the sheep, and because he knows or imagines what it is to be lost….
Berry ends by contrasting the mindsets this way: The Rational mind can and will rationalize any trade-off. The Sympathetic Mind can rationalize none…. To the Rational Mind, [this] “[doesn’t] make sense” because [it] deals with hardship and risk merely by acknowledgment and acceptance. Their very point is to require a human being’s suffering to involve itself in the suffering of other creatures, including that of other human beings.
The Rational Mind conceives of itself as eminently practical, and is given to boasting about its competence in dealing with “reality.”…. For it will continue to be more reasonable, from the point of view of the Rational Mind, to trade off the lost sheep for the sake of the sheep you have left— until only one is left. All one hundred sheep claim the shepherd’s conscience. The loss of any one of those sheep is unacceptable, both for the sheep’s sake and the shepherd’s. Without that sheep’s claim on the shepherd, the shepherd cannot be a whole shepherd. It is no different with MaineCare. In the narrow logic of a budget negotiation, the loss of a person’s life because of MaineCare cuts can be rationalized as a “trade off.” But for those whose conscience is claimed by the whole of human communion, there can be no “trade off.” I cannot make the “trade off” because I can no longer be myself without my brother or sister who is being traded. Yes, this demands risk and sacrifice. It demands that those who might have been saved by the “trade off” risk their own well-being for the sake of those who would be sacrificed.
As a leader in this situation, there is no way to get consent—or even take a vote—from all the people whose lives would be risked by asking of them this sacrifice. This too is faith: that when called to a higher standard, when called to risk their own lives for their neighbors, people will rise to the call; and it is our moral obligation to lead, believing always we can draw out the best of people. That is why the answer to the murderous king is the King who was murdered. The answer to the suffering of our neighbors is the suffering of ourselves—and even the calling of our neighbors to suffer with us. Both conversion and voting are insufficient.
As the old poem points out, if we do not speak out when they first come for the communists, then the unions, and then the Jews, there will be no one to speak out when they come for us. It is only when we let the love-claims of others push our souls into true community that we will have an answer to the kings that murder, to the cruelties that all of us choose to inflict on each other in a a democracy because those cruelties can always be rationalized as necessary. The body of Christ, the experience of communion, truly is the salvation we give to each other. Amen.