Down And Out In Christania

Today, let us board the Ship of Imagination and take a journey to the Kingdom of Christania. A small nation in a far-off corner of the world, Christania is a perfectly Christian land: its inhabitants, including its leaders, are entirely believing, churchgoing Christians who, after an honest day’s labor (except on Sunday, of course), come home, sit by the fire, and read the Holy Bible with their families (with a little Tolkien, Chesterton, or Lewis thrown in there for fun every so often). The spirit of the Savior is strong in the hearts of the people of Christiania, and everything they do in every aspect of their lives, both public and private, from the King and Queen to the humblest plowman, flows from their faith.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any problems in Christania, however. As Jesus reminds us in Matthew 26:11, the poor will always be with us, and indeed the poor are there in Christania, as well. Being the sort of people they are, the Christanians have established in their country a response to poverty that they have striven to ensure is perfectly Christian and fulfills every obligation that their religion places upon them in dealing with the needs of the poor. Here we must be perfectly clear: the Christanians are a smart, sensible people who know the Bible better than they know their own names and who don’t suffer charlatans easily, and are quick to point out that when they say that their approach is based on their faith, they mean that it is based on Christian scripture, Christian custom, and Christian philosophy – what it is decidedly not based on is any desire to make those things conform to the postmodern theories of Marxists*, socialists, welfare-staters, liberals, social justice warriors, equality fetishists, sociology majors, utopian dreamers, or non-Christians (though they bear no hatred for people with other religious views, Christanians are notorious for their bluntness in making clear that they are not interested in the opinions of non-Christians on the subject of how Christians ought to conduct themselves in the practice of their faith).

In word and deed, the Christanian approach to poverty is 100% based in actual Christian teaching, and thus is unique in the world and worth a bit of study.

The first thing we must look at if we are to understand the Christanians’ approach to poverty is their definition of what exactly poverty is. For this, we turn to the works of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (whose works every Christanian schoolchild has read, in the original German, by the second year of middle school). On the subject of poverty, Kuehnelt-Leddihn wrote:

Whoever lives in real abundance has a Christian duty to assist those living in wretchedness. Before we proceed, however, let us affirm that the notion of misery is different from that of poverty. Péguy has already drawn the distinction between “pauvreté” and “misère”. To live in misery means to suffer genuine physical privation: to know cold and hunger, to have no proper dwelling, to be dressed in rags, to be unable to secure medical attention. The poor, by contrast, have the necessities of life, but scarcely any more. They can borrow books, no doubt, but cannot buy them; they can hear music on the radio, but cannot afford a ticket to a concert; they cannot indulge in little extras of food and drink, but should, by self-discipline, be able to save a little. The poor have, therefore, the normal material preconditions for happiness — unless plagued by acquisitiveness or even envy, which has become a political force in the same measure as people have lost their faith.

The Christanians (many of whom believe, as Chaucer did, that a state of humble pauvreté is what is most conducive to living a genuinely Christian life) take the view that they have every obligation to relieve the misère of their fellow man, but none to relieve their pauvreté. They never allow themselves to lose sight of the fact that the Corporal Acts of Mercy laid out by Christ’s teachings are: to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to care for the sick, to visit the imprisoned, and to bury the dead. Nowhere in any of this is there the slightest mention of things like free cell phones or college tuition, nor of subsidies to be an artist or to live in expensive parts of big urban centers. They are an industrious people who have built a developed nation out of nothing; they understand that the Christian rules of charity were developed for – and in – a time and place that any modern person would consider dirt poor; a time when even kings sweltered when it was hot, shivered when it was cold, and agonized when they had a toothache, and when “clothe the naked” had to be included in the list because society had a nontrivial problem with people who literally walked around naked because they couldn’t afford a scrap of cloth to cover their private parts. The way the Christanians see it, while there may be pauvreté in developed nations in the present day, there is very little genuine misère, and particularly there is virtually none that is not to some degree self-inflicted.

This brings us to the other thing that must be understood, which is how seriously the Christanians take II Thessalonians 3:10. In this passage, St. Paul writes: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him also not eat”. The Christanians draw a hard line between those who can not work – the aged widow, the young orphan, the sick and disabled, the mentally ill – and those who will not work. For the former, there is great sympathy and charity; for the latter, there is none. Those whose inability to work can be traced to their own poor decisions in life – drunkards, addicts, those who are morbidly obese or otherwise unhealthy by choice – are seen as something in between; it is understood that such people should be cared for, but that the care they are given must lead them toward repentance, reform, and renewal of their lives – physically, mentally, spiritually, and morally. Those who are not willing to take that journey will find themselves placed in the category of those who are not willing to work, and (as we shall see), their pleas for assistance will avail them little.

In short, the Christanians see themselves as having the obligation to provide basic survival necessities for those who, for some reason beyond their control, are incapable of working to earn them on their own, and no obligation to provide anything beyond that to anyone, most especially to idlers and layabouts.

That tells us all we need to know about their attitude toward poverty, but how does that manifest itself in practice? Let us turn to a detailed examination of the system that His Majesty the King of Christania and His Excellency the Bishop of Christania have put in place in order to deal with the problem of poverty in their land. While it may seem a bit spartan by the standards of a Western welfare state, it must be emphasized that great pains have been taken to ensure that it meets or exceeds every requirement and obligation placed upon it by scripture and by Christian tradition.

* * *

The poor of Christania find their way to Charity Centers (hereafter referred to as CC’s) through a few different paths. Some seek them out themselves, which is easily enough done at any outpost of the government, from police stations to post offices, all of which can arrange a referral for the needy person. Others are sent there after defaulting on debts (which is rather rare, as Christania has strict anti-usury laws) or for non-payment of bills (they are free to refuse to go, but if they do, they remain liable for the money they owe). Many end up there after being picked up by the police for vagrancy or panhandling. No matter how they may have ended up into the system, after a day or two in a temporary shelter, they are put on a bus headed out into the countryside, where all CC’s are located.

It is worth remarking before we proceed any further that the name “Charity Center” was very carefully chosen. It is meant to emphasize to those who go there that what they are experiencing is, in fact, charity – provided to them by His Majesty and His Excellency, who jointly administer the CC system, and ultimately by the taxpayers and parishioners of the kingdom, whose taxes and contributions at the collection plate are what are paying for the CC’s to exist. It is not an entitlement which they may demand (the Christanians are notoriously impatient with those who are possessed of the delusion that the universe owes them anything at all); it is a gift which they are expected to receive with humility. The point of this is twofold: to keep those receiving this charity realistic about their situation (and therefore eager to get out of it), as well as to prevent them from coming to resent those who have come to their aid via the mistaken belief that the list of things they are entitled to can and should be expanded indefinitely and that those in positions of power who do not provide them with every last thing on that list are somehow doing them wrong. The Christanians strongly believe that to do otherwise would be to undermine social harmony and to give the poor illusions which, in their situation, they cannot really afford to indulge.

As for the CC’s themselves, they are scattered around rural areas, as far from any towns as they can be reasonably be situated. One can recognize them from a distance; the multiple clusters of whitewashed dormitories standing in the midst of farm fields are unmistakable (some of these dormitories were, in fact, once army barracks, but it hardly matters which, as even the ones that weren’t have been constructed to the same plan). Most CC’s are surrounded by fences, but these are almost invariably low post-and-wire affairs designed to keep animals on the right side of them; CC’s are neither prisons nor are they slave plantations, and it is emphasized to those entering them that nobody there is either a prisoner or slave. The dormitories (with some exceptions, such as those designed for the disabled or elderly, or those with children) are filled with basic, but perfectly comfortable double bunk beds, with a locker for each inhabitant located next to them. Toilets and showers are communal, though separated into stalls for the sake of Christian modesty, and located at the end of each dormitory building. Heat is provided by wood stoves, and cooling by ceiling fans (as Christania has a temperate climate similar to Ireland or the Pacific Northwest, these are felt to be perfectly sufficient). In addition to the dormitories, each cluster typically includes a mess hall, an administration building with staff quarters, a chapel, an infirmary, and an equipment shed. Clusters dedicated to female residents (male and female dormitories are, of course, kept strictly separate; male children under twelve may stay with their mothers, while older ones are assigned to a male dormitory) will also normally have a child care center in their midst.

On the rare occasion that a foreigner (no Christanian would ever say any such thing themselves) remarks that these arrangements suffer from a lack of amenities, they may count on being told that not only do they meet Biblical standards, but are at least as comfortable – if not more so – than those in which recruits in Christania’s army live. And if the conditions on offer are good enough for the realm’s honored defenders, then they should be good enough for anyone.

An incoming resident can, on their first day, count on a thorough medical examination provided by the medical staff at the CC. Here, multiple findings are made regarding their health. One, of course, is overall condition. If serious problems are found, they may be sent to a hospital for treatment, and if it turns out that they require medication, a prescription will be issued and an order placed for it. The signs of drug or alcohol addiction are checked for, and if found, a treatment regimen is arranged for them. Though virtually everyone who arrives at a CC does so with some share of emotional issues, the seriously mentally ill are also identified, and sent on to facilities where the staff is trained to provide them with the care they need. Finally, disability status is checked for; the doctors at CC’s keep their own counsel about who is and is not genuinely disabled (and just how disabled they actually may be), and are very, very good at telling the difference between them and work-shy bellyachers who simply don’t want to get their hands dirty. Those who are afflicted with a self-induced medical condition that makes them unable to do any useful work (i.e. the morbidly obese or the weak and underweight “basement-dweller” type) are sent to fitness training, which is a much gentler iteration of that given in basic training to army recruits who need a bit more work to come up to standards.

New residents then attend an orientation, following which they are offered a sturdy, comfortable set of work clothes to replace whatever they showed up wearing (which is, understandably, often in terrible shape and reeks horribly). Though wearing these around the CC is not technically mandatory (residents may work in other clothes so long as they are practical for the task at hand), it is highly recommended and most people do end up in them (after, perhaps, a few days’ worth of resistance). They are then assigned to a work crew, given dinner, and shown to their bunks to rest up for the next day.

The understanding at a CC is that everyone must work to the best of their ability to do so. The able-bodied mostly work in the fields surrounding the clusters, in which the food that the residents eat is grown. (After harvest season is over, they keep busy chopping wood for heating, shoveling snow, rebuilding tools for the next planting season, and performing other such tasks as are common on any farm during the wintertime). Those in wheelchairs or with other mobility issues are mostly given office work in the administration building; the elderly are usually assigned to the child care centers; the blind do tasks that do not require sight, which can include anything from answering telephones to husking corn. Only those whose disability is permanent and total – quadriplegics or those with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, for example – are exempted from work entirely.

Though some people from Western welfare states may consider the practice of requiring the able poor to work as a condition of receiving help as barbaric, Christanians (after they’ve finished quoting II Thessalonians 3:10, which they are wont to do) will respond that it was not long ago that this was the norm even in those welfare states – they will cite the examples of the WPA, CCC, TVA, and other such New Deal agencies, which not only required real manual labor of those who participated in them, but used that labor to build valuable infrastructure projects such as the Hoover Dam or the electrification of the rural south and west. Which liberal, they ask, is willing to cast Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a cruel exploiter of the impoverished? And if they are not willing to do so, then how can they criticize anyone else for doing no more than what FDR did?

It should be pointed out here that work in a CC, while moderately demanding, is hardly backbreaking drudgery. The pace of life, like that on any farm, is slow and steady. While some labor-saving devices are intentionally absent from CC’s in order to ensure that everybody there has enough to do, there are machines there (operated by trustees, about whom we will hear more later) to do all the truly heavy or dangerous tasks. The Christanians also understand that most of the poor who find their way to a CC are urbanites with no experience of farm life; it is expected that they will have to be shown the ropes over the first few weeks or months (and that this will teach them the skills they would need to perhaps settle down on a few acres of their own someday). The point is not to punish them with Gulag-style hard labor (Christanians will eagerly remind you that Gulags were a project of atheistic communism), but to give them the pride and purpose that comes of labor, to teach them skills that will help them to fend for themselves, and of course to emphasize that freeloading is good for neither the person who allows themselves to sink to it nor for the larger society around them.

If it should happen that a resident in a CC who has not been found to be unfit for labor simply refuses to work, then trustees (or, if necessary, a constable on staff) will bar them from entry into the mess hall until hunger changes their mind. “He who will not work, let them also not eat”.

It cannot be restated enough that CC’s are not prisons, and that the people in them are not being punished for anything. The Christanians are an industrious people, and any claim that the mere necessity to work in order to earn one’s bread is any kind of punishment will be met with the indignant question “Which queen gave birth to you?” – a Christanian colloquialism which amounts to an inquiry as to what basis one might have for the idea that an honest day’s labor is beneath them. Furthermore, those who find themselves in a CC are frequently reminded that they are free to leave whenever they wish; the next bus bringing people in can just as easily take them away. However, they are also reminded that in Christania, public begging on the part of anyone who has either walked away from a CC or been expelled from one for violating its rules is a criminal offense. The reasoning here is that if someone was offered help and then either explicitly refused it, or implicitly refused it by refusing to follow its rules, then begging on their part is a species of fraud, in the same vein as running a fraudulent charity. As for anyone who has left a CC and finds themselves in need again, it is assumed that one trip through the system was enough to teach them how to avail themselves of its services should they require them. The doors to a CC are always open, while the doors that lead to crime or to becoming a public nuisance are slammed tightly shut.

While almost all residents end up leaving a CC after a stay of a few months, there are a relative handful who find that the structure and stability provided there suits them, and who choose to stay indefinitely. (Typically, these are people with a history of addiction or an unstable family life on the outside.) While mildly discouraged, this is not forbidden, and those who have been there (and displayed good behavior) for a few years and who have no plans to leave typically find themselves appointed as trustees. In addition to being given more demanding tasks such as operating (and training others in the operation of) the CC’s complex tools and machinery, they take a position as a sort of community leader. They are expected to act as foremen of work squads, conduct orientations, provide counseling, help resolve disputes, handle minor rule violations by residents, and otherwise help keep life in the CC running smoothly. Small as it may be in the great scope of the world, it is still a position of esteem and responsibility, and those who were the lowest of the low on the outside often find a place and a purpose in it.

Now that we have a solid picture of overview of the structure and operation of a CC, let us examine the typical day-to-day life of those who find themselves in one.

Wakeup time for most residents comes at a half-hour before sunrise, rounded to the nearest ten-minute interval. After showering and dressing, residents go to the mess hall for breakfast (work in the mess hall itself is one of those jobs generally reserved for the able elderly or mildly disabled, but also involves an earlier wakeup). Then there is a short morning prayer (like all religious activities at a CC – of which there are many – it is strongly encouraged, but not strictly mandatory), after which the residents head out for their work assignments. For most of them, this means the farm fields. The labors of the day begin, at their typical slow-but-steady pace (only during planting and harvest season can it be said to have any real intensity to it). For safety reasons, as well as to discourage residents from retreating inside themselves instead of acting as part of a team, headphones are forbidden while working, but the foremen leading the work squads often bring a “boom box” style radio with them, and tune it to some music, a sports broadcast, or religious programming so that all can hear while they work. At midday, a truck arrives from the mess hall with lunch, which the squad eats together, picnic-style. Work then resumes, and continues until dinner or dusk (whichever comes first at that time of year). After dinner in the mess hall, residents may attend Bible study, or whatever therapy or rehabilitation sessions they may need, or avail themselves of one of the many job training courses offered at CC’s. For those who would rather relax in their off time, there are a few options available as well. While there is no television, internet service, or cellular service at a CC, residents are encouraged to read, or to play cards or other games, or may listen to their own radios using headphones while in the dormitories until lights out, which is at 9PM every night.

(As for children who end up in a CC with their parents, they are placed in child care if very young, then in a school located on the grounds of the CC until they have reached an age at which they can join the adults in their labors. This is typically much younger than one would see in a Western nation, but it reflects the Christanians’ rather skeptical attitude toward the view of formal schooling as a guarantor of prosperity and panacea for social ills that has been so common in the West for the past century or so.)

This is the pattern six days a week (excepting, of course, a few national holidays such as Christmas or His Majesty’s birthday). On Sundays, the Sabbath is observed, and there is no unnecessary work (a few, such as mess and medical staff, must of course do their jobs on Sundays, but they are compensated with other time off). In addition, married couples who find themselves in the CC (of course, each husband and wife will have been separately sent to the appropriate male or female end of the CC upon arrival), on Sundays are allowed to spend the day together (though conjugal visits are not permitted, as anyone in a CC is not in any position to bring another child into the world). After breakfast, church services are held, and are attended by virtually everyone. These tend to be very long and very traditional, as befits the temperament of the Christanians. Once that is done, a long and leisurely lunch is served. Alcohol is generally prohibited in CC’s, however after Sunday lunch, residents (except those with a history of alcoholism or other relevant health problems) may have two pints of lager (this must be consumed in the mess hall, in order to prevent hoarding or having it end up in the hands of problem drinkers). Following this, a social event is held – for example, a movie (approved by His Excellency the Bishop, of course) may be screened, or a sporting match may be held between teams of residents, or a talent show put on.

Though great care is taken to keep all of these events wholesome, there is one variety of them that is seen as unfortunate, but unavoidable. It happens more often than one might hope that two residents find themselves in an irreconcilable conflict, to the point where preventing them from violent altercations with each other proves impossible. Where this happens, every attempt is made to resolve the conflict peaceably, using methods from counseling to mediation to moving residents from one dormitory to another. Should all of this fail, however, male residents are allowed to challenge each other to a boxing match in order to settle things between them. (Once again, this is in line with Christanian culture; specifically their long history of dueling, which by tradition has thankfully been limited to nonlethal practices.) When this is the case, the utmost care is taken to ensure that it is a fair fight. First, both men must be cleared to fight by the medical staff. Second, it must be mutually consented-to; both parties are interviewed separately by staff to make sure they want to go through with it, and if either says no, then some medical excuse will be concocted in order to cancel the fight without loss of face. But if both are able and willing, then they are permitted to face each other in the ring, with a referee (another trustee duty) and a doctor present, under Christanian Boxing Association rules of conduct. This too, will be scheduled for Sunday evening, and though (of course) His Majesty and His Excellency would prefer that such confrontations never come to pass, they are frequent enough that the large audiences of residents that are attracted by them rarely go very long between opportunities to see one.

With the sole exception of this outlet for male aggression, physical violence of any kind is strictly forbidden at a CC. Furthermore, any crime of any sort committed by a resident will be referred to a constable, who will arrest them and make sure they are remanded for trial by the proper authorities. Other than that, the rules at a CC are straightforward: no illicit intoxicants or sexual activity (The Christanians are upright people, but hardly naive about what can happen when people – especially men – are brought together in close quarters without access to the opposite sex. They are also of a decidedly non-modern mindset when it comes to the subject of sodomy.), no intimidation or hazing, no general troublemaking, and no loafing. Trustees may come up with methods to deal with minor violations of these rules, but severe or repeated cases will result in expulsion, which is the only real punishment on offer at a CC.

While the residents work in the fields, the staff (including residents restricted to office duty) will be busy finding work and housing for them so that they can leave and become independent again. Every effort is made to place residents with, or close to, friends and family, and often the staff manages to connect with those on the outside who are close to a resident in order to find a placement for them. For those without addiction or mental health problems, and who found themselves destitute only through unfortunate circumstance, stays are typically short in duration. Though the recidivism rate at CC’s is higher than anyone would like to see (the ideal rate, of course, being zero), it is low enough to convince the Christanians that their system is the most effective at actually lifting people out of poverty of any nation on Earth.

Thus does the pious, prosperous, peaceful, and orderly Kingdom of Christania face the problem of need within its borders. And while the Christanians would never presume to impose their system on any other people (nor ever will they suffer a foreign system being imposed on them), they are not shy about recommending its virtues to anyone who may inquire about it. Perhaps here in the welfare states of the West, we consider our system to be such a success that no other should be considered, and yet – and here I beg the pardon of the many generations of credentialed experts with degrees from the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton who designed our own antipoverty programs from atop their ivory towers, secure in the knowledge that their understanding of economics and human nature far exceeded that of not only the benighted ancients, but of the very living God Himself – I cannot help but wonder whether those backward, old-fashioned Christanians might be on to something after all.

(*In fairness, it should be pointed out that even the smarter variety of Marxists from days past understood how disastrous it would be to design a system that permitted perfectly healthy people to become parasites, endlessly drawing on a system that they did not contribute to. Stalin was one of them. Article 12 of the Soviet Constitution of 1936 reads: “In the U.S.S.R. work is a duty and a matter of honour for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’. The principle applied in the U.S.S.R. is that of socialism : ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his work’.” It should go without saying that this level of realism is essentially unknown among the modern left.)

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Good Friday

From The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, Chapter Two:

 

“In a white cloak with blood-red lining, with the shuffling gait of a cavalryman, early in the morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan, there came out to the covered colonnade between the two wings of the palace of Herod the Great the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate. 

More than anything in the world the procurator hated the smell of rose oil, and now everything foreboded a bad day, because this smell had been pursuing the procurator since dawn.

It seemed to the procurator that a rosy smell exuded from the cypresses and palms in the garden, that the smell of leather trappings and sweat from the convoy was mingled with the cursed rosy flux.

From the outbuildings at the back of the palace, where the first cohort of the Twelfth Lightning legion, which had come to Yershalaim with the procurator, was quartered, a whiff of smoke reached the colonnade across the upper terrace of the palace, and this slightly acrid smoke, which testified that the centuries’ mess cooks had begun to prepare dinner, was mingled with the same thick rosy scent.

‘Oh, gods, gods, why do you punish me? … Yes, no doubt, this is it, this is it again, the invincible, terrible illness… hemicrania, when half of the head aches … there’s no remedy for it, no escape … I’ll try not to move my head…’

On the mosaic floor by the fountain a chair was already prepared, and the procurator, without looking at anyone, sat in it and reached his hand out to one side. His secretary deferentially placed a sheet of parchment in this hand. Unable to suppress a painful grimace, the procurator ran a cursory, sidelong glance over the writing, returned the parchment to thesecretary, and said with difficulty:

‘The accused is from Galilee? Was the case sent to the tetrarch?’

‘Yes, Procurator,’ replied the secretary.

‘And what then?’

‘He refused to make a decision on the case and sent the Sanhedrin’s death sentence to you for confirmation,’ the secretary explained.

The procurator twitched his cheek and said quietly:

‘Bring in the accused.’

And at once two legionaries brought a man of about twenty-seven fromthe garden terrace to the balcony under the columns and stood him beforethe procurator’s chair. The man was dressed in an old and torn light-blue chiton. His head was covered by a white cloth with a leather band around the forehead, and his hands were bound behind his back. Under the man’s left eye there was a large bruise, in the corner of his mouth a cut caked with blood.

The man gazed at the procurator with anxious curiosity.

The latter paused, then asked quietly in Aramaic:

‘So it was you who incited the people to destroy the temple of Yershalaim?’

The procurator sat as if made of stone while he spoke, and only his lips moved slightly as he pronounced the words. The procurator was as if made of stone because he was afraid to move his head, aflame with infernal pain.

The man with bound hands leaned forward somewhat and began to speak:

‘Good man! Believe me …’

But the procurator, motionless as before and not raising his voice in the least, straight away interrupted him:

‘Is it me that you are calling a good man? You are mistaken. It is whispered about me in Yershalaim that I am a fierce monster, and that is perfectly correct.’ And he added in the same monotone: ‘Bring the centurion Ratslayer.’

It seemed to everyone that it became darker on the balcony when the centurion of the first century, Mark, nicknamed Ratslayer, presented himself before the procurator. Ratslayer was a head taller than the tallest soldier of the legion and so broad in the shoulders that he completely blocked out the still-low sun.

The procurator addressed the centurion in Latin:

‘The criminal calls me “good man”. Take him outside for a moment, explain to him how I ought to be spoken to. But no maiming.’

And everyone except the motionless procurator followed Mark Ratslayer with their eyes as he motioned to the arrested man, indicating that he should go with him. Everyone generally followed Ratslayer with their eyes wherever he appeared, because of his height, and those who were seeing him for the first time also because the centurion’s face was disfigured: his nose had once been smashed by a blow from a Germanic club.

Mark’s heavy boots thudded across the mosaic, the bound man noiselessly went out with him, complete silence fell in the colonnade, and one could hear pigeons cooing on the garden terrace near the balcony and water singing an intricate, pleasant song in the fountain.

The procurator would have liked to get up, put his temple under the spout, and stay standing that way. But he knew that even that would not help him.

Having brought the arrested man from under the columns out to the garden, Ratslayer took a whip from the hands of a legionary who was standing at the foot of a bronze statue and, swinging easily, struck the arrested man across the shoulders. The centurion’s movement was casual and light, yet the bound man instantly collapsed on the ground as if his legs had been cut from under him; he gasped for air, the colour drained from his face, and his eyes went vacant.

With his left hand only Mark heaved the fallen man into the air like an empty sack, set him on his feet, and spoke nasally, in poorly pronounced Aramaic:

‘The Roman procurator is called Hegemon. Use no other words. Stand at attention. Do you understand me, or do I hit you?’

The arrested man swayed, but got hold of himself, his colour returned, he caught his breath and answered hoarsely:

I understand. Don’t beat me.’

A moment later he was again standing before the procurator.

A lusterless, sick voice sounded:

‘Name?’

‘Mine?’ the arrested man hastily responded, his whole being expressing a readiness to answer sensibly, without provoking further wrath.

The procurator said softly:

‘I know my own. Don’t pretend to be stupider than you are. Yours.’

‘Yeshua,’ the prisoner replied promptly.

‘Any surname?’

‘Ha-Nozri.’

‘Where do you come from?’

‘The town of Gamala,’ replied the prisoner, indicating with his head that there, somewhere far off to his right, in the north, was the town of Gamala.

‘Who are you by blood?’

‘I don’t know exactly,’ the arrested man replied animatedly, ‘I don’t remember my parents. I was told that my father was a Syrian…’

‘Where is your permanent residence?’

‘I have no permanent home,’ the prisoner answered shyly, ‘I travel from town to town.’

‘That can be put more briefly, in a word – a vagrant,’ the procurator said, and asked:

‘Any family?’

‘None. I’m alone in the world.’

‘Can you read and write?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you know any language besides Aramaic?’

‘Yes. Greek.’

A swollen eyelid rose, an eye clouded with suffering fixed the arrested man. The other eye remained shut.

Pilate spoke in Greek.

‘So it was you who was going to destroy the temple building and called on the people to do that?’

Here the prisoner again became animated, his eyes ceased to show fear, and he spoke in Greek:

‘Never, goo…’ Here terror flashed in the prisoner’s eyes, because he had nearly made a slip. ‘Never, Hegemon, never in my life was I going to destroy the temple building, nor did I incite anyone to this senseless act.’

Surprise showed on the face of the secretary, hunched over a low table and writing down the testimony. He raised his head, but immediately bent it to the parchment again.

‘All sorts of people gather in this town for the feast. Among them there are magicians, astrologers, diviners and murderers,’ the procurator spoke in monotone, ‘and occasionally also liars. You, for instance, are a liar. It is written clearly: “Incited to destroy the temple”. People have testified to it.’

‘These good people,’ the prisoner spoke and, hastily adding ‘Hegemon’, went on: ‘…haven’t any learning and have confused everything I told them. Generally, I’m beginning to be afraid that this confusion may go on for a very long time. And all because he writes down the things I say incorrectly.’

Silence fell. By now both sick eyes rested heavily on the prisoner.

‘I repeat to you, but for the last time, stop pretending that you’re a madman, robber,’ Pilate said softly and monotonously, ‘there’s not much written in your record, but what there is enough to hang you.’

‘No, no, Hegemon,’ the arrested man said, straining all over in his wish to convince, ‘there’s one with a goatskin parchment who follows me, follows me and keeps writing all the time. But once I peeked into this parchment and was horrified. I said decidedly nothing of what’s written there. I implored him: “Burn your parchment, I beg you!” But he tore it out of my hands and ran away.’

‘Who is that?’ Pilate asked squeamishly and touched his temple with his hand.

‘Matthew Levi,’ the prisoner explained willingly. ‘He used to be a tax collector, and I first met him on the road in Bethphage,’ where a fig grove juts out at an angle, and I got to talking with him. He treated me hostilely at first and even insulted me – that is, thought he insulted me – by calling me a dog.’ Here the prisoner smiled. ‘I personally see nothing bad about this animal, that I should be offended by this word…’

The secretary stopped writing and stealthily cast a surprised glance, not at the arrested man, but at the procurator.

‘… However, after listening to me, he began to soften,’ Yeshua went on, ‘finally threw the money down in the road and said he would go journeying with me…’

Pilate grinned with one cheek, baring yellow teeth, and said, turning his whole body towards the secretary:

‘Oh, city of Yershalaim! What does one not hear in it! A tax collector, do you hear, threw money down in the road!’

Not knowing how to reply to that, the secretary found it necessary to repeat Pilate’s smile.

‘He said that henceforth money had become hateful to him,’ Yeshua explained Matthew Levi’s strange action and added: ‘And since then he has been my companion.’

His teeth still bared, the procurator glanced at the arrested man, then at the sun, steadily rising over the equestrian statues of the hippodrome, which lay far below to the right, and suddenly, in some sickening anguish, thought that the simplest thing would be to drive this strange robber off the balcony by uttering just two words: ‘Hang him.’ To drive the convoy away as well, to leave the colonnade, go into the palace, order the room darkened, collapse on the bed, send for cold water, call in a plaintive voice for his dog Banga, and complain to him about the hemicrania. And the thought of poison suddenly flashed temptingly in the procurator’s sick head.

He gazed with dull eyes at the arrested man and was silent for a time, painfully trying to remember why there stood before him in the pitiless morning sunlight of Yershalaim this prisoner with his face disfigured by beating, and what other utterly unnecessary questions he had to ask him.

‘Matthew Levi?’ the sick man asked in a hoarse voice and closed his eyes.

‘Yes, Matthew Levi,’ the high, tormenting voice came to him.

‘And what was it in any case that you said about the temple to the crowd in the bazaar?’

The responding voice seemed to stab at Pilate’s temple, was inexpressibly painful, and this voice was saying:

‘I said, Hegemon, that the temple of the old faith would fall and a new temple of truth would be built. I said it that way so as to make it more understandable.’

‘And why did you stir up the people in the bazaar, you vagrant, talking about the truth, of which you have no notion? What is truth?’

And here the procurator thought: ‘Oh, my gods! I’m asking him about something unnecessary at a trial… my reason no longer serves me…’ And again he pictured a cup of dark liquid. ‘Poison, bring me poison…’

And again he heard the voice:

‘The truth is, first of all, that your head aches, and aches so badly that you’re having faint-hearted thoughts of death. You’re not only unable to speak to me, but it is even hard for you to look at me. And I am now your unwilling torturer, which upsets me. You can’t even think about anything and only dream that your dog should come, apparently the one being you are attached to. But your suffering will soon be over, your headache will go away.’

The secretary goggled his eyes at the prisoner and stopped writing in mid-word.

Pilate raised his tormented eyes to the prisoner and saw that the sun already stood quite high over the hippodrome, that a ray had penetrated the colonnade and was stealing towards Yeshua’s worn sandals, and that the man was trying to step out of the sun’s way.

Here the procurator rose from his chair, clutched his head with his hands, and his yellowish, shaven face expressed dread. But he instantly suppressed it with his will and lowered himself into his chair again.

The prisoner meanwhile continued his speech, but the secretary was no longer writing it down, and only stretched his neck like a goose, trying not to let drop a single word.

‘Well, there, it’s all over,’ the arrested man said, glancing benevolently at Pilate, ‘and I’m extremely glad of it. I’d advise you, Hegemon, to leave the palace for a while and go for a stroll somewhere in the vicinity – say, in the gardens on the Mount of Olives. A storm will come…’ the prisoner turned, narrowing his eyes at the sun, ‘…later on, towards evening. A stroll would do you much good, and I would be glad to accompany you. Certain new thoughts have occurred to me, which I think you might find interesting, and I’d willingly share them with you, the more so as you give the impression of being a very intelligent man.’

The secretary turned deathly pale and dropped the scroll on the floor.

‘The trouble is,’ the bound man went on, not stopped by anyone, ‘that you are too closed off and have definitively lost faith in people. You must agree, one can’t place all one’s affection in a dog. Your life is impoverished, Hegemon.’ And here the speaker allowed himself to smile.

The secretary now thought of only one thing, whether to believe his ears or not. He had to believe. Then he tried to imagine precisely what whimsical form the wrath of the hot-tempered procurator would take at this unheard-of impudence from the prisoner. And this the secretary was unable to imagine, though he knew the procurator well.

Then came the cracked, hoarse voice of the procurator, who said in Latin:

‘Unbind his hands.’

One of the convoy legionaries rapped with his spear, handed it to another, went over and took the ropes off the prisoner. The secretary picked up his scroll, having decided to record nothing for now, and to be surprised at nothing.

‘Admit,’ Pilate asked softly in Greek, ‘that you are a great physician?’

‘No, Procurator, I am not a physician,’ the prisoner replied, delightedly rubbing a crimped and swollen purple wrist.

Scowling deeply, Pilate bored the prisoner with his eyes, and these eyes were no longer dull, but flashed with sparks familiar to all.

‘I didn’t ask you,’ Pilate said, ‘maybe you also know Latin?’

‘Yes, I do,’ the prisoner replied.

Colour came to Pilate’s yellowish cheeks, and he asked in Latin:

‘How did you know I wanted to call my dog?’

‘It’s very simple,’ the prisoner replied in Latin. ‘You were moving your hand in the air’ – and the prisoner repeated Pilate’s gesture – ‘as if you wanted to stroke something, and your lips…’

‘Yes,’ said Pilate.

There was silence. Then Pilate asked a question in Greek:

‘And so, you are a physician?’

‘No, no,’ the prisoner replied animatedly, ‘believe me, I’m not a physician.’

‘Very well, then, if you want to keep it a secret, do so. It has no direct bearing on the case. So you maintain that you did not incite anyone to destroy … or set fire to, or in any other way demolish the temple?’

‘I repeat, I did not incite anyone to such acts, Hegemon. Do I look like a halfwit?’

‘Oh, no, you don’t look like a halfwit,’ the procurator replied quietly and smiled some strange smile. ‘Swear, then, that it wasn’t so.’

‘By what do you want me to swear?’ the unbound man asked, very animated.

‘Well, let’s say, by your life,’ the procurator replied. ‘It’s high time you swore by it, since it’s hanging by a hair, I can tell you.’

‘You don’t think it was you who hung it, Hegemon?’ the prisoner asked.

‘If so, you are very mistaken.’

Pilate gave a start and replied through his teeth:

‘I can cut that hair.’

‘In that, too, you are mistaken,’ the prisoner retorted, smiling brightly and shielding himself from the sun with his hand. ‘You must agree that surely only he who hung it can cut the hair?’

‘So, so,’ Pilate said, smiling, ‘now I have no doubts that the idle loafers of Yershalaim followed at your heels. I don’t know who hung such a tongue on you, but he hung it well. Incidentally, tell me, is it true that you entered Yershalaim by the Susa gate riding on an ass, accompanied by a crowd of riff-raff who shouted greetings to you as some kind of prophet?’ Here the procurator pointed to the parchment scroll.

The prisoner glanced at the procurator in perplexity.

‘I don’t even have an ass, Hegemon,’ he said. ‘I did enter Yershalaim by the Susa gate, but on foot, accompanied only by Matthew Levi, and no one shouted anything to me, because no one in Yershalaim knew me then.’

‘Do you happen to know,’ Pilate continued without taking his eyes off the prisoner, ‘such men as a certain Dysmas, another named Gestas, and a third named Bar-Rabban?’

‘I do not know these good people,’ the prisoner replied.

‘Truly?’

‘Truly.’

‘And now tell me, why is it that you use me words “good people” all the time? Do you call everyone that, or what?’

‘Everyone,’ the prisoner replied. There are no evil people in the world.’

‘The first I hear of it,’ Pilate said, grinning. ‘But perhaps I know too little of life! …

You needn’t record any more,’ he addressed the secretary, who had not recorded anything anyway, and went on talking with the prisoner. ‘You read that in some Greek book?’

‘No, I figured it out for myself.’

‘And you preach it?’

‘Yes.’

‘But take, for instance, the centurion Mark, the one known as Ratslayer – is he good?’

‘Yes,’ replied the prisoner. ‘True, he’s an unhappy man. Since the good people disfigured him, he has become cruel and hard. I’d be curious to know who maimed him.’

‘I can willingly tell you that,’ Pilate responded, ‘for I was a witness to it. The good people fell on him like dogs on a bear. There were Germans fastened on his neck, his arms, his legs. The infantry maniple was encircled, and if one flank hadn’t been cut by a cavalry turmae, of which I was the commander – you, philosopher, would not have had the chance to speak with the Rat-slayer. That was at the battle of Idistaviso, in the Valley of the Virgins.’

‘If I could speak with him,’ the prisoner suddenly said musingly, ‘I’m sure he’d change sharply.’

‘I don’t suppose,’ Pilate responded, ‘that you’d bring much joy to the legate of the legion if you decided to talk with any of his officers or soldiers. Anyhow, it’s also not going to happen, fortunately for everyone, and I will be the first to see to it.’

At that moment a swallow swiftly flitted into the colonnade, described a circle under the golden ceiling, swooped down, almost brushed the face of a bronze statue in a niche with its pointed wing, and disappeared behind the capital of a column. It may be that it thought of nesting there.

During its flight, a formula took shape in the now light and lucid head of the procurator. It went like this: the hegemon has looked into the case of the vagrant philosopher Yeshua, alias Ha-Nozri, and found in it no grounds for indictment. In particular, he has found not the slightest connection between the acts of Yeshua and the disorders that have lately taken place in Yershalaim. The vagrant philosopher has proved to be mentally ill. Consequently, the procurator has not confirmed the death sentence on Ha-Nozri passed by the Lesser Sanhedrin. But seeing that Ha-Nozri’s mad utopian talk might cause disturbances in Yershalaim, the procurator is removing Yeshua from Yershalaim and putting him under confinement in Stratonian Caesarea on the Mediterranean – that is, precisely where the procurator’s residence was.

It remained to dictate it to the secretary.

The swallow’s wings whiffled right over the hegemon’s head, the bird darted to the fountain basin and then flew out into freedom. The procurator raised his eyes to the prisoner and saw the dust blaze up in a pillar around him.

‘Is that all about him?’ Pilate asked the secretary.

‘Unfortunately not,’ the secretary replied unexpectedly and handed Pilate another piece of parchment.

‘What’s this now?’ Pilate asked and frowned.

Having read what had been handed to him, he changed countenance even more: Either the dark blood rose to his neck and face, or something else happened, only his skin lost its yellow tinge, turned brown, and his eyes seemed to sink.

Again it was probably owing to the blood rising to his temples and throbbing in them, only something happened to the procurator’s vision.

Thus, he imagined that the prisoner’s head floated off somewhere, and another appeared in its place. On this bald head sat a scant-pointed golden diadem. On the forehead was a round canker, eating into the skin and smeared with ointment. A sunken, toothless mouth with a pendulous, capricious lower lip. It seemed to Pilate that the pink columns of the balcony and the rooftops of Yershalaim far below, beyond the garden, vanished, and everything was drowned in the thickest green of Caprean gardens. And something strange also happened to his hearing: it was as if trumpets sounded far away, muted and menacing, and a nasal voice was very clearly heard, arrogantly drawling: ‘The law of lese-majesty…’

Thoughts raced, short, incoherent and extraordinary: ‘I’m lost! …’ then: ‘We’re lost! …’ And among them a totally absurd one, about some immortality, which immortality for some reason provoked unendurable anguish.

Pilate strained, drove the apparition away, his gaze returned to the balcony, and again the prisoner’s eyes were before him.

‘Listen, Ha-Nozri,’ the procurator spoke, looking at Yeshua somehow strangely: the procurator’s face was menacing, but his eyes were alarmed, ’did you ever say anything about the great Caesar? Answer! Did you?… Yes … or … no?’ Pilate drew the word ‘no’ out somewhat longer than is done in court, and his glance sent Yeshua some thought that he wished as if to instill in the prisoner.

‘To speak the truth is easy and pleasant,’ the prisoner observed.

‘I have no need to know,’ Pilate responded in a stifled, angry voice, ‘whether it is pleasant or unpleasant for you to speak the truth. You will have to speak it anyway. But, as you speak, weigh every word, unless you want a not only inevitable but also painful death.’

No one knew what had happened with the procurator of Judea, but he allowed himself to raise his hand as if to protect himself from a ray of sunlight, and from behind his hand, as from behind a shield, to send the prisoner some sort of prompting look.

‘Answer, then,’ he went on speaking, ‘do you know a certain Judas from Kiriath, and what precisely did you say to him about Caesar, if you said anything?’

‘It was like this,’ the prisoner began talking eagerly. The evening before last, near the temple, I made the acquaintance of a young man who called himself Judas, from the town of Kiriath. He invited me to his place in the Lower City and treated me to…’

‘A good man?’ Pilate asked, and a devilish fire flashed in his eyes.

‘A very good man and an inquisitive one,’ the prisoner confirmed. ‘He showed the greatest interest in my thoughts and received me very cordially…’

‘Lit the lamps…’ Pilate spoke through his teeth, in the same tone as the prisoner, and his eyes glinted.

‘Yes,’ Yeshua went on, slightly surprised that the procurator was so well informed, ‘and asked me to give my view of state authority. He was extremely interested in this question.’

‘And what did you say?’ asked Pilate. ‘Or are you going to reply that you’ve forgotten what you said?’ But there was already hopelessness in Pilate’s tone.

‘Among other things,’ the prisoner recounted, ‘I said that all authority is violence over people, and that a time will come when there will be no authority of the Caesars, nor any other authority. Man will pass into the kingdom of truth and justice, where generally there will be no need for any authority.’

‘Go on!’

‘I didn’t go on,’ said the prisoner. ‘Here men ran in, bound me, and took me away to prison.’

The secretary, trying not to let drop a single word, rapidly traced the words on his parchment.

‘There never has been, is not, and never will be any authority in this world greater or better for people than the authority of the emperor Tiberius!’ Pilate’s cracked and sick voice swelled. For some reason the procurator looked at the secretary and the convoy with hatred.

‘And it is not for you, insane criminal, to reason about it!’ Here Pilate shouted: ‘Convoy, off the balcony!’ And turning to the secretary, he added: ‘Leave me alone with the criminal, this is a state matter!’

The convoy raised their spears and with a measured tramp of hobnailed caligae walked off the balcony into the garden, and the secretary followed the convoy.

For some time the silence on the balcony was broken only by the water singing in the fountain. Pilate saw how the watery dish blew up over the spout, how its edges broke off, how it fell down in streams.

The prisoner was the first to speak.

‘I see that some misfortune has come about because I talked with that young man from Kiriath. I have a foreboding, Hegemon, that he will come to grief, and I am very sorry for him.’

‘I think,’ the procurator replied, grinning strangely, ‘that there is now someone else in the world for whom you ought to feel sorrier than’ for Judas of Kiriath, and who is going to have it much worse than Judas! …

So, then, Mark Rat-slayer, a cold and convinced torturer, the people who, as I see,’ the procurator pointed to Yeshua’s disfigured face, ‘beat you for your preaching, the robbers Dysmas and Gestas, who with their confreres killed four soldiers, and, finally, the dirty traitor Judas – are all good people?’

‘Yes,’ said the prisoner.

‘And the kingdom of truth will come?’

‘It will, Hegemon,’ Yeshua answered with conviction.

‘It will never come!’ Pilate suddenly cried out in such a terrible voice that Yeshua drew back. Thus, many years before, in the Valley of the Virgins, Pilate had cried to his horsemen the words: ‘Cut them down! Cut them down! The giant Rat-slayer is trapped!’ He raised his voice, cracked with commanding, still more, and called out so that his words could be heard in the garden: ‘Criminal! Criminal! Criminal!’ And then, lowering his voice, he asked: ‘Yeshua Ha-Nozri, do you believe in any gods?’

‘God is one,’ replied Yeshua, ‘I believe in him.’

‘Then pray to him! Pray hard! However…’ here Pilate’s voice gave out, ‘that won’t help. No wife?’ Pilate asked with anguish for some reason, not understanding what was happening to him.

‘No, I’m alone.’

‘Hateful city…’ the procurator suddenly muttered for some reason, shaking his shoulders as if he were cold, and rubbing his hands as though washing them, ‘if they’d put a knife in you before your meeting with Judas of Kiriath, it really would have been better.’

‘Why don’t you let me go, Hegemon?’ the prisoner asked unexpectedly, and his voice became anxious. ‘I see they want to kill me.’

A spasm contorted Pilate’s face, he turned to Yeshua the inflamed, red veined whites of his eyes and said:

‘Do you suppose, wretch, that the Roman procurator will let a man go who has said what you have said? Oh, gods, gods! Or do you think I’m ready to take your place? I don’t share your thoughts! And listen to me: if from this moment on you say even one word, if you speak to anyone at all, beware of me! I repeat to you – beware!’

‘Hegemon…’

‘Silence!’ cried Pilate, and his furious gaze followed the swallow thathad again fluttered on to the balcony. ‘To me!’ Pilate shouted.

And when the secretary and the convoy returned to their places, Pilate announced that he confirmed the death sentence passed at the meeting of the Lesser Sanhedrin on the criminal Yeshua Ha-Nozri, and the secretary wrote down what Pilate said….

 

….Pilate drew into his breast as much of the hot air as he could and shouted, and his cracked voice carried over thousands of heads: ‘In the name of the emperor Caesar! …’

Here his ears were struck several times by a clipped iron shout: the cohorts of soldiers raised high their spears and standards and shouted out terribly:

‘Long live Caesar!’

Pilate lifted his face and thrust it straight into the sun. Green fire flared up behind his eyelids, his brain took flame from it, and hoarse Aramaic words went flying over the crowd:

‘Four criminals, arrested in Yershalaim for murder, incitement to rebellion, and outrages against the laws and the faith, have been sentenced to a shameful execution – by hanging on posts! And this execution will presently be carried out on Bald Mountain! The names of the criminals are Dysmas, Gestas, Bar-Rabban and Ha-Nozri. Here they stand before you!’

Pilate pointed to his right, not seeing any criminals, but knowing they were there, in place, where they ought to be.

The crowd responded with a long rumble as if of surprise or relief.

When it died down, Pilate continued:

‘But only three of them will be executed, for, in accordance with law and custom, in honour of the feast of Passover, to one of the condemned, as chosen by the Lesser Sanhedrin and confirmed by Roman authority, the magnanimous emperor Caesar will return his contemptible life!’

Pilate cried out the words and at the same time listened as the rumble was replaced by a great silence. Not a sigh, not a rustle reached his ears now, and there was even a moment when it seemed to Pilate that everything around him had vanished altogether. The hated city died, and he alone is standing there, scorched by the sheer rays, his face set against the sky. Pilate held the silence a little longer, and then began to cry out:

‘The name of the one who will now be set free before you is…’ He made one more pause, holding back the name, making sure he had said all, because he knew that the dead city would resurrect once the name of the lucky man was spoken, and no further words would be heard. ‘All?’ Pilate whispered soundlessly to himself. ‘All. The name!’ And, rolling the letter ‘r’ over the silent city, he cried:

‘Bar-Rabban!’

Here it seemed to him that the sun, clanging, burst over him and flooded his ears with fire. This fire raged with roars, shrieks, wails, guffaws and whistles.

Pilate turned and walked back across the platform to the stairs, looking at nothing except the multicoloured squares of the flooring under his feet, so as not to trip. He knew that behind his back the platform was being showered with bronze coins, dates, that people in the howling mob were climbing on shoulders, crushing each other, to see the miracle with their own eyes – how a man already in the grip of death escaped that grip! How the legionaries take the ropes off him, involuntarily causing him burning pain in his arms, dislocated during his interrogation; how he, wincing and groaning, nevertheless smiles a senseless, crazed smile.

He knew that at the same time the convoy was already leading the three men with bound arms to the side stairs, so as to take them to the road going west from the city, towards Bald Mountain. Only when he was off the platform, to the rear of it, did Pilate open his eyes, knowing that he was now safe – he could no longer see the condemned men.”

 

The Chipotle Effect

“The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” – His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI

Prologue: Moscow, June 1990

Natasha had great legs.

And she probably still does, wherever she may be. But on that summer day in the last full year of the existence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Natasha, dressed in a businesslike white blouse and black skirt cut just above the knee and wearing a petite pair of black stiletto pumps, captivated the attention of the 16-year-old version of me. I was in the Soviet Union as an exchange student, with an itinerary involving several weeks of traveling around the western end of the USSR, an experience I have ever since regarded as the beginning of my life as an adult. Natasha was my governmentally-supplied guide and minder. She was 24, slender, pretty, with wavy chestnut-brown hair and round glasses. Influenced by American-made Cold War movies, I had expected my guide to be a dour middle-aged male KGB functionary in a trenchcoat and a trilby. Natasha had been a pleasant surprise indeed.

The small tour bus slowly chugged its way up the Sparrow Hills, and Natasha stood at the front of it, back to me, chatting casually with the driver. There were a few American exchange students in the bus, and some of their minders had come along as well. Moscow was where all of us came into the country, before splitting up and going on our separate itineraries. I would next go to Sochi, many years later the site of a Winter Olympics, where I would get drunk for the first time in my life, in a hotel bar with a group of young Afghanistan veterans reuniting as civilians for the first time since they’d come home from their service together in the war. Then I would travel to Donetsk, which as of this writing is the front line in a war that would in those days have been unimaginable. I would, in Kiev, walk through October Revolution Square, later renamed Independence Square, and future site of the Euromaidan protests that touched off that very war. And I would go to Leningrad, where, as the result of a hangover following my second youthful experience with drunkenness, I would, as Natasha looked on in horror, vomit my breakfast into the fountains of the Grand Cascade on the grounds of the Peterhof Palace.

The bus reached the top of the hills. Below, the grand expanse of Moscow stretched out into the distance, with Lenin Stadium, which had been the centerpiece of the 1980 Olympic Games, in the foreground. I fumbled for my camera (Natasha had instructed me that she’d tell me in advance if I wasn’t allowed to take pictures somewhere), but before I could get it out of its bag, we were past the summit and the shot was gone forever.

A minute or two later, we stopped at what appeared to be a nondescript, whitewashed house along a four-lane road. We ambled off the bus. The air smelled odd. Everything in the Soviet Union smelled odd. Pollution – exhaust fumes and factory smoke and un-picked-up garbage. A faint smell of burning plastic was always in the air. It had rained early in the morning – small pools of rainwater still sat peacefully in depressions in the uneven pavement – but even that didn’t help much.

This place was, Natasha explained, actually a church – the only church in Moscow that had stayed open and active through the entire history of the Soviet Union – through the revolutionary fervor, through the Stalinist terror, through World War II and the Cold War. And now, in the last full year of the USSR, there it was still. I wasn’t much of one for churches back then. In fact, I don’t know that I’d ever actually been inside a church in my entire life. My mother was and is a lukewarm semi-agnostic of half-Anglican, half-Jewish background, and my father an embittered fallen Catholic who at the time was a convinced atheist, and has since become a devotee of whatever New Age pablum happens to be in fashion with aging Baby Boomers at any particular moment. I was, at the time… nothing, really.

The day was turning pleasant. Some of the group decided to go inside the church, and some decided to skip it and stand under the shade trees that lined the wide boulevard to relax, and flirt, and enjoy the warmth of the day. Natasha went inside, as this was on the tour and it was her responsibility to show it to me. I followed.

The inside of the church could not have been a greater contrast from the outside. Whereas the exterior was nondescript and unornamented, the interior, though not large, was almost indescribably beautiful. Every inch of the walls was covered in art, as is so often true of Orthodox churches. A haze of incense hung in the air, and its smoke made visible shafts of the light streaming through the few, narrow windows which hung close to the high ceiling. Three or four old women, the faithful who had, at tremendous risk, stayed faithful all their lives, were carefully cleaning the mosaics, and the icons, and the dark wooden floor.

The rest of the group, as disinterested in high culture as any normal American teenagers, poked about the place for a bit, glanced quickly at a few of the artworks until they thought their obligation to do so had passed, and then, one or two at a time, quietly shuffled out the door and back into the warm summer air. Even Natasha left. Before long, only I and the faithful old ladies, who continued going silently about their work, remained.

I stood at the center of the small church, in solitude. Particles of dust glittered as they danced in the sunlight coming in through the windows. The incense smoke made the cool air sweet and heavy with its scent. There was a moment of unearthly quiet and stillness, of clarity, and I felt…

I felt God, there, with me in that place.

It was not a moment of faith. It was a moment of knowing. God’s presence there, in that church, at that instant, was as real and tangible as the physical presence of Natasha, or my parents, or any human being. It was the same sensation as when someone you love enters a room when you aren’t looking, but you can feel their presence; you know who it is even without seeing them. God was there, with me in that place, and in one single blinding flash, I knew it.

I’m not sure how long it all lasted. Not long, to be certain, and it did not need to be. It passed, and yet it did not ever truly pass, for it is with me to this day, and will be with me forever.

Eventually, the front door of the church opened, and Natasha, looking a bit annoyed but not really angry, stepped inside.

“Hey, it’s time to go to lunch! Are you coming?”

Of course I was coming. She couldn’t actually let the bus leave without me, after all.

“Oh… yes… I’ll be right behind you” I stammered.

She turned her back and walked out into the warm air of the summer of that last full year of the existence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I followed, but paused before reaching the door, put my hand in my pocket, pulled out every dollar and every ruble that I had on me, stuffed it all into the donation box, and went away penniless.

Though it would be a couple of decades before I was formally baptized, it would be fair to say that I entered that church an agnostic, and left it a Christian.

* * *

Silicon Valley, Many Years Later

It was a lazy Saturday afternoon in the Silicon Valley in early autumn, a mix of cool sunshine and low, billowy clouds, and a temperature just to my liking. I was out for the day, with a little extra money on me, shopping, exploring, enjoying nothing so much as simply being there. And now it was time for lunch – with my bit of extra money I could have whatever I wanted. And what I wanted that day was Chipotle. For those of you who may not be from a land where Chipotle exists (more’s the pity for you!), it is a chain of burrito shops, a step up from fast food of the McDonalds variety and a step down from places with actual waiters. A step down in formality, at least – Chipotle burritos are renowned for tastiness, and have a particularly strong following among Silicon Valley tech types.

Silicon Valley is a nice place; flush with tech money and full of young, high-IQ optimates. On weekends, long lines of expensive cars carrying the wives of executives at companies like Google, Apple, eBay, and Oracle clog the entrances to upscale malls like Valley Fair and Santana Row. It’s not uncommon to see $250,000 Lamborghinis parked in front of coffee shops, their 25-year-old owners standing in line inside for a frappuccino or a bubble tea. It’s all very new, and very commercial. Locals joke that El Camino Real, the wide, traffic-choked boulevard that runs through the heart of the Valley, repeats itself every five miles – a store or restaurant from every imaginable chain recurring just as quickly as it makes financial sense for it to. The joke is only slightly an exaggeration.

Yet this represents something comfortable – something comforting – for a child of late-20th century suburban America. The shopping malls, the big box retailers, the chain restaurants, the wide streets lined by single-family homes with neatly-mown lawns, the office parks with late-model sedans lined up in freshly-pained spaces out front; all of these things feel like… normalcy. But of course, it is not just normalcy, but the normalcy of the most safe and prosperous age that mankind has ever known, or is likely to know again any time in the foreseeable future (it is, in fact, already in the process of slowly disintegrating).This is what generations to come, not as pampered as we, will never quite understand about this age. They almost certainly will be amazed at the aggressive hedonism that our prosperity has allowed us to fall into, but what they will never be able to truly feel (for while hedonistic pleasure is understandable to all creatures of the flesh, this will be quite alien to them) is the sheer comfort of it all, the safe and warm feeling of it, that sense of normalcy which contained as part of it in the belief, plausible for the historical blink of an eye, that it could all be maintained forever.

The particular Chipotle to which I had come had a few outdoor tables, which on a day like that were preferable to the noise and artificially-processed air inside. I sat at one with my burrito and my Coke Zero; it was past the lunch rush and I was blissfully (as I am an introvert by nature) alone. I removed my iPod from my pocket, put on my earphones, and scrolled through my podcasts for something to listen to over lunch. Being in a light mood, the RetroMacCast caught my fancy. I love retro tech from the 80s and 90s, and old Macs especially. Were the world not in the shape that it is in, were it not necessary to write what I do as AntiDem, I would probably write a blog or do a podcast along those lines myself. I ate, and listened. The food was satisfying, the air was cool, and it was quiet except for the podcast. The discussion turned to the short-lived Macintosh clones of the late 1990s – Ah, yes, I had one of those! My old Power 100! A quirky machine, but it sure served me well, and for a long time! – and I felt a bit of wistful nostalgic cheer. Everything was good, everything was comfortable, and I had not a single care or a complaint at all.

It was then that the thought came to me: What really is so wrong with this world? Surely, all this comfort, all this ease, all this prosperity – it should be enough to make me contented, shouldn’t it? Is it not a waste – of time, of energy, of happiness to which I could devote these moments – to make myself miserable by railing and raging against this, of all things? Shouldn’t I just enjoy it all instead?

This was not like those times when, in despair, I find myself wondering whether my efforts are futile in the face of a system that is far beyond my abilities to affect; or even worse, when I wonder whether the left may actually be correct, and this – in all its materialistic, soulless, hedonistic existential horror – might really be the end of history. No, there was no dread in what I felt; quite the opposite. I felt safe and warm and comfortable, and all of the things wrong with this age suddenly all seemed very distant and abstract and not so very worth worrying about.

And it was when, in one single blinding flash, that I felt the touch of Elua upon me.

But perhaps here some explanation is in order.

Neoreactionaries often speak of Gnon, the “crab-god” they have created to embody the ideas of teleology, of consequences, of inevitability – no more and no less that the simple yet somehow, in the current age, revolutionary idea that implementing bad ideas will lead to bad consequences. The implications of the existence of Gnon, whose horrifying visage hangs heavy over the merry bustle of every civilization (whether they believe in him or not, for he is one of those realities that continues to exist no matter if you do or don’t), is that maintaining a civilization is hard, tireless work; that monsters are always waiting in the darkness to devour those who slack off in this task, whether it be because they have become soft and lazy, or incapable and feeble, or even (perhaps especially) due to the hubris of believing that they are so advanced that such drudgery is beneath them and they can instead devote their energies towards utopian schemes meant to perfect the human condition. Gnon – who is compatible with both a theistic and non-theistic worldview – punishes these sins: this sloth, this gluttony, this foolishness, this pride, this hubris. Gnon is seen both in the God who rained fire and brimstone down on Sodom and Gomorrah, and also in the collapse of Marxism in all of its supposed “inevitability”. Gnon is to be feared, for he is a destroyer god, and a merciless one. There is no bargaining with him, no reasoning with him, no begging for mercy with him. If you fail, if you slip, if you trust the wrong people or the wrong ideas, if you are foolish or careless, he will destroy you and everything you care about. He exists as a caution to you, and you had better take heed.

In opposition to Gnon, Scott Alexander has placed Elua, a god who he has appropriated from the novels of science fiction author Jacqueline Carey. Rather than explaining Elua to you myself, I’ll let Dr. Alexander explain it in his own words (with apologies to him, I’ve mashed up bits of two of his columns here):

“Somewhere in this darkness is another god. He has also had many names. In the [Carey] books, his name was Elua. He is the god of kindness and flowers and free love and all soft and fragile things. Of art and science and philosophy and love. Of niceness, community, and civilization. All the other gods are gods of blood and fire, and Elua is just like ‘Love as thou wilt’ and ‘All knowledge is worth having’. He is a god of humans.

Other gods get placated until we’re strong enough to take them on. Elua gets worshipped.”

Elua is not the god that humanity deserves, nor the one that it needs – but he is the god that we want. Indeed he is a god of humans, and he is the reason for the warning that if you agree with your god about everything, take caution, because you made him up. Whereas the God of the Bible has commandments etched in stone that must be obeyed, and Gnon is the heartless god of consequences, Elua is the god of no commandments and no consequences. “Love as thou wilt” – and worry not about disease, or about the effects on your children, or about inheritance, or about the descent of your culture into coarseness and licentiousness. “All knowledge is worth having” – even terrible yet seductive ideas that have led to the pointless deaths of millions. Elua, always, in every circumstance, tells us what we want to hear. He tells us to spend, and that the bill will never come due. He tells us to eat and drink, and that we will never get fat, and there will be no hangover the next morning. In other words, Elua is a charlatan. If in Moscow I met the genuine God, then at Chipotle I encountered a fraud of one.

And yet Elua really is a god of humans – he is a god that humans want to worship, because he is the reflection and embodiment of their own desires, whether noble or tawdry – and I, too, am human. There in that place – though I must admit, far from the only time in my life – I was seduced; I allowed myself to momentarily drift into the dominion of Elua and the lotus-eaters who follow him. As in Moscow, the experience lasted for only a moment, and, as in Moscow, the experience never completely leaves me, nor can it, because in Modernity the pull of Elua is everywhere around me: in the shopping malls, in the chain stores, in the wide streets and the mown lawns, and even in my lunch. It is in the ease and comfort and security of it all – things to which, because I am human, I cannot help but have an attachment. But if I am able to break free of Elua – to reject him as a liar and a cheat, to face the true ugliness hidden not far beneath the surface of Modernity, and to rebel against it – most Moderns, understandably, cannot. Elua comforts them, placates them, assuages their doubts, and gives them lotuses to eat – 500 channels of cable television, craft beers, oversized SUVs, spectacularly dirty internet pornography, and wonderfully tasty burritos. In return, they embrace Elua (they may voice an occasional “It’s an awful shame” about the worst aspects of the moral state of the world he presides over, but little more), because they so desperately want to believe his promises, and to not believe that what he offers will result either in Gnon’s consequences or God’s judgment.

The reason that I cannot maintain faith in Elua is both because I have come to understand the truth embodied in Gnon and because I have felt the touch of the one true God. Gnon will not allow illusions, no matter how beautiful, to carry on forever. And as for God, his commandments are often unpleasant, wearying, and burdensome – they require discipline and hard work and self-denial – but in them are also truth, nobility, and decency. Those who follow them – who fight for them – may at some point find themselves denied the comforts that Elua promises, but down that path is also a measure of greatness (perhaps the greatness of a martyr or a saint, or only the simple greatness of a traditional wife and mother), and that is the one thing that Elua cannot offer.