Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The Second Rebellion

It can be difficult, as an atheist, to talk to people of faith. Richard Dawkins and his associates have sown too much salt in the places that seeds of conversation might otherwise flower. The distinction between atheist and anti-theist is one not always picked up on, even by those who want to engage in good faith (no pun intended).

So as always, the standard disclaimer: disbelief is not disrespect. But - and this is where I sweep away my carefully-laid cloak to reveal a sheer drop into the Bog of Eternal Stench - there are certain ideas central to the religious beliefs of hundreds of thousands of people that my political philosophy requires me to take strong exception to. To not merely state that I don't believe in the God that allegedly espouses these ideas, but to argue their very existence makes the world a worse place.

One of the worst of such notions is that suffering is necessary or even good for us.

Lucifer #55 does a pretty good job of nailing exactly where my objections lie here, and I'll get to that. First I want to make very clear what it is that I'm not arguing. I'm not arguing nothing good can come from suffering. That would be facile. The key element of any well-considered attempt to improve people's lives is always empathy, and it is true that suffering can make people more empathetic (can, not will). But wars can push forward technology, generate long-lasting alliances, and force governments into allowing material social progress. That doesn't make war necessary or good. I'd hazard a guess that the success medical science enjoyed by wiping out smallpox also taught us more about how to deal with other horrible diseases. We wouldn't be therefore compelled to see variola major as a blessing.

Nor am I plummeting off the log in the other direction and labelling suffering "evil".  Suffering is just suffering. It has no moral implication, it simply is. As with death, we have our own moral duty to combat it where we can, but the things we fight don't become evil simply because of our opposition to them.

So that's my disclaimers provided, and my boundary conditions defined. On now to the text.

The topic of the necessity of wretched hardship is not one that takes long to surface in this issue.  It's almost immediately clear that Remiel has shaped and structured his hell exclusively around the idea that suffering is critical to salvation. In fact the angel says as much, twice:
Pain is a ladder, Christopher Rudd, by which a pilgrim soul may ascend to Heaven. When you interrupt that process, you set yourself against the will of God
and just a few panels later:
He has sinned. Grievously. But through his suffering his guilt may be burned away. And his soul be washed clean in blood."
This rhetoric - along with the punishments for running counter to it - would seem to mark Remiel down as a true believer in the ugly necessity of Hell's process. In truth, though, his buy-in is a fragile thing. Everything he does here underlines that deep down he knows how messed-up his job is. He flies off the handle when his torture-flunkies talk about punishing the damned. He uses euphemisms like "redeem him" when what he means is obviously "grind broken glass into his face for a few hours". He's visibly furious (penciller Marc Hempel really doesn't undersell this) with Duma's silent passivity, framing it as him having to make hard, cruel choices so that his partner can tend the herbaceous borders. Clearly he knows full well there is something rotten in the state of Dante; he just can't bring himself to admit it and, as a result, finds himself compelled to convert his guilt, unacknowledged, into fanatical anger.

In short, Remiel presides over a kingdom in which billions are suffering unimaginable, grotesque, searing agony and degradation without hope of reprieve at his command. And yet somehow he's managed to make it about how hard it is to be him.

This is the first problem with the idea that people find salvation in suffering: those that push the line hardest are never the ones suffering themselves. In order to square this circle they invent ways in which they've suffered, often even claiming the process by which they've wielded their power to bring about misery in others is itself a form of suffering. You know the kind of thing. "Hard decisions". "Tough choices". "Facing the unfortunate reality". The inevitable result of their belief that suffering is ultimately a moral good allows the powerful to simultaneously dismiss the damage they inflict on those they're oppressing and to perversely claim kinship with those same people. It's the hilariously unconvincing old saw that "This will hurt you more than it does me" given a veneer of divine design. It's how David Cameron could insist we were all in it together. It's how Tony Blair can dare show his face on Remembrance Sunday.

The second problem stems from inverting the formula. If suffering is necessary, then efforts to end suffering can become actually undesirable - to the point of endangering people's eternal souls, according to certain takes on theology. In Remiel's Hell providing even the most minor and brief respite to a damned soul is a capital offence. Remiel himself is so appalled by Rudd spreading the idea that vicious, grinding stasis is of no worth to anybody that he condemns the preacher to death by soul-unravelling. To maintain the status quo, compassion must be framed as suspect, or even threatening. And Remiel loves nothing so much as the status quo, because it gave him power, and therefore nothing that's happened since can be allowed to be considered relevant. The last thing that happened which he liked must be the last thing that happened at all. He's the Heavenly Host's answer to constitutional originalists; Antonin Scalia with better hair. Or put in more general terms, he's like those right-wing Christians who insist they alone can lay claim to their faith at the same time as sneering at "bleeding heart liberals" who are trying to upend society's apple cart the exact same way Jesus sorted out the money-changers.

Ah yes. Jesus. We shall come to him later.

The third problem arises from the intersection of the first two. The insistence that suffering is a necessity dehumanises not just those forced to endure misery, but those who insist it be inflicted upon them. Those pushing for more suffering are also damaged products of a villainous, unbalanced system.  I could go on about this at some length (no surprise), but I don't really need to, because Carey provides a wonderfully concise metaphor to the whole sorry situation on this issue's very first page:
So there's a wheel... The wheel turns a screw... The ground is broken glass... And since you're chained to your post, falling down on the job is... not recommended.

The screw is a mill -- like a pepper mill. So you're screwing a whole bunch of other guys who're stuck in there. Economy of effort, see? 
And once every thousand years -- everyone gets to change places.
That is grim genius. The wheel turns, both literally and metaphorically, but whether you turn it or are trapped underneath, the hurt is real. No-one escapes unscathed except for those ordering the wheel's turning, in-between meetings with their fellows to discuss how heavy the burden of command is. All the rest of us are supposed to hope for is that our suffering gets to be the kind that somehow makes us feel better by causing more suffering in others. It's a vile and inhuman model, but apparently a perennial one. We always say we hate the ones in charge, but come the crunch there's never any shortage of people happy to give the powerful even more power, as long as they think others will get hurt worse than they will in what inevitably follows.

(It's hard in this post-ATOS world to see people forced to perform tasks that cause them horrifying levels of excruciating pain and not think of Ian Duncan Smith's crusade to get disabled people back to work, entirely independently of whether that work was something they could do in comfort, or in safety, or at all. Feeling like your job forces you to stagger barefoot through broken glass is something more than a few ATOS-cleared people can probably relate to.  But what can you do, right? Appalling pain is all to the good, as long as you're helping someone else make money. "Work actually helps free people", as Smith put it, presumably because he'd heard something similar being knocked around and figured there must be a reason it was so frequently quoted.)

So that's a partial list of the problems that spin out of both Remiel's administration and the conservative Christian approach to government. What's the solution?

That would be Jesus, actually. Well, sort of. He never actually shows up around here, does he?

The absence of the Son of God was always noticeable, going back to Yahweh's introduction in Sandman. The specific reasons for his absence are probably not worth speculating on in any depth (I'm not aware of Gaiman discussing this himself). It's obvious bringing him into a story runs the risk of offending millions by introducing him as a character, which means you need a pretty solid reason to try it. Sandman could quite easily chug along without him, and so that was that.

(Frankly, as I've said before, I think Sandman could have quite easily chugged along without Yahweh showing up either, but since that decision gave us Lucifer, there's a hard limit on how much I can push that position.)

But one of the most central of Lucifer as a series is that you only ever have to be a similar to your parents as you choose to be.  If Carey's narrative had required the presence of the Messiah, continuity need not have stopped him. And it didn't, clearly, because we get Jesus here.

Except, of course, that we don't. Instead what get we is, for our purposes, someone better.

The fact that Christopher Rudd is mirroring Christ here could scarcely be more obvious. He breaks bread with his followers as part of a sermon on the nature of and need for metamorphosis. He's then abducted whilst among those followers by state troops, having had his location given away by someone who claims to love him. Once captured, the person supposedly in charge is silent on the issue (Remiel even accuses Duma earlier of this approach being an attempt to "wash his hands" of his responsibilities), leaving Rudd at the mercy of someone too busy basking in the power afforded by theology to actually engage with that theology honestly. Even his name invokes the Messiah, obviously, though we can go further and note his name includes the phrase "Christ rudder" [1], suggesting that even though Rudd is not the actual son of Yahweh, he's steering people in much the same manner.

But if the links to the story of Jesus are so plentiful and so clear, why wheel on an understudy at all? Aside from the risk of giving offence, I mean; that's still relevant, and still not interesting. We can tease out rather more by thinking about what is gained by handing Christ's script to a mere mortal, existing among the damned.

There are two advantages I can think of, which I shall present to you in order of how interesting I find them. The first is a simple exercise in mirroring: with Elaine having inhaled her father's demiurgic power as the first stage of trying to replace Yahweh in the Silver City, it makes sense for there to be a parallel rise to power of a mortal in Hell. Especially since Lucifer has never demonstrated any more interest in his former realm than his father did in his. The second rebellion must be one ignited by humanity (even if Duma helps out) if it is to have any purpose. Lucifer, like Yahweh, doesn't direct those who follow, he just create vacuums through his movement that draws others into it. Both father and son need to be succeeded by someone with skin in the game. The denizens of Hell need someone - if you'll excuse the crudely obvious pun - who gives a damn about them.

It's the second advantage that's really fun to kick around, though, and has to do with the very nature of Christ in the first place. The thing about God, or an aspect of same, becoming one of us is that it matters which one of us God becomes. We're not all the same. We haven't been allowed to be since long, long before Bethlehem found itself fully booked. Much is made of the fact the son of a carpenter during a Roman occupation was far from the highest rung of contemporaneous society. Jesus did not arrive as the king we're told 1st century Judaism was expecting. But he didn't come from the lowest of strata either. He didn't, for example, have to suffer as one of the servants he mentioned so often in his teachings, forever being beaten for not understanding their master's will well enough or being cast into the darkness for not investing his wages the way his master wanted. Still less was he a slave, or the son of a slave, despite the first century BCE being a time when slavery was close to peak popularity in Rome both in general (following the collapse of the Seleucid Empire sixty years earlier) and in the region (following the Roman conquest, again sixty years previous). There were people in Galilee to whom Jesus was the product of privilege even before you factor in any divine provenance. People who could quite legitimately have turned to Jesus and asked just what he thought he comprehended about their suffering, particularly given his famous father. We have terms for people who lecture those worse off than themselves about how they should live a moral life. They are not nice terms. [2]

You'll never live like common people, Jesus. Because if you called your dad he could stop it all.

Rudd, though, has been at the very bottom. His revolution comes from below, as all revolutions must. He's one of the damned. He can offer commentary on how his peers should live their (un)lives precisely because they are his peers. He has been through everything they did, and never had any reason to believe his fate would diverge from theirs. His suggestions carry the weight of shared experience.

And what he's suggesting is change. To refuse to believe improvement is impossible.  To reject utterly the idea that the way things have been are the way things must be.  The way you deal with those who insist you must suffer for your own good is to tear yourself free of their grip and show how easily you can live without what they imposed. To rebuild society according to new designs.

And that rebuilding has to be done from the ground up. Of course it does; if you've built a structure on rotten foundations it'll do you no good to just tear down everything above the first floor. You can't leave a single screw in place from the original structure. Everything must go. Everything must change. The wheel must still turn, in Rudd's formulation, but it must rise as it does so. To shamelessly and clumsily re-purpose Carey's earlier metaphor, this time the wheel must be spun so the damned can be unscrewed.

This demand for constant motion is - as Rudd admits - inspired by Lucifer, who fell and then rose again. Always pushing forwards, as much shark as seraph. What's critical though is that an inspiration is all Lucifer is to the second rebellion. He is their symbol, and Duma their ally, but this is a movement of mortals. An explicit demand that their fates no longer be determined by divine beings.

Which is one final advantage Christopher has over Christ. He can sever ties to the previous administration. Jesus' link to his father limited his role to rearranging the theological deckchairs. Rudd can choose to ram his ship into the enemy. In this case, the impact will be against a city made of gleaming silver, which is rotting from within. It's not enough to simply improve upon Remiel's (and Lucifer's) administration. The very idea of ruling the damned has to be made moot. There needs to be an accounting. The second rebellion needs to spread outwards and upwards.

It is better to serve up justice in Heaven than to rule in Hell.

Which is where we'll leave Rudd for the moment. After all, others have reached similar conclusions this late in the game, though they've come to it by very different routes, in several senses. Rudd is calling the banners in the name of hope, in the conviction that things can get better. For Berim of the Jin En Mok, things getting better is no longer possible.  All that is left is vengeance.

To discuss that in more detail, however, we're going to have to take a swim in some very powerful currents.  We're going to have to track down the Barrowjane.

[1] In full, of course, the anagram is "Christ rudder OHP", referencing both Rudd's ability to steer his followers and a reference to a common teaching aid that Rudd could no doubt have made use of had Effrul boasted electrical outlets. I am not a crank. 

[2] Just to save people digging out inferences that aren't really there, I think this issue of Jesus' class is something worth discussing from a social justice perspective, and indeed I'm sure it has been, by people far smarter than I am. I am not suggesting it approaches the level of fundamental problem the veneration of suffering does.

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