A familiar tale has a new meaning today. I am reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and was gripped by the travail of the doctor who having discovered the secret of creation is wracked with guilt for the trail of murders his creation leaves behind. He unwittingly incriminates himself before the Magistrate when brought before the body of a victim: “I gasped for breath; and, throwing myself on the body, I exclaimed, ‘Have my murderous machinations deprived you also, my dearest Henry, of life? Two I have already destroyed; other victims await their destiny: but you Clerval, my friend, my benefactor—‘ The reasonable Magistrate rules that Victor Frankenstein is guilty of murder.
I do not care much for the fictitious tale that is designed to defend the doctor’s innocence. I am supposed to suspend my judgment and affirm that the doctor’s own monstrous creation is guilty of the crimes. The defense is summarized with a crude analogy: Is Ford to blame for a robbery simply because one of Ford’s products, a Mustang, is used for getaway in a bank robbery? In this case, a bank robbery and a series of murders are said to be the crime that the Ford company or the doctor are supposed guilty. As the analogy suggests, if the product of invention is used in criminal activity it no more implicates the guilt of the doctor than would the use of a Mustang implicate the Ford Automobile company.
Serial murder is the hideous truth obscured by the fiction. I think of the mendacity of political leaders who will forever contend that they are not responsible for the deaths of others. Their “murderous machinations” are said to be excusable because of the love of American freedoms. But in fact the war on terror was an assault on a mythical frontier, pursued for the prospects of plundering oil. If my life could despoil such fiction, I could be happier. If I could make love more evident, make God’s will more convincing, maybe fewer would die in vain.
Today’s reading of the Gospel of Mark summarizes the missionary activity of Jesus. I imagine myself as Victor Frankenstein hearing of the cures of Jesus and news reaches me that I can find him where people have gathered on the Mount. After weaving my way up the mountain, sweating, my mind now tired from the upset visions of warmongering, I am stupefied by the hideous sight I see. Others around all listen to the ugly figure. He is as frightfully disfigured as when I last saw him. I am revolted and make my way to the edge of the crowd and there I sit with my head in my hands disbelieving it could be him. This is the memory that crowds my mind:
“The shutters had been thrown back, and, with a sensation of hideous and abhorred. A grin was one face of the monster, he seemed to jeer, as with his fiendish finger he pointed towards the corpse of my wife.” 145
Yes, it had to be him. That man in the crowd was no less mean in appearance. How he sneered when he said, “Blessed are the persecuted.” He had the same thick forearms, the vice-like hands that had throttled her. I remember, “The murderous mark of the fiend’s grasp was on her neck, and the breath had ceased to issue from her lips.” 144 They call him a murderer but I know his true identity; his carpentry is a lie too.
I make my way back amidst the crowd fuming. The crowd seems to disperse before me. It occurs to me that I am yelling, but by the calm look on the man’s face I must not be loud enough. He recognizes me for sure. And now there is that wicked smile on his face.
What happened I am told only later. My whole body was wet with sweat. I shivered. A blue hole of the sky was above me where there was not a crowd standing over me. Someone hoisted me from the ground and took me to the edge of the crowd and gave me to drink.
The possessed man told me later that he had thought Jesus was a monster. He recounted a strange tale of murder. He had clearly become deranged after the loss of his wife and then the news of the boy William’s death. I couldn’t tell him that he had lost his mind yet. He wanted me to know so many details. He had been returning to his home country for the boy’s funeral when a storm came and he saw Jesus. He said,
“I perceived in the gloom a figure which stole from behind a clump of trees near me, I stood fixed, gazing intently; I could not be mistaken; A flash of lightning illuminated the object, and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy daemon to whom I had given life. What did he there? Could he be (I shuddered at the conception) the murderer of my brother? No sooner did that idea cross my imagination, than I became convinced of its truth; my teeth chattered, and I was forced to lean against a tree for support. The figure passed me quickly, and I lost it in the gloom. Nothing in human shape could have destroyed that fair child. He was the murderer! I could not doubt it. The mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof of the fact.” 50
In her lifetime Dorothy Day met such possessed men and women. She is the one listening to the Sermon on the Mount when a figure comes along with hatred. She recognizes his need and hears his story. She reflected on her method of loving saying, “To love with understanding, and without understanding. To love blindly, and to folly. To see only what is lovable.” She explained, “When you love people, you see all the good in them, all the Christ in them. God sees Christ, His Son, in us. And so we should see Christ in others, and nothing else, and love them.”
Very often the message of Jesus is distorted. A politician speaks of his Christian faith but it is a fiction masking a murderous intent. I hasten to add that I condemn the monstrous actions, but uphold the faith itself. Christ cannot be blamed for the misuse of his teaching. I only pray that I can likewise be forgiven for misunderstanding their true meaning and ask to be led in the direction “to love with understanding.” Meanwhile, the repercussions of the war on terror have made a monstrosity out of ideals of due process. In the eyes of the military, a freshman interrogator at Kandahar, fearful of the slightest mistake, hungry for promotion, instantly assumes that just because a man is in Afghanistan he must be an enemy combatant; or if he was ever living in the same house of hospitality where Abu Zubayda found refuge, than he too must be Al-Qaeda. Suspicion legitimates 67 days of solitary confinement for the West Point graduate, chaplain James Yee, because he spoke “their” language, he promoted “their” faith. It follows that the Muslim man must be held indefinitely because “The mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof of the fact.” And the D.C. appeals court accepts whatever evidence the government provides without question??
We have a common problem in that the work of our hands is never enough. The Washington Post reports the 92-hour vigil of a protester in front of the White House costumed as a Guantánamo detainee confining himself in a cage. After all the work we must round up our numbers, to 1000, who turned out for the tenth anniversary of Guantánamo Bay’s use as an interrogation detention center. We plead with all we can to show themselves as the silent majority of conscientious objectors, to sign the petition of grievances at www.closeguantanamo.org We wage peace and it does not seem to ever be enough. Glimpses of insight come in community when we recognize in our monstrous brother as the person of Christ. Something compels us to believe again. We remember that violence has always failed, that our only means of redemption is the path Jesus Christ taught: love, gathering, resisting, casting out daemons, staying execution. We remember his failure on the cross. We take on responsibility for human atrocity making the one true commitment. Sustaining hope, repairing the brokenness, laying our lives down for the innocent, we commit ourselves to the only failure that redeems the world. Pretend. For a moment. To believe in the collective resurrection of human dignity.