Conflicted about Michael

Conflicted about Michael by Steve Clemens. July 8, 2009

Anabaptists have been historically known as iconoclasts. Ever since the rise of the Anabaptist movement in the Zurich area of what is now Switzerland and southern Germany in the early 1500s and soon thereafter in the lowland area of the Netherlands under Menno Simons, the group of Christian theological dissidents nicknamed “re-baptizers” by their Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran critics and persecutors had a reputation of walking out-of-step with the popular culture and ethos of their day.

To embrace the blogger name of Mennonista, I have signaled my own identity as a radical who sees at least part of his values and ideas in league with the movement that spawned the present-day Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, Sojourners, and others. However, once you let that iconoclastic cat out of the bag, it is difficult to know when/where to stop the critique of the theology and culture and when to join the culture wars or consensus.

Many of the aforementioned groups have been notorious (to me) for their blind homophobia, which, coupled with a healthy (at times!) distain for popular culture, would lead me to suspect there was not a lot of mourning for the loss of Michael Jackson in those circles recently. I don’t think it will be a lead story on Mennonite Weekly Review’s next issue. But how would I know? I’ve left those circles because I didn’t want to waste my time arguing over whom God loves or condemns. For my two cents (and theology), there is no question God loves the androgynous Michael Jackson (as well as his critics). God’s grace and love have been so distorted by Bible-thumpers, Moral Majoritarians, and TV evangelists that I tire easily of those theological bigots who hide behind a Scripture verse or three to justify their exclusions.

But I still come back to the Anabaptist identity as iconoclasts. Parallels have frequently been made between the Hebrew prophets like Micah, Amos, Ezekiel, Jonah, and Isaiah and the early Anabaptists like Michael Sattler, Menno Simons, and Conrad Grebel. Both groups critiqued their societies and found them wanting. Both groups acted out of moral fervor hoping to reform or renew the theological devotion of their people. They were seen as iconoclasts because they spoke and acted against what they thought were perversions of the message of what God demands of his/her followers.

In the past two weeks since his untimely death, the popular corporate media has obsessed on the life and death of Michael Jackson, calling him the “Pop Icon” of our time. Although there are numerous additional uses for the term icon today, in the more distant past, the term was usually reserved for an image of the divine or saints that was to be venerated. So maybe the language of pop culture is correct in identifying this musician/artist/entertainer as an icon. All the enormous attention his death has received give evidence that he was “worshipped” by many.

Jackson’s death has obviously struck a chord within American (and the world’s) pop culture – enough so that our celebrity-driven media has worked overtime, falling over itself trying to cover all the angles: was MJ “black enough” or did his multiple plastic surgeries evidence his self-loathing? Was he a pedophile or merely “strange” when it came to his obsession of sleeping with young boys in his bed? Did his father abuse him and, if so, would that explain some of his behavior?

Yet the tributes aired by fellow celebrities, actors, musicians and common folk has shown what a deep connection he made for some. His music and dancing clearly brought joy and celebration to millions. Should we celebrate the art as distinguished from the artist himself? Much has been made of his generous charitable donations while others have focused on his lavish purchases for Neverland, including his $500,000 + shopping spree filmed by the BBC.

The maestro who helped write “We Are the World”, who also wrote “Black or White” and other cultural touchstones is also the artist who solidified his fame with the celebrity lament (?) – it is hard to call such a danceable tune a lament – with his best-selling hit, “Billie Jean”. “She’s not my lover, … the kid is not my son” seems to sum up the People Magazine/National Enquirer/Entertainment Tonight celebrity-scandal-driven cultural morass we still find today, 30 years later. Besides the questions raised like “Is Michael really the father of those kids?”, “Who is the birth mother of his third child?”, … we also are fixated on the recent Republican “affairs of State” of the philandering Senator Ensign and Governor Sanford, two Presidential “hopefuls” who have recently crashed and burned because they let their genitals lead instead of their heads.

But last night when I turned on the TV to watch the CBS Evening News, the first 20 minutes of the 30- minute broadcast was devoted to Michael Jackson’s memorial/funeral. This took place on a news day when the recently coup-deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya had come to the US to meet with Secretary of State Clinton, our President was negotiating a partial nuclear disarmament proposal with the Russians, and the Chinese government was killing protesting Uighur minority people in the streets. I guess Michael Jackson’s continued unresponsive state is more important news than the Israeli governments continued jailing of a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Mairead Maguire) and a former US Congress Member (Cynthia McKinney) for attempting to take humanitarian aid to Gaza – even though they were arrested and detailed by the Israelis in international waters! Oh, and Robert McNamara had just died – one of the prime architects of the Vietnam War debacle.

To give 2/3 of the evening news to a dead celebrity over these pressing issues makes me want to cry “Basta!, enough!” My friends Bret Hesla and Linda Breitag just released a new cd of some of their music (“What We Do”) that includes Linda’s “Basta!” song. Maybe as fellow musicians and artists they, too, have joined in mourning the loss of Michael Jackson – but as social critics and strong voices for peace and social justice, I can’t help but wonder if they too aren’t saying, “We’ll remember you, Michael, but it is time to move on and work together to make a better world where democratically elected Presidents aren’t arrested by military coups at the behest of corporate oligarchies.

Basta, enough! of celebrity worship which distracts us of the important work we need to do. Yes, we can take some time to sing and dance (if one is so inclined) and celebrate the gifts and talents of creative artists but it cannot be allowed to be an excuse for inactivity on the social/political front lines. The empire wants to keep dispensing the “bread and circuses” to prevent a revolution of the masses being left behind.

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