Monday, December 07, 2009


Groucho: "That's in every contract, that's what you call a sanity clause."
Chico: "You can't a fool a me there ain't no sanity clause"
-Groucho and Chico Marx (from “A Night at the Opera”)

Groucho Marx, cited above, was an acknowledged master of the clever one liner. In one that relates close to home here in Emporia, Kansas, he is reported to have once said, “It isn’t necessary to have relatives in Kansas City in order to be unhappy.” Only Groucho could say something like that and make even the relatives in Kansas City laugh.

One of the enduring memories I have of him and his brothers is watching them cavort around in circles, skewering the high and mighty or the all knowing as they did. Even today, the sight of them circling relentlessly around their prey can make me howl with delight. No one did it better.

Somehow, these dream like snippets of Groucho and his brothers this morning got me considering the circular nature to almost everything we do these days. Here in America, for example, we seem to be caught in a vicious circle. We complain that our government has gotten too big and too powerful. We hold tea parties to protest. Then, some politician mentions the possibility of dismantling government programs close to home and the bureaucrats running the programs and the programs’ beneficiaries howl. The politician, seeing his or her re-election chances diminishing, recants and the programs remain in place. Politicians, ever clever, see that their collective fates are inexorably caught up in programs. Hence, they invent more programs and hire more bureaucrats in order to expand their support bases. The programs are codified in law, the people lose more control over their lives, the protests mount, the politicians make half-hearted attempts at putting the proverbial meat cleaver to the programs, the beneficiaries howl once more, the politicians recant, and the programs are kept in force.

A little over eight years ago we were all in an angry frame of mind, and we were right to feel the way we did. We took it out on the Taliban, then Saddam for good measure. But that didn’t seem to be enough. We couldn’t find Osama so we started, rhetorically and politically, slapping each other around. It was a valiant attempt at displacing our anger, but it fell flat. This all brings us to today. We’re angrier today than we were on 9-11.

This pattern of behavior is also called running around in circles. And, the pattern keeps repeating itself, mystically re-energizing when we come back, full circle, to where we began, primed to start the whole process over again. It would be an amusing way to live life if it weren’t so tragic. In fact, the only thing funny about it is the way it makes us looks more like Groucho’s foils than reasonable people.

The pattern has many manifestations, including circling the wagons, talking in circles, or using circular reasoning. We run around in circles, like chickens with their heads cut off. We try to run circles around those who oppose us. We’re so angry we’d fight a circular saw if we could. We circle around like vultures, looking for someone to attack. Some of us get a good laugh at the expense of UFOlogists who interpret the playful stomping out of crop circles in farmers’ fields as extraterrestrial visits

Then, when all is said and done, we try to reconcile it all by squaring the circle.

I think the Marx brothers were right – “there ain’t no sanity clause.” At least not in America these days.

Years ago, while I was attending Ohio State University, I found myself sitting next to limestone lion, taking a break from the boredom of sociology, geology, and the like. It was a cool spring day. The birds were chirping, giving thanks in their way for the beauty of the day. There was a refreshing breeze and the scent of freshly mown grass in their air. Off in the distance I could hear a contingent of R.O.T.C. cadets marching to a familiar cadence. “Hup two, hup four, hup two, three four, your left oh right a left.” I sat there, taking in the nature’s sights and sounds and the odd counterpoint of the martial rhythms over at the parade grounds. Then, a young voice broke through the rhythms. “Mind if I sit here?” “No, be my guest,” I responded without looking. I went on musing, not saying anything. A few minutes passed and his voice once again broke through the rhythms. “Marx was right!” he announced proudly. He’d gotten my attention. I looked over at him. He was young, under twenty-five for sure. He was unkempt, dressed in tattered jeans and what appeared to be a tan mohair winter coat. The coat looked like something I’d seen once in a Brooks Brothers advertisement. The most striking thing about the coat, however, wasn’t what it might have once cost. It had what appeared to be mechanic’s grease slathered strategically like barbeque sauce on a pulled pork sandwich from top to bottom and front to back. The greasy coat and the introductory statement made it pretty clear to me. This young man was anti-establishment. I gathered my thoughts. “Which one?” I asked.
“Which one what?” he responded.
“Which Marx?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Was it Groucho, Chico, Zeppo, or Harpo?”
The deadpan in his voice told me that he was quite peeved. I built up a bit more courage and followed up. “What was he right about?”
“You know…religion is the opiate of the masses.”
“What does that mean?”
You know, man. Religion is…Like it’s the…opiate of the masses.”
It was time to leave. My parting words of advice to the young man were, “Fella, you’d better be careful. You’re liable to bite your butt off chasin’ yourself around in circles like that.”

I think about that young man occasionally when I hear this generation’s outhouse lawyers accuse us Christians of circular thinking or believing fables when we use the ontological argument for the existence of God or dream about pie in the sky.

I find it all quite amusing, watching scientists, politicians, the wise men of our day and their faithful flocks use sleight of hand or gambler’s logic as they thrash around in the dark. It’s been said that if you have an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters that one of them is bound to write King Lear. The base operating assumption today is that there is no God. It’s just chance, extraterrestrials or politicians fiddling with the dials. As that young man might have put it if he could today: “You know man…it had to be extraterrestrials…I mean…Where did all those crop circles come from?” “And there’s an infinite number of planets out there…need I say any more?” “And you know that Barack Obama and the Democrats are going to fulfill every wandering desire we have.” And, if they don’t we’ll elect the Republicans and they will.”

Who am I to refute such impeccable logic? I think it’s best that I just keep playing the fool. I’ll maintain my little circle of friends and watch the rest of the world running around in circles of their own making. I’ll keep pinning my hopes on the satisfaction faith brings today and the glory of the promised world to come that will one day be revealed to those who wait patiently its coming. The ancients called it the “consolation of Israel.” They named it well. In this world of crazy circles spinning out of control I find great comfort in knowing there’s a place being built for us beyond the blue where the circle of love, life, and fellowship will be forever unbroken.

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