Monday, February 20, 2006

Vonnegut and the Sermon on the Mount

Kurt Vonnegut does not define himself as a Christian. He is a self-professed "humanist." But he is an admirer of the Sermon on the Mount, and I'm going to let him have the podium this evening, in honor of yellojkt's comment about The Book of Revelation vs. the Beatitudes. Which is more relevant, more important, more likely to bring the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth? Here's Vonnegut:

I've said there are two radical ideas that have been introduced into human thought. One of them is that energy and matter are pretty much the same sort of stuff. That's Einstein. The other is that revenge is a bad idea. It's an enormously popular idea but, of course, Jesus came along with the radical idea of forgiveness. That was radical. If you're insulted, you have to square accounts. So this invention by Jesus is as radical as Einstein's.


Powers Hapgood was an official of the CIO. He was a typical Hoosier idealist. Socialism is idealistic. Think of Eugene Debs from Terre Haute. What Debs said echoes the Sermon on the Mount: "As long as there's a lower class I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

Now why can't the religious right recognize that as a paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount? Hapgood and Debs were both middle-class people who thought there could be more economic justice in this country. They wanted a better country, that's all. Hapgood's family owned a successful cannery in Indianapolis and Hapgood turned it over to the employees, who ruined it. He led the pickets against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Hapgood is testifying in court in Indianapolis about some picket-line dust-up connected with the CIO and the judge stops everything. He says, "Mr. Hapgood, here you are, you're a graduate of Harvard and you own a successful business. Why would anyone with your advantages choose to live as you have?" Powers Hapgood actually became a coal miner for a while. His answer to the judge was great: "The Sermon on the Mount, sir."


yellojkt said...

That is great. For a humanist, some of Vonneguts best works are his sermons.

Anonymous said...

Vonnegut celebrated The Minorite Church of Vienna, (Austria, not Virginia), championed Ghandi's passive resistance in comedy, and poked gaping holes in religious fundamentalism and its incivility. His work reveals a wry, yet saintly man, an iconoclast of the First Order of Secular Humanism, sticking it to believers to test their belief - and to deliver messages more parable than novel.