Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! . . . Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!”—Luke 13:2-5
“Well, guys, didn’t really ask for the death sentence. But if that’s all you’ve got, I’ll take it in black.” That’s what my sarcastic friend said, before blowing out the candles on her 32nd birthday cake. She was just like that: you know, the kind of person who simply refuses to take life seriously, the kind of person who can turn anything into a joke, even a breast cancer diagnosis.
Of course there were chinks in her body armor, cracks in her bulletproof butch persona; and, in them, we could see the fear and the terror and the doubt peeking out at us, like shy forest creatures with big eyes. They were there: right there: in the quivering corners, of her sardonic smile.
When I saw her two years later, in the palliative care unit, she said she thought the oncologist’s diagnosis was the worst diagnosis she would ever hear; until, that is, she got a second diagnosis from her uncle, the bible-thumping fundamentalist, with the “Jesus Loves You” t-shirt: “The wages of sin are death,” he thundered through the phone. “God’s punishing you for being a lesbian! You brought this cancer on yourself.” Before hanging up on his dying niece, he promised to pray for her.
Worse still, she said, was a third diagnosis she got from her high-strung, Prius-driving sister, the health-obsessed housewife with rock-hard yoga abs. Her sister was doing a “cleanse” when she got the call. Maybe that’s why she was on edge. Maybe that’s why she got mad at her little sister, for having cancer. Maybe that’s why she told her off: “Can’t live like you’ve been living, and get away with it forever. Been telling you for years now: quit the lesbo-fat-is-beautiful shit, drop 40 pounds, and get in shape! You brought this cancer on yourself.” Before hanging up on her dying sister, she mumbled something under her breath, something my friend couldn’t quite make out, something about how hard this was gonna be on the kids (but my friend had no kids).
Words like “fascist” and “communist” aren’t particularly useful when it’s hard to tell the difference between life in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. That’s why Hannah Arendt said we needed a new name for this 20th-century manifestation of an age-old problem. I’m referring, of course, to the problem of evil, which is always, to some extent, a problem of naming.
We found ourselves similarly situated at the funeral, as we gazed down, upon the lifeless body, of our 34-year-old friend. Because words like “secular” and “religious” aren’t particularly useful when health-nuts and fundamentalists start seeing eye-to-eye, when the heartlessness coming out of the health-club is indistinguishable from the heartlessness coming out of the church, when the metaphysics of the yoga retreat converge with the metaphysics of the bible camp.
But we don’t need a new word like “totalitarianism” for her uncle’s diagnosis, nor do we need a new word for her sister’s diagnosis. Plenty of nasty old words will do, though I can’t, for the life of me, seem to settle on one. I keep looking for a word and yet all I seem to find is a scripture: “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
—John Faithful Hamer, The Book of the Dead (2017)