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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Live and in the flesh

In the early days of Christianity, people who were convinced that Jesus’ life and death had been a revelation of divinity struggled to understand the nature of their epiphany. A major focus of disagreement was the nature of Jesus himself. Was he human, was he divine, or was he some combination of the two? And if the latter, how did that work?

One belief was that Jesus was an entirely spiritual being and that his flesh was an illusion. John specifically condemned this belief in the second of his three letters that were included among the orthodox Christian scriptures: “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.” But the Docetic heresy, which the belief came to be called, had currency for several centuries because, like all Gnostics, Docetists couldn’t accept that flesh and spirit were compatible.

The flesh is an obstacle to exaltation. Who hasn’t been embarrassed by it? We coughed out food at a dinner party. We farted in public. As boys, we got an erection at the wrong time. As men, we couldn’t get an erection at the right time. Beyond embarrassment is shame, the exposure to others — and perhaps to ourselves — that we are not the dignified persons we hold ourselves out to be. Instead, we are in thrall to illicit sexual urges or prey to irrational fears of physical contamination.

The subversion inherent in the flesh is one reason it’s the staple of comedy. From the plays of Aristophanes to the films of the Marx Brothers, pretentious characters are reduced to figures of fun by versions of the pratfall, a word which derives from slang for the buttocks. The flesh is our great leveler. In his last essay, Montaigne wrote, “There is no use our mounting on stilts, for on stilts we must walk on our own legs. And on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own rump.”

The flesh is what we all share. When we laugh at its risibility, we affirm our common humanity. When we grieve at its frailty, we affirm our common humanity. How can a messiah be other than one who laughs and cries?

The flesh confounds all ideology except its outright denial. There’s no spinning a disease. Trump tried, floundered, failed. COVID-19 isn’t an alien to the United States; it’s an alien to human flesh. It can’t be turned back at our national borders; we must try to repel it at the borders of our bodies. And the total cooperation that effort necessitates is impeded by a belief in American exceptionalism and the alternate reality generated by Trump’s contagious need always to appear a winner.

A sizable minority of Americans still dwell in that alternate reality. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released Sunday found that only 40% of Republicans were worried that the worst is yet to come and a family member may catch the virus. If their belief proves true — I hope it does — it will only be because the rest of us, including public health officials and the political leaders who heed them, don’t share it.

It’s more likely, however, that events will convince a majority of Republicans that all of us (Americans if not the human race) are in this together, and the man they exalted will appear increasingly feckless. It would be wonderfully ironic if our frail flesh healed our diseased spirit.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.