Saturday, June 14, 2008

M*A*S*H - Father Mulcahy

I've watched a lot of M*A*S*H lately. Part of that is because I've been laid up with Influenza A - though, I must say that Tamiflu lives up to its billing (as does the flu shot). I haven't been nearly as sick as the last time I had the flu. But, that's all just backstory. While laid up on the couch, I've had the opportunity to watch my favorite all-time show, with the possible exception of Buffy. Actually, it depends on the day which of the two I prefer.

One of the episodes that has always been a powerful one for me is the episode where Father Mulcahy bucks all of the powers that be in declaring the mess tent to be a santuary. The synopsis goes something like this. The soldier has just gotten a letter from a friend back home congratulating him on the birth of his daughter. The blessed event took place three weeks previous, apparently. Now, the conflict here is this - the young G.I. has been in Korea for more than a year. You can do the math more quickly than Hawkeye and BJ could... At any rate, while the folks are in the weekly services, conducted by the Father, a lieutenant comes to arrest the kid for being AWOL. Mulcahy declares the mess tent a sanctuary, and even when the Chaplain-General overturns his ruling, he stays with it because he thinks it is what is right. Of course, the lieutenant tries to take the young G.I. and the threatened young man takes his rifle and levels it at Mulcahy, after firing off a couple of shots. Mulcahy defuses the situation and disarms the young man. Then, as the young man breaks down, Mulcahy comforts him and does all he can to get him the help that he needs.

That was rather a long excursus. But, here's the thing. Mulcahy is an impressive figure. He's not impressive because of his great skill as a preacher - he's comically inept and boring. Heck, during the service, Potter has clearly nodded off and in the few lines of the sermon that we hear, the audience is nearly put to sleep. Mulcahy doesn't normally stand out. Except, here's the thing. He may be the best example of the church and the faith that I've seen on TV. Sure, there are more "religiously" oriented shows than M*A*S*H. But, no character stronger than Mulcahy. Here's why.

Father Mulcahy doesn't do what is expedient. When the orphans need something, he's the one who procures it - even if it does involve Klinger and stolen bibles from a hotel in Seoul. More to the point, he is completely committed to being faithful - and, here, "faithful" does not mean "believing the right things." Mulcahy is faith in action - and, more to the point, he is goodness in action, he is justice in action. When confronted with Army regulations that seem to run completely counter to the good of the people in his care, he does not go along just because it would be expedient. He puts his own life, career, and reputation at risk to do the right thing. Further, the "right thing" is not some hard-line, dogmatic, and likely esoteric piece of text - it is rooted in profound empathy for the underdog, the oppressed, the hurting, the shafted. He does not suffer injustice to others, and endures considerable injustice to himself in the interim. Father Mulcahy is the opposite of the showy, substance-less religious windbag that has become the prevailing model for so much American Christendom. He is a man whose quiet faith and firm commitment makes a difference in the lives of people.

I am not at all convinced that there is much of a home for the Father Mulcahy's of the world in today's church. And, it probably needs more of them. Before I rant too much, let me point out that a couple of my very good friends are chaplains - one in the army, one in the navy, and one with the state police. They are all very solid men - and none of them will ever advance very far in the hierarchy because they are very solid men. That's the problem. Today's church puts a premium on glitz and showmanship and Elmer Gantry-like prosperity gospel drivel. Now the emphasis is on bigger churches, showier TV shows, and high production values in the PR. And, while we're on the subject, let's talk about two things Father Mulcahy exemplifies that the institutional church fails so miserably at - justice and compassion.

Today, the hierarchy of the church is much more concerned with political grandstanding than justice. If the church was truly motivated by the call to justice, it would be doing a lot less arguing about whether or not Bush is right about the war in Iraq and a lot more living out a call to love one's enemy and do good to those who persecute. An emphasis on justice would, I'm sure, have had a much more lasting effect the Middle East than the political grandstanding. For example, what would happen if, rather than propping up oppressive dictatorships that are politically expedient in the short term (the Shah in Iran, the Saudis royalty), we aided the people who are actually oppressed and meet their needs? What would happen if we had opposed the Taliban in 1995 when they began brutally repressing women rather than waiting until 2001? To have moral authority, one actually must act with justice - and justice is not supporting the powerful simply because it is politically expedient.

This ties in with the compassion move. When the young soldier took up the rifle and pointed it at Mulcahy, he was indignant. He pointed out that a faith of convenience was a poor faith indeed. Then, after disarming the young man, as he collapsed under the weight of what he had done, Mulcahy hugged him. He didn't play the "well, now you're gonna get what you deserve" card. He actually showed love for the guy. This was true compassion. When the church turns its concerns to zoning laws and parking lots for its megastructures and ignores the people, it isn't showing compassion. When hoity-toities turn up their noses at the poor and assume that economic distress is solely the fault of the economically impoverished, that's not compassion. When the church spends six and seven times more money on itself and its glitzy self-promotion than on actually meeting the needs of people, that's not compassion. Father Mulcahy, the church needs your example. Not that it's gonna listen or learn...