Lord of the Mammals

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

code word
for membership in a particular group. Or perhaps it is simply and heartily a
stubborn affirmation of religious faith in a political community, despite the
fact that its founders estimated–for their own reasons and experience–that
church and state should remain separate realms of public life and discourse.

But whatever
the reason, these candidates and their supporters should understand that the
historical and religious figure they celebrate reflects not only religion and
morality but also the welfare system at its most basic. It is to welfare as
the miscalculations in the Garden of Eden are to Original Sin.

It is worth
exploring this matter with an anthropological lens. And it is also to be said
clearly that what follows is not a comment on the truth or otherwise of the
religious dogma and belief that is its subject, or the events involved. It is
neither anti- nor pious, but a comment on a remarkable story that has had an
astonishing career as a moral lesson and a statement of symbolic affiliation
to a force larger than the individual or the family or the tribe.

The story
of Christ has generated what is arguably the most popular and gripping holiday
in the world, which affects countless people in complex and unexpectedly redolent
ways. But when it is boiled down, the essence of the story is an epic picture
of bedrock mammalian life. And it reflects acutely one of the underlying principles
of the life of mammals, which is that there has to be a system to protect the
health and durability of the relationship between the mother and the infant
from the vagaries and frailties of the relationship between mother and father,
as well as from the ruckus and inequity of social life in general. Other animals
handle the matter in a host of ways. We humans have what we call kinship systems,
the irreducible task of which is to protect women and young children during
the time of their greatest vulnerability and need. Sometimes, the father of
the mother is responsible for the child; sometimes the mother; sometimes her
brothers; sometimes the biological father; sometimes the legal husband. But
whatever the legal or customary deal, the work has to be done.

Back to
Nazareth and the simple facts of the matter. Mary is pregnant and then gives
birth to a healthy child. She appears to be without resources and to have no
envelope of family that will embrace and succor her and her child. Her situation
is cheerless and grim. Not only personally but also physically, because this
is no spring birth amid flowering bougainvillea and the nearly warm air perfumed
by promise. If you’ve ever been in the Middle East in December, you know
how grimly stone-cold and daily dark it is. Christmas is just a few days after
the shortest day of the year–a good time for a festival of lights, either
Christmas or Chanukah.

Mary applies
for shelter at the inn where other people find rest and warmth. But there’s
no room for her and her new infant. She turns for the roof she needs to a stable,
where other animals find shelter and sociability. Other mammals. This is a rich
event because it expresses the mental and physical economy and the structure
of the "The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want." But she does want.
The glory and promise of the central productive spasm of life, this birth, seems
not fated to be accorded the reward of peace and quiet and a warm supper that
are physically and emotionally necessary. No one appears to be caring for this
mother and child. But then the religious miracle of special insight occurs,
and it becomes clear to the forces of the universe that this child is the Son
of God, and suddenly the wanted and necessary resources begin to make their
way to the new family. The Three Wise Men arrive from improbable distances with
luxurious gifts that symbolize the best and most gracious resources the community
can offer this precious newcomer to its midst.


Not only
that. Here the economy and power of religious symbolism explode at their most
dramatically revealing. Because Mary is the Virgin, then Joseph her husband
is not the father. Therefore he is not a Deadbeat Dad. Therefore he is not responsible
for the welfare of the child and the mother.

We are.
The community, with its Three and many Wise Men. Suddenly it becomes clear at
the highest moral and spiritual level that the miracle of birth must be accompanied
by the ordinary but necessary banality of love and care. It emphasizes a sense
of the special importance of each newcomer to the human community. It doesn’t
matter whether or not one believes in the religious element of the story because
it is difficult to avoid the profound implications of its social impact in the
bedrock mammalian nature of society.

In addition
to all its major historical and poetic implications for our particular culture
and for our operating mythology, its contemporary impact is also clear. Reflect
for a moment on what happens. There is an enormous outburst of civilized activity
and carefully orchestrated social events: about 40 percent of all alcohol, which
is our major social drug, is sold between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
People who work together, perhaps in pitched undeclared battle, must have an
Office Party, which somehow reflects an intent that the spirit of the season
will affect even the Shark Pool of Career Central. Dozens of millions of greeting
cards are exchanged between people who may see each other never or have only
the most fleeting connection in May or October–but who in late December
become figures in a teeming world of almost-friends and participants in very
complicated social and business reciprocity. People who would begrudge buying
Sue or Cal or Stefan a dull martini acquire gifts to send and debts to pay because
of some potent alchemy of goodwill that, believe it or not, is related to that
simple act of birth and the story of human moral grandeur that has been inscribed
around it.

And again,
it starts with welfare in the tribe and ends with it at home and on the dancefloor
and in the charity appeals for coats. Mary was the first Welfare Queen and is
worshipped for it, to eternal and internal impact.

What a story!
Those earnest political candidates should reflect on what it is they’re
affirming and to whose biography they attach their own.