We have not only paved paradise and put up a parking lot; we have paved paradise and put up a prison.
Alfred Delp, a Jesuit imprisoned and executed by the Nazis, gave us a prophetic view of the modern world that was revealed to him while he was in prison. He wrote,
As long as human beings have to exist in inhuman and unworthy conditions the majority will succumb to them and nothing will make them either pray or think.
I will never forget a visit to Split Rock Lighthouse in Minnesota, one of the most beautiful spots on earth, a place where beauty gives us an intimation of paradise, a beauty which stirs in our hearts a deep desire to pray and think. I had one of my traveling actresses with me, and she and I climbed down the trail that begins at the bluff atop Lake Superior. When you reach the bottom of the trail at the lakeshore, you turn around and see high above you Split Rock Lighthouse, perched on a cliff overlooking a vast expanse of water. It’s stunning. It takes your breath away. I turned to my hiking partner. “Look at that! This is paradise! What do you think?!”
“I think I need a cigarette,” she said, and her mind was a thousand miles away, as she reached for her cell phone and checked her Facebook account.
We need to be educated, you see. We need a culture that will bring out in us the appreciation of beauty, the appreciation of art, literature, Faith. We long for these things, unless our humanity has become atrophied, unless we’ve been miseducated, trained to long instead for cigarettes and social media. If our conditions are “inhuman and unworthy” as Father Delp says, we won’t even appreciate paradise when we catch fleeting glimpses of it. We won’t even have the desire to pray or think.
I returned to paradise last week. Sort of.
Twenty-six years ago I proposed to Karen, the woman who is now my wife, in Cancun, Mexico. We got married in 1991, which means this is our 25th anniversary. And so we splurged on a big vacation to celebrate—a trip to Cancun, specifically to Tulum, a little slice of paradise on the Caribbean known for its mysterious and breathtaking Mayan ruins.
We stayed, this past week, at an all-inclusive resort, Dreams Tulum, where, last Monday Karen’s nephew got married on the beach. The margaritas were fantastic, the ocean mesmerizing, the resort staff very friendly, hardworking and accommodating. We were told not to tip. It’s all inclusive, you see—but we did tip, at least a bit, and we had a wonderful time. At least most of us did. But I must say the atmosphere at times had a bit of an Adult Spring Break feel to it—ugly Americans and ugly Europeans getting drunk and saying stupid things loudly and behaving as if they were at Disney World, looking for constant stimulation, hankering for a cigarette, desperate to check Facebook on their cell phones—with the palm trees and the ocean and the sweet sea breeze all around them. Lots of tourist excursions were offered by the resort—trips to the ruins, to the rain forest, to swim with the dolphins … but pretty much every excursion seemed to have a zipline included in the experience. There was a dumbed down, garish, pandering-to-a-culturally-deaf-audience feel to every trip offered. Last month I wrote about Branson, Missouri. Well, the Mayan Riviera is sort of Branson on steroids, with Mexicans and ziplines instead of hillbillies and mini-golf—and, unfortunately, with a lot more time shares.
You had to be careful at Dreams Tulum to avoid the time share salesmen. They scurried to help check you in, they gathered around you like flies if you walked into certain restaurants, they promised you wonderful free things in exchange for just a brief three or four hour tour. Time shares: the great plague of vacation culture, and the archetype of the empty overpriced and valueless economy-of-hype that surrounds us.
Twenty-six years ago there were a handful of resorts in Cancun, and a two-lane road with nothing around it but rainforest leading down to Tulum. Now it’s a four-lane highway with what must be about a hundred resorts on both sides. Why is it, I wondered, that capitalism always tends toward this kind of overkill? Why does the “free market” never even consider that small is beautiful and that gigantic and enormous is rather ugly? Why does a location like this lose its charm, its mystery, and why do you need ziplines in paradise?
But, you see, it’s worse than that. Dreams Tulum, for some, is really a living Nightmare.
At the end of our stay, the cab driver who took us back to the airport was very friendly. He was my age, and he spoke very good English and he began asking me questions about my life and I began asking him questions about his. “How much do these workers make at these resorts?” I asked him.
“Oh, it averages,” he answered, “about three to five dollars a day.”
“Three to five dollars a day?!”
“Yes, on average,” he replied. “I do better, driving this cab. I work twelve hours a day and make about ten dollars in those twelve hours—but the Americans and the Canadians tip, and that helps a lot.”
“What’s the rent like down here?” I asked.
“Most places are about $500 a month. My daughter just moved out of our house. She is renting an efficiency apartment—one room total. She is paying $200 a month.” That’s dollars, not pesos.
You could get an efficiency apartment in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, where I’m from, for about $300 to $400 a month, in some areas. But if you make $5 a day, you won’t make enough in a month even to afford a $200 efficiency. Now, there is a website that defends these inhumane wages, and that claims that many resort workers in Cancun and Tulum are given free housing on the resort grounds in addition to their $3 to $5 per day. The website brags that this is very generous of the corporate masters who employ the workers. It then posts a picture of the housing a typical resort provides—a dorm room that sleeps six to eight adults in bunk beds.
I know many Catholics who claim that the popes have been too hard on capitalism. The fact is they haven’t been hard enough. This is de facto slavery, only worse. Slave owners were required to provide security and a level of subsistence and dignity to their slaves. The corporations running Mexican resorts don’t do this. They are charging (at Dreams Tulum) their First World guests $400 a night, and charging a pretty penny for side trips to cheesy theme parks. My wife and I went to a “swim with the dolphins” experience and the 22-year-old concierge who greeted us and led us to the dolphin trainer spoke Spanish, English, French and Russian, all to various tour groups, and all for what I assume must be near starvation wages.
A culture that does this to people is a culture that cannot support any kind of meaningful existence. As Father Delp wrote,
No faith, no education, no government, no science, no art, no wisdom will help humankind if the unfailing certainty of the minimum is lacking.
And he meant not just the minimum standard of living, the minimum income required to support human dignity and a family, but the minimum of social sanity, in other words a culture and an economy that is based on something other than scams, frauds, ziplines, booze, de facto slavery and time shares.
Earlier in the week, on the way back from the dolphins we had another cab driver. His English was poorer, but he spoke with great passion and zeal. He gave me a thirty-minute sermon on the Bible. Protestant Evangelicals have made great inroads into Latin America, and this man was a fallen away Catholic, who was an ardent follower of a man who “was put in jail because of the devil,” a Protestant minister whose name he kept mentioning, a name I made a point to remember so I could Google him when I got back to the resort. The Evangelicals, to their credit, had lit a fire under this earnest former Catholic, who, rightly, kept insisting that we Christians are only required to follow the Law of Love and the Two Great Commandments, that the Mosaic Law had been superseded by the law that is written in our hearts. But, strangely, for all his talk of Scripture and his insistence that many preachers misinterpret it, this cab driver would get befuddled if I’d actually myself quote passages of Scripture to him. I wrote this off to the King James translation, for most of the Scripture I’ve memorized is the old King James.
And yet, despite his insistence on the proper personal interpretation of Scripture and for his adamant assertion that love has abrogated the Old Law, as I was getting out of the cab, the driver left me with an imperative. “You must get circumcised!” he insisted. “It says in the Bible that if you are not circumcised you will not get into heaven! I don’t know if you’re circumcised or not, but I’m 62 years old, and I was circumcised two years ago. Now I am saved!”
I felt like replying with Galatians 5:6,
For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.
I thought that would be a bit tacky, and might make him second guess what was certainly a painful personal decision for him. “Did his currently imprisoned Evangelical Guru, the guy who has turned this cab driver’s heart toward the Bible Alone, somehow convince him that Christians need to be circumcised?” I wondered. “What was the name of the preacher whose conferences you go to? The one who’s now in jail?” I asked him as I slipped him a tip—a tip that (though I didn’t know it at the time) might have amounted to several day’s wages.
“Jim Stanley,” he said.
I went back to my room, Googled “Jim Stanley preacher jail” and guess what I found? Jim Stanley is from my home town of St. Louis, Missouri, USA—2,511 miles and 45 hours by car from Dreams Tulum and the Mayan Riviera. His story is a familiar one to anybody who watches shows like American Greed . Stanley bilked elderly investors out of $3.3 million. This man of God was involved in an insurance scheme that was fraudulent from the word go, and he has made no attempt to show remorse or pay restitution, according to some of the online articles about him. He was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in Federal prison. He posts from prison to his followers via social media telling them to keep the faith, that he is simply the patriarch Joseph, unjustly imprisoned by Pharaoh.
Our cab driver is lucky that he only lost his foreskin.
At night on the Yucatan the stars dazzle you over the ocean. Many of the tourists gasp in wonder, as it turns out that only those of us who grew up in rural areas have any concept that the stars can be dazzling and overpowering on a dark night. Most city dwellers and suburbanites don’t really know there are stars above us at all, but the dozen or so you can see that aren’t drowned out by light pollution.
We have paved paradise and put up a prison. From your eight-bed dormitory you can’t always see the stars or smell the sea breeze. From your air conditioned $400 a night hotel room you can’t see them either. Intimations of the transcendent still seep through, however, for as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, speaking of the mysterious glimpse into divine reality that fairy tales give,
Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.
But sometimes the prisoners cannot see it because no one has taught them how to look, because no one has cared enough to provide a “minimum”, because, even in paradise, if we turn away from “faith which worth through love”, then “nothing will make them either pray or think”, and the prisoners will hunger for cigarettes and cell phones and the momentary thrill a zipline gives.
The revival of our culture must include economic reform. There is no other way to regain our human dignity.