Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

“You never ask questions when God’s on your side.”

Since Bob Dylan wrote those lyrics back in the early ‘60s he’s gone through a few transformations, religious and otherwise, but his words still resonate and seem even more appropriate today.

There was a gathering this past Wednesday in Pretoria, South Africa to celebrate the Day of the Vow by thousands of descendents of the racist Afrikaners. It was on December 16, 1838 that a group of white settlers from Europe promised God to remember the day forever if God would only allow a little slaughter of the natives to take place. And so it happened! Over 3000 black warriors were killed as they attacked the settlers. Only 3 Afrikaners were injured in the battle. And, as promised, the annual commemoration takes place complete with the recitation of the ancient vow. The news report I read in the New York Times included this comment: “We believe it was God’s will to have Christians lead the way in this land,” said Lukas de Kock, one of the leaders of Wednesday’s worship. “On that day, the Day of the Vow, God made a clear statement that this was his will for South Africa.”
It must be very comforting to the folk who still think apartheid was a good policy to know that God is as angry at Nelson Mandela as they are.

In like manner, our allies in Israel who continue to maintain the belief that God ordained their occupation of that sliver of land in the Middle East adamantly, even violently at times, defend their belief in God’s unquestionable mandate for their people.

And when one more Muslim suicide bomber detonates his body while crying out: "Allahu akhbar" (God is great), those who survive are reminded, once again, that some of the most dangerous people in the world are the ones who believe God is on their side.

Oral Roberts died this past week at the grand age of 91. Oral was a most successful purveyor of this same theological principle. Indeed, Roberts was so convinced that he and God were in such close communication that he once told his millions of followers that God would smite him dead if they didn’t come up with a substantial amount of cash by next Tuesday. The fact that they did what they were told and God subsequently didn’t do what he threatened only underscored everyone’s conviction that Oral and the Alpha-Omega were the best of buddies.

There have been many news reports that the U.S. Air Force academy in recent years suggested a similar alliance between the almighty and America. Some cadets even complained that they had been subjected to systematic campaigns to try and convince them that Christianity is a prerequisite for patriotism. A U.S. Air Force investigation in 2005 revealed that many of allegations were justified including a disturbing verification that the commandant made no apologies for his Christ and Country alignment, even introducing a “Jesus…Rocks” call and response chant to all the cadets. Those of you who follow football may remember the AFA’s coach calling his players the “Jesus’ Team”.

It makes sense, I suppose, to make sure the most powerful part of your arsenal is God, but it does seem more than a little self-serving to assume that the Great God Almighty always liked you best. Such thinking wouldn’t be of much comfort to the millions of innocent men and women, boys and girls, who have been obliterated by armies marching in the name of God.

With Christmas right around the corner, it may behoove those of us who claim to be Christians to stop and ponder another verse from Dylan’s perceptive musical poem:
“In a many dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss.
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

It used to be one of my favorite anecdotes. It concerned a confrontation many years back between Henry Kissinger, then Secretary of State, and The Reverend William Coffin, then chaplain at Yale University. They were arguing over the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The discussion was growing more and more heated until finally the Secretary said, “OK Bill, you tell me how to bring this war to an end!” Whereupon the noted cleric announced, “My job is to proclaim that ‘justice must roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Your job, Mr. Kissinger, is to work out the details of the irrigation system.”

I always liked how the role of the political critic or in this case, the religious prophet, left the resolution of the particular problem to others and was free to go on his merry way pointing out other issues with equal contempt for the difficult details of resolution. I still think there is a role for the critic/prophet in today’s world but I am less inclined to allow them the luxury Pastor Coffin claimed. Although I continue to want to be made aware of the many injustices that plague our planet, I am giving less credence to those who only complain and much more to those willing to find solutions.

I suspect most Americans are growing tired of the endless stonewalling of legislation by the nay-sayers in Congress. Countless childish strategies are being employed by those who didn’t get their way in the last election to make sure that no progress is made in solving our national problems by those who did. One can’t help but wonder if such partisanship is really the way our democracy is intended to work…with one side seeking constructive remedies and the other side precluding any progress. A nation that ranks 37th in the world in health care should, it would seem, be eagerly involved in rectifying the situation. Instead we have such dispiriting tactics as this one reported by Alan Grayson (D-FL) who describes how Congressmen/women vote with electronic voting cards. In recent weeks, many from the minority party have claimed to “lose” their cards and so slow the voting process down to a crawl. Grayson says, “They’d all walk to the front of the House and, laughingly and jokingly, put their arms around each other’s shoulder like it was some kind of clownish fun. And they did this over and over to make sure every vote took half an hour. That’s how low things have gotten. I could give you countless examples just like that. They’re simply obstructionists and there’s nothing you can do about it.’’

Remembering how Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) bragged, "If we’re able to stop Obama on this (Health Care) it will be his Waterloo. It will break him." We cannot be blamed for thinking that the once noble concept of “loyal opposition” has devolved into schoolyard bullying. I am not so naïve to think that such despicable behavior hasn’t been perpetrated by politicians from both parties but in this time of national crisis we all should demand something better.

And speaking of crises, President Obama announced that we will be increasing our Afghanistan troop involvement by 30,000 shortly. (Troop involvement, by the way and just in case anyone is confused, means actual men and actual women in uniform…sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, many just boys and girls.) As many have already commented, the president had to make a difficult choice from a list of bad alternatives. The careful and prolonged process he used to reach his decision, although it frustrated many, was a welcome relief from the impulsive and irresponsible actions of his past predecessor. Nevertheless, the president’s decision is a disappointment especially for those of us old enough to clearly remember the political rationale employed that eventually brought us to our knees in Vietnam. Although no one can predict the outcome, many fear that this response only delays the inevitable political chaos that will come to Afghanistan when American troops finally pull out. I certainly hope President Obama continues to listen to constructive and helpful criticism as he carries out his plan.

Like Bill Coffin, I do believe it is government’s job to “work out the details of the irrigation system” but unlike Bill, I’m not so sure just quoting a religious prophet is all that we critics need do.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

Bah! Humbug!

One does run the risk of being called “Scrooge” for offering a critique of the sacred cows of our culture during this season of the year but, for reasons that may be apparent to some, this year especially, I happily pursue the gamble.

Our nation’s growing numbers of atheists are making their presence known this Christmas with campaigns in various cities promoting a different approach to this time of year. Displayed on buses and billboards in Washington D.C., for instance, is the following: “No god?...No problem! Be good for goodness sake.”
Such secular sentiment is sure to raise the ire of many religionists who understandably, if mistakenly, assume that Christmas should be reserved for Christians. But it appears those who don’t share the same doctrinal understandings, or any doctrine for that matter, want a share of the holiday spirit.

According to Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of the American Humanist Association (quoted in the New York Times 12-1-09): “We don’t intend to rain on anyone’s parade, but secular people celebrate the holidays, too, and we’re just trying to reach out to our people. To the degree that we are reaching out to the godly, it’s just to say that you can be good without god. So their atheist neighbor down the street shouldn’t be vilified as though he is immoral.”

The idea that someone can be good without God seems especially galling to some folk who have managed to manipulate their particular divine into declaring that there is only one way of being in God’s good graces and they just happen to have a monopoly on it. But to those who believe the heavenly life is experienced more by doing good deeds rather than just believing good thoughts, the atheists have a point. Santa was right. Being good is its own reward.

Recent studies are indicating that the altruistic impulse is not just morally compelling but physically healing as well. In one, it was found that elderly people who volunteered four hours each week were 44% less likely to die during the study period. (Buck Institute for Age Research). In another, reported in Psychology Today, surveys of over 3000 women who volunteered regularly revealed these women experienced a sense of well-being similar to vigorous exercise or meditation.

The opportunity this year to get up close and personal with Ebenezer Scrooge at the Lake Dillon Theatre has offered me insight into the transformation of this woefully unhappy man. Scrooge’s conversion is instigated not by religious doctrine, as noble as it may or may not be, but through a confrontation with his own humanity. His recognition of a wasted life is not a capitulation to a particular creed but the recognition of a universal truth. Our lives grow in value as we value the lives of others.

Back when I spent my days counseling Christians, I would occasionally be taken aback by someone expressing their chagrin over a God who welcomed everyone into the heavenly family. “What’s the point in being a Christian then?” some would ask indignantly and thus reveal their failure to understand the spiritual truth that doing good is its own reward. Any system, religious or not, that promotes the value of altruism understands the true meaning of Christmas…which is why I find the current campaign by our atheist friends and neighbors to be a most appropriate approbation of our culturally conflicted Christmas season.

“God (or not) bless us, everyone!”

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

I am well aware that the Christmas season officially began yesterday with midnight madness sales kicking off a hoped for spending spree that will reignite our communal, if latent, consuming impulse and thus save our world from economic collapse. Go for it. I am definitely opposed to economic collapses.
But as we are all going about saving the world, I thought it might be of some interest to explore some of the theological underpinnings of our upcoming holiday. While I recognize that not all participants in the Christmas season would care to align themselves with Christianity right now, and judging from the headlines out of Ireland, one can certainly understand why, I offer the following bits of Biblical trivia along with one rather shocking hypothesis to invite you into a deeper appreciation for this once religious festival.
The Bible, like all sacred texts, was written to describe a particular understanding of reality. In my case, as a Christian, it begins with the understanding of an ancient religious tradition known today as Judaism. The Hebrew Scripture or what is often referred to as the Old Testament is the cumulative work of a particular religion’s attempt to understand who they are and what life is all about. Christianity emerged out of Judaism with a reinterpretation of some of the Hebrew Scripture to proclaim a new understanding of how God is at work in the world through Jesus. This reinterpretation is found in the second part of the Bible that Christians call the New Testament.
Now there are a number of issues that need to be dealt with before one can even begin to get a grasp of how the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian, should be understood. The first is language. I know this may come as a surprise to some, but the Bible wasn’t written in English, King James’ or otherwise. The Hebrew scripture was written in Hebrew but was translated into the Greek several hundred years before Jesus. So the early Christians used a Greek translation of the original texts to interpret this new understanding of the ancient Hebrew. The New Testament was written in Greek but we have to remember that Jesus’ language was Aramaic and although he may have been able to read and write in Greek and/or Hebrew he spoke in a different language than how it was eventually written down. Do you begin to see the problem here? Anyone who has traveled to a foreign country knows some of the difficulties around translating what you want to say to someone who doesn’t understand a word of what you’re saying!
Again, Jesus spoke in Aramaic not Greek. We are told that Jesus once said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Of course, camels don’t go through needles…not even teeny-weeny camels. But in Aramaic the word for camel and the word for rope are almost identical. So did Jesus say it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle or a rope to go through the eye of a needle? One is impossible the other may have a little wiggle room. The problem of translating Hebrew into Greek becomes even more apparent in the famous passage from Isaiah of the Hebrew Scripture that Matthew used in writing about the birth of Jesus in the Christian Scripture. Matthew used the Greek translation of the original Hebrew when he quoted Isaiah 7:14 to describe the miraculous conception of Jesus…”A virgin will conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” Only in the original Hebrew the word is “almah” which is never understood in Hebrew as virgin but rather a young woman. Somewhat shockingly perhaps, a whole doctrine was developed around this mistranslation. My point is not to argue against the perpetual virginity of Mary or the biological eccentricities surrounding Jesus’ birth but rather to point out the incredible difficulties inherent in translations.
Then we have to confront the context of these writings. When were they written? Who wrote them and why? Much of the Hebrew Scripture emerged out of a tumultuous time of tribal warfare. Armies fought horrific battles each claiming, as we do today, that God or the gods are on one particular side. We have the writings of one of these groups. It is understandable that God is on the side of these particular authors, just as Allah is on the side of Islam. It all depends on your particular perspective. So ponder, if you’d like, the context of the birth stories of Jesus.
Palestine in the time of Jesus was an occupied country, much as it is today. Only back then the occupiers were Romans. If you know anything about history, you know that occupying forces do some pretty terrible things. They take over homes. They blow up schools. They enslave or kill men. And they often rape the women. This has been shown quite terribly in our own lifetime. We remember with horror the stories out of Bosnia and Serbia. The Vietnam War left hundreds maybe thousands of mixed-race children in its wake. It is a horrible but very real casualty of occupation.
Consider this possibility: the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy that Joseph so nobly responds to is not the result of a beatific blessing surrounded by cherubim and seraphim but a brutal rape by a Roman soldier.
The word is “mamzer”. It is a Hebrew word that means “of questionable birth” or “illegitimate child”. Some Bible scholars are suggesting that this is an accurate description of Jesus. They posit this thesis on some very intriguing evidence. A mamzer, you see, would be rejected in his own community, as Jesus most certainly was. A mamzer would be excluded from fully participating in the religious and cultural rituals of his tribe. A mamzer would be an outsider, a reject.
Over and over again in the Christian Scripture, Jesus can be seen reaching out to the outcast, welcoming those who were never welcomed, eating with the unclean, advocating that no one is excluded from the love of God. This is not the teachings of someone who led a privileged and economically enriched life but rather the teachings of an outsider, one who has been rejected by his religion, his culture, his community… a bastard, a mamzer.
So with that, I bid you go and shop. Our world certainly needs saving.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

I still can’t decide if Lloyd Blankfein, multi-multi-millionaire and CEO of Goldman Sachs, was just being amazingly arrogant or distressingly stupid when he claimed last week to be “doing God’s work” as his company continued its reportedly ruthless reign at the top of America’s troubled financial institutions. I suppose his thinking is somewhere along the line of former General Motors’ CEO, Charlie Wilson, who, back in 1953, said, “…what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa." As long, that is, as huge corporations continue to make huge profits, allowing whatever change is left over after paying even huger salaries to the staff to trickle down to the rest of America that manages to eek out an existence with a $50,303 per household median income. Mr. Blankfein’s eeking involves a $30 million apartment in Manhattan and an equally elaborate weekend place in the Hamptons but, after all, he claims to be doing God’s work and the disciples must be paid.
As my wife will quickly tell you, my expertise in money matters is limited to pushing the correct pin code into an ATM so I will refrain from further financial criticism. However, I think I can fairly claim a certain expertise in the theological field and so I am not hesitant to examine Mr. Blankfein’s statement in terms of its religious validity. After four years of post-graduate study and thirty years on the front lines of congregational life, I feel it only fair to wonder aloud as to the God to whom Mr. Blankfein is employed. From my study of both Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the God of Judeo-Christianity seems emphatically concerned with the welfare of society’s lower strata. Indeed, if there is a prejudice on the part of the divine, one would have to concede it is against the rich. Despite what some “prosperity preachers” claim, the God of the Bible is overwhelmingly opposed to wealth in the hands and pockets of the few. Of course, Mr. Blankfein may be worshiping some other God than the one described in Judeo-Christian tradition which is his right but someone should remind him that the holy practice of zakat, the fair distribution of wealth, is a fundamental principle of Islam, as well. And anyone even slightly familiar with Buddhism knows that the acquisition of great wealth can be a great impediment to true happiness.
This week we found out that the Center for Disease Control sent out significant quantities of H1N1 vaccine to Goldman Sachs to distribute among the executives and some of the employees. As everyone knows, this vaccine is in limited supply and has been designated primarily for the very vulnerable: young children, pregnant women and those with severe respiratory problems. One can only assume that Mr. Blankfein’s God is disturbingly devoid of any hint of compassion toward these threatened populations. That or there are truckloads of toddlers at Goldman Sachs pulling in some very big bucks.
After so many years in the religion business, I’ve grown more than a little weary of claims made on behalf of the Lord. Wearing a collar makes you an easy target for those wishing to share the most bizarre examples of God’s beneficence. Everything from winning ballgames to bullying children have been set before me as proof of divine delineating but nothing is more repugnant in my mind than the quite common assumption that one’s wealth is proof of one’s piety.
I have been fortunate in my life to know some very wealthy people whose understanding of their social responsibilities have made them sensitive to the plight of people whose situations are dramatically different than their own. They have used their wealth in a myriad of ways…from funding self-sustaining micro-businesses to building hospitals, from training budding Third-world entrepreneurs to running orphanages in Asia…and, as best as I can recall, not a one of them ever bragged that they were “doing God’s work.”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

I have heard there are some people in America who actually take Sarah Palin seriously so I suppose I should report that all indications are that President Obama has not established a “Death Panel” expressly to decide if Ms. Palin’s granny is to live or die. However, grandma may not be entirely out of the woods.

Not too long ago, I found myself surrounded by fellow senior citizens adamantly declaring that they would never want to move in with their children no matter how dire their financial circumstances had become. Considering the state of most of our 401ks, I understood why many around me nodded their heads in worrisome agreement. Nevertheless, I found such passionate opposition to expanding family parameters more than a little curious. After all, we are only a generation or two removed from when grandma or grandpa was expected to be a part of the household. Indeed, my 90 year old mother was raised by her own grandmother who had been brought to America by Mom’s father, my grandpa, after his mother was widowed. From the time I was very young I heard stories of how “Grossmuter” cooked, cleaned and cuddled but never spoke a word of English in my mother’s childhood home.

Certainly such a scenario was not unique among my mother’s generation. A cursory look through any dusty family album will show how integrated grandparents were in the lives of their children and grandchildren. Shipping granny and grandpa off to institutional care is, in the scheme of things, a very recent development.

And what about this fervent desire among my peers to never depend upon their children for anything more than Thanksgiving dinner or a couple of hours sitting round the Christmas tree?

As a grandparent myself, I suppose my concern sounds a little self-serving and probably sends a collective shiver down the spines of my three kids but it does seem more than a little odd that such a dramatic change in family dynamics has taken place in such an extraordinarily short time.

Perhaps it is the inculcating of that uniquely American myth of rugged individualism that has finally managed to work its way into our senile psyches, convincing us we can and must go it alone right down to the end. Recent advertisements on TV and magazines reinforce this mindset. “Will you run out of money before you run out of breath?” goes the underlying message and we oldies are left convinced that nothing could be worse.

It may be that a similar sense of shame is being used to fuel the fanatical opposition to any national health care plan. The very thought of relying on the generosity of others or, perhaps even worse, sharing such largesse with others, fuels this absurd animosity toward a reasonable health care policy that is merely in keeping with every other developed nation in the world.

As long as I am psychoanalyzing, could the absurd amounts of money spent on the last few weeks of an elderly man or woman’s life be the direct result of the guilt felt by descendents who have neglected the one who is dying when he or she was much more fully alive?

In Asia, things are done a little differently. In fact, caring for one’s parents is still the paramount feature of Chinese culture. Rooted in Confucianism’s veneration of the elderly, nothing is more important to a son or daughter than the well-being of their parents. The expectation that a parent would be ashamed to live with his or her offspring is beyond that culture’s comprehension. In China, at least, we oldies are seen as a blessing rather than a burden. (All of which makes me extremely grateful I have a Chinese-American son-in-law.)

“It takes a village to raise a child” is how that famous African saying goes but one can’t help but worry how that child will fare if Gramps is spending his days on an Arizona golf course and Nana is nowhere to be found.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

Thank God the World Series is over! This overhyped culmination of the baseball season not only marks the end of 2,450 games played since the beginning of April but also the termination of a plethora of theologies displayed by baseball-playing disciples that often leave fans scratching their heads and searching their souls in existential quandaries.
For instance, it is not uncommon for the under-informed to wonder why the ballplayer who just managed to beat out a lazy groundball to the shortstop now stands tall upon the first base bag and with the relaxed confidence of one friend greeting another, points with both hands skyward in a gesture that clearly indicates a certain form of intimate discourse. The logical assumption, of course, is that the player is indicating his gratitude to God for allowing said player the pleasure of increasing his batting average, humiliating the opposing pitcher and, somewhat incidentally, helping his team.
The first overtly theological concern one may have in observing such obeisance is the player’s obvious supposition that the Almighty resides somewhere above the stadium walls. It is difficult not to wonder if this particular hitter spent too much time in the batter’s cage and too little in science class. Standing erect as he is pointing to the distant cosmos confident that he has located the domicile of the divine, leads one to think it is not unfair to ask if this well-muscled and very well paid athlete has ever heard of Copernicus or Galileo, Einstein or Carl Sagan.
But even more disturbing to some of us is the underlying assumption that the creator of our universe wherein 16,000 children die of hunger related causes each day and where 1 billion residents of our planet live in extreme poverty, subsisting on less than $1 a day, would take time out to catch a doubleheader between the Phillies and the Mets.
Such theological hypothesizing, even while chomping on a hot dog and sipping a cold one, can, one needs to be forewarned, lead to even bigger questions of pious pondering…The batter who, before stepping into the batter’s box, pauses to wheel his right hand around his head and chest in a gesture that, discerned only with slow-motion replay, is revealed to be the ancient Christian spiritual practice of making the sign of the cross certainly creates a conundrum for those familiar with the story this particular pious practice points to. To the objective observer, the unjust but perfectly legal execution by crucifixion of an innocent young rabbi some 2000 years ago would seem to have little in common with a right fielder’s desire to delight his fans by blasting a baseball out of the park. One cannot help but find more than a little theological turmoil trying to bridge the gap between these two events. How is it possible, we ask, that this symbol of the fundamental underpinning of one of the world’s largest religions has been relegated to what can best be described as a lucky charm?
Then there is the spitting. This is less theologically confusing than the other religious practices inherent to baseball. The constant expectorating by both players and coaches is clearly indicative of their spiritual need for absolution. And what with multi-million dollar salaries, steroid enhancements and the hanky-panky of road trips, it’s no wonder these sinning sportsmen are hanging loogies all through the line-up.
Less understandable is the growing tendency to merge church and state within the confines of what for many of us is the secularly sacred baseball diamond. I write now of the near common direction on the part of those in charge to have someone sing “God Bless America” sometime during the 7th inning stretch. Not only is this a hackneyed hymn of dubious musical charm and smarmier sentiment, it reinforces the confusion that contributes to the theological puzzlement on the part of players and fans alike. Must the many players from Venezuela, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, et al., pretend allegiance to such a parochially prejudiced plea? Shouldn’t we allow those who hope God’s benevolence goes beyond one nation’s boundaries get the opportunity to introduce another, more inclusive, theological perspective? Ironically, the Most Valuable Player of this year’s Series was Hideki Matsui, a native of Japan where the predominant religion is non-theistic Buddhism. Matsui went 8 for 13 with 3 home runs and 8 RBIs…and without any God blessing him. Ponder upon that theological predicament if you dare.
And speaking of predicaments, the Chicago Cubs managed to not make it to the World Series for the 64th straight year. We Cub fans haven’t given up on the lovable losers from Wrigley. But we are asking for your prayers.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

The growing numbers of folk who now check the “None of the above” box when it comes to religion may wish to skip the following column and move directly to the car ads but for those others who find the dramatic deconstruction of many things religious and the subsequent reshaping of the very future of all of humankind of more than passing interest, read on.

This past week Pope Benedict XVI, known to his friends as Joe Ratzinger and to his enemies as “The Enforcer”, surprised most of the Christian world by extending an invitation to the historically heretical but currently conflicted conservative members of the world-wide Anglican Communion to jump their teetering ship and make sail on the Vatican’s ecclesiastical vessel.

Like many denominations, the Anglicans (Episcopalians here in the U.S.) are immersed in a struggle for their religious identity that pits those who wish for a religion that integrates the scientific, cultural and philosophical progress of the past 600 years or so with those who prefer Pope Benedict’s predilection for the Dark Ages. Hence the invitation.

Benedict, who was the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as The Inquisition, before he was picked by his peers for the top spot, has long expressed his dissatisfaction for the way the world has gone. His continued support of the failed policy of sexual abstinence in the fight against AIDS and over-population combined with his shocking reversal of the excommunication of an unrepentant Holocaust-denying bishop are only two examples of the Pope’s failure to understand how life has changed since the Roman Emperor Constantine swung his sword and switched our predecessors from pagans into pious Christians.

So his invitation to the disaffected Anglicans appears to be nothing more than a political attempt to shore up the medieval mindset that pervades this disappointed part of Christianity. It is not entirely unlike the current fundamentalists’ power grab among the Moslems or Jews or Hindus to name a few obvious examples. Religious right-wingers watch with horror as the modern world takes more and more of their adherents away. Their common strategy seems to be entrenchment, drawing that proverbial line in the sand that declares whether one is on the side of God or the sinful world. And once the divine blessing is established, it becomes increasingly easy to resort to the most un-Christian or un-Islamic or un-Jewish of actions.

At this point it would be easy and tempting to throw up one’s hands and declare all religion anathema as comedian Bill Maher and scientist Richard Dawkins have so publically done. Their declarations of the irrelevancy and even villainy of religion fails to understand the monumental shift that is occurring among religions today. What we are witnessing everywhere from the intransience of the Vatican to the violence of the Taliban are the last throes of the dying. Religion that shapes itself on a pre-scientific, anti-modern worldview, no matter how powerful it may appear right now to be, is condemned to the dustbin of history along with flat-earthers, creationists and the Mayan calendar.

Conversely, and despite the depositions of Maher, Dawkins,, a new kind of religion is being born and taking form in a myriad of differing shapes. It is religion unafraid of the progress that has transpired across the spectrum of science, a religion that isn’t informed by an omnipotent being or infallible book but by the actions of communities of compassionate people who are experiencing the transcendent power of peace-making and justice-seeking. This is religion that finds its identity not in doctrinal declarations that distance itself from others but the realization that our planet grows ever smaller and ever desperate for a unifying theology that recognizes the failures of separatist superiorities and the ultimate value of acknowledging that there are many, equally valid and honorable, paths to the truth.

As idealistic and unrealistic as this may appear, the fact is it is occurring over and over again all over the world in mostly un-dramatic and under-reported ways but occurring it is and it is slowly but inevitably eroding the fortress walls of the medieval-thinking men now in power.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

I suppose one could excuse the boorish behavior of South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson as simply the inopportune outburst of a passionate politician. Of course, such understanding would have to diminish Wilson’s membership in the “Sons of Confederate Veterans” an organization, one could fairly assume, that still bemoans General Lee handing over his sword at Appomattox.
And maybe when Senator Jim DeMint, also from South Carolina, declared that defeating any health care reform would be President Obama’s…”Waterloo. It will break him.”, it was nothing more than political strategizing and not the personal vendetta it appeared to be. But then again one would have to exclude his enthusiastic remarks on “Good Morning America” complimenting the plethora of poster-bearing and confederate flag-waving folk that attended the September 12 protest march in Washington D.C. Many of the posters at the gathering depicted President Obama as a communist, a fascist and, perhaps worst of all for the gathered, an African-American.
I’ll grant it is possible that these two men’s comments are not infused with bigoted undertones but simply the innocent commentary of dedicated conservative thinkers…although it does tend to stretch one’s credulity to think that the state that elected the segregationist Strom Thurmond to the Senate right up to when he was 100 years old, would be humbly offering America two racially objective congressional representatives.
But when two Republican county chairmen…again from South Carolina…publish an opinion column this past week in the Orangeburg Times-Democrat that includes a vile anti-Semitic smear, it is enormously difficult to ignore the racist mindset that seems to permeate Republican politics in that state. The fact that the two chairmen immediately and effusively offered apologies for their gaffe only underscores their inability to understand the realities of 21st century America. It is clear to me that these men never thought their use of a pernicious stereotype would offend any of their readers. These men were only expressing what is taken for conventional wisdom in too much of America. What’s more, I’ll wager there isn’t a person reading these words who can’t remember a recent time when a similar xenophobic sentiment was shared in their presence.
To think that over 200 years of racial, religious and sexual injustice can disappear from America’s collective psyche without a significant backlash is to evidence a naiveté that even we liberals are incapable of achieving. The “race card” continues to be played over and over again in contexts that stretch from country clubs to Congress, from neighborhood red lines to national party lines. Each time an 18 wheeler rushes by with a Confederate flag on its grill, each time you hear how someone “jewed” another down, each time you read of one more gay man beaten nearly to death, you can bet that the race card or the religion card or the sexual card is being played one more time in America.
This week, The Boston Globe reported that the Secret Service was under a significant strain with the “unprecedented increase” in threats to our president. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the activities of hate groups and paramilitary organizations throughout America, has this to say on the recent enormous growth in these groups: “A key difference this time is that the federal government — the entity that almost the entire radical right views as its primary enemy — is headed by a black man.”
When you hear TV and radio commentators claim that our president has a "deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture." (Glenn Beck) or describe him as “the little black man-child” (Rush Limbaugh) or when politicians allow their bigotry to trump protocol and their prejudice to pervert the democratic process, it is difficult not to think that what is being played is some very dirty poker.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

The great hue and cry from America’s right over the designation of President Obama as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner had me returning to another time when shock and indignation marked the standard conservative response. It was 1964 and, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, it was the last time the prize was awarded to an African-American, Dr. Martin Luther King.

It was my first year of college and I was caught up in the political fervor that was spreading like wildfire across campuses throughout America. Late night discussions in smoke-filled dorm rooms had us neophytes philosophizing on America’s extensive list of problems and our easy enough solutions. So when Dr. King was announced as that year’s Peace Prize winner many of us saw it as a powerful confirmation of our convictions. King was a symbol of what could be achieved when the deepest of hopes combined with the bravest of actions.

Of course such naiveté was soon tempered by the failure of too many on the left to commit to non-violent civil disobedience for a just cause and too many on the right to acknowledge the legitimacy of equal rights for all. Still, many of us were stunned by the vitriol spewed against the Nobel Committee’s selection and the Civil Rights Movement in general. The reaction from southern politicians, both Democrat and Republican, was expected but even conservatives in the north let loose their invectives…On his opposition to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater piously declared, “You can’t legislate morality” and William Buckley’s National Review magazine had this to say about Dr. King:

"For years now, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates have been deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagoguery, they have been cracking the “cake of custom” that holds us together. With their doctrine of “civil disobedience,” they have been teaching hundreds of thousands of Negroes — particularly the adolescents and the children — that it is perfectly alright to break the law and defy constituted authority if you are a Negro-with-a-grievance; in protest against injustice. And they have done more than talk. They have on occasion after occasion, in almost every part of the country, called out their mobs on the streets, promoted “school strikes,” sit-ins, lie-ins, in explicit violation of the law and in explicit defiance of the public authority. They have taught anarchy and chaos by word and deed — and, no doubt, with the best of intentions — and they have found apt pupils everywhere, with intentions not of the best. Sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind." (Sept. 7th, 1965)

Part of that whirlwind, so dreaded by Mr. Buckley and others, has brought millions of African-Americans into the mainstream of American life and now even into the White House.

The conservative reaction to President Obama’s award has ranged from careful criticisms of his alleged lack of political progress to the insipid and often hate-filled rants of radio and TV commentators. In the end, many of these outspoken critics will find themselves, as did their ideological predecessors, on the wrong side of both history and morality.

Long before his death and in the midst of many disappointments and failures, Dr. King had entered into that Parthenon of men and women who represent more than what they have accomplished in their own lives. He became an iconic force that empowered the imaginations of millions to soar beyond their own limited visions and experiences. For 250 years, America has been shaped and guided by these mythic figures who are more than the sum of their historical accomplishments. Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, to be sure, but also Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony, Ronald Reagan and Robert F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers and Matthew Shepherd.

Although the Nobel Committee claims the prize was offered for actions already taken, I suspect President Obama may have cringed just a bit when he learned of his newly bestowed honor and, perhaps upon reflection, come to the realization that this prize is a powerful declaration of where millions and millions of people around the world have placed their hopes and dreams for a better, more peace-filled, life for themselves and the generations to come.

“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow.” (Nobel Acceptance Speech. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., December 10, 1964.)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

There is a crisis in America.

And although my more rational readers may think this national calamity may have something to do with the giant gridlock that has stalled the implementation of any reasonable health care policy, they would be wrong. Others among the saner set might assume that our continuing military involvement in Afghanistan is cause for enormous concern with a growing consensus among our citizenry that there must be some other means for resolution there than participating in a tribal war that has been killing participants for decades. They, too, would be wrong.

For the crisis of which I write is of far greater concern to a certain segment of Americans for whom minor issues like health care and warfare pale in comparison to the frightening fact that America is running out of ammunition for our handguns! According to the Associated Press, “American bullet makers are working around the clock, seven days a week, and still cannot keep up with the nation’s demand for ammunition.”

It seems that ever since an African-American was elected president, the plethora of paranoiacs who make America statistically the top nation in the world for gun ownership have been gobbling up ammunition at a phenomenal and, for some of us, frightening rate. According to the National Rifle Association, Americans normally purchase a measly 7 billion rounds of ammunition each year. This year that has jumped to 9 billion. Even with the worst of shooters, if our gun-toting folk manage to fire off every bullet and cartridge over the next twelve months, I worry there won’t be a deer, elk, moose, bear or human being left standing.

Setting aside the often specious Second Amendment arguments that are dragged out time and time again whenever anyone dares to wonder aloud why we Americans feel compelled to mimic Wyatt Earp on the streets of Tombstone, one can’t help but see an ominous connection between our current president’s color and the current dearth of ammo. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, by most accounts, a reasonable and tolerant man, sounded the alarm this week in a column where he mused… “The American political system was, as the saying goes, “designed by geniuses so it could be run by idiots.” But a cocktail of political and technological trends have converged in the last decade that are making it possible for the idiots of all political stripes to overwhelm and paralyze the genius of our system. I worry that one of the ingredients of that cocktail is the appalling lack of reasonable gun control in America.

When men dressed in camouflage can stand at the entrances to meetings where the president is to appear and legally brandish their own weapons of specific destruction, how can reasonable folk not see a serious threat to both the life of our president and the future of our country? Friedman equates this time in America to the atmosphere in Israel just before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

Ex-president Jimmy Carter was pilloried recently by politicians and others for suggesting that the frenzied opposition to President Obama’s new policies was driven in part by racist motives. Carter, a Georgian native and personal witness to the inherent evil of a racist society, bravely confessed what, I think, many of us encounter in casual conversations nearly every day. Racism is alive and well in a very sick way in America.

Is the increase in both gun ownership and political lunacy necessarily connected? Perhaps not but in a country where hate-filled, racially charged, rhetoric resounds everywhere from the airwaves to the internet to the very halls of Congress, it would seem prudent to at least consider finding rational ways for keeping the loonies away from the Uzis.