Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

Wikipedia tells me that the biblical phrase “Not of this world” could refer to four possibilities including a Christian based apparel company, an album by the Christian band Petra, an Italian film and a song performed by the heavy metal band Danzig. What it doesn’t say is that the term could also describe the actions of two wildly disparate Christians this past week.

How else to understand the comments coming from former Evangelical pastor, Ted Haggard and current Catholic pope, Benedict XVI than to say that neither of the men are acting like they are part of this world.

In the first case, Haggard, the former pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs and just as former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, spoke on the occasion of a HBO movie premiering this week about the beleaguered minister who was ousted from both positions when he was outed for being in other positions with a male prostitute. The movie purports to reveal Haggard’s continuing dilemma as he attempts to reconcile his Evangelical Christianity with his homosexual urges. Viewers of the film will recognize that his attempts are doomed to failure. The homophobia inherent in his divine theology crash head-on with the equally inherent desires in his very human nature. Curiously, Haggard has been on a whirlwind publicity campaign for the film. Appearing on various talk-shows in recent days, the disgraced pastor seemed oblivious to what appears obvious to most of the rest of the world. So ebullient has the ex-pastor appeared during this media blitz that his former church was forced into announcing a pay-off they were making to another of the pastor’s sexual partners who threatened to go public believing the new movie was too dismissive of his former lover’s extra-marital activities.

The fact that Haggard for years led the charge against equal civil rights for gay and lesbian folk should have been a tip off to the rest of us. Elmer Gantry always saved his most vitriolic sermons to rail against the very behaviors he most enjoyed. The disconnect between what we say and what we do is the very definition of hypocrisy.

Disconnect also describes Pope Benedict’s decision this week to un-excommunicate four bishops from a breakaway religious cult that produces liturgies and literature that are rife with anti-Semitic prejudice. Indeed, one of the bishops rescued from eternal damnation is an Englishman by the name of Richard Williamson who as recently as last week told a Swedish interviewer that no more than 300,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis and that there was no evidence of millions of other Jews being murdered in gas chambers.

The outcry from not just the Jewish community but religious folk around the world was immediate and inflamed. Jewish leaders sputtered in fury as they described the Pope’s decision as “deplorable” and wondered aloud how any dialogue with the Vatican could continue. By week’s end, the Pope had taken a step backward trying to distance himself from the still reprieved Williamson’s hate-filled rhetoric but the Pope’s failure to understand the obvious response to his actions seems spectacularly na├»ve at best and dangerously close to being downright sinister.

Christianity has carried on its campaign against the Jews for over two thousand years. At times it has exploded in hideous pogroms bent on extinguishing an entire population. Most other times it has simply included in its teachings the dark descriptions of Jews found in Christian scripture. But any kind of tolerance of such insidious assumptions seems certainly antithetical to the teachings of the one from whom this flawed religion takes its name. The Pope’s decision to turn a blind eye to these past injustices by forgiving a bigot who still refuses to recant reveals a different but equally bizarre disconnect with the world as that of Mr. Haggard’s.

It is interesting to note that Wikipedia’s entry does not point to the rabbi from Nazareth as the original source of the phrase “Not of this world.” But after what two of his disciples have said and done this past week, I suspect Jesus is probably hiding.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

It was right out of a movie script…there I was, passionate disparager of President Bush, spending the final full day of his dismal administration enthusiastically praising the president and wildly cheering as he walked by me, time and time again. Let me explain…

It was right out of a movie script because it was right out of a movie script. “My Name Is Kahn” is a Dharma Productions extravaganza starring Bollywood mega-star Sharukh Kahn whose celebrity status outside the U.S. was confirmed by the hundreds of Indian teenagers standing behind the barricades hoping to catch a glimpse of one of their country’s most beloved actors. I had a much better view than the screaming teens because, once again, during my winter sojourn in Southern California, I am wiling away my retirement days working as an extra in whatever movie or TV show happens to need a slightly balding, semi-alert, ex-preacher to fill in the background. This time it was “Kahn” shooting in LA and New York with a mainly all-Indian crew and cast and which, as best I can figure out, is telling the tale of an Indian traveler to America who gets accused of being a terrorist at a rally for President Bush. I know. I know. G.W.B. is old news but I hadn’t the heart to tell either the director or the star and, besides, movie jobs don’t come easy nowadays.

So, as I said, there I was cheering a remarkable presidential look-alike who, I assumed, was probably one of the few Americans mourning the outgoing administration seeing as he didn’t look in the least bit like Barack Obama. Over and over again, from slightly different angles and under varying conditions of light, the motorcade pulled up before me and the two hundred or so other extras lucky enough to be employed. Each time the faux-Bush popped out of the limousine, we went bananas…waving our little flags and cheering our president on. Acting can be very, very challenging.

As an actor who seeks to find the motivation for any character that he plays, I knew I needed to dig deeper into my casted role of an appreciative American. During each camera set-up, I frantically tried to focus on some presidential precedent that would allow me to more fully understand my responsibility to represent a truly grateful citizen. I have had other difficult tests of my dramatic abilities (most recently in the exhaustingly complex role of Mayor of Munchkinland) but nothing has challenged my thespian talents more than this particular theatrical trial.

I reminded myself that I am now a professional background actor and expected to draw on my own experiences to bring to the screen whatever emotions the director demanded. If this guy wanted gratitude, I was going to give him gratitude in spades. Integrity be damned. This was for my art!

At my age, memory begins to play games with reality and so I knew I would be able to come up with reasons to be thankful for the tenure of our outgoing president. There was that, of course…the outgoing part. And I always appreciated the fact that he had a dog frolicking about on the south lawn of the White House. His choice in a wife seemed spectacularly fortuitous. Surely all of America is grateful for that little bit of good fortune. Laura Bush’s obvious grace and good manners went far in balancing her hubby’s bloopers and blunders. One wonders how many other wars we might have to be waging was it not for the charms and, I suspect, wise counsel of Mrs. Bush.

Although it pretty much exhausted my inner resources, such grateful recollecting provided enough motivation for me to continue to fulfill my dramatic responsibilities. Each take took me closer and closer to the brink but still I was able to muster the means to appear to be deeply thankful. I waved. I cheered. I tried not to throw up. And I triumphed. When the Assistant Director in Charge of Extras so endearingly shouted through his bullhorn for us to “Get out of here and don’t leave any of your crap behind!” I heard in his brief dismissal a deep and profound gratitude for my professionalism.

It also sounded like a good theme for an inaugural address.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

I don’t suppose it was just because a certain Saturday columnist for the Summit Daily News expressed objection to the selection of Pastor Rick Warren as prayer-in-chief at this week’s presidential inauguration that gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson was invited to offer up a public prayer of his own at the inaugural kick-off festivities for the new president.

Clearly our new president seeks to make good on his pledge to bring America back from the brink of paralyzing partisan politics by seeking to include representatives from a wide range of political and religious perspectives. Of course, the problem comes in discerning where to draw the line on such inclusive hospitality.

For instance, I suspect there may be more than a few of the faithful who wish their own worldview would be equally represented before the millions who will be watching this coming Tuesday morning. With Rick Warren’s very public prejudices on display, one could fairly assume that those holding other bigoted biases will feel slighted by President Obama’s failure to include them as well.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if a Scientologist or two have had their feelings hurt by the inevitable exclusiveness that comes from trying to balance the theological teeter-totter as our new president is obviously trying to do. And what about our Hindu brothers and sisters who surely must feel slighted when they hear the ever-recurring references to the one God of monotheism in the midst of their polytheistic practices? Then there are the Lutherans who would be miffed to the max by their exclusion but wouldn’t dream of complaining. My heart even goes out to my Calvinist friends who surely would like to get their two-cents in regarding predestination before the president starts thinking he attained this lofty stature on his own. And is it not fair to assume there are rabbinic members of the pro-Israel lobby who would like the opportunity to make sure we all understand how God is blessing the current bombing barrage in Gaza just as a humble imam in Hamas might make his case for Allah’s benediction upon using schools, hospitals and mosques as rocket-launching sites? Personally, I wouldn’t mind having a Quaker lead us all in a lengthy peaceful silence but quiet reflection doesn’t seem too popular either in churches or out.

Hospitality has its drawbacks, it would seem. By the time a truly representative inaugural prayer could be pronounced, all of us would have long ago reached for the remote. As our new president is surely discovering, pleasing the people who claim to be pleasing God can be a very unpleasant proposition. You usually end up angering all and being damned by most. That is why almost every prayer before politicians ends up as nothing more than a few pious platitudes half-baked into a semi-humble pie.

Many years ago, I was talked into giving one such prayer before our Colorado House of Representatives. As I waited to be introduced, the woman in charge of public piety for that day reminded me that all prayers before the House were non-denominational and, even more importantly, short. She checked back with me several times before my scheduled debut and each time she would say something like, “Are you ready to give your SHORT prayer?” and “It’s almost time for the SHORT prayer.” Even I got her point and pared my message to the Almighty down to nothing more than the briefest of greetings, the swiftest of thanks and a good-bye that was perilously close to being downright curt. As I left the chamber, somewhat stunned by my ability to be so sanctimoniously succinct, I caught a glimpse of my female chaperone. She was giving me the “OK” sign with her thumb and forefinger. I shuddered to think what she would have done if I had run a little long.

In the intervening years, I have come to believe that the founding fathers were especially wise in their collective determination to keep politics and religion apart. I have a sneaky hunch, given the brouhaha brewing over inaugural prayers and their pray-ers, our new president might soon feel the same.