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.