Category Archives: Religion

Luke 16:19-31

My friend asked, “Why do Republicans hate taxes and the Department of Education?” This is an interesting question that deserves a thoughtful answer.

Republicans explain that education should be in the private sector, and parents should have “educational choice.” This means that corporations and private foundations can make money from schools as parents pay for the education of their children. Wealthy people’s children will have better education than poor people’s children, but that is as it should be. I am reminded of when I taught ninth grade English at Edgewood High in San Antonio, Texas, in the late 1960’s, using fifteen-year-old textbooks sent to the inner-city school district from affluent schools north of the city. These books reminded me — then and now — of the “crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table.” (Luke 16:19-31) The Remote Area Medical Clinics here in Virginia make me think of that parable, and of food ministries giving backpack meals to hungry children. Reducing the quality and availability of public education establishes a de facto underclass limited to low-wage jobs and permanently mired in poverty.

Taxes maintain infrastructure and essential public services that should not be left to the ups and downs of market influences. Interestingly, most of the things we define as infrastructure — roads, bridges, airports, seaports, electric and sewer lines — support the market itself. Trucks could not bring inventory shipments to market without these supporting structures. So the market rests upon infrastructure built largely by tax money. Individuals use the same roads and bridges, driving their cars to work and to the store. But wealthy business owners who move tons of freight and count on the roads and bridges to bring both inventory and customers benefit enormously from tax-supported infrastructure.

It appears fair to me that these giant beneficiaries of public infrastructure should pay a larger share of taxes. But Republicans say that taxes are redistribution of wealth, taking the wealthy person’s hard-earned money and returning it to deadbeats who would themselves be wealthy if they had worked as hard as millionaires have worked. Reason and experience tells you that most poor and middle-income people work harder than millionaires, but Republicans do not operate from reason or consider experience. They have an “idea” that guides their thinking, which is why we say their approach is “ideological.”

The idea that drives much of the radical right-wing agenda is a Christian doctrine called “dominionism” that seeks to make the Bible the foundation of law in the United States. Their doctrine, or ideology, teaches that God is the only legitimate ruler. God rules through powerful people that he has put in place. You can tell that these people are chosen by God by the mere fact that they are wealthy and powerful. Working people should be content with their place, work hard, and if God decides they are worthy, they may become wealthy. But if they do not, they are still supposed to work hard and be content, and enough money will trickle down through charities and jobs given to them by wealthy people.

Dominionism also includes the social agenda — opposing LGBT rights and women’s right to choose, and assuring that traditional power structures remain in place. The social agenda is the preservation of ideological control, setting up a society in which rules from the Bible become laws.

The dominionist belief that God gives governments the right to rule runs counter to the ideas of democratic government, which come not from the Bible but from secular thought prevalent during the French Revolution and the American Revolution. Thinking about liberty and equality encouraged people to refuse to believe that God had given their kings the right to rule, and instead people began to believe that governments draw their just powers from the consent of the governed. Democratic forms of government with citizens casting votes for their legislators and heads of state originated from this set of ideas, not from the Bible.

If it seems that the GOP is trying to “roll back” progress and “rewrite history,” it is because they are trying to do exactly that. In order to do it, they have to break public education in science, math, history, social science, and the arts. They also have to convince people that God made them either rich or poor, and they must be content with their station in life. The poor receive charity from the rich, and the rich are appreciated and respected because God gave them riches and put them in charge.

That is why the GOP hates taxes and the Department of Education.

The semantic quibble is tiresome

The “marriage” vs “civil union” discussion is semantic. If you favor civil union for same-sex couples, you favor extending the civil codes relating to marriage to gay people. I guess the semantic argument bothers me for two reasons — first that I am an old English teacher and administrator who has had to get around too many arguments like this from people who didn’t do their homework, and second because this one has been used for so long to deny people their civil rights.

Today is the anniversary of the 2004 law that made Massachusetts the first state to sanction same-sex marriage, a right now recognized in five states and in Washington D.C. One of the first arguments put forward was by people who declared support for the rights of same-sex couples but who were unwilling to give them the word. On Facebook today the argument is still out in full force — “I support civil unions, but we should not redefine marriage.”

It is a religious quibble to deny civil and human rights to protect the use of a sacramental word in the civil code. Sacramental words are sacred and deeply appreciated within their respective churches, but in civil records “marriage” and “union” are both words with meaningful legal standing. Marriage in the civil code is the union of two people who express their commitment to each other and promise to live together as a couple. You can get “married” at the courthouse before a judge or magistrate without the intervention or sanction of any church, and under the civil law you will be married. So those who object to the use of the word “marriage” can have civil unions any time just by voting for gay marriage. Marriage is already a civil union in the United States.

With or without the law, each church must decide whether or not to sanctify same-sex unions. Each church can also decide what to call whatever they decide to do. Language is organic and takes time to change, but it follows the culture — so your terminology might catch on. If you wait for the language of the civil laws to change before you are willing to correct a recognized denial of civil rights within the culture, you are putting the cart before the horse.

Comfort for the soul of bin Laden

Wolf Blitzer is reporting today that 61% of his viewers believe that Osama bin Laden is in Hell. I have not heard rejoicing on this count, but I have heard some distress over the fact that his unredeemed soul went to a burning Hell. I offer these options for comfort:

  • Osama bin Laden is Muslim, and there is no reason to assign him a Christian afterlife. Consult instead the afterlife of his faith, and be comforted.
  • Mormons have recently re-branded themselves as Christians in a rapprochement that facilitates movement into the political mainstream in the United States, and comfort is available from them in the practice of baptism for the dead. Referenced in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 15:29 and adopted by Mormons in 1840, post-death baptism would extend salvation to Osama bin Laden and all of his wives. Many souls have been rescued in this way, including the U.S. founding fathers and Adolf Hitler.
  • Catholics, historical guardians of faith who brought Christianity to power in the western world, have Purgatory, an intermediate state from which a soul can be redeemed by the prayers of the faithful and the saints. It is a good idea and most comforting, and we could assume that Osama bin Laden is in Catholic afterlife and pray for his soul.
  • Also firmly in the Christian tradition we could label Osama bin Laden a virtuous pagan — a person who died without being born again, but who was a hero in his own non-Christian culture. Dante assigned these souls to the outer circle of Hell. Saladin, the Muslim who finally defeated the Christian Crusaders, is in this outer circle, along with the Greek and Roman heroes and philosophers and unbaptized infants. This circle is similar to and possibly derived from an older Hebrew tradition. It is not hot or unpleasant, but rather is peaceful, as reported by the prophet Samuel — 1 Samuel 28:15 — to Saul at Endor.

So we can within western Christian scripture-based tradition rest easy about the final disposition of the soul of Osama bin Laden. People concerned about the loss of a soul to the Devil can easily adopt one of these means of consolation. All of the options except the last one wrest that soul right back out of the Devil’s clutches, and in the last one the Devil doesn’t inflict himself on them unduly.

Peace.

Birds sing on in a world without Osama bin Laden, and both Christian and Muslim children who might have followed his instructions into their respective afterlives are entitled to rejoice. Christian and Muslim mothers and grandmothers are looking at the same sky above their children at play, and I imagine that most of them are praying we will choose peace. We can do that.

When faith is fragile

Christians have never seemed stronger in the United States than they appear today, with fundamentalism entrenched in the marketplace, education, entertainment, and government. But faith appears increasingly fragile.

Many families home-school children using curriculum materials that support biblical truth as opposed to social, historical, or scientific truth. Churches have their own rock music so they can rave without hearing contrary words, and there are Christian romance novels and Christian post-apocalyptic fiction for the young folks so they will not be led astray. Many Christians feel attacked by the mention of evolution, and their faith cannot comfortably coexist with science, other religions, or alternate lifestyles. To preserve their fragile faith, they silence or marginalize — perhaps demonize — people who do not fit their mold.

Human understanding of the universe and of people grows and expands, through human experience, reflection, discovery, and discussion. Such learning threatens the God of fundamentalism, who is changeless and text-bound, too small to contain the whole unfolding universe. So they protest too much and believe too little, and they are stressed-out and fearful, defending their downsized God instead of living in faith and moving forward.

The religon wars

Conflicts today often devolve to a conflict over religion, or at least between two groups committed to different interpretations of God. Both Islam and Christianity claim to be religions of peace, but history does not reveal them to be so. Judaism does not have an imperialist commission to convert people of other faiths and expand their territory, but it too bears historical scars of both oppressed and oppressor.

Yesterday in Egypt, a bomb exploded outside a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, killing several people:

After the explosion, some Christians from the church clashed with police in anger over the blast. The Christians hurled stones at police and a nearby mosque, chanting, “With our blood and soul, we redeem the cross,” the witnesses said. An AP photographer at the scene said the protesters stormed into the mosque, throwing books inside out onto the street. The protest sparked clashes with Muslims, as both sides began throwing stones and bottles at each other in the streets. (The Huffington Post, Maggie Michaell, “Egypt Church Explosion,” 12/31/10)

It is convenient in any conflict to be able to identify the “other person” who is the “enemy” as someone who does not worship the true God, meaning of course the one you worship. It doesn’t even have to be a different God. Arguably the reference “God” in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all refer to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The whole problem is that Muslim fundamentalists understand this God one way, Christian fundamentalists understand him another way, and Jewish fundamentalists yet another way. The difference becomes a reason for any group to kill members of the other group, wreck or ban their houses of worship, destroy their books and artifacts, call them infidels, and otherwise treat them in unfriendly and injurious ways.

Through history, most of the world’s large killing sprees have involved Christians, frequently on both sides of the conflict. Muslim fundamentalists have warred against each other and against Christians, earning their reputation as terrorists by striking at civilian targets without warning. It is not as if they were powerless to do better, because they have the same platforms available to other groups from which to negotiate or otherwise present their grievances. Their method is of their own choosing, and they expect that their God will reward them with paradise. Somehow it is not incongruous to think of a Viking soldier believing that his spirit will be borne into Valhalla if he dies in battle, just as it is not incongruous to think that some shepherd on the hills of ancient Rome believed that the sun was Apollo’s chariot racing across the dome of the sky. But in a scientific age it is difficult to think of a modern human with a suicide bomb believing that killing a group of random strangers is his ticket to paradise.

Perhaps it is that religion, which probably should be about how we live, has come to be about how we ought to die for our faith. A martyr earns God’s special favor in paradise and headlines that go around the world to tell people he is a soldier of God, while a person who dies in his bed after a long life of service to fellow human beings gets only his obituary in the local paper for a couple of days and a few family to welcome him on the other side. Or perhaps it is even more simple, and since nobody is actually certain of their own God’s favor, they have to prove themselves right and righteous by proving the other person wrong. If the other person is trampled upon or dead, if the other person’s books and holy artifacts are trashed and his temple destroyed, obviously his God wasn’t as good as the God whose soldier is still standing.

With the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution in our history, it seems likely to me that people could learn to live in peace if we could all manage to quit defending our all-powerful and eternal Gods against attacks by every piddly little infidel that strikes a pose.

Not a clue

It is not often that you get to meet a voter who knows exactly who God is, what God wants, and who God wants them to vote for, but I did meet such a person back in the summer while campaigning for Rick Boucher.

It was particularly disturbing because the person was a Christian. In the authoritative Christian text, Jesus said “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s,” clearly separating the secular from the sacred. In addition, he refused to be king of the world, and he threw the money-changers out of the house of worship. His message to the woman at the well separated worship from geography, tribal origin, and nationality. So to call any nation a Christian nation is contrary to the teaching of Jesus. History books published prior to the Great Revision (BGR) all show that in the United States it is also contrary to the ideas of the Founding Fathers. As to what God wants us to do, the Sermon on the Mount does not go into much legal detail the way Leviticus does, but it says pretty clearly that while God really doesn’t need anything that we can give, our fellow human beings are often hungry and ill and anxious, and if we take care of them, it is the same as if we are caring for God.

Anyway, this voter had come with a group to Acres of Democrats, an annual Democratic party fundraiser. Her group filled a table at the front of the room to the right of the speaker, and when Rick had finished his speech, they were strategically positioned to surround and pursue him, scripted and choreographed. To their dismay, Rick passed right through them, and several of the Democrats who saw the ambush stepped into his wake and stopped them. There were five or six of them, including two women who were apparently spokespersons, a videographer, and an outlier or two who were there to block.

Two Democrats were comforting the crying woman, listening to her repeat tearfully, “I just wanted him to answer me, just wanted him to come to our event that we invited him to.” She was visibly distraught, which is important when when there is a video. As we all began to realize what was going on, people turned away from the scene.

I stood for a minute or two listening to her performance, then I asked her some kind of question, which caused her to turn to me. The two people who had been listening to her seized the opportunity and left, having done their duty.

This voter was in tears, as proponents of the extreme right often are — agonizing about whether to vote for an incumbent with a proven record of service or for a newcomer campaigning on the “I am Christian” platform. The incumbent had supported gay rights and women’s rights, and so was accused of threatening the sanctity of marriage and killing babies. This was old rhetoric that I had already heard. But I was surprised to learn from this voter that Liberation Theology, which originated in the Black church, specifically in Reverend Wright’s church, was the most serious problem facing Americans, that it was the basis for the class warfare being waged by Democrats and Liberals, and that it was going to destroy the United States and Christianity. She knew nothing about Cap and Trade, about climate change, or about any issue. She was concerned about that one great evil, Liberation Theology. I myself had not even recognized this as an issue. She was concerned, even distressed, about Liberation Theology, but she still didn’t know anything about it. She could not name any of the tenets or principles, or name a theologian other than Wright. She did say that she had read all about it in Glenn Beck’s book, and she was an expert because she had been studying history for three years. Somewhere someone has a video. If you see it let me know.

This person’s vote counted as much as mine. She had no clue about the issues, but she was a protector of marriage against the threat of gays, protector of babies against murdering Moms, stalwart of the Christian faith without a clue what that is, advocate for millionaires that she didn’t know against people living in her own trailer park, on a mission from God and Beck, and pretending to be a Democrat in order to ambush a Congressman and pour out her self-righteous tears on camera.

Maybe it really is time to kick out the incumbents

When things don’t go well for some time, it is apparently reasonable to suggest that we need to kick out the incumbents, and I think it might be time to kick out the incumbents in religion. Christianity has been around for a long time and controlled kings and empires, and “peace on earth good will to men” has not happened. Christian Dominionists keep war against unbelievers on the front burner. Islam is a few years younger than Christianity, and they have that whole jihad terrorist fatwa thing going — a state of affairs that is not evidence of progress in meeting expectations for the good life. Judaism is over three thousand years old, and their God promised a lot more than has been delivered. Peace is even farther away from realization because each group has its own supremacists, which means we are all condemned to war until the last sect standing.

I am not suggesting that we kick out the incumbent God. God is either there and impervious to kicking out, or not there to kick out in the first place. But we do not hear directly from God, we hear from God’s managers, translators, handlers, and emissaries who tell us what God wants us to do. They have had thousands of years to get the message right, and somehow the whole group of prelates, bishops, imams, preachers, prophets, gurus, rabbis, evangelists, and even the Pope himself, have been ineffective. If we kicked them all out and replaced them with people who weren’t so much into the ideology, or the organization, or the profitability model, or whatever it is that has them stuck, maybe we would get a better result.