Thursday, June 26, 2008

If You're Presbyterian, It's OK to Demonize the Jews

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a problem with me. Well, not with me personally, but with my people. No, not white men in their late fifties who still read comic books; Jews, most of whom are not white, or in their late fifties, or readers of comic books (though we do create a lot of them).

To help themselves overcome their problem with Jews the Presbyterian Church has published a resource document entitled “Vigilance Against Anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias.” When you have to publish a book like this to help your members stop their anti-Jewish ideas and biases, you know you have a serious anti-Jewish problem. But still, this document seemed like a good idea. At least they are dealing with the problem.

Or are they?

To test out their ideas the authors of the document sent advance copies to various rabbis. The response was positive. After getting a nod of approval from these Jews, however, the authors of the document removed several of the key passages from the new final version.

Here is one example that I find most heinous. The version of the document shown to the rabbis contained the following sentence:

We Presbyterians can and should confront stereotypes and biases we may hold regarding Israel, characterize the concerns and positions of Jews accurately, and avoid stereotyping and demonizing the Jewish people.

This is a very positive and important sentence. In fact, given that the document is all about ending anti-Jewish ideas and bias among Presbyterians, this sentence is crucial to the entire document. And yet, after winning the praise of the rabbis, the sentence was taken out of the final version. So, in their vigilance against anti-Jewish ideas and bias it is still OK for Presbyterians to mischaracterize and demonize Jews.

Anyone with a basic understanding of Jew-hatred among Christians knows that demonization of the Jews goes back to the New Testament where Jesus says to the Jews, “You are of your father the Devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires (John 8:44). While Jesus was not talking about all Jews (his followers were Jews), and while he may have been speaking metaphorically, later Christians did take it literally and did apply it to all Jews, and used Jesus words to validate the torment, torture, and slaughter of millions of Jews from the moment the Church had the power to do so.

While one might applaud the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for honoring its roots and sticking with the demonization of Jews, it doesn’t bode well for my people and me. Is it any wonder why I have no faith in religion?

So let me ask this of my Presbyterian readers. Please, no matter what your denomination tells you, it isn’t OK to demonize Jews. If you want to demonize someone, demonize the Papists.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Religion as Story

I seem to be on a roll lately when it comes to ticking people off. My June 16th post, Judaism and Christianity are Incompatible, was in response to people who were angry about a previous post (Baha’is in Danger, June 15, 2008). Now this post is in response to people who are angry about that post.

The problem seems to be the last paragraph, or rather that last sentence of that paragraph:

Does this mean that individual Jews and Christians cannot invent variations of their respective faiths that make room for some of the teachings of the other? No. Individuals can do lots of things, but unless and until their private innovations become the norm for masses of people they cannot pretend that what they do is what God intended them to do. And even if their innovations catch on it is still a matter of pretend, because all religion is pretend.

It seems that lots of people who read this blog do not agree that religion is pretend, and want me to explain what I mean when I say it is pretend. So here goes…

To pretend is to give one the feeling that something is true when in fact it is not. Judaism, for example, pretends that God chose the Jews and gave them the one true revelation, the Torah, by which they are to establish the perfect kingdom (Israel) and become a “light unto the nations.” It is a wonderful fiction, but it is still fiction; we made it up.

Christianity understands this and thus denies the Jewish story in favor of its own: God sent His Son to die for our sins and thereby provide believers with a ticket to Heaven. Islam denies both stories, and offers a third: Allah through the angel Gabriel revealed the perfect revelation (the Qur’an) to Muhammad (Peace be upon him). Baha’is deny these stories and offer one of their own, as do Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Scientologists.

The only thing that religions prove is that people love to create religions.

I have no problem with people choosing to believe any of these stories. I do have a problem when they think their story gives them the right (even the obligation) to murder those who believe a different story (or no story at all), and I do have a problem with those who want to rewrite the stories so they all say the same thing. I like the stories. I like that they differ. I like that they clash. We don’t have to agree on matters of religion. We just have to agree not to oppress or kill those with whom we disagree.

I believe that religion is a story, a matter of pretend. There is nothing wrong with this. When we pretend we invent worlds that might be better than our own, and which might give us insight into how best to improve our own as well. This is the beauty of the Bible at its best and most moral. It is also the beauty of great sci-fi writers. In fact it is the power and beauty of all great fiction. Knowing religion is a story doesn’t denigrate religion, it liberates it.

At least that’s my story.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Desperately Seeking Prophets

I received an email this morning referencing a two-year-old speech by Barach Obama in which he challenges us to be careful when using the Bible as our moral guide. Referencing the Bible’s sanctioning of slavery and its condemnation of eating shellfish, he warns us about the impracticality of governing the country by biblical principles.

In response, James Dobson, head of the evangelical Focus on the Family, attacked Obama on his radio show for citing antiquated dietary codes and passages from the Old Testament (sic) that are no longer relevant to the teachings of the New Testament.

“I think he's deliberately distorting the tradition (sic) understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology,” Dobson said.

Dobson is right. Obama was making the Bible fit his worldview. But so what? Everyone who cites the Bible does that. That’s why it is a poor tool for governance.

The fact is the Bible is filled with inane ideas and moral evils. And while both the rabbis and Jesus (who was himself a rabbi) do their best to reinterpret the Bible according to their more enlightened worldviews, neither does away with slavery or the prohibition against shellfish. It is Peter, not Jesus, who hears God tell him he can have a cup of lobster bisque (Acts 10:9-16). And millions of Jews (myself included) reject Peter and eschew (which may be Latin for “not chewing”) foods forbidden in the Torah.

But here’s the part that really annoys me: Joshua DuBois, Obama’s National Director of Religious Affairs, responded to Dobson saying that Senator Obama is “committed to reaching out to people of faith and standing up for American families.” What kind of response is this? It says nothing at all. Where is Jeremiah Wright when you need him? Where is the prophetic fire that would challenge the insanity of fundamentalisms of all stripes? Where is the passion for truth and reason that America so desperately needs?

To take refuge behind wimpy talk of “reaching out to people of faith and standing up for American families” is embarrassing. Clearly Obama wants to win the presidency more than he wants to be presidential. The same is true for McCain, of course, and anyone else running for office in this country. We have to pander to everyone and offend no one, and so we elect artful dodgers rather than bold leaders.

If I were Barack Obama’s National Director of Religious Affairs I would have responded this way, “Dr. Dobson’s understanding of the Bible reflects Dr. Dobson’s understanding of the world. This is why he believes God is anti-women, anti-gay, anti-liberal, anti-Moslem, anti-Jew, and anti anything else to which Dr. Dobson himself is opposed. Because the Bible is a Rorschach blot validating our prejudices rather than challenging them, Senator Obama rightly warns us against its misuse. Senator Obama will stand up for the rights and freedoms of all Americans, taking on Fundamentalism wherever it seeks to undermine democratic values.”

This is, of course, why I will never be anyone’s National Director of Religious Affairs.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Religious Incompatibility

My last post on Baha’is in Iran (Baha’is in Danger, June 15, 2008) seems to have gotten me into a bit of hot water. At issue is the following statement I wrote as part of that blog entry:

In a sense the Baha’i Faith is to Islam what the early Christian Church was to Judaism, and just as a believing Jew could not accept the overthrow of Torah that is central to the Church, so a believing Muslim cannot accept the overthrow of Muhammad and the Qur’an that is central to the Baha’i Faith.

A number of people wrote to tell me that being a Christian does not require the overthrow of Torah: Jesus said, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill it… Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5: 17 & 19).

While this may have been the teaching of Jesus, it is not the teaching of Christianity. Nowhere do we find Christians behaving like Orthodox Jews. The Jewish Christianity of James, the brother of Jesus, lasted only a short time, while the Gentile Christianity of Paul became the dominant form of the faith.

Paul, over against Peter and James, established a Gentile church in which converts could become Christians without first having to become Jews obligated to Jewish law. Paul did not require his converts to Christianity to observe the laws of circumcision or kosher, for example, two observances that are central to Jewish life. Nor where they required to sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple, another key feature of Judaism at that time. Indeed, in his Letter to the Galatians Paul seems say that those who try to promote circumcision are perverting the true teaching of the new faith. He becomes so incensed at these Judaizers as to wish they would castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12).

Paul makes it clear that it is faith in Jesus as Christ rather than keeping the commandments of the Torah that is the key to entering Heaven: “For if justification comes through Torah, then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21).

At the heart of both Christianity and biblical Judaism is the notion that God is only appeased through blood sacrifice. This is an idea as old as religion itself. The Bible’s innovation was to put an end to human sacrifice and focus instead on the sacrifice of animals. This is the meaning of the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham.

Christianity returns to the theme of human sacrifice, arguing de facto that animal sacrifice is not sufficient and that only a human sacrifice would do. The Christian innovation is that only one final sacrifice is necessary and that is the sacrifice of the God/Man Jesus.

Both religions maintain their sacrificial foundation even today. Traditionally observant Jews pray daily for the restitution of the Temple and its slaughter of animals, and traditionally observant Christians participate in the sacrifice of Jesus through the act of Communion.

While I find the entire notion of a God requiring blood sacrifice absurd, it does seem clear to me that Judaism and Christianity are incompatible religions. Each denies the essential tenet of the other.

Does this mean that individual Jews and Christians cannot invent variations of their respective faiths that make room for some of the teachings of the other? No. Individuals can do lots of things, but they ought not pretend that their private innovations are the norm of their respective faiths. But then again all religion is pretend, so, please, invent away.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Iranian Baha'is in Danger

I both love and fear religion, and believe religion to be one of the most beneficial and dangerous creations of humankind. Most of time I use the light of humor to shatter the darkness (social, intellectual, and spiritual) in which the roaches of religious insanity, irrationality and intolerance hide, but sometimes things just aren’t funny. This is one of those times.

On May 14th six of the seven leaders of the Iranian Baha’i community were arrested and imprisoned by Iranian authorities. The seventh leader was already in jail having been arrested this past March. A similar purging of Iranian Baha’i leadership occurred in August of 1980 with the arrest and execution of nine members of the Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly. Baha’is are Iran’s largest religious minority, comprising around 300,000 members (there are approximately five to six million Baha’is worldwide), and more than 200 Baha’is were killed in Iran between 1979 and 1998.

The Baha’i Faith was founded by the 19th century Persian (today’s Iran) mystic and prophet Bahá'u'lláh who emphasized the oneness of God, the oneness of humanity, and the underlying unity of the world religions. Baha’is teach that God regularly sends spiritual messengers to humanity to help us evolve spiritually. Among these messengers were Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, the Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Muhammad and, most recently, the Báb (who announced the coming of Bahá'u'lláh) and Bahá'u'lláh.

Baha’is believe that the purpose of life is to know and worship God, to act virtuously, and to promote global unity and the advancement of humankind. They believe that all people are created by God and form one human family, and that each person has a soul, fashioned at conception, that will evolve spiritually until it attains the presence of God.

Two fundamental conflicts with Islam are clear. First, Islam (like Judaism and Christianity, and unlike individual Moslems, Jews, and Christians who may disagree with the official positions of their respective mainstreams) claims that it is the one true faith, whereas Baha’is believe that all religions have an underlying core of truth.

Second, Islam holds that Muhammad (Peace be upon him) is the seal of the prophets (just as Judaism holds that Moses was the greatest of the prophets and that prophecy itself ended with the prophets mentioned in the Hebrew Bible), while Baha’is believe that God continues to send prophets to humankind, and that Bahá'u'lláh is the most recent.

In a sense the Baha’i Faith is to Islam what the early Christian Church was to Judaism, and just as a believing Jew could not accept the overthrow of Torah that is central to the Church, so a believing Muslim cannot accept the overthrow of Muhammad and the Qur’an that is central to the Baha’i Faith. Rejecting a teaching and murdering its teachers, however, are two very different things, and the world cannot remain silent as the Iranian authorities inflict another round of killings on Iranian Baha’is.

What can we do about this? My only suggestion at the moment is to contact your local Baha’i center, and ask how you can help. I would also urge you to bring this to the attention of your local interfaith council and your own clergy. We may not be able to stop it, but we can at least deny the Iranians the ability to murder in silence and secrecy.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Gays and Their Monkeys

Periodically I report on conversations I have with some of my fellow citizens in Murfreesboro, TN. Most of the time you don’t believe these stories, and accuse me of inventing them. You give me too much credit. Case in point, I overheard a guy in Barnes and Noble saying that we should limit the number of homosexual African men we allow to enter the United States because they all have AIDS. As usual, and without thinking, I stuck my nose where it didn’t belong.

“Do you really think all gay men from Africa have AIDS?”

“Absolutely. They caught it from their monkeys.”

“Their monkeys? What do you mean, ‘their monkeys’?”

“The gover’ment says that AIDS comes from monkeys, and that it started in Africa. AIDS is passed on by sex, so you don’t have to be no genius to figure out that gays have sex with monkeys. So I’m against letting African gays into this country. Especially if they bring their monkeys.”

“What are you talking about? Gay people don’t have monkeys!”

“If they didn’t have no monkeys they wouldn’t have no AIDS. It’s that simple. We don’t have to let monkey-loving gay people into America. And besides I think it’s illegal to own monkeys in this country so we oughtta go after the monkeys in gay communities in America as a health issue. Without their monkeys the gays might learn to like girls.”

“That is insane! Homosexuality has nothing to do with monkeys!”

“Are you gay?”


“Do you own a monkey?”


“No monkey, not gay. You prove my point.”

For a moment I thought he was putting me on. I stopped talking, and was about to laugh in order to say, “OK, I get it. You’re kidding.” But the way he looked at me suggested that he wasn’t kidding. I feared that if I let the conversation drop he would think I was agreeing with his logic. So I calmed down, and said, “Look, this is absurd. Most gay men do not have AIDS, and they certainly don't own monkeys. And while it is true that I am straight and do not own a monkey, ever since I read Tarzan novels when I was a kid I wanted to own one. I thought that would be fun.” I hoped the conversation would now come to a natural close. My mistake.

“Homosexuality isn’t fun. Monkey sex isn’t fun. And if you’re saying Tarzan is gay, you don’t know squat. Tarzan’s got Jane. So his monkey and him aren’t having sex. And if you’ve been thinking about monkeys for that long, maybe you are what they call a closet gay, which is a gay who keeps his monkey in the closet, which is cruel even if you aren’t having sex with it, so I don’t want to talk with you at all.”

The guy got up, motioned to his friend with whom he had been conversing before I so stupidly butted in, and the two of them moved on. I just stood there. I still hoped he was putting me on. I also hope that someday I will get a chimp like Cheetah. Umgawwah.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Be Happy: Hate Thy Neighbor

Studies show that happy people are more kind, more generous, have better marriages, make better parents, and act with more integrity than unhappy people. That makes sense. If I am miserable I tend to make the people around me miserable as well. This is why Dennis Prager rightfully says, happiness is a moral issue.

What surprised me about happiness studies was the finding that conservatives are happier than liberals. And yet this statistic—44% of conservatives say they are happy or very happy as against 24% of liberals—has been constant for decades. What does it mean?

Conservative talk show hosts argue that this statistic proves that it is better to be conservative than liberal. Liberals argue that conservatives aren’t more happy, but only more self-referential. That is to say conservatives only care about themselves and do not let the unhappiness of others influence their happiness. Liberals, they argue, are less happy because they are troubled by the needs of the poor and the powerless.

I really have no way of deciding who is correct in this debate. In fact, it isn’t a debate in which I want to engage. No, what I want to know if 44% of conservatives and 24% of liberals are happy, what of the other 32%? Are these people miserable?

A 2007 survey found that 58% of Republicans claimed there were in excellent mental health, while only 43% of independents and 38% of Democrats feel the same. That means 62% of all Democrats feel some sense of mental disease. Add to that the 42% of Republicans and the 57% of independents who also rated their mental health as less than excellent and you have one very distressed country.

Still it is better to be a conservative Republican than anything else. So this electoral season I am going to change my allegiance from Independent to Republican. To help me get into the Conservative Republican Happy Zone I am pasting red, white, and blue elephant stickers all over my house, inside and out. And I am going to argue against affirmative action, and better benefits for veterans, and for curtailing civil rights in our never ending war on terror. I’m also printing bumper stickers that read, “Bring Our Troops Home Later…A Lot Later;” “A Free Iraq By 2108;” “Let the Babies Live, Let the Mothers Die;” “Zygotes for Peace;” and “Gay: It’s a Choice, Just Like Hell.”

In fact just saying these things makes me feel better. I wonder if that is why Conservative Republicans are so happy and mentally healthy? It’s fun to hate the enemy. But that can’t be right. If hating one’s enemies is the key to mental health and happiness, I know a lot of liberal Democrats who should be ecstatic.