Saturday, December 22, 2012

Show Us the Way

I received many thoughtful emails regarding my post on speaking Christianity. One asked what a Jewish response to Newtown might be. There was, of course, one Jewish boy, six-year-old Noah Panzer (alav hashalom) murdered in that slaughter, and I don’t know what his rabbi said to his parents or to the community. I don’t plan to address that. Instead I want to respond from a broader base, one that might highlight a difference between Judaism and Christianity.

Christianity and Judaism share a common theme.

Centuries before King Herod’s efforts to find and murder the newborn King of the Jews, Pharaoh sought to do the same to Moses. Jewish tradition tells us that, like Herod, Pharaoh too was warned that a liberator was about to be born among the Hebrews, and his mass slaughter of all newborn Hebrew boys was an effort to kill this would-be savior.

Both Moses and Jesus survive to confront their respective versions of the domination system: the ruling plutocrats who control others through violence and intimidation, strip people of life, liberty, dignity, and property, and mask their evil in the name of good, claiming that God wills it, and worshipping Pharaohs and Caesars as divine.

But here our stories diverge: Jesus dies at the hands of evil. Moses does not. The victory of Jesus is his resurrection, not the overthrow of Rome. The resurrected Jesus leaves Rome intact. Jesus’ kingdom is no longer of this world, and Christianity turns toward the afterlife for justice and vindication. Any hope that the followers of Jesus would overthrow the domination system ends when they become the Holy Roman Empire, and find themselves perpetuating domination in the name of the very one who died opposing it.

Moses, on the other hand, led his people (Hebrews and the Gentile mixed multitude) out of the domination system into the wilderness and ultimately into Canaan where his God had commanded him to establish a new world order based on distributive justice and compassion for the poor and powerless. Of course as any ancient Canaanite or contemporary Palestinian will tell you, Moses’ people have yet to achieve God’s ideal, but at least they are called to try.

Where Christians are called to find hope in the midst of horror, Jews are called upon to be that hope. Where faith in the Christ Child is faith in a new world sometime in the future; trust in Moses is trust in our capacity to create that new world today.

So what is a Jewish message to the people of Newtown? First, grieve. In Judaism we have a powerful system of grieving. We begin with a week of intense mourning, followed by a month of testing our capacity to return to life even as the tug of the dead pulls at us. Then we have eleven months of slowly making peace with our new reality, never forgetting the dead but turning our attention back to the living, and life itself. And then, on the anniversary of the death, we memorialize our dead, and remember them for a blessing.

So I would say to the people of Newtown to first grieve without restraint. Shut the town down (figuratively if not literally) for a “week” (however they define this time). Then take the next eleven months to rethink what it is to be a town, to look at the evil embodied in our civic, corporate, media, and even religious lives. Look to where we are caught up in a domination system that demonizes the other and oppresses the powerless. Not statewide, not nationally, but locally. And work together to reinvent Newtown as a new town. To leave the world of Pharaohs and Herods, and the organizations that support them, and create something new: a new way to be a community based on distributive justice, compassion, and the dignity of every being.
And then to begin implement this dream as best they can, and in this way be a light unto the peoples of America.

The emails I am receiving urge me to trust God, and to have faith that God has a plan for Newtown. I don’t doubt this. I only suggest that the people of Newtown are the vehicle for God’s plan.

So I would say this: Don’t look to God to make this right. God is looking to you to make things right. Don’t wait for the NRA or Congress or the Connecticut state legislature to change, make the change yourselves. Take up your cross—the death of your children and their teachers—and leave the insanity of Herod and Pharaoh and the leaders of the domination system who masquerade as protectors of liberty, and transformation in your own town. Show us the way, because if you wait for us, you will wait forever.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Good Time to Speak Christian

Religions are like languages: ways of speaking of and to the world. Just as no language is true or false, so no religion is true or false. And just as some languages are better at some things than others, so some religions are better at some things than others.

English, for example, is better at science than is Persian, while Persian is better at mystical poetry than is English. And Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism are better at exploring the many layers of consciousness than is Judaism, which is better at speaking to issues of justice. In the wake of the recent mass murders in Connecticut, the language we need is Christianity.

Christianity is best at dealing with heartbreak. True, some Christian dialects (denominations) do this better than others, but on the whole Christianity is the language for horrors such as this. This shouldn’t be surprising.

What religion is better equipped to speak to parents of a murdered child then Christianity whose Father suffers the same agony? What religion is better suited to speak to the profound brokenness of the world than one whose God is broken on the Cross? What religion is better prepared to deal with terrible heartbreak than one that makes of heartbreak the key to love?

Sitting on my desk at the moment is a stain glass rendition of Jesus, his chest cut, his heart exposed, and the light of divine love streaming out into the world. And off to my right is a Pieta with Mother Mary cradling her dead son. These two images speak to the totality of this tragedy: the death of a child and the weeping of a mother, and the healing power that comes when we cultivate true compassion—sharing (com) the suffering (passion) of all living things.

Speaking the language of Christianity no more makes me a Christian than speaking Cantonese makes me Chinese. But it does give me a way of navigating the horror of this world in a way that calls me to use my brokenness for the good. So as we all prepare for Christmas—as either participants or observers—I invite you to open yourself to the language of Christianity and see if you can find some healing wisdom in the birth of this baby—holy as all babies are holy—whose adult devotion to justice and compassion destines him to die on the cross of arrogance, cruelty, and evil.

To all of you who read this blog—Christian and otherwise—I wish you a blessed Christmas, and hope that the shallow merriment of the mall doesn’t rob you of the deeper meaning of this man and his message.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

No Britches for Bitches

Today is “Wear Pants to Church Day” among Mormons. No, this isn’t a traditional holy day, it’s a new protest day invented by Latter Day Feminists among the Latter Day Saints. These radical Latter Day Saintanistas put up a Facebook page to get some traction for their protest, but the page was taken down after they received death threats. The LA Times quoted one of these: “every single person who is a minority activist should be shot… in the face… point blank… GET OVER YOURSELVES….”

Does this mean an activist who is from a minority group, or does this mean someone who is an activist for a minority group? Clearly some Mormons need more grammar. 

Anyway, I’m not surprised that Mormons can be this violent. Remember the Mountain Meadows massacre? That's when Mormon militias murdered everyone on a wagon train passing through Utah Territory on its way to California. It happened on September 11, 1857. Yes, September 11: a day fanatics seem to love when it comes to mass murder. Mormons can be murderous just like the rest of us, so, like the fellow said on Facebook, GET OVER YOURSELVES.

No, what surprised me was that Mormon women can’t where slacks to church. I had no idea. And there is a good reason why I had no idea that Mormon woman can’t wear pants to church, and that’s because there’s no law against Mormon woman wearing pants to church. They just don’t, but its not because they can’t.

So the feminist protest isn’t even breaking a law, just tweaking a habit. And yet even that was enough to set Mormon against Mormon.

This is what I love about religion: there is nothing too trivial to kill over.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Newtown, Old Story

At lunch today the cafĂ© was buzzing with talk about the shooting in Newtown, CT. The conversation was muted and sad, and our grief was palpable. The question “Why?” came up over and again.

Gun control was hardly mentioned, and not only because almost everyone in the room was probably armed, but because it seemed beside the point. Maybe you think differently, and I welcome your thoughts, but here I want to share the three answers to the question “Why?” that dominated the conversation.

Mental illness. There was something wrong with the shooter that led him to do this, and if we wish to stop this kind of event we have to improve our capacity to identify and treat mental illness.

American Culture. There is something wrong with our culture that celebrates the use of violence to settle scores real and imaginary. If we want to put an end to this kind of killing we have to delegitimize violence in our society.

Evil. There is something called Evil that drives people to commit such horror. Some people thought this Evil is conscious and deliberative—more like a Devil—and some saw it as an unconscious and haphazard force like a virus. Those who spoke of the former sought help from an equally conscious and deliberate Power for Good, call it Jesus or God. Those who spoke of the latter sought help from a more earthly power, cultivating compassion rather than competition, and community rather than class warfare.All agreed that if we want to put an end to this kind of violence, we will have to admit the existence of this Evil and learn to immunize ourselves against it.
I said very little, suggesting only that if Evil is a virus it may be that it might more easily infect people with certain kinds of mental illness, that a society that celebrates and romanticizes killing may make its citizens more vulnerable to Evil’s infection, and that if Evil is spreading like pandemic in our society, I don’t see a way to immunize ourselves against it, or at least not a way that we Americans could or would accept. We worship violence to the point of imagining gods who sanction it in this life and revel in it in the next life. I fear that we are reaching a tipping point where Evil defines us and nothing defends us.

Just a moment ago Speaker of the House John Boehner ordered that all flags on Capitol Hill be lowered in memory of the victims of Newtown. Well done. But I wonder if they should be lowered for America as well.
According to the Mayans the world will end in seven days. I'm not a believer in this idea. In fact I am not one to imagine the end of the earth at all this month, but something has changed.

What changed is this: I was looking at the pictures of the Goldendoodles on my wall calendar (I love Goldendoodles and work for one without pay daily) when I noticed that my wall calendar ends on 12.31.12. Seriously. It does. This is no different than the Mayan calendar ending a bit sooner, except that it's different. It's different because the Mayan's had only one calendar whereas we have millions, and they all end on December 31st.

Check it out for yourself. If you have a wall calendar chances are it ends on the last day of December.
If this were true of just one or two calendars that ended on the 31st of December I would ascribe it to a printing error, but if every calendar ends on that day--and they do!--it can't be an accident.

Really: what are the odds that every calendar ends on the same day? They must be astronomical, which convinces me all the more that the end of the world is coming on 12.31.12. I checked this against the Mayan prediction of 12.21.12 and discovered that my wall calendar continues on 12.22.12, so the Mayans didn't know what they were talking about, which isn't all that surprising since they spoke Mayan which is a pretty dead language that few people can actually speak, so we really can't expect them to have communicated with one another all that well. I'm pretty sure that if they had chosen to speak English they would have discovered their mistake and moved the end of the world ten days further on to the end of December. But they didn't speak English and therefore didn't have an accurate calendar. But we do, and the end is nigh.

I hate to be the bearer of this bad news, but at least you still have Christmas. Just don't worry about those new year resolutions. When the ball drops in Times Square the world ends. I'm just glad that Dick Clark didn't live to see this.

I Love Bacon

I love Bacon. There, I've said it. Bacon, Bacon, Bacon, Bacon. So sue me. Of course the Bacon I'm loving isn't that fried slab of dead pig, but the Rev. J. Edwin Bacon Jr. of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA.

Father Bacon has arranged with the Muslim Public Affairs Council to hold the Council's annual convention at his church as a sign of inter-religious cooperation. Of course this act of Christian charity is only Christian if you happen to be a Muslim loving hater of America. And so Father Bacon is under attack by conservative Christian groups for catering to Muslim extremists.

According to Father Bacon such fanatics are turning Christianity into a religion of fear, "which it of course is not." But is that true? Is Christianity really not a religion of fear? In fact is any religion, or any Abrahamic religion, not a religion of fear?

One of the causes of fear is the notion of scarcity and zero–sum thinking. In the case of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam there is only one God, which brings in the problem of scarcity. Sure, this one God (who sometimes appears as Three, but we will leave that to Trinitarians to explain) is infinite so you might imagine there is plenty of Him (when we speak of God in terms of scarcity we almost always are talking about God as male) to go around, but you would be mistaken. This one God plays favorites, and limits His True Revelation to One Book, and those followers of this God live in fear that they may not be Daddy's favorite or be the sole custodians of His Book. The only way to prove that you are the winner in this theological winner-take-all zero-sum world is to defeat the competition.

At the moment the only two religions capable of competing globally are Christianity and Islam, and the war between them (as non-PC as it is to say this) is only getting hotter.

Of course the competition isn't just inter-mural, it is intra-mural as well, as various sects and denominations within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam battle for dominance.

And then there is the issue of fear and theology. While not all versions of Christianity and Islam are obsessed  with Hell, those that are tend to be the most violent.

So I support Rev. Bacon's openness to Islam, I disagree with his assessment about fear. Religion is always (though not exclusively) about fear, and the more fear is the focus of religion the more afraid the religious become, and the more afraid the religious become the more angry they get, and the more fearful and angry they get the more easily they are manipulated into acts of violence.

As we prepare to go over the fiscal cliff, we should prepare to over the religious cliff as well. War, what is it good for? Religion unfortunately.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

I spent five years and thousands of dollars becoming a pulpit rabbi. According to the Forward newspaper (12.9.12), synagogues are now hiring rabbis from on–line seminaries who study for just two years. Do they get what they pay for? Sure. And they get exactly what they want: pleasant pastors and entertaining speakers who can also train their kids for bar and bat mitzvah.

When I graduated from Hebrew Union College I was totally over qualified for the job I was expected to do. In fact it wasn’t until I started teaching Judaism at the university level that the knowledge I gained at seminary became useful. So when I read that you can be a rabbi for a few thousand dollars and a few hundred hours of study I wonder how the old seminaries are still in business, and doubt they can remain so much longer.

Let me be clear: I loved my five years at HUC. I am proud of the education I received, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a top–notch Jewish education. But it is overkill for the pulpit job most rabbis will fill.  It doesn't take five years to learn how to say, “Our service continues on page 68” or “Please rise” or “Please be seated.” It doesn't take five years to learn how to teach 12­–year olds stuff they really don’t want to learn. It doesn't take five years to learn enough about Torah and holy days so you can give a ten minute talk on the portion of the week or holy day of the month. It doesn't take five years to learn how to answer questions about Judaism that are just as easily answered on Wikipedia.

My suggestion is this: conventional seminaries should offer two rabbinic tracks: practical and academic. The practical track takes two years and comes with a Masters Degree in Jewish Pastoral Counseling along with rabbinic ordination. The added years of the academic track result in a PHD in Judaic Studies. This way congregations could hire well trained pulpit rabbis who can lead services, teach kids, and answer the questions congregants actually ask, while seminaries could train rabbinic scholars for those six or seven jobs at universities requiring that level of expertise.