Saturday, October 05, 2019

One of the great enigmas of history is that of how a population turns en masse to evil. For example, how did the Germans--an educated, religious, cosmopolitan society--fall into the thrall of Hitler's Nazi party and commit horrific atrocities that will forever be a stain on their nation? Reading accounts of individuals (Jewish and gentile alike) during the rise of the Third Reich during the early 1930's, a common refrain is that of complacency: people thought things would soon return to normal; it wasn't all that bad; a brutal fascist system couldn't happen here. A similar refrain--"it can't happen here"-- echoes in subsequent decades in Poland and various eastern European nations, in China, in Chile, in Argentina, in Bosnia/Herzegovina, in Rwanda, etc., etc. Relatively stable societies rapidly went off the rails into authoritarianism and brutality. There were always a few bellwether voices of warning, but the Cassandras were too often ignored.

I've studied enough history to be horrified at what I'm seeing here in the U.S. The latent tribalism that resides in all human groupings is boiling over. People, especially those who proclaim most stridently to represent morality, seem to have lost their moral compass. As the prophet Isaiah complained, they "call evil good, and good evil; and put darkness for light, and light for darkness; and put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" Power acquired (dubiously) must now be held on to at any cost. If that requires jettisoning one's own ethics, so be it.

It looks to me like we are quickly coming to a "tipping point" moment in the U.S., as the Trump administration's corruption becomes blatant and they respond with scorched earth antipathy against the rule of law. Will our better angels prevail and pull us back from the brink? The used-car-salesman-of-a-mega-church-pastor Robert Jeffress proclaimed on Fox & Friends this week that if Trump is removed from office "it will cause a civil-war-like fracture in this nation, from which this country will never heal." Why? Why this conclusion, unless one is unwilling to look at the facts of Trump's utter unfitness for the office? And why would one be so intent on looking the other way as norms of democracy and decency are trashed by the current occupant of the White House? Is protecting the hold on power of a zombified Republican/conservative tribe really worth it? Is there a better way forward, pointed toward by men like Mitt Romney and Jeff Flake and the late John McCain? Or will their voices be drowned out, and the descent into realizing Jeffress's bleak prophecy be made certain?

Sunday, September 22, 2019

After having spent 35 years in religious circles (mostly Evangelical Christian, but also in recent years Buddhist and non-Evangelical Christian) and after having earned a Master's degree in Religion, studied and read and researched extensively, I've ultimately concluded that the most honest form of religious belief is agnosticism: to humbly say, "I don't know." Agnosticism doesn't require letting go of beliefs but it does mean holding those beliefs loosely, knowing they are merely beliefs--not facts; being cognizent about what is actual and what is speculative. A danger I've observed in nearly every religion is the tendency to treat beliefs as facts. From that error flows a tremendous amount of foolishness and harm.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

There is an archaic word that is being resurrected of late: apostasy.  Apostasy means to abandon one's beliefs (religious or political or, in the case of U.S. evangelicals, both).

A few weeks ago, Josh Harris, who was a darling of the evangelical world in the late 90's due to his best-selling book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" (which promulgated "biblical" sexual purity standards) and who went on to become a pastor, announced that he no longer considers himself a Christian (he also disavowed the things he taught in his books, apologized to the LGBTQ community and separated from his wife).  "I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus," wrote Harris. "The popular phrase for this is 'deconstruction,' the biblical phrase is 'falling away.' By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now."

This week a new kerfuffle has emerged as Marty Sampson, a worship leader and songwriter in the powerful Hillsong evangelical movement, mused on Instagram, "I’m genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn’t bother me. Like, what bothers me now is nothing. I am so happy now, so at peace with the world."  Sampson later clarified that he hasn't renounced his faith but that it is "on incredibly shaky ground" in part because he is “struggling with many parts of the belief system that seem so incoherent with common human morality.”

When I saw Sampson's Instragram post, I was impressed by his honesty.  In fact, honesty was a major theme in his post. "I want genuine truth. Not the 'I just believe it' kind of truth," Sampson wrote.  He lamented that there are many tough and relevant questions about Christianity right now--such as immorality among Christian leaders, compatibility between fundamentalist Christian teachings and science, etc.--but, "no one talks about it."

There used to be a guy named Hank Hanegraaff (who billed himself as "The Bible Answer Man") with a nationally syndicated Christian phone-in radio show.  People would call and ask him questions, and he always had an answer (that conformed to fundamentalist evangelical doctrine).  Sometimes people would call and ask Hank about friends or loved ones or celebrities who had "fallen away" from the faith.  Hanegraaff's answer was that if one is truly saved it is impossible to fall away.  Therefore, he reasoned, those who fall away were never really Christians in the first place.  That's pretty dumb (and arrogant) logic, rooted in Calvinism and steeped in tribalism.  Hanegraaff's answer was, essentially, "well, they never really were one of us, so we don't need to grapple with why they eventually rejected their, and our, belief system."

I've learned (from observation and from personal experience) that leaving a tribe you once belonged to incurs far more rage and retribution than having never belonged to the tribe in the first place.  Leaving a tribe stirs up troubling questions about the legitimacy of the tribe (or the tribe's leaders).  And questions coming from those within the tribe--honest and tough and challenging questions--cannot be abided, as they are perceived as a threat.  So honest seekers of truth must often make the painful decision of either leaving the tribe to continue their quest for answers, or shut up and fall into line.

In the fundamentalist Muslim world, to renounce Islam and embrace a different religion (or no religion) is considered an unforgiveable sin.  But a person who has always been a Christian or Jew or Buddhist is generally viewed in the Muslim world with respect (or at least with far less contempt than a former Muslim).  Fundamentalist Christians aren't much different in their attitudes toward apostates.

A few years ago, Vicky Beeching, a prominant British worship leader/songwriter (and Oxford educated theologian), came out as a lesbian.  She remained an evangelical Christian.  "God was still my highest priority and my greatest love," she says.  But her songs were systematically erased from the evangelical world and the invitations to lead worship at churches and gatherings abruptly ceased.  She was shunned.  Her wonderful and heartfelt songs of worship, which had been sung by thousands, were now considered tainted.  "She was never really one of us" was the message.  The same pattern will undoubtedly occur with Marty Sampson.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, coined the term "fallen from grace."  It's the only place this phrase appears in the Bible.  But, interestingly enough, when Paul used the phrase he was castigating the Galatian Christians for embracing legalism and turning their backs on grace.  "You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace," he told the Galatians.  In other words, it was the religious legalists who had fallen from grace.

I would submit that we are seeing an apostasy in our day and age.  It is a terrible falling away.  But it is a falling away from grace.  Like the "foolish Galatians" (as Paul called them), a great many evangelical Christians have abandoned grace and instead embraced legalism and tribalism.  They have rejected the truth-seekers, the question-askers, the agents of grace (not to mention the immigrants, the refugees, the outcasts and the poor).  They have become like the Pharisees depicted in the Gospel of Matthew, for whom Jesus had few kind words, despite their stringent religiosity.  It seems that if folks like Beeching and Harris and Sampson and millions of millenials are indeed "falling away," they are actually falling away from legalism and toward grace. 

Many evangelicals believe that there will be a "great falling away" at "the End-Times."  I, and many other Christians, don't subscribe to that "End-Times/Left Behind" theology, but I do see a great falling away.  As in the days of Jesus and Paul, the ones who are falling away--the real apostates--are often the most religious ones; the ones who claim loudly to be doing God's will while they contradict God's heart.

Friday, August 09, 2019

There have been several books that have changed or shaped my outlook on life. One of them is Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning. The book is a masterpiece of historical research that focuses in tightly on a relatively small contingent of German soldiers. But in doing so it reveals some very disturbing universal truths. 

Reserve Police Battalion 101 was comprised of middle-aged working-class men who were drafted into service in the latter part of WWII. Their job was to go through Poland, village-by-village, round up the Jewish residents, and execute them. The men in Reserve Police Battalion 101 were not rabid Nazis or even particularly anti-semitic. They were just "ordinary men" following orders and doing their job. They killed tens of thousands of Jews.

There is a quote, falsely attributed to filmmaker Werner Herzog, that goes like this: "Dear America: You are waking up, as Germany once did, to the awareness that 1/3 of your people would kill another 1/3, while 1/3 watches." Although the origins of the statement are murky, the statement itself rings with clarity. As the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated, a majority of people will go along with evil and injustice if it is mandated by "the authorities." Only a minority possess a strong enough internal moral compass to enable them to refuse to participate, or to speak out against it.

U.S. history is filled with atrocity, if one chooses to not gloss over it. The perpetrators of atrocity usually do their best to keep their actions out of the general public view. Germans who lived in the lovely village of Dachau claimed that they had no idea of the depravity that was occuring at the concentration camp on the outskirts of town. Throughout the 20th century we average Americans have generally remained ignorant or apathetic about the atrocities in Central and South America, the Middle-East, Africa, Asia and elsewhere, committed with our government's backing.

I suspect we are witnessing the seeds of atrocity within our own borders and it is in plain sight. The immigration raids this week at food processing plants in Mississippi were, from what I've read, the largest in U.S. history. The Obama administration used to go after the business owners, with the overarching concern being prevention of the exploitation of undocumented immigrant workers. The Trump administration has shifted the focus to go after "the least of these"--the workers themselves and their children who are separated and left abandoned. The immigration raids in Mississippi were intentionally designed by the Trump administration to be highly visible media spectacles. The goal was to please Trump's base of supporters and to terrorize undocumented immigrants throughout the U.S. The message was clear: get out or likewise risk being rounded up and incarcerated and deported and have your children traumatized and your home and all that you've worked hard to attain left behind.

Hannah Arendt, who reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, coined the term "the banality of evil." Eichmann, and others like him, she observed, tended to not be sadistic arch-villians but rather "terrifyingly normal" bland bureaucrats who managed to disengage themselves from the reality of the evil they were responsible for. Eichmann, Arendt observed, was actually a rather shallow person, a joiner, a follower rather than a leader, an unimaginative and somewhat ignorant person more concerned with job security than with ideology. This description also applies to the men of Police Battalion 101 and, I suspect, to many of the men and women of the department of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol and their parent bureaucracy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”
--From the "manifesto" of the El Paso shooter

"We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country."
--Donald Trump

"I just got back [from the southern border] and it is a far worse situation than almost anyone would understand, an invasion!"
--Donald Trump

"People hate the word ‘invasion’ but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people.”
--Donald Trump

"More troops being sent to the Southern Border to stop the attempted invasion of Illegals, through large Caravans, into our Country."
--Donald Trump

"To confront this crisis--you saw that, it was a big deal two months ago--I declared a national emergency, which is what it is.  This is an invasion!  When you see these caravans, starting out with twenty thousand people, that's an invasion.  I was badly criticized for using the word 'invasion.'  It's an invasion!"
--Donald Trump

On May 8th, 2019 at a rally in Florida, Trump spoke about the "invasion" of people at the southern U.S. border. He asked the crowd: "How do you stop these people?"

"Shoot them!" a rally attendee shouted out.

Trump responded, laughing: "That's only in the panhandle you can get away with that stuff. Only in the panhandle."

The crowd laughed and cheered. 

So yesterday Donald Trump retweeted a tweet from Franklin Graham celebrating the five-year anniversary of Dr. Kent Brantly being brought back to the U.S. from Africa for treatment of Ebola. Brantly, who had been treating Ebola patients in Liberia as a missionary when he was infected, was the first Ebola patient to set foot in the U.S.

Franklin's tweet, which apparently is intended to promote a movie, calls Brantly's healing a "miracle" but many commenters have pointed out that highly skilled, highly educated medical professionals at top U.S. medical facilities applying science and research had quite a bit to do with it.

Trump (who Graham stridently supports) seems to have forgotten that five years ago he repeatedly tweeted that Ebola patients (including Brantly) should not be allowed to enter the U.S. for treatment. "Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days - now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!" Trump tweeted as plans were being made to return Brantly to the U.S. “Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. Treat them, at the highest level, over there. THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!” Trump tweeted as the air ambulance was on its way to Liberia to retrieve Dr. Brantly. "The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help are great-but must suffer the consequences!" Trump tweeted as Brantly was on the air ambulance flying across the Atlantic ocean toward the U.S.

In other words, if Trump had had his way Brantly would have died in Liberia, barred from returning to the U.S. for treatment. And if Graham has his way a man completely devoid of empathy and basic human decency will be President of the United States for another four years.

The hypocrisy runs deep with both Trump and Graham.
"I'm not a racist," we white people tend to say. "I believe all people are of equal value," we go on. We white people, the privileged and empowered ones throughout the history of the United States, tend to personalize charges of racism and quickly exonerate ourselves. Sometimes we get quite defensive at any whiff that the racism label might be applied to us personally.

The thing we white people tend to overlook is that racism in America is systemic and structural. It is deeply woven into the fabric of the United States. We white people often don't notice that this is the case because, frankly, it doesn't effect us personally. That's called privilege: if something doesn't effect us personally we don't see it as a significant problem.

For myself, it is only when I shut my mouth and *listen* to non-white people tell their stories that I realize how pervasive racism is in America and how oblivious I often am to it. Worse, I realize how often I have participated in it and benefitted from it--all while very earnestly defending myself as not being in the least bit racist.

For example, if you proclaim "I'm not a racist" yet you support or make excuses for or refuse to take a closer look at politicians and pundits who propigate racist views (explicitly or implicitly) then yes, my friend, you are racist. If you tell jokes about racial minorities then yes, my friend, you are racist. If you imbibe stereotypes about people of other races (Asian people are smart but bad drivers, Black people are lazy and "low IQ", Hispanic people are violent and simple, etc.) and you allow those stereotypes to shape how you perceive individuals then, my friend, you are racist.  If your response to Black Lives Matter is to say "All lives matter!" and if you think Colin Kaepernick was being unAmerican when kneeling during the national anthem then, my friend, you are racist.  If you immediately respond defensively rather than introspectively when racism is discussed then, my friend, you may unwittingly be racist or be complicit in the perpetuation of racist systems and social structures. And just about every time I wrote "you" in the above paragraph, I could have just as easily wrote "I".

I don't know the answer to how we white people extricate ourselves fully from the miasma of racism that pervades America, except that we need to begin by listening closely and undefensively and ask of those who experience the effects of racism what we can do. And we need to have the integrity and courage to not abide or ignore racist rhetoric or "dog whistles" from others--especially from others who have influence.
In less than one minute the shooter in Dayton killed 9 people and wounded 26. There is an old Islamic saying, from the Quran, that to save one life is to save an entire world and to take one life is to kill an entire world. That's profound, when you think about it. In 21st century America any moron can kill nine worlds in **less than one minute**. That's insanity, when you think about it.

Friday, August 02, 2019


 I may have missed it, but I have not heard or seen Donald Trump, the supposed "leader of the free world", speak out against the brutal crack-down in Russia on people protesting for fair elections.

I've seen and heard Trump this week attack the city of Baltimore, attack Robert Mueller, attack various prominant black and brown people (Elijah Cummings, Don Lemon, Al Sharpton, the four Congresswomen, Barack Obama), attack Nancy Pelosi, attack Bernie Sanders, attack Joe Biden, attack Democrats in general, attack Joe Scarborough & Mika Brzezinski, attack the media in general, attack the leadership of the Federal Reserve, etc.

I've seen and heard Trump this week boast that he's doing a great job, and claim that the Mueller investigation exonerated him (it didn't), and promote his rallys and say nice things about his "friend" who "has a great and beautiful vision for his country" the murderous dictator Kim Jong Un. 

But I haven't seen or heard Trump express solidarity with the tens of thousands of people taking to the streets in Russia demanding fair elections. And I haven't seen or heard Trump express concern about the thousands of average Russians being beaten and arrested by security forces for protesting against Putin brazenly interfering with local elections. 

But maybe I just missed it amongst Trump's constant flurry of attacks on Americans.

Monday, May 13, 2019

I went to Dunstan Middle School in Lakewood, Colorado. Two miles down the road was Carmody Middle School. They were our rivals. We referred to them as "Comedy" Middle School. We jeered and mocked them, and they did the same to us ("Dumbstan" Middle School). I attended Green Mountain High School. Our neighboring rival schools were Wheat Ridge and Golden and Bear Creek. Sometimes fights would occur when young men from the rival schools encountered each other.

As I drove around my old neighborhood today, I found myself wondering: where did these antagonistic rivalries come from? Who invented them? We kids seemed to just absorb them via osmosis. You heard others disparage Carmody or Wheat Ridge and you naturally fell in line and did likewise, never really pondering the ridiculousness of it all--that someone was the enemy because their parents bought a house two miles down the road. 

That pattern infused the lives of many of my peers. Broncos vs. Raiders. Chevy vs. Ford. Coors vs. Budweiser. Whites vs. Blacks vs. Hispanics. Christianity vs. Islam. America vs. everyone else. Disparaging jokes about women, about gay people, about people with disabilities. We were indoctrinated into always seeking a "them" that we could look down upon, feel antagonistic toward, make fun of. How and why is this fostered? What is the societal benefit? What is the need within the human heart that this feeds? These were my ponderings today as I drove through my old neighborhood, past Dunstan Middle School.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Today is Palm Sunday, a day that commemorates Jesus's "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem. This was an incredibly subversive action--a bit of prophetic political performance art--as Jesus and his followers reenacted the ancient Jewish ritual of the king's enthronement (for which Psalm 118 was written and used). But, as biblical scholar James Sanders points out, in the case of Jesus, "The messiah has arrived and been acclaimed king. He has been recognized as king by acclamation not from those with power or authority but by a rather scragly crowd of disciples and followers."

The participants shouted "Hosanna!" which was a cry to God for justice and mercy. "Hosanna" was what a person would cry out to the judge when they came into court, a reminder to the judge to be just and fair and merciful in hearing their case. At the triumphal entry, the people were calling out to God to hear their case against the oppressive religious/political/economic system that they were under.

Sanders says, "This enactment of the psalm [118] as a prophetic symbolic act would have been no less blasphemous and scandalous to those responsible for Israel's traditions (and they would have known them well) than similar symbolic acts performed by the prophets in the late Iron Age [such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel]."

So, if you go to church today and see the children waving palm fronds, consider that what they are reenacting is a moment of bold prophetic civil disobedience against rulers and powers and authorities and systems of oppression and the audacious proclamation of a different king and kingdom--a rule and reign marked by fairness, truth, humility, compassion, kindness, peace, inclusion, grace. A kingdom of love. The kingdom of God.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Friday, March 15, 2019

Dear fellow white people. We have a problem. There is a recurrence and spread of a cancer among us: of racism, Islamophobia, white nationalism, bigotry, xenophobia, hatred of immigrants, and gross intolerance. At the extreme end of the spectrum it manifests in shootings--at mosques, at synagogues, at churches.

But there is a much, much larger "middle" of this cancerous spectrum--a seemingly less extreme majority that feeds the most extreme minority.

I read the "manifesto" written by the New Zealand mosque gunman. What made me feel saddened and sickened was that I recognized much of the rhetoric within it. It was familiar. I've heard it on right-wing Christian talk radio programs. I've heard it from conservative pundits on radio and television (just this week, two Fox News pundits have come under scrutiny for their strident anti-Muslim rhetoric). I've seen it posted by friends on Facebook, and heard it parroted during conversations.

Doctors advise women and men to examine themselves for early signs of cancer. To feel their breasts and testicles for that tell-tale small lump that may point to a life-threatening disease.
Men and women of Christian European descent, we have a disease in our midst, and it threatens many lives. We need to examine ourselves, individually and collectively. Do we foster, or tolerate, or propigate harmful right-wing and bigoted attitudes, ideas, and rhetoric against people who are not like us? Do we subtly (and perhaps, we think, harmlessly) feed the monster of hatred in this world? Are we incremental enablers of disgusting violent actions like the mosque shootings in New Zealand, the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh, the church shootings in Charleston, the Sikh temple shootings in Wisconsin, the youth summer camp shootings in Norway, the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City?

Back in the days of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, a common refrain among non-Muslims was "Why doesn't the Muslim world denounce this extremism?" In reality, Muslims did denounce it--clearly and often. But now the shoe is on the other foot. It is the opportunity of every white person, of every media pundit, of every preacher and politician to denounce in no uncertain terms all forms of rhetoric against non-whites and non-Christians and immigrants and those who are different in whatever way.  And it's time for some deep introspection and sincere repentence for any part we may have played in allowing these ideas, these attitudes, this rhetoric, this violence of thought and word and deed, to exist in our midst.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

It has been called "the treacherous curtain of deference": the obsequious treatment afforded to the person who occupies the office of President of the United States (and likewise their peers from other nations). As we go down the hierarchy from there--to Vice President, Speaker of the House, etc.--we see gradually diminishing levels of deference.

In the military there is a more rigid and utilitarian chain of deference and command.

The latest outrageous news about the Catholic Church is the Pope's admission that sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops has been occurring. Let's be honest, sexual abuse by priests and bishops of nuns, seminary students, children, and laypeople has likely been going on for two thousand years. There is a systemic flaw in the Catholic Church's structural economy that fosters this: a priest is far more valuable to the organization than a nun (or a child).

Also in this week's news, revelations have come to light that Sakyong Mipham, head of the Shambhala International Buddhist organization, has been committing sexual abuse against female students for years. He is not the first Buddhist luminary to be exposed as a sexual predator.

It seems to me that the root enabling factor in so many environments where abuse is endemic is the ludricrous practice (which we humans seem to love to engage in) of elevating certain people above other people. The elevated ones get to wear special hats and outfits, be addressed with honorific titles, be afforded a "curtain of deference", and be able to exert their will upon others--not necessarily because of personal qualities of excellence they possess, but because they inhabit a position in a human-constructed hierarchy.

It's all bullshit, of course.

And worse, it perpetuates all sorts of evil.

One of the things that drew me to the 17th century Quakers was their stubborn insistence on eschewing artificial deference customs. They refused to doff their hats in the presence of supposed social superiors (an expected behavior at the time) or use honorific titles (such as "Lord" or "Your Honor") or speak and act toward a person in a position of authority any differently than they would speak and act toward anyone else. They engaged in a very intentional form of downward leveling, which came from their religious conviction that "there is that of God in everyone". In doing this, they exposed the folly of human hierarchies. They also got into lots of trouble, because the keepers of hierarchies don't like having their systems exposed as edifices of domination and control and ego gratification; enforced by peer pressure, dire warnings of divine retribution, or plain old threat of violence.

So whether your positional title is President, Pastor, Priest or Bishop or Cardinal or Archbishop or Pope, Dalai Lama or Rinpoche, King or Queen or Prime Minister, Ayatollah or Rabbi or Grand Poobah, you won't hear me call you by anything but the name your parents gave you. Your real name. Just like everyone else.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Donald Trump and Mike Pence visited the Martin Luther King Jr. monument today (for 2 minutes). This photo speaks volumes about the greatness and historical stature of Dr. King in comparison to these two interlopers who haven't a clue what MLK was about.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

I've been pondering for several years about what makes one religion better than others, or one sect within a religion better than others. Of course, the lazy fundamantalist answer is "because they're wrong and we're right!" But seriously, what is the criteria?

Is it truth? To make a claim that our religion or sect has "the truth" is to position ourselves as being able to discern the truth where most others fail. That seems the height of hubris. Plus, the fundamentalist wing of every religion claims that they alone have the truth. ISIS adherents claim that they do. White Nationalist Christians claim that they do. Whack-a-doodle religion cults claim that they do. Etc., etc.

Is it meaning or purpose? Is that what makes a religion or sect better than others--that it imparts meaning to life? The problem with that is that, once again, followers of ISIS and White Nationalist Christianity and whacky cults derive a great deal of meaning and purpose from their religion. And many people with no religious beliefs whatsoever lead meaningful, purposeful lives.

Is it doctrine? In other words, how faithfully a sect adheres to "correct doctrine"? Of course, every religion and sect has a different opinion on what exactly "correct doctrine" is. If you look at the faith statement of Westboro Baptist Church, the doctrine they espouse is very traditional boilerplate Christian stuff (Apostle's Creed, Nicene Creed, etc.). Yet most Christians shun Westboro Baptist Church for the egregious way they live out their doctrine.

And I think this gets us closer to the best answer I've been able to come up with for what makes one religion (or sect) better than others. It is morality--by which I mean how we live out the "Golden Rule" of treating others the way we would want to be treated (and avoid treating others the way we would not want to be treated). In other words, how does a religion (or religious sect) foster a lifestyle of intentionally seeking to avoid or minimize harm to others. How does it promote and orientation and actions of compassion, mercy, grace, inclusion, fairness, philanthropy, care, empathy, etc. Perhaps that's why the "Golden Rule" has been ubiquitous throughout history across religions and cultures. This is the core rubric of what makes a religion of value: Do the teachings and practices of a religion cause its adherents to be more moral in their intentions and actions, in the "Golden Rule" sense?

William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, wrote that, "True religion does not draw men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it." This "true religion" that Penn wrote about has no name. It is universal and perrenial and primordial. It can be found, in varying degrees, within or without any other religion or sect. I suppose the degree to which there is (or isn't) evidence of it is the degree to which any given religion/sect is better or worse than others.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

In Memoriam [Ring out, wild bells]
Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1809 - 1892

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Beware the leaven...

When I was a fundamentalist Christian, I often heard it said or implied that morality was impossible apart from God (and specifically, Jesus).  Therefore, folks such as atheists and Buddhists could not be moral or ethical because they didn't believe in God.  Or, if they were moral, it was a fluke or was God at work in them despite their unbelief.  When I say "moral" I mean having a strong  internal sense of what's right and what's wrong, whereas "ethical" implies following an external code of behavior--both are important and ought to reinforce each other. 

In the years since I left fundamentalism, I've found that some of the most ethical, moral people I've met have been Buddhists and atheists.  Conversely, I've witnessed all sorts of immoral and unethical behavior among Christians, including Christian leaders.  My take-away is that within any religion or philosophy we can find examples of both great success and abject failure when it comes to fostering moral and ethical excellence.

In his book, Mere Morality, which is a response to C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, former pastor (now atheist) Dan Barker suggests that the simple measure of morality is the principle of doing no harm.  In other words, the way to be good/moral/ethical is "to act with the intention of minimizing harm" (aka The Golden Rule).  Note that Barker uses the word "act," since it is only by actions that morality can be assessed.  It is not beliefs that indicate morality, it is the things we do and say.  

In 2016, 81% of white conservative Evangelical Christians very publicly demonstrated the nature of their collective morality by voting for (and in many cases actively supporting) Donald Trump, a man who not only lacked the experience, qualifications and temperament for the job of United States President, but who had a long track record of immoral actions: crude, mean-spirited; a serial adulterer, a sexual predator, a pathological liar, a tax cheat, a business fraud, a rip-off artist, a thin-skinned revenge-driven narcissist prone to casting insults, and a promoter of greed and racism and torture and misogyny and xenophobia and homophobia and religious discrimination and mob violence. 

81% of white Evangelical Christians chose a man whose words and deeds were not simply un-Christian, but were anti-Christian; antithetical to the teachings and actions and values of Jesus.  Most white Evangelical Christians continue to support Trump even though his gross immorality (and incompetence) has become more apparent over the last two years.  In doing so they have discredited their witness of Christianity to this generation and to generations to come.  

The world watched and took note: Evangelical Christian's claim to morality and truth and discernment was put to the test and failed miserably.  The result is that, rather than making disciples as Jesus commanded, they have made more atheists (who value morality, truth and discernment).  As the Trump presidency continues to unravel in 2019 the grave self-inflicted damage to Evangelicalism will become more and more apparent.

In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus is depicted as warning those who came to him to, "Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees."  Leaven (yeast) spreads throughout a lump of dough and changes it (we might even say, infects it).  The Pharisees and Sadducees are portrayed in the New Testament as preaching about the necessity for holiness but engaging in all sorts of immoral and unethical and unjust behaviors.  Jesus, their outspoken critic, said that they "strained out a gnat, but swallowed a camel" and gave pious religious tithes even out of their spices, while neglecting "the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness."  The Pharisees and Sadducess are cast in the New Testament as satisfying themselves with a legalistic holiness that made them blind to their own immorality and caused them to become hypocritical and exclusionary and tribal.  

Their most damning action was to conspire against the Messiah because his teachings and examples of acting out one's faith through compassion, inclusion, and fairness posed a threat to their position of civic power.  Though excessively religious, it turned out that their real gods were power and prestige and control.  They chose to align themselves with Herod's and Rome's injustices and abuses of power, in order to protect their own position and impose their influence upon others.  The early Christians believed that the seige of Jerusalem by the Romans in 68 AD, with the resulting slaughter of its inhabitants and destruction of the temple, was a display of God's judgment against the old system of religion married to civic power.

Of course, it didn't take long for the same pattern to manifest within Christianity (particularly post-Constantine).  History shows us that although the power-base of the Pharisees and Sadducess was destroyed in 70 AD (and again in 135 AD), the "leaven" of religiousity in thrall to temporal power (and the resulting hypocrisy) has remained. 

Perhaps, in the not-to-distant future, the cautionary tale of the great destruction Evangelicals did to their movement by embracing Trump will take its place alongside the tragic tale of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Over the holidays I've been reading The Neanderthals Rediscovered by Thames & Hudson. It contains the most current data about who our evolutionary cousins the Neanderthals were, as well as insights about the ancestral species from which Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis developed.

The 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes described pre-"civilization" humankind in this way: "No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." He was only partially correct: early-humans were extremely social, not solitary, and somewhere along the line they began making art and practicing religion.

But Hobbes was right about the "nasty, brutish and short" bit. For most of the two million years of human existence (going back to Homo erectus) the average lifespan was 30 years. I've read estimates that 100 billion humans have walked the earth from the time of Homo erectus, through Homo heidelbergensis to Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. The vast majority of those humans owned very little in the way of personal possessions, understood very little about the workings of the world and cosmos, and lived short hard lives on the edge of survival. I'm reminded that as a 21st century middle-class North American in his mid-50's, I've lived longer, gained more knowledge, possessed more stuff, and experienced more comfort than could have even been imagined by most of the humans who have ever lived.

Such a reminder makes me grateful, and less likely to get tweaked if my Amazon package arrives late or they get my order wrong at McDonald's.