Monday, October 13, 2014

Up the Skirt Photos a Free Speech Right?

"The center cannot hold; things fall apart."    —W. B. Yeats

You probably missed it, but Washington D.C. Superior Court Judge Juliet McKenna recently declared innocent a man arrested for surreptitiously taking photos up women’s skirts of their private parts. Why? The photos were an exercise of “free speech." Besides that, woman do not have a “right to privacy” in public places if they are so foolish as to let someone do this. (2)

Do you ever get the impression that the definition of  “free speech” may be going too far—and all at the same time an ominous counter-trend in the law eats away at other protections to our freedom?

On the one hand, we’ve gained all kinds of ground for what sociologist Robert Bellah called “individualistic expressionism.” (3) On the other hand, laws that allow the government to confiscate personal property merely upon suspicion of a crime, for example, continue to grow apace. And this is to say nothing about the egregious ways in which the rights of minorities are violated daily in the justice system. (I sometimes have a momentary paranoid flash that increasing personal freedom may be a “bread and circuses” ploy to satisfy the population while the National Security State encroaches more and more). 

While legally a different issue, the reinterpretation of the Second Amendment away from its original social meaning (the need for militias) to a purely individualistic meaning (my absolute right to carry a weapon) is part of the same trend. 

An eroding societal ‘center’?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy to live in a country with a right to express freely my social, political, and religious ideas. But stealth photos of women’s crotches as free speech—give me a break! Better yet, give the judiciary some greater sense of the idea that every right carries with it responsibilities. I was taught, in Seminary, that any virtue carried to the extreme becomes a vice, and that even free speech was limited by a cultural sense of social responsibility.

But that stabilizing center of social sensibility, personal self-restraint and responsibility progessively erodes in our midst, more and more issues end up in court rather than settled by cultural norms and standards.

Where is the balance?

Early 20th Century Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that the constitutional prohibition of legislation against free speech was not ”intended to give immunity for every possible use of language.” He was the product of a culture which considered free speech to be tempered by self-regulation for the common good.  Contemporary legal theorists like Nigel Warburton consider such ideas “outmoded.” (4)

"Free speech” has expanded to cover flag burning, most pornography, heckling near women going for an abortion, hurling anti-gay slurs at the military funerals and outside church services, and (still a mind-boggle to me) corporate and personal rights to give enormous amounts once forbidden to political campaigns. Liberals and conservatives alike applaud the freedoms they like and deplore those they don’t.

If rights have no limits, one set of rights clashes severely with another set of rights. All issues of freedom are, for Americans, very touchy. But so is the guy using stealth to peek up your skirt, which new technology makes easy to do secretly and stealthily.

How can we find a new stabilizing center? Or will our growing freedoms become the anarchy the Security State will find a tempting target for future expansion?
1. William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming.  See

2. See Jessica Goldstein,  "In the Light of the Upskirt Ruling, Some Fashion Tips for Ladies"

3. See Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.

4. See Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Francis: In Touch with Earth’s Soul

Jesus said: ‘Pick up a stone, and I am there; 
split the wood—I am there also.’ (1)

St. Francis wasn’t the only one with a special connection to animals. From time immemorial some people have been able to live “deeper in” nature than others.

Francis once commanded a noisy flock of birds in a tree to be still while he preached, and they not only obeyed to but stayed for the whole sermon, leaving immediately when it was over. Something in the energy of his very presence drew animals to him. St. Seraphim of Russia who befriended a bear. St. Cuthbert of Britain's limbs were said to have been warmed by sensible seals after he had stood ascetically in a tidal basin for too long.

Fables? Talk to the young forest ranger who once described to me how he moved through the forest so that the creatures wouldn’t hide from his presence. “People barge in like they own the place, he said. You have to walk softly, silently. Then they come out of hiding.” Or talk to Native American shamans and connecting with animal spirits. For that matter, you can talk to my wife, who has a remarkable way of befriending skittish animals. 

Tap-rooted into Paradise

These folk seem to have a foot in two worlds—one in the fabled Paradise of our human origins, when the First Parents communed with the soul of bird and beast, and another in our present "eclipsed" state, remote from the ancient mammalian/primate rapport with nature. The bible is not the only sacred lore that remembers such a Before Time.

Jesus seems to fit in this company. “What manner of man is this?” his disciples asked, and told stories about the effect of his presence not only on people, but on the natural world around them. He spent a sojourn in the wilderness ‘with the wild beasts’ and emerged unharmed. He stilled a violent storm on the sea of Galilee by speaking directly to it, as if to something intimate and familiar.  Jesus himself fits in this company.

Jesus seemed to live “deeper in,” in more vital contact with the soul and spirit of the world than other folks, like other holy men and women throughout history. They breathe the soul of earth as well as the Spirit of God.

The skepticism modernity brings to these stories goes hand in hand with our own soul’s disconnect with the spiritual aliveness of the world around us.  As bedazzling and beneficial as our civilized advances have been for humanity, they have come with a price—progressive distancing from direct rapport with the soul of nature, the soul of the planet itself. The Jesus described in the gospels is in touch both with his own civilization and the deep currents of power and life that flow through the soul of the world around him.

A way back into the world?

Perhaps, like some Zen monks, he and Francis, Seraphim of Moscow, the wise women of every earth-rooted culture, and the shamans could live with mind and body simultaneously in two states: deep, meditative connection with the depths of the ever-springing Life that pervades this world and the ordinary events of the day.

Early Christians, following the highly-disciplined Path he laid out for them, claimed that initiation into Christ “opened the gate to Paradise" and looked forward to a "restoration" of earth to its primal vigor. Maybe it's time to reclaim that ancient reading of Jesus and his Way. Is it a path back in to the world we are so ‘progressively’ destroying?

Surely there is a better path than the one our civilization is on.

1.  Gospel of Thomas, Logion 77

The graphic is St. Seraphim of Sarov with his companion bear. For more on this famous Russian saint, see

Monday, September 29, 2014

Angels—Symbolic? Real? Both?

It’s the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, one of my favorite days. But with angels it’s either feast or famine in this culture, even in the church. 

Within religious and ‘spiritual’ circles we have everything from explaining angels away to  almost codifying their DNA. On the one hand, we hear high-toned interpretations of ‘ancient beliefs’ which boil down to symbols of Divine providence. On the other extreme, there are those kitschy new-age angel-channelers who can, for a small fee, tell us the exact name of our guardian angel and even send us a nicely colored drawing of them plus personal angelic greeting.

There’s biblical precedence for these two polarities, of course, and much in between. We have stories where the ‘angel of the Lord’ appears, only to be replaced a verse or two to later with the Lord himself. Clearly the angel is not a separate entity here, but a ‘scaled down’ manifestation of the Divine itself. (1)

We also have stories in which such a ‘scaled down’ theophany has become a real, distinct entity. From Joshua’s encounter with the ‘captain of the Lord’s armies’ to David’s  placating an angel of the plague to Tobias’ seemingly human angelic guide Gabriel, we hear of a host of invisible beings who hover about the human family on their heaven-sent missions. (2)

And, finally, there is the biblical hint that anyone and anything can become, for the moment, an angelos, a malach or messenger of God:  “who makes his angels spirits and his ministers flames of fire” and “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for some have thereby entertained angels unaware.” (3) 

The Blank 'Above'

In our secularized culture, belief in angels has waned along with significant denial of any kind of metaphysical reality. As the Jungian analyst and author James Hillman points out, even our ceilings have become flat and white rather than richly ornamented with celestial beings. There is no ‘beyond’, and thus the angels have no home. (4)

People who take angels with any seriousness at all—whether as symbols or entities—seem to think they have to choose one of the biblical options, rather than seeing them as multifaceted reports of a reality that transcends one kind of manifestation. Similar stories appear in other cultures as the surprising appearance of the gods and goddesses.

But the angels, originally, weren’t so very ‘beyond,’ but, as the biblical scholar James Kugel points out, ‘just out of sight,” as if just on the other side of a veil, ready to appear at any moment. (5) Like the truck driver in the big rig who stopped on a stormy night to fix my niece’s flat tire, then mysteriously disappeared. She turned to get a piece of paper to write down his address so she could send him a thank you note, and he was gone. “No cab door slamming, no sound of the big truck leaving. No sight of the truck down the road. Weird.”  (6)

Maybe this visitation was of the “he makes his angels appear like truck drivers and his ministers car mechanics” sort, with an honest-to-goodness human being. Then again, perhaps it was more like the angels in the book of Judges who seem to be ordinary people but disappear in a cloud of weirdness. (6)  Maybe the weirdness was a trick of her mind.

Or maybe our species, which can only see select parts of the whole light spectrum, and keeps discovering undreamed of dimensions of the universe, has made a mistake in turning almost every ceiling blank and white.


1.  Exodus 3:2-4

2.  See Joshua 5:13-15 and Tobias in the Deuterocanonical books.

3.  See Psalm 104:4/ Hebrews 1:7 and Hebrews 1:13:2

4.  See Blue Fire, the anthology of James Hillman’s thought, edited by Thomas Moore (HarperPerennial).

5.  See James Kugel, The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible (Free Press)

6. Sophie Burnham’s intelligent and informed discussion of a host of such contemporary encounters in A Book of Angels: Reflections on Angels Past and Present (Tarcher) is worth the time to read.

7.  See the visitation to Gideon in Judges 6 and the annunciation to Samson’s mother in Judges 13.  While these stories are part of legends, they illustrate the kind of angel appearance lore that circulated in ancient Israel, and thus have an archetypal quality. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Silence and Shouting: Climate March Reflections

So there we were shouting, singing, waving flags and carrying signs that read “There is no Planet B” and “Butterflies against the end of the world” as we marched 300,000 strong in Manhattan on Sunday at the People’s Climate March. But, in spite of the thrill of the March and the inspiration of the songs, the sight that struck the deepest chord in my heart was this: twenty or so people on a hill in Central park utterly still, utterly silent, holding an “Earth Vigil,” meditating, praying for creation itself and the salvation of our civilization from its destructive, errant ways.

The silent energy palpably radiating from these solemn folks spoke to me more loudly than all the wonderful, noisy energy we made to “sound an alarm” to the world leaders gathering at the U.N. this week.

A Mighty Tide of Witness

Of course, the intentional noise of the March had its own integrity and delight. There were so many participants that the organizers begging some people toward the end of the line, over two miles long, to leave the parade and walk along the parade route as spectators. Those of us in the “religious and scientific groups” section filled 58th street as we waited over an hour after our announced “join the march” before we set out—an encouraging sign that more than the expected 200,000 participants had come.

And come they did! As my small group from Summit, NJ boarded the train for New York, we met a family of five who had driven up from Virginia at the last minute to be “part of history.” Hanging ecumenically between the Episcopalians and Presbyterians as we waited, I met a young priest from Portland, Oregon and a woman from the Diocese of New Mexico whose Bishop, she said, is solidly behind increasing awareness of climate change. Church groups were there from Pennsylvania, Boston, California. The Hare Krishna folks in orange mingled with Muslims in white caftans. The “agnostics” and “spiritual seeker” groups stood in solidarity with Congregationalists and Catholics.

Among other groups of marchers, environmental activists and union members voiced their concern together with “clean energy creates new jobs," liberal and conservative, young and old alike were united in this urgent and pressing Cause.

Bearing Witness—How?

But it’s the Silent Earth Witness folks that haunt me still. Their solemn faces bore witness to the seriousness of climate change. Recent scientific data confirms that earth’s temperature continues to rise, whatever the climate change deniers may say. Some projections see serious challenges to future food supply as well as the well-publicized effects of rising oceans.

We need the boisterous marches and rallies, and more of them. Persistently.  But what if we also had silent gatherings, again and again—dozens, hundreds, thousands facing the statehouses, ringing the Capitol, in utter stillness proclaiming our deep, deep prayer for humanity, civilization and the earth?

See The NYTimes coverage at

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Selective Compassion?

Thirteen years later, the observances last week were still poignant. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center have enduring power to make the tears well up, and pull the heart back to that beautiful and crisp early Fall day when, as we say, “3000 innocents died.” 

Innocent they were—as innocent as the vast number of peaceful civilians among the 200,000 who have died in Syria's brutal civil war. Innocent as 100,000 or more Iraqi civilians murdered in the brutal sectarian violence unleashed during the American occupation.

But those foreign deaths occurred at a greater distance from both our heads and our hearts than the events on 9/11—though not far from the hearts of fellow Syrians and Iraqis.  The brute fact is this: human compassion not only has its limits, but its own high degree of selectivity.

Ordinary compassion requires some kind of self-other identification, some “that could be me” sense. “Fellow human being” pales into abstraction when put up against a member of my family, my neighborhood, my town, my nation.” This capacity has always served a key role in binding groups together, part of our communal survival kit.

Us and Not Us

For most Americans, the 9/11 victims are “us." The Syrians and the Iraqis are, almost inevitably, “them.” Similarly, both the Gazans and Israelis usually belong to the “us” circle for the West. Founded mostly by Europeans, Israel has welcomed a goodly number of American immigrants. Millions of Palestinians have moved to the U.S. and Europe. The Israel Gaza strife was front and center in media and commentary just last month.

On the other hand, the five million dead in the ongoing Second Congo War (1998 to the present) belong, conversely, to “them,” and seem to merit little media coverage, much less the welling up of tears. For non-African Europeans and Americans, Africa is mostly not "us."

Even among the “us,” compassion usually works selectively. For example, the blood and destruction in Gaza is vivid and heart-rending. The pundits write about “disproportionate response,” which on the surface seems obvious. Far more abstract to most non-Jews is the fact that Israel faces an enemy which makes a boast of its determination to destroy the “Zionist entity,” actually celebrating the death of Gazan civilians as “martyrdom” in their cause.  To many, the multi-faceted threats faced by Israel seem so much less visceral.

Compassion reveals—and blinds

In the throes of compassion we see some things more sharply; other realities become veiled. When selective outrage joins selective compassion, head and heart can easily start down the slide toward justified violence against the Other. And the identity of the Other can easily shift. Our heart's selectivity makes it harder to see clearly the dynamics at work in any conflict, and naturally drives us to take sides.

This is our usual default way of operating, arising out of millions of years of evolutionary development—basic survival equipment for family, community, tribe and nation. With intention and practice, however, the heart can stretch beyond its present limitations, if only haltingly. Jesus calls us to this stretching, as did the Buddha and Confucius. A heart that sees the prior suffering, the insult or injury at the root of most violence, is more likely to support a head that sees clearly and can respond more wisely.

Such wisdom is most crucial whenever we decide we must take sides.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Money, Celebrity and Real Estate on the Circle Line

Perhaps my memories are wrong, but the spiel of our chatty Circle Line tour guide last week on a picture-perfect tour of the entire shoreline of Manhattan Island more like something out of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” than the story of the city I heard on my cruise a dozen years ago.

A Question of Balance

The sights were great, of course but money, celebrity and real estate took center stage in the guide'scommentary. And—oh yes—I forgot to mention celebrities from both media and the world of sports.  The history of Manhattan was there, but much diminished from the last time. As we glided down the lower West Side toward the tip of the Island, passing glistening new glass, steel and stone apartment complexes it was all: “Helen Mirren has a town house in that tower, and Jon Stewart of the Daily Show over there. Derek Jeter's in that tower over there. And over there is where they filmed Serpico."

Then came the Real Estate: “The apartments in that building go for $2400 per month in the lower third, about $4500 in the middle, from $7000 up nearer the top, and that penthouse just sold for 7 million.”  These bursts of real estate financing, often melded to celebrity location reappeared regularly as a refrain in between the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, The Revolutionary War and the advent of steam ships. Even Yankee Stadium got the "people pay over $30,000 for one of the special suites" treatment. A references to affordable housing and rent controlled apartments broke the “rich and famous” refrain, once. But the tour climaxed with “come rent or buy in New York” pitch to a boat largely filled with European tourists, most of whom probably couldn't afford such prices. 

The True Face of the City?

On the one hand, I want to rant (and am so doing) about how money seemed to suck the life out of  every other value (celebrity excepted). On the other hand, I fear that what the tour guide was spouting revealed the truer face of New York today, a great world city becoming more and more the domain of the elite of the world marketplace. Our guide, indeed, celebrated how the captains of international finance and corporate life are “buying into” this, as into other great cities. 

Viewed through this lens, the gleaming new residential towers reminded me of the grand palaces and 19th century “Turkish Victorian” mansions along the Bosphorus—homes of the Turkish and world elite, many of whom have flats in London, town houses in Paris, and penthouses New York. The middle class has been hard-pressed for decades to hold their own in this city as it divides between the fabulously rich, the merely wealthy, and the working poor. 

Seen from the water, this city is a great forest of buildings as “natural” in its own way as a beaver’s dam or a bird’s nest. But the multi-layered reality that has made New York awesome is made of so many more stands than money and celebrity, I would have hoped to hear more about its true wealth than our tour guide seemed know, care about, or think we cared about.

But such, increasingly, such is the tone of our uber-monetized culture, where all value boils down to the price of things. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ascension—and Apocalypse?

I will send to you another Advocate (the Spirit of truth) who will convict the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment. —John 16:8

Forgetfulness can be merely annoying, or deadly, depending on what keeps slipping our mind. So much in our culture seems aimed to entertain, amuse and help us forget the real challenges to human civilization that cross our news screens in between commercials. Our cultural brew is laced with forgetfulness, spiked with concealment.

Awakening out of slumber

In the light of this, Jesus’ mystifying pre-Ascension promise rings with hope. We will be sent a paracletus, (1) an advocate, someone who literally “cries out beside us” on our behalf. The reality this Spirit brings is truth, aletheia, which, in Greek, literally means awakening from forgetfulness, from lethe (2), from concealed things; awakening to what is present, real, now. As a verse from the Gospel of Thomas promises, we will be able to see “what is in front of us.” (3)

And that means not only all the love, joy, peace, justice and abundant life the Spirit of Jesus’ Way can bring to us, but convicting and exposing “sin, righteousness and judgment”—that is, makes clear all the things that make or break that abundant life.

We Americans tend to see sin as an individualized issue of personal moral purity, while ignoring the reality of the systemic, structural evil that undermines the well-being of the world. The paracletus works in the world to expose, the convict, to make right judgment clear, flowing through the souls who dare to bear witness to the potentially apocalyptic edge of what is happening in our midst daily.

The wages of sin

    + The Spirit of truth flows through the souls of those who seek to expose a food industry that tempts us with “bet you can’t eat only one," then loads its processed foods with the sugar, fat and salt that undermine rational restraint.
    + It cries out against major pesticide makers who produce poisons that threaten the world’s bee population and thus the world’s harvest.
    + It exposes the decades long battle big oil has waged against the harsh reality of global warming’s birth of increasingly lethal weather, sea rise and climate change.
    + It questions the medical and agribusiness over-use of antibiotics that tears holes in the antibiotic shield that protects us.
    + It bewails the poisoning of the waters and the seas, the destruction of habitat and species that uphold the web of life on which we depend.

Dismissing all this as the greed of a few at the top is a form of forgetful denial, for our very way of life is virtually inseparable from these supporting and lethally-laced social and commercial structures. No one is an island, pure and separate from surrounding conditions. We're in this together.

Becoming channels of the Advocate

Aletheia is our hope: waking up to our true situation, seeking the things that make for life, health, justice and the well-being of creation. But that only comes with the sober recognition of sin and our collusion with it. "Apocalypse" can portend doom and destruction, but the word itself speaks of the concealed coming to light.

We may be powerless to change much, but we can join the voices of all those brave souls who dare to speak truth to power and do our part to change the conversation from our culture’s self-amusing trivia and scandle-mongering to the stark truths we face. . .

 . . .and thus truly honor the meaning of Christ’s ascension to the heart of God, the source of all truth. 


1.  A paRAketos is “one who consoles or comforts, one who encourages or uplifts; hence refreshes, and/or one who intercedes on our behalf as an advocate in court.”

2. Lethe: In Classical Greek, the word lethe literally means "oblivion", "forgetfulness", or "concealment".[1] It is related to the Greek word for "truth", aletheia (ἀλήθεια), which through the privative alpha literally means "un-forgetfulness" or "un-concealment".

3. Jesus said, "Come to know what is in front of you, and that which is hidden from you will become clear to you." Gospel of Thomas, Logion 5: Patterson, Robinson, and Bethge, The Fifth Gospel, Trinity Press International, 1998.

Monday, April 28, 2014

That 'Doubting' Thomas: A Bum Wrap?

Just don't single him out as the 'doubting' one. That's all I ask.

OK, I grant you, Thomas refuses to believe the other ten apostles had seen the Lord: Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails.... (John 20:25).  But then, didn't those same ten apostles refuse to credit the witness of the women and Mary Magdalen who burst in with a report of resurrection: It seemed to them an idle tale (Luke 24:11).  They all doubted, if you want to use that word, not just Thomas.

I grant you, the risen Christ challenges "do not be unbelieving, but believing." But the word doubt can't be found in the resurrection story texts at all until we come to Matthew's account of Jesus' appearance, presumably to a larger group, on a mountain in Galilee: They all worshipped him, but some doubted (Matthew 28:17).

If we must use "doubt" as a label, let it be doubting Peter, doubting James and John, doubting Thaddeus, Nathaniel, Bartholomew and the rest before we get around to Thomas. Actually, the big words in the famous story is believe, not doubt:  "Be not unbelieving!"  The opposite of belief, biblically speaking, leans more in the direction of unfaithful or untrusting rather than doubt in some intellectual sense, the way we moderns, with our creedal, doctrinal questions tend to read it. 

Better labels

Call Thomas deeply committed before you start throwing 'doubting' at him. This apostle doesn't get many lines in the the Fourth Gospel's passion drama, but his one-liners sketch character forcefully. When Jesus stops marking time over across the Jordan and decides to go up to Jerusalem after Lazarus has died, who is it that voices the fear all the rest of them feel about walking into danger? After the others have grilled Jesus on why he would behave so recklessly, Thomas calls them to order bravely: Let us then go with him that we may die with him (John 11:16). He's bought the message and taken the man to his heart very deeply. Call him brave Thomas.

When Jesus speaks mystically about going before the apostles to "prepare a place" and tells them that they "know the Way" he goes, who speaks up his Master the mystic who has mystified them all more than once? "Master, we do not know way you are going. How can we know the way?" One can easily imagine this has been his role all along: to ask the questions when the others mumble confused assent and look uneasily at their feet when Jesus pulls one of his mind-boggling utterances. Call him inquiring Thomas, searching Thomas.

Only after exhausting these other descriptors is it fair to pull out the "doubting" bit.  And even then, as noted before, it's not quite right apt. "Belief" in John is pistis, deep personal trust far more than the cognitive assent "belief" conjures up in our mind. Thomas apparently walked into a sort of resurrection fever when he arrived at the upper room after missing Jesus' amazing appearance. He didn't trust this second hand experience. I think he was so deeply committed to Jesus and his Way, so shocked by Jesus' death, he needed to know this all was really true.

Jesus invites him to be more open to the witness of others, to give them more credit, perhaps to stop thinking he's the brightest one around. Or that questions are the only way to explore the Way, which can only be known fully by risking the act of trust that walking it involves.

After all that, it might be OK to call him doubting, along with the rest of us who hesitate from time to time as we follow a Master who keeps stretching us into challenging territory.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Man Who Wouldn't Go Away

A passionate performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion had just concluded. The music starkly pronounced Jesus dead. Gone. I had never felt it so keenly, as if hearing the Story for the first time. I almost gasped: O my God, they really killed him!

Then the strangest thing happened: we all stood up, and the minister started talking directly to Jesus. Such a familiar Good Friday prayer, but, still stunned by how carefully the final chorale had put Jesus into the tomb, I was unexpectedly taken aback by the audacity of talking to Jesus as if he were right there.

But that’s what the Story claims, isn’t it? No matter how hard the authorities tried, no matter how much the apostles may have been secretly, unconsciously relieved it was all over and ordinary life could begin again, he was back.

Like a sprouting dandelion whose taproot you couldn’t quite get at last summer, like someone you’ve injured who comes back to you wanting to restore the relationship, like hope that arises unexpectedly when you thought despair had taken control, he was back . . . Not just once in that startling upper room surprise on Sunday night, but repeatedly, and always unexpectedly.

They told stories about what it was like:

+  They did not expect these visitations, for they, too had written him off as gone forever,
but he “showed himself by many proofs.”

+  He could appear in the middle of a locked room as if out of nowhere, but eat some fish as if he had a body like ours.

+  He could appear in the guise of a stranger and speak words that set the heart ablaze with love and hope, then disappear in the twinkling of an eye.

+  He breathed himself into them so that something of himself came alive in them more fully than ever before.

Whatever the “real history" behind these stories they bear witness to an uninvited encounter with a Reality that would not go away, that pursued them, even after the dramatic appearances stopped.  For Those outside those intimate encounters in the upper room, on the Emmaus walk, at the lakeshore breakfast and mountaintop appearances, he was back as a spreading virus of Jesus-Spirit of hungering for compassion and justice that kept infecting more and more people—and does still.  Not all who claim his Name have got it, but many do; it has reached many who would be surprised to know its Name.

For He was, and is, the sign and seal and sacrament of something deep in the heart of reality that will not die, no matter how hard we kill it.They called It zoe, Life-eternally-springing,* the Life that makes whole the world—because That is what It is.

It is Easter Monday. The trumpet blasts have faded. But the zoe which is the essence of his reality waits still to surprise us anew. 


*   The Greek word zoe indicates eternal life here and now, and connects this life with creation itself: "all that came to be was alive with His zoe."

Image: Michaelangelo's 'Risen Christ' in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Good Friday Reverie on Creation

A Lamb slain from the creation of the world.  (Revelation 13:8)

At the heart of life
death dwells,
but life springs from that heart.
So much more true
than we ever imagined,
this paradox.

The very elements making up our bodies,
the cosmos as a whole,
were forged in dying stars,
the first to flare forth.
Dying yields life.
The very ground under our feet,
the fruit of myriad deaths
becomes the grist for greenly springing new life
that yields, in turn, life which soon becomes earth.

So is it strange that Jesus dying,
as he does upon the rough wood of the cross,
was seen, by some, as an ikon, an image, a glimpse of
a cosmic "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world"?
What happens on Calvary is many things,
including the vivid glimpse of how Things work.

Gargantuan violence fills the universe:
death and suffering, woven into the heart of the process
of cosmic life, dwell in our carbon-based selves.
Seeing this can cause sentient creatures like us to quail,
seeing that we are fated to suffer and die like all the rest.
Which is why the angels always say Do not be afraid.

The reality, both brutal and exquisite is that life and death
locked in the creative balance Darwin saw.
Facing death leads living creatures to adapt with
greater development and complexity.
That is the path that brought earth to birth us
offspring of the Great Tree of life,
offspring of the God who birth it all.

Bigger than one man, what happens today on Calvary
bigger than local or imperial politics,
bigger than something merely human,
important and real as all means to humans.

It is a showing, a revelation, of something structural to Reality itself,
from bottom to top, a truth that means
even the blood of martyrs can be the seed of things living and true.

Good Friday's death may make us squeamish,
its memory uneasy if we let it,
for the bone of who we are becomes exposed:
our creatureliness, our vulnerability,
our mandatory participation in the rhythm of life.
Coming near cross and altar threatens to sweep us
into the tidal waves of the universe itself.
The green dragon of life lurks hidden by the altar frontal.

So many ancient myths tell us of that at the birth of the cosmos
a great ox, or cosmic human or primal mother was sacrificed, slain,
and all things sprang into life from this.
The myths say this because this Mystery is at the heart of things.

Do not be afraid,  the angels always say when we stumble upon them.
Do not be afraid: this is the way it is, this dance of life and death.
Do not fear that life goes down to death, for life springs from death.
unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground it remains alone, 
but it it dies, it bears much fruit. 

Shall we then resent that the bright flaring of our lives
arises out of the past and dies into the future?
Shall we be so attached to our single organism and our unique mind
that we cannot see how much we are each patterns of the cosmos, working out,
in our brief adventure, new patterns that enrich the whole?

That we are lives that die into that deepest Ground which is divine
to bear—who knows—new life in forms we even cannot begin to imagine?

                                                       —RCM, Holy Week 2014

Friday, April 11, 2014

Passiontide Storytelling: What To Do With “The Reproaches”?

Across the centuries on Good Friday, a haunting Gregorian chant called the faithful to come forward and venerate the “wood of the cross on which the salvation of the world was hung.”

“My people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me.
I brought you out of Egypt but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.” (1)

The “The Reproaches” continue in many Roman Catholic and high-church Lutheran and Anglican parishes, paralleled in the liturgies of the Orthodox churches. In poignant terms, God is pictured confronting his people about the death of Jesus—a theme that became central to medieval and even modern sermonizing.

Along with these verses, the fixed Good Friday prayers prayed for the conversion of the “perfidious Jews.”  Such prayers played a big part in inciting holy week violence against Jews, from early medieval times until the end of the 19th century in many places.

Post-Holocaust Changes

Since the Holocaust, an increasing number of Christians have awakened out of this anti-Judaic delusion, horrified at the “final solution” the piety of centuries helped foster when the Nazis transformed it into a chillingly thorough national agenda.  (2) Many liturgical churches now shy away from using them at all because of their unsavory historical associations.

Still others go so far as writing the High Priests out of the story entirely, shifting the blame entirely onto the Romans—a move which I find unconvincing and unnecessary, to say nothing of the fact that the Temple authorities take an integral role in the Scriptural drama (3). That some Jewish authorities felt that the nation was threatened by a man and a movement they perceived as bound to lead to insurrection is, quite simply, the way human authorities respond.

I rejoice that others seek to redeem and revision traditional readings, bringing out the implicit human universality in the Passion narratives, which is the way I always understood them. God’s “people” — Christians, Jews, all humanity can and does resist God’s purposes for the world. Offloading guilt onto scapegoats—humanity’s historical default category—insulates us from all the ways, great and small, that we, and humanity itself, “crucify God” and God’s creatures in our injustice, environmental degradation, and mistreatment of each other. Both the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels bear witness to this, to say nothing of daily news reports.

Liturgical Re-visioning

A fine example of liturgical re-visioning of The Reproaches can be found in the 2006 Evangelical Lutheran Worship Book, which imagines God addressing not just Jesus' persecutors, but the church:  “O my people, O my church, what have I done to you?” No longer is "my people" them but us—which is how I always understood it.  The new Lutheran Reproaches also include very specific repentance:

O my people, O my church, what more could I have done for you?
I grafted you into my people Israel, but you made them scapegoats for your own guilt, and you have prepared a cross for your Savior:
R. Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal One, have mercy on us. 

Likewise, the liturgy prays that Jews, "called and elected as Your own may receive the fulfillment of the covenant's promise,” a studiously Anglican-style ambiguity, but far from the ancient “perfidious.” I take it personally to mean that I stand in solidarity with my Jewish brothers and sisters as we both await the age of Messianic fulfillment.

Holy Week tells us we are all “standin’ in the need of prayer.” Why not stand together, even if we live in distinctly different traditions, all of which deserve respect?

1. For a complete text of the contemporary Roman Rite version see:

2.  See the account of Pope John Paul II's Liturgy of Repentance in Rabbi David Rosen’s address at Georgetown University:

3.  As in previous posts, I feel that conjectural reworking of the reported facts of the story will never have the weight in history of Scripture itself. Thus it remains crucial how we understand, preach, liturgize and teach texts themselves, which most of the Christian world believes are "revealed."

4.  See Evangelical Lutheran Worship, ELCA, 2006

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Passion Narrative: Who Are These “Jews”?

The Jews, the Jews, the Jews—hoi Iudaioi in Greek—are everywhere in the Holy Week readings. But who they are is not as simple as the surface of the texts suggests.

Many, if not all preachers know that “the Jews” is used in many different ways. It doesn’t always mean the whole Jewish people. Very few parishes, however, use translations that make this clear, especially on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Church-goers easily get the impression that "the Jews"en mass rejected Jesus. In past centuries, such distortions led again and again to religious murder. No less.

Diverse groups of "Jews"

Hoi Iudaioi means, in its most basic sense, the Jewish people as distinguished from other tribes and tongues. But those Jews who followed the Jewish man Jesus, of course, didn’t reject him. The “great crowds” of Jews at Passover “heard him gladly” and mourned his death (Mark 13, Luke 22; see blog #3 in this series). When the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel tells the Samaritan woman that “salvation is from the Jews,” he takes his stand firmly in the tradition of Moses and the Prophets, as remembered by the Jews, a.k.a. Judeans, who returned from the Exile (John 4:22).

But while “many of the Jews...believed in Jesus,” others reported the incident to the authorities, who are also called “the Jews” in many verses (John 11:45-46). These Iudaioi, those Judean leaders and their followers who get into verbal brawls with Jesus in John’s gospel, are the target group Jesus accuses of being blindly resistant to the light of God, not all those other Jews (1).  It is from this leadership group and their supporters alone that the disciples huddle behind barred doors after Jesus execution “in fear of the Jews" (John 20:19).

The Odd Rigidity of Most Modern Translations

While the Fourth Gospel clearly uses hoi Iudaioi in different ways, an oddly rigid refusal to paraphase these words seems to possess most translators. The NRSV translators, for example (who paraphrase a great many other words to aid reader understanding) stick doggedly to “the Jews” in these gospel passages. They know about the different uses, but refuse to indicate them. Is the weight of historic Christian scorn for "the Jews" so strong that it lingers still in their work, however unconsciously? Because of such bloody history, this matters.

Some, however, seek to make the truth clear. Consider the different message these two translations of John 7:11-13 deliver.

NRSV: The Jews were looking for him at the festival and saying, “Where is he?”...While some were saying, “He is a good man,” others were saying, “No, he is deceiving the crowd.” 13 Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.

New Living Translation: The Jewish leaders tried to find him at the festival and kept asking if anyone had seen him....Some argued, “He’s a good man,” but others said, “He’s nothing but a fraud who deceives the people.” 13 But no one had the courage to speak favorably about him in public, for they were afraid of getting in trouble with the Jewish leaders.

“Judean leaders” or even “the leaders” would be better, in my opinion. But these translations  support the historical and spiritual reality: Jesus wasn’t against Judaism as such, but against the hypocrisy, resistance to God and abuse of power that can arise in any religion, nation, or group. They too often flourished among Christians themselves! 

The New Living Translation is a giant step in the right direction, as are a few others.  Pray God the day comes when all the Holy Week lessons are read from translations that make clear what “The Jews” means. Soon.

Next: What to do with "The Reproaches"?

1.  John's version of Jesus' verbal brawls with opponents are most likely influenced by the violent hostility between some Jews and the emergent Jesus movement in the decades after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Those Passover Crowds: ‘Hosannah’ or ‘Crucify?’

I’ve done it myself in decades past: said the crowds who hailed Jesus on his entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday shouted “Crucify him!” by Good Friday.

Such sermonic drama has little, if any, biblical warrant. (1) There were crowds, yes; but with hundreds of thousands of people in and around Jerusalem at Passover, “the crowds” are not exactly one unified mass. One gospel says “many” greeted him as he entered Jerusalem (Mark 11:8), another “the multitude of the disciples,”(Lk 19:27) still another “crowds” (Matthew 21:8 & John 12:12). In any case, “the city was stirred” (Matthew 21:10).

Mocking or mourning?

On Good Friday, most of those jubilant crowds have turned to mourning, not mocking. Luke 23 makes clear that during Jesus crucifixion “the people stood watch." The “rulers” sneer at Jesus, not "the people," for when “all the people (Greek: multitudes) who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away.” (Luke 23:48).

Little wonder. During the preceding week, “the great crowd heard him gladly” as he taught them in the vast Temple courtyard (Mark 12:37). As Jesus carried his cross “a large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him” (Luke 23:37). “All the people” who beat their breasts surely includes some of these folk. Their lamentation is over yet another Jew executed by the Roman Imperium in the person of Pontius Pilate, who was recalled by Rome not many years later for excessive brutality. One among hundreds, even thousands of Jews slaughtered at his command, Jesus is yet another Jewish martyr.

That other crowd

Who then makes up the “crowd” that cries “crucify”? As the story is told, this group is “all the assembly,” that is, those among the Jewish rulers who turn Jesus over to Pilate, fulfilling their duty in to suppress civil agitation lest matters get out of hand in the volatile crowds. Some curiosity seekers no doubt came along, this combined "crowd" is “stirred up” by the high priests.

Confusion about the repeated use of words for “crowd” comes easily if you don’t read the texts carefully. Out of this, a distorted, dark and anti-Jewish reading arose in which the "fickle" crowds become proof positive that Jews were Christ-killers. All Jews; for all time.

Getting the story straight matters enormously. Throughout history, Holy Week stories have been repeatedly the pretext for Christian mobs to attack Jews as “God-killers,” a term codified into Christian canon law as early as the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E.  Blessedly, the 20th century brought an end to such Holy Week violence, but it is a long, shameful, bloody history—much worse than most contemporary Christians realize.

Now, even with Vatican II’s explicit repudiation of the "God-murderer" charge, many Christians still believe the simplistic bromide that “the Jews rejected Jesus.” Some Holy Week storytelling, especially stories about the ever-so-fickle crowds, distorts the story and colors attitudes toward Jews.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness” demands we get the story straight. 

Next: Who were 'the Jews'?

(1)  I am very aware that some biblical scholars believe the Passion narratives are full of inaccurate or distorted facts. Be that as it may, the gospel text is the story enshrined in Scripture, which will pass on to future generations. It is the story the world, and especially the Jews, have had to deal with. That story, as it is told, needs to be read as carefully and accurately as possible.


Monday, April 7, 2014

Passiontide Pitfalls 2: Law vs. Love—or Law the Means of Love?

I really shouldn’t have been surprised (see yesterday’s blog) to hear the age-old bromide about the contrast between Judaism’s alleged “oppressive legalism” and Jesus’ gospel of love and freedom rolling off the lips of the “progressive” preacher this past Lent.

As unfair as it is to Judaism, both ancient and modern, getting that impression from the New Testament isn’t all that hard. Paul’s contrast of law and Spirit seems, on the face of it, clear enough, though recent scholarship raises some serious questions about such a simplistic reading. (1) Christians, especially Protestants, have often read the Gospels through the lens of Paul, rather than Paul through the lens of the Gospels.  

Jesus and his halakah

The Jesus of the Gospels (2) makes fairly clear that following him involves his own version of what Jews call halakah, religious law, or, if you prefer, mitzvot, commandments. He bids disciples to forgive generously, give graciously to “those who ask,” follow the Ten Commandments, refrain from oath-taking, purify the heart from indulgence in lust or anger, settle disputes amicably, and much more. Such instructions are not “suggestions” but the requirements of “a house built on solid ground” rather than “on sand.” (3) As the Fourth Gospel states it: “If you love me, keep my commandments,” one of which (in that same Gospel) is “Love one another.”

Such statements fit hand-in-glove into Jewish categories typical of Jesus’ own time. Various teachers and groups vied in the late Second Temple period with each other to define what “normative” practice would be. Jesus’ disputations with “scribes and Pharisees” about the exact details of Sabbath law also sound rather typical of Jewish disagreements about how to apply Torah commandments in any age. In fact, virtually every aspect of Jesus’ moral and ethical commandments appears in rabbinical teachings codified in the next few centuries in what became the Talmud. (4)

None of this quite fits the “love vs. law” stereotype. Both the Pharisees and Jesus offer halakah designed to help us know how to love God and neighbor. Such commandments can be practiced in a legalistic or a life-giving spirit in either Christianity or Judaism. 

Jesus does define the “greatest commandment” as love, but so did Hillel the Elder before him. (5) So what distinguishes Jesus’ teaching from theirs?

The real disagreements

First and foremost, Jesus disagrees with the Pharisees about the expansion of Temple purity laws into everyday life. Matthew’s gospel hears him saying that these extensions bind an unnecessary “burden” on people. His famed clashes over touching lepers and the woman with an “issue of blood” are illustrations of this stance pushed even further.

Secondly, and even more importantly, the clashes are about Jesus himself. The Gospels report claims to be, at the least, a prophet and more than a prophet. He doesn't appeal to the chain of teaching by the Sages from the Great Assembly on, but speaks “with authority, and not as the scribes and the Pharisees” (6), apparently claiming direct inspiration from God. Jesus heals non-life-threatening conditions on the Sabbath, and declares direct forgiveness of sin, for example, all on his own authority, or, as the Fourth Gospel puts in, because he is following the immediate internal directions of God.

Whatever else this is, it is not “love vs. law.” Our historic disagreement with rabbinical Judaism is about the person and status of Jesus, not the content of his teaching.

Christians who accept Jesus as a divinely inspired “prophet and more than a prophet” readily accept his authority to say and do such things. But the Gospels give us no valid grounds on which the historic denigration of Judaism as a “legalistic” religion can be based.

The law of love, one might say, demands better of us. 

Next: Those Palm Sunday Crowds

1.  See N.T. Wright, Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul and Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays

2.  I deal here with Jesus as presented in the Gospels, not the various re-imagined "real" Jesuses who might, or might not, lurk behind the texts. The scriptural Jesus is the Man presented to the world by the first and second generations of his followers, and the Figure who lives in Christian imagination, teaching, and dialogue with historic Judaism.

3.  See Matthew 7:24-27

4.  See the classic A Rabbinic Anthology by H. Loewe and C. G. Montefiore, which gives rabbinical comments on many subjects, including forgiveness, love of the enemy, and sensible applications of the commandments.

5.  "Love of one's fellow man was considered by Hillel as the kernel of the entire Jewish teaching" in the New World Encyclopedia at

6.  Matthew 7:9


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Perils and Pitfalls of Passiontide Storytelling

I heard it from the pulpit in another state just a couple of weeks ago: “Jesus taught a religion of freedom and love to counter the oppressive Jewish religion of fear and law.”

The sermon, in this liberal, progressive congregation, went on to describe the elaborate pettifogging burden of “613 detailed laws” that Jews had saddled themselves with by Jesus’ day, and Jesus’ genius in boiling them all down to two: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  No mention, of course, of the rabbinical sage Hillel the Elder, the real author of this alleged “simplification,” or of the fact that Jesus himself surely knew that a lion’s share of those 613 Torah commandments applied to temple and judicial officials rather than to daily life.

But there it was, hanging in the air, this age-old stereotype, confirming life-long impressions of many of the hearers. A stereotype peddled by a theologically sophisticated, even avant-guarde Protestant minister, and repeated in a variety of ways in both liberal and conservative churches to this day, on occasion fueled by some “liberationist” readings of the Gospels.  Jesus vs. “them,” the Jews—or, at the least, the Pharisees. 

The Holy Week Drama

Jesus, of course, had opponents, and eventually, enemies. Every return to Holy Week, the most emotionally intense part of the Christian Year, promises to sharpen stereotypes of this adversarial relationship, from the supposed fickleness of the Jerusalem crowds to the reasons for Jesus’ death.  Holy Week, therefore, has been, and can be still, a perilous time for re-telling this story, for it is so very easy to fall into time-worn stereotypes of both Jews and Judaism, especially in an attempt to make this tragic—and triumphant—tale more dramatic.

Much teaching and seminary training in recent decades has blunted the sharp edge of Christian anti-Judaism a great deal. But these stereotypes still roll all too often from the tongue of preachers and rise up too easily in the minds of Bible-readers, even those with no desire to denigrate Jews or Judaism. The narrative reflex is old and deep.

In this short series of blog essays I plan to share what I’ve learned in almost five decades of intense Jewish-Christian dialogue and reading of texts both Jewish and Christian. This bears on the Gospel narrative, especially on Palm Sunday and Holy Week preaching, teaching and meditating. The foci will be three, though the essays may be more than that: 1) Stereotypes about Second Temple Judaism;  2) The Passover crowds on Palm Sunday and Easter; 3) “The Jews” and the death of Jesus. 

Real-life consequences, then and now

Necessity drives such stereotype-purging. Not so very long ago in historical time, Holy Week served as prime time for attacks by Christian mobs on Jewish towns and neighborhoods. An elderly Jewish man told me recently that he knows Jews in cities like New York who still steer clear of even walking near churches in Holy Week. Here is an inherited reaction to almost twenty centuries of ugly Holy Weeks, reinforced by vivid memories of bullying in childhood by Christian kids calling them “Christ-killers.”

The Christian world, even the “enlightened” section of it, has not yet fully outgrown some of its deeply inherited misunderstandings. In a second post tomorrow, I’ll begin by taking on that preacher and his all-too-easy sermonic flourish, (hoping that, for most of my readers, I will only be confirming what they've already learned).

Next: Law vs. Love or Law the Means of Love?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Aronofsky’s “Noah” and the Flood This Time Around

“Why did God kill everybody — the animals, too?” my rector’s five-year old daughter Sarah asked him when he had finished reading her the usual kiddie version of Noah: adorable animals, jokes about crowding and smells, and a rainbow at the end. “I don’t like that story!” she declared.

Not what he expected; but the five-year old really got the dark and horrific side of the story the “cutesy animal” story was at pains to minimize. All of humanity gone. Kaput. Swept away. Exterminated. The animals, too. All except Noah’s family and menagerie.

Director Darren Aronofsky gets that horrific side and much more in this stark re-telling of the biblical legend—a film more creatively faithful to the core message of the original Noah story than any literal, verse-by-verse depiction of the story could ever be

Fundamentalist agita vs. creative interpretation

Fundamentalist critics fume about “departures” from the Bible: the inclusion (from the rich trove of ancient Jewish midrash—interpretive story-telling) of the Watchers, or fallen angels; Noah’s character as morally ambiguous, even dangerously flawed; and (horrors!) a retelling of the creation story that dares show the universe and all life evolving. To add insult to injury, the story has been “hijacked” by an “environmentalist agenda.”

Bravo! say I. Aronofsky has created his own bold Noah midrash for our times, set in a mythic and miraculous landscape, lest it be mistaken for literal history.

At the film’s beginning, he rather brazenly states a warning about our own Flood, our impending environmental apocalypse: “Cain founded an industrial civilization that progressively devoured the earth.” Oil wells and dark cities appear. A literal translation of Genesis itself says that humanity had “wrecked its way on earth, and wrecked the earth,” so he’s on good ground. Think fracking. 

Impending floods—then and now

I saw “Noah” yesterday, just after reading about the latest U.N. report listing the dire effects of climate change already apparent on island nations, low-lying countries like Bangladesh, crop failures, coral reef death and population displacement. This leaves aside the quieter and far darker side of our earth-devouring civilization: massive destruction of species habitat and the death of countless species—with more to come.

After such a blatant start, the film becomes more nuanced and subtle. The righteous Noah is not all good. His adversary, Tubal-cain, a descendant of murderous Cain, spouts muscular market-place bromides about domination and the power of human enterprise. His part in the plot, however, eventually creates an ambiguous foil to Noah’s rigid, and eventually murderous righteousness, and leads toward the eventual triumph of mercy over justice. 

Massive destruction can be very real

And, oh yes, all of humanity dies like flies. You can read about it in the Bible or see it this week on the big screen. Stark, horrific, though not particularly gory. 

Just as horrific, in its own way, as a West Coast mudslide exterminating a whole neighborhood, one built on dangerous land compromised by clear-cut logging. Dozens died like flies. Happens a lot on planet earth, that stuff. The Bible is full of warnings about the greed and selfishness, the governmental negligence and corruption that lead to some of “that stuff.” More of it to come, according to the U.N. Report: the death of tens of thousands and more.

Aronsky’s got it right—the Word for our day, that is. The bible-thumpers are so wrapped up in the literal details of their long-ago tale that they can’t even hear what the Spirit might say to them through it in our own day.

Read some intelligent reviews here:
+ Fred and Mary Ann Brussat in Spirituality and Practice at
+ "Who Gets to Decide if Noah's Biblical?" in Religion Dispatches at
+ "Noah vs. A Kitschy Jesus: A Tale of Two Movies" in Religion Dispatches at

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Ukraine, Putin, and the Anti-Gay Campaign

As the struggle in Ukraine's divided land continues, President Putin has managed to keep the ugly reality of his anti-gay campaign in margins of the coverage of Sochi's Olympic Games. Behind the scenes in Kiev, the tug of war between Putin and the West played out, for this struggle is only one manifestation of a centuries-old divide between civilizations.

Ukraine as the clash of civilizations

Part of the Ukraine drama is the old stand-off between the Slavic-Orthodox East and the formerly Catholic/ Protestant West, now secularized and pluralistic.  As Samuel Huntington’s 1992 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order asserted, these religious, ethnic and civilizational divides are long-standing, powerful, and not about to go away. They simply take new forms.

Ukraine demonstrates this amply, geographically straddling the East-West divide. The western parts of Ukraine were, for centuries, ruled by the Germanic world, the eastern provinces dominated by the Russian Empire. Western and Central Ukraine lean toward close relations with the European Union. Even the main churches, while eastern Orthodox in style, are affiliated with Rome, not Moscow.

Putin is determined to keep Ukraine in the “Russian zone,” pressuring the leadership to knuckle under, because he has decided to renew Russia’s ancient habit of distinguishing “holy Russia” from an always-wayward West. With the flight of the deposed President, the world awaits Putin's next move.

Homosexuality a symbolic East-West flash-point

Which is where the anti-gay campaign comes in, deliberately fostered as a distinctive cultural marker. For strategic purposes gays must be persecuted precisely because the West moves toward including gays openly in society. Yes, homophobia is strong in Russian culture, and bolstered by the Russian Orthodox Church. But Russia (and not Russia alone) now uses anti-gay strategy as a way of distinguishing itself from the “decadent” West.

Scapegoats, alas, are nothing new. They serve multiple purposes. Allegedly embodying “degenerate” values, they clarify what "we" claim as the accepted the social good. They also serve to unify the rest of us, in spite of all our tension-making differences, into a unified opposition to their contaminating influence. Renaissance and Reformation culture found witches a convenient place to off-load the anxiety produced the very changes they fostered.

Putin presides over a vastly changed Russia which suffered a population decline, a massive income gap, a loss of status and a decade of social chaos before he took the reins. He must bolster Russian pride (hence the Sochi Olympics) and reinvigorate Russian identity as what columnist Ross Douthat calls "a rival civilizational model to the liberal democratic West." *

The gays must go, or keep themselves behind closed doors. Or, simply not exist. As a Sochi city official apparently told the press, “We don’t really have any of those here.”

* See "The Games Putin Plays" from the NYTimes, Sunday, February 23, 2014 at

Next week: Civilizational Divide, Part 2

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Noah and Climate Change's Proud Deniers

What with the severe winter, the climate change deniers are out in force, scoffing as Arctic cold swirls around much of the country.

Nothing new here. While back, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla) said he was “proud” to be a climate change denier, and his colleague Tom Coburn (R-Okla) gladly says any idea humans are contributing to the change is "malarky." 

Denial is so brave!

Denial is really cool in a great many circles these days, asserting black is white with relish, and sometimes a smirk.

+ Denial in the face of small island nations preparing to lose their homeland as the rising ocean erodes beaches, infiltrates the water table, and kills beachfront vegetation: climate change scaremongers!

+ Denial fracking's widespread ruination of the water table and degradation of land while helpless property-owners demonstrate how their faucets catch fire: isolated cases! we need to be energy self-sufficient!

+ Denial that polar bears are threatened by receding ice caps: they’re actually thriving!

It’s all about protecting the economy, of course, and “our blessed way" of high-on-the-hog lifestyle which resists the changes necessary for its own long term well-being.

The ancient Hebrew storytellers long ago noted the dynamics of denial. They told stories, and created their own interpretations of how denial happens. Jewish midrash—the interpretative storytelling of the rabbis—says that God postponed the Flood for 153 of Noah's preaching because God really, really wanted humanity to have a chance. But the more Noah warned them, the more stubborn they became in their resistance. 

Reverse Confirmation Bias

This is the phenomenon of "belief disconfirmation syndrome" in which hearing facts that undercut your beliefs makes you hold onto them harder. (2) Biblical writers ascribe this stubbornness to spiritual sources: if you persist in rejecting facts, you’ll be “sent a strong delusion” (1) that traps you in your denial until you and your world hit bottom. The preaching of the prophets becomes the very thing that seals your doom. "How long shall I preach?” says Isaiah; “Till cities are in ruins and fields lie ravaged” says the Lord. (3)

While I don’t believe God sends such delusion, the writers saw the phenomenon itself clearly. We can see it in addicts, dogmatically religious people, radicals of all kinds, left and right, and in the halls of state and national legislatures every day. Change isn’t worth the pain it will cost, even if greater pain may ensue. We’re great at dismissing, demeaning, and ridiculing ideas and facts that don’t fit our preconceptions, even as we slide deeper into danger.

In the ancient story the oceans rise anyway. Inhofe’s pride and Coburn’s politically convenient denial won’t change any aspect of global climate change, except to make it worse by forestalling action.

But enough people who resist denial, accept reality, challenge the deniers, and foster conversation about how we can improve our lifestyle by changing it may save us from the worst possibilities of our own impending Flood.


1.   2 Thessalonians 2:11
2.   For information about the brain as a "belief organ" resisting change, see Andrew Newberg,                Born to Believe: God, Science and the Origin of Ordinary and Extraordinary Beliefs
3.   Isaiah 6:9-12 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Culture of Lies?

A new year in Congress, and the Party of No keeps choosing lies instead of legislature. The latest campaign, in case you hadn’t caught up with the fabrication machine, is that Obama and his administration are “lawless,” so there’s hardly any point in passing laws.

Obama is lawless for three big reasons: 1) he just won’t enforce the current immigration laws;  2) as chief executive, he's delayed enforcement details of that Affordable Care Act  3) he’s become “King” and “Tyrant” by his overuse and promised continuing “rule by Executive Order.” A new year in Congress, and the Party of No keeps choosing lies instead of legislature.

Just a little fact-checking will reveal:  1) The Obama Administration’s enforcement of immigration law is as draconian, if not moreso, than the Bush Administration; 2) the GOP hates what they call “ObamaCare” and should actually applaud delays in its full implementation; 3) Obama uses constitutionally supported Executive Orders far less than Dubya, Clinton and Reagan. (1)  Politicians in both parties fabricate things, of course; but some have adopted it as a major lifestyle pattern. 

Why should we be surprised?

Sadly, perhaps tragically, we live in a culture awash with lies, a culture where style, strategy and effectiveness often take precedence over truthfulness; a media environment where the infamous “truthiness” — the plausibility of a report — too often rules.  Conservative SuperPAC fan Matthew Vadim, when challenged about the lies in attack ads, said that the ads mix "lies, scurrilous rumors and valuable information." What about the people who might be deceived? “It’s up to the viewers to sort it out.” What about the morality of such efforts? “Private organizations are free to try to influence government. One man’s sleaze is another man’s class.” (2)

Surely this is not what the Founders had in mind when the carved out a privileged space for a free press unconstrained by government control.

But it’s not just politics that is awash with lies. Just check out the customer complaints about all too many gadgets, devices and “bargain” goods and services featured in commercials on cable TV and notice the reports of deception, fraud, and corporate stonewalling about such reports.

And the result? 

The guy I hired to shovel the heavy snow this morning started expostulating about how Obama was destroying the Constitution by using "more executive orders than anybody ever." I told him Bush used more than Obama has, and so did Reagan. "I don't believe that." Just like that. "Don't believe it." I said he could check it out. "Don't believe it anyway." He listens to Fox News and Hannity.

This is what the nation is up against. Massive disinformation and so very many people who trust nothing but their own gut opinions, shaped by the confusing onslaught of "lies, scurrilous rumor and valuable information."

In the absence of trustworthy information, passions rule. Democracies are crippled, unable to deal with the challenges that really face them. And it becomes clearer why "Thou shalt not bear false witness" makes serious sense.



1. Charles Blow, "A Pen, a Phone and a Meme" in the New York Times, February 7, 2014.

2. The Daily Show, "Koch Blocked", February 5, 2014,

Friday, January 10, 2014

God’s Uphill Struggle with Humanity (Part 2)

Gabrielle Giffords believes there is real promise inherent in slow, step-by-step work toward a hard-to-reach goal in spite of all difficulties. The former Arizona Representative, brain-damaged three years back by a gunman wounded her and killed six others, speaks of the “gritty, painful, frustrating” daily work of rehab. Such work that has only partially restored her mental and physical functioning.

The experience has become a metaphor, for her, of the struggle for gun control. Because she has “seen grit overcome paralysis” in her own therapy, and she has committed herself to building, day by day and heart by heart an “advocacy community” that can take on the uphill struggle with the powerful weapons manufacturers and gun lobby. She believes in the promise of the cause, and will “cede no ground to those who would convince us the path is too steep, or we too weak.” (1) 

A promise pledged or inherent?

For me, Giffords’ experience is an almost exact parallel to God’s uphill struggle with the human race for the full dawning of the rule of God “on earth as in heaven.” The promise of the kingdom is a paradoxical one, echoing the dual usage of the word “promise.” On the one hand a promise is a pledge one person makes to another, a commitment to give a gift or bestow a boon. On the other hand, “promise” speaks of the inherent potential of a person, proposal or cause: “she shows a lot of promise.” The kingdom is a promise in both senses, but conventional Christianity has tended toward the first usage: the kingdom is something God has promised, so God will deliver it in God’s good time.

Both biblically and existentially, the two usages are intertwined so that one can't be true without the other. Humanity, made in the image of God, shows great promise. God’s promise to us is that we can have the kingdom IF we "seek the things" that constitute the kingdom: peace, justice, compassion, right relationship, and openness to grace. The covenant people of God, both in and beyond church, synagogue and mosque form such an “advocacy community.” 

Evolution informs

The ways we were formed by evolution make clearer why, like Giffords’ struggle against paralysis, the way to the kingdom is such an uphill struggle. “The human brain is wired, first and foremost, with aggression for survival,” says brain and spirituality researcher Dr. Andrew Newman. “The wiring for social awareness and compassion are more recent developments.” (2) The prophetic vision of the possible kingdom dawns millenia later, after the violent conflict humans fall into so easily becomes intolerable to illumined souls. God’s struggle with our species for sanity and sanctity is a mighty uphill battle. God holds no magic wand to "make it all go away," but is in the struggle with us and has the scars to prove it.

Rather than despair that almost three millennia after the vision of the kingdom dawned our species is still capable of so much destruction, we need to marvel that we’ve come so far against such great odds.

Next:  God’s Uphill Struggle with Humanity (Part 3)

1.  See her op-ed "The Lessons of Physical Therapy" at

2.  Newman and Waldman run the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania. See Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain. See

Sunday, January 5, 2014

IV. "Twelve Days" Reflections IV: God’s Uphill Struggle (Part I)

My soul has dwelt among
those who hate peace.
I am for peace, 
but when I speak, 
they are for war. (1) 

The Magi, come from afar, kneel in homage before the Child. St. Matthew’s gospel sees as the fulfillment of the “Star Prophecy": There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel to smite injustice. (2)

As Persians, they may well have a special interest in a powerful Jewish leader, for the Jews live right on the dividing line between the Persian and Roman spheres of influence. The Magi, of the Zoroastrian priestly caste, may hope such a leader will deliver the whole Eastern Mediterranean once again into Persia’s hegemony.

Jewish resistance groups before, during and after the time of Jesus found great hope in the Star Prophecy. Marginalized, increasingly frustrated with the Establishment. they expected a definite and dramatic movement of God to usher in an era of great peace on earth, most especially for those with whom God is well pleased (3) as the angels tell the shepherds. Some expected miraculous rescue. 

And still we fight

Now, two thousand years later, Israel/Palestine sits uneasily on the same geo-political fault line between Persia and the West. A proxy war rages on its norther border in Syria between Saudi Arabia's Sunni Islam and Shi’ite Islam in Iran, modern day Persia. Iran has its eyes, once again, set on dominating the Middle East. The song of the angels goes unfulfilled still. 

As all those resistance groups, including the early followers of Jesus found, the great Promise of the Kingdom, or just Rule of God, did not descend miraculously from heaven.  Such disappointment as they endured at the failure of their hopes came, I believe, from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of biblical prophetic vision.

The prophets seldom predict; they warn, they challenge. They foresee what will happen IF people do not change their ways. What if prophetic visions of great promise contain the same challenge: this is what can happen IF you change your ways. The great era of peace can come, the vision says, when you seek the things that make for peace. (4)

The visions do not come so much from “above" as from “below,” that is, out of the heart and very guts of human yearning—visions of what must be if the human enterprise is to succeed. They arise from the seed of god-likeness planted in us all, sparked into life by visionaries who see clearly what must happen for human good. They reveal targets for our striving.

Resource rather than Rescuer

In this context, God becomes Resource rather than Rescuer; "Emmanuel" to work with us and through us to follow the Star toward the goal: peace-making, which cannot happen without justice-making and the building of compassionate community. Conflict between mutually loathing persons and powers seems, tragically, an "easier" way for the humans species. 

But the end of that road is death, especially with our current weapons of mass destruction, nuclear and biological. The prophetic vision of swords into plowshares (5)is the only feasible way forward for human survival. But the struggle uphill is hard, very hard. For us, and even, apparently, for God. 

Next: God’s Uphill Struggle with Humanity (Part 2) 

1) Psalm 120:6-7
2) Numbers 24:17
3) Luke 2:14
4) Luke 19:42
5) Isaiah 2:4

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Reflections During the 12 Days: III. Christmas as Paradox

My mother (as I shared in the first of these meditations during the 12 Days of Christmas) never made sure and certain promises. “Promise us,” we’d say; she’d respond with “If I can...I’ll try...” and, most commonly, “We’ll see.....depends.”  Frustrating. 

The Bible, by contrast, is full of promises: the promise of the Land, an everlasting covenant with Israel through Moses and David, the promise of Israel’s return from exile and restoration, and repeated promises of “justice and peace forever” The promises come from heaven, but on the ground frustrations abound: returning exiles experience danger and scarcity, “forever” ends up being “for a while,” and justice is too often delayed. Promise and frustration finally find their focus in Messianic expectation. 

Christian Christmas itself embodies the tension between these promises and the frustrations about fulfillment. The Babe born to be king of Israel—if we take the angel’s message at face value*—dies on a Roman cross. What can a believer in the Promising God make out of this?

Escaping the Dilemma

There are a couple of easy ways out of this dilemma. You can chose the traditional “spiritual not earthly Messiah” option. Jesus changes hearts, not nations, forgives sin and only “puts down the mighty from their seats” in a psycho-spiritual way. The Messianic expectation used earthly metaphors to talk about interior realities.

Or you can choose the more modern way out: the “real” Jesus was a profound teacher who didn’t pretend to Messianic stature. The burning Messianic promise at the center of the New Testament arises from the mistaken assumptions of early disciples and later story-crafters.

I’d rather live in the discomfort of the paradox: the ever-tantalizing promise of God’s rule of justice, mercy, love, and “peace on earth” and the ever-recurrent reality of injustice, hard-heartedness, hatred, conflict that, again and again, frustrates its fulfillment. Even the biblical “minimalists” who see the Messianic claims as a distortion laid on Jesus believe his proclamation “The kingdom of God is at hand” comes from his own mouth.

Promise or Vision?

Which lands us squarely in what I call the paradox of messianic faith that is at the heart of Christianity: a just God who presides over an unjust world, yet promises the triumph of justice. From Job’s dung-hill to the martyrs under the heavenly altar the cry goes out, “How long, O Lord; how long?”

But what if the Promise actually comes to us as a vision of the possible from the heart of a God who really, really, wants to save humankind? Save us from our ominous self-destructive capacities. Save us and the planet from the destruction we bring to it, and, ultimately upon ourselves. What if the "promise" is a seed of yearning and hope planted in our very nature? As a lure to activate our own search for the "things that make for peace?"**

What if Jesus’ challenge to change our ways and believe are what this not-quite-a-promise vision depends on? What if humanity's only hope is rising to the challenge of this vision?

Next: God’s Uphill Struggle With Humanity

* Luke 1:32-33:  "...and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end."

** Luke 9:42