Adventure Capitalism – The Myth of Christopher Columbus



After studying numerous High School American History textbooks, James Loewen compiled the following composite biography (or perhaps more accurately mythology) of Christopher Columbus:

“Born in Genoa, of humble parents, Christopher Columbus grew up to become an experienced seafarer, venturing as far as Iceland and West Africa. His adventures convinced him that the world must be round and that the fabled riches of the East—spices and gold—could be had by sailing west, superseding the overland routes, which the Turks had closed off to commerce. To get funding for his enterprise, he beseeched monarch after monarch in Western Europe. After at first being dismissed by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Columbus finally got his chance when Isabella decided to underwrite a modest expedition. Columbus outfitted three pitifully small ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, and set forth from Spain. After an arduous journey of more than two months, during which his mutinous crew almost threw him overboard, Columbus discovered the West Indies on October 12, 1492. Unfortunately, although he made three more voyages to America, he never knew he had discovered a New World. Columbus died in obscurity, unappreciated and penniless. Yet without his daring, American history would have been very different, for in a sense he made it possible.” -James Loewen


In the mid 1980’s, most of America agreed that Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays could be merged into “President’s Day.” Which is fascinating. Washington, a Virginian land-baron, plantation-owner with hundreds of slaves, and Lincoln the emancipator who crushed and scorched the South – would these guys have been friends? I certainly feel like I see a lot of pictures of them together. The Presidents’ Day merger, also known as the “Forget-that-Other-Day-Off” Compromise, had an additional ironic result: Now there are only two historical persons who have an American Federal holiday named after them. Columbus and Martin Luther King. I don’t think I ever, in all my childhood, saw one single coloring-book picture of Martin Luther King and Christopher Columbus together, like shaking hands, or just standing side by side looking in the same direction. I don’t believe that those two could have been friends. Every year Columbus Day is surrounded by contention and indignation. Here in the North, anyway. There are still pockets of the South where Columbus is a hero and they grumble about Martin Luther King day.

In 1989, George Bush senior said “Christopher Columbus not only opened the door to a New World, but also set an example for us all by showing what monumental feats can be accomplished by perseverance and faith.” Today, there are some Americans, a remarkable number, who would not call slavery and genocide “monumental feats.” But George Bush was a CIA operative, who’d spent his career overthrowing elected South American governments and installing tyrannical dictators to extort natural resources for foreign investors. So we can understand his admiration. To the CIA, Christopher Columbus is like a god. “Wow – look at how he processed those foreign savages. They told him everything.” They still hold on to a little piece of Cuba, where they can celebrate their hero by torturing brown people the way Columbus once tortured the island’s natives.

Some, perhaps many of us, in this room today are not CIA operatives, and I imagine we have some mixed feelings about Christopher Columbus. Mine for example are indignation mixed with disgust. Also, admittedly mixed with “man I need a day off, and if I get one because of this mass murderer? God forgive me but – thanks, Christopher. Cristobal, whatever.”


Why do we celebrate Christopher Columbus? Your average high school graduate would likely respond that he was the first man ever to sail the ocean blue. So much for our education system. Water isn’t blue! Also, not only was Columbus NOT the first man to sail, he was also not the first person to discover America.

The first Europeans to enter and settle the land were Siberians who crossed the land-bridge to Alaska more than twelve thousand years ago. And I read recently that some of their descendants, Native Americans, later sailed across the Atlantic and got shipwrecked in Holland in 60 BCE, almost sixteen centuries before Columbus’ voyage – but nobody ever says that Native Americans “discovered” Europe. One might conclude that in our culture, discovery doesn’t count unless a white person does it. But then what about the ruddy Vikings who established villages in Canada centuries before Columbus? Recently I read that Columbus was not the first, but the LAST man to “discover America.” So why do we celebrate him?

And do we really celebrate the historical man at all, or do we celebrate a mythological creature called Christopher Colubumbus that we, ourselves, invented? For the answer to that, we’ll need to sort through some of the messy myth and midrash surrounding the famous explorer.

Biographers agree that Christoper Columbus was born, but then sources disagree about whether his family was “poor” or “prosperous.” The humble background sounds more impressive, so we go with it. The only thing we can say for certain about young Columbus and poverty is that he was Italian, but Italy had never seen the tomato or the red pepper before (they’re both new world crops). Now imagine young Cristobal growing up on all sorts of Italian foods, but now imagine these foods without the color red. That was the real poverty in Christopher’s childhood. Columbus discovered gold for Spain but he also discovered red for Italian cuisine, and that’s a gift we can all share. As a matter of fact, if someone said there was one man we could thank for introducing the tomato into Italian food? I’d say “There should be a Federal Holiday to celebrate that man.” And it turns out there is.

Columbus wrote, “With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project.” But the Lord was in no rush to open the purses of any European monarchs to finance the expedition – Columbus was ready to sail the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and eighty six, but queen Isabella handed him off to a committee of Roman Catholic bureaucrats who discussed his proposal for five years before rejecting it. Shocking headline, “Church Committee Votes to keep Things the Way They Are,” I almost had a heart-attack when I read it. But then again it’s the Church we can thank for 1492 rhyming with “blue,” I for one never would have passed High School without that useful memory-trick.

Isabella later convened another committee who also rejected the proposal, but then something fascinating happened – she decided to go ahead with Columbus’ proposal anyway. Imagine the headline, “Uppity Woman tells Church Committee to stuff it.” Why didn’t that get into our American mythology? My daughter should be coloring in a picture of Isabella dissing the bureaucrats. And it turns out, the wizened committee actually did know that the world was round, they concluded that a ship could sail west to India, but they did not believe that he would be able to sail back. Which may sound ridiculous to us, but that’s because we have a very different idea about the “round”ness of the world. Christopher Columbus and other Christians of his day believed the world was round, but not a ball. In a journal entry he described the world as being shaped like a woman’s breast, and he believed the nipple at the top would be Eden. Like every great man on every great voyage he speech-ified his lofty aims but his heart carried the deeper, secret hope of seeing tits.

Our mythology tells us that the three ships were “pitifully small” and that the voyage was “arduous” – again, sources disagree (Columbus’ journal says the weather was fine), but it’s harmless padding to keep children listening. Especially children whose hopes of worldly success are pitifully small. The mythographers also invented the near-mutiny by the crew, to give the story a little more dramatic spice, but here we should be wary of accepting the story: first of all, if these experienced sailors really thought they were going to sail over the edge of the earth – how did he get them on the ships in the first place? A coloring-book author might say the idea of the superstitious, cowardly crew harmlessly shines a more favorable light on their visionary captain, but a sociologist might argue it denigrates labor while exalting management.

We want the Columbus story to have some drama. It’s not a story about a man against the sea (which would be even more boring since the Ocean was even less interested in him than I am). It’s a story about a visionary against cowardly investors and cowardly workers. It’s a story about capitalism. It’s a mythical story about a low-born visionary with a great idea about a new way to gain wealth – but first he must contend with dim-witted investors who slow him down, then he must contend with dim-witted lazy workers. But through his perseverance…gold! Gold! Enough gold to put a cap on every tooth in the entire medieval world. Apparently that’s not what they did with it but it wouldn’t have been a bad idea. There’s a Christian expression, “Let go and let God,” and that was the state of dentistry in Medieval Europe.

…But wait a minute, what’s this? The fairy tale ends with our brave little sailor dying poor and forgotten… Nonsense. We know he was appreciated because the Spaniards immediately sent him back with more ships, he hit the mother-lode of Gold in 1499 and died rich with a magnificent title, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” that he handed down to his son. If the historical Columbus died wealthy, why must the mythological Columbus die in obscurity?

Here again, it’s a myth in support Capitalism. And if Capitalism knows anything, it’s that not every good idea will be accepted, not every innovation will be adopted, and definitely not every determined dreamer who perseveres to his last breath will get rich. The myth needs Columbus to die poor, because Capitalism needs most hard-workers to die poor and unknown.

The myth might also be a little uncomfortable with how Columbus got his fabulous wealth. Certainly he was paid handsomely by Isabella, but she gave him only a tiny fraction of what he got for Spain. And the way he got it, enslaving the friendly natives and forcing them to mine gold, cutting off their hands when they failed to meet their quotas and punishing insubordination by burning natives alive or crucifying them in rows of thirteen (in honor of Jesus and the disciples. Was Jesus in Heaven saying “Isn’t that thoughtful? Wow, thanks Chris.”). This is why we see so much discord on the subject of Columbus day – which, by the way, they don’t celebrate Columbus Day in Mexico, even though Mexico is a lot more Spanish than North America. Columbus never even set foot in North America!

But we need Columbus. Or at least the high priests of Capitalist American Nationalism need the myth of Christopher Columbus. Because his mythical biography tells us to dream big, work hard, persevere against cowardly investors and lazy laborers, forge ahead toward our golden ambitions, and if we completely fail to get rich…it doesn’t mean we were wrong, maybe we were ahead of our time. It tells us to keep our great expectations in check. I actually like that myth. Because I am a firm believer that you cannot measure success in recognition or gold – for goodness sake, I’m an adjunct professor! And for my dream I must contend with fastidious bureaucrats and dead-beat college students, and then probably wind up broke and forgotten. Unlike the real Christopher Columbus, but like the mythical hero we celebrate in October…

And that would be a really crummy ending for this sermon. It’s the major challenge of speaking about Christopher Columbus, the only suspense is – is this guy going to stop talking now? …Maybe now? Yes, Columbus finally landed, we must be getting close to the end of the story. Well I have a confession to make. I enjoy a good biography, but my heart belongs truly to economic history. And so let’s take a look at fourteen hundred and ninety three, when metals crossed the deep green sea.


The Spanish raped and pillaged and enslaved the natives to mine for gold, but they did not settle America. Spain passed on the chance to remake the New World in their own image because they had bigger plans – to remake the old world in their own image through wars of conquest. And thus, much of the stolen Spanish gold accumulated in the hands of arms merchants. The “Arms Race” of the time was naval, and so Spain’s stolen gold went to a small island known for its ship-building: England. The same English who developed superior warships for themselves, eventually trashed the Spanish fleet and took control of the high seas. So much for Spain.

But this flood of New World gold and silver changed Europe in another unforeseen way – in feudal Europe, the basis of wealth was land. But land could only be traded locally, and transporting the goods of agriculture and livestock for foreign trade was a bulky, cumbersome enterprise. The arrival of precious metals from the New World tripled the Europe’s supply of gold and silver in just fifty years, giving rise to a new measure of wealth: capital. Mass-produced silver coins induced a whole new era of world trade. The flood of silver quickly destabilized the value of African gold and middle-Eastern silver, breaking the economic power of Africa and the Middle East. Almost overnight, primitive feudal Europe became the nouveau riche, snubbing the educated, refined Middle East to the point that our culture has forgotten that the early centuries of Islam were an intellectual renaissance. And the Muslim nations, disgusted by tacky European sensualist commercialism, responded by becoming the restrictive, conservative cultures we associate with Middle-Eastern Islam today. It’s a historical irony that Christopher Columbus was looking for a sea-route to trade around the Middle East and Africa, and his voyage inadvertently crippled their economies. The African gold-trade was hurt so bad that some African nations chose to stay in the world-trade game by selling human beings.

This era of World Trade, gold and silver and human slaves packed in boats, capital on the move, required whole new systems – this was not the peasant market of bartered goods and services, this was a complex global economy. Within two centuries of Columbus we see the first multinational corporations, world-banks in Amsterdam and England, the first stock exchange opened in 1602. Karl Marx commented “the discovery of gold in America [and] turning Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”

Christopher Columbus wrote that “all of this Christendom should feel joyful and make great celebrations and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity [first for] the salvation of so many peoples to our holy faith and, secondly, for the material benefits which will bring refreshment and profit.” Whether Columbus saved any souls is debatable – he certainly sent God a lot of souls to sort out. But there’s no arguing about the material benefits – Christendom entered the age of Capitalism, and Capitalism has shaped our mythological narrative of Christopher Columbus. Capitalism remade Columbus in its own image.


I don’t know who Christopher Columbus really was. I never said I was going to reveal something shocking about the “real” Christopher Columbus. I should have. I should have lied. But I didn’t. That’s why I’m wearing a dead man’s shirt, 99 cents at the Salvation Army. And someday when the shirt goes back to the Salvation Army, having been owned by two dead men, that’s what it’ll say on my tombstone: he should have lied.

But there’s a great quote from Columbus, something he may have said when his eyes first fell on the coast of the New World: “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth, of which He spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John after having spoken of it by the mouth of Isaiah, and he showed me where to find it.” I’d like to think that his first thought was of the re-creation…spoiler-alert: the Bible doesn’t just end with destruction, it ends with God re-creating the world, starting over. And world 2.0 is a cube. Maybe Columbus, weary of the nipple-search on a breast-shaped world, longed for a flat earth where God had smoothed all the rough edges and pulverized all the jerks. Maybe he really believed the world could be new again. And when he then didn’t see that dramatic revelation-change, maybe all that gold was just a consolation prize.

The first thing Columbus did when he saw the friendly natives was to give a prepared speech, in Spanish, to let them know that they had to become Christians and that neither he nor Spain were legally responsible for any harm they did to the natives if they refused. Columbus could have discovered a “new world” of minds untainted by old greed, but he didn’t because as soon as he saw someone different from himself, he started talking, speech-ifying. If he could have shut up and listened to someone different, he could have discovered something far more valuable than gold. The real “treasure” of the New World is the beautiful and practical wisdom of its natives, something some of us are just beginning to acknowledge, appreciate, five hundred years after first contact.

And yet we live in a time when everybody wants to shout, nobody wants to listen. We’re still being taught, and our children are being taught by the people on TV – when you see someone who looks or thinks differently from you, cover your ears and start shouting. You don’t even have to think about what you’re going to say, it doesn’t even need to make any sense, just for God’s sake keep shouting. The one who interrupts the most times is the winner.

I want this sermon to end with a joke, so here it is: A guy in a tie stood up and talked for twenty-two straight minutes, and at the end of it he said, “We as a culture, before we launch into long diatribes, we need, first to learn how to listen.” Because if history has taught us anything we can learn more by listening than by talking. That’s how we learn. That’s how we grow.



Main sources consulted:

Loewen, James Lies my Teacher Told Me (New Press, New York 1995)

Weatherford, Jack Indian Givers (Fawcett Columbine, New York 1988)

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AFRAID NEW WORLD (9/11 and Labor Day Sermon)


There’s a knock-knock joke my brother loves to tell…
“Knock knock.”
“Who’s There?”
“Nine-eleven who?”
“You said you’d never forget.”
And we haven’t – those of us who remember that day remember the feeling of vulnerability, fear, anger, maybe even a hint of betrayal. A feeling that God, the one we trust with the value of our dollar bills, our vigilant God who’d kept war off American soil for a hundred fifty years…had abandoned His post. Had our protector been distracted? Snuck off for a power-nap? Did God go out bowling? And we all remember the aftermath of September 11th, the wars of reckless revenge, pictures of Middle Eastern civilians being dug from the rubble, and again, feelings of vulnerability, fear, anger, betrayal. Against the wishes of many US citizens, the military went out bowling, with bombs. Maybe that’s why they call them air-strikes.

Some of us may remember exactly where we were, what we were doing when we first heard about the towers. I have two very clear memories from that day. One, I was living in Yonkers, and I wondered – are they going to attack Yonkers next? Blow up our beloved Yonkers train station, and then we’ll be stuck this bankrupt, crumbling slum forever? That was a question on a lot of minds in tiny American towns you’ve never heard of – are the terrorists gonna come to Allegany and blow up our one traffic light? Plunge us into the darkness of chaos?

My other recollection is that I did something I never do. I actually sat down and watched the news. And on the news, I’ll never forget it, on the news was best-selling espionage novelist Tom Clancy. The reporters were asking Tom Clancy – why did the terrorists do what they did? It turned out, I suppose, that our greatest national resource for understanding Islam was a white multi-millionaire fiction-writer. As a matter of fact, I guess if anything good came out of that day, it’s that in the months that followed, some media outlets in our culture did eventually let Muslims start speaking for themselves, instead of asking Tom Clancy. But that day, I remember, watching the news for a few minutes, it was a reminder of why I never watch the news.

I wonder if some terrorists were sitting around one day, plotting over espresso and asked, “What would frighten this guy Snodgrass?” “If we make him wake up as a giant cockroach?” “No, too expensive. What if we put him and all Americans on trial, with only a vague, hazy sense of what they might be guilty of?” “You guys have got to think outside the Kafka box. What if we make it so every time he goes to an airport, he has to take off his boots and belt, and then an overweight woman in uniform waves a beeping black plastic phallic-symbol at him?” “That’s a winner. Give this man a biscotti.” I don’t fly. Not because I’m afraid of terrorists crashing the plane into a building. But because I hate taking off my boots. I hate being processed. I hate being treated like a terrorist.

I remember being told over and over that 9/11 was an attack on Liberty, and kept wondering – if the attackers hated liberty so much, why did they fly right past the Statue of Liberty? It was standing right there, one mile away from the Trade Towers. Was it really an attack on American liberty? Actually, if the terrorists indeed loved fear and hated liberty, they sure succeeded in getting the US government to spread fear and suspend civil liberties. It was scary when extremists hijacked those airplanes. But it was more horrifying when extremists hijacked the US government and military, leading us into war.


My college students, who were toddlers in 2001 remember September 11th because they’ve heard about it in school and seen the videos. Some would say they’ve grown up in a post-911 world (I don’t know – I wouldn’t say I grew up in a “Post Disco Inferno world”). But they haven’t heard about the pre-911 world. Every semester I ask them, “what was the big news story on September 10th, 2001?” Who remembers it?

It was the nationwide demonstrations against the World Trade Organization – the W.T.O., which some protesters called “The World Terrorist Organization,” a cartel of banksters and corporations using the US military as mafia enforcers to extort natural resources and cheap labor from the poorest nations on the planet. On September 10th, 2001 I was wondering – could American citizens actually convince the US government to stand up to the World Trade Organization? And then on September 11th the picket signs disappeared, replaced by millions of American flags, weeping in the streets, mourning the loss of our beloved World Trade towers.

I wonder, what if Tom Clancy had written a novel where one day everyone was protesting against the World Trade Organization and the next day some airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, causing parades of World Trade solidarity..? What would his publisher say? “Tom, you’re not known for your subtlety, and whatever crap you put your name on will top the best-seller list, but… Seriously? You think anybody’s gonna think this was not a conspiracy?” But truth, I suppose, can be stupider than best-selling fiction. And for the next several years anybody who said anything negative about “World Trade” was immediately accused of hating the heroes – the police and firemen and the troops. My heart goes out to the victims in the planes and the towers, the rescue-workers and the soldiers who died, but when we list the casualties of 9/11 I insist that we also “Never Forget” the protest movement that died that day.


Another thing I’ve wondered – if we’re so obsessed with “never forgetting” 9/11 – why is it not a federal holiday? And then I remember – because it was so close to labor day, the holiday when we “never forget” to stop wearing white shoes. Seriously, there’s no way the government would give workers two Mondays off in a row, it would be un-American. Labor Day is so easy to forget, it’s sort of a phantom-limb holiday, even for me and I belong to a powerful union. For me, Labor Day is just one more day when my abundantly fertile wife might go into labor.

What is Labor Day? When did it get started, and how? This year I finally decided to look.

The Civil War had been immensely profitable for industrialists and manufacturers (many of whom had paid the $300 for someone else to fight in their place, including JP Morgan, John D Rockefeller, Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie and James Mellon). They built massive fortunes on the backs of immigrant laborers, and then when the Civil War ended…Jackpot. Slaves were released into the workforce, veterans came home looking for jobs, and the competition in the flooded labor market introduced a whole new frontier of what employers could get away with in terms of low wages and crooked contracts. The government, always on the side of capital, did nothing to alleviate this exploitation. And so we see, slowly, workers begin banding together to press for worker’s rights. Ironically, the labor movement had victory in its grasp, but the most powerful unions refused to admit African Americans and some other minorities – banded together they would have been unstoppable, but racist divisions hobbled the movement.

It was in 1882 that an American Labor Day was first proposed, and unions began holding parades of solidarity in places like New York City’s Union Square. It was a peoples’ movement, protesting against a cartel of banksters using the US military as mafia enforcers to extort natural resources and cheap labor from the poorest people in America. Declaring a federal holiday in 1894 to honor laborers might seem like a government gift in support of the movement. Actually it was something else. 1894 was the year of the Pullman strike, when workers had called a boycott of Pullman train cars because of the company’s nightmarish treatment of its workers. Then police officers and militia opened fire on a protest, killing thirty American workers. This was when a federal holiday was declared, to stop American workers from escalating the conflict.

Ironically, in modern times, Americans celebrate Labor Day by flooding into shopping-malls to buy clothing manufactured by human slaves in Asian sweatshops (I guess the Labor Movement did succeed in getting industrialists to seek their cheap labor elsewhere). And buying pencils and notebooks so our American children can go to factory-modeled, assembly-line-style school buildings and learn to be good citizens of Capitalism. This is what I get to deal with on September mornings, wrangling my kids into school uniforms, “I don’t want to be industrious! Can’t I just forage the food I need?” “No – you’re always foraging in my refrigerator. Now get on that bus and don’t come back till you’re Henry Ford.” What is Labor Day about? As far as I can tell, it is a day in which we celebrate capital’s victory over the Labor Movement.

What a mess. Who would have thought that a September 11th sermon might somehow turn out to be a real downer? Is there any good news on this day? Actually, I would say yes. In the Snodgrass family, this is not only an anniversary of the Trade Towers, it’s also a birthday. On September 11th, 2010 my sister gave birth to her son Jacob in New York City. My siblings and I, our mother came to New York City from Hungary, and our father emigrated from the small savage nation of Chicago. The refugee met the pioneer in New York City, were they started making babies. And about thirty years later in New York City, my sister met an immigrant from India, and they made a new baby, Jacob. Imagine that – a confluence of pioneers and refugees and immigrants merging to create this new life in New York City. In these days of distrust and ugly nativism, baby Jacob is a reminder of what I like best about New York City and what I like best about this country. To me, he is a symbol of hope and unity. Like all of us, I have complex thoughts and emotions about September 11th and its aftermath. But I also look forward to the part of this day that will be spent celebrating baby Jacob.

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GOOD? (A Sermon)


GOOD? (A Sermon)

When Elizabeth and the kids and I moved into our neighborhood, there was a a short, squat house nearby, surrounded by trees. The house as been empty as long as we’ve been here, so we’ve considered those trees our neighbors. Trees make the best neighbors – they aren’t loud, and more importantly, they don’t complain about us being loud. And they never borrow your weed-whacker and bring it back broken, claiming it was broken to begin with.

In this last couple weeks, someone sent a big machine with a long arm and a claw…with a mechanical thumb…to demolish that old house. The machine played with the house, like a big cat toying with a wounded animal, or like a toddler playing with a stuffed animal. This machine shuffled down this house like it was made of playing-cards, then it started crunching – steel and glass, plaster and wood, brick and concrete and when we looked the next day, there was nothing where that old house used to be, just flattened dirt strewn with straw (presumably planted with grass seed). And I thought, “this is alright. That old abandoned house wasn’t doing any good for the neighborhood, now in a few months it’ll be a grassy clearing surrounded by trees. Instead of worrying about meth-heads using the house as a drug lab, we can worry about pot-heads using this forest glade for singalongs.”

It was nice, with that old abandoned house out of the way, to imagine that the land would belong to the trees again. When the people are away, the trees will play. They’ll just play reeeeeeeeally reeeeeeeeelly slowly. “Man, I thought those people would never leave – I’m gonna grow an Afro, maybe branch out, see if I can get a little of that sunshine over there and watch my favorite soap-opera, ‘Chasing Tail,’ starring the neighborhood squirrels. We can sit up all night telling scary stories. This one’s called… ‘Leave it to Beaver…’” “Don’t tell them that, they’ll have nightmares and leak sap all over the place.” “Nah, it’ll put vines on their chest.”

Of course it wasn’t the trees that had bought the property – trees don’t sign contracts, they just stare at the paper and say “His name was…Spruce…and you cut him down in his prime…beat him to a pulp…flattened him out and stapled him.” A couple days after the house was demolished, the machine came back for the trees. It clutched them by the trunk and pulled them up, then tapped them on the ground to shake the dirt off the roots. Like the trees were cigars, it tapped them on the ground. And Elizabeth said, “If God made the trees in His image and likeness we’re in big trouble.” And I looked around nervously “This is Christian country. If they hear you say that they’re gonna cut you down and use you for firewood.”

God looking like a tree – the very idea is preposterous. The Bible proves that, not only in what it says, but also by what it is, paper, a bunch of ground-up wood. Surely if God had some special interest in trees, He wouldn’t allow such a massacre of them to produce copies of a book for us to read. And right there on the first page it clearly says: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

Ah, it’s so reassuring, such a relief to hear those words – to feel like God’s special love for us is tied up in God’s love for Godself. “How can I stay mad at you, when you look so much like me?” We want God to look a nice bearded old man – like Santa Claus, except wearing white and He’s eaten less Christmas cookies. We want a God who will watch us all the time, keep a careful list of all the bad stuff we do, and then throw out the list and give us the goodies anyway. And most important, Santa may be watching us all the time (a little creepy? A fat old man spying on your kids when they’re sleeping and awake?) he’s got the supernatural surveillance but he’s always somewhere else – he’s far away where he can’t interfere. He’s got the CIA spy-gear and the jackboots but he never comes kicking in your door to put a black bag over your head, he just slips in through the heating vents, plants the toys and goes back to base (I checked the toys last Christmas, by the way, they’re not manufactured in the North Pole anymore – apparently Santa Claus has moved his operation to Taiwan where the labor is cheaper, and his sleigh these days is called “Amazon Prime.” I should start calling my car that. “Amazon Prime.” I should call my wife that too. She’d love it).


We have a powerful desire to humanize God – to make Him more like Santa Claus. We try to humanize nature too – “Mother Nature.” “Mommy nature, we’re sorry,” because we know mothers can’t resist empty apologies, our moms think we’re so cute. “We won’t do it again,” we already called, our friends are on their way over so we can do it again. That’s why we don’t say “Uncle Nature,” because when we make an environmental boo-boo we don’t want to hear “You ordered your bed, now sleep in it.” We want a Mommy to accept our hollow apologies and clean up our mess for us, “Oh, bless your heart, don’t worry, we’ll sweep it under this carpet called…the ocean.”

In Christianity it’s a sin to believe in “Mother Nature.” But if you just happen to have a statue of Mary in your garden, and your roses just happen to prosper? That’s innocent, right? I mean, what could be more innocent than an unwed teenaged mother?

We want nature to love us, and nature does love us – and not just for feeding the mosquitoes and hosting her beloved flu virus (“Thanks for the ride!” “Freeloading hippie, get a job, flu virus, you bum.”) but also for just being ourselves, adorable little rug-rats, critters, animals. Nature loves us, but nature doesn’t love us best. She gives us the same rules as every other species – “I want you to have friends, but keep the party small and don’t make a mess of the place.” Because when we let our population boom out of control she’ll send us to bed without supper, and if we trash nature’s house she’ll clean it up with tidal waves.

I love nature but I don’t really like nature. Nature is mouths and thorns and mosquitoes and animal crap on the ground when you’re walking and feel the sun on your face and your heart is beating and your problems seem inconsequential and… Aw! Aw man! Who left this here? Now all my problems seem insurmountable and I’ve gotta scrape this nature off my boots.

And nature communicates with us in feelings, instincts, mostly from our bellies and our swimsuit area. She doesn’t get it that we’re the nerds of the animal high school, we want our instructions clear. How do I pass this test? Couldn’t you put it in writing? And so we cling to our religions, which give us study guides for the final exam – a syllabus. For example, the Bible is divided into two Testaments – “Testament” meaning contract. And right there at that start of the first contract, God creates the world in a certain way, and begins telling people about how they should interact with it.


According to the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, God dictated the formation of skies and land in six days. A seventeenth century bishop used Biblical chronological data to calculate that this process began on October 23rd, 4004 years before the common era. The land was flat and the sky was a hard, solid dome on top of it – if you can imagine one of those plastic bubbles that gumball machine toys come in, that’s the world that gets created in Genesis One. And the sun and moon chased each other around inside this bubble, and God made plants and animals and sea-monsters and birds and then little figurines of Godself. Once these little figurines, people, are in place, the whole structure can finally pass inspection, “Very Good,” and then God subcontracted human beings to oversee the whole business.

In the last few centuries, preachers and scientists have been playing tug-of-war over the logistics of this story, and we’ve generally come to agree that the world is more than six thousand years old, it’s round (we’ve all seen the photographs) and probably revolves around the sun. But there are other elements of this story that our culture has a harder time letting go of. The story tells us that Creation was complete when humanity appeared. It tells us that the human being is the final, the ultimate creature. The finished product. Well of course we are! History begins with us, everything before humanity was just prologue of bumbling bacteria and dimwitted dinosaurs, and history will end with us, if humanity ends there will be nothing but cockroaches picking at our trash. “Hey Keef, we’ve struck gold! A Twinkie, we’re set for life!” The world was made for humanity. Many of us here are not Biblical literalists, and yet many of us here still believe that the human race is the culmination of creation, and that when we’re finished the story is over forever.

We do love to debate about who made humanity – was humanity made by God, all at once? Or was humanity made by the world, gradually formed and refined by evolution and natural selection? Did Adam and Eve have furry tails and swing from trees? But our cultural debate about natural selection has nothing to do with monkeys. I mean, sure, it might be embarrassing to say you’re related to primates who play with their own feces, but anybody who’s ever raised a toddler can come to terms with that. The hardest thing about accepting natural selection is letting go of Supernatural selection – a promise from God that we as humans are exempt from the laws and limits that govern the survival of every other species. We are taught to believe that humanity is “too big to fail,” and that if we as a species crash, God will bail us out. And if we let go of that, our cherished cultural belief in a manifest destiny of expansion and renovation will be exposed as a reckless binge, an intoxicated rampage fueled by delusions of indestructibility.

In Genesis 1:28, God is reported to say, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over…every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Our culture is built on dominion over the earth, changing the land to suit our needs. And eliminating any creature that gets in our way. We might debate about whether or not it’s America’s God-given responsibility to police all the nations of the earth, but few of us would debate whether or not it’s humanity’s God-given responsibility to police all the species of the earth. Mark Twain observed, “We hunt the fly remorselessly; also the flea, the rat, the snake, the disease germ and a thousand other creatures which [God] pronounced good, and was satisfied with, and which we loudly praise and approve – with our mouths – and then harry and chase and malignantly destroy, by wholesale.”

As we debate the mechanics of the Genesis creation story, we can forget to look at the message of the creation story – God said each part of creation was good. Before people started messing with it. Maybe the story is telling us – before we charge in to filling, subduing and dominating, we should always take a look at creation and consider: “God said this was ‘Good’ as it is – are we really going to make it better?” Because many of our big box stores and parking lots are not an improvement (and all this bulk-buying and driving isn’t doing our figures any favors either). Civilization did not begin with some group of people ten thousand years ago saying “Hey! We’ve got a great idea! Let’s destroy the earth!” No – it began with some group of people ten thousand years ago saying “Let’s perfect the earth!” For ten thousand years, groups of people have been trying to perfect their environment, not to wreck it but to make it better. To make it easier to provide for themselves and their children.

Decades ago, I don’t know how many, someone stepped onto a plot of land in my neighborhood and said “I know what will make this perfect. We’ll clear a few of these trees, and build a small, humble house here.” And months ago, someone else stepped onto that plot of land and said, “I know what will make this perfect. We’ll knock down this old house, clear some more of these trees and…” How they intend to improve the neighborhood remains to be seen, but I’m told that they’re going to build a parking garage. That’s our modern idea of perfection – easy parking.

An eighteenth century French exile who called himself Voltaire composed a short novel called Candide, about a young man’s quest to make some sense of life. The search for meaning drags poor Candide like a rag-doll across the planet, making him witness and victim to countless atrocities born of nationalistic and religious fanaticism. By the end of the story, Candide has no illusions about countries or creeds, and when someone attempts to draw him into a philosophical discussion about life’s meaning, Candide calmly says, “We must tend the garden.”

We live in a time religious and political fanaticism, ideologies clash like clanging cymbals drowning out the noise of destruction around us as our culture attempts to perfect the world by turning it into a parking lot. And in all this noise we can easily miss that calm voice: “We must tend to the garden.” The garden needs our help, it’s true, but we must also let the garden tend to itself, because it is good. And when we acknowledge that the garden is good, we can stop trying to perfect it and let the garden tend to us.

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SUCCESS (A Sermon)

"Smile" (By Jackson)

“Smile” (By Jackson)

SUCCESS (A Sermon)

Once upon a time two monkeys were splashing in the mud, flinging their feces at each other, laughing like idiots, whatever. One of them said, “let’s go get some grubs” and the other one said “No, I’m tired of grubs, I’m tired of this whole grubby scene.” So he killed his friend and carved him into a pair of boots with straps. And he pulled on his bootstraps up up up until he was out of the primeval muck and now his great-great-great-grandnephew is a barista at Starbucks, slowly paying back his bachelor’s degree in subversive literature. The degree is not worthless, he tells himself – he has a popular blog in which he castigates the primates in Washington. The grand primates are unconcerned about his belabored writings – to them he is only a monkey flinging digital feces. Unscented.


…And once upon a time, a semi-intelligent primate was too lazy to search the internet, so I typed “success story” into my own brain and that’s what popped up. What is “success”? What does it mean to be “successful”? My two brothers, both born in New Jersey, are lawyers now – they’re successful by New Jersey standards because they both got out of New Jersey. I was born in the Bronx and married a Bronx-girl. I earn a tenth of what lawyers do, but I’m successful by Bronx standards because my wife is half Jamaican and my floor is covered with children. My Mother was born in Soviet-occupied Hungary, she’s a success because she does not currently reside in a mass grave. When I asked her opinion about monetary versus genetic success she was wisely silent, but I could see that her mind was engaged in calculating dividends of great-grandchildren.
I’m not going to go on and on about my family (I do hope to still receive Birthday gifts from someone this year), but even these few examples suggest a vast diversity of definitions for “success,” even among a small group of relatives.


As a male of the human species my mind and body were built for hunting. And even though I don’t use these tools to kill animals, I can feel the hunter-gears turning inside when I zoom in on a concrete, short-term goal, clear everything else in my mind to make a straight path, launch myself forward, accomplish the mission, and then immediately forget it and identify another short-term concrete goal. “I will find the remote control.” “I will fill in the blank.” “Twelve other monkeys and I will change this light-bulb.” For the hunter, success is a sporadic series of quickie-victories.
Women are something else. I don’t claim to understand them at all, but being a Snodgrass gives me the right to patiently explain something I know nothing about. Elizabeth has been conditioned by our culture to approach objectives in a male/hunter way, and yet when she’s given a choice she’ll enact a different strategy: she’ll survey the landscape, identify some edible or pleasant or colorful objects that might trigger interesting thoughts or seed an enjoyable conversation, gather these objects in a bag and ideas in her head. Later, while shiny objects enliven the atmosphere and edible objects add color and texture to dinner, she’ll open the jar of conversation pieces in her mind, and a colorful mix of old and new thoughts will tumble from her mouth. Though she’s been trained as a hunter, her body and mind seem to operate more naturally as a gatherer, and so her ideas of success seem to be something like “I want to feel more fulfilled, to be surrounded by objects, foods and people that will make life more stimulating.” Maybe I’m way off here, I confess that my field-study of Elizabeth is clouded by the nature of my hunter mind and body, which is always stalking her in the hope of achieving a short-term concrete goal, a moment of victory followed by a heavy forgetful sleep.
Will I ever achieve a short-term concrete goal again now that I’ve said this in public? In my defense I’ll point out that I avoided words like “clutter” and “chatter.” A gatherer wants to be surrounded by interesting things, so she can nestle in them. A hunter wants one interesting thing at a time, straight ahead, so he can throw himself at it. And I believe that it was a combination of these approaches that made the human species so successful in the wild. But then you put these two jungle animals in the modern industrial consumer world and it starts to look crazy – our nest is a jumbled mess, she’s neurotic and I’m obsessive.


Our transition from jungle animals to urban intellectuals has been accompanied by a constant renegotiation of what it means to be human and what it means to be successful. Three million years ago, intelligent primates would pick a few berries, pee on a bush and say “There, now we’re both happy.” Success for them was to briefly carry a torch in the great relay-race of life. To eat, shoot and leave, sprouting a few healthy babies and bowel movements along the way. Then ten thousand years ago came the farmer who chops down the bush because it only sprouts berries once a year, and he plants some corn. For him, “success” means being a man, he fights the earth to give him what he wants, returning only the bare minimum to keep the earth producing. Of course the Earth is always winning, so he and his first cousin spawn fourteen young farmhands to fill the Earth and subdue it.
Then there’s me – I read interesting things and say interesting things, I process information. Then I log in to the bank website and the number is bigger, then I go to the grocery store and the number gets smaller, and I cook something and eat it. I live on a high-wire, a tight-rope. I’ve been taught to fear looking down – you don’t want to be a farmer, that’s why you went to college, to learn how to get paid for processing information. And you don’t want to be a forager, that’s why your forefathers took over the world, and it wasn’t easy! But that means “success” is something more abstract, because my hands are neither trading with the earth nor fighting with it.
I suppose “success” is becoming synonymous with celebrity. The world, it turns out, can only feed a limited number of celebrity egos, but cyberspace can accommodate an infinite number of celebrities – the catch is, you’ve got to be your own publicist and your own paparazzi. When I was young there was an expression people used when you accomplished something – “don’t get a big head about it.” But in the selfie-generation your head needs to be the biggest thing in the world – “look at how big my head is compared to Mount Rushmore in the background! The obscene pride of Manifest Destiny is nothing compared to my vacation bender!” “So, um…I joined your fan-club, I get hourly updates on your newsfeed…but what is it you produce? What is it you do?” “’Produce’? Go back to the industrial age, old man.”


When I think about “Generation Why Me?” or whatever it’s called, my first impulse is to assume that for young people, “success” is an abbreviation of “sexual excess.” Like one of those Newspeak texting things, “IMHO, Success tonight, LOL.” But as a college teacher, I find that “success” has come to mean something far more alarming – for most of my students, the definition of success is “getting away with it.” These kids, no matter how many times they heard about a “good clean game” in Little League and Sunday school, a quick glance at the TV news revealed something else: the most successful people in this country got there by “getting away with it,” and stay successful by constantly testing the limits of what they can get away with. How many lies can you tell before you get caught? How many interns can you grope? How much money can you steal? (And, PS – if you become successful enough, you can attain the status of plutocratic immunity, “too big to fail,” where you get caught with your hand in the cookie-jar and still get the cookies).
We’re concerned when teenagers bully each other to suicide. I’m horrified when I hear about the date-rape epidemic on college campuses. Meanwhile as a college teacher I’ve had to become a detective to investigate an epidemic of plagiarism. But aren’t these just symptoms of the same disease? Tomorrow’s bankers and senators aren’t in college to learn how to ask deep questions – they’re in college to refine their skills of getting away with it. Because as children watching the Wall-Street bailout, they learned that “getting away with it” is the secret of success. “Do unto others as long as they can’t sue unto you.” Children hear what we say, but what forms them the most is watching what we do. “Bullying is bad, Joey. Now shut up and get me a beer, Donald Trump is on TV.”
It’s the bullies and superstars who become models for success – not the janitors, bus-drivers and teachers. Certainly not the adjunct professor, which I suspect must be Latin for “Scab,” since it basically means the expendable grunt you bring in for a quarter of what you’d have to pay a tenure-track PhD. I make less in a year than the lady who empties the trash can in my office – and I bet she gets dental insurance. Twenty years from now, professors will be huddled outside campus gates at 6am, the dean will come out with security officers in riot gear: “You – speak English? Teach metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology? Fifty bucks, you teach it today. Fifty bucks.” “Yes, I…teach that.” And some poor sap who’s been hired to teach ancient history will be lecturing “In the old days when men wore frock coats and top hats, there was a word they used – write this down, it will be on the test – ‘Re-tire-ment,’ which meant that someone got tired,” the day-laborer with a doctorate will get a tear in his eye “and then they played checkers for twenty-five years.” Retirement as we know it is a twentieth century concept, and in the twenty-first century it’ll be replaced by “Re-try-ment,” in which senior citizens will get to retry the service jobs they did as teenagers.
Someday our retirement homes will be like the Mayan pyramids, the Ziggurat of Ur, the great stone heads of Easter Island – incomprehensible ruins, cryptic reminders of a forgotten era. Children playing frisbee with a bedpan washed in acid rain will ask, “what failure caused the fall of this civilization?” And one of our primitive stone-age descendants will think a moment and say, “success. It was success that caused the fall of this civilization.” The children will be confused. But it was not failure that turned the fertile crescent into the Iraqi desert, not failure that turned Easter Island into a barren rock, not failure that turned the Mayan cities into jungle ruins. It was success. Because every year they strove to put more land under cultivation, more backs under the whip, more voices into the pledge of allegiance, and every year they succeeded, until the land was exhausted and the people were too many and it all came tumbling down. Success was their failure. Meanwhile off in the woods, small groups of migratory scavengers enacted a different story, no magnificent metropolis, no crops, no shirts, no money, no stuff but the basic stone tools of survival. Jungle savages. We’ve been taught to think of them as failure, and in monetary and material terms they are, but their failure is success. How do we measure that success? Everyone in this room is descended from primitive savages.


We may have been told that we come from failure. God’s failure to create a perfect world or humanity’s failure to be a perfect citizen. When I was young, I heard that the human story begins with failure and shame in the Garden of Eden, and that the penalty was death. And, looking around, I’ve noticed that our stone-age, bronze-age and iron-age ancestors do seem to all be dead. Except that they live on in us. Oddly we’ve been taught to think of that as a failure – if our ancestors had behaved better, God would have destroyed the world by now. We don’t have time this morning to delve into religions and various doctrines of “salvation,” we could sort of cobble together the notion that an immortal angel has been chained to an incorrigible monkey, the goal of the game is “don’t let the monkey act like a monkey,” and success is attained when the monkey dies and the angel returns to the sky (wait, that’s not in the Bible…I think that’s in “Escape from the Planet of the Apes”). From the immaculate angelic standard we’re all failures. But from primate standards we’re super-stars – to monkeys we all look like Kevin Costner and Madonna.

We are success – we are the pure and patient eggs that were in the right place at the right time, like a sweatshop seamstress who took a moment to gaze out the window and got discovered by a Hollywood big-shot. Each of us here comes from a sperm that won a dangerous race against a thousand million others, the losers all died. We’re the X-Wing Chromosome that hit the Death-Star, or some of us are the Y-Wing, I’m no biologist. We’re Top Gun, the best of the best. Not to get all queen-ey about it, but we are the champions, my friend. And when the Ben Hur of sperm kissed the Cinderella of ovum, we magically transformed our mothers into pumpkin coaches. And I would like to think many of our mothers, mine included, celebrated the success of biology, and not the failure of birth-control.

Of course the danger didn’t stop there, we are also the success of those people who kept us alive, who furrowed permanent creases in their brows and worried white streaks into their hair. And as babies we thanked them by drifting into a peaceful sleep, letting them gaze at our soft serene baby forms, and then they looked at each other and tried to sneak off into the nursery because we always slept in the middle of their bed and we said “THANK YOU!” But it came out as “Waaaaaaaaah! Were you two in the middle of something? I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate being alive! Hey – I know a great family game – you change my diaper while you feed me!”

Ten years ago I had the curious experience of doing childcare in the Milwaukee ghetto, and then working in a downtown Manhattan preschool, where parent paid 35 thousand a year to have their kids there for three hours a day. I would ask the ghetto kids, “what do you want to do when you grow up?” And they’d say “Oh, I’ll be the president of a major company with a lot of secretaries and my own airplane.” And when I asked the privileged Manhattan preschoolers they’d say “I want to drive a dump-truck!” “Sorry, Anastacio, you can grow up to be anything you want…except that.” Ten years later I wonder if there’s a trucker in Wisconsin thinking “well if I was running this company,” and a corporate president in Manhattan sighing, “Man I wish I was driving a truck.” But in all my childcare experience, there’s one thing I’ve never heard a child say (including my inner-child, who’s right now shouting at me to shut up and let you people go home). I’ve never heard a kid say “When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.”

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.” Wow, saying it feels good. That puts a whole different perspective on how I would tell the story of how I got from my Mommy’s tummy to here. Because when I say that, I feel like a success, like maybe I’ve accomplished that and more. No pressure, I’m not here to push you into any monkey-business, but if you say I with me, it might feel good. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.”

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Sacrifice -or- The Gods Order Hamburgers


Table Burn

Above a shop window on Elmwood Avenue hangs a large picture of Muhatma Gandhi with his version of the Seven Deadly Sins: “Wealth without work. Pleasure without conscience. Science without humanity. Knowledge without character. Politics without principle. Commerce without morality. Worship without sacrifice.” Now before we all run off to the tattoo parlor, let’s take a moment to ponder the last one, “worship without sacrifice.” It sounds a little strange – sacrifice seems kind of…un-Gandhi-ish…but perhaps in our unspoken agreement to make him an honorary Christian, we can forget that while he deeply respected Jesus, Muhatma Gandhi was happily a Hindu.

As a teacher I find that sacrifice is a real blind spot as we modern Americans, with our mix of enlightenment and entitlement, enter into a study of religion. We might even lazily use animal/human sacrifice as a line of distinction between primitive and perfected religions – the only religion that still sacrifices animals in modern America is Santeria, which many of us have never even heard of. “The gods demand sacrifice!” shouts a Mayan-inspired priest in The Road to El Dorado, and those early agricultural religions are filled with it – the Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians, Aztecs, Incas and Mayans, even the Greeks, Romans, Celts and Vikings. From the very dawn of agriculture and Civilization, there was a Sumerian belief that the gods needed hamburgers, and had created mortals for the sole purpose of preparing them. That may sound idiotic. But every modern religion of Salvation begins with sacrifice, and they all retain it in some revised form.

“Sacrifice” literally means to make something sacred, and “Sacred” literally means pertaining to the realm of spirits and/or gods. So sacrifice means to transfer something from the physical realm to the spiritual realm, and this is usually accomplished by destroying it or by communally consuming it. The Christian Bible is divided into two Testaments, “Testament” coming from a Greek word meaning a promise you make while holding your testicles to demonstrate your willingness to sacrifice them if your words are proven false. I’m not making this up. Greek translators used the word “Testament” as an approximation of the Hebrew word for “Covenant,” which means an agreement sealed by cutting and sharing an animal.

In the first book of the Bible, Abel sacrifices a lamb, then Cain sacrifices Abel, and Noah who saved all those endangered animals lands the ark and sacrifices a bunch of them. Abraham’s treaty with God is formalized by the cutting of several animals, and we witness countless other sacrificial contracts carved throughout the Hebrew Bible. It is not until Abraham offers a giant cheeseburger that God grants his wish of a son, and then God considers eating the son too. We might think that this was the first call for child sacrifice but the Bible does not say so, and Abraham’s unquestioning compliance implies that it was nothing out of the ordinary. The Law set forth in the Torah contains numerous classifications of sacrifice, some of which are eaten by the defendant, the priest and God, and some of which are entirely burned to be eaten by God alone. The book of Leviticus specifies that all animal sacrifice must be conducted in the Jerusalem Temple, and so after its destruction in 70 CE animal sacrifice was replaced with an equivalent monetary offering that is still practiced in Judaism. But the Pesach/Passover Seder still requires the meat of a lamb, which must be ritualistically slaughtered by a Kosher butcher.

In Christianity, the “New Covenant” is a contractual renegotiation sealed with the blood of the Christ, often symbolized as a sacrificial lamb. And he is ritually eaten in reenactments of his last supper – depending on which Christian tradition one belongs to, portions of the Christ might be eaten once a year or several times a day. Jesus himself said that anyone who wants to follow him must be willing to take up the cross and submit themselves as a sacrifice, and we can see various responses to this call in traditions of Christian martyrdom and monasticism, even in the rallying call for the Crusades. Or we might just throw two bucks into a passing plate on a Sunday morning and call it even (many Christians today believe that God is on a strict heart-healthy diet of love, songs and prayers).

A tiny minority of Muslims believe in sacrificing one’s life to harm others. This stems from a strained interpretation of certain Qur’anic passages, but the Qur’an is manifestly clear on requiring every Muslim to make the Hajj pilgrimage and slaughter an animal there to be shared among the needy in Mecca (in modern times, these animals are butchered and packed to be shipped to charities around the world). In contrast to other sacrificial traditions, the Qur’an states that God does not eat a portion of the sacrificial meat.

In an ancient Veda of Hinduism, the world was created through the sacrifice and dismemberment of the original man – a supposition the Hindus share with their estranged cousins the Babylonians and Vikings. And who can forget the image of the indigo goddess Kali in her skirt of severed arms and necklace of human skulls, arousing dead Shiva back to life by gymnastic lap-dance? She wasn’t just made up for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Hinduism still retains the tradition of leaving plates of food in front of devotional figurines called Murtis. Even Buddhism, which has no gods, demands a sacrifice – the sacrifice of the eternal Self which in Hinduism would play chutes-and-ladders in eons of reincarnations. Siddhartha became the Buddha by giving up Siddhartha.

In the religion of American Nationalism we readily call war casualties a “sacrifice” for our culture, and apply the concept of “martyrdom” to murdered reformers. In modern times, many men and women will choose to “sacrifice” their prime reproductive years on the altar of career advancement, while others will “sacrifice” their career goals to raise children. Our forms of child sacrifice (signing our sons up for junior varsity football, sending our virgin daughters to college) and animal sacrifice (the Thanksgiving turkey that dies for our founding fathers’ sins, the cattle and pigs we barbecue on Independence Day) are more abstract but still recognizable.

Some of us in modern times may think of sacrifice as primitive and wasteful, and yet we can still see it, though abstracted, in modern traditions. When I think of organized religion’s current crisis – many people feeling like religion has no real connection to their life – I have to wonder if it has something to do with modern religions’ denial of their sacrificial roots. Free-market competition between American Christian denominations seems to have turned “salvation” into some sort of door- prize freebee, and so it’s no surprise if “salvation” doesn’t seem that valuable. Maybe “worship without sacrifice” is not such a great thing after all.

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It’s been a while since I posted something here.  A lot of this last year has been occupied with relocating from Western North Carolina to Buffalo NY, near where I grew up, and now I’ve resumed teaching college courses on comparative religion.  Having stumbled into a sort of “sabbatical” semester, I decided to fill in some blanks in my knowledge by researching/writing about Greek mythology and ancient sacrificial traditions.




“A Bacchic [Dionysian] priest called out to the people to celebrate a feast, handmaid or slave, to go on holiday, each girl, like mistress, cover her breasts with furs, twist the grape leaf and myrtle in flying hair, each carry in her hands the magic vine-grown thyrsus…Matrons, young wives with babies at their breasts, answered his call, left spindle, loom and basket – housework undone… Wherever you go, the crowd is there, the shrieks of girls, the shouts of boys, tympanum [drums] roaring and the cry of flutes.” (Ovid) Marija Gimbutas writes, “Dionysus was a bull-god, god of annual renewal, imbued with all the urgency of nature. Brimming with virility, he was the god most favoured by women.” Camille Paglia puts is more bluntly: “Dionysus is nature’s raw sex and violence. He is drugs, drink, dance – the dance of death.”

The standard account of Dionysus’ birth is a trashy episode in the Olympian soap opera: a young Theban princess named “Semele was loved by Zeus because of her beauty, but since he had his intercourse with her secretly and without speech she thought that the god despised her; consequently [on jealous Hera’s advice] she made the request of him that he come to her embraces in the same manner as in his approaches to Hera. Accordingly, Zeus visited her in a way befitting a god, accompanied by thundering and lightning, revealing himself to her as he embraced her; but Semele, who was pregnant and unable to endure the majesty of the divine presence, brought forth the babe untimely and was herself slain by the fire.” (Siculus) Zeus then salvaged the zygote from her charred remains and “hid it away deep in a strange pit of his own thigh” (whatever that means) where the fetus completed its gestation.

While most mythographers agree about Semele being Dionysus’ mother, Diodorus Siculus preserves an older tradition in which Dionysus was born of Zeus and the grain goddess Demeter. Newborn baby Dionysus, with a mischievous grin and the horns of a bull, playfully mounted his father’s throne, but Hera unleashed the brawling Titans on him. Dionysus shape-shifted into the likeness of Zeus, Kronos, a lion, a horse, a snake and finally a bull when “the sons of Gaia tore to pieces the god, who was a son of Zeus and Demeter, and boiled him, but his members were brought together again by Demeter and he experienced a new birth as if for the first time.” (Siculus) Here the dismembered and reassembled body of Dionysus parallels “the vine, which has been stripped of its fruit and pruned at the yearly seasons, is restored by the earth to the high level of fruitfulness which it had before.” (Siculus)

Like other resurrected gods, Dionysus had two festivals – one on the Winter Solstice and the other in early spring. The springtime Dionysus carnival was celebrated with “Passion Play” reenactments of his death, in which a live bull was torn to pieces and communally eaten amid a clamor of flutes and cymbals, presumably with much wine, after which celebrants would run feverishly into the woods to indulge in lewd pursuits. In Euripides’ play The Bacchae, a traumatized eyewitness describes a frenzy of “young wives and the old and girls as yet unyoked. First they let down their hair upon their shoulders and pulled up their slipping fawnskins… Some, holding in their arms a fawn or the wild cubs of a wolf, gave them white milk to suck, all the young mothers with breasts still bursting full, their babes left behind. [Then] they attacked our cattle that were grazing on fresh grass, with not an axe in hand. You might have seen one of them holding up in her two hands a milk-fed bellowing calf, while others pulled together, tearing heifers apart. Then ribs or a cloven hoof you might have seen hurled high and low – and things hanging besmeared with blood, dripping beneath the pine-boughs. Violent bulls, whose angered horns before were quick to charge, were tripped and brought down bodily to the ground, overcome by innumerable girlish hands.” (Euripides)

Camille Paglia writes, “The violent principle of Dionysian cult is sparagmos, which in Greek means ‘a rending, tearing, mangling’ and secondly ‘a convulsion, spasm.’ The body of the god, or a human or animal substitute, is torn to pieces, which are eaten or scattered like seed. Omophagy, ritual eating of raw flesh, is the assimilation and internalization of godhead… Dionysian sparagmos was an ecstasy of sexual excitation and superhuman strength. Try disjointing a grocery chicken with your bare hands! – much less a living goat or heifer. The scattering of sparagmos inseminated the earth. Hence swallowing the god’s parts was an act of physical love.” Sir James Frazer proposes that with time, as the god became more associated with a human form, the sacrifice was reinterpreted as a sacrifice to feed the god, but “in rending and devouring a live bull at his festival the worshipers of Dionysus believed themselves to be killing the god, eating his flesh, and drinking his blood.”

The second day of the frenzied festival was known as the Day of Cups. As the name suggests, this was a drinking party, but it was more than just drunken revel: the “spirits” people imbibed were believed to be the spirit of the god himself, as Euripides writes: “This god, poured out, propitiates the gods, so men get all their happiness through him…his intoxication is, like any madness, full of prophecy. For when this deity in plenitude enters the body, then his revelers rave, revealing in their words what is to come.” (Euripides) “After everyone had drunk, the wife of the magistrate was married to Dionysus in the Bukoleion or Ox-stall, attended by women who had taken vows of chastity in the service of Dionysus. Thither the image of Dionysus, possibly in bovine form, or an actor wearing horns and a hide, was brought on a boat-like structure on wheels to complete the nuptial rites.” (Marija Gimbutas)

Dionysus was the blurring of boundaries – he was at once human, animal and god, dressed in drag he was male and female, intoxicated he was asleep and awake, alive and dead, in ritual he was generative sex and destructive violence. Dionysus was sex in the mud at a rock festival, but of course without the convenience fees, VIP corrals, wristbands and cheerful reminders that smokers are not welcome to relax (how did rock concerts become so much like airports and internment camps?). Dionysus was the primeval chaos, the murky primordial stew that advanced civilizations with administrative gods had tried so hard to segregate and classify. And yet these same civilizations, including our own, always carry the myth of that golden age when gender hierarchy, interspecies conflict, divine alienation and human mortality did not yet exist. The Greeks did too, and once a year they would leave their stately colonnaded temples behind, drop acid in the woods, watch the tree-bark slither, have a deep conversation with a mossy rock and then get frisky like the woodland critters. And in this chaotic paradise, participants threw off conventions and constraints, tearing through boundaries of human/god/animal, life/death, male/female, slave/free – Dionysus was pandemonium but also paradise. “Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!”

Ironically we can see traces of Dionysus in both Christianity (consuming the body and blood of a resurrected god-man) and medieval Witchcraft (rumors of women on psychedelic drugs getting freaky with a horned, goat-footed devil-man). Dionysus was even begrudgingly inducted into the Roman Catholic roster of Saints, inspiring the popular name Dennis. This may explain why your Denny’s breakfast tasted like it was mangled by filthy intoxicated women.

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Kingdom Come: Jesus and the Environment

Bathroom Sink Cross

Last week, Interfaith Action and the United Religions Initiative in Hendersonville NC presented an interfaith panel discussion about religion and environmentalism.  There was a Rabbi, a Muslim, a Wiccan Priestess, and I spoke about Christianity.  The main question was – what do our faith traditions tell us about how people are meant to live in relation to the rest of the community of life on earth?  Writing about Christianity and environmentalism proved to be too daunting and depressing, so I wrote about Jesus instead.




In Genesis 1:28, God writes humanity a blank check from the bank of creation “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Is this how Christians are meant to live in relation to the environment? What would Jesus do? As far as we know, Jesus was not fruitful, he didn’t increase a number of little Jesus Juniors, he didn’t own land, he didn’t build a plantation, and though he may have called himself a “Good Shepherd,” he doesn’t have any sheep during his ministry, so if he was a literal shepherd he must have been a bad one. More likely it was a metaphor. Jesus called farmers, fishermen and herders to quit their day-jobs and become a small tribe of nomadic foragers.

Jesus never says that God wants us to “rule the earth and subdue it” – actually he says the exact opposite: “Our father…your will be done on earth.” Instead of God telling humanity to tear the world apart and put it back together for our own comfort and convenience, Jesus taught his disciples to pray that humanity would give that dominion back. Instead of looking at nature and saying “What a mess, how can we make this better?” We’re supposed to ask “What was God’s intention here, and how can we cooperate? How can we fit in?”

Well that’s a really tough one, since Jesus our teacher hasn’t left any instructions for two thousand years. And his proteges, the disciples, could never understand him. But if we listen carefully, we find that Jesus did recommend teachers we can still listen to: “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them… Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these… And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:24-31)

Jesus wasn’t telling us to rule the birds, he was telling us to learn from them. He wasn’t telling us to have lawns three quarters of an inch high in suburbia, he was telling us that we can learn from the plants. And most important, he wasn’t telling us to destroy this planet in a desperate grab for food, water and clothing – he was saying that when we look at God’s creation and agree that it’s good, and look for how humanity can fit in, we’ll have these things! And we don’t have to wait until after death – he says that when we cooperate with creation, we’ll have what we need to survive.

Of course many of us here don’t speak Raven – it’s not that hard actually, the word “caw” is like Shalom or Aloha, it means “hello, let’s eat, goodbye, whatever.” But if we really can’t learn from the birds and plants, Jesus recommended other teachers: In Mark 10:14 he says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Children will surprise you with their clarity of vision – this is good, this is bad, this is right, this is wrong. And we spend billions of dollars and hours teaching them shades of gray, teaching them that the world is more complicated than it looks. That they need to work hard, get stuff, pay bills, drive a car. I know my children would be much happier if their teachers were deer and bears and their classroom was a forest. Well that’s what education was, until people started this mutiny for world-dominion. Maybe someday instead of giving our children sit-still pills to crush their instinct for an eight-hour school-day, maybe someday we’ll give them God’s Kingdom instead, and let them teach us that the world is simple when we cooperate – it’s impossible we try to dominate.

Nature hates a makeover – reshaping this world is like the struggle to get a squirming toddler into church-clothes on Sunday morning, and yet we feel it’s our sacred responsibility to drag this world kicking and screaming into one of our utopian fantasies. Christian doctrine says not to get involved, to be “in the world but not of the world,” whatever that means. But when a crime is committed in plain sight, there’s no such thing as an “innocent bystander.”

John 3:16, maybe the most famous passage in the New Testament – mostly because of a belief that if you write this magic spell on a sign and hold it at a sporting event, it’s guaranteed your team will crush their enemies. I’m not going to recite the whole verse, but those first six words: “For God so loved the world.” Maybe it’s time we stopped destroying God’s world, maybe it’s time we stopped hating God’s world and waiting for a divine evacuation, maybe it’s time we forgive God’s world for being so savage and primitive and childish and “earthy.” God so loved the world – it is not a sin for Christians to love it too.

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