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THE SECOND COMING (CAPTAIN AMERICHRIST)

THE SECOND COMING

In 1845, Frederick Douglass wrote in Life of An American Slave, Appendix “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels… I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me… They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy… Such is, very briefly, my view of the religion of this land…revealed in the words, deeds, and actions, of those bodies, north and south, calling themselves Christian churches, and yet in union with slaveholders. It is against religion, as presented by these bodies, that I have felt it my duty to testify.”

In 1919, William Butler Yeats wrote a poem called “The Second Coming”

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand…

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

 

CAPTAIN AMERICHRIST

Christopher Columbus once declared, “God made me the messenger of the New Heaven and the New Earth of which he spoke through St. John in the Apocalypsis.” Columbus sailed at a time when the Old World, Europe, was collapsing under the weight of its own greed. Overpopulated and environmentally degraded, soon to erupt in massive economic wars thinly disguised as theological disputes between Catholic and Protestant. Suddenly beyond the unknown waters a new Eden appeared, filled with innocent naked Adams and Eves for the Catholic Spaniards to corrupt and infect and rob and enslave and slaughter in the name of Christ. Thor would have been proud, Zeus and Marduk and Ra would have been impressed. If there was a Devil, he would have been tickled pink. But Jesus might have been a little bit confused. “Um, so you met these people who lived like the birds of the air, like the lilies of the field, and you…what? And you said my name while you did it?”

It can get very confusing, looking at the career of Christianity here in the New World – a resume written in native blood, slave-ship manifests, ledgers of crooked money-lenders, houses of prayer heaped with the last pennies of widows. As a Bible teacher, it looks to me like the confusion comes from imagining that the Israelite Jesus has something to do with the New World Christ. The mental acrobatics involved in relating the swarthy vagabond of Galilee with the triumphant platinum Christ of America will only give you a headache. The New Heaven and New Earth Columbus stumbled upon would need a New Christ, and as we’ll see the American Christ grew right here on American soil, and has adapted with us as an expression of our cultural ideals. Today the American Christ is economically competitive, politically conservative, militaristic, racially exclusive, judgmental of women, disgusted by the poor and the outcast. Captain AmeriChrist loves the flag, the fetus, and the rifle. In the South they think the Second Amendment is one of the Ten Commandments: Thou Shalt Own GunS. And by “South” I mean “South of Canada.”

Before we roll into this, I should make a few things clear. First of all, I am a Seminary graduate, but I don’t get a commission for selling subscriptions to salvation, and I don’t know or care which franchise chain-church sells the best crackers. Second, I’m not here to painstakingly explicate a cosmic Christology, nor to explore who Jesus might have been “historically” in his own sociopolitical cultural context – right now I’m interested in exploring American proposals and sales-pitches about the Christ. Jesus “the answer” has been continually reshaped as new questions have arisen in American social and political history. Americans view Jesus through a kaleidoscope of mirrors, reflecting our highest ideals and lowest desires. And whether you believe in him or not, we all live in Jesus-country.

SWEETEST FRIEND

We are told that Jesus landed on the shores of North America with the puritans but it’s not really true – when we read the documents, the covenants, the letters and sermons of Pilgrims we see a startling lack of references to the peasant Jesus or the kingly Christ. Puritans were far more interested in the Torah’s Old Covenant God who promised land in exchange for righteousness. The Pilgrims were delivered across the waters and, like the freed Egyptian slaves, found a land filled with nature-loving pagans and quickly set about to purify the new Promised Land in the name of a conquering God.

The American Jesus was not really born until over a century later, and he was born right here in Western New York during what scholars call “The Great Awakening.” Gloomy pilgrims in drab colors would grimly reap their harvests, then leave their farmsteads and villages, swarming into the wilderness for camp-revivals – the Woodstock Festivals of Puritanism, people shouting and swooning and speaking in tongues (also some anonymous sex in the woods – a good way to keep Puritan towns from getting too inbred), whipped into frenzies over fire and judgment with tag-team preachers raving about an angry God dangling sinners over the pit of eternal flame. And just when it seemed all hope was lost, the preacher would mention a friend, a humble and idealistic young attorney named Jesus, willing to speak in your defense at the Judgment. If you paid his retainer.

It’s hard for us today to appreciate the originality of Jesus the frontiersman’s friend, characterized by a soft-cheeked, sad-eyed sweetness. Because Protestants rejected the Catholic mother-worship of Mary, frontier Jesus had to combine the virgin-mother and son. We can still see this androgynous, sometimes clearly effeminate demeanor in their hymns and paintings. This period’s image of Jesus is most historically significant in the counter-reaction it produced: the American Christ briefly experimented with gender-bending, and fathers have been whipping him into shape ever since, forcing Jesus to become more and more manly for three hundred years.

CIRCUMCISION

The American Christ was secretly circumcised by the Father of Modern Biblical Scholarship, Thomas Jefferson (who, in his free time, was also President). In the Capital at night, Jefferson sat up with eight Bibles and a razor-blade, trimming the magic from the Gospels until he’d carved a slim document – The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth (1804). Jefferson himself explained, “In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests…as instruments of riches and power [for] themselves… There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man…which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” But a strange thing happened – Jefferson with his razor had circumcised Jesus, but it was the stuff he cut away that would be kept and adopted by the new American Christianity, while the teachings and sayings and justice of Jesus were left behind, like throwing out the baby and keeping the foreskin.

In 1823, the American Christ was reborn in one of his most fascinating manifestations about eighty miles from here, in Rochester, when a farmboy named Joseph Smith claimed to have met with a glorious angel named Moroni who lent Smith special glasss to decode mysterious hieroglyphics in a solid-gold book, and reported that the true natives of America were actually Hebrews who fled Israel during the Babylonian Invasion in 586 BCE. Some were then cursed with Red skin for breaking the Jewish Covenant, they vented their fury in viciously persecuting the true white-skinned Israelite-Americans to near-extinction. Fortunately, after the Christ’s resurrection, he came to America and reconciled them in the glorious name of himself. But then the redskins relapsed into their pagan ways and killed off almost all the white Israelites. In desperation, Moroni hid their sacred book in Rochester for fourteen hundred years until he could reveal it to young blond handsome Joseph Smith.

Whether or not we accept this as fact, we must acknowledge the very real historical response. In the 1830’s, with a lot of people feeling guilty about the Indian genocide, Smith’s visionary scenario offered an answer to some very pressing questions: If Christ was king of the world, when did he find out that America existed? And if he knew, why not try to save them? Answer: he had, but most of them refused to listen. And shouldn’t Christians feel bad about Indian genocide? Answer: if the Indians were guilty of Christian genocide fourteen centuries earlier, then it was only fair. And why was the Biblical worldview so confined to the Middle East, if the true Christian Manifest Destiny was here? Moroni’s golden book revealed that the Biblical Garden of Eden was actually located in Missouri.

There is some possibility this was snake-oil, but it was powerful medicine for the guilt and shame of the Native Holocaust. Smith’s vision had the power to bend time and space, change the past, alter the genes and cultural identities of ancient peoples, a brilliant experiment in what we today might call “alternative facts.” Whatever we think his raw material was, Smith the alchemist turned it into gold, and it was no fad – the Church of Latter-Day Saints boasts 15 Million members today (add up all the Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans? Mormons still outnumber them). And it’s no surprise that Joseph Smith’s trusting flock turned out for Trump, after the failure of their own Mormon candidate Mitt Romney.

THE GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT(S)

In the 1840’s, another Christian fire was lit here in Western New York that still burns brightly today, and would dramatically re-shape American Christianity. A man named William Miller spent two decades studying scripture, particularly the books of Daniel and Revelations, and found a message that was both thrilling and disturbing: Daniel 8:14 says “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller then deduced that the days were actually years, and if you started counting when Atraxerxes of Persia commanded the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple in 457 BCE, then the Biblical Apocalypse must be in 1843! Or 1844! Now I don’t want to get you all worked up and frightened, so I’ll just say right now that Miller’s many followers experienced what religious historians call “The Great Disappointment.” They showed up to exult in rivers of blood, plagues, earthquakes, disasters, and Jesus riding on a horse with a sword coming out of his mouth, slaughtering non-Christian men, women and children, as we read in Revelation 1:16. But God disappointed them with a fine spring day.

But then a miracle happened – after the disappointment from Miller’s original prediction that Christ would destroy the world by March 21, even more people showed up for his corrected prediction that Christ would return on April 18th. And after that disappointment, even more people showed up when he predicted that it absolutely must be October 22, 1844, which…spoiler-altert, also didn’t happen. Finally, William Miller concluded that the Bible itself must have contained an error, due to some ancient copyist’s mistake. He died five years later, but gave unto American Christianity a valuable lesson: the Apocalypse sells, and no matter how many times you’re wrong in predicting it, you still get paid and even more people will give you even more money the next time you predict it. The Millerite movement did lose some of its members, but it did not die – actually, disappointed Millerites spawned a new church called “Seventh Day Adventists,” based on the belief that Christ could come at any time, and today there are twenty to twenty-five million of them.

In the 1860’s, Americans got excited about the Revelation again, when Jesus’ end-time prophecy seemed to be coming true with “wars and rumors of wars…Nation will rise against nation…Brother will betray brother to death.” (Mark 13:7-8, 12) The Apocalyptic fury of the Civil War was so great that when Abraham Lincoln was martyred for the sins of the people, his cadaver was actually resurrected by taxidermists and put on a train for a national farewell tour. And so began the long, bleak period known as Civil War Reconstruction, which began in 1865 and ended in November 2016 when the Confederacy was finally fooled into believing it had taken over America. …Just kidding about that – the Civil War Reconstruction period will not end until America is history.

CAPITALIST CHRIST

In around 1882, a Baptist minister struck gold by writing a lecture called “Acres of Diamonds,” which launched him on a forty-year world-wide tour in which he delivered the speech over six thousand times. The man was Russell Conwell (the name should have been a tip-off) and he delighted audiences with what became, essentially, the American Sermon-on-the-Mount: “I say that you ought to get rich, and it is our duty to get rich… Money is power, [and] you can do more good with it than you could without it… If you can honestly attain unto riches, it is our Christian and godly duty to do so. It is an awful mistake of these pious people to think you must be awfully poor in order to be pious… I sympathize with the poor, [but] to sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong, no doubt about it, [and] let us remember that there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings… It is all wrong to be poor, anyhow.” (Russell Conwell, c1882)

Conwell was a brilliant man who preached that great wealth was a sure sign of God’s great trust in one individual, and poverty was a sign of God’s punishment (his announcement that the poor were impoverished because of their own sins and weakness would have been fascinating to recently freed slaves, but most were too busy job-hunting and share-cropping to attend these lectures). We may not remember Conwell’s name but his truth is marching on – as a matter of fact, it has only grown more powerful, with millions of impoverished Christians fooled into voting for politicians who will slash the social benefits of the poor to fund massive tax-breaks for the wealthy. Jesus did once say “Whoever has [much] will be given more; whoever does not have [much], even what they have will be taken from them.” (Mark 4:25) But he was talking about faith, not finance. Worse yet, these poor voters have been bamboozled into blaming their financial problems (caused by the Wall Street they voted to deregulate) on even poorer people – minorities and refugees.

Many of my college students today believe that Jesus was comfortably middle-class (fascinating, since the “middle class” was not invented until 1914, and only lasted a hundred years). The Bible clearly tells us Jesus was homeless and unemployed. And most of my black college students still can’t help but see Jesus as a Germanic caucasian with blue eyes and blonde hair. But once we’ve seen some of the ways in which the Christ seed, planted in American soil, has produced unique plants and strange fruit undreamed of in Galilee or Rome or Europe, it’s no stretch to imagine any number of fantastical mutations – Jesus the gun-toting redneck, Jesus who loves the fetus but lacks compassion for the hungry child, Jesus the fiscal conservative, Jesus who rejects evolution but embraces social-Darwinism. Jesus who wants to “bomb the shit out of” the Middle-East.

Today we’ve glanced at only a few of many strange mutations of Captain AmeriChrist, and each of these has contributed an important piece to our present situation. Because it’s been building here in the dark heart of America, a desire for this new Christ to finally manifest himself in the flesh. A Second Coming of Christ with blonde hair and ruthless business skills, a Christ who could destroy the Chief Priests of news and the Scribes of government, bull-whip the scientists from the Temple, tear it down and rebuild it as his own theme-park. A new Christ who could bend time and space, changing the very nature of “truth” and “fact,” re-molding intellectual foundations. And maybe, just maybe, this new Christ would succeed where the old one had failed – to destroy the world itself, as the Bible promised (nevermind that the book of Revelation says people will be ruled by a demonic, capitalist Anti-Christ for a while before the real white-Christ returns).

Donald Trump is a savior and messiah, and although there is not a single Jesus-bone in his body, he is the physical manifestation of the American Christ. It’s been gestating, festering and mutating for centuries and every time it’s popped its head out we laughed, but it never disappeared, it only went underground to gestate and fester some more, and now that it’s emerged into the light we find it hideous, we’re horrified because we don’t know the history. Donald Trump is the real American Christ, and the Christians who elected him were not confused or misguided – it’s ridiculous to ask “How could you vote for someone so different from radical compassionate peasant Jesus?” American Christianity has no place for Jesus the Palestinian rebel (if he came back today he’d be tied to a rack in Guantanamo Bay). And as we gasp in horror that Trump has lied or broken something or hurt someone or stumbled us closer to human extinction, his supporters only love him more because he is manifesting the Christ power they want him to have. You want to shake people and shout “Think about the future!” But they are – an apocalyptic pie-in-the-sky future for which they consider themselves well-prepared.

Some of us talk about plague and famine and global meltdown as if they were bad things, but like everything else it’s a matter of opinion. Even to say “It’s true that humanity wants to live another generation” or “It’s a fact that hatred will not produce happiness” or “It’s illogical to put the foxes in charge of guarding the chicken-coop.” You’re bringing a pillow to a gunfight – religious fanatics will not be swayed by profane earthly trifles like “truth” and “fact.” Religion will not be reasoned with. Trying to understand Christianity today… We all know some reasonable, compassionate Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, but this is a tiny disappearing fraction of the Church. The growing, overwhelming majority of American Christianity is an apocalyptic death-cult, clamoring for a blond Messiah to light the fuse and make the whole thing go boom.

In October 1844, a man who’d heeded the call of William Miller and traveled to see the Biblical apocalypse with all its burning and plague and famine and earthquake and massacre and atrocity, stood heartbroken as the sun shone and the birds sang. He later reported, “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before…We wept and wept until the day dawned.” Scholars call this “The Great Disappointment.” The failure of Jesus Christ to destroy the world in the 1840’s. And if our new Christ, Donald Trump, fails to destroy the country and the world, Christian American will weep and weep – they’ll call it the Great Disappointment Part II, and like most sequels it’ll be less funny than the original. The good news for the rest of us is, Donald Trump is really good at disappointing people, especially people who put their faith in him. And if he should fail to destroy this world, and the Christians wail and gnash their teeth while birds sing and the sun sends its rays through the clouds, I think I’ll be okay with that.

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IN (what) GOD (do) WE TRUST (?)

IN (what) GOD (do) WE TRUST (?)

Almost two hundred years after America’s revolutionary war against the British Empire, there was an independence movement by another English colony (which, ironically, had also once belonged to Indians). But as India looked at its options, with a keen eye on the success of its elder cousin America, one of the freedom-movement leaders urged caution. Muhatma Gandhi warned: “That you cannot serve God and [wealth] is an economic truth of the highest value. We have to make our choice. Western nations today are groaning under the heel of the monster-god of materialism… I have heard many of our countrymen say that we will gain American wealth but avoid its methods. I venture to suggest that such an attempt if it were made is foredoomed to failure.”

Gandhi – he’s so cute. Close your eyes, see his face – he’s adorable, like a muppet. But it turns out India didn’t just love him for his looks. He also thought things and said things and wrote things. I guess when I was young I thought he won independence by flashing that endearing smile. That’s not just because I wasn’t paying attention in school. It turns out his face is welcome in our culture but his voice is not. He was dangerous. Even in this little fragment. He starts by quoting Jesus, “you cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13). Though Gandhi was a Hindu and not a Christian, he really admired Jesus the non-violent protestor against Roman impirial domination. But Gandhi does not say that Jesus is the god of America – instead, he refers to a “monster-god of materialism.” As if we all worship some capitalist Cookie-Monster. Now I know what you’re thinking – “Whoa there, Geronimo, a Hindu accusing us of having ‘monster-gods’!? Who worships the six-armed dominatrix and the elephant-headed belly-dancer? You’re the one with blue gods that eat cookies!”

But let’s hold onto this for a moment, because I think the monster-god of materialism spawned a robber-baron-messiah and sixty million American Christians dumped old gentle Jesus to worship him (now, strictly from a business perspective, as a contractor assigned to destroy the world, Jesus has been chronically late – maybe the new Platinum Christ can get the demolition done faster. With the full thrust of his earth-shaking tweets). We’ve had our doubts about Jesus – bearded Palestinian, you say you’re from Nazareth but you were born in Bethlehem and then traveled to Egypt and back? Show me the birth certificate. What a strange thing to celebrate Christmas 2016 when the USA has just changed its motto to: “There’s no room at the inn.”

Gandhi warns that no nation can have America’s material wealth without groaning under the heel of this monster-god (and India, like many other “developing” nations, has since learned that American-style wealth for a few must come with American-style pitiless poverty for the many).

Maybe this is going too far, letting a Hindu from India describe America’s god, so let’s turn to another famous Indian…American Indian…man, that’s so confusing. One native author notes, at least Columbus wasn’t sailing around looking for Turkey. Anyway, the legendary Chief Seattle observed, “Your God loves your people and hates mine… The white man’s God cannot love his red children or he would protect them… Your God seems to us to be partial…your religion was written on tables of stone by the iron finger of an angry God.” Is the white man’s god an angry judge? I guess we can’t necessarily count on a Native American to be unbiased on the subject, so let’s just pick an American at random. And to prove how random, we’ll choose an American whose last name means “unknown.” Malcolm X. He said, “This is who she means when she says ‘In God We Trust’ – that blue-eyed god, that blonde-haired god, that pale-skinned god who blessed them to kidnap you and me and bring us here and make us slaves.”

AMERICAN CIVIL RELIGION

In 1967, Robert Bellah, wrote a groundbreaking study proposing that “while some have argued that Christianity is the national faith…few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.”

Is Americanism a religion? I don’t know. As a Religious Studies teacher I always start and end the semester by telling my students I don’t know what “religion” is – I can’t really define it, I just know it when I smell it (and most of them smell old. Although ironically it’s the earliest religions, the primal tribal ones, that still smell fresh. Anyway…). Does Americanism have the stuff that other religions have? If you stripped out all the Christian stuff, the Christmas decorations and Easter goodies and trick-or-treat, which are all actually pagan traditions… Does Americanism have temples, myths, rituals, scriptures, hymns, holidays?

Aside from Christianity America still has plenty of holidays: Labor Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July. Some that center around bonding the community through animal sacrifice – the 4th of July pig and Thanksgiving Turkey who die for our sins. Once every four years we celebrate Inauguration Day – the root word “Augur” meaning to divine the future by conjuring spirits, generally by touching something that belonged to a dead person. You may have noticed – in American Civil Religion, in court-houses and presidential inaugurations, people put their hand on the Bible but that’s got nothing to do with reading it or knowing what’s inside. The Bible is strictly there as a fetish, an idol, a devotional object, touched to make a connection with the dead.

The Bible is not the sacred scripture of Americanism (some people want the Ten Commandments in courthouses, but American Law only prosecutes three of them). But we do have ancient cryptic writings, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Starr Report. We have hymns, the National Anthem, “America the Beautiful,” “Friends in Low Places.” Goodness knows Americanism has a debatable creation-story and loads of mythology – George Washington is so mythical that I don’t even know if he technically existed. Americanism has martyrs, Lincoln, King, Kennedy and scores of fallen soldiers who die for our sins (or get stuck in long lines at the Veterans’ Hospital for our sins).

American Civil Religion has Temples, the Greek Temples of Zeus-Abraham-Lincoln and Apollo-Thomas-Jefferson in the Capital, the Egyptian Obelisk Washington Monument. America has a totem animal – Benjamin Franklin suggested the generous turkey, but the idea was shot down in favor of the predatory Eagle, which was promptly hunted to near-extinction.

The great Robert Bellah did a much better job of explaining this than I just did – he had years of research, I just said a bunch of stuff that popped into my head. But his point, that Americanism is a religion on its own, distinct from Chrsitianity, with its own myths, totems and rituals, remains a fascinating avenue of thought (and yes, I admit I’ve done some drunk driving on that intellectual avenue). But if Americanism is a relgion apart from Christianity…then who is the god of American Civil Religion?

IN WHAT GOD?

Should there be prayer in public schools? A contentious issue in America today. And yet when I hear about it, I can’t help thinking, “but there’s already prayer in schools – the pledge of allegiance, which requires American children to worship a totem.” My children break three of the Ten Commandments every morning while saying the pledge to the flag – worshiping other gods, worshiping an idol, and taking the Lord’s name in vain. If they mindlessly recite the pledge without knowing what it means? Then they’re also bearring false witness. And if they knew that I object to children saying the pledge? They’d be dishonoring their father too – half of the Ten Commandments broken before ten in the morning! What a start for the day. I’m surprrised they haven’t murdered someone by noon.

The Pledge of Allegiance was first drafted by Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy in 1892: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It did not mention “God” but still it was controversial because it allowed girls, blacks and immigrants to say “my flag” (this was later fixed) and “liberty and justice for all” – Bellamy’s Socialism rearing its ugly head at the end, and stangely enough this still remains. Then, ironically, it was Cold-War anti-Communism that got god into the pledge. In 1954, president Eisenhower declared, “From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty…. In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”

Eisenhower explains that the words “under god” were inserted to “strengthen…spiritual weapons” – religion was added to weaponize the pledge of allegiance (later it was Eisenhower who warned against the spiritual influence of the Military Industrial Complex…but he did not foresee the Spiritual Industrial Complex with its creeping militaristic influence). “One Nation Under God” was a weapon against the heahten Communists with their dangerous, heretical “Do Unto Others” and “Give to the Poor” mentality. The pledge still affirms with a sneaky stridency that only “One Nation” is “Under God.”

But what god is this? Perhaps the answer is on our dollar bill, right between the Egyptian Pyarmid and the Roman Eagle (notably absent is the Christian cross). The Yankee dollar used to be a check representing ownership of a certain amount of America’s hoarde of gold. But then the dollar was switched from the gold-standard to the god-standard, its value now is determined only by how much China believes that god loves America. When China believes god loves America best, the dollar is up, when China believes that god is cooling on America the dollar goes down. Not only is the dollar-value totally mythological, but we don’t even get to determine the value of the myth. Still we desperately trust god to love America best, because without that the almightly dollar would be powerless.

In what God do we trust? Who is this god who holds our nation together? At last we must turn to the scriptures, the sacred documents. The Constitution is silent about god, but the Declaration of Independence contains four fascinating references, first to “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” that support human independence. Then to the “Creator” who endows all men with certain inalienable rights. The third is a nod to “the Supreme Judge of the world,” and the last declares “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”

We may hear the word “God” and affix all manner of colorful, kid-friendly ornamentation like “love” and “father” and “salvation” but none of these attributes are in the Declaration. In this document, god is the “Creator,” Provider, Protector and “Supreme Judge.” Bellah points out the irony that god in the Declaration is more like the legalistic Torah-God of Judaism than the loving savior-god of Christianity. This is the austere disciplinarian who endows “all men” with equality and rights, except for women, slaves, natives, etc – when the Declaration was penned, “all men” was only about one fifth of the population. This could be called the “One Fifth Compromise” – in which four fifths of Americans would not exist in the eyes of America’s god. And this has not dramatically changed.

George Michael, who passed away on Christmas day, once wrote a song called “Hand to Mouth” about Amerians driven to desperation by poverty, and one of them declares, “I believe in the gods of america. I believe in the land of the free. But no one told me that the gods believe in nothing. So with empty hands I pray. And from day to hopeless day, they still don’t see me.”

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Sacrifice -or- The Gods Order Hamburgers

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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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.

 

KINGDOM COME

 

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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Zechariah and John the Baptizer in the Bible and Qur’an

Zechariah and John in the Bible and Qur’an

All four of the Canonical Gospels contain accounts of John the Baptizer as a forerunner of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke attests that John and Jesus were cousins, and begins with a story of John’s conception: his father Zechariah was a high priest performing an incense offering in the Jerusalem Temple when an angel appeared. The messenger surprises the elderly Zechariah with the news that his aging wife Elizabeth will give birth (we are not told whether or not Zechariah has prayed for this). Zechariah is suspicious of this news, and he is struck dumb as a punishment for his disbelief: “Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (Luke 1:20) Zechariah then cannot speak until the baby is delivered. A close reading of Zechariah’s story in the Qur’an reveals some interesting differences: he will pray for a son, and his silence will be a sign of God’s answer.

 

Sura 19:1 Sufficient, Guide, Blessed, Knowing, Truthful God.
19:2 A mention of the mercy of your Lord to His servant Zechariah –
19:3 When he called upon his Lord, crying in secret.
19:4 He said: “My Lord, my bones are weakened, and my head flares with gray hair, and I have never been unsuccessful in my prayer to You, my Lord.
19:5 And I fear for my kinsfolk after me, and my wife is barren, so grant me from Yourself an heir
19:6 Who will continue my work and continue the Children of Jacob. And make him, my Lord, acceptable to You.”
19:7 [An Angel called to him:] “Zechariah! We give you good news of a boy, whose name is John. We have never before made anyone his equal.”
19:8 He said: “My Lord, how shall I have a son, and my wife is barren, and I have reached extreme old age?”
19:9 He said: “So it will be. Your Lord says: ‘It is easy to Me, and indeed I created you before, when you were nothing.’”
19:10 He said: “My Lord, give me a sign.” He said: “Your sign is that you will not speak to people three nights, though you are in sound health.”
19:11 So he went forth to his people from the sanctuary and signaled to them: “Glorify God morning and evening.”
19:12 We said: “John, hold on to the Book with all your strength,” and We granted him wisdom when a child,
19:13 And kind-heartedness from Us and purity. And he was dutiful,
19:14 And kindly to his parents, and he was not insolent or disobedient.
19:15 And peace on him the day he was born and the day he died, and the day he is raised to life.

 

The most fascinating aspect of the Qur’anic report of John the Baptizer is that it’s not about John at all. He’s a secondary character in a story about Zechariah, whose prayer for a son is answered. The Qur’an gives no account of John’s adulthood, his baptisms or his interactions with Jesus. We are told only that he was “honorable and chaste, a prophet from among the good ones” (Sura 3:38) and that he was obedient to his father: “Surely they used to compete with one another in good deeds, and called upon Us, hoping and fearing, they were humble before Us.” (Sura 21:90) This competition in good deeds can be found in the Talmud: “What message did the Torah bring to Israel? Take upon yourselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, vie one with the other in the fear of God and practise loving deeds towards one another.” This vying does not mean that one will win and the other will lose, but that both will benefit from some friendly competition.

 

“The Book” that John is told to take hold of in Sura 19:12 could refer to the Torah, or to the ‘Mother of Books,’ God’s own book of wisdom. Zechariah, in his old age, wishes that God would replace him with another Temple priest, someone to continue the sacred traditions of Judaism. Those of us familiar with John in the Gospels know that the limb falls far from the tree, he goes shouting at people in the wasteland, far from the Temple and its sacrificial altars (he was a voice crying out, “In the wilderness [implied: not the Temple], prepare the way of the Lord.”). And without continuing the lineage of high priests, he gets incarcerated and decapitated for subversion. But in the Qur’an we are told only that John was a worthy successor to his father, and therefore an answer to Zechariah’s prayer. The announcement that “We have never before made anyone his equal” (Sura 19:7) recalls Jesus’ assessment of John, “A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet… I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:26, 28)

 

LUKE 3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

 

Though the Qur’an contains no scenes of John preaching, it has numerous parallels with his sermon. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance… Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9) John’s teaching of the fruit-bearing tree as a symbol of generosity would later be expanded by Jesus, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit… The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43-45) The symbol of the trees is further expanded in the Qur’an:

 

Sura 14:24 God sets forth a parable of a good word as a good tree, whose root is firm and whose branches are high,
14:25 Yielding its fruit in every season by the permission of its Lord. God sets forth parables for men that they may be mindful.
14:26 And the parable of an evil word is as an evil tree pulled up from the earth’s surface; it has no stability.
14:27 God confirms those who believe with the sure word in this world’s life and in the Hereafter; and God leaves the wrongdoers in error.
The good tree here is not only spared from punishment, it is also blessed with abundance “in every season” – a year-round blossoming and harvest will come from it.

 

“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Luke 3:8) John warns that in God’s judgment, no one will be granted special leniency because of descent from Abraham. The Qur’an likewise affirms that no one will be granted favor or spared judgment for the sake of Abraham: “Do you see the one who turns away? …Has he not been informed of what is in the scriptures of Moses and Abraham who fulfilled their duty? No soul shall bear the burden of another: a man will have only what he has earned.” (Sura 53:33-34, 36-39) Rather, “those who are closest to Abraham are those who follow his ways.” (Sura 3:67) Abraham himself is not remembered for uncritical acceptance of received tradition – he turned away from his homeland and family practices. Abraham is best remembered for treating kings like nobodies, treating nobodies like kings, and a willingness to give up what he loved most in the world when God asked him to.

 

The image of God replacing the descendants of Abraham with rocks is extreme, but we can hear an echo of it in the Qur’anic warning: “You who believe, should any one of you turn back from his religion, then God will replace you with a people whom He loves and who love Him, humble toward believers, mighty against disbelievers, striving hard in God’s way and not fearing anyone’s reproach.” (Sura 5:54) But we should not consider this a rejection of the rituals and traditions of Judaism – Zechariah, being a Temple priest, is the most explicitly “Jewish” of the Qur’anic messengers, and his adherence to the Torah is rewarded with the gift of a son. In the twenty-first Surah, called “The Prophets,” a list of messengers including Abraham and David, Zechariah, John, Mary and Jesus concludes with “Surely this your community is a single community, and I am your Lord, so serve Me… Whoever does good deeds and is a believer, there is no rejection of his effort, and We keep a record of it.” (Sura 21:92, 94)

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God’s Kingdom and its Byproducts (A Sermon)

I was honored to be invited back to the Wild Goose Festival this year, to participate in a panel discussion entitled “Food, Faith and Justice.”  Here is the talk that I gave:

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GOD’S KINGDOM AND ITS BYPRODUCTS

As a kid I was in a children’s choir that sang “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, Hallelujah.” And I wondered… What “things” will be added? Because “things” like feathery wings, a white dress and a harp didn’t really fire my pre-adolescent imagination. If I was gonna seek the Kingdom of God, I wanted righteous things added like a robot arm…actually, just ‘add unto me’ the whole inspector gadget package and a James Bond Swiss-army sports-car. Oh, and definitely add unto me Lana Wood from Diamonds Are Forever.

Of course this Gospel quote about accessorizing in God’s Kingdom is open to all sorts of interpretation. Also in Christianity we’ve got this translation problem – in Judaism you learn the Torah in Hebrew, Muslims read the Qur’an in Arabic, but Christians read the Bible in every language, which would be fantastic except… Well, take for example, where Jesus says “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19) Because of some bizarre translation issue (because “Americana” is becoming its own language), you’ve got all these people stockpiling canned food in case Jesus suddenly returns! To make it even more bizarre, they’re stockpiling canned food and guns – here in the South, most people think the Second Amendment is one of the Ten Commandments. And by ‘south’ I mean ‘south of Canada.’

Fear of Jesus returning and sparking a religious apocalypse is the number one factor driving sales of canned “Vienna Sausage” (by the way, Vienna called, they said they don’t want their name on our nasty canned hotdogs anymore. The Viennese recommend we start calling them “Freedom Franks” instead. Freedom Franks? Then some lawyers from Frankfurt called and said “don’t call them that either”). Somewhere there must be a “Rapture Survival Bible” in which Jesus says “Seek the Kingdom of God – but first, seek ye some pickled sausage and shotgun shells.” And if that book doesn’t exist, I’m gonna write it, spend the royalties on a shelter to protect me from apocalyptic zombie Christians.

But when Jesus said “Seek first the kingdom of God…and all these things shall be added unto you,” he clearly didn’t mean bionic propellers and sports-cars, and if he looked into the future and saw fallout shelters full of canned pork byproducts, he’d have resurrected old boot-camp sergeant Moses. So what “things” did he mean? Keeping in mind he wasn’t a blogger alone in his mom’s basement, he was a street-preacher talking to indebted depressed and destitute peasants – if he offered them wings, white dresses and harps they would have said “Yeah, we’ll wear whatever kind of freaky thing you want, but we need some loaves and fishes and freedom now, and Bank of Romerica just foreclosed on all our homes! What is the Kingdom of God gonna do about that?”

Jesus lived in what we today would call a “developing nation,” meaning a community being forced to develop totalitarian agricultural techniques under economic pressure and military threats from an Empire. The ruler of Galilee owed Rome nine tons of gold per year – but gold didn’t grow in Judea, so taxes were paid in grain, wine and olive oil. Subsistence farmers accustomed to barter trade and community assistance were crushed by these new economic pressures. Taxation, inflation, and the diminishing yield of single-crop farming forced many peasants to take out disastrous mortgages on their ancestral lands, often ending in foreclosure. Family farms were consolidated by investors into massive cash-crop plantations, often hiring the evicted heirs to work as sharecroppers or day-laborers. Quaint fishing villages like Capernaum and Magdala were becoming industrial centers for the production of a fish-paste called Garum (excellent work, marketing department – kids come running for the great taste of Garum), a relative of our modern Worcestershire sauce, with a high salt and vinegar content that made it ideal for export.

When Jesus said “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” he was on a mountainside, speaking with dispossessed day-laborers, the kind of workers you saw standing outside Rome Depot at 6am, hoping to get hired for twelve hours of farm work. Of course the workers who got hired that day were not sitting on a hillside listening to this teacher – Jesus was speaking to the rejected peasants who did not get hired that afternoon. And he promised them dignity. And he promised them laughter. And he promised them food. And he promised that they, the migrants, the outcasts, the powerless, he promised that they would inherit the land.

And he knew exactly what three questions they had, because he’d heard them before at every place he spoke – it wasn’t three questions about the Consubstantiality of the Trinity. Jesus said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ …indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:31-33) “These things” – food, water, clothing, the bare necessities of life. This wasn’t cream pie in the fluffy sky, a floating church picnic with angels singing non-stop top-ten hymns for all eternity. And it wasn’t a bountiful bank account and a grocery store stacked with canned meat byproducts either. He was talking about daily bread. No additives, no preservatives.

 

QUITTERS

 

And the Gospels tell us some of these peasants dropped everything to follow him – we get the image of thirteen dudes with beards and sandals bumming around from town to town (in modern times they’d have had a van with the words ‘Love Child’ written on the side). But there’s a twist, like the ending of Fight Club when we read in Mark 15:41 that there were also women who “used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” Wait a minute – you mean this traveling frat-party had women on the road with them all along? Paying their bills? Trudging through the blazing sun from one dusty town to another? “Aw, gimme a break, Mary. Peter gets cranky, he chops off somebody’s ear, I fix it. But this thing, ‘low blood sugar’ – what the heck is that? I know it’s girl-stuff, but you definitely mention it more than once a month.”

And if the Jesus movement included women – Paul attests that Jesus’ disciples traveled with their wives – what about that byproduct of men and women: children? “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” “No – for the last time, when the mourners laugh and the meek have inherited the earth, then we’ll know we’re there. Anyone with two ears had better listen up! Don’t make me turn these sandals around.” The image of Jesus and his twelve drinking buddies on a road trip is a lot of fun, but when we mix in women and children, then we might start to see something else – a tribe, a small nomadic tribe. And when your cooperative village culture is being torn apart by commercialization, competition and consolidation, when daily bread and dignity are becoming limited commodities, when Empires and investors leave no room inside society for cooperation and compassion…then a voice from the wilderness will call people outside of society.

A thousand years before Jesus, God had rescued the Hebrews from Pharaoh and his food pyramid of locked-up crops – a pyramid where the poor majority got cheap wheat while an elite minority got the certified fresh organic grapes. Remember that it was not Pharaoh’s soldiers and chariots that entrapped the Hebrews into slavery, it was the bread he locked away. And before the Hebrews could be rescued from Pharaoh’s chariots, God had to break their addiction to Egyptian grain by sabotaging Pharaoh’s agricultural apparatus – the water supply was fouled, the livestock decimated by plague, the wheat-fields pummeled by hailstones and the fruit-trees stripped by locusts. All this so that God could rehabilitate the Hebrews in the desert, in the wilderness, to become a nomadic tribe living one day at a time. And when I hear about our modern agricultural apparatus under attack from these same forces, I sometimes wonder if God’s at it again, looking to break our addiction to industrial agriculture and rehabilitate us in the wilderness.

The Moses movement and the Jesus movement were a protest, a walk-out, a boycott. An alternative to extortion and Empire, competition and consolidation, but this alternative was then enshrouded in mystical mysteries and sealed in a grand stone tomb. Growing up I was taught that Jesus proposed a boycott of human bodies, an escape to a purely spiritual realm – because it’s so smelly in this one, especially on the third day of a camp-out. But in the Gospels he says so many times that the Kingdom of God will provide food and shelter, daily bread, debt release, the freedom of the birds. And if God’s Kingdom will provide for our bodies then it must be here, on the land that the meek shall inherit. But it won’t be found in stock markets and supermarkets, it will not be a by-product of competition and dehumanizing mass production – it won’t be a mystery-surprise floating in your can of Vienna Sausage (don’t ever eat the mystery-surprise in those cans, or you really will sprout a wing). It will come from courage, cooperation and compassion, men and women choosing a different future, and when the children ask “are we there yet?”  “Hold my hand and don’t be afraid, we’ll get there together.”

 

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New Book – LIBEL: SEX AND SEXUALITY IN THE BIBLE

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Warning: This Book does not contain The Answer about what’s “Right” and “Wrong” concerning Sex or the Bible – only Texts to ponder and Questions to consider.

The following snippets are from a chapter called TEXTCRIME: FORNICATION.

When it comes to Jesus’ views on sex and sexuality, we’ve got very little to go on.  Topics about which Jesus never says a word include (in no particular order):
-Premarital Sex
-Homosexuality
-Bisexuality
-Sex-Changes
-Contraceptives
-Condiments
-Sex Education Class
-Abortion
-Pornography
-First Base, Second Base, Third Base, Short-Stop, Left Field
-Aphrodisiacs
-Foreplay
-Leonard Cohen
-Inventive Positions
-Spanking
-Exclamations
-Devices
-Head
-Fetishes
-Weird Kinky Stuff (Costumes, Leather, Chains, Etc.)
Nowhere in any Gospel does Jesus directly mention any of these, either to condone or condemn.  I feel a temptation to add masturbation to this list, but he did say “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:30)  So I’m always surprised to see many Christians walking around with a right hand intact.

Where family values are concerned, Jesus tells us that his teachings will shatter households across generations: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53)  Whether Jesus himself was or had ever been married is a mystery that will never be resolved because the Bible never definitively confirms or denies it.  Is there anything the Bible can tell us about marriage and the Jesus movement?

Our classic image of the Jesus movement is thirteen dudes quitting their day jobs to become a free-wheeling fraternity on a year-long spring break, crashing parties and disrupting church services.  But a brief note at the end of the story puts a twist on this image: when the buddies have been busted, the disciples have fled and Jesus is being crucified we find that “there were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.  These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” (Mark 15:40)  This is the first time we hear of Mary Magdalene and these “many other women,” and yet we’re told that they’ve been on tour with the Jesus crew from the start!  And that they’ve been footing the bills for food and lodging all along.  Like first-time viewers reaching the end of Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, we’ve got to go back and re-envision the entire story.

Later, as Paul questions the rights of an apostle, he asks “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas [Peter]?” (1 Corinthians 9:5)  But if the disciples, including three of Jesus’ brothers, were married…  Did they leave their wives and kids at home during their year(s) on tour?  In the middle of the Gospel, Jesus sent his followers out in pairs to share the good news – Mark reports that he sent twelve, but Luke says he sent seventy (which seem to be male/female pairs).  Was the Jesus movement a fraternity, or was it a nomadic tribe?  This opens up a whole mess of questions, but there’s one in particular that pertains to our study: Did Jesus, traveling with these women (and possibly children), really share Christianity’s hostility toward women, marriage and motherhood?

We get mixed reports of Jesus’ policy on divorce and remarriage.  In Mark’s Gospel he strictly condemns divorce and remarriage: “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’  ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate…Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:6-9, 11-12) Luke’s Gospel agrees, (Luke 16:18) in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus allows divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery. (Matthew 5:32, 19:9)  The Gospel we call John is silent on the subject of divorce.  It’s also the only Gospel that contains the curious story of the adulteress.

JOHN 8:3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them,
4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.
5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?”
7 …”Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 She said, “No one, sir.”  And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Now the obvious question is…  If this woman was caught red-handed or whatnot – was she committing adultery by herself?  Where is her accomplice, condemned to the same crushing fate by the very same Law of Moses? (Leviticus 20:10)

Jesus’ most shocking move, in terms of sexuality, is not something he does but something he doesn’t do: When a Roman Centurion begged Jesus to heal his beloved slave-boy, Jesus didn’t ask if they’d been engaging in those activities Romans were famous for doing to slave-boys (which continues in Roman Christianity) – he healed the young slave and praised the Centurion’s courage, “turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’” (Luke 7:9)  I suppose if Jesus could forgive the adulteress for breaking one of the Ten Commandments, he could forgive the Centurion breaking an obscure law hidden in Leviticus.

In general, Jesus seems to have a profound disinterest in what goes on in our pants, except for when he gives a rather perplexing statement in Matthew’s Gospel: “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:12)  Um…I can’t accept it.  Sorry, Jesus – I think you’re the coolest but I’ve got no idea what you mean by this.  And I’ll confess I’ve got some doubt that you even said it.

LOVE AND LIBERTY (CHRISTIANITY BEFORE PAUL)

In the first couple decades after Jesus was crucified, “Good News” spread through the Empire about a small-town rebel being raised from the dead.  The reverberations and implications of this news echoed far and wide – if the God of Israel had broken the natural laws of life and death, what other afflictions and divisions might be overcome?  And if God through the Christ had invited Gentiles in, did that mean that they could have full access to God without following the Laws of the Torah?  In references scattered through his letters, Paul preserves some fascinating fragments of what the Christ movement was like in these first years, before he joined it.

“All things are lawful,” (1 Corinthians 10:23) the invitation circulated through Gentile nations. In synagogues scattered throughout the Empire, a section would be partitioned off for Romans who wanted to witness but couldn’t live kosher.  Then there were rumors of this new Judaism where “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)

This new breakthrough of old divisions promised unimaginable freedoms to Greeks (Gentiles), slaves and women, and so it comes as no surprise that it was these outcasts who braved the threat of persecution and public execution to join it.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul quotes one of the earliest hymns sung by the Christ movement, in which we can see the reflections of the first converts:

PHILIPPIANS
2:5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

According to this hymn, the Christ had been more powerful than the Emperor, but instead of using this power to exploit the vulnerable, he had taken “the form of a slave,” he had embodied feminine virtues, “humbled himself and became obedient,” and God had exalted him with such glory that “every knee should bend…and every tongue should confess,” Jew and Gentile alike.  Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles show that it was wealthy women who supported this movement, hosting illegal meetings and funding itinerant preachers like Paul, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae…for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” (Romans 16:1-2)[7]  Naturally these women would not have been so generous or taken such great risks if they were being told to shut up all the time – no, in this movement, women were allowed to lead, praying and prophesying during rituals. (1 Corinthians 11:5)

There was even some experimentation in blending Christianity with that Old Time Religion, as John the Revelator attests in his message to the congregation at Thyatira, where “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” (Revelations 2:20)  When you launch a religion with the slogan “All things are lawful,” there’s bound to be a diversity of opinion about what “all things” might include.

LIBEL has finally become available – right now it can be found at https://www.createspace.com/4847171  and in a few days it’ll be on amazon.com too.

 

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