Who, Me?

January 18, 2016

It is Martin Luther King Day and I am thinking about how difficult it is to know our own worst capabilities.

I’ve been thinking about an experience in the 1980s. I was living near a Quaker day school that had an ugly, racist incident. The school community awoke one day to find a large surface on the school grounds had been painted with unquestionably racist graffiti. There were KKK-robed figures, there was an African-African head with a bullet traveling through it, there was the ‘N-word’, and there was much more all on display. It took until noon for those responsible to be identified, all seniors at the school, and for them to be expelled for having violated school values the students had known for many years were defining of the school community. Let’s call those 24 hours between the painting and the expulsion of those responsible the Phase I of this incident.

Phase II lasted months longer. This was the push-back from the parents of the expelled students and from their friends and supporters who opposed the severity of the punishment. They pressed hard against the schools’ administrators and board of trustees to reverse the expulsion and to allow the seniors to graduate. In the end, the school stood firm, and those responsible graduated from nearby public high schools, not the Quaker school.

At first I was flabbergasted by the push-back. Surely the parents could see that what their children had done was wrong. Surely they could see that the students were old enough to be responsible for their actions. I could understand parents defending their children and wanting to protect them from harm, but even more I could see that minimizing the gravity of this incident would do their children even more harm.

As the weeks passed, I came to realize something else. For the parents to acknowledge the ugly racism of the graffiti-painting incident, the parents would have to acknowledge their own responsibility for the deeds. They would have to acknowledge that their own households, the ones in which these students had grown up, incubated and nurtured these ugly sentiments. (As the Rogers and Hammerstein song in South Pacific has it, ‘you’ve got to carefully taught:’

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

The parents, I realized, weren’t just defending their children, they were defending themselves; they were defending their own conception of themselves as well meaning and good.

And thus I learned something else: that one of the sturdiest faces of racism is denial.

I have come to accept that I have ugly impulses within me. Some of these I have been taught (likely by well-meaning people) and some arise from my own deep well of selfishness. I know this about myself. Who, me? Yes, it can be me. And so I know, too, that I need to put continuous effort into overcoming these ugly impulses. This is a large part of what leads me to prayer and waiting worship in the manner of Friends. It can be me, but it doesn’t have to be so.

I’ve been thinking about this ‘who, me?’ predicament (this tendency within us all to deny our worst impulses) as I try to understand the stalemate over gun policy in the United States.

Perhaps it’s like this. There many gun owners in the United States, and they know – they are certain — that they would never use their gun to do anything cruel or deadly to another person. It’s beyond comprehension. They can’t imagine what they might do in a moment of despair or fear even as they read daily news stories about shooting after shooting. They may not say it over think it, but deep down they believe ‘that’s not me; that’s nothing I would ever do.’ And so any move to regulate or restrict gun ownership appears to them as questioning their goodness. Each such urging for gun control gives rise to a powerful personal denial

Who, me?

Yes, me. We need to begin by acknowledging that we have ugly impulses, each and every one of us.

Also posted on QuakerQuaker.

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War Has Been Given a Bad Name

December 27, 2015

War Has Been Given A Bad Name
By Bertold Brecht

I am told that the best people have begun saying
How, from a moral point of view, the Second World War
Fell below the standard of the First. The Wehrmacht
Allegedly deplores the methods by which the SS effected
The extermination of certain peoples. The Ruhr industrialists
Are said to regret the bloody manhunts
Which filled their mines and factories with slave workers. The Intellectuals
So I heard, condemn industry’s demand for slave workers
Likewise their unfair treatment. Even the bishops
Dissociate themselves from this way of waging war; in short
The feeling
Prevails in every quarter that the Nazis did the Fatherland
A lamentably bad turn, and that war
While in itself natural and necessary, has, thanks to the
Unduly uninhibited and positively inhuman
Way in which it was conducted on this occasion, been
Discredited for some time to come.


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Jesus Meets Shadow

December 8, 2015

Imagined by Neil Gaiman:

“Have you ever thought about what it means to be a god?” asked the man.  He had a beard and a baseball cap. “It means you give up your mortal existence to become a meme: something that lives forever in people’s minds, like the tune of a nursery rhyme. It means that everyone gets to recreate you in their own minds. You barely have your own identity any more. Instead, you’re a thousand aspects of what people need you to be.  And everyone wants something different from you.  Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable.”

But you’re so successful,” said Shadow. “Look at this place.” He gestured, indicating paintings on the walls, the hardwood floors, the fountain in the courtyard below them. His friend nodded. “It has a cost,” he said.  “Like I said, you have to be all things to all people. Pretty soon, you’re spread so thin you’re hardly there at all. It’s not good.”

Conversation between Jesus and Shadow in Neil Gaiman, Appendix, American Gods: Author’s Preferred Text (William Morrow, 2001, 2013).

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Yes, We Are Exceptional

December 5, 2015

Gun deaths

From Tewksbury Lab.

That is, among highly developed countries on a per capita basis, more guns are associated with more gun deaths.  And (notice we are above the regression line) we even manage to ‘outperform’ that relationship: we turn having more guns into even more deaths than one would expect knowing the basic relationship.  We are special, not like anyone else, and by a considerable margin.

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Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold

December 1, 2015

Dover Beach

By Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Dover Beach
and also Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
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Why Was the Bible Written — And Why So Late?

November 19, 2015

Why was the Bible written? The Bible itself tells us very little. I don’t recollect any verse in which Jesus says to a disciple, “Simon, will you take notes today, you know, for the record?”

Caravaggio, Conversion_on_the_Way_to_Damascus-Caravaggio_(c.1600-1)

Caravaggio, Conversion of Paul

When I first came to know the Bible in my teens and 20s, it never occurred to me to wonder why the Bible had been written. Of course there was a Bible; it’s what tells us the stuff we need to know to be Christians. I guess that was my attitude.

As a young man I came to understand there were two parts to the Bible, two testaments. The Old Testament (as we called it then) was the part written by the Jews that recounted their long history before Jesus was born. The New Testament, the more important part, was the part written after the Crucifixion, in the early years of the Church. So if it had occurred to me to ask why the Bible was written, I’d have had to give two answers, one about each part. I guess I thought it was obvious that people would want to keep track of that kind of stuff. What stuff? I guess I didn’t think about that either.

Gradually I came to understand that the Hebrew Testament had been written over many centuries by many different authors, but it didn’t occur to me to ask why there had been no additions to it for nearly two millennia. I was well into adulthood before I began wondering instead why there had been no recent additions to the New Testament, and long after that before I realized that the lack of interest by Christians in the post-Jesus history of the Jews was a terribly insufficient reason why the Jews hadn’t added to their own chronicles.

And so I drifted in confusion.

Reading Garry Wills’s What Paul Meant (Penguin, 2006) started me actively thinking about the writing and assembly of the Bible. It was Wills who first led me to understand that Paul’s letters were written before any of the four Gospels even though the Gospels are placed first in the New Testament. I realized I had no warrant for thinking I knew anything about what Paul knew of Jesus other than what his letters say. About the letters Wills also says “They are occasional writings, fired off to deal with local crises” (p6). Wills makes sense of Paul’s letters by sketching the predicaments in the early Christian communities Paul was trying to address. Of course, I realized; that makes sense why those were written.

But if that was why Paul’s letters were written (and when), why were the Gospels written? And why were they written so long after the death of Jesus? Understanding Paul better made the Gospels more problematic for me. I had been focusing on why nothing in the New Testament was written after about 100 or 150 CE. Now a deeper puzzle dawned for me at least: why was there a few decades long pause between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels? And more important, what does that pause tell me about why the Gospels were written?

If it was important to have a careful account of the life, ministry and death of Jesus, why wasn’t such an account written at once: right after the Crucifixion, or right after Pentecost? Again, why the pause, and then why four separate, not altogether consistent accounts?

The pause before the Gospels were written is long enough that likely every eyewitness had passed from the scene. That would increase the risk of factual error. But it may also suggest a reason. Perhaps the first followers of Jesus expected His return to come quickly, within their lifetime. As the years passed and Jesus did not return in glory, perhaps the idea of pulling together an account of the extraordinary life, death and rebirth of Jesus occurred to one of his followers – or perhaps more than one.

That makes sense, but it doesn’t support the insistence that we view these accounts as the inerrant word of God.

I’ve just finished reading John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible With Jewish Eyes (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996). He suggests another possibility, one that turns not only on recognizing that the Gospels were written as the last of the first generation of Christians were passing away, but also on recognizing that the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE provoked a crisis in Judaism.

Most of the first generation of Christians, Spong urges us to remember, worshipped in and among Jewish communities. They weren’t set apart yet. They worshipped together and followed the same liturgy. There was tension in some of these communities between those who were especially drawn to Jesus and those who weren’t so much. And there were problems about how to integrate those Gentiles who were followers of Jesus. Garry Wills’s discussion of Paul’s letters reminds us again and again how much those letters are aimed to sorting out those problems between Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus (did you need to be circumcised to follow Jesus, etc.).

Spong argues that the destruction of Jerusalem ruptures this uneasy connection between followers and non-followers of Jesus. The Jewish communities now have powerful motives to pull together and define their identity clearly without a Temple and despite diaspora. The nascent Christian communities, in turn, have to work out a liturgy that is just for them, that doesn’t simply presume the context of a Jewish liturgy with Torah reading at its center. Spong invites us to see each of the Gospels as successive efforts to create a lectionary for Christian communities that would anchor a new Christian liturgy. Before 70 CE, they didn’t need that; after, they did.

None of these gospels should be read as literal history, he argues. That mistakes their intent and purpose altogether.

The Gospel of Mark is the first of these, Spong argues, written just before 70 CE. He says, “Mark’s gospel is neither biography nor history so much as it is corporate memory, informed and affected by the Hebrew scriptures and organized according to Jewish worship practices” (p 86). Each of the subsequent gospels (written not along after 70 CE) attempts a somewhat different imaginative recreation of the experience of Jesus for those who could not have known Him in life.

Each of the Gospels, he spends the book demonstrating, deliberately drew on Hebrew Testament scriptures to connect the experience of knowing God-through-Jesus with earlier experiences of God breaking into human experience.

Literal history the gospels are not. Powerful they are as efforts to keep alive the experience of knowing Jesus long after the crucifixion.

[also posted on QuakerQuaker]

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Labyrinth in the Woods, Brunswick, Maine

November 17, 2015

Recently completed is a Labyrinth in the Woods, a joint project of First Parish Church (UCC) and the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust. Ellen is a member of First Parish, and I’m a Board member for BTLT.  We walked the labyrinth this morning.

The Labyrinth in the Woods is a community resource in honor of Susan Fitzgerald, a long-time director of Christian education for First Parish and a long-time supporter of BTLT. It has been a joy being part of the group planning this.Version 2We will do a proper dedication in the spring, but it’s open now for use.  Located at Crystal Spring Farm (a land trust project) on Maurice Drive in Brunswick, Maine, here’s the text of the sign at the entrance to the Labyrinth:

This Labyrinth in the Woods provides opportunities for meditation and spiritual practice in a natural setting. It is open to all people.

The ancient practice of walking a labyrinth has been known to nearly all cultures and religions across the globe. Many find that taking a journey to the center, following a path, stills the mind and opens the heart. Some use walking a labyrinth simply for relaxation. Others use it in prayer. Still others use it in meditation to seek a deeper tranquility.

The Labyrinth in the Woods uses a seven-circuit design.

Marked with stones, the path is to be walked deliberately. A single path winds its way into the center. It is not a maze; there are no dead ends. Use the same path to return.

Those walking the Labyrinth will appreciate quiet.  No dogs, please.

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