Christianity and Islam in the Pursuit of Pain

The greatest threat to the modern world can be found in the revival of a belief from the Middle Ages: the pursuit of pain is a good thing. As Stephen Greenblatt points out in his recent book The Swerve, once upon a time there was a notion that inflicting pain upon our sinful bodies was a holy pursuit.   To mimic the kind of pain that the Savior experienced on the road to Golgotha would allow us to share the sanctity of His suffering, so it was not unusual in those benighted times to wear a hairshirt, or to find groups of flagellants publically flogging themselves with iron-pointed whips, or monks beating each other with rods, all in an effort to imitate Christ.

Common sense would dictate that this is a bad idea. It calls to mind that unfortunate group of young people today who are cutting themselves in order to feel the pain.   Any parent who finds their child has sunk into this practice will get that child to a therapist as quickly as possible.   Homo sapiens is programmed to  pursue the pleasures of life, not the pains, but in the Middle Ages a powerful force overrode this basic instinct. That force was belief in the afterlife.

Yes, the afterlife… The Great Beyond… The Happy Hunting Ground– or the Not-So-Happy if you have been a sinner and failed to get right with God before the end. As Greenblatt reminds us, Sir Thomas More’s 16th century book Utopia which was so progressive in many of its policies (sharing the wealth, universal health care, freedom of religion) drew a hard line in the sands of that fabled island: if you did not believe in the rewards and punishments of a heaven and hell, you would be executed immediately. Rejection of an afterlife was dangerous in Utopia, because without the fear of hell, More felt that people will always try to lie, cheat, and murder their way into greater wealth and power.    We only need jails and punishments in the here and now because people don’t believe in the punishments of the hereafter.

Sir Thomas may have been right about the power of the fear of God.   Certainly there is no sign since the Enlightenment began increasing the ranks of the atheists that we’ve created a Utopia anywhere, though Scandinavia may be getting close. But More was beyond a doubt wrong about making the afterlife the foundation of his belief system. Under radical Islam, that belief is what is causing so much senseless death and destruction every day, coupled as it is with a revival and glorification of the medieval pursuit of pain.   Who would ever have believed that this cult of death would take root in the 21st century, a cult where suicide bombers and martyrdom become the highest form of community service, where men and women are encouraged to undertake “missions” that they know will lead to their painful deaths, all for a misguided idea that a reward awaits you in Paradise?

Some might argue that it’s not belief in an afterlife per se that is the problem, but rather, the particular afterlife that is being peddled to these would-be heroes.  But the problem here is that, if you are a rational creature, you would like some evidence of which afterlife that’s being offered by the religions of the world is the genuine article and not some knock-off fakery.    How would you talk a suicide bomber out of his belief that the koranic Paradise is really there, just waiting for him if he blows himself up in the right spot? By offering him an alternative view? Christ on the cross? Abraham’s bosom? Angels hosanna-ing?

What would therapy be for a deluded young person whose greatest aspiration is to be a martyr? Perhaps if we do in fact need the fear of God to keep the world from disintegrating it should be the God of Compassion–focused on making this life as pleasant as possible for as many as possible without reference to what happens when we cross that unknowable Divide.

Confronting the Dark Side in Portland

It’s just too stark—the contrast revealed in the tragedy on the commuter train outside Portland, Oregon a week ago jumps out at you.   The images say so much: On the one hand we have Jeremy Christian a scowling, angry, self-styled nihilist, spewing his message of hate, wrapped in the American flag, a blind nationalist xenophobe, someone who is clearly unbalanced, hoping for a chance to cut someone down, shouting out death threats even in a court of law…

…and then there are those brave souls who confronted this darkness: first a student/poet, second an ex-soldier-father-of-four, and finally, Taliesin Myrdden Namkai-Meche, a young man just out of college, full of life, beloved by all his friends and family, beaming with bonhomie and good-will-toward-men, who as he lay dying in the care of a stranger managed to say, “Tell everyone on this train I love them.”

And who can forget his mother,  Asha Deliverance, who at the vigil for the victims urged us to say no to hate, to “give it up for love.” As a Muslim girl in a headscarf approached her afterwards she reached out and….well, one picture is worth a thousand words.

Forget the photo of Iwo Jima, the Moon Landing, or the Fall of Saigon–this picture beats them all.  It’s a moment of transcendence, a glimpse of our higher selves. It’s the Pieta for our century, and like Michaelangelo’s masterpiece, we feel the mother’s grief at the child lost, a good life destroyed by the Dark Side, but amidst that pain the triumph over death through love.

Nihilism versus Lovingkindness. Is there really a choice about the way forward to a better world?

Free Speech Rallies and Death in Portland


More senseless killings, this time in Portland Oregon.  A mentally-disturbed man was verbally abusing two Muslim teen-aged girls on a train and ended up killing two men trying to intervene.   The killer had a troubled past, to say the least, and most recently came to police attention for his angry rants at a Free Speech Rally. In case you’ve missed them, these rallies are being held around the country by the alt-right following the dust-up on college campuses over uninviting conservative speakers, and in case you missed that, these were right-wing individuals whose views are unpalatable to some students on the left.  When there were complaints and protests about these speakers, their bookings were cancelled. “What happened to Freedom of Speech?” the conservatives ask, with good reason.

The Free Speech Rallies have been steeped in anger as the alt-right organizers and masked Anti-Fascist protesters on the left taunt each other and generally act like they would like nothing better than to get physical. The police have kept them apart mostly, but a lot of the people are young, and, as in the 60s, they are a volatile group.   It doesn’t take much for one person to do something stupid and the next thing you know “dying for a fight” is literally where we are.  Rallies can be powerful, transcendent moments, part of the Sacrament of the Group, but in the wrong hands they become the antithesis: angry mobs out of control, with the energy of the group reinforcing unthinking acts of violence.  Here’s a description from someone who was at the Boston rally—there was no violence there, but depressing doesn’t begin to cover it.

And now the promise of real violence has been met. Two good men are dead and one wounded because a guy with a tricky grip on reality was stirred up by all the acrimony in the air. He took his rant into a train and pointed it at these poor girls.  How many of us would have the courage to stand up to him as these men did?

With a president who seems indifferent to the unrest he’s already caused and the mayhem that is waiting in the wings, don’t expect any improvement in the rhetoric from the leadership anytime soon, no Lincolnian appeals to our better angels.  But in the name of sanity, folks, please, calm down!  Don’t waste your time taunting people you don’t agree with. Talk to them if you feel you must– the chances of changing anyone’s mind may be slim–but it’s more likely to happen in a respectful atmosphere than in a super-charged anger zone.   What good does it do to toss around words like Fascist or carry an insulting placard? It’s just more fuel for the overheated atmosphere we live in.   Save your energy and organize for the next election, whatever side you’re on.  Let each side have their rallies, and if you must, quietly protest ideas you find reprehensible, but when you mock, jeer, or threaten the other side, especially to their face, it does nothing to advance whatever cause you’re fighting for.  It’s undignified and unworthy.


Cultural Appropriation? What the Hell IsThat? Cinco de Mayo Fight at UNH


The University of New Hampshire (UNH) is in the national news, unfortunately. Last week a big controversy erupted on campus when a black student, Danique, filmed a run-in with another student, Michael, who was wearing a poncho to celebrate Cinco De Mayo. The video went viral, and the passion on her part is hard to miss as she berates Michael for perpetuating a stereotype and for not realizing how wearing it as a privileged white man “actually affects people’s lives.” Many online comments in reaction to this video are just what you’d expect: attacks on Danique, often in the crudest language possible. Since then there have been several other incidents at UNH including harassing Danique, racist graffiti, swastikas, ….college kids can be such idiots.

Let’s start with the incident where it all began and try to sort it out:

1) Is wearing certain articles of clothing insulting to Mexicans?

It depends.

Wearing an oversized sombrero clearly plays into a stereotype, as would wearing fake moustaches, or faking a Mexican accent.

But the poncho?   Hasn’t that made the leap into a normal part of the American wardrobe? It’s like objecting to wearing a parka because it rightfully belongs to the Inuit. But Danique’s point is that even if Michael doesn’t realize it, by wearing the poncho he is showing disrespect to an entire culture, and that culture’s distinguishing clothing should be kept for it alone and its celebrations likewise.

Maybe.  This leads to the second point:

2) Should celebrations of an ethnic nature be reserved for that ethnic group?

It depends.

Most major ethnic holidays are religious in nature and probably no one would be so bold as to try to “celebrate” along with that particular group in such a case. About the only comparable holiday is St. Patrick’s Day and I don’t think the Irish object to anyone celebrating in whatever way they want.   However, I believe Danique’s point was that the Mexicans were traditionally an underclass and to try to turn Cinco de Mayo into another St. Patrick’s-type celebration replete with costumes and kegs is a violation of an entire people in that it trivializes their status and usurps their attempt to commemorate their struggle. Michael disagrees, and as it turns out, with good reason.

But before we get to that…

What comes across most clearly in this video is that these are two people who do not understand each other’s position, and there is very little hope that any understanding will arrive given the heightened emotions of the confrontation.   It’s hard to get anywhere when people are yelling.    The next step should be this: the entire UNH community needs to understand where Danique is coming from, and Danique and her friends also need to understand where Michael is coming from. Cancel classes, cancel tests…talk, rationally, and listen.

The fact is, Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated around the country for decades in the manner that Danique is objecting to. Denver, Chicago, San Antonio, New York—all make it a big deal with people dressing up like Mexicans, mariachi bands, and pub crawls. I think I’m right in saying that the Mexican-Americans like it this way—up to a point of course.  Michael is just following in their footsteps.

College campuses never shrink from an opportunity to party, meaning of course to get drunk. Turning Cinco de Mayo into “Drinko de Mayo” as one proud UNHer wrote on a sign, is the same kind of foolishness that gets frat boys into trouble every year.  Danique should be applauded for objecting to that particular behavior, but its not clear that Michael was in fact on his way to the nearest keg.

Let’s hope by this time the leaders at UNH have done their jobs and raised everyone’s consciousness a couple of notches at least.  Let’s hope the students at UNH are up to the task of opening their minds and coming to grips with that most amazing of all realizations:  not everyone thinks like I do…

If you can’t do it on a college campus, what hope is there for world peace?

Murdering Your Way to Freedom and Power

It’s a momentous day in Europe. The last armed rebel group on the continent has laid down its weapons and disbanded. ETA, the Basque independence fighters will no longer be blowing people up or kidnapping and shooting them. Hundreds have died in the name of Basque freedom, thousands have been injured. Now they realize it wasn’t and isn’t worth it.

Their reasoning was this: we want an independent Basque region. Spain will not give it to us. But if we make life miserable for the ordinary Spaniard, they will eventually say, “Get out, and take your damned region with you. Just leave us alone.” And the way to make life miserable is to set off bombs in random shopping centers, detonate cars for assassinations–the usual formula for mayhem and murder. It’s a harsh calculus, trading the lives of many hundreds of innocent people for political sovereignty, and it didn’t work.

There’s hardly a country in Europe that does not have some group agitating for autonomy or outright secession. Catalonia and Galicia in Spain, Scotland, and Wales in the UK, some in Belgium want to split that country up into Flanders and Wallonia. It makes you ask yourself, is life so onerous under the yoke of these existing nations that all these people want out? The grass seems always greener on the other side, and yet, is it? And is it worth anyone’s life to get it? Let’s hope everyone keeps cool and the issues can be resolved peacefully.

The other good news is that the rebel group FARC in Columbia is in the process of disarming as well. They, too, seem to have realized that their goals might be more easily achieved in a different way than through armed conflict.   But, alas, a renegade group has rejected the peace deal, and this week blew up a car full of soldiers. Once violence becomes habitual, it’s never easy to stop it. A single disgruntled combatant can cause a lot of damage.

This brings us to the Middle East where the violence goes on and on. This week in addition to the marketplace bombings that have become commonplace, we had the bombings of two Egyptian Christian churches, killing dozens on Palm Sunday. You can’t help but ask yourself, what would it take for these deluded killers to see what the Basques and FARC have seen?   The answer, unfortunately is, it would take a lot: a whole new worldview, a whole new religion, replacing the death cults that currently reign.   For the Basques, the violence stemmed from a political ideal, but in the Middle East, it comes from leaders who claim it’s what God wants.

One of the hallmarks of what it means to be human is to recognize that death is  sacred, and to deprive someone of their life randomly,  in the name of a deity is to have gone over to the Dark Side.  Deprograming the thousands who have signed on to this bloodthirsty agenda will be the work of many years.    God help us.

Freedom of Speech on the Internet: the Case of Revenge Porn and Hate Speech


Germany has a law in the works that would fine social media companies up to $53 million if any postings with criminal content or offensive material show up on their sites. The companies would have 24 hours to remove the “criminal content” and 7 days for “offensive material”. Apparently youtube does a pretty good job of this already, but Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others do not.

Is this a good idea? Let’s break it down into its parts:

Freedom of Speech   Free speech advocates will deplore this law, but let’s get real. What the Founding Fathers wanted was not the freedom to say anything. As I’ve written before, the German term Meinungsfreiheit (Freedom of Opinion) is a better way to describe what any free society should be aiming for.   We want a marketplace of ideas and opinions, but that does not mean we can say or publish anything we want.   We live in an age where some people have slipped so far into the Dark Side that they are getting their kicks from posting naked shots of those who have spurned them, or even filming and uploading rapes. How low can we go in our race to the bottom? Images like this have nothing to do with opinions.  It turns the Sacrament of Sexual Union into a societal sickness.  Making sure the sickness doesn’t spread should be a high priority.

Enforcement  Is it possible to police this? Yes.  The big dollar amount is meant to get the attention of these companies that are making criminal activity possible. That makes sense.   If there were a TV network that allowed criminals to conduct their dealings on the air, or a newspaper that published revenge porn, they would be sued, put out of business, and their owners sent to the penitentiary. If it’s going to exist at all, Facebook should make sure it can police itself—hire more staff, whatever it takes to ensure that we don’t have to live in a world where the pseudopods of the Dark Side gradually engulf us all.

Who will decide what is criminal content? The companies themselves will have to set limits. If they want to play it safe, those limits will err on the side of caution, and that would not be a bad thing. Social media is so powerful– a good idea or an uplifting moment can reach millions instantaneously.  But so can a bad idea or a propaganda piece urging jihadists to go lone wolf.  This “platform” is so powerful, that far from being a soapbox on a street corner, it’s a stage as big as the world itself. Someone has to edit the scripts that are being read on that stage.

Who will decide what is offensive? The companies again will have to decide what to delete, and, again, as I’ve written before, the gauge should be respect. Many are offended by much of what Donald Trump says, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be able to say it. But if the utterances are couched in scurrilous or scabrous language or images, –it’s trash talk, send it to the trash.

The larger point here is this: yes, it’s censorship!  Embrace it–we need it.   We don’t need a tool that allows us to upload pornography, rapes, torture, or beatings onto the internet. We could get along fine without it.  So if we’re going to allow it to exist, it should only be under strict conditions.  If you’re going to argue that we need to be free to put anything we want out there for public consumption —no, we don’t. Because the yahoos of the world will take that freedom and use it to abuse others. We need a law like the Germans are proposing in order to protect ourselves from ourselves.

For more on this subject:  Freedom of Speech in Germany? Up to  a Point

Free Speech Crisis in Germany

Blasphemy Laws vs. Freedom of Speech

There is a new hero in Pakistan. Tanveer Ahmed. He’s a murderer in prison in Scotland. He took the life of a man named Asad Shah in Glasgow last summer and now he has an army of followers, praising what he did.   Why did he kill him? By all reports Asad Shah was a nice man, but he had begun making claims to be a prophet. In Islam there were many prophets, but according to the Quran, Mohammed was the final one.   Anyone who says they are a prophet today is …..what would you say? A liar? Delusional? A conman? And deserves what? Death? Treatment? Jail?

Tanveer Ahmed took his cue from the Quran and believed death was the only answer, and also that he could be judge, jury, and executioner. His followers in Pakistan agree. He is “the Defender of Islam” and a “Ghazi”—a warrior in the cause. This is the same group that praised the murder of a Pakistani politician who was trying to reform the blasphemy laws a few years ago.

Obviously not all Pakistanis support this kind of thinking, but the voices that do are powerful.   They also have used the blasphemy laws to imprison a Christian woman , Asia Bibi, for drinking out of a well reserved for Muslims. Her case goes to the Supreme Court soon, and the judges are reported to be in fear for their lives. It’s a powderkeg.

There is a parallel to this in U.S. history. In the segregated South white people were furious about the attempts to roll back the Jim Crow laws that kept blacks separate. When the whites felt threatened, they lashed out in many ways, sometimes even killing those who were trying to make change. The intimidation didn’t work in the end, and though we’re still not by any means at a place where hate crimes have ended, we’ve made a lot of progress.

It’s an old story: the comfort of tradition vs. the threat of innovation. Making change takes courage, particularly in this case in Pakistan where those resisting it feel they have God on their side.   Could they ever be convinced otherwise?  It would be difficult to even talk about it because to even raise the question is blasphemy in their view.

So there’s the dilemma: A Reformer wants to exercise his freedom of expression but the Believer says those words threaten his and his community’s entire way of life.   Until the world figures out a way to walk the line between freedom of speech and freedom of religion, we’re going to continue to have murdered politicians and the lionization of their killers. There’s no sign that Reason will become dominant over Belief anytime soon, but in the meantime, I’ve suggested that we can all rally around the word “respect”—don’t mock others’ beliefs, but do allow thoughtful criticism. This, however, is anathema to those who can’t imagine the faith of their fathers needs any revision, and by the way,  stop talking or I’ll kill you.

There is hope. Lest we forget, the Bible also tells us to kill blasphemers , by stoning no less (Levitcus 24: 13), but (hopefully) we’ve moved that verse into the trash heap of history.

Free Speech in Germany? Up to a Point

Free speech is in the news again as a German court ruled this week that a comedian, Jan Boehmermann, may not repeat parts of a poem critical of Turkish president Erdogan. Did the judges get it right? Let’s look at the details.

The poem came in the wake of Erdogan’s crackdown on journalists in his country and accuses him of treating minorities badly.   Surprisingly, Germany still has a law on its books dating from the 19th century that forbids criticism of foreign heads of state. Boehmermann broke that law. He knows he broke it, and wanted, in fact, to challenge it. The German government agrees that law should go and is going to repeal it soon. Chalk one up for freedom of speech. No person, not even a head of state, should be immune from criticism.

But the other part of the ruling had to do with the way in which our comedian chose to criticize.   He did it by stating that Erdogan watched child pornography, was a gang rapist, and had sex with animals. This is reminiscent of Hustler magazine’s scurrilous “jokes” about Rev. Jerry Falwell, humor that the US Supreme Court ruled was allowed under free speech protections. The German court found the exact opposite, saying this was a type of speech not covered by German law.   So who was right? If you’re a moral relativist you might say both—it’s a cultural thing. I don’t think so.

It’s important to note that the Germans use the word “Meinungsfreiheit”—Freedom of Opinion—instead of “freedom of speech.” It’s a good distinction to make. Article 5 of the German Constitution has this to say:

1) Everyone has the right to express their opinion in speech, writing, or in pictures.

2) This right is limited by the laws that protect children and by the right of personal honor (der persönlichen Ehre).

3) Art and science, research and teaching are protected freedoms.

Boehmermann claimed he was exercising his artistic freedom. But the court noted that art must give way to Erdogan’s right to maintain his honor, or we might say his personal dignity. That seems unquestionably the correct way to look at this.   You shouldn’t be able to just spit out obscenities about anyone in the name of art.

So who is this comedian anyway? One news report noted that Herr Boehmermann is one of the most “incisive satirists” in Germany with his own show on a TV network. Really? And this is the kind of material he comes up with? What is going on over in Germany? This sounds about as incisive as any snickering schoolboy could come up with on his day off. The question I have is, did anyone think it was funny? Or was it just a stunt to challenge that old law?

Whatever the answer to that question, can we agree he was way off base? Just as in the Charlie Hebdo case, there should be limits on speech, writing, and pictures. That limit could be summed up in the word respect.   Let’s have your opinions by all means, but choose your words with care.   To adopt Boehmermann’s tactic only makes you look like an idiot and undercuts your message. The German law has it right and should be a model for every other nation.

Trump and the Lord of the Rings

I finally understand Donald Trump.  We decided to watch the first part of The Lord of the Rings again last week, and at the very end—do you remember?—when Frodo has brought the One Ring safely to the elf-home in Rivendell and everyone has gathered to decide what to do about it, there’s that scene where the ring is sitting on a pedestal and they all begin to argue about what to do next:  Use it to fight Mordor! Destroy it! Lose it in the ocean!    These are all good people from the different races of Middle Earth, and they all want to do the right thing, but the power of the ring is so great and so sinister that the argument becomes super-heated. Suddenly we see a close up of the ring itself and reflected in it are the angry faces of the elves, dwarves, hobbits and men, shouting at each other, growing red in the face, about to come to blows—a perfect image of the ring’s power to bend them to its will.

That’s what Trump does. He is the ring, making everybody crazy around him. Every time he opens his mouth or hits twitter there’s another round of media attention and everyone goes berserk.  At rallies, on talk-radio, on NPR, on TV good people get mad and start yelling at other good people. No one listens to anyone else, they just holler and scream and mock and tweet and sometimes even lash out, punching whoever is closest.  We’re all in its thrall, and by “its” I mean the power of anger.

Where does this analogy take us?   Where is our Mt. Doom, that place where we can un-make this power?   Is it in a protest march? A prayer for a speedy impeachment?   Or what?

Protests are fine –we need them too to send messages to our leaders–but what we also need  is  to recognize how reactive we’ve become and do something about it.   Limiting the time we spend with the media would help.  This 24-hour news cycle is making us all nutty.      Of course we have to keep up with events, but so many of us have become news junkies, that’s all we think about.    It’s eating away at us, devouring our very beings. Before you know it we’ll all be like Tolkien’s Nazgul, those black riders, the ring-wraiths, who were once men but are now the mere shadows of human beings, their bodies and spirits destroyed by the power of the Dark.

Let’s stop providing the fertile soil for the chaos the ring sows. Let’s turn off the radio and the screens and go play with our kids or  go to a community supper.   Perhaps instead of reacting to tweets, we could turn directly to our fellow citizens and try to understand what they’re telling us. Let’s get better at listening, and go into conversations willing to learn something we didn’t know before, and let’s hope our interlocutors are willing to do the same thing. Let’s be the change we want to see, as the old saying goes, and model the kinds of behaviors we wish to see take root.



Christianity and the Man in the High Castle

Of all the things Jesus taught the most difficult is found in Matthew 5:38-41:

38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

There is no doubt that we would have a much better world if all of us could adopt these precepts and adhere to them willingly. Imagine all the blood feuds that would end if we gave up on the eye-for-an-eye approach to justice. But wait…. If somebody wants your coat, give him your cloak too? If he wants your car, give it to him and hand over your house as well?    If he makes you work for him one day, work two? Where would that end?  He’d be rich and you’d be a beggar on the street.

The key here is that everybody would have to agree to this novel idea. If one group of people stuck with the “compelling” part of this passage, they would be able to rule the world. Take the Nazis for example.

After having watched the second season of The Man in the High Castle the challenges of a Christian approach are clear. If the Nazis and Japanese military had won the Second World War what a terrible world we would have had!   Both shared an utterly ruthless approach to life. Anyone who stood in their way was destroyed without pity. And what was really striking in the final episode was that the Resistance fighters ended up being just as ruthless, just as pitiless as the Nazis themselves because if a Nazi is going to compel you to walk a mile and you do it, you will soon become his slave. He will happily wipe out an entire city or race of people who stand in his way and as a Christian, you would bow your head and accept his death sentence meekly—after all, it’s the meek who inherit the Earth. The only way to avoid this consequence is to convert every single Nazi to Christianity or fight back and become as ruthless as they are.

But that’s not the last word.   In the final episode of the show it turns out that compassion at a personal level—that all-important human-to-human sacrament– saves the day—sort of.   It’s a world of paradoxes—to say any more would give too much away. Watch it—it makes you think.