Pope Francis in Myanmar Gets It Right Again

It can drive you crazy how the media takes a story and focuses on the wrong thing.   Take the Pope’s visit to Myanmar, for example.   The headline from all the news outlets was all about how he did not use the word ‘Rohingya” to refer to the Muslim people being ethnically cleansed in that largely Buddhist nation.   The media needs a storyline and they’ve certainly got an important one in the misery of these poor people, now barely surviving in refugee camps.   A solution to the problem is desperately needed, but by focusing on this terminology issue, they diverted us from the most important thing that the Pope said:

“Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation-building.”

What an earth-shaking statement!  The leader of the Catholic Church wants to find common ground with other religions to build a better, more peaceful, more tolerant, more united world!  What a difference from the bad old days when Protestants and Catholics went to war over an argument about the communion bread and the Faithful slaughtered whole cities in the name of the All-Merciful Creator.  If only today’s fundamentalists around the world could buy in to Francis’ statement we’d be halfway to heaven on earth.

The Pope is essentially signing on to what the Enlightenment was all about back when Voltaire told us it’s so easy to get distracted by unimportant things like how you should dress to please God, or what foods God told us not to eat.   If only we could all latch onto the big things, like we’re all searching for a meaning and purpose in life, and religion is a road that gets us there, each religion a different path to the same ultimate place, a place where we recognize the common humanity in each other while honoring the differences.

The Rohingya crisis is a version of the same problem that the United States is facing on its southern border, where over a period of decades or even centuries, poor families have sought a better life in a neighboring country where they can find work.   Are they citizens or not?  We haven’t figured out how to deal with that yet and neither have they.   How much of what is driving this comes from the difference in religions, and how much from simply being different?   Whatever the answer, as the international community works to try to help the situation, let’s hope that Pope Francis’ appeal to our higher selves will not get lost.

Advertisements

At Last a Unified Front on Sexual Harassment!–Or Not Quite…

Weinstein, Cosby, the heads of corporations, …the list goes on and will continue to grow as more and more women come forward to tell their horror stories of powerful men grabbing them or attacking them. Social media now allows the shaming of even the non-celebrities as women all over the world recount their experiences with the male animal.   In my book I described what it’s like for women riding the crowded subways in Japan or walking down the street in Paris or taking a bus in Mexico City: the groping, the comments, the unending harassment. Women are prey in a perversion of what the relationship between the sexes should be: a divine union of two loving people. Let’s hope this is the turning point, where all of our sisters, daughters and mothers can walk down the street or walk into a room without a predator planning his next move.

But not all women are on board with this. A well-known actress in Austria, Nina Proll, has gone on Facebook to tell us that she finds male attempts to “approach” women “enjoyable” (erfreulich) which could even be translated as “delightful”. She asks, “Why do the feminists always insist that women are victims? I don’t understand that.” She goes on further to say that in the 20 years she’s been an actress, she has never been harassed by a man, but that’s presumably because, she says, she takes their “approaches” as a compliment, and not as harassment. The worst thing she’s felt is pity for the men who were making advances. She’d be ashamed to now go “peddling” those stories to the media, “because what kind of society do we want to live in? Do we want to just denounce each other and drag each other to court?” She asks why we can’t just look each other in the eye and say “no” if we don’t like something. Are we going to forbid men from making sexual advances? Or can we be happy that a man is trying to get us into bed? She ends her tirade by saying maybe we should just outlaw sex, then all the problems would go away.

Not surprisingly, some men have been very pleased indeed to see her take this position. Felix Baumgartner wrote “Nina Proll is simply great!”—calling her a “fearless woman” for standing up to the mainstream. You may remember Baumgartner. He’s the Austrian skydiver who, not content with leaping out of airplanes, decided he needed a bigger thrill so sailed into the stratosphere using helium balloons and jumped.

Proll may be fearless but she’s blind to reality. Or maybe she’s like the guy in that old tale from Grimm who didn’t know what it meant to be scared so they shut him up for three nights in a haunted castle with a bloody ghost. My suggestion is that we lock her in a hotel room with Harvey Weinstein overnight and see how fearless she is. Maybe Baumgartner could parachute in and rescue her for his next thrill.

Based on an article in Die Presse

Charlottesville: In the Absence of Reason Try Reconciliation

Charlottesville goes down in history now. Once again we have people on both sides hell-bent on confrontation–shouting, raging,… you can almost hear their blood boiling as fists are clenched, the curses fly, and the trigger fingers start itching.

What an exercise in futility!   The anitfas are not going to change anyone’s mind this way.   They are just going to make more people on the margins become actively sympathetic to the alt-right.  We all know that the good people of Charlottesville did not want to let a white nationalist march go unchallenged, but where does this kind of angry challenge get us?  Innocent people dead and injured.

Ideally, rational people would sit down and talk about their differences and come to a way of working them out. But there comes a time when reason is absent, when people are so brainwashed, so ignorant, or so worked up they can’t think straight. What do you do then?

Suppose someone stands up in a meeting and says something outrageous, like “We should kill all the _________” (fill in the group of your choice).  There are several options for how to deal with it:

1) ignore it.

2) suppress it. We are loath to do that in our country because of the First Amendment.

3) shout them down. That’s what the counter-protesters were trying to do in Charlottesville.

4) indicate your disapproval publically but silently.   Stand up in the meeting and turn your back. Line the march with counter-protesters but silently fold your arms, shake your heads.

The fourth way is the best and is something I’ve heard the Quakers sometimes do. The third will almost surely lead to increasingly violent conflicts and ultimately deaths. It breathes oxygen into a smoldering fire.    The second way has its place, and every country in the world does outlaw certain kinds of speech, but this will lead to underground movements espousing forbidden causes. The first runs the risk of outrageous viewpoints spreading, which also is the case with the third.

This issue of the Confederate monuments is a difficult one. Of course Robert E. Lee was on the wrong side of history, defending a horrible institution, but is there a better way to go about this than rubbing the noses of the soldiers’ descendents in their defeat?

How about a competition to commemorate all sides in the War Between the States—more monuments to be placed near Lee’s, representing slavery, emancipation and most importantly, reconciliation.   I believe the leaders of Charlottesville are wise enough to realize that simply telling the alt-right to “Go home!” as the governor of Virginia did is not the answer. They ARE home and we have to live with them, just as they have to live with us.

see also Free Speech Rallies and Death in Portland and Confronting the Dark Side in Portland

The Fantastic Power of Music: A Note from 1667

When the diarist Samuel Pepys went out to the theatre one night in the late 17th century, something truly amazing happened.   The play was Massinger and Dekker’s The Virgin Martyr, and at one point an angel appears in a kind of Christian deus ex machina. The recorders, a relatively new instrument at that time in England, began playing as the angel descended and Pepys was completely blown away.  In one of the most exquisite passages of his diary he writes:

“But that which did please me beyond any thing in the whole world was the wind-musique when the angel comes down, which is so sweet that it ravished me, and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife; that neither then, nor all the evening going home, and at home, I was able to think of any thing, but remained all night transported, so as I could not believe that ever any musick hath that real command over the soul of a man as this did upon me.”

I’m sure this has happened to you.   You hear music so thrilling, so soul-piercing that you actually feel sick, like life is hardly worth living anymore because a different world has been revealed, a divine world far from the everyday concerns of this one.   It’s a siren song that makes your heart yearn for something you can’t even describe, and it stays with you for days.

That’s the Sacrament of the Arts.

This “transportation” that “commands your soul” can also come from a play, from a book, from a painting, a statute, or a song. And yes, Pepys gets it exactly right– it’s like being in love for the first time, when that glorious feeling seizes you, grips you, binds you to that other human being who has shown through the most secret acts of intimacy, that you are loved in return.  That’s a sacrament too.

The Virgin Martyr is rarely played anymore, and I’m not sure that particular bit of wind-music has been preserved, but what Pepys is describing has not been lost– it’s there for all of us to experience, not just when we fall in love, but also when we find that ineffable connection to the arts that ravishes us to our very souls.

More on Jimmy Carter’s Relationship to the Bible

I began to worry that my post about Jimmy Carter leaving the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) may have been some of that fake news we’ve been hearing so much about, but no, some investigation revealed that it was real (see “Jimmy Carter Edits the Bible”). However, to my surprise, I found out that it was a recycled story from 2009.   Carter had written it back then as an open letter to the SBC and an Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald and an online periodical The Age republished it as if it were brand new in April of this year. It was picked up and put on Facebook where I found it, and my commentary was in turn picked up by a Christian website Daily News Update –but to my surprise they titled the lead-in headline “More Apostasy — Jimmy Carter Edits the Bible.”  The thrust of my post was that this was welcome apostasy, that Carter was right to reject the belief that women should be subservient to men even though St. Paul tells us that’s the way it should be. My point was that everyone should be in the business of editing the Bible, and every other holy book we have latched onto here on Middle Earth.

There are two kinds of people in the world:

  1. Those who believe that God has delivered sacred words to holy men who wrote out lessons for posterity

2. Those who do not.

But even if you are in the first group and believe God has spoken to us through prophets, wouldn’t you agree to at least one of two propositions?

A) That the holy men or, later on, the  scribes who wrote things down, may have been in error at times or have been reflecting their culture as it existed at the time they wrote

B) That we still have to live together peacefully with those in the other group, or with those in groups who have a different holy book

If you agree with the first proposition, the task then becomes to comb through the sacred texts and figure out what might be words to live by and what might be myth or cultural bias or let’s just say something that doesn’t make sense. That’s what Carter did. He believes that God did not proclaim that a woman should submit to her husband’s will. He believes that women have equal rights in a marriage.

If you can’t bring yourself to the point of doubting that the holy book could be wrong about anything, it is to be hoped that at least you would subscribe to the second proposition, and could find common ground with those of other faiths or of no faith through the Seven Universal Sacraments.  Think about it.

 

 

 

Jimmy Carter Edits the Bible

An astonishing bit of news from former President Jimmy Carter on behalf of a group called the Elders:

“The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”

In short: don’t believe everything you read in the Bible.   What’s more, because the Southern Baptist Convention does in fact find the discrimination of women “acceptable” (i.e., biblical, so just do it) Carter has ended his association with that influential group. Let me remind you that the Southern Baptists are  15 million strong—second in size only to Catholics in the USA.

The astonishing part is the reason Carter gives for deeming this practice of discrimination unacceptable:

“The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.”

Wow.   President Carter rejects certain verses because they can’t be direct orders from a divine Being despite the fact that they are in a holy book. Why can’t they? Because there is a higher authority than what some guy thousands of years ago wrote down on a piece of papyrus, a higher authority that lies within each of us: Reason. If a practice like slavery causes suffering to a whole class of people, it cannot be just or what God wants us to do. If half the population is reduced to a kind of sexual slavery because of a certain verse on an old parchment passed down from father to son for a couple of millennia, then toss that verse in the trash can of oblivion and let’s live according to a different standard: the Greater Good based on the rights of all human beings.

Carter’s welcome apostasy opens up the door to a room we so badly need right now in the world: the editing room, a place where so-called holy writ is analyzed and large sections consigned to the dustbin, from Balaam’s ass to the virgin birth. People have been busily at work in this room since Epicurus first wrote that the gods have no interest in us mortals, so lets get on with finding the best way to enjoy our lives together. It’s a room where Socrates, Hus, Bruno and a host of others have labored until overwhelmed by the forces of the dark side.

President Carter’s declaration means we should think about each and every verse in the Bible and every other holy book, asking ourselves “is this a keeper?”  and the gauge can be found in the precepts of Humanism.

For more on this subject try “Sam Harris to Muslims: Edit Your Sacred Texts!”

Christians Awake! Quit the Cult

The death of Tony Alamo in federal prison this week brought to mind all the damage done in the name of Jesus Christ by charlatans disguised as men of God. Here’s a guy who managed to convince hundreds if not thousands of people that he had a direct line to the Lord and if they would only turn over all their money and assets to the Church he created, they would be able to listen in and salvation would be theirs.

Presto! a cult is founded.

He had a TV ministry back in the late 70s and made a fortune selling, of all things, designer rhinestone jackets to pop stars, jackets that are still being sold online for a hefty sum. Shouldn’t that be a tip-off that all is not right in the New Jerusalem when your spiritual leader is selling both salvation and sequins?

Salvation: it’s what so many are looking for–a way out of the morass that their lives have become, or, perhaps they are just spiritual seekers, looking for a creed, a guru, floating around like chemical ions, waiting for that attraction, that pull that will create a bond to make their lives complete in a blinding flash, and I do mean blinding.

Alamo did a lot of sleazy things, but the worst was using salvation as a threat to get women and girls as young as 15 to sleep with him. He was on the run from the FBI for years and when they finally caught up with him, he ended up with a jail term of 175 years. At the sentencing Alamo is reported to have said “I’m glad I’m me and not the deceived people in the world.”

And there you have it. There are the Tony Alamos and there are the deceived.   But there are also the sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, who (we can only hope) will eventually outnumber both groups and combat hubris and ignorance with Humanism.

You don’t need a guru, you need to recognize that the sacred is all around us and does not involve complete surrender to a charismatic leader.   We all feel the need to belong to something—that’s the Sacrament of the Group. We also need people to guide us through life. That’s the Sacrament of Friends and Mentors. But the Tony Alamos of the world represent the dark side of both of those sacraments, when greed, lust, and ego masquerade as Goodness.

It all boils down to this: don’t abandon reason in your search for the Spirit.

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

Our Sexual Emergency: Watch out, World

I just nominated “sexual emergency” as the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year for 2016 in the category of “most euphemistic.”   For those who missed it, there was an appalling case out of Austria where a 20-year old man at a public pool grabbed a 10-year old boy in a changing room and raped him. The man then went back to the pool and was practicing on the diving board when the boy notified the lifeguard who notified the police who arrested this guy.   This horrible story made headlines around the world because although he admitted he’d made a huge “mistake” and scarred the boy for life, his defense was that he had had a “sexual emergency”: he was a refugee from Iraq and had not had sex for four months. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to 4 years in prison, but in a development out of the Twilight Zone, on appeal the verdict was overturned by the Supreme Court because it wasn’t clear if the boy had agreed to the encounter.   Fortunately, when the case was then re-tried, the justices found that consent had indeed not been given, and ended up handing down an even longer sentence.

For the moment, let’s ignore the fact that he was a migrant from Iraq, and the bizarre twist in the verdict.   Let’s focus on that word.   “Sexual emergency” (sexuller Notstand) is new to English, but has been around for a while in the German language.   There was a women’s punk band that had a top-selling song of that title back in 1981. I tried to listen to the lyrics, but because it’s hard to hear and because the song itself is not something you’d want to listen to more than about zero times, I gave up. However if you google the term “sexueller Notstand” you come up with a lot of chat rooms where women are trying to figure out what’s going on with their men. Sometimes the term refers to women whose sex lives have dwindled to nothing, and sometimes it refers to men who are desperately in need of sex.

So sexual emergency is another way of saying you haven’t had as much sex in your life as you’d like to. But to try to excuse what this man did … What next? Would we excuse all those attacks in Cologne last New Year’s Eve in the same way? Or just a few days ago in Innsbruck? Viewed that way, life itself is a sexual emergency.   We’re programmed by our DNA to want sex, and in fact not just to want it, to crave it desperately and do just about anything to get it at certain times of our lives.   Our hormones go berserk and our animal brains seem to demand we give in to the reproductive urge.

But would anyone dispute the idea that one of the most important things in life is to learn to control this urge? It’s called “civilization.” You don’t just follow your desires, your appetites unless you’re some medieval barbarian warlord.   Those strands of DNA inside of us are tyrants, demanding that we yield to their decrees if we want to survive. But Reason has elevated us to a different level of being. We’re not beasts anymore, though the veneer of civilization is spread pretty thinly over our lizard brains.

The “emergency” around sex is that we are not treating it as something sacred, something greater than a mere appetite, or vehicle for continuing the race.  Until we can figure out how to teach every individual on this planet self-control,to respect women, girls, boys and not treat them as “objects of desire” then stories like this one will continue to plague us. We need to get onto this universal education project urgently.  Either that or develop the artificial sex partner, Gigolo Joe and Gigolo Jill, at a price anyone can afford.  The faster the better for everyone.

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.