Category Archives: Christianity

Divine Design

In college I spent a lot of time with my best friend’s family, so when her father died a few weeks ago, that was the loss of a family member for me. Death makes me think about fate, hard as I try not to. Was it ‘his time’ as we often say? His spouse suffered most through his Alzheimer’s, for many years. No one would have wished him a hasty exit, but I think any of us would have wished for less lingering, once it seemed all awareness had vanished.

I have long refused to accept our lives are scripted. I reject any theological language referring to ‘God’s will.’ But when experiencing these life and death events it is hard not to question our destiny. Even if not scripted, it seems at least there are situations we are drawn to, and without question, external events that influence the choices we make.

Historical fiction is a beloved escape for me. I am often reading/listening-to a period in webRNS-God-Sistine-042518time when many Europeans, there and in the New World, believed hell was a real place and god resembled the Old Testament guy who was long on judgement and anger. This way of thinking produces narrow-mindedness. It is the perspective where Evangelical Christians, and some Muslim sects, are stuck. They live in the long-ago past, when the simple answer to every conundrum was: god’s will. These are immature, under-developed religions. Theirs is the Christianity of the Crusades.

When people of that way of thinking turn to politics and public policy, they again want simple answers to complex problems. For one, example, they forget their own ancestors were immigrants and feel entirely justified railing against those ‘illegals.’ And then there’s the women. In this country we are forced into to psychological burqas, by paying us less, restricting our access to healthcare, and the many other ways we are marginalized. Hell, they have us turning on each other. ‘No one is harder on women than women’ – I know you’ve heard that one, just as I know I’ve said it.

I was called a racist on Twitter a few days ago. I made a comment that I thought was carefully inclusive and said (paraphrasing here – I deleted the thread) something like, we have all been marginalized. The respondent said the big problem is entitled white women who don’t understand what it’s like [for black women]. Really? It’s all the fault of women? Over-simplified and inaccurate. What I will grant is that there is a shocking percent of women (not just white) who accept our marginalized status and vote to sustain it, or worse, say it’s god’s will. I will certainly grant that a shocking percent of white women helped elect the president who openly admitted he assaulted women. That should have been a deal-breaker for every single female voter. There’s some simplicity for you. If you think it’s funny to assault women, you can’t be president.  Except you can. Even when we could have expected to be on the same side in this culture of everyone choosing sides, we still can’t manage civil discourse. Anger perpetuates anger.

In my reading, writing, and thinking about religion, I distinguish between the dogma and practice that comes from theology, and the emotional/psychological experience of spirituality. Though distinct, they influence each other. The person who has a theological belief in god’s will, nurtures a psychology that foregoes personal responsibility, and even an emotional response that others are wrong. They aren’t bound to social compassion because if someone is born into poverty, it’s just god’s will. And isn’t it god’s will for women to be breeders? All other human activities are subservient to this biological divine imperative. This is why they focus on abortion and not living children. After all, childcare is a just women’s work, but an abortion is saying no to the divine order of patriarchy. Giving birth, even if raped, is a god-ordained event and no women have the right to make a choice in this area. Men, do of course, because they can just leave. Patriarchy is the ultimate in divine design for these folks. And it is the systematic over-arching oppression of women of all races. Patriarchy depends on oppressing others and absent patriarchy, slavery itself could not have flourished.

Though I reject my fate is destined or scripted, I still find themes in my life, and jacqui1stgrade_edited-1recognize how much in life is out of my control. In this I choose a spiritual interpretation. I believe there are lessons available to me for this life that I did not master in my previous lives. The lessons are all the more crucial in times of pain and transition. I think back on the life of my friend’s father. I think I can see some of the pain he lived with and how it both drove him and haunted him. An Episcopal bishop once said, “Pain that is not transformed is transmitted.” I saw evidence of both in the time I knew him. I also see evidence in the emotional legacy he passed-on to his daughters. Exactly like my birth family, the daughters did not enjoy the same benefits as the son, materially or psychologically. So the family mimics society, and society mimics the family; but that doesn’t change my desire to be treated more fairly by my father, my church, my country. I accept I will never be my father’s son. I do not accept the bad choices of others to treat me as less because of it. I can’t change their choices or the outcomes of those choices, but I will not embrace them as fate and certainly not divine design. -J.B.

 

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Of Race and Men

Since Heather Heyer was run down and murdered by a racist while she was protesting Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, there have been more offenses to decency and democracy. It’s difficult to keep track. Like these three who were in Gainesville, Florida, stirring-up violence to show their support for white supremacist, Richard Spencer, who was also previously in Charlottesville.

I wonder if you see the pattern I see? When I watched HBO’s “VICE News Tonight” story on the spectacle and violence in Charlottesville, I was not surprised that the agitators were mostly young, white males. Let’s be honest: they weren’t protestors or free speech advocates, they were a heavily-armed militia. They want to overthrow civility and civil rights, which is essentially democracy. Their march was an exercise by radicals committed to intimidating anyone unlike themselves, or anyone even disagreeing with their self-serving, hateful ideology. Even the word ideology is a flattering description because it implies thought-out ideas, rather than the narcissistic trash talk it is. Their attempt to elevate white male supremacy to a political platform would be laughable, if it weren’t so dangerous. These are playground bullies, grown-up and armed, wearing their whiteness like a divine right.

 

I really can’t figure out why they are so perpetually pissed-off. From where I’m sitting, white males still have it easier than anyone else. But how we have de-evolved? Remember the good old days when it was frustrating to try and talk or work with men thinking with their dicks? Ah, simpler times…Now they’re thinking with their guns.

After Charlottesville, I watched cable news and listened to NPR podcasts. I read online stories and even had a complete stranger at the train station talk to me about the state of our country. Usually everyone on the train platform has their head-down with eyes and thumbs on their mobile device. I guess she was reading some news and just had to say something to someone. That is a feeling I understand. For me, it’s the additional confusion of disagreeing with the nothing less than the ACLU, which is quite rare for me. I send them checks. I consider them one of the organizations with the ability to impact some of the countless shames of the current president and his regime. However, they’re getting this one wrong. Very wrong.

These are not the good-old-days of street protests. Free speech is not relevant when there is an action by an armed militia. Make no mistake that Charlottesville was a coup rehearsal. The ACLU is trying to conduct business in a civil democracy that is currently operating like a Banana Republic. Stop being naïve. It’s not hip or enlightened to sanction a platform in order to give voice to violent radicals who intend to overthrow the very system that is allowing them this opportunity. And by the way, violence often starts with rhetoric. I wouldn’t fault the ACLU if they hosted a panel in the local school auditorium with speeches from both sides. Invite the damn Nazis to that. But you better have security at the door because these are the domestic terrorists with whom we now live. They are exploiting our commitment to free speech and an open society, in order to advance their mission to destroy our foundational values and democracy itself.

ACLU internal tensions

The article link that follows is about white supremacist, Richard Spencer, speaking in Florida. The University, the municipality, and the state spent lots of money to make the community safe from everyone his hate talk attracted. Yes, the same guy (one of them) who fomented violence in Charlottesville. Again, this is not free speech. This is allowing a forum for anarchy and oppression. Free speech does not mean we have to allow every thought into the public square. The photo below is Spencer in Charlottesville, and we know how that turned out.

Gainesville shooting and Spencer

Gainesville state of emergency

With all this news, things seem hopeless. I went to the Women’s March on Washington, and it was one of the best days of my life, but I don’t think I would have had the courage to go to Charlottesville. I am sad to say that since that immediately after Charlottesville, I heard a few white people try and rationalize by saying, well, there were actions on ‘both sides.’ (I don’t mean the racist president. I mean regular people.) Only white people would say something that outrageous. When you have an angry, armed militia of white men from all over the country invade a small town, then why is anyone surprised that some of the people protesting their presence would get upset? I ask you, who died? This is just about blaming the victim so white folks can excuse themselves from speaking-up.

I have been reading a Joan Chittister book from 1998, Heart of Flesh: Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men. Though I expected it to be dated, I found it sad how little things have changed. In writing about patriarchy and spirituality, Chittister said, “The patriarchal society, agreeable as it may be, is an essentially violent thing (p.24)…Patriarchy is built on the backs of the powerless by the powerful, who take all power to themselves, public, intellectual, and religious,” (p.27). I can’t do Chittister justice here, but bear with me while I try to provide a glimpse of all 175 impeccably written and researched pages here.

Chittister could not have imagined the current president (who could?) in the nineties. She wrote about narcissism (p.96-97). She said it was named as a disorder by the American Psychological Association in 1980. Then she gives us context when she describes narcissists, “They are the beginning and end of what is important to them; they can’t possibly be sensitive to, aware of, or concerned about someone else…it is also surely a by-product of a system that demands competition, ambition, self-aggrandizement, and superiority as a matter of course…Narcissism is a patriarchal disease.” And there we have it. This puts our angry, white males in context. They have drawn faulty entitlement conclusions and when the world is not indeed their oyster it pisses them off. And then they need someone to blame.

Chittister recommends a “feminine” approach to spirituality. She is smarter than me and I do get her point, though I am uncomfortable with defining feminine in traditional terms. I don’t see how improvement is possible until at our cultural core, we are willing to finally address the immorality of patriarchy. I have written of this before, so I hope you don’t find it tedious. But we live in a Christian-dominant culture and I challenge you to find a Christian church which isn’t praying to a god-the-father every Sunday.

“Women are subsumed, excised, erased by male pronouns, by male terminology, by male prayers about brotherhood and brethren, even and always by exclusively male images of God,” (p.116). So if we can’t count on the church for fairness and inclusion, where can we go? I don’t believe my fear of white men is irrational nor my concerns strictly anecdotal. I agree with Chittister that patriarchy is the root evil (my word, not hers). And if we don’t address the root evil, more people will die – which doesn’t excuse the everyday oppression. This white male entitlement is the biggest threat to our safety and society. Supposed Islamic terrorists are insignificant in comparison. And as one aside, why isn’t anyone asking about the religion of the latest white male domestic terrorists?

Mother God, please have mercy on us. -J.B.

Forever Young

I never met a situation for which there wasn’t an appropriate Joan Baez song. This is what made it possible to survive the vagaries of high school. Of course, when it is a Dylan song performed by Baez it is the best possible consolation. As I think of my mother, this song keeps coming back to me. In my harsher, younger years, I might have described her as immature and narcissistic. Now as she is coming very close to her last days, I am choosing instead to see her as forever young.

Several years ago after my mother was admitted to the hospital for what we now think was the beginning of dementia symptoms provoked by an infection, I had a dream. My brother and sister and I were in my sister’s house with debris up to our knees. My brother was standing by a map on the wall trying to point out directions. My sister said she had cleaning to do. And I just kept saying, “But a storm is coming.” Well, it came. But not as a hurricane. It came in squalls, cloudbursts, and occasional showers. The degrees of severity varied, but the frequency of the storms increased.

Having both worked and volunteered with different hospice organization, I know there are specific characteristics attributed to actively dying. I can tell you that my mother is actively dying, though not exactly by the clinical definition. She still has significant periods of lucidity where I can recognize her spirit and see a desire to be alive. But they are fewer. And physically, she has become much like a toddler in needing help to eat and with other bodily functions.

My mother had a shitty childhood. I don’t know many specifics because she claimed she doesn’t remember. There would be a few random stories that would creep out, and they were always sad. I know some of the darkness of her birth family, so I’m calling it: she was abused. Some people who come from a traumatic childhood become old quickly. And I think others, like my mother, become forever young. She functioned successfully as a teacher, parent, and overly involved church person. She never missed a wedding, shower, or reunion to which she was invited by extended family. But just under the surface there was an insecurity and perpetual, though usually mild depression. I think in her self-image, she never quite believed she was loved.

I am trying to value the time left for my mother while learning the lessons offered me and making every effort to meet what needs can be met before she crosses over. I was not her favorite and we were not close in the way that she viewed people being close. I am not the huggy-kissy type, so with my mother being a little over-the-top on that, it is a struggle for me.  I saw her last Sunday and spent most of the day with her and my father. She was in nursing care at their retirement community and he was able to return to their apartment at night, though at her side every other minute.

After a bad fall and likely a concussion, she had a relapse on Wednesday. After leaving my (new) job early, taking a train home, then driving for about two hours, when she stirred and saw me she said, “You’re here,” with surprise. I couldn’t understand why she would be surprised when I have been consistently showing up, with frequency. I promise that I have been front and center. But in my mother’s forever young, and now horribly bruised brain, because I’m not the smothering type she fears that maybe I don’t really love her. Having had lousy parents, she is never sure if someone loves her. For me, this is now a challenge to meet someone where they are. However uncomfortable it makes me, I must use this time left to figure out how to convince her she is loved – in a way she will understand.

It is especially at times like this that we get to see how people express their religion. I was not at all surprised to see two of my non-religious relatives respond with great compassion and spend nearly a whole day with my mother. Another drove from out of state just to spend one evening with her. I was not surprised to see my mother’s evangelical church folks absent. You see, they were busy with their “prayer chain.” My parents’ “pastor” has been showing up and offering public prayer, which to me was just showing off. At one point, when she was in intensive care, he made the relatives circle her bed and hold hands and for his meandering prayer. Had we been Roman Catholic I would have expected last rites to come next. I was grateful my mother was not aware enough to see this spectacle because it would have pushed her right over to the other side.

I can’t emphasize enough how much my mother has extended herself for nieces, nephews, and her church over the years. And where are they now? Their own Bible says, “Faith without works is dead.” She is an 85-year-old woman with a variety of unpleasant and frightening health episodes that keep occurring. I have outright asked her pastor to recruit visitors from his church. No one has shown up except for a couple of their own friends who happen to go to the same church and were already visiting. Where is that ‘community of faith’? They have demonstrated to me they are a social club with a religious theme and bad music, not a community, and not motivated to be compassionate.

I believe faith is exercised in how we treat each other. When we extend ourselves to do what might even be uncomfortable because that is what someone needs, it can be considered an expression of divine compassion. Keep your prayers, people – unless you are going to pray for me to learn to be more demonstrative. If Mother God is listening, I could use help with that.

And to my mother, I am sending her Dylan’s words, with Baez singing them in my head.

“May God’s blessing keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you…
And may you stay, forever young…”

Right now, it is time to let others do for you.

And to the verse that says, “May you grow up to be righteous, May you grow up to be true,” she has. As my mother nears crossing over, I pray that she transitions from a sad child to someone who is forever young, and at peace. -J.B.

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“Hey, It’s Franklin”

Maybe it’s difficult to be the kid of someone famous. Gandhi’s son converted to Islam and was trading in British imports at the same time his father was calling for a boycott (“Father to a Nation, Stranger to His Son,” The Guardian, August 9, 2007). Not being able to reconcile with his son was one of Gandhi’s late-in-life regrets. While Gandhi was a spiritual and political leader, not such a hero of parenting.

Guardian article on Gandhi

Maybe desiring parental approval is an instinct, like with Franklin the turtle who helped in the garden so dad said, “Excellent job Franklin. That was real grown-up work,” (season one, episode four). His cartoons start with a simple, happy song: “Hey, it’s Franklin…” which always makes me smile. Very catchy. That’s why I get momentarily confused where I hear/read stories about Franklin Graham, the eldest son of the renowned evangelist, Billy Graham. He’s no Franklin the turtle.

Near as I can tell from (not at all exhaustive) Internet research, Billy Graham is alive and about 97. Just like Gandhi, Graham regrets not spending enough time with his family. When he retired, he handed his kingdom to his eldest son Franklin. In one of his last interviews after retirement he said: “I also would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.” – Billy Graham, CT, January 21, 2011.

Article on Billy and Franklin Graham

It is estimated that Billy Graham preached to 215 million people in his lifetime. Ordained in 1939, his career took off in 1949 after charismatic preaching in revival tents. He eventually expanded to television, radio, print publications, and filling stadiums. His moderate interpretation of Christian evangelism had a stronger emphasis on God’s love than sin. In his day, as he likely would be today, he was criticized for “being too liberal and refusing to play into partisan politics.” Perhaps the only way for son Franklin to distinguish himself from his prominent father is to pander to the element who criticized him. I would argue that Franklin’s harsh rhetoric is more about proving something to daddy than theology – though I’m not sure it matters.

Billy Graham biography

Franklin has supported the Republican candidate’s proposed ban on the immigration of Muslims (Washington Post). He said, “We have allowed the enemy to come into our churches,” including all gays and lesbians as “the enemy.” Poor Franklin is not content with his nearly $1 million salaries (plural intended). He wants to be a political voice. And just like the Republican presidential candidate, he is willing to spew hatred and stir-up the people with the pitchforks to do it.

Washington Post on Franklin
CSN on Franklin on gays

Still, I can’t bring myself to pity those who have been handed the world. Franklin draws two salaries from separate nonprofits. The link to the article below has a photo of Franklin with Sarah Palin.  The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association pays him $250,000 and the nonprofit charity, Samaritan’s Purse, pays him $650,000. Having worked in nonprofits most of my career, I can nearly guarantee you he is not working 80 hours a week. And even if he is, I can’t think of a single nonprofit leader who deserves $900,000. I remind you he claims to follow Jesus, yet Jesus traveled the countryside with no possessions whatsoever and regularly advocated for the outcasts. Apparently, Franklin wants to talk about Jesus, but not actually be anything like him. Well, mission accomplished.

Huffington Post on Franklin’s salaries

Maybe right now you’re thinking of asking me who cares? You weren’t paying attention to the likes of Franklin Graham anyhow. It matters because he is part of the contingent that regularly confuses religion and politics. Part of the contingent supporting him are those for whom ignorance has become an ideology. Not only an ideology, but one that people are holding-up as admirable. Here’s a real live bumper sticker I saw in traffic a few weeks ago: “Fairy Tales Say A Frog Became a Prince ‘Scientists’ call it Evolution.” It was on a piece of crap car that also had a sticker on it for the Republican presidential candidate. I wanted to tell the driver that if you had bothered with a better education, you might have a better job, a better car, and not be so damn angry. These angry white folks are squawking about what they think they don’t have, yet the average Trump supporter makes $70,000 (Bill Maher). That is a far cry from people living in multi-generational poverty.

The latest book I’ve been listening to on the commute to work is Anna Quindlen’s Rise and Shine. You can read or listen to anything she writes without disappointment. In this one she uses the story of two sisters to teach us about New York and go inside of lives of those living in privilege and in poverty and she paints a fascinating picture. When the famous sister has a crisis and winds-up losing her job and her spouse in the same week, I found it difficult to empathize. I’m more of the thinking that those to whom much is given, much is expected. Like Franklin Graham: Franklin is just another self-promoting, rich white man with daddy issues. We have enough of those. Learn a lesson from Franklin the turtle whose best friend is Bear and plays soccer with Goose and Fox.

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Dear Mother God

Candice Bergen was in a very smart sit-com, “Murphy Brown” (CBS 1988-1998). There was an episode where some of her acquaintances joined a support group for men. In response to this revelation she said something like “What do you do? Sit around and talk about how hard it is to have all the best jobs and the most money?”

I have written about patriarchy in previous columns and I’m certainly not finished ranting about the organizational and political evils of it. But there is The_Creation_of_Adamanother level that is destructive at a personal level I haven’t addressed before now. This came to mind for me most clearly when a young, white, male, gave a sermon on God the Father a few weeks ago. Most likely he was well-intentioned, but no male has the right to talk to me about God the Father as a good thing. I can’t see it as anything other than oppressive, or at least an ancient characterization of an energy or being that should be bigger than misogyny and gender stereotypes.

For the record, I practice Christianity, though I am frequently embarrassed or infuriated by the many who claim they have the only right interpretation. I find the Episcopal Church the most liberal, both socially and theologically, but with a structured liturgy that centers me. In spite of that, there is not a single mass that I am not deeply hurt by the male dominant language.

There are probably some of you out there saying, why not just walk away from that religion? For many people that is the choice they make, and I don’t fault them. Think of it this way: Most women in this country earn about .77 to every $1 earned by a man. Of course it’s not fair. We don’t stop working, though we do change jobs to try and achieve parity. In general, most of us keep trying to level things out in our own way. Unfortunately, religion is not always better than the prevailing culture. Every day we see examples of folks rising to be better, and those exploiting religion for personal or political gain. That is not new.

After that “God the Father” sermon, I promised myself to make a consistent effort to convert any pronoun possible to neutral or female in every service including every song. I’m a slightly loud soprano, so my personal statement does not always go unnoticed, but that’s not why I do it. It is like a meditation for me. I don’t feel as excluded and it is not as hurtful as the throw-back male pronouns.

What I am asserting is that if you spend your whole life praying to God the Father, and you hold Him as an example of the most revered, then how do you not at some level, assume men are better? It is inevitable. Now imagine the hymn “God of Our Fathers.” A very macho hymn. Not so much when I change the lyrics to God of Our Mothers. Yeah, singing that the one turned a few heads. I belted it out, too.

Now I do allow that Jesus was male and I retain those male pronouns. You know what would have happened if Jesus was a girl? Not a damn thing. There would be no Christianity. She would have been irrelevant. Maybe ignored or married-off with a man taking credit for Her work. Instead, Jesus defended outcasts and treated women like human beings. He challenged traditionalism, including patriarchy, and they killed him for it.

I mean no disrespect to my own human father, but I have never in my entire life felt comfortable with the God the Father ideology. It just never felt right to me. So my prayers are to Mother God. It has reshaped my spirituality. I don’t feel like an outsider in my own religious practice. As I have said before, I don’t believe in a personal god, but I practice my faith like I do because I don’t know how else to keep it real. My contemplation is with Mother God and more like connecting with a maternal energy who has a “Star Trek” kind of attitude toward humanity with Her own “Prime Directive” of non-interference.

I have included this before, but not for a long time. I have rewritten Christianity’s “The Lord’s Prayer.” This prayer is in every Episcopalian and Roman Catholic mass. Many Protestant churches use it throughout the church year. No one’s using my version, but you can if you want.

Mother and Father
In heaven and earth
Making all things sacred.

Your richness fulfilled
Your preference for us
On earth the same as heaven.

Your providence meeting
Our earthly needs
Teaching forgiveness by forgiving

Guide us from fear
Protect us from harm
That we not forget all is connected.

Your Spirit
Our Spirit
Forever

Amen

In the meantime, I will be expressing gratitude to Mother God for the many blessing I enjoy and pray She can exert influence on the Syrians to show each other mercy, in spite of Her Prime Directive. -J.B.

The Dark Night of the Soul

In the seventies, Dustin Hoffman played Jack Crabb in the movie, “Little Big Man,” as a white man raised happily by Native Americans who took him in when a different tribe murdered his parents. As Hoffman’s character said, “I wasn’t just playin’ Injun, I was living Injun.” While there are many ways to view his story, most often I think about it from the perspective of Jack Crabb getting crummy breaks, failing, and stumbling from one lifestyle into another. For some of us regular folks, doesn’t that kind of sum-up life?

I recently went to a memorial service for a popular teacher who was also instrumental in creating a successful drama program. Somewhere in mid-life he got born-again, so the seemingly never-ending memorial production was steeped in evangelical Christian rhetoric. There were three clergymen (men, of course) and it seemed we were never getting out of there. The last “benediction” (which meant more comments from clergy) started after we’d been there three hours.

Before the popular teacher went through his born-again phase (which I’m told lasted a long time but was eventually modified) there was a time in his life when I knew him to be a seeking person. You know, considering all the heavy life questions like the purpose of life, and the usual God questions. This was the brief period of time when I found him the most interesting. He was asteeple5_edited-2 seeking, humble, curious, feeling human being.

Ironically, it was at this very time in high school that I deliberately abandoned fundamental Christianity. Before that I used to carry my Bible around school every day – and actually read it. One day, I just stopped. I remember thinking, “This isn’t helping me. I’m tired of being depressed.” I did not permanently dismiss all of Christianity, just the version I was force-fed from birth, but I did leave organized religion alone for many years. As Jack Crabb said, “That was the end of my religious period.”

I sat at this memorial service thinking, “I wish I knew the guy they are all talking about.” The adoration was not less than epic. But I just didn’t see the same person they did. You could assess it as my flaw of being too critical. Maybe. When I think about him, I remember that period of time when he was searching and asking himself difficult questions. I was never among his favored protégés, so my perspective is that of the spectator. From my seat in the auditorium of life, I remember feeling disappointed that he so quickly abandoned seeking for easy answers.

There is something of potential great value in the dark night of the soul and it warrants careful consideration. When we feel lost or isolated, it is uncomfortable and painful. But when we are in that place we can see things, especially about ourselves, that are more difficult to see from the vantage point of lazy contentment. And even worse, when we adopt an ideology, we start reshaping our observations and thoughts to fit those notions, therefore cutting ourselves off from other possible understandings. In that mindset, I have watched people treat long-time friends with callous disregard because they got themselves a shiny new religion and new friends with it.

I understand what it feels like to struggle. Often when we are in that space we spend most of our mental energy trying to squirm free of the discomfort. I am suggesting that as difficult as it is, there is the opportunity to just stay in that uncomfortable space a bit and reflect. Breathe. This could be the angst before the break-through to a better direction, or thought, or understanding. And I will grant you that you don’t want to get stuck in that dark night. That’s called depression.

Respect the dark night of the soul. I think we should not be in such a rush to push out of it. Isn’t that really what Christianity’s lent and Islam’s Ramadan are all about? These two annual religious observances schedule a dark night of the soul in order for the faithful to take some time to reflect and reboot. Discomfort is built-in and used as a deliberate catalyst. What can we do differently? How can we make the future different than the past?

Any trip back to high school is uncomfortable for me, even seeing former classmates. I was recently humbled and saddened to learn I said some typical smart-ass thing once in French class that hurt a classmate. (Though I’m amazed my French was that good.) Now I haven’t been in high school since the seventies, so that’s a long-time for her to carry around the hurt I instigated. I do know that while I enjoy my own commentary on life, I just don’t need to impose it on others, and certainly not recklessly. I am grateful she gave me the opportunity to apologize. I’m not sure I’m any more careful with my comments, but I hope so.

Every life has a theme and a lesson. A lesson for the individual, and a lesson for the rest of us. The memorial service offered story after story. Good stories. Nice themes. The stories that I remember weren’t going to come-up. They are reserved for a few friends, in a small circle of people who know me and still like me. The stories are impacted by where you’re sitting and your view. French class? Memorial service? Lost in high school? It depends if you’re inside looking out or outside looking in. And if the lights dim, or the night seems darker than usual, just take your time. The dark night of the soul is a holy place. -J.B.

So many guns, so much time

Ralphie is about 12 years-old, a rescue cat from my local shelter. He’s been with me four years and has established himself as the boss. He was astounded that I apparently went somewhat insane and adopted a dog. Charlie is about 10 pounds, so Ralphie outweighs him even though they are about the same height. I have integrated numerous animals as a family over the years, so I am optimistic. What amazes me is that they manage to posture with each other, hissing and yipping, without anyone drawing blood. I don’t allow them firearms, so we have that going for us.

At the time of this writing, the latest mass shooting was of police officers in Dallas, TX on 1468100638-open-carryJuly seventh. (It’s even likely that before I’m finished editing there will be another.) Texas is considered an “open carry” state allowing citizens to walk around in public with a visible gun. When I was in Texas in December, more than one restaurant had a sign that they didn’t allow guns. I didn’t feel better. That they needed such a sign was upsetting. On July ninth, Dallas mayor was quoted in the Dallas Morning News saying: “It’s logical to say that in a shooting situation, open carry can be detrimental to the safety of individuals.” Oh really? I have to ask, how’s that open-carry working out, Texas?

Dallas Morning News

Back in January, BBC News online reported that way back in 2012 in the US (the most recent comparable data available), “the number of gun murders per capita was nearly 30 times the UK.” In 2015 alone, there were 64 school shootings, including incidents with shootings that did not include murder. I hope we are not so de-sensitized that we can’t see how outrageous school shootings are.  Here’s another nugget from the BBC: So many people die annually from gunfire in the US that the death toll between 1968 and 2011 eclipses all wars ever fought by the US. In that same article the BBC reported that the National Rifle Association boasted that after the Sandy Hook shooting (elementary school), its membership surged to five million.

BBC gun statistics

These statistics (and there are more) demonstrate that Congress has failed, capitalism without any regard to the common good has failed, and we voters (especially non-voters) have all failed miserably. It is time to not let another day go by without writing to your federal senators and representatives and let them know that if they don’t pass gun control legislation, you will work to fire them by campaigning against their re-election. Write an e-mail. Write a letter. Write it now.

And you know who should be leading the charge? Clergy. For those who speak to their congregants weekly, there is the consideration of whether to offer empathy (pastoral care and support), or whether to challenge the listeners to be better human beings (or more devout, if you are more comfortable with that word). And many, many, clergy simply enjoy the sound of their own voice. I worked at a seminary once and I can tell you that there are many different reasons individuals pursue religious leadership – and not all of those reasons are good ones.

There are very few churches showing strong leadership, but I would especially challenge Roman Catholics. I drove past a parish last week that had a sign in the front yard about how many abortions there were last year. I’m sure they used the word murder somewhere on that sign. I can’t find a way to understand why they are so passionate about their perception of “murdered” fetuses and so very mute about everyday gun murders of walking around realized human beings.

After the previous recent shooting in Orlando (one actually loses track), the Episcopal bishop of Philadelphia did call for gun control. I also read a Tweet about a Kansas bishops requiring that no guns are allowed in Episcopal churches, though I remain astounded that anyone has to make that a policy.

Message from Philadelphia Episcopal bishop

Kansas bishops ban guns from churches

Why are the religious zealots so noisy about policies and laws on women’s health and sex but so very quiet about gun control? I’m not saying there are no voices, kudos to the Quakers, I’m saying that if the majority of religious people got as activist as what we saw in civil rights movement, things would change. And I am not the first person to say that they are indeed related.

I read a Facebook post super-imposed over a white model that said: “How about all lives matter. Not black lives, not white lives, get over yourself no one’s life is more important than the next. Put your race card away and grow up.” These kind of comments can only come from white privilege, insensitivity, and ignorance. Look at who has been killed, who has been doing the killing, and who is in jail. The following link is a very in-depth story about the social conditions that have contributed to not only gross incarceration, but also the disproportionate incarceration of minority males. This is not white liberal guilt speaking, it is data. From the article: “The United States now accounts for less than five percent of the world’s inhabitants – and about 25 percent of its incarcerated inhabitants.

The Atlantic on mass incarceration – a must read

Not only do “Black Lives Matter,” there needs to be a whole lot more conversation on white privilege and classism across all races, because ain’t nobody likes being poor. Very often the fear of poverty is acted out in disdain for the poor. And clearly, for many people in this under-educated, unenlightened country, the response to mass incarceration is taking up arms, instead of considering root causes and social failures. Stop the madness.

I’m tired of reading these stories and more so of watching them online and TV. I especially hate writing about this. But I consider it my moral responsibility to challenge myself and you to write some damn e-mails, at the very least. I vote consistently and frequently campaign for a variety of candidates, and I will do more. But it’s not enough because systematic injustice is inevitable when capitalism is absent morality. Democracy without grassroots active involvement becomes oligarchy, which is pretty much where we have arrived. Religious organizations that are mute on social pathology, well that’s pre-World War II Germany when the Christians were silent while Jews were marginalized, persecuted, then murdered. I really didn’t want to mention The Donald here, but when a leading presidential candidate becomes more popular by spewing hatred against Mexicans and Muslims, we really are living in pre-WWII Germany. The front page of Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer said, “This is not who we are.” Really? Apparently it is.

I am left asking the same question so many others have asked: how many more shootings? How does that photo above not look both preposterous and terrifying? There are so many guns and it seems no urgency to change that. No urgency. Why? How many more shootings? How many more deaths? I’m calling all clergy (well, truthfully, I doubt they will read this, but you can tell them) to talk about gun control and keep talking about it until we have it. -J.B.

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Don’t Pray for Me

Usually in these columns, I build up to some conclusion, but this time I’m starting at the end. Prayer is what you want it to be. Perhaps prayer is a connection, like my cat sitting next to me. (Thanks, Ralphie.)Ralphie Even atheists can find their spirit resonating with music, or maybe nature, in a way that is not just pleasurable, I think, but lifts us out of ourselves and our everyday existence. That is how I would define spiritual. When by intention or experience, we step outside of our daily worries to connect with the universe, I think we can call that a prayer.

Some people define prayer as the petitions they present to an all-powerful and interested God. I would liken that approach to wishing on a star – not that there’s anything wrong with that. When I was in the process of becoming Roman Catholic (I am now Episcopalian), I had some difficulty sorting out culture Jiminy Cricketfrom dogma from theology. One of the things the nuns talked about that I knew was strictly cultural was that when you go into a chapel for the first time you can make a wish. I saw it as a Jiminy Cricket sort of thing. At the time I was working two full-time jobs, and it follows that I had no social life. It was about December 17th and in spite of the fact that I would be working until at least 7:00 p.m. and the previously stated realities, I wished for a New Year’s Eve date. Admittedly a self-serving fantasy, I viewed it as a throw-away request. Surely God had better things to do. I didn’t even take my own wish seriously. I told no one, and forgot about it.

At about 6:45 p.m. New Year’s Eve, I had sent all my staff home and was tending to final work that I could handle alone when a man I had previously only spoken to casually asked me to accept an extra ticket to Penn and Teller because he had a friend who cancelled. This is the story that I tell my nieces under the theme of ‘God has a sense of humor.’ I had a lovely New Year’s Eve and one or two other dates, then found out he was gay. Well, at least now I knew God’s idea of a perfect date for me.

About those petitions…Though I don’t really believe in a personal god, in times of duress, I think we all wish we had a super-power from whom we could request intervention or relief. In that I am no different from anyone else. And in spite of the fact that I don’t think things work that way, when I am in the middle of a struggle, I do in fact yearn for not only relief but an acceptable resolution, and maybe even a rescuer. Who doesn’t? What I think is crucial to human contentment and spiritual insight, is what we expect during the ‘dark night of the soul’ and after. What I’m suggesting is to consider how we view prayer and what we expect as a result of prayer. Why? Because I’ve had too many people tell me they would pray for me instead of actually helping me. Also, I want to reconcile for myself what may seem like the hypocrisy of wishful prayers that are an understandable response to loss, sadness, fear, worry, and despair.

In this capitalistic society, when someone exploits your need to be employed to fulfill their ego’s hunger to exercise power, it is oppression. There are a lot of people longing for relief from oppression, whether it is external like workplace bullies, or internal like clinical depression. As for me, I have had a lot of very bad bosses who have made my work day miserable, and some eventually put me out of work. (I know I am not alone with these problems.) One day on the train commute to such a job when I was feeling overwhelmed by the dread of the coming workday, I looked out the window to see the most spectacular sunrise I had ever seen in my life. The clouds had formed in a way that created rays of brilliant colors that I am unable to fully describe. In that moment, surrounded by other apparently oblivious commuters, I felt that the vibrant and fleeting sunrise view was a gift just for me. It produced in me such a sense of joy that I carried it with me the rest of the day, and in fact I still remember it clearly even though it was about seven years ago. If my yearning for a better situation was a prayer, then that sunrise was an answer. And in that moment, the bliss I felt was more powerful than the relief from getting a new job, which I continued to pursue and did eventually land.

It would be an oversight to discuss prayer without addressing suffering. I have ended the old year and DalaiLamastarted the new year reading The Art of Happiness (His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, MD) which weaves lengthy conversations with the Dalai Lama into prose. Reading so much from His Holiness on suffering and pain has expanded my understanding of Buddhism. I have always had difficulty with what was my perception of Buddhism’s casual acceptance of the bad stuff in life in the old ‘life is suffering’ phrase. I heard it as a trite aphorism. Now I see that by accepting that there is loss and pain for everyone, my suffering is neither unique nor unfair. That is not to justify oppression which is unfair and unethical behavior, but suffering itself is a common human condition. This subtle shift in perspective helps me connect with humanity, rather than feeling apart, which served to increase my suffering.

If I can get myself to see suffering as a universal human condition, then it also changes my view on prayer. My prayer becomes a desire to connect with the universe in a way that reduces suffering, not just for myself, but for others as well. My prayer becomes a meditation on working to heal my soul in a way that makes compassion possible – toward myself and others.

I weave prayer and meditation together as complementary practices. I pray to release my suffering and affirm my wishes, then I meditate to quiet my ever-noisy head, to touch my bruised heart, and to restore my weary soul. These practices are very personal and I would never impose my approach on others. I write about it here as a means of reconciling my frustration with those who pray from an apparent desire to remain un-involved or from the arrogance of their own theology. I also write to work through my own hypocrisies.

Eventually, my practices include listening. I listen for what I would call the whisper of the universe. My Buddhist friends may consider it getting in touch with Buddha-nature. Some Christians might say it’s the Holy Spirit. I would not make any of those presumptions. I just know that I want the greater good for all of us, and that includes me, though I don’t know exactly how that will happen or even what comes next. How you pray or if you don’t, is just not my business. If you insist on praying for me, then I thank you for your good wishes, because sometimes wishes do come true. Please don’t expect reciprocity, because that is not my practice. Just know that my practice is intended for compassion. For you. For me. For friends and enemies. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.” Well, I’m not making any vows, but I’m trying to head that direction. –J. B.

#PopeInPhilly

You know a major event is over when businesses start complaining about not making enough money. Philly’s mayor blamed the media, “You scared the s*** out of people,” (9/28/2015 Philly.com for CroppedPopeBobbleheadthe Philadelphia Inquirer – I don’t mind spelling that word out in this blog, but I’m using a direct quote here.) Truth be told, the security was over-the-top and local people mostly got out of Dodge. Overall, the crowds were lower than the pre-event hysteria. I was able to get free tickets to Saturday’s event and even a train ticket two days before. So thanks to Mayor Nutter (who was once my boss when he was in City Council) for scaring the be-jesus out of everyone making it possible for me to get a last minute ticket. And even more important, I was able to get a coveted bobble-head doll.

Mayor highlights papal visit

In the suburbs, my local train station was one of the few regional rail stations that was open. The local NoParkingSignneighborhood responded by gouging pilgrims with daily parking fees of $20 to $40 with threatening towing signs, including at the local UCC church (sign pictured). Not so ecumenical, I think.

My writing history here has demonstrated that I am not a Christian chauvinist. As someone interested in religion, I was sincerely intrigued by the pope coming to Philadelphia though not romanced by the “World Celebration of Families.”  What I was not expecting from the papal visit, was to be moved. I was moved by what he said, and how many people he reached. Philly does have a significant number of Catholics, and of course there were stories of how far people had traveled for the papal appearance, but the crowds far surpassed just pilgrim Roman Catholics. Philly is gritty, corrupt, not very well-mannered, and yet still beautiful and historic. This is a city where no one should expect sentimentality, unless it’s about sports. So seeing thousands of people just trying to get a phone-photo of the popemobile was impressive.

The breadth of Center City is between two rivers is and under four miles from east to west with one IndependenceMallRevevent east and one west. All streets in the pope zone were closed for days, and all the city’s major arteries were closed Friday night to Sunday night. Mass transit was re-routed to accommodate papal visitors for regional rail and most bus routes were cancelled. Though it was possible to walk the four-ish miles from Independence Mall (Saturday event) the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (Sunday event), even sidewalks were closed so it took quite a lot of zig-zagging. Still, I have to tell you that people were patient and polite. The mayor reported only three arrests: one DUI, one probation violation, and one genius trying to take unnamed drugs through one of the security checkpoints.

What’s the take-away? My own observation is that I watched tens of thousands of people captivated VendorsWatching by a religious leader who speaks about poverty and social justice. He calls for compassion and environmental stewardship. I didn’t think it was possible, but compassion was a well-received message. When the pope spoke at Independence Hall even the food vendors stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. I saw many moist eyes and robust applause for messages I had come to believe would be unwelcome, or at least ignored.

This pope not only spoke about religious freedom for all, he spoke of the value and importance of pluralism. I can’t emphasize enough how remarkable I found that. There are very few religious leaders, other than the Dalai Lama, willing to support pluralism and religious tolerance. The secular press is quite incompetent at religious reporting, so the Saturday speech that I heard was reported as an immigration speech. That was accurate, but incomplete.

The pope at Independence Mall

In spite of the pope’s emphasis on compassion, hate did not take a vacation from his visit. There wereIMG_20150926_131617 protesters right outside of security at Independence Mall with large signs and a bullhorn trying to make it clear that everyone of the Roman Catholic faith is going to hell. This is as ridiculous as it was offensive. I admit it pissed me off. I did get in the face of two of the protesters and told them, yes with some vigor, to go home. I said that this is “not what Jesus would do.” They told me I was going to hell and I told them there is no hell. You get the idea. No impact, of course.

What’s next? One co-worker told me that her husband was so inspired by the pope he was going to try and be a better husband. Well, even if that lasts one week-end, she got a lovely apple-picking family outing from it. Baby steps, right?

Don’t think I’m turning a blind eye to the unenlightened view of the Roman Catholic CroppedBishopsChurch toward ordaining women and reproductive rights, the latter which is mostly ignored by Catholics anyway. But take a look at this picture. Any organization run by all these old men is not going to improve quickly.

So for one wonderful weekend, compassion, social justice, and environmental stewardship were headline messages. This gives me hope. Recently a co-worker admitted she thought I am “too cynical.”  Well, I don’t think you can be “too” cynical. It’s one of those things that you are or you aren’t. I embrace my PopeQuoteT-shirtinner cynic, because I’m usually right. But the weekend of Pope Francis in Philly gave me the gift of hope. Think about the religious leaders we’ve seen on global mass media. Usually they are doing something awful or asking for money. Here’s a guy who carries his own bag and lives in an apartment but still has rock star appeal.

PA tourism used to have a slogan: “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.” Well, thanks Padre. You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania. Lots of them, actually. Thank you for making compassion and tolerance mass media messages. -J.B.

Unholy Land

Living in the suburbs as I do, I would have difficulty in deciding which Saturday morning sound is worse: the leaf-blower or the chainsaw. Both make me want to scream – which I may have done once. Not unlike the sound of adults talking on Charlie Brown cartoons, when I hear Benyamin (Benjamin) Netanyahu speak, I hear a leaf-blower. Recently Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been spouting his typical doomsday rhetoric over the diplomatic agreement to place limits on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Limits on nuclear weapons – of course that’s a bad thing.

Al Jazeera America online led with this paragraph on July 14, 2015. “Iran and six world powers announced a historic deal Tuesday morning that places limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions, a development that represents the most significant diplomatic milestone in a dispute that has lasted for more than a decade and could significantly alter geopolitics in the Middle East.” This is what Netanyahu has been complaining about, from which he could be comforted if the United States just sent Israel more money.

Al Jazeera article
Netanyahu response

The pending agreement to limit the development of nuclear weapons with Iran is just one story from a region that is violent and complex and which I wish I could ignore.  (I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.)  It was with great reluctance, and in fact dread, I decided to start reading about Palestine and Jerusalem, the entire Armstrong-Jerusalemregion being too overwhelming. Further, I admit that my research is never exhaustive; I try to identify a few good sources that I believe are reliable and work with them. I trust anything by Karen Armstrong as well-researched and well-written, so I have been reading Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (Ballantine Books NY 1996, new preface 2005). With all due respect to Armstrong, you can summarize thousands of years of Jerusalem’s history by saying: nobody gets along for long, and somebody’s gonna get killed.

I have supplemented the Armstrong reading with a publication by the Episcopal Church, which in my view is gloriously liberal, inclusive, and socially aware. The Episcopal Peace Fellowship produced, Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace, an annual report-type 50-page book (second edition, August 2011). Accidentally, I also listened to two Philip Roth audio books. His characters provided insight into archetypes with regular interaction between Zionists and secular Jews (not mutually exclusive), weaving in an ongoing conversation about Jerusalem as the Homeland.

My research about Israel and Palestine has included the US role, which forces an awareness of the planeloads of money we lavish on that small country. In 2007, US foreign aid to Israel was $3 billion in direct assistance, which was two percent of their entire budget. Later in 2007, the Bush administration promised to increase the aid to $6 billion over the next 10 years (Steadfast Hope, p.33). Let’s say it’s five billion by now, and for a country of eight million people. In 2015 the US will spend only a little over double that, $13.13 million, on food and agriculture for a US population of 317 million. The math gives me a headache but no matter what the calculations, that’s too much money for too few people, with much of it spent on the military. That is not how I want my tax dollars spent.

US Budget Basics

Neither do I want my tax dollars spent on aggression against the Palestinians while Israel breaks international law. “US aid has been used to support Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, to build illegal colonies and segregated highways on Palestinian lands, to construct what Palestinians call the apartheid wall…” (Steadfast Hope p.33). The Israelis regularly use US made and paid Caterpillars to bulldoze Palestinian homes, businesses, groves of olive trees and more. Between 2000 and 2005, nearly 465,000 Palestinian olive trees were uprooted. That is not to say that olive trees are more important than people, it is to illustrate that however Israel tries to justify aggression, it will never be able to prove olive trees fired the first shot. Palestinian farmers are denied access to their own fields and residents are denied access to hospitals. Since 1972 the US has singularly vetoed 43 Security Council resolutions that were responding to Israel’s aggression against the Palestinian people.

When I was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, I was never allowed to cite Wikipedia as a legitimate academic source. Nonetheless, I found a terrific timeline for the history of Jerusalem and the link follows. Let me tell you why this matters: because in the history of Jerusalem, lots of different folks have called Jerusalem theirs. The Jews are only one group. I have condensed the Wiki timeline below.

Wikipedia’s Jerusalem timeline
Ancient period – starts 4500 BCE with Canaanites
House of David rules after military conquest from 1010 BCE to 740 BCE
Classical Antiquity – 332 BCE “Hellenistic Kingdoms” & Romans
Life of Jesus and development of early Christianity
Late Antiquity – 324 CE Byzantine period
Middle Ages – 636 CE
1099 The Crusaders capture Jerusalem and slaughter most Muslims and Jews
Early Modern – 1516 Ottoman period
Modern Era – 1821 Ottoman, British, Israeli
1948 Arab-Israeli War
1967 The Six-day War

The current state of unquestioning, and in my view irrational and excessive support of Israel, takes us to Evangelical Christians in the US. Christianity is a majority religion in the US, but it is declining. Evangelicals enjoy a large percent of the Christian majority, but among Christians, they do not comprise a majority. (See the Pew study, the link follows.) What Evangelicals are good at is making noise and getting news coverage, and only seeming to be a majority. They embrace unquestioning support of Jewish rule of Israel. This political position has nothing to do with the life and ministry of Jesus, and in itself is un-Christian.

Pew’s Religious Landscape study

The irony of Evangelical support of Israel is that it is rooted in anti-Semitic, apocalyptic mythology. The political advocacy for a Jewish state in Israel pertains to end-time prophecies in which a Jewish state in Israel precedes the ‘second coming’ of Jesus, after which all the Jews are annihilated. Simply put, it is just one manifestation of cheering for the end of the world.

The excessive financial and unquestioning political support of Israel is neither Christian, patriotic, nor humanitarian. It is expensive and unjust. Neither is sole ownership of Jerusalem theologically valid for any of the three Abrahamic religions. In the Armstrong book she described Christianity as “the religion of love” and Islam as “the faith of unity and integration” (Kindle location 4762). Of Judaism, Armstrong said, “Crucial to the cult of Jerusalem from the very first was the importance of practical charity and social justice,” (location 289).

“All the great religions insist that the true spirituality is practical compassion,” (location 286). Additionally for Judaism, as it developed from a small sect to a more established religion it evolved: “As the religion of Yahweh changed during the Axial Age, justice and compassion became essential virtues, and without them, it was said, devotion to sacred space was worthless,” (location 1478).

Connecting the sacred to geography is not uncommon. It is paradoxical that human beings love the metaphysical aspect of religion but keep trying to connect it to the physical. “Historians of religion believe that it is one of the earliest manifestations of faith in all cultures. People have developed what has been called sacred geography that has nothing to do with a scientific map of the world, but which charts their interior life,” (location 185-6). Experientially, that makes sense for individuals; however, it is not politically valid.

It is inconceivable to me that any particular piece of land was promised to any specific tribe or religious group. And even if you think so, how in the world can you imagine that the God of a compassionate religion would approve of killing people to dominate property? The very acts of killing and aggression would make that land unholy. These conflicts have nothing to do with any god, only with politics and greed. It is all very human and entirely unholy. – J.B. Good