Category Archives: Environment and Religion

#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.

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The Sky is Falling

Remember Henny Penny?  She was scratching around doing chicken things when an acorn fell on her head.  She assumed that the sky was falling and had to go tell the boss.  Don’t you know people like that?  In Henny Penny’s case, she was joined by Goosey Loosey, et. al. and went running off to see the king until Foxy Loxy tricked them into his cave and he and his family had a five-course  poultry dinner.

The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales: The Western fairy tale tradition from medieval to modern (Edited by Jack Zipes) distinguishes between folk tales (like “Henny Penny”) and fairy tales which include villains, protagonists, heroes and magic.  An important point made by another grown-up author, Sheldon Cashdan (The Witch Must Die: How Fairy Tales Shape Our Lives), is that when stories were in the oral folklore tradition, they weren’t intended for children.

Folk tales still exist and are retold in picture books in the children’s section of the library, where I found and re-read Henny Penny (no author of record, just illustrator credits, Paul Galdone’s cover pictured here).  Fairy tales are more complex than folk tales and some have evolved to become children’s stories; Cashdan said, “…fairy tales are more than suspense-filled adventures that excite the imagination…rescues are serious dramas that reflect events taking place in the child’s inner world,” (p.10).

Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) repeatedly equates people of faith to children believing in the Tooth Fairy.  This demonstrates a lack of understanding on his part of the role of fairy tales in our psyche and our society.  However, when it comes to tales of fantasy and horror, the book of Revelation comes to mind.  That is the last book in the Christian Bible.  Many, including me, think it would have been better left out.  (And yes, I have read it.)  Martin Luther initially wanted to throw the book out of the Bible but instead found a way to use the imagery against the Roman Catholic Church (Pagels p.2).

Elaine Pagels is a Princeton scholar known for The Gnostic Gospels and has just published Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.  She describes it as the most controversial book in the Bible.  Here are two links about her and her book from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly and The New Yorker, respectively.

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/february-24-2012/elaine-pagels-on-the-book-of-revelation/10372/

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/03/05/120305crbo_books_gopnik?currentPage=all

Karen Armstrong calls “Revelation”  “a toxic book,” (Chapter 3, Kindle location 680, The Bible: A Biography).  Christopher Hitchens (god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, p.97) describes “Revelation” as “deranged fantasies.”  He sums up the contemporary fiction loosely based on “Revelation” ideology: “…the best-selling pulp-fiction Left Behind series, which ostensibly ‘authored’ by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, was apparently generated by the old expedient of letting two orangutans loose on a word processor…”  I think he does orangutans an injustice.

Thanks to Pagels for context.  Originally, “Revelation” was a metaphor for the Roman Empire conquering Judea, written by a Jewish expatriate.  “Revelation” was validated about 300 years later by a ‘wily and powerful bishop’ (Athanasius) who insisted on the inclusion of “Revelation” in the Bible because he could “take this imagery of the war of good against evil and turn it against his religious enemies,” (Pagels on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly 2/24/2012).

The themes of “Revelation” appeal to the petty and the vengeful.  They are Henny Penny running to the king, and not only escaping Foxy Loxy, but fantasizing about Foxy and his hungry family thrown in a pit of fire.  “Revelation” is much worse than a fairy tale, it is a nightmare unrelated to the compassion of Jesus in earlier books of the Christian Bible.

Interpreting “Revelation” as prophecy is a misreading, but that doesn’t mean there is no room for prophecy for people of faith.  The trouble is discerning when the sky is actually falling and when someone is overreacting to an acorn on the head.  I have no way to prove this (right now), but I have an intuition that many of the people who subscribe to “Revelation” as predictions of the future are dismissive of prophecies about global climate change.  Climate change, as a result of human impact on the environment, is not punishment from God but the very natural consequences of human actions.

Every generation has had Doomsday Prophets, and yet, here we are.  To ignore all warnings seems irresponsible, to take them all to heart is not only foolish, it would make it difficult to function in everyday life.  I suggest considering whether the supposed prophet benefits from the prophecy.  That is, will donations increase or membership expand if the prophecy succeeds in provoking fear?  (See my column on “Family Radio” predicting the “Rapture” for May 2011, “Read Before Rapture,” posted 5/19/2011.)

Contrast the lucrative “Left Behind” book series with the Kogi tribe in South America.  The Kogi call themselves the “Elder Brothers” and we are the “Younger Brothers.”  They prefer to avoid us, however, they have felt compelled to allow contact only to warn of the consequences of our own actions.  Take 53 minutes out of your sound-bite dominant day to watch a grainy video on Google from an old BBC story.  Watch and learn about the sophistication of this pre-Columbian tribe that knows how to live in harmony with nature and each other, and knows a lot about prophecy.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-521537373096312859

The sky isn’t falling, we are destroying it ourselves with gas-guzzling SUVs.  Telling the king won’t help because the Royalty in the U.S. Congress are well-insured millionaires who benefit from maintaining an underclass.  None of these things are God’s will.  That rumble you hear is not the sky falling – it is our foundation crumbling.  It is not quick and dramatic, it is slow and malevolent.  And at the end of the day, fantasizing about the destruction of the godless, does not serve God any more than abusing our environment.  – J.B.

Smackdown: Man v. Nature

This is football season (insert frowny-face icon here).  I live near Philadelphia where fans have a reputation – especially football fans.  Because of all the disorderly and illegal behavior at football games, the Philadelphia Eagles and the City of Philadelphia had to create a mini-court at the stadium to be able to process the hoards of law-breakers.  (Take a look at what a Google search on the “Philadelphia Eagles and fan violence” generates.)  I remember when the Eagles lost a playoff game there was a television news clip of a woman with tears streaming down her face who said, “this was the worst day of my life.”  Really?  Lucky her – if that’s as bad as it has ever been.

There are two sports that are worse than football: professional wrestling and demolition derbies.  Yes, trophies are given for smashing up other cars.  I’m at a loss to propose which of those ‘sports’ is more absurd.  At least the pretend violence and staged melodrama of WWF doesn’t burn fossil fuel.  But the WWF stage does remind me of how some religious people view nature: God using nature to smackdown bad people, and people trying to smackdown nature for personal gain.

Every time there is a natural disaster, some religious simpleton claims that it was God’s will or Divine punishment for sin as God uses the force of nature to toy with silly humans gone astray – perhaps reflecting on a literal view of the Noah’s Ark story.  My friend Kathleen is a talented environmental science teacher and reported that one of her students said (I’m paraphrasing here) that they know how humans came into existence, “God created them.”  Kathleen responded, “You can believe anything you want in your church, but this is a science class and we are learning about science here.”  Good thing Kathleen isn’t in Texas, she could probably get fired for saying that.

When combining the view of a punishing god with the supremacy of human beings over nature the result is a world view that provides resources only for the godly and allows for the reckless exploitation of everyone and everything else.  Joseph Campbell told a story about how Zen philosopher Daisetsu Teitaro (D.T.) Suzuki described the Western world view (The Power of the Myth, Program Two: “The Message of the Myth”):  “God against man.  Man against God.  Man against nature.  Nature against man.  Nature against God.  God against nature.  Very funny religion.”

One source of this view, I would suggest, is the creation story from historic Judaism and Christianity.  The first chapter (Genesis 1:26) describes “dominion” over creation by human beings.  According to Strong (The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, James Strong, LL.D., S.T.D., 1995) the word dominion in the St. James Version of the Bible is based on the Hebrew word râdâh, which is translated as “rule” or “subjugate”.  More recent translations of the Bible use the word “power” (Good News) or “rule” (NIV), which I do not find any more enlightened than “dominion”.  I had hoped a little research would reflect the St. Jame’s version’s use of “dominion” to be a poor translation, but that was not the case.

I have not gone to rabbinical school nor am I a Christian Biblical scholar.  I’m a regular person with an interest in religion and a drive to consider context, which is my explanation for “dominion”.  That creation story was passed on in the context of a patriarchal culture, which by definition subjugates everyone to the (male) patriarch.  In doing (secondary) research for this column I have been reading Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: A Biography, and reviewing her earlier work A History of God.  What I continue to learn as I study religion, especially Christianity, is about the human influence on theology and sacred text.  In talking about New Testament parables, an Episcopal priest (from whom I always learn something) said that Jesus’ stories often teach us more about people than God (Rev. C. Reed Brinkman, 9/25/2011).

Power over nature, to most thinking people, is an arrogant illusion.  Go ahead, try and stop a tornado.  And if the only way you can exercise your god-given dominion on the earth is by exploiting the environment and abusing animals, then you are not even a very smart patriarch.  In the long run you are hurting yourself and your descendants.

The selfish exploitation of animals and natural resources may nicely complement Western capitalism but does not reflect the underlying spirit of either Judaism or Christianity, and is certainly not part of most Eastern religions and practices.  The Dominion World View is the unfortunate result of isolating an antiquated minor Biblical reference to justify selfish behavior.  Drowning puppies that didn’t sell, over-fertilizing fields which corrupts the water table, irrigating crops that aren’t intended to grow in arid regions and thereby lessening water resources for everyone else – all justified because God gave you dominion.  That should be an offensive view to both the godly and godless.

Because you have the resources to smash cars into each other doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  It just makes you a stupid, wasteful bully.  Unfortunately, power and resources don’t go only to the deserving.  In fact humanity has a sad history of resources being ravaged by the greedy at the expense of the powerless.  The wise and compassionate stewardship of shared resources not only sustains our survival but make us human beings.  And if you’re religion doesn’t guide you to be a better human being, then trade-up for a better religion, or get to know your own religion a little better.  -J.B.

“The market has become God”

That is a quote from Jim Wallis on MSNBC’s “Hardball” (5/21/2010) in an interview with Chris Matthews.  You won’t often find me agreeing with an evangelical Christian, but Wallis and Matthews did an inspiring job commenting on BP’s oil disaster in the Gulf – a disaster for which we will all be paying for many years.  The link to the Matthews-Wallis interview is below.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3036697/#37282539

Wallis challenged Glenn Beck of Fox “News” for attacking social justice churches.  Beck is quoted on Wallis’ website saying, ‘churches are being used by progressives to bring about the fundamental transformation of America.’  If only that was true – it seems to me that most churches are snoozing.  Beck’s criticism of social justice Christians is from the outside looking in.  (Bear in mind that he is Mormon and the National Council of Churches does not count the Church of Latter Day Saints among Christian denominations.)

Wallis and others are assuming responsibility for trying to place a wake-up call to all of us regarding environmental sustainability.  This should mean something when you can go on numerous websites, right now, and see tens of thousands of barrels (what size is a barrel?) of oil polluting the ocean every day.  CNN’s link is below.

http://www.cnn.com/video/flashLive/live.html?stream=stream3&hpt=T1

Speaking for Christian theology, part of the problem lies in fundamental Christians and their interpretation of Genesis 1:26 in the King James version which talks about “dominion” over the earth.  Many interpret this as a license to abuse.  Wallis challenges Christians to be stewards of God’s creation.  The link below will give you several things to think about if you want to hear more from Wallis and his colleagues.

http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.home

No matter what religion you are, if you are reading this you are breathing and probably want to be able to drink water in the near future.  If we continue to allow the destruction of our home planet, we’re making it more difficult for safe breathing and drinking water in the future.  (And don’t get me started on coal mining.)  We should be angrier with BP than how we react to $4 per gallon for gas.  Remember that?  Yeah, we were all plenty pissed about that.  Well, guess what: this is worse.

“BP has to be held accountable to the common good,” said Wallis.  Matthews answered saying, “Mankind’s interests trump the marketplace.”  Wallis added, “The market is the means and not the end.”  Healthy capitalism can be successful at putting food on many tables, but unregulated capitalism becomes a greedy bully that will steal our lunch money and pollute the natural resources from which that food comes in the first place.  Whether you are religious, atheist, agnostic, or secular humanist, what’s happening now can’t continue.  Get pissed off.

Comment here and tell us what you think you can do. -J.B.