Category Archives: Greed

March on, Democracy. March on.

When you look up at the sky, what do you see? Meteorologists must see the presence or absence of clouds and the likelihood of precipitation. Astrologers probably think, “When are we finally going to rotate away from that sun so I can 16142735_10211738442004652_2931030917139632431_nsee stars?” Religious people often look up there and imagine God in Her heaven, wistfully, blissfully, earnestly, or desperately. I’m not sure what atheists see. Maybe they just say, ‘I’m glad I’m alive to look up at this sky.’ That’s close to what I was thinking on Saturday, January 21st when I was in our nation’s capitol for the Women’s March on Washington. I looked up to the sky and said, “I am glad I am here.” And just in case Mother God was listening, I said, “Thank you.”

When I first decided to march, it was to protest the election of a wannabe Emperor who has boasted about assaulting women and inspired millions to freely come out to express their inner bully and wide-spread bigotry. His character flaws and shocking mental health issues are too numerous to waste words here. As we got closer to the March day, I just wanted to make myself a better citizen. I traveled with three acquaintances whom I barely knew before the March and I now consider good friends. They stayed overnight at my house so we could make a 5:15 a.m. bus with as little pain as possible. The night before we all admitted to both hope and skepticism that the March would make a difference.

The March program opened with one of the most deeply spiritual expressions I’ve ever experienced  – and please note here I’m a religion writer who has been in quite of few religious gatherings in my life. The program started with what the organizers called a “song” but I would call a chant or a musical prayer. If YouTube is correct, it was the Native American Norine Hill from #IndigenousWomenRise. I hope you will find a quiet place and click on this link. Please imagine yourself outdoors under an overcast sky with people in every direction, and even in the trees. Then listen. I don’t know if there were words, or what her intention was, but I heard a call to all of our souls, to rise to the greater good.

Native American opening song

I don’t really like crowds. I like to be home where it’s quiet with my dog and cat at my side. It takes something to get me out, other than working for a living, of course. But the experience started much before daylight when three buses left from my small suburban community and joined 1,900 of them in the stadium parking lot. Then a very diverse river of people climbed stairs, walked to the Metro station, got in and out of subway cars, then inched out onto the street. All the while in the metro station there were sweeps of chants and a sort of woo-hoo kind of high musical sigh that was to your ears what the wave at a sports stadium would be for your eyes.

The YouTube video was shot close to where I was standing, which was blocks from the stage. You can see people actually climbed the tree to get a better look. This img_20170121_100727street was intended to be a route for the walking part of the March, but it was too crowded. After a couple hours of standing with a crowd pressing in, I got a little claustrophobic, so we inched our way from where the crowd was packed to an area where it was only slightly less packed behind the Smithsonian and toward the Mall.  All the while, people were pouring in from every direction. We walked about 10 or 15 blocks to find something to eat. The whole time we were walking away from the stage, people from every direction were streaming in. While we ate lunch we watched the March on a muted CNN in the restaurant and realized that it so much bigger than we could comprehend at street level. When we went to return to the marching part of the March, it was everywhere. It was not just one street, but many streets, all filled with people marching. There were spontaneous chants to fun rhythms (picture Bill Murray in “Stripes”). The one I’m still chanting while I walk my dog is: “This is how democracy works!” Oh, yes it is.

It was difficult to hear all the speeches while we were there, so I’ve been listening online. (Thank you New York Times; link follows.) I was able to hear most of Gloria Steinem and some Michael Moore live, and they remain my favorites.

New York Times online speeches

What was clear on Saturday, and is even more vivid listening online, is that the speakers were embracing multiple issues, not just their own agenda. The over-arching theme was democracy, tolerance, equity. These values were more powerful than the crowd’s clear disdain of the newly elected  “Groper-in-chief,” (quoting Jane Fonda on Bill Maher’s show). In fact, much more potent than the mass dissatisfaction with the incoming president was the urgent need to put common values in place that assure people are treated fairly and have more equal opportunity.

It’s important to ask: What started all this? One idea, from one woman in Hawaii on Facebook. Her what-if/what-can-we-do moment launched an important action for millions that was not just an expression but a movement to a more engaged populace willing to work to keep democracy vital. One woman’s idea started this. As Steinem told us, “…370 marches in every state and on six continents…” Check out the New York Times article with photos from around the globe and highlights of signs and chants.

New York Times global photos

The United States is a secular democracy with a constitutional commitment to the separation of church and state. I remind you that it matters because while all religions are protected, it assures you can practice the one of your choosing, or none at all, without fear of imprisonment. The new president is threatening to require Muslims to register. With no exaggeration at all, this is not unlike what Hitler did to Jews before he started the genocide. It’s also a short walk from registry to rounding people up for camps like the Japanese in this country after Pearl Harbor. Make no mistake that the current governance threatens to take us into very dark times. Are you going quietly?

In spite of the efforts of the White House to make shameless bigotry and greed the new policy, Steinem tried to give us perspective and said, “I have been thinking about the use of a long life and one of them is that you remember when things were worse…This, [she waved her hand across the crowd] this is the upside of the downside. This is an outpouring of energy and true democracy like I have never seen in my very long life.” Right with you on that, Gloria.

Saturday’s global March proved that we don’t need laws or religion to guide us into a secular morality that can be embraced by diverse masses. Click on the link below and scan the list of speakers, most of whom mentioned other issues in their own speeches. And when is the last time you heard someone running for office even talk about the common good? Well, of course, we can thank Hillary for: “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.”

List of speakers

Rhea Suh, NRDC president said, “Each one of you is an individual that made a powerful decision – a choice to be here…because you believe in the fundamental principles that we matter…We are not helpless. We are still a democracy.” The March was a call to remember that democracy only thrives with engaged citizens, who are watching to assure the balance of power. Democracy also needs a free press to recognize and publicize corruption. Some work needs to be done there since they largely failed us in this last election cycle. But we need to do our part by buying newspapers and turning off fake news and reality TV. We need to demonstrate that as media consumers and citizens, we want more than unsubstantiated or un-investigated sound bites.

And, since this is a religion column, I am compelled to remind you that freedom of religion means you get to make your own choice and practice it as you want. If you want the government to impose your religion on others, then prepare yourself for the day when what they impose is not your religion. That said, if they really do impose a Muslim registry, I’m with Madeleine Albright and I’m signing-up as Muslim. -J.B.

New York Times photo: Chang W. Lee

 

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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

The Mean Streets of Capitalism

When I think about how many bad bosses I’ve had, I lose count.  One of the worst was a seemingly non-threatening short, middle-aged white female who was a cross between the Snapple Lady and Darth Vader.  She would interrupt me whenever I tried to speak in a meeting, though usually she just excluded me entirely.  She lied about me to her supervisor – and you can bet that it wasn’t flattering.  She routinely requested reports from the database with criteria that didn’t exist and when I miraculously pulled something together (after working late) she either didn’t read the report, or asked for endless modifications.  Of course she was pleasant to everyone else in the department, so they thought she was “sweet.”  While I worked there the organization had a hiring freeze that made it impossible for me to transfer out of her purgatory.  My husband was scheduled for life-threatening/saving surgery, so I could not do anything to jeopardize our health insurance.  It was at this point I begged my doctor to please schedule a colonoscopy so I could get two days out of work – better a camera than her foot.  And I believe there are many people out there with similar stories.

A 2010 study by MetLife (“Study of the American Dream,” April 2010, reported on MSNBC) reported that 55 percent of Americans were worried about losing their jobs.  At the time of that survey 9.5 percent of Americans were out of work.  The numbers are only slightly better now.  There are many Americans who feel they are permanently unemployed or painfully underemployed (which I think is a euphemism for a low-paying job that sucks).  There are also people who may not live in daily fear of job loss, but have awareness that it could go away at any time for no reason related to their own performance.  Then there are the hard-working folks who get an undeserved bad review so the organization doesn’t have to make good on a promised raise or bonus.  If you want to keep your job, check your conscience at the door and don’t question authority.  May I just say this is no way to run a country?

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38417262/ns/business-personal_finance/t/many-fear-job-loss-have-no-savings-it/#.T8L3p1J0mSo

When corporations were originally established in the last century it was considered a “privilege.”  A worthwhile viewing on this is the 2004 documentary, “The Corporation.”  In it Richard Grossman of the “Program on Corporations” said, “In both law and culture the corporation was considered a supported entity that was a gift from the people in order to serve the public good.”  Ah, the common good.  Remember that notion from antiquity?  We don’t need Old Time Religion, we need Old Time Capitalism.  We need the kind of patriotic capitalism where corporate executives are ashamed of layoffs and see a diminished workforce as personal and organizational failure, not shrewd cost-cutting.

As entities, corporations are amoral.  In practice, situation ethics emerge as the elite of the organizations work to protect their own interests.  People without conscience are more valuable to these organizations, and exercising one’s conscience may mean demotion, alienation, or job loss.  Though some attention is paid to public perception (have you seen the new BP tourism ads for the Gulf Coast?), I believe that is to insure we are distracted from the ugly truth.  Corporations relentlessly pursue quarterly profits – even at their own long-term expense.  That pursuit is at the cost of jobs and the health and welfare of our country’s resources and the human beings who live here.  It’s just plain mean out there.

Many people make the mistaken assumption that morality comes from religion.  Religions are just one source for ethical guidance.  This is a secular country and we need a stronger common moral code to keep corrupt and unbridled capitalism from trampling us.  Even in a pluralistic society, that is not an impossible task.  The following are selected ethical suggestions I’ve extracted from several mainstream religions, with the helpful review of Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions.

  • Buddhism – The Eightfold Path: Right intent, Right conduct, Right livelihood
  • Islam – The Five Pillars: Guide us on the straight path
  • Judaism – The Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness
  • Christianity – The Greatest Commandments: Love your neighbor as yourself

The majority of people in this country believe in God and the majority of religions have a valuable moral code.  If we look to how we are alike rather than how we are different it should be possible to reinforce commonality and morality.

It’s just not too much to expect any corporation to serve the common good.  That is not Marxism or Socialism, it is common sense.  Real patriotism is about taking back the Mean Streets and remodeling this country so it is not only there in the future, but more fit for all of us today.  Ranting about abortion or gay marriage while the everyday work place is mean and immoral can’t possibly be what any God wants any of us doing.  Respect your own religion, or respect Secular Humanism, but going to work or finding a job should not be at the expense of our dignity or our soul.  -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.