Tag Archives: Karen Armstrong

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

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Nuns, Cows and Inspiration

There was a summer when I sang “How do you solve a problem, like Maria?” 52 times.  I was home from college andSOM76 managed to get a miserable summer job in a tourist trap during the day and playing a nun on stage at night.  I suspect I was not good at it, but I don’t really know.  I do know I got in trouble for talking trash within ear-shot of the little “Von Trapp” children off stage.  I seemed to need something to balance wearing a habit every night.  It was hard to view it as serious theater because backstage was a livestock sales barn, usually with cows.  The mooing and the cow dung were equally distracting.  And contrary to the delicious rumor, I did not go bar-hopping in my nun’s costume, though I wish that it had been me.

When the “Sound of Music” movie was in theaters in the early sixties, Karen Armstrong had just joined a severe, conservative convent in England at the age of 17.  The day her family took her to the convent, they went to see the “Sound of Music” after they said good-bye, while she was entering an entirely different world than the movie convent.  Armstrong spent seven long, painful years there and many more recovering, but eventually wrote The History of God, and many other books.  I just finished reading her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, and re-reading her follow-up memoir, The Spiral Staircase.

These two Armstrong books reminded me of The Empty Mirror: Experience in a Japanese Zen Monastery, by Janwillem van de Wetering, and the book by my friend The Orange Robe (Marsha Low Goluboff).  I admit that not everyone is fascinated by people who go to extremes on their own spiritual quest, but I am.  In Armstrong’s case, she was in pre-Vatican II draconian communities that sounded quite like prison to me.  For van de Wetering, it was in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan with austere conditions that resulted in high-risk weight loss and numerous very serious physical and mental ailments.  My friend Marsha travelled the globe living on next to nothing that she most often had to scrape-up for herself in a guru-centered cult, Ananda Marga, which she calls a “spiritual sect.”

It is easy to be amazed by people making such personal sacrifice of physical and emotional comfort.  Granted, the stories I’m referring to here are written by people who have left the group.  Those who stay are less likely to write books that appeal to others or offer more than proselytizing.  Still, we can learn more about an organization, or a family for that matter, from those who have left.  Take a look at the black sheep of a family and you will learn more, faster.  Well, in my family that’s me, so maybe I’m biased.

What struck me in all three books was the arbitrary and brutal behavior of many in leadership who were viewed by themselves and others as spiritually advanced.  While I can understand the value to challenging and managing our own ego, I have never liked the people in power having to ‘break’ others. Upon arrival at the monastery, van de Wetering said, “In every training the ego is broken, the ‘I’ is crushed,” (p.17.)  Armstrong described that approach by saying: “We are, the great spiritual writers insist, most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away, and it is egotism that holds us back from that transcendent experience…” (p.279).  Armstrong offered another way of looking at the ascetic search for God or enlightenment; “…a disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy,” (p.279).  Really?  Is it just another buzz?  The Buddha himself, moved on from asceticism and to the middle path (The World’s Religions, Huston Smith, p. 85).

One reason I am so skeptical of extreme lifestyles is a result of growing up around plain Mennonites and Amish.  What I have seen from all three books and while growing up, is that people are people.  By my idea of ethical behavior and compassionate interaction, I don’t see any greater measure of ethics and compassion coming from the Amish, the convent, or the Zen monastery.  For you religious readers I would say: Orthodoxy is not Piety.  For those of you scratching your heads at that one, I will add that rigid religious practice does not guarantee religious enlightenment or even sincerity.  In fact, often the severity of practice is in itself a distraction.

What I have learned from these stories is the value of ordinary life; for example, the struggle of staying employed and sane as an ethical person.  For many people, this is a fierce internal battle.  It’s just not that easy to find a civilized work environment where you don’t have to worry about who is going to throw you in front of the political bus, or how many people will be laid-off to protect the CEO’s inflated salary.  Your ego doesn’t need to be broken when it is beaten down by life every day.  I think more of us need the creativity and strength to keep some balance and perspective in our lives without being demoralized or immobilized.

In this, I have to refer (briefly) to education in our country.  I don’t have the research to present you with a full treatise here.  What I have are stories: stories of laid-off teachers and entire schools systems that are chronically under-funded in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  This week 30 school children went to see the governor of Pennsylvania with 4,000 letters.  He refused to see them.  Most of the state is controlled by white Republicans who see the School District of Philadelphia as poor blacks who have no right to expect the same education as white children of privilege.  Why is this ok?  Why is education considered a luxury?

That’s a long walk around the barn to say: what can I do to make a difference when I’m hanging on to my job by my fingernails and watching those in power abusing those who have even more meager resources than I do?  How do I manage my daily stress, and still find energy to make my voice heard?  And worse, will it make a difference?

What I’m hanging on to is knowing people like my friend Sara.  She took a vacation day to go to the state capitol to try to get callous legislators to care about education.  Every day she works full-time, cares for her mother and family, volunteers on two nonprofit boards, and was the volunteer of the year at her church.  At work she is fierce and vocal about workplace ethics and she has my back.  Always.

I can tell you I find more religious ecstasy in knowing Sara than contemplating my navel or being bullied by religious extremists.  I know there are more like her.  Truthfully, I’m not in her league.  But I aspire to be, and promise to keep trying harder.

If I have distressed you, then I do have a suggestion.  If you get really bummed, just put in the “Sound of Music” soundtrack and sing along really loud.  Nothing works for me better than the goat-herd song.  Just don’t stop listening to your conscience and protecting your soul, whether it is from your own ego or from bullies, in religion or at work.  –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.