Sunday, May 23, 2010

Is Islam a Religion?

One rabbi friend of mine in Nashville is under attack for supporting the building of a mosque in a Nashville neighborhood. Among her critics are those who argue that Islam is a threat to America, that mosques are fronts for terrorist agitation and activities, and that Islam isn’t really a religion but a way of life seeking to impose its values on every aspect of human life.

While I support my friend, I am intrigued by her critics, and not unsympathetic to their fears.

Are there dangerous clerics in Islam? Of course. And there are dangerous clergy in Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism as well. Do some mosques foment hate and terror? Of course. And there are churches, synagogues, and temples in the US, Israel, India, Africa, and elsewhere that do so as well. The challenge is to root out these clerics and the institutions that support them, not to condemn all churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples.

I would urge critics of religious radicalism in all its forms to attend local religious institutions and report on what is being taught by actual clergy in actual religious centers. If there is a mosque, church, synagogue, or temple plotting, preaching or excusing hatred, injustice, and oppression let’s expose them.

Is Islam a religion or a code of life? The two are not mutually exclusive. Judaism also speaks to all aspects of life: social, economic, legal, cultural, political, etc. It tells Jews what foods they can and cannot eat, what kinds of clothing they can and cannot wear, when and how to wage war and when and how to wage peace. There is an important difference, however. While Judaism seeks to impose its strictures on Jews alone, Islam seeks to make the whole world Muslim, just as Christianity used to and in some cases continues to seek to make the whole world Christian.

I too fear totalitarianism, religious and otherwise. I no more want to live under Sharia law than I do under Jewish law, Catholic law, or any system which holds that civil law should be derived from and shaped in accordance with the laws of the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, or any other scripture. When Muslims start imposing Islamic values on secular America I will fear them. At the moment, however, I am more fearful of conservative Christians imposing their biblical values on America weakening our study of science and medicine, restricting women’s reproductive rights, stepping on the civil rights of homosexuals, holding “national” prayer breakfasts that exclude any god but their own, etc.

Yes, Islam is a complete code of life. So is Judaism. So is Christianity. The only difference is that most American Jews and Christians ignore their respective faiths when those faiths interfere with their personal desires. Muslims just haven’t reached the point where the majority or even a sizable minority give lip service to Islam while living secular lives no longer controlled by it. For better or worse, the mall will trump the mosque just as it has the church and the synagogue.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Let White Men Be White Men

I’m listening to Savage Nation on the radio when it hit me: I exude white male privilege. My kind runs this country even though we are a minority. Lots of people, make that lots of nonwhite people or nonmale people, hate this, and blame my kind as if we have a choice in the matter, but the truth is we don’t. We don’t choose to be white, we don’t choose to be male; we were born this way; and to blame us for our condition is immoral and just plain wrong.

Look at it this way: You may not like homosexuals, and you may despise their agenda, but gay people are gay because they are born that way. You can resist the gay agenda if you wish, but you can’t blame gay people for having one any more than you can blame black people for being black, or, dare I say it, white males for being white males.

White men run Wall Street, dominate Main Street, and control the banks, the government, and the news and entertainment media. Sure there are people of color in these fields, but the control is overwhelmingly white. But this is no more a matter of choice than is the fact that gay people dominate the fashion and design industries. It is simply a law of nature.
So please show some compassion, people!

On the radio they were talking about getting rid of illegal aliens. I am all for that, though I would start with the Borg rather than Mexicans. One fellow called in worrying about who will do all the yard-work if illegal workers from Mexico are kept out of the country? Dr. Savage says there are plenty of legal Americans who can do those jobs. I guess he’s right, but does that get to the heart of the matter? I mean, push comes to shove, Americans can make running shoes, but wouldn’t you rather have Indonesian children do that? After all they seem to have born to the task.

The real question isn’t who will do the yard-work, but why are there so many gardeners in Mexico in the first place? It can’t be supply and demand. There just aren’t that many gardens in Mexico. If there were Mexican gardeners wouldn’t be sneaking into the United States looking for work. It must be genetic. Nature prefers Mexican gardeners, chicken processors, and hotel maids and one cannot blame these people for following the call of nature and seeking out gardens, poultry factories, and hotels no matter where they are.

The same is true of white men like me. We are born to dominate in politics, finance, and media. Blaming us for this is blaming us for being who God made us to be. Blaming us is blaming God, and we all know that’s a bad idea.

And now I’m hearing that Obama wants to profile white males. First he wants to take away our guns, then our god, then our salt, and now he is going to pass a law that requires all white males to prove we are American citizens. And all because of the lack of color of our skin! No wonder we are angry.

So when you see white men marching in the streets defending our right to rule; or when you see white men in banking using money given them by white men in government to further our agenda, relax. This is who we are; this is what we are born to do.

Let white men be white men. Stop the hate.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Thoughts on John 14: 8–12, 26–27

[I was invited to preach on the following passages from the Gospel According to John yesterday morning. I thought I would share my message with you as well.]

Philip said to him [Jesus], “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (Gospel According to John 14:8-12)…

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (Gospel According to John 14:26-27)

• • •

Philip said to him, Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” (John 14:8)

Are you kidding me, Phil? You aren’t satisfied yet? Jesus has been walking with you, talking with you, working miracles among you, and you still don’t trust him. You gotta see his boss? What is wrong with you?

Actually nothing. Philip, like Jesus and the other apostles are Jews. Jews are all from Missouri. You gotta show us, and even then we may doubt you. This is the very DNA of the Jewish mind: we are not all that impressed by gods.

Remember Abraham destroying the gods of his father? Remember him challenging God over the true nature of justice? Remember Rachel sitting and pretending to menstruate on the gods of her father? How about the Exodus from Egypt? Ten plagues, splitting the Red Sea? Pretty impressive stuff, and yet the Jews opted to worship a giant piece of bling instead! We Jews aren’t perfect iconoclasts, but we lean in that direction.

Around the same time as John is writing his gospel, telling us how Philip asked to see Jesus’ dad, the rabbinic court had his own run in with God.

In the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59a) we find the rabbis arguing over the status of an oven—is it kosher or not? With the sole exception of Rabbi Eliezer the entire court decides the oven isn’t kosher. Eliezer disagrees and performs several miracles to prove his point. Unimpressed, the rabbis stick with their decision. Then God Himself comes to Eliezer’s defense and urges the rabbis to change their votes. Rabbi Joshua confronts God saying, “It is not in heaven!” (Deut. 30:12), effectively rejecting the testimony of the Almighty! Shaking with laughter God falls back onto his throne, and with tears streaming down His Face says, “At last, My children have defeated Me! At last, my children have defeated Me!”

God wants to be defeated. Jesus needs to be crucified. Only when we are free from external gods are we ready to receive the Spirit of Truth.

When we abide in Truth we are free from conditioning, and when we are free from conditioning we naturally respond to life with love, compassion, and justice. Without labels to define us we discover there is little to divide us.

But most of us are afraid to be free, living without labels troubles our hearts and so we refuse the gift of Truth, and, like Philip, we are never satisfied.

How can we change this? Live Jesus’ teaching backwards. Jesus taught it forward:

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (Gospel According to John 14:26-27)

Now we must live it backward:

Start by ending the fear that haunts you. When fear is silenced, your hearts are no longer troubled. When your hearts are no longer troubled you have peace. When you have peace the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth dwelling with you will reveal all you need to know. And when you know all you need to know you can do what Jesus did and more. And when you do what Jesus did—when you discover that you and God are one and that your mission on earth is to be a vehicle for unity and love—you will be satisfied. And so will we all.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fog of Fear

Tefillin ("phylacteries") are two small black leather boxes housing four biblical passages that observant Jews wear during the weekday morning prayers. The commandment to wear tefillin is found in four places in the Torah: Ex. 13:1-10, 11-16; Deut. 6:4-9; 13-21. While there is no prohibition against women wearing tefillin, the custom has long limited the practice to men. Today, however, and more and more women choose to pray with tefillin as well. And with this shift in practice comes the predictable resistance to it.

Case in point: Noa Raz, a Conservative Jew living in Israel. Ms. Raz was attacked and beaten by a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish man at a bus stop in Beersheva. The man noticed the strap marks tefillin often leave in one’s arm. Outraged, the man grabbed and beat her, all the while screaming, “Woman, abomination, desecration.”

Ms. Raz got away, filed a complaint with the police, and wrote about her ordeal. “We live in a country where the strong dominate and where women are humiliated. As our society becomes more ultra-Orthodox, more extreme, these boundaries become clearer and more frightening,” she writes. “We can protest against the Haredim every day, but they are not the only guilty ones. They are Haredi; this is how they believe and they have the right to believe this way. It is the State that is also guilty of violence, for authorizing their every rampage; and we just carry on and keep quiet. If we don’t wake up to what is happening around us, we will very soon find ourselves living on the corner of Meah Shearim [an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem] and Tehran.”

She is right. And the problem isn’t restricted to Israel. While we focus our attention on global civilizational clashes, there are intra-civilizational clashes that are no less important, indeed which may prove even more important. This clash is between religious extremists and religious moderates. True, you may find both to be steeped in ignorance and wish to see today’s gods go the way of Zeus and Thor, but that isn’t going to happen. What must happen, if religion is to further human progress, is that the ultra-Orthodox of every religion must be dethroned. There is still a sense among too many (even too many liberals) that being fanatical for your god is a good thing; that liberal religionists are weak willed and inauthentic; and that only the extremists are true to their faith. Liberals need to speak up more loudly; they need to affirm the legitimacy of their faith more powerfully; and challenge the haredi of every religion whenever the faith spills over into abuse. The alternative is to surrender faith to the fanatics and allow whatever good religion can do to get lost in the fog of fear that is the haredi mindset.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Horror and Humility

[I was invited to speak at a community worship service in Nashville last night. The goal was to bring the community together after the devastating flood that took so many lives and caused over a billion dollars in damages. This is what I said:]

There is only one religious response to the tragedy of the Nashville flood, and that is humility.

Some among us will opt for anger, decrying and even denying the god who assigned shores to the sea (Proverbs 8:29), and yet who seemed indifferent to the banks of the Cumberland.

Some will see in this horror the wrath of a god fashioned in their image that is only too willing to strike down the innocent with the presumed guilty in the name of whatever hatred fuels the heart of these so-called believers.

And some will see in their personal escape from damage and death, the blessing of a god also constructed in their image that blesses them while sweeping away their neighbors’ homes, livelihoods, and even lives.

To the first I offer encouragement: let your anger burn hot, so hot that it sears away your simplistic faith and its denial of the wildness of life, and the impermanence of all who live it. I envy your opportunity to grow.

To the second I offer compassion, for your god and your lives are haunted by fear, and your hearts are stripped of love, and you are forced to live in an arid world defined by condemnation and hate. I pity your inability to love.

To the third I offer contempt, despising your narcissism–drenched god that allows you to imagine you are somehow blessed while your neighbors are cursed. I despise your smugness.

You fools, haters, and drunkards numbed by cheap grace, are like the friends of Job offering dark counsel without knowledge (Job 38:2). And like those ancient friends, your advice is to be ignored.

There is only one religious response to the tragedy of the Nashville flood, and that is humility.

Humility reminds us that we are in the dark as to why things happens—good things and bad things—all things arising from unknowing and dissolving into unknowing, and

Humility is the art of standing naked in the maddening whirlwind that is the Divine. Humility is the truth that arises when we admit we do not know and cannot know what will befall us or why. Humility leaves us, like our brother Job, surrendered to the dust of our own existence and yet in dialogue with God, the true God, the wild God of the wild universe who cannot be reduced to our image, who cannot be restricted to our likes and dislikes, whose mouth cannot be stuffed with our own prejudice, who offers us no surety, safety, or security, but only the capacity to live and love in their absence.

And when we dare to be humbled, when we dare to be broken as individuals, families, and as a community, then and only then can we find that love.

The flooding of the Cumberland isn’t a gift, but we may choose to be gifted by it. The terrible loss of life and property is not a blessing, but we may choose to make it an opportunity for grace and goodness by allowing our brokenness and grief to lead us from passion to compassion.

If we allow ourselves to feel the pain of loss; if we allow ourselves to share the pain of our neighbors; if we do not rush to excuse or condemn or praise; if, like Job, we have the courage to sit in the ruin of our lives and open our hearts so wide as to be capable of accepting—without blessing or cursing—the good and the bad; if we can do this we can love, and through love we can heal, and through healing we can build a community made stronger by tragedy, and washed clean of fear, prejudice, and hate.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol haolam, v’imru amen: Blessed is source of peace who offers us a path to peace, and blessed are we made poor by suffering who may yet be made rich through love. We call upon the One manifest as each and all, that we may find the courage to make peace in our selves, in our families, in our community, and in all the world. And let us say amen.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Free Markets, Closed Minds

The Christian Legal Society (CLS), a college club for law students, discriminates against homosexuals. OK, that’s their right. But when they want other students to financially support them through student fees, they cross a line that should not be crossed.

The first amendment allows for all kinds of bias and discrimination, but it doesn’t obligate others to pay for it. Yet that is what the CLS is arguing before the Supreme Court in its case against University of California’s Hastings College of Law. Hastings refused to fund CLS because it violated the college’s policy that student groups funded by student fees levied on all students must be open to all students. Since CLS isn’t open to homosexuals, student fees cannot fund it.

Supporters of CLS argue that this would force the group to let homosexuals join, and, if they have the numbers, take over. This is nonsense. The college didn’t say the group has to admit homosexuals, it just said it won’t use student funds to support student groups that discriminate against some students. Do what you want, just don’t expect the rest of us to pay for it.

Most likely the Supremes will complicate the issue so as to either avoid ruling meaningfully, or to force Hastings to use student monies to fund CLS, hence forcing gay students to pay for their own discrimination. But the issue is really quite simple: you can form whatever clubs you want; just don’t make everyone pay for it. Student fees should go to support only those student clubs open to all students.

For example, Jewish clubs that restrict membership or leadership to Jews are fine; just don’t make nonJews pay for them. Anti-Semitic groups that refuse to accept Jewish members are kosher; just don’t make Jews pay for them. If students in restricted clubs can’t raise the funds to support their clubs, then those clubs will fail. It is called the free market.

Why is it that conservatives like the Christian Legal Society only like capitalism when it favors them?

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Thank God for Franklin Graham

Thank God for Rev. Franklin Graham. In an interview with USA TODAY (May 5, 2010), Rev. Graham reminded us that “Muslims do not worship the same ‘God the Father’ I worship,” and he poked fun at Hinduism saying, “No elephant with a hundred arms can do anything for me. None of their 9,000 gods is going to lead me to salvation.”

Brother Graham is right. Allah doesn’t have kids. Neither does YHVH. And Ganesha, the elephant headed God of Hinduism, has nothing to do with Original Sin, a sin original to Christians alone. Different gods for different bods, so to speak.

“We are fooling ourselves, “ Rev. Graham said, “if we think we can have some big kumbaya service and all hold hands and its all going to get better in this world. It’s not going to get better.”

I like this guy. He tells it like it is. Peoples of different faiths can come together and build houses with Habitat for Humanity, but when push comes to shove, shove comes to genocide, jihad, and crusade.

Religions get along as long as they never come into contact with one another. When they do things always go badly. Those of us who imagine a kumbaya moment don’t know much history, and don’t take competing religious claims all that seriously. I understand why Southern Baptist ministers were told by their leadership not to participate in interfaith services after 9/11—it seems to lend credibility to the false gods of the other religions. God forbid.

The Rev. Graham is in the news, however, not because of his soothsaying, but because the Pentagon invited and then disinvited him to lead a prayer service there. It seems that the Kumbaya League complained because he called Islam an “evil religion.”

I agree with both Pentagon decisions. Given our addiction to oil, and love of empire, the Pentagon was probably right to disinvite Rev. Graham and thereby avoid upsetting our Muslim citizens and allies. But this is a tactical move, not a strategic one. As war becomes perpetual, war profiteering becomes a greater and greater driver of our economy, and building larger armies the only way to employ growing legions of unemployed young men and women, it may be necessary for the Pentagon to turn its soldiers into Christian Crusaders, and a new invitation to Rev. Graham will be warranted.

Think about it: a war fought for profit is difficult to staff. But a war fought for God can go on forever. And a forever war is where we seem to be headed. Its good for business, both God’s and banker’s.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Piety, Politics, and the Penis: a Deadly Combination

Just when you thought we could once again focus our clergy scandals on Catholic pedophiles, the Baptists horn in with yet another “I Hate Homosexuals! I hate them, I hate them, I hate them, I am one” scandals. This time it’s Reverend George Alan Rekers, a major player in anti-homosexual politics of the Christian Right, who Miami New Times reveals to be a major player with homosexuals themselves.

Caught with a male prostitute from, Rev. Rekers, co-founder with James Dobson of the Family Research Council, claimed that he had just had surgery and had hired the man-toy to carry his luggage. Is that a euphemism for balls? Maybe, but I want to take Rev. Rekers at his word.

To get my facts straight, I dialed randomly and spoke to a man who had no idea what I was talking about. According to him, Rev. Rekers might have mistaken the “t” in for a cross, so maybe he thought he was hiring a Christian luggage carrier like that guy Simon whom the Romans tapped to carry the cross of Jesus when Jesus himself was too beat to do so.

So I called a few male prostitutes to see of they would be willing to, you know, carry my luggage. No, I didn’t use, that would be a violation of my integrity. Or is that an abomination of my integrity? Anyway, I had a few cards in my desk draw that turned out to be from gay prostitutes. I have no idea how they got in there, especially as I am totally opposed to all things homosexual so I certainly wouldn’t have taken any card from any gay prostitute or if somehow a gay prostitute’s card ended up in my hand I certainly would not have put it in my draws or if somehow a gay prostitute got into my draws I would have a better excuse than some surgery related luggage problem. If I were Rev. Rekers I would have said I was doing family research for the Family Research Council. It’s what we do.

Anyway, I don’t care whom Rev. Rekers has sex with, and I imagine you don’t either. Which is the point: unless there is rape, exploitation, or abuse we shouldn’t care who sleeps with whom. Two consenting adults or one consenting adult and a consenting—did you hear me, I said consenting—animal can do whatever they want. But when you are a holier-than-thou Christian fundamentalist who makes the hatred and oppression of homosexuals the centerpiece of your religion and politics, and when you turn out to be gay yourself, you should be fed to the lions.

Religion in this country would be a whole lot better off if no one with a penis were allowed to get involved with it.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Hazing Arizona

A lot of people should have been asking me about my opinion of the anti-illegal immigration law passed recently in Arizona. Just in case you were one of them, I thought I would share my thoughts with you. If you aren’t one of them, skip this paragraph and start with the next one.

Here are my thoughts on the Arizona anti-illegals law. I am a patriotic and loyal American born 298 days after the Fourth of July. As a good American I tend to agree with other good Americans about things. In this case 39% of Americans support the law and 30% oppose it. So I support it. Another 31% say they never heard of it, and if that number grows I may never have heard of it either, but right now I have heard of it and it seems that I support it.

Why do I support it? Because it doesn’t do anything to stop illegals from illegally crossing the Mexican—US border, and because it gives police officers more to do, and because it allows them to say, “May I see your papers please,” which is a line from Firesign Theater that I always wanted to say but had no real occasion to say it and now I can think about becoming a police offer in Arizona so I can say it.

I also like the idea because my grandparents were illegal aliens. At least that is what the Nazis said. So when they came to Ellis Island my maternal grandfather changed his name from something no one remembers to Cohen which sounded much more American to him. He also claimed to be born on December 25 so that people could buy him stuff on sale. My grandfather was very thoughtful that way.

I also like the idea because it will create lots more jobs. To avoid being stopped by the police Hispanics (legal and otherwise) will lighten their skin color, get fitted with blue contacts, and learn to speak English without an accent like they do here in Middle Tennessee. All of this will raise the demand for skin lightening technicians, eye doctors and optometrists, and ESL teachers from Middle Tennessee. So it is good for the economy.

If it works as planned I can see laws singling out other racial and ethnic groups. Africans ought to carry papers proving they are freed-blacks, and I think Jewish men should be stopped by the police and asked, “Can I see your penis, please?” Who knows what kind of new jobs this will bring?

Anyway, just in case the majority of American’s change their minds and oppose this bill, let me suggest one way to get around racial profiling. They can’t profile you if you don’t walk sideways. Every time you see a police office walk straight toward them. This way they can’t see your profile. This works especially well with Jews since it is harder to measure the nose when not in profile. True the Nazis didn’t care, but we aren’t there. Yet.