Tuesday, December 6, 2016

What Child Is This

it is interesting how seemingly unrelated things sometimes converge to make connections in our minds.  during this time of year, my wife and i watch lots of holiday movies, some great, like "it's a wonderful life," some not-so-great and pretty sappy.  though the election is over, we live near louisiana, and there is a senate race there that won't be finished until next week, so we are still having political ads for that election foisted on us as we watch tv.  it's the connection between a couple of these movies and one particular political ad that has infected my brain.

in one movie, the female lead is shown practicing yoga.  she and her adult daughters no longer attend the church where they used to sing in the choir.  they seem to have joined the "spiritual but not religious" movement, but, in the end when all the conflicts in the story are resolved, we see the mom in her choir robe singing in the church choir again.  she steps forward out of the choir, a spotlight shines on her, she invites her family to come to the chancel where they are substitutes for the holy family in her closing solo.

in the second movie, set in the "wild west," an outlaw is responsible for accidentally killing the pastor of a church in a small town in the aftermath of a bank robbery.  as he dies, the pastor tells the man that he can change, that every wrong act can be forgiven.  in his remorse, the outlaw flees the scene to live a life of seclusion.  his two partners seek him out, an argument ensues, and, in the process of trying to escape, he is shot and left to die by his former friends.   a woman and her two children find the man alive near their farm, take him into their home, and nurse him back to health.  every night she reads the children a bible story, and the two stories that stick in the mind of the injured outlaw are those of the prodigal son and the good samaritan.  the outlaw becomes a changed man, falling in love with the widowed woman and helping her care for her two children and the farm.  in the end, we discover that the pastor he killed was the woman's husband and the children's father, but they forgive him, recognizing that he is not the same man who killed their husband and father.

in the commercial, the conservative candidate lists his "core beliefs."  one of them is, "i believe in God; the second is, "i believe we don't owe anything to illegals;" another is "i believe in love, but i believe in carrying a handgun just in case."  i've heard his beliefs so many times that i mute the tv every time i see his face.

all three of these that i've described trouble me:  the first movie by its vague religiosity that finally leads to a mawkish recreation of the christmas manger tableau, the second movie by its insistence that change for the good requires becoming a christian, and the commercial by the candidate using "God," "illegals" "love," and "carrying a handgun" as non-too-subtle codewords to appeal to his evangelical base.  of the three, i found the redemption movie the least bothersome, despite its insistence on christianity as the only path to change; in it, the woman and her children care for the injured outlaw, acting as his "good samaritan," and in the process, they are able to let go of the loss of the pastor-husband-father and move on with their lives, while the outlaw finds a way to forgive himself and to make amends for his past actions.

the religiosity of these three--the two movies and the political ad--is what ties them together in my mind.  this idea that religion, and particularly the christian religion, is the only effective way to do good in the world is offensive.  i sometimes think that God laughs at our use of religion as a means of separating the "good" from the "bad," those following our brand of religion being the good, while everyone else is bad.  i wonder if the real truth isn't that we are born with the ability to be both good and bad, and religion or lack of religion has little to do with which prevails in our lives.  rather, it is the choices we make, the skillfulness with which we live our lives, and the influence of those who surround us in our formative years that determines whether good or evil fills our hearts.

may we take responsibility for our own choices.  may we overcome bad influences and relish good ones.  may we try to live more skillfully each day that we are given.  may the true meaning of christmas, the potential for good that the birth of every child brings to the world, fill us during this season.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

All We Like Sheep

from time to time, i read an article about a drive to rename a building on a college campus or to remove a statue that some find objectionable.  while it is honest and instructive to examine the lives of those who are revered as great men and women from the past, acknowledging both their faults and their virtues, in my view, it is a mistake to condemn them for their flaws if we do not honor their notable achievements.

recently a number of teachers and students at the university of virginia criticized the president of the university for quoting the university's founder, thomas jefferson, in a letter to the university community.  thomas jefferson was a slave owner who was enriched by the forced labor of those he owned.  he fathered several children by one of those slaves, never freeing her nor acknowledging their children.  he held racist views that are rightfully condemned.  at the same time, he was an intellect of the first rate, a champion of our fledgling republic, the author of our declaration of independence, and our third president.  his views on slavery were conflicted, and, like many of his fellows, he did not see a way out the moral morass of an economic system dependent on this vile institution in the near future.  that the president of the university jefferson founded should be chastised for quoting its founder seems to be an exercise in political correctness that goes too far.

i understand the need to expunge the name of a person like nathan bedford forrest, a man who needlessly killed hundreds of black union soldiers during the civil war and who founded the ku klux klan after the south's defeat in that war, from the many buildings, streets, and other constructions which are named in his honor.  such a person is unworthy of honor, but to relegate people like woodrow wilson to the dustbin of history seems incongruous.  we must acknowledge that wilson held racist views and suppressed dissent during our participation in the first world war, but he also did much good in promoting world peace and working to engage our country in a role of leadership in making the world a better place, ruining his health in the process.  here is a man who is worthy of both honor and condemnation, a man who was flawed, as we all are, but one who sought to do good despite his imperfections.

the list of the great whose faults were long ignored and who were portrayed as paragons of super-human virtue is lengthy, and it is imperative that we re-examine their lives, in the process acknowledging their humanity.  their greatness lies in the fact that, despite mistakes and views worthy of condemnation, they did great good; the fact that they were human beings with warts and blemishes ought to inspire each of us to do whatever good is possible within our own limitations.

may we not be so ready to condemn others while we ignore our own failings.  may we see that we are all human, capable of both good and bad actions.  may we strive to live skillfully and forgive our own failings to do so.  may we be generous to both ourselves and to others.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

I Lift My Lamp

a few days ago my wife and i took a day trip to visit three small towns near our home, shopping for christmas gifts along the way.  this loop took us through some beautiful countryside, and several off-the-beaten-path communities.  looking at several confederate flags waving in isolated yards along the way, we were reminded of the racism that has surfaced during the past election campaign and the days of transition leading to donald trump's inauguration.  one home had a united states flag, a confederate flag, and a christian flag displayed on tall flagpoles near the highway.  we wondered how the three could be reconciled.

the analyses of the votes cast during the election has begun, and it is apparent that, in large measure, trump owes his victory to the overwhelming support of white evangelicals, 81% of whom voted for him.  their support, coupled with the failure of some key groups to turn out to vote for secretary clinton in several battleground states, enabled a candidate who espoused racist, mysogynistic views to prevail.  those of us who supported hilliary clinton are heartened that she has won the popular vote, and calls for the abolition of the electoral college have grown stronger and more numerous.  after all, this is the second time in the last twenty years that a progressive candidate has won the popular vote, while losing the election due to the peculiarity of the electoral college system.

we cannot say with accuracy that the american populace has abandoned the progressive philosophy.  we can trace the failure of hilliary clinton and al gore to win elections to a compromise made when the constitution was drafted over two hundred years ago.  in order to assuage the fears of small, less populous states the electoral system was established to give more weight to the states whose leaders were afraid that they would be overwhelmed by the more populous states, just as the founders compromised on the counting of slaves as part of the population, deciding that a slave was only 3/5 of a person in counting the population of a state.  this abominable decision was reversed by a bloody civil war that freed the slaves and made them 5/5 of a person for purposes of the census and voting power, thus increasing the electoral power of the states that had formerly been "slave states."

throughout the history of the usa there has been this battle between the forces of progressive and regressive policies.  in the aftermath of the civil war, a regime of "reconstruction" was instituted that insured that southern whites would develop a sense of alienation from the rest of the nation, a sense that has persisted for amost 150 years.  these draconian measures alienated the poor white southerners from the newly freed slaves, and it was not until the era of franklin delano roosevelt that a common bond between these two groups was forged, a bond that was broken when progressive policies were enacted that insured that full voting rights would be extended to black americans in the south.

regressive policies, like the poll tax, that made it difficult for blacks to exercise the right to vote were abolished.  the civil rights movement worked to register large number of black southerners, often with great resistance from the white political establishment in southern states.  the voting rights act gave black americans, who were overwhelmingly loyal to the party of fdr, new tools for their own enfranchisement and placed restrictions on powerful white "states' rights" advocates in the south.  the result was a stark division in party affiliation between white and black southerners, giving rise to a strengthened republican party in a region that had been uniformly loyal to the democrats.

once again we have seen measures adopted to disenfranchise black southerners and other minorities.  ascendant republicans in southern state houses and legislatures have instituted identification requirements for voting, purged voter rolls willy-nilly, decreased the days available for early voting, reduced the number of polling stations and the hours for voting, making it more difficult for those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder to vote.  the supreme court has removed most of the restrictions on white power that were part of the voting rights act, undoing much that this legislation accomplished.  these regressive policies played a role in the republican victory in the latest election.

many factors contributed to trump's victory, but the fact remains that a majority of americans voted in favor of the more progressive of the two major-party candidates.  the liberal political philosophy in the usa is not dead, though the archaic constitutional election process dealt it a blow.  the forces of progressivism must regroup and prepare for the next election in two years.  perhaps the policies of the new administration will create a sense of "buyer's remorse" among those who cast a protest vote by voting for mr. trump, and the democratic party will field candidates that will cause these angry voters to return to their democrat roots.  history has a way of surprising us, and it may be that this latest election was a quirk that will be reversed.

as we look forward to the ultimate victory of progressivism in the usa and the world, may we stay true to our principles.  may we oppose the forces of regression which see those who are different as "others" who are to be ostracized.  may the progressive ideals that protect those who have come through the "golden door" to find freedom and prosperity in this country ultimately prevail.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

And Crown Thy Good

last wednesday morning i woke to find that what i feared when i went to sleep the night before was indeed a reality:  donald trump had been elected the 45th president of the united states.  when tuesday evening's election results began coming in, i was optimistic that hillary clinton would be victorious, as reports of her carrying most of the northeast and illinois countered trump's early wins in the southeast.  all of this was consistent with what the polls had predicted, and i was confident that the democratic candidate would carry the west cost, colorado, new mexico, and all the "rust belt" states around the great lakes except ohio.  some of that proved to be the case, but when i finally went to sleep shortly after midnight, trump was leading in wisconsin, michigan, pennsylvania, and new hampshire.  i knew that it was likely that the unthinkable, seemingly impossible, victory of demagoguery was probable, but i hoped against hope that some sudden surge of uncounted votes would swing the election away from trump.

on that wednesday morning, i was fearful for the millions of undocumented aliens in our country.  when trump is inaugurated, will a huge "deportation force" begin rounding them up and loading them on trains and planes for mexico, breaking up families and disrupting their lives and the economy in the process?  will trump be able to dismantle the affordable care act, leaving millions of americans in a healthcare limbo, with lost insurance coverage in the middle of treatments for major illnesses?  will the senate begin considering a replacement for justice scalia who will move the supreme court to the right and undo the decisions protecting the rights of women and extending marriage equality to all our people?  will we break trade agreements and mutual defense pacts with our allies, throwing the world into greater chaos?  will laws protecting the environment be repealed or gutted?  will international treaties to reverse the damages of climate change be abrogated?  will the rights of workers be diminished?

i am very afraid, and my heart aches for all those who will suffer if the agenda trump has promised is enacted.  what can i do in the face of the fascism that seems to have taken over our country?  will republicans in congress who opposed trump have the courage of their convictions and come to the aid of those who will be hurt by trump's policies, or will they celebrate a partisan victory while throwing millions of the residents of our country under the bus?  will democrats find a way to work with moderate republicans to prevent the worst aspects of the new president's policies from becoming law, or will have four years of legislative gridlock?

so many questions, so much angst, such a feeling of powerlessness.  may we come to our senses.  may we be filled with compassion rather than anger.  may wisdom prevail.  may we reach out to those whose anger propelled mr. trump into office and see their humanity, even as we demonstrate lovingkindness for those against whom their anger was directed.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

In Reason's Ear They All Rejoice

as i drove down a street i seldom travel in our town a few days ago, i saw a billboard with a picture of a man dressed in a suit speaking into a microphone.  the caption on the bottom of the billboard said, "you can't explain it, you just have to experience it," along with the name of a church that is, i suppose, led by the man pictured on the billboard.  my immediate thought was that this is what is wrong with so much in our culture and with so many christian churches.  the suggestion is that it's acceptable, indeed preferable, to set reason aside and blindly follow a strong leader.  let you life be ruled by feel-good pop philosophy and unthinking acceptance of the most irrational beliefs and all will be well this school of "thought" asserts, and many are willing to fall prey to just such an unthinking approach to the most important decisions we make in life.

we've seen this sort of absurdity play out in this year's presidential election.  one candidate can make the most absurd statements, blithely tell lies that are easily rebutted by his own words, imply that our national problems can be blamed on "certain groups," and make insulting remarks about women and anyone who crosses him, and his followers cheer him on.  a relative who supports him told me today that he admires this man for figuring out to avoid paying income tax while living in the lap of luxury and refusing, on the flimsiest pretexts, to pay his creditors, telling me that this only demonstrates "how brilliant he is."  this relative said, "all rich people do this, and, if i were smart enough, i'd do the same."  as long as donald trump says what his followers want to hear, no matter how repugnant his conduct, they support him without questioning his many policy inconsistencies, and religious fundamentalists endorse him while his actions run contrary to the values they purport to embrace.

the strong strain of anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-education populism in this country empowers those who refuse to examine issues in a rational, thoughtful way and plays into the racism and sexism that has long been the dark underbelly of the national psyche.  this anti-rationalism condemns those who challenge the status quo and brands those whose ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or life-style are outside the dominant culture as "others" who are to be feared and ostracized.  if "you can't explain it," you need to question it and search for explanations, and, if you can "experience it," there must be a basis for that experience.

may we use our minds to understand, rather than thoughtlessly accepting.  may we challenge our own beliefs and those of others until they can be proved.  may we embrace learning rather than fearing it or ridiculing it.  may wisdom based on reason be our goal, and may we not embrace those who reinforce our prejudices.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

As in Our Daily Life We Struggle

my wife and i own a timeshare, and, on the trip from which we've just returned, we used our timeshare points to stay at a resort where we've never stayed before.  we are often asked to attend an "informational meeting" when we visit a timeshare, and we usually decline.  this time we decided to attend, as the man scheduling the meetings assured us there were changes in the ways we could utilize our timeshare that we would learn about in the hour-long meeting.

the next morning we showed up at the appointed time.  we were kept waiting for ten minutes before being shown into the meeting room, where we joined several other couples.  what was to have been an hour-long meeting, drug on for almost two hours, starting with the large group presentation filled with lists of complicated processes and types of timeshare memberships, followed by a meeting with two individuals who couldn't provide written explanations of the products they were trying to sell us but did provide misinformation in response to questions that we asked.  when we finally brought the session to an end by pointing out that the promised time limit had been exceeded and that we had other things we wanted to do, we managed to avoid displaying our anger or being rude, though it took self-control on the part of both my wife and me.

we left feeling mad and depressed.  how had we allowed ourselves to be placed in this situation again?  every "informational meeting" we've attended with the timeshare company has ended this way, and we were upset with ourselves for being rooked into this situation again.  we promised ourselves, as we have before, never to agree to another of these sales pitches, no matter how charming the scheduler who approaches us.  as we reflected on the encounter, we agreed that the two people with whom we met were not interested in our well-being.  they were only concerned with lining their own pockets and those of the company they represented.  we wondered how many of the couples scattered around the room in cubicles with "personal representatives" had succumbed to their sales pitch.

we enjoyed the rest of our trip, and the resorts where we stayed were comfortable and well-maintained.  we've never regretted purchasing our timeshare and make use of our ownership frequently, as do our children.  we won't limit ourselves to traveling only when we can stay at a timeshare resort, as the company would like us to, and we'll continue to travel in our own way, not their way.  i suppose it's human nature to want to persuade others to act in ways that are advantageous to oneself, even when those actions harm another, but one has only to stop and think to realize that there's a better way to live.  why not think first of the effect of an action on the other person and look for ways that are mutually beneficial?

may we not adopt an "us or them" philosophy of life.  may we regard the needs of others as being as important as our own needs.  may we see others as we see ourselves, never enriching ourselves at the expense of others.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

On the Road Again

this week my wife and i are traveling in the mountains of tennessee and north carolina, and i plan to write about our experiences in the next couple of posts, but, for now, i'm taking the week off.  may we all have safe and enjoyable travels wherever we happen to be.  shalom.