06 November 1995

Sex Education 101

If not making love, at least taking care

Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason. — Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, 1891
First of all, VCBC has to point out that the longer you wait, the better it is. Second, the best it ever gets is when you are in good health in a good marriage. Like championship ballroom dancing, it takes lots of practice with one partner.

Since these points seem to be lost on the majority of teenagers today, we here at VCBC would like you to survive the experience(s) with minimal harm to yourself and others. To that end, we have a few guidelines for those who cannot abstain until marriage.
  1. Never have sex with someone you don't at least like and respect. Otherwise, you may end up disliking and disrespecting yourself.

  2. Never, ever, under any circumstances, for any reason — no matter how exciting or adventurous or kind or caring it may seem — never have sex with anyone crazier than yourself. Ignoring this guideline is a quick way to derail your life. Or even end it.

  3. Keep the number of different people you have sex with low. Promiscuity doesn't just put you and your partners at risk, it harms the whole society by creating an ecological niche for the sexually transmitted diseases of the future to occupy. That is to say, if you screw around, you are helping to create the conditions for the next pandemic. AIDS is not the first, the last, nor the worst of these.

    Besides, if you screw around a lot, we all know you're just using people as objects of gratification, which violates guideline number one. Or else you're trying to fill the hole in your soul with sex, because you're don't think you're worth love.

  4. Remember that the person you're having sex with is in your care. This means that we want you to do what you can to protect your partner's physical and emotional health (as well as your own). After all, a euphemism for having sex is "making love," and loving means taking care, at the very least. This covers everything from safer sex practices to being very careful if you get into sadomasochism (yes, there are even safer ways to do that).

  5. If you're straight, get informed about, and use effective methods of birth control, until you and your partner are really ready to make a commitment to each other and to your children.

    It takes a lot of money, long hours, and lots of love to raise a child well. And a mature patience to be happy going without enough sleep or time to yourself, and having spit-up on your clothes and diaper doo on your hands.

05 November 1995

The Antithesis of Science (and Religion)

Excerpt reproduced from John Carey's editorial introduction to the Faber Book of Science with his permission. Thanks to Tom Richards for sending this to VCBC.
Resistance to science among what Ortega y Gasset calls "cultured men," has sometimes been strengthened by the objection that science is godless and amoral. Both charges need some qualification. It is perfectly possible to for a scientist to believe in God, and even to find scientific evidence for God's existence. To sceptics this might suggest a nutty combination of laboratory-bore and Jesus-freak. But when a scientist of the standing of James Clerk Maxwell's eminence uses molecular structure as an argument for the existence of God, few will feel qualified to laugh. Of course, atheistical scientists are plentiful, too. The zoologist Richard Dawkins has voiced the suspicion that all religions are self-perpetuating mental viruses. But since everything science discovers can, by sufficiently resolute believers, be claimed as religious knowledge because it must be part of God's design, science cannot be regarded as inherently anti-religious.

On the contrary, its aims seem identical to those of theology, in that they both seek to discover the truth. Science seeks the truth about the physical universe; theology, about God. But these are not essentially distinct objectives, for theologians (or, at any rate, Christian theologians) believe God created the Universe, so may be contacted through it. Admittedly, many scientists insist that that science and religion are irreconcilable. The neuropsychologist Richard Gregory has declared: "The attitude of science and religion are essentially different, and opposed, as science questions everything rather than accept traditional beliefs." This does less than justice to religion's capacity for change. The whole Reformation movement in Europe was about not accepting traditional beliefs. It might be objected that science depends on evidence, while while religion depends on revealed truth, and that this constitutes an insuperable difference. But for the religious, revealed truth is evidence. Theology might, without any paradox, be regarded as a science, committed to persistently questioning and reinterpreting the available evidence about God. True, by calling itself 'theology'it appears to take it for granted that God (theos) exists, which, scientifically speaking is a rather careless usage. However, there is no reason why theological research should not lead the researcher to atheism, and no doubt it often has, just as (we have seen) scientific research has led some researchers to God.

The real antithesis of science seems to be not theology but politics. Whereas science is a sphere of knowledge, politics is a sphere of opinion. Politics is constructed out of preferences, which it strives to elevate, by the mere multiplication of words, to the status of truths. Politics depends on personalities and rhetoric; social class, race and nationality are elemental to it. All these are irrelevant to science. Further, politics relies, for its very existence, upon conflict. It presupposes an enemy. It is essentially oppositional, built on warring prejudices. If this oppositional structure were to collapse, politics could not survive. There could be no politics in a world of total consensus. Science, by contrast, is a cooperative not an oppositional venture. Of course, the history of science resounds with ferocious argument and the elaboration and destruction of rival theories. But when consensus is reached, science does not collapse, it advances. Another crucial difference is that politics aims to coerce people. It is concerned with the exercise of power. Science has no such designs. It seeks knowledge. The consequence of this difference is that politics can and frequently does use violence (war, genocide, terrorism) to secure its ends. Science cannot. It would be ludicrous to go to war to decide upon the truth or otherwise of the second law of thermodynamics.

01 November 1995

Splendor is as Splendor Does

A Critique of the Encyclical Veritatis Splendor

[Truth's] first appearance to our eyes, bleared and dimmed with prejudice and custom, is more unsightly and unplausible than many errors...  — John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644

Veritatis splendor, the Splendor of Truth, is an open encyclical letter sent in August 1993 by the supreme pontiff, Pope John Paul II, to all the bishops of the Catholic Church, regarding certain fundamental issues of the Church's moral teaching. It is well written, closely reasoned, and often beautiful. But I have a few problems with it, and as they say, the devil is in the details.

Now I trust I can be forgiven for reading mail intended primarily for someone else — I'm neither Catholic nor a bishop — but as a Christian, I wanted to examine the line drawn by the man whose job is being the successor of Peter. Beyond that line, according to John Paul II, are acts that are intrinsece malum, intrinsically evil, at all times, under all circumstances, for all people. That is, in the Biblical commandments as interpreted faithfully by the Church, and especially in the prohibition of certain acts, we find an Absolute Morality based on Absolute Truth.

His Holiness begins by elaborating upon the idea in John's Gospel that Christ is the light that enlightens every one who comes into the world. He even treads close to the edge of Universalism by quoting the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) to the effect that non-believers who have not heard the Gospel, yet who strive to lead an upright life, may receive God's Grace.

John Paul II then notes that certain teachings in the secular world, as well as in the Church and her seminaries, seek to dissolve the "intrinsic and unbreakable bond" between faith and morality. That is, they undermine the meaning of morality itself and its place in the relationship between people and God. Such teachings include situation ethics and other forms of moral relativism.

To set things straight, His Holiness takes as his text the dialogue of Jesus with the rich young man, reported in Matthew 19. This is the dialogue in which Jesus said that to obtain eternal life the man must first keep the commandments, and then sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and become one of Jesus' followers. The man, rich in goods, but poor in spirit, rejected Jesus' offer, and "went away sorrowing." The apostles, realizing that they couldn't make such a sacrifice either, wondered aloud whether anyone could obtain eternal life. Jesus then answered them, "With God all things are possible."

Most of the papal exegesis of this passage is straightforward, and should be something upon which all Christians can agree. The Pope states that there can be no freedom, no authentic life apart from a commitment to truth, that Absolute Truth exists and makes itself known to humankind, and that the moral life is a loving response to the experience of that Truth.

However, His Holiness then stoops to lift up before his audience a strange, but customary, misreading of the Gospel. He claims that Christ rejects the right to divorce. Now Jesus did state that, despite its permission in Mosaic law, divorce is in most cases equivalent to adultery, but that is by no means a prohibition of divorce. He merely identified what you are doing when you get one. His statement is to be taken in context with Jesus's other pronouncements against the self-righteousness of those who believe themselves good because they think they keep the letter of the commandments while ignoring their spirit (such as, "Let one among you who is without sin cast the first stone," spoken about the woman taken in adultery, or "Whoever looks upon a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart"). That is, Jesus was using irony to communicate the idea that we condemn adulterers while at the same time thinking and doing what is nearly adulterous, thus convicting us of two sins — adultery and hypocrisy. The Mosaic law itself, as Jesus said, remains unchanged until the end of human history, which means that divorce is an allowed, if gravely disapproved, option.

Specifically, Jesus said that not one point of the Law would be changed "until all is fulfilled," which many Christians take to mean, "until after the Crucifixion." That's what Bonhoeffer termed "cheap grace," an absolution one confers upon oneself without reference (or deference) to God. Clearly all is not fulfilled because we are still here. Our lives are the fulfillment of God's intention for us, which intention is not fulfilled until we are finished living. Christians tend to willfully misinterpret that phrase because they wish to excuse themselves from keeping the 613 statements of Law in the Hebrew Bible. They are not excused. They may be forgiven, as when Peter forgave adult male Gentile converts to Christianity their obligation to become circumcised, but they are not excused.

Peter forgave them this obligation in order to enrich people's lives and liveliness by welcoming them just as they are into the family of God. If he had insisted on circumcision, he would have committed the evil of abusing the Law to diminish their lives by setting up impediments to their faith. When the choice was forced upon him, he chose to follow the Law's spirit rather than its letter. It would improve the practice of Christianity if all Christians, especially those in leadership roles, would do likewise. Otherwise, they are excusing themselves from following the laws they break, while condemning those who break the laws they follow. Such hypocrisy is equivalent to beating someone because their style of sin is different from your own. As Jesus said, "First take the log from your own eye, so that you can see clearly enough to take the speck of dust from your brother's eye."

This point about Law and Gospel brings us to the list that His Holiness quotes from Vatican II. This is the list of things which are intrinsically evil in their object (or aim), of things which in no way can be ordered to give due honor to God. Such acts include

Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free and responsible persons....

And, of course, His Holiness adds contraception to the list.

Might I point out a contradiction here? Let us accept that contraception is indeed a denial of the honor due to God because it allows us to abuse the gift of sexuality by separating it from the joyful submission to God's will regarding our possible subsequent parenthood. Nevertheless, given that whole populations cannot be expected to be abstinent, the proscription of birth control condemns millions of people to subhuman living conditions brought on by overpopulation. In other words, consistency demands that we consider the banning of contraception itself to be intrinsically evil according to the Vatican II list.

This is not to say that his Holiness is wrong to continue the ban on contraception. I simply point out that since contraception and banning contraception are both evil, the ban on contraception should not be absolute. Since it is evil, absolute prohibition of contraception cannot be an example of Absolute Morality based on Absolute Truth.

Now to choose the lesser of two evils, such as between banning and permitting contraception (or abortion), one needs a sense of their proportion, which is exactly what the Vatican II list lacks. For example, abortion is vastly different from the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Let us agree that an abortion kills at least a potential human being, that it is normally undertaken soley for that purpose, and that it is indeed incapable of being ordered to honor the Creator. However, quickly killing less-than-fully-sentient fetuses is far less cruel than slowly and systematically starving, overworking, overcrowding, and tormenting captive people until they are reduced from loving, sensitive, intelligent human beings into filthy, diseased, miserable creatures struggling like animals to survive one more day, so that when you finally torture them to death, it seems to you no worse than exterminating rats or other vermin. The Nazi genocide was a war against the soul, of both the victims and the perpetrators. Those who fail to see that it was vastly more monstrous than abortion are themselves capable of letting such a crime happen again.

This brings us to the real objection I have to Veritatis splendor — the point about faithful interpretation of Absolute Morality by the Church. Absolute Morality is too large to be contained in a set of proscriptions, because its basis, Absolute Truth, is too large to be encoded in mere language. (Otherwise we would have had a long speech instead of the Incarnation, which was a whole life.) The interpretation of Absolute Morality must be in deeds as well as words. And during the Holocaust, the Church did poorly.

To be blunt, it shames Christianity that a single Christian cleric anywhere in Europe escaped the concentration camps. With isolated exceptions like Bonhoeffer, the bulk of them laid low, choosing not to annoy the Regime. That is, when the Church was called to follow her Lord to the Cross, the Church shrank from her calling (like Peter denying his Lord three times before the cock crowed twice) and chose to be quiet, to outlast the Nazis, to survive, as did the current Pope.

As would I, left to my own devices. I'm no braver than the next man, but just because I would do a thing myself, does not make that thing right. In other words, when I criticize the Church on this point, I am only accusing my brethren of sharing our common humanity. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to say that the Church and her Magesterium catastrophically failed to speak and do the Truth in this century, and thereby contributed materially to the torture and massacre of millions. That is, the Church had the power to stop the Nazis early on through self-sacrifice, had she tried, and she did not try.

I therefore accept the notion of Absolute Morality based on Absolute Truth, but reject the Church, despite her Magesterium (divinely ordained doctrinal and moral teaching authority) as its sole or even its best interpreter, because she has disqualified herself from that role. Rather than a lover of Absolute Truth, she historically has been too often its fair-weather friend, speaking sternly when secure, staying silent when threatened. In other words, if I can't trust the Church for the Truth when the chips are down, how can I trust in other times that the Church is not speaking from a myopic and insensitive authoritarianism? How can I be sure the Church is not just bullying people in order to assert some power over their behavior?

Rather than trust the Church for Absolute Morality, I, Protestant that I am, trust God alone. Based on that trust, I call on the Church and its leaders to confess and to repent their contributory culpability for the Holocaust. Then they can overcome the hubris brought on by denial of their collective survivor guilt. Only then can they interpret the Biblical commandments with the humility that is necessary to approach anything like fidelity.

And while we can and indeed must forgive the Church her sin, both we and the Church must always remember. Let the Church speak more carefully then, like St. Peter, and be gentle with the Law that she may not herself oppress the people.

30 October 1995

Killing Christ

One of Humanity's Favorite Pastimes
1991 - 1995
He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth will proceed by loving his own sect of the church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all. — S. T. Coleridge: Aids to Reflection, 1825


Naked Church

The attribute of Zen Buddhism that I admire most is that it has no dogma (no predigested formulation) that its followers must accept. Zen adherents claim that Zen is Enlightenment, which is simply the constant, direct awareness of reality. This awareness is claimed to be so much clearer than the communal experience of reality we share in daily living that it is beyond language to describe. "He who speaks does not know, he who knows does not speak," is a standard Zen saying. Moreover, because Zen attempts to bridge the gap we Westerners feel between the self and God, Zen devotees venerate the Buddha, but they do not worship a personified god. Zen is very lean, without most of the trappings that we in the West usually associate with religion. Zen embraces concept of reincarnation and the practice of meditation (which is just discipline for awareness) but neither of these is essential to Enlightenment .

The central symbol of Zen is the Buddha. Tradition has it that he became so completely enlightened that he perceived and participated in the divine unity of all things in all the universes. He taught disciples, who then taught others, so that all beings might become enlightened. The symbol of the Buddha is used to spur students on to greater effort so that they, too, might become Buddhas.
The Christian Church, on the other hand, has lots of dogma, and confuses that dogma with the central symbol of Christianity, namely the event of Christ, the incarnation of God as a human being, his birth, life, death, and resurrection. I sometimes imagine the Church (all of it, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, LDS, you name it) to be a woman (the "Bride of Christ") standing in front of the Cross. She takes off her clothes (dogma), hanging them on the Cross until the Cross is hidden, and she is exposed. She then demands that we worship her clothes instead of the Cross beneath them. Our attention, however, is focused on her. In her worst instances (some televangelists, for example) the Church spends most of her time asking for more money so we can watch her strip again. My point is that dogma tells us much more about the Church (exposes it) than it does about God (covers Him up), and draws our attention away from God and toward the Church. To put it personally, any statement you make about God tells as much or more about you than it does about God. To put it bluntly, dispensing dogma instead of Grace (God's Love as discussed below and in a previous essay) is pornographic, and worshipping dogma instead of God is idolatrous.

This dogma is often based on telling people that they are somehow bad, that they have always been bad, that they get this badness from some ancient crime committed by their ancestors, and that they themselves can do nothing about it, except ask an angry, abusive parent of a god to make them clean and good again, like he originally made the ancestors. This is what psychologists rightly call "magical thinking" when engaged in by little children. When this dogma is conveyed to children it is a form of child abuse, aimed at using their own natural egocentric thinking and their primal fear of rejection to coerce their behavior. When it is conveyed to adults it is often an attempt to trigger the shame response in their "inner children," as John Bradshaw[1] might put it. It is based on an interpretation of the Genesis that I think is sinful, and perhaps even evil.[2]

But it is comfortable. It is easier for the inner child in each of us to live with childish shame over some magical condition, than it is to live with adult guilt for the way we lead our lives. We're used to shame - we've developed adaptations to it - so we cling to it in order to shield ourselves from the guilt we earn each day. Thus it is that many Christians can be permanently ashamed and hypocritical at the same time, and that they seek to make converts by projecting their shame onto others.
Another part of dogma is a set of rules for behavior and opinions to be accepted. The rules and opinions are dispensed by most Christian clergy, who play to an audience that is hooked on them, and that would sack a preacher who refused to satisfy their addiction. You see, it's much safer to measure one's imagined godliness against rules and opinions than it is to risk opening oneself to encounter with the Divine.

This practice of substituting dogma for awareness is very old. The Pharisees, the leaders of the church in which Jesus preached, hated the way Jesus challenged their dogma concerning the Sabbath, diet, cleanliness, and their usual practices of prayer and fasting, and feared his ability to draw crowds. So they measured him against their dogma, found him to be one of "them" rather than one of "us," and had him killed as a dangerous heretic (which was idolatrous because, given the choice between their dogmatic idea of God and God, the Pharisees chose their idea). After Jesus' ministry, the newly formed Christian Church continued the Pharisee's pattern of using dogma to distinguish between "us" and "them," as antagonism between Christian and non-Christian Jews intensified until Christianity became a separate religion.[3]

Labeling someone as "not us" is a common human behavior, called pseudospeciation, which means convincing oneself that someone or some group is less than human. "They" become the incarnation of the dark side of our own personalities, all the things we don't want to be. We declare them to be fair game to oppress and kill (thus we deny the existence of what we hate in ourselves by killing it in someone else). Pseudospeciation is a necessary precursor to group violence, such as genocide, lynching, gang-rape, gay-bashing, and war,[4] and it is one of the primary abuses of dogma. By using dogma to determine who is out, we reassure ourselves that we are in.

Dogmatic Christians of today pseudospeciate people into two classes, the Saved (us) and the Lost (them), despite clear scriptural statements that such a determination is the sole prerogative of Christ, who was Himself the victim of such judgments. Since dogmatic Christians direct real hostility against their chosen "thems" (I have only to remember abortion clinic bombings, statements like, "God doesn't hear the prayers of a Jew," or their opinions regarding gays and lesbians for examples), I see only superficial differences between them and the people who called out for Christ's (legal enough by the standards of the day) execution.


Bad News

Of course, labeling dogmatic Christians as Christ-killers may be justifiable, but it is incomplete. Just as in Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, there are many killers in this mystery.[5] If you think you differ in any important way from the people who killed Christ, what would you have done differently had you been there at the time - even knowing what you know now? Remember that Peter, the Rock upon whom the church was founded and who recognized Jesus as the Messiah, denied even knowing Jesus when the going got tough. That was humanity's best effort. Everyone around was either working for Jesus' death, calling for it, or passively allowing it to happen, except for the two robbers who were crucified with Jesus — the only people in this tableau that knew they had done something wrong.

Today, most folks are in the passive group, above, as evidenced by the Holocaust. It took very few people to kill the Jews, but it took the indifference or inaction of nearly everyone (including Americans with our then restrictive immigration policies) to let it happen. The church, however, had been in the second group, as a family friend reminded me recently. "I grew up in Germany," he said, "and one day a priest said of me to my friends, 'Don't play with him! He is a Jew, and his people murdered Christ!'" By acting like the Pharisees, by playing the "us versus them" game of pseudospeciation, the Christian Church fingered the victims, and set the stage for six million reenactments of the crucifixion.

And with all this, the Church still lies about who killed Christ. Either the church is vague about the question, or it teaches that the Jews did it, but we forgive them, or it still teaches that the Jews did it, period. The truth is that nearly every human being lives as if he or she would have aided, abetted, assented to, ignored, or otherwise done nothing to prevent the execution of Christ. The Jews were, as always, simply the Chosen People - in this case, the people God chose to be present at the time. (To anti-Semitic Christians, I point out that originally there were no Christians who were not Jews, that it took extreme action on God's part to convince Peter to allow non-Jews to become Christians, and that the Covenant relationship between God and Jews was not necessarily nullified by the event of Christ - it was enlarged to include the whole world. You can look it up in the book of Acts.[6]) Until the church unflinchingly teaches that reality in both sermon and confessional liturgy (an example follows this piece), it is giving aid and comfort to anti-Semitism, especially as it festers anew in the former Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States. It is aiding Christians in their denial of their true relationship with Christ, thus enabling them to continue blissfully crucifying Him. Until the Church confesses, the Bride of Christ is playing the harlot to Christian self-righteousness. (Yes, the Church as whore, an image Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea used in their day.)

The pastor as leader may say, "I can't preach that any mirror will show you a crucifier. The people just aren't ready to hear that yet." They never have been ready - that is the scandal of Christianity. Perhaps it is the role of the pastor as prophet (in the Old Testament sense) to tell them anyway. Besides, without that bad news, the pastor as minister can dispense "feel-good" talk for those of "us" who want to pretend we're not "them," but the pastor as preacher cannot really deliver the Good News - the Gospel of unasked for Forgiveness, of Love, of Grace.

There is a tremendous tension between the bad news and the Good News about ourselves and the Divine. For example, Luke 3:23-38 claims that Jesus descends from God through Adam - hinting that we, the people, are the sons and daughters of God. Can you imagine a pastor saying to the parents during a baptism, "God has given you God's child to cherish and raise as your own?" Or to the bride and groom during a wedding, "God has given you God's son/daughter to love as your husband/wife?" The Good News is and has always been incipient in us. But God as Jesus made it an event, to which we humans, the Children of God, responded by murdering our Brother, the Son of Man, because we didn't recognize him as one of "us" when he challenged our beliefs and actions.

That is, while we love Christ for his "feminine," nurturing, healing qualities, we would have crucified him for his "masculine," challenging, prophetic ones.[7] The large-eyed, passionless, obviously harmless Christ of popular imagination, portrayed in movies like "The Greatest Story Ever Told," is merely a comfortable image that many of us use to convince ourselves that we would never have wished him ill - instead of killing him in our hearts, we castrate him, and worship the resulting idol.[8]



Now if the Crucifixion is the Divine Indictment of us all as crucifiers, either through intent or neglect, the Resurrection is the Divine Reconciliation. Consider that the Apostles themselves had contributed to Jesus' execution by abandoning him, and at his death began to abandon even their belief in him and his teachings. And then, impossibly, he is back, telling them the adventure is only beginning, and enabling them to be a part of it. Not even their worst deed can keep Jesus from returning to love them so much that they go on to love others out of the sheer abundance of love. The Resurrection is Forgiveness through Love. Not forgiveness on condition that the Apostles, or you or I, believe or act a certain way - it is Forgiveness. No conditions, no qualifications, no limitations, not even adjectives. It is the reaching of the Divine into our essential Divine ("breath of God" - Genesis 2:7) nature.
This orthodox idea[9] contrasts with the popular idea of Christianity as an "if-then" proposition: "If I do this and believe that, then I will be acceptable to the Lord." For me and many others it is a "because-therefore" statement: "Because God accepts me therefore I am able to accept you."

Which is what many Christians seem to be missing. They want to pretend that somebody else killed Christ, because they're too ashamed to face it - because this Resurrection stuff just isn't real to them. They use the dogma as a little test to reassure themselves that they are part of the in-group, while everybody else is out. In this way they treat Jesus Christ as their intellectual property, worshipping what they expect of him, crucifying what they don't, and not letting anyone else have him. They criticize Jews and Muslims for having difficulty with the Divinity of Christ, while they themselves have difficulty with the Humanity of God[10] - difficulties which are two sides of the same coin. In other words, Christ is as big a stumbling block for Christians as he is for anybody else.

By difficulty with the Humanity of God, I mean that many Christians won't let God as Jesus be human. (There is an official name for this heresy — docetism.) They can't stand to think of Him doing human things like having sexual feelings or experiences, or even defecating (which is why I sometimes call them the Church of Christ, Constipated). In this manner they keep God far away, up in heaven, so that they can ignore the way they would have reacted to Him. To put it baldly, Jesus would strike most of us (as he struck his mother at one point) as a nut if he showed up as an ordinary person today. We would keep throwing him in jail for disturbing the peace, trespassing, loitering, and holding unregistered parades and demonstrations, and we would probably do him in again.

If this sounds far-fetched, think of the personality quirks of the two most obviously saintly men of modern times — Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom had difficulties with their sexuality,[11] both of whom spent time in prison, both of whom were assassinated because they might have kept people from fighting. We associate them with their crusades to illumine particular blind spots in human nature, which we may or may not share. But whatever blind spots we do have, those are the ones a figure like Jesus would challenge, and we in general would react badly (particularly if he started kicking over the pews in our churches).

The point is that we Christians could well stand to be humbler in our words, thoughts, and dealings with people of other religions. We are not sole owners of Truth, which only we can dispense, and only with our own set of words and symbols. I think whoever experiences Unconditional Love as an abiding Presence knows the Love of Christ, whatever he or she calls it. Who experiences that Love can communicate it, and feel confident that all truth is part of God's Truth, however he or she speaks of it, or acts it out. He or she can also feel humble in that no truth is all of the Truth.

In any event, rather than face God, or any other uncomfortable Truth, the Church clings to the abuse of dogma .[12] A lot of people, even angry, self-aggrandizing, control-taking people, can measure up to that. They think they're emulating God. But God showed up as an ordinary person, who was loving rather than dogmatic, and empowering rather than controlling. Two thousand years later the dogmatists are still trying to cover him up. They even argue among themselves concerning which pile of clothes is the right one. If they knew they were naked, they would be ashamed.


Parting Company

He sat at table leading his friends in a Seder , a combination banquet and religious celebration. Some of what he and his friends said and did may survive to this day in the Haggadah , the little book of prayers and hymns Jews use at Passover. The man himself had no Haggadah, because it would not be written until a generation after his death. Still, one can imagine the blessings, the recital of the story of the Exodus of Israel from slavery in Egypt, the wine, the meal, the good fellowship, the children's games, and the songs.

At one point the leader breaks bread - matzoth, because no yeast-bread is consumed during Passover in memory of the Israelites having no time to let their bread rise when they left Egypt. He hands the pieces to all present and asks them to remember him whenever they eat the Passover matzoth, to remember that they draw spiritual nourishment from his presence. After the dinner and the hymns he takes the extra cup of wine - perhaps the one left in hospitality for any stranger who might come, and which would later be called the cup of Elijah - and passes it around for all to drink. Again he asks them to remember him whenever they drink wine at Passover, to remember that their life is in him, and to remember his sacrifice. It is the last time he will celebrate Passover, for tomorrow the Romans will arrest him and, at the urging of the priests, put him to death. And every one of his friends will, in their own way, betray him.

He was the leader of yet another religious revitalization movement within Judaism, which was simmering with such movements.[13] Israel was again under the domination of a foreign power, Rome, the new Babylon, and people thought that only a return to the true faith would induce God to free them. But Christianity, the movement founded by the charismatic faith-healing rabbi of this Passover story would grow beyond Judaism to absorb and become influenced by the entire Graeco-Roman world.

Before that happened the Jewish revolts against Roman oppression in the first and second centuries triggered waves of persecution. The Christians, who by this time included Greeks and Romans unfamiliar with Jewish customs, made as great a distinction between themselves and Jews as possible, in order to avoid being persecuted with them. As a result Christians and Jews were persecuted separately rather than together, and developed a mutual animosity. What began with Romans persecuting Jews and Christians together proceeded with Jewish Romans like St. Paul persecuting Christians and ended with Roman Christians persecuting Jews. Christianity had forgotten its roots in Judaism and had fallen into the error of playing religion as a team sport with Christ as its mascot, rather than its Captain.

As this parting of the ways deepened, Christians celebrated a complete agape meal, or "love feast," for which they were accused of having orgies, but forgot that their meal originated in the Passover Seder (for which the Jews, who prized red wine for the occasion, were accused of drinking blood, even though consuming blood is strictly forbidden by Jewish dietary laws). Then the meal itself was discarded as the Church grew too big for it, leaving only the Communion wine and wafer, and a prejudice by which Christians would prove themselves crucifiers like everyone else.
I think it's time for Christians to find out what the Last Supper was like by getting friendly enough with Jewish families to get invited to their Seders once in a while. After all, we were once one community, and we hope that one way or another we will be again. Seder is an experience that must be lived rather than described, and a very important part of it (a religious requirement, in fact) is to have a good time. It might also teach Christians a thing or two about "family values."
Of course, if it goes against your belief, don't do it. On the other hand, some of my Catholic friends occasionally take one of my Jewish friends to Synagogue. I think I'll go myself - it's been a long time.


Eating J.C.

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has Brutus say, "Stoop, Romans, stoop, and let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood up to the elbows, and besmear our swords: then walk we forth, even to the market-place; and, waving our red swords o'er our heads, let's all cry 'Peace, freedom, and liberty!'" The idea is for the conspirators to go before the public to give their reasons for assassinating Caesar.
Now as Christians, we don't symbolically wash our hands in Christ's blood - we drink it in the form of wine. We symbolically eat his body in the form of bread, too. It's appropriate. As I've stated elsewhere, the human condition is that we crucify - among other things, we tend to perform overt and subtle acts of group violence, to aid them directly, or aid them by ignoring them. We do it by distinguishing compulsively between "us" and "them," because we find it easier to know who we are not, than who we are. In our willful ignorance we all tend to crucify Christ. Symbolically eating our Victim is a good way of reminding ourselves, of confessing, that we do so.

The standard Church imagery of Communion is that of Mother Church feeding her children, Shepherd Jesus feeding his flock the "Bread of Life," and all that. The nourishment imagery serves to remind us that we exist only by the power of God's Grace. And it is true that Christ, acting out the Divine generosity called Grace (which is the Forgiveness of Sin), fed his disciples both before and after they deserted him at his trial. After all, what better sign of forgiveness than a meal? The disciples abandon their leader in his hour of need, and he treats them to breakfast. But the Church also teaches that by taking the elements of Communion, we invite the Holy Spirit to enter our souls, to animate us, to make us new beings (to make us more than crucifiers) - just as cannibals eat their victims to gain some virtue, such as strength or courage, from the deceased. What started out as
 Rabbi Jesus celebrating Passover has become the ritual cannibalism of our God.

I take Communion. I think it good for us Christians to remember our nearness to being crucifiers and cannibals, and that we live not by bread alone, but by the Word of God. And that so great is God's Love that, as Jesus, he gave up his body, blood, and Spirit for the redemption even of his murderers.


In God's Name

One of the worst things the church ever taught was that Judas was a particularly bad man. I think he was a religious person just trying to be good, and that he was a little willful about it. He just distorted his perception of reality a little bit, so he could be a little more comfortable with it. Interpreting him as singularly evil makes us a little more comfortable with ourselves, which makes us a little more like him. Imagine the poor fellow set in our own times, visiting his analyst:

A: I understand that you've been, umm... uncomfortable in your faith, lately. Can you tell me about it?
J: Yes. Well, I've been going to this new church lately. We're so new we don't even have a building. We meet in people's houses, or even outdoors, to listen to this new preacher in town.
A: And how's that been for you?
J: It was good, at first, but then things started to go wrong. I should never have gotten involved.
A: Are you feeling ashamed of your involvement with this person?
J: Oh, no! He's a man of God, or at least he means to be. But now he's doing things that hurt the church, and he won't listen to me when I tell him what the problem is. He needs to change direction, or find another kind of ministry.
A: How is he upsetting you?
J: Well, he preaches humility, but he's actually very arrogant. Yesterday he walked into a real church like he owned the place. He insulted everybody there, including the pastor, and then he attacked some vendors in front of the church. I don't know why, maybe he thought he saw someone selling drugs. Anyway, he started to get violent. And this from a guy who preaches love and peace. For the first time, I was afraid of him. And embarrassed, too. I mean, if I keep hanging out with this guy, people will think I approve of that stuff. He's out of control. Who knows what he might do next?
A: So you think this man might be dangerous.
J: Yeah, and not just physically, either. He claims that he preaches the truth, but it's not like anything I heard in church when I was growing up. He doesn't respect what people have been taught.
A: Were you able to share your concerns with him?
J: Yes. Not about yesterday, but about the other things. He's always off on some crusade, you know. He's trying to start up "ministries" to street people, hookers, people with gross diseases, and stuff like that. I mean, that's all well and good, but look. Hookers choose to do what they do. They need to get their own act together before we help them. Otherwise, what's to stop them from taking advantage of us? And besides, what about us? What about our needs? We're the church, and our contributions keep it going. And if our needs aren't being met, the church will wither away, and so will all those ministries. And then what has he accomplished? Besides, given the people he hangs out with, and the fact that he doesn't seem to have a wife, I wonder about his morals. I mean, it just isn't right for a man his age not to be married.
A: How did he react when you told him these things?
J: He wouldn't give me a straight answer. First he mumbled something about people who don't have anything losing what they've got. Then he stared at me and said, "You gotta do what you gotta do."
A: How did you feel when he said that?
J: Hurt. It's like he's taken my church away. He brought us together, but now he's tearing us apart.
A: So, you don't feel you can talk about this with your friends.
J: Not very many of them. They're too busy trying to figure out who he'll put in charge when he finally moves on. So they really buy in to all this stuff. They even egg him on sometimes. They're under his control.
A: When he said, "You gotta do what you gotta do," you said you felt hurt. What do you think he meant by that?
J: I dunno. It was almost like he was daring me not to go along with him. He's manipulated the church into backing him up no matter what he does, and he was daring me to do anything about it. He wasn't trying to convince me anymore, he was just going to go ahead, and my opinion didn't matter.
A: And that made you angry?
J: No. Hurt, like I said. And concerned. For him, and for the church. He thinks he's accountable to nobody, but he has to be accountable - we all do. He has to be accountable to the church, the "People of God." We have to hold him to account.
A: You're not thinking about anything drastic, are you? You seem pretty worked up.
J: Me? Never. I've learned more about grace from that man than anyone I've ever met. I'd never want to hurt him. I mean, that's why I don't say anything to him about these things in front of the others. But he really needs something to bring him to his senses. Like if he was in the slammer for a few days, where the real clergy could talk to him, and he'd be forced to listen, for a change. And it could happen, you know. There are people who want to charge him with assault for what he did yesterday. It's not like anything really bad would happen to him, you know. It might even do him and everyone else concerned some good.

When faced with conflict between what he knew a preacher should be, and the reality of who his preacher was, poor Judas didn't hesitate to choose his idea over his preacher. He turned his preacher over to the ordained clergy and the police. The preacher even made it easier by seeming to reject him. But how do you tell the truth to someone who insists on lying to himself, even about his own feelings? Or as Pascal put it, "People never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."[14]

If it isn't obvious in the above dialog, the preacher is Jesus, as Judas might perhaps have seen him. The assaultive behavior of the preacher is Jesus' stand at the temple in Jerusalem. The seeming heterodoxy is the crime of which Jesus stood accused by the church leaders of his day. The "ministries" mentioned are the Biblical ministries of Jesus to the poor, prostitutes, and lepers (people with AIDS in our day). The bit about people who have nothing losing what they have is one of Jesus' parables, which I take to be a pronouncement against the "scarcity model" — the idea that there are not enough spiritual resources to go around. Finally, "You gotta do what you gotta do," is my rephrasing of "What you must do, do quickly."

Did you find yourself sympathizing with Judas? It's easy to be like him, especially when we try to make everyone else as good as we are.
To be more blunt about it, most people who call themselves Christian would have been outraged at the actions and the teachings of the historical Jesus. Most certainly they would profoundly distrust and dislike Jesus if he came again, not with "Power and Glory," but as he came before, as an ordinary person, and preached the same message in modern language. As evidence, many of the comments of my friend Judas, above, are taken (only slightly out of context) from real churchgoers in the process of ousting their pastor.

The Gospel is not a conservative message. It radically challenges the church, society, and the individual. It is so challenging that, like a good Zen koan (riddle used in instruction) it doesn't even make sense in literal interpretation. Continually rationalizing the Gospel to affirm past or present practice in church or society is hypocrisy, and I suggest that this hypocrisy is responsible for "unchurched" being the largest denomination of faith in America.

This hypocrisy is possible because many Christians mistake the Bible for the living Word of God. But the paper is made from recently killed trees, and the ink is made from coal that came from forests that died 200 million years ago. I think the Bible is more nearly the dead word of God, and the covers are its tomb. Many people open it up - roll away the stone - and think, act, preach, and proselytize with the corpse they find there. They think its stories are about somebody else, long ago and far away. The hard stories like that of Judas the sincere churchgoer, or the ironic ones like that of Tamar and Judah. But if you find only the story of your relationship with God in the Bible, you will find the tomb empty. And the living Word will find you.


  1. John Bradshaw, Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, Bantam Books, New York, 1990.
  2. I offer my own speculations on the meaning of the Fall in Genesis in Reviving a Dead Language at this site.
  3. In fact, as any knowledgeable Mormon will tell you, the institution of paid professional priests and pastors is (in form if not content) a continuation of the priestly Judaism under which Christ was crucified. Judaism gave up its priests after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Since then Jewish religious leaders have been called Rabbis, a title which was applied to Jesus in his lifetime. Moreover, the Talmud seems to me to show signs of cross-fertilization between developing Rabbinic Judaism and early Christian ideas.
  4. For more on pseudospeciation see Anthony Stevens, The Roots of War: A Jungian Perspective, Paragon House, New York, 1989. I bought my copy at West Point.
  5. Henry Sloane Coffin hinted at the solution in the first chapter of his 1931 book, The Meaning of the Cross (reprinted as "What Crucified Christ?" in A. M Eastman, et al., eds, The Norton Reader, 4th ed, W. W. Norton, New York, 1977). See also What Crucified Jesus?, Ellis Ruskin, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 1984.
  6. Acts 10. See also Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision, Harper and Row, New York, 1987, especially Footnote 30 on page 188.
  7. There are even experimental studies of some of the ways in which we crucify. You might consider taking a look at Stanley Milgram, "The Perils of Obedience," in The Norton Reader, (also his book, Obedience to Authority, Harper and Row, New York, 1974) or accounts of Philip G. Zimbardo's 1971 experiment in "depersonalization" at Stanford University, the 1964 "Kitty Genovese incident," and Muzafer Sherif's "camp experiments" in freshman psychology textbooks (such as James V. McConnell, Understanding Human Behavior, An Introduction to Psychology, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York, 1982 Ñ particularly chapters 25-27). See also William Hazlitt, "The Pleasure of Hating," reprinted in 50 Great Essays, Bantam Books, New York, 1971. Thus, I do not take the Germans to be singularly evil because they sold out to Nazism - there is ample evidence to suggest that they realized a potential in us all.
  8. I think that the hoopla over "The Last Temptation of Christ," was a battle between competing idolatries to the extent that protesters objected to the film's particular portrayal of Christ, rather than to the idea that Christ be portrayed at all.
  9. Orthodox in terms of Protestant theology Ñ as defined, for example, in The Book of Concord, translated by Theodore G. Tappert, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1959. It contains English translations of the founding documents of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, dating from the 16th century.
  10. Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, John Knox Press, Atlanta, GA, 1960.
  11. See Eric H. Erikson, Ghandi's Truth, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1969, and David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross , Vintage Books, New York, 1988.
  12. And yet, dogma has its value. I shudder to think what obstacles might have been placed in my path of faith had the Church not prevailed against the classic heresies. Rather than criticize dogma itself, I criticize our sometimes idolatrous attachment to dogma in preference to God.
  13. Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision, op. cit.
  14. Also St. Paul, "...where I want to do nothing but good, evil is close at my side." (Romans 7:21, The New Jerusalem translation.)

18 February 1995

Marks of Modern Sainthood

Remembering the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A hero, Martin Luther King, Jr. confronted death with courage: a saint, he enriched the souls of even his bitterest enemies. The same can be said of his Islamic alter ego, Malcolm X — Mr. X was less intentional about the second attribute, but he did do it, and toward the end, he was certainly coming around. But we are here to remember Martin — Malcolm has yet to have his day.

Of the life and times of Dr. King, we can read David Garrow's Bearing the Cross, of King's words, we can read his Testament of Hope. Rather than dwell on what can best be dwelt on elsewhere, I would like to reflect on how this man changed the face of racism in America during his short life, and how he served God.

A more-or-less overt racism used to be one of the "conversational cues" by which all good white people could tell that they shared a common set of values, and thus that they could associate safely with one another. In sociological terms, it was a sign that one shared the mythological self-understanding of the white tribe. "Of course, they live in their part of town, and we live in ours." Of course.

Now that same racism is a sign of stupidity, stubborness, and psychopathology. It is expressed only by those so low in the social strata, or so low in self-esteem, that they feel themselves to be beneath everyone except an imagined other.

White racism has changed from a fortified wall — you could get over it or around it, but they'd shoot you if they saw you — to a sea of jello: you can get through it, but the going is slow and difficult. Racism is gone from the really big things like voting, but it survives in the little things like getting stopped for DWB - Driving while Black, and the little things add up. Generally speaking, they still live in their part of town, and we still live in ours. Of course.

The little things, which when taken together often add up to economic things, were what Dr. King had begun to work on toward the end. That struggle continues to be waged today. The presence of a growing black middle class is evidence that it is being won.

The presence of black ghettos is evidence that for many, it is also being lost. The combination of race and class can still be dangerous — poor young black men are still more likely than members of any other group to wind up in the criminal justice system, and — more to the point — to die while in police custody. [Note added 2016: or at the hands of police - yes, Black Lives Matter.]

Nevertheless, a profound change for the better has been effected. In large part, it was effected by a single man, who despite his casual extramarital encounters, had proved himself to be the moral and intellectual superior of both his detractors and supporters. For Dr. King went where the Spirit led him, and did what he was led to do, even unto death, unto bearing the Cross. And he did it with a Shakespearean, a Biblical command of the language of all his people - black and white. Like Shakespeare and the Bible, his phrases ring in our hearts, "I have a dream," and "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," and, "How long? Not long — because the arc of the moral Universe is long, but it bends toward justice." And in the end, "I may not get there with you, but I have seen the Promised Land!"

A hero, he confronted death with courage: a saint, he enriched the souls of even his bitterest enemies. We are all better off for his having been among us, for his having preached to us. Even those of us who were only children then, or who were not there at all, miss him.