The Other Virus

22 Apr

Last week was about as intense as it gets. Caught between a merciless virus and the cessation of social activity, beneath the surface calm lies a persistent tension ready to erupt. The anxiety was underscored by the two main religious mythologies that drive segments of our culture, the Passover and the Crucifixion/Resurrection of Jesus. The Passover evokes images of an angel of death splattering blood on the lintels of Israelites’ homes so that they might escape the wrath of the murdering Pharaoh. The crucifixion of Jesus sets before us a horrifying image of death at the hand of political and economic power. The stories have good endings: the Passover culminates in the Exodus, whereby the Hebrews escape Pharaoh’s chariots of death, and the cross of Jesus is overcome by the new life that emerges. Our problem today is that we are living between the two moments, before the good ending, when the resolution is not yet obvious.

We have been renewed in our awareness of interconnectedness and our capacity to sacrifice and love one another, and this is a very healthy re-discovery. But coupled with this knowledge we also have become painfully aware that there are those at high levels of power who act more like Pharaoh and Pontius Pilate than the caregivers they were supposed to be. Economist Paul Krugman recently articulated the sources of his own concerns, of which there are three. One is the virus itself, destroying the health and indeed life itself of so many. This is accompanied by the total societal upheaval required by attempts to contain and mitigate the spread of the virus. Lastly, this upheaval poses a severe threat to our democratic institutions. It is this last which worries him the most. There will be a vaccine, and the economy will rebound, but once democracy is lost, it might never return and could be lost forever.

Lest there be any doubt, Krugman is referring to Trump, his lackeys, and all Republicans who focus now on gaining power rather than providing service. Although the list is not inclusive, and grows daily, please allow me to support his fears, which are real and tangible.

To begin with the latest, Trump now wants to fire Dr. Fauci because he told the truth about more people dying because Trump procrastinated for political purposes. Trump thought perhaps we should have allowed the virus to rampage and have it over with, regardless of how many would die. Republican elected officials suggest that those dead were old and infirm and would have died anyway, so it’s no great loss, and, by the way, saves a lot of money. No doubt it was and is this attitude working in the minds of those who refuse to expand health insurance. Even Neanderthal, whom we love to denigrate, cared for their sick and wounded. What we have in America is not a clown for a president, but a murderer, not a fiscally conservative party, but a party of death and greed.

Protective equipment for health care workers is doled out by Trump to those governors who are his lackeys, and refused to governors, both Democratic and Republican, who are critical. The economic relief bill puts an inspector general  in charge of overseeing how 2 trillion dollars is distributed, but Trump has fired him.

The Republican senate continues to confirm incompetent Trump nominations for judgeships. The gerrymandered state of Wisconsin, where Republicans get 56% of the representation with only 36% of the vote, refuses to allow -last week- to extend mail-in voting, thereby forcing people to stand in line for hours, wearing masks hoping that they would not become infected. And this supported by the US Supreme Court, 5-4, after McConnell refused for a full year to even allow a vote on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for the court. All the while, voters are illegally removed from registration rolls and foreign countries are invited to interfere in our elections, doing so with impunity. Under the leadership of Barr, the Justice Department has just announced that the FBI will be investigated for investigating Trump’s Russia connection.

On and on. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said repeatedly in his pressroom that when a crisis hits us, the true mettle of people will come out. Those who love and are strong will shine. And those who are weak and/or evil (my word) will also be seen for who they are. We have two visions for America. One controlled by the Pharaohs and Pilates of our time, happy to sacrifice the sick and the poor for the sake of the stock market, the other manifest in all those who value service and compassion, strong in their love. There is no confusion on this. The battle lines are clear.

I think that we all know this, and that is why we are ready to explode. Yes, there is a great deal of fear created by the virus. Will we or our loved ones get sick, or even die? The economic aftershock is equally worrying. My business is destroyed. My retirement fund is wiped out. Will we be able to eat and find shelter? And beneath it all is the increasing feeling that not only is our president and his following totally incompetent, but that they also looking out for themselves and not the American people. As such, they too are a virus, dealing death and destruction. With the power that comes in the knowledge that love wins, we cannot allow that to happen.

Andrew Cuomo’s Faith for All

11 Apr

Andrew Cuomo today is a phenomenon. He speaks every day about the coronavirus and his press conferences have become must-see tv. Why? Many reasons, but at heart he speaks to spiritual yearning in all people, a yearning that focuses not on religion and/or God, but on the truth and depth of our common humanity.

The Governor of New York State has become the voice of leadership and compassion during the coronavirus pandemic. His daily talks have become a time to hear the facts, face the reality, and listen to a calm voice of reason, hope and challenge. Beyond the arena of New York politics, about which most Americans know nothing, he has been received by the nation as a man to whom we can relate. He helps us transcend political divisiveness and helps us realize that we are all human beings.

He is a Roman Catholic, but one that many in his church would choose to excommunicate. Under his guidance, New York recognizes gay marriage and has the most humane abortion law to be found in America. It is clear from his presence that he is a man of deep faith, but also one whose faith is not determined by institutional religious authority. One might argue that his ability to speak to everyone is a result of decades of honing his political acumen, but that would be a shallow understanding. At least in these press conferences, Cuomo strikes a deep spiritual chord that resonates with most people.

To begin with, he respects everyone, whatever their religion or lack thereof, whether they celebrate Passover, Easter, Christmas, Ramadan or Kwanza, and you cannot help but feel that his respect is genuine. For public safety, however, public gatherings are prohibited. There is no exception for religious services, weddings or funerals. The kind of flagrant violation of stay-at-home policy exhibited by arrogant ministers in other states is strictly forbidden by Cuomo in NY.

Along with his acceptance of respectful others is a self-confidence that enables honest straight talk, incorporating a stature that can empathize with those who are hurting, both emotionally and physically. Essential to this data-driven attitude is a refusal to speculate, whether about the future of the pandemic or indeed about anything that might be called mysterious or mystical. His boldest statement about mystery asserted that although we are socially distanced we are spiritually connected, but he didn’t know how.

The only use of the word “God” is in the context of describing someone who risks their life for others. “God bless them”. God is also intimated in the phrase “keeping them in our thoughts and prayers”. But in both instances, the phrase seems to be more a term of popular culture than an actual assertion of faith. The closest Cuomo gets to a confession of faith is in his assertion that love wins. Love wins out over fear and anger. It also wins out over economic considerations. And to the calls by right wing voices to let the old and infirm die because they contribute nothing to society anyway, Cuomo responds with scorn and utter disbelief. No one is expendable. Loving and caring for one another is the essence of our humanity. Life is not reducible to numbers. This holds true not only for the elderly and infirm, but also for the outcast of society, the poor and the weak, those who labor for naught and strive in vain. If there is any refrain in his speaking, it is Cuomo’s prophetic insistence that no one will be left behind, that love reaches out to all and compels us to create a just society.

This is a moment, he says, for the world, for our country and state, for us as individuals. “Moment” is a word that he uses often, referring to a time in our lives when great change becomes possible. Stripped of diversions and escapes, we are free to explore our inner angels, to learn, to read, to listen in silence to the silence. The great danger, Cuomo believes, is giving in to the fear of the unknown that awaits us vis a vis both the virus as well as our own future. Too easily reason succumbs to fear and is overtaken by irrationality and panic. It is at this point that he says that this not the NY way, by which he means that this is not the human way, the way of strength, smartness, unity, and…love.

This is a message that reverberates across the country and probably around the world. It does not say, hey look at me and my needs. It says we are all in this together. And it does not say: learn how to do yoga, or meditate, or pray, or become a mystic. It simply says, appreciate the moment, accept the pain, do good, look ahead and celebrate the time when you can be together again with friends and loved ones, and, most importantly, share your love with all.

Many Americans, it seems, hear and understand.

Biblical Billionaires and the Taming of Jesus

6 Feb

Part Three

I have previously argued in Part One that the rich, the powerful, and cultural inertia transformed the radical message of Jesus into merely an echo of existing social mores. The prophetic demonstration of love and equality in Jesus’ family of friends succumbed to the onslaught of established interests. In Part Two, I suggested that the takeover of the nascent movement by the rich and powerful created a theology that supported the existing corruption, rather than challenging it, and that what we think of as basic Christian belief is a product of reactionary forces rather than the revolutionary impetus set in motion by Jesus.

Thirdly, we now go to the evidence. The support for culture is painfully visible in much, but not all, of the later New Testament writing, especially as it pertains to the nature of the church, subjugation of women, obedience to existing authority, and the possession of slaves.

As the first century moved along, ultimately rolling over into the second, the coup described above is amply illustrated in the available documents, texts that are part and parcel of the Christian New Testament. Reference to Paul is here omitted, partly because he is a transition figure and partly because his thoughts are subject to various interpretations. What follows here are quotations that require not much interpretation, straightforward as they are.

From the Epistle to the Colossians, falsely attributed to Paul, written late 1st c.

 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.

 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.

 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.  Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,  since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. Col 3:22ff

From the Epistle to the Ephesians, falsely attributed to Paul, written 70-80

 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.  As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Ephesians 5:22ff

 Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ;  not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. Masters, do the same to them. Ephesians 6:5ff

From the First Epistle of Timothy, written between 90 and 140.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. 1 Timothy 2:1

 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. 1Tim 2:8ff

The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil; moreover he must be well thought of by outsiders, or he may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.    1Tim 3:1ff

 Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. I Tim 6:1 ff

 As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.  1 Tim 6:17f

From the book of Titus, written between the end of the 1st c and the end of the 2nd.

But as for you, teach what befits sound doctrine. Bid the older men be temperate, serious, sensible, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Bid the older women likewise to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited. Titus  2:1ff

Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for any honest work.  Titus 3:1

From the first Epistle of Peter, written between 80 and 96.

 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. 1 Peter 2:13ff

 On the contrary

It is not the case that the church everywhere shared the opinions of Timothy and others of like mind. We also have the Epistle of James. Scholars debate the authorship, date, and location of this letter. It makes little reference to Jesus and has the tone of a Hebrew prophet. Quite possibly it was written by the brother of Jesus and originated in the church in Jerusalem.

But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.  James 1:9

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?  Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.   James 2:1ff

Biblical Billionaires and the Taming of Jesus

6 Feb

Part Two

The time of Jesus was a time when the rich and powerful were utilizing all means at their disposal to become even more rich and more powerful. The government was in on it. Business was in on it. The religious establishment was in on it. Such economic exploitation was not unique to Israel, but it certainty was there as well.

1 Into this scene at about age 28, came Jesus from a small village called Nazareth in the province of Galilee. He and his disciples lived and taught a life that denounced the oppression that dominated society, offering instead the vision of a community based on caring and sharing. Catastrophically, by the end of the first century, that vision had been destoyed and supplanted by an organization ruled by priests and bishops. This type of institution was much more supportive of the existing exploitative system than were the revolutionaries Jesus had created.

2 As mentioned in Part One, the equality of men and women was an essential ingredient in the disciple band, an equality that disrupted the order and power of the existing patriarchy. From the establishment perspective, that had to change, and change it did. The biblical evidence is overwhelming, and includes much more than the reference to Timothy in Part one. We shall see how much more in Part Three.

3 In stark contrast to the inequality in society, Jesus’ family of friends shared, and essential to that sharing was food. The believers that centered on a single household no doubt had meals together, and perhaps some outside the extended family also participated. The practice was later incorporated into the larger congregations, common meals known as love feasts. From Paul we learn that at some of these gatherings the wealthy would neither wait for the poor to arrive nor would they share their food, and certainly not their wine. At some point, the common meal transformed into a commemoration of the assumed “Last Supper” Jesus shared with his disciples prior to the subsequent crucifixion. Soon only the church hierarchy was permitted to celebrate this sacrament, a restriction applicable even today. Such a controlled mystical sharing, as contrasted to the earlier actual sharing of food, presented no threat to the established economic order.

4  The greatest change in the thinking of the early church had to do with Jesus himself. The disciples found in Jesus a model of the person they too could become, and he was a person who preached justice and equality, love and kindness toward one another. To the authorities such people are suspect, and that, no doubt, is why Pilate had him crucufied. But as time went on, the role of Jesus shifted away from the revolutionary to the sacrificial. His death became a propitiation of an angry god, a socially much less dangerous role. Jesus, the one who had wanted to create a just and loving society, a kingdom of God on earth, became the one who had died for your sins, a role much more amenable to the existing culture. Sacrificial lambs do not threaten class and wealth stratification. Prophets do.

5 The same analysis holds for the resurrection of Jesus. The disciples fully believed that the revolutionary who had gathered them into a microcosm of the kingdom was now alive in their midst as spirit. Really alive, inspiring them to continue growing the kingdom. To them, the resurrection demonstrated that the power of evil evident in the crucifixion, the power of Rome, had been overcome by the power of God. Love ruled the universe, not death and destruction. Such conviction was dangerous for the existing order, challenging, as it did, the authenticity of violence as the norm of human life together. The solution for the established order was to transform the resurrection as revolutionary into the resurrection as resuscitation, and by accepting and promulgating this maneuver, the church lost its prophetic vitality and became the promoter of accepted and acceptable cultural norms.

6 As a result of these changes in the supposed role of Jesus, the meaning of his life, death and resurrection was shifted from the present to the future. Instead of the One who gave his life in the struggle to transform society, he became the one who would judge every individual at some future, undetermined time. God in the moment became God at the end of time, a god much more palatable to the existing order.

7 As a consequence, faith, which at first meant participation in the Way of the kingdom, a way of social justice and equality, now degenerated into acceptance of certain doctrines of belief, chief among them being that Jesus had died for your sins. Such faith posed little threat to the establishment.

8 Deviation from this established faith was forbidden. Initially, it was participation in the movement, and not adherance to beliefs, that defined one as a Christian.The earliest church was a varied group, incorporating many different beliefs. Some of these beliefs were forcefully repudiated by the apostle Paul, but he was not alone in this. The narrowing of acceptable belief expanded with time, the losers of controversy declared heretical and the winners declared orthodox. The definition of what it meant to be a Christian became increasingly under the control of the priests, bishops, and even the government. Although it was much later in 325, the definitive Council of Nicaea was ordered by Emperor Constantine, with the charge to force one and all to agree on understanding the divinity of Jesus. Disagreement within the church posed a danger to the unity of the empire, and as such could not be tolerated. We might assume that Constantine’s intervention was not the first of its kind. Empire, whatever its manifestation, cannot allow challenge to its power, and free thinking followers of Jesus represent exactly such a challenge.

9 Part of this containment included a change in how the Word of God was understood. The early church accepted the Hebrew scriptures, but also the words of Jesus, as divine guidance. There was openness to newness, and there were apparently many different perspectives on Jesus and his role, but that openness did not last long. Certain books gradually became accepted canon, and others were declared heretical, the church hierarchy claiming the power to decide those issues. The end result is what Christians call the New Testament, the ultimate Word of God. Because the Word of God was now believed confined to certain writings, it became paramount to understand exactly what that word said, and unsurprisingly, the Word of God was found, not to criticize, but to support the norms of the existing culture.

It is often assumed that Christian belief includes the following: the Bible is the absolute Word of God, Jesus’ death propitiated an angry god, and in this sense he “died for your sins”, he physically rose from the dead, Jesus will come again to judge, faith means belief in certain doctrine, and the Lord’s Supper is mystical communion with Christ. These assumed beliefs are not at all universal nor even a majority opinion in Christian theology. Some progressive theologians would argue that these beliefs do not at all represent the experience of the early church. But now we go one step further and argue that these beliefs are not only contrary to what Jesus intended, but are also the creation of reactionary forces in the culture and most likely also in the church.

Loneliness, Part Two

6 Feb

Loneliness, Part Two

I have written about this many times, but it bears repeating. We are born into the world at a specific time and place, and as we develop we are bombarded with stimuli unique to us. It is both natural and necessary that we organize the stimuli, comparing, contrasting, grouping, cataloguing. In other words, we create an orderly world that we can relate to and deal with. We all do it, inescapably, inevitably, and without malicious intent. But we do it.

The process begins with nerve endings, where biological/chemical reactions send a signal one way or another along varying routes, the message already interpreted and re-interpreted many times before it ever reaches the central processing unit that we call the brain. Not only is the process largely subconscious, it is also largely preset before it ever reaches the sub-conscious at all. Unbeknownst to us, we have created a world of which we are unaware.

It is not a world in isolation from the real world “out there”, but neither is it a true representation of that objective and external reality. It is reality interpreted, siamese twins inseparable, unknown apart. The tragedy is that we are unaware of the inseparability, and quietly and unknowingly we come to confuse our view of reality with reality itself. Yes, there are “facts” on which we all agree, just as we as individuals can learn and grow, but the world that we have created precludes us from experiencing Realty, with that big R.

The result is that we feel as though something is missing, as indeed it is. We sense the absence of connection between what we feel and what we intuit is “out there”. We feel alone, unable to make the connection, unable to overcome the void. It’s not a good feeling, and so we try to fill the void using anything that comes along. Anything. Work, electronic gadgetry, alcohol, shopping, extreme sports. Anything that seems to fill the hole will work, and this includes exclusive clubs like gangs, militias, and narrow-minded religious groups that are based on exclusion and rejection of the “other”. They overcome the void but for a time,  however, and the emptiness returns.

Until something wonderful happens. There are moments in our life when our little world is shattered by a force that seemingly comes from nowhere. That arrival can come at any time, in any place, from any source, and our reaction to it can be goosebumps or tears, Aha! or Thank you. Athletes in the zone experience the force. Those overcome by the starry night feel it. Those who tear at the sight of starving children feel it. But it doesn’t last. The invasion and dismantling of our world is a momentary, fleeting phenomenon. We remember it, but cannot hang on, unless something else happens.

There are two ways that the memory lives on. One is an individual’s growing awareness of being part of a larger whole, realizing that all is one. The other, and these two are not mutually exclusive, is to share it with others. And now we get back to community and human connection. When we are in loving community, be it two or two hundred, or when we are aware of the Oneness of which we are a part, by some magic the moment is extended, and what was initially a solitary experience becomes a shared uplifting. The loneliness of the void is transformed by the power of belonging, caring and sharing, and we are liberated from the isolation of our own world.

If we are lonesome, as surveys tell us we are, there are actions we can initiate. If indeed loneliness has a biological feedback that causes us to be irritable and isolationist, in turn making us more lonesome and more prone to disease and mortality, we must break the cycle. We can be open and open-minded, vulnerable to change and trusting in all that is. Although we cannot demand a moment happen, we can become more welcoming. We can reach out to help those in need. We can become more aware of both the beauty and the pain that surrounds us. We can put ourselves in situations and attitudes wherein our world can be invaded and we can see with a new light. We can allow the light to shine in.

Biblical Billionaires and the Taming of Jesus, Part one

4 Feb

Part One

Given the extent to which people of wealth and power control our culture, we might wonder if the same influences controlled the destiny of the early Christian church and its understanding of Jesus and God. The answer seems to be yes.

From a historical point of view, the religious community described in the New Testament developed in four stages. The first was that created by Jesus himself. We often think of this community as limited to twelve male apostles, but there were women as well. We have the names of six, mention of “the others”, and we are told that they supported and provided for Jesus and his followers. The whole group was based in Capernaum from whence they traveled into the Galilean countryside. We must, therefore, imagine about 25 men and women who were gathered by Jesus and who lived together. The fullness of humanity incarnate in Jesus, the power and mystique of his person and his teaching, impacted them as nothing they had ever experienced before. Through him they had found a new life together, and they wanted to share this good news with others.

And then he was crucified.

Initially, so the story goes, they were terrified, denying that they ever knew the man, lest they too be implicated in the crime of sedition against the Roman Empire. After that initial bout of terror a new experience enveloped them, and so begins the second stage of the communal development. They remembered Jesus and all he had done and said, and came to believe that he was present again in their midst in a new form, the form of spirit. As historians of the 21st century we can say with certainty that the disciples believed that the holy spirit of Jesus infused their community, reinstating the fullness and joy they had experienced in their life together before he was killed, and again inspiring them to share with others what they now experienced.

They shared, they grew in number, and so begins stage three in their development. Let us assume that Jesus was crucified in the year 30 ce, and that Paul was converted to this new faith in 35. When Paul writes his first letter in 45, we discover that there are already in existence many small congregations that have emerged and, further, that there are groups within these churches that don’t agree with one another. A lot has happened since the crucifixion. The church has grown, and controversy has arisen about many matters. Who was Jesus? What did he do for us? How do we know? Who were there as eyewitnesses? Are men and women equal? Do we have to free our slaves? Must I share my property with the less fortunate? How are we to relate Jew and Gentile?

Paul had much to say on these matters, partially but forcefully summed up in his words to the church in Galatia: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free.” Unfortunately, his word did not carry the day, and so we enter stage four, epitomized in the first letter of Timothy, found in the New Testament and written toward the end of the first century. Here we are bluntly warned, among other matters, that women are subject to men, that we must be subject to the governing authorities, slaves must obey their masters, and priests and bishops rule the church.

The first question that comes to mind is: why? why did the history unfold as it did? How did we get from a ragtag group of happy, fulfilled and excited men and women, to an institution that turned its back on every change Jesus tried to initiate, basically reverting to the existing patriarchy/patronage system that pervaded the culture?

What Jesus both incarnated and taught was an alternative to the system that benefitted the rich and powerful, be they in government, business or religion. And, to put it bluntly, they did not like that. The crucifixion is proof. They had to get rid of him. That didn’t succeed as they hoped, inasmuch as the movement spread. The takeover of the movement by conservative forces, however, did succeed, although it took a long time. Questions arise. Was there an intentional plot by them to take over the church? Did the influences that changed the church arise from within the church itself? Or was it the inertia of society that squashed the revolutionary impetus? Whatever the answer to these questions, the fact remains that by the end of the first century, Jesus and the disciples had lost and culture had won. As a consequence, much of what we accept as basic Christian understanding did not originate with Jesus and the disciples, but rather with the interests of the rich and powerful.

Loneliness, Part One

4 Feb

Loneliness, Part One

Although homo sapiens differ greatly, there are a few characteristics that we share in common. One of these is our need for human connections.

A Dec. 11, 2019 article by Lynn Darling in the Journal of the AARP, offers an evolutionary perspective. Back in the good old days of mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers, danger precluded separation from the protecting family. If you wanted to survive, you hung around the group, and when separated, biology kicked in with a feeling of loneliness that encouraged a quick return to your community.

Many factors in modern society separate us from one another. Work calls us to a new state, and we miss our old friends. Individualized electronic devices drive our attention to the screen and away from people. Fear, often warranted, keeps us off the street. The forces of separation are manifold and powerful.

Our evolutionary heritage tries to impress upon us that this separation is dangerous and detrimental to our well-being, and one dimension of our biological reaction to this separation is inflammation. Chronic inflammation subsequently creates and participates in a feedback loop wherein the biological/chemical messengers impact the brain with a negative message that causes the person to be irritable, isolated, suspicious, and fearful of making new friends. A self-defensive posture sets in. One misreads the intent of others, sends signals that repel would-be companions, and creates a distorted view of reality. This vicious cycle, manifest at both the biological and social level, affects every generation and totals 75% of the US population.

It’s not simply a question of whether one is surrounded by others or not, but whether that interaction is meaningful. It is the quality of our human connections that matters, and that quality involves depth, meaning, and purpose. It can be found in a relationship with one other person, or with many, and that quality can be found in a variety of connections at the same time. A person can belong meaningfully and simultaneously to a work team, study group, choir, cycling club, sports team, and so on. But, apparently, according to the surveys, there are tens of millions in the US alone who lack such support.

And there are also millions who do in fact find that support, but in the wrong places. Belonging to a gang offers a sense of identity founded on exclusion and dehumanizing of the “other”. Belonging to a militia or a white supremacist organization can also offer a sense of identity, again founded on exclusion and dehumanizing of the “other”. The same can be said of fundamentalist churches, basing their identity on the belief that they alone have the truth and everyone else is bound for hell.

It is insufficient to be surrounded by people if meaningful interaction is absent. And it is insufficient to have that meaningful interaction if it is based on exclusion of the “other”. Clearly something additional is going on. The need for community is one characteristic that we all share in common, but there are others. We’ll look at that in the next reflection.