Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Let's Not Go There

Theoretically I was the Computer Literacy teacher. In reality, however, it was a cover for me teaching my students about life. Just ask any of the many students I taught over the course of my 19-year teaching career. Sure, some of them will mention learning certain keyboard shortcuts in Microsoft Word, or how to create a computer dating program that took into account the sexual orientations and gender identifications of the clients, but they’ll also talk about the things that weren’t really part of lesson plan for the day (although, I’ll have to say that we learned an awful lot from that computer dating program).

One of those lessons came the day that one of my students asked what afro-centrism was. It had absolutely nothing to do with that day’s lesson on spreadsheets; but Zach wanted to know, and as I looked around the classroom of mostly white faces, I decided to answer.

I explained that based on my experience growing up in the 70s, at the height of the Black Pride movement, afro-centrism was the idea that “we” black people invented everything and that “you” white people either stole it from us or took the credit for it. I explained with a bit of sarcasm that it was sort of like Soviet history, where in their official history books, you could see that they had claimed to invent things long before we had. It was sort of like that line in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where Gorkon says, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you’ve read him in the original Klingon.”

I mean, I’m all for being proud of your people and what they’ve accomplished, but some things are just going a bit over the top. The particular manifestation of afro-centrism that I grew up with was one of them.

But wait, there’s more.

You see, one of the key points of the afro-centrism of the 1970s was that we were all descended from kings and queens in Egypt. Well…OK…yeah, Egypt is on the African continent, but regionally, most people consider it to be part of the Middle East. Also, most African Americans are descended from sub-Saharan Africans, not Egypians. Furthermore, if you asked any Egypians if they were related to us, they’d turn up their noses and say, “Yeah, right.” But we chose Egypt as our rallying point because it had one of the most advanced civilizations in the region with much to be proud of…the pyramids, the Sphinx, the ancient hieroglyphics. Who wouldn’t want to claim that as part of their heritage as an alternative to 250 years of bondage and another 100 of institutionalized mistreatment? But it was a false, or at least mistaken, heritage.

Besides, there was something else to consider.

As I looked around the room again, and at the one black student, and many Jewish students, in the room, I said:

But if we’re gonna say that we’re descended from Egyptians…and not just from regular everyday walking around Egyptians, but from kings and queens in Egypt, the people with power; then there’s a dirty little secret that we need to own up to.

We owned slaves.

And not only that, but we owned slaves that we treated so badly that God had to rescue them. Quite frankly, I don’t think we really want to go there.

Really. Think about it. The whole reason for the exodus is based on the idea that the Egyptians were horribly cruel to the Hebrew slaves, and that God raised up a leader in Moses to get them the heck outta there.

And as I said, all that wonderful culture aside, I don’t think I’d want to be taking responsibility for that.

However, whether it was “us” or someone else, the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt, and that’s why my…our…Jewish friends are celebrating Passover this week.

And to them I say, “Chag sameach!”

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sex on the Third Rail

If you grew up in or near a major city with a subway system, you know what the third rail is. It’s the rail on the outside of the two normal rails that the train travels on; that carries the kazillion volts that the train needs to operate.

And if you touch it, you’re dead.

A lot of political issues are referred to as “third rail issues,” because the politicians know that if they discuss them, or any changes to the current system surrounding them, they’re dead. So they keep far, far away.

Almost a year ago I touched what is considered by many guys to be a third rail issue: women and sex. And as far as I can tell, I’m still alive. A little burned, but still alive.

It all started when I read Anne Lamott’s post on Salon.com about her year looking for romance as a member of Match.com. I posted on my Facebook page her quote that said:

I had loved the sleeping alone part. I rarely missed sex…I wanted someone to text all day, and watch TV with.

After posting this, I suggested that if she didn’t care about the sex, then maybe she just wanted a gay man as her best friend. Seeing as how I’ve actually heard a number of women say that in many ways a gay guy would be the best companion, I figured that I was making a fairly innocuous, fairly obvious, and fairly funny comment.

Wrong. That was when I first felt a little tingle in my foot, as women started responding with comments along the line of “not every woman is a sex maniac.”

Whoa! Who said anything about a woman needing to be a sex maniac? I was simply suggesting that based on what she had said, maybe she was really more interested in a gay male best friend. After all…I’ve heard it before…from women.

So then, when I mentioned Ms Lamott’s comments about women not really enjoying sex, and seeing it as a chore, akin to cleaning the toilets, that they simply get to check off their lists so they can be left alone for a few days, weeks, or month, the voltage really went up; and suddenly it seemed as if all guys were being painted as “sex maniacs” who didn’t care one whit about intimacy. I was told that women’s feelings about sex are more complicated and nuanced than men seem to be able to understand…without the women understanding that men’s feelings about sex are more complicated and nuanced than they’re able to understand. Wow.

And all this time, not a single guy (or a married one either) joined in. I suspected that they were all crouching there in the background with their heads covered, listening while I asked the questions they wanted to and took the voltage that they were avoiding. No problem…I’m a librarian…asking questions and getting answers is my job. Even if it hurts.

Now, to be fair, later on in her piece, Ms Lamott did mention a guy she dated where there was no touching at all, and it made her crazy. So, I guess she’s really not looking for a gay male as a best friend. But then this raises the questions of when does she want to be “bothered?” When is it not a chore? Is it only when she’s in the mood? Is it only when she initiates it? Or does she want the guy to initiate it sometimes? And if the guy tries to initiate it at the “wrong time,” how many “wrong times” does she really expect him to have gone through before he says “screw it already” and just doesn’t bother anymore? And then…after he’s given up, will she get all upset because “he doesn’t act like he thinks she’s attractive anymore?”

I didn’t get to ask those questions. Not because the voltage was too high for me, but because the women involved in the discussion would accuse me of not being able to let one of them have the last word…since, after all, they’re correct and I’m not.

I decided to let them have the last word…in that venue. I still have questions though, and being the curious person that I am, I’ll still ask them.

For you see, it’s very nuanced and complicated on both sides.

Oh! Did I just feel something in my foot again?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Lord Bless You and Keep You

As I write this, Fred Phelps, leader of the Westboro “Baptist” Church (and I put the word Baptist in quotes, because I’m not sure that any of the many varieties of Baptists really want him) is near death. And as I write this I think about how many people can’t wait for this world to be rid of such a spreader of hate; how many people would like to gather to protest at his funeral, just as he led his group to protest at the funerals of others; and how many people would just love to form a giant conga line on his grave.

But there is a better way. A much better way; and one that I've spoken about before.

Growing up in North Jersey, we weren't far from New York City, and this meant that we could head in to Manhattan to see Broadway and Off-Broadway plays. In fact, my parents were regular theater-goers, and often brought home copies of the Playbill for the shows they had seen. But my sister and I didn't get to see a Broadway show until 1970, when they took us to see the show Purlie.

The show opens with a funeral in a black Baptist church. Now as if that weren't strange enough, it's a funeral for the most hated man in the county; Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee, who ran the plantation that the sharecroppers worked on, and despite the fact that emancipation had occurred 100 years earlier, still kept the workers in virtual slavery by the way he ran the "company store." Ol' Cap'n had done the black community a great favor by "dropping dead standing up."

But wait, there's more. This funeral was not a celebration like you would see in the Wizard of Oz, celebrating and gloating that the witch was dead. Quite the opposite, as much as every person in that church hated Ol' Cap'n's guts, the preacher talked about asking God to do the seemingly impossible, by redeeming him, and the opening number was a rousing gospel number titled Walk Him Up the Stairs. Yes, as sure as they were that Cotchipee would be frying in Hell "like a fresh-caught, fat-whiskered catfish in the skillet of the devil," the preacher goes on to say "that it would not be Christian for us to not pray even for what we know is impossible...his redemption."

And so as I think of the death of Fred Phelps, I think of one thing…wouldn’t it be wonderful if a throng of people showed up at his funeral, not to protest, not to do the conga on his grave, but to do the one thing that he and his followers wouldn’t be able to understand us doing…singing him into Heaven. If you've watched the video, then you know that Walk Him Up the Stairs is a little too complicated to work up on such short notice, but I have in my mind an image of a 10,000 voice chorus made up of members of the LGBT community and families of soldiers whose funerals he led protests, at flocking to his funeral to sing as one the Peter Lutkin arrangement of The Lord Bless You and Keep You, and then quietly walking away, with all the respect that he didn’t give others. And I have in my mind an image of his family members, who have every reason to expect a rowdy, cheering crowd at his funeral, going “WTF?” as they see the exact opposite happening. As they see the very people they targeted acting more Christlike to them than they had acted, supposedly as members of "the church." It would be a very Romans 12:20 moment.

There’s also another image I have…and that’s of Fred Phelps being at the gates of Heaven, and being told that while he was totally wrong about the “God hates f*gs” thing, God also doesn’t hate idiots; and since everyone needs to be forgiven, he gets to come inside too…and is immediately introduced to the millions of LGBT people that God indeed doesn’t hate.

So…is anyone up for a trip to his funeral?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

If I Had a Hammer

A few weeks ago, in a discussion with some of my church friends about a particular social issue, someone made the following comment, which is edited for clarity:

I recognize and accept the fact that my rights and freedoms are not ultimately ever going to be met through the government or any earthly organization. Otherwise, I might spend my entire life fighting for things that don’t really last (like earthly peace, social justice, or marriage equality) instead of laying it down for what can never be taken away.

Wow. Not the way I think at all.

My wife says that I’m a very Jewish Lutheran. Now I didn’t grow up Jewish, but I didn’t grow up Lutheran either. I grew up reading, and that’s what got me where I am today. I was interested in Judaism as being the ultimate source of Christianity, and wanted to know how things might have been in the early Church before the Greeks and Romans got their hands on it and screwed things up.

But my point, and I do have one, is that my Christianity is very much informed by my knowledge of and interest in Judaism. And as a result, this comment during the discussion had me raising the metaphorical eyebrow.

“That doesn’t sound a whole lot like tikkun olam,” I said to myself.”

So what’s tikkun olam? It’s a Hebrew phrase that means “to repair the world,” and describes the Jewish concept that each of us is here to take some part, no matter how small, in the task of repairing the world. I like this concept. I like this concept a whole lot better than the ideas I hear coming out of the mouths of some Christians, that make it sound like we’re all just supposed to sit on our duffs until Jesus comes back, and then he’ll make everything right. You know…the people who say, “I don’t have to worry about the environment because Jesus is coming back for us.” (And by the way, it’s Christians like that who make the rest of us look bad.)

Now maybe this isn’t exactly what the person in the conversation meant, but it still rubbed me the wrong way. It still seemed to imply that there was no sense in trying to work to improve anything in the world we have now, because the only important thing, the only lasting thing is our lives with Jesus later.

And quite frankly, that still sounds a little lazy to me.

The idea of tikkun olam implies that I’ve been invited…yes, invited to work with God to make this world a better place. And that invitation to work with him should be seen as an honor, not as something that’s pointless, since our efforts could never compare to his anyway.

Now there are those, such as Humanist author Greg Epstein, who argues in his book Good Without God that the idea of tikkun olam is flawed, because since it talks about repairing, it assumes a “golden age” that we’re trying to get back to…a golden age that never existed. OK, I get his point. Even in the Bible, there seems to have been no golden age, because even in the beginning, that serpent was just slithering around, waiting to suck someone in. But he’s right, if you’re not religious at all, and don’t believe that there ever was a golden age to return to, then the idea of repairing the world makes no sense. What can we do then? What can we say that makes sense to everyone?

But you know what? “Repair the world” is only one interpretation of tikkun olan. It can also mean to improve it. Yes, rather than saying that the world is broken and needs fixed, it says that it’s flawed or imperfect, and needs some improvement. Either way, it says that things ain’t right and we should get off our duffs and do something…no matter how small, and no matter how pointless it seems in the long run.

And perhaps, for those who look at this from a Christian perspective, instead of looking at the mess we’ve left and saying, “Well, you lazy, arrogant little so-and-so,” when he comes back, Jesus will look at what we’ve tried to do in the name of earthly peace, social justice, and all those other things “that don’t really last,” and say “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

You can do what you want, you can say what you want, but as for me and my hands, I’m picking up a hammer. I’ve got some repairing…oops…I mean improving to do.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sundays in Lent

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is tomorrow. So here’s a quick quiz for you. How many days are in Lent? 40, right? OK now, how many Sundays are in Lent?

I can see you all looking at your calendars now checking, and I bet you’ve all come up with six, with the last one being Palm Sunday. But you’re wrong, and that could end up being a good thing for many of you.

Yes, you saw that right, you’re wrong. There are no Sundays in Lent. There are Sundays that fall during Lent, but I found out a few years ago that they’re not really part of the season.

How can this be? Simple. Count all the days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. That gives you 46 days. Subtract the six Sundays, and you get the expected 40 days of Lent.

But wait, there’s more! Since Sundays are always feast days because they’re “little Easters,” there’s no fasting then.

To borrow a line from Martin Luther “What does this mean?”

It means that those of you who gave up one of your favorite things for Lent can still have it on Sunday, because it’s a feast day.

And no, it’s not cheating. It’s not a matter of fudging the rules. It’s a matter of understanding what the rules really are, and remembering that every Sunday is a reason to celebrate, because of what we know will happen on Easter.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Border Song

Holy Moses! We have been confused.

We just got back from a four-day weekend in Canada, and as we crossed the border in each direction, I got to thinking about what a border is all about. Actually, it got me to thinking about it again.

Now, you may think that I had been originally thinking about it because of the debates on immigration reform or securing the border between us and Mexico; and you’d be partially right. But I had really been thinking about it because of a History Channel series called How the States Got Their Shapes (highly recommended, we bought it from the iTunes store); a special on Bonnie & Clyde and the other machine gun-toting criminals of the 30s; an NPR piece on the impossible to police border between Texas and Mexico; and the curious cases of a few spots in the lower 48 where you can’t get from one piece of US soil to another by land unless you go through Canada.

So what’s a border for? Is it to keep one group of people out and another in? That may be what it’s used for in many cases now, but originally it was something totally different. It was about property rights and what rules got followed. Bonnie & Clyde and their compatriots used borders to their advantage when they outran the police in the state where they had just robbed a bank in order to cross the border into the adjacent one where they had no jurisdiction.

On a less violent note, crossing the border from New York, Pennsylvania, or Delaware into New Jersey means that not only do you not have to pump your own gas, but that you’re not allowed to. You’re welcome to come in, you’re welcome to stay, but if you pick up that gas pump yourself, you’re violating their hazardous materials handling law, and can be fined.

And then there’s our big friend to the north…Canada. Let’s not even talk about the border between them and us, I want to talk about some of their internal borders…the ones between Quebec and “the rest of Canada.” The moment you enter Quebec from Ontario or any of the other neighboring provinces, you become aware of the fact that you are definitely “someplace else.” This is because while English and French are both official languages of Canada, Quebec is the only province where French is the predominant one. Crossing the border into Quebec means that you’re in a place where the descendants of the original French settlers get to make the rules, and they make the rules to try to preserve their culture. The Quebec border isn’t about keeping anyone out, it’s about saying that this is a place where they are...well...more French than the French.

And looking at the borders in this way explains a lot. The border between the United States and Canada wasn’t drawn as a defensible border against attacks and “furriners” coming in. It was drawn to say “This belongs to Great Britain and this belongs to the Yanks.” People were welcome to travel freely in either direction, but the rules were different once you crossed from one side to another. The same with Mexico; it was simply about saying “this is yours and this is ours,” and not about trying to create a border that we could prevent people from crossing. When they were created, these borders were seen of as being not much different than the ones between Pennsylvania and Ohio or Utah and Nevada…or Ontario and Quebec; just on a larger scale. But somewhere along the line we got the idea that these borders were always about keeping people out.

Perhaps need to rethink that.