Tuesday, February 25, 2020

What Price "The Kingdom"?

Today is Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, or whatever you want to call the day before Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, and Lent is key to what I want to talk about today.

In those churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary the Gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Lent is Matthew 4:1-11. This is the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. And one of the things he’s tempted with is being given all the world if he’ll just bow down and worship the evil one.

Jesus refuses and tells him to begone. I want you to hold onto that thought for a bit because we’ll come back to it after I tell you another Bible story.

This one comes from the book of Isaiah, from the Hebrew Scriptures, and is about how King Cyrus of Persia was annointed by God to end the Babylonian exile, and send the Jews back to Israel to restore the kingdom. Even though he wasn’t one of them, and even though he didn’t worship their God, he was widely praised for having restored the kingdom to Israel.

And of course, someone who restores your kingdom to you, with all the power a glory you had before is worthy of praise, aren’t they? As is someone who promises to restore the kingdom to you as you knew it...or thought you knew it, right?

And this is exactly why 81% of Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the last election. Notice I didn’t say 81% of Christians, but 81% of Evangelicals...because they felt that he had promised to “restore the kingdom” to them. They felt that he had promised to deliver to them the power to put “real Christians” back in charge, “real Christians” who would stand up and defeat the LGBTQs, the people who were pro-choice (which is not the same as pro-abortion), and the people who believed in science rather than the Bible...to name a few. And they even went so far as to say that they believed that they were dealing with a Cyrus, who, while not one of them, was chosen by God to give them back what was rightfully theirs.

But there were two things they didn’t realize.

The first was that they weren’t dealing with a Cyrus, who gave them back the kingdom with no expectations of anything back, but with the evil one who expected to be worshiped, and who Jesus told to begone. And they figured that having the kingdom, as they understood it, restored was worth the price of making a deal with the evil one. They saw it as a good thing brought about by evil means.

Do I really need to say anything about that?

The second is that they didn’t realize that their idea of restoring...or bringing about...the kingdom may have been very different from what Jesus had in mind. 

But that wouldn’t have been the first time that happened. 

Jesus constantly confounded many of his followers, as well as the Jewish authorities, whose expectations of a messiah were of someone who would lead them to kick some Roman butt, and “restore the kingdom”...that is to say restore it to its “glory days.” And yet, in thinking about a little biblical history, one has to wonder if there really were any “glory days.” Seems that God was always getting after them for one failing or another, and that if there were any glory days, they lasted for about a week and a half before they screwed up again.

But Jesus didn’t come to “restore the kingdom”, he came to bring the kingdom...a kingdom that was much different from what the anti-Roman zealots and the temple authorities had in mind.

And perhaps much different from what the modern day Pharisees and Zealots among at least 81% of Evangelicals have in mind.

It sure would be nice if we all came out of not only Lent, but through November, having soundly decided to reject the evil one and all his empty promises.[1]


[1] One of the baptismal and confirmation vows used in the Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and other liturgical churches

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Maybe It's the Population After All!

There’s a running joke in my family that when I die, my obituary is going to start off something like this:

Keith Edward Gatling, of Syracuse, NY, has died, and no longer has to deal with the people who wouldn’t listen to him the first time...when he was right to begin with.

Actually, that’s not a joke. I’m going to write my own obituary, and it’s gonna start off just like that. You know why? Because it’s true. There’ve been way too many times when I’ve said something which has been either ignored or discounted, until...well...it actually turns out that I was right, and that other people were stubborn.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s post.

Many years ago...like about 40 or more of them...I was very concerned about increasing population. I knew enough about Malthus to be dangerous, and was concerned that sooner or later...maybe sooner...we’d end up with more people than we could feed; in which case the whole population thing would take care of itself because half of us would starve.

This idea was pooh-poohed by some friends of mine, who optimistically said that we’ll figure this out. And that one of those “too many people” born in the future will figure out how to feed us all.

But it wasn’t just that. I had friends who believed that having children was a moral imperative. We should all have children, whether we wanted to or not, because children are an intrinsic good, and people who didn’t want to have children were just plain selfish. And even the reasons they gave for not wanting children (like concerns about the population) were just masks to hide their selfishness behind.

Me...I figure that these people wanted children so badly that they had to justify it by saying that everyone should have them. They couldn’t let there be “different strokes for different folks.”

Then there are those who worry that if we don’t have enough children, two very bad things will happen. The first is that the Ponzi scheme called the economy will collapse. The other is that there won’t be enough young people to take care of people to take care of an increasingly aging population. I believe that both of these concerns, however, are very short-sighted and selfish.

And so where are we forty years after I first voiced my concerns about increased population? In a situation which may well have been caused by too much population growth over the past four decades. Human-induced climate change and new diseases that spread much more quickly are but a few of the possible results of having reached a certain population threshold.

I can’t recall where I read it, but I saw somewhere that if the world population was around what it was in 1915, we’d probably be doing just fine. But now there are too many people wanting and needing too much stuff; and while there’s enough food (for now), we’re strangling ourselves in other ways.

But what about the economy? What about taking care of the elderly among us? Do we really need to keep pumping out more and more of us in order to deal with those issues?

Maybe not. Maybe we can be more creative. Maybe our economy can be based on something other than increased consumerism, and become something more sustainable. Maybe there are ways to take care of an increasingly aging population without having to pump out more babies to do it.

Maybe we need to take a look at how other cultures did this in the past.

And maybe we should take seriously the idea that maybe we should slow down...and even reverse...this population growth.

Because...maybe I was right in the first place.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

What's in a Name?

Over the December break, my two daughters, 17 and 26, were discussing a Quebec law that said that a married woman couldn’t take her husband’s last name, and how unfair it was. They felt that these women should at least be given a choice in the matter.

As I marveled at the Christmas miracle of these two actually getting along, and holding a civil conversation with each other...finally...I decided to look this up to see if it was true, or simply some urban legend they were responding to. And you know how many of those there are out there!

Turns out that it was true…and not only that, but it wasn’t even a new thing. This law has been on the books in Quebec since 1981. This means that almost two generations of women have grown up with this, and you’d think that they’d be used to it by now. I mean really…39 years? On the other hand, if their mothers and grandmothers changed their names, they still have examples of the old tradition to go by.

But wait…according to an article from Time, Quebec isn’t the only place that has this rule. It’s been the case in Greece since 1983, and in France since 1789.

1789? When I read that, I was like “Whoa! So that means that Marie Curie wasn’t really Marie Curie?” Well…yes and no. Legally…on all official documents, she was still Maria Sklodowska, but socially and publicly she was Marie Curie. And we’ll come back to that later.

Indeed, in many countries and cultures, that thing about taking the husband’s name went the way of the dinosaurs with the dinosaurs themselves…if it ever existed at all.

But let’s get back to Canada…and the States…and this particular law in Quebec.

When I looked it up, I was surprised at the strong opinions I found not only in favour of it, but  also harshly against those women who wanted the ability to change their names; asking why any modern woman would want to go back to such an archaic system and lose her identity like that.

Well, I’ll tell you one reason that a “modern woman” might want to “lose her identity” like that. When I was in college, I knew a girl with the last name of Boring, and she said the despite her devotion to feminist causes, she couldn’t wait to get married and ditch that name without offending her family. She was tired of being one of those “Boring girls.”

Another reason might have to do with going from a hard name to an easy one. When my wife and I were planning our wedding, I asked her what she wanted to do about her name…take mine, keep hers, hyphenate, or make something new. She said, “My last name is Kutscher. No one can pronounce it. No one can spell it. Yours is Gatling. It’s phonetic. Done.”

But there’s another reason, and it’s perhaps the same reason that Maria Sklodowska became known as Marie Curie…love…and signaling the relationship to others.

One of the Canadian opinions basically said that while legally, and on all official documents, she still Ms MacDonald, that doesn’t prevent her from publicly and socially being Mrs Makenzie to show the relationship she was in.

Interestingly enough, this whole issue came up in our house at the same time that one of my former students was getting married for the second time, and was wondering what to do about her name. Should she become Mrs Allen to signal the new relationship that she was proud to be entering into; remain Ms Siegel, which is the name she had used professionally for years, and that her daughter shared; or take this opportunity to go back to her original status as Ms Scott? Her intended didn’t care what name she used, as long as he got to have her, but she was still thinking about it.

Finally, after much discussion back and forth about it, she decided to remain Ms Siegel officially, socially, and publicly, but her relationship name…in those hours when they were together all by themselves, and as a pet name…would be Mrs Allen.

Different things work for different people.

So to all of you who are in any kind of relationship, and no matter what you’ve decided to do with your name, I wish you a happy Valentine’s Day!

And a special congratulations to the new “Mrs Allen.”

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

What We Say

I was thinking earlier about things that girls can say to guys, and it’s just fine, but if a guy were to say it to a girl, it would be seen as incredibly creepy. And then that got me thinking about the thing that a number of you, who don’t see the forest as a whole, but instead, focus on the one tree you have an issue with, have probably already seized upon.

I said “girls” and “guys” instead of “women” and “men.” And, of course, to refer to any female over the age of 18 as a girl is “demeaning.”

But linguistically, it’s so much more complicated than that. We have the legality of adulthood mixed up with perception of youth (or relative youth), and the whole alliteration thing to deal with. How do we handle this?

I don’t know if I can work this out to everyone’s satisfaction, but I’m gonna try as best I can; knowing that some people will still disagree with me.

Yes...technically, at age 18, you’re no longer children (although you have to wait until 21 to buy beer), and thus, no longer girls and boys. But do the terms “girl” and “boy” of necessity only refer to children? What about “girls’ night out”, or “boys’ night out”? Some of those girls and boys are in their 40s and older. But more specifically, we don’t tend to use “boys” all that often when talking about males in general. We use the “ageless” term “guys.” This gets us to that alliteration thing.

With girls and guys we’ve got two terms that both begin with the letter “g.” It’s a parallel structure. It trips off the tongue more easily. And so we use it.

So now we’ve got girls and guys. I’ve already mentioned that “guys” is a pretty much “ageless” term for any male. Is there something similar in regular English for females? Well yes...and it just happens to be “girls.” Why isn’t there a totally different term for ageless females like there is for ageless males? There used to be...it was “gals” (there goes that alliteration again).  But for some reason, it’s fallen into disuse over the years. And as linguist John McWhorter will tell you, language doesn’t always behave logically.

But why not just use “women” and “men” for anyone over the age of 18? This brings up issues of youth, and relative youth. I don’t know about you, but “women” and “men” makes me think of older people...people who are at least in their 30s. And actually, when I looked up discussions of “girl vs woman” and “guy vs man” online, I found that each of the former terms is generally used to refer to young women and young men...with young being defined as under 30. Fascinating...no one ever actually teaches you this distinction, but it’s one that most of us instinctively know.

But another article pointed out something so obvious that most of us don’t even notice it…”girls” and “guys” are informal terms we use for talking about people. They’re the terms we use when referring to them colloquially. If we were talking about someone past high school or college age formally, we’d likely refer to them as women and men. But while they’re in school, it’s girls and guys. Referring to a person on a college campus who is a student, and not a faculty or staff member, as a woman or man, seems kind of affected and pretentious.

And then comes the thing that makes this whole issue so darned difficult in the first place...there’s not even agreement among women about what they want to be called and when. It’s not like there’s one monolithic voice out there saying “We always only want to be called women.” There isn’t, and there are enough women out there who use the term “girls” to refer to themselves that you just never know when you’re going to hit that nerve with someone.

But getting back to my original point, did you ever notice that there are some things a girl can say to a guy and it’s just fine...and even cute, but if a guy said it to a girl, we would all just go “Eeew”?

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

What We Don’t Know

It was an amazing, perfectly timed coincidence of arguments from two different sides of the fence. Arguments from two different sides of the fence that proved my point.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

It started with a Facebook post from my wife about who gets to decide what a symbol or action means or stands for. Is it the people using it, who claim it means for one thing; or the people who are offended by it, who say it means something different? As examples, she gave kneeling during the National Anthem and the Confederate flag.

When she mentioned that despite its origins over 150 years ago, many modern southerners see it simply as a symbol of regional pride, sweet tea, and all that, many modern non-Southerners called “bullshit” on that; saying that they should know better, and that they’re being willfully ignorant of its history.

One non-Southerner in particular, a friend who majored in history as an undergrad, said that he watched the films of the marches in several Southern cities, and in those cases, that flag was most decidedly not about sweet tea and regional pride.

And yet, two things are important here. The first is that this friend was a history major, who knows a lot more than the average person. The second is that we have Southerners 50 years old and younger for whom that was ancient history that they had nothing to do with.

So that was the first argument. The second, from the totally opposite side, was also a Facebook post. This one said that Martin Luther King Day is here again, the day on which we pretend that he never said certain things about the evils of capitalism. 

Now hold on there! “The day we pretend he he never said”? How about the day that we find out for the first time that he did?

Whoever wrote that obviously knows a whole lot more about Martin Luther King Jr than the average bear. This person has probably read everything he ever wrote...and falsely assumes that the rest of us have too...and are being willfully ignorant of it.

Let’s face it, do you think that in their History classes, Southern kids are being taught any more than the standard “dates, places, and battles” that the rest of us are? Do you really think that teachers go into great (and potentially embarrassing) detail about the causes of the Civil War, and what the secessionists really believed in? For that matter, are they calling it the Civil War, or are they still calling it “The War of Northern Aggression”?

With that in mind, are modern Southerners who, if they took another history course after high school, probably didn’t take one on either the origins of the Confederacy or the Civil Rights era, being willfully ignorant of the origins of that flag?

I don’t think so. I think you only know what you know; and don’t know what you don’t know...until you’re told it. I think that my friend’s statements are an example of an expert on a certain subject expecting too much from “regular people.”

And what of those of us who “pretend” that Martin Luther King Jr never wrote about the evils of capitalism? Are we being willfully ignorant, or is this another case of our simply not knowing what we didn’t know? Was this simply one of the things he said or wrote that didn’t get as much attention as the things we remember him for?

Is this another case of an expert expecting too much of us regular people?

And there are so many other times when this happens. So many times when we only know what we know, and only understand what we understand...which may be much different from what an expert on the subject knows and understands.

In my own life, in my study of religion, I learned that the Church of England was created when Henry VIII broke off from the Catholic Church because the Pope wouldn’t annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Well, at 24, I thought that was a piss poor reason for starting a new church, and that’s why I’m a Lutheran now. But almost 30 years later, while reading a book on the history of marriage, I discovered that things were a little more complicated than I thought, and that Henry’s decision was a political one, about the political power of the Pope. Had I known at 24 what I learned at 50, I might still be an Episcopalian. But I only knew what I knew, and not what the experts knew.

I think that the “experts” should cut a little slack on us normal people who don’t know quite as much about their topic as they do, and not be so quick to accuse us of being “willfully ignorant” when, for many reasons, we just didn’t know.

The big question now is what do we do once we do know?

But that’s a question for another day.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

On Christian Anti-Semitism

Last month a set of stabbings occurred at a rabbis house that desecrated both Chanukah and Christmas, and I figured that it was time that I took some time to talk about anti-Semitism.

Historically, anti-Semitism comes in two varieties. The first one boils down to simple xenophobia, where you don’t like “those people” because they’re different from you, and living by different rules within your culture. If you’re one of those anti-Semites, then I have nothing to say to you that’s any different than what I’d say to any other xenophobe…and it’s not pretty.

The second variety, the one I find most horrifying, and the one I’d like to address today is Christian anti-Semitism. That’s right…anti-Semitism as practiced by Christians…people who have no business being anti-Semitic, or anti-anyone, at all.

Historically, Christian anti-Semitism boils down to “getting the Jews back for what they did to Jesus.” But let’s take a careful look at the situation here.

I first heard the old “the Jews killed Christ” thing when I was about 11 years old. It was mentioned briefly in the classic British movie Hand in Hand, about a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy who were best friends. When I heard this, I thought it was the stupidest…and most obvious…thing in the world. Of course, the Jews killed Jesus! He lived in Israel. Who else was there? That was like saying the Americans killed Kennedy.

It took me a few years to see things a little differently.

I was about 13 or 14 when Jesus Christ Superstar came out, and then I understood that it was the Jewish leaders, and not the masses, who had it in for Jesus, and who turned him over to the occupying Romans (remember that part, it’ll be on the quiz). So right there, blaming all the Jews for the actions of the leaders seemed a little much.

But as you listen to the lyrics more closely, you’ll find out that he was turned over to the Roman authorities because as someone who didn’t deny that he was a king, he was a threat to Roman power, and a threat that would cause the Romans to come down hard on the rest of the Jewish population of Palestine. Can you say “Masada”?

Years after that, I learned something else very important…crucifixion was a Roman form of execution, not a Jewish one. And it was a Roman form of execution usually used on political prisoners (remember what I said before about Jesus being a threat to Roman power?). There was a particularly Jewish form of execution…it was stoning. This wasn’t used on Jesus, but it was used on St Stephen according to Acts 7 by the Jewish leaders (and again, not the masses), for the crime of blasphemy.

So now that we’ve covered history, let’s talk about a little theology. According to standard Christian theology, and especially things that Jesus said himself, he had to be turned over to the Romans and executed…as a sacrifice for our sins, following the example of the bull sacrificed in the temple at Yom Kippur…and was intended to be the final sacrifice for all. Did you catch that…his death was necessary in order to atone for our sins, and then to be raised again. Necessary, I say. So with that in mind, who is there to “blame”? If none of the parties had played their part in the events leading up to his crucifixion…Judas, the Sanhedrin, Pilate, Herod…where would we be now a Christians?

So with that in mind, anti-Semitism as a form of “getting the Jews back for what they did to Jesus” makes absolutely no sense at all. And theologically, everything that happened had to happen as it did.

There’s so much more I could say, but I’ve already gone past 600 words. But suffice it to say that “Christian anti-Semitism” makes absolutely no sense, and is something that Jesus himself would not be happy about.

So, for Christ’s sake, lay off it already!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Chanukah...It's Not The Jewish Version of Christmas

A few weeks ago, a Jewish friend of mine shared a post about how people should stop referring to Chanukah as the “Jewish version of Christmas.” This is my slightly expanded response.

OK, I’m gonna tread very carefully here, because I get the point about Chanukah having been a minor holiday before it got swept up in the winter/Christmas craziness...but Christmas was also a minor holiday until it was not so coincidentally placed at the same time as the previously-existing winter celebrations...at which point it took on the trappings of those celebrations. So I feel the author’s pain.

Growing up, my hometown had a substantial enough Jewish population that there was a synagogue three blocks from my house, so I learned about the invasion of Judea, the Maccabees, and the oil that lasted for eight days from my very Irish kindergarten teacher, Miss Laughlin. Did we have a substantial population of Muslims or Hindus back in the 60s? Not that I know of; so there was no reason to learn about their holidays. And Kwanzaa wouldn’t exist for another five years.

But “the Jewish version of Christmas”? Sigh...I know what these people are trying to say, but they don’t get that they’re getting it totally wrong. Perhaps because they didn’t have Miss Laughlin to explain it to them. As a result, they’re trying to describe something else in terms of something they already understand, rather than on its own terms. And maybe sometimes you have to start with A before you can get to B. And maybe it’s not really, as the author suggests, a case of Christians wanting to define everything in their own terms. Let’s take sports for example. I’m no big sports fan, but because my daughters have played soccer, and I understand that, I understand basketball as “soccer with your hands” and hockey as “soccer on ice.” And yet, if your main point of comparison between Chanukah and Christmas is the gifts, then maybe your understanding of Christmas is flawed too.

As for the Holiday Season...well, it all depends on how you’re defining it. Are we talking about just the holidays I celebrate, just the ones my Jewish friends celebrate, or, as they say these days, “all the holidays”?

If #3, then the season includes Thanksgiving, Beethoven’s Birthday, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, and whatever Muslim and Hindu holidays fall in that span. If #1, then it’s my wife’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, my sister’s birthday, and New Year’s. If #2, it may be Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and New Years.  

But the other thing that so many people both within and outside of Christianity don’t get...and it’s a very important thing...is that Christmas is as much a cultural holiday as a religious one. As a result, there can be a tree in the city square and in the library without really violating the church/state separation…unless you’re really a stickler about anything with even a hint of The Feast of the Nativity to it. And it’s in the cultural part where we uncomfortably bump up against Chanukah. 

We have an elephant in the room that we can’t ignore, and that will not be ignored. And yet, at the same time, we know that we have to acknowledge the other creatures in the room. How do we do that well? How do we do that gracefully? The answer to that will be different for each person who’s not with the elephant. 

But also, because it’s such a cultural celebration, keeping those aspects of it strictly to ourselves seems sorta selfish. If I’ve made a little something for everyone else in my department, but skip you because you’re Jewish, is that respectful, or petty? Can I give you something because Christmas is when I give things, or do I have to shift the timing, and give you your gift for Chanukah?

It’s all very complicated, and becomes more complicated as more people from more cultures join this melting pot, mosaic, or whatever you want to call it. How do we respect everyone’s celebrations? How does the elephant react to being told that it’s not the only creature in the room?

Holy crap, is this ever complicated!

But…I’d like to wish all my Jewish friends a happy Chanukah…without which there might not even have been a Christmas at all.