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Disclaimer

The contents of this website are for contemplative purposes only. No medical advice will be given, and emails asking for medical advice will be ignored.

Although patient vignettes are based on my experiences with real individuals, I liberally change details to maintain patient confidentiality.

I also reserve the right to change old postings to correct errors, and to delete comments that include obscene language or that I deem abusive to me or other commentators.  If you are looking for a open mind, I suggest you consult a neurosurgeon.

Sunday
Apr172016

The Mississippi Anti-Gay Law: The Assholes Prevail

A week ago, the Mississippi state government passed an anti-gay law. The law, titled in propagandist fashion the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, seems to follow a recent pattern in conservative politics, which is to pass a controversial legislation so quickly that there is no time for debate. This has been done repeatedly with the gun laws, voting laws, and welfare reform. Now that the NRA, the plutocrats, and the misanthropes have been appeased, we move on to homophobia.

The anti-LBGT law was introduced into committee in February, where it hid among the sea of bills that float around legislative committees, before surfacing rather abruptly the last week of March. Within a week of first being reported in the Mississippi media, it was passed, and signed. It was first proposed in February, but after bouncing around for a month it was voted on in its final form in the State House on March 30, passed by the Senate on April 4, and signed into law April 5. Breakneck speed for a state that took 5 years to complete construction on a train bridge near my house.

Its proponents call it a religious freedom law. Some Christians, the argument goes, believe the Bible condemns gay people as an abomination (Leviticus 18:22 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 are commonly cited examples). Thus, to force a religious person to have anything to do with a gay or transgender person is a violation of his or her rights. While technically applying to any religion, the law is intended to protect Christians — no one seriously thinks the Mississippi legislature would pass a law to protect a belief specific to Muslims.

So we now have a law, possibly an unconstitutional law (although its constitutionality may depend on who fills Antonin Scalia's place on the Supreme Court), which explicitly says that a citizen cannot be prosecuted for refusing any kind of service to a gay or transgender citizen, or for firing someone from a job because of sexual orientation.

Bigotry is not, and never has been, a crime. The law, however, especially in the South, has a history of protecting and reinforcing the bigot. From slavery to Jim Crow to the old law that permitted a husband to beat his wife with a stick as long as it was less than the width of his thumb, the law has often protected prejudice. After decades of backing away from the old ways and adopting a neutral stance toward bigots, it seems that the state of Mississippi wants to go back. As a result, we now have a law that says, “Do you want to be an asshole? Sure, go ahead. As long as you are a religious asshole, you have the approval of the state.”

How this relates to the religious freedom guaranteed in First Amendment is difficult to pin down. Yes, governments do have the responsibility to protect religions from prosecution. But just because people choose to use religion as an excuse for being an asshole, doesn’t mean the state has to extend its protection to the behavior. Asshole and religion are not the same thing.

Even before the law, business owners could refuse to deal with certain customers. All they had to do was avoid showing obvious racism in doing so. A restaurant manager can throw a customer off his property for almost any weak reason he can think of. The weaker and more vague the reason is, the better. Throw a black family out because they are black, and there could be a problem. Throw them out because their shoes are ugly -- that's perfectly fine. As long as the owner doesn't make it obvious that it is a racial decision, no state in America is going to prosecute.

Since homophobia is, under this system, more or less protected from the law, additional laws are not necessary. That is why this law is nothing but bigotry. It doesn’t extend the law; it simply puts a government imprimatur on bad behavior. For a state to come out and say, “If you don't like gay people, great! We support you!” is to move from merely permitting people to be assholes to making assholery state-sponsored behavior.

There is a difference between stupidity and assholery. Stupid people can’t help being stupid. Assholes choose to be assholes.

Like, you know, by enacting a law.

What does an asshole in action look like? Take our governor Phil Bryant, on whose desk the bill landed on April 4. Bryant announced that he would "consider if the bill was best for the citizens of Mississippi," which he did for a grand total of 24 hours before signing it into law. Twenty-four hours isn't enough time to consult with business and social leaders. Twenty-four hours isn't enough time to ask the State Attorney General if the law is constitutional or not, or to consider the possibility that promoting bad behavior might put LGBT Mississippians in some kind of danger.

No, twenty-four hours is only enough time to allow the Guv to tell his loyal supporters that he thought about it for awhile before he chose to be an asshole.

As a regular churchgoer, I am aware of the fraught relationship religion has with homosexuality. While the Bible's proscriptions against homosexuality are more complicated than the typical fundamentalist is willing to admit, it is true that the Bible mentions homosexuality by name and singles it out as a sin more than once. Thus, tolerance does represent a theological problem for many churches.

Without going into great detail, my view is that the Biblical condemnation of homosexuality has more to do with behavior than sexual orientation. In Biblical times, many cultures had religious practices that included elements like animal and human sacrifice, slavery, castration, prostitution, and homosexual sex. When early Judaism rejected these practices, it did so for both ethical reasons and to differentiate itself from more primitive faiths.

Back then, homosexuality was not understood as a physiological state, something people are born with. It was thought of as a behavior, like eating pork or drinking too much, or adultery. Thus, the condemnations were of acts, not people. St. Paul, when he rejected homosexuality, was rejecting a practice, not an orientation. Paul would not have understood same sex relationships as an outgrowth of orientation. Paul also counseled against marriage, telling his followers to get married only if they lacked the discipline to live a chaste life. These are not the words of someone who rejected an orientation. They are the words someone who thought some behaviors were more compatible with spiritual growth than others. For Paul, the problem was the sex, more than who it was with.

And all this has to be tempered with the understanding that Paul was addressing an ancient audience who lived lives very different from ours.

Modern medicine has not yet proven that gays are born and not made, but the data is strongly moving in that direction. There is a lot of behavioral science research that shows gay people don’t simply behave differently — they are different. Some of these differences appear very early on in life, in childhood — long before a gay person would be sexually aware enough to make a conscious decision about sexual orientation.

If gays are born, not made, this presents a serious problem for religion. It means God intended gay people to be gay. Homosexuality is a natural state.

From this it follows that God intends that there be gay people. Anyone who disputes that, who argues that to be homosexual is to be sinful, is arguing that gays are "born wrong," which is blasphemy. God doesn't make mistakes, as the old Christian saying goes. To challenge the sexual orientation that God willed gays to have, is, from a religious point of view, to challenge God’s decisions.

Whatever accommodation Christianity is going to make for the existence of LGBTs, it cannot be the legalization of bigoted behavior. Not only is this approach immoral because it implies that some people are better than others under the law, but it does nothing to address the more serious religious issue, how to resolve the ancient theology of marriage with the scientific evidence. A gay man cannot marry a woman without making himself a liar. Nor can he pretend to be straight for the benefit of religious teaching. I wouldn’t think the goal of religion would be to make innocent people into liars.

This isn't a religious freedom law. Religious freedom means the right to believe whatever you want to and to attend the church of your choice. This is the Freedom to be an Asshole Law.

As a Christian, I object to the conflation of the meaning of the words "religion" and "asshole." And fail to see how encouraging people to be assholes under the guise of religion does anything at all to forward the cause for Christ in the world.

Saturday
Mar262016

Seven Last Words: "It is Finished"

“It is finished.” John 19:30.

One of the things people look for when they consider death is closure. The dying look for it, and the bereaved look for it for as well. Closure, depending on who you talk to, means many different things. Sometimes it means making amends with others. Sometimes it means completing a job of a lifetime. And sometimes it means making provisions for the safety and well-being of those who depend on us.

But most of all, closure means finishing life with a sense that the life lived had a meaning, a purpose, extending all the way to the last moment. Closure implies that the life lived was worth something. No one wants to think that he or she lived for nothing.

Ultimately, Christianity says that none of us can live for nothing, because we are loved by God, and God’s love is never meaningless. But most of us yearn for something beyond that. We want to be able to say that we took the life God gave us and made something meaningful out of it.

All of this hints at the centuries-old Catholic-Protestant conflict: Are we justified — that is, saved by God — simply because we believe in Him, or do we need to perform acts of goodness as well to make it to heaven?

The words “it is finished” provide an answer. And the answer is that both views are correct. Jesus’ death — the death of a slave, in a far-flung province of the Roman Empire, on a nondescript day, at the hands of an otherwise obscure Roman governor — is extremely remote from our experience. So remote that it shrinks into insignificance. Nothing about the the death of Jesus, from a historical perspective comes across as special. Tragic and unjust, yes. But special? No. No city was won, or war decided with Christ’s death. No empire was created. No earthly victory of any kind was achieved. Yet his death was an act of universal redemption. It was extraordinary not because of the bare facts, but because God wanted it to be. In other words, Christ’s life and mission had meaning because God’s love made it so. This is another way of saying that faith in God is enough to justify a life.

And yet, Jesus’ last words also illustrate how his entire life was centered around acts of goodness. “It is finished” reminds us that Jesus’ death was the final sentence of a lifelong story. The moment of his death was only part of his act of sacrifice. His entire life was the rest.

This thinking is reflected in the theology of the Eucharist. When the priest at Mass says the words “this is my body, which was given up for you,” that instant is not, as many believe, the moment of consecration. The entire Eucharistic prayer is the act of consecration. It is not the act of holding the host aloft that consecrates the bread, it is the entire Mass that does so.

As humans, we tend to put a premium on specific moment — the moment the ring goes on the finger, the moment the trigger is pulled, the moment the diploma is placed in the hand, the moment the paper is signed. But “it is finished” reminds us that this is not so.

Yes, the crucifixion is the heart of Christ’s sacrifice. But in truth, his entire public life was his sacrifice. Every moment he spent away from home, every night he slept outdoors, every sermon he gave, every time he was chased from a town by an angry mob — these were all sacrifices. They all are part of the moment on the cross, when Jesus gave up the last of himself.

So there isn’t really any separation between justification through faith and justification through good acts. A good act is faith itself. It would be impossible for us to just believe and not do anything about it, and it would have been impossible for Jesus to climb up on the cross and simply take his punishment unless an entire life had been spent in devotion to God, in preparation for exactly that moment. Jesus’ entire life is the sacrifice we see come into its fullness on the cross.

Friday
Mar252016

Seven Last Words VI: Thirst

“I am thirsty.” John 19:28.

In recent times, Christians have readily embraced the humanity of Jesus. But this has not always been the case. Not so long ago, it was common for Christians to emphasize the divinity of Christ, even to the point of ignoring his humanity. Many people thought, for example, that Jesus had all the knowledge of God while he was on the earth. That is to say, Jesus, while he walked the streets of Israel in AD 25, knew what the Dow Jones industrial average was going to close at on April 1, 2016. He could fix jet engines. He knew that DNA was a double helix.

While this may seem peculiar to a lot of people today, when I was a child I knew adults who felt this way.

It is not hard to see how someone could fall into thinking that way. We pray to Jesus. We worship him. We think of him as God. Why wouldn’t we think that Jesus knew everything about everything? God would.

But a careful reading of the Gospels shows that while Jesus may have had an awareness of his destiny, it is unlikely that he was clairvoyant. When he prayed in Gethsemane the night before he died, he said, “Father, take this cup away from me…” While it is clear he realized he was going to suffer and probably die soon, if he had known he would be resurrected 3 days after that, these words of desperation would have made less sense.

There were clearly limits to Jesus’ knowledge. When Jesus heals ten lepers and only one comes back to worship him, he acts surprised. “Where are the others?” he says. If he knew everything, he would know where the others were. In another passage, a woman with a long history of hemorrhaging touches his cloak and is healed. Jesus begins looking around for the person who touched him, because he “felt the power go out of him.” But he doesn't know who has touched him and been healed.

When Jesus first heard about the death of John the Baptist, he mourned. Why would he do this if he knew it was going to happen? Why would he have to be told?

And consider Judas. If Jesus knew from the very beginning that Judas was going to betray him, why would he select him as a disciple in the first place? And if Jesus selected Judas knowing fully that he was the betrayer, then it would be impossible to say that Judas betrayed Jesus. In that scenario, Jesus would simply have picked Judas for a job, and Judas would simply have done what he was supposed to.

Jesus clearly did have human limitations in knowledge, and physical limitations as well. Otherwise he never would have slept. Or ate. Or breathed. Why would he need to? He was God, right?

In the Passion story, the second to last thing Jesus says is that he is thirsty. At the very end, as one of his very last acts, he reminds us that he is as human as we are. Not a god with perfect knowledge and superhuman powers. A God with human knowledge and human powers.

After he announces that his is thirsty, what happens next? Someone soaks a sponge in vinegar and offers it to him. Most commentators believe the “vinegar” was sour wine, that is, cheap wine that Roman soldiers often drank for refreshment in the heat. Jesus tasted it, and refused it. This is a symbolic return to the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus asks to have the cup taken away from him. In this case, Jesus is offered relief from his pain, a drink, and he refuses the cup, choosing instead to fully embrace his sacrifice. To fully embrace his human death.

For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.

Thursday
Mar242016

Seven Last Words V: Into Your Hands

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46.

This is the moment in the Passion when Jesus seems to be letting go. He accepts that there is nothing more for him to do, and he allows the Father to take over.

Simple enough. That is, if you think letting go of life is easy to do. But for most of us, it isn’t. Most of us do not go gently into the night.

To exercise the self-control necessary to let go of our most precious possession, life itself, and turn it over to God exceeds the powers of most of us. Letting go is not what we usually think of as control. Instead, we think of control as meaning that we have a tight grip on living. It is that illusion, that it is possible to have a tight grip on life, that makes death so hard.

All of us like to feel we are in control of our destiny, or at least have some major control over its direction. But there is one thing that no one truly has control over: The hour and means of our deaths.

No one, no matter how much money, intelligence, physical strength, or power he or she may have, is able to control the timing and manner of death. Some people who are facing death anyway have a limited control over how it happens. We can choose to jump out of a burning skyscraper or be burned inside of it, for instance. Some may consider suicide a way of controlling death, but people usually do not choose to commit suicide; they are forced into it by the pain of living.

Jesus, like everyone else, is not able to choose the moment of death, but he can choose to let go of living and peacefully accept it. It is a hard thing, to come to terms with the end. But it is a necessary thing, for anyone who wants to have anything approaching a good death.

To realize there is nothing left to do but to give up and accept death is not a defeat for a Christian. As Jesus shows here, to accept death in its finality is to accept God. This is faith at its most profound. Faith becomes the bridge from life to whatever lies beyond it. There is nothing beyond death except for God.

Jesus, being human, would not have known what was beyond his last moments any more than we do, but the example he sets shows that letting go of death is only possible by commending all to God. Jesus squeezes what little joy he has left in his last suffering hours — in excruciating pain, abandoned by his disciples, rejected by his own people — by placing all the trust he has left in God. It may have been the most courageous act of his last day.

For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.

Wednesday
Mar232016

Seven Last Words IV: Woman, Here Is Your Son

 “Woman, here is your son….Here is your mother.” John 19:26-27.

Jesus addressed his mother as “woman” twice in the Gospels. The first time was at the Wedding at Cana (John 2) when he said to Mary, “Woman, what is it to me?” after she asked him to help the wedding hosts who had run out of wine. The second time was on the cross.

It is interesting that the two of the very few times we have Jesus directly addressing his mother, he uses the not-so-familiar term woman. From what I have read on this subject, it was no more normal for sons to call their mothers woman in Jesus’ day than it is now.

It must have been a strange relationship. Mary was Jesus’ mother, but Jesus was also the Son of God. From the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke, we know that Mary was well aware that her child was not a normal boy. This is one of the practical values of the virgin birth: If Mary was a virgin when she conceived, she knew for a fact that her child was like no other. She knew her mother-son relationship would not be the usual mother-son relationship, and that this was something she would have to accept.

Jesus was both of Mary, and transcended Mary. In a sense, by calling his own mother woman, Jesus was emphasizing that Mary was human, which also meant that Jesus, as her true son, was also fully human. If this seems like an odd way for Jesus to recall his humble origins, remember, this wasn’t a normal relationship. Jesus may have communicated with his mother in ways that other sons would not, since they both knew his calling was not the usual calling.

Jesus said elsewhere in the Gospels that a student could never surpass his master, and so in calling his mother woman he may have been pointing out that he was at least in a physical sense no more than an ordinary man as well. Far from being a dismissive term, it may have been Jesus’ way of reminding us where he came from.

When Jesus gives his mother away to his beloved disciple (thought by many traditions to be St. John himself), he was, among other things, providing for her after his death. In the time of Christ, it was practically impossible for a woman to work outside the home, since all skilled jobs would have been given to men. A widowed mother, in this context, would have to depend on her children for support or risk starvation. The only other options would have been prostitution and begging, and as we know from the Gospels, there was no shortage of women in Jesus’ time who resorted to these. Thus, the gesture of giving his mother and his disciple to one another was an act of economic necessity. It indicates how cruel the blow of state-sponsored execution was to families back then. And it also indicates how much the members of the early Christian community must have needed one another for survival. Jesus was only the first of many Christians executed for his beliefs, and the families left behind must have desperately needed the support of their fellow believers.

But there is also a spiritual dimension to this. In giving his mother away, Jesus is symbolically giving his humanity away, leaving it in safe keeping with another man. He is putting his human life behind him, to move into his Father’s Kingdom.

This does not mean he is leaving humanity behind for good. When Jesus is resurrected, he brings his humanity back with him. He is resurrected body and spirit. Perhaps this is why, in John, Jesus first appears after the Resurrection to Mary Magdalen. In appearing to a woman first, he may be closing the circle. The last person he acknowledges his humanity to is a woman, his mother Mary; and the first person he acknowledges his divinity to is another woman, Mary Magdalen. Womanhood becomes a statement of humanity.

In the passage into death on Good Friday, Jesus must — indeed, we all must — leave our human selves behind, and then face a spiritual transformation.

In dying, Jesus passed into death the same way all of us have to. The other part of it, that we can emerge on the other side as he did, is a matter of faith.

For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.