Friday, January 22, 2010

Words Matter

In “The Wordy Shipmates,” Sarah Vowell writes about the beautiful words of the Puritans who founded Boston. It was John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts who compared America to a “city on a hill.” The idealistic and lovely words of the Puritans were at odds with many of their actions. Winthrop proposed a society based on biblical principles, where each person would take care of the other, a religious welfare state. (As Vowell points out, if you want to see such a society, go to Canada.) Winthrop, the eloquent preacher, punished a man who spoke against religion by cutting off his ears. Winthrop banished Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, and condoned the massacre of seven hundred Pequot Indians, including women and children. His talk was pretty, though.

Words do matter. I recently attended a large Protestant church in the area with a friend of mine. During the sermon, the pastor gave an illustration that involved Jewish refugees. His comment was not anti-Semitic--- if it had been, I would have left the service—but it was insensitive. This pastor believed that Christianity was superior to Judaism, a chauvinism I do not share. I would have a hard time going back to that church, even though the music is excellent. I don’t believe that one religion is better than another, or that one country is the greatest country on earth. That is tribal prejudice.

The same week, the owner/manager of a charity where I had been volunteering yelled at me like I was an incompetent three year old. Now, I was a volunteer there. I had been for almost a year, and she had never thanked me. She yelled at me. I haven’t been back. I don’t like to be the kind of hypersensitive guy that bristles every time someone looks cross-wise at me. But words matter.

It’s been a week of disappointment for liberal and patriots. A Republican took Ted Kennedy’s seat in the senate. The Supreme Court decided that corporations should have the free speech right to contribute unlimited amounts to political candidates. It’s easy to believe there’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats. At least Dems say the right words, even when they don’t deliver. Words matter.

I’m a descendant of Puritans. My ancestor, Exercise Conant (there’s a catchy name!) came to America in 1623 on the ship Anne. He and his brother, Lot, built the first house in Salem. By the time of the War of 1812, my forebears had discarded their religion. But, like most Americans, I nonetheless share the Puritan legacy. Sarah Vowell writes of Reagan’s interpretation of John Winthrop’s speech. Reagan changed the words slightly, and spoke of the “shining city on a hill.” Reagan said some lovely words, but his actions were perverse. Reagan slashed the budget of H.U.D. (Housing and Urban Development) from $32 billion in 1981 down to $7.5 billion in 1988. It was during Reagan’s presidency that we began to have the epidemic of homelessness. Reagan had the gall to say, in 1984, that people were “homeless, you might say, by choice.” No. They were homeless because Reagan slashed H.U.D. funding.

Actions matter. Eliminating school lunch programs, increasing Pentagon spending, slashing social services--- those are inexcusable actions. Saying that the homeless live on the streets by choice is both stupid and cruel. Words matter. Calling America a “city on a hill,” a light to the nations, when you slaughter Indians and import African slaves is a sham. In her autobiography for her children, medieval Jewish mystic Gluckel of Hameln wrote, “God forbid that you should give out to people that you are one thing, but in your heart you are another.” Hypocrisy is when our words don’t match our actions. God knows I’ve said and done my share of stupid and cruel things, and for that, I am sorry. Words matter, and actions matter. When a country or institution lies, or is hypocritical, it’s sad. Calling America the “city on a hill” or “shining city on a hill” is problematic when that country tortures, ignores the Magna Carta and Constitution, and engages in unlimited war. It’s odd to claim superiority for one religion when that same religion has a bloody history.

We’ve got to pay attention to our words, and make sure they match our actions. God forbid we give out to people we are one thing, when in our heart we are another. Saying pretty words doesn’t undo the crimes of history. If our words are lies, maybe we should just keep our mouths closed for a few decades till we can get out house in order.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Christmas, Hannukah, and Football

ABC News reported that Rick Warren’s church was short on funds. Sadly, someone came to his rescue, and his little church has more money to bash gays and spread hatred with. James Dobson’s Locusts on the Family is spending millions on anti-abortion ads for the Superbowl. If their enterprises had folded during these times of economic stress, maybe some good might have come from the hard times. Warren and Dobson are turds in the punchbowl of American religion.

We made it through the holiday season. It’s a time of year when religion is in the forefront, from O’Reilly’s war on Christmas to the right wing chant of keeping Christ in Christmas. For those of us from mixed religious backgrounds, it can be difficult. For some Jewish friends, it’s a time of alienation. Although half of my background is Jewish, we never did much for Hannukah, and my Jewish relatives celebrated Christmas with gusto. Sure, we had ladkes, but we didn’t light candles. My relatives were from a different era of American Judaism, and sought to blend in with their Christian neighbors. Intermarriage is the ultimate step in religious syncretism.

It’s tempting for me to fall back into a “Cher” half-breed perspective. Sometimes it feels like “both sides are against me since the day I was born.” I’m neither fish nor fowl, and never at home with fanatics of either faith. Cher analogies are melodramatic, though: I prefer football metaphors.

During football season, my family is split between Cowboy supporters and Greenbay fans. Cowboys vs. Packers. Football rivalry can be both playful and vicious. In my own life, I’ve gone back and forth between rooting for both teams. They’re great teams. I don’t want to choose. When they play each other, it’s confusing. I have a cousin in pro football. (If you know what I look like it sounds funny, I’m a shrimp.) C.J. is a cousin by marriage, who started his career with the Cowboys, and now is with the Packers. I wonder who he’s really for, deep down inside. Does it matter to him? Does he have divided loyalties? C.J. is Swedish, and looks like a stereotypical Viking. He’s blond and huge. My great-great grandmother was born and raised in Sweden, and left in 1880. Some of her relatives stayed behind. She was an illegal immigrant, and never learned to speak English. She planned on returning to Sweden in her old age, but by 1930, Hitler’s regime was on the rise, and her relatives warned her to stay in America.

The Packers and the Cowboys both have good players. The two teams are a lot alike. So are Christianity and Judaism, and I wonder why people don’t see how similar they are. Jesus was a Jew. His teachings were in the Pharisaic, rabbinic tradition, like those of Hillel or John the Baptizer. Jesus wasn’t as urbane as Philo of Alexandria, and his teachings seem rural, homely. If not for the fall of Jerusalem, Christianity might have continued as a sect of Judaism. Sadly, Judaism and Christianity had a nasty divorce in the 2nd century, and have nurtured hard feelings ever since.

I’m not trying to trivialize either faith. I’m not trying to trivialize football. Maybe some people are genetically hard-wired to root for one team more than another. Maybe it’s part of our tribal heritage to think one group, our team, is better than another. I have mixed loyalties, and I refuse to take sides. The Cowboys and the Packers are both great. Judaism and Christianity are both good traditions--- so are Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.

Football fans might notice an inherent violence in the game: religious observers could draw the same conclusions about religion. I’ve written before about the inherent violence of the Abrahamic religions, which might be due to the legacy of human sacrifice in the Near East. Religion is good, but it has a dark side. Maybe being an outsider, I can critique both religions. Neither completely Jewish or wholly Christian, I’m a foreigner to both. That’s not a bad thing. It can be a gift. As Edward Said wrote, it’s important to “investigate in spite of barriers, and always move away from the centralizing authorities towards the margins, where you see things that are usually lost on minds that have never travelled beyond the conventional and comfortable.” Sexual minorities, the disabled, expatriates, all of us have an opportunity to move away from the “centralizing authorities,” and see new things. So, go ahead, root for the Christians or the Jews, the Cowboys or the Packers. But take a moment to see both “teams” from an outsider’s perspective.