So Much For The Funk

When I was a teenager I attended catechism classes at Holy Family of Nazareth Catholic Church on Sundays before mass. Some of my high school classmates were in these classes with me, sitting in what were known as temporary buildings set apart from the main campus, which had suddenly become overwhelmed with a recent increase in population in my home town. These buildings were nothing more than trailers, and not too comfortable. But the surroundings were not the worst part of this journey. One particular instructor assigned to us heathens – Oh I forget his name, but I’ll call him Mr. P – well, Mr. P was terrible at his job, which wasn’t his real job. He – like many of the amateur educators who take up the task of imparting wisdom to people slightly younger than they, and perhaps just as educated – endowed himself with the authority to tell his students about all the various ways we were going to be damned to the eternal flames of hell.

Dancing at the Luxor, New Year's Eve 2009

As it turns out, just about everything humans do is a mortal sin. In fact, Deuteronomy 23 outlines a few things God doesn’t want us doing, like taking a shit in our neighbourhood or being a “temple prostitute”. However, you are permitted to eat raw grains and grapes from someone else’s fields while you are out there. That’s good to know. I think this ought to apply to supermarkets, too.

Mr. P left quite an impression on me when he said that all music, no matter what style, was “bad” or from Satan if it made you even so much as tap your foot. Nevermind that Gospel music makes me want to really move. That’s bad, according to Mr. P. I’m almost sure he misspoke, and perhaps he was thinking of the Devil’s own rock ‘n’ roll. Jazz was thought to be evil decades earlier. Some people still don’t understand it, and as such, they condemn it.

Mr. P’s intentions were unclear. I don’t think he was terribly ignorant. I’m sure also that he enjoyed the occasional vice in his youth. I’m not suggesting he smoked weed or anything like that. But that wouldn’t be so bad, anyway. Maybe he liked beer or wine. Maybe he even listened to Miles Davis. But now he was standing in front of a class telling us that all the things that brought us pleasure were going to curse us to perdition, our souls in jeopardy. If you want a teenager to do something, tell him it’s forbidden.

30 years later, I still think about Mr. P. I hope he’s had a good life. Maybe he’s retired in Florida now. Or maybe he has a lot of friends he goes out with from time to time. I hope he has learned that if God wants anything for us, it’s for us to have a joyful life. I’ve found that some religions look upon pleasure as something abhorrent. I can see that overindulging is not good, but also depriving oneself can’t be the answer. We would not have been given the capacity to experience joy if we were not meant to receive it. Why do we crave and ache and yearn if not ultimately to feel satisfaction, if we are so fortunate?

Good religious educators are hard to find. If you take this on, please do not tell your students that everything they feel is wrong. We were all young once, some of us continue to be young at heart. It’s easy to forget how to enjoy life, what with all the stresses and responsibilities and headaches. Sometimes, we need to be reminded that there is a beautiful world out there with sights and sounds and tastes and smells, delights that pale in comparison to Eden’s. The God I believe in would say, “enjoy, celebrate, run like children through my fields.” It’s very sad that religion had to mess things up like it has.

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Reviled

The Confederate Battle flag (or whatever they’re calling it) is causing such commotion lately because certain bigoted, hateful individuals have used it as a standard, and because an entire group of people has been persecuted under the banner that they find it offensive, as do I. A few people on the radio last week were desperately trying to convince the listening audience that Southerners should be “proud” of their heritage. And even though popular culture has at times been allowed to take certain license, no one would think Al Jolson’s blackface would be remotely appropriate, or that having a Swedish actor play a Chinese-American detective would not be offensive. (Incidentally, Warner Oland, who played Charlie Chan, also appeared with Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer”).

Living in the Southern United States, I have seen a lot of racism. It’s actually quite rampant even 50 years after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Johnson. Many small towns are racially divided, both economically and geographically. Places like Paris, Texas have an ugly past. Dallas saw a public lynching as late as 1910. Many of the people in the crowd were children. Allen Brooks was dragged from the courtroom as his trial was underway and hanged in the street. There was very little justice in those days if you were descended from slaves. It remains a problem to this day, evidently.

What do we do about the Confederate flag? Well, let us draw a comparison, shall we. My first thought was to compare it to the Nazi swastika flag (which I will not display). Practically everyone agrees that it is one of the most offensive images one could display, and yet, the swastika is an ancient symbol, appearing in Ancient Rome, and used in several religions in India. Unfortunately, it has come to symbolize hatred and oppression and tyranny, and it is completely repugnant to the Jewish people, among others.

It is possible that white robes and hoods were at one time, in another place, acceptable for some purposes. But the KKK adopted that look to terrorize African-Americans in the South for decades. The Klan occasionally still has assemblies and rallies these days. I remember they held a rally in the town I was living in back in the early 90’s, but their supporters were very few, and no protesters bothered to show up. The Klan members left shortly after the rally began.

Recently, some people have been waving their Confederate flags with a little more enthusiasm, I suppose in a show of defiance, not because they are segregationists or support Apartheid, but because of some misguided attempt to reconnect to a past that they have come to glorify. It is a fact that the Civil War was fought over slavery, contrary to many Southerners’ revised history. And even though the flag in question may not have been flown back during the brief emergence of the Confederate States of America (there was in fact a different national flag of the Confederacy), this banner has come to symbolize tyranny and oppression, like the swastika. In Arab nations, many people find a cross to be offensive, being a symbol of the Crusades. As a result, the International Red Cross in the Muslim world becomes the Red Crescent.

When a symbol or a word or an image has become a standard for a movement that offends and subjugates a people, it ought to be removed. That said, the swastika is part of human history, and it should never be forgotten. The Confederate flag may be repulsive to many people, but we need to be reminded of the ugliness of our past so that we do not repeat it.

 

 

A Step Toward Perfection

This is an interesting time to be alive. I’m pretty sure someone said those exact words in 1971, 1939, 1918, 1877, 1859, 1789, 1775, 1650… You get the idea. Actually, watching the world change is really cool, and quite terrifying at the same time. Islamic State fighters have taken over towns in the north of Syria, disguised as Kurdish soldiers. And Myanmar’s military has retained veto power over that country’s parliament. This is some pretty serious shit! Nevermind that for now, because in the US, the Affordable Care Act has been upheld, especially regarding subsidies, and the Confederate flag is being taken down in many places in the Southern US. Also, marriage equality was made the law of the land. So, a pretty interesting week.

This last thing, though. A lot of people were pretty upset about gay marriage being a thing. And they’ve been complaining that it “attacks the sanctity of marriage” for years. Notably, people like Newt Gingrich were extremely (and hypocritically) against the rights of gay people to marry. He himself having been divorced twice! Well, I won’t judge him, even though I can, justifiably, on the grounds that my wife and I have been married nearly 24 years. Well, I said I wouldn’t do that.

The main argument many people have against the homosexual lifestyle, as they probably imagine it, is that the Bible calls it a sin. Well, actually, it doesn’t. I’m no Bible scholar, but I have read a lot of this book. Interestingly, it’s not a single work – rather, it is a collection of many holy texts that were circulating in the Mediterranean region for centuries up to the formation of a first canon of scripture. In fact, there are at least ten bibles currently in use. The point is, if you are going to cite scriptural references for an argument, it helps to have some bearing of what those scriptures mean. The meanings of passage after passage are intensely debated by scholars – people who actually know what they’re talking about – not the average Facebook user.

But in my Zen-Christian approach to this world, I have always stepped back from the issue and just sat and observed. I see that change is inevitable, like the seasons or the movement of the planets. It is a juggernaut, unable to be stopped. It will ease your soul to accept that. Many years ago, people with brown skin (like my dad’s) were not served in restaurants, and they could not participate in elections, and they had to use separate toilets and go to separate schools. Many people who had slightly lighter skin believed this was all part of God’s plan, and that it was preordained and right. Fortunately, there was justice, and even though the people descended from African slaves and people descended from Native Americans are still marginalized and denied equality and fairness, progress is still being made. Change will come.

My Christian upbringing taught me that no one is perfect except God. But other teachings lead me to believe that perfection is attainable, perhaps not for ourselves as individuals, but as a race, a species. I look at other organisms on our world, and I see they are perfect. The blue whale. The Queen Victoria agave. The Mexican free-tailed bat. The king cobra. Humans are not perfect, but this assessment comes from ourselves. We are harsh judges. Sure, we have a lot of frailties and some pretty unattractive qualities, like greed or jealousy. Other creatures seem to possess these, too. But it doesn’t mean they are not perfect. We may be perfect someday. First we have to get rid of some trash. Get rid of things we don’t need or that are cluttering up our lives. It will take generations to achieve, but I can see that it’s already happening.

What really determines how you think goes back to how you were raised. You have the power within you to reach farther and break out of your conditioning. Your parents and their parents and the people in their community may have told you it was wrong to be left-handed or that you shouldn’t like someone who is the same sex. They might have said you shouldn’t swim right after you eat, and that is based on old wives’ tales. Interracial marriage was still banned in the South until 1967, within my lifetime! Some so-called Christians are still opposed to it to this day. I’m sure they can find some Bible passage that says how it is an abomination. Well, so is wearing blended fabric and cutting your sideburns.

To my Conservative friends and family: I want you to know that I do not perceive a threat to “traditional” marriage. By the way, some of you might want to look that term up. It might surprise you. If you feel threatened, I suggest you talk to somebody. Change can be a scary thing. Many of my friends and my family are celebrating today. Around the world, people seem to be focusing on the ISIS massacre and Syrian refugees and other injustices. I think it’s great that we have marriage equality in the US. When the party’s over, can we start working on ending homelessness and hunger and poverty? Contrary to what the Bible says, I think we can do it.

Save Our Souls

I was pretty depressed last week. We recently lost a family friend, and even though no one wanted to talk about it, we knew she had suffered a lot with substance abuse and its complications. It was a tragic end to a life of pain and grief. My wife had been one of the last people to contact her, and she had always been there to support her and comfort her. Her death came as a shock, but not unexpected. Still, it hurt a lot of people.

I started my week feeling like there was no point to anything, because we all die, and we all leave a trail of grief in our wakes. I had recalled a passage in the Bible where Jesus was preaching to a crowd of people about how we should treat one another. I’ve always felt that this was important, but now I saw the futility of our existence. What was it all for, I pondered. It was hard to see the point of anything.

Jesus stood on that hilltop and said, basically, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison. Other passages instruct us to treat others the way we would want to be treated. But I thought, “why should we bother?” People were going to die anyway. If I fed someone, it’s not going to save them, but merely extend their existence for another day. I imagined that I might have a conversation with Jesus on that hilltop. I would say, “I can feed someone, but that’s not going to help them get out of poverty. And I can clothe someone, but am I really helping that person?” What is our one drop of compassion in the ocean of suffering going to amount to?

I considered how he might reply. It was simple, really. The point in bringing light to a world of darkness, to be that one small voice in the mob, where it seems no one cares, and everyone works against you, is to ease the suffering of an individual in order that your act of mercy translates into that person being just that much more compassionate. The ripple effect would change the world for the better. If we do nothing, we add to the suffering. We are either part of the solution, or we are part of the problem.

This is not to say that I think people who do nothing or who do evil are damned to go to hell. I don’t think there is such a place. And I don’t know what happens to us when we die. All I know is that we live in a world of immense suffering and pain. Easing that suffering may not save a life, and it might not save you, but it echoes beyond the moment and carries on to the next encounter, be it tomorrow or a generation beyond. In a way, we are all changing the world, one atom at a time. We waste our lives arguing over who is right or how to make more money or what people should think. I find that there is value in being kind to people. I have visited people in dark places in their lives, and even though I may question what good I am doing, I know that I will always remember when someone has paid a kindness to me. And the point? I will have less suffering as a result, and I will pay it forward. Hopefully so will the next person.

Is this going to save us? I don’t know. But while we are all in this thing together, why not make the ride a little less bumpy. Recently, someone caused a lot of suffering in South Carolina. Some of the family members of the victims came forward to express forgiveness for the alleged shooter. I am surprised when I see something like this. I don’t mean that I don’t expect people are capable of forgiveness. I just find it surprising in comparison to the way most people behave without having been injured. Sometimes I am completely disgusted with my species, and I lose my confidence in our right to survive.

We place ourselves above other creatures by claiming we possess a soul. (I’m not convinced we’re the only ones.) Perhaps the trajectory of our lot is a point where we will become an enlightened race, not burdened by pettiness and jealousy and greed and all the other characteristics that are attached the dossier of our beings. Once we can shed those and live up to our potential, who knows how we will evolve. We seem to be somewhat spiritual, so it seems our development will progress that way. Or we’ll become purely intellectual beings. Who knows. We can only get where we’re going by discarding the unwanted baggage. I suggest we start by not being colossal assholes to one another. I’m a work in progress.

None of us is perfect. And I’m as far from it as the next person. Well, good luck out there. Don’t be a prick. Take care of the needy. Show mercy. Send a Thank You card when you receive a gift. (That last one’s Emily Post, not Jesus Christ, but you probably knew that).