Autocracy and Its Victims

Human rights ought to be fairly simple.  The recognition that all people are human is complicated by that infamous human construct of money, even when autocracy’s involved.  I recently became aware of the plight of the Uyghurs.  If it were not for the efforts of some local faith communities, I would never have heard of them.  The Uyghurs are a Turkic population in what is now northwest China—a disputed area that has fallen under one of the superpowers of the Asian world.  Muslim by heritage, the Uyghurs fall into the category of peoples adhering to an organized religion, which the government of China has consistently resisted—indeed, feared.  The current plight of the Uyghurs is that they are facing “ethnic cleansing” by the Chinese government, which uses claims of terrorism to lock at least hundreds of thousands (perhaps significantly more) Uyghurs into “reeducation camps.”

Like most governments with secrets to hide, China does not permit foreign journalists or academics into these camps.  Children are being separated from parents—those of us in the United States would be well served to pay attention to this—so that the young may be culturally assimilated into the China that Beijing envisions.  The Uyghurs, like the Tibetans, are seeking international political protections and recognition.  Minority groups like this easily fall under threat.  In many communities men are taken to the reeducation camps (from which they never come out) and their families are supplied with a male Chinese boarder who watches to make sure they no longer adhere to their Islamic faith.  Reports from those who visit the region demonstrate how much at threat all of us are from autocratic governments, especially when other governments are easily bought.

We in the western world are prone to accept the propaganda that Islam is a terrorist religion.  It is not.  Most people are surprised to learn that the nation with the highest Muslim population is Indonesia.  Iran is not even in the top five.  Iraq is not in the top ten.  Our western bias blinds us to the religious realities, and diversities, of east and south Asia.  China, however, has long repressed organized religions, making it irresistible to many Christian missionaries.  It has, despite being the home of Daoism and Confucianism, become hostile to movements that allow people to organize.  Religions, of course, have long been such organizing movements.  If we do not support the rights of other religions, especially under the whims of autocracies—which are growing even in “the free world”—then we are gazing at our own future. 

Permanent Change

Maybe you’ve experienced it too.  The sense of change in a large city like New York is palpable.  Although I don’t commute in much any more, I noticed it when I made daily treks to the city—change is constant.  If the skyline’s forever evolving, on street level things are more than keeping pace.  In the seven years of my daily commuting I saw buildings built and razed in the same location.  Scaffolding is a constant hazard.  Public art pieces are placed and then replaced.  Change.  I was reading about Yijing, better known as I Ching, the other day.  One of the spiritual classics of China, this “Book of Changes” reflects a worldview common in eastern Asia that is quite at odds with that that developed in ancient Greece.  Many Greeks believed permanence was reality, those in China who read the spiritual masters believed that change was reality.  The older I get the more I think the author(s) of Yijing got it right.

I’m not an expert on the religions of southern or eastern Asia, but I have studied the major ones.  To those outside the field of religious studies, it may be surprising that the field is as large as it is.  In the United States alone there are an estimated 40,000 denominations, and that’s just within Christianity.  To be an expert in any one takes years of study.  Add in the many religions of other locations, such as Africa and Asia, and you’ve got more than one lifetime’s worth of work lined up.  A common—the most common, in fact—course in collegiate religion curricula is “World Religions.”  I’ve taught it myself.  The problem is nobody’s an expert in all of them.  Still, I found reading about what used to be called “eastern religions” (with that poisonous cultural bias that the unchanging west is the correct vantage point) full of surprises.

Scientists well into last century liked the idea of a steady-state universe.  Permanence.  When Edwin Hubble noticed other galaxies were moving away from ours (and, by the way, first noticed that there were other galaxies), the Big Bang theory developed to explain this motion.   Change, it turns out, is constant.  It may be slow at times, and at others it’s like the skyline of a major city like New York, shifting several times in a single lifespan.  I’ve read some of the spiritual classics (in translation) and I always come away with a new sense of wonder about the many ways of understanding the world.  And I ponder what it will take to change the attitude that religions aren’t worth studying.

Bible Misunderstood

Okay, so I wrote a post a couple days ago about evangelicals challenging Trump’s China tariffs because it will raise the price of Bibles.  Little did I know that Miriam Adelson wants a “Book of Trump” added to that very Bible.  Now, heroes are a personal business; to each their own.  Adding someone to the Bible, however, especially when that person has no idea of what Jesus said, is problematic.  Biblical and ecclesiastical scholars know that even if most Christians agreed books simply can’t be added to Scripture.  Many think the Gospel of Thomas should qualify—it may actually be closer to the words of Jesus than some of the canonical gospels and was putatively written by a disciple.  Thomas, however, will never make the cut.  Early bishops and elders in the church set pretty firm limits to the New Testament.  

Some religious traditions, such as Mormonism, have gotten around this impasse by writing entirely new sacred texts.  Loyal Trump followers might indeed fit the description of what used to be called a cult.  Thing is, George W., and George H. W., and even Ronald Reagan were more religious than the incumbent and nobody suggested adding them to the Good Book.  Our world has somehow flipped upside down in the last three years.  All I know is that in the photos of Trump with the most Jesus-like Pope in modern memory the Holy Father wasn’t smiling.  Then again, the Pontiff would likely not autograph Bibles if asked to do so.  Has anyone suggested a book of George Washington?  There’s such a thing as getting carried away.  

The Bible, apart from being the sole recognized authoritative text of the world’s largest organized religion, is an iconic text.  This means that the Bible is recognized as an important book—perhaps even a stand-in for God—without considering what it actually says.  This was a major point behind Holy Horror and it’s essential to understanding American political behavior.  Manipulating Scripture for political ends is generally the most cynical of approaches to the Good Book.  In America you can drive down highways and see the Bible advertised on billboards.  Large segments of an increasingly secular society are still motivated by it.  There was a time when it was believed that such cavalier suggestions as that of Ms. Adelson would constitute blasphemy, or would at least profane the founding book of Christianity.  In the minds of some Trump has clearly become a god.  So it was in Rome before the fall.

 

Trumping the Bible

The media is chattering about one of the very many contradictions of evangelicals who support Trump.  Since I have a foot in the world of the Bible business, I read with interest how Trump’s tariffs on China will put Bible publishers in a bind.  You see, the Good Book is generally sent offshore since printing costs (and technologies) are too expensive to replicate in God’s new chosen nation itself.  This lack of divine foresight should be a bit disturbing.  The entire evangelical enterprise is based on their reading of Scripture, and the belief that the divine choice of America is behind such momentous events as 45’s election.  Maybe we should check our pipes for lead.  In any case, Bibles, which are printed cheaply in high volume overseas, are set to become too expensive to give away because of the great pretender’s tariffs.

A few media outlets have picked up this story, including one that noted Trump’s favorite Bible verse is “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”  The famous lex talionis statement was famously, well, trumped by Jesus who said that the ideal was to turn the other cheek.  In a rather Philistine way, evangelicals have sided with a man who says Jesus was wrong.  If you want to check up on me in your Bible you’d better get your wallet out.  Ironically from a Republican point of view, tariffs are themselves the breaking of the commandment of free trade.  Still the party that claims to believe that does nothing to prevent the sale of their souls, cash on the barrelhead.

Many evangelicals may find the idea of Bibles as a business distasteful.  It is, however, extremely profitable for those on the supply end of the deal.  Bibles are printed at a volume that would make most authors green, and due to its size the Good Book requires specialized paper most of the time.  This is so much the case that Bibles not printed on “Bible paper” just don’t feel like sacred writ.  Since costs of living in the United States are quite high, and since this kind of specialized printing would be too expensive in this situation, publishers outsource God’s word.  Some publishers have been pleading with the government to exclude books from Trump’s tariff so the Good News can continue to spread.  The fact is that only one deity, called Mammon in the Bible, runs this enterprise.  And to continue to buy Bibles at the evangelical rate will soon be requiring an act of sacrifice.  I guess the lex talionis still applies.

Christian Nationalism

Apparently we’ve forgotten the Second World War. In our touch-screen, never-have-to-get-off-the-couch culture of convenience, we’ve completely disregarded the millions that, yes, died in vain. You see, Christian Nationalism is on the rise, according to a story my wife sent me from the Huffington Post. About as much an aberration from literal “Christianity” as you can get, this movement believes America’s success is tied to its role as a Christian nation. Such believers, if they can even see that such rhetoric leads to war, don’t care. For the fact is that the economy of China is poised to pass, if it hasn’t already done so, the economy of what used to be United States. Call it Confucian Nationalism, but I have the feeling that when two giants try to get into the same compartment things tend to get unpleasant.

Serious thinking is a natural resource of which America has clearly run out. Easy answers, empty of content—junk food of the mind—are easily tweeted out from a personality that declares his own opinions truth. Everything else is fake news. Evangelicals, it’s sorely obvious, need to read The Analects. Don’t claim that its obscure; I’ve read the Bible. If you think you can figure Paul out, well, that’s what I’d call “fake news.” Oh, and by the way, Paul was anything but a nationalist. For all his faults, he knew that Christianity is nothing if it’s tied to nationhood.

Instead we puff out our chests and, ignoring the Bible on this very proverb, become the blind following the blind. If God has a plan he’d better reveal it to his 45th prophet soon because there are some enormous gulfs in the road and he insists on walking without a cane. American exceptionalism is built on the backs of the poor and helpless. They are also the ones most easily swayed by its perverse rhetoric. Nations must separate themselves from their religious beliefs. We’ve seen what happens when incompatible religions become the identifying factors of countries. As long ago as the 1970s I’d learned that nationalism was a powerful force for evil. I hadn’t been alive during the Second World War, but the world into which I’d been born was entangled in Vietnam. We were halfway around the world playing the bully, but it was because of capitalism, not Christianity. The end result, however, was the same. Unimaginable human suffering. Death, pain, and sorrow. And we’ve decided that the Prince of Peace wants us to head down that road again. “Vanity,” I hear Qohelet whisper.

Plain Floods

Erschrecklichewasserfluth

Floods are the stuff of legends. In fact, one of the most pervasive myths of all times is the world-wide flood. While some would see this as “evidence” that such an impossible flood actually occurred (some believing so fervently as to build replicas of imaginary arks), others recognize the flood as a basic human dilemma. We require water, and therefore we build our cities near a source of it. Rivers worldwide are prone to floods. While recently stuck in a holding pattern waiting for space for our flight to land at Newark, floodplains were more than evident from high above. My hometown regularly experienced floods when ice jammed the Allegheny River during the spring thaws. The floods of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were, literally, epic-making. A piece in the Washington Post rather surprisingly reports “Legends say China began in a great flood. Scientists just found evidence that the flood was real.” The story by Sarah Kaplan demonstrates the universality of unruly water.

I know little of Chinese history and mythology. There’s no reason, however, to doubt that stories of ancient floods were as common there as elsewhere. The flood is, pardon the Christianization, the baptism of civilization. Things have to be washed clean before “civilization” can begin. In this case, according to the story, Yu, the founder of China’s first dynasty, tamed the flood. Now scientists are finding flood deposits from the Yellow River that match the 1900 BCE time-frame of this mythical founding. We can be certain that some will latch onto this date noting how Abraham was said to have emerged shortly after the flood (Genesis chronology says Noah was still alive when Abraham was born) and therefore this is proof of the Biblical flood. Even Sir Leonard Woolley advertised that he’d found the biblical flood in the river deposits of Mesopotamia. When it comes to literalism, any old flood will do.

No doubt many ancient flood stories go back to some historical event. The world was never completely covered with water in human times (before that nobody was here to see), but it’s easy to understand how people might have believed it could have happened. Our view tends to be local, often at the expense of universal costs. Consider global warming, for example. It’s difficult for us to see something that impacts us as such a distance. Taking care of the planet is so hard when we realize just how big it is. Our neglect, however, will definitely cause floods to come. Our denial makes myths for future generations. Headlines millennia down the road, if anyone’s left to read them, will, I’m sure announce with surprise that the devastating floods we’re creating now were indeed real.

Only Takes a Spark

Fireworks have been the main event for Independence Day celebrations ever since I was a child. The fourth of July is a day for playing with fire. As a child I remember spending the meager allowance I had on sparklers and snakes. I haven’t seen one of those ash snakes for decades now, but the impression they made remains strong. A plug of some kind of carbonish material—you’d light the top with a match and it would flame and hiss and start to grow into a long, twisting exoskeleton of ash. They left a blackened circle on the sidewalk, and when they were cool enough you could try to lift the fragile snake in your hand, but it almost always broke apart before blowing away in the breeze. We also wasted our money on smoke bombs with their multi-colored smoke, but we never had actual firecrackers. Given the trouble we could make with an ordinary roll of caps, that was probably a wise decision on our mother’s part. All of this, however, was just a prelude to the fireworks.

As I sat under a cloudy sky last night wondering why every July fourth seems to rain, it occurred to me that fireworks are a violent form of celebration. Indeed, they are designed to imitate the sounds of battle—before the nuclear age—and we all know the thrill of when the loud, bright burst of pure light sends a shock wave through you. It is like a canon rocking your soul. Like many stirring experiences, fireworks had religious overtones from the beginning. Invented in China, fireworks were used for religious festivals. They were believed to be effective at driving away evil spirits and bring good fortune. Pyrotechnics, however, clearly have military applications as well. It is this strange nexus between religion and violence that makes, I suspect, fireworks displays so compelling.

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The local display here in Somerset County, New Jersey, was impressive for a region without large cities. I couldn’t help pondering the strange aesthetics of contained violence as the colorful explosions took place over my head. Illusions, I know. We always talk afterward about whether some of them are meant to represent anything. Did you see a smiley face, the United States, or even New Jersey? It depends on your angle of view. Is this a religious display or a celebration of violence? Looking around at the amazing diversity of peoples gathered here in this park with me, I feel strangely satisfied. I hear languages I don’t understand, and see people from all over the world here for a good show. Although thousands of us try to get to our cars at the same time, spirits are positive, for the most part, and all go home in a celebratory mood. Maybe the ancient Chinese were right and these pyrotechnics do drive away evil spirits after all.