Witching Well

Salem, Massachusetts, brings to mind images of intolerance and a culture ossified in superstition. That’s not really fair, of course. Even in the late seventeenth century the people of Salem were living during the Enlightenment and they understood enough of science to question the legitimacy of the spectral evidence of the kind that would stand in Washington DC today. With twenty direct deaths due to witchcraft accusations and many more lives disrupted or ruined, this tragic episode has perhaps unfairly cast New Englanders as credulous rubes willing to believe just about anything. If you’re like most of us, you may not be aware that other witch trials were going on around that same time period, but with differing results. Richard Godbeer’s Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 recounts the events in Fairfield County, Connecticut in Salem’s haunted year. As in Salem a young woman began experiencing fits. Medical explanations—rudimentary as they were—didn’t explain everything away, so supernatural causation was considered. Witchcraft was suspected. Accusations were made.

In the case of Kate Branch of Stamford, as Godbeer shows, Connecticut was learning the lessons of Salem in real time. The belief in witches and witchcraft was just as real, but realizing the bad press their northern neighbors were receiving, the Connecticut Yankees insisted on more stringent evidence. Indeed, judges dismissed the jury to reconsider their decision and even overturned it based on reason. These were people who knew that human lives were at stake. They also knew that Salem was doing nothing to vindicate the cause of either Puritans or justice. We don’t hear about it so much, I suspect, because those in power did the right thing. Given present circumstances, reading about Americans who actually learned from history is encouraging. We read daily of a president woefully unaware (and proudly so) of his own nation’s history. What could possibly go wrong?

Witch hunts are sad miscarriages of justice in the best of times. In days when minorities are being scapegoated for the problems capitalism itself causes, we have to wonder if, apart from those in contemporary Connecticut, we’ve learned anything from Salem at all. Wasn’t it clear that targeting women—many of them social outsiders, and pretty much all of them recently descended from immigrants—was in itself just plain wrong? We pride ourselves on having outgrown belief in magic, and yet we go into that voting booth without a rational reason to elect a self-evident bigot and abuser of women and do it anyway. Reading, knowing where we’ve come from, prevents all kinds of tragedies. And this isn’t alternative factual history. It happened in the very shadow of the calamity of Salem, Massachusetts.

God’s Country Club?

Heaven is a sparsely populated place. Considering its vast celestial real estate, vis-a-vis the earth, it must be downright lonely. Maybe that’s the way the elect like it.

Official teaching, as it is often called, for many churches is downright brutal for those who dare explore. This past week the sin of Rob Morris, a Lutheran Pastor (Missouri Synod) who had the audacity to pray for the children slaughtered in Newtown, Connecticut in the same room as—gasp—Jews and Muslims, has been in the news. You see, Missouri Synod pastors aren’t allowed to worship with those outside their brand, and the president of the Synod, Matthew Harrison, insisted on an apology from Morris. Never mind the twenty-six coffins in the room. This is about doctrine!

Exclusion is part of what gives religion a bad name. Yes, there are some people who appear evil—I’m glad I’m not often put in the place of judging that. For some Christian sects, however, the gate is very narrow indeed, and the path exceptionally difficult. More than one Christian denomination, presumably those not so good with arithmetic, officially teaches that only 144,000 will be saved. A thousand gross, and not one more. These poor sinners keep hoping they’ll get in without adding up the hundreds of generations standing in line before them. I get the sense that their heaven wouldn’t exactly be paradise for any of the rest of us who happened to slip in. If the world were full of people like me, I think I’d be on the first space shuttle off to parts unknown.

Overlooking the gross insensitivity to the fact that Morris was trying to heal his community after a tragedy where children—children! To whom most religions give a free pass into heaven—were being mourned, we must wonder what the paradise of Missouri Synod Lutherans looks like. A heaven without diversity. Smiles must be rare indeed. And long, long, long naps very common.

For those of us committed to the common good, heaven on those terms is no ideal place. In fact, I doubt that God would be tempted to spend much time there. I think that God was present at the interfaith prayer vigil, and that Rev. Harrison has yet to receive an apology postmarked “Heaven.”

Rules is rules.

Rules is rules.

Rachel Weeping

“In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.” I just can’t get it out of my head. The tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut is the madness of Herod repeated over and over again. I stand outside my daughter’s room and weep as she sleeps, terrified of what we’ve become. For the right of one person to own guns, twenty-eight are dead. The balance of power is way off-kilter, like a fishing vessel in a perfect storm. Those who protest are those who are unarmed who wish to remain that way. The bravado of the NRA says, “I would protect them, if I were there.” If I were there. I would feel no safer. Where was the NRA in Stockton, California, Iowa City, Iowa, Jonesboro, Arkansas, Littleton, Colorado, Red Lake, Minnesota, Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, Blacksburg, Virginia, DeKalb, Illinois, Oakland, California, or Newtown, Connecticut? Polishing their rifles in readiness, no doubt.

The time has come to put an end to easy access to guns. Life was more civilized in the days of the flintlock and musket—at least people had time to react or flee before another shot was loaded. Instead we tell people they will be safer if they can squeeze off forty-one shots before that crazy idiot shoots another. Drop to your knees and beg for mercy, you’ll be safer. While you’re down there, say one for a nation that loves its firearms more than its children.

Days like this it feels like God has us in his sights. The longer I ponder this the blacker my thoughts grow. We may blame the madman, but it is society that allows this to happen. Herod was king, and even the mother of God fled. But what of those left behind in Bethlehem? They paid the price for a man in love with power. I see a man in a cage, being sprayed by an upright ape holding a firehose. The man is one of the most vocal supporters of the NRA, but now he is the inferior being. “It’s a madhouse!” he cries. Yes, Mr. Heston, it is a madhouse indeed. Only those aren’t apes outside the cage, and those are firehoses in their hands. On further reflection, perhaps they are truly apes. Rachel is weeping for her children, while Herod reloads.

Slaughter of the innocents, 2.0

Slaughter of the innocents, 2.0

Bleak December

Tragedy follows on tragedy in 2012. Maybe the world really is ending this year. Not even a week after a man accidentally shot his own seven-year-old son in western Pennsylvania, a gunman kills twenty school children, six adults and himself in Connecticut, and still the “Religious Right” advocates our God-given sanction to own guns. Various commenters rail that guns don’t kill people—please allow the evidence to disagree. Loudly. Violently. Twas the fortnight before Christmas and all through the school… Nightmare before Christmas indeed.

As a nation we have outlived our need for guns. The only real threat out there is other people who have guns. Even a simpleton can see that it is an insane spiral because no one trusts the other guy. A miniature arms race. A cold war within a nation, state, town, or school. Like the journalists who write the sad stories for the papers, I think of Virginia Tech, Columbine, and children who will never grow up. Wikipedia has an entire article entitled “School Shootings.” America has its own sub-page. I think of other children scarred for life because some people think that it is our right to “protect” ourselves. From what? Still, they’d swear it on a stack of Winchesters. Having been shunted around from job to job and apartment to apartment, I’ve lived next to many people that I found unstable and thank local laws that they were unarmed. The sack on Santa’s back this year is a sack of serpents, and it has been opened and there’s no way to get them back in.

If the Church wanted to make itself relevant again, all denominations would band together and demand stricter gun control. No, it won’t stop every madman from massacring children, but if the Christian community really believes the Gospel it claims, it is far better to die than to kill. The next world is supposed to be better than this. The mother of the shooter, Nancy Lanza, appears to have been the owner of the guns. Probably they made her feel safer. She is now cold in the morgue because of them. Along with a classroom of children in the school where she worked. As the families of the murdered face Christmas this year, they will think that 2012 is the year the world ended. If only it would. But then, nature, and gun-ownership-rights activists ensure a future much more bleak than that.

Nikodem Nijaki's photo of shoes on the Danube Promenade

Nikodem Nijaki’s photo of shoes on the Danube Promenade

Seaport Mystic

While at Mystic Seaport yesterday epiphanies of America’s religious life lined up to be encountered. The museum owns the Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving American whaler from the nineteenth century. The connection between whaling and religion is, as I’ve posted about before, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Whaling was a barbaric, inhumane business – particularly for the whale – but it had all the justification that BP or Exxon still utilize in the destruction of our oceans: the product is in demand and pockets are very nicely lined indeed. Moby Dick is, however, the story of an inaccessible, at times angry god, who leads to death as easily as enlightenment. The Morgan is dry-docked undergoing extensive restoration, yet is still open to the public. Stooped over in the blubber room, imagining the horrors of the place, Melville was my only comfort that something akin to nobility might have come from whaling.

The Seaport also offers an exhibition called “Voyages” – a look at the way the sea has played and continues to play a role in the life of an America that most people associate with a large swath of dry land. The first display tells the story of a family of Cuban immigrants rescued from a tiny fishing boat while trying to get to the United States. A nearby display features Neustra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre. This mythological character is a goddess emerging from the conflation of the Virgin Mary and the African goddess (through the mediation of Santeria) Oshun. The story of the Cuban family associates the origin of this goddess’s concern with seafarers through the chance find of a statue of the Virgin floating at sea near Cuba in 1606. Our Lady of Charity, the Catholic version, is the patron saint of Cuba, and the syncretism of these goddesses has led to a new mythological character on view in Mystic.
Neustra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre

Further along in the same building, in the story of immigration, is the painting shown below. A Jewish family is shown disembarking before a Lady Liberty with “America” written on her crown in Hebrew. The inscription on the sand asks whether the new world has room for the righteous. It is a poignant reminder that acceptance in the United States religious world is often a difficult one. Even today non-Christian religions are viewed with suspicion by many in America. The sea has brought us all together, however, since historically immigration has meant crossing the great waters somehow. One of the gifts of the sea that we are still struggling to grasp is what it means truly to offer freedom of religion to those from far distant outlooks in a world that daily requires less of the gods.

Mystery of Mystic

Ever since my school days at Boston University, even before a movie made the town famous, I wanted to visit Mystic, Connecticut. Perhaps it was the draw of the name that evoked foggy harbors and suggested the possibility of some kind of enlightenment. Perhaps it was because Mystic is near the gray waters of the north Atlantic that so captivate me. Perhaps because I am innately attracted by the sense of place. Whatever the reason, since we needed a break from my perpetual quasi-unemployment and my wife’s demanding hours, we have come to Mystic at last. Since traffic was exceptionally heavy, we haven’t had a chance to explore much beyond Mystic Pizza, now an iconic stop for all visitors.

She wasn't there

Curious about the name with its quasi-religious overtones, I tried to find in the town’s literature some hint of its origin. Nobody knows for sure. Like many “American” toponyms, however, Mystic likely derives from native American roots. The suggestion has been made that it means “great river whose water is driven in waves” (missi tuk). To the colonial ear ever alert for religious significance, this may have become “Mystic.” The true origin of the name may never be known.

Religious enthusiasm among early European colonists and their scions further west often inspired quasi-spiritual toponyms. Devil’s Tower and Devil’s Lake (Wyoming and Wisconsin, respectively) had no associations with the dark lord, but rather were locations of spiritual significance for the native populations. Grasping for a way to express this, the best evangelical Christianity could come up with was “Devil.” At least Mystic sounds much less diabolical. As we explore this town I will, by dint of natural disposition, keep an eye open for the religious implications. If I, perchance, uncover the true origin of the name, my readers will be the first to know.

Naughty Religion is Bad Science

In the continual struggle of Fundamentalist Christianity against the rest of the world, new Creationist grounds have been made in Connecticut. Connecticut is not exactly the first state to spring to mind when it comes to extremist conservative religion, but Fundamentalism knows no bounds. Perhaps the largest disappointment, from the point of view of a student of religion who knows the Fundamentalists a little too well, is that otherwise intelligent people simply accept what their clergy tell them. Having been a seminary student and professor, however, I know the kinds of training clergy receive and if the whole wide world knew things would be different.

Clergy of all stripes of all denominations of all religions are just as human as the rest of us. They do not have special physiognomic features in their brains or hearts or cellular structures that allow them to receive private messages from God/the gods. Many are trained in special schools where people like myself teach them, often against the blustering of their clergy supporters back home, what we factually know about the Bible and other aspects of religion. Many successfully block out what they are forced to hear and emerge just as ossified, if not more so, as when they entered. In other words, their “education” has been an exercise in learning to ignore the truth. They are then made into clergy who continue the deception. Even worse are the clergy who receive no training at all, frequently fresh from an overly-heavy-dinner-induced religious experience, who claim that the biological responses to overtaxed gastric juices is some message from beyond.

The average citizen naively accepts the religious credentials of their clergy, supposing that this “holy” person has had some special word from on high. That word is often factually wrong, especially concerning evolution and the origins of life, but it is accepted as gospel truth and disseminated among unsuspecting children. Religion is a matter of belief, not of fact. As America lags farther and farther behind even developing nations in science education, Fundamentalist clergy give a self-satisfied smile. They have become the gods of a nation that was once able to land some of its citizens on the silvery moon in that great literal dome that surrounds our flat earth.

Moses and the Calf

It seems that Moses just can’t get away from that calf. Last week in a manger in rural Connecticut a calf was born. The calf is brown rather than golden, but it bears a distinctly cross-shaped white marking on its forehead. The owner suspects it might be a divine message, but he’s not sure what the message is. The children of the area named the calf Moses.

Does this all fall into the category of coincidence? Or is it indeed a long-awaited sign from on high? It does fall a bit on the C.E. side of the long-expected red heifer, but it looks like it just gamboled out of a bovine White Ash Wednesday service. And it was born in December! In a manger! (Or at least the present-day equivalent of one.) He bears the name of the arch-nemesis of venerated calves — Moses, the solemn monotheist. Even the chair of the Dairy Sciences Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison declares the Catholic birthmark to be unique.

All in all, I think the farmer got it right. If divine messages come in the form of calves, we’ve got a serious mixed-signal problem down here. The greatest crime, according the book of Kings, that the Northern Kingdom of Israel perpetrated was the erecting of a set of golden calves. And the sign we get is a denominationally confused calf? Perhaps the appropriate question at this juncture would be, “how now, brown cow?”

Photo credit: Aaron Flaum, Associated Press