Hoping for Light

Although the stores have been playing Christmas music for some weeks now, it is technically Advent. I think we could all use a little Advent as days grow shorter and dark nights increase their influence over our lives. As a nation we’ve been brutalized by a minority candidate and this has become a bleak December that Poe would certainly have understood. The spinning mind occasionally falls upon George W. Bush who somehow has begun to look normal. The president who told us when America was under attack we should shop. After all, that’s what people do in December, right? We buy things to make ourselves feel better. It sure is dark outside most of the time. Advent is all about candles and light and hope.

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One of the more endearing aspects of human beings is our ability to see the positive amid negativity. Darkness is the natural state of the universe. Stars are tiny points of light in an endless cold and dark universe. Most of what’s out there has no light beyond those willing to burn bright enough for others to see. We, however, see the light of daytime as normative, slumbering away the hours of darkness. We thrive in light and the light has to be augmented by candles as we struggle against the natural darkness that would, if it could, encompass the universe. Darkness, despite its emptiness, is endlessly hungry. Advent reminds us that we must be light if we want anyone to see in the growing nighttime.

We miss this important dynamic if we leap straight from Halloween to Christmas, pausing briefly for Thanksgiving. The church has made its fair share of mistakes, but Advent wasn’t one of them. Experts tell us Jesus wan’t born in December. Christmas isn’t really a physical birthday. It’s an ancient rite concerned with the return of light to darkened skies. A fervent appeal for our colorful lights and candles to encourage the light that we know, we believe, is out there to return to us. Scientists tell us that it’s just that the earth lolls at 23 degrees on its axis and all of this is just a balancing act. That may be so. I’ve never been off the earth to check. Down here on the ground, however, the days come only reluctantly and the nights linger longer and longer. And we can choose to see darkness as our natural state, or we can ignite a candle to encourage the light to return.

Throwin’ Away My Shot

In what sense can someone claim to win when they failed to get the majority vote? A crooked one, by definition. Some might say “rigged,” to use language that has mysteriously disappeared once one party “won.” The definition of crooked is “not straight; bending; curved.” We cast our votes, and depending on which imaginary lines we live within, those votes are diverted to a party of electors. That means that the person who actually wins the majority vote might not win. When it happens—not often—it always benefits the Republican Party. So it has been in my lifetime. And the “winner” never mentions that the majority voted against him. It’s always a “him.” By a recent count Hillary Clinton had over 400,000 more votes than Donald Trump. That final figure may be closer to a million. Whose votes didn’t count? Compare that conservative 400,000 to the 2,000 votes that “won” Pennsylvania. Go ahead, Trumpetters, you like numbers. Isn’t that an order of magnitude or two out of whack? Doubled? Crooked.

The point of the electoral college is that it has now become a game. Games, as we know from each time George W. Bush was elected, can be cheated. “Hanging chad” is engraved on the tombstone of democracy. Was my vote one of the 400,000 that didn’t count? Most assuredly so. If you know how to read, chances are so was yours. Gaming a system hardly seems to be the basis for the will of the people. The people have spoken and they have been, once again, ignored. W didn’t endorse Trump. I wonder what he thinks of the electoral college now. How does it feel, Mr. President, to have thrown away your shot?

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Some who claim that Republicans know what it feels like to lose need to stop and think. When has their opponent never won both the popular vote and the electoral college? It hasn’t happened in their lifetime. The electoral college may have made sense once, but it no longer does. When we try to tell young people that their vote counts, then put the candidate in office who decisively lost the popular vote, we’re really telling them “throw away your shot.” Still, Republicans are gloating even as the Democrats play by the rules (they’re nice people) and politely throw away their shots. It’s time we stood up for ourselves. When the most contentious candidates (the mind reels at where the GOP can go from Trump), not backed by any previous presidents of their own party, can win based on a technicality, we all need to stand in Weehawken and contemplate what this country has come to.

Storm Watch

Nothing encourages sleeping in like a blizzard. Although it’s a talent I’ve largely lost over the years, hearing the bellows of the wind and seeing the white reflecting through the blinds, and being a Saturday morning form the perfect recipe for letting my brain relax enough to fall back asleep after I’ve awoken. It’s a guilty pleasure that I had, quite honestly, nearly forgotten. Unlike several winter storms predicted last year, this one has actually come to pass. Prediction of the future may be one of those “God-of-the-gap” things, but meteorologists are modern-day prophets. In a society driven by work uniformity, days off are unwelcome, so a weekend blizzard might just seem to come from God. The highly anticipated list of school closings simply doesn’t apply. Many businesses still recognize the sanctity of the weekend, and we can just roll over and go back to sleep.

In ancient times the weather was anything but natural. The sky—so large and so far away—was purely the realm of the divine. The only way to impact it from down here was to pray and sacrifice and hope that it would behave. Getting back to that view of the world is nearly impossible here in the twenty-first century. We are so accustomed to natural causation that it is just one of those “butterfly effect” things. In truth, though, we know that human activity also has to share some blame with the butterfly.

Winter storms in January are not uncommon in the northern hemisphere, of course. January hurricanes, however, are. And as political rhetoric heats up and we once again ponder what it would be like to have another clown in the White House, global warming is dismissed as just another bad joke. As a nation we’ve been enamored of those who can provide the most entertaining gaffs and still claim they know enough to lead the nation. I have a hard time believing those who voted for Reagan had any success at separating fiction from fact. I still can’t convince myself that W was legitimately elected. The second term of both of these actors freezes me as much as the chill draft making its way through my apartment. The meteorologists nailed this one with their predictions. I’ll stay inside and huddle under my blankets until the all clear. And that may not be until well after November.

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Let There Be

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was, as everyone knows, a military man. With the role of Commander in Chief, United States Presidents control a military that eats up an enormous amount of tax dollars. To keep us safe, we’re told. Even though he was a military man, in his farewell address Eisenhower warned the American people of the Industrial Military Complex, a group of companies that not only eat national budgets for breakfast, but also control the most dangerous technology in the world. Secrecy, we’re told, is key. We don’t want any other nation on earth knowing what we’re up to. In fact, most Americans have no idea of and no control over what we’re up to. When people like Edward Snowden come out, their tales are so extreme that it is fairly easy to dismiss them. Would a good government ever do that? Nah. We’re the good guys, right? These were the thoughts going through my head after I watched Star Trek Into Darkness. I always run a couple years behind, it seems, on major movies. This one disturbed me in a way uncharacteristic of the Enterprise and its crew.

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Since it’s been out a couple of years I don’t need to give spoiler alerts unless some readers are even further behind than me. Okay: here’s a spoiler alert.

As James T. Kirk gets busted down in rank for violating the prime directive to save Spock, he takes over the Enterprise when Admiral Pike is gunned down in a top-level Star Fleet meeting. Vowing revenge, he encounters Khan, the eponymous villain of the old series Wrath of Khan. As Admiral Marcus had made an alliance with Khan the parallels with the Bush family and Sadam Hussein became clear. And when Scotty finds a super starship on a moon of Jupiter, secretly developed by Star Fleet to go to war with the Klingons, more than a touch of the Black Ops came to mind. Here was a government that couldn’t be trusted and that didn’t trust its people to know its intentions. When Khan pilots this Black Ops starship into San Francisco, the shot of it falling out of the air so resembled classified military craft that I actually shuddered. The destruction was a parable of 9/11.

Throughout the movie there is a dialog of ethics. Is it right to kill a known criminal without trial? Is it permissible to start an unprovoked war? Does might make right? Khan, despite being evil, tells the truth. The movie disturbed me because I can’t remember the last time I could truly trust the government. I vote Democrat because they are the party that seem to do the least damage to the planet and actually care for the poor. I was born, however, after the Eisenhower administration. John F. Kennedy was assassinated after my first birthday. My reading since leaving college has convinced me that we will never get the full story. Star Trek, although set in the future, has always been a projection of the present day. Those few groaners of episodes from the late ‘60s that delved into popular culture proved that. As I watched the crew of the Enterprise battling an enemy under its own flag I realized little has changed in the final frontier.

Apocalypse When?

We want to understand what worms through the mind of terrorists, and yet we don’t want to be bothered with religion. For decades universities have been shutting down departments of religion because they don’t make money. Religions aren’t materialistic in that way. In the light of the attacks on Paris over the weekend, many have been turning to the media to learn more about ISIS. A piece in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood, published back in March, pointed out how we have tended to see the movement as political, not religious. Wood, however, demonstrates the apocalyptic intentions of the leaders of ISIS. They are religious. Just because you carry guns and high explosives doesn’t mean you don’t believe.

Apocalyptic thought and politics are a deadly combination. The United States is not immune. Knowing the bent of George W. Bush’s distortion of Christianity, his terms in office were very frightening for many of us. Some Christianities, as well as some Islams, not only anticipate the end of the world but earnestly long for it. Pray for it. In the case of some Fundamentalist Christian sects, world leaders should orchestrate events to force God’s hand in bringing about end times. The fact that we had a president sympathetic to those beliefs should send shudders down anyone’s spine. The idea of an apocalypse is a religious one—there is nothing secular about it. We know the history of the concept, although universities eschew those who look that far back. Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, devised a new religion that reflected the basic dualism we all feel: good versus evil. The only way that good could ultimately win in such a worldview was through the complete destruction of evil. And evil wasn’t going down without a fight. This idea influenced Judaism during the Exile, and thus Christianities adopted it. And Islams. No moral relativism here.

The horsemen close in

The horsemen close in

Religion is not evil. Historically it has attempted to be a moral compass to guide believers toward right over wrong. The fact that any religion faces opposition shoves those weak of mind into an apocalyptic state. Gather the horsemen and try to prod God into action. We don’t see divine activity on any kind of scale that we would recognize. The religious events of the past—the Islamic expansion, the Crusades, the Jewish revolt against Rome—these events are merely political. Those who’ve been conditioned to see God behind human activities, however, view such things very differently. Apocalypses are religious events. No amount of reason will convince a convicted believer to look elsewhere for consolation. Yet we press on with guns and bombs and ignorance of what makes religions tick. And tick they will. No matter how secular we might wish the world to be.

Burden of Democracy

Speaking of revisionist history, I see that I’m negligent on updating my Egyptology. In a year when you need an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the sheer number of GOP presidential wannabes, I had to ask my wife who Ben Carson was. She sent me a story explaining how the league of presidential dreamers believes that the pyramids were ancient Egyptian grain silos. His reason for believing this has nothing to do with archaeology or with history and everything to do with the Bible. Now, other presidents of too recent memory have had strange biblical beliefs as well. And that raises the intractable question of how you run a democracy with religious freedom. Some people like to claim religious belief is a matter of choice, but that is rarely true. At a young age we are programmed to accept what our parents or guardians tell us is true. Studies of the brain suggest that once wired for concepts of how God works, the circuitry is difficult to displace. In a country where most people can’t tell a Seventh-Day Adventist from an eight-hour clock, they may be surprised that a brain scientist might believe the pyramids were built to biblical specifications.

From WikiCommons

From WikiCommons

The Adventists are a literalist sect. And they are not the only ones who believe the pyramids have something to do with Joseph and the biblical famine that set the stage for the exodus. It is an idea I encountered as a child, and I didn’t even have a denomination to call my own. Religious belief can be, and often is, completely separate from rationality. Some very intelligent people are biblical literalists. The real problem is that the Bible doesn’t mention the pyramids at all, but then most Americans know as much about the Bible as they know about Seventh-Day Adventists. If people actually knew how much incentive George W. Bush had to start Armageddon, the turn of the millennium would have been far more tense than it was. And that’s saying something.

In our democracy, we want freedom of religion, but we don’t want to be bothered with the details of what a religion teaches. Like many, I was shocked by the headlines of a potential president grossly misunderstanding history, but as soon as I learned Carson is an Adventist everything clicked into place. I would suggest that it is a moral responsibility in a democracy to learn something about religion. We like to think we can fudge on that part of the homework. If we want the freedom of having anyone capable of becoming president, we need to learn something about a human being’s deepest motivations. No matter how much reporters and skeptics want to laugh and scorn, religion makes many decisions for by far the largest majority of people on the planet. The thought that a democracy can thrive without learning what truly motivates its leaders, I would suggest, is the most naive position of all.

Substance of Faith

Every once in a very great while, faith is rewarded. I’m not talking about the faith that is bound up in black leather, inaccessible to realists who struggle daily to keep going. No, this particular faith is human based, based on my fellow citizens who saw it necessary to do the right thing. Although I have to rise before 4 a.m. to get to work, I tossed all night wondering what was happening at the polls. Obama’s reelection meant more to me than I guess I even realized. You see, I look at elections symbolically. Not as overtly black and white as Dark Vader and Luke Skywalker (neither candidate is pure good or evil), but I see that candidates stand for something. I don’t care what religion a president claims, but I do watch closely for what they value. Money, to my way of thinking, is not the way to build a society. Once in a while the rich need to be reminded that no, money can’t buy you everything.

Politics went off the rails when conservative religious issues were mingled with unfettered entrepreneurial aspirations during my formative years. God, I hope those days are over! People often vote with their emotions and studies have repeatedly shown that even conservative religionists like George W. Bush did not deliver a more productive, biblically literate nation after eight years of fumbling in the dark. The legacy was a national debt that should have been an embarrassment and a deeply polarized society. I was glad for the GOP nomination of Mitt Romney—it was a chance to test if the privilege of wealth had a chance of winning without the evangelical interests who see Mormonism as a “cult.” My faith in the American people paid off.

No, Obama’s first term was not a picnic, but every time I peeked, it sure looked like hard work was being done. Prolonged vacations to the ranch seemed to be a thing of the past. Difficult thinking was given a place in the nation’s capital again. If we want the one percenters to get the message, we must shout loudly. They live far, far above the rest of us in sound-insulated penthouses and never have to wait in line four hours just to buy gasoline. There is work to be done, and it has to start at the street level, if not below. This is faith. Quoting the Bible while bombing your enemies and protecting the wealthy elite is disingenuous in anybody’s ethical playbook. Thank you America for showing that giving in is not the only option. Tonight I will be able to sleep.