For Mothers’ Sake

We try to be practical for Mother’s Day. I take my wife out to eat every year, but since we both work and Monday always comes earlier than we expect, we usually go on Saturday. It’s kind of a moveable feast for us. The patriarchalist nightmare of the past two years in this country makes it all the more important to celebrate our mothers. Our nation needs to be reminded that without women none of us would be here. When my wife chose an Afghan restaurant I didn’t shirk, although I had to admit I wouldn’t have considered cuisine from Afghanistan if the choice were mine. It would never have crossed my mind. The restaurant was nicely appointed, and busy. One the walls were posters with photos of the mountainous country and its people, stamped with the words “Free Afghanistan.” I realized Mother’s Day is about liberation.

New Jersey, apart from being the most densely populated state, is also the most diverse. Ethnic food here takes on a depth that leaves our days in Champaign-Urbana in the dust. I’d never even heard of an Ethiopian restaurant, let alone eaten in one, before moving here. And each of these diverse countries represented by their food has a story, often involving oppression. Mother’s children everywhere want to be free. The only reason they aren’t is that bullies exist in every language. You can’t go into the swamp any more without being overwhelmed by them. Such men—and they tend to be male—want to assert their control over others. They forget, it seems, that they have mothers.

I struggled to find a way to classify the food I was eating. Years of Euro-centric training led me to place it between the “Middle East” and “Far East,” which, skewed as it is, reflects that Afghanistan falls along the silk road from China to Turkey. Elements of West Asia blend with those of East Asia on my plate. There’s no war here—simply a harmony of tastes that should remind us that we’re all human. We all have the same need for sustenance and we all have mothers. If we thought of the fact that when we harm another we harm that person’s mother, we’d be appropriately ashamed of oppressing anyone. We would come to realize that the secret to being civilized human beings lies in honoring all our mothers.

Portrait of God as a Young Man

Famed swing state Ohio is back in the news with Jesus in the front lines. It was an unlikely setting to notice such a thing. I was sitting in a conference room at work, awaiting the start of a meeting. A laptop was set up with a projector, and the homepage cast upon the screen was There, on the wall at work was Jesus’ name.

The story has to do with a public school in Jackson City. A student group had donated a portrait of Jesus to the school in 1947, but in a multicultural world the constitution sometimes has to take on the Prince of Peace.


While the legal issues are thorny, I have an even more probing question to ask. What makes a portrait a religious object? There is a fair bit of dispute about the historical Jesus—who he really was, where he was from. Despite the sangfroid of the New Atheists, there is little reason to doubt that there was a historical person Jesus. If that is the case, what makes his picture any different than that of Woodrow Wilson or Ronald Reagan? Or Churchill, with his religious-sounding name? One could argue that we don’t know what Jesus looked like—and this is true—but neither could we really identify many historical figures before the advent of photography.

The making of a picture into a religious object comes down to intent. Intent on the part of those who hung it, and on the part of those who view it. The 1940s were a different era. The Second World War was just ended, America was proudly Christian after fighting for the cause of truth, justice, and, well, the American way. Could the school group have donated Jesus in that era as the portrait of a great man? Without supernatural implications? I suspect we all know the answer to that.

Fast forward a few decades. The world has changed drastically. We are multicultural. The internet entertains us with such stories as this. If not for the internet, and a casually chosen homepage, I would never have even heard of Jackson City, Ohio. Is it possible that we could look at a picture of Jesus in our day without religious adoration? Quite possibly. But the furor raised by the religious right every time a perceived slight stirs up the dust would seem to make such an association impossible. Any prominently displayed picture of Jesus in a government location, no matter how local, is perceived as a religious act. It seems that we’ve lost our ability to appreciate the wider realm of possibilities. And that is sad. Who was Jesus, really? Historians and theologians come to no consensus on the issue. One thing is for certain, he’s sure to set people against one another wherever he appears.

Faith on Trial

Great white throne of judgment?

I just had a brush with the law. I was recently called up for jury duty for what looked like a very interesting case, but I was dismissed before it got started. When I left the courthouse, I felt as if I was being watched. I was trembling. The reason, I suppose, began with a simple ticket. As a teen I was reluctant to drive. Those who’ve had the annoyance of riding with me know that I rigidly adhere to speed limits and traffic laws. At a momentary lapse some years ago, I was cited for speeding in a rural setting and my sense of justice was shaken. I may have been going too fast, but it is not a habit nor a common occurrence. This happened within a year of being dismissed from a long-term job because the politics of the institution at which I’d faithfully worked for over a dozen years had changed. My faith in the system had been badly shaken. The ticket, issued on a road with very little traffic and for an offense that endangered nobody, only exacerbated the sense of something awry on a cosmic level.

This story has a point. Being raised in a religion with a punishing God who spent most of his time seeking out secret sins and infractions had molded me into what I supposed was a model citizen. I read the Bible daily, attended church every week, avoided all the common sins that others seemed to enjoy with no repercussions. Nevertheless, the God I knew was angry. That anger was directed toward me. Like Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, I was surprised when things seemed to work out so that I had a secure job in the midst of a recession. Although my thought had evolved considerably, the angry God was still stalking me; I have no doubt that he will be until my dying day. What we teach our children about religion will stay with them for a lifetime. When that job ended, sending me in a career spiral that has now lasted five years, I could feel those punitive eyes staring me down. Now if I see a police car in my rearview mirror, my pulse rate quickens and I break out in a sweat. Like God, they are seeking any little infraction to exploit.

Ironically, the jury assembly room in our county seat is in an old church. As I sat, waiting for my number to be called, I looked at the stained glass windows of Jesus, angels and saints. My first thought was how such a sight might be experienced by someone from a different faith background: what does our public space say about justice? Would a Hindu or Muslim find this welcoming, contemplating the seriousness of the juror’s role? It is a beautiful and comfortable waiting area nevertheless. As I found myself in the rarefied atmosphere of a courtroom with a judge, attorney, and many other jurors, I again felt the eyes of judgment upon me. I’d just exited a building formerly inhabited by an angry God–losing a building surely can’t put someone in a good mood, can it? Had I not been dismissed, I would have watched the drama of justice unfold. And it would have been myself that was sitting at the table of the defendant in a world where no one can ever live up to the standards set by a wrathful God.