An Elephant’s 100 Percent

When I walked out of that dissertation defense, still a little unsure whether I’d passed or not, I thought my testing days were over. My early memories of struggling with exams—I wrote that a sphere was a kind of weapon on one vocabulary test I recall—made me anxious for an end of the process. Hadn’t I proved myself time and time and time again? People are funny that way. We’re suspicious of those who pass. Are they really as smart as that, or have they learned to game the system? (Admittedly, with what’s going on in Washington these days doubts about intelligence have definitely earned their keep.) Tests, however, have become less common these days, at least in the fearful exam room context. Now we’re giving them to animals.

It has long been clear to me that animals are quite intelligent. When that mouse, cat, squirrel, or robin pauses in front of you, looks you in the eye, then decides its course of action, it’s clearly thinking. Of course, some animals are more on the GOP scale of intelligence, such as deer that bolt out in front of cars, while others—ironically including elephants—show up 45 in tests we assign. An article in The Independent describes how elephants are far smarter than we’ve given them credit for being. Jealousy, perhaps, makes the elephant’s own party withdraw protections from endangered species. We’ve got to be sure nobody shows us up. At least not while we’re on camera.

Animals have greater thinking abilities than we’ve been willing to admit. For being so highly evolved, we’re an awfully petty species. We don’t want to share our great accomplishments with others. We’ll call the amazing architecture of the bowerbird “instinct” rather than admit they can build homes better than many in the Appalachians can. We’ll kick over anthills rather than face the fact that a hive mind is a terrible thing to waste. We’ve known for decades, if not more, that all life is interconnected. Because we’ve got opposable thumbs and reasonable cranial capacity, we’re the best thing this planet could hope to evolve, so we tell ourselves. What has made us so insecure? Why do we find the prospect of animal intelligence so frightening? It’s terribly hard to give up the role of being lord and master, I guess. Or if we were to switch it to a classroom analogy, we always want to be the teacher, never the student. But after walking out of that dissertation defense twenty-five years ago I learned that the testing had only begun.

Business Beating

Politics is about power. Say what you will about the Bible, but at least they were clear about it in those days. Kings were alpha males, not public servants. In the light of Orlando we can see how little has changed. Random acts of violence grow more and more lethal and the politicians filibuster, inflating the room with hot air to avoid this issue because this is an election year. An election year where one of the candidate’s cheers can barely be distinguished from “Sieg Heil” and we have put ourselves into a place where such a tragicomedy was possible. Maybe even inevitable. Meanwhile fifty people are dead, joining the many innocents who just happened to be at the wrong place—is there any right place in a land of abundant assault weapons?—in a land of limited freedom. The press argues about exactly what type of gun was used. Maybe that model should be taken off the shelves.

Our alpha males have, at least in states like New Jersey, and increasingly on the national front, modeled bullying. Bullies are nothing without their threat of power used against you. In the same day when schools and social programs emphasize over and over that bullying is unacceptable, bellowing bulls insist on their way and the crowd goose-steps in ecstasy. Those who are different are dangerous. After all, straight white men were here first. They won this country fair and square through genocide, as any Native American can tell you. And you get your way by refusing to compromise. Refusing to reason. Give vent to testosterone and call your opponent out for being a female. Land of the aggressive, home of the grave.

Gun violence may not be preventable completely in a nation where guns are a commodity just like anything else. Religion is a commodity. The ninety-nine percent are a commodity. The spoils are there for the taking by a bully and his thugs. It used to be that organized crime was illegal. Now it’s politics. How much did you pay in taxes last year? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know there was an exemption clause just for being rich. I grew up in a family with simple morals. Right and wrong. We learned that taking something that didn’t actually belong to you, or not contributing when everyone must, is wrong. Taking what’s not yours is stealing. And that especially includes lives. How naive we were! Politics is about getting your own way. Guns make that possible. Heil to the thief.



New Year’s Day seemed to me, as a child, an odd choice for a holiday. We’d just had Christmas a week before. Of course, at the time I did not realize that the date of New Year’s was a symbolic one for the Christian calendar, and the celebration seemed no more significant than getting to stay up until midnight. The systematic changing of the years felt just like the regular progression of numbers, and what was there to celebrate about that? Of course, time cures even itself, and I came to see New Year’s as a time of new beginnings. Resolutions never sat well with me, since improvements, I’ve always believed, should be implemented as soon as the problem is noticed. Waiting until the dead of winter hardly seemed like an inspiration to get things done. Unless the resolution was to get more sleep. Still, we can all use new beginnings.

Photo credit: chensiyuan, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: chensiyuan, Wikipedia Commons

New Year’s, however, has taken on a more somber tone of late. As an adult, I often brood over the past year, and it seems that just when hope may be on the horizon, we find new ways to make the situation worse. Much of it comes down to politicians and the economy, two things that no resolutions ever seem to fix. Although I didn’t see the point of it all as a child, I did look to the future with optimism. It has gotten so bad now that science fiction writers have to make a case for trying to have a positive outlook. Dystopias are popular, I believe, because they are believable. Given the performance of politicians and church leaders (with the obvious and large exception of Pope Francis) we’ve seen little to suggest that our institutions have the will or the means to improve our lot. Even the Pope has made enemies by being a nice guy.

Already we’ve begun to hear that some apocalyptic groups have targeted 2015 as the year the world will end. We’re just getting over 2012. I think what is most disturbing is the sameness of it all. Another year means the continuation of a job that keeps food on the table, at least it is to be hoped. Beyond that, we will have more antics to watch that, were they not so fraught with consequences, might be thought funny. I haven’t lost my capacity to dream. Those who think me a pessimist don’t know me very well. Dreams are, however, futures that we have to take into our own hands. We can’t spend 2015 waiting for politicians and corporations to suddenly change for the better. In what sense is “business as usual” ever new?

Fateful Dreams

Popular historians love a good coincidence. I suppose it is a way of reading order into a chaotic world where many events, in the final analysis, just don’t make sense. Perhaps academic historians shy away from coincidental events—after all, they contain a whiff of the improbable about them, and academics can admit no greater force driving our efforts toward a civil existence. The rest of us, however, like to note them. This week contains the anniversaries of a couple of significant landmarks of United States history, and they may somehow be related. November 19 marked the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address while November 22 is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The events, a century and three days apart, stand for transitions in American society, and the implications of both still linger on as unfairness and fear continue to haunt our hopes for a future where all might indeed be considered created equal—and not just all men, but all people—and where optimism might edge out cynicism in the political world.

486px-Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863Of course, both Lincoln and Kennedy died at the hands of assassins. America has never been terribly comfortable with dreamers. The century that separated the Gettysburg Address from Kennedy’s tragic death was not enough time to swing the ship of state around to bring about a world of dreams. Unfortunately, war also defined both presidencies. The dream of a world at peace has been more difficult to attain than a human desire for such a world would seem to merit. If we all (or most) want a world at peace, why can’t we bring it about? Unfortunately, it seems that a basic sense of justice is lacking.

500px-John_F._Kennedy,_White_House_color_photo_portraitPerhaps it is a coincidence that many of the world’s religions stress the concept of a just society. By far the majority of the world population associates itself with one form of religious belief or another. Not all religions get along, however. Many of the conflicts that have erupted into wars have had a basis in differing religions. Power is easily seized from dreamers, religious or not. Watching modern elections is a terribly sobering event. We don’t advertise what we might accomplish, but rather what is so wrong with the other guy so that we win by a paltry default. Victory for whom? And why consider it a victory? A friend once suggested that Christians should start out as bishops and eventually be promoted to the level of laity. I thought it was a brilliant idea that could be applied to politics as well. Think of it: elected officials as servants of the people. Of course, by coincidence, I am a hopeless dreamer.

Oil City Millionaires

Oil City Junior High School. Ninth grade. As a kid who grew up politically naive, Mr. Baker’s words felt like the Gospel. “People will never elect a president against their own economic interests,” he once said. Then came the Reagan years with “trickle down” bs, and, let’s be honest, the working class has been hurting ever since. Reading the political headlines, I’m frankly distressed that politicians no longer have any clear idea what working class life is like. Online I see working-class friends following, zombie-like, the richest man to ever run for President, daily proving Mr. Baker wrong. I’m not naive enough to think that most career politicians of either party know what it’s like to struggle for a living, but I have seen time and time again the Democratic Party trying to stretch out safety nets for those who receive no trickle down hand-outs. I do know what it is to struggle, and I do know that getting an education does not equate to getting a job. I also know that no Republican since Eisenhower has tried to be fair to the working class.

I grew up just outside Oil City, Pennsylvania. It was a town founded by potential millionaires because petroleum had been discovered in the region. Many get-rich-quick schemers settled these pleasant hills and valleys, but the oil pools were as shallow as a politician’s sympathy, and some of the towns in the region became ghost towns. The Oil City I knew was working class families, trying to get by; many grasping religion when politics never ceased to disappoint. We were children of Damocles. Somehow the message has morphed from when I was a child paying attention in school. The issue is now, “I’m not well off, but I sure as heck don’t want the government helping those worse off than me!” Trickle down indeed. To me it seems obvious why the wealthy skew “pro-life”—their schemes cannot succeed without a constant stream of desperate workers. Keep those kids coming!

Because as a child I read all the time, I knew there was a life outside Oil City. Paying my own way through college with crippling debts, I managed to get out and earn an advanced degree overseas, just to be fired by a Republican who thought my advocacy for fair treatment had no place in a seminary. Yes, I’ve felt the barbed lash of unemployment. I spent years wondering what might become of my small family as trickle-downs began defying gravity and wormed their way back up to the wealthy. I’ve never owned a house; none has ever trickled down to my income level. Those Oil City millionaires never gave me any handouts. But Oil City did give me an education. I learned to see through those who say they are protecting me and my future. The only thing they are protecting is securely tucked into their back pockets. I’ve seen their ads castigating Jimmy Carter, a president who is actually out there building houses for the poor. I’ve heard them blaming Obama for not filling in a trench that took Bush the Less eight years to dig. I say let’s just let trickle-down fill that hole. I’m sure the Oil City millionaires will be glad to kick in a greenback or two; after all no one ever votes against their own economic self-interest.

Trickle down.

Civil Rites

Sundays’ op-eds often have sensitive fingers on the pulse of the American religious scene. A piece by Tom Deignan in Sunday’s New Jersey Star Ledger raised a very interesting point about civil religion. Civil religion is, loosely defined, the acting out of religion in a civil-political forum as a cheap form of nationalism. We do it because it works. Noting that a presidential candidate denying the divinity of Christ in the twenty-first century would be engaging in political suicide, Deignan rightly points out that many earlier “Protestant” presidents would—and did—do just that. He notes that Taft, a Unitarian, came outright and said it. No matter the protestations of the Neo-Cons, the founding fathers were Deists, not believers in Christ’s divinity. Thomas Jefferson went as far as to excise all the miracles from his version of the New Testament. The idea that religio-politicking is business as it’s always been done is a myth.

And what a persistent myth it is! Many Protestant denominations trace their ancestry back to founders who believed that they were closer to the apostolic faith than the next guy. They legitimately believed their faith was the original, intended by God, Christianity. Thus it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be. Only it’s not true. Religion was purposely written out of the Constitution of the United States with the Bill of Rights declaring its freedom the ideal. What presidents believed hardly played into the concept of their fitness for national leadership in the early days. Now little else seems to matter. Deignan rightly wonders why Mitt Romney is so tight-lipped about his Mormonism. Could it be he fears what critics might say about devising a national budget through rose-colored glasses? Surely his vast personal wealth belies that concern.

So what was the original Christianity? On this point the Bible is amazingly unobscured; early Christianity was Judaism. Jesus was called “Rabbi,” and his teachings weren’t too far distant from Hillel and others near his generation. Paul of Tarsus, who pointed the nascent religion towards its evolution into Catholicism, was also Jewish. Following his faith in resurrection, some early Christians moved into the direction of eventual ritualism. The fancy hats of the papacy, it is fair to say, were never in the minds of Jesus or Paul. Not even Peter. Modern religions, even the primitivist movements, cannot reclaim the Christianity of the first century. That religion does not fit into a world of Internet, cell phones, and automobiles, let alone presidential candidates with wealth befitting King Herod. Let’s just grow up and admit where we are.

Two Sparrows

Once I found a baby bird blown from its nest. Many future priests had walked by already that morning, not even noticing. At first I thought it was dead, but then it lifted its head weakly and opened its beak in a soundless cry for its mother. Afraid to touch it, I pulled on some gloves, took it home and called the local animal rescue center. With my daughter keeping the chick warm in the backseat, we drove down the country roads hoping the little thing would survive at least long enough to get professional help. When the trees leafed out and the air warmed up that summer, I received a call from Animals in Need. The bird had survived and was ready for release—would I like to let it go near where I found it? They had worked hard to prevent habituation, and I brought the bird home in a paper grocery bag that it occasionally tested to see if it could find its way out. With my daughter, I opened the bag in the woods and the bird was gone in a flash. We barely saw it as it flew to freedom.

If I were a rich man, well, I guess I would run for president. Perhaps it was being overseas for a week, but the presidential race seemed to fall from the news with Santorum’s demise (if ever I believed in divine intervention, it was on the day he dropped out of the race). Of course, those in Britain who knew me wondered about the carnival characters running for the “most powerful man” job. So we’re now left with a very wealthy man who’s just like the rest of us. Ironically, I’ve been thinking about the Bible—an occupational hazard—and wondering when the ideal of Jesus’ teaching was forgotten in the haste to become the richest Christian on the block (or empire, as the case may be). The disconnect couldn’t be sharper between the man who said that if you wanted to please God you had to give all your material goods away and a man running for public servant has more money than the last eight presidents combined. And Reagan was no slouch on the financial end. Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.

I can’t remember the last time I felt valued by a politician. At least the Democratic candidates attempt the lessen the suffering of the poor a little bit, but I still see people sleeping in the streets. The roller coaster that is the economy demonstrates its unfeeling course as some get rich then plunge to the depths only to soar out of them again into sunny spaces. According to the Gospels, Jesus said not a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing it. Apparently that little bird I was privileged to rescue was part of the divine plan. That guy sleeping on the subway grate over there trying to keep warm? Well, the politicians apparently can’t see him, and I wonder if the God who watches the sparrows has noticed either.

Not a sparrow (golden pheasant)

Sheep, Goats, and Preferred Customers

The American dream, at least for many idealists, includes a classless society. Class has less to do with individual wealth than it does with a sense of entitlement or importance. During an election year we hear politicians advocating such utopian ideals, at least until they get into office. When is the last time you’ve seen a politician flying coach? I have had to fly quite a lot lately, and nothing underscores the rampant sense of self-importance as flying. First class passengers are pampered and fussed over while those of us of more humble means—or who work for more frugal companies—are treated with such condescension that Amtrak actually starts to look pretty good. Nowhere is this more evident than the mythical construct of “boarding lanes.” Anyone who has flown knows that, like in death, we all have to pass through that same narrow jet-way to get to our destination. There is one door and we all walk through it—even the flight crew. I’ve flown several airlines that now offer preferred customers the dubious advantage of boarding the plane through some kind of special “lane” that is in reality a ratty looking carpet that reinforces that some passengers are more equal than others.

Even religions that began as egalitarian enterprises soon constructed their own stratified societies. When’s the last time a bishop came calling, or even deigned to look your way? It’s not leadership that is at issue here, but the sense of superiority that comes with it. Can someone lead without the need of putting others in their place first? I have known some wealthy people, and occasionally met some very wealthy people, who have laid aside pretension and confessed that they were lucky enough to get a good deal. Such people, it seems, are rare. The fact is that hard work sometimes only leads to backaches and headaches, not personal advancement. And yet we literally roll out the red carpet for those who want to board first. If the plane goes down, we all go down together.

I realize that airline gimmicks are merely strategies to get some people to pay more for basically the same services as those in economy class. Oh, maybe your first class meal is complimentary, but it is still airline food. The pressurized cabin air we breathe we breathe in common, even with a thin curtain between us. Some of us have thinner wallets than others, and perhaps even thinner skin. But still we can dream. Looking down on the towns and cities of this great egalitarian experiment from 40,000 feet, everyone looks pretty small. Rich and poor alike are so tiny that you can’t even see one single individual even if you tried. That is the metaphor that perhaps sums up best the experience of flying. My sole has never touched the special carpet of privilege, I am frisked and prodded by strangers while first class customers are above suspicion, and I hear very wealthy men braying why I should elect them to lead this classless society. Time for a reality check. Step this way, sir, and spread your feet a little further. This will only take a minute.

Who's who?

I Have a Daydream

I don’t often comment directly on politics because I don’t like to get beaten up. I’m not a poly-sci major who has statistically verified evidence to present, and many of the issues are simply too complex for a guy like me. I’m left scratching my head like a confused ape. Nevertheless, I’ve just finished covering Micah in my Prophets class, and the eighth century prophets have a way of firing up even the most passive of souls on the issue of social justice. Also, newspaper stories continue to demonstrate that most elected officials, living in their world of privilege and power, have lost touch with the average citizen. After reading the prophets and dreaming of a better world, I have a proposal to end oligarchy and institute democracy.

No person who earns more than $100,000 a year should be eligible to run for public office. Now I live in New Jersey where the cost of living is high. I have survived here for over three years with an income far less than half of that figure, so I know it can be done. Observing the abusive tactics of bishops first-hand, I had suggested a similar measure for the church some years ago. To become a bishop an individual should be forced to take a pay-cut, bringing their income below that of those they serve. Politicians are “public servants” who’ve grown fat on the generous salaries they devise for themselves alongside their perks, kick-backs, and expense accounts. The same also applies to politicians in higher education. You want a really excellent university president? Reduce the funding for the post. Only those truly committed to the ideals of education would be willing to take on the job. Posers and playboys would have to step down.

Corporate-style greed has a strangle-hold on democracy. Most people are content to let the wealthy rule as long as they are left alone – freedom in exchange for accepting the demands of the self-indulgent. My daydream is of a world where people can free themselves from the never-ending greed of the corporate climber. And my system would not exclude anyone for seeking office. All the wealthy would have to do is be willing to live on a middle-class or lower salary for a few years. Politicians have forgotten (if they ever even knew) what is like to struggle, worry, and fear that any month, week, or day you might not be able to meet your obligations. They don’t personally watch the prices increasing at the pump or at the grocery store or on the electric bill. Their Olympian existence is beyond human suffering. It is once more time to ask, “what would Micah do?”