More Rainbows

There’s been a lot of rain this June. In between there have been some glimpses of sunshine. When the rain and sun combine, I always look for rainbows. Yesterday there were rainbows. You see, I didn’t realize until physics class that the sun has to be behind you to see a rainbow. It stands to reason, of course, because the light has to be refracted before it can break into its beautiful constituent colors. If any of the colors were missing, true light wouldn’t exist. Even with many of the religious grumbling, the United States took a fumbling step toward justice yesterday. Justice is something that always comes as a bit of a surprise these days. I’m not sure that we can always trust those that money puts into power. Nevertheless, gay marriage is so in the spirit of America that I wonder it has taken so long to become legal.

I’m heterosexual and I’ve been married for over a quarter century. I know the benefits of married life, so why should they be denied any couple that love each other? Raised on conservative Christian literature that taught me homosexuality was evil, it took some intensive education to unlearn what I’d been told. The Bible has very little to say about homosexuality, and in each instance where it does there are extenuating circumstances that must be considered. The Bible, which hasn’t become authoritative for stoning adulterers (heterosexuals all) had somehow been the final word to oppress those whom nature has oriented to the same gender. I had been told “no animals are homosexual.” That is wrong. Documented cases time and again show that homosexuality is as natural as rain. Just ask the bonobos. For literalists that’s a problem because we’re not even, from their point of view, evolutionarily related.

So although it is a cloudy, rainy Saturday morning, I’m strangely optimistic. There may be rainbows today. Now if only we could spread the message wider, raise our voices louder, and maybe join in singing “Amazing Grace.” Maybe we could dare to dream that races and genders should be treated equally. Will our Supreme Court ever make true equality the law of the land? Yesterday brought us over a major hurdle. I don’t want to rain on this parade. Still, justice demands that more work be done. I rejoice with all loving humans that marriage is open to all. Charleston is still on my mind. And if some rain does fall today I can always keep what sun there is to my back and hope that there will be more rainbows.

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Shepherds and Sheep

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

The murders in Charleston this week are part of an epidemic. The members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church join, unfortunately, a growing list of victims of hate. Not only hate, but that subspecies of hatred that calls the unstable to attack in a church, or synagogue, or mosque, as if to defy the very gods with their misanthropy. Growing up we used to be taught that any place of worship is sacred. Then we believed it was because God had made it so, but now it is clear that sacred space is made so by the intent of those who worship. We find places where we believe we’re safe from the trials of the everyday world. A place where God will look over us. A place, dare we call it, of sanctuary. Sanctuary is a concept that has gone extinct. As children we all knew of the concept of “home” in chasing games—the place where you were free and need not worry about someone coming after you. Amnesty was granted at the cry of “olly olly oxen free.”

In the biblical world, we’re told, those in danger could flee to the temple and grasp the horns of the altar and be safe. It wasn’t that someone couldn’t be pulled off, but it was that an inherent respect attended sacred places. No place is sacred any more. Hatred has a way of overriding what we all recognize as civilization. Well-armed youth and a culture of hatred have never led to peace. Xenophobia may be natural, but it can be disarmed through education. Unfortunately, in this country at least, education is not valued. In fact, in the culture wars, those who have the most sympathy for those who commit hate crimes will be among the first to cut education spending. It’s a luxury we can’t live without. We need to teach the meaning of sanctuary again. We need to teach the meaning of love.

Human beings shouldn’t have to rely on sanctuary to be safe. No matter what our racial heritage or gender or orientation, we are all simply people trying to make our way in the world. As a child I knew “olly olly oxen free” meant that nobody would try to tag me if I came out from hiding. I was also taught that the word “hate” was as bad as any swear and that it should not be said. While my mother was teaching me the virtue of love, we were sending young men to kill foreigners in Vietnam. I grew up with no doubts as to which was the superior way. One way leads to life and peace, the other to constant fear and death. The people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church have told Dylann Roof that they have forgiven him. They are offering sanctuary to one who has done nothing to earn or claim it. They, like children, lead us.

Fear of the Known

Social media has become the new reality. Not that rumor ever had much trouble before the internet, but now our cultural memes explode so fast that we have to be wired constantly to keep up. And what we see makes us afraid. The other day I came across a story on channel 7 WSPA website out of Spartanburg, South Carolina. I don’t suppose I have any business needing to know what was going on in South Carolina, but the headline “Mysterious ‘woman in black’ spotted in Tennessee” got my spidey sense going (or my Men in Black sense, but that’s just a bit cumbersome). Was this a female urban legend who shows up after UFO reports and warns the witnesses to keep quiet? The truth is much more mundane. She’s a woman, dressed in black, walking south from Virginia, currently in Tennessee. Police say she has a name and she’s from Alabama. Since she’s all over social media, however, people are worried.

She’s on a Bible mission one woman has claimed. A Blues sister in black? Others claim she’s from an Islamic nation. Some implicate the Pentagon. When someone exhibits unusual behavior our minds turn to religious causes. Why would a person dress in black and walk down the highway? It’s just not done! Must be religion. On YouTube apparently a video shows her arguing about religion with a man in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Where’s the element of surprise there? If there are any firmly fixed social markers they are surely Wal-Mart and religion. Time to be afraid.

Scarcely a day passes when I’m in New York that I don’t see someone doing something peculiar. It’s the new normal. I suppose religion is sometimes the motivation, but I wouldn’t know. The gospel can be pretty difficult to identify definitively these days. You can’t trust someone just because they dress in black any more. After all, we’ve seen agents K and J battling aliens on the big screen since 1997 and there doesn’t seem to be much preaching involved. There is conversion, however, and just a dash of conspiracy theory. That’s more like American-style speculation. Internet fame is remarkably easy for some. Put on your black and walk down the road. And if you see Johnny Cash along the way, there will be no doubt that this is newsworthy indeed.

Bible-thumper or alien?

Bible-thumper or alien?

The Shawshank Reversal

You go away for a few days and look what happens to the neighborhood. With the Bible scholars safely out of town, a South Carolina woman used two hollowed out Bibles to smuggle weapons and drugs to a friend in prison. According to a story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the eviscerated Bibles contained knives, a cell phone, ecstasy and cocaine. Bibles often act as metaphors, and in this case the image of trouble coming in the form of a sacred book is poignant. No one thinks to suspect a Bible (well, Stephen King did), so conservative and clean-cut. What lies inside, however, is seldom closely examined. What is found there often defies biblical scholars and prison guards.

The Bible, as an icon, is spotless in the public eye. You can place a hand atop its venerable cover and, magically, you won’t be able to lie. You can heft it aloft and demons will flee in fright. You can even use it to measure chastity. (Back in my college there was a four-feet-six-inches rule. Men in women’s dorm rooms during brief, allotted visiting hours could sit next to their sweeties, but they had to keep all four feet on the ground and remain six inches apart—a distance, we were told—that could be filled by placing a Bible between the lovers. And the door had to be kept open, just in case.) The book has become the deity. Placing God between the desires of lovers is a metaphor ripe for the picking.

Few can forget the scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Warden Norton opens Andy Dufresne’s Bible to find the rock-hammer-shaped hole cut out of the pages. The Bible had set Dufresne free. And it did so unwittingly. The Bible’s message, in the film, was intended to keep prisoners in a state of submission, but human interest brought the Bible much closer to its noble purpose of setting the prisoner free. The Bible has been a privileged book throughout American history, and even before. In England it used to be chained to the lecterns of churches to prevent it from being privately studied. Its great power, however, lays not within the manipulation it excuses, but in the human spirit that finds liberation through, and sometimes despite, the famous black book.

Dog Gone!

Religion is a strange attractor. Maybe not in the exact same sense as in chaos theory, but in reality it brings together mental states so bizarre that science fiction and fantasy writers have a buyer’s choice. Yesterday the New York Daily News reported on a South Carolina woman who hanged and burned a one-year old pit-bull puppy. Why? The bitch had bitten the woman’s Bible. Citing the animal as a “Devil dog,” the southern woman became a vigilante for the Lord. Now she’s being tried on charges of animal cruelty. This story touched me in a number of ways.

With family roots in South Carolina, I can conjure up images of this happening. Having known many, many Fundamentalists, it seems even more plausible. Given the constant barrage of contrary messages descrying the presence of evil in the world, all the sudden any mutt can become Mephistopheles. Begging off the Baskervilles, the demonic hound has a long pedigree in mythical imagination. It is well known that the Bible cites dogs as unclean animals, but it is their charnel character that leads to the development of the full-blooded hellhound. Prior to the Hebrew Bible, in ancient Ugarit dogs had an infernal connection. It isn’t seen clearly, but the association is there. Snatches of the underworldly dog appear long before Cerberus, and last well nigh into the twenty-first century.

Hel and his hound

Unfortunately for the deceased canine, it is a myth. Hellhounds still abound in popular media, everywhere from The Omen to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Dogs, however, were among humanity’s earliest partners in the survival game. From about as early as I can remember, we always had dogs in the house, and nary a demonic encounter. We never put them on trial, even when house-training was in progress and an accident occurred.

The news story reminded me of an episode of Dragnet I saw as a child. A woman was arrested for murder, and Sergeant Friday, in his unflappable voice, told his partner it was because the victim had shot one of her books. In the final fade out, after Bill Gannon asked what book it had been, Friday holds up a Bible with a bullet-hole through it. I was a little confused. Was the woman guilty or was someone shooting a Bible just cause? The episode did not answer the moral dilemma. I can’t even remember the outcome. But in 2011 things haven’t much changed. If he goes to South Carolina McGruff better watch what he takes a bite out of, or it could be lynching time again.

Casting the First Stone

I’m not overly nostalgic for a guy interested in ancient history. I tend to look at the more recent past as a via negativa for the young who might make a difference today. Very occasionally, however, aspects of society were handled better back in the 1960s and early 70s. One of the most obvious instances of a more sane society was the segregation of politics and religion. Prior to the rise of the “Religious Right” as a political machine the religious convictions, or lack thereof, of politicians played little role in their campaigns and American culture itself was much more open. A story from today’s MCT News Service illustrates this all too well.

In an article entitled “In S.C., religion colors gubernatorial race,” Gina Smith reports on the various religious slurs that now pass for political campaigning in that state. “Raghead” (for a former Sikh), Buddhist, Catholic, and “anti-Christian Jewish Democrats” are among the aspersions freely cast by those without the sin of a non-evangelical upbringing. As if only Fundamentalists are capable of making the right political decisions. As if Fundamentalists ever make the right political decisions. Fundamentalism is a blinding force on the human psyche, and those who are misled by religious leaders who claim unique access to the truth are to be seriously pitied. Conviction that those most like you are to be trusted most may be natural, but dogged belief that pristine morals accompany any religion is glaringly naïve.

The American capacity for belief in fantasy worlds is in the ascendant. No matter how many times Fundamentalists or Evangelical politicians are arrested or forced from office for the very sins they rant against, their overly forgiving constituencies come flocking back to them. Commit the sin of being born Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, or Catholic and no quarter will ever be offered. No, I have no desire to go back to the 1960s, but I sure wish politics would.