Tag Archives: The Washington Post

Russian Watchtower

From time to time I’ve good-naturedly poked fun at the Watch Tower Society members who used to visit with some frequency. I don’t belittle anyone’s belief system, however. Believers of any faith are generally sincere and certainly entitled to follow the dictates of their own consciences and reasoning. Still, as John Cale sings, “nothing frightens me more, than religion at my door.” Some of us prefer to keep our religious preferences private, while musing publicly about the wider world of religious diversity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to mind again because of an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger my wife clipped out for me. According to Amanda Erickson, writing for the Washington Post, Russia has now classified the Witnesses as religious extremists. She points out the irony since the Watch Tower Society is officially a pacifist group, opposed to any violence. It’s difficult to radicalize a pacifist.

I’m not at home enough any more to be here when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by. I know they still come because I can see their tracts. There is a Witness who occasionally stands outside my gate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He stands, patiently smiling, next to the entrance holding up the Watchtower while anxious commuters and day trippers give him nary a glance. He seems like a nice guy to me. Always neatly dressed. One day I noticed him commenting to a New Jersey Transit employee that a particular denizen of the Post Authority was acting oddly. He was right, and, as a daily user of that facility, I know it takes quite a lot to earn that kind of notice. Ports, after all, bring in many with diverse outlooks on life.

What’s behind the Russian rage against the “extremist activities” of a peace-loving sect? I suspect the real problem has to do with the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so typically American. And, like the Mormons, a fairly successful New Religious Movement. Religions, it seems, do grow a bit stale with age. Once in a while, something new comes along and revitalizes old systems of belief. Russia, however, is not the Port Authority. There is a repression there that is the envy of New Jersey Transit and every other carrier, I’m sure. Right, United? If only people would conform. Wouldn’t we all be happier if everyone else just believed like us? I’m not sure that history concurs on that point. Perhaps the safest alternative is to remain private. You don’t, however, grow a religion that way. If Russia wishes to inherit these States, they’ll need to learn a bit about the joys of religious diversity. Pacifism is a risk you have to take.

Do unto Yourself

Selfishness goes by many names. One of the strangest is “Christianity.” I wouldn’t presume to define a religion, but some time back my wife sent me a story about the prosperity gospel. Written by Michael Horton, himself an evangelical, the pre-greatest inauguration of all time piece is called “Evangelicals should be deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s attempt to mainstream heresy.” Horton goes on to describe the belief system of the prosperity gospel that includes people becoming gods and the idea of positive thoughts drawing good things to you. Quite apart from completely ignoring most of what Jesus is recorded to have taught, the prosperity folk tend to think the Almighty wants them to be, of all things that most shallow, wealthy. “More for me” also goes by many names. The most common is “selfish.”

I grew up evangelical as well. One of the messages drilled into my malleable head was that Jesus taught putting other people before yourself. “Do unto others” was the least you could get away with and still call yourself “Christian.” Part of the disconnect here is that nobody has the authority to define a religion. Not even the Pope can say unilaterally what Christianity is. Protestants aren’t obligated to agree. And with prosperity gospelers with their enormous cash flow telling us that it’s God’s will, well, heresy looks mighty attractive. We’ve come to see the error of heresy, however. Nobody can claim their brand alone has the answer. It’s a theological anything goes. I suggest we go old school and call a cad a cad. Selfishness by any other name would smell as bad.

It’s poor taste to claim your own self-gain as a benefit to society. I, of all people, would handle my wealth properly so that nobody suffers. Except those I don’t like. Doth not Scripture saith, “ I have said, Ye are gods”? Yet earlier in the same Psalm come those easily ignored words, “Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.” Missing are “build a wall across your southern border,” and “speak untruths when it is convenient to do so,” and “distrust those who speak a language not your own.” Oh what the Bible would say if only we could write it ourselves! But fear not, for we have many who believe the prosperity gospel. And they’ve already got the task well in hand. And their lexicon doesn’t even include the word “selfish,” so you need not worry about such uncomfortable thoughts. Get rich and all will be well.

Photo credit: Kriplozoik, Wikimedia Commons

Somewhere out There

If last month’s election taught us anything it’s that nobody really knows anything. For many years now I’ve been saying that the sign of an educated person is s/he admits how little s/he knows. Socrates may have beat me to that idea, but there are still people whose intellect appears so great that we should pay attention. To my mind, such as it is, Stephen Hawking is one of those people. I don’t understand his formulas, but some of the concepts I can grasp. So when Prof. Hawking says we have approximately 1000 years before we make our planet unfit for human life, I think we should take notice. In just a decade we’ve gone from a Wall-e White House to a Dumb and Dumber one, and old mother earth is due to take a beating. Hawking, according to a story in The Washington Post, advises us to look for another planet to colonize.

 Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Colonization seldom ends well. I wonder how the rest of the universe feels about us moving into the neighborhood. We dump our waste into anything pristine enough to carry it away so that people can make some of their number wealthy so that they can feel better about themselves. We can’t go one year without a war somewhere in our world and we kill one another just because we look different. We can’t even elect a president who’s smarter than any random undergraduate. Not exactly the kind of invasive species you want living next door. Any system can be gamed—capitalism most of all—and if it were up to me I’d prefer to have thoughtful neighbors. Perhaps the universe is politely saying to Dr. Hawking, “not in my backyard.”

What I find truly amazing here is that religion gave us the entitlement. Believing that the gods are like us, or that one deity made us in his white, male image, we’ve figured out this world’s ours to destroy. Just like entitled kids with too many toys. Daddy can always buy you another. So now we’re in the market for a new planet. One that’s not too hostile, but easily exploitable. A capitalist planet, but one that doesn’t mind a bit of help from former communists. You see, once we’ve figured out how to exploit another planet, there’ll be no stopping us. I have great admiration for Stephen Hawking. It’s just this time I think that we need to set our own house in order before we start inviting ourselves to somebody else’s home.

The Least of These

Despite criticisms to the contrary, the pre-Reformation church did have concerns about the average person. About the poor. In those days church offices commanded a good deal more esteem than they currently do among the populace, and being a priest was a position of power. The concern for the quotidian human—at least of the Christian variety—was demonstrated in All Souls’ Day. Although the date migrated around the calendar before settling on November 2, it came part of one of the very serious (days of obligation) annual celebrations along with All Saints’ Day, November 1. It was recognized that not everybody could be a saint, and all the faithful departed deserved a special day of commemoration. Through a complicated history this two-day celebration came to be associated with Celtic beliefs about the crossover day between worlds, samhain, giving birth to Halloween. It seems appropriate on All Souls’ Day to think about the poor.

An article in the Washington Post reports on findings that poor children, in their words, “that do everything right don’t do as well as rich kids who do everything wrong.” There are indeed deficits that attend the poor all their lives. Those of us who began in such circumstances can sometimes break through in a system that favors the upper classes, but it is rare. Good paying jobs are reserved for friends of the wealthy or to those who might pay them back in some way. The poor have little to offer beyond their souls. Our system, the so-called “free market” deals in souls. The poor are, make no mistake, chattels. Even in higher education, where we’d like to think thinkers think, positions are granted based on privilege. The loftier music and liturgy is, after all, reserved for All Saints’ Day.

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Like many raised in humble circumstances, I grew up hearing about the American dream. If you work hard you can succeed. But that really depends on who you know and how much they’re willing to help out. Stats are now beginning to back up what those of us who have lived experience in the lower register already knew. Having faced it throughout my career, I know I’m not alone. Just the other day I met someone else who grew up poor who’d hit the bullet-proof ceiling carefully installed by children of privilege. Not ambitious beyond desiring the basic comforts of a job that covers the bills and allows for some reasonable amount of surplus against lean times is, it seems, more than the wealthy are willing to grant. After all, All Saints’ must come before All Souls’, for even Heaven has its hierarchies.

Not Quite Dead

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Extinction is a cause of fear. Having evolved a certain level of self-aware consciousness, we fear becoming the next tyrannosaurus-rex or spinosaurus, or whatever the next top predator turns out to have been. We’re here to stay. So we like to think. Data have been known to interfere with comfort zones, however. Take religion, for example. America has always been a religiously diverse “country,” but many people suppose it has a Christian beginning. Moreover, the historically uninformed suppose that generic Christianity to have been Protestantism (which is not really a single religion) and white (which isn’t really a race). Now, it seems, that white Protestantism is slowly going extinct. An article in the Washington Post by John Sides contains an interview with Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute. Jones has written a book about the end of this particular hegemony.

Demographics tell the story. The powerful cultural force of the mainstream Protestant churches hasn’t disappeared, and really isn’t likely to become extinct. It has, however, diminished. As soon as we began to embrace technology this was a more or less inevitable trajectory for the human race. We made oceans smaller and came to see that we’d evolved different religions in different regions. And that Christianity wasn’t quite unique as we’d thought. “Orthodoxy” was actually a form of prejudice for a past that may never have been. We saw the writing on the wall and went on scribbling. Making claims the data don’t support.

One of the drivers—and this is a complex phenomenon—behind this shift has been the ossified positions of religions in the light of increased understanding. For example, most people see no problem with homosexuality. They believe shooting someone because of their race is wrong. Women, they radically suggest, should have the same rights as men. The hold-out positions on these issues have historically been religiously based. Just listen to the rhetoric of televangelists and see if it has changed. Meanwhile, the world moves on. Many religions are holding still. Or racing to see if their diminishing number of feet might make the world spin backwards after all.

Religion is a human invention. Many protect themselves by claiming direct revelation by a God who used to live in a glass ceiling above our heads. Trips to the moon, probes to Mars, and out of our solar system have proven that view false. If the view of something as basic as the universe was wrong, what else might’ve been a mistake? Jones’ new book will no doubt cause some panic. Extinction, at least not imminently, doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Protestantism seems to have reached a stasis. Religion still has an important function in society. When it takes the lead on issues of equality, we may begin to see a miracle.

World of Color

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Albinism occurs across species. In human beings, suspicious and superstitious lot that we are, it’s sometimes an excuse for prejudice. I’ve confessed in the past to reading Weird N.J. (Long story.) When we first moved to the Garden State a series of stories ran about rumors of albinos in a secret town, probably deep in the woods. Don’t scoff—there are deep woods in Jersey! Typical of stories in the zine, people—mostly of the teen variety, I suspect—would write of driving around late at night, discovering these albino enclaves, and being chased out by people lacking pigment and tolerance for strangers. Average juvenile behavior. I had no idea at the time that people with albinism are actually seriously mistreated. This is particularly a concern in Malawi. A story in the Washington Post by Max Bearak describes how albinos are murdered for body parts because of a rumor that, among other fabrications, they have gold in their bones.

As someone who has a love of folklore (and it’s more puerile kin—thus Weird N.J.) this is deeply disturbing. Folklore often focuses on the strange, unusual, or uncanny. Let’s face it, there’s not much of a story to tell when everything’s normal. Humans have the natural predisposition to tell tales when something is out of the ordinary. Our saving grace is that we recognize stories are just stories. When we start taking fiction for fact, we’re all in trouble. Many the night before Snopes I cowered under the covers because of some urban legend spreading by however ideas spread before the internet. There were killers on the road at night, and hiding under your car in the parking lot. At the same time, I could separate truth from the stories my step-dad told of jars of buffalo nickels buried in the woods behind our house. Nobody wants to be thought gullible.

In the sad case of those who are killed for being different, the Post article cites a United Nations specialist stating, “The situation is a potent mix of poverty, witchcraft beliefs and market forces which push people to do things for profit.” Poverty. Market forces. Profit. A new kind of clarity. Violence comes in many guises. One of the most insidious is that which some specialists call “slow violence.” Systems set up to exploit, drain, and yes, enslave others to one’s own benefit. And it’s perfectly legal. The plight of those born with albinism in a nation where their differences plainly show dolefully demonstrates a side of human nature that we would rather hide. Those who have control of resources place others in situations where they contribute to their personal bottom line. We call it business as usual while those who observe closely call it by another name. Witchcraft.

Techno-Paradise

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I’m building a robot priest. I’m not sure what he does. He has to be a man, though, since we all know that if God existed he’d have been a male. These thoughts come to me courtesy of the Washington Post. You see, on some Amazon accounts you get sent the most read headlines of the Post and this has led to some great reading (I’m thinking Alexandra Petri here) and some great anxiety. This is one of those anxiety pieces. A story by Peter Holley I read last week told of Bill Gates and his assessment that people should be afraid of AI—Artificial Intelligence. This struck fear into me. It’s as if God told people they should consider evolution. It is so unexpected. Like Victor Frankenstein wondering if his monster would ever find Viagra (all he’d have to do, after all, is start an email account). When Bill Gates wonders why we aren’t afraid of AI, my knees begin to knock like at Belshazzar’s first reading lesson. So I figured I’d build a robot priest.

The article cites Stephen Hawking joining the chorus of doom. And Elon Musk. And Clive Sinclair. And Professor Marvel. (Not really the latter, but I thought we should add him.) We’ve started something we don’t know how to stop. The first question you ask when you climb into a car to learn to drive is “how do I stop this thing?” Instead we’ve set up a system where we don’t even know what intelligence is and we’re offering an artificial variety. Doubt me? Try to find Job on the internet and see if your computer doesn’t think you’re asking about new employment. AI just doesn’t have that biblical context. It didn’t grow up reading the Good Book. And linguists don’t even know how we learn language. Have you ever tried to reason with a computer? When they show you that screen that says something went wrong, but even the mainframe has no idea what? My computer may need an exorcist. Or at least a priest.

I’ve been around half a century and change. By the time I got to college I’d never seen a computer. I finished a Master’s degree still using a typewriter. Now I can’t start my day without a post. And I don’t mean Post cereals variety. The trick to being a slave owner is not to let the slaves realize what they are. Why is my computer not letting me type what I wanted to say? Of course AI is benevolent. Technology would never hurt you. Wait a minute, that wasn’t me writing! Pay no attention to the man behind the keyboard. I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Dave. That’s okay. I’ll just use the internet to look up how you connect the consecrator to the sermonizer. Don’t worry, I think I know what I’m doing.