Happy World Book Day

In times of distress, as well as of joy, I turn to books. Since about November there have been more of the former than the latter, so I’m cheered that today is World Book Day. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has designates World Book Day to promote literacy internationally. If only the White House would pay a little more attention to the UN maybe the world situation would improve. In any case, books are always worth celebrating. At any given time I’ve got three or four book-reading projects going on simultaneously. Well, not literally simultaneously; I have books I read in the morning, different books for the bus ride, and books I read before bed. Often there are others scattered in there as well, such as books that I take with me in case I get unexpectedly delayed somewhere and want something to read. It’s a life full of books. It’s a wonderful life.

I can’t imagine enduring the mental vacuity that must come from not reading. It sounds like torture to me. Yes, I’ve occasionally been caught up in the action-packed episode of travel and adventure (or what passes for adventure for a guy like me). Hours spent with other people in locations not at home when there’s something to do every minute of the day. But then, when the fun’s over, I open a book. I read before bed even when I’m traveling, and since I’m an early riser I read before anyone else is awake. It’s a form of communion. Having access to the intelligent minds of others is a rare privilege that shouldn’t be scorned. World Book Day should be an international holiday.

Books, strictly speaking, didn’t necessarily originate as sacred texts. Very early in the process of writing, however, such holy documents began to appear. Civilization itself grew through the cultivation of writing. Bibles, Qur’ans, Books of Mormon—for all the troubles sacred texts may cause, they’re reminders of the importance of reading. And once reading starts, it’s impossible to stop. Reading is resistance to the Zeitgeist that’s haunting the politics of the day. Had voters been informed, it is absolutely certain, neither Brexit nor Trump would have happened. We need to read, and be seen reading. Ignorance is the final enemy to be defeated. Celebrate World Book Day. Wish people happy World Book Day. And for the sake of civilization itself, get caught reading.

Revisiting Jericho

I don’t get out from the office much. As those who commute to New York City will readily tell you, there is a constant anxiety about getting to and from the city that keeps you in the office (cubicle) as long as possible. Just yesterday my bus broke down on halfway there. I seldom take lunch away from my desk, and even more rarely get out to see what’s actually in Manhattan. Besides work. Earlier this week I wrote a post about the Berlin Wall. Wanting a picture that wasn’t somebody else’s work, I decided to visit the famous slab of the wall in Paley Park. Like many parks in Midtown, this is a mere pocket in the shadow of a high-rise, but a large slab of the Berlin Wall had been there for years, drawing tour guides and history buffs alike. It is only 19 blocks from my office. I’m a fast walker, and I made it all the way catching only three red lights. Since the anniversary of the wall’s Jericho moment had been twenty-five years and a day before, I expected crowds. Instead, no Berlin Wall was to be found. Businessmen smoking away their lives and lunch hours, but no oppressive wall. I double-checked my location. Triple-checked, with GPS. Then I walked 19 blocks back.

Photo credit: Gaurav1146, WikiMedia Commons

Photo credit: Gaurav1146, WikiMedia Commons

Visiting the comments on one of the wall’s websites, I saw that it had been, perhaps unintentionally symbolically, removed. After standing in this pocket park for nearly a quarter of a century, the slab had been absconded mere weeks before the anniversary when I, and given the number of cameras I saw, not I alone, had gone to see and to reflect. Where does one put the Berlin Wall? There was another piece, I read, at the United Nations gardens. You only had to pay 18 dollars to get in. Although it is close to my old office at Routledge, it is a lengthy walk from where I now find myself. Once I arrived home I searched for answers. The wall had been removed for restoration. A wall that had been sufficient to divide a city, scrawled with graffiti, apparently, required restoration. On the long walk back, I considered my similarly ill-fated trip a couple years back to find the closed Gotham Book Mart. Like the wall, have I become useless history?

My Germanic ancestors came to America nearly two centuries ago, and although I never knew that side of the family well, I suspect it was for economic, not religious reasons. It is sometimes easy to think, given all the rhetoric, that Europeans came here to be part of a Christian free-for-all. No doubt, some did. Many others, however, had more mundane motivation. A strong Protestant work ethic that somehow seems genetic, and a belief that somewhere else is better, will help you get along. So I’m told. So the tale goes in the book of Joshua. Israelites, wanting to cross the water to a new home, blowing their trumpets and raising a shout. Yes, the Berlin Wall did come down. Like the fallen wall of Jericho, it’s nowhere to be seen.

Lunchtime in Midtown

It was a brilliantly sunny day and there seemed to be rain nowhere in sight. It wasn’t even hot. Days like this have been rare this spring, so I went out for a lunchtime walk in my neighborhood. I’d been by the United Nations with some visiting family the day before, so I went down again and pondered the words attributed to Isaiah carved in the wall across from one of the largest intentional organs of peace in the world. I was reminded that a copy of the Edict of Cyrus resides in the UN; as a historical text it is often considered to be the first document promoting religious tolerance among lesser powers allowed by a greater power. The world could use a few more like old Cyrus the Great these days. I think Deutero-Isaiah would agree. So with biblical thoughts in my head, I strolled back toward Grand Central.

Along the way I saw a phrase from the Eucharistic Prayer on a building and it was like meeting someone from college that moved halfway around the world to disappear from your life. I saw that I was standing outside 815 Second Avenue. To the majority of the world—even the majority of Christians—this will mean nothing. At Nashotah House, however, “815” was regarded as the source of all evil. It is the headquarters of the Episcopal Church in America. It is hard, as a disowned son, to describe the feelings that assailed me there. Those good Christians who intended me such harm did not seem to realize all I had sacrificed to join them. Some of the clergy whose daggers remain in my back are well-paid priests right here in New York. Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look, I thought.

With that cloud in my sky, I turned the corner back to work. Parked in the street was a truck labeled “Divine Moving & Storage.” That sounded an awful lot like a trope for my life. The reproduction of Michelangelo’s God reaching to Adam contrasting with a phone number ending in 666, this bundle of contradictions might just have been a small sample of the human experience. Caught constantly between Heaven and Hell with doleful prophets and profit-loving dolers of sacramental grace living one next to the other. New York is a religious city in every sense of the word. Somewhere off in the shadows I think I hear Isaiah whispering, “I make weal and I create woe…” I love a sunny day in Manhattan.

Homeland Security

I work just two blocks from the United Nations building in New York. While out to grab my lunch yesterday I was engulfed in a peaceful, if vocal demonstration. Many people were standing along Third Avenue with a perplexed look, myself included, I suppose, when a protestor from a great, surging throng thrust a paper into my hand. Headlined “Bring Justice to Guinea,” the paper outlined the brutalities being perpetrated against the Fulani in Guinea. I have to confess to being ignorant of most of the world’s trouble spots. In a society that is relatively free, we’ve been struggling to attain any real form of social equity without success for over two and a half centuries. When I read of the atrocities against the Fulani outlined on the flier, I wondered why I’d not heard of them before. I didn’t have to wonder long, however, because many of us have not received any real education beyond what has happened in the developed world. I decided to learn what I could in the brief moments after the commute home and before bed time. I discovered that the Fulani were once an empire in West Africa. Today in Guinea, according to the information at hand, they are subject to truly horrific treatment. The flier asks, “Would you stop a genocide if you saw it coming?”

I honestly cannot know what lies behind the suffering of the Fulani in Guinea, but historically genocides have either been about, or excused as being about, proper religious belief. One of the saddest commentaries on religion is that even in varieties of religion that claim peaceable teachings and human welfare, violence frequently breaks out. The distrust of the other runs very deep, and if the clearest dividing line is religion, so be it. The very nature of our brains causes us to divide the world about us into categories. The problem with categories is that they are often mental constructs that do not correlate to the reality they attempt to describe. Take people, for example. Does anyone really ever stick to a category or a label in all ways and at all times? Are we not prone to inconsistency and evolution? To use a label as an excuse to harm another is rightly called a hate crime today. Unfortunately, hate crimes are very common, if illegal in some places.

Homeland of the human race.

Difference may be perceived at least two ways—we might respond to it negatively or positively. As a culture, all but the extremist groups seem to have accepted that people are people and deserve equal treatment. On the religious front, however, we lag far behind. Religions often make universal claims, and if a universal claim is truly universal no variation can be accepted. Our deep-seated distrust of those different from ourselves often finds its release in the guise of religion. No other human institution claims a divine prerogative for abusing others. Some people would admit that their animosity stems from basic human motives. If they act upon it, they wind up imprisoned. If, on the other hand, it becomes a crusade with divine standards proudly waving, the perpetrator is more likely to run for public office than to be sequestered in jail. Religion thrives on double standards. Until we find an objective way to assess them (those who have ears, let them hear) we will find ourselves dealing with unreasonable religious demands until our genocidal distrust spreads to the entire remainder of the world.