Bad Seeds

Strange things happen.  I doubt anyone would deny that, even the most skeptical.  Sometimes the strange has an edge to it, though.  A recent story on WTVR reports that residents of Virginia are receiving packets of unidentified seeds from China.  Perhaps a nation naive enough to elect 45 believes in magic beans?  If I recall correctly the beanstalk incident didn’t really end well, although Jack may have survived when it was all over.  WTVR is compelled to say what should be obvious: if you receive unexpected seeds in the mail, don’t plant them.  Not so many years ago I would’ve supposed most Americans were smart enough to know that.  Four years later I’m left wondering.  America’s critical thinking levels appear to be at an all-time low.

Upon first seeing this story my immediate reaction was to question it.  Was it a hoax or a scam?  The kind of thing Trump Enterprises might do to drive business?  If it did happen haven’t scientists (if there are any anymore) been able to figure out what kinds of seeds these are?  Isn’t there an app for that?  Increasingly, it seems, people rely on Facebook rumors for their fact checking.  Of course, that’s the beauty of this kind of plot, if it indeed is one.  A simple thing such as sending a packet of seeds can start a panic.  And with a Gross Domestic Product like China’s I’m sure the postage isn’t even all that expensive.

I also wonder if this isn’t in return for something that the US has done.  We currently have no foreign policy to speak of, but I wonder if people in China have been receiving tariff-free shipments from us.  But do we even have a functioning Post Office anymore?  What if the seeds are from the US and were made to look as though they came from China?  My suspicion goes deep, I guess.  Several years ago I got dressed down at an academic conference for being too skeptical.  My notebook has nullius in verba written inside the front cover.  I tend to think that I just like to ask questions.  Nobody sends you anything for free—being raised in capitalist heaven taught me that.  WTVR says these seeds may be invasive species.  Waging a continuing war against trees of heaven (also an invasive species) I know how much time can be wasted on the task.  Just when you think you’ve got them all, another one pops up.  Strange things indeed.

Wonder what’s growing?

Armed Forces

You ought to feel safe with the U.S. Navy so close by.  The naval base at San Diego is the second largest surface base in this particular branch of our sprawling military system.  From my hotel room I can watch the ships chugging through the harbor and from the Convention Center you can see quite a spread of naval real estate.  Still, all this hardware doesn’t make me feel safe.  Perhaps because I’m a child of the sixties, I can imagine a world at peace where military budgets don’t literally take food from the mouths of hungry citizens.  The last time I was in San Diego for AAR/SBL I toured the USS Midway aircraft carrier.  It’s clearly visible from my room.  I was amazed at both the technology and the obvious expenditure for such a craft.  It can’t be easy to set a city afloat.

Whenever I experience things like this I can’t help but wonder what we might accomplish if we loved each other as a species and put our heads together to try to solve our problems.  Lack of water—perhaps ironically in this naval city—is a serious global issue.  Poverty is the ghost of civilization.  The grasping of power by the driven but inept is clear worldwide.  We build great, complicated war machines.  The noise generated by the helicopters charging overhead bespeaks their weight and weaponry.  Down here in the southwest there are places civilians just can’t go because our military is busy keeping us too safe to allow us to wonder what they’re up to.  Black budgets must be nice.  I stand here among religion scholars and dream.

Ironically religion often leads to the fear that leads, in turn, to militarization.  We want to protect our “way of life.”  We’ll follow the prince of peace into war any day.  Just give the signal and release the missiles.  It doesn’t make me feel safe at all.  One time on a family visit, we drove through Norfolk, Virginia.  We stayed at a cheap hotel, because, well, we’re cheap.  The metal door was heavily reinforced with a stolid steel lock.  Navy men, we were informed, didn’t always behave well while ashore.  The locks were to keep us safe from those protecting us.  We stayed only one night and left early the next morning.  So I while the annual meeting away under the watchful eye of our largest line item on the budget.  They’re keeping our bodies safe, but who’s keeping track of our souls?

Guns and Ghosts

The irony of a nation that has gun laws made by those with body guards is especially cruel in the shadow of Sutherland Springs. Just a month after the worst mass shooting in United States history, another cohort of corpses receives only empty answers from DC. The solution to all the shooting deaths, 45 asserts, is more guns. This from the same White House that can find no credible alternative explanations for global warming, yet continues to break down any emissions barriers it can. The real noxious emissions are coming from the greedy mouths of the chicks in the feathered GOP nest. What is the word for what lies beyond insanity? We need it now.

Like many thinking people I’m very pleased with the results of the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. It seems, temporarily, as if reason has found its voice. The mistake at this point would be to relax and feel as if the job were done. We have raving lunacy at the national level, gun violence out of control, and politicians who just can’t live without NRA blood money. The story of Sarah Winchester’s ghosts may not be true, but it doesn’t have to be. We have a nation full of ghosts. Barely elected candidates claim a mandate to destroy the infrastructure that has allowed them to become rich. The wealthy, you’ll notice, are those who want to take all the marbles and go home. And they live in houses with guards to protect them from all the firearms they’re handing out like candy on Halloween.

Stop and think about this. The White House admits that climate change is human caused. The conclusions are quite dire for those who own property in New York City, let alone entire nations that will be underwater in a few years’ time. The response? Ignore the facts. Boast a bit more about how great we are. Give tax cuts to the wealthy and guns to the poor. Why doesn’t this equation add up? Pardon my jeremiad on what is the first hopeful morning a reasonable person has had in a long time. We have to start taking back local politics and let the national government know that it no longer speaks for the people that somewhat giddily gave it power just a year ago. Otherwise there are bound to be many more ghosts about. And one thing we know for certain, Washington doesn’t believe in ghosts.

Implied of Course

The American terrorist attack in Charlottesville over the weekend should have us all frightened. Despite declarations of “it couldn’t happen here,” fascism is an adaptive disease that finds its way to new hosts quite readily. The atmosphere coming out of Washington only promotes contagion. Trump’s response—bad behavior all around, no one party to blame—left the supreme white commander open to criticism. The appropriately named “White” House spokespersons responded with an implied “Of course that includes white supremacists,” according to the Washington Post report. That’s an awful lot of weight for an adverb to bear. The past six months have given many of us reason to doubt it’s true at all. “Of course” 45 loves all Americans. Or at least their cash.

Of course, I could be making a lot out of an implied deflection. A national leader should not hesitate to point the blame squarely at any supremacist group. Listen closely: no group is superior to another. Anyone’s background, examined closely enough, is likely to turn up a character or two who would be suspect. Trump’s election gave a new boldness to fascist groups—this is the way America’s going, isn’t it? Republican leaders, full of squees and shivers, refuse to say anything negative about a man whose thumbs can’t even reach the humility emoji. Hate crimes are wrong. They used to be illegal. What has happened to leadership? It’s more than just the CFO, wait, I mean Commander in Chief, who’s implicated here. It’s an entire political party that won’t stand up against injustice. What ever happened to “truth, justice, and the American way,” Clark? There’s never a phone booth nearby when you need one.

Back when I worked at Nashotah House, we had a conflicted environment. One of my colleagues told me something that has stayed with me ever since: “silence implies consent.” If you don’t condemn evil, you are complicit with it. We all need to stand up and say racism isn’t just an opinion—it is evil. Human rights are more than just civil rights. All people have the right to be treated fairly. Someone who hates others enough to climb into a car, start the ignition, and accelerate toward a group of pedestrians is guilty of premeditation. A president who won’t say as much is tacitly saying it might just be okay. Of course, it might just be that he’s too self-absorbed to get the thumbs going on the words we’ll never read: “I’m sorry.” Of course I’d be glad to be proven wrong.

Forgive Us Our Tabs

Forgiveness is somewhat of a specialization among the crowd courted by the new GOP. Although it is forgiveness that goes only one way, at least it’s a start. Think back to Bill Clinton making his non-inhalation declaration followed by W who could not hide from his drug-fueled Yale days. Televangelists who admit, in tears, that they had an affair stand a fair prognosis for at least a limited recovery. The religious right loves a repentant sinner. I suspect it will be the trump card in the deck, come this fall. A host of sins can be banished under this incredibly effective rubric. This past week Mike Webb, Republican hopeful for Virginia’s Congress, having lost his party’s bid decided to run as an independent. No forgiveness required. What’s right is right. During his announcement of his decision, however, he posted a screenshot on Facebook without checking his tabs. As the Washington Post article by Justin Wm. Moyer reveals, some of those tabs included porn sites. In a move no Democrat could’ve made, the conservative candidate thanked God for his mistake and his likes increased by 25 percent.

Technology is a kind of big brother. By their tabs you will know them. Our browser histories reveal who we really are. Browser histories, however, may be cleared. And those who know how to manipulate the forgiveness card can make no mistakes. After all the Gospels declare that you must forgive the repentant 490 times (taken literally), which leaves a comfortable margin to get elected. A little bit of time with the Good Book can do wonders for your campaign. The problem is, it only works with the GOP. If he admitted to inhaling, you can be sure that the War on Drugs would’ve crashed down on the White House. Dems have to keep squeaky-clean records because forgiveness doesn’t apply to that crowd.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 5.38.11 AM

One of the ironies, apart from the Viagra ad on the page telling this story, is that such incidents reveal a basic misunderstanding on the part of the electorate. No tenet is more easily finessed than forgiveness. Who’d hit a dog who’s rolled over on his back, exposing his vulnerability, admitting that he’s just eaten what you left on the counter for your dinner? Apologies can be accepted for some of the most outlandish sins. They’re cheap to make but reap rich rewards. As a former evangelical I know this may sound terribly cynical. All I can say is I’m sorry, please forgive me. And don’t look too closely at my tabs.

Excavating Religion

Jamestown, Virginia has the distinction of being the first British American colony to have survived. I’ve only been to Jamestown once, and that was about two or three years before the site was scheduled to celebrate its four-hundredth anniversary. William Shakespeare was still alive back in the home country. The King James Bible was not yet available. It was a gray day when we drove to the site and there were no other people around. Without a guide there was not much really to see—just a sense of being in touch with history by standing where the first English would eventually remake the land in their own image. Even the pilgrims tried to reach Virginia, but missed and landed in Massachusetts instead. Jamestown, however, lays a claim no other site can make.

A recent BBC article describes four graves lately found at the site. Located in the church, those buried were men of status. One of them was Reverend Robert Hunt, a clergyman of the Church of England and the first Anglican minister in North America. Interestingly, the BBC story points out, the Church of England was only half a century old at the time. Having spent many years among the Episcopalians at Nashotah House, I learned a great deal of the church’s history. The fact that the Episcopalians made it to America so shortly after their establishment is something I never heard emphasized. Concerned that the Catholic Church, under Spain, was collecting so much territory, the C of E wanted to stake a claim in the New World early on. Partially because of their persistence, we speak English even today. Church and empire were hand-in-glove in those days, and both the church in Spain and in England were state sponsored. Having God on your side can be pretty handy when you want to claim something that really doesn’t belong to you.

The reverend was buried west, facing the people he served, and, according to the article, this helped initially identify him as clergy. The church, in the service of the government, supported the conquest of new lands. The implicit belief that God was on the side of the strong has never really gone away. Mega-churches measure their spiritual assets in terms of fiscal influence. There are those today who believe that the Almighty wants the righteous to be rich, of course, at the cost of the wicked. Jamestown may have, at least partially, set the tone for a new nation that wanted to take more land than it needed. Land that others had occupied, and indeed, still lived upon. Only with the backing of a deity could such claims be made. The biggest god, after all, wins the day. Jamestown tells us more than we might suppose about what we’ve become as a nation. The early years are often the most formative of all.


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?

Traces in Between

I first discovered Edgar Allan Poe as an adolescent who believed monster movies actually represented physical malefactors. By the time I was writing high school term papers, Poe had become my favorite author, and I delved a bit into his sad life story. It has taken a few decades for me to realize that no lives really fit into the prepackaged paradigms that we’re sold. We think of Poe as a writer, but he was also a man who wandered from place to place, dying in Baltimore and nobody really knows why he was even there at the time. Sure, he had lived in Baltimore fourteen years earlier, but his fractured career had taken him many places in between. Having nothing but his published writings and gut feelings to go on, it seems to me that Poe was a man who felt unconnected to any single place. His view of the world made others uncomfortable, as even a cursory reading of his obituary demonstrates. He may have been attempting to find a place to belong. Maybe that’s why I’m standing here in Baltimore next to his burial place.

In a world characterized by xenophobia, having a sense of place can be a matter of life and death. I often wondered, as a child, at the fact that I was born in a different state than either of my parents, and that my mother was born in a different state than either of hers. Where was my place? I really didn’t start to travel until attending seminary, and since then I’ve lived in many places. At times I think of Poe and his peregrinations—not that I would dare compare myself to him; Poe was a genius in a world that couldn’t understand him. I am merely a disciple.

On a recent college-visiting trip, I found myself in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Poe spent a few weeks as a student before being forced out by his debts. Later that day I was in Baltimore, and I could not neglect a stop to pay my profound respects. Throughout my life I have felt a connection with writers whose work I admire. Perhaps as an erstwhile dabbler in the literary arts I feel as though I might somehow connect to the guild. The sense of knowing, I realize rationally, is entirely one-sided. Standing here in Westminster Cemetery, however, feels like being in the presence of a friend. Even had I lived in the nineteenth century I would unlikely have ever met Poe, just as I am unlikely to meet most of the authors I read who still walk among us. Maybe I just feel no fear of rejection—call it a sense of place—among the deceased, unquiet spirit who is Edgar Allan Poe.

Jefferson’s Legacy

With the gears grinding in the political machine and candidates for the GOP nomination each trying to show they are more righteous than the others, the name of Thomas Jefferson gets used quite a bit. Jefferson’s famous Bible, literally cut-and-pasted together by one of our better presidents, removed miracles from the picture, and Jefferson’s writings leave open the question of whether Deist or Atheist is a more accurate description. I’m in Charlottesville, Virginia right now, home of that paean to Jefferson, the University of Virginia. For a state university, UVA has perhaps the largest religion department in the country. I noted with some irony, that the religion department is housed just above the political science department in Gibson Hall. While waiting for my first appointment, I sat in an alcove where two students began talking about politics. (This was in the religion department.) My chagrin grew as my grin faded with their lament about how poor the Republican candidates are, “but we have to get Obama out of the White House.” In order to do so, they’d elect a man whom they believe unqualified for the office.

Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying a person who doesn’t start out as a liberal has no heart, but who remains a liberal as an adult has no brain—or some such nonsense. The fact is, compassion never should go out of style. It seems to me that somebody changed the terms and what they mean. “Conservative” used to equate to a fiscal position that, while it favored the wealthy, still had sympathy—or even empathy—for those less well-off built in. Now it has come to define “selfish disregard of those different than me.” We see it all the time, not just in political speeches, but in acts passed in the name of Christianity. Jefferson’s Bible is being trampled underfoot. And we are told repeatedly that America was founded as a Christian nation. Of the students discussing politics here, the more conservative of the two was the woman.

Does she not realize that without the liberalizing tendencies of the suffragettes her own future would be limited? That does not excuse in any way the patriarchy that made suffrage necessary in the first place, but it does speak to how quickly we are taught to forget. Even in the land of Jefferson, there are those who would protect privilege and call it divinity. “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” The words of Thomas Jefferson. In our great universities those who actually do learn are sometimes taught that empathy is weakness and fiscal gain is god. Unless it’s an election year. With great wealth going into the carnival we call the nomination process, we might legitimately ask what’s to become of us if those with no empathy are elected. After all, what are we, apes?

One of the few presidents worth casting in bronze

Elephants and Earthquakes

Two things happened yesterday that underscore the danger zone in which we currently live. The more dramatic event, an earthquake in central Virginia felt by many of us along the East Coast, had the social media tweeting for some time. The second event took the form of an editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger concerning GOP hopeful Jon Huntsman. Huntsman is quoted as saying, “The minute the Republican Party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem.” An even larger problem is that the clock has moved well beyond the future tense. The editorial cites GOP candidates who routinely dismiss the science of global warming, evolution and other certainties as mere “data-fixing.” Perry and Bachmann have both decided they “don’t believe” in global warming. The elephant in the room, however, goes without mention.

The elephant in the room is religion, and it is a killer elephant, one that has a history of stomping those who attempt to control it. Politicians attack religion—whether or not it is bad juju makes no difference—at their eternal peril. In this “nation under God” (really under God) even a finger pointed towards conservative Christianity becomes a dagger plunged into a candidate’s chest. The Religious Right has been doing its homework for decades: no voice of reason can speak loudly enough to be heard over the songs of praise of the self-righteous. Reason, as scientists have discerned, cannot impact religious fervor. Belief can withstand a full-frontal attack from logic, reason—all that is sacred to rationality—and emerge without a scratch or dent. It is time that those in the middle and left took religious studies seriously.

Then I felt the earth move under my feet. As our house swayed and I checked on my daughter, I couldn’t believe I was feeling my third earthquake. I checked the web to see what in the world was going on. Interestingly, no witch doctors or Fundamentalist soothsayers were being consulted, but the scientists were. The news stories emerging minutes after the ground shook from Pittsburgh to Concord to Chapel Hill rang with the refrain, “scientists say.” Where was Rick Perry and his dowsing rods? Where was Michele Bachmann and her chicken bones? No, the religious war on science was switched off for a moment and those who felt afraid listened to those who actually knew what they were talking about. It was the elephant moving around the room, I say. It will only be a matter of time, however, before it is claimed that the people of Mineral, Virginia did something evil to prod an angry god into action.

Nobody felt anything, right?