Bob Schwartz

Out of balance: The me and the others

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”
Hillel the Elder, Pirke Avot 1:14

Life is out of balance in America. Life is always out of balance, forever everywhere. It is the dynamic of living. But when it gets too far out of balance, and grows more unbalanced, and efforts at rebalancing aren’t considered or deemed possible, bad things can happen.

This is prompted by the unhappy news that among young Americans age ten to 18, suicide is now second only to accidents as cause of death:

More young Americans are ending their own lives
Suicide is now the second-biggest killer of ten- to 18-year-olds

You can read detailed analyses of how we got here and what might be done. I do not have the expertise or insight to offer actionable solutions. But I have a thought.

We have come to a time when the balance between the me and the others has been increasingly weighted towards the me. Connections with and concerns for the others is diminishing. Not gone, by any means, and not in danger of disappearing. But the tools of self-absorption are everywhere, and the steps from that to self-importance and self-aggrandizement are much smaller than you think.

There is nothing wrong with self-concern and self-assertion. It can be healthy and constructive. But too much can leave one and others isolated from each other, no matter how it seems on the surface. It is not just young people who are isolated, though with their unformed sense of life and sometimes inadequate models and teaching, they are most vulnerable. It is all us.

Yeshua said, Be passersby.

Yeshua said,
Be passersby.
Gospel of Thomas 42

We are approaching an annual Jesus event. While it is the birth and infancy focused on at Christmas, the meaning and teachings of the man are inescapable.

Some take on faith that the words and deeds included in the canonical gospels are an accurate record. Others, applying tools of modern critical analysis, conclude that some of the chronicled words and deeds seem historical, while others are likely not.

Whatever and whoever the baby Jesus grew into, no doubt he was a powerful Jewish teacher and spiritual leader. Followers over the next 2,000 years made all kinds of movements out of him. But movements aside, the wisdom cannot be denied, no matter the listener’s choice of faith or lack of faith.

In my view, and in the view of those more expert, the Gospel of Thomas is the closest we can come to those words of wisdom. Discovered in 1945 among the groundbreaking works in the library at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, this Coptic text is a wisdom gospel—all sayings, no narratives. Some of the sayings are close to those that appear in the canonical gospels, while others are unique.

Marvin Meyer writes in The Gnostic Bible:

Jesus in Thomas performs no physical miracles, reveals no fulfillment of prophecy, announces no apocalyptic kingdom about to disrupt the world order, dies for no one’s sins, and does not rise from the dead on Easter Sunday. His value, rather, lies in his enigmatic sayings, which are pregnant with possibility and power. “Whoever discovers what these sayings mean will not taste death,” Jesus promises. That is to say, one who uncovers the interpretive keys to the meaning of these sayings thinks Jesus’ thoughts after him and completes his sayings in new and sagacious ways. Such a one seeks and finds true wisdom and knowledge.

Bart Ehrman writes in The Other Gospels:

The Jesus of this Gospel is not the Jewish messiah that we have seen in other Gospels, not the miracle-working Son of God, not the crucified and resurrected Lord, and not the Son of Man who will return on the clouds of heaven. He is the eternal Jesus whose words bring salvation.

All 114 sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are worth reading and contemplating. One that stands out is the shortest. In fact, the shortest message ever from Jesus—two words that are an adequate platform for a life.

Yeshua said,
Be passersby.
Gospel of Thomas 42
(Or, “Be wanderers,” or, much less likely, “Come into being as you pass away” (Coptic shope etetenerparage). A parallel to this saying appears in an inscription from a mosque at Fatehpur Sikri, India: “Jesus said, ‘This world is a bridge. Pass over it, but do not build your dwelling there.’”
Marvin Meyer, The Gnostic Bible

God gives Abraham dancing lessons (Genesis 12:1)

Free range Bible study leads to some surprising revelations.

This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27). It is the beginning of the Abraham narrative, which in a sense is the beginning of all that comes after in the Bible and in the three Abrahamic religions that now encompass about four billion people.

Genesis 12 begins with this command to Abraham:

Lech lecha

The Hebrew is variously translated, but a common English version is “go forth”.

As Richard Elliott Friedman translates and explains:

And YHWH said to Abram, “Go from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I’ll show you.

Go. Hebrew lech lecha. Much has been made of the second word in this phrase, which means “for you.” No translation quite captures the sense of the Hebrew (“Go you,” “Get you,” “Go for yourself”)….I believe it is better to use no English term than to use any of the possible equivalents, all of which are clumsy English.

The Oxford Study Bible has an unusual way of explaining the command:

This is the first of three divine speeches in which a patriarch is given travel directions.

“Travel directions” seems a good way of describing it. This led me to Kurt Vonnegut and Cat’s Cradle, his novel most directly about religion, the fantasy faith of Bokononism. Among the teachings:

As Bokonon says: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”

If we accept the wisdom of Bokonon, combined with the insights of the Oxford Study Bible, we can conclude that Abraham was indeed given “peculiar travel directions” and that God was offering him (and us) dancing lessons.

That sounds about right.

© 2022 Bob Schwartz

45% of Americans say U.S. should be a ‘Christian Nation’

Pew reports that a large majority of Americans say the founders intended America to be a Christian nation, and 45% of Americans say it should still be. Meaning that we should be guided, or, according to some, mandated to follow Christian values.

As a student of Christianity, though not a Christian, I am interested in knowing which values those are, and how well they are being modeled by those who advocate for a Christian America. I start by turning to the teachings of Jesus, rather than the layers of add-ons that have distorted or contradicted those teachings.

For just one example, following is taken from the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan, along with an annotation explaining that the golden rule didn’t begin or end with Jesus. It is basic and foundational, so those who claim we should be living according to Jesus but discard it as optional better go back to the source—or be labeled hypocrites.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Luke 10:25-28 (NRSV)

In the end, the parable [of the Good Samaritan] does not answer the lawyer’s question “Who is the neighbor?” but illustrates how to love. It shows the Jewish questioner what a neighbor does; it does not redefine who a neighbor is.

The matter of how to act as neighbor relates to what is often called the “golden rule.” This was a common teaching expressed in a wide array of pre-Christian texts ranging from Confucian to Greek (e.g., Herodotus 3.142; Isocrates, To Nicocles; To Demonicus) and Jewish (e.g., Tob 4.15 and Ep. Arist. 207), although Jesus may have been the first to connect the golden rule to Leviticus’s love commandment. Matthew, who records Jesus as saying that “the Law and the Prophets” “hang” or “depend” on Lev 19.18 (Mt 22.40), elsewhere quotes Jesus as making an analogous remark about the golden rule: “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (7.12). Luke cites the golden rule and then explains it with what seems to be an allusion to the love commandment (6.31–36). The Didache, another early Christian text, opens with a gloss on the two Great Commandments (Deut 6.5 and Lev 19.18) explained in terms of the golden rule (Did. 1.2). Paul may be combining the love commandment and the golden rule in Rom 13.10, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (cf. Gal 5.14). James likewise seems to allude to the golden rule, called “the royal law,” when citing the love command (Jas 2.8). None of this conflicts with Jewish teaching, and indeed canonical translators and commentators gloss Lev. 19.18 with the Golden Rule (e.g., Tg. Ps–J. ad loc.; Seforno ad loc; Maimonides, Laws of Mourning 14.1)….

Jewish sages cited the golden rule in similar circumstances. According to the Talmud, when Hillel the elder, Jesus’ contemporary, was confronted by a would-be convert who audaciously demanded to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one foot, the sage answered with the famous words: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.” (b. Shabb. 31a).

Michael Fagenblat in The Annotated Jewish New Testament

Most Americans don’t know much about history. But history is our great political teacher.

I don’t care about history
Cause that’s not where I want to be
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, The Ramones

Most Americans don’t know much about history. They may know highlight events, or events that are personal to them, or events that support their particular ideology. But the big, long-term picture—not just America, not just recent times—is outside their interest or learning.

Which is unfortunate from a political perspective, and especially in critical political times. Which these are.

One thing we learn is that history is neither a continuum nor a pendulum. It is messy and nonlinear. Leaders, movements and eras may last much longer than we think. Or they can be over in a wink. The only way to see that is the long and wide view.

China is a good example of this perspective. Over the course of thousands of years, China has seen, if not all, then most of everything. Some of its historical eras lasted longer than America has been a nation-in-the-making and nation. Chinese citizens may not be better studied historians than their American counterparts, but they don’t have to be. History is baked into Chinese culture, and not just in our Fourth of July way. If you don’t believe it, listen to Xi Jinping’s long policy harangue at the recent Communist Party Congress, where he became essentially dictator for life.

How does this fit into politics and the upcoming election?

We are living through a time when a formerly quieter movement, a regressive and reactionary one, has found its voice and its votes. How that plays out in elections and policies is an open question, and will be even after these midterm elections are over. Short-lived and reversible? Long-term and foundational?

As smart as we think we are, as smart as some pundits think they are, we don’t know. Even though we don’t know—because we don’t know—we are obliged to act, to do the best we can.

Which means, good or bad historians, in a democracy we vote and encourage others to vote. However it turns out, that’s our contribution to history.

© 2022 Bob Schwartz

Not always so: Intellectual flexibility and stubbornness

“This is the secret of the teaching. It may be so, but it is not always so. Without being caught by words or rules, without many preconceived ideas, we actually do something, and doing something, we apply our teaching.”
Shunryu Suzuki

One may be very smart, somewhat smart, somewhat not smart or very not smart. One thing widely shared is intellectual stubbornness. That is: I’ve thought this through and I am unalterably sure I am right.

Some problems. Those who believe they’ve “thought things through” may or may not have. Even if they’ve thought things through, they or the situation or the world may have changed. In fact, they and the situation and the world have changed, for certain. It is the truth of everything changes.

Intellectual stubbornness is easy. Once you make the initial effort, your thinking can be locked down. Intellectual flexibility is hard. “I don’t know” and “I am wrong” are two phrases that don’t come easily to many people. “I know” and “I am right” is so much simpler. Even if they don’t and they aren’t.

© 2022 Bob Schwartz

70 Ads to Save the World: An Illustrated Memoir of Social Change

There are good-hearted well-meaning 21st century activists who will ignore the new book 70 Ads to Save the World: An Illustrated Memoir of Social Change because it is an old-school throwback to an ancient time when full-page print ads mattered.

They miss the point.

The form of media of course matters, and those forms have evolved dynamically over the past couple of decades. But creativity, message, heart and soul also matter. And these are eternal.

For decades, Jerry Mander and his colleagues used the available tools to craft advertising aimed at changing minds and changing the world, one reader and one critical issue ad at a time. This book serves as a reminder, not just to those in the creative industries but certainly there, how much good their gifts—your gifts—can do. One creation at a time.

The New York Times, 6 December 1999
The New York Times, 3 January 1984
The New York Times, 31 October 1993; Los Angeles Times, 27 December 1993
The New York Times, 27 April 1989; The San Francisco Chronicle, 27 April 1989; The South Bend Tribune, 22 June 1989; The Miami Herald, 5 October 1989; The Tampa Tribune, 5 October 1989; The Orlando Sentinel, 5 October 1989; Tallahassee Democrat, 5 October 1989; The Naples Daily News, 10 October 1989

Words for Democrats from an iconic organizer: “The fundamental idea is that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values.”

I last wrote about legendary political organizer Saul Alinsky and his book Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971) in February 2016, months before the presidential election.

Alinsky’s thinking was informed by decades of organizing for change in an America that resisted change. He recognized the mistakes made in the 1960s and would recognize the mistakes being made right now.

Like it or not, the Democrats, as one of only two parties, are not just the primary champions for change, but are the current hope for defending and securing democracy in America. The 2022 elections are the next test of that, but not the last.

It isn’t easy to heed Alinksy’s call to communicate giving “full respect to the other’s values.” Maybe Democrats think there is a point beyond which those values are so abhorrent—or completely absent—that respect is out of the question. Maybe we’ve reached that point.

But Alinsky’s wisdom can’t be dismissed. Read the final paragraph, written more than fifty years ago. Americans who are “hurt, bitter, suspicious, feeling rejected and at bay”, whose “fears and frustrations at their helplessness are mounting to a point of a political paranoia which can demonize people to turn to the law of survival in the narrowest sense.” Sound familiar?

As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be — it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system….

This failure of many of our younger activists to understand the art of communication has been disastrous. Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience….

The “silent majority,” now, are hurt, bitter, suspicious, feeling rejected and at bay. This sick condition in many ways is as explosive as the current race crisis. Their fears and frustrations at their helplessness are mounting to a point of a political paranoia which can demonize people to turn to the law of survival in the narrowest sense. These emotions can go either to the far right of totalitarianism or forward to Act II of the American Revolution.

Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

Ah. Aweland.

Standing Tulips (light photography) © Dean Chamberlain

To look upon and to touch
Oh gosh
Life is really too much
Donovan, Oh Gosh

The designated Jewish Days of Awe have passed, at least for this year.

The birds this morning overwhelmed me with their songs, so multiple and layered that if you tried to follow just one thread of notes you would be even more lost than you usually are.

It is awesome.

I think about experiences, some natural, some induced, some sought, some accidental, that are inescapable awe. Time stopping, time reversing and advancing awe.

That is what all the experiences are about, at their heart, at their core (couer). Once awed—by birds, love, drugs, god—the unawed will occupy us again, replacing awe with the agenda of our selves. Ah, but having visited there, Aweland, we may return.

Every day is a Day of Awe.

© 2022 Bob Schwartz

Hannah Arendt: Comprehension means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality.

“That this called not only for lamentation and denunciation but for comprehension seemed to me obvious. This book is an attempt at understanding what at first and even second glance appeared simply outrageous.

“Comprehension, however, does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden that events have placed upon us—neither denying their existence nor submitting meekly to their weight as though everything that in fact happened could not have happened otherwise. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be or might have been.”

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism