Bob Schwartz

Tag: Jesus

WWJDAB: What Would Jesus Do About Guns?

If Jesus returned, and found America flooded with guns, and saw so many people drowning in that flood, what would he do?

A lot of people claim to speak for Jesus, but I am not one of them. Still, I have a guess, or maybe just a hope. Jesus would make the guns disappear. He might—might—later give them back to some who were hunting to put food on their table. He might not give them back to those who use them for sport, explaining that golf is more challenging and that far fewer people are killed by golf balls and golf clubs.

Almost immediately, Jesus would be criticized for taking away a God-given freedom. God blessed the world with America, God blessed America with a Constitution, and God blessed the Constitution with a Second Amendment. Jesus might reply that he had a better idea of what God blessed and what God had in mind. And that what he didn’t have in mind was millions of people running around with deadly weapons and often wantonly shooting thousands of others. God also isn’t keen on Kindergarten teachers packing heat while shepherding five-year-old children. Jesus would close by reminding folks that it is the peacemakers who are blessed, not the gun makers.

By then, it would be too late. Nobody would be listening. As if they ever did.

Netanyahu Scapegoats the Palestinians for Holocaust

The Jews killed Jesus. The Palestinians started the Holocaust. So who’s the scapegoat now?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that in the early days leading up to World War II, Hitler visited the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and it was that Palestinian leader who came up with the idea of the Final Solution:

“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here.’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ he asked. He said, ‘Burn them.’

Historians have already weighed in heavily on how historically bogus this is, given that, among other things, Hitler published Mein Kampf three years before that meeting. The assertion has been described as “jaw-dropping”, with even friendly politicians “agog” at this dark nonsense.

Just when you thought it was the Jews who have for centuries been scurrilously blamed for every terrible thing, Netanyahu goes and turns the tables and scapegoats somebody else. Not just any somebody else. The enemy within and on the borders, the one that you could happily live without.

It appears that the very unpopular Prime Minister is trying to take lessons from Donald Trump, with whom he shares the kinship of attending Wharton. The strategy: Demonize those unwanted immigrants and/or natives. Say anything, no matter how incendiary, explosive, ridiculous or unrelated to fact about the enemies within, and people will love it. And you.

Just one glitch. Trump doesn’t lead a nation at the center of global conflict; actually he doesn’t lead any nation at all. And if America has a history of scapegoating, which it does (take your pick among religious, cultural, political and ethnic groups), it doesn’t compare in long-term viciousness to what the Jews have endured.

Starting, of course, with the big one. In fact, if you look closely at Netanyahu’s indictment, it is not that the Palestinians actually ran the death camps. They just planted the idea, whispering in the ear of an emperor, who was happy to carry out the deed. This time a German emperor, instead of Roman one.

Who’s the scapegoat now?

Pope Francis, Kim Davis and Caesar

Caesar Coin

Pope Francis tried very hard in his U.S. visit to watch the line between moral guidance that has political effect and politics itself. He appears, maybe unwittingly, to have crossed the line. In a big way.

His visit with Kim Davis belies a misunderstanding of who she is and what she represents. It’s not that freedom of religious conscience is not an important issue. It’s that Kim Davis is the wrong poster person.

It appears from the context that he may have seen her in the line of great conscientious objectors. He reportedly thanked her for her courage and told her to be strong.

Kim Davis does have a religious conscience. And she does object to authorizing same-sex marriages. But there are two problems.

First, unlike true conscientious objectors, she doesn’t really want to suffer for her beliefs. Civil disobedients and conscientious objectors expect to be punished; sometimes they welcome it. But Kim Davis wants to have it both ways. Martin Luther King Jr. did not write in his letter from a Birmingham jail: For God’s sake, let me out of here. As far as we know, Kim Davis didn’t write any letters from her jail, at least not ones that will be in literary anthologies for the next fifty years.

The second problem is that her objection, at its heart, is that the Constitution and the Supreme Court are wrong, and that’s why she gets to keep her job and perform her duties as she sees fit. As a public servant, she is either explicitly by oath or implicitly by understanding sworn to uphold the Constitution. If she chooses not to, she has no privilege to hold that job, nor is she privileged to be free of sanction. That’s it.

Pope Francis, who I have expressed admiration for, may not understand that or the background of the Kim Davis saga. In that event, he should have followed the advice of Jesus in these situations:

‘Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’

Matthew 22:17-21 (NRSV)

Bacon and Ribs Illegal in America When Jews and Muslims Take Over

When Orthodox Jews or Muslims are in charge, bacon, ribs, and all sorts of other things will be made illegal.

Of course, that will never happen. Not because Orthodox Jews or Muslims will never take control of American democracy (anything’s possible). But because the U.S. Constitution—that imperfectly perfect protector of individual rights—would not permit it.

In the secular sphere, there is no higher law than the Constitution. Beyond being the law of the land, it is the law of the law of the land. Those who study it in the context of world history and politics recognize that it is a one-of-a-kind, no-other-time-or-place achievement.

Those who say there is some kind of higher law than that in the civic arena are misinformed, or in some cases, such as Ted Cruz who should know better, strategically mistaken. The question those folks have to answer is this: If there is higher law than the Constitution, whose law is it? If it’s “God’s” law, recall that God talks to lots of people in lots of religious traditions, and apparently isn’t always heard to say the same thing to everyone. It will shock some Christians to learn that God has been speaking to Jews for thousands more years, and while there seemed to have been plenty of talk about a messiah, nothing to indicate that one actually arrived. Or asked county clerks in Kentucky to stop issuing marriage licenses. Or told presidential candidates who claim to believe in law and order to defy the law of the law of the land. In his name. Amen.

Why We Should Not Give Up on Global Nuclear Disarmament

Ban the Bomb

It is picture as quaint as someone dialing a telephone: protestors in the 1950s and 1960s marching around with signs that say “Ban the Bomb.”

Quaint because so many countries now have nuclear weapons that getting rid of them all borders on the ridiculous. And it’s not just major powers; smaller nations who have developed nuclear weapons consider themselves “major” for having done so. (It sure beats the trouble of developing a sustainable, healthy economy and democracy.) Speaking of democracy, nuclear armament is all so complex that one of the bright lights of a hyperdangerous region refuses to acknowledge even having a nuclear stockpile, pretending to maintain the worst kept geopolitical secret in the world.

And yet: Blessed are the peacemakers. According to someone or other, they will be called children of God. This doesn’t mean that warmakers and hoarders of nuclear weapons aren’t children of God. It just means that the billions who live in the shadows of those bombs and missile warheads might not feel particularly blessed. That’s why we, and our children and our generations, shouldn’t give up on global nuclear disarmament, no matter how naïve or impossible it seems.

Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’

Laudato Si'

The Pope’s new encyclical, Laudato Si’, has been much in the news. Whatever you’ve heard about it, if you haven’t seen it, you really don’t know the whole story.

You’ve heard it is about the environment and climate change, which is in small part true. You’ve heard Catholic presidential hopefuls such as Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal admonish the Pope, their spiritual father, telling him to stick to religion and stay out of politics.

The encyclical is much bigger than climate change, the environment, and certainly bigger than Bush or Jindal or dozens of politicians. It is a big statement about the moral and religious shortcomings of this modern world and us modern people. You don’t have to be Catholic or Christian or faithful or religious to read and appreciate it. You just have to read it.

It is full of inconvenient and uncomfortable truths. Which is probably why the coverage has focused on the environmental exhortations, rather than on the broader cultural, media, technological and social ones. In essence, it is nothing less than a call for radical evolution, in the spirit of the radical evolutionary upon whom the church is built. There are plenty of established institutions and powerful interests and individuals, including the media, who could be forced to change if such radical evolution came to pass. And many of them don’t want to change, and don’t even want us to listen to the Pope talking about it.

The encyclical is a long and deep but very readable work. Download it, sample it. You don’t have to read it all, or all at once. It is naturally grounded in theology, and in some particular theology, but be assured that the observations and conclusions don’t require you to hold any sectarian beliefs. It only requires that we believe that things are far from perfect, and that after we take a close look at ourselves and others, we believe that we have the power and obligation to make things better.

It is filled with so much quotable inspired thought and inspiration. Here is just one brief excerpt:

114. All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.

Laudato Si’ PDF

Laudato Si’ epub and Kindle

Mountains Walking

Jesus, Dogen and Donovan each have something to say about mountains. In some ways the same thing.

Jesus says that faith can move mountains, by which he may mean that understanding the nature of things, including mountains, will allow us to see that mountains are always moving, if we will see it. Jesus is all about what we don’t see that is right in front of us.

Dogen says that mountains are mountains and mountains are walking. If you can walk, mountains can walk. Those without eyes to see mountains cannot notice, understand, see, or hear this reality.

Donovan sings about this reality of mountains appearing, disappearing, appearing.

Jesus

He answered, ‘Because you have so little faith. In truth I tell you, if your faith is the size of a mustard seed you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; nothing will be impossible for you.’ (Matthew 17:20, New Jerusalem Bible)

Dogen Zenji

Priest Daokai of Mount Furong said to the assembly, “The green mountains are always walking; a stone woman gives birth to a child at night.”

Mountains do not lack the characteristics of mountains. Therefore, they always abide in ease and always walk. Examine in detail the characteristic of the mountains’ walking.

Mountains’ walking is just like human walking. Accordingly, do not doubt mountains’ walking even though it does not look the same as human walking. The buddha ancestor’s words point to walking. This is fundamental understanding. Penetrate these words.

Because green mountains walk, they are permanent. Although they walk more swiftly than the wind, someone in the mountains does not notice or understand it. “In the mountains” means the blossoming of the entire world. People outside the mountains do not notice or understand the mountains’ walking. Those without eyes to see mountains cannot notice, understand, see, or hear this reality.

If you doubt mountains’ walking, you do not know your own walking; it is not that you do not walk, but that you do not know or understand your own walking. Since you do know your own walking, you should fully know the green mountains’ walking.

Green mountains are neither sentient nor insentient. You are neither sentient nor insentient. At this moment, you cannot doubt the green mountains’ walking.

From Mountains and Waters Sutra, Shobo Genzo, Fascicle 15 (1240)

Donovan

The caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within
Caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is

From There Is a Mountain

Easter

Gnostic Bible

I am not a Christian, not in any conventional or even unconventional sense. But I have been a student of Christian religion, literature and phenomena for decades. It is part of a religious triangle—or maybe universe—with my native Judaism and my adopted Buddhism.

One of my earliest Christian experiences was reading the Gospel of Thomas, part of the Nag Hammadi Library, a trove of early Christian writings discovered in 1945. That translation of one of the so-called Gnostic Gospels was done by Dr. Marvin Meyer; I did not know that years later I would work with and become friends with him. What I did know on first reading (and on first meeting) was that the late Dr. Meyer was brilliant. (You may well have seen him on many of the History and Discovery Channel type biblical shows.)

For this Easter, I include a selection from the Gospel of Thomas. It is taken from The Gnostic Bible, edited by Dr. Meyer and by the equally-brilliant poet, translator and scholar Willis Barnstone.

The Gospel of Thomas, often called the Fifth Gospel, is a work of sayings and wisdom; there is no action. Some of the sayings are similar to those that appear in the canonical gospels. Others are more assertively cryptic and mysterious, puzzling in the same way that Zen koans are. This section, appropriately for Easter, is about life and death:

11

Yeshua (Jesus) said,
This heaven will pass away
and the one above it will pass away.
The dead are not alive
and the living will not die.
During the days when you ate what is dead
you made it alive.
When you are in the light, what will you do?
On the day when you were one
you became two.
But when you become two, what will you do?

Willis Barnstone’s most recent work is The Restored New Testament, a monumental achievement in which he single-handedly translated the entire NT (including Gnostic Gospels) and provided hundreds of pages of lucid and enlightening commentary. In that book, he offers this wisdom for a modern age:

In the end, all people are people, and no people should ever be classified for whatever reason as less than another. Any marker of sect and theology that distinguishes any people adversely is human and humane error. So the gospels and Apocalypse should not be seen for the momentary and external conflicts they may contain, but rather for their greater universality of spirit in a world desperately poor in coming to terms with human consciousness within the perishable body. Happily, the call to spirit is deep and needs no name, and no divisive emblem. The New Testament is a book of the mind; it is infused with compassion and courage and the great questions of being, death, time, and eternity. For the perceptive reader, spirit eludes name, dogma, and even word to reside in the silence of transcendence.

Finite and Infinite Games: Thoughts to End and Begin a Year

Finite and Infinite Games
James P. Carse, now Professor Emeritus of history and literature of religion at NYU, published Finite and Infinite Games in 1986. The book’s spare 160 pages belie its significance. It is a masterpiece of clear, poetic and transformative thought, as Carse takes on the big question that faces us now and always: What are we doing and saying when we act and talk about things religious—or for that matter about life?

His answer—and this is impossibly oversimplified—is that we are playing games. To say even that little is misleading. The only way to appreciate the book and its power is to follow its 101 very brief sections end to end.

This was written at a time when the idea of religion as myth was enjoying renewed currency. It was not a new idea, but by the 1980s a generation of thinkers was trying to make intellectually honest sense of a conundrum: If religious narrative is merely myth, how can religious history have any value or substantial meaning, and how then can we be religious? It turned out in their view that it was not “merely” myth, but a matter that necessarily coexisted with, complemented  and completed religion.

This continues to be something both hard for many to accept or wrap their heads around and equally hard to articulate. Carse articulates this better than anybody else has, and elevates the entire area to a platform for considering the whole of existence and life. If that sounds like hyperbole, please read the book and decide.

In the meantime, a wholly inadequate sample, given that many definitions and premises are missing:

1

THERE ARE at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.
A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

. . .

99

If it is true that myth provokes explanation, then it is also true that explanation’s ultimate design is to eliminate myth. It is not just that the availability of bells in churches and town halls of Europe makes it possible to forge new cannon; it is that the cannon are forged in order to silence the bells. This is the contradiction of finite play in its highest form: to play in such a way that all need for play is erased.

The loudspeaker, successfully muting all other voices and therefore all possibility of conversation, is not listened to at all, and for that reason loses its own voice and becomes mere noise. Whenever we succeed in being the only speaker, there is no speaker at all. Julius Caesar originally sought power in Rome because he loved to play the very dangerous style of politics common to the Republic; but he played the game so well that he destroyed all his opponents, making it impossible for him to find genuinely dangerous combat. He was unable to do the very thing for which he sought power. His word was now irresistible, and for that reason he could speak with no one, and his isolation was complete. “We might almost say this man was looking for an assassination” (Syme).

If we are to say that all explanation is meant to silence myth itself, then it will follow that whenever we find people deeply committed to explanation and ideology, whenever play takes on the seriousness of warfare, we will find persons troubled by myths they cannot forget they have forgotten. The myths that cannot be forgotten are those so resonant with the paradox of silence they become the source of our thinking, even our culture, and our civilization.

These are the myths we can easily discover and name, but whose meanings continually elude us, myths whose conversion to truth never quite fills the bells of their resonance with the sand of metaphysical interpretation. These are often exceedingly simple stories. Abraham is an example. Although only two children were born to Abraham in his long life, and one of those was illegitimate, he was promised that his descendants would be as numberless as the stars of the heavens. All three of the West’s major religions consider themselves children of Abraham, though each has often understood to be itself the only and final family of the patriarch, an understanding always threatened by the resounding phrase: numbered as the stars of the heavens. This is the myth of a future that always has a future; there is no closure in it. It is a myth of horizon.

The myth of the Buddha’s enlightenment has the same paradox in it, the same provocation to explanation but with as little possibility of settling the matter. It is the story of a mere mortal, completely without divine aid, undertaking successfully a spiritual quest for release from all forms of bondage, including the need to report this release to others. The perfect unspeakability of this event has given rise to an immense flow of literature in scores of languages that shows no signs of abating.

Perhaps the Christian myth has been the narrative most disturbing to the ideological mind. It is, like those of Abraham and the Buddha, a very simple tale: that of a god who listens by becoming one of us. It is a god “emptied” of divinity, who gave up all privilege of commanding speech and “dwelt among us,” coming “not to be served, but to serve,” “being all things to all persons.” But the worlds to which he came received him not. They no doubt preferred a god of magisterial utterance, a commanding idol, a theatrical likeness of their own finite designs. They did not expect an infinite listener who joyously took their unlikeness on himself, giving them their own voice through the silence of wonder, a healing and holy metaphor that leaves everything still to be said.

Those Christians who deafened themselves to the resonance of their own myth have driven their killing machines through the garden of history, but they did not kill the myth. The emptied divinity whom they have made into an Instrument of Vengeance continues to return as the Man of Sorrows bringing with him his unfinished story, and restoring the voices of the silenced.

100

The myth of Jesus is exemplary, but not necessary. No myth is necessary. There is no story that must be told. Stories do not have a truth that someone needs to reveal, or someone needs to hear. It is part of the myth of Jesus that it makes itself unnecessary; it is a narrative of the word becoming flesh, of language entering history; a narrative of the word becoming flesh and dying, of history entering language. Who listens to his myth cannot rise above history to utter timeless truths about it.

It is not necessary for infinite players to be Christians; indeed it is not possible for them to be Christians—seriously. Neither is it possible for them to be Buddhists, or Muslims, or atheists, or New Yorkers—seriously. All such titles can only be playful abstractions, mere performances for the sake of laughter.

Infinite players are not serious actors in any story, but the joyful poets of a story that continues to originate what they cannot finish.

101

There is but one infinite game.

Random Notes on Editing

Random Notes on Editing
1. Whether working on a business report, legal brief, story or even a non-written creation, you have either had the privilege to edit others or have suffered the tough medicine of being edited.

2. All works are improvable. Ask God.

3. There is a difference between edits that are improvements and changes based on subjective sensibilities, though there is a gray area in between.

4. It is easiest to identify improvement editing when the creation is discretely functional and results are measurable, as with some sorts of advertising copy. Some would say readability and clarity fall into this functional category—that is, unless tortured readability is a creative choice and can be handled deftly. Ask Faulkner or Joyce.

5. Voice may be the hardest part of editing. It may also be the hardest part of writing. Even the most technical sorts of work can convey a distinctive voice—you will find this in textbooks, in legal articles, even in judicial rulings. Some writers don’t know abstractly what a distinctive voice is because they just naturally have one. Others work to develop it. That is the dual quandary for editors. If a writer has a voice, or the beginnings of one, you want to cultivate it without editing it away. If a writer doesn’t have much of a voice, there is a risk of the editor—who is often a pretty good writer too—to substitute a different voice entirely.

6. The Bible is the most importantly edited work in Western history, maybe in human history. Speaking of voice, imagine being the one responsible for editing the voice of God, Moses or Jesus. Yet somebody did. These editors took no credit, though it is fun to consider what those acknowledgements might look like. “And finally I’d like to thank my editor, without whom these transcripts of my speeches would not have the power that they do. JC.”