"My Country, My Faith, and Me" 


 Some years ago, while pastoring a small church in the Argentine area of Kansas City, KS, I began writing a bi-weekly column for The Record. The Record is a neighborhood newspaper dating back to 1887, when it was called the Argentine Republic. The weekly now serves the Argentine, Turner, and Rosedale neighborhoods. The idea for the column was essentially a regular reflective piece on the interface between faith and the political culture, titled “My Country, My Faith, and Me.” My concern was to celebrate and promote the ideals of democracy, human rights, rule of law, cultural diversity, etc.; distinguish between citizenship and spiritual faith; praise and criticize America (and sometimes other nations); praise and criticize Christianity (and sometimes other religions); view America as one nation in a world of nations, and Christianity as one faith in a world of faiths––all requiring mutual respect. It would not explicitly endorse political candidates, although I realize that taking stands on issues and criticizing specific candidates often exposes one's preferences. And in so far as I'm able, I didn’t want the column to be mean, nasty, cruel, or, angry. In fact, I’ve ranged far and wide in the column, beyond the bounds of my original intention, but I think not too terribly far. The biggest deviation is that I don’t always deal with the political culture. Be that as it may, here are the most recent columns. If you’re interested in seeing more of them, please contact me at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.


" Driving Evil Spirits Away"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 31 October 2013]

I don’t remember all the Halloween costumes from my childhood. I know at various times I was a pirate, a cowboy, a bum, and maybe a ghost; one time even a girl, which seems rather odd to me now.

            Back in those days, the 1950s, we had to do some “trick” to get our treat. I wasn’t the most talented. I usually had some dumb joke of the why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-road variety. People laughed to be polite.

            Sometimes we’d be ushered into a home with folks sitting around a table, smoking cigarettes, drinking various alcoholic beverages, and enjoying the kids’ clever costumes and dumb tricks.

            After trick-or-treating, I’d pour out all the candy on a table or on the bed. Some people would give us small amounts of change, usually a dime. It was a curiosity to me how one candy would appeal to me more than another, and that would change from year to year.

            Once in our pre- or early teens, one of my close friends and I decided after several years away from the practice to do some trick or treating, for a lark. We hit a few houses and called it quits. We realized it was more fun as a child.

            It was all a relaxed neighborhood affair, at least for the younger children and the homeowners. Older kids sometimes pulled pranks, such as soaping car windows, tee-peeing houses, and throwing eggs.

            I don’t remember carloads of trick-or-treaters being dropped off in neighborhoods and kids rushing up to houses, which we see regularly in our neighborhood now.

            Adults do costume parties. I’ve generally avoided them, but I have gone to several; once as a gorilla, once as a nudist –– not really, just joking! –– a few times as a wizard. I liked being a wizard.

            Some Christians oppose Halloween as a Pagan practice. They’re probably right about it being rooted in paganism, although there seems to be some division of opinion in this regard.

            Probably most scholars claim that Halloween has Pagan origins. (So does Christmas, by the way.) Samhain was an ancient Gaelic festival in Ireland and Britain, celebrated on October 31, when great bonfires were set on tops of hills to drive away evil spirits. It was the eve of the new year for Celts and Anglo-Saxons and connected to autumn festivals. In addition, it was the night when the spirits of the dead were supposed to return home, which presumably gave rise to the idea of ghosts and goblins roaming around.

            The Encyclopaedia Britannica says: “People set bonfires on hilltops for relighting their hearth fires for the winter and to frighten away evil spirits, and they sometimes wore masks and other disguises to avoid being recognized by the ghosts thought to be present. It was in these ways that beings such as witches, hobgoblins, fairies, and demons came to be associated with the day. The period was also thought to be favourable for divination on matters such as marriage, health, and death. When the Romans conquered the Celts in the 1st century AD, they added their own festivals of Feralia, commemorating the passing of the dead, and of Pomona, the goddess of the harvest.”

            Consequently some Christians maintain we should have nothing to do with Halloween. They’ll quote scriptures that say people should not participate in witchcraft, casting spells, and other things people outside the faith do. I can’t agree with them in their opposition. After all, we don’t really cast spells or practice witchcraft in our Halloween tomfoolery.

            However, some scholars claim that Halloween is entirely an original Christian holiday. The word Halloween originated with Christians, and means “holy evening.” This is because it’s on the eve of All Saints’ Day, November 1 in the Western church, when all the saints of the church are celebrated. I don’t think it really matters whether it was originally a Pagan or a Christian festival.

            For several years now, my wife and I have been out of town at conferences or out for the evening for other reasons and have not participated in the neighborhood festivity.

            But I think it’s a marvelous festival –– children fanning out one evening a year to the homes in the neighborhood, visiting people most of whom they don’t even know, and receiving treats.

            It seems to me that insofar as Halloween allows us to play make believe, exercise neighborhood spirit, and show anonymous generosity to children, it really is driving evil spirits away.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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" The Strange God of Genesis"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 17 October 2013]

I love the book of Genesis, but I don’t understand why biblical literalists do. If you take Genesis literally, you must conclude that human beings did not turn out as God had intended; God didn’t always know what was going on; God felt great anxiety that humans would become like gods; and God lamented having ever created them.

            Scholars divide Genesis into two parts. The first eleven chapters offer mythical stories about the origin of things. They contain the stories of creation, the disobedience of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the killing of Abel by Cain, the great flood, the Tower of Babel, and other lesser known tales.

            Chapters twelve through fifty contain the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, and Joseph and his Egyptian wife Asenath.

            Fundamentalist American Christians have waged a huge fight against the Darwinian theory of evolution. It has made us the laughing stock of the world. The fundamentalists base their objection to evolution on a literal interpretation of the first two chapters of Genesis.

            (I know someone who grew up in a small town and says she’d never heard of the theory of evolution until she went to college! Her Baptist church and rural high school neglected to mention this central scientific theory.)

            But if you study Genesis closely, you realize there are two creation stories pasted together. One problem for fundamentalists is that the two stories are contradictory. Among other things, in one story the animals are created before human beings; in the other they’re created after. So you have to gloss over the contradictions in some way (what biblical literalists usually do) or conclude that God reveals contradictory narratives, perhaps to entertain humanity with everlasting brain teasers.

            Particularly interesting, though, is the depiction of God in those first eleven chapters. They show God with human foibles that endear us to the text and imply that God is involved in the everyday life of humanity in the ongoing drama of the world. This is a personal God who makes mistakes and changes; a far cry from the Christian theologians’ abstract Holy Other or Hinduism’s impersonal unknowable Brahman. Genesis shows God getting down and dirty with humanity.

            This should create an enormous intellectual hurdle for those who want to view the Bible as literally true and also want to believe that God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and . . . well . . . competent.

            In the second chapter of Genesis, God creates human beings and places them in a garden where God also grew some trees the fruit of which humans must not eat. What a strange setup! This “good” creation, though, includes a talking serpent who convinces Eve that eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad won’t really lead to their deaths as God had said.

            She eats of the tree and gets Adam to do so, too. It turns out the serpent was right. They don’t die; but they do learn about good and bad. Now humans have shown themselves willing to disobey God. Many have celebrated this as a sign of human freedom, but it raises serious questions about God’s creative competence.

            As the story unfolds, God is moving around in the garden unable to find Adam and Eve who’ve hidden themselves. How omniscient and omnipresent is that?

            After God finds them and learns what they’ve done, God is deeply worried. At a council of heavenly beings, God says, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!”

            So the Lord banishes them from the garden, placing sentries of cherubim and a fiery sword to prevent access to the tree of life.

            Later in Genesis, the story of the flood begins with God lamenting having ever created humanity: “the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.” God’s first inclination is to wipe out all living beings. However, somehow “Noah found favor with the Lord.”

            After the flood, the earth teeming again with human beings, all speaking the same language, they start to build a tower reaching into the sky. God notices and gets worried again that human beings are becoming too powerful. So God confuses them, breaking up the one language into many, so they won’t understand each other, and scattering them over the face of the earth.

            These are creative ancient tales reflecting on the origins of much of human life. Critical thinkers can enjoy them for their spiritual insights into human life.

            But I don’t see how literalists can read them and still hold traditional understandings of God. If the Bible is inerrant, then God isn’t.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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" Brokenness & Grace "

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 3 October 2013]

Recently I officiated at two funerals. One was for an older man, a decorated World War II veteran who went on after the war to father a family, work hard, and become also a hero of family and community. It was one of those funerals in which no one had anything bad to say. I’m sure he had his own idiosyncrasies that annoyed others among family and friends, but there wasn’t anything serious or destructive enough to require mentioning.

       I know from 25 years of pastoral experience and from just being a human being that the vast majority of human relationships are fraught with ambiguities that are rarely mentioned at memorial services. That’s okay when there’s been an abundance of love, even if flawed in small or relatively insignificant ways.

       The second funeral was more complicated. It was for a middle-aged man who died of heart failure, brought on probably in part by a lifetime of self-destructive living. He had struggled with the demons of addiction, was divorced, alone, and estranged from his own children. It was a delicate task to celebrate his life in a room of friends and co-workers who knew him as a fun guy, some family members who didn’t want to be reminded of the unsavory aspects of his life, and other hurting family members who weren’t too keen on pretending everything was okay.

       All funerals are difficult for me, but the latter type are especially challenging. I officiated years ago at a funeral for a man who was not only estranged from his family, but family members were actively angry with him for all he had put them through over the years. In that service I talked about celebrating what we can in the life of someone who tried to be more than it was possible for him to be. I encouraged his family to begin to let go of the pain and loss while appreciating what he did manage to give, and forgiving what he couldn’t.

       Then there was the funeral for my grandmother who was still drinking excessively at the very end, even getting arrested for shoplifting in her ‘70s! She could be a charming woman, and I always liked her. Although she had abandoned my mother as a child, mother ended up taking care of her in the last decades of her life.

       I don’t know much about grandma’s background. I know she had only a sixth-grade education and came from relative poverty in rural southeast Missouri. I realized she was one of those persons for whom life was simply too overwhelming, too perplexing, too confusing.

       Over the years, my father and I had some problems, although we were quite close in the decade or so before his death. One of the most difficult moments in my life occurred on the day after I was ordained, when he called me and said, “I want to apologize for being such a lousy father all these years.” At his funeral I said, “He wasn’t always the best of fathers. But, then, I wasn’t always the best of sons.”

       When I think of people I’ve known, friends and relatives who have struggled in their lives with more than they could handle, I think of a line in Don McLean’s song, “Starry, Starry Night.” The song is a tribute to Vincent Van Gogh who struggled with his own demons and may have taken his own life at the age of 37. The line goes: “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”

       We all struggle with coping and adapting to circumstances never entirely under our control. Sometimes we do well and sometimes we don’t.

       The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for saying, “What doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger.” But the truth more typically is that sometimes we get broken. And what breaks one person will make another stronger. And what breaks us on one day makes us stronger on another.

       All of us, I suspect, at any given time, are more broken than some, less broken than others. We human beings live on a continuum of brokenness.

       But, then, what we do, most of the time, is offer one another a great deal of grace. We allow for a margin of error; we give one another the benefit of the doubt. We forgive and forget and move on.

       The fact is, we keep on keeping on by hanging in there with one another. Yes, we fight, offend one another, hurt each other’s feelings, and get on one another’s nerves. But we also show understanding and sympathy, comfort and forgiveness. We accept whatever love can be given, and we give whatever love we can.

       It’s an amazing thing. It’s amazing grace.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"On the Road to Freedom and Solidarity"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 19 September 2013]

Does any image capture freedom better than being on the road? Remember the movie High Noon (1952 version with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly)? After their wedding, they’re in the wagon on the road out of town, apparently free, but he stops and says he has to go back to face the killers. Then at the end of the film, where are they? On the road again.

            One of the few liberating scenes in Upton Sinclair’s famous 1906 novel, The Jungle, occurs when the main character Jurgis, after years of tragedy and misery in the packing plants and slums of fin-de-siècle Chicago, simply walks away, hops a freight train, and becomes a hobo in rural America.

            A most famous television show, running from 1960-1964, was Route 66, wherein two young single men, in a Corvette convertible (how free!) drive back and forth across America, seeking meaning and adventure.

            I’m not sure about the rest of the world, but the culture of America is saturated with the idea that setting sail on a ship, joining the wagon train, boarding the train or plane, or putting the pedal to the metal on the highway is the start of new freedom.

            Consider: pilgrims seeking freedom to practice their religion; masses of 19th-century European immigrants in pursuit of political freedom; settlers stocking wagon trains in St. Joseph, Independence, and Westport, headed across Kansas on the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails; freed slaves and poor sharecroppers of the south migrating to northern cities for jobs and freedom from segregation; Latinos crossing the border to dreams of a new life en los Estados Unidos.

            Consider: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad; Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Consider: Willie Nelson: “I can’t wait to get on the road again”; Rascal Flatts: “I sold what I could and packed what I couldn’t…I’m movin’ on.”

            There is even a subtheme in American literature suggesting it’s perilous to return home. Holden Caulfield attempts a return in The Catcher in the Rye and ends up in a mental ward. Thomas Wolfe gave us the definitive novel on this theme with You Can’t Go Home Again.

            In America freedom is almost synonymous with starting anew in a new place. Is it any wonder that American Christianity has latched obsessively onto one obscure biblical metaphor to represent faith: being born again?

            While reading Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero, I was reminded of important on-the-road stories. In the Christian New Testament: on the road to Jericho is the location of one of Jesus’ most famous and radical parables, the story of the good Samaritan; on the road to Emmaus a couple of Jesus’ disciples find themselves in the presumed dead master’s presence; on the road to Damascus Paul has his traumatic conversion.

            In the Hebrew scriptures: the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and their wandering for forty years in the wilderness is surely the mother of all road trips!

            The Exodus reminds us that being on the road has its challenges. Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, illustrates well the sentiment from Kris Kristofferson, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Even the famous road warrior Jack Kerouac, in his autobiographical Lonesome Traveler, says that at one point in his travels he “was sick and tired of all the ships and railroads and Times Squares of all time.” He notes: “Of course world travel isnt [sic] as good as it seems, it’s only after you’ve come back from all the heat and horror that you forget to get bugged and remember the weird scenes you saw.”

            So being on the road can also be wearying. But there’s a paradox here. While being on the road symbolizes freedom, even feels like freedom, if you pay attention, it also underscores how fundamentally connected and interdependent we are.

            When you travel, you encounter lots and lots of people, those you know and those you don’t. When traveling, your quality of life always and your very life sometimes are in their hands. Friends and relatives open their homes, share their resources, their time and their knowledge of local ways and places. Then there are those you don’t know: the staff of hotels, airlines, restaurants, railroads, and museums; the local police, cab drivers, even fellow travelers.

            The most amazing thing is that as you travel, anywhere in the world, countless strangers do their best to serve you in every kind of circumstance. And nearly always their best is quite good. You might feel free while on the road, but notice that the generosity, competence, and charm of others makes the very experience possible and usually rewarding.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Dear Lacey (A Letter from America)"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 5 September 2013]

Dear Lacey,

         Congratulations to you and Matt on the addition of two adorable twins to your family! Thank you for your contribution to the pool of healthy young Americans with two responsible parents. I already knew I was better as a country because of you and Matt. I’m confident I’ll be further enriched by your darling girls, Tesla and Ruby.

         I saw your post on Facebook:

So... We're officially poor. It was nice living the life of single people with two full-time incomes. Sure, I'll miss going to the movies & buying snacks and drinks; fancy dinners; spa days & boba teas. Sure…all our Christmas gifts will consist of homemade gift cards for hugs. But Now I work part time and have daycare for two infants to pay for. I actually did the math and if I worked full time and paid for full-time daycare, I'd need a second job. I love my job, and my babies and this schedule is perfect, but we're really gonna have to change our budget.”

         Lacey, I don’t know whether you mean you’re officially poor in the sense that you fall under some legal definition of poverty. I hope not, but I don’t want to invade your privacy by prying. I know the problem you face, and I don’t feel good about it.

         I like to pride myself on being family friendly. Many of those who live within my boundaries argue that the family is my very foundation, and that everything else depends on it.

         It’s odd, though. Some of those same people who stress the importance of the family also oppose the provision of services that help families.

         You’re unable to keep the job you love while taking advantage of daycare. That means that daycare is too expensive, or your salary is too low, or both. Many of us think people don’t need affordable daycare for their children. Many of us also think wages need not be high enough to pay for daycare.

         I’m a bit embarrassed when compared with some of my sister countries.

         Under our Family and Medical Leave Act, companies in the U.S. must offer women 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. But companies with less than 50 employees are exempted from this requirement, even though it’s unpaid leave! In Pakistan, those 12 weeks would be paid. In Japan, you could have 14 weeks of paid maternity leave; in France, 16; in Italy, 22. In Norway, you and Matt could divide up 44 weeks of paid parental leave. Across the border in Canada, you two could have shared 50 weeks!

         I know you weren’t looking so much for paid maternity leave as you were just hoping to keep the job you had.

         In much of the territory inside my boundaries, the cost of daycare has become as high as rent. It varies from state to state naturally; a year of full-time care for one 4-year-old costs about $4,000 in Mississippi and over $11,000 in Massachusetts. On average 25-30% of the cost for this is covered here by my government in various ways, but this is usually for the poor. In countries like Norway, Sweden, and France 75-100% of costs are covered by the government for everybody.

         You’re willing to apply yourself to an important business role while mothering your children. I need people like you, but I’m forcing you to choose between these two roles. You’ve wisely chosen to give more time to the twins, but I’m sorry the business world will lose the work of your marvelous mind and passionate heart.

         I don’t know how you feel about the things you and Matt are giving up by losing one income. For sure, some are luxuries entirely out of reach for the world’s most impoverished people. And, as your friends have commented, Tesla and Ruby are worth it.

         But still you are forced to choose. That means you have actually less freedom than you would in many other nations. But I’m supposed to be the land of the free.

         Maybe it’s because when I began as a new country, it was a time of scarcity in national economies. In those days most people worked very hard for basic necessities. Now many of us still think individuals and families shouldn’t receive help from the government. So my people work hard, and my government remains extra stingy about policies that help families.

         I’m gratified that many still seek to raise families even though it’s harder than it needs to be. Thank you for giving your best to this time of child rearing. And I apologize that I’m not as generous as I could be.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"School Days"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 8 August 2013]

Well, schools are starting up all over the world. If I remember correctly, when I was a child, school didn’t start till after Labor Day. Now schools around me are starting on different dates, some even weeks before Labor Day.

       In elementary and high school, I usually dreaded the start of school. When I got to college and became serious about learning, I loved studying, but still dreaded the semester’s start. I preferred studying on my own rather than attending classes and taking tests.

       But I did love going to the bookstore at the beginning of the semester and buying all the books required for my classes. I would start reading them with vigor. That doesn’t mean I would finish them.

       The energy with which I would start my studies at the beginning of the semester often dissolved under the grind of incessant classes, course requirements, and employment outside the classroom. Fortunately my strong start would usually carry me to a more-or-less successful completion of the semester. In graduate school I learned to pace myself more wisely.

       As an adult, I’ve spent most of my life teaching. When August comes, I still dread the start of the school year. While I love teaching, I hate grading papers, and of course I get comfortable with the more leisurely pace of summertime. So I guess August will remain my month of dread.

       In the U.S., there are great controversies about education. One of the more recent is the level of interest college students must pay on loans they take out for their education. Another is the bullying that occurs in our schools. The level of performance of students is an ongoing issue of debate and agony. Many of our students simply don’t get the best education they should for their time in school. Still another hot item is school funding. We want to keep taxes low, but we also say we want high quality education for our young people. Those might be inherently conflicting desires.

       It’s odd that the richest country in the world has so much trouble educating properly its young people. I suspect that we’ve never really committed ourselves to top quality education for everyone. One reason for that is that we don’t trust educated people.

       Richard Hofstadter in his (1966) book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, traced this attitude in our history. We frequently hear people disparage the development of the mind and belittle higher learning as less useful than common sense. American Christian preachers love to quote from the Bible, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” I see students nod in agreement whenever I talk about trying to read a book only to have someone in your family think you’re not doing anything. This anti-intellectualism makes us fairly unique in the world.

       In contrast, the most prominent ancient writings of humanity’s cultural traditions extol the value of learning. The Hebrew Bible is unapologetic in its teaching that individuals should pursue learning. Two verses in Proverbs (2:2-4, TEV) are unambiguous: “Yes, beg for knowledge; plead for insight. Look for it as hard as you would for silver or some hidden treasure.”

       The Greek philosopher Plato in one book quotes Socrates as saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In another book by Plato, Socrates teaches that we should all seek out the very best teachers for ourselves and for our youth, no matter what the cost!

       That other well-known Greek philosopher, Aristotle, argued that human beings seek satisfaction, joy, and fulfillment in life. However, he argued that the very best way to find joy and fulfillment was in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom; in other words, in study and the use of one’s mind.

       From the East, we have Confucius who valued education as much and probably more than any great thinker. Confucius claimed that at fifteen years of age he set his heart on learning. In the famous book about his teachings, The Analects, he ranks people according to their level of knowledge, saying that the lowest human beings are surely those “who make no effort to study.”

       It is difficult in history to find any philosopher or religious believer who values stupidity and ignorance more than wisdom and knowledge. Yet Americans remain suspicious of higher education and the learned. But surely individuals, societies, and the world are better off with more insight and knowledge rather than less.

       So we might lift up a thought of gratitude or a prayer of concern for all those students and teachers about to embark on another year of intellectual inquiry. We need them to succeed.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"The Virtue of Fuzziness"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 25 July 2013]

A friend of mine once told me that her thinking about politics was similar to her thinking about God. Her concept of God was not very clear. Rather, it was fuzzy. She actually used the word fuzzy. When it comes to our thinking about God, many of us are uncomfortable with fuzziness because we’ve been taught we’re supposed to know what we believe.

            Our understanding of humanity has been heavily influenced by classical Greek philosophy, typically associated with the names of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Greek philosophy defined human beings primarily from the standpoint of the capacity for reason. Plato wrote that the personality has three parts: a rational part, an irrational part characterized by desire, and an emotional part he referred to as “spirited.” And he argued that in the wise person the rational part rules. Aristotle reasoned that the one distinctive difference between human beings and other animals was the function of rationality. In other words, human beings were seen primarily as thinkers.

            Consequently Western culture has been characterized by an emphasis on correct thinking, which in turn influenced Christianity. There developed in Christianity the idea that people cannot be true Christians unless they think and believe the right things. So faith gets reduced to believing certain doctrines.

            In my late teens I was involved in a church that was fiercely dogmatic in that way. When I would express doubt about any of the traditional doctrines, I would get clobbered immediately with quotations from the Bible to prove the truth of the doctrines. In that church it was a serious sin to be fuzzy in one’s thinking about God. There were people there who, I think, actually believed they would go to hell if they didn’t believe certain traditional things about God and Jesus.

            Human beings are not only thinkers. They are also doers and feelers. And to be a person of faith surely requires the whole personality. Devotion to the Divine, after all, is supposed to be with all one’s “heart and soul and mind and strength.”

            So to identify faith with only one aspect of the personality is to go about spiritually disabled. It’s like cutting off two legs of a three-legged chair.

            But the thinking part doesn’t have to be dogmatic. I would even argue, there is virtue in being fuzzy in one’s thinking about God. One advantage of fuzziness could be that we’re forced to embrace a fuller understanding of what it means to be human. We are beings of emotion and action as well as thought.

            And it should be clear to even the most philosophical observer of life that what gives flavor to human existence is emotion. Our feelings help shape our thinking and our doing.

            We’re such emotional beings we can be unconsciously motivated by our feelings. In fact, the intellectual justifications we give for our actions are often only rationalizations for doing things we simply want to do.

            Feeling provides the color of life, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

            There is, by the way, a good theological reason for fuzzy thinking. When we think we know the truth about God, our very concepts of God become idolatrous. We forget that our “truth” is actually our ideas about God. And our ideas, like the rest of human existence, cannot escape the limitations of human finitude. God is more than our ideas about God.

            The commandment to have no other gods before God surely includes having no concepts of God before God. We can see the wisdom in the common Jewish practice of not speaking the name of God. A little fuzziness in our thinking might help us avoid the idolatry of confusing our ideas of God with the actuality of God.

            There follows another potential gain from fuzzy thinking. For some bizarre reason, when we get a crystal clear concept of God that we think is the only correct belief, we grant ourselves the right to judge others. Once we become absolutely certain that we have the truth, we sometimes persecute people who will not accept our brand of belief. So people have been imprisoned, stoned, burned, hanged, and tortured by Christians at the altar of doctrinal purity.

            A little fuzziness in our thinking could guard against the tendency to justify our faith with the blood of martyrs.

            If I’m right, we can, with a little more doubt in our thinking, embrace a fuller version of the self, be a bit less idolatrous in our religion, and a little more open, tolerant, and accepting of others. That’s not a bad return for a little bit of fuzz.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Travel Notes: Open Roads, Open Minds?"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 11 July 2013]

While traveling recently, I wondered what happens to a person who travels. So I posed these questions to family and friends: What does a person gain from sentiments, and perspective by traveling? Does the world gain anything by people having traveled?

       It’s valuable to explore one’s home country. Some of our greatest literature is the result of such travels: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, and Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. My friend, John, prides himself on having visited 36 states.

       But domestic and foreign travel are different. A road trip to Denver is not the same thing as a week in Paris.

            Except for a day in Tijuana as a child with my family, I’d never been out of the U.S. until I was 33 years old. Surprisingly since that time, I’ve lived three years in Europe, had various lengths of stays in Mexico, Canada, Israel, England, India, and Japan, as well as additional European trips.

            Foreign travel increases one’s knowledge of history, geography, culture, and languages. My friend Tony spoke of learning about the history of conflict between locals and fascists in the northeastern mountains of Italy. Luis noted that a person gets to see what one has only read about. Sandi talked about experiencing firsthand “the awe-inspiring sights that each locale has to offer, whether it’s natural phenomena or some amazing cathedral or a boat carved out of a single log using very simple tools.”

            True, we can learn a lot about the world without traveling. A fellow student in college told me he was traveling the world by reading National Geographic and other magazines and books. Today the internet offers unlimited information and images about other lands.

            Even before film and internet, social scientists and philosophers made contributions to human culture without first-hand experience of a foreign culture, but by drawing on the narratives of explorers, emigrants, and missionaries. I think of the Frenchman Emile Durkheim who wrote insightful sociology of religion using reports on Australian aborigines. Two friends, Chuck and Allan, mentioned the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who never left his hometown! Adventurers of the spirit, such as the Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus, did not stray far from their birthplaces.

            Others, though, did travel, which helped shape their contributions: Plato, Marco Polo, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Mohandas Gandhi.

            But does foreign travel open us up? Does it lead to greater acceptance of differences, to more empathy for different kinds of people, to an improved perspective on one’s own nation, to an expansion of personality? It’s reasonable to suspect it does.

            Janet felt her son became conscious of his privileged life when he saw the cramped dwellings of some large Iraqi families. Chuck identified travel as “a learning experience, a chance to reflect on our loved ones, our home town and our country from a new perspective.” Mark said, “Travel can be a direct way to change your fundamental experience of reality.”

            Michele made the point that we Americans “tend to be fairly isolated.” She suggested foreign exposure could help correct our skewed views of others. “I think,” she also wrote, “it’s very useful to see how we are viewed” by others.

            Of course, foreign travel can lead to less tolerance of differences, less empathy for other peoples, a more distorted perspective, and to personality retrenchment, depending on one’s experiences abroad and the biases with which one starts.

            If I should, for example, start out with a belief that my country is better in every way than all the others, I’m more likely to notice things I think are shortcomings in comparison. I return then with my bias strengthened. I’ve seen Americans in Europe and Europeans in America misinterpret each other’s cultures by “reading” their travel experiences through prejudices they already held. “Confirmation bias” is what psychologists call this tendency to notice evidence supporting preconceived ideas.

            Several people noted that much depends on the personality of the traveler. Suhail said the individual’s level of curiosity as well as family and cultural background would make a difference. David wrote that a closed-minded person is more likely to remain focused on one’s own preoccupation, such as some exhibit, while paying “little attention to the uniqueness of the experiences” and avoiding serious contact with “the fascinating artists or street vendors” or significant historical sites.

            Phyllis and Mary, however, made the good point that an expansion of consciousness does not require changing geography: “True travel,” Mary writes, “is when we get outside our own heads and our own comfort zones and try to see the world from another perspective.” 

[Many thanks for thoughtful responses from Janet Alvey, Allan Barnes, Anthony Blasi, Phyllis Dent, Chuck Dymer, Chris Fletcher, Luis Flores, Art & Marianne Foster, Michele Fricke, Bernard & Denyse Gabioud, Sandi Gerling, Christopher Gile, David Hansen, Suhail Hassan, Therese Betchov Heidrich, Douglas Jacobs, Jean Roth Jacobs, Jeffrie Jacobs, J. David Jacobs, Bill Larson, Charity Lindgren, Mary McCoy, Mindy Northrup, Jan Olsen, Lee Roth, Tom Roth, John Rundel, Sheila Sonnenschein, Lama Chuck Stanford]

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Travel Notes: No More Traveling!"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 27 June 2013]

About nine days in Alaska, an overnight in Denver, four days in Kansas City, nine in England, seven in Brussels, four in Amsterdam, seven in Switzerland, with day-long forays into Rotterdam, Ghent, Luxembourg, and Waterloo. The math won’t add up because of travel time and memory errors, but that was the approximate schedule of our life from April 30 till June 18.

       I wonder how many times in this period I thought to myself or even said to my wife, “I’m not doing any more traveling!”

       This period of travel had a few more mishaps than others we’ve known. A mechanical defect cancelled a United flight and kept us in Denver overnight. A delayed train in Frankfurt, Germany, sent us scrambling for a different connection and for a phone to call the friend meeting us in Geneva, Switzerland. A stalled tram in Amsterdam led to a mysterious series of complicated attempts to return to our hotel, ending with an exasperated surrender to a taxi with GPS. A mechanical defect on another United flight in London caused us to miss a connection in Chicago and to hustle for a later flight while contacting a friend who was to meet us in Kansas City. Additionally there were time-consuming walks in the wrong direction when I misread a street map, exits at the wrong subway stops, pay toilets requiring correct change, and other annoying things.

       I’m pitiful, really. Here we were meeting new people, learning the varied customs of other cultures, taking in the sights, good food and fine drink while exploring foreign locales. We were cared for by waiters, housekeeping maids, clerks in hotels, airports, and train stations, pilots, conductors, museum personnel, and others, most of whom seemed quite happy to be of service. One hotel clerk in Amsterdam printed out some essays from my website and came to talk with me about them.

       But then I’m stomping around on a train platform, thinking to myself, “No more traveling!”

       Best of all, we spent time with friends and family and made new friends and acquaintances. We attended my brother-in-law’s wedding in England and met a marvelous group of people in our new sister-in-law’s family. Her physician brother-in-law helped me acquire some needed medication.

       Through friends here, we connected with a couple in Waterloo, Belgium, Christian recording artists with whom we had stimulating conversations. The best friends a person could have and some of the finest people I’ve known in life hosted us in Anchorage, Alaska, and in the cities of Gland and Sion in Switzerland. I don’t know whether we’ll ever get to share such times again.

       Yet there I was at one point, sitting on the floor of an overcrowded railway car, feeling sorry for myself because the train on which we had had reserved seats was delayed for hours, and in the train we boarded, a man with a reservation came to where I was seated and said, “Dies ist mein Platz.”

       There were glorious museums. Museum curators don’t get enough credit for their work. We were confronted by the challenging messages in the art of Koen Theys in Ghent’s contemporary art museum; immersed in the history of Belgium in the BELvue museum in Brussels; delighted to see many of the world’s most famous works in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; inspired by an encounter with a Qin Dynasty exhibit in Berne, Switzerland.

       And there were sights and scenery. The fields and woods of England, medieval towns and architecture, the canals of Amsterdam, gorgeous views of the Alps including a couple of days with friends in their Swiss chalet. Even Mont Blanc emerged from the clouds for a kiss.

       All this rich, rich life, and I’m trudging through an airport thinking, “I’m not traveling anymore!”

       I love being in foreign cultures. In some ways I'm as much a European or an Asian as an American. And I love spending time with relatives, old friends, new friends, even meeting fellow wayfarers.

       But the traveling! All the comin' and the goin' –– the anxieties attendant with meeting trains, planes, and taxis, heaving luggage around, changing money, worrying about losing things, keeping track of passports, tickets, etc., and spending, spending, spending –– ugh! So when things go wrong, I’m not a pleasant fellow.

       I know traveling is the price one pays to explore geography and history, to see old friends, and to experience humanity in all its varied ways of being. But I’m through with it. There you have it. No more traveling! L    

       At least not until it’s time for the next trip. J    

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"The Manifesto of the Communal Potty"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 13 June 2013]

I’m in Europe with my mind in the toilet. I’ve never written a column about toilets. A search of six and one-half years of columns shows no use of “bathroom” or “potty” and only one figurative use of “toilet.”

       In our current travels my wife and I have rediscovered pay toilets. The first one was in the Liverpool Street Railroad Station in London where we had to pay about 40 cents. I noticed that a couple of British guys were unhappy with having to pay. So I think it must be unusual in England.

       However, across the English Channel, we’ve encountered pay toilets consistently, and they seemed to get more expensive the further south we went. In Rotterdam and Brussels the pay toilets were charging about 70 cents.

       In Luxembourg the price went higher –– about $1.40 if you sat on a toilet! There was a double standard because men were charged different amounts, depending on whether they use a toilet or a urinal: about $1.40 vs. $1, whereas women had to pay $1.40 regardless. As I entered one restroom, the female attendant asked me quite publicly whether I "want the toilet or go pee-pee"!

       It was too weird, informing everyone around me what I needed to do. I can’t imagine American men tolerating such a development in the U.S. I recall when White Castle had pay toilets, we would try to rig the door, so the next person would not have to pay.

       I think there’s a certain amount of solidarity among human beings, at least among American men, surrounding the natural necessity to relieve oneself. It doesn’t matter whether we love or hate guns, vote Republican or Democrat, root for the Royals or the Cardinals, we think a man should be able to relieve himself when needed, and it shouldn’t have to cost him any immediate out-of-pocket expense to do so.

       If we thought about it, we American men would think the same for women, but frankly we don’t think about it much.

       We don’t think about it probably because pay toilets are not common in the U.S. Every truck stop, McDonald’s, Burger King, gas-and-food island in the U.S. offers freely available, use-as-needed toilets. This reflects perhaps America’s dependence on the automobile.

       We’re on the road a lot, and it’s unseemly to relieve oneself alongside the roadway in full view of God and everybody. But there seems to be a difference in attitude in the U.S. regarding the availability of restroom opportunities. After all, fast-food restaurants and truck stops could charge us for use of their toilets. Or . . . they could try.

       According to Wikipedia, in the 1970s the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America succeeded in getting a number of states to ban pay toilets.

       Let me note that I’m talking only about public toilets. Restaurants, bars, and museums in Europe, as in the U.S., offer free access to toilets. It appears that people have to pay only in train stations, the movie houses, and shopping centers.

       At the moment, I’m writing this light-heartedly and with tongue in cheek, but there was a time in the U.S. when toilets in the South were signs of racial discrimination. I don’t know whether pay toilets were involved, but there were separate toilets for “whites” and “coloreds” in the American South before the end of Jim Crow. So apparently pee-pee solidarity wasn’t always the case.

       Fortunately we’re past that terrible practice in the U.S. And in the U.S. today it’s relatively easy to find these personal services. When traveling outside the U.S., sometimes I keep myself on the edge of dehydration because the less one has to relieve oneself, the better.

       Public toilets in Japan were a little different. They were freely open to the public and sometimes, by American standards of privacy, too freely open. In some Japanese trains there are separate toilets and pissoirs. The pissoir has a small window in it, so you can look to see if it is occupied by a man standing there, with his back to the door of course. It’s not uncommon, too, for a female attendant to continue to go about the business of cleaning a men’s room even while men come and go. But the Japanese still didn’t charge for use of the toilet.

       All these pay toilets require an attendant of sorts, so they provide jobs to some entrepreneurial individuals willing to do this dirty work. Otherwise, governments, movie houses, and shopping centers would have to pay someone to clean them.

       It seems to me, though, there’s something unseemly about exploiting the natural function of relieving oneself to serve capitalist purposes. And it shouldn’t be tolerated.

       Pee-peeers of the world, unite!

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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" In Memory"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 30 May 2013]

Thomas Barnes, Barbara Amos, Douglas Shorley, Percy Jefferies, George Towns, William White –– six random names among 55 on a stone monument “In memory of all employees of Parnall Aircraft Ltd. who lost their lives” in 1941 during World War II as a result of air raids on the company premises in Yate, South Gloucestershire, England.

      Last week, my wife and I were knocking around there when we came across the war memorial monument in the yard of St. Mary’s Church of England in Yate.

      May 30 is the traditional date for Memorial Day, honored in practice now on the fourth Monday of May. It is thought that May 30 was chosen because flowers would be most in bloom. In 1868 Maj. Gen. John A. Logan issued the order from the Headquarters of the Grand Army of the Republic designating the date as “Decoration Day.”

      It’s not possible to spend much time in the UK or Europe without coming across frequent reminders of war, especially World Wars I and II. When we arrived in England on this trip, the Telly, as the Brits call TV, was airing documentaries for the 70th anniversary of the Dambusters, those intrepid scientists and flyers who figured out how to blow up dams in the Ruhr valley of Nazi Germany by bouncing bombs up the river.

      Sometimes my heart aches when I encounter vivid reminders of the terrible destruction to life and culture as a result of the wars of the 20th century. While I stood there before the Parnall Aircraft memorial monument, I thought of those war dead as victims sacrificed to the gods of tribalism and ideology.

      In the West, for all practical purposes, people quit warring over religious convictions and loyalties by the end of the 1700s, but then began killing each other for national advantage, which meant tribal and political interests (e.g., fascism, capitalism, communism, imperialism). Church loyalty and religious dogma were replaced by patriotism and ideology. So instead of Catholics killing Protestants and Protestants killing Catholics, Western nations began to encourage Catholics killing anyone, including Catholics, and Protestants killing anyone, including Protestants, if their nations or parties were at odds.

      Coincidentally, May 30 is the anniversary of the death of Voltaire (1694-1778), the French philosopher most associated with the Enlightenment. Will and Ariel Durant in their multi-volume work on The Story of Civilization titled the volume on the Enlightenment, “The Age of Voltaire.”

      The Enlightenment refers to that period in Western history when philosophers throughout Europe began to throw off religious dogma, criticize the distortions and abuses of religion, and erect reason as the guiding light for humanity. They thought that humans could progress beyond superstition, ignorance, fanaticism, and move towards a more just and humane world through reason.

      In The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu (1689-1755) wrote: “Reason is the most perfect, the most noble, the most beautiful of all our faculties.” Voltaire, in his Treatise On Tolerance, suggested that religious fanaticism could be diminished through “the influence of Reason.” He said that reason is “the one slow but infallible route towards enlightenment. Reason is gentle, humane, tolerant; she smothers discord, strengthens goodness, and renders obedience to the law so attractive that coercion is no longer necessary to uphold it.”

      Things have not turned out as well as philosophers had hoped. Some scholars today argue that the Enlightenment project is simply not finished; it remains to be completed. Others think there was something fundamentally wrong with the Enlightenment idea of reason itself. Reason could too easily be put to use by demagogues, tyrants, robber-baron capitalists, dictatorial communists, and nationalists to promote ever more efficient destruction and domination.

      As I look around, I still see great amounts of emotional sentiment inspired by ideology and tribalism preventing the use of critical reason. The just and humane use of reason requires that people hold some commitment to compassion and justice transcending tribal loyalties and leading to the critical and honest examination of the facts and evidence of political and economic policies in human affairs.

      Against all evidence to the contrary, capitalists, communists, and others have sacrificed huge numbers of human beings to a blind faith in their ideas. And people the world over still tout national loyalty as the supreme value to which we all should aspire, whether or not one’s nation’s interests are truly in service to collective human welfare.

      I don’t know how many war memorials exist in our world –– too damn many, for sure. I don’t want anyone forgotten whose life was sacrificed, even if to the gods of tribe and party. But I would that our vision for humanity’s future be one in which war-memorial monuments are significant only as ancient ruins.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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" William H. Seward: Hero of Humanity?"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 16 May 2013]

In a column a while back I reflected on the characteristics that would allow us to identify individuals as heroes of humanity. I suggested that a most important criterion for a hero of humanity is that the person’s contribution must in some way serve humanity as a whole.

       However, it’s not always easy to say whether someone’s contribution is universally good because the actions of potential candidates are typically in the context of historical conflict over particular interests. Is Abraham Lincoln, for example, a hero of humanity?

       Those who worked for the abolition of slavery had a universal ideal of justice in mind that was in conflict with the U.S. Constitution and the economic interests of slaveholders.

       Lincoln destroyed slavery probably for all time, which is an unambiguous advance for humanity. But he also saved the Union at a terrible cost in life and decades of North-South resentment and tension. And we’re still fighting for racial equality.

       Today I’m wondering whether Lincoln’s Secretary of State William H. Seward, born on this date in 1801, might be considered a hero of humanity.

       Seward (1801-1872) was a member of the Whig Party and later the Republican Party. He was the governor of New York (1839-1842), a U.S. Senator from New York (1849-1861), and the 24th U.S. Secretary of State (1861-1869).

       Recently I was in Alaska reuniting with some college buddies. One of them, a history buff, suggested that Seward is probably the U.S.’s best known secretary of state. He mentioned this because of Seward’s connection to Alaska. One day we took a day trip on the Seward Highway from Anchorage to Seward, Alaska.

       We batted around a bit the reality that more recent secretaries of state, such as Henry Kissinger and Hilary Clinton, are currently better known. But if you ignore recent secretaries, Seward probably is the best known historically because of two things: the acquisition of Alaska and the Civil War.

       Alaska was purchased from Russia on March 30, 1867, for $7.2 million, about two cents per acre ($118 million in today’s dollars).

       Seward negotiated the sale. He was criticized for the purchase. Most of us remember our grade-school history lesson about “Seward’s folly.” I can’t imagine any American today thinking it would have been better had Alaska remained in the hands of the Russians. (Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959.)

       Alaska was of military benefit to the U.S. in World War II. The only battles of that war fought on American soil were fought in Alaska. Presumably Alaska’s strategic military installations were a factor during the Cold War as well.

       Alaska has been a major source of oil and, of course, fish, especially salmon. In 1869 Seward, in a speech at Sitka, Alaska, noted that it, along with other portions of the Northwest, was “destined to become a shipyard for the supply  of all nations.” Indeed, Alaska also has vast reserves of natural gas, and offers great potential yet for hydroelectric, geothermal, and wind energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

       I much enjoyed the recent depiction of Seward by David Strathairn in the Academy-Award-winning movie Lincoln, showing Seward’s efforts to help Lincoln gain passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery.

       Seward was an advocate for human rights. Unlike Lincoln, who manifested some hesitancy regarding the abolition of slavery, Seward was in favor of abolishing slavery from early on. As a senator, speaking in 1850, he predicted that slavery would be abolished, but if not peacefully and gradually, it would come at the cost of civil war with much death and destruction.

       Less well known, as the governor of New York, he made clear his opposition to the ill treatment of Native Americans in his state. As a governor and senator, he promoted progressive policies of prison reform, public education, and humane treatment of the insane in a less medically enlightened time.

       He was a man of broad human principle, arguing that there is an ideal greater than the Constitution, a universal ideal of justice and human dignity. He claimed that the U.S.’s occupation of its share of North America was a kind of sacred stewardship to be handled responsibly in the interest of all humanity.

       I think his value of universal service and his work for human rights qualify him for the hall of heroes. The effects of saving the Union and expanding the size and power of the U.S. are still history in process, and time must tell.

       In any case, happy birthday, Bill Seward, born May 16, 1801.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"If Not With More Love, At Least With Less Violence"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 2 May 2013]

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Such teachings, found in all the world’s major religions, are unambiguously clear. So why don’t we love more than we do?

       I know Christians so opposed to any restriction on guns they won’t consider even the possibility that gun reform might save lives. I know Christians who would turn poor families out onto the streets if one parent receiving public assistance tested positive for drugs. Some religious people don’t think twice about going to war if some leader says it’s in the national interest.

       There are Muslim extremists who will blow up innocent civilians and themselves to protest against a perceived enemy. We’ve witnessed great insensitivity among some Israeli Jews to the plight of Palestinians. We’ve seen Hindus in India and Buddhists in Burma killing Muslims. Many of America’s Christian conservatives are prepared to make the lives of the poor harder rather than raise taxes on the rich.

       Social scientists Matthew Lee and Amos Yong edited a book of readings (Godly Love: Impediments and Possibilities, 2012) by various authors dealing with this issue. They write: "The world certainly needs more benevolence, and the God of love discussed in the Christian scriptures requires it…, so why does it so often seem in short supply?"

       One philosopher in the book argues that the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, avarice, anger, sloth, lust, and gluttony) are impediments to loving. According to one psychologist, it’s the spiritual struggles with anger, disappointment, and other negative emotions that impede love.

       Other scholars identifying impediments to love note such things as the institutionalization of religion and the brutalities of punishment and imprisonment. Culpable, too, are the ideologies that justify the perks of domination (by men over women, rich over poor, majorities over minorities) and the advantages of one’s own tribe or nation over others.

       It is interesting, then, that we’re seeing in human history a marked reduction in violence. If reduced violence is an indicator of greater love, we might be making progress.

       Historians of war, such as Gwynne Dyer (War: The Lethal Custom, 2004), had already shown that modern warfare, although bloody enough, still claims the lives of a much smaller portion of the population than did war in previous ages.

       Linguist, social scientist, and philosopher Steven Pinker took up the entire issue of death by violence (The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011) and demonstrated fairly conclusively that in fact human beings are safer today from violent death than ever in human history. This trend of increasing safety has occurred even when taking into account the 20th century’s terrible world wars and genocides.

       This is no comfort to those whose lives have been taken or who have lost loved ones or been horribly injured themselves by violence. But it is of some comfort to realize we humans might actually be learning how to live, if not with more love, at least with less violence. Pinker asks: "What could be more fundamental to our sense of meaning and purpose than a conception of whether the strivings of the human race over long stretches of time have left us better or worse off?"

       Pinker debunks the various theories which argue that there is within us some psycho-biological urge to harm others. The reality seems to be that human beings are violent not because of some inner urge to harm but rather as “a strategic response to the circumstances” of life.

       We’re violent when we have to fight over scarce resources or feel threatened by others or are dishonored by others. In other words, we fight for gain, for safety, and for reputation.

       What is remarkable about us human beings, however, is that, without hardly noticing it, we’ve been learning how to reduce scarcity and distribute life’s necessities, insure the common safety, and resolve disputes of honor without resorting to violence.

       The evidence seems indisputable. Thorough comparison of societies without governments (pre-historical and some current ones) with societies with governments (modern societies) shows that the process of civilization has reduced fivefold one’s chances of becoming a victim of violence!

       It’s hard to say whether religion has helped. Pinker doesn’t think so. He points out that religion has tended to support and even promote much of the official violence practiced in societies, whether burning witches, torturing infidels, executing criminals, or making pre-emptive war.

       But no matter where it comes from, we can all celebrate that we live in a safer, more just, and gentler world.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"The Irony of Time Fulfilled"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 18 April 2013]

It would appear that we’re at a world historical turning point regarding gay rights. Same-sex marriage has legal recognition already in eleven countries, primarily in Europe, but also Canada, South Africa and Argentina, and in nine states of the U.S. It’s on track to become legal in France this summer.

            “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” These are the very first words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. The time is fulfilled was a biblical concept meaning that the historical conditions were right for something divinely significant about to happen. Today we would say, “The time has come.” Such times in human history often come with great irony.

            The Boer War (1899-1902), was fought between Great Britain and two Afrikaner republics populated by white Dutch settlers. Great Britain wanted the Boer republics as a colony in a South African confederation. The Afrikaners lost, but their spirit of resistance played a major role later for the establishment of the independent Union of South Africa.

            In 1948 the descendants of those Afrikaners wrested control of South Africa from the British-sympathizing elements. But then the white Afrikaners set up a brutal system of racial segregation known as apartheid.

            For decades, the black South Africans fought against apartheid. In 1994, under pressure from civil unrest as well as world opinion and boycott, South Africa held its first election with universal suffrage. The African National Congress (ANC) took two-thirds of the vote, leading to the presidency of Nelson Mandela, who had spent 27 years in prison for his resistance to apartheid.

            In 1999 South Africa began its centennial commemoration of the Boer War. Speaking at the initial event, Mandela’s successor, black South African President Thabo Mbeki, gave long overdue recognition to the black victims of that war, but he said something else quite remarkable.

            He honored the Boers, the former oppressors black South Africans. “We pay homage to them,” he said, “because the fortitude they showed has become part of the heritage of all South Africans.”

            The women’s movement for suffrage in the 19th and 20th centuries and ongoingly for full equality has always been inspired by ideas of liberty, individuality, and freedom developed by former generations of males, most of whom had no intention of giving women the same rights.

            The Civil Rights Movement was inspired by principles of democracy and equality originally laid primarily by white men, some of whom had been slave-owners.

            In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that the civil rights protesters being vilified in the South at that time would come to be seen as heroes because they were “standing up for the best in the American dream…carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

            Since America’s founding, succeeding generations of Americans have struggled for and won rights for the propertyless, for former slaves, for immigrants, for women, for children, and for working people. And the great irony is that in nearly every case they’ve based their arguments on the principles laid by people who would not have supported these progressive extensions of rights to these groups.

            Sadly in every case they’ve had to fight people who already had these rights and were opposed to extending them to others.

            Currently cases before the U.S. Supreme Court threaten to nullify a reactionary law passed by a Republican-dominated U.S. Congress in 1996. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) states that marriage is federally recognized as only a marriage between one man and one woman, and that no state can be required to recognize an officially approved same-sex union from another state.

            The Obama administration has ceased defending this law in court. Almost 60% of Americans are in favor of legal recognition for same-sex marriage. Two media darlings of conservatism have waffled recently on same-sex marriage.

            Bill O’Reilly said, “The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals.” He added: “We’re Americans. We just want to be treated like everybody else. That’s a compelling argument.”

            Glenn Beck, with whom I have almost nothing in common, made the observation that the defenders of same-sex-marriage had won “because they’ve made it about freedom. And freedom –– everyone basically understands freedom.”

            We understand it because our foreparents made the sacrifices and developed the ideas that allow us today to articulate the case for people still oppressed by systems of discrimination.

            Perhaps now, for gays and lesbians, the time is fulfilled.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Religious Awe”

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 04 April 2013]

Long before dawn one recent morning I stood out on a wooden porch in a small valley in southern Missouri near the tiny town of Brixey, not far from the Arkansas border and about eight miles from the nearest paved road. All was quiet except for a couple of barely audibly barking dogs somewhere across the valley.

       I had gone outside to look at the sky. On this crystal clear night, I could see the stars in a way that’s not usually possible inside the city. Google Earth tells me I was at 36°45’23” N latitude and 92°19’05” W longitude, which somehow seems significant.

       Recognizing various constellations and other clusters of stars in that overarching blue-black blanket of lights, I thought about people in the time before time; those early ancestors of ours who lived without the modern stuff that stands between us and an immediate experience of our natural surroundings.

       I wondered what it was like for them at the dawn of human consciousness; that time when they began to be aware of themselves as beings with an identity distinct from other beings and distinct from nature itself, beings with a past and a future. This would be when they awoke to the reality of birth and death, started reflecting on the meaning of it all, and began to live more by deliberation than by instinct.

       Given our consciousness of past and future, of time and development, of life being born and life dying, it might make more sense to think of ourselves as human becomings rather than human beings.

       Looking up at that vast speckled starry sky, I thought about the reactions of sentient and conscious beings awakening to all this. And I thought about what today we call “religious sentiment.”

       Many thinkers have tried to identify the origin of religion. Psychologist Sigmund Freud thought it was rooted in humanity’s frailty and vulnerability. He thought it was a matter of psychological comfort for being subject to calamities, suffering, and death; also a compensation for the loss of one’s infancy under the care of all-powerful parents.

       Sociologist Emile Durkheim thought it came from the tribe’s or clan’s feelings of belonging together. We take our sense of community and project it onto the heavens, mistaking it for a god hovering over us. It’s like when patriotism views the nation as sacred and transcendent.

       The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought religion was rooted in fear and resentment. There is a terrifying abyss we face when looking at the cold hard facts of life and death. So we retreat from the challenge to create our own meaning by self-deceptively concocting some other meaning provided by an imaginary god.

       Nietzsche also thought religion was a convenient way for the weak and vulnerable to instill in the powerful a restraint on their tendency to harm others. He seemed to think that Christianity especially was the result of weak and powerless people devising a system that would constrain the strong and powerful from exercising their will in ways that could harm the defenseless.

       Indeed, one of the greatest critics of religion, Voltaire, said he preferred that powerful people believe in God. He thought they would probably be ruthless towards social critics like himself if they weren’t constrained by a heavenly ethic.

            Voltaire saw religious fanaticism as particularly wicked; in general much worse than atheism. Fanaticism inspires criminal and violent passions, he argued, while atheism does not.

            However, he wrote, I would not want to have to deal with an atheist ruler who thinks it would be useful to pound me into a powder. I would surely be pounded. And if I were a ruler, I wouldn’t want to have attendants who don’t believe in God and who might think it in their interest to poison me. It is absolutely essential, then, that rulers and others have engraved in their minds a belief in a supreme being who is creator, ruler, and avenger.

            Religious sentiment is surely as old as human consciousness itself. And, although philosophers and scientists continue to seek explanations for the origin of religious sentiment, it’s impossible to confirm any explanation from so early a time no longer available to us. Probably most reasonable explanations have some truth in them.

            No doubt religion is in large part humanity’s attempt to cope with its fragile tininess in a limitless universe of mystery and power. But I can’t help but suspect that human awe at the natural universe has something to do with the rise of religious sentiment. It might even be at the very core of it.

            Looking up at those stars eventually reminds us of our vulnerability and insignificance in the grand scheme of things, but our first thought is: Wow!

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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" Heroes of Humanity”

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 21 March 2013]

We have a new pope: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, Pope Francis. He is the first pope from Latin America, the first Jesuit to become pope, and the first to take the name Francis. Apparently he’s known for compassion for the poor, but is otherwise a conservative regarding such issues as abortion, birth control, gay marriage, and female priests.

       There are about 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, a little over 17 percent of the earth’s population. So, by his actions, Pope Francis could be a great hero of humanity.

       I’ve been thinking about starting a series of columns that would highlight heroes of humanity. I thought a column about the Dalai Lama would be good. So would one about Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi. We need to know about our heroes, and we need to remember them.

       But how do we identify a hero of humanity? What are the criteria for judgment?

       I would think the most important criterion for a hero of humanity is that the hero’s contribution must in some way apply universally, for humanity as a whole. But it’s complicated.

       Gandhi was no hero to the Hindu nationalist who assassinated him. Martin Luther King was not a hero to America’s white racists. And China’s government views the Dalai Lama as an instigator of violence and division; in the words of the Dalai Lama, as “a wolf wearing a yellow robe.”

       We live in a conflict-riddled world, so identifying someone as a hero of humanity probably always requires some judgment about the merits of causes in partisan circumstances. It is, if you will, to take sides. How do we decide when a partisan cause serves the welfare of humanity as a whole?

       Was the destruction of Nazism an advance for all of humanity? How about the invention of the computer? The success of the American Civil Rights movement? Women’s suffrage?

       Personally I believe that every advance in gender equality is an advance for humanity, but clearly many of my Muslim and Catholic friends don’t agree.

       I think about the Hebrew prophets, Amos and Isaiah. Both were trying to serve God and Israel at a particularly conflictive moment in time. Yet they ended up providing humanity with cogent and insightful criticisms of power and injustice that can be applied in all times and places.

       It makes sense, then, that the Dalai Lama, in his book, Beyond Religion, attempts to articulate an ethic for all of humanity that is not peculiar to any religious tradition. He thinks, perhaps rightly, it is impossible to formulate ethical standards based on one religious tradition that would be agreeable to all.

       I would think, too, that commitments to peace and justice (also displayed by Gandhi, King, and the Dalai Lama) would be important criteria for a hero of humanity.

       But how about those whose contributions included resorting to violence? Think of Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela. Violent actions sometimes serve the interests of humanity. But can we view their perpetrators as universal heroes?

       Abraham Lincoln was single-mindedly intent on saving the Union, and in the process also abolished slavery. But both accomplishments came by way of a terrible civil war.

       Surely we can agree that the abolition of slavery was better for humanity as a whole. It’s harder to say that about saving the Union. Would the world have been worse off with a U.S.A. and a C.S.A. instead of one U.S.A.?

       Nelson Mandela participated in a movement that resorted to violence in a struggle against apartheid. Apartheid was defeated, and Mandela became a beloved and reconciling president of his country. A hero of humanity?

       Native Kansan Dwight Eisenhower, as commander of the allied forces in Europe during World War II, effectively won the war. Then as the 34th president of the U.S. he took steps to implement court decisions that began dismantling racial discrimination and segregation. And in his presidential farewell address, he warned us against the growing military-industrial complex, surely a prophetically valuable admonition for everyone.

       Eisenhower might go down as a hero of humanity, although his promotion of American capitalism and the Cold War were more ambiguous contributions. History might tell. Thus, time can be a factor for knowing our heroes.

       Humanity is served, not only by advances in equality, freedom, peace, and justice, but also by philosophical insight, creative art, scientific discovery, technological invention, social activism, and business acumen. So there are the legacies of Plato, Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Emily Dickinson, Jane Addams, Henry Ford, Rosa Parks, Rachel Carson, Steve Jobs, and so on.

       Who have been the heroes of humanity? Who will yet be?

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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" Life Unto Life”

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 7 March 2013]

Quite some time ago, I spent a short period driving trucks, hauling and muscling freight around the metro-area of St. Louis. Sometimes I think of those workers I met who had spent years working for some company, supporting their family, accumulating a pension, paying down a home mortgage, but also helping develop that company by their loyalty and hard work, only to have the company go out of business for one reason or another.

            One spring, eight years ago while my father was in a state of dementia and not far from death, I was in his home for nearly the last time, to sell his house and most of his things. I stood in his hobby room, looking at his N-scale train layout: elaborate lifelike and detailed buildings, tracks, trains, mountains, figurines, farms, businesses. There was a whole world of imagination, constructed during years of hours of concentrated pleasure. I felt an unutterable sadness contemplating the objects of someone's passion, reflecting on the time and intensity of loving labor that had been poured into them, and knowing those objects would never again feel the skilled touch of his caring fingers.

            There is a triumphant story in the Hebrew scriptures, whereby Nehemiah in the fifth century BCE goes to Jerusalem and challenges the Jews to rebuild their city since its destruction a century earlier. “Let us start building!” he says, and they went to work with great fanfare reconstructing the walls.

            Here’s the thing: Two centuries later, the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV destroyed the walls and desecrated the Temple.

            We human beings keep on building, constructing, creating, knowing all the time that what we're creating will not last. Everything we accomplish, everything we write, everything we create is likely to dissolve in the mists of history.

            At some point when the author of Ecclesiastes reflected on the reality that stupid and foolish people might undo all one’s toil later, he despaired: “I hated all my toil…seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me –– and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?”

            Perhaps there is comfort to be found in the reality that while many, most, or even all the specific things we’re working on at any given moment will disappear into the fog of the past, they support life as currently lived, and they are part of what will make life possible in the future. Whether we’re talking about family relations, business enterprise, structures of government, or the ideas and arts of culture, the next generation’s life is always built on the heritage of former generations.

            It is also inherently the nature of life to build, to grow, to create, to become more. There's something about life that wants to keep on keeping on. Of course, we’ve heard religious leaders tell us it’s our divinely ordained duty to labor faithfully and responsibly whether or not there is any payoff, whether or not our efforts will foster lasting creations. And there are lots of self-help gurus telling us with endless inspirational messages to do right, be happy, and hang in there because it's good for our souls and our health.

            But it seems to me there is something more fundamental in life itself that the scriptures, sermons, and do-well-be-happy-self-help writings usually overlook. At the core of life there is a vital force that will not be denied. Life wants to live and grow and create. Indeed, it insists on living and growing and creating, no matter what! “Life wants to climb and to overcome itself climbing,” proclaimed Nietzsche, the life-philosopher.

            True, our life’s projects will inevitably dissipate into the anonymous past. But the projects done with wisdom and care will improve life for the coming generations. In any case, life’s impulse to become will not be stopped.

            Bambi Nancy Shen, now a resident of Kansas City, grew up the daughter of a Chinese diplomat in French Indochina (later Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam). In her autobiography, The Uncrushable Rose, she tells the story of the time her family was incarcerated in a concentration camp by the Japanese who occupied French Indochina in 1940. In front of their dwelling, her father planted rosebushes, and told Bambi that, though the rosebushes were in the concentration camp, it would still be their nature to grow. So she, too, should remember to keep growing wherever she is planted, no matter the outer circumstances. One should always continue becoming what one can become.

            So the question is not whether what we do will last. It won’t. The question is whether we love life enough to live it fully, creatively, and without despair.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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" The Celluloid Inspiration”

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 21 February 2013]

They thrill us. They scare us. They inspire us. They comfort us. They cheer us up. They sadden us. They inform us. They make us cry. They make us laugh. They put us to sleep. They keep us awake. They are the movies.

            A dear person in my life, upon leaving the movie house after seeing Rocky, had to sprint around the parking lot. As a child, after seeing Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I was afraid there’d be a pod under my bed. A close friend of mine in his ‘70s and I agree, we’ve been inspired our entire lives by the lonesome courage of Will Kane in High Noon.

            The word Inspire comes from Latin words meaning in and breathe. Originally it means to breathe into something; i.e., give something breath. It connotes the idea of giving something life or spirit. Sometimes scholars talk about it as “in-spiriting.”

            Today we say we’re inspired whenever something stimulates us to action or to a new attitude of some sort. So it is appropriate as a concept pertinent to our relationship to art. Picasso’s “Guernica,” while by no means a happy painting, can still inspire us to think critically about war and brutality. Michelangelo’s “David” can inspire us to a new sense of the beauty of a developed, youthful male body. Melville’s Moby Dick can inspire us with an appreciation for human obsession or for the mystery of nature and its power to thwart human beings’ most determined attempts to conquer it. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind inspires us with the interconnections between the everyday lives of individuals and the historical events of their time.

            I’m not a film buff, but I have seen and still see a lot of movies. I’m one of that first generation that knew television and the picture show before I knew books. One of my oldest and fondest memories is going with Mom to the movie house in Maplewood, Mo., to catch one of the latest silver-screen productions.

            When I was twelve, in Gilroy, Calif., the movie house there showed a double feature with cartoons and newsreels in between. As I remember, although it’s hard for me to believe my memory is correct, they changed movies twice a week. Mom or Dad or both would drop my brother and me off at the movies and pick us up afterwards.

            (As an adult, I realized how convenient it was for my young parents to get an evening or two a week without the kids underfoot. Think about it: two full-length features, some “previews of coming attractions,” a newsreel, and a cartoon or two add up to a goodly amount of time.)

            Sometimes, while waiting outside for Mom or Dad on the last night of the movie run, when they changed the posters, we’d ask if we could have the movie posters, which they usually gave us. So my brother and I had our bedroom wall covered with movie posters. I still remember one of them, The FBI Story with Jimmy Stewart and Vera Miles. I remember it because it depicted Stewart with his arms around Miles (his wife in the movie), and I studied it to learn exactly how to put one’s arms around one’s girlfriend.

            When I reflect nostalgically on childhood summers, one thing I remember is sitting up late at night watching old movies on television. We had a channel in St. Louis that broadcast back-to-back movies called “The Late Show” and “The Late, Late Show.” Another channel broadcast what they called “The Bijou Picture Show.” Watching old movies, sleeping late, playing sandlot baseball in the afternoon; that’s my idea of the perfect summer vacation.

            On Sunday, we will be witness once again to the biggest motion picture show: the Oscars. Who will walk away with the award? There are nine movies nominated as best picture, and it seems uncertain to me which will get it.

            Argo received the Golden Globe, but I wouldn’t give it best picture. I think Lincoln is a better movie. I suspect Daniel Day-Lewis has a lock on best actor. I’m rooting for Tommy Lee Jones as supporting actor. If you love Helen Hunt as much as I do, you won’t want to miss The Sessions.

            The old Presbyterian Worshipbook has a “Litany for Those Who Work.” It includes a prayer “For those who entertain us,” “For those who broadcast or publish,” and “For all who excite our minds with art, science, or learning.” Indeed, all you creators and practitioners of the arts (painters, actors, singers, musicians, producers, directors, writers) who enrich our lives and inspire our days and nights: Bless you . . . and thanks.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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" Solitude”

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 07 February 2013]

If all goes according to plan, when this column appears, I’ll be on a self-imposed retreat, holed up in solitude at a location known only to my wife and a few others.

            I’ve been on numerous retreats in my life, and have rarely felt restored afterwards. When I was young, there were religious retreats for young people. We were inspired on these retreats as much by sporting activities and sexual attraction as by spiritual sentiments. In any case, they tended to be very busy affairs, and while we didn’t think about it at the time, they were a lot like vacations. You needed to get back to everyday life, so you could get some rest.

            The adult retreats I’ve attended have been similar. Like the youth retreats, they were religious, usually full of fellow clergy and often also lay leaders of the church. They were great experiences, perhaps with less sexual attraction, but often full of richly educational and spiritual exercises and social events –– marvelous moments of sharing and fellowship but again days filled with activities, with little or no solitude, and from which one left with need of some rest.

            It’s possible, of course, that the point of retreats is not to feel restored. Perhaps they’re like good nutrition and exercise. The payoff doesn’t come immediately after but rather in the long run with spiritual growth, just as the nutrition and exercise result in the long run in weight loss and better health.

            But I am a person who craves a certain amount of solitude. As a child, I would spend long hours sitting in the sandbox in the backyard all by myself, playing with toy cars and trucks or figurines of cowboys, Indians, and soldiers. I remember vividly the feel of the wet sand, the chirp of birds, the breeze flirting with the leaves of the apple tree above, the occasional “clunk” of a falling apple, and . . . the solitude.

            The year 2012 was filled with as much work, tension, and responsibility as any year of my life, and so I feel the need to put on the brakes, so to speak, and slow down, even stop for a few days.

            Retreating is a time-honored practice. The story goes that Siddhartha Gautama, who was to become the Buddha, left his comfortable home with a mind troubled about old age, illness, and death. Then in the forests and fields he saw yet more suffering and death of other sentient beings besides humans, and was overwhelmed by pity and grief. So he sought a place away from his traveling companions to find solitude where he might gain some mental balance.

            We are told by the Hindu Mundaka Upanishad that the liberating path to the changeless Self that is at one with God is a path of austerity, solitude, and silence.

            The Christian gospels show Jesus repeatedly retreating into places of solitude to pray and wrestle with his own sense of mission and meaning.

            Islam was born in the caves of Arabia where Muhammad prayed in solitude for weeks at a time.

            Henry David Thoreau spent two years in a small cabin on Walden Pond. He had regular visitors, but still valued his solitude. “I love to be alone,” he wrote in Walden. “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time.”

            Some people can’t stand to be alone. I’ve known a number of such people. I wouldn’t judge that one way is more virtuous than the other. Both have their functions. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in an essay celebrating the merits and lamenting the demerits of both solitude and society, pointed out that many things of progress in science and the arts have come from geniuses who were not fit for society.

            A person can feel alone even among others. In that same essay, Emerson wrote, “I cannot go to the houses of my nearest relatives, because I do not wish to be alone.” The loneliness one feels when in the company of others is a particularly painful loneliness. It’s not the same thing as solitude.

            I won’t be entirely without society, however. My wife and I will converse every day presumably via “FaceTime,” thanks to the marvels of Apple’s computers.

            I don’t know whether I’ll return to everyday life refreshed, rested, with greater clarity of mind and heart or just as confused and addled as I am now, or worse. Ambrose Bierce states in his Devil’s Dictionary, that being alone is a matter of being “in bad company.” I might learn that’s true for me. With a little bit o’ luck, though, I’ll return as better company for others.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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" Where did I put that remote?”

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 24 January 2013]

When my wife and I watch TV, and the program cuts to a new scene in a way that’s not an obvious transition, she’ll ask, “Did you change the channel?”

            In the old days, when a husband and wife watched television, he would say, “Honey, would you get up and change the channel?” She would say, “No, I want to watch the rest of this program.” Or she’d say, “Get up, and change it yourself!” He would take another swig of beer and fall asleep. This arrangement made for long-lived marriages. Then some idiot invented the remote control!

            It’s a fact: divorce rates climbed rapidly during the 20th century at the same time the use of TV remote controls increased, and then leveled off at about the time every home had a remote.

            Obviously the culprit is channel surfing. Now, instead of falling asleep while his wife watches some plodding, boring program filled with intelligent conversation and warm-and-fuzzy feelings, he sits there, bleary-eyed, sleep deprived, thumb on the remote, jumping from one action-packed, blood-and-guts thriller to the next.

            It’s all pretty exciting, though. On a really good night, you can get Sylvester Stallone blowing away whole armies with an enormous gun, Clint Eastwood eliminating numerous wicked gunslingers in the blink of an eye, Chuck Norris kicking the you-know-what out of characters obviously deserving such kicking, and Arnold Schwarzenegger back again to save the individuals who will then save the world. You can get all these thrills while avoiding commercials, tedious love scenes, and mind-challenging conversation.

            Wouldn’t it be great if we could channel surf real life? Imagine the company board meeting: Turn off the droning career-ladder-climber from accounting who’s trying to impress the boss and switch to the lilt of the gorgeous new cute guy or gal from human resources, at whom you can then stare lustfully while appearing attentive and businesslike.

            Imagine a circle of friends, and you’re free to skip over the ones with endless monologues about every tedious event, feeling, and detail of their lives, and switch to those who ask you about your own life and actually listen to the answer.

            How about channel surfing in church? Don't like the sermon? Go to the choir anthem. The prayer is too long? Skip to the last hymn. Avoid the offering altogether!

            Actually we channel surf a lot when quoting the Bible. For centuries the Bible was studied and taught by a small elite of doctors and priests of the church. It was the big shots at the top controlling interpretation. They were helped by widespread illiteracy, the lack of printing technology, and the almost exclusive use of Latin as the ecclesiastical language.

            In the late 1300s, renegades began translating the scriptures into languages the people actually spoke. In the 1400s Gutenberg developed the printing press. In the 1500s Protestant reformers broke the monopoly of Roman Catholic control over Western Christianity.

            Soon Europe was divided by different Christian groups vying for adherents. In spite of great efforts by Catholics and Protestants alike to suppress new and unusual ideas, anyone who could read, was reasonably articulate, and a little charismatic could gain a following for some twist on God and life.

            By the 1590s, Shakespeare, in the The Merchant of Venice, could have Antonio say, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” Today everybody knows scripture can be cherry-picked for any argument or belief.

            Remember back in the 1960s when young people were protesting the Vietnam War, resisting the draft, and such? Some American patriots kept channel surfing to the biblical text that says God has instituted government, and so people should obey the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-7).

            For some reason, their channel surfing just never landed on the biblical text where Jesus says we should love and pray for our enemies (Matt. 5:43-45).

            Today some of America’s conservative white Christians are unhappy with a government led by a moderately liberal African-American, so their surfing never lands on those parts about obeying the government.

            Other documents get surfed, too. The National Rifle Association does some surfing with the Constitution. When passing over the 2nd Amendment, their remote never stops at the qualification of a “well regulated Militia,” but only on “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

            I suppose, all Christians surf the scriptures in one direction or another, as do most Americans with the Constitution. Come to think of it, there are some things in those documents I don’t like either.

            Now where did I put that remote?

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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" Not With Laws But With Love"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 10 January 2013]

I have a thing about hate. I hate it. I’ve had hatred in my own life, and at times been hateful. I’m not proud of that.

       I hate hatred, so I’m sympathetic to attempts to combat hate. My friend, Dr. Ed Chasteen, is the head of Hatebusters, an organization that combats hate. He and some of his students founded it when he was a professor of sociology at William Jewell College in 1988 when Louisiana elected a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) member to the state legislature. Since then, sometimes self-initiated, sometimes invited, members of HateBusters will organize and act in defense of a group, family, or individual who has been targeted by haters. Its website: www.HateBusters.com.

       But I must confess I’m divided over the issues of legislation and hatred. I’ve been supportive of legislation that carries greater punishment for crimes if it can be shown they were motivated by hate. However, the idea that hate speech or groups that do not commit crimes should be officially designated as such or even legislated against gives me pause.

       Recently The Kansas City Star, in an article by Mike Hendricks, noted that thousands of signatures had been obtained on a petition to the White House to have the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka legally designated a hate group.

       I don’t know whether the White House has yet responded, but the petition has a major hurdle. The federal government keeps no such list. Hate is not a crime in the United States.

       The FBI has been investigating hate crimes since the 1920s when the Bureau started watching activities of the Ku Klux Klan. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s, when various hate groups (notably skinheads) began emerging in American culture, that the concept “hate crime” came into vogue.

       According to the FBI, investigating hate crime is the number one priority in the Bureau’s Civil Rights program. The FBI’s website identifies a hate crime as “a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias.” The U.S. Congress defines hate crime as “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”

       When we start talking about hate as such, however, we’re also talking about free speech, another highly valued civil right in America, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights of the Constitution and defended vigorously by such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union.

       Defining the limits of free speech has always been a challenge. One of the obvious problems is the degree to which someone exercising free speech can, so to speak, “get in your face.” States and municipalities have struggled with how restrictive they can be vis-à-vis protest groups.

       How long, for example, can protesters occupy a public park? How close to a clinic offering abortion services can anti-abortion protesters stand? How great a distance can officials legally require “God-hates-fags” folks to keep from military funerals?

       We were all inspired to learn that firefighters, police, and others lined up to block Westboro Baptist Church’s threatened protest at the funeral of Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

       Stephen Carter in his book, Civility, reminds us that the religious ethic of forgiveness would seem to be designed for dealing with haters. After all, the function of love and forgiveness is to support human life by facilitating community, and the need is especially urgent when community is ruptured by hatred. So we need to treat even haters with kindness and respect.

       It’s not easy. A lot of Christians want to be literal about some biblical text: homosexuality, subordination of women, seven-day creation, virgin birth, bodily resurrection of Jesus. Rarely do Christians want to be literal about Jesus' teachings on love: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

       The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), founded in 1971 and headquartered in Montgomery, AL, is internationally known as a civil-rights organization that combats hatred and bigotry. It keeps a list of hate groups, and claims there are, as of 2011, over a thousand hate groups operating in the U.S., “including neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, border vigilantes and others.”

       They identify three groups in Kansas as hate groups: Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, a racist skinhead group called the Midland Hammerskins in Wichita, and the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement in Lansing.

       I hate hatred and am sympathetic with the desire to ban it, but free speech is too important and the potential abuse of such laws too great. Hate speech needs to be fought not with laws but with love.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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" The Haunting of Christmas Present "

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 27 December 2012]

I know people currently haunted by wrapped Christmas gifts; namely, those already under trees for children in Newtown, CT, who were no longer alive at Christmas. These are the gifts that awaited gleeful unwrapping by those taken from us by the combination of a foolish mother, an unbalanced young man, America’s violence-prone culture, and the easy accessibility of guns with enormous firepower.

            Nearly everybody knows that on December 14th twenty-year-old Adam Lanza, using his mother’s rapid-fire weapons with large-capacity magazines, killed her at home and then six adults, 20 children, and himself at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

            President Obama responded: “As a country, we have been through this too many times.” He added that “we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

            The National Rifle Association (NRA), the most belligerent lobby against nearly all regulation of guns, waited a week to respond, knowing surely that their response would be insulting to reasonable people, and it was. Their Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre delivered their response calling for armed guards in all our schools, blaming America’s violence on everything except guns, and stating: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Which of course begs the question regarding how the bad guy got the gun in the first place.

            New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s response to the NRA statement was right on target: "Instead of offering solutions to a problem they have helped create, they offered a paranoid, dystopian vision of a more dangerous and violent America where everyone is armed and no place is safe."

            It is not un-American to own and love guns. It is also not un-American to restrict the sale and use of guns. Remember the Western movies back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, when the sheriff or marshal put people in jail for wearing their guns or firing them inside the town limits?

            Even the NRA and conservative American politicians supported sensible regulation of guns until the late 1970s. At that time, a growing body of militant and reactionary pro-gun NRA members took over the leadership of the organization and have exercised a knee-jerk reaction against any effort at gun control whatsoever. This history is detailed in Adam Winkler’s September 2011 article in The Atlantic, “The Secret History of Guns,” available on the internet (also in his book, Gunfight, published by W.W. Norton).

            Ever since, the NRA has been stirring up Americans to think of the government as thugs who will take their guns away. Right after the Newtown shootings, I checked the NRA’s website and found a comment by LaPierre in one of his blogs in which he referred to people who support gun control as “those who hate your guns.” Apparently that comment has since been removed from the website.

            Gun-related deaths in the U.S. have fluctuated since 1979 between 28 and 38 thousand annually; from a little over 30,000 in 1979 to 31,328 in 2010. Since 1979, motor-vehicle deaths have fairly steadily decreased, from 53,524 to an estimated 34,000 this year. Notice what’s going on here. Bloomberg.com projects that gun-related deaths will exceed traffic fatalities by 2015!

            It is quite clear that the NRA and conservative politicians have so beguiled and frightened America’s gun lovers with the prospect of losing their guns that it’s highly unlikely that anything serious will be done regarding gun control.

            In many exchanges with defenders of gun rights since the Newtown massacre, I’ve been informed that knives can kill, baseball bats can kill, mental illness can kill, the absence of public prayer in schools can kill, and the lack of numerous armed citizens can kill. But apparently readily available firearms have nothing to do with killing! There is obvious psychological denial going on here.

            I don’t like writing or speaking about gun control for the same reason I don’t like dealing with environmental problems. The forces arrayed in the U.S. against reason and humanity in these two realms are so great that nothing significant is likely to be done until we face undeniable catastrophe. The president and other progressives will fail to pass any significant legislation regulating guns, not because they don’t want to but because they won’t be allowed to. Obviously twenty dead first-graders are not enough.

            I’m deeply sorry, and I apologize to readers for my inability to offer any hope for rational and humane gun control at this time. I’ll personally continue lobbying for sanity in this realm. In the meantime, I offer my condolences to the tens of thousands of American families who will suffer the tragedy of a gun-related death between now and next Christmas.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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" The War on Xmas "

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 13 December 2012]

The idea of a “war on Xmas” has to be one of the strangest things in America’s ongoing culture wars.

            That great agitator FOX News continues to massage the idea that there is some kind of war on Xmas. Their website, “FOX NATION,” maintains a whole page of stories from around the country that highlights tensions and conflicts over the insertion and removal of Xmas symbols, rituals, and sentiments in shared public and sometimes not-so-public spaces. And, of course, Bill O’Reilly is famous for his regular snippets about the “war on Xmas.”

            Mostly what happens is that some city hall, business, public school, or other establishment seeks to limit the imposition of Xmas stuff on everybody in its sphere, because everybody isn’t Christian, and everybody doesn’t like having Xmas stuff imposed on them. Then some conservative Christians respond with knee-jerk anger at these efforts to be inclusive, claiming that it manifests a hostility towards Christianity.

            Some atheists and some secular humanists react with their own knee-jerk anger against the imposition of Xmas stuff. With some justification, they argue that they should not be coerced into participating in religious ritual and sentiment merely because the religion is widely practiced or believed by most of the population.

            At the same time, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have taken the position generally that public institutions should not be promoting Xmas stuff for the obvious reason that government- and taxpayer-supported promotion of any religion is disallowed by the U.S. Constitution by barring the government from any establishment of an official religion.

            Caught in between, mayors, teachers, administrators, managers, supervisors, and others find themselves in a quandary trying to walk a line between the PC (politically courteous) stance of inclusiveness and the usually innocent but sometimes insensitive traditional imposition of Xmas on everything and everybody at this time of year.

            It’s most unfortunate that Xmas has become a political football in the culture wars. It’s also a bit paradoxical that America has become a culture saturated with Christian stuff because most of its citizens have never gone to church on a regular basis. In fact, it wasn’t even until the 20th century that most Americans were actually church members. So the incessant proliferation of Xmas stuff at Xmas time is almost certainly more the consequence of the commercialization of Xmas than of the piety of Americans.

            I don’t personally have strong feelings about the issue. All the turmoil over it seems a bit silly to me.

            Generally I’m in favor of being more inclusive rather than less. I don’t send blatantly Christian holiday cards to my Jewish friends, but I send them holiday cards nevertheless. I tend to favor the stances of the ACLU and Americans United because I believe in the separation of church and state, and upholding the Constitution.

            One of the nicest Xmases of my adulthood occurred a couple of years ago in Varanasi, that holiest of cities in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India. Janet Alvey, my wife Jean, and I were staying in a hotel that had a prominent Xmas tree displayed in the lobby. On Xmas Eve, we entered a Christian church where services were being conducted. Then on Xmas morning we found ourselves on a boat on the Ganges at sunup while various Hindu rituals occurred on the banks. And that afternoon we were in Sarnath, where the Buddha is supposed to have given his first sermon, and we watched Vietnamese Buddhist monks chanting and walking around a famous Buddhist stupa. So in a single Xmas in a single location we experienced Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism — three rich traditions in which human beings have sought to respond to life’s mysteries and holiness.

            A particularly generous and insightful attitude, it seems to me, was expressed on Facebook, originating from the page, “The Pagan Musings.” It said:

I don’t understand what the big deal is…

If you are Jewish, tell me:

“Happy Hanukkah”

If you are Christian, tell me:

“Merry Christmas”

If you are African-American, tell me:

“Joyous Kwanzaa”

If you don’t prefer those, tell me:

“Happy Holidays”

I will not be offended.

I will be thankful that you took the time to say something nice to me.

            (P.S.: Readers will notice that I’ve spelled Christmas X-m-a-s. Some people claim that that’s taking the “Christ” out of Christmas. Well, the truth is that the Christian New Testament and most early Christian writings were written in Greek. In Greek the word Christ is pronounced Kristos, and in Greek it looks like this: Xpistos. Consequently for centuries, it has been common to abbreviate Christ as X. So, in fact, I have kept Christ in Xmas.)

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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" Where Are You Going, America? "

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 29 November 2012]

Since the election, I find myself thinking a lot about the future of America, wondering what kind of country we’re going to be. I had been watching for several decades the gradual and steady advance of the far right, a development that took off in the 1970s and seemed destined to triumph.

            It has had some fairly clear planks in its ideology. It began as strongly anti-communist, pro-free enterprise, anti-civil rights legislation for blacks, anti-gun control, anti-taxes, pro-states’ rights, anti-union, opposed to government regulation and the welfare state, and so on.

            It became more militant after the rise of feminism, the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, the retreat from Vietnam in 1975, the experiments with affirmative action, the environmental and gay pride movements. Then the political right courted and married the religious right, greatly enhancing their numbers and clout.

            Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 as the first president viewed by the right as truly one of their own. A militantly right-wing congress, led by Newt Gingrich, was elected in 1994 during President Clinton’s presidency. Along came the angry and inflammatory campaigns of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, FOX News, and other right-wing radio- and TV-talk-show hosts, columnists, and talking heads.

            I could see the trend, the money behind the movement, the organization, and notably the power of an ideology that fairly skillfully merged patriotism, laissez-faire capitalism, religious conservatism, and the angry white reaction to a culture that was becoming increasingly diverse.

            Given the momentum, the money, and the media, I figured we were destined to a triumph of the far right with all its consequences for us and the world. In 2004, speaking to a Rotary Club, I said: “It feels to me like we’re in a period in which a number of dehumanizing forces have the upper hand: war, crusading nationalism, religious fundamentalism, ideological dogmatism, and unlimited private-gainism, otherwise known as laissez-faire capitalism.”

            I continued: “It feels like a dark time to me,” in which “the most we can hope for is that some individuals and groups will continue to carry the light of reason and humanity until the frenzy, the hysteria, and the histrionics of fanaticism have settled down or exhausted themselves, and new, more humane, more visionary leadership can arise.”

            Four years later, 2008, something very remarkable happened. We elected an African-American president with the middle name of “Hussein.” This election of Barack Obama had a lot to overcome:

  • The opposition candidacy of a white male war hero.
  • Those whose opposition to the right of abortion would determine their vote.
  • Those who wouldn’t vote for an African-American, no matter what.
  • The incessant propaganda by the most watched news station in America, unambiguously clearly on the side of the republican platform and massaging rumors that Obama was not born in the U.S. and that he was Muslim.
  • The extensive religious-right faction opposed to gay rights, feminism, immigration reform, and other manifestations of multiculturalism.
  • The well-financed lobby promoting less government regulation, reductions in the welfare state, and privatization of many public services.

            And then, again this fall, Obama was re-elected, and the far right seemed to lose ground in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

            It would appear that America may have stopped its drift to the far political, cultural, and religious right. Whether it can get past its polarization is another issue.

            When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, I had great hopes that we would then approach our domestic and international problems with cooler, more rational heads. I thought maybe we wouldn't view every issue through the distorting lens of polarization between communist totalitarianism and democratic capitalism. I thought we might more reasonably hammer out our differences for a better future together. I was obviously wrong because the radical right was only just getting started in its full-court press against the many reforms and changes that had been part of the 20th century.

            But maybe now, when the electorate has shown itself resistant to an uncompromising right-wing ideology, we can foster the kind of debate and dialogue between conservatives, moderates, and liberals that could guide us sensibly into the strange new world of the future.

            It’s a modest hope, of course, and everything could go south tomorrow. But I’m much encouraged that we might be a people better ready today to face the future, not with fear, prejudice, hostility, and ideological rigidity, but rather with flexibility, courage, realistic expectations, and a sense of community.

            With such attitudes, I suspect we’re much more likely to overcome our divisions and work out the necessary compromises and policies that would be sensible, just, humane, and respectful of us all. 

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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" Not Going Bad, But Going Different "

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 15 November 2012]

During the recent election cycle, friends and relatives were often deeply divided over candidates and issues, sometimes even hostilely so.

            In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

            The Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who have tried to identify precisely what Jesus actually said, think Jesus did not make this statement. They argue, "The claim that Jesus deliberately creates conflict would seem to contradict other sayings of Jesus in which he recommends unqualified love." In addition, Jesus refers to himself here in the first person in a way more consistent with what the early church believed about Jesus than in the way Jesus thought of himself.

            They’re probably correct. However, whether Jesus actually said this or something like it, there is abundant evidence in the Bible that this sort of thing happened to Christians when they left the time-honored traditions of their relatives, parents, friends, and even spouses. It was an all-too-real and all-too-uncomfortable experience of many new followers of Jesus to find themselves at odds with loved ones.

            One of the heartbreaking realities of everyday life is the rupture in relationships because of cultural and personality changes. I'm not talking about the unfortunate reality of a child or parent gone bad with drugs, alcohol, or crime. I'm talking about the natural ebb and flow of life during which we change. It’s not a matter of someone going bad, but of someone going different.

            Think about the child of high-school educated, working-class parents, who acquires advanced degrees and a professional career. This sort of change often strains relationships all by itself. Sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb identified this as one of "the hidden injuries of class."

            Think about the spouse who converts to a faith different from the other. The apostle Paul felt compelled to instruct new Christians not to divorce their spouses even if the spouses did not also become Christians.

            I remember my own religious exuberance in my late teens, not too long after my born-again experience, when I was out to save the world for Jesus. At one point, in some exasperation, my mother said to me, "You've become a fanatic!"

            For several years, while I was in college, and my political views had changed, my father and I had humongous debates over politics and economics.

            It's telling that broken family relations is a common theme in the legendary material that develops around spiritual leaders. One story in the gospels shows Jesus wandering off from his parents. After traveling for a day without him, they have to turn back, whereupon they find him in the temple talking with the priests. His mother appropriately asks, "Child, why have you treated us like this?"

            Another incident shows Jesus' family coming to get him because they were concerned about his safety and emotional stability. They were coming "to restrain him" because people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind." When told his family had come for him, Jesus' response makes an important spiritual point, but is a bit on the side of cruel: "‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”

            Siddhartha Gautama, too, who was to become the Buddha, did so only after abandoning his wife and child. Socrates showed little concern for family ties, dismissing his wife and surrounding himself with philosophical comrades at the time of his death. Tradition suggests that Confucius and his wife didn’t get along, and that he was especially disappointed in one of his sons.

            It's odd, then, that "Bible-believing" Christians (Christians who claim to follow the Bible literally) argue so strongly that the center of Christian life is the family. They call their bookstores "Family" bookstores; they lobby against marriage for gays and lesbians, claiming that expanding the inclusivity of marriage will wreck the family; they promote the family as central and sacred to the Christian life. But there is a lot of evidence in the New Testament that Jesus and the first Christians didn't see things this way.

            It is heartbreaking when one’s deepest relationships are strained or ruptured over religious, cultural, and political issues. One always hopes that the ties that bind are stronger than the issues that divide.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Religion and the Political Culture"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 01 November 2012]

When I began writing this column in 2007, my primary intention was to explore the interface between faith and our political culture. I’ve done that often enough, but I’ve ranged far and wide over the human landscape. After all, the rubric, “my country, my faith, and me,” is a broad canopy. Just days before the election, it is apropos to look again at politics and religion.

            On the face of it, one would think religious faith should get priority over political commitments. Religion usually includes belief in God or some cosmic higher power that transcends nations and parties. In biblical language, our religious faith is supposed to bring a prophetic (i.e., critical) voice to public affairs.

            This means a voice that challenges the nation to live up to universal and eternal values of love, justice, and community –– not only for America but for the world. Unfortunately it doesn’t often work like this.

            American Christians notice when it doesn’t work for other people. When radical Islamists use the state to enforce cruel sharia laws on women or to war against their neighbors or to sponsor terrorism, American Christians notice that these don’t fit with the idea of submission to a God of love and justice.

            However, a whole lot of those same American Christians turn into flag-waving patriots as soon as the U.S. is in any kind of military conflict with anybody else, whether it’s a just cause or not. Their support of an entirely unjustified invasion of Iraq was a case in point. They displayed little or no suspicion when Bush gave his flimsy and, as it turned out, false reasons for making war and effecting the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis –– men women, children, wives, sons, daughters, parents.

            I’m over-generalizing, and I apologize to those American Christians, probably close to half, who have been more thoughtful, less ready with knee-jerk jingoism to support any American military adventure. But it is striking how many self-proclaimed American Christians wrap their faith in the flag with uncritical support of anything perceived to serve U.S. interests, no matter how self-seeking or morally ambiguous.

            Every major faith tradition, at its best, lives in tension with the parochial and tribal partisanships of nationalism, race, ethnicity, political ideology, and even the family. Jesus shows such insight with this statement: “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

            We can see that when it comes to nationalism and political culture, many Americans don't take their faith all that seriously. “National interest” wins out over grace and wisdom. Business profits win out over love and community. The I'll-get-mine-you-worry-about-yours attitude triumphs over the care-for-“the-least-of-these" ethic.

            On the other hand, sometimes faith trumps the culture in bizarre ways no less ignorant and destructive than mindless jingoism or ideology. Religious traditions can have their own parochial weirdness that gets in the way of enlightened social and political policies.

            There were the Catholic bishops discouraging priests from giving communion to politicians who support abortion rights. Today the bishops are up in arms because their institutions might have to buy health insurance policies that offer birth control.

            There were the TV evangelists blaming hurricane Katrina on the acceptance of homosexuality. The "God hates fags" group from Topeka, Kansas, is well known and disgusting to most people, but the hatred displayed in the Republican platform plank opposing marriage rights for gays and lesbians differs from the Kansas group only in style.

            The attempts to impose religious views on science in classroom teaching is another strange regression to a medieval mentality that burned “witches” and forced brilliant thinkers like Galileo to recant their scientific discoveries.

            A recent post on Facebook (someecards.com) reads: “American democracy: Where religious backed ignorance is considered superior to science, history, psychology, math, economics, and common sense.” Too true, unfortunately.

            Our Americanism can display the unthinking ideological allegiance and tribal loyalty characteristic of the most primitive mentality. Our religious sentiments can be just as archaic.

            What we need desperately today are insightful and wise religious leaders and statespersons who bring a humanistic and critical eye, grounded in history and fact, to both nation and religion. In other words, we need to select and vote for leaders who will transcend the nutso stuff on both sides of the religion-culture divide.

            Such people are not really hard to find. Many are right in front of us. The problem is that we’re often incapable of recognizing those who are, and those who aren’t work very hard at keeping us scared and confused.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Tis the Season to be Outspoken"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 18 October 2012]

‘Tis the season to be outspoken! We’re in the midst of political campaigning and electioneering, and the media are filled with incessant claims and counter-claims, falsehoods and truths, praise and blame, smears, strokes, and dissing. Many lament it. Many try to ignore it.

       There are some who find meaning and energy in the excitement and thrill of verbal combat. What worries me is the frequent loss of truth and critical thinking as we’re drowned in nonsense.

       There is a tendency for Americans to think of freedom of speech as a license to say any darn thing they want, however inane, stupid, uninformed, or false. The limits to free speech in the U.S. are wide indeed. They have to be to protect freedom. But that doesn’t mean everything should be said.

       I’ve been toying with the idea of “cultural pollution.” I began thinking about this years ago while listening to Rush Limbaugh; also reading Anne Coulter refer to liberals as godless traitors; and watching FOX News with its propaganda for a right-wing nationalist view while proclaiming itself “fair and balanced.”

       I wondered whether we should think of the cultural environment in a way similar to our physical environment. If we keep dumping poisonous pollutants in the environment, it becomes spoiled. Beauty is lost and life forms die. In the realm of culture, too, falsehoods can crowd out truth.

       Historians have often wondered how Germany, which was one of the most enlightened and educated countries in the world at the time, could turn to Nazism and commit perhaps the worst crime of murder in the history of humanity. They note that the culture became saturated with right-wing propaganda and hate-speech for any party, group, or philosophy that opposed Nazism. It became impossible for truly fair and balanced critical thought. Actually it became downright dangerous to speak out against that particular form of German nationalism at all.

       The nastiness in American politics is unfortunate and destructive. In the 1960s radical parts of the far left talked about cops as “pigs” and America as fascist. Many on the right viewed critics and protesters as communists. Today, people accuse liberals of hating America and claim that Obama is a Muslim (as if that should matter). Some promote conspiracy theories that say the Bush administration actually staged 9/11. To seduce the gullible, the wildest claims and counter-claims are made without any evidence or with selective evidence.

       Most of us are partisan. I consider it an obligation as a human being, as a Christian, and as a citizen to study, evaluate, listen, and then to study, evaluate, and listen some more. Then I make my informed and partisan views known for the simple reason that economic, social, and political policies have consequences for people's lives.

       Of course, partisanship can render truth harder to come by and critical thinking more difficult. If we deliberately distort things, falsify facts, ignore evidence contrary to our slant on life, we sow confusion. When we share slander and lies we’ve heard in conversation or read on the internet without researching them for their veracity, we contribute to mental chaos.

       Everybody should be concerned about the morality of communications, especially public communications. People of faith, above all, should be sensitive to this issue. Christian scriptures teach us not to bear false witness (Ten Commandments), warn us we'll be held accountable for every idle word (Matt. 12:36), and remind us there isn't anything more dangerous than the tongue which can create roaring fires (James 3:5).

       Partisanship does not mean we're free to be irresponsible in our communications, to distort or falsify things. The world is better served in general by truth than by falsehood. Everything is not merely a matter of opinion. And it will make a difference in levels of human suffering and future progress or regress which political party wins in November.

       I’m not talking about the routines and monologues of comedians, the zinger bumper stickers, and other such things that we can evaluate in context, even laugh at or cry at, but which are more-or-less harmless expressions of partisanship or entertainment. Most minds can distinguish the comedic from the serious, the caricature from representation. I’m talking about the communications deliberately meant to distort or falsify and thereby derail informed and critical thought.

       At what point will we lose our capacity to evaluate evidence and argument? When do we cease to be critical thinkers and become ideological automatons?

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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“The World’s Religions in Four Words or Less!”

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 04 October 2012]

I’m trying to do the impossible by teaching a course in Eastern Philosophy & Religion. We’re covering Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism with forays into Jainism, Sikhism, and Shinto. In one semester! And I don’t even understand the stuff!

       We’re reading some of the sacred scriptures from the major faith traditions. I tell the students, “Every book in this course is easy to read but impossible to understand.”

       We all find ourselves a bit bewildered when we enter the world of Hinduism with its 330 million gods, or 33. Well, 33 is the official number, but ultimately there’s only one Godhead, and that’s Brahman, with whom we must realize our oneness. Get it?

       And then there’s Buddhism which reveals to us that all of our suffering is rooted in craving and desire. We’re not sure, and we’re not sure the Buddhists are sure, whether it means just selfish desire or all desire. When we read that, to find Nirvana, one has to ultimately give up even the desire to exist as well as the desire not to exist . . . well, that sounds like pretty much all desire to me. But what do I know?

       Confucianism is one of my all-time favorite topics not to understand. Confucius was a man who was confident that people could learn how to live right if they’d just pay attention to life. He thought a lot about it and read everything about it there was to read at that time. Then he tried to teach rulers about it because, so he reasoned, if you have wise and right-acting rulers, the people will be wise and right-acting, too. Not an unreasonable assumption.

       You’ve heard of the yin and yang? Well, that’s Daoism. According to tradition, Laozi, Daoism’s founder who was born 5 or 6 hundred years BCE (if such a person lived at all), became so disgusted with human society that he decided to run off to live by himself.

       At the border, the gatekeeper persuaded him to write down his philosophy. So Laozi jotted down the Dao De Jing, and was never heard from again.

       Daoism can be translated as Way-ism. It’s all about finding the Way in Life. Daoism is just too cool for words. In fact, that’s how the Dao De Jing begins. D.C. Lau’s translation: “The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way; The name that can be named is not the constant name.”

       I like Stephen Mitchell’s translation: “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.” That’s how Laozi begins his self-help book on life!

       When delving into other people’s faith traditions, obviously you have to be able to hang a little loose, suspend some judgment, and tolerate ambiguity. One of the things I tell students is that if they won’t accept a faith tradition unless it’s absolutely logically consistent, they won’t accept one, because there ain’t no such thing. In fact, there’s no such philosophy either.

       Moreover, when we find things a bit weird in some other tradition, it might be a matter of what we’re used to. Students will find it strange, for example, even though Hinduism has at least 33 gods but only one Godhead that is Brahman, there are still three major gods: Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the sustainer; and Shiva, the destroyer. And each of these three has a female companion: Brahma and Saraswati, Vishnu and Lakshmi, Shiva and Parvati.

       I point out, though, that Christianity contains a belief that affirms a God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, who are three different persons but still only one God. Well, that’s more than a little difficult to get one’s head around.

       Consider another difficult Christian belief, one from Catholicism: That a priest performing some rites and reciting some formulas can transubstantiate a few pieces of bread and a bit of wine into the body and blood of Christ!

       It is impossible to learn these Eastern religious and philosophical traditions in one semester. Some people spend their whole lives studying one of them and then claim it’s beyond comprehension.

       But I’ve decided we don’t need even a whole semester. A couple of minutes will do, because I’ve figured out how to summarize each of the world’s major faith traditions in four words or less:

  • Hinduism: Know Brahman.
  • Buddhism: Let it go.
  • Judaism: Love God completely.
  • Confucianism: Do the right thing.
  • Daoism: Go with the flow.
  • Christianity: Follow Jesus.
  • Islam: Submit to Allah.
  • Secular humanism: Make peace and justice.

Well, that’s a start. Or a finish. How would I know?

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]


"Ethics & The Worst Form Of Government"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 20 September 2012]

Most of us know the experience of being irresponsible today while promising ourselves we’ll change our behavior tomorrow. The problem is, behavior is always in the present, so morally responsible living can only be done now.

       We can’t do much about our choices in the past, and we can’t make choices in the future till it gets here. The only possibility of choosing correctly is with the choices facing us at the moment. I just hate that, frankly, but that’s the way it is.

       Responsible living also requires knowledge. A pregnant woman in 1947 might have a few beers or glasses of wine too many. She didn’t know the effects of alcohol on a fetus. Today it would be ethically problematic for her to drink much alcohol, because we know better.

       Diet? Exercise? Adequate rest? We know a lot more now that we used to, and lifestyle is morally pertinent if we think our presence is of any benefit to the people around us. I can hardly love my neighbor as myself or my grandchildren if I’m prematurely dead.

       That a life of moral responsibility is possible only in the present and only with knowledge is of some relevance for an election season.

       Many Americans won’t like to hear this, but we can no longer consider ourselves responsible people while remaining ignorant of and uninvolved in politics. There are three reasons for this.

       The first is a matter of good citizenship and applies to anybody anywhere. No matter where we reside in the world, if we live in community with others, we’re involved in a web of relationships. To be in relationship means our actions affect others, and all actions that affect others involve ethical responsibility.

       Thus we are responsible for our actions as citizens. Usually this means obeying the laws, paying taxes, and any other conscientious participation important for our community. It can include such simple things as keeping one’s car in good running order, maintaining one’s yard, or getting to work on time. All of these things affect those around us.

       The second reason moral responsibility requires involvement in politics is that we live in a democracy. Probably someone is thinking, “This is not a democracy. It’s a republic.” Okay. But my point is that we have the right, privilege, and I’m adding responsibility to express ourselves and, above all, to vote.

       Many will say that one vote doesn’t count. That’s not quite correct for a variety of reasons. That the weight of each vote decreases with the number of voters is of course quite true, but nevertheless they all count. And in a democracy voters have influence on the future.

       The same is true for involvement in the debates and work of our political culture.

       I understand that a country with a winner-take-all political system like ours and dominated by two political parties funded by wealthy elites reduces voters’ choices as well as the power of their voices. It is indeed a messy democracy requiring much improvement.

       But things weren’t greatly different when Winston Churchill uttered his famous remark “that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

       Just as in any “pay-it-forward” scenario, one cannot be sure one’s efforts won’t have major consequences, and certainly not when we’ve been assured by the brainiacs that the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can affect the universe.

       Governments make a huge difference in the everyday quality of life of people. Governments set policies, make laws, collect and redistribute resources. These things affect the lives of millions of people. They are often even a matter of life and death for countless human beings.

       So speaking out and voting are not inconsequential matters of personal preference, like choosing the color of one’s dress or brand of shampoo. They are matters of responsible living.

       Of course, some people have more time and energy than others to participate. That’s true of all of life’s important activities. We have to prioritize.

       The third reason why it is unethical to be ignorant and uninvolved is that there is no reason to be ignorant. Unlike earlier centuries, we don’t have to wait months or weeks before receiving news of what’s going on in faraway places. And we can always study what’s occurred in the past.

       Modern media make available real time news and nearly real time analysis along with the capacity to study the history and check the facts on everything. Television, computers, books, newspapers, and radio give us opportunities to be in the know. There’s no excuse for being an uninformed citizen.

       We’re making world-shaking choices in November. Now is the time to get informed and involved.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"The Golden Calf Is Gold Itself"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 06 September 2012]

From time to time social scientists ask random samples of Americans to rate jobs according to their degree of prestige, on a scale from 0 to 100. Typically the top-rated occupations include such things as Supreme Court Justice, physician, scientist, college professor, lawyer, cleryperson. Some of the lowest rated occupations are street sweeper, garbage collector, janitor, restaurant waiter or waitress. In the middle rankings we get such jobs as electrician, trained machinist, police officer, insurance agent.

            The top-rated occupations are invariably professional, salaried, typically highly paid, and often powerful. But not a single one of them would be possible if the garbage collectors, janitors, restaurant personnel, electricians, machinists, police officers, truck drivers, autoworkers, and others weren’t doing their jobs.

            Society lives utterly dependent, first of all, on its food producers. Yet farmers are often thought of as country bumpkins, and farm owners fall in the middle of the prestige scale.

            There is nothing more fundamental than parenting the next generation of human beings. Fortunately we no longer hear women say, "I'm just a housewife," a common refrain in earlier decades when a woman was asked what she does. Still, though, social scientists consistently find that when women take jobs outside the home, they feel better about themselves, no matter what kind of job it is! And being a househusband has so far been primarily a subject for comedy in film and television.

            We have many false gods at whose altars we sacrifice ourselves and others. But the major active idolatry in our society might just be the god of success and achievement, seen most clearly in the supreme value we assign to individual success in the economic and occupational marketplace. The most consistent, powerful measurement of individual worth in America seems to be linked all but entirely to wealth, prestige, and power.

            Consider how many people drive themselves incessantly, ever working for greater achievement, higher income, more advancement, neglecting other important things in life and sometimes even their own health.

            The jealous and demanding god of occupational achievement divides us and ranks us. But even worse, this god leaves unappreciated and undervalued the more essential hard-working wage-earners with honest jobs that we all count on.

            Labor Day is the time when we honor the workers of society, those who are not self-employed and those who do not own the businesses. It is a time we give lip service to the dignity of work. What is disturbing, though, is the ongoing denigration of working people during the rest of the year. They receive little credit and, at best, modest financial reward for their contributions to society. Working people typically have low-to-moderate incomes, enjoy no job security, and are quite often without health insurance and other benefits.

            The celebration of Labor Day was begun in 1882 by the Knights of Labor. The Knights of Labor was the first organization of workers in the U.S. which advocated the inclusion of all workers into one union. The Knights of Labor also held the ideal of a society of cooperation by industrial and agricultural enterprises. The Knights desired, in addition, that this society would be owned and operated by the workers, the clerks, the farmers, and all those who comprised the work force of industry and agriculture.

            The Knights of Labor obviously never got its dream fulfilled. We are a society of gross inequality, radical individualism, and fierce competition. But we still have Labor Day to remind us that in fact none of us depends entirely or even mostly on ourselves.

            After the farmers and parents, this society and every modern, industrial or postindustrial society is utterly dependent on its workers. None of the rest of us can do anything we do without them and their work. But when the rewards of income, prestige, and security are handed out, we know who gets the most. Ecclesiastes asks, "What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?"

            It was not Karl Marx who first told the world it should not favor the wealthy, exploit the workers, and push aside the poor. It was the Torah, the Hebrew prophets, and Jesus, as well as Jesus' early followers. The author of James in the Christian scriptures asks rhetorically: "My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?"

            We live in a culture whose dominant golden calf is gold itself. I don't know how much we'll be able to do about it in a world of galloping capitalism and globalization. But at least once a year we remind ourselves that what holds a society together and keeps it going are the workers. And they deserve the respect of greater rewards.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"The Care of the Innkeeper"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 23 August 2012]

The most famous birth story might be that of Jesus. All Christians and many non-Christians know it: Jesus’ soon-to-be parents seek a room in an inn in Bethlehem, but there’s no vacancy. So Jesus ends up being born in a stable. If there is any history behind the story, we can presume some innkeeper found the space for the bewildered family. Does anyone ever think about that innkeeper?

            This is an ode to innkeepers. I don’t mean the CEOs and upper management of international hotels, however important and essential they may be. This is an ode to the public servants in our world’s countless hotels, motels, hostels, auberges, Gasthäuser, ryokans, B&Bs: the day-and-night managers, desk clerks, room attendants, concierges, doorpersons, and so on.

            I don’t like traveling. I like very much being in other cultures, learning the customs and traditions, studying the languages, and meeting new people. Since I teach and write in the social sciences and humanities, it seems important to me to have cross-cultural experience. But I just hate the coming and the going. So, until Scotty can beam me there, I have to travel to make it happen.

            (There is an exception: traveling by train. Once I get comfortable in the seat of a railroad car, it doesn’t matter to me how long the trip takes.)

            Since I don’t like traveling, anything that makes it easier makes me happier. Few things are more important than the quality of service from innkeepers. Travelers often overlook how fundamentally important the service from innkeepers is.

            We notice when something is out of order. Once in a hotel in Frankfurt, Germany, I could see, as we went to bed, there were cobwebs and numerous bugs up in the ceiling corners of the room. I mentioned it to the manager the next morning. He apologized deeply and cleaned the room thoroughly.

            We notice the problems but take for granted the ongoing professionalism, friendliness, and indulgence of innkeepers.

            I began this column right after taking a room in the Comfort Inn and Suites of Hays, Kansas. The clerk was friendly and professional. He laid out clearly and thoroughly everything the hotel offered, providing all the information we needed. We usually have several questions before we take a room, but he answered them before we could ask.

            I’m finishing up this column in a major international hotel in Denver, and the courtesy and attentiveness of the personnel here are as good as anywhere.

            I’m sure innkeepers, outside the earshot of the public, have their own sets of cynical attitudes, snide comments, and jokes at the foibles of us travelers. Pastors have theirs about parishioners; teachers have theirs about students; cops about civilians; and so on. That’s part of the backstage of a service profession.

            But everywhere in the world innkeepers are generally hospitable and quick and seemingly pleased to accommodate the traveler.

            In innkeeping, of course, quality hospitality can be a money-maker. So we could be cynical about it and suspect all the cheerful attention is nothing more than good business. And certainly I’ve encountered surly innkeepers who seemed to want to be someplace else.

            But I’ve very rarely had the impression that an innkeeper felt annoyed or resentful at having to see to some need or desire of mine. And I’ve enjoyed the indulgence of innkeepers in Mexico, Ireland, Canada, Israel, Italy, France, Switzerland, and other countries as well as in many of the United States.

            There was the innkeeper in Varanasi, India, who was apologetic that a monkey had eaten through the internet cable. There was no reason to doubt the sincerity of his apology, whether or not the story was true. There was the innkeeper in a Japanese ryokan who cheerfully got me a “Western” chair for my aching back, from constantly sitting on the floor. In front of the Tokyo Hilton I watched a rather petite doorwoman every day cheerfully lifting every traveler’s heavy suitcase.

            In India, indeed, the service was often overly solicitous in the quest seemingly for tips in that land of poverty and low incomes. But even in Japan, where tipping is not expected, sometimes even rejected, the cheerfulness of the service is striking.

            In the Gospel of Luke Jesus tells the parable of a man who is beaten and robbed and left for dead along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. A priest passes by, deliberately avoiding the fallen man. A Levite does the same. Then a traveling Samaritan sees the man, stops, and tends to the victim’s wounds. The Good Samaritan has to go on about his own business, so what does he do? He leaves the man in the care of someone else: an innkeeper!

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Making Hay With Chick-fil-A"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 9 August 2012]

The huge flap over Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A is an unfortunate skirmish in America’s culture wars. It began with Dan Cathy, the president and CEO of Chick-fil-A, telling the Baptist Press website that his company is “guilty as charged” with regard to the company’s support of the traditional idea of marriage. And on a talk-show, he worried about “God’s judgment on our nation” for not sticking with the conservative Christian view of biblical marriage.

            Supporters of same-sex marriage began denouncing and boycotting Chick-fil-A restaurants. Officials in several northern cities stated that Chick-fil-A was not welcome in their communities, a sentiment with no power in our free-enterprise business culture. But it further agitated an already agitated group of Americans who are adamant that homosexuals should not have the right to marry.

            Supporters of Cathy’s position, led by conservative Baptist Mike Huckabee, declared August 1 Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day and lined up by the dozens to eat at Chick-fil-A restaurants. They filled the blogs and social media with messages opposed to same-sex marriage and in support of Cathy and his restaurant chain.

            Then gays, lesbians, and others in support of the right for same-sex couples to marry, led by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, declared a kiss-in at Chick-fil-A restaurants for August 3. This had many fewer participants, but all over the social media were seen photos of same-sex couples kissing in front of the restaurants.

            I very rarely eat meat anymore, so the boycott-vs.-appreciation activities don’t affect my eating habits one way or the other. If they did, I wouldn’t patronize Chick-fil-A, but that would primarily punish already underpaid workers. Cathy and his family are extremely rich, but the average hourly wage of Chick-fil-A employees who are not managers runs between $7 and $10, according to glassdoor.com.

            Because of the repercussions for employees, I would confess to having mixed feelings about boycotting otherwise legitimate businesses because their owners or CEOs have attitudes with which I disagree.

            Furthermore, investigating all the companies and businesses with which one does business to be sure they have the right nondiscriminatory practices, the correct political sympathies, the proper employee practices, great sensitivity to the environment, and so on is extremely difficult.

            Generally I try to patronize socially responsible businesses, but I don’t work too terribly hard at distinguishing between the responsible and irresponsible. In the U.S., business regulation is so lax that one can hardly avoid businesses with socially irresponsible corporate practices.

            To Chick-fil-A’s credit, it responded on its website with this:

“The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our Restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect –– regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender. We will continue this tradition in the over 1,600 Restaurants run by independent Owner/Operators. Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”

            I was not surprised at the outpouring of support for Chick-fil-A. I was dismayed by its nature, much of it wrapped in Christian rhetoric. Many of America’s conservative Christians made it clear: not only are they opposed to extending the right to marry to homosexuals, they’re positively happy to do so. The glee with which these Christians celebrated that same-sex couples can’t marry was deeply disturbing.

            If you believed homosexuality to be so sinful that homosexuals should be deprived of the right to marry, wouldn’t that make you sad? If we’re following a man who taught love as the central practice of life, even followed love to his own awful death, wouldn’t it be a matter of grief to discriminate against others because they’re sinning?

            Conservative Christians who oppose rights for gays and lesbians like to proclaim that they “love the sinner but hate the sin.” But what, then, can loving the sinner mean if there is celebration at their discrimination? We know the old saying, “This hurts me more than it does you,” when parents reluctantly discipline children. Setting and enforcing barriers is done with reluctance by good-hearted people.

            In California, someone painted on the side of a Chick-fil-A restaurant, “Tastes Like Hate.” That is an unfortunate response as well. Opposition to same-sex marriage is not inherently hateful. It’s misguided; it’s wrong; it’s bigoted. But some people are possessed by a fundamentalist religion that won’t allow them to see alternative realities or even be all that tolerant of people different from them. Others are simply scared of significant change.

            Although opposition to same-sex marriage is not inherently hateful, by no stretch of the imagination is it loving. To deprive someone of a right merely because your religion doesn’t approve of their lifestyle, when that lifestyle doesn’t harm anyone, is not compatible with the Christian norm of love.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Museums of Death"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 26 July 2012]

One of the more poignant protest songs of the 1960s was “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” It was written by Pete Seeger, added to by Joe Hickerson, and recorded by nearly everybody.

The song asks, “Where have all the young men gone?” It says they’ve “Gone for soldiers every one.” And “Where have all the soldiers gone?” They’ve “Gone to graveyards every one.” In the last verse it asks, “Where have all the graveyards gone? / Covered with flowers every one.” And it ends with: “When will we ever learn? / When will we ever learn?”

Also in the ‘60s was Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” and its memorable lines: “Yes, how many times must the cannonballs fly / Before they’re forever banned?” Later in the song: “Yes, how many times must a man look up / Before he can see the sky? / Yes, how many ears must one man have / Before he can hear people cry? / Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows / That too many people have died?”

I thought about these songs in Nagasaki recently. At what they call the “hypocenter” of the atomic bomb that exploded at 1,539 feet over that city on August 9, 1945, I found myself looking up at the sunlit blue sky and thinking about the burst of hell that came from there.

At the Atomic Bomb Museum and its adjacent Peace Park, I looked at pictures and objects, monuments and preserved ruins. I read the testimonies of people who survived the blast.

The museum and park have a mission to work for peace in the world. The whole complex tells with vivid artifacts, illustrations, and testimonies the great tragedy of the bombing of Nagasaki.

It seemed clear to me that the designers of the museum held the opinion that the atomic bombs should not have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The museum displays some of the arguments by scientists and others who opposed the bombings, including General Eisenhower. It’s a view that I share.

I can understand why many Americans strongly defend the bombings as necessary. The destruction wrought by the bombs was horrific, and there was unambiguously clear opposition at the time even from some American leaders, civilian and military. Eisenhower was against it largely on the grounds that Japan was already defeated. So a defense of the decision must be vehement.

Whenever Japanese asked us where we were from, and we said, “Kansas City,” they would have quizzical expressions as to where that is. We would simply say, “Kansas,” or “the middle of the country” or “Missouri.” We avoided the most obvious identifier: “Where Harry Truman lived.”

Very few Japanese we met knew anything about the geography of middle America. One Japanese man remembered that “Missouri” was also the name of the ship on which the Japanese surrendered at the end of World War II.

But these were not the things on my mind while we toured the park and museum at ground zero. Instead, I thought about museums and monuments of death, and the ‘60s protest songs.

Since 9/11 we’ve all but forgotten about Oklahoma City. But one of the most powerfully moving experiences of my life was a visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial. This is the memorial constructed after the terrible bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1996. I once spent three hours weeping there.

The memorial covers the ground where the Murrah building stood, and the museum is housed in a part of a nearby newspaper building that was heavily damaged by the blast.

There, too, they’ve taken a scene of violence and death and, as my wife said, “turned it into a place of sanctity.” The museum, while containing plenty of lamentation about hate, violence, and loss, also celebrates the human spirit of community and care as demonstrated by the responders and others at the time.

At ground zero in Nagasaki, I thought about Oklahoma City’s museum, and Hiroshima’s, and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem which memorializes the Holocaust. I thought about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York. I thought about memorial constructions I’d seen in Germany, England, India, and many American cities and towns. (Soon, there will be another in Aurora, Colorado.)

And I wondered how much of the earth will be covered by museums and monuments of death before we learn that too many people have died? 

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"The Bridge to the Sacred"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 12 July 2012]

In my last column I stated that the premodern mind drew a much sharper distinction between the secular and the sacred than we do today. A good friend of mine questioned whether I was right about that, implying that the distinction might be stronger in the modern world.

            It might not be an easy debate to resolve, in part, because we have never lived in a premodern world.

            I thought about the issue again when we went to Ise Jingu last week, the “most sacred” spot in all of Japan. Ise Jingu is the most central shrine of Shintoism, located on the Ise peninsula, about an hour and a half train ride from Nagoya. It consists of two locations, an inner shrine, called Naiku, and an outer shrine, called Geku. These are two complexes of park-like grounds with walking paths and various buildings, most of which are something like small open-air cabins before which people pray.

            The Geku is dedicated to Toyouke, the deity of clothing, food, and housing. Naiku is the shrine of Amaterasu, probably the most important god of Shintoism. Amaterasu is the sun goddess. Remember, we’re talking about the land of the rising sun. The mythology is that the emperor of Japan is a direct descendant of Amaterasu.

            There’s a particular ritual for saying one’s prayers at a Shinto shrine. You approach the shrine, bow deeply twice, straighten up putting both hands together, clap twice, and finally bow once. Of course, this should precede or be preceded by tossing some money in the money box found in the front of every such shrine.

            At some shrines one will also pull a chord attached to a bell, ringing the bell after the above ritual. I didn’t see or hear any such bells at Naiku or Geku. Perhaps that would be too noisy for such sacred locations.

            The most central temple of the shrines is not accessible to the public; only to the emperor and his attendants; probably also, I presume, to some Shinto priests; and of course to the workers who, following tradition, deconstruct and rebuild the main temple every twenty years.

            You enter the shrines over small bridges. The literature describes this as leaving the secular world for the sacred.

            Recently in a book-discussion class at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church we discussed the idea of the sacred. We found it very difficult to distinguish unambiguously between the sacred and the not sacred, although we were all sympathetically attuned to the idea of sacredness. Most of us agreed that what is viewed as “sacred” will often vary from one person, family, or group to another.

            Americans view their flag as sacred. Families hold certain photos and heirlooms as sacred. I believe, though, that the class could have produced a list of sacred times, places, and things that they would all agree are sacred.

            My wife, grandson, and I are now in the Fukuoka Prefecture of Japan. Our host family took us on our first night here to a local bar, a small gathering place we Americans would think of as a “dive,” which is how our host, who’s from England, referred to it.

            We arrived, meeting the smilingly friendly proprietor, Ms. Sugiyama. Soon another regular dropped by, a man called Masao. Then another, Mr. Tanaka, a retired businessman turned farmer (onions and potatoes). Then another, Mr. Kozuru, a rice farmer.

            Soon we were all laughing and trying out different kinds of Japanese bar food and local wines and liquors. Well, actually it was the farmers and I working on the local brews. Our grandson, Canon, courageously tried a few of the local and unusual food items they were pushing our way. The Japanese exercised varying levels of English, teaching us a little Japanese, and we did the same in reverse.

            Mr. Kozuru invited us to his home for coffee. So when we left the bar, we went to his house, which was a lovely, spacious, and modern home. His wife and a friend of theirs were there, and we were treated graciously with coffee and various other foods.

            I woke up the next morning with a headache from the alcohol, but it was a beautiful morning. We’re sleeping about twenty yards from a rice paddy, and we’re serenaded at night by the chorus of frogs who inhabit the rice paddies. As day broke, the frogs quit, and the birds took over.

            I thought about the evening before: Three Americans, a Brit, and half a dozen Japanese of various ages and occupations –– all eating, drinking, and laughing together –– exercising inept levels of each others’ languages, but bridging our respective cultures in a grand moment of shared humanity. It rarely gets more sacred than that.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.] 

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"Architecture of the Soul"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 28 June 2012]

Is it possible that the interior of our churches reflects our ideal of the healthy soul? The premodern mind drew a much sharper distinction between the secular and the sacred than we do today. Religious buildings and spaces were viewed as doors to the realm of the sacred itself.

I’m writing from Japan, where my wife, grandson, and I are meandering about. One of the things visitors to Japan do is tour religious sites. Japan is full of shrines and temples, primarily Buddhist and Shinto. The first time my grandson and I visited Japan, I told him that a temple a day keeps the devil away! He’s older now, but still goes along with the program of exploring the sacred sites of religion.

Like in India and the Catholic countries of Europe, there are in Japan many postage-stamp-sized shrines here and there along roads and walkways. But the main temples of Shintoism and Buddhism are whole complexes of buildings, prayer stalls, walking paths, and cultivated gardens of trees, flowers, stones, and ponds. They’re more like a park or college campus than our typical church or cathedral.

However, they are also constructed to be in harmony with the nature around them. Except where they’re now surrounded by houses, businesses, and streets, they were at one time distinguishable from the surrounding forests only by the care with which their trees, gardens, and ponds were cultivated. This is especially true of the Buddhist temples.

My grandson and I actually went inside a giant Buddha in Kamakura on the Eastern coast of Japan. This famous bronze cast of Buddha is 43-to-44 feet high. After we reappeared, my wife said something to me about having been inside Buddhahood. This got me thinking about something I might term the “architecture of the soul.”

In the Buddhist temples here everything is usually very orderly, although not symmetrical. The buildings, walks, gardens, trees, flowers, rocks, etc. are all clearly nurtured, cared for and tended to in such a way that it all feels quite serene and distinguishable from, yet continuous with, nature itself. For temples around which cities have grown, there is not much nature outside the grounds with which to be continuous. Nevertheless, the attention to detail and the serenity within the temple grounds still reinforce the Buddhist stress on meditation, mindfulness, letting go, and surrendering to Buddhahood.

So there’s a kind of synchrony in Buddhism between the reality of one’s surroundings and the ideal state of the soul. In a healthy state, one’s soul (or what we Westerners mean by one’s soul) is a place of great calm and natural order because it is emptied of the self. One has let go of the self and the self’s desires in pursuit of release from suffering. The Buddhist temple’s campus fits this idea.

I began to think about the grand edifices of Christianity, particularly those of the Catholic tradition in Europe. What do they say about the architecture of the soul? If one thinks about the inside of a Catholic cathedral or church as somehow corresponding to the ideal state of the soul, what does it say? What does it mean that the outside world is shut out by stained glass windows of multiple mythologies? That the central focus, where authorities speak, is at one end on a raised platform that overlooks the people? That each nook and cranny is populated with figures, votive candles, paintings, and such?

In this Catholic Christian tradition, in contrast to Buddhism, one does not let go; rather, one retreats. One does not empty the self; rather, one fills up the self. The architecture of the Catholic church would seem to suggest that the soul is to shut out the world, and the self is to be filled with the narratives of the tradition while submitting to a central authority. In the Eucharist one takes God into oneself.

In contrast to Buddhism’s emptying of the soul and Catholicism’s filling of the soul, the Calvinist influenced Congregationalist-Presbyterian-Baptist tradition emphasizes the washing of a sin-stained soul. Perhaps, then, it is no accident that its structures of worship are simple and plain, involving historically the rejection of icons, statues, stained-glass windows, incense, and all the “bells and smells,” although the authority still typically stands on a raised platform while asserting the primacy of the Word. Does this mean the Calvinist soul is a sin-filled sepulcher that requires washing to become ideally white as its church’s plain white walls? And since the windows of the church are open to the world, is the soul, then, in some sense never fully separate from the world, neither conforming to nature nor embracing the world?

Hm… The meanderings of a meandering mind…

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Food-Stamp Fast"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 14 June 2012]

The focus, one Sunday recently at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, was on poverty. One activity they encouraged was to live on a food-stamp allowance for the next five days, Monday through Friday, and pledging any money saved to some anti-hunger program. It was one of those liberal consciousness-raising stunts, probably more show than go, but maybe worthwhile. So for five days I limited my food intake to $3.20 per day.

My first day included an egg-substitute and Mexican-spiced-bean omelet, one plum, a can of butter beans, a sweet potato, tea, coffee, and mint tea made from leaves I got for free from the backyard. It was enough food mainly because I didn’t exercise that day. It wasn’t too different from my usual diet. What I missed were salads, coke, wine, whisky, and the mixed nuts I like to snack on.

At the beginning, the most aggravating thing was constantly figuring out what things cost. I began the exercise with food in the house. I had few receipts, and bar-code scanning means prices are no longer marked on products. Out of frustration, on the second day, I went to the grocery store and bought stuff, some of which we already had, to find out what things cost.

By Thursday, I had such a good feel for the cost of things and quantities that I could maintain the diet without calculating the cost for every meal. Of course, were I truly poor, I’d simply look at what was in the cupboard and try to figure out how to get what I need from whatever income I had. I saw my mother do this while I was a child. I did it myself when I was a graduate student.

It was disappointing how much criticism of poor people I heard from middle- and working-class people while doing this project. Many Americans are convinced that the poor are poor because they’re too lazy to work. It’s a bizarre belief, but unscrupulous political leaders say it so frequently people think it’s true. Whenever they see a poor person who’s sane, they think that person should be at work. Whenever they see a poor person in anything other than rags and not hunger-starved skinny, they think that person is stealing from them. But there’s no reasoning with Americans in their bias against the poor.

To believe the poor prefer poverty over work doesn’t make sense. For one thing, being poor is such a stigma in the U.S. that few people would be poor voluntarily. Nobody is proud to buy groceries with food stamps or beg at food pantries. Nobody is proud to wait in long lines in unemployment and welfare offices to deal with unsympathetic workers, some of whom think it’s their job to minimize the amount of welfare given out.

For another, our welfare system is so stingy, if you’re poor, you’re plagued incessantly with rules and regulations , cutting corners, doing without, and hustling to make up the deficits. Everybody wants more in life than our welfare system can provide. Nobody likes being poor.

The strangest belief is that economic opportunity is unlimited. Our economic system is finite and hierarchical with only a few jobs of great reward at the top, a lot of jobs in the middle that provide adequately, and a lot at the lower end that don’t pay enough to keep a person out of poverty. And there are not enough jobs anyway.

Before the recession of 2007-08, we had an unemployment level under five percent. At the height of the recession, it was ten percent. (Currently it’s 8.2%.) Each percentage point equals about a million and a half workers. So to believe that the unemployed don’t want to work, you have to convince yourself that all of a sudden within one year about seven million Americans became too lazy to work. How weird is that?

Of course, the unemployment figure doesn’t count the people with part-time jobs, poorly paid jobs, and those who have become so discouraged they’ve stopped looking for work. So the situation is worse than the figures suggest.

My friend Frank Burris pointed out that my experience of five days on a food-stamp diet would not be the same as being poor because, he said, “you can make it go away and they cannot.” He was absolutely right, of course. I could have quit the exercise at any time. And I knew it would cease at the end of the week.

But even that brief stint was depressing. I wonder how long you can live in depressing circumstances before it breaks your spirit.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Called Into the Fray"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 31 May 2012]

All my adult life I’ve sought to be among the ranks of those who follow Jesus. But I’m not very good at it. I think Jesus was talking about me in the parable about the man unfit for the kingdom of God because he put his hand to the plow but kept looking back!

I suppose I made a decent enough pastor. But then I enjoy the pageantry of worship. Preaching is a delightful challenge to unite sacred texts, ancient traditions, the ethic of love, and modern realities into some creative synthesis that might mean something to someone. Whenever someone was inspired by something I said, or someone in pain was comforted by my presence, or someone was thrilled to share their good fortune with a pastor who cared about them — well, that was cool.

But deep-down devotion, extensive prayer and meditation, a life of selflessness, the readiness “to gather everything into one simple sacrifice,” as Dag Hammarskjöld said, or to imitate Christ, as Brother Lawrence sought, or to enter the dark night of the soul, as described by St. John of the Cross –– well, that ain’t me.

I don’t meditate. I spend little time in conscious prayer. I rarely study the Bible or the Qur’an or the Bhagavad-Gita or the Analects of Confucius or the teachings of the Buddha to learn how to live better. I study them, but I do it primarily to learn, to teach, and to write.

My life is much more about me than the way of Christ. I’m unambivalently content during a quiet dinner with my wife on any beautiful evening. I’m shamelessly satisfied in a coffee house reading a good book. I like movies, nearly every kind but certainly those with plenty of action and violence and suspense.

I’m into playing softball and tennis; visiting with friends and family; exploring life with grandkids; soaking up the sights, sounds, and smells of foreign cultures; reading, researching, writing, and teaching; kicking back in relaxed moments with a whisky and a cigar. My life is about me, and to be a follower of Jesus, so it seems to me, one’s life needs to be about something else.

Biblical scholarship has tried to nail down precisely what Jesus was about. Some have argued he was a wisdom sage; others a miracle maker and healer; still others, a rabbi of sorts. Some suggest a revolutionary; some, a Pharisee. Traditional Christianity views him as God’s son and the messiah, although he doesn’t seem to have viewed himself this way.

But the one most evident idea is that he was a prophet. The gospels show him in the mode of Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah. In one gospel, Jesus begins his ministry quoting a prophet. All four gospels identify him explicitly with the prophets.

The prophets were known, above all, for their concern for justice. Hear are some words of Amos: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. ... But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Jesus, too, manifests a fanatical impatience with mistreatment of the poor, the scared, the lonely, the diseased, the hungry, the disabled, the children, the women. "You lack one thing,” says Jesus to the rich man, “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

The gospels are clear that Jesus was concerned above all for the powerless and the vulnerable. Jesus' single major discourse about the criteria by which the nations will be judged says it will depend on how they treat the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the unclothed, the sick, and the imprisoned. Such is the unrestrained passion of the Hebrew prophet.

In other words, to follow Jesus, you’ve got to be concerned about justice in the world, and I know where that leads: conflict with a lot of people who benefit from the injustices!

I know how costly that path was for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and how costly it’s been for Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. I know what it’s costing committed people struggling for justice in the uprisings in the Arab world, and those millions of nameless fighters for political, racial, gender, and economic justice in poor and rich societies alike.

I’m the kind of person who wants to change the world without having to give up anything I enjoy and certainly without having to fight. But when it comes to commitment to Jesus the prophet, guess what? It means an unavoidable entry into the fray—however difficult, painful, complicated, and dangerous. Lord, have mercy.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"The Shrink Wrapped Soul"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 17 May 2012]

I just don’t get it. I must confess I simply cannot relate to or understand the parochial mind. By that, I’m talking about the people who want to reduce everything to a very narrow view of life. They are those who want to limit the world to their own religion, tribe, nationality, ethnicity, race. They are the Tea Party people with one narrow vision of what America should be, the white supremacists, the fundamentalists, whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish; they’re the jingoists who are quick to justify killing others perceived as a threat.

I find the wide, diverse world of humanity terribly fascinating. Why would one want to live so shrink wrapped?

For a textbook I’m writing, I’ve had to do a lot of study recently on race and racism, ethnicity and ethnocentricity, tribes, foreign cultures, and the like. All of it has been fascinating. Some of it has been depressing.

One morning I reviewed white America’s treatment of Native Americans. The resettling of Native Americans on reservations can be viewed as an early practice of ethnic cleansing. The United States government kept removing Indians from their homelands to lands farther west –– lands the whites didn’t think they would want. Then when whites discovered they could use those lands, they charged in again with new demands and new treaties for obtaining what they now wanted.

Perhaps the most egregious act of ethnic cleansing in the U.S. was what is now known as the “Trail of Tears,” whereby five tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole) were forcibly moved from their homes in the east to “Indian territory,” in present-day Oklahoma.

The removal began in 1831 with the Choctaws and continued until 1859 when Florida’s last band of resisting Seminoles was removed in chains. This “Trail of Tears” is associated in the popular mind with the Cherokees, but according to the Encyclopedia of North American Indians, the concept actually began with the first removal of the Choctaws, a move in which whole “families, and in some instances whole communities, perished of disease, exposure, exhaustion, and accidents.”

The Cherokees suffered the worst. Of the fifteen thousand who were forcibly moved in 1838 and 1839, as many as four thousand may have died from being herded, kept in detention, and forced to travel without adequate care.

These actions commonly came after treaties were concluded with tribal leaders who did not typically have the kind of political power to coerce their people into abiding by treaties that traditional Western governments had. Furthermore, these treaties were far from agreements among equals.

The Osage tribes of the new Louisiana Territory (mostly in present-day Arkansas and Missouri) were pressured and threatened into signing a treaty in 1808 that would give almost all of their lands “for ever to the United States.” According to Kristie Wolferman in The Osage of Missouri, Sans Oreille, a chief of the Little Osage, addressed the tribal leaders and warriors, saying: “My children, the Great White Father has spoken through his messenger, the trader Chouteau. The Great White Father is strong. We are weak. We have no choice but to accept.” Was any truth ever more true?

Much of the conservative reaction we’ve experienced in the U.S. since the 1960s seems to be a matter of white grievance against the political advances made by African Americans. This would include the integration of schools achieved through Brown v. Board of Education; the 1964 Civil Rights Act which banned discrimination in schools, employment, and public businesses; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that assured blacks of their voting rights, particularly in the South; and those awkward attempts at Affirmative Action in the 1970s and 80s.

Additionally there is the matter of the conservative Christian grievance against court decisions disallowing the imposition of prayers (always Christian prayers) on everyone in public schools.

Many Americans today are unhappy that we have a black President. Many are enraged that gays, lesbians, and transgendered persons are making cultural and legal advances. Others are unhappy when Spanish is spoken around them. Why on earth would this be threatening to anyone?

I was born a poor, white kid in a back-alley, shotgun-house without indoor plumbing in an obscure neighborhood in St. Louis. Both of my school drop-out parents got their high-school diplomas through GED exams. It was a rather narrow beginning.

But I’ve always been intrigued by the great diversity, the many cultures and subcultures, religions, and philosophies that this remarkable human species has generated. Maybe this came from my parents’ attitudes, maybe my schooling, maybe even the fact that my first childhood friend was African American. I don’t know. But I just can’t understand why anyone would want to live with a shrink wrapped soul.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Looking for America"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 3 May 2012]

One evening recently on the radio I heard Johnny Cash’s rockabilly car song, “One Piece At A Time.” It’s about a guy who leaves Kentucky in 1949 to work on the car assembly line in Detroit. Watching those Cadillacs come off the line, he desires one in the worst way but knows he can never afford it. So he gets the idea of sneaking one out “one piece at a time.” He starts with a lunchbox “full o’ gears.” The “big stuff” he sneaks “out in my buddy’s mobile home.”

By the time he has it assembled, it has a ’53 transmission and a motor from ’73; only one tail-fin; two headlights on one side, one on the other, but when you pulled the switch, “all three of ‘em come on.” “I got it one piece at a time,” he sings, “and it wouldn’t cost me a dime.”

Towards the end of the song, some trucker on a CB radio asks him what model is that Cadillac. He sings:
“Well, it’s a ’49, ’50, ’51, ’52, ’53, ’54, ’55, ’56, ’57, ’58, ’59 automobile. It’s a ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’67, ’68, ’69, ’70 automobile.”

I was listening to that song, and I thought: That has to be just about the most American song ever! If you’re a certain kind of American from the 1950s, ‘60s, or ‘70s, you feel in your bones every nuance of desire, larcenous temptation, and crazy cruisin’ in that song. You can smell the oil and hear the rat-tat-tat of the assembly line. (I suspect a lot of Canadians and Mexicans relate to that song, too.)

I went on Facebook (FB) and posed this question: What is the MOST American song ever? I got more hits than I generally get on FB.

Nobody mentioned Johnny Cash’s car song, but their entries were a trove of Americana. My niece offered the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Hers wasn’t the only patriotic offering. Two people came up with “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. Several mentioned “Yankee Doodle” and “God Bless America.” Also among the “American” themed songs: “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” by Toby Keith; “Coming to America” by Neil Diamond; “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

There were the geographically specific songs: “Home on the Range” from friend Janet who lives (where else?) in Kansas. Another friend listed: “Rocky Mountain High,” “Route 66,” “The Battle of New Orleans,” “Hooray for Hollywood,” and “California Dreamin’.” (I’m listening to these songs on YouTube while writing this column. I wish I could add a soundtrack. ?)

Like the Cadillac car song, some were linked to subcultures of America. My wife pointed to baseball with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The military, trucking, cowboys, rock and roll, and the presidency were highlighted: “Ballad of the Green Beret” by Robin Moore and Barry Sadler; “Convoy” by C.W. McCall; “Rodeo” by Aaron Copeland; “American Pie” by Don McLean; and “Hail to the Chief.”

Two friends, sensitive to this nation’s heritage, recommended Native-American songs. They didn’t give any specific songs. Friend Michael said, “probably something by the Sioux circa pre-1492.”

Friends with lofty tastes recommended Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Another suggested Glenn Miller’s “American Patrol.” Friend Allan thought it an easy question because in “Rhapsody in Blue” we get both Jazz and Broadway.

Other suggestions displayed our great tradition of social criticism: Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” which speaks of “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze…from the poplar trees.” Friend Paula voted for Outkast’s hip-hop “Bombs Over Baghdad,” which is about life in the ghetto with its joys, perplexities, and tragedies. Two mentioned Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” which is social criticism, though most people don’t realize it. One friend listed “Dignity” by Bob Dylan, in which he sings, “Sometimes I wonder what’s it’s gonna take to find dignity.” Los Lobos’ “One Time One Night” talks about a fatal shooting on a wedding night, children abducted, and a woman futilely hoping for heaven in America.

One idea seemed to capture the American tendency to be movin’ on: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird.” Then there was the poignant John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane” which reminds us that “Life goes on long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.”

Friend Bob named several. One was “We’re An American Band” by Grand Funk Railroad, a song that captures the modern American rockin’ party spirit. “We’ll help you party it down,” they sing, “We’re an American band.”

The spirit of my inquiry was captured, perhaps, by a song in friend Valerie’s list: “America” by Simon & Garfunkel, which says, “I’ve gone to look for America,” and implies there is something very elusive about defining America. Maybe it’s somewhere in this list. Thanks everybody!

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Prayers for the Fallen"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 19 April 2012]

On April 28 we will remember those who have fallen in the line of duty. We don’t mean soldiers. We mean workers –– those who have been killed or injured on the job.

We usually remember to honor military personnel who give their lives for community and nation. We rarely honor those who give their lives working other occupations that also contribute to the commonweal.

Anybody who does an honest day’s work, day after day, is making a contribution to the welfare of us all. I couldn’t sit here writing this column if it weren’t for coffee growers somewhere, designers of computers and office equipment, software engineers, electrical workers, farmers who produce the food for my kitchen, field workers who pick it, processors who can and package and freeze it, truckers who haul it, managers and clerks who shelve and stack and check it. Need I go on? The road workers, trash collectors, plumbers, the auto workers who built the cars in my garage.

The same is true for anyone reading this column no matter where you are. Americans like to think otherwise, but we are absolutely dependent on others 100% of the time. No one living in a modern industrial society is a Robinson Crusoe.

And many of the people who do the work pay for it with their lives. You might think that being in the U.S. military is risky business, and you’d be right. The rate of military deaths in 2010 was 88.1 per 100,000 service members. That reflects the cost of war. But even in peacetime it’s a risky occupation. In 1999 the rate was 55, according to the Dept. of Defense.

However, neither of those figures is close to the riskiest occupation: fishers and fishing workers. Their rate of occupational fatalities in 2007 was 111.8! My tuna sandwich and your smoked salmon salad cost a lot more than the few bucks we spent at the grocery or restaurant.

The second most dangerous occupation in the U.S. is logging, at 88.1 deaths per 100,000 in 2007, the same rate as military deaths during the current war. You or I might think we paid too much for our wooden furniture or our frame house or our backyard fence. But we didn’t pay as much as the approximately 90 loggers who give their lives on the job every year or their grieving families.

The next time we drive into a parking garage or go up in an elevator in some high-rise building, we might think about America’s sixth most dangerous civilian occupation — structural iron and steel working. Their rate of occupational deaths is 45.5.

By the way, that’s still more than twice the rate of law enforcement officers whose on-the-job fatality rate is 21.8 –– still risky when you compare it to, say, automobile dealers, 2.0; managers and professionals overall, 1.6; retail salespersons, 1.3; education and library workers, 0.3 (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

In Kansas alone, there were 84 workplace fatalities in 2010; 76 in 2009; 73 in 2008.

Although Workers Memorial Day is officially the 28th, the AFL-CIO Wichita Hutchinson Labor Federation is celebrating today. Participating in the event is the Kansas affiliate of Interfaith Workers Justice (IWJ). The IWJ is an organization founded in 1996 to encourage the religious community to involve itself more in the issues of workplace justice. With its main office in Chicago, the organization has 70 local affiliates. The Rev. Dr. David Hansen is the executive director of the Kansas affiliate (iwjkansas.org).

The mission of the IWJ is greater justice for the people who keep our world running. According to IWJ’s website, they seek to advance “the rights of workers by engaging faith communities” in efforts to shape policy on all levels. They hold the vision of a nation in which all workers have the right to:

• wages, health care, and pensions that allow workers to raise families and retire with dignity;
• safe working conditions;
• organize and bargain collectively to improve wages, benefits, and conditions without harassment, intimidation, or retaliation;
• equal protection under labor law (regardless of immigration status) and an end to the practice of pitting immigrant and U.S.-born workers against one another;
• fair and just participation in a global economy that promotes the welfare of both domestic and foreign workers.

While many of America’s religious leaders have been burning energy trying to impose Christian prayers on public schools, prevent gay people from getting married, and keep contraception out of health care, others have been laboring for justice for the working people of our land. My hat goes off to them, and my prayers go out for those who have lost a loved one while performing work on which we all depend.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"This Bread We Break"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 5 April 2012]

It’s Holy Week, and I’m thinking about pastors. I used to be one. Holy Week for pastors isn’t always so holy.

Today is Maundy Thursday; also known as “Holy Thursday.” This day commemorates Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. In Christian churches throughout the world, the devout will gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, to share in the institution of the Eucharist. In many churches there will be more ritual on Good Friday and then extra stuff on Easter Sunday. Throughout Lent, there are additional church activities not practiced at other times of the year.

Conscientious pastors (and most of them are conscientious) work hard, long hours, dealing with all kinds of situations: committee meetings, sermon preparation, church conflicts, weddings and funerals, stewardship campaigns, conference or regional committee work, the pain of someone who’s lost a loved one, the pain of someone in a crisis of faith, the pain of someone in any number of the other crises of life, not to mention the astors’ own painful crises.

This is the usual life of a pastor. Then comes Lent. While nothing else stops, much more must be done. That’s why Holy Week isn’t always so holy for pastors. That’s why Easter for them occurs not on Sunday but on Monday when they’re resurrected from a level of demand that can feel like a burial of sorts.

I feel great sympathy for pastors at this time. I hope they’ll experience a little extra grace this week and in the weeks to come because I know they’re exhausted. I know, too, that their primary concern right now is that the Lenten activities bring healing and renewal to the souls of their flock.

The Christian proclamation, ever since the agape meals of the early church, is that in the breaking of bread and partaking of libation the passion, the sacrifice, and the presence of Jesus are affirmed. In the history of worship the church has removed the elements of communion so far from table fellowship that their link to the earthy, intimate sharing of daily life is lost.

The ritual is separated from the communal meal, and the elements are placed on altars out of reach of all but the officially designated. The sanctified bread and wine have come to represent a distant Holy Other rather than the immediate presence of a divinity who dares to get down and dirty with the people in the brokenness of life in a fallen world.

The gospels offer a different picture: After days of talking and healing, comforting and debating, and traveling troubled roads, Jesus and his friends sat together for nourishment. This was an agrarian society intimately familiar with the hardscrabble realities of work, scarcity, and struggle. They sat with this odd prophet who dared to sit and sup with the unclean, who apparently couldn’t bring himself to view anyone as unclean.

They ate and drank, cried and laughed. Maybe it was in that grimy night of uncertainty that they began to think that with Jesus somehow God was near. They recalled the faith of their own prophetic heritage which sees God, not as some mystery on inaccessible elevated altars in religious temples, but as a Living Presence straining for love and justice in the daily difficulties of life.

Surely the vital presence of the Divine occurs not so much in the stylized pageantry of Lent as in the dinner with family and friends this evening, in being there for one another, trying to understand and be understood. The Eucharist reminds us of the Presence, but really it occurs afterwards tonight in the tensions and assurances, the noise and quiet in our homes with others or alone, and again tomorrow as people embrace another day of wonder and disappointment, challenge and insecurity, fear and joy.

This bread we break speaks of earth and labor, speculators and futures, farm machinery and ingenuity, growers, processors, packagers, freight haulers, grocers, and consumers. This wine we drink speaks of earth and sun and rain and vine, of cuttings and parings, of aging and organization, of trades and skills and wisdom passed down from one generation to another in the processes of life giving unto life.

All right, you silly churches, pull out all the stops on Easter! But know that all this religious hoopla is merely symbolic of the grace in everyday life that renews exhausted pastors and the rest of us. Remind us of the Presence, but remind us, too, that the Presence goes with us in every perplexing moment of our earthy journeys towards the union of earth with heaven, humanity with divinity that is surely our destiny.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 22 March 2012]

On March 6, 53-year-old Brevard County (Florida) Deputy Sheriff Barbara Pill stopped a car in Melbourne, driven by 22-year-old Brandon Lee Bradley. Nineteen-year-old Andria Michelle Kerchner was a passenger. Sheriff Pill was stopping the vehicle in connection with property stolen from a motel.

When she ordered Bradley out of the car, he opened fire on her, shooting her multiple times. She died in the hospital. There were warrants out for Bradley’s arrest at the time. He had a lengthy criminal record.

News reports indicated Pill had worked the last fifteen years with the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office. She was a mother and grandmother. Her son is also a deputy sheriff for Brevard County. Another son is with the police department in Melbourne Village, FL.

She was the 21st law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty in the U.S. this year. Florida radio talk-show host Steve Bussey covered the funeral, and described its finale:
“The 21-gun salute sounded…a lone bugle sounding Taps…A single bagpipe begins the cry of Amazing Grace and then the rest join in along with the soft beat of drums…When the music ends an emotional dispatcher calls for Brevard County ID 644 but there is no answer – She calls again, “Brevard County ID 644” but again there is no answer …”Brevard County to all Units – Brevard County Sheriff’s Deputy Barbara Ann Pill, ID 644 is now 10-7? (out of service).”

My nephew, J. David Jacobs, who is also a Brevard County deputy sheriff, posted a touching tribute to Sheriff Pill on Facebook: br “Today we laid to rest one of the finest Brevard had to offer. Barbara Pill. She exemplified what it was to be a cop, and a mother. And a grandmother, and, and, and a host of other roles she tirelessly accepted. I never had the honor to work with Barbara, but I work daily with her son Jeremy. He's one of my squad mates. Jeremy often spoke of his mother, but in a way you could tell he held her up a little higher than others.”

I often think about the people who keep our communities going, sustaining us in a myriad of ways (people whose contributions often go unsung); to mention a few: grocers, trash collectors, freight haulers, janitors, retail clerks, carpenters, electricians, construction workers, farmers, civil servants. The list is endless of people who make life possible for us just by going about their work every day.

There are some occupations, however, that operate at the interface of emergency situations of life and death: nurses, EMTs, doctors, fire fighters, and police officers.

I think of police officers a little more frequently than most, not just because my brother was one for many years and my nephew still is, but because I live inside the city. Every day, often late at night, while studying and writing, I hear the sirens of ambulances, fire trucks, and police vehicles. In American cities, we hear sirens so frequently that we often don’t notice them.

(Right now, as I write this on a warm Friday evening, I can hear what sounds like three police sirens screaming on streets not far away.)

When I hear the sirens, I think about those guys and gals out there responding to emergency situations. Most are manageable, I suppose, but plenty of them are fraught with great risk and potential tragedy: fights, auto accidents, murders.

Sometimes it’s pouring down rain with lightning flashing and thunder crashing. And then I’ll hear the siren. Some cop on the way to an emergency in that terrible storm. Sometimes it’s snowing so thick, you can hardly see through it. And I’ll hear that siren. Some cop on the way again in impossible conditions. Sometimes it’s 90, 95, 99 degrees out. And I’ll hear that siren. Some cop on the way to help, wearing all kinds of gear as well as the bullet-proof vest necessary in our violent society.

When I’m on the highway, and I see a trooper standing there on the side, having stopped someone for speeding or to assist a stranded motorist, I think about the awful risk as vehicles zoom by at 70 miles per hour just a few feet away.

In 2010, the FBI reports, 56 law enforcement officers were murdered in the line of duty. Seventy-two law enforcement officers died as a result of accidents, 63 of them traffic-related. Law enforcement agencies reported that 53,469 officers were assaulted. That is one in ten!

Chris Cosgriff, founder of the website, “Officer Down Memorial Page,” says it well: “When a police officer is killed, it’s not an agency that loses an officer, it’s an entire nation.”

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"The New Slavery"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 8 March 2012]

The so-called “right-to-work” laws are designed to weaken labor unions. Such legislation allows employees to refuse to join a union even when it has won a representation election. Critics of the laws parody them accurately as the “right to work for less.” Today the United States has become so corporate-friendly that we’re developing an economic system that gives us the right to work for nothing.

The United States fought a terrible Civil War about 150 years ago to end slavery. But it has never lost its bloodthirstiness for the cheapest labor. Today the Republican Party and Big Business have combined forces to be sure American capitalism gets all the labor it needs at the cheapest possible price.

The much maligned Karl Marx correctly identified the capitalism of the nineteenth century as wage slavery. In the 1800s, he wrote that, while Roman slaves were held by chains, the modern “wage laborer is bound to his owner by invisible threads.” This economic bondage is obscured, he said, by several things: (1) “the legal fiction of a contract”; (2) the occasional change of jobs and thus one’s master; and (3) the fluctuations of the market, sometimes making the demand for labor dear.

Since Marx’s time, in the most advanced nations, the labor movement, progressive labor legislation, and welfare-state policies have built in numerous safeguards for employees, boosting safety, security, and income. All of the safeguards are currently under attack by a capital-fueled movement whose shock troops are the Republican Party.

As a Republican-stacked Supreme Court has granted corporations the right to buy the government, the Party’s representatives have been laboring feverishly to weaken organized labor, reduce minimum-wage laws, and disempower OSHA. Apparently they want to make sure that employers have no restrictions on their power over employees.

Republicans, promoting a no-holds-barred capitalism, claim we need these measures to stay competitive with countries where labor is cheap, such as China and India. When one points out that other industrialized countries (in Europe, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, Japan) pay their workers more than the U.S. and provide them with health care and pensions, these same Republicans claim: “We’re exceptional. We don’t want to be like other countries.” I guess the message is that we don’t want to be like Europe; we’d rather be like China and India.

While Republicans continue their assault on the frontlines against unions and workers, the economic culture they’ve been fostering since instituting Reagan’s trickle-down economics is doing its work behind the lines by re-instituting slavery. It’s not called “slavery.” It’s called “internship.” And an alarming trend is towards unpaid interns. In other words, the way to get job experience is to give away your labor entirely.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has been exposing this re-institution of slavery. They don’t use that word. I do. But what is slavery if not having to work for free?

The EPI points out that the laws governing the use of interns are weak and outdated. This results in a prevalence of unpaid interns, even the replacement of regular workers with unpaid interns, and a lack of protection for young workers from exploitation and harassment.

Ross Perlin, in his (2011) book, Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, points out that about 50% of internships in the U.S. are unpaid or paid below minimum wage.

Writing in The New York Times, Perlin says: “the labor of unpaid interns has quietly replaced or displaced untold thousands of workers. Lucrative and influential professions — politics, media and entertainment, to name a few — now virtually require a period of unpaid work.”

Even government is getting in on it. Mark Morris of The Kansas City Star revealed recently that the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas City has begun “training” recent law-school graduates by letting them work for free! A hiring freeze has led to the idea to give recent law graduates experience by not paying them.

The U.S. is so corporate-friendly that in some places it’s gone one step further than unpaid internships. It even has some of its slaves paying their masters for the privilege of working! A whole industry has developed for placing interns who are actually paying to be interns. These organizations charge thousands of dollars to place unpaid interns. And, according to Diane Stafford in a 2010 Star article, a few places are even c harging interns directly to allow them to work there.

We haven’t actually legalized full ownership of other human beings, perhaps because you would have to feed and clothe them. Why own them when you can get their work for free?

So to Marx’s “wage slavery,” we’ve added “no-wage slavery” and “pay-a-wage slavery.”

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"There Ain’t No Place Where God Ain’t"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 23 February 2012]

Probably on most days we all say some ridiculous things. But surely one area in which we manifest the worst ridiculosity is in our talk about God. I made up the word “ridiculosity.” It’s better than the clunky “ridiculousness.”

I know it’s very difficult to talk about God without anthropomorphizing. I didn’t make that word up. It’s just a fancy word for attributing human characteristics to something not human. It’s an anthropomorphism if you refer to your car as “she” and say she’s treating you very nicely because she’s running well. When someone waters the household plants and says, “These are my babies,” that’s an anthropomorphic statement since plants aren’t literally babies.

When we talk about God, we usually do so anthropomorphically. It’s hard to do otherwise. Some even argue that all talk about God is anthropomorphic. Portions of the Bible are flagrantly anthropomorphic.

In the book of Genesis it says that Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” It makes me wonder what brand of shoes God wore while walking in the garden. But then maybe God doesn’t wear shoes when walking in the cool of an evening.

Also in Genesis, it says that “the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” This is when he decides to drown everybody except Noah and family and a whole lot of animals. I didn’t know God could have such regrets. I wonder if God also feels remorse for drowning everybody. Maybe God feels remorse for not having drowned Noah too and been done with the whole sorry mess!

Then there’s the story of Job in which God appears as a braggart and a gambler. God starts bragging to Satan about what a righteous man Job is. But Satan taunts God, saying that Job is good only because everything has gone well for him. Let some terrible things happen to him, “and he will curse you to your face,” says Satan. So God makes a bet with Satan, allowing Satan to do anything to Job except kill him, to prove that Job really is a steadfast faithful guy.

These are ancient stories that offer up fanciful tales about how the world is the way it is. It doesn’t take much thought to realize God is neither a human being nor male or female, and so all this talk about God as though God had human traits can’t be literally true.

But still we’ll talk about God and say things that treat God like a person. One of the weirdest things we do is talk about God as though God could be in one place and not in another. Clearly if God is God, all such statements must be false.

We’ll say, “God came into my life.” What can this mean? Do we think our life could be somewhere God wouldn’t be?

We’ll say, “I was separated from God.” Again, this is an impossibility by any understanding of God other than those ancient ideas that gods are divine beings alongside human beings. Think of the Greek myths in which gods run around getting into mischief, hiding and cheating on each other, mucking around sometimes in human affairs.

One I find troublesome is this: “We’ve taken God out of the schools.” This one originates in the reaction to Supreme Court decisions that disallow officially sponsored prayer in schools. The decision is usually misunderstood by critics. It doesn’t mean that students and teachers can’t pray! It means that public schools cannot officially sponsor public prayer. It makes sense for the nation that pioneered the idea of separation of church and state.

To claim that human beings can remove God from some location has to be very nearly blasphemous because it suggests we can control where God is and isn’t.

If God is who or what we say God is, then nobody can be literally separated from God. At best, this could only mean that they live without awareness of God’s presence. According to the Christian book of Acts, the apostle Paul said it this way:
“The God who made the world and everything in it…does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. … ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”

I don’t know all the implications for one’s beliefs, but if God is, and if God is God, then there ain’t no place where God ain’t. Can’t be.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"I Am What I Am"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 9 February 2012]

My mother died six years ago. February always brings some pathos and longing for me because it’s her birth month. We were very close. Her death was unexpected, although she’d been ailing for some time.

She was, for several reasons, deeply unhappy in the months preceding her death, and I was at a loss what to do for her. She had poured out her life for her sons and grandchildren, as well as for others. At the memorial dinner, one of my brothers said it well: “Judy’s generosity was legendary.”

Every year on her birthday, the 25th, I call my brother in Florida. We’ll each pour a glass of scotch; not that the scotch has anything to do with mom. We both just like scotch. We’ll pour a glass, and light up one of mother’s cigarettes. We don’t really smoke them, but once a year we each puff on one cigarette from the carton that was left when she died. And we reminisce.

We know her smoking contributed to her death, but we also know that smoking was one constant comfort in her difficult and frequently pain-filled life. So we light that cigarette, and remember this remarkable woman who loved us unswervingly, and sometimes at great sacrifice.

Human beings live by memory. Memory shapes who we are, preserves what we learn, informs expectations for the future. Without memory, there is no such thing as human community or even anything recognizably human at all. But a great deal of memory carries pain.

Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, essentially a book of memories, tells the story of a woman who got married in June, 1942. Six months later her husband was sent off to basic training, and she was pregnant. He never got to see his son before being killed in the fight for the bridge at Nijmegen. She still remembered, even in her seventies, "when the telegram came and her world came apart." She remembered, too, the day she received his Silver Star posthumously. “It was...a very sad, sad day,” she said. “Oh, boy, it was rough.”

We carry shameful memories too. A dear relative, who has had some emotional challenges, sent me a letter in which he told of having laughed with a co-worker about a customer who had smelled especially bad. Later he awoke in the night feeling shame. He remembered a time when he, too, might have been someone people laughed at with scorn and derision. He prayed for forgiveness and gave thanks for those who love him.

Most of us have things we’re ashamed of, things we’ve done but shouldn’t have, things we should’ve done but didn’t. In the most unpredictable moments, something shameful from my past will pop into my head.

Guilt is another hard memory. I still feel guilt about my first marriage. There were things I should have done differently if only I’d had more wisdom, more courage, more horse sense.

Brokaw tells the story of a World War II vet who would still break down fifty years later when recalling one wartime experience. “I was on a scouting mission, crawling, when I came face-to-face with a Japanese soldier. He looked at me and I looked at him. I fired first. He went down. It was a horrible, horrible experience.”

There are painful memories from empathy. From pastoring churches for over thirty years, I carry haunting memories of people suffering excruciating pain, some psychological, some physical. I can picture too many faces crumpled with sorrow, suffering, or anguish.

Many people live with memories of hurt from the cruelty of others. Minorities and the poor, in particular, have had to live with acts of discrimination or slights from the socially superior. Those who’ve been abused remember the fear, loneliness, and self-loathing that come with being victimized.

We do have many wonderful memories, and it’s the beauty of human psychology that the better memories usually carry the day. But there are plenty of hard memories we just can’t shake, and maybe shouldn’t.

After all, they make us who we are. I don’t really want to forget my mother. So I’ll take the pain. I don’t want to forget the actions for which I feel shame or guilt because I want to live more responsibly now. I want to remember acts of discrimination and persecution because I don’t want to lose my motivation to work for a more just world.

It takes strong hearts, clear sight, noble living, and caring relationships to bear the emotional freight we carry and to tap it for the insight, energy, and courage for self-transformation. We are who we are because of our past, and we can become more than we are also because of our past.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Do No Harm"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 26 January 2012]

It would appear that Kansas once again has made a name for itself for malicious Christianity. It wasn’t enough that we have the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka and Westboro Baptist Church with their ever-present message that “God hates fags,” and then Scott Roeder who murdered the abortion provider, Dr. George Tiller. Now we have Republican Speaker of the House Mike O’Neal who forwarded an email with a quotation from Psalm 109 praying that President Obama’s “days be few” and that “another take his office.”

According to press reports, O’Neal wrote in the email: “At last, I can honestly voice a Biblical prayer for our president.” The verse following the one he quoted reads: “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.” So the psalm is really wishing for some leader’s death. I can’t tell from the press whether O’Neal ever actually read the Psalm. He has apologized, saying he was referring only to the election.

More than 30,000 signatures on petitions calling for O’Neal’s resignation were delivered by the Rev. Tobias Schlingensiepen, pastor of First Congregational Church in Topeka, and Jim McCullough, executive director of the Topeka Center for Peace and Justice. Apparently O’Neal thinks an off-handed wish for the President’s demise is no reason to quit since, as of this writing, he’s refused to resign.

(By the way, O’Neal had already apologized for an earlier email he forwarded referring to the president’s wife as “Mrs. YoMama” and making fun of her hair.)

Of course, Psalm 109 is not the only malicious text in the Bible. There are many. Another is Psalm 137, understandably lamenting Judah’s being conquered and exiled by the Babylonians. It’s famous for its line, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” But it goes on to bless anyone who will toss Babylonian babies against rocks!

Generally, conservative Protestants (aka fundamentalists and evangelicals) don’t view such texts as authorizing malicious attitudes even though they claim to view the Bible as inerrant. This means they view the Bible as absolutely true and dependable in every way, without error, literally God-breathed. This approach to the Bible is popularly known as literalism, but that label is somewhat misleading. Conservative Protestants recognize that the Bible has poetry, metaphor, parables, and such that are not to be taken literally. You don’t see them chopping off their hands or feet or plucking out their eyes in a literal application of Jesus’ command to do so if they sin by one of those body parts.

Furthermore, the vast majority of Christian conservatives do not typically manifest malicious attitudes or behavior, and they commonly affirm the belief that the Bible teaches us to love. Nevertheless, an awful lot of Christians seem to be concerned about everything in the Bible except its demand for extreme love.

I frequently meet Christians who want to be biblically literal about some issue, such as homosexuality, subordination of women to men, born-againism, seven-day creation, virgin birth, substitutionary death of Christ, bodily resurrection of Christ, second-coming of Christ. Rarely do I meet someone who wants to be literal about Jesus' extreme teachings about love. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Here’s more: “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

I don’t believe Jesus meant for us to love others without any regard for our own welfare. The proper response to Jesus’ teaching is not to make ourselves unnecessarily available for maltreatment. It is not helpful to anybody, for example, to remain in an abusive marriage or to not prosecute criminals.

The painful truth, though, is that Jesus taught his followers to do no harm. However one wants to view the Bible, honesty requires noting that Jesus taught extreme love. Whatever else it means, I’d suggest these four principles: (1) If at all possible, do no harm. (2) Seek no revenge. (3) Care for the welfare of even one's enemies. (4) Don't rejoice over the defeat of others.

Perhaps Representative O’Neal should hang these in his office.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"From Prison to Prominence"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 1 January 2012]

One of the delightful and remarkable phenomena in human affairs is that jailbirds sometimes become heroes. It’s a little weird perhaps, but it’s one thing that gives me hope.

Consider Boethius (c. 475-524), the Roman statesman and philosopher, executed probably unjustly by a Roman king, but who wrote one of the most enduring classics of Western philosophy, The Consolation of Philosophy, while in prison.

The British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, was imprisoned because of activities connected with his stance against World War I. Yet Russell went on to become the most famous philosopher of the twentieth century.

In that century there were three other famous jailbirds for justice who became heroes for the lovers of freedom everywhere: Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela. Gandhi was jailed in South Africa and imprisoned in India for the parts he played, first, against discrimination in South Africa and, later, against the British colonization of India. Vaclav Havel, a poet, playwright, and dissident, imprisoned numerous times, became the president of the newly liberated Czechoslovakia in 1989. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison in South Africa, only to emerge from prison in 1990 and become the first president of a fully democratic South Africa four years later.

A favorite of mine, largely unknown in the U.S., is Bruno Kreisky, who was the chancellor of Austria when I lived there in the early 1980s. Kreisky, a Jew and a socialist, had been imprisoned under a brief dictatorship in Austria in the 1930s, and then lived in exile during the Nazi years. That had to be the darkest of times for Kreisky personally. Yet he went on to become a most popular leader of his country. I found his story extraordinarily encouraging. History provides some nice surprises.

Gandhi influenced America’s most famous jailbird-become-hero, Martin Luther King, Jr. In his essay, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” King told how reading Gandhi’s life and teachings had influenced his own thinking and how “deeply fascinated” King became by Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance. It is ironic that the deeper King, the Christian, delved into the Hindu Gandhi’s philosophy, the more appreciative King became of the Christian doctrine of love. “I came to see,” he wrote, “for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, is one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

There are numerous events in the KC metro area this week celebrating King’s life and work. One of them occurred yesterday at the Kansas City Interfaith Council’s regular meeting of “Vital Conversations.” They discussed King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963 while he was incarcerated for his participation in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. This letter has become a classic, reprinted many times in various publications.

King’s letter responded to a public letter issued by eight Alabama clergymen sympathetic to the cause but critical of his use of the tactic of nonviolent resistance. They thought it would lead to civil disturbances and violence. They wanted him to let the issue play out in the courts.

King did not often respond to his critics, which in itself would have been more than a full-time job. However, he was sitting in jail for exercising the kind of freedom to protest that the U.S. Constitution should have protected. The cause he supported is one that only racists and some libertarians would oppose today. And he asked, “what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?”

One thing he addresses in his letter is the justice of recognition and praise. Apparently the clergymen’s letter had commended the police for preserving order and preventing violence. King responded that the writers would not have praised the police if they’d seen the police dogs biting unarmed and nonviolent protesters, nor if they’d seen the degrading treatment of the prisoners in jail.

He writes, “I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of the most inhuman provocation.” And, with prescience, he adds: “One day the South will recognize its real heroes.”

Those heroes will be, he says, the James Merediths, the old Negro women, the high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel, and the church elders who, in the face of oppression and terrible acts of hatred and cruelty, stood up “for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.” Today we remember the hero who wrote those words.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Murder at Christmas"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 29 December 2011]

I love all the gooey frivolity that is Christmas. The incessant Christmas music everywhere, the chaotic shopping, the ridiculous eats and drinks, the lights, lights, lights! It’s an international party with a wildly generous, even sacrificial, spirit. Far different from the self-congratulatory jingoism that typifies our Fourth of July.

My mother loved Christmas, too, and her house felt like the epicenter of Christmas. She did it up big; baking, cooking, decorations, piles of wrapped gifts, and lots of noisy walking, talking, whirling, singing music toys for the grandkids to enjoy. Since her death, Christmas comes with a little less joy and a greater sense of the tragic in life.

Today is Holy Innocents’ Day for the Eastern Orthodox Church. Yesterday was for Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans. In the Gospel of Matthew, Herod, the acting king of the Jews, was told by wise men from the East that a child had “been born king of the Jews.” Feeling threatened, Herod told the wise men to let him know where the child was, so he, too, could worship him, which was a ruse. Herod wanted to kill the child.

The wise men were warned in a dream not to tell Herod, so they went home by a different route. Joseph was told by an angel in a dream to take Jesus and flee to Egypt to protect him from Herod.

When Herod learned that the wise men had gone home without telling him where they found the baby Jesus, Herod ordered all the children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem murdered.

This account of mass infanticide is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, so many scholars think it didn’t happen. They say that somebody else (such as the Apostle Paul, the authors of the other gospels, or the first-century historian Josephus), would almost certainly have mentioned it, too. However, Herod was a very ruthless man, so the story was credible, and it survived.

Over the centuries, the story has generated considerable interest among artists. There are numerous artworks based on this story of mass slaughter. I suppose the most famous is Peter Paul Rubens’ 1611 painting titled, “Massacre of the Innocents,” hanging in the Art Gallery of Ontario, which in 2002 fetched 76.2 million dollars in an auction.

A few weeks before Christmas, I watched a children's Christmas pageant in a theologically conservative church. It included a re-enactment of the birth of Jesus (wise men, shepherds, angels, and all) but stopped short of showing the first family's flight into Egypt while Herod's soldiers murdered Bethlehem's children. I tried to imagine how that pageant would have re-enacted that part of the story. Would some of the children, dressed as soldiers, have hacked away at play dolls with play swords?

You can’t blame the church for ignoring the tragic side of the story. We censor movies and TV for children, leaving gory violence to the viewing pleasure of adults. There’s no reason to display the rawest of Bible stories to those of a tender age. Certainly not at Christmas time.

So it’s uncomfortable, too, here in the holiday season to mention our culture’s more cynical denial of our tendency towards extreme levels of violence, the unchecked proliferation of guns, and the consequent ease with which Americans can kill each other and often do.

Recently while reading the newspaper, I thought about the incongruity between our Christmas celebrations and the amount of violence in American life. In that one day’s edition there were reports of current homicides and an article about someone convicted of murder. I counted thirteen murders in all –– all of them by guns.

I feel like the party-pooper pointing out here in Christmastide that Kansas City already has more homicides in 2011 than either of the two previous years, or that most law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty are killed by firearms, particularly handguns, and that there has been a 14% increase in the murder of law enforcement officers in 2011, or that over 14,700 people were murdered in the U.S. in 2010, more than three times the number of U.S. soldiers killed in that ten-year war in Iraq.

There is good news, though. Our murder rate is down and has been decreasing for years. However, you’re still far more likely to be murdered in the U.S. than in any other developed country, so it’s good news of a limited sort.

“Peace among people of goodwill,” proclaimed angels in another story of Jesus’ birth. How unpleasant, then, to see the birth accompanied by the slaughter of children. And how unpleasant to realize what little peace all too many people will know in the violence of the coming year. Let us wish one another joyous holidays and a much less violent new year.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"All I Want for Christmas"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 15 December 2011]

As Christmas approaches, I’m thinking about my country which appears determined to self-destruct. The most immediate, tedious evidence includes the absolute intransigence of Republican legislators who won’t allow the current conservative president to do anything progressive and the blatant pandering to our worst instincts by numerous Republican presidential wannnabes.

If the regressive right gets its way, and I suspect it will, the U.S. is going to experiment in the 21st century with a government designed for the 19th. America’s reactionary right seems to have convinced an awful lot of Americans that the good old days were also the better old days.

Conservative activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist, who seems to have a stranglehold on most Republican hearts, says he wants to reduce government to the point that it can be drowned in a bathtub. He says his benchmark for the size of the federal government is its size in 1900.

There were undoubtedly some very good things about the U.S. in 1900. However, it was not a time in which many of us would prefer to have lived. For one thing, most of us would have lived in it a lot less since the life expectancy was 48 for whites and 33 for blacks, according to the website, Digital History. Half the families with four children would have lost one to death by the age of five. Most children would have lost at least one parent before the age of 21. Half the children lived in poverty, and most teens were laboring in factories or fields rather than toiling away at school work. The typical family lacked electricity, indoor plumbing, phone, car, and a whole lot of other things that make life more manageable and comfortable. Also missing were universal education, modern medicine, unemployment insurance, social security, Medicare, and a whole host of other things that the government has facilitated or instituted to deal with the social changes of an industrializing world.

It is true that there was much less government, particularly in the U.S. There were no FAA, FDA, EEOC, FBI, OECD, NASA, EPA, SEC, FDIC, NLRB, DOE (the one Rick Perry couldn’t remember), and a host of other agencies that make government a factor in nearly every facet of modern life.

The regressive right wants a society run solely according to the dynamics of free-market competition, which would mean that individuals would have to fend for themselves in an unregulated (laissez-faire) economy entirely dominated by private capital.

Now America’s regressive right is not going to be able to roll back the government to its relative size in 1900 because…well…because it ain’t 1900 anymore. Even so, they appear powerful enough to prevent any progressive moves to cope with the huge issues facing the postmodern, technological, urban society of the 21st century. So I’m pessimistic about our future but only in the short run.

In a generation or two or three, when we’ve reaped the whirlwind of these naïve policies, we’ll wake up to the terrible cost and waste of exercising a 19th-century ideology in a 21st-century world. Human ingenuity and some new generation of visionary leaders will lead us in progressive steps into the next future.

Over time, humanity has developed a moral understanding that affirms the equal worth of all human beings, manifested in such things as democracy, civil and human rights, equality before the law, economic liberty, and other important aspects of life in human community. These are significant advances. They are why I view human history as progressive in development, at least so far.

Humanity has learned some other things: Absolute monarchies are not God-ordained. Humans should not own other humans. Totalitarian control of whole societies is self-defeating. Fascism is a terrible idea. Except for America’s regressive right, humanity knows too that unregulated economies are too unstable and destructive for the welfare of whole populations.

But these progressive lessons have come at great human cost. How many lives were stunted or snuffed out as a result of the machinations of absolute monarchy, slavery, totalitarian communism, fascism, and survival-of-the-richest economic policies?

Unfortunately the people who will pay the price for America’s experiment in moving backwards will be the poor and the working and middle classes. Except during times of violent revolution, the ruling classes simply do not themselves suffer from their experiments with everybody else’s life. That’s the tragic injustice of human history.

I’m confident we will wake up to the destructiveness of this single-and-simple-minded ideology. We’ve done so in the past, and we’ll do so in the future. It is my fervent hope that the awakening will come sooner rather than later, and that we’ll send home all these right-wing radicals derailing American government, so we can solve real problems once again.

That’s all I want for Christmas.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Where’s the Humor?"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 1 December 2011]

I have a complaint about Christian music. It's not that traditional hymns are too slow, ponderous, and full of aged-stale lyrics, though that's true. Try not to yawn during this magnificent piece by Martin Luther: “A mighty fortress is our God, / A bulwark never failing; / Our helper He amid the flood / Of mortal ills prevailing.”

It’s not that contemporary Christian music is too superficial and repetitive, though that's true, too. I count 42 lines in the beautiful and popular “Awesome God” by Rich Mullins, and eighteen of them say, “Our God is an awesome God”!

It's that Christian music has no humor, no funny bone, no whimsy! When have you ever in a congregation sung a really funny Christian song? I searched nine hymnals in my office. Two were independent hymnals; the rest represented six different denominations. Every one had a topical index. Not a single one had a "humor" or "laughter" section!

What's the matter with Christians when it comes to music? We laugh at stories in sermons. We laugh during worship. We tell bad jokes. We make lighthearted fun of each other. But we don't have a single hymn that's funny? Not even a serious one that celebrates humor or laughter?

Where's the Christian equivalent to Steve Goodman's "You Never Called Me By My Name," which wasn't quite the perfect country-and-western song until he added this verse?

“Well, I was drunk the day my Mom got outta prison. / And I went to pick her up in the rain. / But, before I could get to the station in my pickup truck / She got runned over by a damned old train.”

What Christian hymn has put satire to truth as Sheldon Harnick's "Merry Minuet"?
“They're rioting in Africa, / They're starving in Spain. / There's hurricanes in Florida, / And Texas needs rain / The whole world is festering / With unhappy souls. / The French hate the Germans, / The Germans hate the Poles; / Italians hate Yugoslavs, / South Africans hate the Dutch, / And I don't like anybody very much!”

Where's the whimsy like that in Johnny Burke's "Would you like to swing on a star"? “Would you like to swing on a star / Carry moonbeams home in a jar / And be better off than you are / Or would you rather be a mule?”

Among other things, faith is a matter of letting go and trusting God. So surely this old classic by Paul Evans is consistent with Christian faith:
“I can laugh when things ain't funny / Ha, ha, happy-go-lucky me / Yea, I can smile when I ain't got no money / Ha, ha, happy-go-lucky me / It may sound silly, but I don't care / I got the moonlight, I got the sun / I got the stars above.”

Part of the reason for the dearth of humor in Christian hymnody is that there’s not a lot of humor in the Bible. One finds instances of joy, but usually laughter in the Bible is used in a sarcastic, ironic, or derisive manner. Jesus himself in the Gospel of Luke says, “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”

But Jesus says that only to comfort people who are on the losing end of an unequal and unjust society. He suggests those who suffer now will know a good life in heaven.

I have to believe, though, that Jesus was one who laughed a lot. It seems to me that a sense of humor is at the very root of human hope and transcendence. Surely no one was more in touch with hope and transcendence than Jesus of Nazareth.

There’s an old gospel hymn titled “Work, for the Night is Coming,” written by Anna Coghill in 1854. Most lines start with “work.” However, its lyrics lend themselves to laughter. Here’s the first stanza with “laugh” substituted for “work”:
Laugh , for the night is coming, / Laugh through the morning hours; / Laugh while the dew is sparkling, / Laugh ‘mid springing flowers; / Laugh when the day grows brighter, / Laugh in the glowing sun; / Laugh, for the night is coming, / When man’s work is done.

In spite of the Bible’s lack of belly-bouncing laughter, there is one notable instance thereof. When the Lord tells 99-year-old Abraham that he and 90-year-old Sarah will give birth to a child, Abraham falls on his face and laughs. When Sarah overhears the Lord make that promise, she too laughs. But then Sarah gives birth to a boy. The Lord orders them to name the child Isaac, which means "he laughs."

If it is true that God gets the last laugh, then surely we can sing some funny hymns.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"The Crucible & Sacrament of Family Life"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 17 November 2011]

Ah, the holidays! The season of the family get-together par excellence. We will wrestle with in-law and blended families, complicated work schedules, divided loyalties, cantankerous personalities, precarious weather, tight budgets, and a host of other issues in the perennial attempt to satisfy everyone, no matter their diet, gift desire, time constraint, or quirky disposition.

The burden of accomplishing this mission impossible will fall nearly entirely on women, primarily mothers and grandmothers who still assume most of the responsibility for what sociologists of marriage & family call “kin-work”: arranging parties, buying and wrapping gifts, remembering birthdays, sending greeting cards, soothing the rage of politically radical uncle Fred, reassuring the forever resentfully envious sister Sally, restraining cousin Carl’s tendency for over-intoxication, juggling schedules so feuding siblings won’t be at the same party at the same time…

All the mothers and grandmothers of the U.S. and other Christian holiday-plagued, holiday-blessed countries should get the entire first week of January off from all work, with full pay and benefits, accompanied by free tickets to the location of their choice.

Indeed, the holiday get-togethers can feel uncomfortably like maneuvering through a minefield of sorts. For this reason, many people dread them.

But I suspect that most of us still eagerly anticipate extra concentrated and qualitative time in festivity with family. And we consider the necessary delicate dance among different personalities with histories of conflict and cooperation a small price to pay for the pleasures involved.

After all, in spite of the rigmarole of our holiday season, we feel deep sympathy for those who, for whatever reason, spend their holidays alone. We know that for those without any family or who have lost their dearest loved ones, the holidays can be excruciatingly lonely. B. J. Thomas gave us the lyric: “Even a bad love is better than no love/And even a sad love is better than no love at all.”

It is interesting that the gospels give evidence that Jesus held some harsh, even anti-family sentiments. In one place (Matt. 12:48-50) he gives spiritual fellowship priority over family relations. In another (Matt. 10:34-38), he suggests his message will divide families, setting members against one another in great hostility. He pointedly states that in the resurrection to come people won’t be married (Mark 12:25).

Similar attitudes are commonly found in the world’s spiritual traditions. In one Hindu classic (the Bhagavad-Gita), the great warrior Arjuna is told by Lord Krishna that, as a warrior, he should not refuse to fight even when the enemy includes friends and relatives. The future Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, famously left a wife and child to begin his journey towards spiritual enlightenment (Jataka tales). The insight is that authentic spirituality requires a break with the temporal and material world, and the strongest ties to mundane reality are usually family ties.

On the other hand, Jesus is also remembered as affirming family relations. He counsels against divorce (Matt. 5:31-32), states that in marriage two become one flesh, and provides the popular wedding declaration: “What God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt. 19:4-6). He repeats approvingly the commandment to honor one's parents (Mark 10:19). He can't even imagine a father who would give his child a stone instead of bread (Matt. 7:10).

The Holy Qur'an says: "Serve Allah and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer” (Surah 4:36, adapted). Humanity’s faith traditions teach that a life of virtue is also a life of responsible relationship to family and community.

In this holiday season many of us will find ourselves searching for peace and safety in the cacophony of the family get-together. It will be difficult sometimes to maintain dignity and honor with relatives who find new creative ways to insult us, who will be obnoxiously gushy or tiringly standoffish, incessantly talkative or irritatingly incommunicative, overly self-effacing or unbearably self-important. Some will be too insecure to tolerate differences of opinion on controversial subjects. Some will have no opinions at all until later behind your back.

We will, though, also be dealing with those who will be quick to praise, sensitively affectionate and polite, pleasantly conversational and gracious, emotionally secure enough to be openly vulnerable and to allow us to be ourselves. To keep things in perspective: Certainly with us, too, our loved ones will have to practice considerable grace and patience to tolerate our shortcomings and eccentricities.

The authentic human challenge for those who would rise to the occasion will not be how to get more attention, one-up someone else, show off one’s accomplishments, or get one’s way. The real challenge will be how to be a worthy and redemptive participant in the sacramental reality that is family life.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"Lazarus in the Park"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 3 November 2011]

The protesters occupying parks all over the country as part of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement use the slogan, “We are the 99%.” By that, they refer to the 99% of the U.S. population that’s been losing ground relative to the richest 1%. The average yearly income of the top 1% of America is $1,531,000 while that of the 99% is $55,000. We know, though, that tens of millions of Americans are far below that 55 grand.

Most people don’t realize it, but between 1928 and 1980 Americans were becoming more equal with regard to income. Since 1980 (the beginning of Reaganomics, by the way), that trend has been reversed.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, between 1979 and 2007 the average net income of the top 1% grew by 275% while that of the middle 60% grew only about 40%, and the lowest 20% grew by 18%.

Of particular interest is the fact that the average annual gross income of the lower 90% of U.S. households actually decreased by about $900 while that of the top 1% increased by over $700,000!

This is a growing inequality hard to ignore. Yet wealthy and well placed Republican politicians continue to call for sacrifice by the poor, the unemployed, and the working classes, while seeking reductions in the taxes of the rich, and blocking President Obama’s program for immediate job creation.

The OWS movement began on September 17 when about 2,000 people gathered in lower Manhattan and occupied Zuccotti Park. This was in response to a call for a protest from a progressive Canadian foundation known as Adbusters. It quickly took on a life of its own, and since then, the OWStreeters have set up “occupations” in cities all over the country, including Kansas City and Lawrence (occupykc.com, occupylawrence.wordpress.com), and in some foreign countries.

There have been clashes between protesters and the police in various cities. There will probably be more. Sometimes protesters get rowdy. And the police are not always the most skillful at handling rowdiness and civil disobedience. Pictures of young people seriously injured by rubber bullets have gone viral on the internet.

So far, the demands of the OWS movement are not specific. Probably the one overwhelming issue is the cohabitation of big banks and corporations with government. I’m guessing the underlying cause is the growing inequality, as well as the recent loss of income, jobs, and opportunity as a result of Wall Street excesses in the wake of deregulation. Add to that a government paralyzed by Republican intransigence, and you end up with angry people looking for ways to tilt policy back in favor of the working classes.

Rush Limbaugh has referred to the OWStreeters as “human debris.” I wonder if he’s ever read the parables of Jesus.

There is perhaps no parable more class conscious than the one in the Gospel of Luke about the rich man and Lazarus. As the story goes, there was a rich man who wore the finest clothes and “feasted sumptuously every day.” But “at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger” with leftovers from the table of the rich man. Then Lazarus dies and is carried off by angels to be with Abraham. The rich man dies and finds himself in torment in Hades.

So the rich man calls out to Abraham for mercy and to let Lazarus dip his finger in some water and cool his thirst with the drops on his tongue. But Abraham says to the rich man that in his life he was blessed with many good things, and Lazarus was cursed with many evil things. Besides, the distance between them is too great, and no one can cross it.

So then the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to “warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replies that they have Moses and the prophets to listen to. The rich man says, however, that they will listen to someone returned from the dead. But Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

The OWStreeters in America’s parks hungering for economic justice are Lazarus at the gates of the rich.

William Domhoff, on his website “Who Rules America,” reminds us that just 20% of the U.S. population owns 85% of the private wealth in this richest country in the world.

There is something terribly wrong with this picture; something just as wrong as a rich man who ignores the sick and starving beggar at the gate.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"The Faith of Bob Smith"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 20 October 2011]

I have a lot of shortcomings, and one is the tendency to not realize how much I value some people until I’ve lost them. This was brought home to me recently while attending a church conference in Topeka.

This was the annual conference of the Kansas-Oklahoma branch of the United Church of Christ (UCC). I can’t attend every year, but when I do, I look forward to spending some time with Bob and Dee Smith. This year, however, when I got to the conference, I learned that Bob had suddenly and unexpectedly died in a hospital in Wichita, where he lived, a few days before.

Bob had given me my first paid position in a church back in 1968. I was a college student, on my way to ministry. Bob was the pastor of Green Trails Baptist Church, a new church start in suburban St. Louis. We met through the Baptist Student Union at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Bob was a tall, bright, charismatic young pastor, and he invited me to serve as the youth director at his church, which I did for a couple of years.

The late 1960s were tumultuous times, and I would confess that much of the tumult was reflected in my own soul. Bob taught an adult Sunday-School class on faith. In that class we read what I now view as the most important book ever written on faith: Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith.

Christianity, for a variety of reasons, has tended to define faith as believing certain things, usually doctrines about God, Jesus, salvation, and so on. This tendency is often heard in the comments that faith is believing things that are hard to believe, or believing things for which one has no proof. For thinking people who critically examine the doctrines of the church, this is a problem. When they can’t affirm traditional doctrines, they often feel they don’t have any faith, and they’re then lost to the church altogether.

Tillich argued that faith is not primarily a matter of believing things; rather it is a matter of the orientation of one’s life. He wrote that faith is a matter of being “ultimately concerned.” In other words, the object of your faith, your god, is what you care most about, what you center your life around, what you’re willing to bet your life on.

Obviously the object of one’s faith can be anything: a car, career, family, nation, or whatever. But Tillich points out that, because faith is a matter of ultimate concern, authentic faith requires an ultimate object. In other words, the only truly proper and authentic object for human beings’ ultimate allegiance is God or some universal transcendent principle that substitutes for God.

Tillich reminds us that we’re all polytheists, going through our days centering our lives around all kinds of things. But when we face ourselves with honesty and sincerity, we recognize that nothing less than God can rightly be our ultimate concern or claim our ultimate allegiance. We have in Tillich’s book a philosophical justification of the first commandment: “you shall have no other gods before me.”

It’s all fairly simple when you think about it. The idea that faith involves the orientation of our lives is not a doctrine but the reality of relationship. Faithfulness and loyalty to one’s spouse does not primarily mean an accurate knowledge of his or her nature and character. I might understand my wife thoroughly and still be unfaithful to her. How many of us could remain married if it required some kind of completely accurate insight into each other’s personality? Marriage involves faithfulness and loyalty to the relationship, however poorly or well one might understand one’s spouse. The same goes for faith in God.

This distinction between our relationship to God and what we believe about God is important. The reality is that we can’t comprehend God. So the traditional practice of the church to demand that people affirm doctrines about God, Jesus, etc., or risk the threat of banning, expulsion, or excommunication is simply out of line. What counts for faith is not one’s knowledge of God, but one’s relationship to God.

The Rev. Dr. Bob Smith introduced his congregation to the great Christian thinkers and their wisdom. He practiced the principles of faith, loved everyone gently, and taught generously.

Eventually we each left the Southern Baptist church for the UCC. But during one of the more turbulent times of America’s modern history, back in a little classroom in that little suburban Baptist church, he led me to writings and insights that have sustained me through the years. I owe him a lot for that.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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"The Body of Christ Do NOT Take and Eat"

by Anton K. Jacobs

[Published in The Record, 6 October 2011]

If you went to church last Sunday in any of what sociologists call the mainline churches, you almost certainly participated in a service of holy communion. Catholics know it as the Eucharist and Protestants as the Lord’s Supper. This is the ritual whereby Christians, in one variation or another, consume tiny amounts of bread and wine or grape juice which represent the body and blood of Christ.

The first Sunday in October is “World Communion Sunday.” The idea is that on this particular Sunday the Lord’s Supper will also affirm international Christian unity.

It was begun in 1936 by American Presbyterians and adopted in 1940 by what is now the National Council of Churches. The website for the Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church proclaims: “World Communion Sunday is a time to be in communion with Christians all over the world.” The National Council of Churches states: “On this day we celebrate our oneness in Christ.”

World Communion Sunday is a particularly ironic practice because most Christians outside America’s mainline Protestant churches have never heard of it. Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and others don’t have it on their church calendars.

This is no accident because the fact is that many of Christianity’s denominations do not permit nonmembers to partake of the Lord’s Supper, so it cannot be used as a vehicle to affirm Christian unity. In fact, there may not have been any more divisive practice in Christendom than that of the Eucharist, which started out as a love feast!

Division is a fact of life for the world’s religions. Shia and Sunni in Islam. Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed in Judaism. Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana in Buddhism. And this list just scratches the surface of the divisions within the divisions. But it is astonishing how the Lord’s Supper has been used with utmost arrogance by Christianity for purposes of exclusion and hostility.

The history of this “sacrament” of the church is long and complicated, but here are a few simplified highlights. The Catholic view is that the bread and wine are transformed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood during the Eucharist; the Lutheran view is that Christ is present in the elements, but their substance is not changed; the other dominant Protestant view (Calvinists, evangelicals, etc.) is that Christ is present in spirit during the Lord’s Supper, not in the elements themselves. There are yet other variations among Christian denominations.

Those churches that deny communion to nonmembers take the view that nonmembers might not be quite…uh…ready for it in understanding and devotion. Roman Catholicism, many Missouri Synod Lutheran churches, some Anglican and some of the more conservative Baptists, among others, practice this “closed communion.”

I once saw a young man who didn’t know these things kneel with his hands out at the railing in an Anglican Church at his own father’s funeral, only to be dismayed as the priests passed him by with the wafer and then the wine because he wasn’t an Anglican. I saw an eight-year-old boy get his hand slapped by an elderly woman as he reached for the bread being passed down the aisle in a Southern Baptist church. That particular congregation was among the hyper-exclusive about communion. When the pastor’s son went away to college and transferred his membership to a Southern Baptist church near the college, he was unable to partake of communion when home on breaks.

One of the most pathetic moments of Christian history occurred around the conflicting interpretations of the Lord’s Supper. During the Reformation, a German prince sponsored a council for the leading Protestant reformers to see if they could unite. Martin Luther and his people drew up fifteen articles of doctrine to which they felt everybody should agree. Another leading reformer among the Calvinists, Ulrich Zwingli, and his people could agree with fourteen of them but not the fifteenth, which involved the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper.

According to accounts, at the end of the council, a tearful Zwingli offered his hand in fellowship to Luther who refused it and said, “Your spirit is not our spirit.” Luther’s comrade, Philipp Melancthon, wrote, “We told the Zwinglians that we wondered how their consciences would allow them to call us brethren when they held that our doctrine was erroneous.”

All this nonsense is a disturbing embarrassment to many of us Christians and laughable to those outside Christianity.

In the Christian gospels Jesus is portrayed as someone radically inclusive. He is shown as sympathetic and welcoming to all kinds of people, including the lowly, rejected, unclean, and despised. In fact, he is criticized for going to the table and breaking bread with impure outsiders. That Christianity took that obvious spirit of inclusion and turned it into a ritual of exclusion and condemnation of others is, to put it kindly, weird.

[Anton, a clergyman and a lecturer in philosophy, sociology, and religion, is the author of Religion and the Critical Mind (Lexington Books). He can be contacted at mycountrymyfaithandme@earthlink.net.]

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