Sunday, October 26, 2014

Left Behind

There's a new film out that intends to frighten people into being "saved." "Left Behind" is not new, just a warmed over version of the book in a visual format. I've only seen the trailers on TV and read some reviews but I'm familiar with the book series. Entertainment weekly gives it an F. It's rated PG 13, I guess because if you're 13 you can hopefully tell the difference between truth and fantasy. 

Frankly, I think the producers are aiming it at young people, who can be appropriately frightened and will be sent to the film by their religious leadership.

Anyway, the book series has been immensely popular. Just check out the shelves of paperback books in second hand shops and you'll likely see several copies from the series. Written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, they take literally some of the apocalyptic material in the Bible, and instead of recognizing it as literature meant for that time and place, 
project it into this time and place.

So, in the film, good people are raptured out of their plane seats and everywhere else, leaving their clothes behind during the end of times. An interesting twist in this film is that apparently children (the innocent) are also saved, along with all the good people. The heathen, probably you and I in the eyes of the writers, are left to our destruction.

I have several problems with this film and world view. First, it is a mis-reading of the Biblical material. The writers of Scripture were writing for a particular audience in  a particular time and place. Unless one discovers, as best one is able, the original context of a passage, whatever contemporary rendering you give it will be mistaken.

End timers are famous for taking Bible passages out of context. Take the book of Revelation, the prime example of apocalyptic literature in the scriptures. It's one of many examples of apocalyptic material from that time period, most of which didn't make it into the Biblical canon. Some like Martin Luther didn't believe Revelation belonged in the canon and would have left it out. 

Revelation relates a cosmic struggle between good and evil, symbolized by God and Satan, by the early Christian community and the Roman empire. It has all the elements of apocalyptic literature: cosmic struggle, symbols and visions, numerology, etc. In it's essence, the book is an encouragement for people in the early Christian community to keep the faith and stay the course even in the midst of severe persecution and oppression. Rome is the "beast," Nero Caesar the oft quoted 666. The promise of the book is that God is still in charge and will enable a new creation.

End timers turn this message on it's head. Instead of facing the difficulties of the times, they promote an escape hatch. It's not the evils of this world one is to stand firm against in expectation of the new Jerusalem. Instead, end timers offer the promise of a new world in heaven if only people will affirm the right beliefs.

A second problem I have with this reading of Scripture is the motivation by fear it entails. The simplest definition of God in the Bible is just three words, "God is love." In that same chapter in 1 John the writer says "there is no fear in love."

So why people who call themselves Christians continue to hammer people over the head with fear and guilt, sin and damnation, punishment and destruction, hell and the end times, is beyond me. Are people more responsive to negative or positive reinforcement and which does the founder of Christianity represent? The fear mongering in "Left Behind" does a dis-service to the Christian faith!

A third disagreement I have with this world view is the sense of helplessness and hopelessness it encourages. The empires of our day also like helpless and hopeless people. They would like us to focus on how horrible things are in the world and how little anyone can do about it and given the news of the day, most of us can be and are rendered immobile.

Christianity, I believe, teaches the opposite. It teaches hope, faith and love. None of which makes a person helpless.

A fourth argument I have with this end times world view is the emphasis it places on individual salvation. It's as if you just believe the right things, you'll be saved. There's no emphasis on giving your life in an Ebola epidemic, or biking across the land with a "caring for creation" message, or serving Syrian refugees in Turkey. As I read the Bible, it is primarily about social salvation, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. And in the New Testament, you also try to model in your own life the sacrificial nature of one who died on a cross in a challenging time.

One doesn't get to the promised land or the New Jerusalem by yourself. You go with others and you try to make sure everyone is able to make the journey. But in the film, it's sorry heathens, you had your chance. You're left behind!

Carl Kline

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Militarized Police

There was a picture in the New York Times recently of the police in Hong Kong, confronting all the demonstrators shutting down major highways in the city. The thing that grabbed my attention was the way the police were dressed. Militarizing the police seems to be international in scope. Plastic shields over the faces makes it hard to know if there's a person in there or not. One can hope the guns they carry shoot rubber bullets, but who can be sure from a distance, especially with the police in camouflage. 

Probably most Americans would consider the reason for the protests in Hong Kong appropriate, as the demonstrators are challenging the idea of the Chinese government confirming who can run for elective office. Besides, these demonstrators are in Hong Kong and challenging an admittedly repressive regime. (I read one article where the writer thought folks in the U.S. should be in the streets for the same reason. Considering how much money it takes to run for elective office and how party politics plays such a significant role before anyone goes near a voting booth, the author may have a point).

But my concern is what is happening to the traditional role and symbol of the police right here at home. These are the people we have always depended on in cases of accidents on our streets, robberies in our homes, saving folks from natural disasters as well as saving cats in trees. I called them when a young person who had way too much to drink was banging on the doors and windows of our 90 year old neighbor's house yelling she wanted inside. When we had a similar unexpected caller at 2:00 in the morning banging on our door, the police came and gave him a place to sleep it off. And if you read the police logs in the local paper, it's surprising and frightening how often they respond to potential suicides.

It's only right that we make our police as safe as possible, especially as more and more guns of every persuasion flood our homes and neighborhoods. But if the way we react to the threat to police is by making them soldiers, with weapons of war, we're only escalating a bad situation into a catastrophic one. Especially when people assemble in constitutionally protected and legitimate protest, facing off with tanks and machine guns, unknowable and unrecognizable officers, drones and barb wire. That will inevitably lead to revolt, not reform.

The recent experience in Ferguson, MO is a prime example. 

A video titled "Call the Cops" came across my desk the other day. It's several minutes of clips of police brutality, all the way back to Rodney King. Many of the victims are people of color, homeless, mentally ill, women. It's performed by Rob Hustle featuring the Bump. There are other similar videos out there and they seem to be multiplying with each new incident.

That's not good news for those of us used to appreciating personal relationships with law enforcement. There are certainly other ways of doing things so the violence de-escalates, rather than developing into all out war, which always seems to take more innocent victims than engaged ones.

Friends in Monterrey, Mexico have shared plans for bringing police and gang members together in mutual listening sessions. The gang members have agreed. The police have agreed. Instead of simply retreating into their respective war camps, they intend to try understanding the situation of the other, building some potential relationships, and moving beyond violence.

I still recall a video of that student protest at the University of California, Davis. That was the one where all those students sitting nonviolently on the ground were sprayed in the eyes with pepper spray. There was no threat to anyone. They were simply exercising their first amendment rights. In that situation, the police dressed for war eventually had to leave because they were surrounded by hundreds of students upset at their activities and yelling "shame".

But there was one officer who had removed his helmet. You could look in his eyes. You could tell when he smiled and when he was unhappy. He was engaging the students around him in dialogue and de-escalating the whole situation. It might have gotten uglier except for him.

Fortunately for those of us who live in small towns and cities like Brookings, South Dakota, we can still encounter persons behind the badge. They are usually neighbors, not just hired hands or hired guns.

Police work is risky business. So is publicly exercising democratic rights. There are tried and true ways of keeping the peace while protecting the citizens and respecting their rights. Just because we seem to have adopted perpetual and pervasive war overseas, it's no good reason we have to bring it home. But there's an old saying, "the chickens come home to roost."

Carl Kline

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Intentional Ignorance

There's a new disease sweeping the U.S. It's not as immediately life threatening as the Ebola outbreak in Africa but the long term consequences could well be catastrophic. It appears that the sickness has been developing slowly but surely over the last several years in my country, especially in the thinner air of public life and filtering down to the whole population.

I realized the other day that I had come down with it. The most prominent symptom in my case was fatigue. I was on the internet reading the news of the day and came across a story from March 5th. about the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives. On that day they held their 50th. vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In the story, Representative Slaughter was saying she was unable to celebrate this golden anniversary as the Affordable Care Act was already helping 7 million citizens.

My response to the story was severe fatigue. I shut down the computer, went to the freezer, pulled out the vanilla ice cream and had a big bowl with maple syrup and walnuts. As I ate the ice cream, I turned on the TV. Our Republican Senate candidate Mike Rounds came on the screen with an advertisement saying he wanted to be our Senator so he could help repeal the Affordable Care Act. I turned off the TV, finished my ice cream and went to bed.

I've discovered fatigue is only one symptom. There are others. One I can fall victim to is refusing to hear, really listen to, a point of view that differs from mine. Many symptoms are emotional or psychological in nature. For instance, one has feelings of ennui and listlessness. There is a sense of being powerless and ignored. Physical manifestations can be obesity (from ice cream) and addictions (like eating too much ice cream).

I've named this new disease "intentional ignorance." It's a variation on "I don't care" or "leave me alone." And I do think the disease is new. Let me give an example.

From all I can tell, when the U.S. went to war in World War II, the whole country was engaged. Congress actually voted a declaration of war. I've seen those Rosie the Riveter ads where women were working in the war industry. And people had victory gardens, for heavens sake.

Now, Congress heads home for politicking without even debating the implications of the U.S. arming and training Syrian "freedom fighters." The Washington Post reported the Senate couldn't even fill five hours designated for the subject. One Senator used the time to praise the Baltimore Orioles for a great baseball season. 

And most people would rather not hear about beheadings and ISIS and Assad and the new "coalition of the willing" and what's that new rulers name in Iraq, that country still in shambles from another war? And who wants to know about all those Syrian refugees overwhelming Jordan?

There was coverage on NBC of the first air strikes against ISIS. Most of what we saw were from the point of view of the pilot. You know, those shots where you see a vague outline of a building or vehicle below and then it all blows up. Unfortunately, NBC also included a shot on the ground as the narrator mentioned that there were civilian casualties. That unnecessary information impinged on my intentional ignorance. 

Drones and airstrikes are terrific technologies for spreading and embedding the disease. Do people know our Nobel Peace Prize winning President is droning people to death in several countries? Do we want to know? The disease is infectious! We can pass it on to others! 

Closer to home, we see the disease in South Dakota in the EB5 political scandal. A name that seems to keep coming up, but everyone seems to be intentionally ignorant about, is Joop Bollen. Who is this guy and why haven't we heard from him? Of course, the politics of the situation make it difficult to get the truth from the Governors or anyone else, but one wonders if the disease is so embedded in our society that we'll never be able to ferret out why a person takes his own life and why a committee designated to find answers prefers ignorance.

There are so many other instances of the disease cropping up it could fill a book. There's the Colorado School Board that wants to censor U.S. history, leaving out the bad parts. There's the corporate influence and sometimes ownership of higher education. Intentional ignorance seems rampant.

Now that I have a name and possible diagnosis of my illness, perhaps I can identify and pursue a cure. I think I see one in some of my students, not yet old enough to catch the disease. They actually want to learn. They're in school to learn. They appreciate sharing differences of opinion and respectfully listen to others. And they seem to relish the idea of change. Maybe it's infectious!

Carl Kline

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Nonviolence Through a Military Brat's Eyes

Just imagine what a child can be exposed to when they move from state to state, or west coast to east coast as being part of the military life.  You listen to stories about work, you listen to debates at the dinner table about world conflicts, and you are constantly surrounded by men and women in military uniforms.  You are raised knowing that what your parent does is in the duty of your country, and in a small way you are doing your duty of moving around the country, from base to base.

When the time comes for your mom or dad to get deployed overseas, the first thing that doesn't come to mind is that they will be safe or that there will not be any violence.  On the contrary, it is the exact opposite.  You are afraid for their safety and you know there will be times in which they must engage in violent encounters.
In summary, you grow up thinking that what your military parent does is needed to protect you and everyone around you.  However, if you look at it in another light, there should be other ways of solving a conflict without having a child's parent, or in worst cases parents, risk their lives.  What other approaches can we take to spreading nonviolence that doesn't have to allow the suffering of a military brat?

Mary Lack
Guest Blogger

Friday, October 3, 2014

Turning from the Curse of Violence, Choosing the Way of Blessing

In the end, as at the beginning, it is about how we see each other, whether we see each other at all. Through gun sights and bombsights it is impossible to see the image of a human being, nor the image of God, therefore, but only a target. Perhaps not so different than at many other times, but seeming to explode lately, so much violence and brutality surrounding us from so many places, choking the human spirit, Ferguson, Gaza and Israel, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine. Reliance on might masks deeper issues, while illuminating them with terrifying clarity, the underlying violence of shattered human connections, of justice deferred, of our inability to see each other as human beings.

The Torah portion Re’eh (Deut. 11:26-16:17) is about the nature of our seeing and the way of our going, and about the curse of violence in the place where God dwells, which is every place. It is about place itself, Place as God’s name, HaMakom/the Place, God’s most embracing name. It is about a place in Jerusalem, a certain mountain top, place of God’s dwelling that in not being named becomes both rooted in space and transcendent, beyond one place and time. The portion is about our struggle to find and define place, to name it, leaving enough place for our selves and for the other, each one with a place in which to breathe and to be. 

The portion opens with an imperative, a plea, Re’eh/See! Anochi noten lifneychem ha’yom/I am setting before you today/b’racha u’kla’la/blessing and curse. It is all in the present tense. The choice is before us today, every day. We are not told explicitly to choose, to decide, that is understood. It is in our hands, not God’s. Of course we would choose blessing rather than curse. But the choice is not like low-lying fruit just waiting to be picked, blessing as the more luscious fruit upon the tree. We so easily loose sight of the blessing, of the beautiful fruit upon the tree of life, failing to see through the thicket of the way things have always been. It becomes clear that blessing and curse are about how we live, about how we go in the world, as people and as nations. It is about choosing the way of blessing, the way that affirms life; that affirms humaneness and therefore humanity.

I find myself thinking this week of the old and bitter ways made manifest in so many places. People think they are seeing the blessing and choosing it, but really they are seeing the curse. Trapped in a brutal cycle of violence that destroys all, how can that be the way of blessing? How to see through the thicket, the miasma of the way things have always been and see the goodly fruit, to truly choose the way of blessing? 

I try to imagine…, looking ahead with hope, looking back for lessons missed…, what if Israel had stayed in Cairo when the cease-fire ended? What if Israel took a disarmingly different approach than what has ever been and said, “In the interests of peace, we are going to wait for Hamas. We understand that the people of Gaza, as all Palestinians, have legitimate needs, as do we. Your needs will not be met by firing rockets into Israel. Our needs and your needs depend on each other. We will wait for you….” Focusing only on what the other is doing to us will not bring peace.

And in Ferguson…, what if the police had called a day of mourning for Michael Brown, a day of shame, setting aside public space in which to apologize, issuing a public expression of grief, acknowledging the insidious sickness of racism, a statement calling on citizens to join together to work for healing through justice? If we only see the dynamics of protest gone awry through violence, then we miss the cry of a multitude pleading for change, for integrated policing, for an end to the curse of economic and social disparity, for an end to fear and reliance on force. Failing to see the essence of what has happened, we don’t even see through the thicket the body of one more young African American man lying dead in the street.

The evil of idolatry is underscored in Parashat Re’eh as the consigning of children to the fire. That is the greatest evil in all times and in all the ways that we do it. We are called to see evil clearly, to identify it, not to avoid challenging it, but to do so in the way of blessing, not to choose the way of the curse in the name of or while seeking the way of blessing. Amidst the violence all around, we are called to name racism and anti-Semitism for what they are, one more expression of the curse of violence. No matter how brutishly or cleverly framed, attacks on Jews are dichotomous with love or concern for Palestinians. The way of blessing needs to include all, or it is the way of the curse.

The word place/makom appears some fourteen times in the Torah portion. Twelve of those times it refers to the unnamed place where the Holy Temple shall stand in Jerusalem. The essential phrase is repeated each time, framed the first time as conditional, if you would come to the place/ki im el ha’makom…, that God, your God,  will choose…, to give God’s name a dwelling there. And in its first expression, we are told, so shall you search for God’s presence/l’shich’no tid’r’shu. Rabbenu Bachya asks from thirteenth century Spain, why does it not say clearly it is Har Ha’moriah/Mount Moriah? That is the place that is to be the mountain of God’s house, the place of the holy Temple. It is the place that in almost consigning his son to the fire, Abraham called Adonai Yireh/God will see (Gen. 22:14). Maimonides offers three reasons why that holy place is not named: naming the place would cause strife; the Canaanites would destroy the place; the tribes of Israel would contend with each other. Each reason expresses a concern and a hope to avoid violence. 

Not named, one place of God’s presence, of God’s seeing, becomes all place. The question is whether we will see, whether we will truly see and choose the way of blessing. Turning away from the curse of violence, we allow God to dwell in all of the holy places where people have learned to dwell together, seeing each other as human beings.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein