Thursday, December 3, 2015

Everything You Think You Know About Gun Violence is Wrong!

Today I've been reading the often predictable and obnoxious posts about gun violence / gun control in light of the recent tragedy in San Bernardito, CA.  The usual battle lines are drawn, positions become entrenched, thus ensuring that no constructive dialogue will take place and nothing will change.  I fear that in our future we will experience many more episodes like this because we've become a culture that's addicted to violence much like a heroine user becomes addicted what's inside the needle.  Everyone seems to think that their position is the right one, while ironically every single one of these talking points are absolute garbage and serve to exacerbate the problem.  Let's elaborate:

We could prevent this kind of violence if we had stricter gun control laws.
The issue here is that it fails to address the very source of the violence - the human heart.  As long as people have made up their minds to kill others as retribution for their misdeeds they are going to find a way to do it.  The Boston Bombers made some homemade explosives with common kitchen items.  If you create stricter regulations and then sit back on your heels someone is going to find a way around them, be it a knife, IED, baseball bat, rocks, potato cannon, homemade napalm, etc. etc.  What we need to do is address the root causes of the violence, not the mechanism by which it finds its form.

God isn't fixing this!
This was the headline in today's issue of the NY Daily News.  I'll admit that this one pissed me off a lot.  We have an unprecedented rise in nones, dones, non-religious, atheist, pseudo-atheist, and a general culture that doesn't care about God.  Let's be clear that this is the same God who teaches you to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to put your sword away because whoever lives by the sword dies by the sword, to pray for those who persecute you.  Christianity is difficult.  It is really, really hard to love somebody in  the face of their hatred.  So most people have given up.  But can anyone honestly say that if we lived as a society according to the Sermon on the Mount we would be the worse off for it?  Quite the contrary.  A robust faith actually leaves zero room for this kind of violence so let's quit pushing it to the side and then wondering how things got so bad.

We need better mental health care.
This statement taken on its own is actually true.  But to invoke it anytime there's a mass shooting is profoundly offensive to anyone who has struggled with mental health issues.  Mental illness has a huge spectrum, and only a small percentage of them are actually violent people.  Most, I would venture to guess, just struggle to put on a brave face and make it through the day while inside they're dying.  Claiming that a violent person is 'sick' or 'crazy' does a huge disservice to the millions of people who have worked hard, struggled, and live a life in the face of their difficulties.  Let's not group them together.

Responsible citizens with guns can prevent these kind of occurrences.
Today I'm an equal opportunity offender.  We have a pervasive myth in our society that violence in certain circumstances is somehow redemptive.  As long as the good guys shoot the bad guys everything is okay.  This myth pervades all kinds of movies, video games, entertainment, politics.  You can claim that the vast majority of people who indulge in this kind of media don't commit violent acts - but every single one of them reinforces the myth.  The other problem with it is that in real life you can't tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.  In his letter to the Romans St. Paul taught us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Ro 3:23).  If that's true we should take a more humble approach to who we are and not be so quick to applaud killing because somehow we're 'good' and the others are 'bad.'  Trust me you're not smart enough to make that kind of judgement so leave it up to God.

This is because of religious extremism
The more I've researched the more I'm convinced that this is a red-herring argument designed to ignore the fact that our society and government has actually created a lot of the problems that are erupting violently.  In the 1950's the United States CIA engineered a coup d'etat that put a brutal dictator in charge of Iran.  When they revolted and set up their own system we declared them 'bad.'  In the 1980's we took sides in the Afghanistan Civil War and then pulled out as soon as the Soviets left.  Then in the early 2000's we bombed Afghanistan back to the stone age, and in a matter of minutes destroyed a civilization that took centuries to build.  When that wasn't enough for our blood lust we invaded Iraq, dismantled their government, and then left because their security, as we claimed, was 'their responsibility.'  Contrast this with what we did following World War II.  We build bases in Japan, Germany, and Italy, and helped them rebuild their societies.  Today they are some of our closest allies.  Restorative justice demands that you fix, repair, or rebuild after you've damaged or destroyed something.  No matter how noble you think you are going into war, there are always going to be damage that affects more people than we care to admit.  And in order to repair that harm you need to be willing to walk beside them for the long haul.  I strongly doubt that the main reason for these attacks is to impose someone else's way of life upon us.  I do feel it's because people want us to stop destroying them.

So what does all of this mean?
Hatred, judgement, self-righteousness, and violence all go hand in hand.  You cannot fight your way to a more peaceful society.  This is why when St. Peter took his sword and cut of the ear of the high priest's servant, Jesus told him to put away his sword.  For everyone who lives by the sword dies by the sword  (Matthew 26:52).  Every one of the arguments is an example of trying to live by the sword.  They arrogantly assume that the problem can be fixed so long as someone else changes, be it more guns, less guns, mental health, less religion, etc.  The only solution is for human beings to take responsibility for what's in their own hearts.  Live a life of love and kindness and generosity and gentleness and justice and don't give room to all this other trash.  Let's live in a better way.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Solving Cheryl's Birthday Problem.

Okay I'm taking a break for a moment to analyze a brain teaser.  This one was posted to the New York Times:

Albert and Bernard just met Cheryl.

“When’s your birthday?” Albert asked Cheryl.

 Cheryl thought a second and said, “I’m not going to tell you, but I’ll give you some clues.”

She wrote down a list of 10 dates: May 15 — May 16 — May 19 June 17 — June 18 July 14 — July 16 August 14 — August 15 — August 17 “My birthday is one of these,” she said.

Then Cheryl whispered in Albert’s ear the month — and only the month — of her birthday.

To Bernard, she whispered the day, and only the day. “Can you figure it out now?” she asked Albert. 

Albert: I don’t know when your birthday is, but I know Bernard doesn’t know, either.

Bernard: I didn’t know originally, but now I do.

Albert: Well, now I know, too!

 When is Cheryl’s birthday?

Several Solutions have been posted here and here.  Unfortunately each has a flaw in its logic and is wrong.

The analysis begins soundly enough.  Albert doesn't know, and he knows that Bernard doesn't know either.  Since Bernard was only told the day we can rule out 19 and 18 since they each have only one month associated with them.  That leaves us with the following possibilities.

May 15, 16
June 17
July 14, 16
August 14, 15, 17

Now we need to look back at the very first statement, Albert doesn't know.  Albert only knows the month, so we can eliminate June, since it only has one day associated with it that's not ruled out.  For some reason, both the Times and The Guardian eliminate May at the same time, but May is still a definite possibility.  Bernard could have been told either 15 or 16, and the statement would still be logically true.
*Update* On reading the comments section, NYT claims that May has to be eliminated because otherwise Albert would not be able to make the statement that Bernard does not know either.  i.e. If he had been told May he wouldn't be able to eliminate May 19th and definitively state that Bernard does not know either.  However a person can infer from Cheryl's behavior and statements that she did not give such an easy answer to Bernard and not Albert.

That leaves us with the following possibilities:

May 15, 16
July 14, 16
August 14, 15, 17

The next statement is that Bernard did not originally know, but now he does.  Remember he only knows the day.  The only possibility at this point that satisfies this statement is August 17th.  Bernard was clearly told 17, but could not deduce between June and August until June 17th was eliminated.  The correct answer is August 17th.

The third statement is that Albert knows too.  Once Bernard deduced the correct answer and revealed that he knew, Albert can use his powers of deduction to realize that August 17th is the only possible explanation.

Monday, October 20, 2014

General Theological Seminary through the eyes of Screwtape

My Dear Wormwood, I am immensely pleased at your progress concerning your charges at General Theological Seminary. Your hard work and patience has paid off immensely. The backbiting and conflict have reached such proportions that future tempters will no doubt read about them as part of their underling studies. I must congratulate you on your use of the “Acceptance” tactic. Other tempters have been wildly successful using the tactic against departing dioceses and congregations. And I must say the sweet sound of, “I accept the renunciation of your ordination vows,” causes immense pleasure in all of us. But you have taken it to a level never before seen. All of your predecessors used the tactic against the others - those who threatening to leave the Church. But you have successfully implemented it against beloved seminary professors. To that I say bravo! I believe the success lies in the fact that our efforts have effectively closed the door on reconciliation. One we closed it on huge matters concerning property, schism and doctrine, you were able to keep it closed in matters of shared government, accountability, and respectful behavior. The challenge before you now is to keep each side focused on winning and losing. Do not permit any thoughts of reconciliation, healing, repentance, amendment of life, or any similar sentiments to enter their consciousnesses. (It pains me even to write those words.) Remember the door is closed and you do not want to see it open at all. The smallest crack can bring such noxious hope to the table that all would be lost. If these thoughts do arise, suggest to your charges that by now they are simply not possible, or suggest that the cost would be too high. By all means available you want to keep them fighting. Your continued use of secrets will be very helpful indeed in keeping your charges off balance. But do not refer to them as secrets, as that may alert them to your influence. Instead use more virtuous sounding terms like “confidentiality,” or “sealed records.” The absence of information has the delightful side effect that your charges will fill the gaps in their knowledge with the worst possible outcome without any help from you, thus aiding you in your task. If your charges begin to show alarming behavior such as adopting virtue, listening, considering another’s point of view, etc. etc., simply suggest that extremely harmful ramifications would occur should they undertake such efforts. The only human completely immune to this tactic to my knowledge was that deplorable Christus, who chose to die rather than succumb to temptation. That one act set back our cause immensely so you must prevent similar occurrences at all costs. Yes General Theological Seminary is suffering greatly thanks to your influence. Keep up your attacks and its continued downfall will bring such admiration from the lowerarchy that you will benefit greatly and build quite the name for yourself in the nether regions. Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape

Monday, December 16, 2013

How the Church Messes Up Christmas!

Okay good now I have your attention. Every year we decry the materialism of the season, how it's being co-opted, and how Christmas is being pushed more and more into Advent. As I'm doing our liturgical planning for the Christmas season I realize how the Church itself is partially to blame. Quite honestly, after December 25th the season gets pretty depressing. For a quick look at the calendar - December 26th commemorates St. Stephen - a Deacon and Martyr (he gets stoned to death), December 27 is St. John, and the reading involves Jesus reinstating Peter and chewing him out at the same time, and December 28th is the feast of Holy Innocents - yup we celebrate when King Herod killed all the young boys under the age of two. Then for the Sundays themselves: In the first Sunday after Christmas we read John 1:1-18, which is lovely if you have a degree in theology, but in general it takes a lot to understand what's going on. The second Sunday has several options for readings, One is the Epiphany Story, the other is Joseph and Mary's flight to Egypt to avoid Herod's massacre, and the other is Jesus getting lost in the temple when he's twelve.

Now let's look at the season around us. People start singing Christmas Carols in November because they speak to a deep part of our soul that longs for that miraculous moment. I can't imagine a single person who's not moved by Hark the Herald Angels Sing or O Holy Night. We make our preparations so we can carve out time from our ordinary hectic lives and be with our families, wishing each other love and joy. We want Peace on Earth and Good Will Towards All. These aren't bad things. Granted the gift giving is a bit extreme but the other sentiments are right along with the Gospel.

The strange dichotomy here is that the Church sets aside twelve days for the Christmas season but just like the world around us, drops the mystery of the Christ Child on December 26th. The real shame is that there are several Bible passages that go unread in public worship that would be magnificent for this season. I think there are some things we can do if there's a worldwide effort to do them.

1 - Let's move the feasts of the Martyrs to some more appropriate dates. I'm sure there's a reason why they are where they are but I honestly don't know them. So let's put the feast of St. Stephen after Pentecost, which is actually when these events occurred. St. John, with its corresponding readings should be celebrated late in the Easter season, and before Ascension Day. Finally let's put Holy Innocents AFTER the Epiphany. The sequence of events is: 1: Jesus was born, 2: Wise men came to visit, 3: Herod killed all the boys. Let's have the feasts follow the Biblical sequence.

2 - Now that we have some room, let's include some of the amazing infancy stories during those twelve days. I'm going to say we just plain double the readings for The Presentation on the Second Sunday after Christmas. The season is about joy, about God coming to earth and us experiencing that miracle. In the Presentation Stories the infant Jesus is presented in the Temple and two individuals, Simeon and Anna experienced that joy and the miracle. In a sense, we can capture the spirit of Christmas through those stories. For the first Sunday after Christmas, we aught to read the first chapter in Matthew (Yes I know vv 18-25 are read on Advent 4 Year A - however once every three years is not enough in my opinion. Besides, the current lectionary doubles John 1:1-18 within days - let's switch it.)

This kind of approach let's the Bible narrative unfold throughout the season. We would get to experience the mystery of Christmas from many different angles and experience the joy at the same time. It would take a huge effort to make the kind of changes I'm suggesting, but I hope everyone will take some time to think about it. Perhaps celebrating the season this way would have an impact on the Christmas season in general, and truly make it last for the twelve days set aside for it.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mystical Reflections on Hebrews 11:29-12:2 - Proper 15C

It's almost funny, I stared at the text today trying to find some deep meaning and got nothing - nada, zip, zilch.  At the same time, an email arrived in my inbox from about their 60 day journey.  The lesson for today told the story of Moses desiring to see God's face, and God instead put him in the cleft of a rock, covered Moses with His hand, and passed by.  Moses was only able to see God's back, not His face.  In essence the story was God's way of telling us, "You will see me when you are not looking."

This Sunday's text from Hebrews describes many heroes of faith, who underwent suffering.  They endured beatings, fire, lions, being sawed in half, persecution, etc. etc.  Then the text has a curious shift: "Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39-40 NRSV)" 

On one level there is a lesson here about suffering for the sake of others - a theme not uncommon in the Christian faith.  Scholars and theologians throughout the centuries have struggled to figure out how suffering can be redemptive.  Most of the theories center around the passion of Jesus and how that suffering paid the price for humanity's sins.  But here the author is describing the suffering of the saints, and how even though they endured and believed, they did not receive what was promised.  We are told that they would not be made perfect apart from us, and that God had provided something better.

Again an understanding of the Four Worlds can shed some light on the matter.  Some mystics will describe our task here on earth as making corrections so that our world more closely follows the divine blueprint.  You might say that the highest world, Atzilut, is the purest and closest to God's intention, yet it is the least actualized.  As you move down through the worlds, imperfections arise, each of which needs correcting.  This is not to say that God has made a mistake, but the realities of created beings with free will always allows for imperfections.  A correction in the upper worlds always means a correction of thought or belief, while a correction in the world of Assiah involves a different action: being kind to someone, expressing love, giving to charity, etc.

From this point of view its almost impossible to think of one-for-one spiritual rewards.  Your good actions are meant to correct the entire world.  Sometimes those contributions are incredibly humble, yet necessary.  Often they go unrecognized or unnoticed.  That doesn't mean that they're trivial.  As a matter of fact, they're probably the most indispensable pieces of the puzzle.

In this case, the correction of faith means that you may not see the fruits of your labor in this lifetime.  But in the world to come, when all of these corrections, good deeds, pieces of the puzzle come together, we will all experience the reward God has promised.  That reward is a world full of love, peace, justice, and righteousness.  You may not receive that reward now - as a matter of fact you probably won't.  But faith means hoping for that reward, and holding on to it with the utmost conviction.  By faith you cling to the upper worlds, and to the image that they project.  That faith will always translate into actions in this world, even when you don't see the point in them.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Mystical Reflections on Hebrews 11:1-3

It's been a while since I've written here but I wanted to return to this project.  In these three verses we have a definition of faith, that it is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  We are told that by faith the worlds were prepared by the word of God and that what is seen was made by things that are not visible.  I'm paraphrasing here from the NRSV version of the Bible.

What's worth noting is that the author describes worlds being made.  Literally the Greek refers to Eons, which is translated as worlds.  The question remains why is it in the plural rather than the singular?  Surely someone writing two thousand years ago would view the earth as a singular thing.

I've written before about the four worlds of Atzilut, Beriah, Yetzirah, and Assiah.  The idea is that the final world, Assiah is the one we live in, while the other three are the plans and the intentions for this world.  Through mystical experiences, it is believed that one can move upward through the worlds.  As you do this, life becomes closer to God's pure intention, yet less actualized.  This is incredibly important for spiritual people because our task is to make corrections to our world, to bring it more in line with the intentions of the other three.

So what is in the other three worlds?  In a sense they are composed of thought.  You cannot see a thought; a person can only express it through words or actions.  The only way to hold on to a thought is to believe in it.  When the thought is of something Godly, and you hold onto it with the utmost conviction, that's faith.  As the chapter progresses he author describes the faith of many Biblical heroes, from Abel through Abraham to Moses and beyond.  These people must have had a sense of God's intentions through the upper worlds and acted accordingly in this world.

What this means for us is that in our own spiritual lives, it does us well to understand God's intentions and principles behind what he does, so that we may act accordingly.  For example, understanding that all life is a gift from God and not ours to do with as we please has a profound impact on how we live our lives.

A good way to approach this understanding is to read scripture with an eye towards the why.  Why did God say that?  What's the essence of this action?  A good teacher can guide you, but ultimately the journey is yours.  But getting to the essence will greatly enhance your faith, because you will know what to hope for, and cling to it with the utmost conviction.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Thoughts on The Recent Violent Protests

As I'm writing this post, there are many news reports out describing many, many Muslim groups engaging in protests against the United States.  This all is in response to a video circulating on the internet entitled "Innocence of Muslims" which, among other things, mocks the founder of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed.

My initial reaction to stories such as these is shock and horror over the violence.  There are some people in the world who feel that insult can only be appeased by a greater insult, violence with violence, and that no attack, no matter how small, can go unchallenged.  Personally I find such an attitude barbaric and nonsensical.  If one were to take it to its logical conclusion, the entire world would not stop fighting.  This is why in the Old Testament cities of refuge were to be set up in Israel so that a person could flee there and escape the cycle of violence (Numbers 35).

At the same time, the video that sparked all of these riots is one of the most insulting, offensive things I've seen in a long time.  If I were Muslim I would be just as outraged as many people are today.  Reflecting on these issues reminds of when I was in college and saw an episode of South Park that portrayed Jesus in a boxing match with Satan.  In the cartoon Jesus was drawn as a skinny, wimpy man while Satan was large and heavily muscled.  While clearly outmatched (at least in the cartoon) Jesus won when he got a shot in and Satan threw the match.  (It turns out that Satan bet against himself, and won a lot of money by losing.) I was so upset that they would go to this extreme that I stopped watching the show altogether.

While in the United States we enjoy many, many freedoms that others don't have, I think its important to use those freedoms wisely.  While it will never be illegal to voice one's opinion, it may not be kind to do so in certain situations.  "The Innocense of Muslims" is clearly a case where someone used their freedom of speech in a way that antagonized others, and insulted them.  This in no way gives anyone the right to commit acts of violence.  But at the same time, why provoke?  St. Paul was pretty clear about using the freedom we have in Christ judiciously.  In a case of whether someone felt it was okay to eat meat or not, St. Paul stated that if your freedom causes a brother to stumble, then you're not acting in love (Romans 14).

In the Kaballah love is always tempered by restraint.  I would take it a step further and say that freedom is tempered by restraint.  Though I may have the right to put all kinds of garbage on the internet for the world to see, I'm exercising restraint and choosing not to.  This doesn't limit my freedom, instead it gives it focus, like light becoming a laser-beam.  By exercising restraint in certain areas, it allows me to concentrate my energies towards more loving and productive endeavors - hopefully ones that make a more positive impact on the world