Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What Jesus Said and Did about Guns and Killing

This is my response to a lot of what I read and hear about faith and what happened in Aurora CO, and about gun control in the U.S.

There is a huge tradition about Jesus dying “for us” or “for our sins.” The apostle Paul went further and said that the death of Jesus was the end of death itself. Powerful stuff. These are interpretations of Jesus’ death, not the ultimate meaning of his death.

The suffering and death of Jesus are significant because this was the undeserved and gruesome death of a great teacher of love and peace. His suffering and death for me symbolizes the undeserved and horrible suffering and death that befalls anyone and everyone who is such a victim.

The suffering of Jesus was no greater than the suffering of every victim of every crime and political execution and war. Jesus didn’t have to suffer more than anyone else for his death to have meaning for the rest of us. Neither was the suffering of Jesus less painful than it would be for us, because he was divine. If we think of his death in the context of his teachings, we cannot imagine that Jesus wanted us to focus on his suffering. With all his teaching about the Kingdom (Empire or Rule) of God, we can understand that it was his desire that we should all live as if God rules the world. I need to say here that God’s Rule in the context of Jesus’ teachings is no rule at all, at least as we understand law and power and rule.

The main and perhaps the only point of Jesus’ death is that it was wrong. This is a powerful statement because it means that the suffering of all the millions of others who have been tortured,
raped, and killed to suit someone’s desire for power, control, and revenge that has occurred 
in a hundred places and situations that we could name – their deaths were and are wrong, too.

Our traditions teach that Jesus died for our sins. I see no way that his death atones in any way for my sins or yours. His death, his spirituality, his religion, his God were about resistance to the uses of power against people. That resistance was non-violent and active, not passive. Jesus died because of our sins, because we want or consent to violence and killing.

The teaching of Jesus that we would rather he hadn’t taught, is to love our enemies. The power of Jesus was his subversive way of viewing the world, living in it, and dying. The power in Jesus' death was the great integrity by which he died for the values by which he lived. There is atonement only if you and I cease to support a system that does violence to people and kills them. 

When I ponder the death of Jesus, I don’t see the end of sin as such but a witness to the need for ending cruelty and torture, the death penalty, war, killing, and the end of violence itself. If Jesus in any way died for my sin or sins, or yours, he died so that no one else would have to die as he did.

If Jesus died for our sins, and we wish to follow him, we must renounce violence.

So are you a Christian? How many Christians do you know? Could you become one? I have never been sure about myself. In my best moments I only witnessed to Jesus on these matters.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Iowa Noir

I grew up in Sioux City Iowa during the '50's. There are few books about Sioux City, so I ordered this one with great curiosity and without question. I lived less than a mile from Jimmy Bremmers who was kidnapped and killed in 1954 and from Donna Sue Davis who was kidnapped and killed in 1955.  But I didn't know half of what is in this book, Sex Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950's, by Neil Miller (Alyson Books, 2002).  I read it in May and was in a kind of shock for weeks.

I was ten and eleven when these crimes occurred, but I knew the names of the cops and politicians who were involved. I didn’t know how they sought to make names for themselves and how they lived out their narrow understandings of the good society and what it is to be human. Now I understand better some of my Mother's fears and anxieties. Now I know why the Warrior Hotel was not spoken of in polite company. Now I see what a cloistered life I led and what a repressive society Sioux City embodied. Reading this book I could see the streets and homes and downtown buildings. My visual, aural, and olfactory memories went into overdrive. My questions about the milieu of my childhood multiplied. My preconceptions about society were shattered, as if they weren’t fragmented enough.

There were few clues leading to the child killers. After Jimmy disappeared the police found Ernest Triplett, a divorced ex-pimp who sold accordions door to door for a local music store, who was in the neighborhood the day the boy was taken. Triplett was tried and convicted. When the girl’s body was found there was no easy suspect. The police and the DA came up with an idea. They went after the queers.

There weren’t any “gays” yet. These were very different times from our own. I am told that it would be wrong to judge people’s attitudes and actions then by today’s standards, but we do anyway. The bar (the stylish Tom Tom Room) and adjacent men’s room at the Warrior Hotel (a wonderful art deco building across the street from First Presbyterian Church, where Carol and I were married in ‘66) were the center of the secretive gay community during the ‘50's. These sexual “perverts” must have been at the root of these kidnappings and other crimes. As the city became a bit unglued, the homosexuals were rounded up. One of the cops arrested a friend of his from high school. A high school teacher and a great many hair dressers and department store window dressers were among the suspect/victims. Rumors ruined the reputation of a pediatrician, whom it seems was totally innocent. He was able to keep out of jail and his patient families remained loyal to him. I am ashamed that we used his name as a joke and assumed his guilt when I was in junior high school.

Gov. Hoegh and some state legislators had ideas about all of this. They launched a moral crusade and a plan and a place for the perverts. Two really corrupt psychiatrists at the state mental hospital at Cherokee had been prominent in putting away Triplett. Now the governor asked the state hospital at Mt. Pleasant, in the southeast corner of the state, to set up a wing for sexual deviants. Twenty homosexual men from the Sioux City area were taken there.

I am relieved to know that the mental hospital in Mt. Pleasant did not do such great unpleasantness as they might have to the gay men who were sent there as "sexual psychopaths." The staff at Mt. Pleasant understood that these guys were harmless and could not be changed into “normal” heterosexuals. The great thing about political solutions to big problems is that they tend to evaporate when the political need for them goes away. Within a year the wing was closed down, and the men signed off to relatives and other “respectable” persons. Sadly or not, these men later repressed their experiences of Sioux City and Mt. Pleasant. Even they accepted the mores of the times in which they lived.

An Iowa law professor took on the Triplett case which was overturned in 1972.  Whether he was guilty or not remained disputed by those who knew him. In 1976 the state sexual psychopath law was overturned. A side note: How society defines sexual behaviors and defines some as crimes has an astounding history of its own. In the early ‘90's I remember a dispute in our church in Chicago. A majority wanted all the children fingerprinted and given bracelets to wear for identification. Carol and I and a few others protested, but were thought uncaring by the fearful.

Look how we identify and track what we now call “sexual offenders.” The laws passed in 1994 are more enlightened than the persecution of gays in the ‘50's. But a study of Megan’s Law in NJ “concluded that it had no effect on time to first re-arrest, showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses, had no effect on the type of sexual re-offense or first time sexual offense (still largely child molestation), and had no effect on reducing the number of victims of sexual offenses. The authors felt that given the lack of demonstrated effect of the law on sexual offenses, its growing costs may not be justifiable.” [Wikipedia] Questions about the law in New York state are detailed at http://theparson.net/so/.  Every 20-30 years there has been a change in our definitions, descriptions, and prescriptions for sexual offenses. Every 20-30 years there is a new “sex crime panic.”

A side note: Megan Kanka for whom Megan’s Law is named was kidnapped and killed only a few miles from where I lived in New Jersey, but eight years before her death. I seem to be following these events. Perhaps life imitates Stephen King or Dennis LeHane novels.

I suspect that Sioux City hasn't changed a great deal. There was always a lot of sleaze in Sioux City. A lot of stuff that used to be hidden is now in the open. I don’t know how good or bad that is, although I like daylight. The descriptions in this book of Sioux City in the '50's and the '90's are very accurate. If we as a nation are to understand and transcend our past, we need more of this kind of social journalism.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

I Declare Success in My Career!

When I was in my first church, someone asked me what I hoped to accomplish in the church. My response then and ever was: “I want to drag the church out of the 17th century (or the 16th or the 5th or the 4th)!” Now for many millions of people this has come to pass.

1965 was the high point of membership in mainline Protestant churches. I joined in 1966 and from that time on membership declined. I swear that I was not the cause of this. Many like me in my generation weren’t good supporters of the status quo, but I was in that cohort that decided to try to change things from within the system. I’m not sure that it worked. I suspect things would have changed without me.

Many conservatives blamed “liberals” like me for wrecking the church by promoting social action, supporting minority rights, the poor, the hungry, and for talking too much about war and peace. There was a Ross Douthat op-ed piece in the New York Times this week saying exactly that thing. The kind of church Mr. Douthat wants is the one Tom Paine said was “the shame of God.”

One of my teachers, Carl Dudley, responded with a sociological analysis titled Where Have All the People Gone? Much of the loss had been demographic – we didn’t have enough children to sustain the membership and too many children weren’t sticking around. The National Council of Churches responded with Punctured Preconceptions, a statistical analysis which showed that more people had left the church because it hadn’t changed enough than had left because it supported too much change.

The world was changing very fast (and the change has accelerated). Many who wanted to keep up had to leave the church because it couldn’t. Some of us wanted to allow children to participate in the Lord’s Supper before Confirmation. (Many children would leave the church after Confirmation.) New theologies were proposed and preached which were challenging spiritually as well as politically.

There’s that word, spiritual. What does it mean? "Spirituality" before 1978 (or thereabouts) would have been understood as “discipleship.” It was about following Jesus and participating in the church, not because your friends and neighbors did, and not because it was helpful socially as people worked their way up a corporate ladder into the middle or upper classes. It meant allowing yourself to be influenced by the teachings and example of Jesus and the heroes of the faith who had gone before. In my earlier life this included Albert Schweitzer, Pearl Buck (Presbyterian but suspected Commie), Bonhoeffer, and even Gandhi.

Issues of gay rights have dominated the churches since the late ‘70's. Public attitudes towards gays have become much more positive since then. The churches are following (instead of leading).

Spirituality is popular because it avoids the 4th and 16th centuries. We don’t have to fight about “beliefs” so much now. I think more people in and outside of churches think that Jesus thought we (as a society, not just as individuals) owed something to the poor and that he didn’t support war. If that is so, that’s my victory and success.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Writer’s Block

 I haven’t “blogged” in about a month. There have been many things I wanted to say or comment upon, but I couldn’t do it. It is called “writer’s block.” 

I have the solution to writer’s block taped to my computer screen. They are words from an episode of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion from a few years ago. They do a skit that has Garrison as an adult child living at home. He is a writer who has difficulty getting published. Sue Scott plays his Mother. There is someone who plays an old man who is the grouchy and very critical Grandfather.

Garrison complains about not being able to write. His Mother says:

“Why doncha write some words
and if you don’t like ‘em,
cross ‘em out and write some new ones
and sorta build like that.”

There just isn’t any answer to that. Except that first part – writing some words.