by Paul Clement Czaja, guest contributor
A Christmas scene from Syria. (Charles Roffey/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
As a Polish family, the real celebration of Christ’s birth for us took place on Christmas Eve with the singing of carols before sharing together a festive dinner. And then, finally, when the night outside was deep and decorated with a billion stars, all the family would sit around the Christmas tree, and our dad would give out the presents to each and every one of us. But my story takes place on that Christmas Eve afternoon so many years ago when I was still a kid growing up in the Bronx.
After my mother had prepared the big dining room table with a large, lovely white linen tablecloth, Grandma would come down from her apartment upstairs and place a white plate piled high with brown dates in the middle of the still empty table. My brother Peter and I would get up and begin eating some of these unusually sweet and sticky exotic fruits. We did so every Christmas, but on this particular time I was puzzled enough to ask Grandma how come we only got dates on that one day of the year. We never had dates on any other day — only on Christmas Eve. Why? She smiled at Peter and me and invited us to come and sit down and told us this story:Comments
by Alexander E. Sharp, special contributor
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) gives an interview to Pajamas TV in front of a “Kill the Bill” sign after addressing the Tea Party crowd at a protest on March 21, 2010. (photo: The Q/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The deficit and budget battles in Washington make clear that the divisions between us are deep, even spiritual. The fight is not over the size of the deficit, nor even about expenditure cuts. It is about taxes as the lifeblood of government.
Why are taxes so important? The playbook is no secret. Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform and the driving force behind the “no-tax-increase” stance, said it over 20 years ago: “Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bath tub.” The way to do that is to cut taxes.
The George W. Bush administration supported this goal. It happily organized the political religious right concerned about social issues: pro-choice, sexual orientation, sex education, and school prayer. Many of the religious right feared that secular values were eroding their fundamentalist reading of the Bible. Their numbers swelled Republican ranks.
Those seeking to limit the size of government surely continue to welcome this faith-based support, but they now have a new moral underpinning: Ayn Rand as their resident philosopher. We do not need to tackle her 800-page novels to get her message. The title of one of her shorter essays says it all: “The Virtue of Selfishness.” In it she writes, “Altruism is incompatible with freedom, with capitalism, and with individual rights. One cannot combine the pursuit of happiness with the moral status of a sacrificial animal.” For her, the Great Commandment to love your neighbor is tantamount to “moral cannibalism.”
Michele Bachmann brings another clear spiritual perspective. She received her legal training at Oral Roberts University School of Law. The curriculum was based on Christian Reconstructionism, which argues that “God granted certain jurisdictional authority to the government, the church, and the family — therefore any government action exceeding its God-granted authority is in violation of God’s commands.” Under this view, it is not within the government’s “authority” to take care of the poor.
Recalling her own family’s struggle against poverty as she was growing up, she has said, “We had our faith in God, we depended on our neighbors, we depended on ourselves, and we just did without… And we were just grateful for what we had. We knew that one day things would be better than they were. And God was faithful, and they were better.”
Her view of government, perhaps shaped by her law school training, may explain her questioning of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in a congressional hearing over federal bailout programs. She asked, “What provision in the Constitution could you point to that would give authority for the extraordinary actions taken by the Treasury since March of ‘08? What specifically in the Constitution?” In the current Iowa primary she is calling for the abolition of the Departments of Education, Energy, and Commerce: “Wherever we can cut and abolish, we should cut and abolish.”
Those who believe government has a role in providing society’s safety net think it is essential to give a hand to those whom society counts least. Protestants for the Common Good, for example, supported the recent tax increase in Illinois because we were both saddened and shocked at the cuts in human services. Aid to children, the elderly, the mentally ill, and the disabled has been reduced by $3.1 billion since 2002 and $600 million in the current year alone.
Protestants for the Common Good believe that freedom exists in two forms: we are free from loyalty to anyone or thing other than God; and we are free for the opportunity to serve all whom God loves. We are free to care for, and love, others. That’s what our faith calls us to do.
The political religious right may argue that they want the same things we do. But they would say that it is freedom from government that makes it possible for people to flourish. The best way to help others is to get government out of the way.
Those who are for smaller government rarely express concern for people in need, even though almost 20 percent of Illinois children live in poverty, only about half of the people who need treatment for mental illness receive it, and after health care reform, there will be over 700,000 Illinoisans without health coverage.
Those of us who think government is central to establishing community and serving others have been enablers in this debate. We have not insisted that the political religious right, and those who oppose raising the debt ceiling, explain why the current deficit is so high. We have not pressed for a public discussion of how the economy performed under the tax cuts and financial deregulation starting in 2000. How can the views of Ayn Rand be reconciled with Jesus’ concern for the poor?
There is no Christian answer to complicated matters of public policy, but there are spiritual values that should inform how we think about such questions. They are expressed as ideology and pursued through politics and the media. But they have an underlying spiritual basis that is as profound and explicit as it was at any time in our national history.
Sarah Posner, “The Perry vs. Bachmann Primary at Liberty University,” Religion Dispatches, July 11, 2011.
The Rev. Alexander E. Sharp is the founding executive director of Protestants for the Common Good, a faith-based education and advocacy organization in Illinois. He received his M.Div. from the University of Chicago Divinity School and has a Masters of Public Affairs from Princeton University.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
by Pádraig Ó Tuama, guest contributor
Police officers carry the coffin containing the remains of Constable Ronan Kerr to the church of the Immaculate Conception in Beragh, Northern Ireland on April 6, 2011. The First Minister of the British-controlled province, the Protestant Peter Robinson, broke with decades of tradition to attend his first ever Catholic mass as Constable Kerr was laid to rest. (photo: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images)
While working with Holy Family Parish in North Belfast over the last few weeks, I have encountered much wisdom. One woman, Ann, quoted one of her university professors who said, “Any ideology carried to its logical conclusion is a dangerous thing.”
Now, I am sure that there are library shelves worth of arguments that could add nuance and subtlety to this statement. However, the death of Constable Ronan Kerr on April 2nd has given us something more weighty than a library to consider when reflecting on Ann’s quote.
Ronan Kerr was 25, involved in Gaelic Games and a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). A Catholic, he was part of the growing sea change in the active members of the Police Service that was set up in response to the reports and enquiries and settlements and agreements of the 1980s and 90s. The organisational predecessor of the PSNI had a significant imbalance — for a 52 percent Protestant to 45 percent Catholic population, there was at times over 90 percent representation from the Protestant community. In an effort to redress this, the PSNI (formed in November 2001) had, up until two weeks ago, a 50-50 recruitment policy. A huge majority of Catholic/Nationalist/Republican groups have given backing to the organisational structure of the PSNI — but a fractionally small minority, allegedly including those who planted the bomb that killed Ronan Kerr, objected.
Ronan Kerr was possibly understood by this small minority as a traitor — someone who had abandoned the values of what it means to be Irish by joining the police service that serves a jurisdiction of Ireland that is not part of the Republic. I am guessing that this combination of Gaelic Games, formed with the dual purpose of promoting traditional Irish sports and culture, with active service as a policeman was considered a juxtaposition too far, and a contradiction that needed to be met with force.
The force that met him was placed under his car, in a small plastic container, and it exploded, killing him. The following day, on Mother’s Day, I thought about his mother. She spoke out last Monday with dignity, strength, and conviction.
Thousands of people walked in the “March for Peace” rally in Omagh, Northern Ireland on April 10, 2011. Commemorating the death of Ronan Kerr, a woman holds a sign reading “Not in My Name” with a photo of the murdered police constable. (photo: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images)
It is Lent and, as part of my work, we are looking at unusual relationships in the gospels. This was how I met Ann. She is part of a parish group examining how Jesus of Nazareth related to people who were different, people who were marginalised, people who were on the fringes, whether because they were lowly or because they were haughty. As we meet together to discuss these narratives, we examine the characters involved and consider the question of to whom these stories might speak today, and how we might demonstrate the subtlety of relationship depicted in the interactions of the text.
Last week, a group of us considered Judas. Judas is depicted as a traitor. Matthew and Mark’s gospel accounts introduce Judas as the one who betrayed Jesus. Luke’s first mention of Judas paints him as a traitor, and John, in addition to calling him a traitor, calls him a devil.
It is safe to say that the writers of the gospels inherited the outrage of the original disciples — that one of them should betray Jesus. Yet, there is a story of Judas that we must consider. When he betrayed Jesus with a kiss, Jesus called him “Friend.” Following the death of Jesus, Judas repented, saying, "I have sinned in betraying innocent blood" before ending his own life.
As we discussed Judas, we thought that his agenda may have been a more political one — to begin a revolt, to start a flame with the small spark of an arrest of Jesus of Nazareth. That he was disappointed by the outcome of death is evident. And so, we gave time to widen the character of Judas in our imagination, seeing him beyond categories.
Irish society, north and south of the border, has at times been characterised by people who have loudly declaimed each other as traitors. In order to consider the question of who the character of Judas is in the gospel, we have had to pay attention to his own actions and his own words, not just the words of those who caricature him. If we are to apply something from a close narrative reading of the text, we must recognise that the term “traitor” is too easily used, and too easily thrown.
Ronan Kerr was not a Judas, he was not a traitor. With his life, words, and body, Ronan Kerr was holding within himself identities that are symbolic of a shared and peaceful future for all on the Island of Ireland. He was one of many, Catholic and Protestant, who embody within themselves the delightful and radical combination of identities that one time were considered juxtapositional.
I believe that the character of Judas had lost his own self. He had forgotten what it meant to be in relationship with real people because his relationship with his ideology had become supreme. In some ways, I consider those responsible for the death of Ronan Kerr, who as yet have not yet claimed responsibility, to be addicted to the chaos that for so long dominated the life of society in the north of Ireland.
In light of Ronan Kerr’s death, we spent a long time speaking in a congregational group about how Jesus would speak to the bombers. We have outrage, fear, protest, desires for justice, and desires for peace each speaking loudly within us. If we are to learn from Judas, we can learn that an ideology, taken to its logical extreme, removed from the narrative of everyday, ordinary people who wish to live a peaceful life, is a frightening and dangerous thing.
About the image, middle: Members of the public write in a book of condolence for police constable Ronan Kerr. (photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Pádraig Ó Tuama, a native of Cork, works in Belfast, Northern Ireland as a faith & peace worker of the Irish Peace Centres. His poetry and writing can be found at Hold Your Self Together.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
David Black, guest contributor
I almost never buy T-shirts. When my son Josh was younger and going through that gotta-have-that-shirt stage, he bought enough for a regiment: sports shirts, camp shirts, school shirts, fund-raiser shirts — whatever was on the market. And when he began to outgrow the T-shirt phase, I inherited more hand-me-downs than a man could use. I kept only enough to handle chore-work for a few years and donated the rest to Goodwill.
The only T-shirt I’ve bought in decades is a recent purchase. Even though it’s brand new, it’s a dingy brown and looks well-worn. It has the words “Same shirt, different day” printed on the front. Okay, it’s corny and maybe a little tasteless, but I fell for it, and I enjoy the brief look of alarm on people’s faces when they first read it.
I am thinking about buying another T-shirt I just saw in a mail-order catalog. This one has a quotation from the Dalai Lama on it: “My faith is kindness.”
How different is that short saying of his from the basic teachings of Jesus? If Jesus came back and gave up his robe for jeans and an imprinted T-shirt, what would his T-shirt say? Remember, now, this is the man who was asked about the most important commandment, and his answer ran — how long? Two lines?
Two lines, you could get on a T-shirt. And maybe I’ve not been that far off when I condensed his answer to five words: “Love God, love each other.” That would fit even better. Or in the modern pictorial idiom, “♥ God, ♥ each other.” Nothing like being current, I say.
And you know what? Jesus never recited enough creed and dogma to make your teeth ache. In fact, the essence of his teachings was ethical, not creedal. We’ve managed to mess that up.
So what would the twenty-first century Jesus wear on his imprinted T-shirt? Maybe “Love God, love each other.” And when that shirt was dirty and needed washing, I suspect he could wear the Dalai Lama’s T-shirt and be quite at home in it. In fact, I think everybody in the whole world should be able to wear a shirt like that and be at home in it.
Mr. Black is a retired English teacher and former minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) who lives in Louisa, Virginia. His second book of poetry, “The Clown in the Tent,” will be published this fall.
He submitted this essay through our First Person Outreach page.Comments