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Category: Spiritual

Rescued Again by Flannery O’Connor’s Prose Poetry

Rescued Again by Flannery O’Connor’s Prose Poetry

Some prose is really poetry, isn’t it?

“Where you come from is gone,
where you thought you were going to
never was there,
and where you are is no good
unless you can get away from it.
Where is there a place for you to be?
No place.

Nothing outside you
can give you any place, he said.
You needn’t look at the sky
because it’s not going to open up
and show no place behind it.
You needn’t to search
for any hole in the ground
to look through into somewhere else.
You can’t go neither forwards nor backwards
into your daddy’s time
nor your children’s if you have them.

In yourself right now
is all the place you’ve got.

If there was any Fall, look there,
if there was any Redemption, look there,
and if you expect any Judgment, look there,
because they all three
will have to be
in your time and your body
and where in your time and your body
can they be?”

~ Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood

The Changing View of God’s Will – or Witches and Doctors and Priests, Oh My

The Changing View of God’s Will – or Witches and Doctors and Priests, Oh My

“You have no power here! Begone! – before someone drops a house on you too!”

Long, long ago there were healing women, women wise with the knowledge of herbs, of sound and smell and taste, of birthing and guidance and support. Their various mindsets are probably not ones that we can fully understand or inhabit today, although an undeniable hunger for their possible stories is evident in our fictions. History may be written by the winners, but speculative imagination is open to all.

Such women had an important role in small communities, until their role was re-interpreted. A strong patriarchal movement, armed with the authority of a monotheistic God, saw women with any sort of power as a threat. Their own stories cast women as inferior and sinful and subordinate to men. Women were no longer allowed to own their own land, and their bodies were to be thought of – and treated accordingly – as property. Powerful women, women with any sort of unapproved education, were to be disempowered: by making them seem subhuman (and/or superhuman), by cutting off ties to their kinship networks, and by casting doubts on their existential right to exist, such that communities would feel that it was wrong to “consort” with them. Women, and especially intelligent women, became the enemy (All our “wars” do the same thing – “othering” the human as less-than-human).

The outcast has power, too, of a sort, but after such events as the Inquisition and the infamous Witch Hunts, the burnings at the stake (how much worse than a crucifixion), the drownings of “water tests” and the like, much of the understanding and knowledge that might have been accessed later – through whatever methods of succession they might have had – was probably lost. Women seeking to reclaim the figure of the goddess, latter-day herbalists, Wiccans and witches, and all the overlapping seekers who blend them and other perspectives in their own attempts to balance the spirit, all have in common a yearning for the denied and nearly exterminated appreciation of the female principle, whatever that might look like. Because of this yearning, and the inherent oppositional and defensive position, there is sometimes a reversion to awkward and unfair gender binaries, but how can there be spiritual balance and integration and movement of all, even now, when male and female have been out of touch for so long and in such alienating ways?

I start with the ancient healing woman who became cast in the role of the witch because I don’t think we’ve come to terms with gender, knowledge, and healing. Our cures are poisons, our poisons are cures. It’s all in the amount, it’s all in discernment, it’s all in complexity. It’s hard to convey, and our stories are inadequate. Our mythos doesn’t function. Our logos is a weapon. And so, the vision of the ancient woman is a comfort to me. It carries things that cannot be conveyed otherwise, like music does. Like art.

Spiritual traditions, despite their wings of the horrible, all have a heart, no matter how it might be eclipsed, in the love and compassion that is the wellspring of all insight and communion. Every sacred book has its wisdom in this deep truth, no matter how its other pages may incite cruelty. It is the choice of each community and of each person to decide whether to take the paragraphs of the ancient libraries as an excuse for their dark side to oppress and to kill, or to read them as stories that illustrate the truth of the dangers of the human soul, in order to propel consciousness into a different space – the space of empathy, and discernment. Perhaps there’s more than one reason that you never hear the story from the point of view of the Canaanite.

Science and medicine have had moments of confrontation with religious communities – even when they have been members themselves. I think of Galileo, Mendel and Darwin – all of whom proposed understandings that seemed to undermine established teachings and were seen as a threat. On the other hand, the churches have had times of amazing institutional support – founding universities, building and supporting hospitals. The religious world is not monolithic of course, but eventually it seems that scientific discoveries are incorporated into religious understandings in some way – and the hanging sense that religious views don’t change is an illusion. The very existence of all the subgroups and diverse views among just the American protestant wing of the christian religion exemplify that, but even the more ancient religions include a spectrum of views, ranging across flavors militant, orthodox, literal, evangelist, conservative, scholarly, social-activist, meditative, welcoming. To me, the religious brand is less important than this kind of sub-grouping. From what I can tell, the fanatical haters are much the same across all religions, as are the compassionate lovers.

If God’s will is understood as something that is so fragile as to be easily undermined by human knowledge, things get dark. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” as the poet W.B. Yeats succinctly put it. Those who believe they are representing God’s will seek to impose it as though it required their assistance. In this view, there is suspicion towards the cosmos, and paranoia about non-members.

If God’s will is understood more as “how it’s going to be” regardless of human decision, free will and action, then that is not threatened by much of anything, much less by better understanding our universe and our own niche within it. In this view, there is trust in the cosmos, and acceptance of both our sufferings and our various beings – whether in the form of women, of doctors – whether in extending the life of the aged, or by treating addiction or depression or a heart condition, or using birth control to better plan for thriving families. How do we know God’s will isn’t for humans to learn to make better decisions? Jesus was a healer. There is no reason in this perspective not to try, and no reason to throw away the gifts that we have been given.

If people believe both these at once, or in a syncopated rhythm, then odd things start to happen. They sometimes take on the role of God for others. Preachers and politicians believe that they speak for God. Doctors become arrogant, scientists mistake the model for the reality, communities project both good and evil onto the “what is” such that they cannot accept either the strengths or the weaknesses of science and medicine and religion and politics. Science becomes another “faith” and scientific method is considered discardable – or science becomes a perfect totality rather than a self-correcting and evolving set of theories (narratives that attempt to explain replicable experimental results). Religion inserts itself as scientific description and loses the deeper truths of its narratives. Some people become fearful and defensive, others violent. Lies become more acceptable. Truths lose the “scene” in which they have meaning, and are used as weapons.

H.L. Mencken describes the “inferior man” as one who (among other things) lives in fear: “The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fear – fear of the unknown, the complex, and the inexplicable.” Such a man – or woman – will always fear anyone that that is perceived as different. He/she feels others must be dominated, controlled, and forced to be predictable, to follow commands, so that his/her own inferiority remains concealed, even from himself or herself. I was careful here to include both genders, but…

It’s especially disheartening to me that many women can’t see the various attempts to put women back in the box for what they are, but I have hope and confidence because of the many women (and men!) who observe injustice and who work, each in their own way, to be themselves and to encourage others. I think that despite our regressions here, we will continue to move ahead – onwards and upwards. We could have been much more. Maybe we still will be.

In some ways, it all goes back to how comfortable a community is with the idea that humans are allowed to explore knowledge, to ask questions, and to act on their current understandings. Some seem complacent about having knowledge of good and evil – or at least their internal definitions of such are rarely questioned – but the return of the repressed haunts them. Who do they have to control to maintain their community? Are women who use birth control witches? Sluts? Good way to rein them in, but go big! Shouldn’t insurance companies control them? Shouldn’t employers tightly define coverage?

But why should an employer define coverage for a person on “moral grounds”? What a nasty mess. First of all – the implicit ideology that it implies – that the worker has taken the previous role of the woman-as-property – is about the best evidence for the reality of the class war (and the rise of the dominionist theocrats) that I’ve seen. Beyond that, if you know anything about the extremes of non-intervention against a fixed idea of “God’s will,” you are aware of the many deaths resulting from refusing blood transfusions, and from childbirth, and from replacing medical treatment with prayer, and – in extreme cases – all of the injuries and deaths resulting from various pathologies centered on delusions about what God might want someone to do or not do (assuming for a moment that all claims about God are not delusional or at least inadequate). All armies claim that God is on their side, after all, don’t they? As George Carlin noted, someone has got to be wrong. Could it be – ALL of them?

Suppose your insurance company or business is owned by someone who thinks that your health issue is a punishment from God, and that in his/her/their judgment you don’t deserve treatment? Do you honestly believe this wouldn’t happen? We can vote with our feet by not working for such employers – if we’re in a position to do so – not everyone is. Over half this country is currently living in poverty, or very close to it. The “job creators” are still much more likely to skim the profits off the top and take them off to the Caymans, or Dubai, or to invest in global pursuits outside the American economy. In America, consumer rights across the board is the only fair position. If a religious community doesn’t want members of their flock to use science – however the subset of “wrong” medicine and science is currently defined, let them convince each to their own conscience. Sure, some will be condemned to an early and perhaps unjustified death, but at least then it was their own choice.

The roles of doctor and priest and priestess and healer and witch are intertwined. Each uses psychology. There are placebo effects. There is authority, and there is scapegoating. Sometimes overblown claims about power take hold, and abuses are legion. But each also draws on the will of the wounded, the will to live, the will to heal.

Perhaps each could help the other because of this, if they ever would. If healing has physical and spiritual aspects, and if psychology helps, and if there are different constellations of knowledge with overlapping themes and recurring narratives, maybe science can learn to tell better stories, maybe religious groups can embrace the totality of the human to a better spirit, maybe there can be better integration, better education, better cooperation, to promote the general welfare for the betterment of all.

But the power corruption is deep, deep, deep. I don’t forget the witches burning, the lynchings and the attempted genocides, especially when I read the comments of our contemporary brownshirts, fascists, and inquisitors, our bigots, our smug self-righteous, our haters.

I stand against the haters, in the way of the statue crying. It is almost impossibly sad. The utter, utter waste of it. The ignorance and greed and insecurity that it represents is such a huge loss to us all.

We’ve all come a long way, baby. Women and men, of all religions and races and kinds. But the backlash is severe.

In politics, the framing is always about our choice – but the choice is deeper than who we think might be best at representing our country’s values or our interests. The choice is really much more about who we choose to be – given our scientific knowledge, our spiritual path, our understanding of the human, our hopes for the future. Do we bother to seek a deeper understanding? Are we more comfortable with being told who we are and what God expects us to do, or not do, or do we see the acts of questioning about our meaning and constructing our character as life’s continuing project? Are we arrogant and oppressive and destructive, or are we working alone and together to try to make our communities, our nation, and our world a better place for thriving? For…all…the people.

When the healers and the knowers and the questioners become the enemy, it’s a dark dark place to live. That’s why I light a candle, and write, and smell the flowers, and commune with the trees – in hopes that a slight echo might come back across the ethereal plane to give me strength. Perhaps in turn my little spark might help to jump the gap in our country’s synapses, and echo forward to our daughters and sons of the future.

Think deeply, and just as hard as you can. Appreciate. Pay attention. Ask questions. Love.

Americans Who Betray the Most Basic American Values

Americans Who Betray the Most Basic American Values

Listen up, you so-called Patriots. Any power interest that dehumanizes other Americans, other people, IS THE BAD GUY. What does it take for you to understand that?

I’m getting very tired of receiving hate propaganda in my email. The latest bit followed the predictable pattern – taking one small fact and spinning it to appeal to the dark side of the reader. In 2009, President Obama appointed two highly-qualified people to important posts. Today, in 2012, I get an email called “Wolves Will Be Herding the Sheep.”

The email in question even had its own links to Snopes and to the official announcement, but most people are too lazy to look. They just look at the commentary:

Well, boys and girls, today the fox is guarding the hen house. The wolves will be herding the sheep!
Obama appointed two devout Muslims to homeland security posts. Obama and Janet Napolitano appointed Arif Alikhan, a devout Muslim, as Assistant Secretary for Policy Development. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano swore-in Kareem Shora, a devout Muslim, who was born in Damascus, Syria, as ADC National Executive Director as a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC).
NOTE: Has anyone ever heard a new government official being identified as a ‘devout Catholic,” a “devout Jew” or a “devout Protestant”…? Just wondering.
Devout Muslims being appointed to critical Homeland Security positions? Doesn’t this make you feel safer already?? That should make our home land much safer, huh!?
Wasn’t it “devout Muslim men” who flew planes into U.S. buildings 10 years ago? Wasn’t it a “devout Muslim man” who killed 13 at Fort Hood ?
Please forward this important information to any who cares about the future of our Country.

To me, this is so obvious as to not need explaining, but obviously there are some very, very misled or very, very stupid people in this country, because this stuff – that seems so transparent- actually seems to work. These are Americans, highly qualified Americans, who were appointed to these posts, and for good reasons – not that it was even enough to prevent the use of hate flicks for training.

This message is hateful and more importantly, inaccurate. By the way, if we really expect to deal with ANY extremists, including the Hatriot movement or the dominionist “Christian” theocrats or groups like the KKK, we’ve got to learn that appealing to the darkness – through generalizing, scapegoating, fear mongering, or any other dehumanizing effort is wrong. It’s more than wrong. It’s the E word.

America is not at war with Islam. Or with Christianity. But you know, in every religion and in every country and in every large group there seems to be a subset of people who hate, who dehumanize others, who flip logic to manipulate people, and who have little to no capacity for kindness, caring or dialogue. They only care about power, authority, and control. These groups have created centuries of misery, and they make a mockery of the ideals of their religion, country, or the group’s reason for being. You will know them by their fruits. But false prophets always seem to be able to mislead large crowds, no matter what country or century they happen to be operating in.

Do people not understand the idea of America? Do they not understand that this mistake is fatal to the spirit of this country? We absolutely cannot dehumanize other people. Have we learned nothing from our own mistakes, not to mention the history of the word? The Hatriot movement and the dominionist theocrats are the mirror image of the other extremists around the world.

It’s extremely lazy and extremely dangerous to generalize from singular people or events to an entire religion, or country, or race, or class.

Anyone who insinuates that a group is subhuman – then tries to claim that it’s American to think so – is not a friend of America.

Don’t be fooled. I pray you’re better than that. I pray more of our countrymen and countrywomen come to their senses soon.

I’ve given up on trying to explain anything to the contemporary brownshirts. So many have gone past the point of reason or teaching or dialogue. It’s reached a tipping point – they’re gone. A saint would keep trying, but I’m no saint. All I can do anymore is to grieve the reality. May the universe have mercy on their souls.

Be careful out there.

A-flurried about the “war on Christmas”? Read this!

A-flurried about the “war on Christmas”? Read this!

This is the single best essay that I’ve read on the subject of Christmas “wars.”

Whatever your views on “the reason for the season,” whatever prejudices you harbor, whatever hatemongers have influenced your thinking, whether you call yourself a christian or not (and whether or not you even have any sense for what that could really mean), please don’t send me a single further email or a message on Facebook or a status about being a “real American” until you have read this post.

I am quoting it in its entirety in case the blog goes away. I never want to lose it. Kudos to Ray Garton!

An Open Letter To Christians: Merry Christmas From An Atheist
Posted on December 13, 2010 by Ray Garton

That’s right, I didn’t say “happy holidays” or “seasons greetings” — I said “merry Christmas.” And yes, I’m an atheist, one who loves the Christmas season so much that I tend to get into the spirit of the holiday a little earlier than most. I love the decorations, the music, the gift-giving, the mythology — all of it. This often surprises people because I tend to have a dark sense of humor and an unsentimental, pragmatic worldview. But every December, you’ll find me singing along with Nat King Cole and Dean Martin as I decorate the tree; you’ll find me getting misty-eyed and sniffly when George Bailey comes to understand how many lives his mundane existence has touched and influenced; you’ll hear me wishing “merry Christmas” — and yes, sometimes “happy holidays” — to total strangers. And I’ll say it again — I’m an atheist.

Before I go any further, I want to make sure that word is clearly understood. There seem to be a lot of people who think an atheist is an angry, immoral person who eats babies and sodomizes house pets, and that simply isn’t the case. I just turned 48 years old and I’ve been with my wife for 22 wonderful monogamous years. I am a passionate lover of animals, especially cats and dogs. I give of my time and money to charitable causes. I have never been arrested. I vote, pay my taxes and try to stay as informed as possible. I have a strong sense of justice, of right and wrong, and I adhere to it without compromise. I am a fiercely loyal friend and a lover of life — my own and others. My goal each day is to be a better person than I was yesterday and to live my life in a way that improves the lives of those around me. I point this out not to be immodest or seek praise but to show you that I am, for the most part, not unlike most people living their lives and pursuing happiness on this earth. Only one thing makes me an atheist: I am not a person of faith. I do not believe in gods or demons, heaven or hell, angels or ghosts, or anything else that requires a leap of faith in the absence of factual proof. That’s all being an atheist means, nothing more. It certainly doesn’t mean that I hate people of faith — I don’t hate anyone. You will find no more passionate supporter of America’s freedom of religion than I. While I might not share your faith, I would fight to the death for your right to practice and express it, because your freedom is also my freedom. Here’s how I see the relationship between you and me: We may differ on the matter of religion and we might disagree politically, but chances are we have more in common than in conflict and we’re all in this together, so there’s no reason in the world for us to oppose one another.

Having said that, I have a question: What’s all this I keep hearing about a “war on Christmas?” I keep reading stories in the news about Christians who are angry because the phrase “happy holidays” is often used during the Christmas season and they believe this phrase somehow diminishes the Christian celebration of Christmas. With each passing year, these stories increase in number and this sentiment becomes more hostile. TV and radio hosts keep saying that “secularists” are trying to abolish Jesus and that Christianity is under attack, that atheists are taking a bulldozer to America’s Christians. It comes up every year at this time, which happens to be my favorite time of year, and frankly, I’m starting to get a little irritated by it. During a season when the words “peace on earth, good will toward men” are so often spoken and sung, a lot of people are getting angry and talking about “war” — and they are the very people who are supposed to be singing about “peace on earth, good will toward men!”

Now, maybe you’re not one of them. Maybe you don’t buy into this idea of a “war on Christmas.” But if you are — if you honestly believe that the Christian celebration of Christmas is under attack by a secular conspiracy to remove Jesus Christ from the holiday and silence Christians — I hope you will indulge me and, for just a little while, try to look at this situation from a different perspective, one that perhaps you have not considered. Please bear with me.

I don’t know anyone who genuinely hates Christmas. Oh, sure, people complain about it when it comes along — all the commercial hustle, the crowds, the pressure to buy, buy, buy. But ultimately, everyone I know enjoys the holiday and if asked seriously, I doubt they would change a thing. The people I know celebrate the holiday in different ways and for different reasons. Some celebrate it as a religious holiday, others as a secular holiday. There are many ways to celebrate in the Christmas season, and not all of them are Christmas. There’s Hanukkah, the winter solstice, Yule, Kwanzaa — it’s a time of the year that contains many holidays. Given that, what’s wrong with saying “happy holidays?” The word “holiday,” after all, means “holy day.” It comes from the Old English word hāligdæghālig meaning “holy” and dæg meaning “day” — and it’s been in use since before the 12th century. How is the acknowledgment of a season of “holy days” anti-Christian? It’s an inclusive greeting that embraces the entire season. I usually say “merry Christmas” because that’s the holiday I celebrate in a secular fashion, but I often say “happy holidays,” too, because I am aware of the different holidays celebrated at this time of year, and that covers all of them.

But some insist that the use of the phrase “happy holidays” is just another tactic in the “war on Christmas,” which is part of the greater effort to remove Christianity from the United States. Where did this “war on Christmas” come from? When did it start? Who’s fighting it and why? More importantly … is this thing for real? You might not know the answers to those questions. I didn’t. So I did some research.

In 1959, the John Birch Society, a far-right organization that sees anti-American and communist conspiracies in just about everything, released a pamphlet called “There Goes Christmas!” written by Hubert Kregeloh. The pamphlet claimed, “One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas — to denude the event of its religious meaning.” The John Birch Society believed the UN was being used to crush religious belief:

The UN fanatics launched their assault on Christmas in 1958, but too late to get very far before the holy day was at hand. They are already busy, however, at this very moment, on efforts to poison the 1959 Christmas season with their high-pressure propaganda. What they now want to put over on the American people is simply this: Department stores throughout the country are to utilize UN symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations.

These “UN symbols and emblems” were simply secular Christmas decorations that did not employ religious imagery, decorations that had been around for some time. The pamphlet claimed this was a plot to destroy Christianity and called on patriotic Americans to boycott any stores that displayed such decorations. No one took this very seriously in 1959 — this was, after all, the John Birch Society. The conspiracy theory did not catch on. But it was to come back a few decades later.

In the 1990s, Peter Brimelow, a British American financial journalist, was an editor at Fortune magazine when he decided he didn’t like the phrase “happy holidays.” He told the Daily Beast, “I just got real interested in the issue because I noticed over the years there was this social shift taking place where people no longer said ‘Merry Christmas.’” In his book Alien Nation, Brimelow wrote that “weird aliens with dubious habits” were damaging the “ethnic core” of white Christian America and were part of a “multicultural struggle to abolish America.” He saw the trend toward saying “happy holidays” as part of this sinister movement and decided to do something about it.

Brimelow and conservative British political journalist John O’Sullivan, who was then editor of the conservative magazine National Review, had an idea: A yearly competition in the magazine for the “the most egregious attempt to suppress Christmas.” But before O’Sullivan could implement the idea, he was booted from his position as editor in 1997. Even the staunch conservatives at the National Review wanted nothing to do with Brimelow and O’Sullivan and their increasingly hostile attitudes toward racial minorities and immigrants. So Brimelow founded VDare, an anti-immigration online journal which the Southern Poverty Law Center categorized as a “hate journal” in 2003. VDare became the home of Brimelow’s “Annual War on Christmas Competition.”

The winner of the competition in 2001 was Tom Piatak’s article “Happy Holidays? Bah! Humbug!”. In the article, Tom Piatak writes that today’s celebration of Christmas in America bears a “closer resemblance to the Nazis’ Julfest” than the Christmases of old, like those celebrated during Piatak’s childhood. He specifically targets other holidays and religions as the source of the problem:

Teaching children about Kwanzaa, rather than about the Christmas carols and spirituals developed by blacks, inculcates negative lessons about whites instead of positive ones about blacks. Teaching children about Hanukkah, rather than the beliefs that actually sustained Jews on their sometimes tragic and tumultuous historical journey, inculcates negative lessons about Christianity, not positive ones about Judaism.

VDare’s 2005 winner, “Christmas, Jews, De-Assimilation and Decline” by Steve Sailer, is much more specific. Sailer is a writer who has, in the past, shown enthusiasm for Eugenics and believes black people to be inferior. In a 2005 article for Vdare called “Racial Reality and the New Orleans Nightmare,” he wrote of black people, “The plain fact is that they tend to possess poorer native judgment than members of better-educated groups. Thus they need stricter moral guidance from society.” In his competition-winning article about the “war on Christmas,” Sailer complains that, although Jews wrote many of today’s most popular Christmas songs, those songs were secular, and these days, they aren’t even doing that, because rather than being grateful for the piles of money they’ve been able to make off of Christianity, all they want to do is destroy the Christian tradition of Christmas.

With just a little research, it becomes very clear that the roots of today’s “war on Christmas” are deeply imbedded in the soil of racial hatred and religious bigotry. The people responsible for pointing out this “war” and making the most noise about it in the 1990s were white supremacists and anti-Semites.

By the middle of the past decade, the cry of “war” had been picked up by media figures. TV and radio personality John Gibson published a book in 2005 called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than you Thought. Gibson, a former Fox News anchor, relates several anecdotes that involve towns deciding to call their Christmas parades “holiday parades” or including symbols of other religions in their holiday displays. He sees a widespread conspiracy at work which is not only bent on removing any Christian significance from Christianity, but which is part of a “revolution against Christianity.” Behind this conspiracy, he claims, are “a cabal of secularists, so-called humanists, trial lawyers, cultural relativists and liberal, guilt-wracked Christians.” He includes in this cabal civil rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union — and he even includes Christian churches that try to be inclusive, calling them “institutional backers of the war on Christmas.” He writes, “These are the churches that marry gays and turn their backs on preborn babies.” He claims that the members of these churches “vote for John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, and Barney Frank.”

Here’s the score so far. Those who say there’s a “war on Christmas” blame it on a conspiracy to eradicate Christianity that is the work of communists, the UN, non-caucasian people and immigrants, Jews, secular humanists, the ACLU, anyone who supports gay rights or a woman’s right to choose, and any Christians who vote for Democrats.

Perhaps the loudest voice calling to let slip the dogs of Christmas war is Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly. Just in case you’re not familiar with O’Reilly, he’s the guy who was sued for sexual harassment in 2004 by Andrea Mackris, an associate producer on his Fox News show The O’Reilly Factor. According to court documents, Mackris was subjected to repeated verbal harassment by O’Reilly, who commonly peppered their conversations with lewd references to the size of his penis, the women who were “amazed” by it, his fondness for phone sex, vibrators and explicit sexual fantasies about what he’d like to do to Mackris in the shower with a loofa. He masturbated and climaxed during more than one telephone conversation with her, and while having dinner with Mackris and her friend, he repeatedly propositioned them both and talked about an upcoming trip to Italy to meet the pope, during which his pregnant wife would be staying home with his daughter. He then “implied he was looking forward to some extra-marital dalliances with the ‘hot’ Italian women.” All of this was done against Mackris’s will and despite her repeated appeals to him to stop. In 2004, when Mackris pointed out that O’Reilly had engaged in similarly inappropriate behavior with other women working on his show and warned him to be more cautious before one of them told someone, he said words to this effect:

If any woman ever breathed a word, I’ll make her pay so dearly that she’ll wish she’d never been born. I’ll rake her through the mud, bring up things in her life and make her so miserable that she’ll be destroyed. And besides, she wouldn’t be able to afford the lawyers I can or endure it financially as long as I can. And nobody would believe her, it’d be her word against mine and who would they believe? Me or some unstable woman making crazy accusations. They’d see her as some psycho, someone unstable. Besides, I’d never make the mistake of picking unstable crazy girls like that.

He further pointed out that any woman who blew the whistle on his behavior would have more to contend with than O’Reilly alone.

If you cross Fox News Channel, it’s not just me, it’s [Fox News president] Roger Ailes who will go after you. I’m the street guy out front making noise about the issues, but Ailes operates behind the scenes, strategizes and makes things happen so that one day, BAM! The person gets what’s coming to them but never sees it coming. Look at Al Franken, one day he’s going to get a knock on his door and his life as he’s known it will change forever. That day will happen, trust me.

O’Reilly never denied any of Mackris’s claims, but filed a countersuit. The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum and both suits were dropped.

But that was more than six years ago. Today, Bill O’Reilly is concerned about what he sees as an attack on Christians and Christianity, because obviously, following the teachings of Jesus Christ is a priority in O’Reilly’s life. On November 28, 2005, O’Reilly said on his Fox News show, “Every company in America should be on its knees thanking Jesus for being born.” He hammers this subject relentlessly, claiming that it’s all part of “a very secret plan” that is designed to “diminish Christian philosophy in the USA.” Every year, O’Reilly sounds off about stores and companies that choose to use the phrase “happy holidays” rather than “merry Christmas” in their marketing campaigns, and every year, the complaints get angrier, louder and wilder. According to O’Reilly, saying “happy holidays” will lead to the “legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage,” and will wipe Christianity off the map in America.

More and more media figures — Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage — have jumped on the “Christmas war” wagon. But all of this anger and shouting is not confined to the media. In 2002, the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization of Christian activist lawyers co-founded by James Dobson, began organizing hundreds of lawyers all over the country to pounce on anything they perceived as a threat to Christmas by filing lawsuits. A number of other Christian activist organizations do the same thing every year, filling the courts with lawsuits defending the most popular and beloved holiday in America from … whatever. Senior legal council for the Alliance Defense Fund, Mike Johnson, once said, “It’s a sad day in America when you have to retain a lawyer to wish someone a merry Christmas.”

There’s just one problem with that: It’s never happened. No one has ever had to seek legal representation for wishing someone “merry Christmas.” Johnson’s remark is based entirely on fantasy. In fact, none of the things these people are so wildly upset about are happening! No one is trying to destroy Christmas. It remains the most popular holiday in America. Stores and businesses that use the phrase “happy holidays” do so because they know their customers include not only people who engage in the Christian celebration of Christmas but those who celebrate the other holidays during this season, and those who are not religious at all. The last people on the planet who would want to destroy Christmas are those who benefit most from it — department stores, toy stores, retail chains of all kinds. These businesses depend on Christmas! Why would they want to do anything to alter the holiday in any way? All they’re doing is being inclusive, trying to bring in more people. American businesses have no interest in banishing Christianity, only in beefing up their profits. They’re doing that by broadening their appeal with more nonspecific acknowledgments of the season, like “happy holidays” and “season’s greetings.” If you think business in America is devoted to the Christian religion — or any religion at all — you haven’t been paying attention. Business worships only the dollar and always has.

The anecdotes frequently cited by people like John Gibson in his 2005 book are part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those upset about the “war on Christmas” — who are not the majority of Americans, by the way — have become so loud and so angry that businesses and other organizations have become over-sensitive to the possibility of offending people at Christmas time, so they sometimes go too far in their efforts to be inclusive by calling Christmas trees “holiday trees” or Christmas parades “holiday parades.” Then the Christmas warriors point to those things as examples of an evil conspiracy to wipe the baby Jesus out of the holiday — a conspiracy that does not exist.

There is no “war on Christmas.” Right now, in 2010, Americans are just as free to celebrate the religious holidays that come at this time of year as they ever have been, all of it fully supported by the United States Supreme Court. Lynch v. Donnelly, a 1984 Supreme Court ruling, determined that nativity scenes are allowed on public property along with the three wise men, the Christmas star, Christmas trees, snowmen, candy canes — there is no prohibition against Christianity. Government-sponsored displays must include representations of other religions and secular symbols of holiday celebration as well because the government is constitutionally prohibited from recognizing a single religion above all others. This is, as they say, the American way. We are a nation of people of all faiths and no faith. In public schools, students are allowed to hand out religious-themed holiday cards and literature. And if they aren’t allowed to do that, guess who steps in to represent them and defend their rights? That evil organization that so many believe to be a big player in the “war on Christmas,” the ACLU. Sometimes, the anger expressed by so many people about the nonexistent “war on Christmas” makes school administrators and others too cautious, occasionally to the point of stepping on people’s rights. In 2003, a group of students at Westfield High School in Massachusetts were suspended for handing out candy canes that had Christian messages attached to them. The ACLU intervened on their behalf, filed an amicus brief and succeeded in having the suspensions revoked. But an article by Jerry Falwell on the far-right website states:

The fact is, students have the right to free speech in the form of verbal or written expression during non-instructional class time. And yes, students have just as much right to speak on religious topics as they do on secular topics — no matter what the ACLU might propagate.

The ACLU propagates no such thing. The ACLU has no conflict with students, or anyone else, expressing their religious beliefs — it fights to support that right! Anyone who tells you the ACLU is anti-Christian is either misinformed or is deliberately trying to misinform you. That accusation is repeated so often that I think it’s fair to say it is a blatant, intentional lie. And the idea that the ACLU is one of the organizations waging a war on Christmas is ludicrous! In 2002, the ACLU filed a brief supporting the right of the Church of the Good News to run ads criticizing the secularization of Christmas and promoting Christianity as the “one true religion” when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority refused to post the paid advertisements and declined to sell any more ad space to the church. I ask you — why would an organization that’s trying to abolish the Christian celebration of Christmas do that?

The organization vigorously defends the religious rights of Christians and people of all faiths in America. Here are a few examples of that from the year 2005 alone:

Louisiana: When Mormon prison inmate Norman Sanders was not allowed access to Mormon religious texts and services, the ACLU sued the Department of Corrections on his behalf.

New Jersey: When second-grade student Olivia Turton was prohibited from singing the song “Awesome God” in a volunteer after-school talent show, the ACLU filed a motion to submit a friend-of-the-court brief on her behalf.

Oregon: When students at a Seventh-day Adventist school made it to the state basketball tournament and were going to be forced to play tournament games on Saturday, their sabbath, the ACLU filed suit against the Oregon School Activities Association on their behalf

Michigan: Joseph Hanas, a Catholic, was ordered by the court to go through a drug rehabilitation program run by a Pentecostal group that required him to read the bible seven hours a day, declare his salvation at the altar, and be tested on Pentecostal principles. The group confiscated Hanas’s rosary and told him Catholicism was evil. When Hanas refused to complete the program and was criminally punished, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit on his behalf.

That last example points out a very important fact — sometimes America’s freedom of religion has to be defended against Christians. That does not mean the ACLU is anti-Christian, it means the ACLU is opposed to any infringement of an American’s freedom of religion, including infringement being committed by Christians.

Just in case you’re thinking that the United States is a Christian nation and everyone should respect, if not personally observe, Christian holidays, I’d like to point out one little problem with that: The United States is not a Christian nation and never was. The majority of Americans are Christian, there is no doubt about that. But that means this is a nation of Christians, not a Christian nation — there’s a big difference. Iran, for example, is a Muslim nation because there is no line drawn between the government of Iran and the Muslim religion — that country is governed by religion. The United States government has no religion. It recognizes no religion but protects the rights of all religions. Our founders were brilliant men. They did not approach the establishment of this nation lightly. Had they intended to establish a Christian nation, it would be abysmally negligent of them not to include that in the United States Constitution. It would be more than negligent — it would be absurd. They had no such intention. The Constitution does not mention the words “god” or “Jesus Christ” and makes no reference to Christianity or the bible or the ten commandments. The only reference to religion in the Constitution specifies no particular religion; it simply bars the government from enforcing or prohibiting the practice of any religion.

The Constitution neither requires nor prohibits any particular celebration of Christmas. It doesn’t even mention Christmas. In 1789, the first Christmas under the United States Constitution, Congress was in session on December 25. Christmas did not become a federal holiday until 1870.

There was only one successful “war on Christmas” in America’s history. It was a war fought by a group of people who were so offended by the celebration of Christmas that they banned it by law and fined anyone who was found engaging in any kind of recognition of the holiday. For 22 years, this group succeeded in abolishing Christmas. This, by the way, was a group of Christians. Puritans in Massachusetts banned Christmas from 1659 to 1681 because they found no biblical support for the holiday, strongly disapproved of its pagan origins and did not like the raucous partying that took place every Christmas. The law stated that anyone found “observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting or any other way any such days as Christmas day, shall pay for every such offense five shillings.” From Andrew Santella’s Slate article, “The War on Christmas, the Prequel”:

After the English Restoration government reclaimed control of Massachusetts from the Puritans in the 1680s, one of the first acts of the newly appointed royal governor of the colony was to sponsor and attend Christmas religious services. Perhaps fearing a militant Puritan backlash, for the 1686 services he was flanked by redcoats. The Puritan disdain for the holiday endured: As late as 1869, public-school kids in Boston could be expelled for skipping class on Christmas Day.

While the 17th-century Quakers did not resort to legislation, they rejected Christmas and refused to do anything to celebrate the holiday. That continued into the early 19th century, when all but a few Pennsylvanians still ignored the holiday.

From Santella’s article:

Observance of Christmas, or the lack thereof, was one way to differentiate among the Christian sects of Colonial and 19th-century America. Anglicans, Moravians, Dutch Reformed, and Lutherans, to name just a few, did; Quakers, Puritans, Separatists, Baptists, and some Presbyterians did not. An 1855 New York Times report on Christmas services in the city noted that Baptist and Methodist churches were closed because they “do not accept the day as a holy one,” while Episcopal and Catholic churches were open and “decked with evergreens.”

We have gone from a time in our past when many Christians rejected Christmas, even to the point of making the celebration illegal, to a time when Christians are angry because people aren’t uttering the correct greeting at Christmas time. But those Christians are angry for no reason other than the fact that some people in the media have told them they should be angry.

The “war on Christmas” is a myth. No one is trying to abolish the Christian celebration of Christmas. Your holiday is safe. The fact is, it’s not your holiday — you simply celebrate it for your own religious reasons. Like most Christian holidays, Christmas grew from pagan roots. Long before anyone ever heard the name “Jesus Christ,” this part of the year has been a time of celebration around the world. The Norse celebrated Yule from the winter solstice through the month of January. Their celebration included the burning of a large log; the celebration lasted as long as that log was burning. Germany honored the pagan god Odin at this time of year. They feared Odin because he was said to fly through the air at night, watching everyone, and he would determine who was naughty and who was nice, then reward the nice and punish the naughty. He was believed to lead a giant Yule hunting party through the sky, riding his flying horse, Sleipnir. The mythology of Santa Claus owes a great deal to Odin. According to Phyllis Siefker, author of Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of St. Nicholas, children would set out their boots filled with straw, carrots or sugar for Sleipnir to eat when he came by. Odin would reward the children for feeding his horse by leaving them candy and gifts. Sound familiar? In the winter, Romans honored Saturn, the god of agriculture, with an enormous hedonistic blowout of a party that included a bounty of food and drink. The social order was turned upside down during this festival — slaves became masters for a month, and peasants were given rule of the city. The upper classes celebrated the birth of the god Mithra, who was believed to have born of a rock.

Even the Christmas tree, which many mistakenly associate with Christianity today, is entirely pagan. A common thread in all the pagan winter celebrations was the significance of plants and trees that remained green all year. Celebrants decorated their homes with trees and hung boughs over their doors and windows. A large evergreen was often put in the town or village square so people could dance around it in celebration. Druid priests used mistletoe in their ceremonies because it represented the birth of a god — and that god was not Jesus Christ. Many worshiped the sun as a god and believed that winter came because that god was ailing. They celebrated the winter solstice because it meant the sun god would soon return, and evergreens were seen as a promise of that return. The greenery also represented the promise that crops and orchards would soon flourish again. Many early American Christians knew this and refused to use holly, mistletoe or other greenery in their celebration of Christmas. Today, many Christians wrongly believe the Christmas tree is a symbol of their religion and get angry if anyone calls it anything other than a Christmas tree.

Are you beginning to see how ridiculous all of this is?

The Christian observance of Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Jesus didn’t begin until the fourth century when Catholic church leaders decided the birth of Christ should be marked as a holiday. With no date given in the bible for Jesus’s birth, they chose December 25 — which put Christmas smack in the middle of all the popular pagan celebrations. This was not accidental — quite the contrary, in fact. It served two purposes. By attaching Christmas to the pagan holiday season, Christianity took advantage of a time of the year during which everyone was already celebrating. Also, it allowed Christianity to absorb the pagan traditions and make them their own. From a article:

By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined “debt” to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.

Reread that first line. Christian leaders popularized Christmas by choosing the pagan holiday season in which to celebrate it … “but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated.”

The “war on Christmas” is a myth that has been created and perpetuated by, among others, anti-Semitic white supremacists, religious bigots and an accused — and undenied — emotional rapist. Frankly, I’m having trouble understanding why anyone would listen to these people, let alone take them seriously. But they do. If you’re one of them, ask yourself these questions:

Why is it so important to these people that you be angry? Why are they so eager to convince you that your religion is being attacked when it isn’t, that your religious rights are being limited when they aren’t? Why are they inventing reasons to turn people against each other in this country?

I’m sure there are multiple answers to each of those questions, and I would be lying if I claimed to know all of them. But I can tell you this much with certainty: As long as you’re angry about the alleged “war on Christmas,” you’re watching their TV shows, listening to their radio shows, paying for memberships on their websites and buying their books and videos and merchandise — and they are getting filthy rich. To them, your anger represents dollar signs. Another thing to consider is the target at which these Christmas warriors are aiming your anger — they are all political. If you can be convinced that your religious liberty is under attack — even if it isn’t — your political support and donations, your votes, your entire political outlook can be influenced and altered, and you can be manipulated into becoming active, making trouble for and weakening the political opponents of the people who want you to stay angry. If you don’t like my answers, don’t stop asking yourself these questions, because they’re important. Whatever the reason, the fact is that you are being manipulated.

On a November, 2005, broadcast of his Fox News show, Bill O’Reilly said, “Anyone offended by the words ‘merry Christmas’ has problems not even St. Nicholas could solve.”

This is probably the only time I will do it, but I agree with O’Reilly. I have friends who are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, pagans — I even know a couple of Satanists — and plenty of friends who are atheists. Not one of them has ever been offended by the words “merry Christmas.” If anything, it’s a greeting that makes them smile. Were I to encounter someone who was offended by “merry Christmas,” believe me, I’m the kind of person who would not hesitate to tell them to lighten the hell up. Anyone offended by “merry Christmas” has a serious problem more closely related to their emotional and mental state than to the holiday. There is something wrong with them. But you know what? I feel exactly the same way about anyone who’s offended by the words “happy holidays.”

The only people I know who are ever offended at Christmas time are Christians who get angry whenever they hear or see the words “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings.” The angriest people I know at Christmas time are not people who are being prohibited from celebrating the holiday as they choose — they are people who are trying to prohibit others from celebrating the holidays in ways they claim to find offensive. If you are one of those people, I have a question. Is your religious faith so weak that you need everyone around you to keep it alive with words of agreement? If so, the problem lies not with others but with you. And if you’re so angered by the simple, pleasant greeting of “happy holidays,” I have another question. It’s a question I ask with no ill intent. I don’t mean to offend or insult, I simply want to understand. The question is this:

What is wrong with you?

Breathing in the Presence of the Question Mark

Breathing in the Presence of the Question Mark

When one can articulate something, it’s important to do so. This is necessary for dialogue and for understanding and for authentic self-appraisal. But what if one lacks the capacity to do so, or resists doing so? And what if the attempts to do so trivialize the ineffable?

Rule one of intellectual engagement is that all parties must sincerely attempt both to understand others and to make themselves understood.

It has become evident to me, however, that many people, especially the religious, suffer from a kind of conceptual claustrophobia. Their beliefs are of their essence somewhat vague and they are terrified of being pinned down. Although critics often leap on this and claim that this betrays woolly thinking, evasion or obscurantism, I think that there are times when such a refusal to commit is justified.

I remember, for example, an impassioned talk I once heard by the recently sainted Giles Fraser. Recounting the story in Exodus of Moses going up the mountain to meet God to get the Ten Commandments, Fraser said: “The higher he goes up the mountain, the more the mist comes down. The closer he gets to God, the less and less he is able to see.” Meanwhile, at Sinai’s foot, the idolatrous masses are “running around building a golden calf, making God into a thing”.

It is always possible to think there is a fog when really it’s just that your glasses have steamed up. But I’m not only prepared to allow that an intelligent religious faith might have a big fat mystery at its heart, I think it must have. Only the most juvenile gods are like super-humans we can truly understand. If there is a God, it must surely passeth all understanding.

But embracing this mystery comes at a price. If, like the archbishop of Canterbury, your faith is a kind of “silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark”, then think very carefully before you open your mouth. Too often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively. Believers constantly attribute all sorts of qualities to their gods and have a list of doctrines as long as your arm. It is only when the questions get tough that, suddenly, their God disappears in a puff of mystery. Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother.

– Julian Baggini, ‘You just don’t understand my religion’ is not good enough

And this is the problem, as well as the hint of a solution. Divinity does not really ever translate into theology (lit. words about the divine), even clever negative theology or poetics of the mystics (and I don’t know any better approaches than these). The ineffable is a presence – and an absence – that resists possession, capture, ownership. If you can even point in a general direction of an experience of the sublime, you might have a tiny hope of someone else having an independent connection with it, but it can’t be called to attendance.

Breathing in the presence, breathing out the absence of the “question mark” – or the reverse?

In the fog it’s not always foggy, exactly.

But that’s just the kind of evasion that he’s discussing.

For the misled, for the idolator, their eyes will remain closed, always mistaking the symbol as a literal representation for what it attempts to suggest.

For the seeker, for the lover, the articulations will never be enough.

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