Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Happy Hanukkah

Here is my contribution on this, the seventh night of Hanukkah. Eleven months ago, a YouTube viewer made some very disparaging comments on an existent video about famous Jews in Hollywood. His handle was very telling in and of itself. His litany of names seems somewhat diverse and disjointed, chosen only because they were not (verifiably) Jewish. I quote:

11 months ago
"jews have nobody within even a 1000 miles of Pasteur, Goethe, Shakespeare, Bacon, Tennyson, Dickens, Gogol, Chaucer, Hawthorne, Twain, Leibniz, Newton, Darwin, Hutton, Galileo, Copernicus, Hawking, Edison, Hubble, Tesla, DaVinci, Michelangelo, VanGogh, Rembrandt, Bosch, Vermeer, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Wagner, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato,Hippocrates, Sophocles, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Ingersoll, Emerson, Paine, Jefferson, Franklin"
(Taken from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBBDdsrJC3s&feature=fvw)

First of all, a good number of these folks are obviously pre-Christian, so their presence on this list serves no purpose other than to collect a variety of non-Jewish names and artificially align them against Judaism. If this individual is trying to claim these thinkers for his or her own “race” – be that “Aryan” or “Anglo” or Christian, many of these just fall short of any set of unifying criteria.

Still, in taking his claim seriously (which I really should not), allow me to enumerate a goodly number of people of Jewish ancestry or identity who do indeed come within “1000 miles” of the good folk this buffoon has taken captive for his soulless argument.

There’s Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, King David, King Solomon, and every writer of every text of the Old Testament – all Jews. And every author of every text of the New Testament was arguably a Jew, too. There’s Philo of Alexandria, Flavius Josephus, Rabbi Hillel, Rabbi Akiva, Judah ha Nasi, Shimon bar Yochai, Isaac Luria (and a great number of other early and medieval rabbis whose names I won’t assume the common reader would recognize), Moses Maimonides, Baruch Spinoza, Abraham Abulafia, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Levi Strauss, Claude Levi-Strauss, Benjamin Disraeli, Boris Pasternak, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Harold Pinter, and a whole host of Nobel Laureates in the arts and literature, Hans Adolf Krebs, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, J. Robert Oppenheimer and many others among the Manhattan Project, as well as a whole host of Nobel laureates in the physical sciences and mathmatics, Elie Wiesel, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland, Philip Glass, Stephen Sondheim, Eric Zeisl, Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, along with most of the best and brightest of the global entertainment industry. All of these folks I have chosen for their seminal contributions to high literature, art, and lasting classics of Western civilization, along with science, mathematics and government.

But lastly, we have one more: Jesus of Nazareth. He was a Jew. He never renounced his Judaism, according to any verifiable source; he remained the scion of a Jewish reform movement and died under Roman law, being mockingly labeled “King of the Jews” on account of his affiliation. Without him, a Jew, there would be no Christianity, no Western Civilization. Without him, Europe would have remained a great wasteland of warring ethnicities, united only by their hatred for each other.

And by the way, I wouldn’t be surprised if more than one of those whom the commenter listed above co-opted for his litany of non-Jewish names had a Jew or two in the woodpile. Afterall, cream does rise to the top.

Happy Hanukkah!

Friday, November 19, 2010

True Friendship: Unquestioning Support or the Painful Truth?

In recent years, the U.S. military and paramilitary agencies such as the CIA have increasingly engaged in questionable levels of human rights abuses, such as torture and unlawful detainment. This has been authorized by the former administration of President George W. Bush, and in some respects has been upheld by the Obama administration, either by not recognizing the existence of, and abolishing, CIA black prison sites, or by refusing to prosecute various officials of the previous administration who were complicit or originators of these unholy doctrines.

I have heard it said that we must support our military in whatever they do, that they are the ones making the sacrifices, that to criticize anything they do is to undermine them. This, my friends, is the road to tyranny. To blindly support everything that the military does, regardless of its righteousness, is not to support it, but to support the erosion of its morality and to bring about its eventual downfall. Many world powers throughout history have effectively become a military junta, because of its armies going unchecked and out of control.

It is easy to appear as a hero when one is surrounded by other well-armed men of war. It is easy to go along with the crowd and to commit injustices in the name of might. It is easy to be swept up by a mob mentality and to commit atrocities. True heroism lies in the ability to stand apart and do what is right, regardless of whether you are supported by the mob or not. As Mark Twain once said, “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” It has often been wisely said that the best friend is the one who points out your faults. This is indeed the hardest of things to do. Very few have ever done this, in all of history.

But among those few may be counted some of the finest and most well-decorated military leaders of all time. First of all, I speak of Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, who wrote a book called War is a Racket, citing the greed and misconduct of the military industrial complex that were behind the inception of World War I, and other countless wars prior to that. One can even read the text of his book online nowadays: http://lexrex.com/enlightened/articles/warisaracket.htm One of the most decorated Marines of all time, let alone any U.S. military figure, he was mocked for his beliefs and his words fell upon deaf ears during his lifetime, passing from this world just prior to WWII, perhaps the “last good war”, a rare exception to his theory, proving the norm.

I speak also of Major General Antonio Taguba, a retired U.S. Army general officer whose 34 years of faithful service were cut short when Pentagon officials asked him to retire, giving no reason but the hint that it was due to his 2004 report, which was highly critical of the Bush administration’s support of torture. Shortly before his dismissal, the general learned that his report was being investigated, and he stated "I’d been in the Army thirty-two years by then, and it was the first time that I thought I was in the Mafia." (The New Yorker, June 25, 2007) Maj. Gen. Taguba continues to stand up for the rights of the oppressed, having been critical of the regimes that sought to silence him so that they may continue to profit from their sadism. His more recent report to Physicians for Human Rights is here: http://brokenlives.info/?page_id=32

I speak also of former Commandant of the Marine Corps, Retired General Paul X. Kelley, who served as the highest ranking Marine and commanding general of that body from 1983-87. In 2007, he co-authored an op-ed article for the Washington Post in which he sharply criticized the Bush Administration’s use and endorsement of torture as something that not only harmed our moral ground as Americans but in pragmatic terms put the U.S. servicemen at risk of retaliation for generations to come. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/25/AR2007072501881.html General Kelley is someone with vast military experience and must be considered a voice of political and tactical reason, one who cannot be accused of antiquated idealism unfit for our modern times of global terrorism. He has seen the world and is no unrealistic naïf. And he is to be commended for his vociferous defense of democracy, in the face of villains wrapping themselves in the flag.

All three of these, and others whom I do not have room here to mention, are the true heroes, fighting for freedom, justice, and democracy. It is they who deserve medals to acknowledge their valor and bravery. Not bravery against an enemy with a gun, but an unseen enemy that strikes from within, an invisible spirit of disgrace and cruelty, the very enemy that our forefathers sought to safeguard against when they wrote our Constitution and gave our nation its first living breaths. It is they who are the true moral beacons, calling our military to remain an example to other nations, each person an ambassador of their nation to the rest of humanity. It is they who insist that we can and must do better.

The admonitions that I proffer here can also be said of any other force or entity that we support, be it those in our own police forces, or those in other allied nations, such as Israel. We have heard of police brutality and corruption in various departments around the nation, throughout the years. One always hopes that it is kept at a minimal level, but often it is kept hushed by cover-ups, as if to snitch on a fellow officer were more of a crime than to harbor corruption in one’s conduct, one’s precinct, and in one’s heart. To “rat out” one’s fellow officer who has done wrong is considered to be a greater betrayal than taking graft, “throwing down” a weapon or other falsely planted evidence upon a suspect, or to commit other forms of brutality and iniquity. Major General Taguba’s statement quoted above, about feeling as if he were serving not in the Army but in the Mafia, seems apropos here, when a code of silence – omerta – is more important than “to protect and serve”.

Internationally, we see many pro-Israel partisans stating that to criticize anything that the State of Israel does is tantamount to a betrayal of Israel. But I say that to support unjust actions, illegal or immoral, just because one is your friend or ally, is not to be much of a friend, but rather an enabler and an accomplice. The true friend tells his addict compatriot that he will no longer help him buy drugs or cover for his thievery to support a deadly habit. A true friend tells their pal that they will not cover for him beating his wife or molesting his children. A true friend rebukes you when you are wrong, but helps you rebuild your life when you are in prison for those crimes.

That is what we must be, as a nation, as a culture. If we are to remain the true moral authority that we claim to be, and that we rightly called ourselves long ago, we must refrain from doing wrong ourselves, and must remain beyond reproach. We must hold our law enforcement to the highest standards of the law. We must hold our military to the highest levels of conduct whether in combat or in recreation (which means no shooting civilians for sport!). And we must hold our allies to the same high moral standard. If Israel sins, then we as a supposedly “Christian” nation must not foster the ill behavior that had frequently plagued Israel in her ancient existence, the very iniquity that the Hebrew scriptures tell us were the source of Israel’s periodic punishments and falling out of favor with God. As Israel’s supporters, we must be her most honest, and at times sharply critical, friends. Israel’s importance to us is surely rooted in our corporate and national belief in her Biblical right to exist and in her mandate as God’s chosen people. If this is in fact our belief, then attendant to this is our responsibility to help Israel to abide by God’s laws, namely those of justice to sojourners and neighbors, fairness to the oppressed, and compassion for her cousins, the Palestinians.

As a Jew, the child of many generations of oppressed people, I must strive to prove myself among the righteous, the ones who hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior. And that includes being truthful to my friends, even if it is dangerous to tell them the truth.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Muslims claim that they do. Most Christians recognize that they do. Some Christians, however, do not agree. Let's take an honest look at their points before we come to a decision.

I have come across a number of websites maintained by fundamentalist Christians who deny that Christians and Muslims worship the same god. That is to say, these Christians believe that Allah is not the same as God the Father in Christianity, but some other deity, perhaps the so-called "monkey god" so callously referred to by national Tea Party leader Mark Williams. On the basis of a variety of comparisons between how Allah is described in the Koran and how God is described in the New Testament, these Christians make their claim that the two are not one and the same. But these differences are extremely pedantic and are rooted solely in minutiae of doctrine, not in the essential descriptions of the Deity. What strikes me as odd is that these same observations and concerns about the nature and description of Allah would similarly hold true for the Hebrew god Yahweh, as described in the Old Testament, yet modern Christians do believe that God the Father is indeed the same god as the one presented in the Old Testament-the Hebrew Bible-and is the same deity worshiped by the Jewish people. Yet by this same token, the concerns these Christians have about the nature and description of Allah would disqualify the Jewish god from being identical. This is not addressed by them.

I would like to address a number of contentions raised by two of these websites in particular. I will list them individually and give my responses.

On the website, http://www.apologeticsindex.org/i07ab.html, the following claims are made:

The god of Islam, Allah, is most definitely not the God of the Bible. Allah is presented in the Koran as an autocratic ruler who is aloof and arbitrary (Sura 5:40). Allah is unknowable whereas the God of the Bible is knowable (2 Timothy 1:12). Allah is impersonal, unlike the personal God the Scriptures reveal (1 Peter 5:6-7).

Allah is capricious (Sura 2:284), whereas the true God is trustworthy. And Allah is never anywhere presented as a god of love—which is the essence of the nature of the true God (1 John 4:7-16).

It has been mentioned by many theologians over time that there is a highly noticeable difference in how God is presented in the Old Testament compared to that of the New Testament. The claim was often made that the God of the Old Testament was an angry and wrathful God, sometimes even prone to seemingly capricious fits of destruction (Gen 6:13) and merciless commands of genocide (1 Samuel 15:3). This even led some early Christians, namely Gnostics, to surmise that the two are simply not one and the same, that the God of the Old Testament was a diabolical figure merely pretending to be the true God, the father of Jesus Christ, in order to enslave us. The more mainstream Christians quickly sought to suppress this speculation, reasserting that while the personality of God in the Old Testament may be presented differently than in the New Testament, Christians certainly do believe that they are one and the same. By the criteria in question listed above, might we not still say that the God of the Jews is a different deity than the God of the Christians?

To say that the Christian God is knowable, but the Muslim god is not, is open to interpretation. By "knowable" what do we mean? In John 1:18, we are told that "no one has ever seen God...the only Son has made him known." But to what degree is God knowable? Could it be that we can know of God and about God, yet still he remains a mystery to us? The Apostle Paul states, “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11). Ultimately, the Gospel of Matthew tells us that “no one knows the Father except for the Son” (Matt 11:27). Could it be that the Koran describes Allah in the same way? The author of the short article quoted never cites a Koranic scripture to support his claim that Allah is unknowable. Interestingly, the early Gnostic Christians described God as the unknowable God, echoing both Platonic and Stoic beliefs which influenced the Gospel of John=s description of the Father that were necessarily crafted for pagan audiences.

The first website also states:

Allah is unitarian (Sura 4:48) whereas the God of the Bible is trinitarian (2 Corinthians 13:14). Here is what the Koran says about the God of the Bible (Sura 4:171): "Believe in Allah and say not "Trinity." Cease! It is better for you! Allah is only One God. Far is it removed from his transcendent majesty that he should have a son."

That the Bible is Trinitarian is patently incorrect. The doctrine of the Trinity was a fourth century AD doctrine crafted as a compromise between different competing theologies, rooted in second and third century attempts to identify the exact nature of Christ and his level of divinity. Any passage mentioning three elements or people can certainly be retrospectively interpreted as referencing the Trinity; it does not mean that Trinitarian doctrine is either organic to, or even endorsed by that scripture. Modern Catholic scholars recognize that the scriptures do not sufficiently support the idea of the Trinity, which for them is proof of the importance of post-canonical and extra-biblical prophecy and doctrine. Without which, doctrines such as Trinitarianism would be unsupportable if simply relying upon scriptural evidence. That is to say, Catholics believe that revelation outside of scripture is available to us for guidance, while Protestants tend to deny this, historically claiming a position of sola scriptura, or exclusive reliance upon scripture for the development of doctrine. It is common knowledge that Jews do not believe in the divinity of Christ or the Trinity as a valid description of God. It is also common knowledge that neither do Muslims do not believe thusly. Why is this doctrine trotted out as a proof of the non-identity of the Muslim and Christian god, yet it is not currently seen as proof of the non-identity of the Jewish and Christian god?

The second website, http://www.allaboutreligion.org/muslim-god-and-christian-god-the-same-faq.htm, also makes the same claim that the lack of Trinitarian theology is in part what disqualifies Islam from being recognized as believing in the same god. Yet, by contrast, the identity of the Jewish god with that of Christians is still maintained. Witness the following statements about the differences in theology being crucial:

Christianity is based on God sending His Son, Jesus, to atone for the sins of mankind (John 3:16-17). Jesus is part of the triune God, come in the flesh (Emmanuel means God with us) to earth for this purpose through His crucifixion and resurrection. (No other deity can claim this.)The Quran's Surah 17 111 says: "Praise be to Allah, who begets no son, and has no partner in (His) domain. . ." Surah 4 171 says: "O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: Nor, say of Allah aught but the truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an apostle of Allah and His Word. . ."

Once again, the refusal of a religion to recognize the triune identity of God is not grounds for claiming that it is a different deity entirely. If it were, Judaism would be excluded as well. Many modern Jews often take a similar view of Jesus of Nazareth in describing him as a good man and possibly a prophet, but neither the son of God nor a part of God. The Jews have always and continue to assert the unity of God—“Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

The first website continues:

“In addition, the Muslims despise Jews, but the Christian Bible says that the Jews are the apple of God's eye and that whoever blesses her will be blessed and whoever curses her will be cursed. (Genesis 12:2-3)”

I answer this by saying that not all Muslims despise Jews. In fact, most do not despise Jews any more than Christians despise Jews—perhaps less! Throughout the Middle Ages, there were many Muslim governments under whom the Jews enjoyed religious freedoms and prosperity. Not least of these was Muslim controlled Spain. Don’t forget who ejected the Jews from Spain - the subsequent Christian monarchy of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, not the Muslims of the previous regime! And moreso, it was not too long ago that conservative Christians were taught that the “perfidious Jews” were “Christ-killers” and that they were damned to hell for the sins of their forefathers, and that Jews had lost the mandate of heaven on account of their blood libel. For more information, see the following interesting website http://www.romancatholicism.org/popes-jews.htm#_The_Jews_are
which preserves a whole host of anti-Semitic statements from church fathers throughout the ages—not to highlight their error but to endorse their beliefs! Evidently, some of these scions of Christian anti-Semitism have their descendants in those who compiled this website.

In the early part of the twentieth century, many Nazis and their sympathizers the world over believed a variety of untruths about JudaismCthat Judaism was integrally related to Marxism, the latter being fundamentally rooted in Jewish doctrine; that the Jewish people were spawns of the devil (an idea inspired by an racially biased, anti-Semitic interpretation of John 8:44); some even denied that the Jews were in any way the descendants of ancient Israel, preferring a racially motivated eugenic myth in which the white, Aryan race were the true descendants of Israel, and not the Jews.

The second website has numerous statements about the differences between Christianity and Islam. A few are as follows, accompanied by my comments:

Another important distinction is that throughout the Quran, the teachings are to destroy all others outside of Islam in the name of Allah. In comparison, the Christian God is a god of love. Jesus tells us in Luke 6:27-28: "But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you and pray for them which despitefully use you." In addition, the Muslims despise Jews, but the Christian Bible says that the Jews are the apple of God's eye and that whoever blesses her will be blessed and whoever curses her will be cursed. (Genesis 12:2-3)

First of all, no support is given for the author's assessment of Islam's destructive intent. On the contrary, the author conveniently forgets Christianity's frequent attempts to supplant all other religions, a view endorsed by scripture, whether currently upheld or not. Witness the Gospel of John 14:6, in which Jesus states "No one comes to the Father except through me." Witness also what is said in the Book of Acts regarding the sole authority of Christianity: "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Do my Jewish readers really think that the current trend in conservative Christian support of Israel and Judaism has no strings attached? Do you really think that the most staunch, fundamentalist Christians believe that at the Judgment Day, Jews will be allowed to persist in their unbelief in Christ? Do you really think that they conceive of an escape clause that is available to the Jews, while all others are required to proclaim faith in Christ? It wasn't too many generations ago that many Christians sought the destruction of the Jews as part of their religious beliefs, as witnessed by the above website listing the vitriolic and vehemently anti-Semitic views of various popes and Christian fathers. The culmination of this was the Holocaust and the attendant silence of the European and American people leading into World War II. The modern ecumenical and interfaith movements which seek to establish peace and understanding between Judaism and Christianity, as well as other religions, have come about very late in the game.

Another point is made by the author of the second article online.

Acts 4:12: "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved."Whereas, the Quran states:Surah 23 102, "Then those whose balance (of good deeds) is heavy -- they will attain salvation. . ."

He seeks to point out that because Christianity has a different conception of the path to salvation, this disqualifies the god of Islam from being identical to the God of Christianity. By that same token, once again, Judaism—which does not believe in salvation by way of faith in Christ, but rather a preponderance of good deeds—is not disqualified.

The overarching theme here is that these particular Christians writing this sort of polemic against Islam simply do not want to see Islam as in any way connected or comparable to Christianity. When in fact, Muslims claim to be descended from Abraham (by a different lineage from the Jews), they revere Moses and Jesus as prophets of the Hebraic line, common ancestors all. They are monotheists whose name for God, “Allah” is a cognate (i.e. from the same etymological root) as two Hebrew words for God—“El” and “Elohim”. They revere the same prophets of the Old Testament and hold the same Biblical stories to be true and fundamental for their history.
If one were to make a claim that theological doctrine and one’s name for God were to disqualify one from being seen as worshiping the same god, then Anglican Christians would be seen as worshiping an entirely different god than Italian or Spanish Catholics. In fact, at one point in European history, this was for all intents and purposes the case: the Protestants and Catholics considered each other to be heathens whose proclaimed reverence for the same God did not qualify them to be called Christians at all. Many wars were fought in Europe, sparked by these simple theological differences. Even today, many fundamentalist Christians do not consider Catholics to be Christian at all, but an entirely different religion. By this same token, Mormons—whose specific conception of the Trinity does not coincide with that of other Christians—could be said to be worshiping an entirely different god! And many conservative Christians often make the false claim that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is not a Christian religion! And the Jehovah’s Witnesses—whose belief in the subordination of the Son to the Father and who reject the divinity of Christ—could be seen as having a theology much closer to Judaism than Christianity, and have been described by many of the same fundamentalist Christians as not being Christian at all. By this token, despite their insistence upon the inerrancy of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, they might therefore be said by those polemicizing Islam to worship an entirely different god than the one the “true Christians” behold!

Bear in mind that one of the early polemics against Trinitarian Christians, by both Jews and other Christians, was that the doctrine of the Trinity was tantamount to polytheism, and therefore idolatry. After claiming to be monotheists from the beginning moments of Christianity, how could one now claim that there was not one God, but three? And yet, somehow, Christians were able to maintain that their claim to monotheism was not disqualified by the mystical belief in the unity of God and Christ, something entirely alien to, and insupportable within, the Jewish faith from which Christianity derived.

So, to conclude, do Muslims worship the same God as the Christians do? You bet they do! If one can claim that the Christian god is the same god worshiped by the Jews, and not a Trinitarian perversion that disqualifies Christians from this claim, then all three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all worship the same God, albeit with different doctrinal trappings.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Century of Leniency Toward Evil?

Having just read several articles about the so-called Killing Fields in Cambodia, as well as the US Military Prison at Abu Ghraib, I am struck not only by the similarity in motives of the abusers (ideology), but also by the outcomes (liberty and justice only for those responsible). The 21st century may end up being known as the century of leniency toward evil. It was in this century that we have seen the wholesale dissolution of the American proscription against torture and against inhumanity. It was also in this century that we have seen a Cambodian court sentence one of the chief perpetrators of the Cambodian holocaust to a mere 19 years in prison for 14,000 people tortured and killed. Conversely, in the mid-twentieth century, we saw Nazi death camp guards and commandants rightly executed for crimes of that proportion. Accountability was upheld in those earlier cases, but not in these of our current century.

With the advent of the torture memos written by John Yoo and Jay Bybee, who served under an administration of more powerful and more nefarious devils who cared not about the conscience or the spirit of America and who drew together such a crowd of yes-men to write doctrine to support the torture being encouraged, we see large portions of the American public shift their beliefs about torture as if they were under a hypnotic spell. Formerly, it was a no-brainer: ‘we don’t torture. “Only the bad guys torture. The Nazis tortured. We’re the good guys, we are better than that; we do not torture.” As if by magic, the party line has shifted to a more lenient point of view that torture is okay, as long as it is we that do it. Torture by the opponent is terrorism, a crime against humanity; torture by us is a necessary evil. Early on in the Bush administration, after the revelation that there was torture going on under our jurisdiction, Bush decried repeatedly that we do not torture. Later on, Bush, Cheney and their supporters (including Cheney’s own daughter Liz) began to defend torture as something acceptable when carried out to ensure the safety of our nation. Talking out of both sides of their proverbial mouths, they both supported torture and claimed that the torture they supported is not torture!

Shortly after the revelation of the existence of our torture camps, Conservative apologists like Rush Limbaugh sought to claim that the activities carried on in our military prisons were no more harmful than fraternity hazing, choosing to address only the less egregious forms of “enhanced interrogation” methods, such as being subjected to long periods of enforced standing and being exposed to barking dogs, as well as humiliating postures and positions. These weren’t so bad, afterall, were they? Unfortunately, he chose to ignore the growing evidence for more nefarious forms of torture that were going on, the proof of which is now undeniable. These include allowing those aforementioned barking dogs to actually bite prisoners as well as guards actually torturing prisoners to death. Numerous instances of prisoners dying under torture have surfaced and a paucity of prosecutions have been carried out, with virtually no substantial convictions. The Conservative apologists are still ignoring these cases, as if they were not a black mark on our collective national conscience. By this same token, I suppose that the Nazis rounding the Jews up and sending them to concentration camps wasn’t so bad afterall. Where’s the harm in that? Oh, but don’t forget about the gas chambers and the ovens, not to mention the medical experiments and the starvation!

Retired Major General Antonio Taguba is perhaps the most outspoken and righteous man in the current military hierarchy, having headed up a military investigation against the abuses of the Bush administration and having publicly decried them in a contribution to the Physicians for Human Rights report of 2008. In this, he rightly and boldly accused the Bush administration of war crimes. God bless the whistle blowers like him.

Now, lest you think that I am taking an unfair stance against American and Christian parties, I must state that similarly I am deeply saddened by the Turkish government’s stance on the ‘non-existence’ of a genocide against the Armenians during the early part of the 20th century. In their official position, it simply did not happen. But lest I one day be arrested for transgressing Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, should I ever visit Turkey, I will refrain from making any disparaging remarks against the Turkish government. I will not say that I abhor this stance as unrighteous and damaging to all citizens of Turkey, either Muslim or Armenian or otherwise. I will not state that the Armenian genocide is a black mark on the record of an otherwise righteous nation known for its traditional tolerance of Jews and other ethnicities within its borders. I will not criticize the Turkish government for any such policy or transgression. But I ask the reader if it is possible to criticize a government and its policies without being seen to criticize the entire nation. I ask the reader if it is truly patriotic to back one political party and to be an apologist for all of its stances, right or wrong, and to be swindled by the leaders of that party into allowing them to do what they will, fearing that if one were to criticize their actions that one would be criticizing the entirety of the nation. I ask the reader if it is just to follow a tyrant who has wrested control from the hands of justice and from the hands of the people and demanded that all remain silent while he commit unearthly acts of terror against a portion of the nation’s populace or even other peoples. Is this patriotism? Is this justice? Is this righteous? Since when did patriotism become synonymous with blind support of tyranny? Evidently, we in the United States are not alone in our struggle to remember what the U.S. military oath says about supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Perhaps those in other nations too must face the task of standing up to bullies and tyrants within their own governments.

Once again, lest I be characterized as one-sided or unfairly critical of my own beloved nation, I also must remind you of how I began this essay. I was appalled that the government of Cambodia, now somewhat safely removed from its days of tyranny by the Khmer Rouge, has largely adopted a policy of ‘let bygones be bygones’, and in which its youth no longer remember the scars that their parents bore in former days under the former regime. The courts have allowed one of the key members of the torture academies to be given a proverbial slap on the wrist for his innumerable crimes against humanity. But still, where were our cries of injustice during that regime’s tenure? We were largely silent while Pol Pot and his cronies exterminated perhaps a million or more in the countrysides and lush jungles of their nation. And Europe was similarly silent while the Young Turks ravaged their brethren, the Armenians, in the midst and in the wake of WWI. Had a cry of injustice been raised then, perhaps later genocides might have been prevented or at least attenuated.

The CIA black prisons still exist, despite the largely ceremonial liquidation of Guantanamo Bay. The authors of our national lapse of conscience have still gone unpunished, as have their uniformed henchmen. And those who should be behind bars still practice law ‘at the bar’. It is time to prosecute those responsible for the U.S. torture prisons, even if it means going all the way to the top. It is time that we, in our patriotism, put righteousness at all costs above petty conceptions of patriotism. We must set an example for the rest of the world that we are still the good guys, that our country, right or wrong, is still our responsibility. That it is still in the hands of democracy and is still the beacon of freedom and liberty and justice for all. That we will shoulder the burden of our nation’s moral guidance and will not close our eyes to the misdeeds of those who have pretended to act in our best interests; that we will not ignore justice simply because our former lapse in judgment embarrasses us. Perhaps the other nations will then also follow our example.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Is Masturbation a Sin?

Is masturbation a sin? Is it dangerous for our bodies, minds, and souls? Recent Republican and Tea Party senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell has been connected to a campaign beginning in the 1990s in which groups of Christians sought to teach youth through media about the dangers of masturbation. This prohibition against auto-eroticism is nothing new. It was particularly prevalent in Protestant and Catholic America in the early 20th century, when children were taught about the evils of “Onanism”. My father remembers having joined the Boy Scouts and reading in their handbook about its dangers.

Before we determine whether masturbation is truly an evil or a danger to our bodies and our souls, allow me to discuss the issue of such an act being named after Onan, a character from the Old Testament. For the sake of this discussion, I am going to assume that what the Bible says on this subject is truly the inspired word of God. If you disagree, then this debate is largely moot for you. So, go and enjoy yourself—literally. If you agree, then deciphering the meaning of this passage can be very helpful for us to discern what is good and healthy for our souls and our bodies, and what is not.

If this is one of the primary biblical proofs against the act of auto-eroticism, then we have been sorely underserved by church doctrine. In the passage which mentions Onan—Leviticus 38:6-9—this character is one of the sons of Judah, the Israelite patriarch. Onan’s older brother is described as “wicked in the sight of the LORD” (38:7; NRSV) and so God killed him. We don’t know what the older son did to be called wicked, but for the moment we can just trust the text. Judah commanded his younger son, Onan, to perform his brotherly duties, that is to take care of his brother’s widow and conceive children with her. Onan believes, according to the customs of the times, that these children will be counted not as his own but as his brother’s. Perhaps because of his brother’s wickedness, or perhaps because of Onan’s own jealousy, he attempts to deny any progeny to his brother’s memory—“so that he will not give offspring to his brother” (v. 9). So he carries out coitus interruptus; that is to say, he “pulls out”, when having sexual congress with his new wife—his brother’s widow—so that she may not conceive at all. In doing this act, he spills his semen on the ground. He does this repeatedly, according to the text, whenever they have intercourse. Because of this it says, “What he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also” (v. 10). If we take the author of this text as having correctly understood and interpreted the will of God in this situation and having accurately represented Onan’s actions, then the text is fairly clear. It is not the act of coitus interruptus itself that God abhors, nor is the text even a reference to masturbation (a solo act of self-gratification). Rather, it is Onan’s spiteful attempt to deny his brotherly duties and simultaneously his disobedience to his father’s instructions. It is the act of selfish spite and abrogation of duty that God finds “displeasing” and worthy of death. If it is such that God strikes people down for sins and misdeeds—a questionable theology in itself—then it is only for this very act that we can judge it took place. Neither birth control for economic reasons—careful and natural planning of a family—nor self-gratification are proscribed here. We should not interpret it as if it were.

Where else does Christianity derive such doctrines of self denial in which masturbation is considered a sin? Some very loose interpretations of the words of the Apostle Paul have been applied in an attempt to proscribe masturbation. 1 Corinthians 6:9 lists a variety of sins, both sexual and non-sexual, that would disqualify one from inheriting the Kingdom of God. Some of these employ very contextual and vague terms which even to the early church were already outdated and obscure terms. Not least of which are malakos and arsenokoites. Many scholars debate the exact meanings of these terms, both of which have been widely interpreted among the conservative church communities to indicate and proscribe homosexual behavior. Regardless of whether this is the case or not (and a good number of modern scholars contest this), these terms do not undoubtedly or clearly refer to masturbation. In this passage, Paul encourages people to treat their bodies with respect and not use them in a sexually disrespectful manner. Point well taken. But Paul does endorse marriage in a number of passages of his epistles, especially if the person believes that they cannot remain celibate throughout their lives. And much of Paul’s theology is dependent upon his belief in the impending end of the world, an idea which has long been disproved (we’re still here, aren’t we?). And even Paul himself recognizes that he is fallible and that certain ideas are his own opinions and not strictly God’s command (see 1 Cor 7:25).

In a television series produced by MTV in 1996 called “Sex in the Nineties”, and in one video in particular featuring Christine O’Donnell and various associates from Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth Ministry (SALT), she cites one additional passage from the Bible which might likely be used to proscribe the act of masturbation. In the Gospel of Matthew 5:28, Jesus says “But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In the video, O’Donnell interprets this passage to say that we should not masturbate because masturbation necessarily involves lustful thoughts. Point well taken. However, can we not say that lust is in some manner involved in sex between lawful marriage partners? Even O’Donnell concedes in that video that sexual desires are God-given and need to be understood and harnessed accordingly. But her belief that masturbation will cause someone to know how to please oneself to the point of not needing their partner is overly unrealistic. She states that if a guy knows how to please himself, what need does he have for a wife? If this were true, no men would EVER get married, nor would there be any married men in history. Because most men masturbate. If they are being truthful, they’ll admit this.

In chapter 5 of the abovementioned text of Matthew, Jesus takes several of the Old Testament commandments and proscriptions and in a point-counterpoint argument, he intensifies the traditional Jewish law in order to show that his disciples are even stricter than the strictest of his opponents, the Pharisees. He also states that anyone who is angry is liable to judgment and anyone who calls someone a fool is liable to go to hell. How literally do we need to take this set of passages? Most of us would be doomed to hell. Could it be perhaps that we are just being told to hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior? Could chapter 5 be reminding us of the commandment against coveting? This commandment does not only stop with sexual desires, but is advice against any kind of jealous desires of what we don’t have.

Interestingly, Leviticus 15:16-18 take for granted that men are having ejaculations throughout their lives, and does not specifically connect them to the act of copulation with one’s wife. This passage considers any type of sexual discharge as something that makes a man ritually unclean for a finite period of time and requires ritual purification. This is the same for both men and women. It’s just a part of ancient Jewish observance and is no more outlandish than our ideas of washing one’s hands after using the toilet. It is also likely that this passage addresses men’s nocturnal emissions and masturbation as well as approved sexual congress with one’s wife (or wives, as it may be in the Old Testament!)

Taken in the context of these passages, and the lack of any solid biblical proscription against masturbation, could it be that masturbation is a helpful method of safe sexual exploration, learning about one’s likes and dislikes and what kinds of sensations are pleasant, all without having to engage in sex with multiple partners? Could it be that masturbation is a way to release sexual tension without having to have sex with someone before one is ready, either as a youth or as an adult? Could it be that masturbation, if employed in moderation, can be healthy for the body and soul alike?

Perhaps. But before we decide otherwise, we need to check out the sources of our adjudication against it. We are likely to find that it is our desire to denigrate all sexuality and sexual urges that causes us to find meanings in scripture that are simply not there and to mangle and force certain texts to support our own prejudices and irrational beliefs. To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet gone blind or grown hair on their palms from masturbation—either excessive or in moderation.

And one more thing. Don’t you think that there are more important societal problems for us to worry about than whether our youth masturbate?! How about teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, rape (date- or otherwise), wreckless driving, theft, underage drinking, and drug use, amid a myriad of other problems facing youth particularly, not to mention all the other problems that our society faces as a whole!

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Mosque at Ground Zero

As I write this, there is a debate raging on about the possible construction of a mosque and Islamic cultural center in New York City, at or near the ground zero site of the 9/11 2001 terrorist attacks. Both sides of this debate seem to believe that this issue is very cut and dry. Even I was initially about to side with one side over the other. But after careful reflection and some impartial research, I have come to see that many outspoken critics of both sides have received limited or incorrect information about the other side’s intentions. Those in favor of allowing the local Islamic community to build this mosque frequently and rightly state that our constitution supports freedom of religion and that to deny these Americans the right to worship where they will is unconstitutional and unethical. In addition, they rightly state that the attacks were not committed by authorized representatives of the majority Islamic community. Also, they rightly state that the Islamic community is more commonly represented by moderate, peaceful people - our neighbors and friends. To say otherwise - to characterize the attacks as representative of Islam, to support the notion that it was not merely fostered by Islamic extremists, but that terrorism is an integral feature of Islam itself - is most certainly untrue.

On the other side, opponents of building the mosque at ground zero are not wholly comprised of racist or hatefully ethnocentric people who equate the 9/11 attacks with all of Islam. Their ranks are not that homogeneous. Many of the opponents uphold the right of religious freedom for all Americans, but simply are in favor of the ground zero site being used as a memorial and a museum, as there are still body parts of over 2500 people entombed in the site itself. The building of a mosque on that site contradicts their intended usage of the site.

It is not a simple issue. To characterize it as such would be to miss the equally valid points of all sides. In order to get past the petty infighting that many partisans of any argument engage in, we are each of us going to have to momentarily “take sides” - but rather than taking our own sides, we will have to take the side of our opponent, walk around in his proverbial shoes, see what validity is embedded in his argument and allow that to either mitigate or inform our own opinions.

True, there are many people who simply hate or fear Islam and do not understand that it is a religion of peace just as Judaism or Christianity are religions that promote peace, but have made their fair share of contributions to warfare and hatred waged and fostered in the name of religion. If Jews are not right to claim that the Holocaust was orchestrated and carried out by “the Christians”, speaking corporately and without distinction between Nazis and the rest of Europe, then how can we as Americans support the statement that 9/11 was carried out by “the Muslims”? How can we scoff at the former opinion and yet hold the latter? How can we rightly declaim those who hold all Jews for all time responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, and simultaneously allow some to blame the entire religion of Islam for the execution of the 9/11 disaster? And how can some poor deluded souls even continue to characterize our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as wars against Islam?

These are all facile and unsupportable positions. And there are indeed some events happening in the United States today in which the building of mosques is being resisted by Anglo and Christian communities on account of these misguided principles and without any benefit of deeper and more complex factors. Also at this very time, in Temecula, California, a conservative Christian church and many in the surrounding community are protesting the building of a mosque nearby on account of the mosque being from a different religion, and one that conflicts with the former’s claim to be the only correct religion. Incidentally, another church nearby, far less conservative in its beliefs, is in favor of allowing the mosque to be built in that vicinity, true proponents of interfaith dialogue and ecumenism. It is quite interesting that the more conservative church is not resistant to the less conservative church being in the same vicinity. They seem to have no problem with the fact that the other Christian church also preaches a different set of viewpoints and theology than they do. To some, this would constitute being of a different religion. Many of Europe’s wars in the pre-modern period were waged over the issues between the Catholic and Protestant churches.

To me, the aforementioned problem in Temecula is in fact cut and dry. But the decision to build a mosque at ground zero when other factions are supporting the maintenance of the site as a memorial as well as the construction of a museum, may in fact be very tricky. In my opinion, we should foster the construction of an interfaith community and education center on the site, one which seeks to detoxify false perceptions of any religion - be it Islam or not - and to foster interfaith dialogue and peacemaking. It would be a site which will not favor the prominence of one religion over another, and will not allow the characterization of any religion as a religion of hatred. This site should seek to foster the correct notion that the attacks of 9/11 were the work of hate-filled extremists and not moderates or authorized representatives of the majority of any religion. Such a site will be a place which will honor the deceased of that tragedy as well as the work of our world’s greatest peacemakers.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

True Christianity?

There are many people who have great zeal for their faith in Christ, and who seek to make the entire world Christian. But to what degree shall we be called Christian? To what depth does one’s Christianity need to be, in order for these people’s goals to be fulfilled? If each person in the world were to proclaim the name of Christ, at least with their mouths, would the work of these noble-intentioned missionaries be complete? If the Gospel were, so to speak, “preached to the ends of the earth,” would they be satisfied? We have people today, in Christian countries, claiming the name of Christ, who have no more commitment to, or comprehension of, Christian morals, ideals, and lifestyle than do those who openly proclaim to be atheists. In some cases, they have perhaps even less. Remember that Jesus said, “Many will come in my name saying ‘I am the Christ’ and they will lead many astray.” (Matt 24:5) He is also quoted as saying, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 7:21)

I have friends who though they are avowed atheists, believe more strongly in ideals and morals common to Christianity than most Christians. They merely do not proclaim the name of Christ, but they do follow a strict code of moral conduct inspired by and largely identical to the ten commandments. They practice these morals because they believe that it is the right thing to do, not because they fear divine punishment. Which is the better Christian, the one who merely says “Lord, Lord?” or the one who follows what Jesus commanded us to do? What this suggests to me is that if one of these Christians who acts righteously because of his fear of divine punishment were to be granted special dispensation to sin, they would do so eagerly. In fact, this has happened all throughout Christian history. In the Middle Ages, certain popes declared that it was not a sin to kill infidels, particularly Muslims. For many centuries, the Catholic Church tacitly endorsed pogroms, open oppression and murder of Jews, and even fostered the Spanish Inquisition and even turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. For many centuries, it was considered a merciful act to burn witches at the stake, believing that a short time in the earthly fire would save them from an eternity in the fires of Hell! So, can we truly say that the person who is a Christian outwardly, nominally, publicly proclaiming the name of Christ, yet disobeying what the Lord Jesus Christ commanded us to do, is a more righteous person than the atheist who observes the laws of God because he knows it is the right thing to do? Remember what the Lord our God said to us in the Book of the Prophet Hosea, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God and not burnt offerings.” (6:6)

Perhaps more today than ever before, we have millions of Christians who proclaim their faith but they do not practice it. There are millions of people who support violent regimes the world over, even in our own great nation of the United States of America, who support murder and torture and believe that the ends justify the means. The man who was up until recently (January, 2009) called President has endorsed this view of God’s law. He commanded thousands of troops to enter another country, and under false pretenses, or according to knowledge questionably gained (by torturing people willing to confess anything to get the torture to cease), and endorsed military and civilian personnel (e.g. the CIA) to conduct torture in undisclosed locations - a very Christian act indeed! Is this Christian conduct?

If our noble-intentioned Christian brethren were to spend more time missionizing to our own countrymen, people already enlisted in the roles of Christianity, proselytizing to them to cease their sinful nature and turn back to what God has demanded of us, then we as Christians would live more exemplary lives. We Christians as a whole would be a more noble and Godly people. We would lead by example rather than be coercion. Rather than spending millions of dollars worldwide every year to send missionaries to the four corners of the earth, attempting to obtain a confession of faith out of the meekest members of God’s children, they should spend more time at home, preaching to our politicians, to our military, to our CIA, and to those in the heartland who have blindly elected and endorsed one administration after another that merely pays lip service to the notion of a Christian America.

In the 2004 elections, many voters were polled, being asked a loaded question of which type of candidate they preferred: one whose platform focused on morality or social justice. Of course, Bush (as opposed to Kerry, as supporter of abortion and civil rights) was characterized as the one who embodied morality, simply on account of his willingness to publicly proclaim his Christian faith, and to support right wing, conservative interpretations of Christian values. Of course, refraining from murder and torture are not considered important sufficiently crucial Christian values!