Monday, April 24, 2006

Monday with McKenna: Unmerciful Heavens

The fundamentalist credo: change is good only when it's happening to someone else; only when it is imposed upon a competing ideology. If it's someone else's temple that is being razed; another sect's nation that is being occupied; another group's children who are dying, starving, and orphaned, then change is very good indeed.

But otherwise, change sucks. Change, for a fundamentalist, is to be treated like sex—something that should be accomplished in the dark, behind the scenes, quickly and in utter secrecy. And, usually, with a certain sense of guilt or regret.

Try and talk of change out in the open, where the public and the media can hear and respond, and you are immediately ostracized to the legions of Satan. Talk of changing one line of my group's sacred text, question one belief carved into the stone tablets of Truth, or kick a single tire on the cloud-banked contraption of my organization's hierarchy—and you have blasphemed; you have committed a crime for which there is no mercy or forgiveness; you are one with the Demon.

I have written about this in many places here and elsewhere; now it is time for a fresh voice—if only so that you can see that a fellow who sits toward the right-hand side of the political sofa can see the same decadence that I see in fundamentalism everywhere—whether its voice comes out of a cave in Pakistan or a palace in the Vatican. Mr. McKenna, it's your turn.

Brian and I are seekers after truth. To seek is to keep looking. Not satisfied. Thus the opposite of faith. In the present day US, our predominant faith is Christianity. But for those who trumpet faith, Christ’s message is mixed. Yes, “believe in me” … but love the poor and be merciful. And the faithful are expected to demonstrate their faith by good works. So if you profess a belief in Christ’s message of mercy, it should show in your behavior.

I am constantly flabbergasted with our president’s trumpeting his faith. I wonder about a faith that seems unmoved by the cries for mercy that surround him. It is well known that when George Bush was governor of Texas, he routinely denied requests for stays of execution (surely cries for mercy). Contrast that with Lincoln, who was constantly presented with requests for clemency (usually from a deserter about to be executed). He routinely approved pardons - so much so that his refusal to grant clemency to a slave trader stood out as exceptional. It is interesting to note that Lincoln was most probably an unbeliever. Yet, if we compare Bush and Lincoln, who really shared Christ’s belief in mercy?

Faith is a trap. For most of us, we save our faith for Sunday mornings. The media do pretty much the same thing. But each year at Easter time, Jesus returns to center stage. A well-known example from fifty years ago was The Day Christ Died by Jim Bishop. This best selling work accepted the New Testament account of the crucifixion at face value. What was new was the use of medical science to explain how crucifixion actually worked – and thus how Christ actually died. The crucifixion story shifts from the last words of Christ to where the nails would likely have been placed (in the wrists, not the palms) and in the mechanism of death - by suffocation and shock.

In our own day, we benefit from several decades of modern biblical scholarship. Thus, we know that the Gospels were written maybe 40 or 50 years after Jesus’ death (also by anonymous writers, not the Apostles that tradition has assigned to them). If you go a bit deeper into recent works, you’ll find that the historical Jesus was likely a displaced and illiterate peasant from the bottom rung of a turbulent Palestine. The Holy Thursday story is likely fiction. And the elaborate crucifixion/Easter myth did not appear in the earliest extant writings, but only much later when the canonical “gospels” emerged.

Still, orthodox churchmen are not worried about scholarship that few read. What troubles them is when the news reaches the average person. Thus, while serious scholarship is ignored, works like The Last Temptation of Christ and The Da Vinci Code are swiftly condemned.

The Churches are worried that those who put money in the basket will get wise and stop coming (and paying).

This year, we had 2 newsworthy publications. The first was a translation of a newly available text, the Gospel of Judas. From the snippets available in the press, it’s clear that this gospel is just a crazy rant that will not sway anyone. Much more threatening is the second work, James Tabor’s “The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity.” In this work, Mr. Tabor presents a rational (though imaginative) account of how the Christ narrative might really have happened. It made Cardinal Egan (from New York) so mad that he made it the subject of a rant delivered from the pulpit at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Fundamentalists were also upset. (Albert Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary).

And what of behavior? The biggest issue among Catholics has been the behavior of supposedly celibate priests. In diocese after diocese, it has turned out that priests were molesting teenage and pre-teen boys. And in diocese after diocese, the offenders were protected, while the victims were bullied.

Cardinal Egan has been a priest since 1957 and part of “management” since the late 1960’s. I would not be surprised if it turns out that he knew a few child molesters. I also have little doubt that as a manager, he was aware of how brutally the victims were shamed and hushed up.

In the aftermath of the scandal, the Church has pretended to reform. US bishops assembled a group of prominent lay Catholics to study the problem and to make recommendations. But as the group began to exert power, the bishops bristled. Cardinal Egan, for his own part spurned the members (and remember, these were prominent Catholics). To be sure, the scandal has perhaps been contained; thus the Church will not be able to let priests get away with it anymore.

I have less experience or knowledge of the world of fundamentalists. But it seems that they too have lusts, and angers (and are associated with recent murders). It is also ironic that the world of right wing Christianity wraps the US in Jesus and the flag, and seems strangely supportive of defense spending and war.

If there is any moral here, it is that the world of faith becomes a world of official truth and party line. So if you are looking for meaning, by all means read the sacred and ancient texts, but please avoid the official spokesmen.

—T. McKenna

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