Religious Persecutors

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I recently watched the film Patriot Days, which tells the story of the Boston Marathon bombings. It details the lives of some of the victims as well as the bombers themselves and the law enforcement officials who apprehended them.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, like many fanatics, used religion to justify the murder and maiming of innocent men, women, and children. His brother Dzhokhar, who seems less ideologically driven, does not come off any better in the film, showing a selfishness and callous disregard for human life. He even ran over his own brother with a car in his haste to save himself. Tamerlan is dead, and Dzhokhar languishes in prison while lawyers appeal his death sentence for the bombings and the shooting death of an MIT campus police officer.

Today is Good Friday, and Christians all over the world commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus Christ at the hands of the Romans but at the behest of religious leaders who saw Jesus as a threat to their power. These leaders used trumped up charges of blasphemy to justify handing over an innocent man to be crucified, a cruel and ignominious form of execution.

Although the larger story of Christ’s passion and death points to his resurrection and the salvation of the world, the actions of the chief priests and Pharisees of Jesus’s time are echoed in history’s many instances of people using religion to justify violence.

The world is filled with many faith traditions, each with its own beliefs, rituals, and customs. People of faith may disagree with and even criticize each other. But our religious beliefs should never be the basis for hatred or killing.

As Jesus neared his death, he prayed, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” If Jesus can forgive his tormentors, we too should seek to promote peace and healing, not violence and death.

Hate Has No Ideological Boundaries

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Wednesday’s attack on London’s Westminster Bridge has once again raised the specter of Islamic extremism and no doubt will unleash further animosity against Muslims living in the West. Although British authorities believe the terrorist, who died in the attack, had acted alone, ISIS claimed responsibility for inspiring the terror that killed 4 and seriously injured many others.

Without minimizing the effects of ISIS’s promulgation of hate against the West, I hope cool heads will prevail and leaders will not overreact to this instance of “lone wolf terrorism.” The truth is that hate, while inconsistent with the beliefs of any major religion, is unfortunately a universal emotion that plagues the human heart, and practitioners of religions ranging from Islam to Christianity to Buddhism have used a twisted take on their religious beliefs to justify their hateful and terrorist actions.

How else to explain why an Israeli Jew was just arrested for spreading bomb threats throughout U.S. Jewish centers? An attorney for the unnamed Jewish man is claiming mental instability as a cause for the cyberterrorism that has “sent a chill through the American Jewish community.” (Chicago Tribune, Friday, March 24, 2017)

And one need not go back very far to find instances of right wing Christian terrorism, such as the Planned Parenthood attack by Robert Dear or even the massacre of blacks in South Carolina by KKK admirer Dylann Roof. These individuals espoused extremist Christian ideology that justified attacking abortion providers and those who are not white.

Our great religions have striven over the centuries to inspire, comfort, and guide human beings in their quest for meaning. Many sacrifices and acts of heroism were guided by people’s religious beliefs. For example, numerous Christians acted to save Jews from the holocaust during World War II.

But humans being human, there are those among us who, for whatever reason, allow hate and anger to be the guiding forces of their lives. They also seek meaning in religion, but they must twist it to their violent desires.

At the risk of sounding trivial, the story of the Stars Wars saga puts it well: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to the dark side.”

We will not solve the problem of hate crimes and terrorism by unleashing more hate or violence. We can only do that by strengthening the forces of love and community that might help turn some of these marginalized individuals away from violence and help them gain a sense of purpose that comes from healing, not hurting.

Facebook Fast

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As the penitential season of Lent begins, I as usual will give up my beloved sweets of all kinds: coffeecake, cookies, chocolate etc. But I have also decided to follow the lead of some of my friends and abstain from spending time on Facebook.

Facebook has been a blessing and a curse in my life. It has been great to reconnect with old friends, see photos of their families, and even get into some pretty serious conversations. I have learned so much more about many people I know than I ever would have in casual conversation at the supermarket or on the soccer sidelines.

But Facebook has had some drawbacks, and I feel the need to take a break from it. One of the most obvious drawbacks is how much time it can suck out of your day. There are many days when I spend little time on it, but others when I check it compulsively several times a day, adding up to hours spent on the social media platform.

There is apparently some evidence that spending time on Facebook can lead to depression. This does not surprise me. The reason given for this phenomenon is that it can be depressing to compare your life to all the wonderful things your friends are doing, what they are wearing, how cute their children are and the like. None of this particularly bothers me. I am not that competitive with others when it comes to social standing, looks, or just how much fun someone else seems to be having.

What I find depressing on Facebook is mostly the political divide that has become all too evident since the presidential election campaign began in earnest back in 2015. It is discouraging to see so much animosity on both sides and to realize that no matter how many meaty articles one posts or how well-considered one’s argument is, our friends on the other side of that divide are unlikely to come around to our way of thinking. Even the sheer exposure of current events that I see in my news feed every day, with or without commentary, can really get me down.

So I will be spending 40 days in the internet desert. I will still be posting on my blog, which automatically loads to Facebook. But I myself will not be scrolling along to see what’s up in cyber world. It is my hope that this Facebook fast will give me renewed energy, more time, and the chance to focus on my spiritual life, which is the purpose of Lent.

Christmas Memories

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242AB00E00000578-2881290-image-a-28_1419262681192.jpgAlthough I am mostly a forward-looking person, at Christmas I enjoy indulging in a bit of nostalgia. As a writer, I have always appreciated the Christmas vignettes of well-known authors, such as Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and the poet Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” In that spirit, I’d like to reminisce about my own childhood Christmases in a family of 13.

Christmas Eve seemed to take forever to arrive. After weeks of thumbing through the dog-eared pages of the Sears Roebuck & Company Christmas wish book, we kids were beside ourselves anticipating Santa’s visit and the toys we were dreaming of being placed magically under our Christmas tree.

Just a few days earlier, my father had bought a real balsam fir from the local tree lot and set it up in our basement. He’d wound the colored lights around the tree with the patience of Job. Then began our painstaking job of hanging the tinsel. Strand by strand, we hung each piece just so on the branches until the tree shimmered. Finally, we were allowed to hang the ornaments, many of them homemade by us and Dad, who loved art projects, paint by numbers, model airplanes and the like. I still have a couple of the sorry looking satin ball ornaments I decorated years ago with the bare minimum of flourishes. Art was never my strong suit.

But baking was. My favorite Christmas activity was baking cookies with my mother and sisters. Our table was covered with cookie pans, colored decorations, flour and the cookie press, which made adorable and delicious little spritz cookies that looked like trees and stars. My mother would color some of the dough green and red for an added festive touch. While we rolled and decorated and baked, we listened to Christmas songs on the hi-fi and sang along, attempting harmonies we’d learned in chorus class.

In school we cut out snowflakes and made cards with a lot of glitter and thick white paste from a jar with a plastic stick. We visited the Nativity scene at church and noticed that the manger was empty, awaiting the baby Jesus’ birth on Christmas. We sang the traditional carols of the season and lit the Advent candles each week – first one, then two, then the pink one, and finally all four in a circle, the four Sundays of waiting for Emmanuel.

In our big Catholic family, religion was central to our identity and to Christmas. Before we were even allowed to peek at what Santa had brought us on Christmas morning, we would bundle off to Christmas Mass. It was so hard to sit through an hour of prayers and songs, kneeling, standing, and sitting. All I could think about was my present under the tree. Even the arrival of baby Jesus in the manger couldn’t distract me.

The night before, Christmas Eve, I had found it so hard to sleep. I lay snug in my bed near the hissing radiator and strained to hear reindeer hoofbeats on our roof. I was sure I’d never fall asleep until, all at once, a filtered light shone through the curtains and onto the snow-ladened yard, and I knew Christmas had come at last.

All eleven of us kids sat at the long table in our breakfast room and choked down food, scarcely noticing what it was. We dressed in our red velvet jumpers, each of them painstakingly sewn by Mom. Our hair was brushed, and our patent leather shoes shone, and we passed the closed basement door longingly, knowing that Santa had come last night and deposited the mother lode down there under our tree. Into our galoshes, our coats, and our mittens, which were attached by a clip to our coats so that they wouldn’t get lost, we ventured into the cold and piled into our station wagon.

After Mass and the riot of 13 people removing all their winter outerwear (and, of course, hanging it up neatly), it was finally time. We lined up in the kitchen from youngest to oldest. My dad opened the door and went down the basement stairs with his camera so that he could film us coming down. Then pandemonium. We galloped down the stairs with shrieks of glee and ran to our spots around the tree.

The mountain of gifts seemed enormous. In reality, we each received two or three things. Our excited chatter filled the room, and my parents wearily watched us from a couple of easy chairs. Dolls, toy cars, games, soft and cozy pajamas. One year my younger sister and I received a joint gift – a beautiful dollhouse with tiny furniture and a little family. I still remember my favorite piece from that dollhouse: a red velvet chaise longue. It seemed so elegant, as if a rich family resided in that toy mansion. After sufficient oohing and ahhing over our gifts, we checked the socks we had hung by the fireplace. Invariably, there would be plenty of hard candy stuffed inside and, at the bottom, a perfectly round tangerine.

Later on, we would have an early Christmas dinner in our dining room and then visit relatives. After a long, full day, we would go to bed and sleep heavily, our days of waiting and longing finally fulfilled. And in the morning, if we were lucky, there would be snow to play in. And I could start dreaming – of my January birthday!

 

 

Tears for Aleppo

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27978862870_896d247198_bThe news from Syria is distressing. As autocratic president Bashar al-Assad’s army, along with Iranian and Russian forces, closes in on east Aleppo, the people are trapped. Reports are coming out of summary executions, rapes, and other atrocities. The scene in Aleppo is reminiscent of the battle for Stalingrad in World War II, as war-weary Syrians grapple with  daily bombings, food shortages, and displacement from their homes.

The Syrian civil war, now in its fifth year, has left millions of refugees homeless. Most of them have fled to countries in Europe, where they have met with no small measure of resentment from a fearful populace. Others are stuck in refugee camps, fighting to survive. And these are the lucky ones. In Aleppo, all that innocent civilians want is to be allowed to leave.

Meanwhile, South Sudan is “‘on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war which could destabilize the entire region,'” according U.N. investigators (Chicago Tribune, Dec. 15, 2016). Ethnic cleansing on a mass scale in Darfur used to grab front page headlines, but the ongoing crisis has been pushed aside by ever more instances of war, terrorism, and horrific violence.

Here at home, we struggle with “lone wolf” terrorism, out of control gun violence, hate crimes, hunger, and poverty. While our situation pales in comparison with what is happening in the war-torn countries mentioned above, it is still upsetting to see so much strife in a land that should be a beacon of freedom and hope for the rest of the world.

Yesterday I read a Washington Post article about the lives of some Sandy Hook parents whose children were ruthlessly gunned down four years ago by a disturbed young man with a semi-automatic rifle. Instead of preparing for the joy of Christmas, they had to prepare for the burial of their young children. Today their lives feel hollow and meaningless despite their tireless efforts to change gun laws across the country. Each day for them is a terrible struggle to get out of bed and face the day, to help their surviving children cope with the tragedy that afflicts their family. Peace on Earth, for them, is a fairy tale

Photos of the rubble that used to be Syria’s “New York City” are devastating. Video images of Aleppo residents trying to escape, tweets from Syrians certain they are about to face their deaths – these images bring tears. My tears for Aleppo are my tears for all human misery and suffering.

Yesterday I also saw a beautiful video of an infant being fitted for a hearing aid. As he heard his parents’ voices for the first time, he smiled. The tears I shed after seeing this were tears of joy. The coexistence of joy and despair is a reality I can’t pretend to understand. But as Christmas approaches, the tiny infant in the manger calls on me to choose joy and love. His kingdom is “not of this world,” but with his light perhaps we can bring more hope to ours.

 

War on Christmas

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I’m so relieved! Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has announced that, thanks to Trump’s election as president, Christmas is saved. So glad that President-elect Trump is Making Christmas Great Again.

To be honest, though, I was pretty sure Christmas was not going underground when I shopped recently at my local Target. Here’s the display of Christmas items there:

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In contrast, here are the Hanukkah items you can buy at Target:

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And thank heavens I didn’t even see any Eid or Kwanzaa decorations. I guess Christmas’s dominance over the holidays is assured.

But not so fast. Many Americans are still concerned that the political correctness police (AKA the Democratic Party) is preventing innocent citizens from uttering the words, “Merry Christmas.” For instance, just this morning the smiling but frozen Salvation Army bell ringer offered me a mere “Happy Holidays.” But seriously, folks, I think the “C” word is safe, what with all the radio stations playing Christmas music 24/7. I haven’t heard of one instance of someone feeling affronted by being wished a Merry Christmas.

Yet what about that creche you want put up in the public square? The hateful U.S. Constitution won’t allow it! To these people I say: If you want to see baby Jesus in the manger, get your a** to church. They all have them on display, usually outside, so you don’t even have the inconvenience of attending a service.

I do believe there is a war on Christmas, but to my mind it’s a spiritual one. It’s the lack of civility and kindness that has really ratcheted up since the election of the Divider-in- Chief, Donald Trump. Newsweek recently reported the following:

There were nearly 900 reports of hate incidents in the 10 days after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and schools across the country reported an uptick in violence, derogatory comments and verbal harassment, according to a new study from the Southern Poverty Law Center. (newsweek.com, Nov. 29, 2016)

In the ultimate irony of conservatives’ insistence that Christmas is under attack, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, was vilified for having a black Santa Claus greet kids and hear their Christmas wishes. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which reported this “first” for MOA, was forced to turn off the comments section of its online site due to the racist and hateful messages posted. And the corker is that black Santa Larry Jefferson is a U.S. Army veteran. The right loves their veterans, except when they are black and trying to be Santa.

On the very first Christmas night, when angels appeared to announce the birth of a newborn king, they proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

That is the Christmas spirit for which we should all be striving during these next few weeks. All the rest of it – the jingle bells, decorated trees, presents, and Santa – are just trappings.

 

 

 

Stumbling Toward Thankfulness

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I am having a hard time feeling cheerful this holiday season. Recent events of national political significance have rendered me alternatively depressed and angry. Every day’s news deepens my feelings of helplessness and fear. People keep telling me to get over it and move on. Well, I have no intentions of moving on or ignoring what is happening in the country I love. But I do need to work on a little perspective and seek some peace for my own sake and the sake of my family.

One thing that helps is the realization that we have had much darker times in the history of this country. The Civil War literally threatened to rip our Union apart. Our nation has survived two world wars, the Great Depression, and the terrible quagmire of Vietnam – not to mention the many thousands of lives lost on 9/11 and subsequently in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Our black citizens no longer live under Jim Crow laws. Women have the right to vote, own property, and work outside the home. While I can’t pretend that things are completely rosy in our society today, I can at least acknowledge that we have made great strides toward tolerance and freedom in America.

Another thing that helps me is the realization that I have people whom I love dearly and who love me. In less than 48 hours, my two sons will be home from college. They will get busy messing up their too-pristine bedrooms and looking for home-cooked food. They, along with my two daughters, will join us for our annual road trip to Detroit, Michigan, where we will feast on my mother-in-law’s delicious Thanksgiving meal and reconnect with brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. No matter how we may differ politically, we are family, and nothing can ever take the place of that fact.

Finally, I have a strong faith in God, who I truly believe is in control. While I don’t think God wants me to sit around and wait for the Second Coming, I do think He asks me to trust Him that all will be well. I will try.

I am so blessed in so many ways. For the holidays, I will turn my focus outward into the world and try to bring goodness into it. There are so many things I can do, and indeed that each one of us can do, to make the world a little happier, healthier, and more secure. Toy and food drives, donations to charities, and simple human kindness in our everyday dealings with others can go a long way to bring about a society in which we are proud to live.

This holiday season I plan to take to heart the adage to “be the change you want to see in the world.”