Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for September, 2012|Monthly archive page

Why Pro-Lifers Should Be Anti-War

In American Society, Current events, Religion and Society on September 19, 2012 at 1:38 am

I’m having a difficult time forgetting this CNN video of 4 year-old Rena. She was playing on the balcony of her family’s apartment in Aleppo, Syria, when a bullet – not a stray, but one fired at random by a sniper – smashed through the window and into her face, dislodging one of her teeth as it pierced her cheek. The last hours of her short life were spent crying out in pain and fear, the blood gurgling in her throat as she called for her mother.

This is the real story of any modern war – the horrific suffering and death of thousands of innocents. Best estimates so far of civilian casualties in Syria are somewhere around 20,000 men, women, and children in the last year or so. The US is not involved in this war – yet – but we’re responsible for tens of thousands of civilian deaths in other wars since the start of this century – at least 100,000 in Iraq alone. Rena’s tragedy was captured on film, but thousands of others have gone un-reported, un-mourned, forgotten.

I don’t understand why the so-called Moral Majority in this country have been in favor of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; it hasn’t always been this way. The denomination I grew up in, the Assemblies of God, officially opposed participation of its members in any war until 1967. Now it seems that most Pentecostal / Charismatic churches somehow connect God, guns, patriotism, and warmongering as part of our grand American Christian tradition.

I remember a Christian music video I saw when the war in Afghanistan had just got underway.  I can’t remember the particular singer – she was a young, busty girl, with big hair and tiny cut-off shorts, dancing in front of tanks and American flags. Her rendition of Our God is an Awesome God was interspersed with sound bytes of George W. Bush saying things like “our cause is just”. The British phrase ‘gob-smacked’ is the only phrase that comes close to how I felt watching that video.

When did getting behind the war effort become a Christian virtue? And why is it that pacifism is viewed as un-American, un-patriotic, and somewhat socialist?

What does it mean to be pro-life? In Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he promised to “protect the sanctity of life” yet he clearly thinks that it’s a mistake to scale back our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and would certainly side with his good friend Benjamin Netanyahu should Israel decide to start a war with Iran – or perhaps even involve American troops in such folly. When Christians talk of the sanctity of human life, is that simply code for an anti-abortion stance?

Let’s face it – many Christians get all riled up about the rights of an unborn child – but don’t seem to care much about what happens to that child after it is already born. The hypocrisy is breath-taking. According to what I hear from pulpits across the nation, the current Christian ‘pro-life’ stance goes something like this:

If you get pregnant, you must carry the baby to term, because the life of that unborn child is sacred to God. The Bible makes it clear that God forms a child in the womb, and God’s plan for that child’s life is already drawn at conception – both Samuel and John the Baptist were destined to do God’s work when they were still unborn. The fact that you can’t afford a baby is inconsequential – it’s a sin to end the pregnancy. Once that baby is born, however, you should expect no help whatsoever from society or government in feeding, clothing, housing, or educating God’s little gift; that would make you some kind of pariah, one of Romney’s 47 percent of Americans who see themselves as victims, and are dependent on government. In fact, most Christians seem to be in favor or Paul Ryan’s plan to eviscerate government programs for the weak and poor – not while they might need them, of course, but for those others who refuse to take responsibility for themselves.

It seems that being pro-life is limited to being pro-fetus only, not to believing in the sanctity of any life that manages to emerge from its mother’s womb.

A century ago, most church buildings were simple structures, and much of the tithes brought in were distributed to the needy. Now, Christians busily build cathedrals, gymnasiums, and television studios, contributing very little to the community as a whole. So, while the church has become more miserly in their contributions to society’s most vulnerable, they have also grown dogmatic in their belief that government shouldn’t assist them either.

And in reality, pro-lifers seem to be mostly concerned about Caucasian fetuses, not so much about other varieties. The Far Right wants to make abortion illegal – but worries about Black women having more babies so they can get bigger welfare checks, or Mexican women having babies on Americans soil so they can avail themselves of government handouts. They fear that Muslims and Hindus are trying to out-breed White Americans and Europeans.

If you claim to be pro-life, then you have to be for the sanctity of all human life, not just the unborn. You must do something about the 30,000 children who die every day due to malnutrition and preventable disease. You must do whatever you can to end wars that cause the suffering of untold thousands of innocents. You must be concerned about the sky-rocketing suicide rates among enlisted American soldiers. You must insist that every child in America get at least one decent meal every day, and an education that will allow him one day to improve his lot. If you can’t do these things, you need to call yourself ‘pro-fetus’ or ‘pro-zygote’ or something else; you can’t call yourself pro-life.

So many of us cannot envision a world without war. We think that wars are inevitable, part of human nature – even necessary, perhaps valiant. Doesn’t the Bible say we will always have wars until Jesus comes back? Didn’t Jesus himself say that there would always be poor people?

It’s this kind of thinking that keeps us from changing the world for the better. It’s this kind of thinking that killed Rena.

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Medieval Mind, Modern Mayhem

In American Enlightenment Tradition, American Society, Current events, Religion and Society on September 16, 2012 at 9:00 pm

An Egyptian Coptic Christian makes a movie that pokes fun at the Prophet Mohammed, so Libyans attack the American consul in Benghazi, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a man who helped save their collective asses from annihilation only last year. This is how the Medieval Mind solves modern problems.

As the craziness continues in the Muslim world this week with unrest in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Australia, and God knows where else, it will be difficult for many to keep from joining in on the criticism of Islam and the role that it plays in so much of the trouble in today’s world. Mostly Christian commentators in this country will point out, once again, that Islam, as opposed to Christianity, is inherently violent. And of course, President Obama will be faulted for apologizing to Muslims.

To be fair, adherents of Islam – some of them at least – appear to be more willing to inflict pain and suffering on others than followers of other religions are. I know there are child abuse issues in Catholic churches, and that Christianity played a role in the violence that occurred in the Balkans in the 1990s and in Lebanon and Northern Ireland as well. And perhaps it is cultural bias for someone from a Western nation to view Islam as dangerous, in much the same way that some white guys might feel some apprehension at seeing a black guy walking around the neighborhood. But you have to admit that there is a certain kind of Muslim that refuses to accept the world as it is, and is willing to use violence to change it, and that this particular group far outnumbers similar groups that might exist in other religions.

When was the last time you heard of a Sikh suicide bomber or a Tibetan Buddhist terrorist?

But the truth is that this is just another example of medieval thinking in a modern world. The reason Christians don’t become suicide bombers has less to do with the inherent goodness of Christianity or the pacifism of the scriptures, and a lot more to do with the influence the Enlightenment has had on our societies. In other words, the Islamic world is simply operating according to its medieval principles in a way that Christianity is not – and when Christians say that America should operate by Biblical precepts, they are talking about a return to the Dark Ages.

Christianity is not the moral framework on which our society precariously hangs – Enlightenment thought is. If you follow the teachings of Christianity to their logical conclusions – as Sam Harris does in this fantastic video – you find that there’s no firm basis there for what I think of as morality. Take an unbiased view of what Christianity preaches – you can be a mass murderer or serial killer and still go to heaven, but if you are a devout Hindu, perhaps even covering your mouth so that you don’t inadvertently inhale and kill an insect, you will certainly spend eternity burning in hell.

Think about that for a minute, and the weight of medieval thinking will nearly crush you. Mohandas Gandhi, a man of peace, a proponent of non-violence, has been burning in hell for decades, with nothing to look forward to but thousands upon thousands of year more of the same. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, on the other hand, whose crimes included murder, rape, necrophilia, dismemberment, and cannibalism, is, at least in the view of some Christians, in heaven with Jesus.

Islam

Photo credit: rogiro

One point Brian Flemming made in his documentary is that a moderate approach to religion is nonsensical. If our everlasting souls are in danger of perishing, what is there to be moderate about? In the West, like it or not, (I tend to like it) our religious beliefs have been softened by modern thought – most of us don’t think that diseases are caused by demons or that angels are in charge of keeping us safe from traffic accidents (although, unfortunately, some still do). We understand the difference between allowing for Freedom of Speech and being in agreement with said speech. We understand that some will denigrate our deity, and we are upset about it, but we don’t throw a rocket launcher over our shoulder and head over to the nearest consulate.

But those who really believe, who have truly embraced the medieval mindset, are ready and willing to act upon their beliefs. We’ve become complacent through comfort and capitalism; they have not. Enlightenment thinkers have shown us that human life is precious and valuable; people of the Book have learned no such thing. What separates you and I from those who flew planes into the World Trade Towers a decade ago is not so much the gospel of Luke as the essays of Locke, not Jesus so much as Jefferson.

What’s happening in the Middle East today is an example of the ineptitude of medieval thinking in today’s world. The answer to our problems will not be found in believing in one kind of medieval myth as opposed to another. Believing in the Easter Bunny more fervently because a belief in Santa Claus isn’t working would be madness. No, instead, we need to abandon ancient ways of thought in order to secure any kind of livable future.

When a modern mind like Michelangelo or Mozart or Joseph Campbell contemplates ancient human beliefs, some of our best art and understanding result. If, on the other hand, the medieval mind tries to understand the modern – we are left to witness the carnage on the evening news. Anyone who tells you that a return to pre-Enlightenment thought will make for a better society – that person is a danger to us all.

A return to faith will only make things worse, not better.

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And We Hid Our Faces From Him

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the Old Testament, Nostalgia for God on September 11, 2012 at 1:00 am

In my last post, I discussed the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There, a fairly pedestrian movie promoting an idea which is much more prevalent than I knew – the idea that Jesus never existed. I suppose, coming from a fundamentalist background, that I always thought that almost everyone believed that Jesus was a historical character, but that unbelievers thought he was just a good guy, an unorthodox teacher, and Christians worshiped him as the Son of God. I wasn’t really aware of the fact that some intellectuals considered the life of Jesus to be entirely mythical.

That documentary showed a few scenes from another, much more powerful movie, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Brian Flemming, the narrator and director of the documentary, said that Gibson’s movie is far and away the most popular Christian movie of all time, and he criticizes Christians for their love of blood – if you’ve never seen The Passion, it is definitely not for the faint of heart. Seeing these scenes again stirred up a lot of old feelings in me, and I just wanted to think aloud about some of them. I once read a quote, something to the extent that agnostics are atheists with a nostalgia for God – if you know who said it, please drop me a line.

I saw The Passion of the Christ at a movie theater in Bangkok, Thailand, where I was living at the time, and I’m sure it was a very different experience from what viewers in the US might have enjoyed.  99% of the population of Thailand is Buddhist, and many have no understanding whatsoever of our Christian beliefs. I once had a Thai student ask me, at Christmas time, if Christmas was a distinctly American holiday. I replied that Christmas was a holiday that celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, and that most countries with a Christian heritage enjoyed celebrating Christmas. The Thai student smiled and nodded her head, which is the Thai way of saying that I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about, but I don’t want to look like an idiot by asking another question. So, I asked whether the student had ever heard of Jesus before. She replied that she had not, but she had read of other famous Americans, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Needless to say, when I arrived at the movie theater to see The Passion, I was surprised to see a full auditorium. I didn’t think all those Buddhists would give one whit about the life of Christ. But Thais love all things American, especially Hollywood movies, so they had come out in droves. They had no idea what the movie was about. I’m sure you think I’m kidding, but the same Thai student who can tell you every single aspect of the story of the Ramayana (Ramakien in Thai) couldn’t place WWII in the proper century, and couldn’t tell you if Washington, Lincoln, Plato, and Hitler all lived at the same time or in different centuries. Western Civilization is not taught in high school nor is it a mandatory course in college – why would it be? I could never be too critical as a teacher there – most American students couldn’t tell you how many years there are between Plato, Washington, and Hitler either – and wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about if you said ‘Ramakien”.

Many Buddhists are vegetarian, as they can’t stomach the idea of taking the life of any sentient being, not even a fish or a bird. Imagine watching such a brutal movie with this group of people. They were totally unprepared for what transpired on the screen. I knew that Jesus would be beaten and spit upon, that by the time he reached Golgotha that he’d be nearly unrecognizable as a human being. But the gentle Thais had never heard of such a gory hero as Jesus. They flinched when the Roman soldiers slapped him, moaned when the cat-o-nine-tails dug into his back, shrieked when the crown of thorns was thrust upon his head, and wept as Mary kissed his feet as he hung on the cross.

This was powerful stuff, this passion story. I remember my sister, one year older than me, watching horror films, covering her eyes at the scary parts. The Thais did the same thing – they were so appalled at the gristly nature of the film, that they covered their eyes with their hands, hiding behind one another and the high-rise seats. I couldn’t help but think of Isaiah 53 –

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

Isaiah describes the natural response to such human misery; yet, we are so accustomed to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that we can tell it to our children, perhaps with a smile on our faces. Yet, agnostic that I am, I still can’t watch such a graphic portrayal without choking up.

Isaiah 53 was always a favorite scripture of mine.  I thought of it as tragic poetry – real history, but expressed in beautifully painful language. That the Son of God could appear on Earth, and receive such vile treatment – it was finer tragedy than Oedipus Rex. Today, scholars attribute the writing to someone other than the Isaiah who wrote the first 50 chapters of the book named after him, some anonymous prophet who had been carried off by the Assyrian captivity. And Orthodox Jews contend that this scripture in no way, shape or form refers to an individual person, let alone the Christian Messiah. Nevertheless, for Christians, it resonates deep within the heart.

Amy Grant once recorded a rendition of O Sacred Head, Now Wounded  that I would listen to over and over again for hours. It seemed at the time to epitomize Christ’s sacrifice for us. Perhaps looming even larger in my childhood was a collection of songs recorded by Jimmy Swaggart; two albums named Worship and Healing. Each track of the albums featured a traditional composition of an old hymn, and Swaggart read a portion of scripture as the music played. With his Bill Clinton-esque ability to convey emotion in his voice, the combination of music and scripture was quite powerful.

My favorite was a song called ‘The Healer’. It was an old hymn that I had grown up hearing in church, one that I can remember my Dad trying to sing, and his mother as well – neither of them had any talent at singing, but they loved the old songs.

On the cross, crucified, in great sorrow he died; the giver of life, was he.

While this beautiful hymn was sung, Swaggart read from Isaiah, with emphasis:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

I stopped believing in this sort of thing a long time ago, but it still has the ability to tug at my heartstrings. When my mother was so sick with cancer, she posted pieces of paper with scriptures on them all around her bedroom – scriptures that promised healing. I searched everywhere for a copy of the old Swaggart album she had once loved so much. I thought that listening to it would comfort her. I finally found a CD version online and ordered it – it arrived a couple of days after her doctor told us that she had only a few weeks to live. I tossed it in the trash.

The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is sad, but there’s no way to know if it’s true or not. A Tale of Two Cities is a sad story too, and O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi will make you well up every time you read it. But the difference is that these stories don’t promise something that they can’t deliver, they don’t give dying people false hope, nor do they try to persuade people that a man died for them a couple thousand years ago. My mother spent her whole life believing in the gospels, but she fought death off until the end – there was no “looking forward to being with Jesus” for her – something inside her knew.

I don’t really have any conclusion. I love the old gospel songs, and they can still move me. I appreciate the poetry and tragedy of some of the scriptures. I wish I could believe in some kind of afterlife where I might be able to meet up with loved ones again. But just because I choke up watching Toy Story 3 doesn’t mean I think it’s a true story; just because a scripture like Isaiah 53 is beautifully tragic doesn’t make it any more real than the movie Somewhere in Time.

I once cried to think that humankind would hide its face from God’s son; if there is a God, it’s obvious he turned his face from us long ago.