Saturday, April 25, 2009
Here are a few of the nastiest potholes I've come across. Most of these are on the West Side.
Fill this one with water and you could fish from it. I want to say this is on Lake Street, but I don't remember exactly where it is. It could possibly be visible from space.
This is on Lake Street, about five blocks or so west of Larramie. This has since been covered up with a steel plate which sits at a funny angle and is not quite flat, thus making a nice "clang!" every time someone drives over it. This one was a couple of feet deep, and I think the weed was actually growing in there. (There's a larger pothole on Lake in Oak Park that has swallowed a city trash can...)
I don't quite remember where this was either.
This yonical pothole was maybe a meter deep -- it might have its own mineral rights or lead to the kind of lost world Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about. This was somewhere just west of the West Loop area.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
"I have loved you," says the Lord. But you say, "How have you loved us?" "Is not Esau Jacob's brother?" declares the Lord. "Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert." If Edom says, "We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins," the Lord of hosts says, "They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called 'the wicked country,' and 'the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.' " Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, "Great is the Lord beyond the borders of Israel." (Malachi 1:2-5, English Standard Version -- I'm using the ESV today because I don't have my Tanakh handy.)
(Paul echoes these words in Romans 9:13 when he speaks of God's choosing God's people.)
Our ideas about God are only partly derived from scripture -- the Church owes a great deal intellectually to Greek philosophy and reasoning (as does Islam, even as that reasoning articulates itself very differently among Muslims), perhaps more to Greek thought when it comes to ethics and theology than it does scripture. Scripture is harnessed to support and even recast the ideas put forward by the Greeks, but for much of Christendom, the Greeks come first. This may or may not be intellectually defensible -- the followers of Jesus did not witness to his death and resurrection, did not create his church, in an intellectual or cultural vacuum.
But many of the ideas are troublesome, especially when we are forced to fit them in scripture. The God of the "omnis" -- omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent -- as well as an "all good" God provides a serious problem for scripture. (Even in the Qur'an, which is a much better fit for the "omni-God" than is the Bible.)
The problem I have with theology is that it makes God an object, an idea, to be manipulated by human beings. We cannot help doing this. But the God of scripture is not an object or an idea. That God is encountered, viscerally and intensely, and scripture is the witness to that encounter. God is the subject as we, God's people, are the objects. Much happens in scripture that makes little or no moral sense, and we are foolish to try and make those things make sense.
"Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated." The ESV online study notes to these three verses speak of the distinction between "the Good and the Arrogantly Wicked." But was Esau wicked? Does Esau suffer for wickedness? No to both. He was merely cheated out of his inheritence -- his blessing -- by a far more obnoxious brother, Jacob, who then lives in fear of Esau. The two have a reconciliation of sorts in Genesis 33, and they bury their father Isaac together. In Malachi, God clearly has it in for Esau's descendants Edom, but Malachi speaks a great many more words of rebuke toward the priests of Israel.
Our idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good God makes Malachi's words -- makes God's rejection of Cain -- make no sense. God couldn't reject them, not the God of the Omnis, not our idea of God. So it was Cain's fault that God rejected his sacrifice, and Esau's fault that God hated him, that God spoke those words through Malachi the prophet. If only they had worked harder.
But again, the God of the Omnis doesn't exist in scripture. The subjective experience of God is a God who chooses, capriciously, in a way that makes no sense. Esau did nothing except not be his brother Jacob, just as Cain did nothing except farm. Israel's experience was of a profound and lasting encounter with God, a God who chose them and no one else as God's people. A God who made that choice for no reason apparent to God's people, whose choice was not a matter of privilege, power and glory, but for the salvation of the world.
The essence of faith -- in Hebrew, Arabic and Greek -- is trust. Not assent to a set of ideas or principles, but trust in God. That a promise made by God, a promise that will never be seen by the one to whom the promise is made (Abraham and his many descendants), is as good as kept. Assent to a set of propositions -- the Lutheran confessions, for example -- is an intellectual exercise. One confesses, but does not have faith in the confessions themselves, as they are not promises.
To trust God is to trust in something we may not be able to see or understand. God loves God's people, but that does not stop God from visiting destruction upon God's people. It is to encounter and experience God and often times have no idea what to make of that encounter. It can be aided by reason and by the intellect, by ideas and concepts and theories and notions, but at its core, that experience is not itself an idea, not something that humans grasp, but it is about being grasped by God and God not letting go.
We can only struggle to make sense of that encounter. Which is why "Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated" doesn't bother me.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Enough of that. Genesis 4:1-16 tells the story of the first murder, the first time one human being in anger and jealously, took the life of another. There is much to be made of the story (including the alleged "mark"), but I'm interested in who and what Cain and Abel are. Abel is a "keeper of sheep" (4:2, JPS Tanakh -- again, this little Asus Eee PC doesn't let me do Hebrew), a pastoral nomad who wanders from pasture to pasture (scrubland in the Middle East), tending his flocks, while Cain is a "tiller of the soil," a settled farmer who doesn't wander, who is tied to land and place. Abel's life is one of tents, of open skies, of moving from place to place to follow the rains. His home is wandering, it's on his back and the backs of the animals he keeps. Cain's home is one of brick and mud and fences and furrows. He worries about the rains, but he cannot follow them -- he must remake the world around him to get the water for his crops, to build the tools to work the land.
The story continues:
In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings from his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. (Gen. 4:3-5, JPS Tanakh)
Some might say that Cain's offering was inferior -- not firstfruits. Maybe. But it may also be that God was partial to Abel's "choicest of the firstlings" as opposed to whatever grain and fruit Cain offered. There is, I think, a subtext in Jewish scripture that laments Israel's slow evolution from pastoral nomads to a settled people, a concern reflected in the use of the pastoral metaphor (all the way through the gospels and the epistles, which use this metaphor extensively as well) to describe, in particular, David, and to condemn the kings of Israel (Ezekiel 34 is the example that comes to mind) for their failures. For a settled people there is wealth and power, but there is also intense inequality and exploitation -- the weakest suffer the most. The surplus wealth created by sedentary activities (farming and resource extraction, like mining and timber before silviculture) almost never goes to those who extract or create that wealth.
But this is not the matter up for discussion today. Cain, the first-born older brother, murders Abel. (In the Qur'an, he also buries him in an effort to hide what he has done.) Abel's blood cries out to God from the very soil (adamah) that Cain tilled. God then tells Cain: "If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer (yanad) on earth (ba'aretz)." (Gen. 4:12)
Cain is made a wander, and he goes to live in "the land of Nod" -- eretz nod -- the land of wandering/exile, "banished from the soil" (Cain's own words, 4:14) and away from the "presence of the Lord." What kind of wandering can a farmer do? What kind of exile is this, being yanked away from who and what he was? Did Cain love the land? Did he love tilling it? It's hard work, and perhaps he felt that God did not reward his work well enough. But maybe the sense of rejection he felt when God favored the firstling of Abel's flock was intolerable. Tilling the land wasn't just what he did, it was who he was, and clearly he saw that who he was simply was not good enough for God.
That's a hard pain to live with, that sense and perception that who and what he is, what he has to offer God, is simply not good enough for God. Perhaps this is how he understood what happened, and he took his despair and rage out on his brother who was clearly much more acceptable to God. How to imagine the despair and rage that comes from knowing that God has favored someone else over you, accepted them and rejected you? When one is rejected by God, what possible acceptance anywhere or by anyone can make up for that?
And yet it is Cain who separates himself from God. He tells God, “I must avoid Your presence." It is Cain who fears being killed, not God who threatens Cain with death. God, in an act of odd grace, "marks" Cain, and promises vengeance upon anyone who kills him. It is Cain who walks away from God. The greatest punishment he inflicts is upon himself. He compounds his alienation from the land, from what he does and who he is, with a self-imposed alienation from God. God condemned him to wander, but said nothing about avoiding the divine presence.
Cain did that. All on his own. Maybe that says something about us, as human beings, as we wander, as we pass through and try to live in eretz nod – the land of wandering and exile.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
I was covering Capitol Hill at the time, and my professional interest was Bush Jong Il's appointment of Anne Veneman as USDA secretary, and not the nomination of Ashcroft as attorney general. But I remember there was a bit of a dustup over Ashcroft's comments to some so-called "Southern Heritage" magazine, speaking approvingly of the sacrifices, honor and commitment to their cause on the part of those who fought for the Confederacy in the War of 1861-65 (I really have no idea of what to call that war; it wasn't a proper civil war, since the two sides were not fighting to control the government in Washington). Most criticism of Ashcroft's comments focuses on race, of course, since we are Americans and race is something we simply cannot stop talking about (counter to AG Holder's idiotic assertions some weeks ago). We just cannot speak about it intelligently, but that is another matter for another day.
What I found is interesting is that no one bothered asking Ashcroft what was honorable in fighting to secede from the United States? How would he view secessionists today (the day he was interviewed)? How is secession, for whatever the reason, not an attack on the national state, defiance of the federal government?
Now, I'm no nationalist. I'm all for carving up the United States into dozens if not scores of small statelets (I will then go live in the Grand Duchy of San Francisco, because post-USA America needs a few monarchies, and world is painfully short of ruling grand dukes and prince-bishops). Okay, not carving up -- that reeks of planning and design -- but rather allowing such a thing to happen.
But the Right's talk of secession is not principled talk. If the state of Vermont were to leave the Union (while under GOP management) to become a socialist statelet (gay marriage, single-payer health care, whatever else it is progressives supposedly want), I'm certain the 10th Mountain Division would move quickly from Ft. Drum to Montpelier and subdue any attempt to resurrect the Green Mountain Boys. In fact, I bet Fox News would call for arrests and treason trials at the mere mention of such a thing. (And can you imagine the response if a Democratic state governor, in the wake of September 11, 2001, had called upon his/her state to leave the US because doing so would make the state's resident -- "Hey, we're not Americans anymore!" -- less vulnerable to attack?)
Indeed, there is much hyperventillating about the Obama regime on the Right, as if all those powers the Right religiously entrusted to Bush Jong Il suddenly became evil powers in the hands of the Mahatma. They forget an essential rule of "democratic" governance -- unless you are prepared to hold power at all costs from all comers, never give any power to anyone you don't eventually want used against you. Or: do you really want a Hillary Clinton Justice Department to have the tools of the Patriot Act at its disposal? Or: never make a weapon that may someday be turned on you.
Part of this shows just how wedded to executive power the Right is. There will be no end of their whining (jack-booted thugs again!) as long as a Democrat is in the "Presidential Palace." Of course, Obama will use presidential power (and NPR will refer to presidential "decrees" as if he is the leader of a junta or chairman of some politburo) to the maximum extent possible. But the problem lies not in the wielder of power, but the power itself. As long as it exists, it will be cultivated, used and expanded. It is a club that will be used to beat and to kill. There is no avoiding that.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Yes, I realize those are both surnames. They are also brands. Strange.
Monday, April 13, 2009
So, I never tire of coming across scriptural citations that say otherwise. First, there is the entire history itself. If, as Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook wrote in mid-1967 (after the Six-Day War, when there much to NOT surrender), that scripture forbids God's people Israel from giving up any of the "land of Israel," then why does the Deuteronomic history (Deuteronomy through 2 Kings) end with the twin kingdoms of Israel and Judah conquered (by Assyria and Babylon respectively) and the last King of Judah, Jehoiachin, in comfortable exile in Babylon? Why does the other official history, Chronicles, end with Cyrus the King of Persia issuing a decree to rebuild the temple (allowing for restored temple worship) but NOT the restoration of Israel's monarchy? The sovereignty Judah possesses at the end of Chronicles (and in Ezra and Nehemiah) is a very limited sovereignty, as part of the Persian Empire, not as an independent polity. The Tanakh, as well as the Protestant Bible, ends its canon of scripture with these books, and thus the influence of Hellenism (the conquest of Persia by Greece and the switch of tolerant Persian imperial rule for intolerant Greek rule) on the canon is sporadic (parts of Daniel and Zechariah come to mind) at best.
So, I was very pleasantly surprised when I came across this in Ezekiel 33 (vv 21-26, citation from the JPS Tanakh):
In the twelfth year of our exile, on the fifth day of the tenth month, a fugitive came to me from Jerusalem and reported, "the city has fallen." Now the hand of the Lord had come upon me the evening before the fugitive arrived, and He opened my mouth before he came to me in the morning; thus my mouth was opened and I was no longer speechless.Now, these words come after a lengthy warning from God to Ezekiel about the nature of God's warnings and accountability for human sinfulness, about Ezekiel's job as a warner to those living in exile in Babylon. And they are followed, in chapter 33 with a warning to those living in the midst of the rubble that they "shall fall by the sword" and be "food to the beasts." (v.27) Indeed, God is then fairly emphatic that Ezekiel's countrymen will not listen to him.
The word of the Lord came to me: O mortal [son of Adam בֶן–אָדָם, rendered elsewhere as "Son of Man"], those who live in these ruins in the land of Israel argue, "Abraham was but one man, yet he was granted possession of the land. We are many; surely, the land has been given as a possession to us." Therefore say to them: Thus said the Lord God: You eat with the blood, you raise your eyes to your fetishes, and you shed blood -- yet you expect to possess the land! You have relied on your sword, you have committed abominations, you have defiled other men's wives -- yet you expect to possess the land!
And the general narrative of Ezekiel continues with a condemnation of the "shepherds of Israel" and promise from God that Israel will be regathered and a new shepherd -- "My servant David" (34:23) -- appointed to tend and care for God's people. This promise is generally used by the church (and by that, I mean the church "catholic and apostolic," and not the non-denominational nincompoops that call themselves church but worship the United States and Israel) to refer to the regathering and restoring of God's covenant with God's people through Jesus Christ.
(There's more to Ezekiel which I won't deal with at this point.)
While these words of God in vv23-26 are given specifically to the Israelites who remain in land following the conquest, what's interesting about what God says to Israel just as easily applies to what is said -- "Abraham was but one man, but we are many. If the land was given to Abraham, surely it has been given to us." What is condemned here is a sense of entitlement, that just because the land was given to one man -- Abraham -- then is most certainly have been given those who lay claim to it as their patrimony through and from Abraham. God's condemnation of that sense of entitlement could easily apply to anyone who makes that claim, and not just the remnant of survivors in the ruins.
But there's also the nature of that condemnation -- eating with blood/defiling other men's wives, raising eyes to fetishes/committing abominations, shedding blood/relying on "your sword." God's people have failed to keep their end of the covenant made at Sinai, they have not adhered to God's teachings. They have also followed after other gods, sacrificed to them. The history and the other prophets are quite clear on both these matters, and God tells Israel in both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 that failing to keep the covenant will result in suffering, conquest and death. "The Lord will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I told you you would not see again. There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but none will buy" (Deut. 29:68)
The shedding of blood and reliance on "your" sword (Israel's sword) is not as clear as the other two condemnations, but I'm fairly certain it means that part of Israel's sin is its failure to rely on God for defense and protection, failure to trust in God and instead trust in itself, its own capabilities, to protect itself. Scripture isn't so insistent on this matter, since the Hebrew Bible is full of war, but the main motif given to Israel by God from the miracle of the Exodus is that God is Israel's defender, that God will act in history to defende God's people. That God's people must first and only look to their God to protect them, to fight and win their battles. Even in Ezekiel 38 and 39, when God gives the vision of war with Gog the prince of Magog, it is God who leads Gog to war, and it is God who defeats Gog and his armies. (Whether this is a "prophesy" of the fall of Babylon at the hands of Persia, or general prophetic metaphor that God will defeat Israel's enemies and fight Israel's battles from the time that Israel is regathered, the bones brought back to life, I do not know and won't guess. I will firmly state this is very likely not a prophesy of a war yet to come.)
What is clear is thart grant of land is not a property right and the Bible is a not a metes-and-bounds title deed (or any other kind of deed), though there are claims made. Scripture does not speak the language of rights, that's Enlightenment talk and it does not belong to antiquity. Israel's possession of the land is entirely conditioned on Israel's good behavior. This is made clear in scripture from the beginning. The prophets add component of (I hate the term) "social justice" to the matter, criticizing the unjust use of power and wealth among Israelites for division of the kingdom, civil war, conquest and exile. Much of scripture is an attempt to figure out what God's promises to Abraham, and God's deliverance of Israel at Sinai, with what followed.
Indeed, a case could be made that semi-exile -- living in the moment between exile and God's promise of reconciliation, deliverance and victory -- is the condition of God's people, Israel and the church, on earth right now.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
I never put anything on paper because (1) I wanted them to be successful and get away, but I could not make that work and (2) I didn't want THAT kind of trouble. The kind of trouble one gets from being a wire service reporter at a government agency writing about a wire service reporter at a government agency who is part of a complex plot to assassinate the president of the United States. The idea of the book was a thought experiment -- a tight and patient cell of people (say, five) willing to work quietly and silently, could do something like that. It was only a thought experiment unwilling to become a shabby thriller.
One of the ideas running through my mind was to have two or three members of the cell go to work for the phone company as technicians. Phone company trucks were ubiquitous, even on Capitol Hill, and guys (they were guys, mostly) with gear checking the status of twisted pair and T1 lines were as close to invisible as possible. At the time, before September 11, 2001, they could go just about anywhere with boxes and toolbags and whatnot. So it was interesting when I came across this in an article in the UK Independent on urban survival training in the age of economic collapse:
Interesting someone else noticed this.
He dropped us off in an alley in Bricktown where I'd cached a bag of disguises the night before. In a lecture on urban camouflage, Reeve and Alwood had taught us there was a certain category of people in cities called invisible men. If the city is a network of veins, invisible men are the white blood cells: they work to keep it clean. They're the janitors with bundles of keys on their belt loops, the alarm servicemen with clipboards and work orders, the UPS men hidden behind piles of boxes, and the construction workers with hard hats, safety vests, and tool belts.
In these disguises, Reeve and Alwood said, we could walk unnoticed into almost any event.
NPR newsgal Kelly McEvers is wandering around Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province as well as the tiny island Kingdom of Bahrain, documenting Shia unrest (can we please deep-six that obnoxious sounding word Shiite already? Because the BBC has...) in both states, beginning at a checkpoint and ending with the following words from a Bahraini "Shia activist" regarding seeking help from lagrely Shia Iran:
(Hmm, I wonder how NPR would play that quote if it came, say, from a Tibetan, or Russian opponent of the current Kremlin regime or a Burmese refugee?)
When a man has already lost everything, why should he care about the country around him? Why not just let it burn?
It is clear from this report that it was not gathered "on the sly," clandestinely, without the knowledge or the approval of at least some elements of the Saudi state, most likely the Interior Ministry. We know this because every time an intrepid NPR reporter gets a story from inside Myanmar, we are told that reporters aren't allowed in Myanmar, so it took courage and pluck to defy rules, hide equipment, interview people and get actualities from inside the country. Had that been the case, NPR would have told us just that at the beginning of this report. An American reporter, a woman, getting sound from a military/interior ministry checkpoint, getting interviews in a city surrounded by such checkpoints, well, that just doesn't happen. So, someone in Riyadh, likely someone very high up, wanted us to hear this report.
Why? To influence the debate within the regime of the Mahatma Obama as to what to do about Iran. If it's "clear" that Iran is "using" or "inciting" the Shia of the Eastern Province and Bahrain to misbehave -- and always be wary of the person in charge who says the moral equivalent of "our negroes are happy and content, only a few are agitated and angry, and then only because communists are stirring them up" -- then it's clear that the current Iranian government is attempting to destabilize two very important U.S. Arab allies. Be afraid. Something must be done. Stop dawdling. This, I'm guessing, is supposed to sweeten the "bomb them now" pot currently being stirred by Likudniks on both sides of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Consider that elements of the Saudi government (but only elements; I fully expect a less bellicose piece on Iran to come out of NPR's Riyadh bureau within the next few weeks), Binyamin Netanyahu and the American Enterprise Institute all singing from the same demonic hymnal. The Mahatma may (or may not) be willing to pressure Israel over Iran (but only because Bibi is PM; had Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak won that post, it would be another matter entirely), but helping Saudi Arabia is another matter entirely -- it has been U.S. government policy to protect Saudi Arabia from any enemy foreign or domestic at virtually any cost since the second half of the Carter Administration. For those eagerly looking to clobber Iran, making nice with the likes of Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef is merely the price of doing business.
I listen to NPR because (1) I don't have Internet at home right now, so I can't listen to the BBC (2) I find AM talk radio mindless, stupid and insulting and (3) I hate commercials, which I find doubly insulting, even more than the self-serving twaddle that is a typical seasonal pledge break. While NPR is intellectually more engaging than just about any other broadcast news operation in the US, that isn't saying much (the BBC isn't what it was 20 years ago either). I generally find NPR's liberal statism and liberal nationalism repulsive. Generally, the liberal statist/nationalist wants the state, the order and stability it allegedly brings and the good it an do to improve the lot of people everywhere, but fails or refuses to acknowledge the violence necessary and needed for the state to accomplish what it does. But that urge to do good, to free people from oppression, ignorance, superstition and poverty, and the belief the state is the best or only way to do that, make liberals good and useful idiots for warmongering neocons/Likudniks, who harbor no illusions and just want to beat the crap out of people. People who aren't Jewish Israelis at any rate.
I would have hoped someone at NPR would have asked "why does someone want us to do this story, a story that fingers Iran as the problem," but you know, were I an Amreekee reporter in the KSA, twiddling my thumbs and knowing, like most reporters, I have a nose ring and a chain that someone can yank when I get out of line, then I'd of gotten excited when someone put a few more links in that chain and let me wander out someplace I'd never been before to get an exciting story. Or made it the price of getting a better story. Who knows. But people listening need to know they, and NPR, are being used. For a purpose that only ends with bombs falling on Iran.
Friday, April 10, 2009
People who eat the most red meat and the most processed meat have the highest overall risk of death from all causes, including heart disease and cancer, U.S. researchers reported on Monday.
Um, isn't the word "premature" missing here? Or is it true -- that people who don't eat red meat don't die?
The advert features Sri Sri Selvam "Siddhar" who also goes, it appears, by the name of "Dr. Commander Selvam." Now THAT'S the most awesome title I've ever seen -- Dr. Commander. It beats reverend doctor to a pulp, and only other title I've seen that came close was Doctor Chief Warrant Officer 4, though I think I remember the head of Air India in Dubai in 1995 went by the title Captain Engineer. I want to be a Dr. Commander, and as soon as I've finished this post, I'm going to find a mail-order outfit that will make me a Dr. Commander for $29.95 (or its equivalent in rupees). Or I will start one, and style myself a Dr. Commander, print up business cards, register a domain name and put up a website.
Anyway, Dr. Commander Sri Sri Selvam "Siddhar" (nickname? title?) owns his own ashram and was, according to the copy in his advert, "[t]he first Indian American in USA, who donated $14 million as a single donation to build the only Shiva Temple in the world with 108 Shiv in Georgia." (Yeah, there are all kinds of grammar problems with that sentence. And if that's what you have to do to become a Dr. Commander, then I am clearly out of the running, not having $14 million and not interested in building a Shiva Temple with 108 of anything. Still, I want that title...) And he also says that he is available to help with (quoted as is from advert):
Spiritual healings for problems Relates to Marriage, Family Business, Job, Immigration, Court cases, Relationship, Children, Black Magic, Jadoo [this, I think] and any kind of Human and Evil problems.I remembering walking around a botanica in Rialto, California, seeing novena candles that dealt with the very same problems, with my personal favorites being "positive encounter with the police" and "victorious court case." (There's just such a botanica on Kedzie street not far from this Starbucks.) I'm not here to knock the Dr. Commander's command of English ($14 million is nothing to sneeze at, Shiva temple or no Shiva temple, and I'm assuming he acquired it honestly; I don't have 14 million of anything , honest or otherwise, save maybe intestinal parasites) but this is folk religion at its finest. I wonder what the Dr. Commander does to help with such things? Ritual, prayer and incense? If he (or his various subcommanders) burns candles while praying, is that not a novena? And how different does that make Sri Sri Selvam's devotion to Lord Shiva from santeria, aside from the name of deity invoked and the language prayed in? Fascinating, this use of prayer against spells and black magic, to manipulate the material world, and I'd love to spend some more time studying and contemplating this, the similarities and the differences.
Again, I'm not knocking the Dr. Commander -- he looks kind and thoughtful enough, the kind of guy you'd like to sit and drink tea and yogurt and eat vegetable biryani garnished with marigolds with. And maybe get him to invoke one of the 108 avatars (or forms, or flavors, or whatever) of Shiva to help you with your problems.
Friday, April 3, 2009
I never imagined, in all my born days, that I would love such work. Or that I'd be good at it.
At any rate, Jen and I visited Uptown Ministry today, got to see some old faces and meet some new folks. And I noticed something I always found somewhat perplexing. The ministry has a sign-in sheet, and folks are asked to sign when they first come in.
A few people, not many, will come in, sign the sheet, and walk right back out. They won't get a cup of coffee, or water, or anything else. they'll just sign it and leave. What's that all about?
As I was sitting at the front desk there today, I thought about that a bit (no one did it today, it just wandered across my consciousness as people signed in). Why would anyone do that? Maybe it's a desire that someone know they were there, that they still exist and they want some proof in ink on paper to show for existing. That someone know who they are, where they are, THAT they are. It's not much, a signature on a piece of paper, but what do most of us really leave behind? anyway (Aside from our genes, and some of us don't even have that.)
There was a time when I wanted to leave no evidence behind that I had ever been on earth. My existence, once I was gone, would be utterly erased, would be a matter only between me and God. I wanted all evidence that I'd even walked and breathed and wrote and sung to simply disappear. I'm still somewhat ambivalent about that, though Jennifer and I now have a plan that our mingled ashes will at some point be part of the bed for a bramble of wild roses. But I also trust that somehow, something of me will actually touch the world and remain in it. I don't know what that would be, or who would carry that, or how it would touch someone else. I trust that will happen, even as I have no idea what it means.
So maybe I too am one of those folks signing the sheet and walking right back into the cold, hoping that my simple signature on a piece of paper means that God knows where I am. Even if no one else does.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
However, I recently found something interesting in the Hebrew scriptures. In Numbers 31 (Numbers is that long somewhat, at least to begin with, tedious book of the Torah the begins with an interminable census of Israel in the wilderness and ends with some instructions on how Israel will parcel out the land of Canaan and live in that land; in between, there's some gory and fascinating stuff), YHWH (The Lord; this little Asus Eee PC I'm writing on doesn't allow me to write in Hebrew or Arabic) commands Moses to avenge Israel on Midian. About ten chapters previously, Balak the king of Moab told the elders of Midian that something needed to be done about Israel because "this hoarde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field." (Num 22:4, JPS Tanakh) This kicks off the entire Balak/Balaam episode, of which I may write more later. In chapter 25, it is a Midianite woman that Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, stabs in the gut in order to stem a plague God inflicted on Israel because the Israelites fooled around with non-Israelite women.
This is, apparently, enough for God to demand vengeance upon Midian. God calls upo0n Moses to draft (or accept volunteers, as the text in English is not clear and I don't have my Hebrew dictionary handy) 1,000 volunteers from each of the 12 tribes of Israel -- 12,000 men under the command of Moses and the aforementioned Phineas. They "slew every male" including Balaam and:
The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, as seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth. And they destroyed by fire all the towns in which they were settled, and their encampments. (Numbers 31:9-10)
(Except that they didn't, because Midian shows up again in Judges 6, oppressing Israel as if they'd never, ever been exterminated. The Amelekites appear to pose a similar difficulty, they just refuse to stay dead, and it's amazing just how many times Israel annihilates them.)
Moses and Eldeazar are angry -- the male children and all women who have "known a man carnally" (31:17) are to be killed as well. The only Midianites left standing are "every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man." (31:18)
(So, I'm guessing those Midianites in Judges just sprouted out of the ground or something...)
Now remember, this is the Lord's work, an act of vengeance ordained by God upon Israel and led by Moses, the leader of God's people Israel, and Eleazar, the son of Aaron and the high priest of Israel. It is as close to holy war as I think we can get. So, the soldiers doing this work are noble heroes who should be greeted with maidens and parades, right?
[Moses said] "You [plural] shall then stay outside the camp seven days; every one among you or among your captives who has slain a person or touched a corpse shall cleanse himself on the third and seventh day. You shall also cleanse every cloth, every article of skin, everything made of goats' hair, and every object of wood."One of the reasons Numbers is such tedious and eye-watering reading is that in addition to counting the tribes, detailing which Levites will put up and tear down and then carry tabernacle poles, or how many animals will be offered as sacrifices on what days, there's also a whole lot about ritual cleanliness. Chapter 19 deals specifically the ritual cleansing needed by Israelites (and strangers living among Israel) who come into contact with dead bodies.
Eleazar the priest said to the troops who had taken part in the fighting, "This is the ritual law that the Lord has enjoined upon Moses: Gold and silver, copper, iron, tin and lead -- any article that can withstand fire -- these you shall pass through fire and they shall be clean, except that they must be cleansed with water of lustration; and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through water. On the seventh day you shall wash your clothes and be clean, and after that you may enter the camp." (Numbers 31:19-24)
He who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days. He shall cleanse himself with it [the ashes from a burnt pure red heffer] on the third day and on the seventh day, and then be clean; if he fails to cleanse himself on the third and seventh days, he shall not be clean. Whoever touches a corpse, the body of a person who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiled the Lord's Tabernacle; that person shall be cut off from Israel. Since the water of lustration [water made from the ashes of the burnt red heffer], he remains unclean; his uncleanness is still upon him. (Number 19:11-13)
There's more, but this is what's important in Chapter 19. And what's important about putting this in context of Numbers 31 is that ritual impurity applies not only to those who touch or deal with the corpses of Israelites, but also those people Israel kills in war. Even when the soldiers of Israel wage war at God's command, when they massacre non-combatants at God's command, they are considered ritually unclean. And not just their bodies, but their instruments of war. They are not allowed in the camp, these 12,000 volunteers, for seven days.
What is someone suggested that American soldiers coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan were ritually unclean for having killed? (Or, heaven forbid, IDF soldiers needed to go cool their heels someplace to take a couple of baths before coming home?)
I remember reading someplace, and I wish I could remember where, that a following one of the Crusades, a bishop or somesuch made returning soldiers do penance -- sackcloth and ashes -- because even though the war was a noble one, called by the church, individual fighters still did damage to conscience that demanded repentance and penance. Whether that's true, this passage from Numbers is "true" in so far as it is on the page. It is a reminder that one's enemies are, however justified one may be in fighting them, human beings, and killing them on some level injures -- even if for only seven days -- the one who kills.
But in our era of the always-virtuous nation-state, our warriors are never wrong, never tainted, never in need of acknowledging that on some level, even as they may fight for good, noble (and even divinely sanctioned) causes, the killing they do still injures them and, on some level, separates them from the community and requires some acknowledgment and even reconciliation.
This would require we live in a more contemplative era. And in a more contemplative society.