Thursday, April 27, 2006

Danger: subversive prayer - Thinking about The Magnificat and The Lord's Prayer

The wrong kind of prayer can get you killed. That is, if it's the right kind of prayer and it's delivered in front of the wrong kind of people, it can get you killed.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, got away with it, but Jesus wasn't so lucky. Well, I don't want to get into theological questions, so I'll just say "he didn't get away with it" and let the issues of luck, mission, destiny, purpose, God's will, and fate be argued by others.

The words of Mary's Magnificat that we have in Luke, in the story of the two pregnancies, Mary's and her cousin Elizabeth's, aren't technically a prayer. They amount to an updated Jewish psalm, a song of hope for those tough times under imperial occupation . Said, as the story goes, by Mary to Elizabeth, and marking the claim that Mary's Jesus is greater than Elizabeth's John the Baptist, the Magnificat is a general statement of praise for Israel's God's saving action, even though the action had not -- and still has not -- been completed.

If she had actually said something like it in the hearing of a Roman official instead of in the privacy of a relative's house, she might have been put in the slammer.

Imagine the response of a major imperialist on hearing a proclamation that the God of the Jews had "showed strength with his arm" and scattered the proud, knocked the powerful off their thrones, lifted up the poor and powerless, filled them with good food and sent the rich away hungry. And helped "his servant Israel", those upstart malcontents and complainers who kept spawning terrorists and assassins (the Sicarii or dagger-men) and other Zealot resistance fighters against the Empire and its collaborators.

Even if, upon looking around, it was obvious to the Roman that the Jewish God had done no such thing, at least not lately, it would have sounded to him like a program for giving aid and comfort to the resistance and even to terrorism. So it could have been off to Abu Herod with Mary and probably her fiance Joseph, too. And that potential sleeper cell she visited in "a Judean town in the hill country", consisting of her cousin Elizabeth and her priest-husband Zechariah and their unborn son, John, might well have been "swept up" with Mary. (Can't trust those religious fanatics who think they have a god on their side.) Locking up Elizabeth would have saved Herod and the Romans from a lot of problems later on with John the Baptist and Jesus. Put 'em away when they're young. And you can't get much younger than those boys were at that time.

But nobody with power heard Mary's subversive words, so she was home free.

Not so with her son. He had a troublesome habit of speaking his mind in public. Even that model prayer written in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and later named "the Lord's Prayer" by the faithful, had a disruptive countercultural and subversive message. Familiarity has bred a comfortable inattentiveness. Time has seemed to dull its sharp edges, since the context and cultural framework for understanding the prayer have changed. But it still can be read in a way that cuts to the bone, challenging both The Empire and the standard forms of resistance to The Empire. (More to come)

Fake Family and Contrived Community

A Toyota commercial caught my attention last week when I forgot to mute it. And last night, a commercial for Bayer Aspirin, which I had seen before but not paid any attention to, used the same theme as Toyota did -- "Family", as in "our product is a part of your family".

Although I won't assume that people take the Product-is-Family claim very seriously, advertisers do spend a lot of money to develop messages that work. So, even if people dismiss many extreme advertising gimmicks as ridiculously exaggerated, the advertisers aren't stupid. it's reasonable to think that the same image used by different advertisers for very different products must have some power to move consumers, and ultimately to move product.

I thought Toyota's ad was way over the top -- elaborately produced, with many questions of the "how long did it take you to (appreciate some feature of the car)" type, culminating in "how long did it take you to love your Toyota?" and then blasting into Neverland with "how long did it take your Toyota to become part of your family?" (Yes, I know there are people who really identify with their cars or are very involved with the image their cars project. I'm not one. But even for a car nut, "family"?)

Then there's the constant use of the word "community" to designate categories of people who share a characteristic or a particular interest of some kind, like, to pull one out of the air, "the (glider) soaring community" (a passion of my oldest son). Some of those people do interact face to face at times, of course. And the categories can be extremely significant. But "community"? That's a concept that involves social interactions within some kind of defined population within some kind of defined place (or, if you happen to be a nomad, a connected series of places). And communities continue through entire life cycles, through generations. (A definition of community that I like is that it's the minimum social unit in which a person becomes fully enculturated into the life of a society -- although that leaves unanswered the question of what constitutes "fully enculturated".)

So -- why, then, are we deemed by advertisers to be susceptible to being sold on the notion of a commercial product as family and why do we think of an abstract category of people as a community?

The "community", for the 80% of us in the USA who are classified as urban, has become so large and so sprawled out over the landscape that it's more like a series of loose networks than a community of the type that humans have lived in and been adapted to since our beginning. It's a common observation that in a country dominated by work, technology, large organizations, and geographic mobility, we suffer from a loss of connections. Family is separated from work; age groups are divided and segregated in many ways; marketers play to, and even create, market segments and consumer identities; and then there are all the standard dividers like gender, ethnicity, and class (which really does exist).

Without extensive support from kin and community, the relatively isolated (and untraditional) nuclear family fails frequently.

We tend to wind up living in somewhat overlapping social networks without an abiding personal core; we lack integration. To a great extent, we're connected mainly through commercial, impersonal transactions. Thus, our condition is often tagged as one of widespread "alienation". Social networks are great, but they're incomplete. They're not communities. They leave great open spaces in our lives for marketers to fill.

It could make you long for The Garden of Eden. In a general way, The Garden did once exist. It was a place known to anthropologists as the world where hunters and gatherers used to live -- especially hunters and gatherers in well-endowed natural areas. (If you like nuts, berries, and salmon, as I do, you would have loved the Pacific Northwest in pre-European times.) But those Gardens of Eden are gone, except for a few tiny remnants.

[For a quick view of the serious idea that the Stone Ages weren't so bad, take a look at Jared Diamond's article "The worst mistake in the history of the human race". That's the Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies, and of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The "worst mistake" was agriculture.]

What we have now is the kind of society that the Judeans in Babylonian exile and the Jews under the Roman Empire had to deal with -- only more so. In the world of power, wealth, and empire, the Bible's insistence on the importance of ridding yourself of the encumbrances and temptations of money could make sense only if there were the alternative of a real old-fashioned "community". Imagine -- to quote some dead singer -- "imagine" that you lived in a functioning, more or less stable community that had many of the characteristics of a family -- an extended family or clan, united in its members' commitment to help each other. In that kind of community you could, indeed, safely sell a possession to raise money for someone who had just been struck down by a personal or financial disaster and needed help. You would have the assurance that there would be plenty of others who would do the same for you in your time of need. Simple.

And simpler societies did have arrangements for that kind of mutual support. (Even Neanderthals appear to have given long-term care to the severely sick or disabled.) The early Christians in Jerusalem, described in Acts 2, who sold their land or other property whenever a need arose within the community were trying to reestablish a "natural" community within a hostile Empire. Not so simple. By its nature, the kind of community they had in mind was, in the context of the imperial state, "countercultural", in opposition to the standards of "normal" life and therefore always under pressure.

However, they had a tradition. The emphasis in the Hebrew scriptures was always on community -- a "covenanted" community which extended outward to become a nation. "Salvation" was seen primarily as national, not personal. "Personal salvation" was help from God in time of need in this world, not some heavenly reward after death. The early Christian community built on that tradition. Present day Christians constantly repeat a key phrase from that tradition, enshrined in an All-time Model Prayer: "thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven." On earth, there's the rub.

Today, with all the ills that our collective flesh is heir to -- you know the litany of national and world problems, I won't repeat them -- there is an increasing amount of talk about a new regionalism and localism, about sustainability and community. The old faith traditions continue to be a resource in this emerging movement.

Here in Albany NY and its surrounding Capital District, a congregation-based interfaith community organizing organization, ARISE (A Regional Initiative Supporting Empowerment) has "regional renewal" as one of its prime goals. Energy independence, transportation systems, regional planning and sprawl, job creation and distribution, local agriculture, the future shape of communities -- all these enter into the mix. (There is a network of similar congregation-based interfaith community organizing groups around the country, many of them using as consultants the Gamaliel Foundation, which comes out of the Saul Alinsky tradition of community organizing and liberal Roman Catholicism.)

And within religious congregations, "building community" is always a theme -- as is "stewardship", which usually comes down to the task of finding the money to keep things going. Building communities where members someday might be empowered to let go of money gladly would take stewardship to a new level.

Maybe it can be done. But it requires that, like the exiles in Babylon, we first realize that we're in Babylon. It was easier for them. They could read the signs "Welcome to Babylon" and know that "we aren't in Jerusalem any more, Moishe".

Our first community-building job is to translate the signs and figure out that we're in Babylon, too. And that it's a hostile place. And that reinventing community is an act of survival, not a moralistic or sentimental revisiting of old traditions.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

"Give it away" -- a dangerous economic doctrine

An item in Tuesday's newspaper about NY's Governor George Pataki's income and charitable giving is noteworthy when considered in the light of the dangerous money doctrines of the Bible.

(Dangerous doctrine hint: Isaiah 53:9, important to both Jews and Christians, and widely used in the recently heard Good Friday service readings: "They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich" -- or "with a rich man". Either way, wealth's reputation certainly suffers from bad associations.)

The news was that the Patakis' joint income has gone way up since he became governor, but that's okay. I don't begrudge them the windfalls that come from his position, although it wouldn't be unreasonable to wonder a bit about the need for tougher standards for determining whether outside income is really legitimate or not.

What's really interesting, however, is his charitable giving. Or lack thereof.

The Patakis had a joint gross income of $889,123 and reported an adjusted gross of $775,169. Their combined state and federal taxes were $212,702 - a combined rate of 27.44%.

Their charitable giving consisted of $1,765 in cash and $4,871 in used clothing which they donated to the Salvation Army and Albany's Capital City Rescue Mission. Together, their charities add up to $6,636 or 0.86% of their adjusted gross. Even if you give them a break by using their after-tax income, it only comes to 1.18%.

There's more -- or, rather, less. When you calculate the tax reduction from the used clothing, you'll find that getting rid of those clothes, in addition to giving them extra closet space, saved them $1,334. That reduced their net out-of-pocket cash outlay to $431.

That kind of frugality would be look good if it were applied to saving money in the state budget. But from the point of view of the governor's church it's not so nice. Even though, taken as a whole, Roman Catholics in the USA don't give as much to church and charity as Protestants, the tithe (an old word for "tenth") is still there as a loose standard of measurement both for churchly giving and secular giving. And the tithe, the Biblical minimum or first step, doesn't take into account the requirement to give alms (for the poor) and oblations (other religious, sacrificial, and thank offerings).

So, even after being lenient in my standards and giving the governor the benefit of calculating his giving on an after tax basis -- and even taking into account his property taxes, to give him the most favorable looking results -- his cash giving amounted to a bit more than 0.08% of his income after all taxes. Just to be clear, if the decimals are confusing, that's less than one tenth of one percent. (Worst case, figuring it on the basis of gross income, the Pataki's gave less than 0.05% -- one twentieth of one percent.)

Now there's one thing the Bible devotes more words to than anything else. Money.

And those words aren't in praise of money.

In general, the Bible's advice is "find ways to get rid of it." Forgive debts, as in the Sabbath and Jubilee years. Give it ALL away, if you're too hung up on wealth, a la the "rich young ruler" of Luke 18. Or give half of it away and make fourfold restitution to those whom you've cheated, as Zacchaeus, the rich chief tax collector, promised in the very next chapter of Luke. Or give it away to meet needs as they arise in your community, as the early followers of Jesus did in Jerusalem, according to Acts 2:45. Whatever the technique, the principle is "don't be a servant of money, be a giver." The most famous phrase is "you cannot serve God and wealth" (otherwise known as "Mammon" - Matthew 6:24).

In this age of political emphasis on values, and especially religious values, Governor Pataki doesn't seem to be on message here. But that's okay. It's not a popular message or a popular religious value. And popularity is what counts. It's money in the bank.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Living dangerously

"Don't look now, but that wall with the handwriting on it is starting to crumble." - Brother Billy.

Once upon a time, I traveled around the Midwest speaking and debating about corporations -- and about what the Bible might be saying about life in a society, or world, in which the business corporation is the dominant economic institution, with all the political power that that implies.

I remember a speech to a Rotary Club in a small, very Republican town in rural East-Central Illinois that was so well-received that I got invited back to talk with a Methodist Bible Study group. Very conservative folk - sober, middle-aged Middle American adults.

Pared down, what I said, with Bible in hand, was that (1) since corporations are potentially immortal they will ultimately beat out mere mortals in the competition for wealth and power; and that (2), unlike a person who owns a business, a corporation has only one goal, which is to maximize profits. (The Bible calls that Greed, or Avarice.) By contrast, a real human business person usually has lots of goals related to things like family, religion, community, and many other interests, values, and ideals. Seeking to "make a living", even a good living, is not the same as "maximizing profits" and letting everything else go hang.

Then I went on to say that (3) corporations with publicly-traded stock actually institutionalize irresponsibility.

Just ask yourself, I said, how many nuclear power plants, for example, would have been built if stockholders could be held personally liable for damages from pollution or disasters. Clearly, the answer is 'none'. In fact, in order to get any nuclear plants built at all, Congress had to put a cap on liability exposure for the corporations themselves.

How many people would invest in stocks if they could be sued for the debts or damages caused by "their" company? At best, the stock market would be a lot smaller and prices would be a lot lower than they are now.

Then I asked the group if they could think of a Biblical word that summed up these three things - immortality, avarice, and irresponsibility. They thought a bit, but said nothing. I asked them "how about 'sin'?" Every single head nodded yes, yes, yes.

I've never forgotten that.

Now those good Methodists and Rotarians didn't rush out and join a radical political party, or even the Democrats, nor did they start to boycott Big Business. But I was told by the guy who arranged for the Rotary gig that the topic of conversation at the local diner for a few days was "what would it look like if we didn't have the GEs and the GMs?" The Republican Town Supervisor was much taken with the idea of something more human and humane.

A seed was planted - but never cultivated. The soil seemed fertile in the mid-70s, however. Perhaps it's not as fertile today. Institutional allegiances have hardened; polarization seems much more extreme. But a lot of people say they're Bible believers. I persist in thinking that's a good thing -- at least potentially. It all depends on how much of the Bible folks take in. A partial Bible is a dangerous weapon. A "complete" Bible is even more dangerous. (I put quotes around "complete" in recognition that there'll always be contention about what the full story might be.)

This blog is my attempt to contribute to the process of discernment about how to live dangerously with the Bible and is meant for the benefit of the religious, the non-religious, the irreligious, and the anti-religious.