Friday, December 16, 2011

"Happy Holidays and the War on Christmas"

These days when I am around my Christian friends I say "Merry Christmas"; since I am a theology student (a.k.a. theology geek) I was also saying "Happy Advent" but that's another story. When I am around my Non-Christian friends (including followers of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, along with Non-Theists, Pagans, and others) I say "Happy Holidays". And when I go out to a store or I speak to a stranger, I say "Happy Holidays". Then I started to realize that so far, not one person has attempted to correct me...again, so far.

I was thinking about this since I have been trying to understand (from a Christian point of view) the so-called "War on Christmas". You may have heard for example that some stores use "Happy Holidays" (for their decorations and/or how their employees may greet their customers) and other stores use "Merry Christmas". Also, you may have heard that some cities are reevaluating the use of certain symbols and/or displays. Like I said before, I have not been "corrected" so far in my use of both "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays". Now, that does not mean that I have not heard complaints from friends on both sides regarding the 'other side'. Some of my Christian friends complain that "Christ is being taken out of Christmas" and some of my Non-Christian friends complain that they don't believe in Christ in the first place and "should not be forced to participate in this".

First, I will present my biggest joy and complaint regarding this situation from my point of view and personal experience this last month:

1) This last month (like many people around the country and the world in different degrees) I have experienced moments of pain and suffering along with moments of great joy and happiness. When a person tells me "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" regardless of my emotional state I still say and will continue to say "Thank you". When I am happy and someone greets me in a similar fashion, I welcome what I think is a genuine attempt at a connection from a stranger even if only for a few seconds; when I am sad this doesn't change. In fact, when I am sad I am even more thankful of this. The beautiful quote from St. Ambrose goes like this: "No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks."

2) I could care less if Wal-Mart or any other store does not say "Merry Christmas". Let's say I go to a store this Sunday (yes Sunday, think about it) to buy a massive big screen TV (let us suppose that I have the proper amount of real money to do so and not monopoly money) that I saw "for sale" because I told myself "30% off! YES!!!". I find it, I tell the nearest employee "I'll take it"and we go to the cash register. To complete the rite...sorry, to complete the transaction I give my credit card, it gets swiped, and the TV is now mine. As I give the signed credit card receipt to the cashier he/she says "Merry Christmas". So there, I bought a TV that let's be honest, I don't need...but, the cashier said "Merry Christmas" and I will be honoring Christ even after the celebration of his birth is over by making payments on my credit card...very Christian.

But, if that same employee would tell me "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas", would this be part of the "War on Christmas"? If I was leaving the store and I saw a plastic figure of the child Jesus that was part of an equally plastic and multicolor nativity scene tell me "how wonderful that this store is honoring the birth of Christ" I was going to my car with my new TV?

As a Christian, I remember that Christ was more concerned about how people treated each other and specially how we treated those in need ("Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me"). Does ending the purchase of a TV with "Merry Christmas" make this a more Christian act or an act worthy of being a disciple of Christ in the love that we show for one another, as found in the Gospel according to John 13:34-35?

Or, was it a more Christian act (even if it was not the conscious intent to do a "Christian" act) when several Non-Christian friends were there for me with both their words AND their open hearts when I was sad..when Christian friends, Christian priests and pastors, and members of my family helped me and helped the people that I love during moments of need...I can think of at least 10 examples of this love during the last two weeks. Sometimes the acts of love were offered without reserve when I asked and sometimes they were offered without me asking for them in the first place.

My dear reader, if you are a Christian, remember the following words: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." If we remember this first and we love each other even in happy silence, Christmas is here every day without the use of words and Christ smiles every day, because you and I will be able to smile every day in love. It is love that both our Christian and Non-Christian brothers and sisters can share with one another every day.

Remember my dear reader: at some point the stores will be removing the Christmas decorations, lights, symbols, etc, and will soon be replacing them with the next "appropriate" decorations to sell you and me more stuff. Decorations, lights, and even cool TV's are eventually replaced and end up in a storage room or a dumpster. And even the parts and pieces of a Nativity scene can meet the same fate. But while the celebration of Christmas will come again next year and we will once again be able to find the best deal, you and I are here in this world (today! now!) crying, smiling, and living.

Merry Christmas!
Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 9, 2011

From "Plan A" to "Plan B", and facing disappointment and pain.

As she spoke she gathered her dress into a fold and wiped from my eyes the tears that filled them.
The night was put to flight, the darkness fled,
And to my eyes their former strength returned:
Like when the wild west wind accumulates
Black clouds and stormy darkness fills the sky:
The sun lies hid before the hour the stars
Should shine, and night envelopes all the earth:
But should the North wind forth from his Thracian cave
Lash at the darkness and loose the prisoner day,
Out shines the sun with sudden light suffused
And dazzles with its rays the blinking eye.
In the same way the clouds of my grief dissolved and I drank in the light.
(From the end of II and beginning of III in Book 1 of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius)

Probably one of the most difficult moments of our lives comes when we fail or when our plans do not come to fruition. In some of these occasions the disappointment and the pain of it can literally bring us to our knees. Perhaps we worked very hard to make sure "Plan A" (a job we wanted, a possible move to another state, an apartment we were trying to get, a response from a bank on a loan, etc, etc) would work and now a part of us feels that all that work was for nothing. Then we are forced to face the inevitable: going from "Plan A" to "Plan B". (Note: Even when we think we do not have a "Plan B", to simply say "what now" is still a start and itself is a "Plan B".)

In moments like these (as we try to implement "Plan B") we try our best to move on; that is how life works. Life goes on because life can only move forward. To many of us this knowledge offers little consolation since we are left wondering with how life would have been. Our feelings could care less that "life goes on" since the pain we feel is as real as life itself. And yet, life goes on.


Disappointment, pain, questions, new questions....all of these come calling to us regardless of who we are. Even those of us who claim to follow a spiritual path are not spared from this. While it is true that some of us are able to find strength in our religion and/or our spirituality in times like these, the truth is that life continues. Thomas Merton said if we want to be spiritual, then, let us first of all live our lives. And that is the challenge. To keep living with the pain, with the disappointment, with the suffering and yet keep live our lives.

We may be some of the lucky ones: with friends, with people who love us, with people that care for us and tell us "it will be alright". They may not be able to take away our pain but they do make it easier to keep on going. If we are not some of the lucky ones, our looniness magnifies the pain and suffering.  In some cases however, those who feel alone are not alone; they are unable (for several reasons) to reach out to us.

So the next time you speak to a family member, or a friend, or someone you know and you ask the usual "how are you" be observant. If you get a "I'm fine" it is possible that he/she is not fine. So don't be afraid to say "Well, if you ever need to talk let me know". For all you know, that person has been waiting for you to offer your help. With our help, someone's "Plan B" can in the future be the "Plan A" that they...that we were looking for.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Atheists and Christians working together :)

I am very happy to share with you the final results of "2011 Send an Atheist to Church". The Purdue Society of Non-Theists and the Episcopal Student Association (ESA) are proud to say that $484.03 was raised for Food Finders Food Bank; this amount surpassed the $362.95 raised in 2010.  This money will allow Food Finders to provide 1,452 meals to families struggling with hunger.

The need for organizations like Food Finders is increasing. Some of the studies done by "Feeding America" reveal the tough choices that many families face every day and every month:
  • 46 percent of client households served report having to choose between paying for utilities or heating fuel and food.
  • 39 percent of client households said they had to choose between paying for rent or a mortgage and food.
  • 34 percent of client households report having to choose between paying for medical bills and food.
  • 35 percent of client households must choose between transportation and food.
(Click here for more details)

So, what can can we do about this? Good question. If you are a Christian for example, check with your church. They may have a connection to a food pantry (if they are not already managing one) or they may have Christians like yourself who would like to come up with ideas on how to fight hunger in your community and want to take action today. If you are an Atheist there are organizations (like "Foundation Beyond Belief") that work to bring together the efforts of Non-Theists to fight hunger and other causes. Also, check to see if there is a food bank in your area; they will welcome your time and any ideas you may have. You could even write a letter to your member of Congress and ask what his/her office is doing to address the issue of hunger. I also suggest that we should educate ourselves about the causes of hunger; doing this will help us to come up with better plans and solutions.

Some of my Atheist brothers and sisters have told me: "Mario, you can be good WITHOUT God'. I usually smile and respond: "I can be good WITH God". However, this event proved that we can be good together.

Friday, December 2, 2011

"Send an Atheist to Church" to fight hunger today!!!

"Send an Atheist to Church” is today from 9am to 5pm, at the basement of the Purdue Memorial Union, by Starbucks. It is a charity event (inspired by the the Friendly Atheist author and Non-Theist activist Hemant Mehta) to raise money for Food Finders Food Bank and it is jointly hosted by my fellow students with the Purdue Society of Non-Theists and my group the Episcopal Student Association (ESA).

Essentially, various places of worship "participate" in that they allow people to make donations in their name. The places of worship "compete" to see who has the most donations made in their name. ESA and the Non-Theists will have a table at the Union with cups for religious groups on campus. This will allow people to donate money in the name of the place of worship they want the Non-Theists to attend the most. The Society of Non-Theists will have members respectfully attend a service of most places of worship that participate, but particularly those who have the most donations in their name. The one with the most will have the largest number of Society of Non-Theists members attending a service. 

One-hundred percent of the proceeds will go to Food Finders.

When the event was done back in 2010 the Society of Non-Theists raised $362.95:
Since my group won last year by "beating" the Baptists by four cents we were asked by the Non-Theists (instead of participating again) to co-host the event with them this time. Saying 'yes' was both a simple and obvious choice for us. Every one dollar donated to Food Finders allows this wonderful organization to provide 3 meals to families struggling with hunger in our community. 
(For more details on Food Finders Food Bank click here)

Also I believe that religious and non-religious people can work together for our community, and for our fellow human beings. If you are in the Purdue area today I hope that you can pass by. Remember, every dollar (and even every cent) counts.


About the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue
a group for discussion and networking by Purdue students who are Atheist, Agnostic, Ignostic, Objectivist, Pastafarian, Skeptic, Secular Humanist, or just otherwise not inclined to follow traditional deity-based religious beliefs. We use the term "non-theist" as an all encompassing term for these various lines of thinking.

About the Episcopal Student Association (ESA) at Purdue:
a group of students who attend the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Good Shepherd is both an Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion and a ministry of the Diocese of Indianapolis to the campus community at Purdue University.

Monday, November 28, 2011

On Faith: what it is, and what is not...

In my opinion some of the most engrossing discussions I have with both religious and non-religious people include discussing the following: faith. But before I speak to you my dear reader regarding my thoughts on what faith is, what is not, what it could be and so on, let us look as a dictionary definition of the word faith (according to Miriam-Webster):

Middle English feith, from Anglo-French feid, fei, from Latin fides; akin to Latin fidere to trust

Definition of FAITH
allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty (1) : fidelity to one's promises (2) : sincerity of intentions

belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust

something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>

It appears to me that most of these descriptions of faith point to 'belief'. But the question must be asked: does belief = faith? I would say that while elements of 'belief' can play a role in 'faith', belief does not equal faith. In fact if you my dear reader are a Christian allow me to ask you: do you think that saying "I believe in Christ" is the same as "Having faith in Christ"? We shall go back to this later.

As a Facebook user, I see arguments about religion (along with politics, sports, sci-fi, etc) all the time. When it comes to religion, faith always comes up in some way or another depending on the context. A regular scenario is the one where a 'Theist' (many times from a Christian point of view) would say to an Atheist the following: 
Theists should not expect atheists to believe in a creator because atheists lack the key faculty to understand. Faith is not a natural faculty. It can only be found in those who have been regenerated. Heb 11:3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. ESV

Then came the replies: 
Faith is gullibility and In that first quote, "regenerated" is open for interpretation. I read that and equate it to "indoctrinated" rather than "rejuvenated". As you said, faith is not natural. Therefore, it must be instilled. On the other hand, free thinking is natural because it provides us with the basic tools to analyze the world around us. Therefore, freethinking is "lacking" in theists rather than a "lack" of faith in atheists. As you measure the world around you, you use free thinking tactics. Therefore on a weekly basis you must be reminded of your faith because if left unchecked it will diminish with lack of evidence. Hence, church.

The movie 'Cool Hand Luke' comes to mind since perhaps what we have here is a "failure to communicate". Taking the examples above while being aware that they are not fully representative of all Christians and all Atheists we get the following: 1) Belief (or not) in a Creator. 2) Lacking (or not) the "natural faculty" to have faith. 3) Faith is found in those who have been regenerated. 4) Knowledge and analysis of the world. 5) Gullibility. 6) Faith is "instilled". 7) "Freethinking" is 'natural' unlike faith. 8) Lack of evidence. etc, etc.

I try to tell my Atheist brothers and sisters is that faith is NOT "lack of evidence", "belief in spite of evidence", "rejecting freethinking", or "evidence diminishes faith", etc.  Also, I tell my Christian brothers and sisters that faith is NOT "belief in God", "lack of hope", or "that one must be a believer", etc. All of this points to something that can be related to faith but is not faith. (Note: I am glad to say that some of my Christian and Atheists brothers and sisters agree with what I am about to say.)

Theoretical substantiation, trust, and knowledge deals with the scenario of how much or how little evidence there is for something. Our daily lives deal with this and in many ways we sometimes operate in auto-pilot: getting up in the morning, having breakfast, going to class or to work etc. Otherwise we would never leave the house thinking: "a flock of seagulls (not the 80's band) could attack me since I live close to the ocean", or "I am not going to start my car since I insulted Joe Pesci and he could put a bomb in my car", or "there was no Roman Empire since for all I know the book is lying about Julius Caesar and he could only be a cartoon for a pizza chain".  The history book (along with the history teacher) acts as an authority that we either trust or not. Even if we are skeptical (nothing wrong with that by itself since it can be healthy at times) at some point we trust certain things. Otherwise we could only believe those things that come to us by direct experience and then we have to deal with the scenarios of what is real, what is not real, etc.  In other words, there is knowledge, there is trust, there is belief AND all of these can play a role in faith; however they are not in themselves faith. But then what is faith?

Before I answer my dear reader, I would like to hear from you. In a respectful way and keeping an open mind toward the opinions of others, what does faith mean to you?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Please try to remember, while some of us have a feast tomorrow...

While some of us have a feast tomorrow....

Try to remember that some of us are alone.
Try to remember that some of us cannot find a job.
Try to remember that some of us lost a family member.
Try to remember that some of us do not have anything to eat.
Try to remember that some of us do not have a home.
Try to remember that some of us do not have a special someone.
Try to remember that some of us do not have good friends.
Try to remember that some of us have a broken heart.
Try to remember that some of us are in the hospital.
Try to remember that some of us are child soldiers.
Try to remember that some of us are sex slaves.
Try to remember that some of us are in pain.

So, while some of us have a feast tomorrow....

Give thanks for the food we will have.
Give thanks for the roof over our heads.
Give thanks for the smiles we will get.
Give thanks for the mental and physical abilities that allow us to talk and share with others.
Give thanks for the family members that are with us.
Give thanks for that special someone who loves us.
Give thanks for the good friends we have.
Give thanks because it is right, and a good and joyful thing.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Mario :)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hate mail from a hate group: because we are a "GAY friendly church"

A few weeks ago my church received a letter from a certain hate group. According to the letter they saw that we were listed as a "GAY friendly church". Here is the full text of the letter:

To accept sexual deviancy as normal is a sin.
You put your soul in danger of eternal damnation for welcoming unrepentant homosexuals into God’s house. You blaspheme the Name of God. 
Homosexuality should be criminalized. Homosexuals commit crimes against God, against nature, against the Holy Bible and against the human race. 
Because of your church, I now know why God wrote: 
Leviticus 20:13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. 
Romans 1:24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: 
:26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: 
:27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

SAY THIS PRAYER: Dear Jesus, I am a sinner and am headed to eternal hell 
because of my sins. I believe you died on the cross to take away my sins 
and to take me to heaven. Jesus, I ask you now to come into my heart and 
take away my sins and give me eternal life.


This of course is very tragic and sad. According to this group my church is guilty of the following:
1) Accepting "sexual deviancy" as normal.
2) Welcoming "unrepentant homosexuals".
3) Blaspheming the "Name of God", per points 1 and 2.

They believe that:
1) "Homosexuality should be criminalized".
2) Homosexuals are criminals.
3) Homosexual crime includes: crime against God, crime against nature, crime against the Holy Bible, and crime against the human race.

They conclude that it is churches like mine that the following verses from Scripture apply:
Leviticus 20:13
Romans 1:24, 26, and 27.

According to them, my church and I should pray to Jesus over all of this. In fact, I believe I will do that and a bit more. First, I offer the following verse from Scripture as a prayer: Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ (Gospel according to Luke, Chapter 23 Verse 34). Second, I will hope that some of these people will one day recognize that homosexuality is not "sexual deviancy". That argument was put to rest more than 40 years ago and all the other arguments build upon that erroneous premise (like "Homosexuality should be criminalized" and crimes "against nature" and "the human race") should be rejected since they reinforce ignorance and bring nothing but unjustifiable pain and suffering. Perhaps they will read all the arguments from science, psychiatry and psychology that confirm this. Education about sexuality is very important and can play an important role against the ignorance and myths that feed the fear of well-meaning people and give ammunition to the horrible arguments of hate groups.

Third, since they took the time (and the organizational skills) to write us a letter (from what I hear my church was not the only one to receive this letter) my hope is that perhaps they would consider turning these hateful energies into positive efforts. Perhaps they can join you and me (with both religious and non-religious groups) in supporting programs and initiatives dealing with: raising money for local food banks and food pantries, the fight against poverty in the United States and around the world, relief to heavily indebted countries in order to free up funds for education and health care work, HIV/AIDS initiatives, unemployment, providing access to clean water, helping people (specially women and children) suffering from domestic violence and sexual exploitation, and many other worthy causes.

Finally, I have decided to take the following action: I am going to frame the letter we received from them and I will hang it on my wall. I do this not only as a reminder that we must be vigilant against hate and hateful efforts, but to remind myself that hate leads nowhere. Thomas Merton once said that sometimes we act in the following way: We seek the cause of evil and find it here or there...and we discharge upon this scapegoat all the virulent force of our hatred, compounded with fear and anguish, striving to rid ourselves of our dread and of our guilt by destroying the object we have arbitrarily singled out as the embodiment of all evil. 

I ask you my dear reader (both Christian and Non-Christian) to join me and do the opposite; to do so is to say "NO" to hate and "YES" to good, to humanitarian love, to justice, to compassion, to solidarity, to kindness, and to understanding between people. Let us say "YES" in a loud voice to all these things as human beings.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Brother Jed came to Purdue and called me an Atheist...

Here at Purdue University, a certain fire and brimstone preacher ("Brother Jed") was visiting our campus today. My friends from the Purdue Non-Theists told me yesterday he was coming, and of course my first reaction was: "Oh no. Here we go again." He has visited Purdue many times in the past, so I am familiar with his style of preaching: we are all horrible, decadent, depraved sinners, etc, along with women are for making babies and other things. So today instead of trying to speak to him (many tried their best to talk to him or to ask him questions only to be frustrated with the responses) I decided to become "Brother Mario".

I took a guitar, sat on the grass across from him, and wished everyone that was passing by a good day. Some of my friends (who I alerted of my plans) were already there talking to him before I showed up so...some kept talking to him and some sat with me singing songs by the Beatles, Green Day, Kansas, and other songs while smiling and saying hi to everyone. (Thank you to all of you who sat with me :) Thank you very much).

He was a bit confused by what we were doing...

Why did I do this?

I am not going to lie: it was fun :)  But more than that it was my way to go against everything he said but in a peaceful and non-confrontational way; he had a "You Deserve Hell" sign, I had a whiteboard with "Brother Mario says: Have A Good Day". Many people said hi back to us and some thanked us for being there.

The most interesting part about this whole exercise was at one particular moment, when he said something about Atheists and then I realized the following: he was calling me an Atheist because some of my friends who were arguing with him were Atheists. The funny thing was that there were Christians arguing with him as well but I guess it did not matter to him.

So, Mario the Christian became Mario the Atheist just like that. And I thought that for me to become an Atheist I had to admit that to believe in God is like believing in Thor, or in Sky Gandalf, then wake up tomorrow and pledge alliance to the armies of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

There is a a proverb in Spanish: Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres. It is loosely translated into "tell me with who(m) you hang out with and I will tell you who you are". I guess hanging out with Episcopalians, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Non-Theists, Improv people, Musicians, etc makes me an Atheist. I had no idea.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A man from Uganda reminded me that...

Last weekend in Chicago, at Brent House (the campus ministry of the Episcopal Church at the University of Chicago) I finally had the chance to meet Bishop Christopher Senyonjo . I have written about him in the past (including his work with the St. Paul's Reconciliation and Equality Centre in Kampala, Uganda and the St. Paul's Foundation for International Reconciliation in San Diego, CA) and how I have been inspired by his courage, his faith, and his determination as part of his ministry and mission for: human rights, women’s self help and advocacy programs, HIV/AIDS, decriminalization of homosexuality (it is illegal in 75 countries including his native Uganda), education, fighting poverty, and other critical issues. 

However, to read about him and watch his interviews on youtube quite frankly does not do any justice to this man from Uganda called Bishop Christopher, this human being called his humanity.

The following are some of the things that will stay with me for a long time as I (and everyone that attended 'A Conversation with Bishop Christopher Senyonjo') listened to him. This man from Uganda, this Christian, this human being reminded me that:

1) My path in life (like it has many times) will lead me to places and situations that are not part of the 'plan'. This can be very scary, but it can also be very rewarding.
2) That love and compassion are superior and stronger than hate.
3) That hate along with prejudice itself has no flag, no country, no religion, no government, no society, etc; hate and prejudice will use US in the name of flag, country, religion, government and society to do their work.
4) All of us regardless of where we come from can be either victims of prejudice or can be enforcers of prejudice one day, and the next day the roles can be reversed.
5) That education, knowledge, and compassionate dialogue are key against all types of prejudice. It is a risky venture, but it is worth it.

Also, I will remember his wife and her strong spirit as she spoke to us about how she knew she had to stand by the man she loves and how she understood him when 10 years ago he told her what he was going to do. It is truly wonderful to see two people (specially at this stage of their lives) be so committed to each other.

I will remember his laughter. His laughter during little moments like trying to 'correctly' fit his suitcase in the back of a car as he got ready to leave, or trying to find the correct page in the Book of Common Prayer :)

I will remember him asking me how to say "Bless you" in Spanish.
I will remember him giving big hugs to all of us.
I will remember his smile...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Will my faith make me abuse, torture and kill my own child?

My dear reader, I will try answer the question "Will my faith make me abuse, torture and kill my own child?" and I will address some points like this one by my friend JT when at the end of his latest blog entry "Spare The Rod, Spoil The Child Not Relevant In Child Abuse Case" stated:


Lazy thinking and irrationality are evil, for they are mother to this kind of behavior. People who lend endorsement to irrationality by imbibing it in sub-lethal doses are failing their duty as a human being. We can point to the effects of the poison and all we hear from other believers is, “I swallowed it and I didn’t die!” This perpetuates the problem, and I hold all people who believe in faith accountable for that.


Allow me to post for you the text of "Couple accused of starving daughter plead not guilty" as reported on Friday Oct 7, 2011 by Reuters. Please read the story and stay tuned for my thoughts on this.



Couple accused of starving daughter plead not guilty

SEATTLE | Fri Oct 7, 2011 5:31pm EDT

(Reuters) - A couple accused of starving their adopted 13-year-old Ethiopian-born daughter and locking her outside in the cold, where she died from exposure, pleaded not guilty on Thursday to homicide and child abuse charges.
Although investigators found the Washington state couple adhered to a harsh child-rearing regimen prescribed by a controversial Christian parenting book, the prosecutor said Thursday that religion was not relevant to the criminal case.
Larry and Carri Williams, of Sedro-Woolley -- a town about halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia -- were arrested September 29, more than four months after their daughter, Hana, died of hypothermia in their backyard.
A Skagit County Superior Court judge reduced their bail from $500,000 to $150,000 each on Thursday, and barred them from contact with their eight remaining children, who were placed into foster care in July, or with each other.
Each is charged with homicide by abuse in connection with their daughter's death, and first-degree assault of a child stemming from mistreatment of her adopted 10-year-old brother from Ethiopia.
If convicted each faces a prison term of between 20 and 29 years, according to state sentencing guidelines.
Hana Williams, adopted from Ethiopia by the couple in 2008, died on May 12 after she was found unconscious outside shortly after midnight, in temperatures hovering around 40 degrees, authorities said.
Investigators say the abuse she endured included beatings, starvation, being forced to sleep outside and use an outdoor toilet, and that she had lost a significant amount of weight since her adoption. Prosecutors said the 10-year-old brother was similarly mistreated.
The parents kept the family isolated from non-relatives, home-schooled the children and followed strict religious principles described in the Christian parenting book titled "To Train Up a Child," investigators said.
According to court documents, their 16-year-old son told investigators that Hana "was kept in a locked closet and the only light switch was on the outside of the closet. He stated that his mother would take her out every other day to walk and exercise. They played the Bible on tape and Christian music for her while she was locked in the closet."
But Prosecutor Rich Weyrich insisted that issues of faith were not a factor in the case against the couple. "Religion's not an element we have to probe. We have to prove that the children were assaulted, tortured and died," he told Reuters on Thurday.
Larry Williams, 47, who works for Boeing, and his wife, Carri, 40, a stay-at-home mother, were being held in Skagit County Jail.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)
Corrects book title in 9th paragraph

What is Hell, to you, to me, to us?

A while ago, I wrote something as I was thinking about the following question:
"What is hell?"

During a conversation I had last night with an old friend and a new friend, the topic of the "afterlife" was discussed among the many topics we talked about. As I was reading some of my previous blog entries for inspiration and/or to perhaps revisit some ideas, I came across this blog entry I wrote a while ago on the topic of Hell. Allow me my dear reader, to share this with you once again.
What is hell? Many Christians have thought about this and we have debated this for centuries. This in not a new question. Once we realize this then we can try to understand the controversy about Rob Bell's book "Love Wins".  I cannot wait to read it. In the meantime all I have is a book description, a couple of interviews and the video in youtube; you may know the one, the one when he asks "Gandhi is in hell? Really? Do we know that?"

But let us stop for a second: if Gandhi is in hell (or not) is not THE question to me. Because I believe that is one of many, many questions. And every time I think of this, I ask: what is hell?

Depends who you ask since to start, it has many names:

And those are just the names. So what is hell like?
Is it to be taken literally as described in those places in the Bible, using the names we mentioned before?
Is hell something like we see in a Bosch painting?
Is hell separation from God?
Is hell a separate place from heaven?
Is hell a spiritual state?

Out of the many reactions that I have seen regarding Rob Bell (I believe one phrase was something similar to "progressive Christians like Rob Bell") I found one very interesting. A writer admired that many people have been able to get help at Mars Hills (Rob Bell's church) with drug problems, marital problems etc.  But then he said: "a therapist can do that." He went on to say how important it is that people like Rob Bell tell the truth (with love) about the orthodox Christian teaching of hell and how a soul can end up in hell.

That got me thinking about two things:
1) If one of us, or someone we know, is a drug addict and gets the help he/she needs, what is more important: that the help was given without strings, or that the helper must fit the proper definition of a helper?

2) The "orthodox Christian teaching" of hell? What is that? And even if we had the answer, why are we so concerned about the AFTERLIFE teaching of hell? What about hell in THIS life?

If a 9 year old boy is forced to fight in a war, is he not in hell?
If a 9 year old girl is forced into prostitution, is she not in hell?
If a friend looses his house and everything that he owns in a flood, is he not in hell?
If a friend is bullied every day at school, is she not in hell?
If a family member is in pain every day due to a medical condition, is he not in hell?

So, is hell ONLY the place we go in the afterlife because we did (or not) this or that, we thought (or not) this or that?

Or is hell also right here right now.

And if you, me, or someone we know is in that hell right now, would we care for the "love" of the "orthodox Christian teaching of hell"?

Or, would we say: help me get out of this hell, please...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

'One of Those People': My Life As A Christian on Planet Earth

Tonight is the night:

'One of Those People': My Life As A Christian on Planet Earth
Wednesday, October 12 · 6:30pm - 8:00pm
Purdue University, room PHYS 203

You are invited. I think it will be a great event. Hope to see you there.


(Thank you to the "Society of Non-Theists" here at Purdue University for giving me a chance to do this.)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Jesus teaches that I must hate my family, so I'm told.

In a couple of days, I will be attending a meeting of the "Society of Non-Theists" here at Purdue University. They are a group for Purdue students who consider themselves an atheist, agnostic, ignostic, Objectivist, Pastafarian, skeptic, Secular Humanist, or are just otherwise not inclined to have religious or supernatural beliefs. And why my dear reader you may ask, why am I (Mr. "Episcopalian 'in' Planet Earth", Mr. "Christian", Mr. student of theology, etc,) going to this meeting?


I shall be giving a talk called:
'One of Those People': My Life As A Christian on Planet Earth

Wednesday, October 12 · 6:30pm - 8:00pm

PHYS 203

Among the many topics I will cover:
1) My background.
2) My life as a Christian.
3) My personal perspective on the Atheist movement.
3) My own views on religion, faith, current national and world issues, etc.
4) Ways to leap tall building with a single, I cannot guarantee that you may be able to do this yourself.

One of the many issues I will cover is how I "read" the Bible. During my many discussions with Atheists, I am sometimes told that Christians either A) Do not really read the Bible, B) Do not understand the Bible they claim to follow, C) Only follow the "good stuff" but don't want to talk about the "bad stuff"; more to the point Christians are really good at 'cherry picking'.

Greta Christina, an Atheist thinker and activist, is one writer (including Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, JT Ebehard--love you JT--and many others) that thinks that Christians (specially moderate or progressive Christians like myself) like to 'cherry pick' from the Bible the parts we like and, the parts we don't like (the bad stuff) we either ignore or simply have terrible arguments that allows us to ignore all that" bad stuff". At the end of her article "The Messed-Up Teachings of Jesus" (June 30, 2008), she said:
--Yes, the Jesus character in the Gospels spoke of love and respect and humility, healing the sick and taking care of the poor. But he also spoke of the wickedness of thought crimes, and the sinfulness of divorce; of the value of surrendering rational thought, and the nobility of abandoning family and responsibility to pursue a religious practice. He spoke with approval of the calm acceptance of evil and oppression in this world. And he spoke — over and over like a broken record — about the all-importance of believing that he was God, and obeying his commands. He spoke again and again about how there was just one right way to practice religion, and how doing this was a far greater priority than being a good person in the world.--

This conclusion is in part based on her interpretation and analys of the Gospels, as she focused her exegesis on the "bad stuff" in the Gospels when she states: 
--The point is this: The bad stuff — the stuff that runs completely counter to the most important values of most progressives I know, including progressive Christians — is not hard to find. It’s all over the place. I basically just spent a few hours with a Bible in one hand and my laptop in the other, and came up with this rather frighteningly long list. And it’s not like these are the minor teachings, either — some of them are among the most famous and beloved teachings of everything Jesus supposedly said.--

Among the many verses from the Gospels to make her arguments, she goes to the following verse from the Gospel according to Luke: --Luke 15:26: “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”-- Her comment of this particular verse is: --Nice. Do I have to say it again? Obedience to Jesus over affection and respect for your family; the dividing of people from their families to a degree that’s creepy and cultish. Ick.--

So according to her arguments I am not a Christian or (to borrow a term used by Sam Harris) I am not a "serious Christian" because:
1) I do not hate my parents, I do not hate my daughter, I do not hate my brother and sister, and (since I am not walking around with a gun to my head) I do not hate my life.
2) I let my "affection and respect" for my family override my "obedience to Jesus".

A 'serious' Christian loves and obeys Jesus AND hates his family, and people like myself who claim to love and obey Jesus AND also LOVE our family are NOT 'serious' Christians. And since my interpretation of this part of Scripture tells me something different from her interpretation, my exegesis is obviously wrong. I may be a Christian with tolerant, diversity-loving values, but I am not a "serious" Christian.

So a "serious" Christian MUST think that:
It is terrible that I love my daughter and call myself a Christian.
It is terrible that I love my family and call myself a Christian.
It is terrible that I am in love with a wonderful woman and call myself a Christian.
It is terrible that I defy Jesus by doing all these things.
Terrible, just terrible.

Or like I was told once, I am doing all these things for the "wrong reasons".

Speaking of Sam Harris's expression of a "serious Christian", he was quoted by Richard Dawkins in "The God Delusion" at the end of the chapter "The 'Good' Book and the Moral Zeitgeist" when he said:
--The danger of religious faith is that allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?--

But, do not worry my brothers and sisters of the Society of Non-Theists! I am not planning to kill anyone over "ancient literature". Come to my talk and see what I have to say about all this and other things. Hey, who knows. Maybe this "crazy" Christian who refuses to hate his family may not be so crazy after all.  ;)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Greed: why are some Christians not talking about it?

The topic of "Greed" has been on my mind for a long time. Two things made me write about it today:
1) Someone that I love is being affected right now by the GREED of others--Note: I shall be talking about that as part of a separate blog entry. And, 2) I read an article called Preachers confront 'last taboo': Condemning greed amid Great Recession (click HERE for details) that talks about how many pastors do not want to talk (or preach) about greed or money. Some pastors feel that it is better (in the words of one pastor) to speak about personal responsibility so we don't get into the blame game. This comes from the same pastor who once described same-sex marriage as "a satanic plot to destroy the family". So when it comes to an issue like that one, he is willing to talk about it but, when it comes to teaching about greed he thinks that the reality is that a lot of that teaching may wind up creating anti-economic-growth and anti-capitalism concepts (in people’s minds).... (Note: I am privileged that in my life I have met many priests and pastors from different denominations that disagree. Thank you to all of you.)

Another pastor who DOES TEACH on the problems of greed was very clear: Money is the last taboo in church. It’s much easier to talk about sex than money. He also believes that too many pastors opt for offering pulpit platitudes because they are afraid parishioners will stop giving money if they hear teachings on greed and money. If this is true, what does that say not just about those pastors and their thought process, but about the way they believe they should preach? What makes one pastor fearful of teaching on greed and money, and what makes the other pastor want to teach on greed and money with full force? I believe there are many ways to look at this, and some may provide clues while others will simply produce more questions. First, let us simply look at the word "Greed" per the Miriam Webster dictionary:

Definition of GREED
a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed.

Using this simple definition, we could see how some people may be uncomfortable if their priest or pastor starts talking about greed. Who among us wants to even think that we may be "selfish" or that we have "an excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed"?

Excessive desire....
More of something that is needed... 

Who among us have the courage to look into our own hearts and find out that we may, just may be selfish, or that we have an excessive desire, that we want more of something than is needed? However, you do not have to be a Christian to see a problem with greed. For example in Plato's "The Republic", Socrates thought that "greed" was responsible for bringing strife and injustice into society and those with power did nothing to prevent it. (I wonder what would Socrates be saying today about our political leaders). Spinoza talked about "greed" in the same way he spoke about "ambition" and "lust"; to him all these things were "species of madness."

As I think back to Christian pastors and preachers who are more afraid to sound like "Socialists" or "supporting" what could be interpreted as anti-economic-growth and anti-capitalism concepts (in people’s minds) that could in turn lead to loosing money, I think of what Gustavo Gutierrez once said. He said theology begins with the stomach because the theology and the way we approach theology is very different when we are NOT hungry. If some of these pastors were hungry for let us say five years, and on top of that they came home and found their own children (like the day before and the day before that) crying of hunger, would they still think that a pastor should refrain from talking about greed? Now, I understand that the problem of hunger has many reasons. But, is not greed part of the problem of hunger in the world?

To many of us, the effects of greed, is not about "proper" economics or "proper" theology, because many of us woke up this morning and once again are suffering from:
1) Being hungry because we do not have the money for food.
2) Being sick and/or in pain, because we don't have the medicines we need.
3) Being homeless, because we could not hold on to a job since we could not afford medicines for either a physical condition or a mental condition, etc.

One final thought....
Regarding how some pastors think we should talk about personal responsibility so we don't get into the blame game I say this: talking about personal responsibility becomes tragically irrelevant, if we die of hunger, if we die from a disease, or if we die from sleeping in the streets when it is 10 degrees.

Quite simply the dead do not have "personal responsibility" and the dead do not "get into the blame game".

A final thought...
I believe that if we are going to declare that the Son of Man is the bread of life and that whoever comes to him will never be hungry (Gospel according to St. John 6:35) we have to make sure that people have the simple but necessary bread that we need to live; our 'kerygma' becomes tragically irrelevant if we only talk about the bread of life without talking about the bread that keeps the body healthy. Let us not forget that the Son of Man wants us to provide bread to everyone...including the least of us.



Monday, October 3, 2011

What a Baptist minister once said, about a Buddhist monk...

If anyone of us ever think, that we cannot work toward common goals with a person (or certain people) because "he is not like me", "she thinks differently from me", "he was born somewhere else", "she is from a different religion", "he is not very rational", "she will not agree with me", etc, keep in mind what an American Baptist Minister once said, about a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk:

"Thich Nhat Hanh is a holy man, for he is humble and devout. He is a scholar of immense intellectual capacity. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity." (Martin Luther King Jr., in nominating Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize).

Abortion: what do we say or do AFTER an abortion...

My dear reader, as I give you my opinion (since you cannot listen to my voice or see my body language) I hope that you believe me that what I say here (as has always been my intention with every blog entry) comes from the heart. Last week, there was an exhibit here at Purdue. It was part of "The Genocide Project"...a traveling photo exhibit comparing abortion to various forms of genocide throughout history. (Click here for more details) My opinion on the agenda behind the exhibit, including if it is correct to make this analogy is for another day.

What I would like to share with you my dear reader is not about abortion being right or wrong, or the position of any side of the issue. Most of those arguments (for the most part) deal with a PRE-abortion scenario; why people SHOULD or SHOULD NOT/CAN or CANNOT have an abortion. However, it has been my experience that during these discussions something very important is being ignored or not being discussed with the same fervor: the POST-abortion scenario or more to the point, what happens to the woman that already had the abortion. I tried to have this conversation with a few people that were either supporting the exhibit or against it, or not sure how to react to it. The image that I believe was the most controversial (specially from the reaction of many people including a few friends of mine) was the one that contained three pictures/images: first there was the inverted swastika of the Nazis, with a (gold) star of David below it showing dead bodies from the Holocaust. (Note: A friend of mine with a Jewish background reminded me that last Thursday as I tell you about all this was the first day of Rosh HaShanah. He did not approve of this image being used during a time like this and he asked one of the people at the exhibit if they knew about this. Any argument that the person (or perhaps one of you) could have for justifying the use of the image from this point was irrelevant, since the person told him that he did not know about the holiday) The second picture was a black and white picture of the hanging of a human being, a dead African-American male; I wish we had the details of that picture. And the third picture showed an image of an abortion. This lead me to have (among the many chats I had) two separate conversations that to this day feel like they occurred just a few minutes ago. One was with a young woman and an older man and they were both coming from the "Pro-Life" point of view and supported the exhibit. Since originally I did not plan to write about this and of course I did not get their permission to use their names, I shall call the (y)oung (w)oman 'YM' and the (o)lder (m)an 'OM'. I share with you ONE of the many issues I talked to them about if abortion once again becomes illegal, but also, what happens to the women that regardless of Roe v.s Wade being overturned or not still have abortions legally or illegally. Do we use the analogy of "genocide?" I believe that does not give us the entire picture of what is going on here. Allow me my dear reader to explain.

With YM, I had a very productive conversation. From the start she showed a willingness to speak to me in a respectful manner and to listen to what I had to say. After speaking for a few minutes I pointed to the image I described above (it was right in front of us) and I asked her what was the ultimate goal of this exhibit and why she supported it. She said that it was important to let people know that abortion is another kind of genocide responsible for the loss of human lives and it was important to to do everything possible to stop it; this includes overturning 'Roe vs. Wade' and making abortion illegal. Then I said: "Your strategy points to stopping abortions. Is that correct?" She said "yes". Then I asked (as I pointed to the image): "Have you thought of the women that already had an abortion? How does that image and this exhibit help them?" I continued: "I personally know women that had abortions. Some of them have shared with me that when they see exhibits like these, including the images that speak of genocide, the Nazis, lynch mobs, etc, that they feel like they are being told that they ARE just like the Nazis." Then I asked: "Have you ever thought of that?" YM responded in a very honest and compassionate way: "I never thought of that". We continued to have a productive conversation and at the least I got her thinking that when it comes to this issue there are two scenarios: BEFORE, and AFTER the abortion.  When she also added that part of her drive to do this was her Christianity, I also shared that I was a Christian. When she heard this, she was even more interested in hearing what I had to say. In the end, I told her that whatever point of view and/or strategy she takes to support her "Pro-Life" stand (to be fully effective) as a Christian (or not) she most also consider what we say and do before and after the abortion; just because we have something to say about abortion it may be at best academic and at worst irrelevant to the post-abortion situation; if the abortion already occurred, calling it a "genocide" does not help in any way the woman that already had the abortion. In the end, it was a very good exchange.

With OM, I unfortunately must say that it was not a productive conversation. Every point I tried to present, was at best ignored, and at worst attacked in a very, very personal way that bordered on attacks on me as a person, not about what I was trying to discuss. At a point during the conversation he said "I am a Christian and it is my duty to defend life!" I said: "I am not doubting your motives. I am also a Christian and I am trying to understand where you are coming from since this is a very complex and difficult issue to talk about." When he heard this, his demeanor became even more aggressive, condescending, and hateful. When I asked the same question to OM as I did with YM regarding how the images help those that already had the abortion, his response was: "I can't be concerned with that!" I must admit my control almost cracked at that moment. But I was able to ask calmly "Why can't you be concerned? Why can't you be concerned for those that are suffering now and trying to heal from the emotional effects after the abortion? Is it not our Christian duty to be concerned and have compassion for a human being that is suffering right now from those deep difficult emotional effects?" He simply ignored this and said some things that I do not believe need to be repeated here. At the end of the "conversation" (at some point it became mostly an affair that was driving him to simply make attacks, including comparing certain groups of people to the Nazis, etc) I walked away angry, sad, disappointed; I asked myself 'why did I even try?'

Then I think back to YM and I know why I tried. She tried to understand what I was trying to say. It did not matter if we did not agree on many points during the conversation. She did three very important things and allowed us to agree on one point: 1) She was willing to listen, unlike OM. 2) She was willing to say "I never thought of that" (takes a lot of courage and wisdom to say that; as human beings we resist admitting that we don't know about something specially in a conversation with other people around) AND 3) She felt that she needed to be concerned (unlike OM) with how the images were being interpreted by those who already had an abortion; she was concerned with those already suffering right now.

So, what did I learn from this? For example, I hope that in the future they may have more images that speak to those women that already had the abortion and to think real hard of how the images that they are using right now shape another very important part of this issue; I hope they think of that and I don't believe that this would be a betrayal of their position. Also, I have always thought that it is a good idea for all of us (for example) to find out if there is a  "Crisis Center" in our local area. For those of us still in college, we probably already have access to something very similar. There are many people out there trained and ready to speak to those of us that are suffering, to those of us that all we need is someone to talk to us, without judgement but instead with compassion. I suggest that you add the phone number to your phone of a similar place. Not only will you be able to share it with someone that needs it; you may need the number for yourself one day.

In the meantime, for all you know there may be someone in your life that had an abortion but you are unaware of this; perhaps you my dear reader are one of them. If this is the case, are we so ready to judge? Are we so ready to talk about "Genocide"? Perhaps that person will need your shoulder to cry on. I believe that compassion quite simply is more powerful and more EFFECTIVE than judgment. I believe that people on both sides of the issue can agree.

If you my dear reader had an abortion, I do not judge you.
If you my dear reader had an abortion, there are many people in this world that do not judge you.
If you my dear reader had an abortion, many of us want to help you in any way we can; you only need to ask.

I do not know if YM spoke to OM about this. Perhaps she did and if so, there is a chance that she was able to reach him in a way I was unable to do. I understand that this could just be wishful thinking. But also, who knows...who knows...


A little humor to start the week

Monday is here. So my dear reader, I would like to wish you a good week. Also, allow me to share with you some humor to start the week; this being a blog about Theology, Philosophy, thoughts about life, and sometimes even Sci-Fi among other things, allow me to share with you some humor related to those topics that makes me smile. Hopefully it will do the same for you :)


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The "Dead Sea Scrolls" are now online!

History has showed us that technology can be a force of destruction, of suffering, a tool to enforce censorship, and to prevent the flow of ideas and information. But techonology can also be a force of creativity, of combatting suffering, and a tool to fight censorship and advance the flow of ideas and information.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are now online, as part of a venture between The Israel Museum in Jerusalem and Google. Written between the third and first centuries BCE, they include the oldest known biblical manuscripts in existence. In 68 BCE, they were hidden in 11 caves in the Judean desert on the shores of the Dead Sea to protect them from the approaching Roman armies. They weren’t discovered again until 1947, when a Bedouin shepherd threw a rock in a cave and realized something was inside. Since 1965, the scrolls have been on exhibit at the Shrine of the Book at The Israel Museum. Among other topics, the scrolls offer critical insights into life and religion in ancient Jerusalem, including the birth of Christianity.

At Purdue University, I had the privilege to study under Dr. Stuart Robertson (professor of Biblical Hebrew and Religious Studies) as part of his Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity and The Bible and its Early Interpreters courses. Dr. Robertson has worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls and he incorporates his experience working with them (along with his keen intellect, his humility, and sense of humor) into his classes and teaching. He really made me think of the importance of these manuscripts. Some of my favorite moments (and I believe of many of my classmates) were the discussions in class regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls, so now I am happy to share with you the link below that will allow anyone with internet access to look at these treasures:

Friday, September 23, 2011

The KJV: Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant Responses

If you are near Purdue today, hopefully you can attend this panel, as part of the Purdue Renaissance Comparative Prose Conference:

The KJV: Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant Responses 
1:00-2:30 p.m. Joanna Benskin, Moderator

○Sandor Goodhart, Purdue University 
“Jewish Hermeneutics in the European Middle Ages and Now”

○Angelica Duran, Purdue University
“English Bible Translators on the Spanish Inquisition’s Index of Prohibited Books”

○Stuart Robertson, Purdue University 
“ ‘Them’s Fightin’ Words’: The Threat of the KJV – Revised"

Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Doesn't matter, because I'm RIGHT!", and possible tattoos for me.

Si Fallor, Sum
(by St. Augustine)

Sapere Aude
(used by Immanuel Kant)
I am a man. And as a man, I sometimes do things that make me pound my chest and make me exclaim to the world: "I, am a man!" girlfriend simply rolls her eyes at this. But then, at the first sight of a needle (let's say the needle you see pricking your arm for a blood donation) my sense of 'manliness' is quickly replaced by the heart beat rate of a hummingbird along with the fear of a field mouse trying to avoid an girlfriend finds this amusing. So, my fear of needles is the primary reason why, for instance, I do not have a tattoo. But perhaps, you (or someone you know) have a tattoo. What made you get the tattoo? Does it have a meaning to you? Is it a matter of self-expression? In the many occasions I have thought of the hypothetical tatoo (I am not doing it) I would get for myself. And one conversation (among many conversations and debates) via the Facebook wall of a friend a couple of days ago made me think of this again; one tattoo I do not want to get is one that exclaims "I am RIGHT!"

When we are having chats, conversations and even debates with each other, perhaps for quite a while, we think that we made some good points, tried our best to remain open to the other person's point of view, and then (like I did a while ago during a conversation regarding a matter of religion that I am not going to cover this time) we get something similar to this: "I don't really need to be open to other ideas. Why should I?  I am right", specially when it comes to certain topics, can be quite frustrating. I start to wonder if the person is speaking to me as an equal, or to an intellectual inferior because I am not part of his/her club? Or, was my attempt to have a productive dialogue doomed to fail?

I always start thinking: what does "RIGHT" mean? Because, if I am 'right', does that mean that the 'Other' is "Wrong"? Can we both be "Right"? Can we both be "Wrong"? I believe that these are important questions. However, it has been my experience that many times, there may be something else at work here. Perhaps, in the end, it is not really about being 'right' about X, or being 'right' about Y. I believe is fear.

Fear of being wrong.

Or maybe, fear that if I am wrong, maybe I am not so different from the 'other' person, this 'other' that we do not like. Maybe the person that we do not like (because of politics, religion, culture, country, etc) stands in our minds for everything that we should not be. Then the person is no longer a person, but becomes to us a representation of those things that we are sure we don't want ourselves to be associated with, or those things that we should not do. I think all of us do think this way from time to time, at different degrees and levels, and sometimes without realizing it. And if this is true, then perhaps we have to allow for the "terrifying possibility" that: being a Democrat, or a Republican, or a Conservative, or a Liberal, or a Christian, or an Atheist, or a Philosopher, or any of the categories that we place ourselves and others into and that mean so much to who we are and to our identity are no assurance that we are right. This can be terrifying.

Of course, some of us will say, not so...

Some, of my Christian friends have told me that with the Risen Christ in their lives, how could they be wrong? They argue that they stand in the truth and the light of Christ who died in the Cross for our sins; they may stumble from time to time, but God will never abandon them completely in the life that is part of the acceptance of the loving gift of grace....unlike 'those Atheists' who deny the truth and do not see the light. We are 'right', 'they' are wrong. (And since I am a Christian, I am right...right?)
What does an Atheist know about love, and respect for others, if he/she hides behind reason and denies God?

Some, of my Atheist friends have told me that they without the yoke of religion and with their minds not clouded by the delusions of faith, how could they be wrong? They argue that they stand in the truth and the light of reason and the power of the scientific method; at the least they can say 'we don't know' to some questions without fear now, since it does not mean that in the future we shall never know the answers...unlike 'those Christians' who deny the truth and do not see the light.
We are 'right', 'they' are wrong. (And since I am not an Atheist, I am wrong...right?)
What does a Christian know about love, and respect for others, if he/she hides behind God and denies reason?

Those Christians...
Those Atheists...

If only those 'people' thought like we did...
If only those 'people' just chose to live like we do....

Perhaps, if you are a Democrat, you think that our goverment should or should not do certain things.
Perhaps, if you are a Republican, you think that our government should or should not do certain things.
Perhaps you ask what role can the "private sector" play in solving A or B, but you don't want it to play a role regarding C or D.

Those Democrats and their silly ideas...
Those Republicans and their silly ideas...
Or, maybe I am wrong my dear reader by using those terms. Should I rephrase? Here it goes:
Those Liberals and their silly ideas...
Those Conservatives and their silly ideas...

I am "right"...he/she is "wrong"...we are "right"...they are "wrong"....

The debate can go on, and on. Arguments, counterarguments, reasons, ideas, etc. But life goes on. And are we willing to be so sure of ourselves, that we ignore the lessons of history that show the endless suffering caused by people, or one single person, that did terrible things in the name of being 'right'? Because of the right God? Because of the right idea? Because of the right cause? And I ask, could we have avoided some of this suffering if instead, one group of people, or a single person instead said: these are my principles and I stand by them...but maybe, I could be wrong.

All this brings me back to my question of what hypothetical tattoo I should get. And I think it should just be words; part of this was inspired by an agnostic I met at a conference who had the following on his arm: Sapere Aude. This could be a possible tattoo. Immanuel Kant once said sapere aude-dare to know. 'Have courage to use your own understanding!'--that is the motto of enlightenment. (from his What is the Enlightenment?)

But then there, is the other tattoo I could get with the words: Si Fallor, Sum. St. Augustine (like Kant later) was a philosopher and thinker, in addition to being theologian; to be a theologian and a philosopher at the same time was common until the Enlightenment where there was a "split" between these two disciplines, and some think this was a good thing and some think this was not. I myself believe that "thinking about God" and the "love of wisdom" will always be connected, but that is just my opinion. (Note: If you are a Western Christian, including Roman Catholic Christians, Protestant Christians, Evangelical Christians, and even nondenominational Christians then for your doctrines were shaped and/or influenced by St. Augustine and I always tell my friends that to understand Western Christianity regardless of denomination or of lack of it, you must read him). As a Christian he once said si fallor, sum--if I am mistaken, I exist or if err, I exist. 

(I thought how either tattoo would look, until I came back to reality)

So, who is right? Kant? Augustine? How about Christians? How about Atheists? If some of them are 'right', then someone has to be 'wrong...right? I mean, they ALL can't be right...right? If there is only ONE truth, and if this one truth, was right in front of our eyes, would we see it?
Would we dare to accept it?
Would we dare to accept that we are mistaken, because before we were convinced that we were the rightful and worthy bearers of the truth? Because of who (or what) we are?

Next time we yell at someone or at our ideological opponents "we are right", perhaps it may be a good idea to stop, and wonder if the reason why we are saying it, is because we are in fact right.
Or is it our big inflated egos.
Or because we may be hearing the 'other', but we refuse to listen.
Because maybe, we could be wrong...

Is it about being right?
Or is it about being wise?

What would you prefer?

Well right now I 'know' that I do not want a tattoo. And why? Because I dare to accept that I am a big chicken. That to allow that needle anywhere close to me would be an 'error'....or like some say 'an epic fail'. It takes real courage to accept that I am a big chicken and that to get a tattoo is an error I can live without...but I could be wrong ;)

But hey, at least you and I are not crazy like those Christians, or those Atheists, or those Democrats, or those Republicans...

Turn out the light
Don't try to save me
You may be wrong

For all I know
You may be right
You may be wrong but you may be right...

Monday, September 19, 2011

On same sex marriage: my open letter as a Christian, to another Christian

While we distinguish between pious and godless, good and evil, noble and base, God loves real people without distinction.
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

The following is an open letter that I write to a fellow Christian that identified himself/herself on my blog as "Common Sense". Common Sense (CS) made some comments that made me think, pray, meditate, and reflect with what I what was presented by CS. And now it is the time that I should respond and I shall try to do so in the spirit of productive dialogue, of compassion, and of love for another fellow human being:

Dear Common Sense,

As I promised to you, the following is my response in connection with the comments you made regarding my blog entry The pain of my divorce, and how it shapes my position on "same-sex" marriage, and love.  Before I say anything allow me to tell you that I address you as a brother/sister in Christ, as a human being, and as someone that took the step to present his/her views about an issue that continues to polarize our society and our country. For my part I address you as a brother in Christ who is also a father, a student of scripture, of theology, of philosophy, and of life itself in all of its wonderful areas of art, of music, of poetry; always in the spirit not just of love and reason, but of wisdom as much as I can.

You first told me: God's peace to you also sir. Allow me to say to that the peace of the Lord may be with you always.

You then said: Living in sin, no matter for how long, is still living in sin. Just because it's been for 40 years makes it OK? 
"Living in sin" refers to a theological and religious expression based on an interpretation of Holy Scripture in the context of a relationship that you do not approve. My interpretation of Holy Scripture, along with my study of tradition in the church (it has evolved) and my sense of reason makes me disagree with you; the kind of relationships I had in mind and that I thought I explained (perhaps I was not clear with my words) are not only "OK" but are to be celebrated when we "see" the love and the commitment that people have to each other. I celebrate it. However, I would hate that our conversation would end here just because we disagree on this point.

The word "couple" as you use it doesn't apply and I reject it. 
Again, maybe I did not explain myself well. If I see two people in a loving committed relationship (for example a man and a woman in their 20's or a man and man in their 40's) then I believe I am seeing a couple. I have not seen any arguments that convince me of the opposite. I still however, always remain open to different opinions on this issue not just from religion, but also from others outside of religion, like the field of psychology, of cultural anthropology, etc. Let us continue my friend.

Is it also a civil right if that "couple" is a brother and a sister, a Father and his daughter, a 50 year old and a 5 year old, a woman and her cat? Sin has, and will always be, sin. Here, I have a few thoughts to offer that hopefully may clarify some points:
First, we have to ask what is a civil right? A very basic definition offered by the "Legal Information Institute" out of Cornell University (of course there are other groups that may offer a different take on this) is that a civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury. So far nothing here has to do with only with religion. Many churches do have their own systems and procedures to deal with the actions of their members, but then we are stepping out of the "civil" arena. Of course, I am happy to know that religious figures (like Martin Luther King in the U.S. and Desmond Tutu in South Africa) are driven by their faith to fight for civil rights. However, in the end, it is a court of law (not the Church) that cases are reviewed and decisions are made that affect every citizen, including both Christian and non-Christian citizens.

Second, I fail to see where I suggested or even hinted that when I was talking about couples in loving committed relationships, that I was talking about brothers and sisters or fathers and daughters. Perhaps your intention was to suggest that if we let people of the same sex be married, then we will have to do the same for "brothers and sisters". May I suggest that in the future, if you are going to use a "slippery slope" argument, it is always important to avoid misunderstandings and not fall into non sequitur; perhaps you have a reason for why legal recognition of "same sex marriage" could lead to legal recognition of "incest marriage", but none was provided. It is at best speculation (and theoretical scenarios) that so far I would need to see solid arguments to support it.

Third, when you added a 50 year old and a 5 year old, a woman and her cat?, again same issue. And here I will say: A) I was not talking about pedophilia (a mental disorder related to the intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors of an adult directed at a child) or sexual abuse of a child. B) I was not talking paraphilia, with its connection to a what the APA (American Psychiatry Association) calls to your context of, as in pedophilia, the sexual urges and behaviors from a person to a "non-human" subject like an animal.

In fact (and perhaps you already knew this) "homosexuality" is not a mental disorder according to both the American Psychology Association and the American Psychiatry Association since the 1970's, when they came to this conclusion – a position shared by all other major health and mental health organizations 
based on their own review of the science, when APA CEO and Medical Director James H. Scully Jr., M.D., wrote a letter on June 13, 2006 to the Department of Defense, addressed to Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs William Winkenwerder Jr., M.D:

I am writing on behalf of the American Psychiatric Association’s more than 36,000 psychiatric physician members and as a veteran of the United States Navy. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is a national medical specialty society whose members specialize in the diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and research of mental illnesses including substance use disorders. In addition, the APA publishes the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the latest version of which is known as the DSM-IV-TR, which is the standard reference book on mental disorders and their diagnosis.

I write to respectfully request that you update Department of Defense Instruction Number 1332.38, which addresses “Physical Disability Evaluation,” is dated November 14, 1996, and to my knowledge is still in effect. Enclosure 5 of the instruction, in section E5.1.2.9, refers to “Certain Mental Disorders including: …Homosexuality.” DSM-IV-TR does not include homosexuality as a mental disorder. Based on scientific and medical evidence the APA declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973 – a position shared by
all other major health and mental health organizations based on their own review of the science. I urge you to remove homosexuality from the “Physical Disability Evaluation” instruction.

(the link to this document is here)

Allow me to continue with my letter to you.

Sin has, and will always be, sin. Today's so-called standards do not change the truth. You are taking God out of marriage. There can be no true, honest debate when Our Lord is removed from marriage.My dear Common Sense, I can see that you are very concerned with sin. I respect that. For my part I understand that sin can result in internal struggles and outside of ourselves; this last part is the ONLY aspect of sin that could, could be considered in the legal arena. I do not say that for example my heart does not break when I hear of the terrible sin of one person beating another person because he thought that "guy is gay and he was looking at me funny". Nobody deserves to experience that. What I ask is what does the law do and can do. Can the law look into the heart of the person that is going to beat somebody up out of hatred? In the person's heart, sin has already been committed by the thought of hatred. But the law cannot act on that.

We could have many conversations (and pray together) on the meaning of sin or what is truth (from how it was viewed in Ancient Judaism, to the way Jesus Christ understood it, to the way ancient Christian thinkers like St. Augustine talked about it) and we could have a discussion about other similar issues; it is part of the many reasons of why I am in college, why I study scripture, why I study philosophy, why I talk to people from all walks of life, why I am called to ministry, etc. But here is the problem: the nature of sin is something that in itself is a religious discussion. And is not that, "I am taking God out of marriage" or that my faith is not important to me when it comes to how I relate to others, including love. I think God smiles when we are in loving and committed relationships and I think he smiles at the one I have now, just like I think the woman that I love smiles when she thinks of me :)  I am simply acknowledging what government can and it cannot do and also, for example, what was decided back in 1963 where both the required use of the Lord's Prayer and Bible reading as devotional opening exercises in public schools is unconstitutional: In relationship between man and religion, the state is firmly committed to a position of neutrality. (Justice Tom C. Clark, delivering the court's opinion) So, you may disagree with how I am seeing marriage and treating it as this secularized thing that I keep referring to that you believe is NOT marriage. I respect that. But the state stays out of those opinions and it has done so many times. When you also add that I shouldn't mis-apply terms to make my point, I recommend one possible solution: perhaps religious people like you and me when talking about marriage (like I did once in front of God, family and friends, in the Church) should remember to call it matrimony. Then, when I am talking about legal marriage, my words (for the concerned of using more specific words) are pointing out to the REALITY of legal marriage as such, how is it obtained, etc. Then if we talk about matrimony, done by a priest, a rabbi, pastor, etc, at a house of worship, such matrimony is ONLY legal because these individuals have been given authority by the STATE to ALSO perform the legal marriage at the same time.

So now, I turn to the last part of your comments, and truly the part that I struggled with the most: 
How does that feel? completely ignore God and his Word when it suits you? It must make a lot of things easier.
Leviticus 20:13

Only God can look into my heart and truly know how I feel. But I will try to tell you the best that I can: thinking about God, my theological positions based on my exegetical approach to Holy Scripture, the conclusions that I reach that make me ask questions, then ask new questions, that in turn make me pray again, reflect again, meditate again, etc is NEVER easy. It is a struggle.  

Also, why do you say that I am ignoring God? Why do you say that I ignore him when it suits me? It appears to me (and I could be wrong) that you are reaching these conclusions and judging me for them because I disagree with you. And maybe and I cannot be sure:
Because my understanding of God is different from yours?
Because my words point to a different theology from yours?
Because of what I may think of "separation of church and state"?
Because I am willing to look at what science can tell us about this issue?
Because of my understanding of love?
Because of my understanding of marriage in the way that the Church understands it?
Because of my understanding of marriage in the way that the state handles it?

No my dear Common Sense, it is never easy. Never. In many ways there will be times in our lives when we wrestle, struggle with God. If we don't, how do we grow? How do we properly use the spiritual gifts that each of us may have? 

And yet, it was that your last words were simply Leviticus 20:13 That to me was the most troubling part of your comments. Because you ended your comments like this:
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

It is here that I asked myself: Why?
First let us be clear: of the thousands and thousands of verses in Holy Scripture (both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) there are no more than 7 to 8 verses that could be related to anything that people call "homosexuality" or "homosexual behavior", that in turn has been used against members of the LGTBQ community. 7 to 8 verses. 7 to 8 verses...

And of those few verses, the one you chose to close your comments with was Lev 20:13.
First, I see an interesting theological scenario: a Christian choosing the Hebrew Bible instead of the verses from the New Testament. If a Christian wanted to use one book from the Bible to make a point on this (the letter of St Paul to the Romans has been used by Christians on this issue) then why not chose a Christian book instead of Jewish book. But no, you decided to chose the book of Leviticus. 

Second, this is the same book of Leviticus that has plenty, plenty of what has been called the "Holiness Code". So, if you quote me to me from Leviticus, what of the rest of it? 

If I was writing a blog entry on how children should behave and how they should treat their parents (and this would apply to me since I have a daughter) would it be wise my dear Common Sense to end my comments (as a Christian) this way:
Leviticus 20:9
Would someone that was reading my blog ask: wait, does he think that those who curse their parents should be put to death? And it would be a valid question, since I would be the one that used that verse from Holy Scripture to support and end my comments. I think my family and friends would be very worried for me, and for my little girl. And who could blame them!

Do you see what I mean? And what if some poor soul, with mental problems read my blog? And like me, he was a father, with a small child. Dear Lord, do you see where I am going with this?

We have a responsibility as Christians to be very careful with the way we talk, specially when it comes to Holy Scripture. And all I said was a theoretical scenario. What happens when these are no longer theoretical scenarios.

When does the way we talk about Holy Scripture, becomes a real scenario? It happens in our country when using Holy Scripture this way has resulted in death. Not life, but death. Remember, when I was addressing your opinion that what I talked about had nothing to do with civil rights? If you recall, in your first comment to my blog, your last words were: Since when is "sexual preference" a civil right? Please...(rolls eyes)

It is that kind of thinking and words like that, when taken to a horrible extreme, can be disastrous. And it is here that I should turn your attention to Uganda. In February 25, 2010, the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA) issued a statement to the Ugandan people and their leadership offering a science-based assessment of the proposed “Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009” and calling upon them to abandon or defeat it:

"It is good practice that legislation is based not on unsubstantiated opinion, but rather on recognized research findings," the statement notes. "The scientific fields devoted to mental health and well-being, including psychiatry, psychology and sociology, do not consider homosexual orientation to be a disorder, but rather view it as a naturally occurring variation of normal human sexuality." (full text here)

Right now, "homosexuality" is currently considered by most Ugandans to be criminal under current legislation. According to section 140 of the Ugandan penal code “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” is a crime. However, homosexuality is not explicitly mentioned in the Act, leaving room for judicial interpretation and that interpretation has been disastrous. But even this room for interpretation is not good enough for some.

David Bahati, a member of parliament in Uganda, wants close this "legislative gap." After meetings with U.S. backers and receiving encouragement from Uganda’s first lady herself, the Anti-homosexuality Bill, (AHB) otherwise known as “The Kill the Gays Bill,” was born. The AHB would push existing legislation much further by mandating harsh sentences such as death and life imprisonment. It also provides for the arrest of those who fail to report people whom they know to be homosexual. So, how would this be interpreted if it passes?

And unfortunately, this bill is the combination of two things:
1) Disregard for what science is telling us.
2) Fear and misconception fueled by angry rhetoric not just from officials in government, but Christian leaders.

Christian leaders my dear Common Sense! And not just one priest here, one pastor there, and one person somewhere else. No, from every level at the Church!

These priests, these pastors, these bishops, use verses like Leviticus 20:13 to justify the current environment of official harassment and systematic oppression by government institutions. The Church and the State, are both working together to do this. How horrible! That's what happens when our fears, our hatred and our prejudices go to the extreme, and because some have concluded "others" have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

How can any of this be part of the Gospels?
How can any of this be part of the truth and the life of Christ?
How could we even imagine that this could be part of the will of God?
And if you do not agree with my theological arguments, or with the data available from science, then allow me to ask you:
How can any of this be reasonable?

"Living in sin" gets a whole new meaning, if you have to "live" in prison or you are executed. And all with the tools of the state, supported by the Church in Uganda.

Do you know how many times I have been asked personally, when Christians do similar things around the world: "Why would I want to be part of this?" "Why would I want to be a Christian if this is what Christianity is all about?"
But not all is lost.

There are many groups in Uganda (both religious and non-religious) that are fighting against this.  

The work of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a retired Anglican Bishop from the Diocese of Western Uganda, has become increasingly vital over time, as he sees the intensifying persecution of gays and lesbians in his country. Taking the courageous step of ministering to LGBTQ people in his country, when the other Bishops and priests would not, he is calling on people here in America to “stop exporting hatred” as he continues to advocate for the global decriminalization of homosexuality. Unfortunately, some American Christians have been going to Uganda and have been part of fueling this tragedy. Christians, my dear Common Sense!

And for this, he was told by his fellow bishops to stop.  
He refused.
He was then excommunicated.
Because he felt a calling by Christ.
Because he was moved by the Holy Spirit to do something.
Because he saw the suffering of human beings due to prejudice and hate.
And he continues to take a stand.
And I take that stand with him.
 And many other Christians are taking that same stand.

My dear Common Sense, as you can hopefully see, this was not easy for me to say and to put into words.
And hopefully I have misunderstood some of the few words you wrote that made once again, made me reflect on this manner.

I say this with all my mind, with all my heart, and with all my passion:
No, to hatred on any shape and form.
No, to prejudice on any shape and form.
No to violence, specially against the weakest of us.

May you and me say yes to Christ, and to the kingdom he wants us to have not in another place, but in the life that is part of his will here as it is in heaven:
When he is hungry and we give him food. 
When he is thirsty we give him something to drink.
When we think he is a stranger and we welcome him.
When he is naked and we give him clothes.
When he is sick and we take care of him.
When he is in prison and we visit him.
And some of us are already doing all of this (his will here as it is in heaven) without knowing that we are doing this, to Christ.
And Christ smiles.

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

your brother in Christ,