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“Christmas Joy Without Piety”: The Most Humble Holy Day

I once told a favorite pastor of mine that I liked him because he wasn’t too pious.

As soon as the words were out there, I wondered if I should have just kept my mouth shut — I’m not good at that — since he might have found my compliment offensive. After all, many priests aspire to being pious, which can be defined as “devoutly religious” or “prayerful.” This would seem to be part of a cleric’s job description.

But this priest ratified my original intuition by saying thanks. He knew I had in mind the other definition of pious, “making a hypocritical display of virtue.” I am always skeptical of those who present themselves as very holy and righteous. Their lack of humility blinds them to the sins that should matter to us most — our own.

The other thing about my priest friend is that he is a very cheerful man and thus never went in for the deadly seriousness that some pious people use as a battering ram against fun, laughter and joy. If religious faith isn’t about joy, there’s no point to it.

You can make the case that Christmas is the religious holiday best suited for those who are skeptical of piety. If you put aside television ads for BMWs and the like, it’s the most humble holy day and the one closest to where people live. It’s astonishing to have a religious celebration of God as a helpless child. The idea of God being self-effacing enough to enter such a state is revolutionary. And, yes, babies are incapable of piety.

Or consider “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” my favorite Christmas song. It was discovered and perhaps partly written by John Wesley Work Jr., the son of a slave and the earliest African-American collector of spirituals and folk songs who spent much of his professional life at Fisk University. The song embodies a joyous demand, much as a movement makes demands on its loyalists. One lyric tells us: “Down in a lowly manger our humble Christ was born.” Three things about this: The manger is lowly, Jesus is humble, and (in most versions, at least) he’s “our” Christ. Power and affection flow both ways.

Christmas also inspires a certain theological humility, or it ought to. The birth story appears in only two of the four Gospels, and the tellings are different. Luke describes the shepherds, the angels and the manger while Matthew introduces the wise men, who go to a home, not a manger.

That popular devotion merges the two narratives together should not offend us. It’s important to learn from what the theologian Harvey Cox calls “people’s religion” and to examine not only “what is written, preached or taught,” but also “the actual impact of a religious idea on people.” Cox is hard on his fellow liberals who look down condescendingly upon the religious faith of those whose side they usually take in social struggles. “Those who support justice for the poor cannot spit on their devotions,” he wrote acidly in his book “The Seduction of the Spirit.”

In fact, more than any other religious holiday, the widespread celebration of Christmas arose from popular demand. The holiday has been highly controversial within Christianity and celebrating it was once illegal in New England. The Puritans had some decent arguments that the day was a form of idolatry and paganism that could be traced back to ancient Rome and had little scriptural support. The pious Puritans also didn’t much like all the raucous revelry its celebration entailed. It was not until 1870 that President Ulysses Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday.

Might it quell the kerfuffle around the “Christmas wars” if we acknowledged that the original war on Christmas was waged by very devout Christians? Of course not, because the controversy is about politics and television ratings, not religion.

Still, I cannot go with those who simply see Christmas as a winter solstice celebration under another name. There is a radical intuition about God in that manger (even if it’s only in one Gospel). And nearly every Christmas story comes back to liberation and salvation, compassion and the quest for second chances. That’s true of Dickens’ tale about Ebenezer Scrooge, it’s true of It’s a Wonderful Life, and it’s true of the lyrics of “Good King Wenceslas” (“Ye who will now bless the poor/Shall yourselves find blessing”).

And if this sounds a little pious, please forgive me. After all, it’s Christmas.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, December 24, 2014

December 25, 2014 Posted by | Christianity, Christmas, Religion | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Greeting The New Year”: A Time Of Lightness And Optimism In A World Full Of Darkness

This is the season of lists: roundups and recaps, forecasts and resolutions.

What was the biggest story of the year? Snowden.

The best movie? “12 Years a Slave.”

The splashiest pop culture moment? Twerk, Miley!

Will the health care rollout roll over the president’s second-term agenda? Who’ll win in 2016? Who are the people to watch? Can Pope Francis top his 2013 cool points?

We resolve to go back to the gym and lose a few pounds, to pay off that credit card debt and up our savings, and to tell that overbearing boss to “chill out!”

I must say that as corny as it all is, I’m always entertained by it. In fact, “entertained” may be too mild a word. I’m enthralled by it, mostly because I connect with the more profound undercurrent of the moment: the idea of marking endings and beginnings, the ideas of commemoration and anticipation.

For that reason, the new year has always been my favorite time of the year.

When I was growing up, we had our own rural, Southern ways to mark it. Some folks spent New Year’s Eve at watch night church services, singing and praying and testifying. My brothers and I spent ours in front of the television waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square. Then, as the clock struck midnight and folks on television kissed and cheered and celebrated in a blizzard of confetti, we stepped outside to listen as old men blasted shotguns into the perfect darkness of the Louisiana night sky. Finally, we ate black-eyed peas (for good luck) and cooked greens (for good fortune). As the saying went, “Eat poor on New Year’s, and eat fat the rest of the year.” Things didn’t always work out that way, but hope was always heavy in the bowls of those old spoons.

To me, New Year’s was always a time of lightness and optimism in a world full of darkness. Anything could be, no matter what had been.

I never really made resolutions when I was young. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve felt that resolutions are necessary, as much for the forced articulation of goals as for the setting of them.

So this year, these are my resolutions:

1. To stop treating politicians like sports stars, political parties like teams and our national debate like sport.

Politics is not a game. There are real lives hanging in the balance of the decisions made — or not made — by those in power. Often, those with the most to lose as a result of a poor policy move are the most vulnerable and most marginalized. Those folks need a voice, and I will endeavor to be that voice.

2. To force politicians to remember, with as much force and fervor as my pen can muster, that they are servants, not rulers.

A democracy is a government by the people, for the people. Politicians too often bend in the presence of power. They believe that it is they who possess power, rather than the people who elected them. And power and money are kissing cousins; you will rarely find one not cozied up to the other. Money is corruptive, and power addictive. Together they work against the greater good. That cannot stand.

3. To remember that justice is a natural aching of human morality.

In the core of most people is an overwhelming desire to see others treated fairly and dealt with honestly. That is not a party-line impulse but a universal one. I will do my best to highlight that basic quality. For instance, I believe that there will come a time when we will all look back at the brouhaha over same-sex marriage in disbelief and disgrace, and ask: Why was that even a debate?

4. To focus more fully on the power and beauty of the human spirit.

Regardless of their politics, the vast majority of the people I meet, when they can speak and listen and act of their own accord and not in concert with a group, are good, decent and caring people. Most work hard or want to. They love their families and like their neighbors. They will give until it hurts. They fall down, but they bounce back. They are just real people, struggling to get a bit and get by, and hoping to share a laugh and a hug with an honest heart or two along the way. That is no small observation and not one of little consequence. I believe that I can write more about those traits.

Those are my resolutions, ones I will strive to keep, ones I’ll reflect on even if I fall short. What are yours?

Happy New Year.

By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 27, 2013

December 30, 2013 Posted by | Democracy, New Years | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Legal System Doesn’t Always Deliver Justice”: George Zimmerman Found Not Guilty, But Florida Sure Is

It feels wrong, this verdict of not guilty for George Zimmerman. It feels wrong to say that Zimmerman is guilty of no crime. If he hadn’t approached 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, if he hadn’t pulled his gun, Martin would be alive.

But that doesn’t mean Zimmerman was guilty of murder, not in the state of Florida. It doesn’t even mean he was guilty of manslaughter, though that was the middle ground I hoped the jury would find its way toward. (And in fact, the jurors asked for a clarification on the manslaughter charge during its 16½ hours of deliberation.) Here’s the problem: To convict Zimmerman of murder, the six women of the jury had to find that he killed Martin out of ill will, hatred, or spite, or with a depraved mind. The law didn’t account Zimmerman’s fear or feeling of being physically threatened.

But the physical evidence suggested that in the heat of the moment, Zimmerman could have felt both of those things. A forensics expert testified that from the angle of his wounds, it appeared that Martin was on top of Zimmerman when he was shot. The neighbor who came closest to being an eyewitness—there were none—said it looked to him like he saw a fight in which the person on top, straddling the person below, was wearing a red or a light-colored shirt. That, too, suggested Martin was on top. Zimmerman did have injuries: lacerations to the back of his head from the pavement and a swollen bloody nose.

It’s true that there was also evidence on the other side: None of Zimmerman’s DNA was found under Martin’s fingernails. None of Martin’s DNA was found on the gun. These facts contradict key aspects of the account Zimmerman gave police. Why believe him about the rest of his account? And even if you do give him the benefit of that doubt, why did Zimmerman feel so very threatened? Why did he pull his gun and shoot to kill?

I don’t know. I don’t think we ever will. Zimmerman didn’t testify; he was never cross-examined. “Zimmerman the man may remain as much an enigma as the events of the night in question,” Jelani Cobb wrote in the New Yorker earlier this week. And all of this focus on the moment of the shooting telescopes this story in a way that feels misleading. It leaves out Zimmerman’s history of calling the cops on black people and his decision that night to follow Martin. It leaves out his excruciatingly terrible, patently racist judgment.

But that doesn’t mean the jury’s verdict was racist. In Florida, a person “who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked” has no duty to retreat. He or she has the right to “meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself.” The jury could have faulted Zimmerman for starting the altercation with Martin and still believed him not guilty of murder, or even of manslaughter, which in Florida is a killing that has no legal justification. If the jury believed that once the physical fight began, Zimmerman reasonably feared he would suffer a grave bodily injury, then he gets off for self-defense.

Maybe that is the wrong rule. Maybe people like George Zimmerman should be held responsible for provoking the fight that they then fear they’ll lose. And maybe cuts to the back of the head and a bloody nose aren’t enough to show reasonable fear of grave bodily harm. After all, as Adam Weinstein points out, the lesson right now for Floridians is this: “in any altercation, however minor, the easiest way to avoid criminal liability is to kill the counterparty.” But you can see the box the jurors might have felt they were in. Even if they didn’t like George Zimmerman—even if they believed only part of what he told the police—they didn’t have a charge under Florida law that was a clear fit for what he did that night.

This is what Slate’s Justin Peters meant when he reminded us earlier this week that the state has to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. “That hasn’t happened,” he wrote. “And if the prosecution can’t prove its case, then Zimmerman should walk.” This is our legal system. It doesn’t always deliver justice, and this case surely points to several ways in which Florida’s version of law and police work should change. It may demonstrate that Zimmerman should face federal civil rights charges.

But what matters most is that Zimmerman was charged with Martin’s killing, even if he wasn’t convicted. The state was late to indict him, yes, and acted only after a sorry spell of botched police work that may have affected the evidence presented at trial. But Florida did try to hold George Zimmerman liable for Trayvon Martin’s death. Martin’s family and all his supporters get most of the credit. His father, Tracy Martin, wrote on Twitter tonight, “God blessed Me & Sybrina with Tray and even in his death I know my baby proud of the FIGHT we along with all of you put up for him GOD BLESS.” Yes, they did fight, and their battle meant something—meant a great deal—to so many parents of black boys in hoodies, and to the rest of the country, too. Tracy Martin is right to stress that fight for justice at this sorrowful, painful moment. No ill-conceived law, and no verdict, can take that away.

 

By: Emily Bazelon, Slate, July 14, 2013

July 14, 2013 Posted by | Zimmerman Trial | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lynch Law Lives On Stage And In Troy Davis Execution

When  you visit Atlanta, ask about the death of Troy Davis, an execution by  lethal injection as miles of people across land and sea kept a vigil until it  came to pass at 11:08 p.m. last Wednesday evening.

Nice  to know law and order—or do I mean lynch law and  order?—prevails in the  stubborn deep South, whatever the world thinks.  Davis was put to death despite  a slew of supporters, including  dignitaries and law enforcement experts, who  found shades of reasonable  doubt in his murder case.

In  a stroke of amazing timing and relevance, Georgia’s capital city is the setting  of a tragical musical, Parade,  based on a true story of a 1915 lynching.  I just saw the brilliant  production on opening night at Ford’s Theatre on 10th Street here in Washington—the very  spot where Abraham Lincoln was shot at close  range, by someone he never  saw coming in the dark. A vengeful son of the South,  an actor, played a  Shakespearean scene for all he was worth—MacBeth, Lincoln’s favorite.

On  that tragic April night, Lincoln was heartily enjoying a comedy. Similarly, all  seems bright at first in this Ford’s Theatre play. Parade’s exuberant  ensemble  charms with spring songs, costumes, and revelry as the curtain  opens on  Atlanta’s celebration of “Confederate Memorial Day” in April  1913.  But the holiday itself reveals the defiance of Atlanta’s white  society, keeping  the anti-Yankee candles burning.

The  theatre director, Paul R. Tetreault, expertly captures the  tableau of a wounded  world that tells itself, over and over, that it  was never vanquished, despite  the festering sore of the Recent  Unpleasantness.

An  old guard culture, hostile to outsiders, was the downfall for a  Jewish New  Yorker in his early 30s, Leo Frank, who made a good living  as a factory superintendent.  He was accused and arrested of a gruesome  child murder. Playwright Alfred Uhry,  author of Driving Miss Daisy, wrote  the book for the Broadway play,  launched onstage in 1998. Uhry has  family ties to the story, in true Southern  storytelling style. There  are no secrets down there, except the ones they  choose to tell years  later.

Parade is no picnic as it wends its way through the Southern   justice system on a murder case that became a national cause, like the  Davis  case. Frank was found guilty of fatally strangling a girl worker  in his pencil  factory. When he was sentenced to hang, there was an  outcry from quarters who  felt a virulent strain of anti-Yankee  anti-Semitism played a part in the  verdict.

The  governor of Georgia a century ago, John Slaton, went against the  will of  Atlanta’s townspeople. His character, portrayed by Stephen F.  Schmidt, exhibits  courage and pathos, clear about the consequences of  bucking the establishment. Governor  Slaton reviews the conflicting  evidence in Frank’s case and grants him  clemency: life imprisonment  instead of death by the state’s hand. That is  precisely what Georgia  state officials refused to do for Troy Davis.

Lead  actor Euan Morton telegraphs Frank’s desperate plight with  impressive  restraint. Jenny Fellner, the actress who plays his wife  Lucille, sparkles  onstage with her singing voice and her journey to  loving her husband, locked up  and alone, more than she ever did.

Relentlessly,  the end closes in. A well-connected mob of white men  break into the jail where  Frank is held, to take him for a long night  ride. It was a well-planned thing.  In the show as in life, the hooded  men string Frank up—as he prays in Hebrew—and hang him, with picture  postcards to show for it all. Very nice.

So  if you get to Marietta, ask them about the tree where Frank was  hanged. Yes,  Georgia has lots of colorful local history, and the fun  part is trying to see  where the past ends and the present begins. Both  the Davis and Frank  convictions were reviewed by the U.S. Supreme  Court, which denied relief or  mercy in both cases. Oliver Wendell  Holmes, the famous justice, scolded Georgia  for what he called a form  of “lynch law” in Frank’s trial. But he was  a damn Yankee in the  minority.

Tetreault  and others chose this timely tale to inaugurate The Lincoln Legacy Project,  an initiative to spark a national dialogue on overcoming violence based on hate  or bigotry. Parade’s history  lesson could not be more sobering. Early in  the 20th century,  lynchings of black men were at an all-time high in the  Southern states  (including Maryland.)  This was a spur to the founding of  the National  Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.  Ari  Roth of Theater J, a partner in co-producing the play, notes Frank met  the  same fate as so many black men at the hands of mobs. Parade, Roth  said,  is a “galvanizing reminder of what can go wrong in our country  when hate  speech and raging angers aren’t tempered and set to rest.”

Amen.  And let the conversation begin.

By: Jamie Stiehm, U. S. News and World Report, September 26, 2011

September 27, 2011 Posted by | Bigotry, Human Rights, Justice, Politics, Racism, Right Wing, States | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Justice Denied”: David Prosser ‘Chokehold’ Case Produces No Charges In Wisconsin

There will be no criminal charges against the Wisconsin Supreme Court justice accused of choking a colleague in chambers, the special prosecutor investigating the case told The Associated Press Thursday.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley had alleged that Justice David Prosser put her in a “chokehold” during an argument in chambers in June over the passage of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget bill. Prosser’s defenders said Bradley rushed at him with her fists raised and he put up his hands in self-defense.

With all but one of the state high court justices present for the altercation, and offering widely different stories of what happened, Sauk County District Attorney Patricia Barrett, who was given the case by local prosecutors and law enforcement who recused themselves, decided not to pursue charges, she told the AP.

“The totality of the facts and the circumstances and all of the evidence that I reviewed did not support my filing criminal charges,” Barrett said.

Barrett did not disclose how she came to that decision, but said witnesses had different versions of what happened. She didn’t elaborate.

Prosser, a conservative justice on the officially nonpartisan court, did not seek reconciliation with Bradley in a statement he issued after Barrett’s announcement.

“Justice Ann Walsh Bradley made the decision to sensationalize an incident that occurred at the Supreme Court,” Prosser said. “I was confident the truth would come out and it did. I am gratified that the prosecutor found these scurrilous charges were without merit. I have always maintained that once the facts of this incident were examined, I would be cleared. I look forward to the details becoming public record.”

Bradley, a liberal justice, released a statement defending her decision to make the skirmish public.

“My focus from the outset has not been one of criminal prosecution, but rather addressing workplace safety,” she said. “I contacted law enforcement the very night the incident happened but did not request criminal prosecution. Rather, I sought law enforcement’s assistance to try to have the entire court address informally this workplace safety issue that has progressed over the years. To that end, chief of (Capitol Police Charles) Tubbs promptly met with the entire court, but the efforts to address workplace safety concerns were rebuffed. Law enforcement then referred the matter for a formal investigation and I cooperated fully with the investigation.”

Prosser was reelected to a 10-year term in a contentious election in April. Bradley’s term is up in 2015.

By: Reid J. Epstein, Politico, August 25, 2011

August 26, 2011 Posted by | Conservatives, Democracy, Democrats, Elections, GOP, Gov Scott Walker, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing, States, Teaparty, Unions, Wisconsin, Wisconsin Republicans | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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