"That which does no earthly good cannot be heavenly minded." R. Rivera

Sunday, July 24, 2011

"...all things visible and invisible"

The last few days I have had a heavy heart due to the low morale and political division in the USA right now. To this was added the self-confessed mass murder committed in Norway by the right-wing militant anti-multiculturalist Anders Behring Breivik. But rather than focus on the negative and the stupid, I decided to focus on something positive.
...all things visible and invisible... 

I grew up in a Catholic home. Every Wednesday, after going to public school, I went to catechism class at my local parish where I learned the stories of the Old Testament, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the inspiring stories of the saints of the church from the first disciples down to modern times. I learned the great creeds of the church, particularly the Nicene Creed, so named because it was adopted by the first ecumenical council that was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 CE and held in the city of Nicaea in what is now modern Turkey.

Of all the creeds, the Nicene Creed is the most widely used by churches both for worship and instruction in the central beliefs of Christianity. In the first sentence of the creed, the Christian declares belief in Almighty God who is the creator of "heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible." I learned of course that this meant that God created all there is on both the physical and spiritual plane, and that as a human being living on earth, I was part of the "visible" creation of God. But when I was growing up, I did not feel very visible.

As a Latino person of color from a working class family, I was utterly invisible in the public school curriculum. Most teachers had zero cultural competency in Latino communities and were unapologetic about it. In fact, schools played a significant role in undermining Latino culture, even telling parents not to speak to their children in Spanish: just one of the many ways America welcomed its non-anglo "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

There were no role models who looked like me in America's political culture, the world of fame, fortune, film and fashion. Even the countless billboard signs that propagandized Americans from one end of the country to the other were completely devoid of anything resembling me or my culture. In fact, the only person who looked like me who was well known when I was growing up, was the Lone Ranger's Indian sidekick, Tonto, a name which means "Dummy" in Spanish. You can be sure we wondered if that name choice was deliberate.

I am grateful to the Catholic Church for contributing to that part of my education concerned with soulcraft, which was largely absent in public school and a wider American culture rooted in values that are first and foremost money-oriented. Whatever shortcomings the church as a whole can be blamed for, my local parish at least was the only community in American society (besides my family, relatives and close friends) where I did not feel invisible.

This was reinforced several years after high school, while attending a very peculiar Protestant church. It was quite a diverse congregation (as I said, unusual) where Hispanics, whites, some Asians and blacks all worshiped together, and I never remember once the Hispanic pastor having to give a sermon to deal with problems of prejudice among us. It was a little taste of multicultural heaven on earth (Revelation 7:9-10); a  heaven that Anders Breivik would no doubt loathe intensely.

It was a wonderful time (not the least of which because I met my future wife there), and I always say that it is because of visible, proven human love, that I came to believe the otherwise unprovable message that I am unreservedly loved by an invisible God.

Unprejudiced love, love without borders, the kind of love depicted on a cross almost 2000 years ago, cured invisibility and its causes. Despite all attempts by the Anders Breivik's of the world, I am visible still.

"...and the Light shone in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it." (John 1:5)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Wisdom Does Not Have To Be A Lamp Post

By Ruben Rivera© 16 July 2011
For Elisha

As a child, school was for me what Winston Churchill once called the Soviet Union: "...a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." No, I can do better than that. My experience in public school could be summarized by the word "awesome," in the sense that the Greek philosophers meant "awesome": namely, it displayed what humans could be wonderful at as well as terrifying.

Public school is embedded in an American culture of consumer-oriented youth and a winner-take-all economy that are in many ways hostile to actually getting an education, certainly education as soulcraft, as I have written elsewhere. When I was growing up, many of us kids -- white, Latino, Asian, black --  got trapped in a youth culture that did not see school primarily as an enterprise of education. In this sense, youth in school then were not that different from youth in school today.

To me and most kids I hung around with, school was a social thing. Classes, lessons, bells, books and homework were the price of admission we had to pay, the motions we had to go through, the means to an end: to be with our friends, to play in some form or another.

However, after high school, I realized I had spent far too much of my time doing things -- though "cool" at the time -- that had nothing to do with making me wise, nothing to do with preparing me for where life was going to take me: what it would mean to be a husband, adjusting to an America becoming increasingly hostile to common working people, grinding out what it takes to establish a career and then being forced to do it all over again because market trends demanded it, functioning well outside of my in-group or comfortable clique, learning to resolve differences -- political, racial, gender, religious, etc -- constructively. Back in school, differences were dealt with mano-a-mano; in other words, not at all, stupidly. So it's no surprise that our political parties and their leaders don't know how to overcome their differences either. I read about their dysfunction and cliquish stubbornness every day, or see it on TV and think: "Yep, that's how we behaved in high school."

I realize that one of the most important things we should have learned somewhere between the time we emerged from the womb and the time we start fending for ourselves in the great American experiment -- this Garden of Eden with claws -- is wisdom.

Speaking for myself, I'm sure I had some opportunity to learn wisdom from a few sources here and there: from adults who did more than just tell us what to do, but showed us how to do it; from teachers who dared to engage in education as soulcraft and model it too. But those relatively few examples were like prophetic whispers lost in the howling storm called culture.

For unfortunately, ours was and still is a culture where monied interests rule everything, where Americans are bred to find the reason for their existence in consumption, where schools try to fix every problem by placing more responsibility on the shoulders of teachers instead of courageously addressing our cultural problems, and where youth are too absorbed in what matters to youth to notice any of this.

Ours is a culture where wisdom is equated with age and age is a negative and youth is worshiped -- where many of the young and relatively inexperienced think that no one older than a high school senior can possibly know anything worth knowing. Which reminds me of the bumper sticker that says: "Hire a teenager now, while they still know everything."

Wisdom: honest and critical thinking, maturity, perspective, prudence, selflessness, interdependence, community good. Shouldn't public schools nurture these qualities of wisdom in us, and not just individualism, competition, money-driven values, or the cultural trends and merchandizing of "cool"? Because soon the current generation of children will be the next generation of politicians and CEOs and educators and parents. And because growing old in America does not by default mean growing wise.

In the Jim Carrey movie "Bruce Almighty," Bruce finds his life dreams frustrated. He is driving at night in the rain and finally as a last resort calls out to God.

Bruce: Okay, God. You want me to talk to you? Then talk back. Tell me what's going on? What should I do? Give me a sign.

After passing obliviously numerous road signs and other signals from God, Bruce finally grabs some prayer beads on his rear view mirror and prays not just for a sign but a full blown miracle. His car hits a bump and the beads fall to the floor. In the distracted search for them, his car slams into a lamp post. He emerges from the wreck, flings the beads into the roadside lake, and screams in maniacal fury at the heavens.

Bruce: Okay, if that's the way you want it. The gloves are off, pal! Let me see a little wrath! Smite me oh mighty smiter. What, no pestilence, no boils? Come on, you got me on the ropes. Don't you want to finish me off?! You're the one who should be fired! The only one around here not doing his job is YOU! What are we, you're little pet project? A hobby you tinker with now and again? Answer me. ANSWER ME!!!

This movie, which may not be suitable for children, nevertheless has a lesson for all ages. The signs of wisdom, direction and perspective may well be all around us. God (or, if you are not religions, "wisdom") may be speaking, through parents, through friends, through difficulties, through common sense which needs no miracle, through something as unlikely as a comedy film, repeatedly, so often that we're jaded or unimpressed with the answers: since the answers usually demand ongoing patience and hard work on our part. As a result, we're simply not attentive to the signs, or worse, we consciously ignore them. We're too young or too old, too wired or too tired, too doubtful or too sure of ourselves. If our schools our culture or public leaders are unable or unwilling to be the sign posts on the road to wisdom, we must look elsewhere.

However, at some point we need to realize that the really important question is not, "Where are the signs on my road to wisdom?" But rather, "Will I allow the signs that are there help me to be a wise driver." We could wait until culturally-bred inattentive or even reckless driving habits stop our speeding lives and wraps it around a lamp post, and then get mad at God or the world about it.

But wisdom does not have to be a lamp post.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Faith and the 4th that's unfinshed.

 Norman Rockwell

As July the 4th approaches, I was meditating on its significance. There is much debate on the role of Christianity in the American Revolution. Some downplay or ignore Christianity's role, or see it as negative altogether (part of the reason we needed a revolution in the first place).
  • They point out for example that founding fathers like Washington, Jefferson and others were not Christians but Deists who, once the bullets stopped flying, promptly codified their Enlightenment convictions by establishing the separation of church and state. This observation is correct. 
  • They point out that some Christians supported loyalty to Britain, while other Christians (pacifists like Quakers and Mennonites) supported no warfare at all. This too is correct.
Others, however, argue that Christians contributed much to the revolution.
  • They point out that churches were in the vanguard of developing ideals that we associate with American values of liberty: that the individual conscience (not rulers or states) is the final authority on moral matters; that membership in a church is not a birthright, nor decreed by a government, but is a voluntary choice of the redeemed; that church governments and their representatives are the product of the will of the people. These and other "democratic" developments in the churches were extended to the state.
  • They point out the effect of the First Great Awakening (c.1735-c.1755) on the heirs of the Puritan "City on a Hill": that it was more than just a massive, years-long revival; it instilled the conviction among the revived colonials that Christ was establishing his kingdom in America, and that oppressive British rule was in the way. 
  • They point out that pulpits throughout the colonies, which at the time functioned as a chief source for information and learning, were among the greatest rallying points for independence and the call to arms.
  • They point out that the Calvinist emphasis on the depravity of humankind would be reflected in the future U.S. government with its system of checks and balances and the separation of powers as means to curb innate human selfishness, greed, and tendency to corruption.
  • They point out that numerous speeches and writings which are among the most famous in American revolutionary history were thoroughly imbued with religious rhetoric, or were sermons direct from the pulpit, that painted rebellion against Britain as a holy war.
“Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace, peace’ [Jeremiah 6:14] but there is no peace. The war is actually begun....Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”  Patrick Henry before the House of Burgesses, St. John's Church, Richmond, Virginia, March 23, 1775.
Rightly do we celebrate the 4th of July for such a representative freedom as the world had never known that was purchased at the cost of so much blood.

But, make no mistake about it, the liberty won was extremely limited. It did not end slavery (which actually worsened after the revolution). It did not include women. It did not include Native Americans. Even poor white men where often little better off than indentured servants.

It is sad to say so, but the American Revolution established "elite liberty," and failed monumentally in achieving equality. The same thing happened in Latin America's revolution. "The elite," said the great revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, "want liberty, but only for themselves." And we are still struggling for an America that benefits "the least of these" (in the words of Jesus), not just men, or light-skinned people, or the rich.

Before and since the Revolution, many have challenged America's glaring inconsistency in the application of liberty. In a 1773 letter to Quaker Robert Pleasants, the great Patrick Henry himself admitted his own inconsistency: he could not free his slaves from "the general inconvenience of living without them."

Translation? Give me liberty or give me death, but I can't afford to free my slaves.

Henry said he could not justify his conduct and lamented lack of conformity to his belief that slavery was "evil." His hope was that his generation would transmit Christian virtues and "an abhorrence for slavery" to their children, and if they could not abolish slavery then at least they should "treat the unhappy victims [slaves] with lenity [not harshly]" and that this was "the furthest advance we can make toward justice."

If you love America and if you are a Christian, I want you to think carefully and honestly about the inconsistencies in the application of equality and liberty you see around you, or perhaps committed by you from "the general inconvenience of living without" such inconsistencies. Is it inconvenient to treat others as you want to be treated? Is it inconvenient for the ancestors of the old immigrants to see any hypocrisy in their nativism against new immigrants, even the undocumented ones? For what "pioneers" and "progress" were to Europeans was theft and conquest to the Indians. Is it inconvenient to resist financial practices or business ventures that earn you wealth but diminish the earning power and quality of life of working people? Is it inconvenient to pay women the same as men for the same job.

The revolutionary fathers admitted that the American experiment had gross inconsistencies of EVIL (their word). And this was their answer: (1) Let's hope our children will love liberty so much that they'll sacrifice their conveniences so others can enjoy it; (2) or let's just try to soften the evil by being nice to our inferiors.

Maybe it's not the rhetoric of liberty but living the creed, "do to others as we would have done to ourselves" that makes it possible for there to truly be "liberty and justice for all."

If we celebrate the 4th of July without taking practical steps to ensure that freedom from oppression and exploitation (racial, gender, economic, corporate, etc) is not just something we want for ourselves and our loved ones, but for everyone, then we will be just another in a long line of generations that let the 4th go by unfinished.