Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Monkey with the Truth

      A long time ago in a University far away a Doctor tried to quantify the nature of Love. He submitted a design for an experiment and defended it against many challengers. Finally victorious, he began his life’s work. He extracted two groups of baby monkeys from their mothers’ cages, and placed them into new cages with two statues the size of dolls. In the first group, a terrycloth doll provided no food, while a plain wire doll had a nipple fixed to a baby bottle containing milk. In the control group, the terrycloth doll gave milk, and the wire doll did not.
It was found that the young monkeys clung to the terrycloth monkey dolls whether or not they provided them with food, and that the young monkeys approached the wire doll only when necessary to obtain milk. With this result the Doctor concluded that monkeys could be fooled about Love, but not about milk.
We are reminded of a similarly heartless process wherein the County Homeless Agency informed all the police and emergency room workers that the actual count of emergency shelter beds, one measure of our collective love for the poor and previously given as 1512, was actually 889, and now about 500.
As result of these clarifications, the police continued their cities’ policies of arresting the homeless for “camping.” The staff at the county’s emergency rooms kept placing the homeless in taxis and shipping them to the corner of Third and Garfield near the Salvation Army in Santa Ana.
Even the voters seemed satisfied with the County’s fuzzy math: It made it a good deal easier to retain heartless Supervisors who “preserved” the tax dollars previous administrations had wasted on people who just “didn’t want to work.” That satisfaction peaked last year, even though by then it had become Official that half of the homeless couldn’t work, not because they lacked documents, but because they weren’t old enough.
After some measurements of our own we became concerned that the truth counted for so little a part of that particular love the County shows to the poor. We became so concerned that we refused to help the County help the poor unless they told us the truth. We insisted that the poor be given a letter stating why the County government would not assist them, and then we further insisted on meeting the poor children and parents the County would not help in the Board’s waiting area.
One week after we began to refuse, the County agreed to tell the Police and the ER staff the truth: The only beds available right away, which is what most of us think of as an emergency bed, are those few the Salvation Army offers at 2:30PM each day, perhaps eight total. Eight beds for 30,000 homeless people.
There are no such beds at all for families with more than two children, or with boys over the age of ten, or for the families of single fathers, ever. A while back, two of the people the County refused to help were a pregnant woman sent here from the jail. Her baby was too far along to enroll her in any of the pregnancy programs, and her pregnancy was too risky to keep her in jail, so they sent her to us. We got her into a hospital where an ultrasound suggested that the time was right for a Caesarian, even though the mother insisted her time had not yet come. When the baby was taken from her prematurely, it was rushed to a nearby hospital where they had a neonatal care unit. The mother was given a breast-pump and instructions not to walk or take the bus because of her stitches. She was also told that the milk for the baby was her problem.
As a Catholic convert who grew up during the superheated 70’s, I was glad I embraced the Church’s teaching about chastity after I was safely and happily married. But in a pamphlet from 1942 called “Chastity and Youth” I read a statement which could provide a role for all of us in this dilemma. A Jesuit priest talked bravely about how, were one spiritually healthy enough, one might obtain strengths and graces from marrying a sick person – provided one’s love was strong enough. You cannot now how that affirmation reached across those years to comfort me. My Church was the one where the sick were, if not healed, at least loved. We are the people who have been charged with the care of the 99th sheep, the poor, the lame and the hungry.
As fellow possessors of the fullness of faith, we Catholics know that the milk is our problem. Not the governments, not the non-profits, not even the Police or the emergency room’s problem. We are the ones who know what Love is, and no lying monkey from the County can make us believe otherwise.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Forgiving the Jews - Part Two: Words of Jesus sorted by recipient.

As a chaplain in Orange County’s jails for ten years, I become very familiar with the concept of “unchurched.” As a catholic, it’s a common experience to talk about Jesus with faithful adults who nevertheless have never read the bible. Instead, they’ve heard it. They’ve heard the entire New Testament every three years, and almost all of the Torah, and a lot of the Old Testament likewise, but they almost never sit down and read, chapter and verse, page after page.
In jail, however, I had to do “bible study” with people who had never heard or talked about Jesus, much less the Patriarchs, in their lives. Asking them to begin according to the Roman Catholic lectionary, with some random gospel passage often did more harm than good.
One good answer to this dilemma is Protestant: Generally speaking, Protestants gather bible passages for study by theme, like forgiveness, or marriage or some notable part of Christ’s journey. In this way, the text is sort of self-organizing, and because the chosen passages, in spite of the gaps between them, make more sense than simply starting somewhere in the middle without any context save Rome.
Besides the gaps, however, there is another problem with this method. To be fair, it is likewise a problem with the Catholic system: If the Protestant system is like a chart of accounts, where all the “bills” for a given part of the bible are read together, like rent or utilities, the Catholic system is like the journal used to insure against gaps, just like the journal in double-entry accounting: Here, the passages are read in canonical order; which is slightly different than either the order they were written or the order in which the events transcribed are thought to have taken place. For example, even though carbon dating of fragment from Qumran Cave Number Seven indicate that Mark was the first gospel to have been written, the Roman church has always given first place to the Gospel of Matthew. Even though Mark himself cautions the reader that his account is out of order, canonical order indicates the system of priority assigned by the Church. As a way of settling disputes, it is without parallel, because unlike voting or arguing, at least it works. in that it allows us to solve the problem not addressed by priority: the problem of meaning determined not by “when” something was said, but by “to whom’ it was said.
Clearly, sorting out those things Jesus said to “the Jews” as opposed to the things he said to the apostles, who were also Jews, or the things he said to the poor, many of whom were Jews as well, has a great deal of impact upon any putative condemnation we might wish to read into our interpretation of any given New Testament passage. Given that Jesus was almost always talking to Jews, except on the rare occasion he was talking to Romans, it’s hard to insist his remarks are intended to endure as they have.
As a chaplain, I found it very useful to have my students sort the words of Christ (hopefully printed in red, so you don’t miss any) into three columns: One for the scribes, Pharisees – the powerful; one for the apostles and one for the poor. We discovered that a genuine fourth column was needed: one shared by Mary and the supernatural beings, like God, angels and demons, and a possible fifth: One actually reserved for the official “Jews,” the members of the Sanhedrin, and, to be fair, a corresponding column for “official” Romans, like Pontius Pilate or the centurions.
When you sort the words of Jesus in this way, a definitive picture emerges: Nowhere is Jesus angry with Jews because they’re Jewish. Nor does he appear to be angry with the Romans because they’re not. This was truly remarkable; Jesus may have been the only rabbi of his time demonstrating such equanimity toward, not just Romans, but gentiles of all stripes, like the Samaritan, and even women!
After you sort the words of Christ according to this hierarchy, it is much clearer that Jesus divided the world into classes by function, as was necessary: disciples vs. non-students, angels vs. demons, and by approbation: good or bad.
This is where we’d expect any anti-Semitism to show up. Like modern anti-Semites, or even Zionists for that matter, we’d expect Christ to display a preference or an antipathy for Jews regardless of their station. Like the Nazis, he’d distrust poor Jews as well as the rich powerful ones. Or like Israel, he’d welcome all Jews, rich and poor alike.
Jesus does no such thing. He inveighs against the rich, although not nearly so much as against those who have power over others. He forgives the poor, or more properly the powerless, even though they make no offering to atone for their sin as was proper for a Jew at that time.
Given that until recently, books, and certainly printing presses were the exclusive property of the rich, it’s a wonder his message wasn’t further distorted. I’m surprised that this little method of discovering the unaltered method of finding meaning within scripture hasn’t been more widely disseminated; perhaps it’s rarity has preserved some of it’s value. In any case, when one sorts the words of Christ according to the recipient, a pattern emerges which is far less sensible as anti-Semitic, and far more sensible as anarchistic.
Given the fact that the Jews were, at least at that time, sharing power with their Roman overlords, and given moreover that it was those Romans who determined both the canonical order of the modern gospel, and even their content, it is clear how a anti-power viewpoint could be subject to later misinterpretation as an anti-Semitic viewpoint.
The key to resolving this issue: power vs. Semitism, would depend upon what Jesus really said and felt toward non-Jews in power. If we assume that the Romans who later printed, translated and published the gospel attenuated Christ’s disapproval of their forebears, then Christ’s anarchist viewpoint could be reduced to anti-Semitism, since all the anti-Roman remarks were neutralized. Indeed, the very quixotic nature of Jesus’ remarks to and about all thing Roman stand out after this homespun reclassification as the most difficult to place into this new context.
This alone make this exercise a valuable addition to the argument against anti-Semitism in the New Testament: no new facts are needed, just a more accurate analysis of existing passages, yielding a highly probable suspicion about a corresponding lack of “rebuke” for Romans who were far worse, while yet far more removed from the favored poor, than the Jews in power.
Sorting Christ’s word by recipient subsumes any biblical argument ostensibly leveled against Jews beneath one against those leveled against those in power, regardless of origin. Any supposedly biblical argument, indeed, any Christian argument against the Jews suffers from this fatal weakness: in reality, any argument against the Jew is really an argument against the State, unfairly pruned of it's fuller meaning by later Roman redaction.
How like we Romans to stand idly by, fiddling while Jews burn, and in so doing deny Christ our faithful testimony to the sufficiency of his holocaust. Since our idleness is our blasphemy, we are called to come out of this posture, to actively atone once we believe. If you have any prayers or suggestions, please leave a comment.