Put your Deity where your mouth is

In a bizarre twist of political opportunism, both the Republican Party and Obama joined forces recently to file briefs with the Supreme Court in support of the city of Greece, New York in their Supreme Court appeal over a federal ruling that their council meeting prayers endorsed the Cristian religion. Both feel the lower court overstepped its bounds and that Christian prayer hardly constitutes an endorsement.

Essentially, according to Obama's Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli, having Christian prayers isn't an endorsement simply because most of the speakers are Christian and the prayers are sectarians. Otherwise, he argues, the government would have to police all prayers. But, even to my Christian ears, the arguments seem lame. More than lame. They sound like something dumped into a final essay by a college kid pre-occupied with other matters and, forced to take the final or finding his funding cut off, knew he had to write something.

Nor does the Greece council's argument that they occasionally invite a speaker from another denomination hold water. Throwing a scrap to the other dog doesn't mean you don't favor yours.

Think of it like this. In a movie, when you see the hero drinking Coke all the time, or finding the bad guy using a Mac Book Pro, this is considered a product endorsement. It doesn't matter if one of the extras can be seen with a Pepsi and a Dell in the back of the food court during the chase scene. Comedian Mike Meyers made this point very clear in his Wayne's World movies.

In the same way, a news organization's endorsement goes to the candidate blessed with the most positive coverage. In fact, Republicans harp on this constantly when they claim the media, which covers them constantly, has a liberal bias. It doesn't matter if Ron Paul gets a story here or there. When Mitt Romney is featured front and center in the news, he has the media's endorsement as the favorite to win, if not necessarily as the best choice.

So why does it matter who opens prayer? Because, like it or not, opening prayer is a compulsory exercise. People in attendance don't get to opt out. The people who schedule prayer can deny it all they want, but they deceive only themselves.

One person praying in public is not compulsory. It would not be compulsory for someone to approach the podium and say to an audience, “Would you give us a moment of silence?” But to say, “Please take a moment while we pray,” forces everyone to join in the exercise. And Jesus never made anyone do anything. Jesus was about free will.

To compel people to pray, and then set the agenda by endorsing one faith, albeit a broad faith like Christianity, violates the establishment clause of the Constitution and it violates the spirit of Christianity which leaves each of us free to follow Jesus or choose a different path.

So if Greece, or any city council, insists on prayer, how can they avoid endorsement without Verilli's government police at their shoulder? Open their prayers to all. Every week invite someone from a different faith entirely. This week invite a Rabbi, next week an Imam. Don't forget a Shaman, and your Universalist/Unitarian. I'm sure there are some Pagans out there glad to lead solstice prayers. And I know a few atheists who would lead prayers on principle. Once every six weeks, just have every one in the audience throw their name in a hat and draw. Have an entire meeting of open mike prayers once every six months.

You can even follow the example from the Friends. Sit in silence for a minute. Or conduct the entire meeting in silence. You might even get something useful done.

 

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Building on Christian initiative

According to Michelle Bachmann, reelecting Obama would bring about Taxmeggedon. I find this a delightful and inventive turn of phrase, which means she probably got it from someone else. This is the same woman who appeared on Piers Morgan last week to tell everybody that states who require auto insurance aren't acting in the public interest but protecting the property values of car owners.

According to Bachman, there is no comparison between mandated auto insurance and health insurance because people choose to buy cars. So it's okay to mandate insurance on things we choose to have, but not on health, over which we have no control.

These are the same Republicans who want to mandate prayer in schools, mind you. In fact, they are fine with mandating Christian imperatives. For instance, they want to mandate women giving birth so long as women have to pay for it out of their own pockets. They want to mandate teaching Creationism in schools.

So I thought, as long as the Christian Right wants to mandate that non-believers practice commandments made to Christians, I should look up some of the other things the Bible commands and see what else the government should mandate. Here were a few that I found.

We should mandate taxes

Surprisingly enough, the Bible mandates that believers pay taxes. It's in Deuteronomy 26. Being raised Baptist Preacher's Kid (BPK) I was led to believe that was a tithe to ministers, but it's actually to the Levites. And who were the Levites? The government.

I have also heard it argued that the tax was only ten percent, but that was ten percent before inflation. Based on the rate of inflation since the Old Testament, the Bible would have Christians pay 13000 percent of their income to the government. Even worse, when the Israelites demand God replace the Levites with a king, he reminded them that kings charge even more in taxes than the Levites. So that would make the Biblically approved tax rate closer to 56000 percent.

And, if we apply the mandatory prayer principle, every American should pay that much as well.

Give the same amount to the poor every three years

You heard it here. It's the same passage in Deuteronomy. Every three years you give as much to the poor as you give to the government. And in the Bible you don't get to write the donation off your other taxes.

That includes your worthless relatives, by the way.

Pay off lawsuits against you

Don't believe me? How about this? “Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. (Matt. 5:25)”

I don't think it gets much clearer than that. Tort reform was just tossed out the window of faith. If Christians get sued, they pay up, and as long as we're mandating public prayer, we should mandate mandatory settlement.

Does that seem a little harsh? It gets worse. “And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” (Matt. 5:40-42)

If we were to extend Biblical injunctions the way we want to extend mandatory prayer, corporations, wealthy Republicans and Bain Capital would have to pay twice what any plaintiff demands. Without a trial.

The banks would be required by law, not just to loan money (interest free) to people who ask, but to give it to them. But the banks would go bankrupt, you might claim. Oh, ye of little faith. Don't you know that whatever you give, God gives back ten fold? The banks profitability would shoot through the roof and even the poor could buy houses without crippling substandard loans.

This might upset members of the Corporate Christian Complex (CCC), but in the end we're all Christians and I'm sure they'll come to understand that universalizing the commands of Jesus is more important than self-interest. In fact, universalizing the commands of Jesus, and writing them into law, is self-interest.

No more swearing

Jesus said: “But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne. “(Matt. 5:34 ) You can see where I'm going here. If we really want a Christian nation, we should eliminate oaths of office and swearing in court. In fact, it could be argued that pledging allegiance under God would be swearing as well.

Heal the sick

That's right. Luke 10:9 commands Christians to heal the sick. The Democrats just want to help pay their bills. But the Bible says we should heal them ourselves. Just in case there's any question, Jesus gives an example. The righteous person, who turns out to be a Samaritan by the way (Democrat by today's terms) take the poor wounded stranger home and feeds him and care for him personally.

If you ask me, health care is much cheaper.

Now for the killer commandment.

Love one another

That's John 13:34 by the way. So if we want to mandate public prayer, we might as well mandate love too.

Ironically, the Bible not only doesn't command Christians to pray in public, it commands them not to. And it doesn't mention abortion or teaching Creationism at all. So we need to move those items down the list and focus on passing laws requiring everyone to pay taxes and to love each other first.

That's WJWRD.

 

Graduation prayer: learning the wrong lessons

Being raised Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK) means being raised with a set of stories all Baptists share. Each of these stories illustrates an important principle of faith that we must hold close to our heart. We never question these stories because they are written into scripture and therefore they usher forth directly from the mouth of God.

Famous bible stories

One of those stories came from the book of Daniel1, the story of Hananiah (חֲנַנְיָה), Mishael (מִישָׁאֵל) and Azariah (עֲזַרְיָה). Most Baptists won’t recognize these three because Baptists call them by their Chaldean slave names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Gustave Dore’s rendition of the triumphal salvation of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Most Baptists won’t recognize those names even though we learned about them in countless Sunday Schools.

I find this ironic because the story is about cultural oppression and forcing people to submit to the cultural expectations of society at large. Somehow we overlook this and still refer to these Hebrew heroes by their slave names.

In the story, our three heroes are ordered to follow the religious practices and cultural customs of the empire. But they don’t. They don’t eat spiced meat (aka steak with salt and pepper or A1 sauce) or drink spiced wine. But the worst atrocity was forcing our heroes to pray to the Chaldean Gods.

These guys could have done the safe thing and simply bowed their heads when the Chaldeans prayed, and pretended to go along with the show. But real Hebrews didn’t do that, and they chose to be burned to death rather than appearing to pray to Babylonian gods. The Hebrew God saves them, of course, but that isn’t the point of the story.

And the moral to the story is….

The point of the story is that the faithful are willing to die rather than bow their heads in prayer to a God (or god) they don’t worship. And sorry, Christians, but I have to include Jews as the faithful because the story was about them and not us. We’re just an afterthought to scripture.2

Baptists always took a second, subtextual lesson from the story. In a Christian society (i.e., America) we shouldn’t be forced to pray to other gods.

But I think we should see an additional, parallel lesson. Imagine how American Christians would feel if we were forced to participate in meetings where the speakers led us in prayers to Allah. We would be furious, and rightly so.

How dare they?

American Christians would be equally distressed if we were asked to bow our heads and experience the wonder of a universe without a god, but driven by natural forces and laws. We would blow our stacks if the speaker lead the audience in thanking the randomness of nature for the probabilities that came to pass that allowed us all to gather in this place in this time.

I know this because as an arts and political activist I’ve had to work with groups who expected me to participate in shamanistic prayer and drum ceremonies, visualize the spirit of Gaia working on the world around us, thank the goddess for her feminine blessings and allowing us to reject our masculine nature, or channel whatever spiritual being was in vogue that year.

Once I even had to sit through a session where the facilitators consulted the I Ching to resolve a disagreement. Ironically, the I Ching said we should do what I had been saying all along. But now it was a message from the universe itself and not just my opinion. So I got no credit at all.

Each time I thought: This is bull shit. This meeting isn’t about spreading the universal consciousness, it’s about arts funding or organizing an action against the city council or developers. Still, I did it out of respect, not for the vision of the month club, but for the work we needed to do and my partners in the work.

After all, I was raised BPK and remembered how many times Christians made people sit through prayers at civic meetings, or my family expected Jewish friends to say the blessing at dinner.

Had my school, or university, or the City of Detroit or Austin made the participants rise and chant to Seth, however, I would have been the first to say, “Excuse me, but this has no place in a government sponsored forum.”

I’m not talking about a school sponsored seminar on New Age religions or a city sponsored round table of religious leaders concerned about policy. This is America and everyone has the right to say, “I’m Christian and I believe evolution is wrong,” and every one else has the right to say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Did God ask you to cut out the left side of your brain while you were thinking about it?”

I’m referring to a speaker asking everyone in the audience at a graduation ceremony to stand up and join in a prayer to Allah, or the Divine Spirit, or the random and godless universe. Who would be the first to piss and moan and call out the lawyers and Republican legislators before the diplomas were even handed out?

Christians. And Rick Perry and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

So why is it that when a Texas court says Christians can openly avow their faith, but they can’t tell an audience to participate in the rituals of our faith, those same Christians and Texas politicians are the first to howl at the moon as though we had all been publicly circumcised without anesthetic?

The prayer wars erupt in Texas

This week a San Antonio court ruled that valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand couldn’t lead the audience in a prayer during her graduation speech. Now, in Angela’s defense, she claims she just wanted to pray while delivering her speech, but that means we all pray with her.

I somehow doubt Angela wanted to say, “As Christians we pray things like, ‘Dear God help us be all the Christian we can be.'” She wanted to pray a real prayer, not an example prayer, and Christian protocol dictates that when one of us prays publicly we all pray publicly.

By Thursday evening the Austin local news was reporting that Angela was even receiving death threats for her virtuous stand. I’ll confess that it’s possible someone called and said, “I hope you die, bitch,” but I couldn’t find any record of these death threats in the reporting online (and our local newscasters are often given to exaggeration and hyperbole).

According to Reuters, even though the court ruled that affirmative religious statements were permissible, Gregg Abbott retaliated with the following: “This is part of an ongoing attempt to purge God from the public setting, while at the same time demanding from the court increased yielding to all things agnostic and atheistic….”

The article reported that Abbott believed the “ruling would allow a student to ‘bend over in honor of Mecca,’ but not lead a prayer to the Christian God.” Sorry, Gregg, but the judge said nothing about Mecca, and the ruling covered all state-sanctioned religion, including Islam.

Forget the courts, WWJS?

So let’s review three emphatic teachings of Jesus that may shed light on the situation:

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • Don’t pray in public. Pray in private where only God can hear you.3
  • Don’t judge others or God will judge you as harshly.

I take this to mean the following:

  • If you don’t want to be asked to publicly to pray to gods you don’t accept, don’t lead audiences at civic forums (whose members might not be Christian) in public prayer to Jesus. That’s what church is for.
  • You shouldn’t be praying in public anyway. That’s just showing off your piety, which, ironically, isn’t piety when you’re showing off.
  • Don’t judge others for not wanting to participate in your public prayers, especially since you would be offended if they expected you to participate publicly in theirs.

Angela, God bless you. If your faith is part of your life you should be proud to say so in your speech. But if you think you have the right to tell me I should be Christian and expect me to pray just because I came to see my nephew graduate, then ask yourself what you would do if I asked you to bend over toward Mecca in my valedictory speech.

Or used my valedictory speech to tell you that Christians who don’t believe in evolution aren’t Christians, they’re morons. Or told my audience why Episcopalians are better Christians than Baptists or Catholics.4

Are you beginning to see how Corwin Schultz might feel when he has to listen to you telling him what a loser he is for being agnostic? Especially when he has to listen before he can get his diploma? With the school’s sanction no less, which in essence is the local government saying “We endorse Angela’s message that you’re an agnostic loser who doesn’t deserve to get his diploma without being reminded of that?”

Personally, I’m immune. I heard that stuff all my life. I get it, my Jesus isn’t as good as your Jesus. I’ve got it all wrong and I’m going to suffer for it, and they only tell me this because they love me and it’s for my own good.

And, fortunately, I’m an adult so I don’t have to sit and listen to it anymore. I get to choose who I respect enough to be expose myself again—whether they be Christians, Wiccans or Bill Maher. Or my Baptist Preacher’s Family.

It may not be over

It’s my understanding that the higher court merely lifted the injunction against prayer at the graduation ceremony, they didn’t dismiss the suit. So it’s quite possible that the Schultz family will win the suit and this furor will start all over again.

Jesus never forced anyone to pray, nor did he demand it or even expect it. He preached from hillsides, and people were free to leave at any time. He never spoke during a state sponsored assembly where audiences were compelled to listen. And if his audiences didn’t want to listen, he just moved on to another town.

He knew there would always be someone who wanted the good news. There was no need to force it on those who didn’t.


1A designation that probably proves I have lapsed beyond redemption (although technically that can never happen to Baptists). A true member of the Baptist faithful would never type book of Daniel even as a typo. It’s Book of Daniel.back

2This thought may upset a few Christians even more, but New Testament writers did not consider their writing scripture. And Jesus certainly didn’t. To them our guide was the Law and the prophets. Nowhere did they invoke the new believers to study “our writing” or give their correspondence any special status.back

3I’m not going to cite chapter and verse. You know damn well he said it.back

2We aren’t, I just can’t help but thinking that being Episcopalian is like eating at a four star restaurant instead of MacDonalds. Or reading War and Peace instead of the Cliff Notes. Or drinking a fine Shiraz instead of Annie Green Springs. Or watching Doctor Zhivago instead of Dumb and Dumber.
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