Friday, January 28, 2011

The Cult that Unites Us

I am more of a baseball guy than a football guy, but a season like this one makes rabid Packers fans of all of us. We have friends in Milwaukee whose ignorance of football is nearly complete; they have but the vaguest understanding of the rules of the game, and are clueless about the various positions played on offense and defense. Yet during the Ravens game, while eating in a very good restaurant, Anne was following the score on her phone, whooping whenever the Packers scored. “I’ve been programmed!” she said. “I have been indoctrinated into a cult!” The wonder is that it required eight years of living in Wisconsin before she realized the obvious.

Being members of a cult leads us to engage in superstitions behaviors. For the last three games I have worn my “1996 NFC Champions” sweatshirt, and that shirt clearly affected the outcome of the Bears game in particular. Since I wore that shirt for the Packers’ victory in Superbowl XXXI, I certainly need to wear it for this year’s game, right? But I will be flying home from a meeting in Mississippi during the Superbowl (bad planning on my part, I know), and a part of me wonders if wearing it while not watching the game could backfire. As a pastor and theologian, I reject superstition and magical thinking of all kinds. Except when the Packers are in the Superbowl.

Then there is the curious case of the makeshift shrine at the Festival Foods near our home. On a whim, the produce manager made a Packers logo out of green and yellow peppers two days before the NFC championship game. Customers came flocking to take pictures of it, and it went viral on Facebook. Now they have no choice: it must stay in place through the Superbowl, which means regularly replenishing the peppers. Many famous religious shrines were likewise first erected in a moment of spontaneous gratitude or hope, but all those of which I am aware were constructed of more durable materials.

Most religions require their followers to engage in disciplined practices (like wearing a 15-year-old sweatshirt) and hold certain places to be sacred (like the Festival produce section). But, you may ask, do most religions not also honor venerated figures who represent wisdom and truth? For that we have St. Vince, whose words are likely being read from at least as many pulpits as the words of St. Paul. Paul may have taken the Gospel to all the world, including Rome, but he never made it to the Superbowl.

My friends in Milwaukee are Jewish and I am a Christian, so the Packers cult is clearly interfaith. Many, including myself, lament the division and conflict between the world’s great religious traditions. Perhaps we have found the solution: Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist – all are welcome to gather in the produce section to affirm our common bond and proclaim our mutual loyalty to the green and gold. What’s not to like about a cult that includes foam cheesheads and nachos?

Friday, January 21, 2011

When Winter was Really Winter

Thirteen below when I got up this morning; our annual “cold snap” has arrived. 1983 was my first year in Wisconsin. In December we hit minus 28 and it stayed below zero for five straight days. I thought that every winter was going to be like that, and briefly questioned the wisdom of moving here. Fortunately, I have since learned that such bitter spells are not common, even here in the Wisconsin tundra. The days are getting noticeably longer, the seed catalogues have arrived, and the Brewers pitchers and catchers report to spring training on February 16. For baseball fans, that day marks the official end of winter, so I know I am going to get through.

In younger days, when we lived in New Jersey, we used to take winter vacations at a friend’s cabin in the mountains of northern New Hampshire. With no weather forecasts available to us, we drove marginal cars through fierce snowstorms in mountain passes, too young and stupid to be frightened. Mountaineering skis were essential transportation for folks who lived up in the mountains, because cars could be useless for days on end. One night the temperature got close to minus forty, and this ignorant flatlander had left the parking brake set on his Fiat. It was several days before I could get it unfrozen.

Local folks called cold spells like that “Sally sit by the fire” days, and the world pretty much shut down. Winter decoration consisted of hanging old blankets in the doorways of the warmest room, usually the kitchen, and moving the bedding in there. One neighbor simply gave up on indoor plumbing for the worst part of winter—he kept the seat for the outhouse hanging above the wood stove in the kitchen and tried to make it to the outhouse while it still had a bit of warmth to it. I’m told that the rangers who overwinter on Isle Royale still do the same thing.

Our expectations have changed a great deal over the decades, largely thanks to improved technology. We expect the plows to keep roads open no matter how heavy the snow and the furnace to keep our house warm no matter how low the thermometer plummets. We do not like to be inconvenienced, by the weather or anything else.

Albert Borgmann, a philosopher whose work I admire, laments our increasing dependence upon technological devices, arguing that we have lost important “focal practices” that once formed and shaped us. Take the wood stove that heats our cabin in the U.P. It forces me to secure firewood every year, then to split, stack and dry it. I have learned a bit about different woods and how they burn, and how to tend the stove to maintain a reasonably comfortable temperature. It shapes the rhythm of the day. Every half hour or so I am poking it or adding wood, and if I leave the cabin for too long I need to start a new fire.

Here at home, if I am chilly I tap the touch screen of a thermostat of such sophistication that I only vaguely understand how it works, and it calls for heat from a furnace that I don’t have a clue how to fix if it conks out on me. It is all very convenient, to be sure. But sometimes I ponder all the skills we have lost to our increasing dependence upon technology, and wonder if our lives are poorer for it. Winter used to force us to slow down, make adjustments, change our plans. Now we maintain our busy schedules no matter what, griping and grumbling over the smallest delay or inconvenience. Winter was in some ways more enjoyable when we had to take it seriously.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"Blood Libel"

Note: I am focusing almost entirely on my "Aging Together" blog (see link) these days. I will mostly use this site to repost articles from my Goodwill blog that are not "Goodwill"specific." Like this one.

The tragic and horrific shootings in Arizona have precipitated national debate on a number of issues, including gun control (good luck on that one), our mental health treatment system, and—most broadly—the nature of political discourse in our nation, and its potential to precipitate anger and violence.

Sarah Palin has been a central figure in much of this debate because she, it is argued, has employed particularly violent metaphors (“don’t retreat; reload!”) and sponsored an ad that featured crosshairs superimposed on the 8th congressional district where Congresswoman Giffords serves.

How, or if, these things are connected no-one can say. There is no evidence that the disturbed young man who attempted to assassinate the congresswoman, taking many other lives in the effort, was politically motivated in the conventional sense. As Palin and many others have pointed out, violent images in American political discourse are hardly a new phenomenon. My guess is that we will see a scaling back in this kind of violent imagery in political discourse, at least for a period of time, and that can only be a good thing. There will always be a small number of emotionally-disturbed persons teetering on the edge of some sort of violent action, and when society sets clear moral boundaries it may help them to reign in such impulses. And less exposure to angry, violent images would certainly benefit society as a whole in countless ways.

So I was minded to view the emerging national debate precipitated by this tragedy as an opportunity for positive change rather than an opportunity to cast blame. But more recently my jaw dropped when Ms. Palin, defending the images she has used, employed the term “blood libel.” I can only assume that she, like most Americans, was not aware of the origin of this ugly phrase. It dates to the first century, a time of tension and conflict between Jewish and Christian communities marked by bizarre rumors and accusations from both sides. Jews were accused of mixing the blood of Christians in with the matzos prepared for the Passover, and were alleged to especially prize the blood of Christian children and infants. It gets much worse than I care to describe: the Christian children were allegedly tortured in unspeakable ways before being ritually sacrificed.

These accusations (or blood libel) were revived again and again throughout history They figured prominently in the Nazi persecution of Jews that led to the Holocaust, and still play a role in undergirding anti-Semitism today. The term “blood libel” should never, ever be used in any context other than making reference to its ugly role in breeding anti-Semitism.

Any of us who have ever inserted our foot in our mouth, making things worse rather than better (which is pretty much all of us) should have some sympathy for Ms. Palin. I would be pleased and grateful if she were to acknowledge that it was a serious error to use this hurtful, hateful term, but that is not likely to happen. I trust that it will not be used again, by Ms. Palin or anyone else in public life. Words matter; words can be weapons, words literally can kill. And when words are used on a public stage, their power to wound, or heal, is magnified. We should expect and demand public discourse that uplifts rather than denigrates the human condition.