Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Why Did the Moron Throw the Clock?

The Apostle Paul is a pain in the butt.

I’m not complaining, mind you, about his chauvinistic dissing of women.

Garry Wills, in What Paul Meant (Penguin Books, 2006), says it was all a mistake. Paul never tried to keep women silent or prevent them from teaching. He was framed, Wills contends, and no misogynous slander ever flowed from his pen.

It’s too bad, then, that the testosteronal tripe attributed to Paul is frozen forever in canonical scripture. Scholars will argue forever about what Paul said and what he didn’t.

Ironically, it’s the undisputed words of Paul that are so exasperating. He sets impossible standards for Christian conduct. For example, consider the condescending Pauline instructions highlighted for this Sunday by the Revised Common Lectionary:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;
Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Romans 12:9-16

It’s not that we couldn’t live like that if we wanted to. It’s just that it would be so dissatisfying. Can you imagine a book, film, or Fox News broadcast that would attract your attention by reporting this kind of behavior? How would Nancy Grace ever open her mouth?

What Paul is saying basically, is stop complaining. Stop cursing and suing your adversaries. Stop carping about persons who look different than you or speak a language you can’t understand. Stop looking down your nose at people you regard as inferior. Stop making jokes about persons you regard as a lower order of humanity.

Of course, much humor is about making fun of races, ethnic groups, and individuals we regard as comically different from us. Think of all the jokes we’d miss if we followed Paul’s prescription for conduct, if we ignored our pain, welcomed strangers, blessed our enemies, and sat at the same table with those we thought were beneath us.

About 62 years ago, when I was learning how to read, I came across a joke in a children’s magazine.

Question: Why did the moron throw his clock out the window?
Answer: He wanted to see time fly.

I didn’t get the joke, and even now I’m not sure I see the humor. Back then I didn’t know what a moron was, and any 5-year-old knows a flying clock has nothing to do with the passage of time.

The joke, I suppose, is that the moron is too stupid to know that, and it’s both funny and reassuring to know we are smarter than people who throw clocks.

As I grew older, moron jokes were succeeded by blond jokes or Polish jokes or racist jokes, all of which find humor in the nuances of other persons’ behavior.

A few years ago an item in The Onion shook me to the core. It made me wonder if I was experiencing early-onset crankiness and was losing my sense of humor.

The Onion published an article was about a person with developmental disabilities. The headline read: “Autistic reporter Michael Falk says the stainless steel CometLiner car was lucky enough to escape unharmed from its collision with a man.”

Usually, I think The Onion is very funny. Articles in Our Dumb Century left me chortling for days, especially the story, “Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand spreads fear at Archduke Convention.” I laughed out loud at “Area Bird Creeped Out by Bird Watcher.” I thought, “Violent Death of Human Being Terrific News for Once” (on bin Laden) was responsible social commentary.

But not this story about an autistic reporter. I found it offensive. When I came across the story online, I added a comment that The Onion had crossed a line. Presidents, popes, archdukes and bird watchers are all fair game because they knew their chosen predilections would attract critics and controversy. But I saw nothing funny about making fun of the disordered thought processes of an autistic man.

Most Onion fans who added their comments thought I was a tight-assed whiner.

“I have two autistic children and I thought the story was funny as hell,” wrote one reader. Another wrote, “I am autistic and I thought it was frickin’ funny.”

So maybe I’m missing something. Clearly, a lot of people think it’s amusing to mimic the demeanor or vocabulary of developmentally disabled persons, who they dismiss as “retards.” One of the most insightful commentators of our day – Jon Stewart of The Daily Show – often uses the words “retard” or “retarded” to label eccentric political views.

“Retard” use abounds, not only on Comedy Central but in high schools, college campuses, offices and churches. For adolescents learning to deal with life’s capriciousness, it’s a useful descriptive – stronger than “goofy” and more adult than “stoopid.” But it is a biting epithet, especially to the parents and siblings of disabled children.

Developmental disabilities affect many families. My cousin Donnie, who I haven’t seen in nearly 60 years, had Down syndrome. He was a year or so older than me and I remember playing with him on the floor of Grandpa’s living room in the Catskills. He was a happy, laughing child, oblivious to the fact that the adults seemed deeply disturbed by his behavior.

I do not recall his behavior being any stranger than my own at 5 or 6. One day Grandma distributed a pack of candy cigarettes to the kids – peppermint sticks with red tips to simulate burning ash – and we pretended we were smoking like our parents (this was circa 1952).

Donnie stuck the red end in his mouth and made happy sucking sounds while we kids laughed and imitated him. But Grandma jumped up and pulled the candy out of his mouth and said, “No! Bad!” To us kids, Donnie was a great playmate. To Grandma, he was a bad example.

Not long afterwards, Donnie’s parents moved to California and I never saw him again. Decades later, when I was a traveling church bureaucrat, I stopped by Auntie’s house in Sacramento to say hello. Her oldest son – Donnie’s brother – was visiting, too. We chatted amiably, updating each other about family news. I wanted to ask about Donnie, who I knew had been placed in institutional care shortly after his family moved west. But I knew well the family sensitivities and didn’t want to ask a direct question.

Finally, I said, “I remember how much fun it was when we kids were all together at Grandpa and Grandma’s. I remember how much I enjoyed playing with Donnie.”

Auntie did not react, nor did her son. But in a few moments they moved on to a different subject, about how bad the winters were in the Catskills and how much better it was in California.

I don’t know whatever happened to Donnie, and clearly it was painful for Auntie to talk about him. He could be in his sixties today, but it’s unlikely. Statistically, a Down syndrome child born in the 1940s would not live past his twenties. But that is changing now and life expectancy is dramatically improving.

Probably Donnie lived long enough to hear himself labeled a retard. He certainly didn’t hear the word from his young cousins because no one ever told us that he had a disability and none of us noticed. He didn’t seem different to us. To us he was not lacking in any of the gifts that made him a great playmate: joy, humor, and a special talent for having fun.

It’s a shame you have to be six years old to know that everyone comes into the world with special gifts and the infinite value God assigns to all God’s children. Later in life, we try to be more analytical about it. But a child’s instinct can be fairly profound. We might not have been able to put it into words, but we knew: Donnie was created in the image of God. Calling him a retard would have been blasphemous.

This Sunday, Martha, other volunteers and I are joining Katie in the annual autism walk. Marching as “Kate’s Mates,” our team will join thousands of persons all over the country in an effort to raise money for autism research.

Kate, 26, has autism – a syndrome with a wide spectrum and a myriad of manifestations. Katie’s particular diagnosis is Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), and she is childlike, charming and (as all her friends know) extremely verbal. Like virtually all individuals in her situation, Katie is too often referred to – usually behind her back – as a retard.

That is why her mother and I literally stood and cheered when Glee co-stars Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter appeared in a public service announcement about the use of the R word: “It’s not acceptable.”  (See the link at the end of this blog.) It’s a message Jane Lynch and her delightfully devious TV character, Sue Sylvester, have been preaching for several seasons. Earlier in Glee's run, when Sue was revealed to be the devoted caretaker of a sister with Down syndrome, Katie's mom asked Sue to make a clear public statement against the indiscriminate use of the R word.

Read Martha's blog here.

Also, it's not acceptable.

And the Apostle Paul would be justified in ordering us to keep silent about it in the churches or anywhere else.

(See Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter here.)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Who Was That Masked Man?

Who was Jesus?

For many, he’s a mystery.

It’s easy enough to say he died for our sins. It's quite another matter to comprehend what that means – or what we should do about it.

Most Baptists preach you don’t have to do a thing: you just have to believe it.

Every day with Jesus, we proclaim, is sweeter than the day before. Baptist Sunday schools are adorned with pastel drawings of Jesus the good shepherd, surrounded by preternaturally white sheep and laughing little children.

He seems like a nice guy. He died to save us. But for many of us, he then disappeared into the sunset like the Lone Ranger. Barely understanding who he was and what he did, our belated reaction is like the old prospector: “Who was that masked man? I wanted to thank him.”

But it can be disturbing to look too deeply into what Jesus did and said.

A recent posting in The Port Chester Patch noted how difficult Jesus can be, especially when he commands us to love people we despise.

Many of the 88 responses to the blog took issue with the notion of “loving thy enemy,” which they felt should not be extended to Jihadist terrorists. Loving terrorists, one said, was a “screwball” idea. Another responder wrote, “Gee, Maybe we all should pray for Hitler, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin and all the other sick minded individuals around … Yup, just believe in Jeasus (sic) he sure does love us.”

It’s impossible to know where these responders got their religious training, but one thing is sure: there is no Christian church in Port Chester, the United States, or the world that denies Jesus told us to love our enemies. He didn’t leave any room for misinterpretation:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’” (Matthew 5:43-44).

And yes, Jesus – who extended his love to those who betrayed him, stripped him, beat him, and nailed his wrists to a cross beam – would tell us to extend the same love to history’s most abominable villains.

That’s his commandment, and that's the example he set. It’s not an easy example, and our gut instinct is to reject “love your enemies” as a screwball idea. But by that standard, Jesus is full of screwball ideas:  sell all you own and give the proceeds to the poor; smile passively at someone who slaps you upside the head; give your coat to a thread-bare person on a cold day.

Jesus’s teachings strike a lot of people as crazy. His intent, of course, was to model God’s unconditional love for all people. Loving one another unconditionally is hard because it requires behaviors that contradict our natural tendencies to wallow in the seven deadly sins. (*) It’s easier to dismiss the quirkier sayings of Jesus than to face the reality of what he meant – and how he expects us to embrace one another.

More than two millennia after Jesus walked the earth, it’s no wonder he remains a mystery to many of us.

But one of the Gospel readings for the Sixth Sunday in Easter reminds us it was no easier to understand Jesus when he stood beside you.

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids--blind, lame, and paralyzed.

One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath. (John 5:1-9)

No one knows the name of the paralytic of Beth-zatha, but his rudeness is striking. It almost makes you stop caring that he has been ill for 38 years.

Granted, his life is terrible and he is surrounded by jerks. Every time he manages to drag his useless limbs to the edge of the curative waters, some able-bodied person jumps in ahead of him.

He has been lying in the same place for a long time, probably fuming every time someone pushes him out of the way. If life wasn’t bad enough, a stranger leans over and asks, “Do you want to be made well?”

The poor guy rolls his eyes. The stranger is either taunting him or oblivious to what is going on.

Stifling his sarcasm, the guy spells out to the stranger what should be painfully obvious.
Every time I get close to the water, some two-legged ass jumps in front of me.

But the stranger has not come to debate him. “Stand up,” he says abruptly. “Take your mat and walk.”

Before he can think about it, the man is rising to his feet. He is so dazed by the unexpected development that he just keeps walking. And walking. He shows little interest about the person who made him walk.

Even if he turned around to see who cured him, it wouldn’t have mattered. Jesus had disappeared into the crowd. The former paralytic scores zero on the curiosity scale and a perfect ten on the ingratitude scale.

While the poor guy had no idea who cured him, he must have been terrified by the pious passers-by who scolded him for carrying his now worthless mat on the Sabbath.

But in 38 years, the guy has learned a thing or two about survival. He quickly shifts the blame to the mysterious stranger.

“The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” (John 5:11) Who ever he was.

But Jesus has not disappeared from his life quite yet. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.”  (John 5:14)

Even then, the man fails to fall on his knees in gratitude to Jesus; he seizes an opportunity to ingratiate himself with those who criticized him for carrying his mat on the Sabbath.

The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath.” (John 5:15-16)

Thus is recorded the moment when the persecution of Jesus began.

Actually, as Bishop N.T. Wright wrote, Jesus’ “very presence was subversive. He was born in the run, fleeing Herod … He came into the world with a death sentence already hanging over him, as the paranoid old tyrant up the road got wind of a young royal pretender.”

Garry Wills, in What Jesus Meant, points out that it was religion that killed Jesus. Jesus was anti-religious, Wills contends, and he opposed small-minded religious habits that harmed people, including the Sabbath law that made it a criminal offense to heal the sick – or to get up and walk, carrying one’s mat.

“What is the kind of religion Jesus opposed?” Wills asks. “Any religion that is proud of its virtue, like the boastful Pharisee. Any that is self-righteous, quick to judge and condemn, ready to impose burdens rather than share or lift them. Any that exalts its own officers, proud of its trappings, building expensive monuments to itself. Any that neglects the poor and cultivates the rich, any that scorns outcasts and flatters the rulers of this world.”

Oops. “If that sounds like just about every form of religion we know,” Wills concludes, “then we can see how far off from religion Jesus stood.”

Among the many lessons to be learned from the story of the paralytic at Beth-zatha, two points are compelling.

One, the paralytic himself had no idea who Jesus was, He was so stunned by his sudden ability to walk that he forgot to be curious about him, or express thanks for the miracle.

That’s probably not his fault. His life changed so radically in matter of seconds he was probably experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome. And no one knows if he was trying to get Jesus in trouble when he identified him as the culprit who cured him. 

But we do sense that he was acting very much like we do at times. He was glad enough when his situation changed from bad to good but he was unwilling or unable to reflect on how it happened or how he should react. The Son of God crossed his path twice, and there is no record he saw any need to take advantage of his new ability to walk and follow him.

The second point is an indictment of the pious passers-by who threaten the miraculously healed man because he was carrying his mat on the Sabbath.

The cured paralytic responds with too little. The pious passers-by respond with too much, blind to the miracle in their midst because their vision is clouded by centuries of social and religious custom.

For both, Jesus remained a mystery. He remains a mystery for many of us who are unable to comprehend his “screwball” ideas: abandoning the ornate and shallow facades of religion, becoming intimately involved in the lives of the poor, proclaiming peace and justice, opposing violence, loving your enemies.

But Jesus is a figure we cannot ignore: an individual of “devastating greatness and incomprehensibility,” as Romano Guardini wrote, “a figure even more colossal and incomprehensible than any conveyed by even the most daring statements of St. Paul or St. John.”

Wills writes, “Jesus ghosted in and out of people’s lives, blessing and cursing, curing and condemning. If he was not God, he was a standing blasphemy against God. The last thing he can be considered is a ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild.’”

When this figure of devastating greatness passes near us, he may be hard to understand and his commandments of unconditional love may be hard to accept.

But he cannot be covered and concealed in the minutia of our church customs and social biases. 

And he must not be ignored.

(*) In case you missed it when Sister Mary Perpetua covered the seven deadly sins, they are lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. I usually engage all seven of them every day, often before lunch.