Thursday, December 14, 2006

Early Stocking Stuffers

Cleaning off my desk, in preparation for two months abroad, I find a pile of magazines, clippings and printouts that contain fodder for irate thought, the juice that fuels this blog.

The Christmas buying frenzy is in full bloom several blocks away. When I was resting in the bossom of a family, I was a pushover for the whole romantic story, and could be seen wearing a Santa Claus hat the entire month of December. I loved reading "The Night Before Christmas" to all of my kids, just as my dad did for me and my brother. But over the years I became disenchanted with the routine of it, with the emphasis on commerce, and I gave up giving gifts and sending cards as a kind of ascetical practice. I meditate now on Christmas as allegory and symbol, as a sign of the birth of the divine on earth, in each of us. But occasionally I catch a glimpse of a Christmas tree or lights out of the corner of my eye, and the memories are overwhelming.

The good Bishop John Shelby Spong has punctured many of the myths about Christmas in a column on beliefnet, "A Religious Santa Claus Tale." All we know of the first Christmas comes from the books of Matthew and Luke. Did you know there are no camels in the story (sorry about that, wise men) and also no animals in a stable surrounding the crib or manger (which IS mentioned)? While Mary is supposedly a "virgin" (a mistranslation, some would say), the ancestors of Jesus are traced through Joseph who comes from the family of David. The Gospel of John refers to Jesus twice as "the son of Joseph." But the Gospel of Mark (as well as the apostle Paul) tells no birth story and what is said about Mary and the family of Jesus is not flattering. All of this only puts our memories in perspective. It does not wash away the simple beauty of the Christmas story.

My favorite Catholic theologian, Rosemary Radford Ruether, spoke on abortion and war to a Pax Christi conference and the talk, "'Consistent Life Ethic' is Inconsistent," was published in the Nov. 17 National Catholic Reporter. It's a breath of fresh air. She points out that Catholic ethics is absolutist when considering the rights of the fetus and relative when speaking about the rights of the born. Because of its stand on birth control, Catholicism "both forbids abortion under any circumstances and is a major cause of producing the situations that cause it." Ruether is concerned about the Church's less than rigorous stand on war, environmental destruction, and lack of access of clean water, education and health care by the world's poor. "Catholicism speaks softly and carries no stick when it comes to untimely and unjust death after birth...Putting the ethics of life before birth and life after birth more in sync with each other would help overcome the credibility gap from which Catholic teachings on ethics now suffer." Ruether disagrees with the Church that life begins at conception (why are there no funerals for miscarriages, I wonder) but laments abortions occuring after five months pregnancy. She argues that women often have little power to resist pregnancy and advocates that women's moral agency be recognized by Catholicism.

Now that Bush Senior's panel of experts has both condemned the war in Iraq but cautioned a go-slow approach (who wants to be the last soldier to die in this lost cause?), there are some impassioned and ironic columns on the report's import by our most excellent commentators. I can recommend Frank Rich's column in the Dec. 10th New York Times, "The Sunshine Boys Can't Save Iraq," and Patrick Cockburn's piece in the London Independent on Dec. 13, “The Americans don't see how unwelcome they are, or that Iraq is now beyond repair; The main purpose of Bush invading Iraq was to retain power at home.” Also excellent on this tragic topic is Mark Morford's column Dec. 13 in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Our Path to ‘Victory’ Ends in Defeat." El Presidente Bush, of course, is threatening to ignore the report, or at least postpone a decision on any changes until he leaves office two years from now. The howling for his blood, however, grows louder, and defections mount from even his own party. Will Karl Rove be forced to commit hari kari? Seriously, though, we must demand that George W. Bush be accountable for the crimes committed in his name, for the slaughter and the torture and the abrogation of human rights. The buck stops at his desk in the Oval Office.

I've written before about the reasonable letter that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent to Bush which was ridiculed by administration spokesmen and largely ignored by the media. Ahmadinejad, who has a doctorate and was a professor before entering political life, wrote another letter on Nov. 29, this time to "Noble Americans." I found it quite enlightening and persuasive. He writes about Palestine, Iraq and the torture and mistreatment of prisoners, as well as recent elections, and even refers to Cindy Sheehan, though not by name. He criticizes the US administration, not the American people, for crimes perpetrated in their name. Ahmadinejad is obviously a thoughtful and intelligent man, and I think we should not only listen to what he has to say, but talk to him and others in Iran's government. There will be no settlement in the Middle East, in Israel/Palestine or Iraq, without the help of Iran and Syria (which was recommended by the panel of experts).

There is no better moderate spokesman on Israel's behalf than Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun. The journal of Jewish thought will publish an interview with former President Jimmy Carter in its January issue and Lerner wrote a letter of praise, "Thank You, Jimmy Carter!," on Dec. 6 which was reprinted by Common Dreams. Carter's new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, has been slammed by the powerful Jewish lobby which has successfully prevented any U.S. government since Carter's from a sane policy on the Israel question. Lerner takes a middle road, but supports Carter, "who is speaking the truth as he knows it, and doing a great service to the Jews." Unfortunately, according to Lerner, "this peace is impeded by the powerful voices of AIPAC and the mainstream of the organized Jewish community, who manage to terrify even the most liberal elected officials into blind support of whatever policy the current government of Israel advocates." Rosemary Radford Ruether gave a talk at UC Santa Cruz some years ago in which she argued that the struggles in the Mideast were over land, not religion. Amos Oz in a recent book, How to Cure a Fanatic, says much the same thing. Carter, in his book, says that the Jewish policies toward Muslims is not the result of racism but rather "the desire of a minority of Israelis to occupy, confiscate and colonize Palestinian land." Acceptance of this would change the face of diplomacy in the Middle East. Unfortunately, Nancy Pelosi, the new leader in the House for the Democratic Party, is an unqualified supporter of Israel.

Alexander Cockburn, Patrick's brother, is not hopeful. In his Dec. 18 column in The Nation, "Gaza and Darfur," Cockburn compares the two crisis regions and seems to liken Darfur to the poster animal of the environmental movement, the baby seals. "Darfur is primarily a 'feel good' subject for people here who want to agonize publicly about injustices in the world but who don't really want to do anything about them," Cockburn writes. Darfur is not a U.S. problem, there is no political risk in sounding righteous about genocide there, and it's "also very photogenic." Gaza is very different. "It is Israel, America's prime ally in the Middle East, that is on a day-to-day basis, with America's full support, inflicting appalling brutalities on a civilian population. " Cockburn points to the "activite complicity" of the U.S. in permitting "terrible crimes wrought by Israel, as it methodically lays waste a society of 1.4 million Palestinians." Compared to this, Darfar is a distraction.

Since I wrote on Mel Gibson the other day and his slasher flick which slanders the Mayan people, I've read an excellent perspective from Earl Shorris in the Dec. 18 issue of The Nation on this topic, "Mel and the Maya." Read the article, but avoid the film.

And finally, I want to recommend an interesting interpretation of America's history and failed promise by Andrew Bacevich in the Dec. 1 issue of Commonweal. Bacevich, a professor at Boston University, writes on "Twilight of the Republic? Seeds of Decline, Path to Renewal," arguing that "our corrupt age requires a new reformation." A decline in the march of progress, from the Empire of Production to the Empire of Consumption, from a "war on terror" that is just the latest phase in an expansionist project that is now three centuries old, however, is not a bad thing. Bacevich believes that we should "give up once and for all any pretensions about an 'indispensable nation' summoned to excercise 'benign global hegemony' in the midst of a uniquely opportune 'unipolar moment'." As a consequence of a new reformation, America might one day actually live up to its professed ideals. He's a bit dogmatic about America's "cultural assault on the world," a favorite position of the Christian and Islamic conservatives, but a prophetic read nonetheless.

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