The Bible and ISIS

An Atlantic article talks to ISIS members to understand their world view. They are idealists and want to create a godly land, with free health care and social security for all, where women will be women and men will be men (i.e. men will go kill things and come back to a warm hearth and good food and a servile wife). [Unsurprisingly, this last image makes me horny (Yes! Yes! I am a feminist but unfeminist stuff tends to make me horny, and I cannot do anything about it – the vagina likes what it likes – so quit hazzling me!).]

Back to ISIS – They believe that the apocalypse is imminent, and are waiting for it and are trying to hasten it’s arrival. They follow the Koran to the letter, and are required to kill other muslims and enslave non-muslims, whose lands they conquer. This is all very biblical! The Bible too predicts apocalypse and requires that believers kill all those whose lands are close to the promised land and enslave the women and children of those whose lands were more distant. God punished severely those who did not follow this rule (example, Saul in 1 David).

Biblical scholars talk their way out of the reality of all this biblically-required genocide by choosing to interpret these commands as referring to our sins i.e. we are required to completely destroy and enslave our own sinfulness (not actual human enemies). Interestingly, conservative American preachers don’t do the same trick of abstraction when it comes to Biblical commands about women, and in this they are completely aligned with ISIS (the difference is merely a matter of degree, but both agree that women cannot be leaders over men, and both interpret instances of women prophets (example, Deborah) as signs of the end-times).

The conclusion that these people – Bible & Koran thumpers – are a bunch of kooks seems unavoidable.

In stark contrast to this kookishness, I read in the same publication about how the black churches provided the key institutional framework for the civil rights movement, and continue to support (albeit at a lesser extent) the black-lives-matter movement. They see Jesus as the original revolutionary, dragged off by the powers-to-be, unfairly charged and killed.

Not sure where I am going with all this…

My son, the atheist

My son says God doesn’t exist. This statement came about suddenly, with no warning, at the end of our nightly reading session. My baby is suddenly a person, quite separate from me and with opinions very different from my own. I am torn between great pride and great shock. I probe more, and I discover that he doesn’t just think that God doesn’t exist; he thinks that my belief in God is a sign of my great fear and intellectual laziness. He says that it is perhaps because I am terrified that something horrible will happen that I feel the need to fall back on this mythical entity.

I am on the defensive now, and feel forced to *prove* that God does exist, an impossible task and particularly unsuited to someone as doubt-filled and uncertain as me. He is so much surer of his stance: for every Mother Teresa and Martin Luther, religion has produced thousands of ruthless zealots; religion does not make people kinder, it makes them more certain in their illogic; religion is used primarily to force others to conform and Christianity is especially suspect since it comes backed by richer and mightier groups; if there was one true God, then why is it that holy men-women across the ages have come up with such differing ideas of who this God is, each claiming their theory is fully correct?

I turn my head to look at this child sharing my pillow – who is this new person? This is not the same one, the one who, not-so-long-ago, would cry piteously if I didn’t sit next to his potty chair while he did his business. I am torn between pride at how well-thought out and critical his arguments are, and consternation at this insight into my child’s opinion of my faith, and concern that perhaps he will not discover a life-giving faith of his own.

Pride wins out.

And as I listen to him falling asleep, I pray that God will work his wonders and reach my son too.

What would you give up?

There is a striking parallel in the lives of saints across religions, whether it be the Hindu rishis or the Buddhist monks or the Catholic nuns. They let go of worldly tangles and exchange it for joy. That seems like a pretty fair deal. Would I be able to do the same?

Celibacy and silence: I believe the two are linked together since the absence of the former makes time for the latter. And I want the latter. The long hours of silence and prayer speaks to a deep thirst inside me, but is it possible to delink silence from celibacy? Why not structure my life to match the nuns’ schedule without giving up husband-sex-children? They wake up at 5.00, prayer-mass-bible-silence until breakfast at 9.00, then off to work, pray again for an hour at lunch, then work again, and then 5.30-7.30 community time, and then silence-prayer-bible-mass until bed. I could have the same schedule, simply replacing community time with family time. It would take discipline, but it is not impossible.

Giving up ipad, ipod, personal laptop, computer, and the vow of poverty: The nuns claim that giving these up was a big relief, and I can understand their view – how wonderful it would be to cease striving; to do one’s best every day but to unclench and let go of the death-grip on goals – career goals, goals for the kids, retirement-savings goals; what a relief it would be to let go. These certainly give me no joy, and stuff, in any case, happens, no matter how I try to bend reality to my will.

Still obsessed with nuns…

What is the secret of the nuns’ joy and peace? Can I replicate it, within the context of my life?

Let’s start with the easiest – makeup, pretty shoes/clothes etc. – these I think would be easy to give up, a relief not to have to think about what to wear to work everyday – the frustrating daily calculus of determining what would be feminine, but not too much so; what attire would display authority while still being approachable; what combination of sweater and scarf would ensure that no skin is displayed without treading into hijab territory. Oh and not having to worry about hair and its arbitrariness? Yes! Giving these up will not be a sacrifice. I can easily see how this alone – donning a uniform every day which covers my hair – would significantly improve my quality of life. And I wouldn’t even be the first to do this. So no problem with this one. I could simply decide on a “uniform” (white shirt and jeans?) and buy 15 pairs, and I am set for life. Done.

Community: Oh, to have the community that these women share! I am most envious of this. I bet that just this one thing – being among a community of sister saints – increases their joy. But this one is difficult to replicate for a lay person unless some serendipitous combination of circumstances makes good friends move close by and they also have the time for daily community.

And then there is obedience: This is the most problematic of all. The idea I think is the following: I want to read a book but the kid is sick, so I must joyfully (instead of resentfully) give up my desire and obey, enjoying my time with the kid. I can see how that would lead to peace. But what about obedience within a context of unfairness? There is something cow-like about these nuns who are joyful within a church that denies women. It is troubling, their untroubled joy. Do they not care about injustice and hence not hear God’s call to correct it? Or is it that we only hear that which already exists within us? Or are some of us are called to care about particular things, while being blind to other equally important things? It is troubling-confusing, the sisters’ joyful acceptance of the status-quo; inexplicable in an otherwise perfect model of what humans could really be.

Binge watching nuns

Every free minute of the past 2 weeks, I’ve spent watching youtube videos of nuns. I’m obsessed with these women: there is light and joy and peace radiating from them, and they burst into peals of giggles at the slightest provocation. As Oprah said in one of the youtube videos “what are they doing for their skin? They glow!” They disarm me with their humility and humor. This is who I want to be. But what is their secret, and is it possible to backward engineer and replicate their joy?

The nuns say God is the secret of their joy. They say the vow of chastity, poverty and obedience are crucial. Obedience is especially important – to negate self, and to bow to the will of a higher power, and to believe that earthly bosses/colleagues/circumstances are vehicles for Godly commands, and to obey, completely and radically. As I watch them prostrate themselves, my body aches to do the same; it is the same reaction I have to the motions of Namaaz; kneeling, bending, prostrating, raising one’s hands to the heavens in acceptance. They say community is crucial, and they have 2 hrs every day when they break their silence to laugh together as they play volleyball, hockey and cards. They say silence and prayer are at the heart of everything; time spent with the Lord listening, being still, allowing for space in a cluttered mind to listen for the still, small voice.

I am struck by the fact of these women, who’ve given up everything the world teaches us we need, and are more joyful than anyone I’ve seen in the world. No makeup, pretty clothes, no tweezing, no pretty shoes, a lot of silence and prayer, no children, no husband, no intimacy, no sex, no pay, no personal ipads, ipods, laptops, computers, and of course, obedience.

What would life be if one overturns a lifetime of assumptions about what one is supposed to be striving for, and simply stops and throws all of these out the window?

Religion and Feminism III

I’m on the fourth chapter of my bible study (it is amazing to me now that even though I was born and raised in the church, and have considered myself a practicing Christian for the past 8 years, I’d never actually read the bible end-to-end). As I read this book little-by-little, it blows my mind how twisted and one-sided bible teaching is. I’ve spent 38 years in the church, and I’ve heard, more-times-than-I-can-count precepts about women covering their heads and obeying their husbands, but never-ever-never have I heard the story of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah (Numbers 27: verses 1-10) – a bunch of feminists demanding property rights.

In my study, it seems that it would be completely biblically correct to go over the entire bible with a marker pen, and correct every mention of God as “He” into a “She” or “Ze“, because the word “Elohim” used in the original text is plural. In fact, God says, “Let us create man and woman in our image.” So the ubiquitous “He” definitely seems inaccurate.

It is amazing-horrifying that in all these years, I’ve heard the Sodom and Gomorrah story many times in sermons and elsewhere, and it is used as the linchpin for the church’s anti-gay stance – but have none of these people ever actually bothered to read Lot’s story? Because when I finally read this story, it is impossible to misunderstand – what God condemns in that story is not homosexuality but rape. The context of Sodom’s destruction was their sin – the sin of having an abundance of food and riches but not helping the poor and the needy, and not seeking justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and instead practicing abominable deeds (Ezekial 16; Isaiah 1): the abominable deeds refers to raping foreigners (irrespective of gender). So the word “sodomy” should (if-one-was-accurate) refer to ingratitude-uncaring-selfishness-xenophobia-rape; it had nothing to do with homosexuality.

Is there no one to defend religion from this twisting and stretching and perverting by one side? We, as feminists (or as liberals-humanists-anyone-with-some-common-sense), need to claim religion as ours (or at least stop dismissing religion as belonging to the nutcases trying to apply selectively the norms of a different era).

Religion and Feminism II

So here is my attempt to explain religion (as I see it and understand it and value it), and my hope is that others will join me in rescuing religion (or at least refrain from demonizing religion).

To me, religion at its crux (as represented by its holy texts) is unconcerned with culture; it is concerned with the more universal questions of connection, peace and joy. For instance, it is unconcerned about whether, in a particular age, it is considered appropriate to stone a woman to death for adultery, or whether, in another age, it is considered wholly appropriate to color-code your children in pink and blue. Those are matters for humans in each age to figure out. Religion doesn’t really care either way.

Or actually, I take that back.

It is not that religion doesn’t care either way about such questions or has nothing to say about such questions; it is just these issues are not the main purpose, the main concerns driving religion. These issues are the background context, and provide the setting for the larger and more universal questions about what drives our lives and why we must take the trouble to get up each morning. So in the Bible, for instance, there are stories of killings and women-taken-as-slaves-by-the victors in wars that were ordered by God. Oh horror!! But one has to read the whole book and not stop with these instances, because when we read the whole book and not just the stories of one particular age, then it becomes clear that killing-rape-victors was not the point-of-the-story – that was the unavoidable background context for the real story – the one about maintaining faith and trust and peace and joy when all is uncertain and everything is on the line.

And these stories that populate this holy book are complex and sophisticated multi-generational stories and there are layers of meaning, and if one just stops at the surface level without considering that every age has different ideas about what is okay and what is not, and that the specifics of these choices are largely irrelevant to questions about why we exist, then it is like going to the theater to watch a critically acclaimed play and then dismissing the play because we got distracted by what the actors were wearing.

And if it was a play and we dismissed it without bothering to peel back the layers and understand it, then it matters little. But if we do the same with a holy text like the Bible, then that decision, to choose ignorance, is consequential, because it hands over that entire area of life to the patriarchs; to be used as a bludgeon to beat other women down.

And it is amazing-horrifying how easy it seems to be do this – to use the complexity of religion’s stories (which is what makes them so real and true), and twist and stretch and shade and use to justify all sorts of cultural mishaps. And it makes me mad that something so true and perfect is twisted out of all recognition to justify some twisted ideology. And no one objects!!