Sunday, December 25, 2016

God appointed Jesus. The Empire appointed Herod

Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Let us remember what the world was like when “God so loved the world” that the Divine felt compelled to send his son. God appointed a young Jewish woman named Mary to birth God’s son. The Romans appointed Herod to deny God’s hopes. Alas, the world had a choice.

Upon learning the nature of the child she carried, Luke’s Gospel records, Mary rejoiced. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” She said that through Jesus’s birth, God would “put down the mighty from their thrones.”

Islam’s Quran (3:47-48) includes similar teachings about the profundity of this child. “He will teach him the Book and wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel.  And will make him a messenger to the Children of Israel saying, ‘Indeed I have come to you with a sign from your Lord.  I make for you out of clay the likeness of a bird, then breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by the permission of God.  And I heal the blind and the leper, and I bring the dead to life by the permission of God.” 

These claims about Jesus and Herod’s fear of him guaranteed a clash between Imperial Rome and Jesus followers. Even as Jesus lay in the manger, Herod solicited the wise men to find that baby so he could put an end to Mary’s vision even before it started. In their book “The First Christmas,” Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan ague, “That tectonic clash of kingdoms is the context of our Christmas texts.”

It was a clash between Roman Imperialism and Jesus’s message. Rome looked upon the Emperor as Divine, giving him familiar titles such as Son of God and Savior of the World. Roman theology was designed to bring peace through oppression and violence. God’s plan was different, described by Mary in Luke 1:51-53, the Magnificat. Through Jesus, peace would come by scattering the proud, exalting the lowly, feeding the hungry, and sending the rich away empty handed.

Borg and Crossan described the choices as “two alternative transcendental visions. The Empire promises peace through violent force.” Through Jesus, God promises “peace through nonviolent justice.” From the day of Jesus’ birth through Christmas 2016 the same two alternatives have always existed.

We celebrate the birth of Jesus amidst troubling and confusing times. That’s been the way for each of the hundreds of Christmases since “the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:15-16) 

It is, unfortunately, the human reality. The baby Jesus and his parents fled Herod, becoming refugees in Egypt. Today’s refugees board dangerously overloaded boats with others of God’s children, fleeing despots much worse than Herod. Think about this. We celebrate Christmas in Wyoming where most Christians are not troubled that our state remains the only one of fifty not to agree to resettle refugees just like Mary, Joseph, and their baby. Simultaneously, there are citizens of our country living in fear because some hate them for their skin color, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

This continues in 2016 because some who have power over others believe peace comes to earth through the abuse of that power. Jesus followers know that’s false. Peace comes through God’s justice.

Isaiah wrote that God, “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

Choosing God’s justice is what brings “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

To my Christian friends, Merry Christmas. To my Jewish friends, Happy Hanukkah. To everyone, Happy Holidays. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Irony is not dead in Wyoming

Following September 11, 2001, Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, pronounced irony dead. 2016 proved the rumors of the death of irony have been greatly exaggerated.

Irony is the use of words to express the opposite of their literal meaning. This literary form often includes strong doses of satire. Take for example, “The man said, ‘What a beautiful view,’ as he looked out the window at an alley filled with garbage.” Or this, “The woman worried herself sick obsessing on her health.” And the classic, Wyoming’s motto, “The Equality State.”

Irony is a useful tool when seeking to draw attention to the foibles of public officials and others with power. The humor is in the eye of the beholder. Jonathan Swift was one of the great writers to use irony. In his book “A Modest Proposal,” Swift urged starving Irish peasants to sell their children to the aristocrats for food, solving, he suggested both the hunger problem and poverty.

Irony can be difficult to detect among those who take things literally, even more among the targets of the irony. The Bible includes a great deal of irony. Consider the confrontation between the prophet Nathan and King David. After David raped and impregnated Bathsheba, Nathan confronts the King. Not directly. Nathan tells a story about a man who had only one lamb. A rich man took that little lamb from the man who loved it.

David’s anger seethed against the rich man. David couldn’t see the irony because the story was about him. Nathan had to draw a picture for the King. “You are that man,” he cried out.

This brings to mind a couple of recent items in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (WTE). First is the story of an attempt by certain Laramie County Republicans to censure others for the crime of exercising their constitutional rights by running against other Republicans in the recent election. (No censure for local GOP members” December 20, 2016). Ironic enough on its face, the article added classic satire as proof the literary form is far from dead. The targets of the censure resolution were accused of “conduct unbecoming a Republican.”

Not all readers will recognize the irony. It must have given a belly-laugh to those who did. Its use here displays the difference between irony and satire. Satire is the employment of irony for the purpose of indirectly, even humorously exposing the fallacies often present in contemporary political dialogue.

Then there was another letter-to-the-editor from Joe Elkins.

Many of you know Joe. You have to admire his tenacity. For eight years, he has been a relentlessly harsh critic of President Obama. His single-themed letters-to-the-editor have appeared regularly in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. He has used the space to offer his brand of proof that the President is not an American, is disloyal to the country, and is a Muslim born in Kenya. Joe harpooned Wyoming’s congressional delegation for not taking action to remove this villain from the White House.

Here comes the irony. On December 20, Joe wrote another letter, signaling a new era (“Liberal zombies need to accept Trump”). Having been abandoned by most Republicans in his search for the truth about Obama’s birthplace, he resorted to a different tact. Amnesia. To give Joe the benefit of the doubt, his claim included a statement that must have been intended to be satire. “Conservative Americans,” he wrote, “despite their serious trepidations about Obama’s liberal mindset, and despite numerous reports of widespread voter fraud, accepted the results of the election and hoped for the best.”

Amnesia or irony? Probably a convenient, virulent form of amnesia. Even so, I would hope that Joe could one day see the irony of his letter.

Don’t fault Joe. His is the opinion of a lot of Republicans who think Trump’s detractors should “just get over it.” Those of us with any sense of irony will have a hard time doing that. I predict others will see the irony long before the rest of us “get over it.”

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Hate crimes for cows. How about humans?

I’m delighted to read the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation endorsed hate crimes legislation. (“Tougher penalties sought for shooting Wyoming livestock” Wyoming Tribune-Eagle November 26, 2016). Well, sort of.

Admittedly, the term “hate crimes” is not a politically-correct title for explaining such legislation. The title confuses people about what these laws do. They don’t criminalize hate. Hate is still legal. These laws enhance penalties to reduce the commission of certain crimes. Hate crimes legislation provide increased penalties when a crime is committed for the purpose of victimizing people because of their skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.

The legislation supported by the Farm Bureau do the same. They seek to enhance penalties courts may impose on people who victimize their cows. Today anyone wrongfully killing livestock must pay a fine and reimburse the farmer or rancher for the value of the animal. The Farm Bureau doesn’t think an “eye for an eye” approach is sufficient. It wants tougher penalties. It wants “four eyes for an eye.” If the Farm Bureau gets its way, anyone shooting a cow will have to reimburse the owner in an amount four times the animal’s fair market value.

It works this way. If someone shoots my little dog Bob, they are liable to me for my beloved pet’s fair market value. But the Farm Bureau proposes to place their animals in a different class. They think their animals deserve more protection than the law gives Bob.

Delegates to the Farm Bureau’s recent state convention argued convincingly there are simply too many people shooting their livestock. Enhanced penalties, they suggest, are necessary to deter those crimes. “Voting delegates felt the penalty should be substantial enough to deter future actions,” Federation Executive Vice President Ken Hamilton explained.

I get it. Not many criminals are threatening to shoot Bob. However, poachers are shooting too many farm animals. Farm Bureau members have a case. Farmers and ranchers believe enhanced penalties are the solution to crimes targeting livestock. The legislature should listen to them. Enhancing the penalties for such crimes may just work.

Now consider this. The logical extension of that kind of thinking would lead one to believe the same approach could also deter crimes against certain classes of people. Just as people are shooting more cows, more people are victimizing people of color, Muslims, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community.

It’s important to know that simply hating a person is not a crime. Nor is hating a cow. When you act out of hate a crime is committed. The FBI defines “hate crime” as a criminal offense motivated by “an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity.”

And just as the Farm Bureau reports a troubling increase in cow shootings, the FBI reports a frightening increase in crimes targeting some human beings. Among religion-based targets, anti-Jewish attacks were higher in sheer numbers while attacks against Muslims increased the most, rising 67% between 2014 and 2015 when overall hate crimes rose 6.8%. During that period crimes against gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people were up five percent.

USA Today reports the problem sharply increased following the November 8 election. “Civil rights advocates have been tracking hundreds of incidents since last month’s contentious election in which communities of color and other groups have been targets of harassment, intimidation, and worse.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center documented that “In the ten days following Donald Trump's victory, we've seen 867 incidents of harassment, intimidation and even violence. The targets? Immigrants, African Americans, LGBT people, Muslims, Jews, and women. And in almost 40% of the reported incidents, harassers explicitly invoked the name or campaign rhetoric of president-elect Donald Trump.”

President-elect Donald Trump instructed any of his followers who might be involved to “stop it.”

The Wyoming legislature needs to send a “stop-it” message to poachers as well as bigots. If you target either a farmer’s livestock or human beings, penalties imposed on you will be harsh enough to cause others to think twice.