Friday, April 29, 2005

Disney Hates Christians?

Chuck Colson used to be President’s Nixon’s special counsel. He even ended up in federal prison for his role in the infamous Watergate scandal. But he became a Christian and eventually developed into one of America’s most prominent evangelical ministers. He recently wrote an article originally appearing in the online magazine Breakpoint and subsequently carried by Beliefnet in which he complains about Disney’s respecting Asian religion by building a theme park in Hong Kong according to feng shui principles and burning incense while, at the same time, insulting American Christians by allowing “Gay Days” and featuring evolution exhibits in its domestic theme parks.

The posted reactions from Beliefnet members to Colson’s article have been unanimously and often harshly negative. This is what I posted there.

Many here have expressed their opinions of Colson’s article, and, interestingly, that opinion seems to run unanimously against his message. I admit that I feel a strong tendency to agree with many of the comments. However, I don’t like to rush to judgment in matters such as these. I like to consider all sides of an argument carefully before expressing a definite opinion. So below is an open letter to Mr. Colson addressing my questions and misgivings about what he wrote.

Dear Mr. Colson:

I’ve just read your Breakpoint article “Feng Shui at Mickey’s House,” and I must admit that my immediate reaction was one of bemusement and incredulity that an intelligent person such as yourself could have penned an argument or complaint that, on the face of it, seemed so patently absurd and ridiculous. But I don’t like to jump to conclusions about things like this. I like to give arguments and complaints and the people who voice them due respect and consideration. That is why I’m writing to you now. I’m hoping you can clarify a few matters for me about your article.

If I understood you correctly, you accuse Disney of bending over backward to placate Asians in Asia with the “kooky Eastern fad” of feng shui and burning incense while figuratively spitting in the face of righteous Christians here in America with “Gay Days,” “blasphemous” movies, and public displays of evolutionary theory. You seem to imply that Disney should show at least as much respect for fundamentalist Christian sensibilities here in America as it does for Buddhist ones in Hong Kong but that it obviously doesn’t, and that good Christians should and do take offense at this.

First of all, what is your definition of “fad”? An online dictionary I consulted defines “fad” as “A fashion that is taken up with great enthusiasm for a brief period of time; a craze.” No doubt, any dictionary you might consult would offer essentially the same definition. That being the case, did you know that feng shui has been practiced in one form or other in Asia for probably thousands of years? Does this sound like a mere “fad”?

Second, you call feng shui Buddhist, but did you know that its origins predate Buddhism by millennia and that, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “feng shui can be classified as either magic, religion, or science, but it is questionable whether these categories have any validity in Chinese thought; rather these so-called magical practices are an intrinsic part of the worldviews expressed in China's main religious and philosophical systems…”? In other words, feng shui is, by scholarly account, an integral thread in the Asian cultural tapestry and worldview and not some faddishly new and narrowly Buddhist belief. And what this suggests is that, unlike fundamentalist Christian antipathy to gays and evolution, feng shui is so widely embraced by Asian peoples that Disney’s building its Hong Kong theme park in a way that honors feng shui’s principles is, at the very least, likely to draw more paying customers and bring in more money than not having “Gay Days” and evolutionary displays in its American parks could probably ever do. In other words, isn’t it more plausible to believe that Disney doesn’t respect Buddhists more than fundamentalist Christians or disrespect fundamentalist Christians more than Buddhists, but that it’s simply trying to earn more money by making its businesses more attractive to a broader range of people in ways that are both legal and harmless? Isn’t this more plausible than your implication that Disney’s on some kind of sinfully perverse mission to slight fundamentalist Christianity and offend fundamentalist Christians?

Third, you call feng shui “kooky.” But if by “kooky” you mean that feng shui is strange, crazy, or silly falsehood, why is the belief that there are methods for optimizing the flow of vital energy for good health and prosperity any kookier than countless fundamentalist Christian beliefs including the belief that God was given birth in human form by a virgin to show us the only “way, truth, and life” out of all the ways taught by all the world’s enduring religious traditions, and that he then rose from the cross after his crucifixion to visit with his disciples before ascending to heaven?

Fourth, you dismiss feng shui as sheer “superstition.” The same dictionary I consulted earlier defines superstition as: “A belief, practice, or rite irrationally maintained by ignorance of the laws of nature or by faith in magic or chance.” No doubt your dictionary would agree. How then is feng shui any more superstitious than the belief that reading a book penned by men and following its prescribed conduct and praying and repenting to an unseen deity will send one to a heavenly realm of everlasting bliss after one dies? Many would no doubt agree that feng shui seems a whole lot more rational and credible than these Christian bible stories.

Fifth, isn’t Disney a private company that does not claim that either it or its theme parks are Christian? If so, why is it under any obligation not to allow gay people a special day for gathering in its privately owned, non-sectarian parks to enjoy rides and other attractions together, and why should a modern, privately owned, non-sectarian theme park not be able to present a display of modern biological science’s best understanding of life on this planet?

Finally, why would an intelligent and thoughtful Christian person feel offended if a privately owned, non-sectarian company runs its business and theme parks in ways designed to optimize its earnings by appealing to the broadest possible range of customers both here and abroad?

I could ask many more questions about your article, but I’d like to see and respectfully consider your answers to the questions above before I proceed or form any strong conclusions regarding the merits of what you wrote in Breakpoint.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Lethal Injection Is Torture?

As I’ve said before, I’m against the death penalty. I have many reasons for this. They include the horrible possibility of executing the innocent, the tremendous advantage of the rich and famous over the poor in avoiding the death chamber, and the dehumanizing effect of the death penalty on the people who carry it out and on society as a whole. Many have elaborated on these themes; I won’t do so now.

I believe that some crimes are so heinous that those who are found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of committing them should forfeit their freedom for the rest of their lives. No ifs, ands, or buts. But I can’t think of any crime that deserves the death penalty. The more heinous the crime, the more mentally ill, defective, or disabled the perpetrator is likely to have been at the time, and I don’t believe in killing people for being any of those things, any more than I believe in killing people for being unable to see, hear, or walk.

However, I, like most who oppose the death penalty or consider it a necessary evil, have taken some consolation in the adoption of lethal injection by most states as the method of choice for executions. If executions have to be carried out, at least the condemned don’t have to suffer once the process commences. They’re mercifully drugged into a deep sleep before they’re poisoned to death. Or so we thought.

A recent study suggests otherwise. Researchers Dr.Leonidas Koniaris and colleagues at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, analyzed the execution protocols of Texas and Virginia (where 45% of the nation’s executions are carried out) as well as autopsy toxicology data from 49 executions in other states using lethal injection. What they found is profoundly disturbing, or at least it should be.

Execution by lethal injection is a three-stage process. First, a general anesthetic like sodium thiopental is administered to induce unconsciousness, followed by pancuronium bromide to paralyze the body and breathing muscles, and then potassium chloride to stop the heart. However, if not enough of the first drug is administered, the condemned could remain conscious to experience the misery and terror of suffocation and the “excruciating” pain caused by the administration of potassium chloride without being able to move or in any way express their agony.

The researchers found that the executions in Texas and Virginia were carried out by unsupervised medical technicians (Doctors are prohibited by their professional ethics from participating.) who weren’t trained in anesthesia, who didn’t monitor the anesthesia or collect data during or after the execution, and who weren’t subjected to any peer review afterwards. The researches also analyzed the toxicology reports from the other 49 executions and determined that most of the executed didn’t have as much sodium thiopental in their blood as would be required for surgery, and that 21 had thiopental concentrations consistent with consciousness. In other words, many who are executed by lethal injection may suffer a little or a lot after the drugs are administered.

I realize that many would argue that these individuals deserve to suffer for the suffering they inflicted on others. Nothing I could say here would likely change their minds. But those of us who don’t believe in an “eye for an eye” or who accept the Constitutional prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” should be very concerned about lethal injection and seek to insure that it’s either carried out humanely or not all all. If we’re going to kill people in the most cold-blooded and premeditated way possible, let us at least not torture while we kill.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

No Gay Foster Parents in Texas?

A state representative in the Texas legislature is trying to pass a bill that would make it illegal for gays and bisexuals to be foster parents. Rep. Robert Talton, who is Republican, says, “It is our responsibility to make sure that we protect our most vulnerable children, and I don't think we are doing that if we allow a foster parent that is homosexual or bisexual.” He has also baldly stated that children are better off in orphanages than in the foster homes of gay or bisexual parents. Under this bill, prospective foster parents would be asked about and investigated as to their sexual orientation before being accepted, and people already serving as foster parents would be subjected to the same. Anyone found to be gay or bisexual would be prevented from acting as foster parents, and those who already are would have the children under their care immediately removed from their homes.

This bill sailed through the Texas house under a 135-6 vote and is now on its way to the senate. If it passes, as it surely will, Texas will become the only state to ban gays from being foster parents, but I can well suppose that it won’t be the last, unless the Supreme Court prohibits it. This seems unlikely, especially if Bush is able to appoint anyone to the Court.

I felt very angry when I first heard about this. Now I mostly just feel sad that so many people think the way these Texas legislators think or, perhaps, pretend to think in order to curry favor with religious fundamentalists bent on making this one nation under the God of the literally interpreted bible.

I presume that one of their primary rationalizations for passing this law is to protect children from being turned into homosexuals or bisexuals either as a result of being molested by adult foster parents of their own sex (So what about placing children with foster parents of the opposite sex?), or more subtly conditioned into thinking that sexual intimacy with people of the same sex is morally and divinely acceptable--an open invitation to a headlong plunge into homosexual depravity and ultimate damnation at the hands of an angry God.

So far as I know, there is no compelling evidence that children raised by homosexuals are more likely to be molested or to become gay than are children raised by heterosexuals. If there is, I think that it needs to be presented to the American public for our careful consideration. But I suspect that the only “evidence” these legislators have for banning gays and bisexuals from being foster parents is a few questionable passages from the “good book” saying that homosexuality is a sin.

But even if one believes that it is a sin, how does it necessarily follow that children raised by adults who practice this “sin” behind closed doors are going to choose it for themselves? It has always seemed to me that Christian fundamentalists suffer from an inordinate fear that homosexuality is so intrinsically and overwhelmingly attractive that we must all be protected from the slightest expression or mention of it lest we be seduced by the tremendously powerful dark side of our carnal desires. What’s more, I have always found it paradoxical that fundamentalists believe in free will and that sin is an expression of free will (i.e., a freely willful choice to violate God’s commands), yet they’re so intent on protecting us all from being "turned into" sinners--homosexual or otherwise--from seeing sin around us. It seems to me that if one really believes that God damns only sinners and that sin is a free choice, then he shouldn’t be afraid of people sporting sinful “lifestyles” around him, since he has the God-given power to resist their sin. In fact, it seems to me that he should be grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate to himself and to God almighty that he is exercising his free-will to choose virtue over vice in the presence of vice and not only in a world where all vice and temptation has been sanitized away. For just as there cannot be true courage without the overcoming of fear, how can there be true virtue or righteousness without the overcoming of sinful temptation? As Freud said, “The moral man is not he who is never tempted, but he who resists his temptations.”

As for me, I believe that if we’re going to start protecting foster children from potentially corrupting influences, we should begin by making sure that they aren’t placed in the homes of adults who believe in biblical fairy tales and who teach them that if they don’t constantly repent of their disgustingly sinful urges and acts and do their very best at all times to walk the straight and narrow path of God’s blessing, they’ll burn in screaming agony forever and ever in Satan’s torture chamber. That, to me, is perhaps the ultimate psychological abuse and corruption of a child.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Senseless Tragedy

A few days ago here in Sacramento a man got into a fistfight with two other men, took a punch to the side of the head, fell to the ground, and died a couple of days later. His organs were harvested for transplantation. He was 39 years old. He was a banking executive with a long, full life ahead of him. He left behind a 12-year-old son.

The other men involved in this tragedy left the scene after the victim collapsed onto the pavement, and they turned themselves in the next day after learning that the man was mortally injured and that police were looking for them. The police declined to arrest them because it was tentatively decided that this was a case of “mutual combat” which, according to witnesses, the victim instigated by pulling his car over, jumping out, and launching the first punch.

I don’t understand why these men weren’t arrested for at least fleeing the scene after their victim fell to the ground unconscious, but the DA may still press charges after reviewing the case. I don’t understand why a young man with a young son and so much promise had to die such a senseless death. Some witnesses said he was very loud and obnoxious during the professional basketball game he attended before the incident and that he later, intentionally or not, aggressively cut off while leaving the arena parking lot the vehicle containing the men who killed him. On the other hand, his friends and family said he was a calm and good-hearted man who never raised his voice in anger, did his job well, was a loving and devoted father to his son, and coached a boy’s soccer team.

I suspect that there was truth in all these accounts. He probably was an essentially good man who was nevertheless intensely competitive and liked to blow off steam at sporting events and drive aggressively in his luxury sedan and who didn’t take any crap from anyone. Now he’s dead because he and the other two men got reflexively caught up in an escalating chain of testosterone-fueled overreactions.

Life has probably always been precarious, but it seems even more so now in some ways as more and more people and cars crowd into tight spaces and hurry through the day at an ever more feverish pace and pitch to ‘perform’ and ‘produce’, and all around them, in real life and on so-called ‘reality’ television, people disrespect, distrust, deride, and destroy their ‘competition’ to win the big game or the big money or simply survive to see and perform and compete another day.

If only people would slow down, calm down, relax, and live mindful lives of respectful loving-kindness to themselves and others. But, you say, they can’t afford to in this fast-paced era that demands more and more from us in less and less time! Yet, it seems to me that we can’t afford not to. If we continue living the way we do now, life will become less and less worth living, and more and more lives will end prematurely in pointless, violent tragedy the way Mark Leidheisl’s did on a pleasant spring evening on a Sacramento street.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Same as the Old Pope?

I’m not Catholic, but I’ve still been very interested in the Church’s selection of a new pope. I watched in awe as the cardinals assembled for their conclave in the Sistine Chapel, with the sublime five-hundred-year-old paintings of Michelangelo adorning the west wall and ceiling. I hoped that these men would be led by a higher wisdom to choose a new pope who would usher the Church and its “flock” of a billion souls into the world of the 21st Century, where women, homosexuals, the desperately poor and oppressed, and interfaith dialogue would receive a fair hearing.

However, I was hardly surprised by the choice the cardinals made of a man who seems poised to keep the Church mired in the psychology, theology, and ethics of the Middle Ages. Old institutions and old men tend to respond to change and challenge with a fearful clinging to tradition, no matter how flawed it might be.

In summarizing the reactions of more progressive minded Catholics to the new pope, gay Catholic Andrew Sullivan probably said it best when he wrote:

I was trying to explain last night to a non-Catholic just how dumb-struck many reformist Catholics are by the elevation of Ratzinger. And then I found a way to explain. This is the religious equivalent of having had four terms of George W. Bush only to find that his successor as president is Karl Rove. Get it now?

Perhaps Pope Benedict XVI will surprise or even astonish us with a mind and heart transformed by his new office and the “Spiritus Sanctos” into loving and compassionate openness to the realities of today’s world and to adversities and sufferings Thomas Aquinas could have hardly foreseen or understood 750 years ago. But if he doesn’t, maybe it will be a blessing in disguise. Perhaps untold numbers of Catholics who earnestly seek to know God and Truth will finally realize that neither is to be found solely within the tired myths and dogmas of institutionalized antiquity, but must be realized through a newer, more vital, more integral approach that honors, embraces, and combines the best understandings and practices of the past with those of the present from every wisdom tradition and discipline.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Mixed Feelings About John Paul II

The pope’s funeral took place today. Dignitaries from all over the world attended, and the media shared it with all of us who weren’t there. What I saw of it was majestic and moving. It seems that countless Catholics and non-Catholics alike admired and adored John Paul II, and the television media has been singing virtually non-stop praises of his person and papacy ever since it became aware that his death was imminent.

While the pope lie dying, countless millions all over the world prayed for him to die peacefully and for his soul to rise to heaven. But doesn’t the Church teach that God is supremely wise, loving, and merciful? Then why pray to God to either do what he, for his own reasons, had already decided to do with the pope or, for his own supremely good reasons, had decided not to do? Did the praying multitudes believe that their prayers would or even should persuade God to do what he wasn’t, in his infinite wisdom, planning to do already?

I’m inclined not to believe that people’s souls live on after bodily death. But if they do, I hope, although I do not pray to a biblical god, that John Paul’s soul has found peace and joy in its new life. And if there is no personal afterlife, I’m glad that the pope’s suffering has dissolved into painless oblivion. Nevertheless, I have mixed feelings about his papacy and his church.

On the one hand, I believe that he did his best to serve an institution in which he believed and which he loved with all his heart, and I respect and admire him for this as well as for his intelligence, erudition, and enduringly charismatic presence on the world stage. Yet, I also believe that while he and his church have done great good in this world, they have done an equal if not greater amount of terrible harm.

My ambivalence is well represented by two articles I read online today. The first is by the Reverend Jim Wallis who lauds John Paul II for his steadfast and inspiring commitment to a “consistent ethic of life” that all of us, especially those on the religious right and political left, would do well to emulate.

The second article, by Christopher Hitchens, argues that when the pope’s formal pronouncements were consistent with traditional Church teachings on such issues as sexual morality, contraception, and the right to die, they and he have been consistently and often devastatingly wrong, and that there was sometimes grave and sometimes ludicrous inconsistency between his words or the Church’s teachings on the one hand and his deeds in terms of his handling of such matters as child abuse by priests, genocide in Rwanda, his opposition to the liberation of the Kuwaiti and Iraqi people from the clutches of Saddam and of the Afghani people from the Taliban, his speedy beatification and canonization of such dubious figures as Cardinal Stepinac of Croatia and Jose Maria Escriva respectively, his complicity in the idolization of the Virgin Mary, and his silence in the face of the Assad regime’s blatantly anti-Semitic remarks during his visit to Syria in 2001. Hitchens ends his article with these harsh words:

“Unbelievers are more merciful and understanding than believers, as well as more rational. We do not believe that the pope will face judgment or eternal punishment for the millions who will die needlessly from AIDS, or for his excusing and sheltering of those who committed the unpardonable sin of raping and torturing children, or for the countless people whose sex lives have been ruined by guilt and shame and who are taught to respect the body only when it is a lifeless cadaver like that of Terri Schiavo. For us, this day is only the interment of an elderly and querulous celibate, who came too late and who stayed too long, and whose primitive ideology did not permit him the true self-criticism that could have saved him, and others less innocent, from so many errors and crimes.”

I don’t know who the new pope will be, but I’m sorry to say that I suspect that he will be just as flawed a representative of a flawed institution as was his predecessor, if not more so. Nevertheless, I hope that he can do some good in a world that desperately needs it.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Talk Less, Listen More

We all know politicians who proudly assert that God is on their side in war and in their domestic agendas. This has always struck me as self-righteously presumptuous, arrogant, and dangerous. For those who are unshakably convinced that a personal Supreme Being endorses what they do are very likely to want to keep doing it no matter how dubious and destructive it is without giving it a second thought, and their appeals to fundamentalist religion usually manage to draw enough popular support to allow them to keep doing it until it has inflicted untold suffering and even death. What’s more, they and their supporters tend to disparage, demonize, and oppress those who disagree with them. For if God is on their side, then those who oppose them also oppose God, and those who oppose God are simply evil and deserve to be ignored and worse.

How unlike these sanctimonious politicians was Abraham Lincoln who urged the people of his day to stop insisting that God was on their side and to start hoping and praying that they were on God’s side. What a different mentality it is to go from dogmatic, unyielding insistence that one is right to open-minded and open-hearted acknowledgement that one might be wrong and to respect those and the opinions of those who say they are.

I am reminded of the words of a Hindu sage who when asked about the difference between prayer and meditation answered, “When I pray, I talk and God listens; and when I meditate, God talks and I listen.” How I wish that more politicians and regular citizens would do less talking and preaching and more reflective listening, by whatever name, to the “still, small voice” speaking from deep within their hearts and souls.