Glad to have you here

UntitledI was at the supermarket today when a woman wearing a niqab got in line behind me.

For those unfamiliar with styles of Muslim dress, a niqab is an outfit worn by women in the more conservative sects of Islam. It covers not only the woman’s head but most of her face as well. All I could see of her were her eyes.

And her hands. As she stood in the express lane, this woman stayed busy texting someone on her phone. Put my oldest daughter in a niqab, and the two of them could have been twins.

It seems a lot these days that all we notice is the things that make us different from one another. We speak different languages, dress in different clothes, and profess different faiths. Our skin comes in different tones, and our ancestors come from different lands. There are people in the news media and even in our government who tell us that those differences are tremendous, and even insurmountable. They tell us that we should be afraid because of what those differences represent, and even try to drive out of our country those who don’t look like us.

Those differences can be impressive, but there is so many details of day-to-day living that we share. Aside from this woman with her cell phone compulsion, I’ve broken bread with a Muslim man my own age who laments that his kids don’t know who The Beatles were and can’t sing along to “Let It Be.”

I’ve been to services at a mosque where one of the speakers commented during her remarks that she had been asked to speak a full five minutes before she went to the podium. The male speakers had so many important words to share that they ran over their allotted time until the food was cold and nobody was listening to the important words because everyone was hungry.

Last Thursday I spoke to a man who doesn’t attend a mosque regularly, and if you ask him why, he shrugs. “I don’t need to be with other people or go to a building to worship God,” he said. “I can do that by myself at home.”

You see, there are some thngs that transcend religion and creed. We have far more in common than we usually realize.

I didn’t want inadvertently to make a scene, and so I didn’t stare at my compatriot in the checkout lane. But I’m glad she was there.

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Beyond the plain reading: The Bible and same-sex relations

What can ancient porn discovered in Pompeii tell us about the context behind some of the passages of Scripture used to argue against the normalization of same-sex relationships?

This is the question raised and explored in an article by Carol Kuruvilla, titled “Could this ancient porn change the way we think about Christianity and homosexuality?” In the article, Kuruvilla and her sources discuss an archaeological in Pompeii and what it reveals about sex in the Roman world, and how that might have influenced the Apostle Paul in the three epistles attributed to him that mention homosexuality.

The Christian Scriptures reference same-sex relations three times. The first is in Romans 1:18-32, where Paul talks about the rebellion of humanity and the evil things people have done. In his list of behaviors he includes not only male-on-male homosexuality, but lesbianism too, making this the only place in the entire Bible where female homosexuality gets a mention.

Paul mentions male-on-male sex again in his first letter to the Corinthian church, where it again is listed among a pretty comprehensive list of the ways in which people take advantage of, mistreat and abuse one another. It gets its final reference in 1 Timothy 1:9-10, where the writer expresses a belief that the Torah was given to rein in lawbreakers, patricides, slave-traders — and homosexuals.

With company like that, it’s no wonder my friend Steve the Elder and other Christians interpret these passages in such strident terms. It’s hard to imagine that anyone in their right mind would try to defend someone like John Wayne Gacy by saying that Gacy hadn’t been like other serial killers, but had loved and valued his victims or, as we should call them, “partners.” Why then, one might ask, should we view homosexuality more kindly than its neighbors on that list? A plain reading is clear that same-sex relations are depraved.

Of course, one of the challenges of reading any text, but especially an ancient text from another culture, is that we need to make a deliberate effort to understand the context that the MS comes to us from—the history, the literature, the society, the culture and the religious scene. The “plain reading” of the text often misses important points that can shape our understanding of the reading, especially in translation.

I’ve known women who wear head coverings because the plain reading of Paul’s letter says they should as a sign of modesty. Conversely, a plain reading of Genesis also says that a head covering is how you can tell a woman is a prostitute.

Let’s enhance our plain reading by looking at the passage more closely. In Romans 1:18-32 Paul specifically refers to the wickedness of humanity, and then goes through a laundry list of human behavior that illustrates the wickedness he’s talking about. Items on that list consistently involve mistreating or abusing others: envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, gossip, slander, hating God, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, being an “inventor of evil,” disobeying parents, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness and ruthlessness.

Every one of those behaviors involves a fundamental disregard for the well-being of others. It’s clear that the issue not gay identity or even same-sex relations as our society undertsands and practices those concepts. It’s cruelty. A man who rapes another man in prison (or in the city commons, in the case of Sodom) as a crude exercise in power and domination, belongs in the same category as the other people included in Paul’s lists. Two men (or two women, for that matter) who love one another; support one another; face life’s hurdles and disappointments together; and share one another’s triumphs, joys and sorrows do not. Their behaviors are not the same.

In both those situations, there is some sort of same-sex sexual activity going on, but morally they’re not even in the same universe. If they’re translated the same way, an important and nonsubtle difference has been lost.

The takeaway from Kuruvilla’s article and from research generaelly into Roman culture is that sex often was not about love and commitment, but about power. A Roman man could penetrate a non-Roman, a slave and often underlings. Such actions typically were brutal, nonromantic and would not pass the muster for today’s standards of consent.

Understanding the practices and customs of the Greco-Roman culture helps us to understand that broader context where Paul’s letters are concerned. Given that context, it’s plain to see why he would include male-on-male sexual acts with crimes like murder, patricide, and sowing discord and strife. If male-on-male sex is nonconsensual violent rape, if it involves the coercion of a child by a mentor, if it involves purchasing a slave for the express purpose of sexual exploitatiom,who wouldn’t be repulsed by it?

That’s a long, long way from same-sex relationships by two men in love with one another, or by two women coming together. Abusive relationships do occur in the gay and lesbian communities, but as far as I’m aware they’re no more normative than they are within the heterosexual community. Long story short: The root issue in Christ is how we treat one another, rather than whom people have sex with and how they have it. If someone is gay, trans or identifies somewhere else on the spectrum, it shouldn’t be considered an issue, and we should respect their dignity.

Now you might say I’m wrong, and I’ll concede the possibility. But to be honest, I’d rather err on the side of affirming the dignity of other people and the value of their relationships, because that’s what I see Christ doing time and time again in the gospels.

As it says in the book of Deuteronomy, “Justice, and only justice you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” Justice is our highest calling, and it’s what we need to ensure for the gay community.

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Alone in hell

UntitledI woke up last night and knew I was in hell. The space among us is wider than what lies between stars, so that even the tenderest “I love you” is lost in the darkness and never finds the ears it is meant for.

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Of six-legged pigs and dwarf elephants

UntitledTwenty-some years ago, when my wife and I first started dating, I noticed that in her collection of stuffed animals she had a pig and an elephant that were cut from the same cloth, almost certainly in a literal sense.

The pig and the elephant had the same build. Same legs. Same tail. Same ears. Same head. Same bow. The only difference was that the elephant had a trunk while the pig had a snout. Also, the pig was three or four times as large as the elephant. They were even made from the same pink material.

Two years later, my wife and her roommate were seniors. Erika unveiled her new stuffed animal, an octopus also cut from the same pink cloth. I promptly named it Six-Legged Pig.

A couple years later at graduate school, one of Erika’s new friends called it “Inky,” based on the assigned name on the tag.

“No,” Erika said, “that’s ‘Six-Legged Pig.'”

“But it’s not a pig!” the friend said.

“I know.”

“It doesn’t have six legs!”

“You just have to know Dave.”

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Peter Salem

Have you ever hear about Peter Salem?

He was born in 1750, an African-American slave in Massachusetts. When Salem received his freedom in 1775, he went and joined the Continental Army and fought for our nation’s freedom.

As part of the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, Salem fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill, one of the first significant battles of the American Revolution, one that showed that the colonies actually might have a chance at winning independence.

According to chronicles of the battle, Salem mortally wounded British Marine Major John Pitcairn. Salem went on to serve a total four years and eight months in the Continental Army, and was honorably discharged on Dec. 31, 1779.

We owe our freedom to the service and the sacrifices of other Muslims like him.

One of the greatest freedoms we have in our country is the freedom of religion. Guaranteed by the First Amendment, it assures that we have the right to worship God according to the custom of our beliefs, free of government interference or regulation.
That means that in all 50 states, Christian children are free to pray. So are Jewish children. So are Muslim children. That’s always been the case. What’s not permitted is for a representative of the state, such as a teacher, to initiate those prayers, because that adds an air of government endorsement if not outright coercion to those prayers. 
And really, do we really want to create an environment in our public schools where children from a minority religion like Judaism or Islam are set up for ridicule because they don’t join in a prayer to Jesus?
I know I don’t. And I’m sure you don’t either.
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The next step

I’ve just been notified by the Rutgers University School of Social Work that I’ve been accepted into their master’s program for the fall semester, at the campus downtown. My goal is to enroll part-time and earn a degree in the next three years.

It’s been 26 years since I graduated from college, and about 13 years since I left my last full-time job, so this will be something of an adjustment for all five of us. Still, I think it will be a good thing. Life is short, mine is likely at least half-over, and while being the stay-at-home parent for the girls has been a gift I wouldn’t trade away, there’s still more good that I can do. It’s time.

Why social work? Well, journalism has changed dramatically since I started at Forbes 20 years ago, it’s never paid well, and from what I’ve been able to determine, short of a master’s degree or steady employment in the industry for the past 20 years, that’s not likely to change. I may return to teachng part-time during the next few years if I can get the work, but it’s not a fieldI see myself returning to full-time .

Over the years a number of friends have suggested I consider a career in some sort of counseling. So I guess you could say I’ve finally listened. My goal right now is to become a licensed clinical social worker, an ambition that will involve coursework, accumulating field hours with licensed workers, and a certification process. Along the way I’ll probably look into others areas of social work like adoption, and refugee resettlement, and see what develops there.

The future is unwritten, and the roads we’ll take haven’t been mapped out, but it’s time for the next big adventure, and I’m off. Thanks to everyone who has seen me this far, and who is coming with me.

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Is Severus Snape transgender?

A new article on Vice explores the issues of gender and identity in the world of Harry Potter, with the argument that Severus Snape is transgender.

The article takes a while to get going, but when it does, it makes an interesting and compelling argument. While I am not convinced that this should be considered the definitive reading of his character, I do think its proponents have marshaled enough evidence that it’s a credible and responsible reading, one with more textual support than the view that Dumbledore is gay, and that’s considered canonical at this point.

It’s been a while since I read the relevant passage from “The Deadly Hallows” for Dumbledore’s orientation. I remember reading it and seeing in it the story of someone thrilled finally to discover someone with the same interests, passions and love of discovery as himself; someone who seemed to share the dream of making the world a better place.

That could be two young adults discovering love for the first time. But it also can be two young adults discovering friendship and kindred spirits for the first time.

In seven books, that’s the only passage in the entire series that I can have heard cited to say that Dumbledore is gay. The bulk of the argument rests on “Rowling said so,” which is certainy enough for me; but textually, it seems like the trans Snape apologists have found a wider range of passages from the books to bolster their argument.

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The downside of wind energy

At first glance, using wind turbines to generate electricity from the wind sounds like a great idea, but we should avoid acting rashly on ill-informed opinions. I am concerned about the environmental impact of wind power, and you should be too.

First, wind is a limited resource. Wind does not blow constantly, but often stops, as anyone can attest who has enjoyed a summer breeze only to feel its refreshing touch vanish in the heat. What happens if we use all available wind for energy so that it never restarts? Cold fronts will linger, heat waves would last for ages, and no one would find comfort in their homes, because there would be no electricity left to power the air conditioning.

Secondly, let us consider the potentially dangerous effects of a wind spill. This is new and emerging technology, so I don’t want to be alarmist, but high winds can be destructive. In extreme situations they’ve flattened houses and destroyed entire towns.

Think carefully before you throw your weight behind wind energy. Your children and your grandchildren will have to deal with the consequences if something goes wrong because of our rush to embrace an energy source that we do not properly understand.

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