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Blog and News
[This blog post is the opinion of Greg Nooney and not necessarily the view of the First Unitarian Church of Sioux City.]
One of the criticisms often made against liberals is that we do not have a faith-based world view, and consequently we lack a moral compass. I could argue that humanism is a more viable moral compass than the Abrahamic religions that routinely justify warfare and discrimination, but I will leave that for another time. My concern today is a lack of moral outrage by those with a faith-based world view in light of President Trumps’ ordering the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. His role in Iran is similar to Gina Haspel’s role as the Director of the CIA in the United States. She was the chief of a CIA black site in Thailand in 2002 in which prisoners were tortured. These were war crimes. Now as the director, there is no telling what atrocities she may be authorizing, using the justification of fighting terrorism.
I invite the reader to imagine the moral outrage that would deafen our airways if a foreign country were to assassinate Ms. Haspel as she landed at an airport in Iraq, or Paris, or London. I would guess that the only reason we are not at war with Iran at this moment is because of Iran’s restraint. I would also guess that their restraint is due to the fact that we have nuclear weapons and they do not. Consequently their motivation to obtain a nuclear weapon is now greatly increased, especially as they no longer have to abide by the US/Iran nuclear deal negotiated by President Obama.
There have been arguments regarding whether Trump’s action was strategic, whether it was wise, whether it will do more harm than good. My point, however is that I am not hearing arguments that his action was immoral. So, as a liberal humanist, I am writing to express my moral outrage at his actions. I invite religious folks to join me. Absent such an outcry, in my view, those with a faith-based world view who have been willing to justify Trumps’s other moral failings, have lost whatever speck of credibility they may have had left.
Abortion: A Modest Proposal
[This blog post is the opinion of Greg Nooney and not necessarily the view of the First Unitarian Church of Sioux City.]
I am reluctant to write about abortion because it is such a hot contentious topic. However I am interested in the recent Alabama law that criminalizes abortion except for when the life of the mother is endangered. There are staunch “pro-life” proponents who say well, perhaps we should allow exceptions for rape and incest. I wish to understand this better and would invite any pro-life” person to respond to my questions. By the way I put “pro-life” in quotations because it seems to me that if someone is pro-life they would also be in favor of easy access to birth control and more governmental assistance for children who have been born, to support their life, such as Medicaid and other parts of a safety net and would also be against capital punishment. I am sure some pro-life folks are in fact in favor of these things but many are not.
If a person actually believes that human life begins at conception and a fertilized egg should have all the rights of any other human being, then it makes absolutely no sense to allow exceptions for rape and incest. It would still be murder to “take the life” of a fertilized egg or fetus who was conceived through rape or incest. Also, the doctor should be charged with first degree murder and the mother should be charged with felony murder. This would be consistent with the belief. As a corollary, if a lab tech with pre-meditation, destroys embryos, they should be considered a serial murderer and be treated as such.
As long as such a “pro-life” person agrees to rape and incest exceptions, and denies the need for extreme criminal prosecution for both the doctor and the mother, then it seems to me they are going against their belief that the fetus is a human being with full rights. For those "pro-life" proponents who agree with allowing an exception for rape and incest, on what basis would you provide for these exceptions?
So I applaud the Alabama Congress and governor for their law although, as pointed out earlier, they should go further and charge the doctor with first degree murder, and the mother and all the attendants with felony murder. Otherwise they are saying that a fetus does not have the same rights as a human being who has been birthed. If a doctor with the consent of a mother goes into her home with pre-meditation, and murders her one-year-old, the doctor would charged with first degree murder and the mother with felony murder. Why should it be any different with a fetus, if in fact the belief is that it should have full human rights?
So providing these exceptions and giving only a maximum sentence of 99 years to the doctor, is to admit that, in fact, a fetus does not have the same rights as a birthed human. It is a slippery slope, folks, to deny these fetuses these protections. What next, maybe we would allow a woman who has a deformed fetus the right to abort it? Then what? Abortion on demand?
So I propose much stricter laws be put on the books and let the Supreme Court decide.
Oh, I almost forgot, the Supreme Court already decided this in Roe. vs Wade. By the way, I would recommend that people actually read this decision as it works hard to balance the rights of the pregnant woman and hesitates to allow the government to intervene in the rights she has over her body, except in extraordinary circumstances, that is, when the fetus is viable and could live outside the womb. Only at that point would the government have the right (not the requirement) to set up some restrictions.
[This blog post is the opinion of Greg Nooney and not necessarily the view of the First Unitarian Church of Sioux City.]
I have been living on Maui for nine weeks now. Every day I have gone on a beach walk, sometimes for half an hour, sometimes for an hour or more. (I missed a day or two here and there.) Same beach. Usually the same time of day, around 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. Anyone who lives by the ocean knows this, but for those of you who do not, the ocean is relentless. Every few seconds the waves crash upon the shore. Day and night. Tide coming in or tide going out. Like your heart beat. It never stops. And every single wave crash is different than every other wave crash. It is impossible to precisely predict where a wave will hit the shore and with how much intensity. The water is not neutral in its effects. The waves ever so slowly turn rocks into sand. The waves move huge pieces of driftwood around. The waves move rocks into piles, and the waves disrupt those piles. The waves pile sand up on objects then, as an after thought, knock those object around. One day a nice piece of driftwood makes for a handy perch for this old man to sit and watch the waves. Another day the wood has been obscured by piles of sand and is no longer inviting.
Please understand that I am talking about changes that have occurred over days or weeks. I notice these changes because I walk along that beach every day, and the changes occur slowly, almost imperceptibly. Nine weeks is not even a blink of the eye when we attempt to consider larger time periods. Ho long does it take ocean waves to turn a small rock into sand? One hundred years? One thousand years? How about a big boulder? One million years? It is impossible for this human to comprehend one thousand years, much less one million years.
Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago and single cell organisms appeared about 3.5 billion years ago. It then took almost 3 billion years for those single celled organisms to evolve into multi-celled organisms. This takes my breath away. Life, like ocean waves, is relentless. It is ever changing, but at a pace that is impossible to comprehend. Intelligent design believers say, for example, that the eye could not have evolved, that it must have been created by an entity outside of the universe as we know it, who, detail by detail, created it. To the extent that we can comprehend the vast amounts of time involved in the evolutionary process, it makes much more sense, it seems to me, to see how evolution is much more likely. It is relentless. It is patient. Life is quite content to take two and a half billion years to figure out how to combine single cells into multi-cells. What is the hurry? There are no clocks. There are no intelligent beings who have decided to divide the passage of time into nanoseconds.
So I continue my walks and will do so for the next month until I leave the island and return to the midwest where there are no oceans and no mountains. But I will remember. And I will work to hold on to a different understanding of the passage of time than my iPhone tells me. I am just beginning to understand the Buddhist concept of impermanence.
May all beings be well. My all beings be happy. May all beings be free form suffering.
I have been thinking a lot about faith lately. At my mother’s funeral many years ago, the priest said that she “kept the faith.” Sometimes people talk about how they “lost their faith.” No matter how hard I try, I have been unable to understand what these phrases mean. The news this week is filled with stories about an Easter bombing in Sri Lanka where suicide bombers killed hundreds of people. It must take a great deal of faith to strap on a bomb vest to kill as many people as possible including oneself. What kind of faith is that? Faith in a leader that tells you that the cause is just? Faith that you will be rewarded in the after-life? Faith in your own concept of a divine being who would support such an act? These callous murderers “kept their faith.” No one I know would condone such behavior. Yet, many people support the idea of “keeping the faith,” as long as that faith is congruent with that person’s belief system.
So it seems that the endorsement of faith is dependent on what that faith consists of. I do not think it would be honest to suggest that those suicide bombers had “lost their faith.” I wish they had lost their faith. Rather, they kept their faith and they embraced that faith to a much greater degree than most people. How many people do you know who would kill themselves if their religious leader told them to, or if they believed that their god told them to? Not me. Life is too precious. And how about if their leader or their god asked them to kill others? In fact, every day we train soldiers to kill other humans whenever ordered to do so. They must have faith in the chain of command, or perhaps faith in those who tell them that they are killing in order to protect some ephemeral concept such as freedom or democracy. In reality, I would guess that their desire to kill others only gets activated strongly when their comrades have been killed and they want revenge, or they want to protect themselves or others.
In the book of Genesis (22:1-12) the god of Abraham ordered him to sacrifice his only son as a burnt offering in order to test Abraham’s faith. Abraham was prepared to do it. He did not lose his faith. He kept his faith, and as a result today he is recognized as the father of the three most powerful and populous monotheistic religions in the world: Christians, Muslims and Jews. In fact, over 56% of all humans on this planet belong to one of these religious groups. They all worship the same god. When they act in murderous ways, they often do so claiming that their god endorses such actions.
From time to time there are stories of cult leaders who are charismatic and who develop followers who have strong faith in those leaders. Jim Jones considered himself a Christian and called his church The People’s Temple. In 1978 over 900 followers of Jim Jones died, some from voluntarily drinking Flavor Aid mixed with Valium, chloral hydrate, cyanide, and Phenergan. One third of those who died were children. Some apparently lost their faith and were forced to drink it by Jones’ lieutenants with guns. A total of 33 of those who lost their faith escaped to the jungle and survived the event.
I know there are also many stories of people who under extreme duress, such as prisoners of war, Japanese interned during Work War II, slavery, the holocaust, genocide of Indigenous peoples in this country, who survived solely because they kept their faith, whatever that faith may have been. So I do not want to discount this reality. To believe something fervently and resoundingly can be a powerful thing. I think of Susan B. Anthony’s words: “Failure is impossible” in encouraging her fellow suffragettes, knowing that she would not live to see women having the right to vote. Such words illustrate an incredible amount of faith. Was such faith justified? In fact women did not gain the right to vote for 14 years after her death. Perhaps she had faith in the human species to continue to evolve, and that refusing women the right to vote was such an oppressive thing that there was no way it could be sustained forever.
There are many people today who have a strong faith in Donald Trump. Their faith seems to be unshakable. What is it based on? Many of such faith are evangelical Christians and claim their faith in god as consistent with their faith in Trump. They call anyone who doesn’t have this sort of faith a Trump-hater. I am not a Trump-hater. I am a distraught old white man. I would like to hope that many who have faith in Trump might lose their faith. However I do not believe this will happen. It appears to me that they are caught in a cult even stronger than that of those in Jonestown. Jim Jones had to have armed lieutenants to enforce his outlandish claims to power. Trump is the commander in chief of the most powerful military force on the planet, but hasn’t as of yet had to use it to keep his so-called base in line. They seem to be men and women of deep faith.
Ultimately, faith is believing something when there is insufficient evidence to support such belief. It can be powerful and at times even helpful. However in my view it usually does more harm than good. Perhaps we would do well to praise those who lose their faith rather than those who keep it.
Bertrand Russel a famous British philosopher, when asked if he was willing to die for his beliefs is quoted as replying: “Certainly not, after all, I may be wrong.” He also said: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.” I also very much like the following quote from the American journalist Neal Gabler: “True religion, I believe, begins in doubt and continues in spiritual exploration. Debased religion begins in fear and terminates in certainty.” So now that you have little idea of my worldview, you are free to continue reading or scroll down.
I recently attended a public lecture series exploring the Apostle Paul and the law, presented at my local library and sponsored by a Messianic Jewish group. I was interested in this topic because I have recently been reading and reflecting on the early Christian communities that sprung up after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. From what I have been able to glean from early writings and scholarly study, in the first years after the death of Jesus, the first version of the Gospel of Mark was published. The current version in today’s Bible was clearly altered in significant ways in the decades after its first publication. For example, the first version had no virgin birth, no resurrection, and no notion of the divinity of Jesus or the idea that he died for our sins. Rather, the account was one of a faith healer who challenged the strict interpretation of Mosaic law, and set about to relieve devout Jews of those restrictions. As a result he came into conflict with the Jewish leaders of his time, was crucified with two thieves, both of whom derided him. At his death the temple curtain was torn in two from top to bottom. This was Mark’s way of saying that the old Mosaic law had been struck down. The followers of Jesus no longer had to burden themselves with strict detailed practices of the law, which in fact were virtually impossible for anyone to follow completely, which of course gave the Pharisees and Sadducees the power to control the population as they could enforce those provisions that they wished to enforce with those people they wished to control.
This reminds me of some of the housing code practices in Chicago when I lived there in the 1970’s under the reign of “His Honor The Mayor” Daley. The housing stock was old, and those housing codes were so strict that Daley or his minions could punish anyone they wished to punish simply by showing up and finding some code violations. Mayor Daley was once asked if he had considered running for president and he answered he had not because he had much more power as mayor of Chicago than he would ever have as president of the United States.
But I digress. Along with Mark’s Gospel, Paul’s letters are some of the earliest writings of the time. The first version of the Gospel of Luke wasn’t written until 66 C.E., and Mathew as a counter to Luke in 68. The Acts of the Apostles were probably written in 72 to counter Mathew’s account. The Gospel of John was written much later probably in the second century. The doctrine of the Trinity has no mention in the Bible at all, and didn’t develop until centuries later.
So as a result Paul’s letters are important. It seems clear that there was significant conflict between Paul and Peter. Peter represented the early Jewish communities who were followers of Jesus. They appreciated the importance of repentance. They practiced the baptism of John the Baptist, not the Baptism of the Spirit that included speaking of tongues as well as healing and prophesy powers. As mentioned above, they did not think of Jesus as divine or as having resurrected, and they had no notion that he died for their sins. Their sins were their sins and they needed to repent from them as John the Baptist said and Jesus repeated. They were forced to accept that Jesus was not in fact the Messiah who would liberate them from the occupation by the Romans and the oppression that resulted from that occupation. They however worked hard to build community, and they longed for the return of Jesus, hopefully in their lifetimes. Mostly, I expect, they felt liberated by not having to follow all the strict rules propagated by their religion leaders. They were good Jews, and they certainly did not want to bring Gentiles into their closely knit communities.
Along comes Paul, a Pharisee, a tent maker by profession, and a Roman citizen. It is unclear how anyone at that time could be a good Jew and be involved in the making of tents since most tents at that time were made of pigskins. Jewish law prohibited the touching of the carcass of any animal except for those that were slaughtered according to Jewish rituals, and to touch the carcass of a pig would never be permitted under any circumstances. Such an act would cause the the guilty party to be considered ritually unclean and would ban him from traditional Jewish worship. Paul never met Jesus of Nazareth, but claimed to have had a vision resulting in blindness whereby Jesus spoke to him. However, there are two separate accounts of this in the Acts of the Apostles that contradict each other. One states that his companions heard the voice but could see no one, and the other states they saw a light but could hear nothing.
What is certainly clear, however, is that it was Paul who propelled the early Jewish Jesus sect into a world religion by allowing Gentiles to join the group without having to follow Jewish law and in fact without even having to be circumcised. There is clear argument between Peter and Paul about this very issue, Paul arguing that circumcision was too heavy a burden to place on Gentiles and Peter arguing the opposite. Obviously Paul’s argument won out eventually. Had Peter’s position taken hold, it is unlikely that Christianity would have developed into a world religion. In addition Paul presented many of the views that are now accepted as doctrine in Christianity including the divinity of Jesus, that he died for our sins and resurrected from the dead, that believing in him will save us, and the power obtained through the baptism of the the Spirit.
So back to the lecture series. I attended hoping to have the opportunity to discuss some of these issues with others who had studied and reflected on these ideas. Boy was I wrong. Instead I found myself in a room of people who claimed to be speaking from the authority of God, who believed that the Bible was a book directly inspired by God, and who had the amazing ability to either ignore or possibly not even see the many contradictions which would be apparent, it would seem to me, to any thinking person. OK, I know there are people like that. I just didn’t know that that was the group I would be sitting with. What was even more bizarre though was that the presenter who wrote a book about this, argued that in fact Paul remained true to Mosaic law and that Christians today should also adhere to those laws. When asked about this he backed off a little saying that there were some laws we could no longer follow but that we should follow as many as we possibly could.
I tried to sit still and listen. However toward the end of his lecture, the presenter went off on a tirade about how terrible the idea of evolution is and all the Satanic influences in our modern culture. It appeared that the group was in concert with him. He then made the argument that since humans have many biological systems and if one system were to be eliminated then the person couldn’t survive and the this was an argument against evolution. In my view it is an argument in favor of evolution, but that is neither here nor there. He then said, (as a joke perhaps?) that if you took the brain away from a human he would turn into a Democrat. I was activated at that a point, full amygdala fight-or-flight reflex and I decided to call him on it. I told him I was a Democrat and was offended. To his credit he did apologize, but he couldn’t help himself, I guess, in arguing that either you believed in killing babies or you didn’t, that he had 13 children and didn’t believe in killing babies.
Let’s put aside the fact that abortion is not mentioned even once in the entire Bible, and the fact that it is isn’t at all clear what the early Christian position on abortion was. Some clearly believed that the soul did not enter the fetus until some time after conception perhaps at the quickening so that abortion prior to then would not be the killing of a human being. Nevertheless, the presenter claimed and others in the group agreed, that his authority to so proclaim these ideas came from God himself, and that if I wanted to argue with the Creator I could do so, but I would never win such an argument. One of the participants agreed with this position and noted that he no longer will even try to argue with someone who disagrees; rather, he goes back to “From what authority do you speak?” emphasizing that he speaks of course from the authority of God.
In talking after the lecture to the presenter, I argued that saying he speaks from the authority of God is problematic due to others claim the same thing but speak differently. I wondered if he claimed that God spoke directly to him, and he would not answer this question.
I am glad that I attended this lecture for several reasons:
1) It gave me a brief experience of being in a large group and being a minority, and feeling unwelcome. This gives me a small taste of what it is like to be in that position. My wife pointed out that even so, I was sitting there with male privilege and white privilege, so my experience is of course only a fraction of the experience that a person of color of of a woman might have. Also the presenter’s anti LGBT views that spewed out of his mouth would have been much more impactful if I had not been straight and cis-gendered.
2) Many have proposed that the polarization in this county is at an all time high and that we ought to work toward narrowing that polarization. In reflecting on my experience, I am even less hopeful that this might be possible. Of course we were all humans in that room. I have little doubt that if I had fallen to the floor with a heart attack that other humans there would have helped me, or I them if such a need arose. So we certainly are much more alike than we are different. However, to take a stance of speaking from divine authority leaves little room for discussion.
3) I do agree with one thing that the presenter said. He indicated that if one did not believe the first chapter of Genesis, then the rest of the Bible could also be dismissed. Ironically, he seems to not comprehend that there are two distinct creation stories in Genesis. The first ends after the first verse of Chapter Two and the second totally different story starts at Chapter 2:2. I wanted to ask him if how he came to believe in the first version but not the second, but I knew it would be futile. So thank you anyway, since the two creation stories cannot both be correct, it stands to reason that either one is correct and the other incorrect, or both are incorrect. Or more to the point, both stories are stories, not the inspired word of God. In either case, the whole Bible goes out the window.
4) I was intrigued that this group was kind of a maverick group in that they are arguing that the two billion Christians on the planet ought to adopt old Mosaic law in order to be saved. That is quite a goal, and the chances of that happening are so insurmountable that to continue to promote this must require an incredible amount of fortitude. So I guess I must give them credit for such an outrageous stance. Perhaps the hopelessness of such a task is part of the reason that they must hold on so tightly to their positions in spite of the inconsistencies.
5) This experience has helped me to understand that once a person or a group removes reason and science as important constructs to utilize in the discussion, that there is little left to talk about.
6) The far right in this country seems to be quick to call anyone who supports liberal views to be Trump haters. The presenter was not in that room to argue against abortion or gay rights. He was specifically there to present his ideas about the works of the apostle Paul. And yet, without any provocation, his anti-LGBTQ, anti abortion rights, anti-liberal views spewed out of him with an intensity that was a bit frightening. At one point he suggested that perhaps he shouldn’t be saying these things in a public forum and several people in the audience goaded him on to continue. So does this mean that these intense hateful views are just under the surface for this group generally? So even though this group is in the minority in the Christian and Jewish communities, that what unites them even more is this hatred? If so then my idea that they are to be reluctantly admired for their maverick stance may be understated. They can disagree with mainstream Christian communities, but hold on to some sort of a shared alt-right position? And how does that impact the Jewish community who suffers discrimination and often has liberal views in opposition to the alt-right, and is in fact discriminated by the alt-right?
As usual, I am left with more questions than answers. I do not intend to continue to attend this weekly lecture series. Why should I go where I am clearly unwanted and condemned as Satanic? Once was enough. I invite comments or discussion.
If you would like to study these issues more I would recommend Jesus and After: The First Eighty Years - Study in Early Christianity by E. Bruce Brooks and Alpha v1: Studies in Early Christianity edited by E. Bruce Brooks, Alvin P. Cohen, and Glenn S. Holland -- both published by Warring States Project at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher confronted Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona in an elevator on Friday September 28, 2018. Ms. Archila indicted that she had planned to speak “nicely” to him but as she started talking she became angry. At one point she told him to “Look at me when I am talking to you. You are telling me that my assault doesn’t matter.”
There are conservative postings that are describing this as an example of how “the left” is becoming uncivil. Civility is being spouted by the alt-right as something that they promote even though their leader Donald Trump regularly verbally attacks and insults anyone who disagrees with him. What is missing from this conversation is the power differential. Senator Flake was standing in that elevator in a position of power. Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher were standing in subjugated positions.
Civil disobedience is uncivil behavior. When Dr. King organized protests, he was being uncivil. When Mahatma Gandhi set his cup in the bay with the intention of making salt, he was being uncivil.
The police were in a position of power and Dr. King was in a subjugated position. The British army was in a position of power and Gandhi was in a subjugated position. Dr. Ford was in a subjugated position and the Republican senators did everything they could to keep her there and to elevate Judge Kavanaugh to a position of power. This was in spite of his uncivil behavior at the hearing and of Dr. Ford’s civil demeanor.
When the prime minister of India Indira Gandhi declared martial law in 1975, she took away civil rights and incarcerated her opponents and it lasted 21 months. Mother Teresa said: “People are happier. There are more jobs. There are no strikes.” She was being civil, cooperating and supporting the oppression. Civility in the presence of oppression is complicity.
Another way to look at this issue is in terms of being kind rather than being nice. Ana Maria Archila was not nice to Senator Flake. Mahatma Gandhi was not nice to the British army. Dr. King was not nice to the police. I would argue however that they were kind. It was a kindness to remind Senator Flake of his duty. It was a kindness for Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi to stand up as humans against oppressive practices.
How can we practice being uncivil in these times, practice kindness, and refrain from being nice?
Two cyclists biking across the United States to raise awareness of Global Warming stopped in Sioux City on Wednesday, October 12th to give their presentation to an inquiring audience at First Unitarian Church. For the full video, follow the link. To find out more about "Low Carbon Crossing", go here.
Join us Saturday April 23rd, 2016 from 10am to Noon at Leif Erikson Park for our annual cleanup. Bring a pair of gloves and some helping hands. 31st and Virginia, Sioux City.