Archive for December, 2006

Ancient faith holds modern lessons (My Weekly Column)

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

Mysterious faith holds modern lessons

The Pueblo Chieftain Online

In the past few years, I’ve become interested in the unique cultural history of the region from Southern Colorado through northern New Mexico.

I’m particularly fascinated by the stories I hear of devout lifelong Catholics who also embrace certain practices and symbols identified with Judaism.

These so-called “Crypto-Jews” are plentiful from here to Santa Fe, N.M., and perhaps most interesting is that many of them have no explanation for their curious religious traditions. Many houses are adorned with Stars of David, menorahs, and some men even wear the traditional yarmulke head covering. One relative of mine says they know of a number of people who have attended Mass faithfully every Sunday, but not before going to temple the evening before.

There was a recent piece in The Pueblo Chieftain about a new book on Crypto-Judaism, which is one of many on the subject. The prefix “crypto” suggests something secretive about the faith practice, which may seem strange at first glance. After all, Jesus was a Jew, right? In claiming Christianity, don’t we also, in many ways, claim Judaism as our religious ancestry? What’s with the culture of secretiveness?

Actually, there’s plenty of historical justification for this somewhat underground religious phenomenon. During the time of the Spanish Inquisition, from the 11th to 13th centuries, Jews were driven into Turkey if they refused to convert to Christianity.

Even well into the 15th century, such persecution took place, as exemplified by the Alhambra decree of 1492, expelling all Jews from Spanish territories, and endowing all of their property to the Spanish throne.

Disheartened by increasing intolerance throughout Europe, some Jews fled to Spanish and Portuguese territories in Mexico where they believed they would find a more tolerant atmosphere. These immigrants were called conversos because they publicly claimed Christianity while still privately practicing Judaism. As their numbers grew, concern about their collective influence on Mexican culture followed. By 1497, all Jewish children in Portuguese territories were ordered either to be converted to the Christian faith or become property of the empire.

By the 16th century, the public practice of Judaism was outlawed in Mexico City, and new “blood purity” laws barred any new migrants in Spanish territories of Mexico if they could not prove their families had been Christians for at least three generations.

During this time, the Spanish Empire reached well into what is now the U.S. Southwest. Crypto-Jews fled north into these frontier territories in search of a safe haven where they could practice their faith in peace. By this time, many Jews practiced both Christianity and Judaism, partly out of self-preservation and also because dual religious identity had become a family tradition over several generations.

Today, many people my age or my parents’ age whose descendants are Crypto-Jews practice their faith more openly. However, there is a lingering atmosphere of mystery surrounding an aging generation that still carries with it many enigmatic practices from this culture of Jewish refugees: Catholics who observe Sabbath, icons of Judaism within devoutly Catholic households, and a residual secrecy from a time when one’s beliefs could mean the loss of all individual rights, or worse.

Now we face an atmosphere of increased religious polarization, particularly between Christians and Muslims. As certain ethnic groups are disproportionately profiled and religious organizations face increased scrutiny in the name of national security, we are reminded of the historical precedent set by this ancestry of Crypto-Judaism.

We may purge ourselves of the superficial symbols and public practices which we find most threatening, but in the end, there is no government authority that can change the heart of a person of faith, regardless of the religious discipline they claim.

How we give matters, not how much

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

It’s the time of year when mailboxes are flooded with year-end appeals from nonprofits. As a professional fundraiser, I recognize the challenge these organizations face in trying to meet demand.

Part of my job as a grant-writer and fundraiser is to help create a compelling argument for why you should give to this or that cause. I want to convince you that your dollars could not be better spent on anything else.

Another approach is to make giving as easy as possible. For example, one organization with which I have worked for years replaced its annual giving program with a monthly, automated bank-draft program. This way, people can give a few bucks a month instead of smarting after one big gift a year. Both the donor and the organization know what to plan for, and it’s more convenient for everyone.

The best part is that instead of having to ask the donor to give over and over again, they call the organization to cancel the automatic draft. The organization keeps getting its $10 or $20 a month until the person goes out of their way to stop, and who wants to seem like such a Scrooge?

So if my whole job is to convince people to give away their money, why did the article in last week’s Pueblo Chieftain on automated-giving kiosks in church bother me so much?

The premise is simple: a minister and his wife set up a machine in the foyer of the church where people can swipe a credit card to make an offering. The process is secure, convenient, and the church has seen an 18 percent increase in giving since the program started.

People don’t have to give if they don’t want to, and the church is providing a service that the congregation seems to want. Everybody wins, right?

There are a couple of problems with this. First, even though credit is a way of life in America today, the Bible offers a different perspective. Proverbs 22:7 says, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.”

In the New Testament, Jesus talks about money more than anything else. So by encouraging people to use credit cards to give their weekly offering, churches are enabling the further financial enslavement of their faithful to creditors.

But what about the bonus miles, you ask? Why not get a trip to Hawaii for the donations I make at church? If you pay off your credit cards, that’s great, but if so, you’re in the minority. The vast majority of Americans don’t pay off their credit cards every month though they intend to, and nearly half pay only the minimum payment.

At that rate, it can take as long as 30 years to pay off borrowed money, with the consumer paying 300 percent of the original loan in interest.

As a country, we hold $1.5 trillion dollars in debt. Not only should churches abstain from enabling this disease of indebtedness, but they should be proactive about helping people get out of debt. The 18 percent bump in giving just isn’t worth the price.

Also, there’s something unique about giving at church. Whereas donating money to a charity can be an act of compassion, giving an offering at church is supposed to be a form of worship. We’re not just handing over cash to keep the lights on or fund church programs; we’re handing something over that’s very powerful in our lives to God. It’s an act of submission and obedience.

Mark this day in your calendar, because it’s a rare occasion when you’ll hear me talking about submission and obedience. But when churches and their members start treating money more like a commodity than an offering to God, they should be reminded that giving is about more than adding zeroes to the bottom line of the ledger.

Religion’s role: Draw lines or cross them?

Saturday, December 9th, 2006

Religion’s role: Draw lines, or cross them?
By Christian Piatt

Last week yielded a number of memorable events which might not seem particularly related. However, upon looking back, they all got me thinking about where organized religion fits in matters of justice.

Friday, December 1st marked the fifty-first anniversary of when Rosa Parks earned the moniker as the “mother of the civil rights movement.” Her defiance of the Jim Crow laws that required her to concede her seat to a white passenger pushed her into the public spotlight, helping pave the way for the likes of Rev. Martin Luther King.

A lesser known, but similarly significant, event took place five years earlier in New Orleans. Jerome Smith, ten years old at the time, removed the screen placed between the black and white passengers on a streetcar. He was subsequently boxed on the ears by an older black woman on the car for disrespecting the white travelers, though she later embraced him in private, urging him to never stop in his struggle for equality.

Smith later became the founder of the New Orleans Chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality.

Last Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI completed his trip through Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, with a visit to the famous Blue Mosque. He removed his shoes, entered silently and prayed alongside the local cleric in an ongoing effort to express his respect for Islam. His fence-mending mission was seen as a significant step forward in repairing the rifts caused by his remarks in October, deemed offensive by millions of Muslims.

Finally, December 1st marked World AIDS Day, reminding us that nearly 40 million still live with HIV in the world today, including more than 2 million children, and almost twelve thousand new infections every single day.

Though most religious institutions remain woefully silent about the HIV pandemic, others have taken the opportunity to teach the world a lesson. Pat Buchanan calls AIDS “nature’s revenge on homosexuals,” and Jerry Falwell claims the disease is “proof of society’s moral decay.”

Though it is not a popular public position today, it wasn’t so long ago that politicians and religious officials alike celebrated the sanctity of segregation. I have a friend who told me recently that his grandmother used to believe that separation of the races was ordained by God, as taught in her church. It took someone like Rev. King, from within the racist, religious status quo, to finally push for change.

Pope Benedict took a risk not only in traveling to Turkey to begin with, but also in worshipping within a Mosque. He could have been harassed by locals, incensed by his previous insensitivity. Instead, the world breathed a sigh of relief as his trip was concluded in peace.

There are those who believe it is religion’s responsibility to draw the boundaries of propriety within which the rest of society should operate. Others feel it is their spiritual calling to step across some of these same lines, drawing cries of heresy from the ones making the rules.

This moral tension changes form over time, but it never goes away. Siddhartha Gautama shocked his stewards by leaving the safety of his father’s palace, along his journey to become the Buddha. Jesus challenged the authority of the Pharisees to the point that they played an integral part in his arrest, trial and crucifixion.

Religious leaders historically play both sides of the fence on many major societal issues. I’m not necessarily claiming the righteousness of one position over another, but as one who places Rev. King, Jesus and Buddha higher on my list of role models than Rev. Falwell and Pat Buchanan, I’d say there’s still room for a few agitators within the church.

Have yourself a merry little Saturnalia (My Chieftain Column)

Sunday, December 3rd, 2006
We waited until the weekend following Thanksgiving to adorn the living room with our fake tree, stockings and a half dozen or so Nativity sets.

My son, Mattias, who is 3, can hardly wait. I’ve caught him un-decorating the tree several times so far, and he already found – and unwrapped – one early gift from his aunt.

My wife, Amy, and I are in ministry, so we like to think our kid looks at Christmas differently. We’ve told him the story of Jesus’ birth a number of times, but when we ask him what Christmas is about, he happily says, “Santa!”

The jolly, old fat man and I may go a few rounds this year.

Although we celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, most religious historians believe Jesus was more likely born in the spring. Late May seems to be the most popular estimate. But the early Christian Church saw an opportunity to co-opt two popular non-Christian holidays by placing their “Christ’s Mass” celebration at the same time.

Before Christmas existed, a celebration known as Saturnalia took place from Dec. 17 until Dec. 25. The 17th was the recognized birthday of the god Saturn, and the 25th marked the birth of Sol Invictus (the undefeated sun), the god celebrated for reclaiming daylight after the winter solstice. The festivities were marked with an exchange of gifts, along with much drinking, gambling and carousing. While rejecting the debauchery, Christians held on to the tradition of gift exchange, making it part of our new Christmas tradition.

A Persian religion known as Mithraism also jumped into the mix, claiming Dec. 25 as the birthday of its god, Mithra, who was identified closely with Sol Invictus of the Greek tradition. Although Christians were third on the bandwagon, the spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire in the third and fourth centuries A.D. gave it a strong foothold.

Not everyone was fond of the idea of celebrating Jesus’ birth with feasts and gifts. Origen, one of Christianity’s earliest leaders, denounced the practice as contrary to Christian principles. However, Constantine saw an opportunity to reconcile varying views of Jesus with an official holiday. Christmas became an official Roman holiday in 350 A.D., helping to assert the position that Christ was divine from birth, not just following his baptism.

It would be another 1,000 years, however, until Christmas became a holiday synonymous with large-scale celebration. King Richard II put on elaborate feasts, reminiscent of the festivals Christmas had originally recreated in its own image. In the 17th century, Christmas was all but outlawed, condemned by puritanical powers as hedonism disguised by a thin veil of piety.

Many early Americans also looked sourly upon Christmas as part of the Anglican tradition they preferred to leave behind. By the 19th century, it became the stuff of romantic nostalgia, depicted by Charles Dickens and other scribes as a time for family, sharing and celebration. Soon, retailers saw an opportunity, and, well, the rest is history.

It’s easy to get disenchanted about such a sacred day being consumed by consumption. But it helps to know that our modern-day merchants aren’t the first to mold Dec. 25 into something other than what it first was.

After all, how often do you hear people wishing one another a happy Saturnalia, or a merry Sol Invictus? When you peel back the political layers and hoopla, it’s easier to see Dec. 25 as just another day. Christmas happens whenever you recognize it. If you feel too distracted by all the other stuff, try celebrating Christmas on May 25 next year. It’s probably more historically accurate, and that way you’ll have it all to yourself.