Archive for October, 2014

What Muhammad did

October 25, 2014

I have been reading about Muhammad in Karen Armstrong’s biography, and I have concluded that he was a genius.

That prophet’s spiritual presence was so compelling to his first followers that they accepted without question hundreds of utterings  spoken through his mouth. They later assembled these verses as the suras of the Qu’ran.

This was no small feat. The lyrical content of Islam’s holy scriptures is composed entirely of one man’s revelatory pronouncements. (If I am wrong about this, you Muslims please correct me. I understand that the hadiths, written later by others, followed, but are not  considered holy revelatory scripture.)

Compare this Mohammadan revelation to, say, the Bible, which was assembled as sixty-six books that were spoken or authored by a multiplicity of authors over thousands of years. What a legacy the Jewish people have given us. Muhammed benefited directly from the Judaic legacy, and considered himself a part of it–a most definitive and corrective part of it.

What Mohammed had to say about al-Lah to his fellow Arabs during the early seventh century c.e. was quite urgent and compelling. The essence of it is that al-Lah is one God, not some pagan collection of many gods and goddesses. This may sound like religious quibbling to modern secularists, but the monotheistic insistence was downright revolutionary to 7th-century Arabs, especially those of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca. Muhammad’s impact upon the Arabic tribal life and religion was  similar to Paul’s upending message about Jesus Messiah to his fellow-Jews, which had happened about five hundred years earlier.

Muhammad’s message of monotheism, consistent in some ways with the ancient Abrahamic covenant, has spread across the world for fourteen centuries now. It is quite amazing, even as Muhammed himself must have been a quite amazing man.

Not as amazing, however, as being resurrected.

In her biography of Muhammed, Karen Armstrong reports that in the year 621 c.e. Mohammed instructed the Muslims to pray facing Jerusalem. Because the prophet had been taken up in a night vision by an angel, Gabriel, and transported mystically to Jerusalem for certain revelations, the holy city of the Jews was shown to be “central to the Muslim faith too.”

For more than two years, the Muslims adopted Jerusalem as their qibla, or direction of prayer. But in January of 624 c.e., about eighteen months after Muhammed’s hijra (the prophet’s history-shaking, exilic journey to Medina after being rejected by the powerful Quaraysh tribe of Mecca), something happened to re-orient forever the Muslim quibla. On page 162 of her book Karen Armstrong wrote: 

“. . . Mohammed was leading prayers in a mosque . . . Suddenly, inspired by a special revelation, Muhammad made the whole congregation turn round and pray facing Mecca instead of Jerusalem. God had given the Muslims a new focus and a new direction (qibla) for their prayer.”

At that turning point in time, the Muslims redirected their salat devotions back toward Mecca, the place of their origin. I wish that they had, at that point, just left Jerusalem to the Jews. Our present-day situation in that city might have been less contentious.

Now the Jewish caretakers of the holy city would have to deal only with, instead of Ishmaelic Muslims, God and everybody else who claims to know Him.

According to the account of God’s work among homo sapiens that I subscribe to, God’s verdict on the matter is:

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.”

Mark 11:17

Here’s a song about it

and another song about it

Smoke

Zeitgeists and the King of Soul

October 21, 2014

People talk about “the zeitgeist” of an historical period as if it were one spirit.  But in reality, the events of any particular epoch reflect several spiritual compulsions or visions that hover amongst the human hearts and minds of that age.

With that in mind, I have begun writing a new novel, my fourth, which is named King of Soul. The story will examine the teen years and coming-of-age of a young man,Donnie, who is growing up in the South  during the 1960s. The novel is only mildly autobiographical.

Donnie’s personal development is of course shaped by the familial, political, philosophical, economic and spiritual condition of that era. Within these influences, I Identify four zeitgeists that are especially potent during the turbulent 1960s. They are what might be called “spirits of the age”, or what Gordon Lightfoot called the “visions of their days.” But I like to think of these historical forces, each one, as collective “Souls. ”  For the decade in which I was a teenager, they are:

~Soul of Bounty

~Soul of Discontent

~Soul of Escape

~Soul of Anarchy

So that you can better understand my “Souls” concept, here are some earlier “Souls” that were dominant in former ages of the American Experience:

Soul of Exploration, Soul of Liberty, Soul of Slavery, Soul of Industry, Soul of Reform, Soul of Progress, Soul of Labor, Soul of Consumption, Soul of Entertainment.

As the story develops in my novel, King of Soul, the reader will detect in Donnie’s experience:

~The Soul of Bounty, which thrives on security and wellness. It favors the individual, rather than a collective, although its community aspect is based on abundance: plenty for everybody. The Soul of Bounty values Family, Faith, and Work for Gain. Religion is beneficial. Heaven is a good ending. Hierarchy and authority contribute to Law & Order, sometimes at the expense of equality. Self-discipline and smart work are admirable.

It is a conservative attitude. Leave well-enough alone. Soul of Bounty manifestations for the 1960s may be: Republicans, the “Establishment”, the “Powers that Be, Young Americans for Freedom. On its fringe are the John Birchers and the Ayn Rand group. Prominent movers in the Soul of Bounty during that time were: Nixon, Buckley, Reagan, Mayor Daley, Gov.Rhodes of Ohio, most suburbanites.

~The Soul of Discontent, which struggles toward justice and rightness. The collective will is higher than the individual; society is based on ideology, not religion. Activists within the Soul of Discontent are forever striving toward progress. Utopia is a real possibility.The Marxian version includes a dictatorship of the proletariat. Equality of all will be achieved  at the expense of Order. These people are purposeful,  existential in their motivation. Disruption of the established order is necessary for societal correction to be imposed. Organizations of the period include: Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Southern Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Students for Democratic Society (SDS), Free Speech Movement and the generally widespread Antiwar movement. Leaders of the 1960s manifestation include, among many others: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Malcom X,  Mario Savio, Tom Hayden, Joan Baez, the Berrigans, Daniel Ellsberg, Betty Friedan. The Soul of Discontent was most clearly expressed in: Civil Rights movement, Feminism, Berkeley, Chicago protests at 1968 Democratic convention, lethal uprisings at Kent State and Jackson State, student movements at San Francisco State U, Yale, Columbia, and eventually the Democratic party and 4th estate of 1970s-200. . .s

~Soul of Escape, which craves pleasure, ecstasy and distraction.  Expressions of this Soul are both collective and individual. Community is hoped for to afford leisure, pleasure, celebration, art and expression.  Minimal work is tolerated for the sake of these fulfillments. Utopia is cool, and Love-in is even better Serendipity is prized, at the expense of structure. Enjoy. In the ’60s, these people were known as hippies, who followed in footsteps of their 1950s predecessors, the Beats. You know who they are, even if you were not one of them for awhile, because you read about them in Time and Life: Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, most rock musicians, but most notably Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead. They sought a trippy kind of stoned-out degenerative sensuality that occasionally masqueraded as spirituality. Summer of Love in ’67 and Woodstock in ’69 were their high points.

~Soul of Anarchy, which struggles to tear down the old order so that a new something can arise. Destruction is not only necessary, but cool and glorified. These people were the epitome of  Shiva Rage: Panthers. Weathermen, Yippies on a bad day. The catch-all was “Revolutionary.” John Lennon sang about them but only skirted along their fringes. “. . .but if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.” (They didn’t make it.) Their flash in the pan came late, in ’69 and the ’70s. Heroes were Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael after he got tired of moderation, Rudd/Dohrn/Ayers. They were violent revolutionaries who might have done much more damage if the Establishment, personified by Richard Nixon, had not decided to wind the Vietnam War down and follow through with some serious programs to fulfill Johnson’s Great Society before going down in a blaze of humiliating presidential glory.

In a turbid decade called “the ’60s”, my young protagonist Donnie attends middle school and high school, enters college in 1969, avoids the draft, checks out a few antiwar happenings and tries to make sense of it all, in a nation being torn apart by the interference patterns generated when these four (Bounty, Discontent, Escape, Anarchy) encountered each other. That’s the scenario of King of Soul.

I should have it ready for you to read in a year or three.

King of Soul

To Save the World

October 11, 2014

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing, end them. . .

This problem, described in archaic language by a Shakespearean prince, Hamlet, can be stated more simply this way:

Should we suffer, or should we fight?

Should we accept the world as it, or is it better to struggle against all the bad stuff?

Should we concede, or strive toward tikkun olam, the repairing of the world?

And even if we choose to oppose the (sea of) troubles in this life, can our resistance put an end to them? Can “opposing” those troubles  actually defeat them?

If you or I can put an end to the injustice and or dysfunction of this world, then maybe we should get busy working toward that end. But if this quest–to resist the evil of this world– is fruitless,  a lost cause, then why bother? What difference does it make?

Maybe we just have to suffer through it.

That’s what  one religious founder, Jesus of Nazareth, did. He suffered through the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that were flung upon him. He suffered all the way through torture and crucifixion until death itself overtook him.

For a few days.

But his boldly compassionate life included not only suffering and bearing the pain, it also included serious resistance against the powers that be. He was a man who took arms, spiritually, against a sea of troubles, by speaking publicly against the injustice that humans impose upon one another, and he used his hands proactively to heal people, and to release folks from suffering and oppression.

I think his life was quite unique in this respect: he actually, and very effectively, trod a middle path between these two choices–submission and resistance.

He was an example of bearing up under the burden of suffering, while simultaneously launching a campaign against what is wrong in this world of human striving that manifests as dogmatic religion and ineffective government.

Now we know from history that Jesus’ struggle to live a meaningful life, a life that truly made a difference, was a failure.

Because, you know, he ended up dead and publicly humiliated and all that.

On the other hand, if you consider what all has been done in his name since he lived, it could be that the work of his life–the suffering and the active resistance–attests that his legacy is more perpetual than it may at first appear.

From the standpoint of world history, his story is everlasting. This persistent story of a savior who conquered death itself has transcended the world. He has won the world by overcoming the world’s cynical resistance.

His was the greatest life ever lived. He opposed the slings and arrows by submitting to them. Thus he rendered them powerless against his sacred work. He  overcame the world. Who else has done such a thing? and then lived to tell about it. You gotta believe.

This was accomplished, paradoxically, without actually “taking arms.” He fired no gun, wielded no knife. Jesus’ only sword was the one in his mouth. What an exceptional way to repair the hearts of men, as if that were possible!

While other religionists have resorted to the sword of conquest, here was a man whose only weapon for opposing the evils of mankind was the sword of the Spirit.

To be, or not to be (with Him). . . that is the question.

Glass half-Full

The Unfinished War

October 4, 2014

In one sense, all war is unfinished, because the political crimes that wage death between people groups inevitably come to the surface again. Like toxic waste, old atrocities bubble up from the depths of human strife to plague subsequent  generations.

Now and then in history, a war will actually settle a divisive question. Our American Civil War established once and for all that American states of north and south would remain as one federation under a common flag, and that resolution has remained intact.

The First War was an unfinished war, because the issues that separated Germany from the rest of Europe resurfaced, zombie-like, about twenty years later as the the Second World War. Then the Second War resolved those divisive issues in a more effective way, and now Europe is reasonably, if not politically, united in peaceful coexistence.

Forty-nine years of my 63-year life have been spent in the twentieth century, which was a time period in which nations were generally at each others’ throats over ideological differences. The basic conflict between freedom and slavery was continually re-inventing itself in various ideological costumes: libertarian vs. totalitarian, democracy vs. communism, communism vs. fascism, etc.

Now it seems the world reverts to religious identities to fortify the battlefields of the 21st century: Muslim vs. Jew, Muslim vs. Christian, etc. It’s not really as simple as that, but you know what I’m talking about. The issue of whether the so-called Islamic State is actually representing Islam should be a serious point of debate among Muslims; but no matter how that identity pans out, the decapitative modus operandi of IS is undeniably a danger which is Islamic in its ethnic origin.

Furthermore, the ongoing contention between Israel and the Islamic states (with or without Caliphate) is, despite modern secularizing influences in both camps, a religious war the origin of which is shrouded in the dust of Levant history.

On a secondary level within nation-states, we see political divisions, which still revolve around ideological poles: left vs. right, progressive vs. conservative, statist vs. libertarian, etc.

Within my country, USA, the time-honored catch-all labels “left” and “right” have lately morphed from “liberal” vs. “conservative” to “progressive” vs. “conservative.” A subset of this ideological polarity is the “Occupy” crowd vs. the “Tea-Party.”

“Tea Party” derives its philosophical roots from an emphasis on individual liberty. Its tactical roots are found in the Boston Tea Party of 240 years ago, which turns upon economic and tax disputes and government get out of the way attitude.

“Occupy Wall Street” and its progeny (Occupy Oakland, Occupy Vancouver, whatever) derives its precedents from the Civil Rights and Anti-war activisms of the 1960s, and before that the socialist ideal as developed through the French Revolution, Marx, the Russian Revolution, Alinsky etc.

David Horowitz, a (rare) seasoned veteran of both left and right activisms, has identified, in his autobiography Radical Son, this truth:

“. . . conservatism was (is) an attitude about the lessons of the actual past. By contrast, the attention of progressives was (is) directed toward an imagined future.”

During the Vietnam war, a time when I was entering draftable age, the “left” was dragging our American sins of racism and napalmic militarism out into the streets for all the world to see. They imagined a more perfect United States that would successfully rid itself of the hegemonic abuses of capitalistic neo-colonialist empire-building.

Eventually the student-led antiwar movement was able to convince us to withdraw from Vietnam. But the more perfect United States they were dreaming of did not emerge. We are now still the same good n’ bad nation we were then, manifesting a tri-part government of checks and balances that can, every generation or two, arrest our reprobate tendencies.

The activist left of the 1960s, of which I was (like many others) a curious, though non-involved part, also imagined an idealized Vietnam. But it did not materialize after we pulled out.

After the beginning of U.S. withdrawal in 1973, the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (in whom the American anti-war activists had placed their hope) was crushed by the North Vietnamese army. Oppressive reeducation camps were set up and filled with hundred of thousands of prisoners. Tens of thousands were executed without trials. The bloodbath spilled into Cambodia. Millions were killed by the Khmer Rouge.

The consequences of U.S. withdrawal were tragic. More people died in the first two years of communist peace than had been killed during the U.S. war effort.

http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~sdenney/Vietnam-Reeducation-Camps-1982

So distressed were many Americans who had formerly worked to get us out of Vietnam, that a group of high-profile war-objectors published an ad in the Washington Post protesting the arrests of “thousands upon thousands of detainees”, who suffered enforced reeducation with starvation, physical abuse and use of prisoners as mine-detectors.

http://keywiki.org/Joan_Baez#Open_Letter_to_the_Socialist_Republic_of_Vietnam

While some leftists were grief-stricken at the widespread abuses in postwar, communist Vietnam, many more activists were not appalled. They blamed the aftermath on us–the United States, who were fighting to protect the Vietnamese people from the oppression that followed when the North Vietnamese took over.

That was a long time ago. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge in our river of time, since then.

Now it’s Iraq.

We have an eerily parallel situation in Iraq, with the IS attacking from Syria to enforce an “Islamic” Caliphate, just as the North Viet Cong descended on the South in 1973-75 with cruel, murderous intent.

And once again, the leftists want to blame us because we sent our troops over there and knocked the dictator Saddam out of power and tried to help them establish a just government.

But history, and prudent policy, does not hinge upon what might have happened or not happened because of the military assistance that came from the people of the United States, provided to the people of Iraq.

To those who want to blame us for the IS insurgency now threatening Iraq, we must say: don’t even think about it.

It’s time to subdue the beast that videos decapitations. No one in their right mind wants that kind of vengeful retribution, masquerading as “justice”, established in the world.

Smoke