Today Jesus would be an atheist

The Thinker by Rodin

My new home in Northampton, Massachusetts in some ways is not much different than life in the Washington D.C. region where I used to live. For example, there are plenty of homeless people here too. They are not hard to spot, particularly in downtown Northampton where they beg for spare change. I also see them at traffic intersections with cardboard signs saying they are down on their luck (usually ending in “God bless”) and a Styrofoam cup. Some of these people look familiar. They look a lot like me if I had been less fortunate.

Perhaps giving them some spare change is love, but it’s a minute measure of the love they need. There are lots of people who end up as at least temporary road kill, curiously often found next to roads. There are some social services for them, but not much. Mostly these services make their lives a little less bleak for a while. Rarely do they help transform these sad people the way a caring and loving society should.

My friend from childhood Tom has a podcast. Regular readers will recall I recently attended his father’s funeral. In fact, Tom once interviewed me. Tom is a talented creative artist currently scratching out a living in advertising by doing freelance work. But he also podcasts and helps support online progressive radio. In his last podcast, Tom conversed with Jeff Bell, who hosts his own podcast, The Left Show. Jeff’s show is a raucous, freewheeling, frequently hilarious but very bawdy weekly endeavor that is also surprisingly entertaining. In Tom’s latest podcast, I learned at Jeff has his friend Forrest (alias Podcast Phil) living in his home with him.

I have not been listening to The Left Show long enough to recognize Forrest’s voice. In the podcast I learned that Forrest has stage-four prostate cancer. Jeff and his wife were kind enough to let their very sick and destitute friend live with them until he dies. I learned that Jeff, very financially stressed himself, was hunting the Internet for donations so that when Forrest dies they can cover his end of life expenses and have him cremated. Yes, you can still die in America and there is no guarantee anyone — not even the government — will pick up the bill even for a cremation. I guess that would be socialism or something.

I felt appalled of course and contributed $50 toward his future cremation. During the podcast Tom contributed his own story of his father’s decline and fall. His father was lucky in the sense that by being a World War II veteran a local veterans’ home took him in at no charge. Tom comes from a large family but all have their financial challenges. Tom’s father never bothered to create a will and was basically destitute too. The family was at least able to scrape up enough money to have their father cremated, but a coffin and a cemetery plot were simply unaffordable.

Until I listened to the podcast, I had not learned another part of the story. Tom’s father was a long time member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Binghamton, New York. I attended his father’s funeral and it was very well done. A number of priests celebrated mass and reminisced about their time with Tom Sr., who was popular at the church, extremely Catholic, extremely Irish, and extremely Notre Dame (the university where he got his engineering degree). The funeral included a cantor and a luncheon for family and friends after the service. Aside from being destitute though, Tom’s family shared something in common with Forrest. St. Pat’s wanted money for the privilege of sending him off to the next world in the Catholic way. Apparently, all those years of Tom Sr. tithing money to the Catholic Church was not quite enough for a freebee funeral. There was also an exit fee for the family to pick up.

This surprised me but my surprise quickly turned to disgust. What did Jesus call the moneychangers at the temple? Jesus saw them as desecrating the temple. It made such an impact on early Christians that it appears in all four gospels. Two thousand years later, at least at some Catholic churches, charging money for service rendered is routine. It happens in the very church that Jesus himself founded.

Catholics are not alone in this grubby business. Mormons must tithe 10% of their income, although I don’t know enough about Mormons to know if they close the door on you at services if you don’t pay up. I read that Jews don’t require tithing anymore, but some practices like selling tickets for a seat on high holy days leave me revolted.

Churches, synagogues and I’m sure mosques have bills to pay too, so perhaps I should not be surprised they charge fees in addition to depending on donations. St. Pat’s is a big, honking Catholic Church. I can understand charging for certain services like a minister’s fee for a wedding when the participants are not members. That wasn’t the case with Tom Sr. A truly Christian community would certainly send off one of its most devout, popular and loyal members without charging an exit fee, right? You would be wrong.

I hear all the time that we live in a Christian country. While we are free to practice the religion of our choice, for many of the devout Christianity is our state religion. Well, I’ve got news for these people. Christianity is not our state religion. It’s Capitalism and it’s so much a part of our values that it’s built into our religious institutions too. It’s why most Christians in our country have little in common with Jesus Christ.

Perhaps due to the kindness of strangers or the beneficence of government some of our many distraught and uncared for people will get some escape from their misery. But while the services we do provide may seem like a lot, it is but a droplet of water to a thirsty man. It’s not nearly enough. Our tacit message to the poor like Tom Sr. and Forrest is that you have to throw the dice and hope on the kindness of strangers, and the kindness you get is likely to be meager if you get it at all. Tom Sr. got it from being a veteran. Forrest is getting it thanks to the beneficence of Jeff and his wife. Otherwise he would probably be on the street too, dying of prostate cancer in some back lot or hovel.

By the way, Jeff is an atheist in the predominantly Mormon state of Utah. No one from the state of Utah or the Mormon Church seems interested in making Forrest’s exit from this life humane, perhaps because I believe Forrest is an ex-Mormon and thus an apostate.

Apparently, it takes an atheist and the kindness of people on the Internet to see real Christianity at work these days. Which is why I suspect that if Jesus walks among us today, he is probably an atheist. Who could blame him?

Decking the secular halls

The Thinker by Rodin

So an atheist, a Buddhist, a Unitarian Universalist (me), his un-churched sister, her sarcastic college age son and the cynical brother who says he only worships Baal get together for dinner. The occasion: Christmas, of course.

That’s right, our Christmas tree is festooned with lights and bulbs. An angel adorns its top proclaiming the good news of Jesus’s birth. Our halls (such as they are) are decked out. There are cookie tins stuffed with ginger snaps and butter cookies.  Charlotte Church’s coloratura voice is coming out of speakers singing, of course, Christmas carols. Our porch and garage door are lined with blue lights that I put up weeks ago to celebrate the Christmas season. We have all the signs of Christmas except for the Christ part. We’re having ourselves a fully secular Christmas.

If you had to pick a Christian among us, I would come the closest. The roots of Unitarian Universalism are in Christianity. There are in fact many practicing Christian UUs, although I can’t find them in my “church” which seems to be at least half atheists. Still, UUs generally admire Jesus, such as he is imperfectly revealed to us in the gospels. I don’t think he was divine, as is true of most of us UUs. Also I don’t put much faith in prayer or miracles, but I do think Jesus probably existed and obviously inspired enough people so that his ideas carried forward after his death in a viral manner. There is no historical record of his existence outside of the Gospels, but that’s good enough for me; it passes my Occam’s Razor test.

Of course there is no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th anyhow, but it is convenient to the winter solstice, which was likely why it is celebrated on this date. There used to be a lot of heathens around and if you are going to convert them you have to work with their natural worship dates.  So most likely we are celebrating the birth of a man who might well be fictional, that most rational people cannot consider divine, whose birthday we don’t know and whose legend is known only because oral tradition was eventually written down and then rewritten, often with errors and omissions, over the centuries. Along the way we picked up saints, including a Greek bishop called St. Nicholas, and morphed this single aesthete into an obese citizen of the North Pole who dwelled in his own small kingdom full of elves and flying reindeer, and that fly despite the absence of wings. St. Nick magically supplies toys just one night a year to all the good Christian children in the world and keeps up an impressive schedule making appearances at local shopping malls. As adults we of course laugh at this childish nonsense, even while seventy three percent of us Americans also profess to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin.

Myth has morphed into rarely challenged creed. A compelling new book suggests Judaism was simply made up by a bunch of elders in an attempt to unite the Judeans and the Galileans so they could fight common encroachers. If correct there was likely no Abraham, no Moses, no enslavement of the Jews in Egypt (for which there is no independent record), no burning bush, and no forty years of wandering in the desert of the Sinai which, lacking an oasis, would probably kill a large group of Jews dead within a few weeks anyhow.

And yet still we celebrate Christmas, and this includes the hopelessly secular among us like most of my family who, sadly, were raised as devout Catholics. My adult daughter, a professed atheist and now back in her bedroom after graduation, is fully into the Christmas season. She was pushing us early to put up Christmas lights and the Christmas tree. She was ready to deck our halls and could be heard singing Christmas carols in her bedroom. She was aghast that I forgot to buy some kielbasa for Christmas breakfast, a tradition that dates back to my deceased mother and which we carry on, if I don’t forget about it, on Christmas mornings. So it was off to the Food Lion before they closed Christmas Eve for some of the sacred sausage, served with scrambled eggs somewhat hurriedly before unwrapping presents under our Christmas tree.

No White Christmas this year, which is actually par for the course here in Northern Virginia. You can expect one every fifteen years or so. However, it was cold enough to qualify for Christmas, with temperatures that never made it officially above freezing despite clear skies. Walking this afternoon for exercise and bundled in my warmest parka, I felt gratitude, not just for Jesus but also for warm houses. Living outside in this weather like our distant ancestors did must have sucked. The only people these days who have an inkling of what it is like are our homeless, the exact sort of people Jesus would have cared the most about. As we raise our eggnog and sing our carols, we try not to think about them. Let them sleep in the woods in a tent and get dinner out of a dumpster. Sadly, some of our leaders clearly want to increase their ranks, and in the recently passed budget agreement succeeded by reducing food stamp allowances and heating assistance and ending long-term unemployment benefits. This is based on the curious and erroneous belief that this will make them get off their duffs and earn a living, but really was done because they are sadists absent compassion for anyone not like them. For many of these poor, 2014 will be bleaker than 2013.

For those of us lucky enough to have some wealth and privilege, we can wrap ourselves up inside our houses, sing carols in front of a hearth (probably with a gas log), tell and retell dated family stories, eat too much food and mostly forget about Jesus. If he were alive he’d probably be suggesting that we bring some food and eggnog outside to our neighbors in the woods, or maybe invite them inside our house for some home cooking, a shower, use of our washing machines and a night in a clean bed. Most of us are not that brave, convinced that the homeless are mentally ill, thus likely to strangle us in our sleep. We like the idea of being kind to those less fortunate to us more than the soiling our hands through the actual doing of deeds. Some of us will work in a soup kitchen for a day or two. Some may even give out blankets to prevent hypothermia for the homeless. To the extent that I put my values into action this year, it was to talk for five minutes with the guy from Goodwill who empties my trash in the office on Christmas Eve, learn about his son and daughter and wish him a happy holiday. I also bought $75 in gift cards for a local 16-year-old teenage girl through the Secret Santa program at our church. I also give money to charities, but this is an implicit admission that I want others to do the work that I can’t seem to do personally. I too am hypocritical, although perhaps less than most.

Yet still we huddle around our tree on Christmas Eve, unwrap our presents on Christmas Day and listen to holiday tunes on the player, many of which proclaim a savior was born today. Looking at our actions toward each other, there’s not much evidence that Jesus succeeded. And while none of us believe in Jesus’s divinity, we do sort of wish, like Santa Claus, that he actually did all those wonderful things. We just haven’t drunk enough spiked eggnog to short-circuit the logical parts of our brains.

If we could actually minister like Jesus, well then perhaps Christmas would be worthy of our celebration.

Loaves and fishes

The Thinker by Rodin

Our minivan has been sitting a bit closer to the road recently. For a change, it is full of cargo: non-perishable food and donated clothing. In fact, our dining room is currently more of a pantry, full of boxes and bags of food including the perishable variety like bags of potatoes and onions. This food and clothing is not for us. We are doing fine. It is for the hungry, the malnourished, the homeless and the displaced.

I would like to take credit for all this laudable charitable work but I had little to do with it. My life is full of matters that are more mundane. They include my full time job, teaching part-time and, oh yeah, writing a blog entry a couple of times a week. This is not to say I do not also give to charities. I write checks to charities all the time as well as contribute 1% of my salary to the Combined Federal Campaign. Periodically, but especially when the money is flush, I give back some of it to the community by sending checks to charities I care a lot about, but rarely enough to actually visit. Some of these charities include House of Ruth (a shelter for abused women in Washington D.C.), So Others Might Eat and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. When disasters happen, I am one of the first to send three figure checks to places like The American Red Cross. I am sure my cash is greatly appreciated but my contribution is rather abstract.

Engaging in charitable work first hand takes a tougher soul. It takes someone like my wife. Her motivation might come from remembrances of hard times growing up and now has the means to give back. Nonetheless, for most of our marriage she was content to let me write checks to charities and sleep in late on Sundays. Lately though she has had something of a midlife renaissance. She has become a one-person force of charity.

It all started one Sunday at her Buddhist temple. When it came time for announcements, she stood up and asked why the temple was not doing any charitable work in the greater community. Everyone sort of looked at each other. No one had really raised the question before. When that happens, the onus often comes back to the questioner to do something. So she did. She knew that many of the local food banks were doing relatively well, so she cast her net a little further out. Using the power of Google, she soon found places like Community Touch in Fauquier County, Virginia. Soon she was dialing them up and asking, “What can our temple do to help?”

A week later, she reported back to her congregation but for the most part they still looked at each other with blank expressions. Then she brought a plastic box with her to services put it in the Sangha Hall with a sign above it saying “Donations for the poor”. Every week during announcements, she persistently brought up the issue of helping the poor.

Transitional Housing at Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia
Transitional Housing at Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia

At first, just a couple items trickled in. When the pile got high enough, she would drive out to one of her selected charities and deliver the goods. What she found often appalled her. In the Shenandoah Mountains, she found a food pantry with only a few cans and boxes on the shelf. At Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia she found that The Clara House Food Pantry was nearly bare too. The following Sunday during announcements, she reported back again to the congregation on her first hand observations. Slowly, donations started to increase. Most Sundays she would haul back donations to our house.

By July, it was clear that my wife had found a new calling. One of her deliveries coincided with one of my days off, so I volunteered to drive up to Bealeton too and visit Community Touch. I spoke with the director. I took pictures. I asked questions. In part thanks to my wife’s work, their food pantry was now much better stocked. I examined the Victory Transitional House, a large ranch house with multiple kitchens and numerous rooms. It housed some of the area’s homeless families. Each family had their dedicated pantry space and their own rooms. Slobs were not allowed. People had to follow certain rules including keeping their room and the common areas clean. Outside was a playground for the children.

One of the kitchens at Community Touch
One of the kitchens at Community Touch

When we visited at midday, the place was quiet. Most of the homeless were not jobless, and were either at work or looking for work, while the children were in day care or public school. This is the changing face of homelessness in America today. While many are out of work, many also remain employed, although they may have traded full time jobs for scattershot part time employment. Many of the homeless got this way through a series of unfortunate events. Expensive medical issues cropped up. They became exacerbated because they could not afford health insurance. This was often manifested in an inability to show up at work. At best this meant they kept their jobs but took home less money. In some cases, they were let go. Their landlords were largely unforgiving and, living paycheck to paycheck, within a few months they were out on the street. Some lived in their cars. Some live in the woods in and around Bealeton in small Hoovervilles. The fortunate ones end up at places like Community Touch where at least for a little while they can try to get their lives back in order.

When you spend time at places like Community Touch, you hear stories. You hear about the homeless man sitting outside a Food Lion, and the nice people working there who bought him some food and drove him to Community Touch. You find out that he took a bus from Baltimore to Richmond because he heard there was work, ran out of money, tried to thumb his way back to Baltimore only to find himself sitting on the concrete, homeless and hungry. This man was fortunate. Many others are not so fortunate. They can be found in the woods or scrounging garbage bins at local 7 Elevens.

Charitable work does tend to peak during the Holiday season, which explains in part the mountains of food and clothing now occupying our minivan and dining room. It culminates this weekend. My wife, my very own force of nature, has many people from her temple meeting tomorrow and hauling their donated items to Community Touch. In Bealeton they will meet others including people from The True Deliverance Church of God, who run Community Touch. Using their many donated items, they will assemble Thanksgiving dinners to go for the homeless and hungry of Fauquier County. Many turkeys have already been donated by local food banks and are being cooked en masse tonight. She and many members of her temple will be there to help.

Most of you are familiar with the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Many devout Christians believe Jesus somehow fed an unexpected multitude with a single loaf of bread and a fish. At least when Jesus is not around, it works this way: someone like my wife stands up inside their community, poses the question and then largely by herself start to address the problem. Those inside the community at first feel hesitant because they are used to the way things have always been. However, if like my wife she persists, and she does so with a generous heart they find themselves drawn into caring about the poor too because they know and care about her. And so one loaf and one fish multiply into a van stuffed with food and donated items which might have otherwise gone toward evenings out and buying an Xbox. Moreover, a dozen people from a Buddhist congregation venture sixty miles into the wilds of Fauquier County to work with people of a different faith they do not know. They help them feed the unfortunate who live among us, but whom for the most part we choose to ignore. As a result, at least some of the hungry are fed. Moreover, new connections occur between people that likely would never have otherwise met. The circle of people who care about others unlike themselves grow. The social fabric of our society mends itself a bit. Love and compassion spreads a bit.

I know that people who would otherwise go hungry or be malnourished will soon have a full belly, thanks to my wife standing up in her congregation and leading them with humanity forward toward a larger fellowship. I am blessed to be married to such a warm, caring and compassionate woman.