Atheist Fail on Paris

I saw someone tweet, “Stop praying for Paris.  Religion is the problem.”

Okay, fine, but, you see, to us atheists, facts matter.  And we don’t have all the facts yet.  It’s jumping to a conclusion that the Paris attacks are religiously motivated.

Cool your jets, atheists.

Plus, can’t we just let people have a little bit of their grieving space first before making the “big point”?

I certainly do wish the gun nuts would do that.

-Robert Gross

Being Left Out

I’m sick to death of being left out.

First, there is the liberal community, who don’t seem to understand, for the most part, that any true Christian would identify much more closely with the liberal party than the conservative party. While the Republicans seem to only know a few Bible verses, and most of those out of context, the Democratic Party doesn’t seem to realize that a few well-quoted Bible verses, in context, could win a lot of Christians to their cause.

There is a whole section in James that berates church leaders for giving good seats to the rich wile having the poor stand or sit on the floor. Don’t you realize, James writes, that it is the rich who oppress you? Then there are whole sections of text that speak on the importance of giving to the poor. When the apostle Paul told Peter and James of his intention to preach the Gospel to the gentiles, they just reminded him to make sure to look after the poor, the thing Paul said he was most eager to do.

So many Christians, I am convinced, could easily be swayed to join the Democratic Party if only they would use these sections of text. These passages do not even need to be manipulated. They stand on their own as damning statements against the right wing. It is easier, Jesus once said, for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Yet, the right wing continues to manipulate the Bible, unchallenged. Is it any wonder, then, that most of the Christian population votes right wing?

It’s the only party that recognizes us for the most part, and so the Republicans wave the red flags of same-sex marriage and abortion, whipping the sheeple up into a big frenzy, while the Democrats just thumb their noses at them, as if all most Christians cared about were those two issues. Yet, since the Republicans claim any kind of affiliation to the Christian faith, Christians, very much wanting their voice to be heard, continue to vote Republican just because some members of its party talk about God in sentences other than those that have the phrase, “God damn,” in them. This ought not to be!

Democrats do not need to convert to Christianity, but that they show no interest in us or the Bible whatsoever is inexcusable. There are a great number of Christians who, I am convinced, could be easily persuaded that the Democratic Party is much closer to their interest than the Republican Party. So there are two points of contention. How many points of contention are there between a true Christian and a Republican? They want to cease the aid to the poor— a Biblical no-no. They want to cut funding for the disabled. Another error. They want to let the rich get even richer. This is *not* anything like true Christianity, nothing at all!

* * *

I’m also left out as a blind person. So many software developers won’t make their programs and apps accessible simply because it might be too hard. Yes, blind people can use iPhones and other types of technology, and yes, sometimes a little extra effort must go in to make the apps accessible–but it’s just too much trouble. We are, after all, a very small market. How hard can it be to label some buttons and add a few prewritten lines of code into their apps?

Too hard apparently.

-Ken Downey

Richard Dawkins Does Not Speak for All Atheists

I’m an atheist.  And I like Pope Francis a hell of a lot more than I like that jerk Richard Dawkins.

There is a widespread perception that Dawkins, the God Delusion author and reputable evolutionary biologist, is the pope of atheists, speaks for all atheists, and is somehow infallible.  He’s not.

My disillusionment with Dawkins started when he began to put his misogyny on display by defending the attackers of Rebecca “Skepchick” Watson over Elevatorgate.  All Watson did was write a piece suggesting— gently!— to male skeptic convention goers that not all women are looking to hook up and that the guys should keep themselves a little bit in check so that women can feel more welcome and comfortable going to skeptic conventions.  A perfectly reasonable request in my estimation.  What followed was a barrage of misogynist attacks and insults against Watson from all the slimy corners of the male skeptic community, but primarily from the part of the skeptical/atheist community that is white, male, libertarian and privileged.

So in wanders Richard Dawkins into the controversy, who writes this scathing reply:

Dear Muslima,
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and…yawn…don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with. Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so…And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

Here, while appearing on the surface to be championing the rights of Muslim women around the world to have their genitals remain intact, what Dawkins is actually doing is putting both his misogyny and his Islamophobia on the table in one magnificent fell swoop.  First, misogynist in its complete dismissal of the misogyny that Watson herself experienced, by suggesting that all misogyny that women in privileged countries experience is trivial.  Just because a woman lives in a privileged country and herself enjoys privilege does not invalidate the observation that misogyny occurs.  Misogyny indeed transcends class lines, and occurs in all cultures and nations.  Plus, and Dawkins, the eminent scientist and logician, should know better: he commits the fundamental logical fallacy of false dichotomy.  You can actually be in favor of ending the worldwide poverty that begets class privilege and misogyny both.

His missive is Islamphobic because he thinks that all Muslim women can be summarized (“Muslima”— stereotype much?), and he carelessly suggests without any all-important caveats to the contrary that all Muslims everywhere mutilate genitals, forbid women from driving cars, force women to be accompanied by men, and, most importantly, beat women.

(There is a whisper campaign that suggests that perhaps Dawkins is so vehement because he was the man who approached Rebecca Watson on the elevator and was rebuffed.  I don’t give any credence to that speculation without hard evidence, but that speculation is out there.)

Since then, Richard Dawkins has been competing hotly with Sam Harris to see which of the so-called Four Horsemen of New Atheism can be the greater Islamophobe.  His Islamophobia and misogyny both have increased calls from various atheist corners for Dawkins to STFU.

So Dawkins’s most recent embarrassment to the New Atheist movement came in this past week when he chimed in (see what I did there?) on 14-year-old Ahmed Mohammed’s clock, which was mistaken for a bomb by racist teachers and administrators in his home town of Irving, Texas.  Dawkins questioned the lad’s motives, and questioned whether it was really a clock, even though pretty much everybody has at last come to the conclusion that yeah, it was a just a clock.

See, in Dawkins’s mind, Islam equals backwardness.  It could not possibly be that a 14-year-old Muslim boy could build a homemade clock, because what do Muslims know?  (They only invented mathematics, but whatever.)  A Muslim boy engineering a homemade clock is inconvenient to Dawkins’s meme (see what I did there?  Dawkins coined the term “meme”) that Muslims are especially ignorant in the panoply of religious ignorance that plagues the modern world.

Where is John Cena when you need him?  Because somebody really needs to slap an STFU on Dawkins in short order.  (Metaphorically speaking, of course.)

Of the four so-called Four Horsemen of New Atheism, only Daniel Dennett is worth a damn (and, to be honest, given the shortcomings of the other three, I have my eye on him).  Dawkins is showing year in and year out that he is just BSC; Sam Harris has his own little cottage industry of Islamphobia; and the late Christopher Hitchens never recanted his view that Saddam Hussein really, really, really did have weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq war was really, really, really justified.  No, they really, really, really didn’t and no, it really, really, really wasn’t.

My colleague, progressive Christian Ken Downey, likes to go after the Pat Robertsons and Jim Bakkers of the Christian world.  Likewise, I think the atheist movement is poorly served by the public perception that Dawkins is its face.  Ken and I go after the captains of our own teams so much that we rarely get around to debating each other.  Which is probably just as well.

At any rate, please, please, please understand that Richard Dawkins does not speak for all atheists.  Nobody elected him Atheist Pope.  He’s just a guy with a big mouth and a big platform.  You know, like Pat Robertson or Jim Bakker.

We don’t all think, like Richard Dawkins, that ridicule is the best way to approach people who believe in God.

We don’t all think, like Richard Dawkins, that all people who are religious are ignorant.

We don’t all think, like Richard Dawkins, that religion has never done any good in this world.

We don’t all think, like Richard Dawkins, that one particular religion is especially violent and especially ignorant, and deserves particular ostracism.

We don’t all think, like Richard Dawkins, that you can summarize all believers of religions with stereotypes.

We don’t all think like Richard Dawkins.

-Robert Gross

Pope Francis or Bernie Sanders?

Who said it, Pope Francis or Bernie Sanders?

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.  This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the socialized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

“What you see with trickle-down economics is that from 1982 to the present increasingly the beneficiaries of economic recovery are the top 1%.  Right now you’re seeing the most extreme numbers where virtually all the benefit is going to the top 1%….  Trickle-down economic theory which says we need to give large tax breaks to the rich and to corporations, and we need more deregulation just like we deregulated Wall Street, that makes no sense at all.  Trickle-down economics is totally discredited.  It’s not just a theory.  In reality it has failed.”

“Climate change is the greatest threat facing the planet.  The debate is over.  The scientific community is virtually unanimous: climate change is real.  Climate change is caused by human activity.  We need to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel and into sustainable energy.  Our task is clear.  We need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.  If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”

“An unfettered pursuit of money rules.  THe service of the common good is left behind.  Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, and it sets people against one another and as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.”

“Let us wage a moral and political war against the billionaires and corporate leaders, on Wall Street and elsewhere, whose policies and greed are destroying the middle class of America.”

“We are moving toward an oligarchic form of society, where the billionaires will control the economy and the political life of this country.”

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?”

Answers: Francis, Sanders, Sanders, Francis, Francis, Sanders, Sanders, Francis.

Of course, this little pop quiz is not intended really to trick anyone (after all, Sanders tends to speak of “this country” and “America” while the Pope is focused more globally).  But it is intended to draw some parallels in some of the rhetoric between the pontiff and one of the leading presidential candidates.

Meanwhile, the right-wing continues to live by Christianity a la carte where they can cherry-pick the Bible and blithely ignore admonitions to help the poor, and admonitions for economic justice, as my colleague Ken Downey repeatedly points out.  Some Christian leaders speak out against the rising tide of oligarchies in the world, and some “Christian” leaders will sell you buckets of survivalist pizza for a premium.

-Robert Gross

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard this story about 14-year-old Texas boy Ahmed Mohamed who built a homemade clock to impress his teacher.  She was impressed, all right— and had him handcuffed and arrested for bringing a bomb to school, even though the device was clearly not a bomb, but, indeed, a homemade clock.

Upon learning of his arrest, President Obama was duly impressed, and sent Ahmed an invitation to show off his invention at the White House.  After all, that’s clearly what this country’s youth needs— a reinvigorated interest in science, mathematics, engineering and technology.  The United States is woefully behind other industrialized nations in those areas of education.

You would think that the Texas officials making the arrest would be shamefaced, and apologize profusely for the error.  You could think that.  But you would be wrong:

On Wednesday, an Irving independent school district spokeswoman, Lesley Weaver, defended the school’s decision to arrest Ahmed under Texas’s “hoax bomb” statute after an English teacher reported the “suspicious” device to administrators.

“We will always take necessary precautions to protect our students and to keep our school community as safe as possible,” Weaver said.

Weaver also said members of the public appeared upset because they hadn’t seen photos of the “suspicious-looking item in question”.

“Perhaps upon release of that photo there may be a little bit different perception about what took place, and people might have a better understanding of how we were doing everything with an abundance of caution to protect all of our students in Irving,” Weaver said.

While it may seem reasonable to take precautions because the device looked suspicious, clearly there is a double standard as to when precautions are taken.  Consider this story about a white 14-year-old kid who built— get this— a nuclear reactor and got help from the Department of Homeland Security to do it.

What makes Ahmed Mohamed’s homemade clock suspicious while Taylor Wilson’s nuclear reactor— let that one sink in— gets a clean bill of health from all involved?

The answer is obvious.  You know it and I know it.

It’s because the Sudanese-American kid is named Ahmed Mohamed and he’s a Muslim.

I’ll give you a personal anecdote that underscores the double standard.  I once helped get something that looked an awful lot like a real bona fide Grade-A bomb through an airport.  I was the composer of an anti-Iraq-War political satire musical called Yeehad! and one of the props in our show was a simulated strap-on bomb.  Our show was selected for the Edinburgh Fringe, so we had to fly our prop bomb out to Scotland on an international flight.  We fully cooperated with all the authorities, we explained our situation thoroughly, we showed them our prop, we were inspected and given the green light to take our fake bomb to the United Kingdom.

But the thing is, I’m white.  And our director was white.  And our playwright was white.  (Indeed, I now make it a point to try to work with people of a greater diversity of backgrounds than I did then.)  Nobody involved with getting our phony bomb on this plane was named anything like Ahmed Mohamed.

Can you imagine if even one of us was brown-skinned and had a Muslim-sounding name?  Do you think for a second we would have been allowed to get our prop bomb on that plane?

Now, bear in mind, the story at issue today has nothing to do with airplanes.  It has nothing to do with politics, foreign or domestic.  It has nothing to do with anything except that a science kid wanted to show off his invention and impress his teacher, a teacher who saw this kid through the lens of her own Islamophobia and made trouble for him.  And, by the way, poor, poor marks for this teacher who could not tell a homemade clock from a bomb.  Obviously this teacher should be taking the class and Ahmed Mohamed should be teaching it.

The kid, of course, will come out ahead in this— he gets a trip to the White House, after all, and will get to meet the president himself.  How cool is that?  But the point is that this should never have happened to begin with.  This happened in my adopted home state of Texas, and I must say, I have never been prouder (#sarcasm).  And, of course, it goes without saying that this kid has a bright future.

A bright future, that is, unless racism and religious prejudice get in the way.  And it very well might.  And the fine mind of this inventive 14-year-old lad will go completely to waste.  And, as the old College Fund slogan tells us, and mind truly is a terrible thing to waste.

What time is it?

It’s time to end all this prejudice.  Now.

-Robert Gross

The Red Road to Christ, Part Two

Part Two of progressive Christian Ken Downey’s e-book.  Part One can be read here.

Spiritual Struggles

One time while I was in an Inipi and heard people praying to spirits, I got a bit judgmental. Then God asked what the difference was between these people praying to the spirits and Christians praying to the angels or commanding them.

Another day I learned one of the stories of the Lakota, how there was a great flood, and the spirits needed to manifest themselves in fleshly form. Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery, sent down a huge rock called Tunkashila, which landed in the water and being very hot, caused a great steam to come up from the water and dry land appeared. (Scientists tell us that it caused much of that water to drain out of the ocean into the crater it created as well.) This is that same steam that comes up in a sweat lodge–the sacred steam. When I realized that praying to Tunkashila meant praying to a rock, I became more concerned than ever–idolatry, my brain screamed.

“Who is Jesus to you?” God asked. I named all that He is to me, savior, Lord, King.

“He is the rock–the rock that was rejected by the builders and has become the chief cornerstone–the rock of ages, the founding rock for your faith. He is Tunkashila, for as Tunkashila made a way for people to live on the Earth by drying up the waters after that first flood, so he made a way for life in Heaven by washing away the sins of the people.”

This was when I began to realize that not only was this Lakota Way, this red road, a different way to worship, but that it was given the Lakota by God himself–He was defending it for me!

Hamblecha: the cry for a Vision

The prayer ties were ready, six hundred in all. A sacred circle was formed within the lodge by the ties, which went all around it to keep bad spirits away. Those ties are a symbol of the Holy Spirit, for when they are cast into the fire at the end of the ceremony the prayers in them go up, just as the Spirit takes our prayer up and is often associated with fire.  He lives in our hearts and, when He is present, no evil spirit can possess us, “for what fellowship does light have with darkness?”

Then commenced the Opage: the filling of the Pipe. I smudged the stem and bowl with sage smoke four times, then connected them in the smoke. Then, I filled the pipe with the Chinshasha, the red willow bark.

To fill the pipe, you first smudge the chinshasha with sage smoke. Then, you point to a sacred direction with it and bring it along the stem. You make a sunwise circle around the rim of the bowl with it, and only then do you put it in the bowl. You do this seven times, one pinch for each of the seven sacred directions.

The first direction is the west, and represents Buffalo Calf Woman, whom we remember because she gave us the pipe and taught us how to pray. The north, for me at least, represents the Father, who resides “in the sides of the north,” according to Isaiah. Of course, since God is everywhere, in the south as well as north, what the devil really meant when he said he wanted to ascend to the sides of the north was to plunder all God’s mysteries, even the ones shrouded in the deepest darkness.

The next direction is the east, which to me represents the Christ, the bright and morning star, who comes in and goes out through the east gate of the new temple, the one that will exist during the millennial reign of Christ. He is represented by the life-giving sun that rises in that direction.

The next direction is the south, and it represents the vastness, the world beyond–heaven, for when the Lakota speak of dying they often say that a person went to the south.

Up, the next direction in the series, represents Wakan Tanka, God himself. Next is Mother Earth, which also represents our adopted Mother, the New Jerusalem. Finally, within is the last of the seven directions. It represents our spirit as well as the Holy Spirit–Christ in us, the hope of glory. The canunpa, the sacred pipe, also represents the Holy Spirit because it carries our prayers as the Spirit does, and we first take the smoke within, where the Spirit lives.
Then, I offered the pipe to the lodge leader, and told him the reasons for my quest–the desire to know who I am, the desire to be connected. Four times I reached out with the pipe, each time stating a reason, but I did not let go until the fourth time, when he smoked it.

I filled the pipe again, and put a ball of sage in the bowl to plug it.

They placed a blanket around me, and from then until the quest’s end I was wakan–holy, and not to be looked at, spoken to or touched except through necessity. They helped me in the lodge and poured a hot sweat. When they left, I felt the life awaken in the Chanunpa, it seemed to breathe–to get longer and shorter.

Later, I felt weak, but the drummers and singers would start up and their songs gave me wings. Then, I heard a voice in my head that told me that I am a wolf. It was not a voice proper, but more like a strong thought that seems to come from outside myself, as when God speaks in that still small voice. I said I wanted to be a falcon, and the voice said,
“You can only be what you are–no more, no less. You are the wolf that dreams to fly–you yearn for it, but you are a wolf. If you don’t believe me, howl and you will know.”

I sat on my haunches and howled, and goose bumps popped up all over me; I felt power from within.

To be continued

Mr. Sanders Goes to Liberty

Bernie Sanders counter-intuitively went to right-wing fundamentalist Christian Liberty University to give a speech.  Bear in mind that Liberty University was founded by the villainous Jerry Falwell, and is hardly what anyone could call a bastion of progressive values.  The event, in my view, was awkward, with Sanders’s applause lines that usually inspire roaring, thunderous responses reduced largely to golf-claps.  The most frustrating moment for this viewer was when Sanders took questions from the audience, which were pre-written and read by the moderator, and one neophyte undergraduate asked the Senator how he reconciles his championing of the weakest members of society with his pro-choice stance, because, after all, the fetus is the most vulnerable member of our society of all.  Thunderous, thunderous applause.

I won’t go so far as to call this speech a mistake.  There are good reasons to do it.  It shows that Senator Sanders walks the walk when it comes to his belief that people across ideological divides need to have constructive and respectful dialogues.  When he pulls this old saw out on his stump speech among the more usual suspects, it will have additional resonance because, after all, he gave this speech at Liberty University.  Also, it is probably not unimportant to speculate that perhaps the good Senator actually believes in the ideal he espouses and truly does believe in promoting dialogues across ideological divides.

What I am saying is that it was really painful to watch.  Perhaps it was one of the most brilliant, savvy, maverick moves to make.  God knows Hillary Clinton is not going to touch Liberty University.  But seeing the good Senator in the midst of what, in my view, was palpable, barely disguised hostility, was cringeworthy.  Being lectured by an undergraduate student body on the plight of the unborn, as if Sanders had never heard about the Holocaust Against the Unborn before and had to be schooled, frankly made me angry and disgusted.  Sanders retorted, certainly, a lot of people agree with you— well, guess what.  A lot of people agree with him too.

What I would be really curious to know, though, is the political theory behind going.  He got the invite.  He doesn’t have to go.  But he did.  We’re flies on the wall at Sanders campaign headquarters.  What are they saying about whether or not to go?  What are the upsides from a practical realpolitik point of view?  What are the downsides?

It is possible that there might be some sort of Reverse Bradley Effect, in which all these kids who come right out of Saved Central Casting all applaud the “Bernie We’d Like To Take a Moment To Talk To You About the Pro-Life Movement” question on cue, all golf-clap when Sanders mentions the Pope and says that he’s not such a bad fellow (which, of course, went over like a lead balloon), and all remain mum when Sanders makes the case that economic disparity is a Biblical moral issue— and then secretly go into the primaries and pull the lever for Sanders.  That is possible.  There is a saying about coalitions— if you’re in one, and you’re comfortable, then your coalition is not big enough.  Sanders does not need to win over the majority of the Liberty University crowd.  He can’t, and he won’t.

But he could peel off just enough independent-minded kids in the crowd who actually do respond to his message about the plight of the poor, who actually think, you know, racism is a pretty bad thing, and who think that maybe some of their friends at public universities ought to catch a break.  In the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, he needs decent showings.  If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire both, and makes just a decent showing in South Carolina, a state with a fundamentalist Christian base to be sure, then the game is changed.  We have a horserace, and the corporate mass media will not be able to deny it.

Ultimately, I don’t know if the appearance at Liberty University will do anything for Senator Sanders on a purely electoral basis.  But I do know one thing.  People in Virginia and the Carolinas will be talking about Bernie Sanders tonight.  And that ain’t all bad.

-Robert Gross

The Red Road To Christ, Part One

The Red Road To Christ


My name is Ken Downey. I have been blind all my life, and, perhaps due to that blindness, have desperately, avidly and tirelessly searched for God, spiritual truth, and experience. At nine years of age I became a Christian, and attended Bible college at the age of eighteen. Though I believe whole-heartedly in God and His word, I felt like much was missing in my life; I felt disconnected and discontented. I was different; I did not fit in and everybody knew it, especially me.

One of my Bible school teachers said to keep one eye on God’s presence and the other on a beautiful woman. Following his advice, I left Bible college, finding little peace there, and married the woman of my dreams. We have been married for over sixteen years and have two phenomenal children.

We have been through much in life, some of which, if it were told, would be beyond belief, but my desire and love for God and His truth still continues to live in me unabated, despite the desire I sometimes have to completely cut myself off from all things spiritual.

Having had strong attraction to the Native American way of life, I decided, in the beginning of 2005, to go to a Lakota sweat lodge. I struggled for many days and went through many ceremonies before I began to grasp the truths that the Lord was showing me, and I hope to convey them in a way that can be easily understood or at least pondered.

I do not claim to be a spiritual master, for there is but one Master, and I am simply a man who seeks truth and knowledge, and most of all to serve my God in all things. Though I have learned much, I feel I have yet to begin, and so the quest continues.

Drawn By the Drums

My journey down the red road began when I was but two years old. I was playing in the living room while my mother watched an old western. It did not interest me a bit until I heard the song. First, there were the drums, then the singing began, and something within me became connected right then; and I knew–those were my people who were singing and drumming.

Over the next thirty years I sought to know more about them, to find them, and learned as much about the different tribes as a white man can without actually meeting them, which really isn’t a whole lot. Whenever I heard the drumming and the songs, I felt at home. At other times I felt like a wandering pilgrim in search of something or someone I could not define. But of all the tribes of which I had learned, it was the Lakota that kept getting my attention, even though my great grandmother was Cherokee, not Lakota. I can’t explain what it was about this people that enthralled and captivated me more than any other, but there it was. Perhaps it is just that more was taught in school about them than other tribes, but they are the ones about whom I learned anything of value.

As I grew older, I learned many of the stories of the different peoples, but it is the stories of the Lakota that I remember most, stories about Crazy Horse and Sitting bull, about heyokas and tricksters, stories about the great sun dances, of vision quests and sweat lodges.

Inipi: the sacred sweat lodge

When I was thirty-two, I entered my first sweat lodge. I had quested to find any tribe, anywhere, and now here were some people practicing the Lakota way not thirty miles from where I currently live.
It began one day in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting–or rather outside it. There I met Dave, who would later become not only my sponsor, but a dear friend as well.

One day he asked me if I ever sweat. I knew–or was pretty sure, that he didn’t mean the act of perspiring, but that he meant the lodge. I told him that no, but that I had been questing for the opportunity all my life. It came to me–x found me, at a time I was not looking since I didn’t imagine anyone in the area would know anything about it. It had become a dream like many others–dormant, waiting. I thought about a time in California when I asked everyone I could think of about tribes and ceremonies and where to find such people, but no one could tell me anything about it.

I still remember going into that first lodge. It seemed like idolatry to me at first, people praying to Wakan Tanka, to Tunkashila, to the spirits, but I knew to whom I was praying so I kept on going.

Now before each Lakota ceremony begins in earnest, many things happen in preparation. The first and most important of these is the building and lighting of the sacred fire, which begins and ends every ceremony.

After the fire is built, stones are placed on the wood that they may become heated. Tobacco is offered to the four winds, the sky, the earth and within which are the seven sacred directions, and it is then sprinkled over the fire which is then lit. If at any time the fire goes out, the ceremony–even if it is the sun dance itself, is finished. The chanunpa, the sacred pipe, is filled with chinshasha, the toasted inner bark of the red willow. Then the altar is open, and people place gifts of tobacco on it for the fire keepers, those that build and tend the fire, and the pourwater who pours water on the stones to create the sacred steam. People place their chanunpas on top of the lodge also, to receive the prayers of the people.

During this time, the Lakota make prayer ties of tobacco-filled cloth that contain not only the tobacco, but a person’s prayers as well. They use six colors of cloth, each color representing one of the directions. It is said that once, they used a seventh color, purple, to represent God in them, but now they do not.

Some give flesh offerings, for as we leave the world naked as when we came in, the only gift we have is our bodies themselves, or pieces of them. Christ Jesus gave the greatest flesh offer+ on a tree two thousand years ago, and that is the true gift that keeps on giving.

The sweat lodge ceremony, called the Inipi, (the Lakota word for purification,) is divided into four rounds–a spirit invitation round, a prayer round, a pipe round, and a spirit sending round. During the first round, we rub sage on our bodies to purify them and make them smell better–and because it helps the spirits to know us and not be repulsed by our rank humanity. Then, while someone drums, three or four songs are sung to invite the spirits. The water is poured on the glowing stones bit by bit throughout the ceremony. These stones are called nitunkashila, the grandfathers, because they are ancient and witnessed much, and are honored because they take off their robes and give up their lives for the ceremony.

During the prayer round, songs are sung and everyone prays. At the end of a prayer, we each say “mitakuye oyasin,” which means all my relations, for we recognize that we are all related and connected. Three or four more songs are sung, and the sacred pipe is brought in and smoked, and our prayers ascend with that smoke. Every time we smoke the canunpa, the prayers go up because the stone from which the bowl is made lives and remembers. Then the pipe is taken out, a few more songs are sung in the final round thanking the spirits for coming, and we leave the lodge to do the activity which is the favorite of most of the participants–we eat.

To Be Continued

-Ken Downey

Kim Davis At It Again

Kim Davis is at it again.

I am not sure what else can be said that has not already been said countless times about the recalcitrant bigot.  And, yes, she is a bigot.  And, yes, anyone who is homophobic even on the basis of their religious convictions is a bigot.  Many Christians routinely plead that, alas, they wouldn’t have anything against the LGBT community but for the fact that their holy book ties their hands and instructs them to see LGBT people as lesser.  Therefore, they should not be called bigots; they are simply following the convictions they are bound to follow by their religion.  There are several problems with this.

First, it is almost always Christianity a la carte: the many antiquated mandates of the Bible are rarely followed while this one imperative— hate the gays— is promoted inexplicably to currency.  Yet, there are many Biblical imperatives nobody follows.

Second, it is very obviously the use of the Bible to justify the hate that exists in the first place, not the other way around.  The hate comes first.  Nobody begins with a neutral feeling about LGBTs, pursues Biblical scholarship, and then comes away with the informed opinion that LGBTs must be stigmatized.  No.  People stigmatize the LGBTs first, and then look to their holy book for justification.

Third, religion is a choice.  If you choose a bigoted religion, you’re a bigot because you chose that religion.  In America, you are free.  The First Amendment of the Constitution gives you the right to choose your religion.  I realize many people are born into their religions, but past a certain age, like, say, 18, you no longer have the excuse that you must do the bidding of your parents and carry water for their religion.  You could choose a religion that is expressly anti-bigotry, even, like Unitarian Universalism.  Or you could choose to abandon religion altogether.  But always recognize that it is indeed a choice, and you are bound by the baggage that comes with that choice.  Choosing a bigoted religion makes you a bigot, and people are entitled to call you out as a bigot.  As Cenk Uygur would say, “sad day for you.”

Kim Davis needs to do her job or resign.  She is not entitled to that job.  If her religion forbids her from carrying out the duties of the job, then she needs a new job.  It is really that simple.  What is disturbing is the degree to which fawning presidential candidates like Mike Huckabee are bending over backwards to rally to her cause, because they are pandering to their base.  This is disturbing on two fronts:

First, like we see with Donald Trump openly expressing racist views about Latinos (falsely saying they have a higher probability of being rapists and murderers), Huckabee is tapping into ugly mass prejudice to support his electoral bid.  I said previously that Trump’s stoking of racist passions was reminiscent to me of the beginnings of Nazi Germany, at the risk of crossing Godwin’s Law.  If it is proto-fascist to stoke mass racist flames to get elected, is it any less proto-fascist to stoke mass homophobic flames to get elected?

Second, like we see with Donald Trump openly saying he will defy the 14th Amendment’s birthright citizenship guarantee, Mike Huckabee says we should simply defy the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, defy the Supreme Court, and stop issuing marriage licenses to gays.

You can’t do that!  For any president to defy the Supreme Court openly would create a Constitutional crisis.  It would bring down the very fabric of our establishment.  If this precedent were to take place, then a president would be within his or her rights to observe the Constitution a la carte, picking and choosing the parts that he or she likes and then jettisoning the rest.  Then we no longer have rule of law.  Then we are no longer “a nation of laws not men.”  A presidential candidate running on a platform of openly defying the Supreme Court is incredibly dangerous.  A presidential candidate running on a platform of open hate for a specific hated people is also incredibly dangerous.

But the takeaway I have is just how incredibly sad I am for my gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters.  Things have gotten better, to be sure, but it is certainly demoralizing to see how far we have to go in order to make progress such that love and celebration of difference are not just the law of the land in all fifty states, but the culture of the land in all fifty states.  I love politics, but I am very weary of the culture wars.  Conservatives in this country maintain their hatred of blacks, LGBTs, Latinos and Latinas, immigrants of just about any background, religious minorities, workers, the poor, teachers, academics, etc., etc., etc., and they never seem to come around.  Their hatreds were the same in the 1940s, the same in the 1960s, the same in the 1980s, the same in the 2000s, and the same today, and it’s just really, really old.

Sometimes it just seems like our only hope is that they will die off and we will replace them with a more inclusive, loving generation of people.  That may be harsh, but it is the Kim Davises of the world that make it harsh because they are so harsh in their resolute discrimination against persecuted minorities of all kinds.  And then I’m the one feeling terribly about myself for feeling this way.

Thanks, Kim.  You’re a champ.