December 23, 2008

Skeptics and True Believers

These descriptions of (1) Skeptics and (2) True Believers in Chet Raymo's book "Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection between Science and Religion" sound good to me, but it should be noted that Raymo is, himself, a skeptic -- as am I.

  • Skeptics are children of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. They are always a little lost in the vastness of the cosmos, but they trust the ability of the human mind to make sense of the world. They accept the evolving nature of truth, and are willing to live with a measure of uncertainty. Their world is colored in shades of gray. They tend to be socially optimistic, creative and confident of progress. Since they hold their truths tentatively, Skeptics are tolerant of cultural and religious diversity. They are more interested in refining their own views than in proselytizing others. If they are theists, they wrestle with their God in a continuing struggle of faith. They are often plagued by personal doubts and prone to depression.

  • True Believers are less confident that humans can sort things out for themselves. They look for help from outside -- from God, spirits or extraterrestrials. Their world is black and white. They seek simple and certain truths, provided by a source that is more reliable than the human mind. True Believers prefer a universe proportioned to the human scale. They are repulsed by diversity, comforted by dogma and respectful of authority. True Believers go out of their way to offer (sometimes forcibly administer) their truths to others, convinced of the righteousness of their cause. They are likely to be "born again," redeemed by faith, apocalyptic. Although generally pessimistic about the state of this world, they are confident that something better lies beyond the grave.

December 18, 2008

Tom's First Sermon at Union Gospel Mission

[This is what my talk would be, if the Union Gospel Mission would allow, me, an unordained Buddhist, to give a sermon there. But, ahh, it's, um, not likely that I'll be allowed ... I would guess.]

I want to talk tonight about the fictional children’s story set in the Garden of Eden found in Genesis 1, 2 & 3. It’s a wonderful tale, even better than "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," but like "Goldilocks...," it never truly happened.

It’s an especially swell tale, that Eden thing, though. It’s the OBVIOUS story that a tremendously-insightful ancient person would invent to explain the beginnings of human life.

Think about it: God is Perfect, All-Knowing; Has nothing; Needs nothing. Then, just for kicks, he divides the universe in half.

Before the first day, he creates time, separating it from stillness.
On the first day, he separates darkness and light.
On the second day, he separates heaven and earth. … and so on.

God, ONE UNIFIED PERFECTION, WHICH IS CONTENT FREE, is dividing, like a growing human cell, dividing and multiplying and, in a process of evolution, coming to life. For, what else can he do? Perfection has no counterpart. So, he creates a counterpart by cutting Himself in half an endless number of times.

In the Garden of Eden, which is the opposite of the chaos of the life on earth that God created in the first seven days, He divides Himself from Himself, creating a companion, his image, Adam. And later, to give a companion to Adam – so that Adam can be that much more like God – cuts a piece out of the first man, giving him a woman.

And then, rather slyly, He creates that which is forbidden, separating it from that which is fully available: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil and The Tree of Immortality are forbidden, separate from all of the other vegetation which Adam and Eve may eat. [So now, it seems, that Adam and Eve are made less like God, to whom nothing is forbidden.]

Now, it’s a curious thing. Adam and Eve only know about the The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil, and not about the The Tree of Immortality. [I’ll get back to that later.]

Because it is human nature – or, truly, the nature of all life – to be especially, keenly interested in whatever is forbidden, Adam and Eve end up eating the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, just as God had wanted them to. For now, they are even that much more like God. They are exploring; going beyond themselves, exercising their free will. [For how else, other than by thinking about what you're not supposed to do, can anyone exercise free will?]

God, now, kicks Adam and Eve out of Eden – making them, then, EVEN MORE like God. Remember, God had kicked himself out of “Perfect Oneness which is Content Free.” Now, God is kicking Adam and Eve out of the BORING AS HELL Garden of Eden, where you are not confronted by challenges.

Now, Adam and Eve have left their so-called idyllic spot. Just like us, Adam and Eve have been left to fend for themselves on the dangerous – and sometimes cold and wet – pathways of earth.

Now, we are told, God installs the cherubim and a flaming sword at the gate of Eden to keep Adam and Eve out, lest they eat of the Tree of Immortality. [BTW, be aware that this information seems to tell us that Adam and Eve were never immortal up to this point.]

The cherubim and the flaming sword. What do they represent? Cherubim is plural for cherub. So, here another duality. What are the TWO cherubs? [A cherub is defined as “Usually represented as a pudgy, blond haired child that has wings sprouting from his/her back.”] So, what do the TWO cherubs represent?
- - - -

Let us pause here for a moment.

The story, I hope you all are coming to understand, IS METAPHORIC!!! It is not to be taken as a concrete happening, as conservative, painfully-literalist Christians are inclined to take things.

Why MUST there be a fictional story in the Bible? [A book already full of parables (i.e. fictional stories), I might add.] Because it is only through metaphor that psychological issues can be addressed. Religion is about spiritual matters, not dead rocks. There are some things we cannot tell each other about: specifically, those experiences that happen within the lonely space of our minds. We cannot comprehensively communicate our suffering and gladness. Language is a blunt, crude, wholly-inadequate instrument. Thus, until [referencing 1 Corinthians 13] we meet face to face, and see through the glass clearly] we need metaphor.
- - - -

Now, what do the two cherubs with the flaming sword represent? Fear and desire.

Fear and desire are the two things that bar us from the Tree of Immortality. Fear and desire are the two prime things in human nature that make us unlike God. If we can overcome our fear (primarily of death, but of other things, too) and desire (for the fun, alluring and diverting things to be found on earth), then we would easily pass through the gate and return to Eden.

How do I know that the cherubs represent fear and desire? Because it is the message of overcoming for enlightenment, which is the twin of being born again. But also because that superior religion, Buddhism, TELLS US SO! [See “Mysticism and beyond: Buddhist phenomenology, part II”]

Buddhism, too, has its famous gate. It’s called the “gateless gate,” since, in reality, there is nothing barring one from passing through it, EXCEPT those ephemeral twins, FEAR and DESIRE. In the Buddhism theme, one of the guards has his mouth open and the other his mouth closed. But it truth there is nothing to stop you from entering the gate. Indeed, the whole point of your life is for you to pass through the gateless gate.

Many Buddhists, famously, sit in meditation. What does meditation accomplish? It stills the mind. What is the benefit of stilling the mind? It is a return to The One, to the Timeless Now, before God subdivided himself into all things on heaven and earth.
- - - -

Now, remember, in the Garden of Eden story, God has gone from THE ONE to THE MANY. At first God was ONE, then he became THE MANY. The Roman philosopher Plotinus tells us that our life has this path: Flee the Many, find the One; having found the One, embrace the Many as the One. This path, too, is the ground of The Perennial Philosophy. [You can read some about Plotinus relating to Homeless World Sacramento in a prior post to this blog: "Phobos and Thanatos"]
- - - -

So, here we are. You and me and Adam and Eve and everybody, possibly including the squirrel in the tree. We are outside of Eden, fending for ourselves in a dangerous world where there is strife, suffering and incredible injustice. Of course, we imagine a perfect world – a land of bliss. It must be somewhere. Metaphorically, it involves a return to Eden – a return to THE ONE.
- - - -

Now, about those trees. INSIDE the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were forbidden the fruit of ONE tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. OUTSIDE the Garden of Eden, there are TWO forbidden trees, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil AND the Tree of Immortality. Don’t you see!? THE TWO TREES, inside the Garden, ARE ONE AND THE SAME TREE!!! [Inside Eden, before God divided Himself, the trees are one. Outside Eden, in our world of duality, the single tree is seen as two.]

The Garden of Eden tale is telling us that THE WAY BACK INTO THE GARDEN IS THE SAME WAY OUT. But first you must overcome fear and desire. And then, you may eat, again, of the fruit of the tree! MORE knowledge is the return to THE ONE. MORE knowledge is the route to immortality. And what is this knowledge? It is the knowledge of Good and Evil. And what comprises knowledge of Good and Evil? Wisdom and Compassion. [BTW: It is NOT that wisdom and compassion ARE good and evil; they are THE KNOWLEDGE of Good and Evil.] Once you fully have wisdom and compassion, wisdom & compassion become ONE thing [the TWO become One]: Agape – unalloyed, unconditional, unbounded love.

Once you are ONE, again [like Adam briefly was], YOU WILL KNOW GOD [and knowing God is, of course, the knowledge of good and evil] and once you know God, you will love everyone unconditionally, as he does, thus EMBRACING THE MANY AS THE ONE. And THAT is the whole point of your life, dear friends [I think]. The Buddha said at enlightenment, "I am one with all things."
- - - -

So, the Garden represents Heaven. But when you embrace the many, you leave heaven and return to the earth with all its messiness. The Kingdom of Heaven, you see, is here. The Kingdom of Heaven is within. The Kingdom is on earth as it is in heaven. Hallowed be thy name.

Here is something I believe, that I've posted before -- though my believing it or not doesn't make any difference. What I believe is that consciousness is all One Thing and that we are all in the Game of Life, a "cosmic game of checkers," together. Here, then, a snippet from a Ken Wilber interview known as "A Ticket to Athens" which explains things:
Spirit is not good versus evil, or pleasure versus pain, or light versus dark, or life versus death, or whole versus part, or holistic versus analytic. Spirit is the great Player that gives rise to all those opposites equally -- “I the Lord make the Light to fall on the good and the bad alike; I the Lord do all these things” -- and the mystics the world over agree. Spirit is not the good half of the opposites, but the ground of all the opposites, and our “salvation,” as it were, is not to find the good half of the dualism but to find the Source of both halves of the dualism, for that is what we are in truth. We are both sides in the great Game of Life, because we -- you and I, in the deepest recesses of our very Self -- have created both of these opposites in order to have a grand game of cosmic checkers.
- - -
Note: This post is an embellishment of some of Joseph Campbell's ideas in his book "Thou Art That." To Joe: A tip of the hat. My source material is found on ~pg 49-52 which can be seen via Google Books.

December 10, 2008

Bee Story Looks at Situation of Bannon Street Irregulars and Other Homeless Encampments

A picture from the Bee story showing the Bannon Street encampment in late November.

First, it was the L.A. Times, and now the Sacramento Bee that has done an important story on its area homeless people.

The Bee story, "Sacramento seeks solutions for its wandering army of homeless," focuses on the Bannon Street Irregulars and an encampment over a mile to the east, called The Wasteland. It tells the tale of the pointlessness of the police rousting homeless people from campsites they've built in no-man's land. Where can the homeless go!?

The story also cites a lawsuit that is being pursued by several prominent Sac'to homeless-aid organizations to protect homeless folks' constitutional rights. The lawsuit seeks compensation for confiscation of homeless people's property and that some solution be found for the encampment-rousting run-around. The suit offers ideas and, generally, asks that the city and county to stop criminalizing homelessness.

The story could have been a tad more sympathetic to the trap homeless people find themselves in, but, generally, the story is a great, good thing, informing Sacramento citizens of the homeless encampment situation in the city.

December 8, 2008

Guidance for the Freshly Homeless

Joel John Roberts of L.A. Homeless Blog brings to our attention an article in today’s L.A. Times, “A guide for the newly poor,” of help to the tens of thousands who are finding themselves rookies to homelessness, out on the streets in the Los Angeles area.

Ideas in the Times guide can be helpful to anyone freshly down-and-out in any metropolitan area, though most of the linked resources are only helpful to Angelinos. But resources that are similar are available here in metropolitan Sacramento, and I would suppose, in other sprawling areas in this country. But you’ll have to find them on your own. Hopeful, my locality's Bee will put together a guide for the benefit of our homeless-to-be citizens.

The shock aspect of suddenly being out on the street is alluded to rather well. As is the idea of “entering a world of delays and bureaucracy.” But it will be good for the many, many anxious people out there to be aware that there are services that can help them – though the glut of people that will be crowding the streets and crowding the system is sure to foster anguish and depression for both newbie homeless and those of us who have been out here a while and now will have to contend with and compete with a growing hoard.

UPDATE: This says something about the times we're living in, I think. On the day the L.A. Times published its guide, the Tribune Company that owns the Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Cubs baseball team, and a lot else, including ten smaller newspapers and 23 TV stations, filed for bankruptcy. Here's yesterday's New York Times story about it, "Tribune Company Seeks Bankruptcy Protection." It all has to make you think, wistfully, that the guide story was published in part as an aid for the newspaper's employees [whose jobs may be in jeopardy] and former employees [who took a buyout, recently]. At the Tribune website they posted this notice: “All ongoing severance payments, deferred compensation and other payments to former employees have been discontinued and will be the subject of later proceedings before the court.”

Naked Reflections: Overcoming Poverty of the Spirit

Eknath Easwaram

In a post titled "Overcoming Poverty of the Spirit,” in his blog Naked Reflections, my pal [in both electron-space and meatspace] Nagarjuna [also known as Steve] offered up a quote from his favorite philosopher, Eknath Easwaram, that talks about the “fleeting taste of joy of union” with whom St. Augustine identifies as “God,” but whom Easwaram cites [after quoting Augustine] as “the Lord – the Self within.”

What is this union? and with whom, exactly, are we having it?

Easwaran writes, “Once we taste this joy, all we want is to be permanently aware of him in everyone, everywhere, every minute. This intense longing is the mark of genuine spiritual experience.”

Steve asks in his post “How can I, and how do I [taste this joy]? By meditating and contemplating enough? How much is enough? And how does one do enough without the inspiration of which Easwaran writes? Just as one needs money or other resources in order to earn more money, doesn't one also need to feel inspired in order to make an enduring effort to make big spiritual gains? I often feel like a man who is too poor to become rich.”

I think a terrific example of this joy, found “in everyone, everywhere, every minute” must be Thomas Merton’s “Vision in Louisville,” which I quoted in this blog last August. In his vision, Merton tells us he sees “the invisible light of heaven” blazing in everyone and that “it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed …I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.

Merton ends his essay, writing, “I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”

In his vision, Merton also mentions “le point vierge,” which comes from the writing of Louis Massignon, a distinguished professor and scholar who was deeply inspired by the life of a tenth-century Muslim mystic known as al-Hallaj, who was crucified in Baghdad for having loved God. Literally, le point vierge means “the virgin point,” I think, but I find it translated as The Virgin Heart in an essay on point vierge by Dorothy Buck. There, I find le point vierge is described by Massignon: “The Virgin Heart refers to the secret place in the center of the human soul where God alone has access. al-Hallaj envisions the core of all human hearts as one, where the human and the Divine meet, unified and untouched by anything except the seed planted by God's love.”

Quoting Buck:
It was Massignon's character to be deeply moved by life and particularly by the stories of human beings. He seems to have understood his own religious vocation as profoundly connected to human relationships. As his scholarly research plumbed the depths of these connecting themes and images his views of the world expanded, leading him to live out his convictions through social action. Imaging God as the stranger who comes to our door begging for food and shelter, or the refugee who struggles to speak our language, or the poor and marginalized in our society Massignon envisions Mary, who was also an outcast in her society. She represents the sacred hospitality in the center of every human soul that welcomes the stranger, God.

Merton, inspired by Massignon, corresponded with him, and gave this definition of le point vierge: “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.”

This "fleeting taste of joy of union" is also central to Plotinus's The Enneads. "Think of the ONE as Mind or God, you think too narrowly.... For This is also a self-existent, with no concomitant, whatever. This self-sufficing is the essense of its unity. Something there must be supremely adequate, autonomous, all-transcending, most utterly without need."

Quoting a short paper on The Enneads: "ONE is inviolable. It is also infinite. It is self-awake. It radiates. Finite intellect cannot put these descriptions together. We must find these meanings in our heart. The leap we hope to take is not into a foreign good, but our own Nature as Good."

Does this post offer any hard answers to Steve's or my questions? No. But it does find a few fingers pointing at the moon, maybe.

December 3, 2008

The Buddhist at the Baptist Rescue Mission

The Primordial Buddha statue on the grounds of the Sacramento Convention Center. That yellow thing in the background is a statue titled Walking the Dogs. Photo © Tom Armstrong
The person referenced in the title of this blogpost is me.

In Ryan Garou's book On Homelessness in America [for sale in softcover here; downloadable in doc format here], Ryan writes [Emphases mine] ...
In America, Christianity is the dominant belief system and therefore the one to expect when showing up at a mission's doors - there may be Buddhist, Muslim, etc. shelters but I've never personally heard of any. ... This should raise at least one obvious question - if a Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, etc., or even a Christian of a flavor at odds with that of the shelter provider is in need of shelter and has no other options, what happens? How is it handled? And what about the Satanists, Wiccans, agnostics and outright atheists? It entirely depends on the mission's policy. If they rigidly require an hour's devotion to Christianity, a homeless person of a different faith either has to grin and fake it or turn away.
Since I've been at the Union Gospel Mission in Sacramento over six months now, I figure it’s about time I address the elephant in the room: How do I handle being Buddhist in the midst of this Christian conclave?

As I wrote in my third post to this blog, when I returned to Sacramento late last April, I was desperate for a place to stay and ended up at the mission. While I have been out on the street many days, I’ve yet to try to stay at any other shelter, though the Salvation Army shelter, and, now, the Winter Shelter are likely to be a better fit for my requirements.

Why do I continue to stay at UGM? For starters, the Union Gospel Mission has a lot of appeal. Foremost are many of the guys who are so-called guests, like me [that is, the sheltered homeless], and other guys, most of whom were recently sheltered at the mission and who had substance-abuse problems, but are now part of The Program, and pretty much run the joint. Among the guests and in The Program are a lot of fully nice guys who are interesting, colorful and friendly. And a few of the guys in The Program are downright magnificent people who have adapted a Christ-like love of their brothers. Others of my homeless brethren have evident [and sometimes not so evident and sometimes downright mysterious] problems, but seem to do a rather splendid job managing their lives under the difficult, frustrating circumstance of being homeless.

Like what Ryan writes in his book, UGM does rigidly require its sheltered men to attend an hour-long gospel service every night. Generally, in the first half-hour there is singing, by the congregation using the chapel hymnals and/or by a choir or musicians from a church. Generally, during the second half hour a pastor will preach to us.

The music half-hour goes by pretty fast for me. Even though I have a terrible voice and a narrow range of notes I can hit, I usually sing along. While most of the hymnal songs are cornpone, written a century ago, with lyrics that talk about blood a lot or joyously dream of the Rapture, by UGM tradition, many of the hymns are augmented with interesting or strange or comical or wonderful little inserts into the lyrics. These inserts generally come from The Program guys, pretty much all of whom sing robustly. This fun sensibility keeps the hymns from growing stale.

The preachers, on the other hand, are mostly pretty awful – but there are some who are quite talented! Many of the awful ones come wholly unprepared and just ramble on, saying pretty much the same nonsense every month. From those preachers you will get one or some or all of the following messages, usually delivered rather simplistically:
  • Repent or you will roast in hell [The fact that the Bible tells us doing good works is important (Book of James, chapter 2) and that love is superior to faith (1 Corinthians, chapter 13) is, always, overlooked – as is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mound which I have only heard mentioned in passing!]
  • God/Jesus loves you [But never ever “Love thy neighbor,” with mention of the importance Jesus attributes to having us “love the least of mankind.”]
  • End Times are near! [Any bad news, from fires in the state or the economic downturn, is hailed as evidence of the End, coming any day now.]
  • Well-established science and reputable scientists are repudiated and mocked. [Evolution and earth science and The Big Bang get special condemnation, though one preacher is a notable exception in that he cites The Big Bang as evidence of the existence of God.]
About ten of the preachers each month are very talented and very passionate and come well prepared to convince congregants of the Good News of salvation. Jimmy Roughton and the mission's in-house pastor, Rev Tom Mooney, are two in this group.

Here is something I believe -- though my believing it or not doesn't make any difference. [Believing the True Thing about The Cosmos, God and Everything almost certainly doesn't affect my future ... I don't believe. Though finding the Source is the goal in cosmic hide-and-seek.] What I believe is that consciousness is all One Thing and that we are all in the Game of Life, "a grand game of cosmic checkers," together. Here, a snippet from a Ken Wilber interview known as "A Ticket to Athens" which explains things:
Spirit is not good versus evil, or pleasure versus pain, or light versus dark, or life versus death, or whole versus part, or holistic versus analytic. Spirit is the great Player that gives rise to all those opposites equally -- “I the Lord make the Light to fall on the good and the bad alike; I the Lord do all these things” -- and the mystics the world over agree. Spirit is not the good half of the opposites, but the ground of all the opposites, and our “salvation,” as it were, is not to find the good half of the dualism but to find the Source of both halves of the dualism, for that is what we are in truth. We are both sides in the great Game of Life, because we -- you and I, in the deepest recesses of our very Self -- have created both of these opposites in order to have a grand game of cosmic checkers.

The Bannon Street Irregulars

The red-roof building to the left of the red star is the admin area of the mission. The large gray-roofed building just below [to the south] is the chapel, dining hall, dorm room and several small offices. Most of the Bannon Street Irregulars sleep in front of the gray-roofed building along both sides of the road with a few in sleeping bags on the sidewalk directly in front of the admin building.
A very curious thing about the Sacramento Union Gospel Mission — like nothing I've ever seen anywhere — is just outside mission property, out on the street.

On the sidewalk, against the black wrought-iron gate and fence and on the dirt on the other side of the two-lane street, are where the Bannon Street Irregulars* sleep and rest and eat. And on the pavement itself is where they frolic, mostly at night. It's very dangerous for the Irregulars because the road is narrow and there's a sharp curve right where they congregate. Sometimes cars pass through the area at high speeds.

In the spring and summer, during my first months of homelessness, the Irregulars had bedding and their few belongings on the street in spots they maintained. The Irregulars, a constantly shifting, changing group of perhaps fifty street people look out for one another, for the most part, but there are also very frequent fights that break out. Some fights end with a fire engine and ambulance showing up on the street and then, maybe, a police car with an arrest occurring. Too, there are other passionate discussions that occur on the street that may end quietly or escalate into something more troublesome.

The great majority of the street people are men between the ages of 20 and 55. Between four and eight, at any given time, are women. A few of the people will have dogs; there are typically three or four dogs on leashes around, most of which are gentle pitbulls. The street person who is recognized as the leader is an older black man named Champ. He often nobly intervenes when passions are raw, but other times stays out of things.

Though dirt poor in accumulated assets, most of the Bannon Street Irregulars do get checks and have expenses. At the beginning of every month, or shortly thereafter, the Irregulars get their "happy checks." The sources of the checks can be SSI or SSDI or veterans benefits, or, sometimes, small short-term general-assistance payments from the welfare office. Also, many find what work they can to earn some money.

By sleeping on the street and getting food from various sources, the Irregulars are able to use large portions of what money they receive for fun or to numb their suffering on substances they are fond of or addicted to. Alcohol, weed, crack, crystal meth, speed or a wide variety of other substances are targets of addiction, in addition to tobacco which is commonly used in the form of roll-your-owns, known as rollies.

Early in a month the Irregulars get their checks. At that time, the availability of beds in the guest shelter in the mission free up such that we regular mission sleep guests have no trouble securing a bed. Usually before mid-month, after the Irregulars have spent their money, largely on short stays in motel rooms and on their substances of choice, beds become competitive again and some men who want one will have to stay out.

Russell Yeargun of Radiant Life distributing food to the Bannon Street Irregulars. The story of how God changed Russell's life can be read at the Radiant Life webspace. [Permission to use photo granted by Russell Yeargun.]
While the Bannon Street Irregulars can and do get food from the mission [dinner at 8:30 every evening and lunch on Sundays are offered, following a sermon] or lunch, available seven days a week at Loaves & Fishes, which is just a mile away, they have other handy free sources of grub, too. Many are likely to be getting food stamps. Several groups, including Food Not Bombs with their hot tofu-and-vegetable plates, distribute food once a week in Chavez Park, downtown about two miles from the mission. Also, many groups and individuals, acting on their own, come to where the Irregulars are to feed them. Radiant Life
and Abundant Life are two church groups that bring food on a set schedule. Bikers for Christ come with food, with their appearance being preceded by the roar of their choppers. Individual Samaritans come with sandwiches, pastries or soup they've prepared. Two young men irregularly appear distributing dozens of McDonald's burgers they bought nearby. Another food option: Pastor Dick Hedger of Downtown Baptist Church, who gives a sermon at the mission the first Thursday of each month, offers tickets for free McDonald’s meal deals to homeless people who attend his church’s Sunday or Wednesday services. Truly, like any metropolis, there are opportunities out there for the homeless of our extended city to stay fed. But it is especially important that the Irregulars, who may be apt to neglect their needs, be aided with diligence efforts that they be well. While there are many organizations involved in giving food to homeless Sacramentans, only Loaves & Fishes with their daily lunches [giving meals to 600 to 800 folks] feeds more than 125 people at a time in a metropolis where there are, perhaps, 2800 homeless.

In late summer, the population of the Irregulars began to increase and their presence on the street became more pronounced. A man with several ramshackle vehicles made from steel fencing, grocery carts and bicycle tires established a spot for himself. People began putting chairs on the street near the sidewalk. A hibachi got used regularly. Down the road, several vehicles were parked where homeless people slept. A large old trailer without a license tag became a few people’s makeshift home for a few weeks.

In May the city had reached an agreement with Greyhound to move their terminal from downtown to an area near the mission. Word later was that the new depot would be built beginning in mid-September. This was clearly the spur that got the police to make a play to move the Irregulars away from the area they occupied.

At night the police would arrive and roust out the street denizens. When this first happened, many Irregulars relocated at a spot near the American River. But others returned quickly to the Bannon St. locale. Soon, the Irregulars learned that there was no penalty for near-immediately returning after being banished.

After many rounds of roust-and-return, the economy began its tailspin and that put the skids to both the Greyhound move and the police effort to displace the Irregulars.

As fall arrived and the trees took on all their earthy colors, the nights got a bit wet and cold. Sometimes very cold. Tents began to spring up like wild mushrooms on the across-the-road-from-the-mission side in the Bannon Street Irregulars community. There were several big tents that were erected which could hold four beings. And there were small ones, too, that could keep a loner dry. Down the street, near where North B Street rounded a curve and had a name-change to Bannon, a tent village emerged on a piece of property no bigger than a quarter acre. The people there cooked chicken on an open fire and hung their clothes to dry on the wire fence.

Because of the bitter turn of the economy, the county of Sacramento delayed the opening of the so-called Winter Shelter [aka, Overflow] from Nov. 1 to Nov. 24. Overflow has a good reputation in the homeless community because of its beds on bunks [instead of bunk pads], tasty meals, lenient rules and TV room. Overflow adds 154 beds [104 for men; 50 for women] to the shelter opportunities we Sac’to homeless have in the cold months. The official close date is March 9, three weeks before its usual close. Hopefully, the weather will be friendly then. [Update: I am told by Barry Wisdom of VOA, in an email received on Dec 8, that, per Angelo Gama, there is a possiblity that the close date might be extended. Let us hope that it can be, especially if the weather in March is bad.]

In synch with the opening of Overflow, the Irregulars got notice from the police of their eviction from the street. As it happened, this time the police action was mostly successful. Today [Dec 3], only a few stragglers continue to sleep in front of the mission. And down the street, in the tent village, the population seems slightly reduced.

In the mission shelter, for the past three days, there have been about ten empty bunk beds out of the sixty available. And the number attending services and sitting for the evening meal have been greatly reduced. For the moment, things are rather good. The weather is chilly, but dry. Life goes on.

* I call them this, a play on the Baker Street Irregulars of several Sherlock Holmes stories. The Bannon street people are "irregular" in that they intermittently eat at and the men get beds at the mission.

The Death of the GOP?

This from a Thomas Frank column, titled "Health-Care Reform Could Kill the GOP," printed in the opinion section of the Wall Street Journal Online:
The goal [of the Republican party has been] to use state power to achieve lasting victory for the ideas of the right.

On the other side of the political fence, strategic moves of this kind are fairly rare. Instead, for most of my lifetime, prominent Democratic leaders have been chucking liberalism itself for the sake of immediate tactical gain.

... [C]onservatives have always dreaded the day that Democrats discover (or rediscover) that there is a happy political synergy between delivering liberal economic reforms and building the liberal movement. The classic statement of this fear is a famous memo that Bill Kristol wrote in 1993, when he had just started out as a political strategist and the Clinton administration was preparing to propose some version of national health care.

"The [health care] plan should not be amended; it should be erased," Mr. Kristol advised the GOP. And not merely because Mr. Clinton's scheme was (in Mr. Kristol's view) bad policy, but because "it will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests."

Historian Rick Perlstein suggests that this memo is "the skeleton key to understanding modern American politics" because it opens up a fundamental conservative anxiety: "If the Democrats succeed in redistributing economic power, we're screwed."
Read the whole column here.

November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, Everybody. May your day be a joyous one with NFL games all in a row. May the cranberries and pumpkin pie be as delicious as the tofo turkey.

We homeless hate holidays since the few establishments where we can hang out and do constructive (and, for some, not-so-constructive) things are sure to be closed. BUT, for the homeless, there are many opportunities to get good free eating, albeit with a few ill-mannered homeless folks at the table. AND the food is plentiful and traditional and great. Loaves & Fishes served a Thanksgiving lunch on Tuesday with good-as-fresh leftovers for today's lunch. The mission will serve a Thanksgiving meal to us tonight. And the Salvation Army will be serving Thanksgiving fixings tomorrow at about noon.

It has been raining in Sac'to -- but not too badly. This is the first real rain in my six sad months on the street. Rain, the experienced homeless tell me, is the primary enemy of the homeless. Well, that and parole officers and bouts of food poisoning.

I am happy enough, even more than enough, my friends. Not to fret. Be well, y'all. Be happy, everybody.

-- Tom

HoTo Honored with posts in IpsoSacto and On Homelessness in America

I am late becoming aware of and acknowledging (1) a post in ipsoSacto [link] and (2) being on the 'roll of On Homelessness in America [link]. ipsoSacto is THE premier Sacramento-area metablog; it is to the metropolis of Sacramento what Blogmandu was to Buddhism, and this blog (and I) are highly honored to be singled out by ipsoSacto's splendid writer, John. In his post last August, John pulled a juicy tease of a quote from Homeless Tom's first blogpost.

On Homelessness in America, with The Homeless Guy [link] and Under the Overpasses [link], is one of the powerful voices for homeless folk we have goin' in this country. With the planetwide spiralling-down economy, we homeless people are going to see our population swell and our resources greatly diminished. Voices like those of Ryan Garou [OHIA], Kevin Barbieux [THG] and the anonymous blogger of UTO can save lives. I LOVE YOU GUYS. Don't stop doin' what your doin' and thinkin' about tomorrow.

By the way ... Ryan is the author of a 168-page book, also titled On Homelessness in America, described by the publisher thusly: "A meditation on homelessness in America; the realities of it, the causes of it, and what can be done about it." The book, in a new second edition, can be downloaded for a wallet-friendly two-and-a-half bucks! Update, update, update!: As Ryan tells us in a comment to this post, his book can be downloaded free, in doc format, at Cloud Bird Trail.

November 25, 2008

The Anomie of Homelessness and the Anomie of Western Buddhism

I want to set the ground for an issue I want to get heavily into later. It begins with a definition of anomie and then an exploration of the Typograpy of Deviance, the ways and reasons people pull away (or are pushed away) from what is accepted or normal for their society.

Anomie comes from the Greek, literally meaning "without"+"law." With respect to sociology, it's meaning is defined -- at -- thusly: "A state or condition of individuals or society characterized by a breakdown or absence of social norms and values, as in the case of uprooted people." But this is better for our purposes, a quote from an essay at the South Carolina University webspace, using Sociologist Robert K. Merton's definition as he came to use it in his 1968 book Social Meaning and Social Structure, writing: "when society places a greater stress on achieving the culturally preferred goals (whatever they are) but does not equally stress the approved norms regulating the means to achieve those goals, society is in a state of anomie." Merton’s concept of anomie in the broadest sense is concerned with the disparate emphasis which exists between cultural goals and institutionalized means. More narrowly defined, however, anomie is said to exist when the “cultural (or idiosyncratic) exaggeration of the success-goal leads men to withdraw emotional support from the rules."

Anomie seems to be used focusedly in describing homeless people. This is understandable, for what group could more centrally be pointed at as those who have fallen out of the general society or culture where they are? And, yet, from my experience, swimming in the pool of homelessness, it is its own culture, rich with a grand variety of individuals. It is an open question, for me, whether Merton's Typography of Deviance, as constructed, slots us homeless properly.

Also of great interest is a look at so-called Western Buddhism [aka, New Buddhism or American Buddhism], defined as a deviant life choice. How do the typically caucasian persons who are attracted to Western Buddhism in America come to the religion? What can we say about individual Western Buddhist's goals and means which induce them to practice our religion? How big a component, ultimately, is the rejection of Christianity or Judaism or secular atheism/agnosticism? or, do Western Buddhists always/usually/ultimately come to "play their own game" within the context of the larger society (that is, are we typographically rebels)?

So, now, this of central importance to the discussion, something that comes to me after first visiting Ryan Garou's blog On Homelessness in America [link] and then doing a bit of googling. It's a brief overview of Robt Merton's Typography of Deviance found at the mashica webspace:

In 1938, the sociologist Robert Merton wrote about anomie using the term to mean the DISCONTINUITY BETWEEN CULTURAL GOALS AND THE LEGITIMATE MEANS FOR REACHING THEM. For example, the idea of monetary success (in the USA, where Merton did most of his studying) is a very strong goal shared by virtually all of the population. However, this goal is not always accompanied by a socially acceptable means to fulfillment. This anomie places stress on the society and causes dysfunction in its specific groups that lack the possiblity to attain those same goals. The fruit of this dysfunctionality in society is called, by Merton, deviance. Deviance, I propose, is the twin sister of disobedience and can be easily used as syonyms one for the other.

Each person's reaction to the anomie is to be understood as a mode of adaptation. For Merton, there are 5 basic modes of adaptation to anomie in his (and our) society: Conformity, Innovation, Ritualism, Retreatism, and Rebellion. This is also known as Merton's deviance typology.

CONFORMITY is the typical successfull hardworking person who both accepts the goals of the society and has the means for obtaining those goals. This is an example of NON-anomie.

INNOVATION is the form of adaptation of the person who has accepted the goals of the society but does not have the ability to attain those goals. This person, then, creates a new way of obtaining the same goals by different means. This is the role of creativity! This the most typical anomie. Many persons of this type can be very beneficial to society in the long run. However others included in this group are thieves or other criminals (say, of the white-collar variety).

Adaptation in the form of RITUALISM represents the person who in spite of not having the goals of the society, continues to participate in the means. This is the person who works hard but has no desire or is ambivalent to becoming successful. This is also the typical role of a beaurocracy that is followed as an end in itself; or an inflexible following or an insistance on rules for everything.

RETREATISM: The person who rejects the means AND the goals is said to be retreating from society. Stereotypically, this adaption to anomie is represented by the person who refuses to participate in society; the drug-addict, the street person.

The last category of adaptation is REBELLION. The rebel may or may not have accepted the the goals and may or may not have accepted the means to the goals. The goals or/and means are replaced by other goals and/or means. If he acts within the means to fulfilling a goal, he does so for reasons that have nothing to do with the goals of the society as a whole. He is playing his own game.

November 24, 2008

Took another personality test.

Below, are my results on a Personality Disorder test I took today. My scores are in black; average scores are in gray. Note: I have NO personality disorder, scoring low on all but three tests -- with each of the three in different general areas. Note, too, that my current unusual and highly-stressed circumstance weighed in a lot with my answers, as did my Buddhist orientation toward the world -- and how that skews things I can't easily guess. So, the results may not say a lot. The result I most question is Histrionic. I am at least up to near average with my Histrionastasy! Damn it to HELL!!


*scores in gray are the average web score

Test Note: Read the descriptions below to avoid misinterpreting test results (for example, the Antisocial classification does not mean you are a loner, it means you tend to be insensitive towards others).
General Note: the validity and reliability of DSM personality disorders are still lacking in strong statistical evidence and clear agreement in the scientific and medical community. They are determined by the American Psychiatric Association and will likely be revised in the future.
Author Note:I don't think Schizoid personality is a valid disorder (read), some of the smartest people in history were schizoid because they occupied a remote end of the intelligence bell curve. Schizotypal personality can encompass highly original thinkers as well as totally insane people so I think it's a flawed type. I think the remaining eight disorders are generally valid.

Disorder Info
Eccentric Personality Disorders: Paranoid, Schizoid, Schizotypal. Individuals with these disorders often appear odd or peculiar.
Paranoid Personality Disorder - individual generally tends to interpret the actions of others as threatening.
Schizoid Personality Disorder - individual generally detached from social relationships, and shows a narrow range of emotional expression in various social settings.
Schizotypal Personality Disorder - individual is uncomfortable in close relationships, has thought or perceptual distortions, and peculiarities of behavior.

Dramatic Personality Disorders: Antisocial, Borderline, Histrionic, and Narcissistic. Individuals with these disorders have intense, unstable emotions, distorted self-perception, and/or behavioral impulsiveness.
Antisocial Personality Disorder - individual shows a pervasive disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others.
Borderline Personality Disorder - individual shows a generalized pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and observable emotions, and significant impulsiveness.
Histrionic Personality Disorder - individual often displays excessive emotionality and attention seeking in various contexts. They tend to overreact to other people, and are often perceived as shallow and self-centered.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder - individual has a grandiose view of themselves, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is present in various situations. These individuals are very demanding in their relationships.

Anxious Personality Disorders: Avoidant, Dependent, Obsessive-Compulsive. Individuals with these disorders often appear anxious or fearful.
Avoidant Personality Disorder - individual is socially inhibited, feels inadequate, and is oversensitive to criticism
Dependent Personality Disorder - individual shows an extreme need to be taken care of that leads to fears of separation, and passive and clinging behavior.
Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder - individual is preoccupied with orderliness, perfectionism, and control at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency.

November 23, 2008

Bad Buddha makes Good

I knew from a Oct. 30 post in Bad Buddha, "'Genesis Run' in Tricycle," that ebwrite [aka, Ed Brickell] had a piece — based closely on a post in his prior blog — that would appear in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. And from a Nov. 10 post, "Free for all," I knew that the piece was online at the Tricycle webspace. Now that I've seen the glorious, wonderful, high-styled, philosophical, keenly-descriptive, nature-loving, hard-steppin' words in hardcopy in Trike's Winter issue, I must complement Ed for his skillful writing and the touching, refreshing sentiments in his "my view" piece. I'm delighted for Ed and Tricycle readers that "Genesis Run" was published. And I am delighted that Bad Buddha can expect a bevy of new readers, who will be rewarded with reading others of Ed's beautifully well-written posts.

Also, I cannot help but do a few arm-pumps and voice a few hoorays for the Blogisattva Awards which wisely, most-appropriately gave Ed its vaulted Wordsmithing Award in February, honoring him for the beautiful way he slung words together in his blogposts in calendar year 2007. You go, Blogisattva jurors/voters! [Oh, and YOU GO, ED of course, too.]

Also #2, I am very happy because Ed is a proud supporter of homeless folk. Hooray, Ed, that.

Here, a wonderful, yet typical, paragraph ... from early on in "Genesis Run":
As I got out of my car and stood facing the lake in my running clothes, I breathed the rain-washed freshness of the air. Squinting into the clouds of mist hanging over the lake’s suddenly lively surface, everything around me wet, gleaming, and dripping, I felt as if I stood at the cradle of something unfamiliar and primal — a newborn world, a scruffy child pushed squirming, wet, and steaming, from the cosmic womb. My mind turned to the biblical story of creation, which I had recently been rereading for the first time since beginning my Zen practice.
See? Wud I tell ya? Great stuff, this.

Personality Test Results

Yo, Readers,

I took a personality test, inspired by James Ford of Monkey Mind doing so. Not sure I'm happy with the results -- hmm, the test says I'm worrying and insecure -- but some of what is here sounds about right. Of course, my ongoing homeless circumstance and enormous stressors influence these results in curious ways. The test shows me to have a high extraversion score: that really comes from sympathy I have for others in circumstances like mine these days, not because I am much of a party animal. Really, I am very shy.

I like that of my traits it says that I am "in the middle." The Middle Way, y'all!

Try one -- or more -- of these tests yourselves, readers, for fun and adventure.

Stability results were moderately low which suggests you are worrying, insecure, emotional, and anxious.

Orderliness results were moderately low which suggests you are, at times, overly flexible, improvised, and fun seeking at the expense of reliability, work ethic, and long term accomplishment.

Extraversion results were moderately high which suggests you are, at times, overly talkative, outgoing, sociable and interacting at the expense of developing your own individual interests and internally based identity.

trait snapshot:

changeable, in the middle, suspicious, somewhat traditional, dislikes chaos, down to earth, group oriented, practical... you scored in the middle on the overall factors of this test.

November 22, 2008

Thinking about Not-Thinking

Saw the November 8 copy of NewScientist on the racks at the local public library, and couldn't resist the cover story title, "Vacant Mind, Busy Brain," since I had to think meditation might play a part. In the issue, I found the story, there titled "Private Life of the Brain," and then found it online, where it's titled "The Secret Life of the Brain." [Whew! A many-named thing, this -- but, then, I go by the three names of Tom, Mr. Armstrong, and Hey, You, and God, to some, is God, Jesus and Holy Spirit, so perhaps I shouldn't complain.]

Click to enlargeAnyway, before I touch on the main article, there was indeed a direct Zen connection, told in a green aside-box captioned "the meditating mind," which led me to a PLoS ONE article from September last titled "“Thinking about Not-Thinking”: Neural Correlates of Conceptual Processing during Zen Meditation."

Unhappily, I am not subscribed to PLoS ONE, but I can read the article abstract which includes this esoteric-yet-revealing explanation of the research results: "While behavioral performance did not differ between [Zen practitioners and a control group, the Zen guys] displayed a reduced duration of the neural response linked to conceptual processing in regions of the default network, suggesting that meditative training may foster the ability to control the automatic cascade of semantic associations triggered by a stimulus and, by extension, to voluntarily regulate the flow of spontaneous mentation." How about them apples!! Basically, what this means is that practitioners of meditation have an improved ability to switch which areas of their brains are "turned on." They have more brain control, which, on the physical level, is what happens when people are more in charge of their minds, it seems.

The article begins by citing a study done in 1953 that showed that our brains use just as much oxygen when they are busy, doing arithmetic problems, than when they are seemingly idle, resting with eyes closed. This evidence was at odds with the idea then (and long afterward) that are brains are old-style computers that go into stand-by mode when not brought into use. Indeed, building on the study, scientists now know within the brain is "an organ within an organ" that some now call "the neural dynamo of daydreaming" and others believe has a more-curious role, knitting our memories into a personal narrative. This so-called organ within the brain goes to work when conscious activities become idle -- thus, the brain's constant, level oxygen needs.

A 2001 study identified the regions of the brain that were "turned on" when the consciousness areas were idle. [See article "A default mode of brain function" by Marcus E. Raichle, et al, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (aka, PNAS).] This study and subsequent ones [see NewScientist 24Mar2007 p. 36 and Science vol 315, p. 393] say, from what was known about the turned-on regions, that daydreaming is what goes on there.

But now scientists are starting to suspect that the default network does more than just daydream. This from the recent NewScientist article:
Raichle reported last year that the network's resting waves continued in heavily anaesthetised monkeys as though they were awake (Nature, vol 447, p 83). More recently, [Michael D.] Greicius [a prime research scientist in this area of study] reported a similar phenomenon in sedated humans, and other researchers have found the default network active and synchronised in early sleep (Human Brain Mapping, vol 29, p 839 and p 671).

It threw a monkey wrench into the assumption that the default network is all about daydreaming. "I was surprised," admits Greicius "I've had to revamp my understanding of what we're looking at."
Today, Raichle believes "the default network is involved [in] selectively storing and updating memories based on their importance from a personal perspective - whether they're good, threatening, emotionally painful, and so on. To prevent a backlog of unstored memories building up, the network returns to its duties whenever it can."

This research also is an avenue at better understanding dementia. From the article: "[Research scientists] have since found that the default network's pattern of activity is disrupted in patients with Alzheimer's disease. They have also begun to monitor default network activity in people with mild memory problems to see if they can learn to predict who will go on to develop Alzheimer's. [This is of keen interest to me since both my parents had dementia (which was in both cases probably Alzheimer's) when they died. I have some word-find memory problems which, with my parents' histories, suggests I likely will suffer from the disease in the future.]

And now, back to zen meditation: This is merely my speculation, but I think we might suppose that meditation is greatly helpful to us because it begins by organizing our thoughts, behind the scenes. And since this organizing is based on our "personal perspective," a compassionate and wise effort makes us more coherent and harmonious than if the organizing was done without such guidance. Having a more-organized, compassionate, wise and harmonious mind, we are brought closer to the reality of our life and life's meaning, generally. With confusion swept away, enlightenment becomes possible.

November 15, 2008

Compassion is like wild flowers and not like veal farming

I know this sounds somewhat like me, contrarian that I am known to be: It seems I have come out in opposition to Compassion.

Seems that many of the blogs I follow have posted about an idea that Karen Armstrong [no relation to me] has that a Charter For Compassion be developed.

In an On Faith post called "Calling All Religions to Compassion," Armstrong writes:
The major task of our generation is to build a global community where people of all persuasions can live together in mutual respect. If we do not achieve this, we will not have a viable world to hand on to our children. We must implement the Golden Rule globally, treating other peoples ~ whoever they may be ~ as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Any ideology ~ religious or secular ~ that breeds hatred or disdain will fail the test of our time. The religions should be making a major contribution to this essential task ~ and that is why it is important to sign on to the Charter of Compassion, change the conversation, and make it cool to be compassionate.

We hope that hundreds of thousands of people ~ Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Confucians and atheists all over the world will contribute their insights on line on our multi-lingual website. The world will help to write this Charter to return religion to the spirit of the Golden Rule. Can we make a difference? "Yes We Can!"
The reverend Danny Fisher [of eponymous blog fame] is tentative about the idea. While he is pro-Compassion [surprised?], he is on the fence re the charter idea, being drawn to some negatory ideas he shares with Sharon Jacoby: 1) there is already a Universal Declaration of Human Rights that covers the same ground, and 2) while all major religions believe in something close to the same thing as this compassion thing, not all read it the same way.

In a long, thoughtful post,'s Barbara of Barbara's Buddhism Blog takes stern issue with Jacoby's objections. She writes: "Jacoby's reaction amounts to a knee-jerk recitation of all of her resentments about religion, whether they relate to what Armstrong said or not. Judging by the title of her comment -- 'On The Unreliability of Compassion Without Enforceable Law' -- she equates 'compassion' with 'good behavior,' which is not how I understand compassion. Compassion that must be enforced is not compassion." Barbara seems to like the charter idea, though she doesn't quite say so explicitly.

Rod, the whinny behind "...worst horse," alerts us to the charter thing, but expresses no view.

Bill of Integral Options Cafe writes, "I'm late coming to this, but The Charter for Compassion is a great idea that I think deserves more attention ..." ["More attention," I think it's starting to get.]

Me, I have some discomfort with the effort, beyond just Armstrong's goofy try to snag some of that Obama mojo. "Yes We Can!," indeed.

I hate to see "compassion" become something we hit people over the head with: "Be compassionate, damn it, you vulgarians, you."

Or see a Dogma of Compassion develop. To get compassion you must meet our regulations for compassion.

And what about the slippery slope!? Sure, a bunch of fat-hearted people want compassion universalized now -- but what next!? Love? Kindness? No meat eating? A reversal of California's Prop. 8!? Rush Limbaugh taken off the radio? Universal health care? Storming the Winter Palace?

Nah. Compassion is like wildflowers and not like veal farming. We must allow it to sprout where it will.

As for Barbara's objection to Sharon's objections: IMHO, if we "charterize" compassion, then it becomes a code, a rule, a command. It morphs into a regulation mandating behavior: Compassion made remorseless -- that is, incompassionate.

November 14, 2008

Five for Obama: Movies I'd Like the Prez-Elect to See

Inspired by Danny Fisher's post and selections, I will follow in the kind reverand's wake and choose five films that I would like Barack Obama to see before he becomes our 44th president.

As Danny tells us, a UK Guardian film blogger, Xan Brooks, started this meme, posting the following challenge to his readers: "If there were five films that [Obama] needed to see before settling into the job, which ones would they be? What are the ones that should stand as his touchstones as he prepares for the biggest task of all?"

Here are my selections:

1. First, I will kipe The Corporation from Danny's List for mine. It is definitely a movie I would want Barack to see and think about. This documentary may or may not be fair and even-handed, but it does reveal a lot about the psychotic nature of corporations which have become the dominate force in our country and have become most adult individuals' masters.

2. Both Danny Fisher and Xan Brooks chose Robert Alman's political farce Nashville for their lists. I'll pass on that one since it doesn't touch much on the administration component of being president. On his list, Danny included Warren Beatty's political film Bulworth. I'll pass on that one, too, since I don't remember it that well. Instead I'll choose a political film that focuses a lot [but not exclusively] on administration. My choice is a Preston Sturges's gem about a Chicago mayor faced with a corrupt system and the dangers of being honest: The Great McGinty.

3. Since Brooks already chose The Grapes of Wrath as a message to Obama to keep the suffering of others in mind during these Hard Times we've entered, and since I already recommended Sullivan's Travels to readers of this blog, my "Hard Times" recommendation to Obama is The 400 Blows, François Truffaut’s delightful story of the tribulations and trials of a boy who stumbles into trouble in post-WWII France.

4. Since Obama will be Top Dog over one of the world's most awesome and troubling beaurocracies, I would want him to see Akira Kurosawa's quasi-comedy Ikiru. This 1952 Japanese movie was the inspiration for another, more recent, better-known great beaurocracy-out-of-control film, Monty Python Terry Gillam's 1980 farce Brazil. But of those two movies, Ikiru is the masterpiece. I believe that Ikiru is Kurosawa's response to Capra's film It's a Wonderful Life, but instead of the protagonist almost committing suicide, Ikiru's protagonist is definitely dying of stomach cancer at the beginning of the movie. And, instead of being Christian-themed, it's Buddhism-themed. Yowza!

and 5. Because I worry about justice in America and rendition and Gitmo and plea bargaining and more, I would like Barack to see my favorite Al Pacino film, ...And Justice for All. Madness, madness, reality, madness. "You're out of order! You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They're out of order!"

November 13, 2008

Jimmy Roughton

Jimmy Roughton speaking before the Union Gospel Mission congregation.

In my “On Love” post I wrote six weeks ago, I beat up a bit on the Union Gospel preachers, and particularly on most mission-goers’ [and my personal] favorite Jimmy Roughton for being cowardly in preaching on love – that is, neighborly love or agape.

Jimmy Roughton was the UGM preacher yesterday and he got into the love-stuff some in a return to his high form. At his best his sermons have a point and an arc. And, always, Roughton displays amazing passion and showmanship. He is a riveting speaker; he is loud, passionate, with grand gestures; his eyes dart as he makes contact with individuals in his audience. He doesn’t make use of a text; he doesn’t need one – he knows his stuff and what he is going to say and speaks without pauses or stumbles. He begins on the pulpit at the lectern, but as his message unspools he makes his way down to the chapel floor. A part of his charm is that Roughton comically – mockingly – does a good job imitating classes of people: False Christians, atheists and rationalizing substance abusers are prime targets.

Often he has been discretely miked so that he can roam, but yesterday he made do with just being loud.

Much of his sermon yesterday compared Moses with Jesus. Moses was a common man, a murderer, an imperfect servant of God. Jesus, of course, is God. Both Moses and Jesus went to a mountain. Moses was met by God at his mountain, where he was given the stone tablets that proclaimed the Ten Commandments, fast instructions from God on how to behave. Jesus met Satan and temptation on his mountain; Jesus’s challenge was a test of character.

Citing the Book of Hebrews, Roughton told us the Old Testament’s hard rules were notably not successful. Only two of the some two million Jews who fled Egypt made it to the Promised Land. The Jews lacked faith in God. The New Testament idea of changing your character is what God truly seeks, according to Roughton. Changing one’s heart is what is sought. If we become pure of heart [change our character], THAT will empower us to be good Christians and from that our behavior will become good. Being good, love will naturally flow between us and our neighbors.

There are interesting similarities between this and Buddhism. Buddha’s earliest teaching is the Dhammapada: Rules to live by, similar somewhat to the Ten Commandments. Later teachings by the Buddha that Mahayana Buddhists [including Western Buddhists, natch] gravitate toward are unmapable pathways toward having a better heart.

November 10, 2008

The cross, blood and Lenny Bruce

Reverend Tom Mooney is the Union Gospel Mission’s premier in-house preacher. Like the mostly Baptist preachers outside the mission, he has a slot on the rescue mission’s monthly roster. And, like only a few of the other evening preachers, he also participates in the warm-up entertainment section -- with music performed by his band, Last Day’s Harvest. Mooney plays guitar and is the lead singer.

In his evening sermon last night, Rev. Mooney was different than how he usually is. In past months when I’ve heard him, he is mostly very tough on his chapel audience, bringing forward visions of torment in hell and rebuking his audience, telling us to pull our sorry lives together by finding Christ.

Last night, Rev. Mooney was subdued and more reflective. He talked a little about his tough early life, growing up in a home with battling parents that neglected him, but said that many of those of us sitting in the chapel surely have had things worse than he. [I hadn’t; but I can well imagine that many of the guys I know have had lives of financial hardship in homes where there are chronic arguments and substance-abuse issues.]

The cross that masks the lecturn at the front of the pulpit at Union Gospel Mission.
Mooney then spoke for many minutes about something that really surprised me. At the pulpit and then after walking out front of the stage, he talked, generally, about the cross. Without attributing it, he first used a variation on a famous 1950s Lenny Bruce joke, asking If Jesus died today, would people be wearing electric chairs around their necks? Curious thing, there is a very prominent cross, front and center in the chapel that masks the lecturn [See picture].

Mooney is right, of course, in starkly pointing out how peculiar the cross symbol is. It is used as jewelry, often studded with rhinestones, proclaiming a wearer’s Christian belief. But it is a torture devise; Jesus was murdered on a cross at Calvary. While Christ’s harrowing, excruciating death is what provides believers entry to heaven [by a logic I can’t get my mind around], the importance of Christ’s life, including three years of teaching, seems subsumed by concentration of interest in his death followed by his resurrection.

Writes Edward Ingebretsen, culture critic and rhethoric scholar, in his book At Stake:
For motives of class sensitivity, modern believers erase, forget, or else ignore the taint of Jesus’ crucifixion that occludes its representation. Lenny Bruce quips that wearing the crucifix is akin to wearing an electric chair around one’s neck; the nervous, shocked laughter of his audience makes the point well enough. For this audience to think about what the cross means is as much a taboo as speaking about it or representing it in public places. Blinkered from history, then, contemporary believers rarely see the crucifix (or worse, its ideologically sanitized image, the cross) as the insufferable “sign of contradiction” that it is. Indeed, a respected Catholic churchman can say, with a breathtaking lack of historical consciousness, that “the cross coerces no one. It offends only those who are intolerant of the Catholic faith.” To the contrary, offense is central to its meaning.
One curious thing about Mooney’s message being inspired by Bruce’s insight: The idea of an electric chair being the contemporary equivalent of the cross is out-of-date. Electric chairs aren’t used in the United States much any more. According to wikipedia, only Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia allow use of the electric chair, as an alternative to legal injection. In Illinois and Oklahoma it’s the back-up if other forms of execution are found unconstitutional. Legal Injection is now our country’s prevalent death devise. Maybe if Christ had been killed in our day and in our country, his followers would begin wearing necklace pendants shaped like hypodermic needles.

But while I find merit to Mooney’s criticism of the cross symbol, it seems to be contradicted by Mooney’s band’s frequent use of blood in its songs. The songs’ message is consistently one of praising and thanking Jesus for dying as He did so that we may be washed of our sins in His blood.

The blood thing seems to have qualities to object to that mirror those of the cross. Both Jesus's blood and the cross refer to Jesus being crucified. Both the blood and the cross are things that Christians seem to have a strange, loving fascination with -- but it is only the cross that bothers Pastor Mooney.

I understand that Jesus’s death is this vastly significant sacrifice that satisfies a bloodlust that had been met by slaughtering animals. And that Jesus’s death put an end to the practice of sacrifice to God. But isn’t it ghoulish to concentrate our interest in the blood that Jesus shed? Couldn’t/Shouldn't our interest focus, instead, on sorrow we have for the suffering He endured?