Not too long ago I read in a mildly liberal outlet, the National Catholic Reporter, a rather vigorous criticism of AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), my favorite congresswoman. Now I would never claim that she (or anyone on the Left) is flawless or beyond criticism—far from it. But this put-down of AOC manifests a certain ignorance and several persistent problems and some interesting pitfalls of interpreting texts.
It appears that recently AOC had said to the National Catholic Reporter that one of her favorite Biblical pericopes was the one about Jesus chasing the moneychangers from the Temple. The critic said that this manifests a certain anti-Semitism and plays into an age-old use of that text in Western Christianity in order to persecute Jews. Some of this is very true. But that AOC’s liking of this pericope shows a clear sign of anti-Semitism is seriously mistaken and obscures a real problem: religious scriptures can be used and have been used to justify all kinds of positions, sometimes very contradictory, sometimes monstrously evil. Think about it: the Bible has been used to support slavery, monarchy, exploitation of the earth, subjugation of women, death penalty, war, even torture, accumulation of wealth, class systems, intolerance of difference, etc.; but also, liberation, revolution, classless society, debt forgiveness, nonviolence, equality of all, etc. Very much the same holds for the sacred scriptures of the other great religions. As sophisticated interpreters have been pointing out now for decades, what you get out of the written word depends quite a bit on what you bring to it. But there is a deeper way of approaching the problem: it is only when you begin to realize your true identity (for the Christian, in Paul’s terms, “in Christ”) that the scriptures unfold their truth and you can begin to separate the “wheat from the chaff.” But truly there is a “chicken and egg” dilemma here….which comes first. Well, lets just say that the scriptures can help you to begin this journey of discovery. Once you begin to realize a deeper sense of who you really are, you begin to see the Scriptures in a deeper way and that in turn unfolds a still deeper realization of self. And so on.
(Consider the transformation of the religious murderous Saul of Tarsus to Paul, beginning with an experience of a radically new sense of identity to a complete reworking of the Hebrew religious ethos.)
Now lets backtrack to this pericope and this criticism of AOC. The logic of the critic could imply that his criticism would also apply to Jesus of Nazareth (truly a Jew!) and Paul (albeit a “changed” Jew). And such an attitude and view leads people to accuse any critic of the State of Israel as anti-Semitic. To be fair, I won’t say that this is the position of this critic, but it is an underlying sentiment like that which leads to such views. But lets consider two other kinds of reading of this pericope.
The first reading flows along traditional lines. We note that the pericope is present in all 4 Gospels, making it significant by not being left out from any of the Gospels. Also, the pericope is always situated near the passion account in the Synoptics and near the beginning in the Gospel of John….and considering that the whole Gospel of John can be seen as the Passion account—so much of other Synoptic materials left out—it is still very much tied to the Passion narrative. Now the “moneychangers” in the Temple refers probably to the folks doing currency exchange for the sacrificial animals that were being bought and sold. So the Gospel writers are emphasizing the replacement of the old ritual with something more sublime and transcendent. Animal sacrifices are external to our selfhood and obfuscate our relationship to God and who we are. Something much greater is needed for that. There is also the added point which some scholars point to: the Temple was a repository of much money which the Temple authorities loaned out to the poor who lost their land when they couldn’t repay their debt.
Another reading could be a more symbolic approach: whatever be the historical incident, the “Temple” is the “meeting ground” of the human and the divine, and so the “Temple” can mean the heart or even the whole cosmos. You can take it from there, then, the deeper impact of this pericope.
Something else I read not too long ago is another sharp criticism of a history book studying the full extent of the massacre of Native Americans in California. Scholars who have examined this period of our history have used the word “genocide,” not without some controversy. This critic did not seem to be a scholar but just someone somewhat angry that his European ancestors were being singled out as especially murderous, racist, and intent on “ethnic cleansing.” His basic argument was “Everyone was doing it.” He seems to be saying that there was nothing “special” or “racial” about this wiping out of whole populations and then gutting out their culture and pushing the survivors into abject poverty. It was simply the universal felt greed that drove the Europeans to grab the gold country for themselves. To a certain extent he is right: Native Americans, both in North America and South America did commit various atrocities upon each other; there are signs of cannibalism and human sacrifice in the Americas as well as all over the world; the Hopi, for example, massacred one of their own villages when it seemed they might become Christian or something else; African Blacks sold their own people into slavery; the hordes of Genghis Khan killed indiscriminately, etc., etc. All this proves is that the universal human condition is very bad off and always has been. But it does not take away the “specialness” of each of these historical moments and tragedies. The reason why many Americans have a hard time accepting what our ancestors did both to the Native Americans and to the Blacks who were enslaved is that we are all enjoying the benefits of their dark deeds. One should ponder this a while.
Another book I have read recently: What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn’t). This is a collection of essays by a group of American Zen teachers presenting a critique of the modern secularized “mindfulness” movement in our society. Here’s a few quotes from the Introduction:
“Now it is mindfulness’s turn to be appropriated by Western culture as the philosopher’s stone. Sometimes idealized as a cure-all and sometimes vilified as a New Age pablum, it has spread into society at large and, like Zen, expanded beyond its original training venues, religious practices, and cultural contexts. “Mindfulness” is becoming a generic term whose meaning becomes less clear in direct proportion to the hype it generates. It can be found everywhere; corporate retreats, medical centers, sports facilities, and even the military have adopted it as a way to decrease stress and improve performance.
Mindfulness has indeed entered the marketplace in the West, but it is questionable whether its hands are always bliss bestowing; there is even a danger of them becoming as grasping as all the other hands to be found there. This is not because mindfulness’s proponents are greedily chasing after money—though sadly that seems to be a not-infrequent phenomenon—but because the movement seems to be preoccupied with results…. The Heart Sutra, a text at the very core of Mahayana Buddhism teaching, proclaims there is ‘no path, no wisdom, and no gain.’ ‘No gain’ is the very antithesis of spiritual materialism; it rejects any means-to-an-end conceptualization or use of meditation.”
“Zen in America has itself been subject to three powerful destabilizing trends: secularization (taking practice out of its monastic context with its associated religious rituals), instrumentalization (for example, using meditation as a ‘technique’ for realizing personal self transformation), and deracination (extracting Buddhist practices from their cultural and historical roots). All of the authors in this book are concerned, though, that the mindfulness movement sometimes carries these trends to extremes. Removed from its rich—and rigorously ascetic—Theravada Buddist context, mindfulness has been imported to the West as a fully secularized technique that can be learned and practiced over the course of a few weeks or even within the confines of a weekend workshop. This consumer-oriented, quick-fix approach to meditation, which has come to be dubbed ‘Mc Mindfulness,’ has raised serious questions in our minds about the trends of which we are a part.”
I recommend this book for anyone who has significant Buddhist connections or interests.
Right now I am presently reading a truly wonderful, beautiful book: The Chinese Painter as Poet by Jonathan Chaves. It is a most marvelous presentation of that whole artistic tradition, and it invites you into some very deep places!
The website Hermitary had a list of favorite poets for times of solitude and reclusion.
The five favorite poets are: 1. Hanshan, 2. Hsieh Ling-yun, 3. Saigyo, 4. Ryokan, 5. Shiwu (Stonehouse).
Yup, a good list….no disagreements here. Maybe I would put them in slightly different order, but truly the incomparable Hanshan is #1!
Ok, this is going to be different! But considering the political turmoil and insanity of our days, it is appropriate.
One of the truly great speeches in American political history was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech in 1936 right before the election. He had been elected in 1932 during the height of the Depression, things were very bad and desperate. Much, much worse than today. Banks were failing one after another, people without jobs losing all their savings. FDR was willing to try anything and everything to turn things around. He didn’t care about labels like “socialism,” etc. But the Republicans really hated him because even though he himself was from the upper classes, he attacked their upper class economy. They tried to block him every way they could. (Incidentally, Republicans hated him so much that much of their agenda from the ‘30s to the Reagan era was mostly about dismantling “the Roosevelt thing.” Sadly, a wing of the Democratic Party in the ‘90s, led by the Clinton faction, began to change the orientation of the Party toward being more friendly with Big Business.)
In the speech he fully faced their animosity, their obstructionism, their attacks on him. In one of the more famous lines he went on to list the enemies of peace and prosperity: “ business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.” He went on to claim that these forces were united against his candidacy; that “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.” Basically he said to the Republicans in our slang, “Bring it on! I am going to defeat you.” He won huge majorities in Congress and was able to push a lot of his program through.
Here you can read or listen to this great speech:
(By the way, his acceptance speech at the Convention just a few months before was also magnificent:
This is what political greatness is all about, and when we measure today’s crowd against this, it’s kind of sad. And also, Roosevelt dealt with a great majority of people who were so desperate and so in need that they were open to listen to him. Alas, today, it seems that almost half the American populace is lost in delusion, blindness, ignorance, paralysis, etc.
Every Christmas I reread this meditative essay by Thomas Merton in his collection Raids on the Unspeakable: “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room. It is the best reflection on the Christmas story that I have ever read, and it shows it is not some sentimental account which is window dressing for our Christmas festivities. While you have that little book in hand, touch base also with another beautiful essay: “Rain and the Rhinoceros.” It doesn’t get any better than this!