Monthly Archives: December 2020


1.  Charles Dickens is still being read in high school and college literature classes, but he is hardly a writer of interest in our “modern times.”  He was enormously popular in the 19th century, but either now or then he was and is very much under appreciated and underrated.  Paradoxically, his talent as a storyteller may distract from the challenging vision at the core of those stories.  

Dickens lived and wrote at the height of the Industrial Revolution that ushered in the modern industrial world.  The social and economic effects of all this was very evident in Dickens’ world, and he was deeply troubled by it.  It was a world of unfettered capitalism, one theorized by Adam Smith, considered the “father of modern capitalism.”  It was a world of atomized individualism where every individual pursued their own self-interest in as unlimited a way as possible.  The pursuit of wealth was the point of life, and of course the majority of people were doomed to misery in this scheme.  

This is the backdrop of Dickens popular Christmas story, “A Christmas Carol.”  It is generally presented as a sentimental, “good-feel” story told every Christmastime.  It’s deeper social and religious implications are mostly ignored or overlooked.  Recall the outlines of the story:  Scrooge is the new businessman of the Victorian era, the total capitalist whose overriding focus is on making and keeping money.  It is Christmas Eve and he expects his chief clerk to show up for work on Christmas Day—for him Christmas is just an excuse to shirk one’s duty in the acquisition of wealth.  He considers the poor lazy and trying to deprive him of his wealth.  When he goes to bed at night three spirits visit him in an attempt to convert his heart to something beyond this capitalist obsession: the Spirit of Christmas Past, showing him his own childhood, the pain which he experienced which led him on the road to this state of mind and heart (interestingly illustrating a Buddhist notion of how one bad act creates a whole wave of bad acts that resonate through time); then the Spirit of Christmas Present, showing him the pain and struggles of the people around him now; finally, the Spirit of Christmas Future, ultimately his own death, and the meaninglessness of his own life.  He wakes up in terror but is relieved he can still change the trajectory of his life and so he begins.  So Dickens was showing both the possibility and necessity of this transformation of vision which was dominant in his society.  In this regard he is very similar to his contemporary, Dostoyevsky.  Both point to a deep transformation of heart that is needed to confront the problems that modernity brings, rather than the structural changes that socialists would promote.  Probably both are necessary, but truly the inner change is most essential if anything real and lasting is to take place.  Gandhi understood that very well.

Now, for another, different view, we turn to that marvelous font of humor and satire, “The Onion.”  Consider this headline recently appearing in The Onion:

“Report Finds Majority Of Business Leaders Visited By 3 Spirits Make No Changes To Lifestyle.”  A funny and obvious reference to Dickens’ story, and it does raise some interesting questions.  You have to wonder what it would take to change the vision of one of our billionaires, or the top 1%?  Rockefeller and Carneige, in 19th century America, started massive philanthropy projects to make-up or cover up their deeds of ill-gotten gains.  But they never once addressed the toxicity of this pursuit of wealth.   In fact, then and now, this dynamic is defended as of benefit to all.  It comes across in various ways.  In a recent Wall Street Journal piece there is this:

In Defense of Scrooge, Whose Thrift Blessed the World

In the 1840s, Dickens didn’t see how businessmen like his hero were already lifting mankind from poverty.”

What a different view of things!!  And some of this shows up in what is called “trickle-down economics,” championed by Republicans since the Reagan era.  Supposedly when the rich thrive we all benefit.  But a very recent article from the Business Insider (hardly a far Left organ!) reports:

“A huge study of 50 years of tax cuts for the wealthy suggests ‘trickle-down’ economics makes inequality worse.”

Regardless, the debate will continue.  But you do have to wonder what would happen if the Spirits showed up at the doorstep of our politicians,  if the three Spirits would show up to Sen. Mitch McConnell, for example?  Would his hard, stony heart change?  And what about Pres-elect Biden?  Would his miserly attitude to student-debt forgiveness change?  Or this crazy insistence on maintaining a for-profit healthcare system?  (I read somewhere that hedge funds are buying into healthcare in anticipation of good profits in the next years.)  Regardless… can dream.

2.  This op-ed piece appeared in the NY Times:

“The Forgotten Radicalism of Jesus Christ

First-century Christians weren’t prepared for what a truly inclusive figure he was, and what was true then is still true today.”

For those studying the Gospels academically this would be standard stuff, but for the average Christian who has received only a domesticated vision of Jesus through his Church, it can be a bit of a shock.  The article, however, did annoy me in that it seemed to limit Jesus’ radicalness to his “inclusivity” and left out both the theological and economic radicalness implicit in his words  and practice.

3.  Ok, now this has been VERY annoying:  all these Christians (including Catholic bishops) fighting the CDC guidelines curtailing  large gatherings as in churches or prayer groups, etc.  Even fighting the mask mandate.  Here’s a few examples:

Why You Can’t Meet God Over Zoom – The New York Times 

“’Unconstitutional and illegal’: Dozens of maskless Bay Area Christmas carolers protest health order”   from SF Gate

And from USA Today:

“About 100 people organized by former child star Kirk Cameron, many of them without masks or practicing social distancing, gathered in Southern California Tuesday night to sing Christmas carols.

Cameron, 50, a devout Christian, promoted the event, which took place in a mall parking lot in Thousand Oaks, Calif., in advance on social media, just as he did with a previous one on Dec. 13 touted as a “Christmas caroling peaceful protest.”

Cameron, who famously starred in the ‘Growing Pains TV sitcom, organized the event apparently to protest Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest stay-at-home order.

“Have you ever sung Christmas carols by candlelight at a time where your state governor has prohibited you from doing that in America?” Kirk said in an Instagram video posted Dec. 11. ‘If you love God, if you love Christmas and you love liberty, you’re not gonna want to miss this.’

Though his Dec. 13 protest stoked controversy, Cameron told Fox News that people are “clamoring” for community this holiday season.

‘This is the land of the free and the home of the brave, and there are thousands and thousands of people in our community who would rather not suffer in isolation and come out to sing and express their gratitude,’ Cameron told Fox News host Shannon Bream in a clip shared to his Instagram Dec. 18. ‘We believe that there is immunity in community, but there is desolation in isolation, and I want to give people hope.’’

And there are a lot more similar examples, and my only comment is that I feel sorry for their impoverished understanding of God, community, freedom, civic responsibility, etc.

4. Ah, last but not the least annoyance: the major media, like NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, in their reporting on Biden’s new cabinet.  They (and we) are so relieved that the insanity of Trump has been ousted that they seem unable to say anything critical toward Biden (there are the occasional op-ed pieces pointing to a mild worry about this or that).  Particularly I am astonished how Biden’s picks for the cabinet have passed such low level scrutiny, as if nobody wanted to find any problems with any of them.  You have to go to the less-read, more Leftist websites to get a better picture of what is going on, places like Common Dreams, Democracy Now, and Truthout.

One especially good and historic choice was Deb Haaland for Secretary of the Interior.  She is a Native American of the Pueblo Tribe, and the Washington Post caught the significance of this choice in a very good story:

However, so many of all the other choices leave so much to be desired it is really sad—another opportunity for change blown.     Biden almost never ventured outside the Clinton-Obama crowd, and in some cases clearly rejected a more Left approach…like in rejecting AOC a seat on the Energy Committee in the House because of her vigorous advocacy of the Green New Deal.   All you can do is hope, but that may be another delusion.  Here is the sad catalog of appointees as narrated by Chris Hedges in Common Dreams:



  “The list of new administration officials includes retired General Lloyd J. Austin III who is being nominated to be secretary of defense. Austin is on the board of Raytheon Technologies and a partner at Pine Island Capital, a firm that invests in defense industries and also includes Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee to be secretary of state.  Blinken, who was deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state, is a strong supporter of the apartheid state of Israel.  He was one of the architects of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and a proponent of the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, resulting in yet another failed state in the Middle East.

Janet Yellen, former Federal Reserve chair under Barack Obama, is slated to be Treasury Secretary. Yellen as the chair of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) and later as a member of the board of the Federal Reserve, backed the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which led to the banking crisis of 2008.  She supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). She also lobbied for a new statistical metric intended to lower payments to senior citizens on Social Security.  Yellen backed “quantitative easing” that provided trillions in virtually no-interest loans to Wall Street, loans used to bail out banks and corporations and engage in massive stock buy-backs while the victims of financial fraud were abandoned.

 Former Secretary of State John Kerry is to become a special envoy for climate. Kerry championed the massive expansion of domestic oil and gas production, largely through fracking, and, according to Obama’s memoir, worked doggedly to convince those concerned about the climate crisis to “offer up concessions on subsidies for the nuclear power industry and the opening of additional U.S. coastlines to offshore oil drilling.”

Avril Haines, a former Obama deputy CIA chief, is to become Biden’s director of national intelligence. Haines oversaw Obama’s expanded and murderous drone program overseas and backed Gina Haspel’s nomination to be the head of the CIA, despite Haspels’ direct involvement in the CIA torture program carried out in black sites around the globe. Haines called Haspel “intelligent, compassionate, and fair.” Brian Deese, the executive who was in charge of the “climate portfolio” at BlackRock, which invests heavily in fossil fuels, including coal, and who served as a former Obama economic adviser who advocated austerity measures, has been chosen to run the White House’s economic policy.

Neera Tanden, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, has been picked to be director of the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden, as the head of the Democratic Party’s thinktank, the Center for American Progress, raised millions in dark money from Silicon Valley and Wall Street.  Her donors include Bain Capital, Blackstone, Evercore, Walmart and the defense contractor Northrup Grumman. The United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, also gave the thinktank between $1.5 million and $3 million. She relentlessly ridicules Sanders and his supporters on cable news and social media. She also proposed a plank in the Democratic platform calling for the bombing Iran. “

There’s more, but enough is enough.

Not to end on a note of annoyance during this Christmas season, let me end with something unusual ( for Christmas, that is):  a favorite quote from that marvelous Sufi, Rumi:

“There came one and knocked at the door of the Beloved.
And a voice answered and said, ‘Who is there?’
The lover replied, ‘It is I.’
‘Go hence,’ returned the voice;
‘there is no room within for thee and me.’
Then came the lover a second time and knocked and again the voice demanded,
‘Who is there?’
He answered, ‘It is thou.’
‘Enter,’ said the voice, ‘for I am within.”

And this is a REAL Christmas message if you know how to read it!





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.”

Another quote:

“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!