Nasty Woman

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Ashley Judd speaks to the crowd at the Woman’s March in Washington, DC.

Women made their opposition to President Donald Trump known last Saturday with protests across the nation and globe. The Woman’s March brought hundreds of thousands of people to Washington in a kind of unwelcoming party to the Trump administration.

 

With speakers and performances cutting across generations, one speech emerged during the rally as a showstopper. Actress, activist and writer Ashley Judd fired up a sea of pink hats with her four-minute speech that’s more battle cry than “prepared words.” Written by nineteen-year-old Nina Donovan of Franklin, Tennessee, Judd performed the poem for the crowd assembled in Washington, D.C.

Nina Donovan’s incendiary poem entitled, “Nasty Woman,” is an expressive protest of Trump’s dismissive and misogynist characterization of Hillary Clinton during the contentious campaign. He used the term “nasty woman” to refer to the former Democratic nominee for the 2016 Elections during the last televised debate.

Donovan reportedly attends Nashville’s Columbia State Community College where she studies sociology. A local Dunkin Donuts employs her. The teen expressed being bewildered by her newly found celebrity and all the attention – positive and negative – in the wake of the poem’s circulation on social media.

The free-form prose includes the P-word infamously used by Trump and leaked in a tape where he bragged about grabbing women’s genitalia by way of Hollywood “privilege.”

Here is the full text of what Donovan wrote. Keep them close by because for the next four years we are going to need them.

NASTY WOMAN

I am a nasty woman.

I’m not as nasty as a man who looks like he bathes in Cheeto dust. A man whose words are a distract to America; Electoral College-sanctioned hate speech contaminating this national anthem.

I am not as nasty as Confederate flags being tattooed across my city. Maybe the South actually is gonna rise again; maybe for some it never really fell. Blacks are still in shackles and graves just for being Black. Slavery has been re-interpreted as the prison system in front of people who see melanin as animal skin.

I am not as nasty as a swastika painted on a pride flag. And I didn’t know devils could be resurrected, but I feel Hitler in these streets—a mustache traded for a toupee; Nazis re-named the cabinet; electro-conversion therapy the new gas chambers, shaming the gay out of America turning rainbows into suicide notes.

I am not as nasty as racism, fraud, conflict of interest, homophobia, sexual assault, transphobia, white supremacy, misogyny, ignorance, white privilege.

I’m not as nasty as using little girls like Pokémon before their bodies have even developed.

I am not as nasty as your own daughter being your favorite sex symbol—like your wet dreams infused with your own genes.

But yah, I am a nasty woman?!

A loud vulgar, proud woman.

I’m not nasty like the combo of Trump and Pence being served up to me in my voting booth.

I’m nasty like the battles my grandmothers fought to get me into that voting booth.

I’m nasty like the fight for wage equality. Scarlett Johansson: Why were the famous actors paid less than half of what the male actors earned last year?

See, even when we do go into higher paying jobs our wages are still cut with blades, sharpened by testosterone. Why is the work of a Black woman and a Hispanic woman worth only 63 and 54 cents of a white man’s privileged daughter?

This is not a feminist myth. This is inequality.

So we are not here to be debunked. We are here to be respected. We are here to be nasty.

I am nasty like the blood stains on my bed sheets. We don’t actually choose if and when to have our periods. Believe me, if we could, some of us would. We don’t like throwing away our favorite pairs of underpants. Tell me, why are tampons and pads still taxed when Viagra and Rogaine are not? Is your erection really more than protecting the sacred messy part of my womanhood? Is the blood stain on my jeans more embarrassing than the thinning of your hair?

I know it is hard to look at your own entitlement and privilege. You may be afraid of the truth. I am unafraid to be honest. It may sound petty bringing up a few extra cents. It adds up to the pile of change I have yet to see in my country.

I can’t see. My eyes are too busy praying to my feet hoping you don’t mistake eye contact for wanting physical contact. Half my life I have been zipping up my smile hoping you don’t think I wanna unzip your jeans.

I am unafraid to be nasty because I am nasty like Susan, Elizabeth, Eleanor, Amelia, Rosa, Gloria, Condoleezza, Sonia, Malala, Michelle, Hillary.

And our pussies ain’t for grabbin’. Therefore, reminding you that are walls are stronger than America’s ever will be. Our pussies are for our pleasure. They are for birthing new generations of filthy, vulgar, nasty, proud, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Sheikh – you name it – for new generations of nasty women. So if you [are] a nasty woman or love one who is, let me hear you say, “HELL YEAH!”

HELL YEAH!

HELL YEAH!

The global pink “pussy cat” chorus serenaded President Trump and his administration on Saturday, one day after his inauguration.  They sang in unison, “President Trump…do not underestimate the power of women. We stand shoulder to shoulder to make clear we will not be silent. We will not play dead. We will FIGHT for basic dignity for all humans, period.  We will fight for economic opportunities for everyone and our children.  We will fight for RESPECT for all women, all nationalities for every generation.”  President Trump, if you “thought we were nasty women before, buckle up buttercup. Our pussies are not for grabbing!”

To which I say: Right on, girl!

Hidden No Longer

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Mary Jackson, one of the “hidden figures” who were instrumental in helping the United States win the battle to get the first man on the moon.

Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space.

 

Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.

Stories like those of the women in the early years of NASA – who performed calculations that were literally out-of-this-world while curtailed by both sexism and segregation – have been largely forgotten.

That is, until now.

Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, Margot Lee Shetterly’s exhaustively-researched book, and recently made into a highly acclaimed movie of the same name changes all that.

In Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly tells the untold story of these brilliant women, once on the frontlines of our cultural leaps and since sidelined by the selective collective memory we call history.

I had no idea that black women played such a key role in our space program. It’s great to finally acknowledge those who contributed so much – and received so little credit for their work. Hidden Figures tells the story of four determined black women, who overcame numerous obstacles, and worked in the space program at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (now known as Langley Research Center.) It was at this Virginia lab where Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden were able to employ their skills – and really make a difference. It was behind the scenes work back then – but now we know the real picture. To give the reader an idea of how difficult it was for a woman – much less an African-American woman – to actually become a mathematician, the author notes these statistics: “In the 1930s, just over a hundred women worked as professional mathematicians.” The likelihood of a black woman actually becoming a mathematician working on the space program was about zero: “Employers openly discriminated against Irish and Jewish women with math degrees. The odds of a black woman encountering work in the field hovered near zero.”

Oddly, the Soviet Union actively encouraged women in engineering. The schools in the Soviet Union were “loaded with women” including many of their engineering grads. Alas – that was not the case in the United States, which struggled to find a place for women and Negroes in its science workplace, and in society at large. At the time, women generally received little credit for their work. It was unusual for a woman to even be acknowledged as co-author of a report. The work of most of the women, like that of the computing machines they used, was anonymous. Even a woman who had worked closely with an engineer on the content of a research report was rarely rewarded by seeing her name alongside his on the final publication. At the lab, life for black women was not quite as bad as outside, where strict rules were followed, with blacks always separate from whites. At Langley, the boundaries were fuzzier. Blacks were ghettoed into separate bathrooms, but they had also been given an unprecedented entrée into the professional world. At Langley, the work was serious; lives were at stake. Sending a man into space was a damn tall order, but it was that part about returning him safely to Earth that kept Katherine Johnson and the rest of the space pilgrims awake at night. Recall that the United States did not yet have a track record of successful space launches. In fact, many launches were complete failures. Two of the Atlas’s last five sallies had ended in failure. One of them had surged into the sky, erupting into spectacular fireballs with the capsule still attached. That was not exactly a confidence builder for the man preparing to ride it into orbit.

Against a sobering cultural backdrop, Shetterly captures the enormous cognitive dissonance the very notion of these black female mathematicians evokes: “Before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley’s West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female.”

In the introduction to her book Hidden Figures, author Margot Lee Shetterly relays what it was like to grow up as a black girl in Hampton, Virginia, where most of her community worked at the nearby Langley NASA research center.

I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did,” Shetterly, whose father was employed at NASA as an engineer, writes. “Growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.

Some of those brown faces belonged to women, even in times long before it was normal for women to work outside the home. Before electronic computers made the job obsolete, the synapses powering the math behind the breakthroughs in this field belonged to women known as “computers,” meaning simply “one who computes.”

But what Shetterly saw as the norm as a child likely comes as a surprise to most Americans today. In Silicon Valley, physics laboratories, and university classrooms  –  and particularly in popular media and imagination  – the face of the research designed to propel America to the future is still disproportionately male, and often quite white. Stereotypes about “brogrammer culture” and inherent differences in mathematical ability dissuade women, particularly women of color, from technological fields.

February has, in recent decades, been Black History Month. I hope the organizers include these NASA “computer” women and show America we would not have made it into space and back, to the moon and back, without the beautiful and amazing minds of these dedicated and talented women math masters. The STEM efforts (STEM, previously SMET is an acronym that refers to the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) should be linked to this as well. And we should remain mindful that the linkage between music and math is very strong and that few blacks end up encouraged to pursue math if they show some talent in music.

I kept thinking about the book and movie Hidden Figures. These women were educated engineers and mathematicians – one a prodigy with an extraordinary capacity for calculating numbers and theorems in her head. When astronaut John Glenn prepared to become the first American to orbit the Earth, calculations for his re-entry into the atmosphere require an urgent adjustment. Glenn knew whom to ask for: “the smart one,” he says of Katherine Johnson. Sure enough, she gets it exactly right.

Yet for all her skill and talent – for all her genius – Johnson and the other black women are routinely subjected to humiliation and insults, to the condescension and cruelty that were the common lot of black Americans when “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs – and burly state troopers enforcing Jim Crow laws – maintained strict segregation between the races.

Despite several white restrooms in the NASA control center where she worked, whenever nature called Johnson had to run half a mile to the colored bathroom in another building. She was the only black and the sole woman among an all-white team who would not even allow her to share the coffee machine. When she was called out for taking such lengthy breaks, her suppressed anguish at the second-class treatment suddenly erupted. You can feel her pain.

While her friend Dorothy Vaughan oversaw thirty or more black “computers,” as the women officially were identified, she was consistently and rudely denied the title and pay of white supervisors. Mary Jackson was barred from attending engineering courses at the town’s all-white school until a judge reluctantly agreed she could attend – the night class. Somehow these women survived the malice, meanness and pervasive oppression of everyday life to carry on successful lives with dignity intact.

Bill Moyers relates: “Washington, DC in the mid-’60s glowed with pride over America’s besting of the Soviets up in the heavens, and there I got to know NASA Administrator Jim Webb. I attended meetings on space policy over which he presided, shared in moments of celebration at the agency’s successes and relished his boisterous remembrances of the first thrilling but precarious days of the space program. I never heard these women mentioned. There were no shout-outs to them, no newspaper features, no official recognition. They were swallowed back into anonymity and invisibility – into the suffocating holding pen that was American apartheid.

The civil rights movement was then beginning to gain force, a power that would bring change, and at the end of Hidden Figures, we see photographs of the real women and learn they finally earned recognition through intelligence, skill and hard work. As we left the theater we saw tear-stained faces throughout the auditorium, and we ran into several friends who had unabashedly wept both in joy for the three women and their “ultimate triumph,” as one said, and in sadness at ‘the long neglect through which they had to pass.’

I thought again of those photographs later that evening during the Golden Globe Awards, when Tracee Ellis Ross of the TV series Black-ish dedicated her award “for all of the women, women of color and colorful people, whose stories, ideas, thoughts are not always considered worthy, and valid and important. But I want you to know that I see you. We see you.”

We see you.

Finally.

Which brings us to Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III.

If he could, Jeff Sessions, the President-Elect’s nominee for Attorney General, would take back all the racial progress made up to now. Now he will at last have the chance to turn the clock back, which is why Donald Trump chose him. I watched Sessions feint and evade during the hearings and thought what an insult his appointment is to a half-century of history in which the civil rights movement helped end overt oppression and won for Johnson, Vaughan, Jackson, Darden, and countless others the standing and recognition they earned and deserved as citizens.

As Americans.

So much struggle and sacrifice over the years, so many burned churches, mutilated bodies, ticking bombs and bloodshed – so much venomous human behavior before America finally began to get it right. Racism still remains a powerful toxic stream flowing through American life.

Too many people are still unseen.

Through his career as a prosecutor in Alabama and as a United States senator, Jeff Sessions has done what he could to frustrate the gains of all the “hidden figures” among us by attempting to disenfranchise or suppress their votes.

He called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 “an intrusion” before cynically voting to reauthorize it and then quickly signing on to a Republican effort to undermine it.

When the conservative Supreme Court eventually gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Sessions said it was “good news… for the South.”

Since then he has championed voter-ID laws and remained indifferent as Republican state legislatures undertook a massive campaign of repression against black voters.

In the 1980s, he prosecuted civil rights activists on dubious charges – behavior that when coupled with an allegation that he had called a black colleague “boy,” cost him a Reagan-era appointment as a federal judge.

The NAACP, which Sessions once called “un-American,” describes his record on voting rights as “unreliable at best and hostile at worst,” and also notes “a failing record on other civil rights; a record of racially offensive remarks and behavior; and [a] dismal record on criminal justice reform issues.”

And he opposed reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.

Benign in manner, soft of voice but hard at the core, Jeff Sessions is the perfect figurehead for the resurgent white nationalists who now aim not to make history but to reverse it – by a hundred years or more if they can. This is the man to whom Donald Trump is handing the enforcement of our laws from civil and voting rights to environmental protection, antitrust enforcement, housing, employment and all the rest.

Expect new laws, but little justice, and be vigilant as America’s shadows become ever more crowded with hidden figures of every shade.

 

 

 

 

 

Expect the Unexpected

surprise3I suspect that you have probably been to a number of surprise parties for a friend or for a relative. There you are, you and a bunch of friends, all waiting for the victim – I mean – the party honoree, to walk through the door so that you can greet that person by shouting, “Surprise!” at the top of your voice. You are gathered there in the living room or family room. The lights are turned very low. Everyone is talking very quietly, but excitedly. Every now and then somebody says, “Shhhhh, I think she’s coming!” and the whole room becomes silent. The hushed tension of the excitement and expectation is so thick in the air, one can almost cut it with a knife. All hold their collective breaths until the door opens, the honoree enters, and is thoroughly overwhelmed. “Surprise!

That feeling of expectation and excitement is one of those delicious moments of life. There is nothing else quite like it. That is what the anticipation and expectation of this New Year is like.

Recently, I came across this story about a young child named David. Little David’s favorite character in the whole world was Superman. He had Superman pajamas and a Superman plate and cup. He had Superman action figures. And for his birthday, David received a Superman cape. David was ecstatic. He put on the cape and ran as fast as he could around the backyard. It was not too long afterward, however, that he returned to the house, out of breath, with the cape in his hand. In disgust, he threw it on the floor and said, “This thing doesn’t work.” David’s Superman cape did not live up to his expectations.

Unfortunately, sometimes reality does not live up to our expectations. Often reality is like hearing someone at that same surprise party, say, “Shhhhh, I think she’s coming!” and everyone becomes silent. Then the door opens and in walks – the wrong person! The effect is a dash of cold water in the face of our excitement and expectation.

I do not remember where I read this story, but I believe that it illustrates my point of being prepared to expect the unexpected. Listen. One year at Christmas, money was tight in the family. After all the bills were paid, there was not much left for the mother and her four children to use to spend on each other for Christmas. That year the mother took the children to the mall and gave each of them a twenty-dollar bill and told them that was all they had to spend on each other. The children did not seem to care. They all went off thinking of inexpensive and creative ways that they could spend their five dollars per person. Their mother gave them instructions to meet her back in an hour.

The hour went by quickly and soon everyone gathered again. They all were excited and they all hid their bags so that no one could see what they had bought. The youngest daughter’s bag was the smallest of all the rest. But the mother did not think too much about that until they all piled into the car and the youngest dropped her bag. The bag fell open and candy bars fell out. Mortified at what had happened, the youngest daughter blushed, hurriedly picked up the candy bars and shoved them back into her bag.

Her mother was furious. She knew her youngest daughter was a little irresponsible and had a sweet tooth, but for her to go and spend all the Christmas money on herself was inconceivable! Mother stewed about the incident the whole way home. The children all rushed into the house to wrap their presents. The mother followed her youngest daughter into her room, closed the door and started telling her how disappointed she was in her for spending all of her money on candy bars for herself.

The little girl started to cry, and then said, “But I didn’t. These aren’t for me. These are the presents I bought for you and the others.”

The mother then asked, “But what happened to the rest of the money?”

Then the little girl explained that she had been shopping and could not find anything that she liked for anyone else. While she was shopping in the mall, she saw a tree covered with angels. So she went to see what it was all about and found an angel with the name of a little girl on it who needed a pair of gloves, a coloring book and a box of crayons. She thought about all the possessions that she and her family had and decided to buy those gloves, that coloring book and that box of crayons for that little girl. When she was finished, all she had left was enough money to buy everyone in the family a candy bar. To paraphrase Art Linkletter here, “Kids do the darndest things!”

The mother learned a valuable lesson that day about assumptions and expectations. The mother had assumed certain things about her youngest daughter. She had expected a different explanation than the one she received and was not prepared for the one she heard. The explanation was unexpected.

So let us be filled with the excitement of expectation of the New Year. Let us prepare our homes and our families and more importantly, let us prepare ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deeds, not Words

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In Charles Schultz’s comic strip Peanuts, Linus and Charlie Brown are depicted as being all bundled up with caps and coats on a snowy, wintry day. They spot Snoopy shivering in the cold. Desiring to comfort him, they walk over to him.

Linus speaks first, “Be of good cheer, Snoopy.”

Charlie Brown adds, “Yes, be of good cheer.”

Then they turn and walk away. Snoopy is left still shivering. A large question mark appears over Snoopy’s puzzled expression as he watches Linus and Charlie Brown walk away.

Love is intended to carry us beyond words to deeds.

For many of us, it is easier to love from a distance rather than “up close and personal” because it is not as complicated or as involved.

Sometimes it is easier to see the forest rather than the trees.

Sometimes it is easier to write a check to a relief agency than to love or take care of our neighbor next door.

Sometimes it is easier to say a prayer for the person far away than to reach out physically to someone in the same predicament locally.

Real caring occurs on a one-on-one basis and must be more than simply giving it lip-service.

Our caring for one another might occur through a counseling appointment,

a hospital call,

a nursing home visit,

a twenty-minute meeting on the parking lot with a friend,

or a brief encounter in an aisle at the grocery store with someone who simply needs for us to listen.

It might occur by phoning an estranged acquaintance,

delivering cookies to a shut-in,

spending time with someone who is lonely,

helping an elderly neighbor with shopping or yard work,

or reading to someone who is blind or incapacitated.

When we do some love, we are to be there for each other.

There are many lives that we can touch and befriend. There are countless people who are hurting, unhappy, and unloved in our communities and they long to see love presented in deeds, not just in words. The work that we do on a one-on-one basis in sharing love has a great and immediate impact.

Charles “Chuck” Swindoll, in his book, Improving Your Serve illustrates this point. Swindoll writes: “Early one chilly morning an American soldier was making his way back to the barracks in London. As he turned the corner in his jeep, he spotted a little lad with his nose pressed to the window of a pastry shop. Inside, the cook was kneading dough for a fresh batch of pastries. The hungry boy stared in silence, watching every move. The soldier pulled his jeep to the curb, stopped, left his vehicle and walked quietly over to where the little fellow was standing. Through the steamed window he could see the mouthwatering morsels as they were being pulled from the oven, piping hot. The soldier’s heart went out to the nameless child as he stood beside him.

“Son, would you like some of those?”

The boy was startled.

“Oh, yes sir, I would,” said the lad.

The soldier stepped inside and bought a dozen, put them in a bag, and walked back to where the lad was standing in the foggy and damp cold of the London morning. He smiled, held out the bag, and simply said, “Here you are.”  As he turned to walk away, he felt a tug on his coat. He looked down at the boy and heard the child ask quietly, “Mister, are you God?”

We are not told what the soldier’s reply was to the lad that day, but whatever his response, he embodied what Father Jerome Cummings had in mind when he wrote: “Love is shown in your deeds, not in your words.”

 

 

Christmyths

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Rudolph Bultmann, was a German Lutheran theologian and professor of New Testament at the University of Marburg. He was one of the major figures of early twentieth century biblical studies and a prominent voice in  liberal Christianity. Bultmann is known for his belief that the historical analysis of the New Testament is both futile and unnecessary. Bultmann’s approach relied on his concept of demythology, and interpreted the mythological elements in the New Testament based on empirical evidence. Bultmann contended that only faith in the kerygma, or proclamation, of the New Testament was necessary for Christian faith, not any particular facts regarding the historical Jesus.

I was thinking of Bultmann when I wrote this piece.

They say that Jesus is the reason for the season of Christmas. This is undoubtedly true, but despite what Nativity plays and Hollywood epics would have us believe, the story of the birth of Jesus is more complicated than many people think. Between the difficulty in reconciling different versions of the tale and the 2,000 years of popular interpretation and culture layered on top of them, much of what people commonly know about the story of Jesus’ birth is wildly different from what the Gospels have to say. Here, then, are five myths about the Christmas story for your digestion or indigestion, as the case may be.

Myth No. 1

Jesus was born on December 25.

The overwhelming majority of Christians mark the birth of Jesus on December 25. But there is no biblical reason to celebrate Christmas on this particular day.

According to the Gospel of Luke, shepherds were watching their flocks at night at the time Jesus was born. This detail – the only clue in the Gospels about the timing of the birth – suggests that Jesus’ birthday was not in the winter, as shepherds would have been watching their flocks only during the lambing season in the spring. In the colder months, the sheep probably would have been corralled.

As late as the third century, Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. The earliest discussion of the birthday is found in the third-century writings of Clement of Alexandria, who raises seven potential dates, none of which correspond to December 25. The first record of a celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25 comes from a fourth-century edition of a Roman almanac known as the Philokalia. Alongside the deaths of martyrs, it notes that on December 25, “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”

Some have argued that the date of Jesus’ birth was selected to supplant pagan festivals that were held at the same time. But while Pope Julius I set the date of Christmas (for Western Christians) in the fourth century, Christians did not deliberately adapt pagan rituals until the seventh century, when Pope Gregory the Great instructed bishops to celebrate saints’ feast days on the days of pagan festivals.

The real reason for the selection of December 25 seems to have been that it is exactly nine months after March 25, the traditional date of the Annunciation – the Christian celebration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, thus marking his Incarnation.

Myth No. 2

Jesus was born in a stable.

As depicted in Nativity crèches and Renaissance paintings, Jesus was born in a simple stable. Generations of pastors and priests have used this notion as evidence that Jesus had a humble birth. As a theological argument, that is true. But this particular detail of the story is not in the Bible.

Luke 2:7 states that Mary gave birth to Jesus and “laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn.” This makes it sound as if they could not get a room at the local Holiday Inn, but the Greek word, kataluma, which is commonly translated as “inn,” does not mean a hotel in any modern sense. Greek has a different word for a hotel, pandocheion, which Luke uses elsewhere in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Clearly, if Luke had wanted to say that Mary and Joseph were turned away from a hotel, he had the vocabulary to do so.

The more likely interpretation, as New Testament scholar Stephen C. Carlson has argued, is that Joseph and Mary intended to stay with his relatives in Bethlehem and that there was not enough room in the guest quarters – typically located in the upper level of a house – to accommodate an imminent birth. So, Mary had to give birth elsewhere, most likely in the main room of the house, on the lower floor. There is no mention of animals being present, but the detail of the manger seems to be what has led to the image of a stable – and many live Nativity scenes featuring farm animals.

Myth No. 3

“Manger” is another word for “stable.”

When people talk about a manger scene, or Jesus being born in a manger, or a star shining down on the manger, it is not clear they always understand that “manger” refers not to a barn, but to Jesus’ makeshift crib.

A manger is a trough used to feed animals. The word is derived from the French verb manger, meaning “to eat.” In first-century Judean houses, mangers were found both outside and inside the home, sometimes separating an interior space for people from a space where animals were kept. Thus, in the Nativity story, Mary may have had one at her disposal, despite not being in the immediate vicinity of a stable.

Myth No. 4

Three wise men attended Jesus’ birth riding on camels.

The best-dressed attendees at the birth of Jesus were the three wise men. Often mistaken for kings – think of the Christmas/Epiphany carol We Three Kings – these visitors from the east are described in the Gospel of Matthew with the Greek word magoi, or wise men. Nothing about the story’s language suggests that these visitors were monarchs or even that they were three in number. People commonly think there were three because of the gifts enumerated in the Gospel of Matthew: We are told that they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, but there could as easily have been two, four or eight wise men as well as three.

There is also no indication that the wise men visited Jesus as He lay in the manger, as is often shown on Christmas cards. When King Herod anxiously meets with them in Matthew 2:16, he thinks his reign might be threatened by the child they have come to visit, so he orders all boys two years old and younger slain. Thus Jesus could have been as old as two – a walking, talking toddler – when the wise men arrived.

In James Ussher’s, The Annals of the World, Ussher places the visit of the magi prior to the fortieth day. Some churches celebrate the Epiphany on January 6 (twelve days after Christmas) in honor of the visit of the magi. This is the origin of the “twelve days of Christmas” tradition. However, in light of the poor offering at the Temple, it makes more sense that Joseph and Mary were still poor and had not yet received the rather valuable gifts from the magi. Furthermore, they were likely still living with relatives during the census period and potentially in the same animal-housing portion of the place where Jesus was born and laid in a manger. It was not until later that they were living in a house when the wise men visited.

A few more facts that are frequently missed need to be noted by the readers of this story, so let me point them out.

First, there is no mention of camels in Matthew’s story of the wise men. Camels are only mentioned in Isaiah 60. Matthew does this by turning Isaiah 60 into a narrative of magi coming on camels to the place of Jesus’ birth and bringing with them the symbols of Jesus’ kingship, Jesus’ divine nature, and Jesus’ death.

Second, nowhere in Matthew are the wise men said to have been three in number. We read that into Matthew’s story from the list of three types of gifts that the wise men were supposed to offer. The text of Matthew says that “opening their treasures, they offered him gifts (note the plural) of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” It does not say one gold gift, one frankincense gift, or one myrrh gift.

Finally, read Matthew’s story carefully and you will see that the wise men came to a house in Bethlehem over which their guiding star rested. In that house lived Joseph with Mary and their baby. There was no stable. There was no journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be enrolled. There was no census ordered by Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Those are details from a later source and one that we have blended into Matthew’s story. Our task thus far is to see Matthew’s original birth of Jesus story in its own integrity. This was the first story of Jesus’ birth ever to be written and it did not enter the Christian tradition until the ninth decade of the Common Era! About ten years after Matthew’s first birth narrative, a second and quite different birth story would be added to the tradition by a gospel writer we call Luke.

The literal accuracy of the Bethlehem birthplace for Jesus also depends heavily on the story of the wise men being true. Yet no reputable biblical scholar today would seriously defend the historicity of these magi. This story, which is told only in what it was that motivated the family of Jesus to leave his noble Judean place of birth in Bethlehem in order to grow up in rural and rustic Galilee. That contrived explanation involved a number of supernatural messages received through dreams and even included a little royal intrigue, pitting the household of the monarch, King Herod, against this humble child who was supposed to be a threat to the king’s power (Matthew 2:7–23).

Myth No. 5

Three wise men were led by a star.

In Matthew’s rendition, these kings or magi are led by a magical star that from its heavenly perch in the east announces the birth of a king of the Jews (Matthew 2:2). That star then floats across the sky so slowly that these Middle Eastern stargazers can follow it to their destination (Matthew 2:9).

After all, if you pick a random star in the sky, point at the horizon, and predict that there is a baby about to be born in that direction, statistics – and birth rates – are on your side.

Stars that appear in the sky to announce earthly events are conceivable only in a world that viewed the sky as the roof of the earth and the floor of heaven. Stars in that worldview were a kind of heavenly lantern that God could hang out to be seen on earth to announce important births and were often so used in Jewish folklore. In one interpretive tradition of the rabbis, a star was said to have announced the birth of Abraham, the father of the nation; another announced the birth of Isaac, the child of promise; and still another, the birth of Moses, the one who most dramatically shaped Jewish consciousness.

If God lived beyond the sky, as people in that day generally assumed, with the earth as the object of constant divine attention, perhaps such a thing might be imaginable. It is not imaginable, however, in our space age. We live with a consciousness of the dimensions of space that first-century people could not have conceived. In our world, first airplanes linked us to destinations on the other side of our globe and then spaceships carried us to the far reaches of the moon. Unmanned spacecraft later carried us to other planets in our solar system. With help from the Hubble telescope we have learned that our galaxy, known as the Milky Way, has over 200 billion stars in it, most of them larger than the star that we call the sun. Our single galaxy measures over 100,000 light years in size; in other words, it would take light 100,000 years (traveling at its approximate speed of 186,000 miles per second) to go from one end of our galaxy to the other. To find the distance roughly in miles, multiply 186,000 by 60 seconds and then by 60 minutes and then by 24 hours and then by 365.25 days and you will have the distance traversed in a single light year; then multiply that total by 100,000 for the total mileage. The result is beyond our ability to count. Our modern consciousness has also had to embrace the fact that the whole visible universe, of which our enormous galaxy is but a tiny part, contains hundreds of billions of other galaxies, with more being discovered almost routinely as space continues to expand outward up to and including this very moment.

Stars are impersonal physical objects that do not announce earthly events. There are no wandering stars in our galaxy. Ben Rumson in the Broadway musical, Paint Your Wagon, may sing about a “Wanderin’ star,” but in reality, each star travels in a fixed trajectory that can be charted by computers, and its exact location in the sky on any date in the past or in the future can be calculated precisely. So in the real world there can be no such thing as a star able to lead the magi first to the palace of King Herod, where they learn from the king’s scribes that Bethlehem is to be the birthplace of the Jewish messiah, and then to their final destination—Bethlehem. Those ideas, so essential to the biblical story, are simply not credible except when we travel into the world of make-believe. They are pre-modern fantasies.

For most people the birth stories are probably the most familiar part of the New Testament. They are also probably the most misunderstood. They are victimized by the annual Christmas pageants held in most churches. They are distorted by hymns sung, oratorios heard, and sermons preached each Christmas season. They are celebrated in lawn crèches built, Christmas cards sent, and store windows dressed during the holiday season. Like all birth stories, however, they are not really about the birth of the hero, but about the adult life of the hero. Once we break them out of their literal prison, they take on a new wonder, a new meaning, and a new power.

Please keep these five myths in mind as you watch a Christmas pageant in your local parish church next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Nontraditional Christmas Message

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They say that “confession is good for the soul,” so let me make my confession to you. I must confess that for a few moments this week, I was assaulted by an almost irresistible temptation. I was possessed by the beguiling impulse to write a “traditional” Christmas message.

Well, let me tell you, I did not – I repeat – did not yield to that temptation! I must add how grateful I am that this fever left me almost as quickly as it came upon me. I realize now as I write this that I could not possibly have pulled it off.

A “traditional” Christmas message? What is that, you ask?

Well, be assured that it does not have a thing to do with stars in the sky, or angelic choruses, or shepherds on the hillside, or the Blessed Virgin Mary. If you think that those are the elements in the “traditional” Christmas message, you are a generation behind. I have read and/or heard too many contemporary “traditional” Christmas messages to know that none of those elements ever gets mentioned.

An article in one of the leading church magazines states: “These elements of the Christmas story are the Sunday School picture part, the elements of the romantic tale. . .” The article goes on to say that we Americans do not think in terms of kings, or angels, or Magi. These terms are dead to those who live in the age of the astronaut, the microchip, and the word processor. It is simply bad faith and pious dishonesty to obscure the reality of Jesus the Christ by celebrating his birth in this way.

The “traditional” Christmas message? Let me tell you about it.

Those writers who write such “traditional” messages usually begin by taking a stern look over the territory. They then set their pens or computers in their most pious stance and proceed to make everyone feel like lecherous, pagan libertines who have dragged the Feast of the Nativity down into the mire of a commercialized, a sentimentalized, and a sensualized festival of greed, debauchery and desire. I believe that you can see the direction that the “traditional” Christmas message takes.

Having established the thesis in the introduction, the prosecution then proceeds to pile up the damning evidence along several time-honored themes.

First, there is the theme of commercialism with which to deal. The reader is confronted by the staggering and soul-shaking evidence that the bill for this year’s Christmas spending will exceed 465 billion dollars! And please note, you will be told, that this figure excludes the extra charge on you electric bill for burning those ludicrous lights on that decorated Christmas tree! If that money were spent entirely on US made products it would create 4.6 million jobs. But it does not even have to be that big. If each of us spent just $64 on American made goods during our holiday shopping, the result would be 200,000 new jobs.

And then the gifts will be run down. Everything will be mentioned from the solid gold toothpick and the air-conditioned doghouse to the offering of a $700,000 week at three estates in the English countryside, including a helicopter trip to Alnwick castle. And for the more frugal, there is a modest $30,000 price tag for a walk-on role on Broadway’s Waitress musical. And then, perhaps to increase our cynicism, some writers will even throw in the story of the department store Santa Claus who was arrested for shoplifting.

Some years ago, Mad Magazine, in its usual irreverent look at humankind, reported what might be typical dialogues between people who receive Christmas gifts.

For example, there is the wife who opens a gift from her husband and exclaims: “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” And the husband responds: “Well, at least we agree on something.”

Or, there is the young girl who receives a gift from a young boy and says: “I’m not that kind of a girl!’ And the young boy responds: “Don’t worry; it’s not that kind of a gift.”

Or, there is the woman who gives a man a garish tie and says: “Wear it in good health.” And the man responds: “I’m sick already, just looking at it.”

You see, this is what you get for commercializing Christmas!

But the “traditional” Christmas message is not yet finished. There is a second theme: a discussion of the irony of the message of peace on earth and the way that the world really is. In the “traditional” Christmas message, you will be reminded that since the United Nations, an organization dedicated to the idea of saving humankind from the scourge of war, was organized over sixty years ago, we have not had one year in all that time without a war, or a rebellion, or a revolution, or civil strife. And what about the present threats of terrorism and Lord knows what else, to say nothing of the carnage that occurs in schools, businesses across this land, and on the streets of almost every American city. What a travesty it is, the writer will tell you, to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace in the midst of all this conflict.

And then, as if this were not enough, a third barrage is launched. The writer will observe that we are going to be feasting during this holiday season, and filling our already overstuffed stomachs with more of the rich foods that we really do not need. The point here is that it is hard to share the spirit of joy and peace when we realize that one-half of the people living in the world today will go to bed hungry tonight. So, go home, the writer of the “traditional” Christmas message will tell you, yes, go home and enjoy your Christmas dinner – if you can!

Well, I am sorry, but I just could not write such a “traditional” Christmas message!

It is to all of these redundant, cliché-ridden, hashed over, contemporary concerns for our desecrated and destroyed Christmas; to all of these inane platitudes that people speak as though they have just had a marvelous intellectual discovery that I say, “Hogwash!” and “Unadulterated balderdash!” And I will go even further, and repeat that wonderful, good old-fashioned American four-letter word uttered by Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe at the Battle of the Bulge when the German commander, Lt. Gen. Heinrich Freiherr von Luttwitz, asked him to surrender – “NUTS!”

Yes, “Nuts!”

So, we twentieth century Christians have spoiled Christmas, have we? What utter and absolute nonsense! Since when did Christmas depend upon us? Humankind did not plan Christmas, was not even ready for it, and did not accept it when it did come.

If we are spoiling Christmas today, think of who spoiled that first Christmas. The Sanhedrin called no special session to announce the birth of a savior. King Herod arranged no diplomatic reception. Caesar Augustus ordered no forty-eight-hour cease-fire. The shoppers in the Bethlehem bazaar did not pause in their trading to listen to the angels sing. There were no special services in the temple. There were no gifts exchanged. In fact, the first gifts came nearly two years later, and then, from the hands of foreign astrologers. The streets of Bethlehem were crowded with people, but they were not there to buy gifts of love. They were there to be counted, to be enrolled, and ultimately, to be taxed. Angels filled the sky with music, but only a few lowly shepherds heard it.

But – and note this well – none of this lack of response stopped the coming of the Christ! For, as Paul reminds us, “when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4: 4-5) whether humankind was ready or not.

Here are the simple ingredients of the Christmas story: a helpless baby, a brutal adversary, and a protecting angel. And yet, in these ingredients are the essential facts of life. The Holy One of God came into the world as a fragile baby, and against that baby were arrayed all of the formidable powers of darkness for an unequal battle against an irresistible force. And so, each year, that irresistible force saves our Christmas for us.

We are going to destroy Christmas with rampant commercialism?

With frenzied partying?

With uncontrolled gift giving?

With immoderate spending?

With festering troubles in the world?

We are going to destroy Christmas? Ha! Go ahead and try. Be my guest. Not even old Ebenezer Scrooge could destroy Christmas!

And that truth is cause for our rejoicing. Christmas can never be destroyed!

So, tonight, or whenever it is convenient, in the circle of love that is your family and friends, rejoice. Rejoice in the knowledge that God cared enough to send his very best (with apologies to Hallmark cards) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Rejoice, for that is what we should do.

That is really what I want to say to you this Christmas. And, whew! Am I glad that I did not write that “traditional” Christmas message!

Merry Christmas!

 

 

Darkness and Light

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“Oh, we need a little Christmas, right this very minute…” from Jerry Herman’s Broadway musical, Mame.

These are desperate days on the planet. 

They are desperate days in our hearts.

Man, do we need “a little Christmas!”

We need the birth of something beautiful, that thrill of hope we used to sing about as children, to return again to our spirits.

We need the arrival of a great light into the deep, dark recesses of ourselves, where joy and wonder have all but vanished.

For Christians, the great festival that interrupts the darkness of human history is called Christmas, that traditionally has lasted from December 25th to January 6th. This twelve-day celebration was designed to recall the birth of Jesus who, the Christian faith system asserted, came to be called “the light of the world.” These nativity narratives, created by second-generation Christians, provided the content for this observance.

In the earliest birth story of Jesus, written by the author we call Matthew somewhere between the years 80-85, the primary symbol of light was a star – bright, radiant and beautiful – that illumined the darkness of the night. This star was said to have had the power to guide Magi through that darkness to the birthplace of this newborn savior in Bethlehem.

In Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, written sometime between the years 88-92, the light symbol was not a star, but a resplendent angel accompanied by a heavenly host, who cracked the midnight sky with heavenly brightness. To shepherds recoiling before this unearthly light, the tradition said that the angels announced the birth of Jesus, the “true light,” who “came down from heaven.”

Historical records from that period of time are scant, and no one today can date with precision the actual time of the birth of Jesus. That did not stop the tradition, however, from locating the celebration in the dead of winter. That choice was not designed to coincide with literal history, but to meet a deep and ancient human yearning that antedates by thousands of years both Judaism and Christianity.

As far back as human records go, it is clear that people in the northern hemisphere have observed with acts of worship that moment when the daylight stopped its relentless retreat into darkness and began its march back into the world. That human yearning for light to come to a dark world shaped Christmas. Indeed it captured it. That is why the celebration is located in the darkest month of the year, December, in the Western calendar.

Modern people have difficulty imagining the fears of our primitive human ancestors. We live today in an artificially lighted world. We can hurl back the darkness of night with the flip of a switch. We can travel in darkness far from home by turning on the headlights of our automobiles, or by utilizing the lights marking the landing fields of our airports. We live in cities with electrified streets and neon signboards.

For our ancestors, however, the only light of night was provided by the moon and the stars. When the moon faded each month into a total blackout the darkness of night was illumined only by the distant twinkling stars. When clouds made the stars invisible, the darkness was total. With darkness came danger and fear. The darkness was inhabited, it was suggested by a traditional Scottish prayer: “From ghosties and ghoulies/And long-leggedy beasties /And things that go bump in the night/Good Lord, deliver us!”

The relatively recent human ability first to capture fire and later actually to ignite it, was a gigantic step in the quest to defeat the always-threatening darkness. The vast majority of the human beings who have inhabited this earth lived with the presence of an unconquered and unrelieved darkness.

When one further embraces the fact that people in the ancient world did not understand the relationship between the heavenly bodies and the earth, it is easy to understand why mythology and ritualistic acts were wrapped around these mysterious natural wonders. Modern men and women deal with these realities in a quite secular manner. We manipulate our clocks with various time zones and with something we call “daylight savings time.” We anticipate and name the shortest day of the year as the winter solstice. We understand that the earth rotates on its axis as it journeys around the sun every 365¼ days. We know the months when we are closer to the sun and the months when we are farther away. None of this, however, was known by our forebearers. They only knew that the sun seemed to retreat into darkness as the winter came. They wondered why, and they speculated about this observable phenomenon using a wide variety of religious explanations. They lived with a chronic fear that one year the enveloping darkness that came each winter might finally capture the light of the sun forever and thus doom their lives to be lived without any light at all.

For this reason in almost every human culture there was a great religious celebration when the sun stopped its relentless retreat into an ever enveloping-darkness and began its slow but steady return. Christmas became a later historical expression of this ancient celebration. It thus reveals its northern hemisphere, and obviously human origins.

It is time to recognize that religious truth, like all truth, can only emerge out of human experience. Once that is understood, then religious people will recognize that their exclusive claims to possess some external, divine revelation is nothing but a part of our human security system. These claims also create the mentality that fuels that religious imperialism that, even in the twenty-first century, underlies human conflict.

The only way for the Christmas yearning for peace on earth to be achieved is for every religious system to face its human origins, and to recognize that all worshipers are nothing but human seekers walking into the mystery and wonder of the God, who is beyond anything that human minds can finally imagine. That would represent a gigantic step both into a new sensitivity and away from the negativity that religion perpetually pumps into the human bloodstream. In our observances of Christmas this year, that could well be our most important learning.

Man, do we need a little Christmas. . .right now!