Sunday, April 8, 2012

The promise of a resurrection

Easter is a confused holiday.  It's a movable feast so it never arrives the same day every year.  The symbolism is mostly pagan and includes colored eggs and chocolate bunnies.  Even the religious observances are scattered all over the map.  For example, I only recently first listened to Bach's Easter Oratorio after listening to his Christmas Oratorio and St. Matthew's Passion for decades.  There are hundreds of favorite Christmas carols—most people would be hard-pressed to name one hymn associated with Easter.  And then there are the Easter sermons—most are barely indistinguishable from a typical preacher's funeral sermon.

Since Easter is considered the primary celebration of Christianity, I have often wondered why it gets treated like a minor feast day.  Part of the problem is that while births and deaths are common human experiences, no one has actually seen the resurrection of the dead.  So even though this article of faith is central to much of religious practice, it can never shake the nagging doubts that it just might not be true.

Of course, any decent clergyman should be able to draw a practical lesson from the text of the day.  The texts of the Passion could keep any of them going for years.  My favorite in the context of this blog goes, "Beware the evil power of the moneychangers.  The primary lesson of the life of Christ was that he could go around healing the sick and feeding the multitudes for years with few problems, but he drives the moneychangers out of the temple and the authorities had him crucified within a week."  Try finding a pithy lesson like that in the Easter story.  Yes it is spring.  Yes there are new shoots of life to celebrate.  But you could learn those lessons dancing in the daffodils.

But yesterday I saw a story that indicates that there ARE some Christian clergy who think the promise of renewal means more than recycling funeral bromides about the resurrection of the dead.  And goodness knows, Christianity could use some serious renewal.  For most of my adult life, the public face of Christianity has been that of charlatans on television preaching that Jesus wants us to be ignorant, he wants us to support the colonial outrage that is modern Israel, he wants us to vilify people who concern themselves with the health of the planet, he wants us to praise untrammeled wealth and an economy run by thieves and vandals, but most of all, he wants us to blow all our ethical outrage over our neighbor's sex lives.  This "Christianity" is so historically anti-Christian, these con men had to create their own "translation" of the Bible to retroactively justify their horrible teachings.

If humanity survives much longer, historians will certainly label this period as one of Christianity's Dark Ages.  There have been others, of course, but this has been one of the worst and this one used television to spread its madness.  It could be argued that if Christianity can come back from the absurdities of Jerry Falwall and Michelle Bachmann, it will have made its case for the resurrection of the dead.

An angry priest scatters the money lenders

April 7, 2012

Father Robert Rien, of St Ignatius at Antioch, a Catholic church east of San Francisco, speaks with a crisp buoyant voice that belies his 65 years. When he is angry it fairly crackles.

This Lenten season he is angry at America's big banks, so angry he has pulled all his parish's money out of the Bank of America and opened accounts at a small local bank.

He has called on his flock to do the same and joined a nationwide interfaith movement dedicated to divesting from the major banks. They see Lent as the perfect time to spread the word.

''We have a mandate from the gospels to act,'' says Father Rien.

''Jesus went to the temple and he challenged the banking system of his day. He said, 'you are thieves and marauders, you are wrong in what you are doing'.'' On Ash Wednesday this year a group of San Francisco clergy spilled ashes outside a Wells Fargo ATM and called for a foreclosure sabbatical, invoking the Biblical term for the ancient practice of forgiving debts.

It is hard to exaggerate how poorly America's banks have treated their customers throughout the financial crisis that saw about 4 million homes being foreclosed upon, and Father Rien's voice crackles away as he discusses it.

The banks helped precipitate the financial collapse by selling mortgages to people who could never afford them. When the financial system collapsed they accepted a $US205 billion ($199.2 billion) bailout from taxpayers, but once refinanced they refused to help homeowners by modifying their mortgages.

''I actually went to a meeting in Washington and I said to Tim Geithner [the Treasury Secretary and author of the bank bailout], that he had to make them help, but he said there was nothing he could do. I was astounded,'' says Father Rien.

But it was the outright fraud by America's big banks that finally made Father Rien an activist for the first time since he was ordained 40 years ago.

As the crisis snowballed through 2007 and 2008, parishioners started coming to Father Rien for help, saying they had dutifully filled out and filed mortgage modification applications with the Bank of America, only to be suddenly evicted. Time and again the bank, equipped with their own legal documents, said their customers' paperwork had been lost and their applications were too late.

''I had 24 or 25 families just in my parish saying the same thing; it was untenable.''

When Father Rien approached the Bank of America to plead his parishioners' cases the bank told him he had no connection to the families and no right to speak on their behalf.

He did not know it then but Father Rien was seeing early signs of what became known as the robo-signing scandal, in which four American banks admitted forging signatures on untold thousands of documents to speed up foreclosures.

In February this year they came to a $US26 billion legal settlement over the issue, but Father Rien says they are still failing to help many of their struggling customers.

The priest seems stunned by what he says is the corporate and personal greed that has led to this situation.

''Look at how much money some of these people [in finance] earn; no one needs to be that rich, no one.'' So Father Rien joined PICO (Pacific Institute for Community Organisation), the faith-based network that launched the bank divestment campaign. ''I am angry,'' he says.

About six hours' drive up the Californian coast, in a suburb of Hollywood that over the past few years has transformed itself from near slum to thriving family neighbourhood, Pastor Ryan Bell found his way into PICO and the divestment campaign for the same reasons.

The Seventh Day Adventist pastor had always been engaged in his community, serving as a chaplain for local police and fire brigades. But he had never seen himself as an activist before the banks started foreclosing on members of his flock.

''The same people who transformed this area were being thrown out,'' he recalls. That many of their houses remained vacant after the evictions made the community even angrier. more

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