Jimmy Carter is My Hero

I have always loved and respected President Carter.  My admiration for him increases every year.  If Protestants had saints, he’d be a good candidate.

Losing my religion for equality…by Jimmy Carter

25 JANUARY 2013

Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.

I HAVE been a practicing Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.

The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.

In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.

The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.

It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.

I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.

The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”

We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasize the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.

The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.

I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.

OBSERVER

Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977 to 1981.

Copyright © 2013 Fairfax Media

 

 

Of Gods and Humans

I’m watching Of Gods and Men.  It’s about a group of French Trappist monks who chose to stay in their community rather than flee to safety during the Algerian civil war.  They were kidnapped in 1995 by terrorists, but their death was never explained.  Some have argued that Algerian soldiers killed them during a botched rescue attempt.  The first part of the movie shows the monks selling their own honey and vegetables in the market, offering medical care and advice to the locals, who are mostly Islamic.   When fundamentalists come to their town, the town leaders come to consult with the monks.  When the terrorists come closer and begin to kill all foreigners, the monks refuse military protection.  The Algerian army, in fact, is just as brutal and violent as the terrorists.   This beautiful movie highlights the monks’ incredible forbearance and dedication to peace.  It is a portrait of truly peaceful Christian practice, so unlike the practice of our allegedly Christian, elected representatives, who wage war around the world and who never cease to find reasons to kill and main and destroy in the name of freedom.  But the film also highlights the peace and love that are central to Islam, as well, showing the daily lives of the people, their friendliness, their vulnerability, and their civility.  The terrorists are presented as men at odds with Islam, men who hardly know the Koran and who have a simplistic and militaristic interpretation of scripture.  They are not unlike those among us who vote for bombs and landmines and hatred for people who don’t worship the same god.

Since I have returned from Nepal I have reclaimed my sense that we are all united in a great web of being, of aliveness and no longer identify myself as an atheist.  Love is our greatest resource, the power most essential to our nature as well as the link between us all.  We are not singular and cut off from one another.  We only exist with one another, in relation to one another, and the relationship that we have with one another when we are being true to ourselves is loving.  We are true to ourselves when we treat each other with love and compassion.   Everything else about us—guns, violence, hatred, oppression, war—is against our truest nature.

Since I have embraced this essentially spiritual way of understanding the world, which was always very basic, if buried, in me, my attitude towards other believers, especially Christians, has changed.  I’m no longer angry.    I still dislike the masculinism underlying the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), the ancient and arbitrary division between Self and Other that recognizes men as subjects and women as objects, but I have given up the burden of burning indignation.  My fury and resentment hurt me more than objects of my fury.  As Donna Farhi relates, “harboring resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

The Dalai Lama was asked how he could feel loving kindness for the Chinese, who invaded his country, destroyed most of the monasteries, murdered thousands of Tibetans, and were continuing to repress and eradicate his people and culture.  He was silent for a long time, and finally answered that he distinguished between the act and the agent.  He could repudiate the actions of the Chinese but still feel compassion for the Chinese agents who brutalized his people.  They are suffering greatly, after all, because they have strayed so far from their true nature.

My true self is not the crazy tangle of thoughts and emotions that continuously run through my mind, nor my ever-changing body, but rather the silent, neutral witness of my experiences in the world.  It is this quiet aliveness, this prana, the shimmering vitality that I share with all other sentient beings, the life-force that courses through the forests, the oceans, the mountains, the rocks, the sun, the fiery core of our planet, the rivers, the plains, all plants, all organisms, even the stars themselves, that is my truest ground of being.  This is what Rainer Maria Rilke calls “the infinite ground of our deepest vibration.”  As he wrote,

Be in front of all parting as though it were already behind you,

Like the winter just gone by.

Because among winters is one so endlessly winter.

Only by over-wintering does your heart survive.

Be and know at that time the state of non-being,

The infinite ground of our deepest vibration

So that you may wholly complete it this one time.

Sonnets to Orpheus, 11.13.

Catholic Bishops Actively Oppose Equality of Women, Again

The bishops are all hot and bothered about women in the church again, and, as usual, it is a nun who has driven them to distraction.

People who believe in divine revelation universally agree that revelation is received through language.  Language expresses and is shaped by the culture in which it is spoken.  Language reflects the cultural biases of the people who speak.   Language is continually changing  in response to cultural shifts (witness the recent addition of “lol” to official dictionaries of the English language), but language also shapes culture, influences the way that human beings understand their relationships to one another and the world at large.  Language–a cultural legacy inherited from our human ancestors–probably shapes us more than we shape it.

The Catholic Bishops currently harassing and censoring Sister Elizabeth Johnson, an internationally respected theologian, largely agree with this explanation of language as a culturally conditioned, living mode of communication.  They also agree that divine revelation comes through language.  Yet they perversely and incoherently insist that masculine imagery of the divine in the Bible has nothing to do with human culture, and is simply the direct expression of the deity.  God is male, they insist, and anyone who suggests that we use a gender-neutral language to refer to the deity should be punished.  Never mind that academics, scholars of religion and theologians alike, have been addressing the question of gender, and the choice of pronouns for the divine, with little controversy for 50 years.

A committee of backward-thinking American bishops have accused Elizabeth Johnson, who teaches theology at Fordham University, a Catholic institution, of violating church doctrine because she carries on this half-century of scholarship.  The Bishops oppose all scholars who ask whether or not God is male.

Sister Johnson irritates the bishops because she supports granting women greater authority in the church and because she speaks to organizations that promote same-sex marriage.  She irritates the bishops because she underscores the sexism in the rule that says only persons with a penis can administer the Word and blessings of god.   She irritates the bishops because she points out that men have always controlled the Catholic church and used it as a means to perpetuate patriarchal privilege.   “All-male images of God are hierarchical images rooted in the unequal relations between women and men, and they function to maintain this relationship,” she writes in her most recent book, Quest for the Living God.   This kind of statement really pisses them off, and that is why the bishops want to ban it.

I, for one, am going straight out to get and read her book.

 

Naked Truth

Nuda Veritas, Gustav Klimt

The quotation from Schiller, “Kannst du nicht allen gefallen durch deine Tat und dein Kunstwerk, mach’ es wenigen recht; vielen gefallen ist schlimm,” loosely translated, reads “If your deed and your art do not please everyone, do it as well as you can; pleasing everyone sucks.”

The painting scandalized bourgeois Viennese art viewers because it shows pubic hair.  I see a woman, possibly dangerous, possibly vulnerable, and probably blind.  She stands bare before the viewer, holding a lamp, like a sage, a prophet who leads the way to the truth.

She also resembles the Hermit, the the ninth trump or Major Arcana card in most traditional Tarot decks:

This card is also associated with Joseph Campbell’s description of the hero who “ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces).  The Hermit has gone into the darkness, or the desert, and returned wiser, like Jesus, or the Buddha.

Klimt’s Hermit directly confronts her spectators, looking not at them, but rather within. As in the Tarot, she represents introspection, silence, spiritual knowledge achieved after much suffering.  She is wisdom.

A story  tells of an old hermit who carried a lit lantern around the village and the area day and night, even in daylight. One day the villagers had enough curiosity to ask him “Sir, why do you carry your lantern lit in daylight?” He said, “Because I’m searching for an honest man.”  Nuda Veritas, presenting herself wholly, nakedly, innocently, demands to know which among her detractors is so free from failure that he or she may cast the first stone.

In the Bible, Wisdom is also a woman:

Wisdom speaks her own praises,

in the midst of her people she glories in herself.

She opens her mouth in the assembly of the Most High,

she glories in herself in the presence of the Mighty One…

Alone, I have made the circuit of the heavens

and walked through the depths of the abyss.

Over the waves of the sea and over the whole earth,

and over every people and nation I have held sway. (Ecclesiasticus 24: 1-7)

Wisdom also comes to humanity through a woman.  Genesis 3:6: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”  In the Book of Wisdom the narrator, allegedly Solomon, refers to Wisdom as the “designer of all things” (Wisdom 7:21) and says

Although she is alone, she can do everything;

herself unchanging, she renews the world,

and, generation after generation, passing into holy souls,

she makes them into God’s friends and prophets;

for God loves only those who dwell with Wisdom. (Wisdom 7:27-28)

Wisdom is identified with the creative, shaping power of the deity as well as with divine understanding, Reason.  But in Klimt’s picture, the figure represents a wisdom gained through blindness to the world and faithfulness to one’s inner sight.  She stands before us, utterly vulnerable to our gaze, and utterly indifferent to it.  She attends to something other than the voice of the crowd, the world, the critics.  Like Sri Nisargadatta, who said,

All you need is already within you.
Only you must approach yourself with reverence and love,

Klimt’s hermit heroine urges us to say, with her, “I am,” in word, deed and art, and to accept nothing less or more than that.

Current anti-woman legislation and the rise of Christian extremism

Bush Decides Upon “Handmaid’s Tale Look” for Women in Photo Op

Christian extremists have not quite taken hold of the country, but they pose an emergent, lethal threat to women, men, and children in the United States of America. They do not constitute the majority of Americans, who largely trust women to make their own decisions about their reproductive health. Nevertheless, a vocal and fiercely religious minority have gained ground in state and federal legislatures and in right-wing media conglomerates such as Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, which host women-haters and homophobes on a regular basis. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe that contraception is good for society, and most think that in most circumstances abortion should be legal.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes contraception, and a variety of evangelical Protestant organizations have helped to elect politicians now in national and state offices.  The legislation that these Christian extremists support would severely harm women, girls, children and men by preventing them from receiving vital STD screenings, routine gynecological care, contraception, and information about safe sex. They also present dangerous precedents for legalizing excessive government intrusion into private life.  They would allow the State to regulate human bodies as it has never done before and force women to remain pregnant, even if the pregnancy would kill them. Consider the most recent legislation that candidates supported by Christian extremists have proposed or passed in Congress:

  • The Pence amendment:  the continuing resolution on the national budget, which was passed by the House, includes an amendment that would eliminate all funding for Title X family planning, even though none of this money funds abortions.   The Congresswomen and men who voted for this resolution officially declared their opposition to programs that currently provide poor women with gynecological care, pap smears, HIV and other STD testing, cancer screenings, contraception and information about safe sexual practices.
  • H.R. 358, also known as the “Let Women Die Act,” sponsored by right-winger Joe Pitts (R-PA) and 137 other Representatives, encourages emergency rooms to let women die rather than perform abortions that would save their lives, urges providers to refuse to offer training or referrals related to abortion, and, most infamously, redefines rape in such a way that would exclude most sexual attacks.
  • H.R. 3, introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and 209 co-sponsors, would require the IRS to monitor and impose tax burdens on Americans whose PRIVATE insurance covers abortion. As NOW observes: ” In testifying in favor of this bill in committee, a representative from the Catholic bishops proudly supported revoking abortion rights even in cases of rape. You read that right — and isn’t that rich, coming from the very men who have consistently protected sexually abusive priests?”
  • H.R. 217, sponsored by Christian extremist Mike Pence (R-IN) and 168 other Representatives, is another version of the Pence amendment.  It may die in Committee, but it will live and become law the U.S. Catholic Bishops and other Protestant groups have their way.

Recent action promoted by Christian extremists in the State legislatures

  • South Dakota: Be grateful if you don’t live in South Dakota, where Christian extremists tried to legalize the assassination of abortion providers and have shut down all but one abortion clinic.  On Tuesday the House passed a bill (49-19) that would force women who go to this last refuge to endure “counseling” designed to discourage them from having an abortion.  The decision to terminate a pregnancy is agonizing enough for most women who must make it, but South Dakota extremists want to make choice even more unpleasant for women by imposing a 72-hour waiting period between the time that they meet with their doctors and have an abortion.  If this bill passes,  State will incur approximately $1 million in legal costs defending it in court.
  • Nebraska: The Christian extremists nextdoor have introduced a bill nearly identical to the one that stalled in South Dakota, defining the murder of anyone who supports abortion a “justifiable homicide.” State Senator and devout Protestant Mark Christensen,  who opposes abortion in all circumstances, including rape, introduced this legislation,  L.B. 232,  this week.  Melissa Grant of Planned Parenthood told the Nebraska State Judiciary Committee that this bill “authorizes and protects vigilantes, and that’s something that’s unprecedented in our society.”
  • Virginia:  A state Senate bill introduced today would effectively close 17 of the 21 abortion clinics in Virginia by redefining all facilities that provide first-trimester procedures “hospitals” and subject them to a slew of cumbersome and unnecessary regulations.  These providers are already subject to state regulations but this bill would impose burdensome stipulations that similar medical providers in the state do not have to meet.  This legislation is likely to pass.
  • Pennsylvania:  The State of Pennsylvania unfairly requires teens under the age of 18 to get their parents’ consent before having an abortion.  If they are unable or afraid to get their parent’s consent, they can bypass the regulation by going through the courts.  The legislation does not grant the judge to force a teen to remain pregnant against her will, but a recently elected Allegheny State Judge thinks it does.  Judge Philip Ignelzi recently ruled that a girl just shy of her 18th birthday may not have an abortion, even though abortion is still legal in this country.  We must not underestimate the great psychological and physical burden that this judge has just imposed on a young woman in our supposedly free country.
  • Georgia: Woman-hating State Representative Bobby Franklin (R), who wants all rape victims to be called “accusers,” introduced legislation that would not only label all abortions “fetal murder” but require the police to investigate every miscarriage as a potential homicide. Hospitals would be required to keep records on and investigate every single spontaneous death.  A Uterus Police? What’s next? A regulatory apparatus to test the daily flow of women having their periods to insure that they haven’t unwittingly discharged “baby” parts, also known as fertilized eggs or zygotes?
  • Florida: Republican candidate for Mayor of Jacksonville and devout Baptist Mike Hogan confessed, in a Catholic Church in Mandarin that he would not bomb an abortion clinic “but it may cross my mind.” The congregation applauded.

We do not yet force women to veil themselves from head to toe, prohibit them from reading, or exclude them from public office, but if Christian extremists who seek to impose their private, religious views on the rest of us get their way, we could soon find ourselves living in a society not unlike the Republic of Gilead imagined in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale Amanda Marcotte, who thinks a lot like I do, already made this rather obvious and somewhat overblown point. Nevertheless it is worth remembering that bad things happen to people who refuse to speak out against injustice. As Offred  (Of Fred) recalls in Atwood’s important 1986 novel:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring.  Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance. You have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.  There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men.  None of then were the men we knew.  The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others.  How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable.  They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives (Anchor, 1998: 56-57).

The debate over abortion has much to do with religion, but it shouldn’t.  On one side there are the pro-choice people, who may be Christians or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or atheists, but who do not want to impose their beliefs on other people.  They think women have the right to make their own decisions about their reproduction.  On the other side are the extremists who are eager–desperate, even–to impose their religious views on everyone else.  They do not trust women to make their own ethical choices.  Curiously, these very same “forced-birthers” also very often claim to be against the expansion of government and for a fiscal responsibility.  Yet they can’t stop themselves from introducing obviously unconstitutional legislation that would grossly broaden the State’s powers and that wastes everyone’s time and taxpayers’ money in the legal system. This legislation is not only irresponsible, as Rep. Jackie Speiers (D-CA) reminded Chris Smith and other Christian extremists who would have put her in jail for having a late-abortion of a fetus that her uterus had already rejected. “What does this have to do with reducing the deficit?” she asked.  “Nothing at all.” This legislation is not only sponsored by ignorant, bigoted men and women who have nothing but contempt for the black “babies” they claim to be saving, as Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) pointed out during the same floor debate.  Moore thundered:

I just want to tell you what it’s like not to have planned parenthood. … You have to give your kids ramen noodles at the end of the month to fill up their little bellies so they won’t cry. You have to give them mayonnaise sandwiches. They get very few fruits and vegetables because they’re expensive. It subjects children to low educational attainment because of the ravages of poverty.

This legislation imposes the views of a small but increasingly powerful minority of Christian extremists who are only too happy to keep Black women and children down, a small but powerful minority of Christian extremists who believe that God is male and that this deity intended men to have most of the privileges and power in the world because men, more like god than women,  are fundamentally superior to women.   This legislation is not merely the expression, , but also the weapon, of frighteningly hierarchical ideologues whom we tolerate and ignore at our peril.
Wake up from the “bad dream dreamt by others” and take action against religious extremism in America today:

The Origins of Easter and some thoughts about fertility and gadflies

220px-Ostara_by_Johannes_GehrtsChristians celeberate a feast day called “Easter,” on which they honor a murdered son and his miraculous return to life through the power of the Father.  This story reinterprets the much earlier, Babylonian myth of Osiris, in which Isis, “the Giver of Life,” mother of the sun, and “oldest of the old,” restores Osiris to life, mates with him, and then begets a falcon-headed sun-god, Horus.  Representations of Isis suckling her son were commonly associated with Mary and Jesus from the 5th century, A.C.E., onwards.

Jews celebrate a kind of renewal of life during Pesach, or Passover, and recall the time when the Destroying Angel “passed over” those houses whose doorways had been sprinkled with blood, but killed the firstborn sons of all others, giving Pharoh yet another powerful sign that he should release the Jews from captivity.

Blood and eggs feature prominently in both Easter and Passover.   Christian children hunt for and devour eggs that a magic rabbit has hidden, and Jews place a roasted or hard-boiled egg, the Beitzah on the Seder plate to commemorate and mourn the sacrifices that they used to make in the destroyed Temple. But the Beitzah also symbolizes the joyful return of life at springtime.

A tradition that appears to predate Judaism and Christianity, whose traces have lingered in the Middle East, Asia, and Old Europe, is the honoring of women’s power to give birth, symbolized again by blood and eggs.  Decorated goose eggs were found in a German grave that dates back to the 4th century.   Lithuanians began to decorate and share eggs with one another at least as early as the 13th century.  Common motifs on these eggs are  spirals, suns, teeth, trees, flora and birds.  According to  Lithuanian historian Marja Gimbutas, who pioneered archaeomythology, an interdisciplinary approach to scholarship that combines archaeology, mythology, ethnology, folklore, linguistic paleontology, and the study of historical documents,  these symbols represent fertility goddesses worshiped by the people of ancient Europe.

Persians have exchanged red-colored eggs to celebrate the beginning of their solar year for millenia.

According to Bede, the Northumbrian monk living c. 720 A.C.E., the oldest origins of Easter began in rituals for Eostre, or Ostara, a Saxon goddess associated with the Moon.The moon-hare was sacred in both eastern and western ancient practices.  When Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Empire, defeated the Saxons in 700s, all the months of the year were changed from their Latin names.  April was called “Osteranoth” in Frankish and Ostermonat in German.  Jacob Grimm speculated that the German equivalent “Ostern” derived from the name of the same goddess, Ostara, or Oestre.

A goddess with a similar name is found on some Roman altar stones from the Lower Rhine in North-West Germany.  These altars were dedicated to local mother goddesses, who frequently appeared as triple deities and were associated with fertility.   Similar altars dedicated to goddesses with Celtic names occur throughout northern Italy, France, Spain, and Britain, where the goddesses often have Celtic names.  Very close to St. Bede’s  Easterwines monastery at Monkwearmouth there is an ancient Roman fort where many inscriptions are found on an altar dedicated to Astarte, the Syrian and Phoenician fertility goddess.

Detail of ancient Mesopotamian so-called “Ishtar Vase” from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC. The pubic triangle and belly-button are heavily emphasized, while the breasts were crudely scratched in as an afterthought.

Some scholars believe that Isis and Astarte are Egyptian and Syrian names for the same moon goddess whom the  Europeans worshipped.

As historian Richard Sermon observes, the name Ostare or Easter may derive from this goddess’s name:

It is theoretically possible to project forward the name Astarte to an intermediate *Astare or *Astre, which could then have appeared in Old English orthography as Eostre/Eostre. Furthermore, there is an earlier precedent for this intermediate name on the bilingual gold tablets from Pyrgi in Italy (c.500 Bc), that contain dedications to the Phoenician goddess Ashtaret… and her Etruscan counterpart Astre …

 Sermon also rightly points out that
 It is spurious to suggest that the early Church (centered around the eastern Mediterranean) would have timed its most important festival to coincide with that of a north European pagan goddess.

Nevertheless, the timing of the festival and the symbols with which it is associated, eggs and rabbits, also suggest that the Christian feast adapted local customs that far precede Christian practices.  Archaeological evidence strongly indicates that human belief in feminine deities as creators of all life is older than the current, dominant myth that a male father-god.

Fertility celebrations are found throughout ancient European and Mediterranean regions.  The Saxons, the Irish, and the Persians  all kept a movable feast on the first day of the week after the first full moon of the Spring equinox.

Bohemians also had a ritual on the day after Oestre Sunday, which was a “Moon-day,” in which village girls sacrificed the “Lord of Death” by throwing him into the water and singing,

Death swims in the water, spring comes to visit us,

With eggs that are red, with yellow pancakes,

We carried Death out of the village

We are carrying Summer into the village.

Ritualistically casting death into the river, the villagers celebrated the return of the growing season and new life, preparing for summer’s bounty with red eggs and sun-shaped and colored food.

“Oestre “also is the source of our scientific term, estrous, from the Latin Oestrus and the  Greek οἶστρος).  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the estrus cycle as

the period of sexual receptivity and fertility during the reproductive cycle of most female mammals; the time of being in heat.

Lefthandofeminism likes Wikipedia‘s version better:

The estrous cycle comprises the recurring physiological changes that are induced by reproductive hormones in most mammalian placental females. Humans undergo a menstrual cycle instead. Estrous cycles start after puberty in sexually mature females and are interrupted by anestrous phases or pregnancies. Typically estrous cycles continue until death. Some animals may display bloody vaginal discharge, often mistaken for menstruation, also called a “period”.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, all people of the planet Gethen experience estrus cycles, or periods of “kemmer,” which come and go.  As Le Guin observes,

Consider: Anyone can turn his[sic] hand to anything.  This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable.  The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be…’tied down to child-bearing’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be–psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk or choice to make.  Therefore nobody here is as free as a free man anywhere else.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive.

Imagine how extraordinary our world would be if, instead of obediently rehearsing these polarities in the liturgies of the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim traditions,  every year, we celebrated this time of year by considering the sexes as equals, as companions, as equally powerful and active agents.

What if we were to celebrate Eostre and the oestrus in Easter by recognizing our commonality with mammals, who, like us, give birth by virtue of the blood that softens our wombs and ebbs and flows in us, like the river of life?  What if, instead of lording it over mammals and all other animals, or granting supremacy to those who do lord around, we celebrated our mutual dependence on one another and on the planet from which all life springs?

We should especially celebrate  the oestrus, the gadfly that, by stinging, moves the more bovine among us out of the mud, where we are wallowing.

Let us also remember that the figural meaning of estrus and oestrus is “Something that incites a person to passionate, esp. creative, activity.”  Let’s all be gadflies tomorrow and incite one another to passionate bursts of creative activity.

And really–to all of you who celebrate the holiday, Happy Easter!

Rough Day with Margaret leads to Ephesus and the Myth of Temple Prostitution and the Anxiety of Some Really Scary Folks

What a day!  I was storming out the door, fuming for no reason in particular, on my way to the library, finally, to get to my writing, my real work, and then stopped, stupidly, on the sidewalk as soon as I saw her and remembered.

Margaret, good old thing, 25 years old, sitting bleakly at the curb, neglected, dirty, and flooded.  Still beautiful, of course.  She’s a Jeep Grand Wagoneer, Limited, with wood sides and shiny burgundy finish, all-leather tan interior, a fully loaded (for 1985) 4- to 10- seater with all-power everything (for 1985), four-wheel drive, and 8 cylinders of ma-jo (as opposed to mojo).  And that’s not what’s good about her.  She’s my legacy, the only car on the planet now that has held my mother, my father, my sister, my brother and me all together at the same time in it.

She’d been giving me trouble for weeks.  Yesterday she petulantly choked up and refused to start.  I couldn’t let her rust there.  If I didn’t take her in to Bruno’s now, she could die.  So I lurched back into the house, called triple-A, and  spent the rest of the morning waiting on people to help me with her.  I was remarkably serene about it, considering that I really had hoped to get away from family responsibilities and dog-care-taking for a change.  God, I needed to get some work done.

The triple-A guy was nice enough, friendly, cordial.  He locked my keys in the car, though.  Also had a surreal radical Christian show playing loud on the radio.  Some Australian guy, fairly articulate too, ranting on about the debauchery of Ephesus.  The people of Ephesus and their gods were soooo debauched that they actually had temple prostitutes, “male and female.”  Imagine that, having sex and calling it communion with God.

It really bummed me out.  I wanted to ask, “you don’t really believe this twit, do you?” or say, “you know, it’s true that some religious practices associated with fertility gods in that region seem to have involved some kind of sexual rituals that have been called “prostitution,” but whatever they were–and we really don’t know–they were nothing like the practice of today.”  It wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have with him, actually.  I couldn’t see the point.  Some people just believe anything they hear on the radio, especially if the speaker’s a preacher.

But still, I kind of wish I had engaged him.  He struck me as reasonable and decent.  Had four children.  And he liked Margaret.  Kept going on about how sturdily she was built, how the doors closed, click (not true, but the myth made him feel better about having locked the keys in), and how she was the kind of car that would keep on going long after all the newer models died out.  I liked him so well I really thought about giving it a try.

Anyway, the incident brought me to think about how long we have been agitating and protesting patriarchy, which is enforced by the nicest of men, for thousands of years.  Gerda Lerner says it was invented as a system of social organization around 3000 B.C.E. but did not get fully institutionalized until about 600 B.C.E. Biblical and ancient Mesopotamia scholars have been documenting the religious practices of the regions, many of which involved fertility goddesses and gods, for a very long time now.  Early Christians, like their Hebrew predecessors and contemporaries, conflicted with these religions and obviously won the public relations war.  In the long run, they got to say that the other, bad guys’ followers were prostitutes and pimps and tricks, which is how these guys liked to describe idolatry, the worship of false gods.  The Whore of Babylon (pictured above in an 1800s Russian engraving) is the last in a long smear campaign.

So when I got home today I did a little looking into Ephesus, which was the second largest city in the Roman empire during the time of Constantine (the Emperor who converted to Christianity because he thought he’d have more military victories).  Although the story of temple prostitution is so widespread as to be a commonplace in the radio pulpit, Christian scholars do argue that

the current view rests on unwarranted assumptions, doubtful anthropological premises, and very little evidence.

That’s S. M. Baugh, associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, who also notes that

the Anchor Bible Dictionary…has no discussion of either cultic or secular prostitution in the NT world. Perhaps the editors could not find enough material for an article?

Tongue in cheek aside, he’s serious about the job of proving that no form of temple prostitution–the exchange of sex for money that might go to the temple–in Ephesus or in an other major city during the New Testament Era.

Baugh reminds us to distinguish this practice of cult prostitution from erotic or symbolically erotic activity in rituals or mystery rites. Moreover, he cites and then interrogates ancient sources–there is actually only one–of evidence of cult prostitution during the New Testament Era.  What he finds out blows me away.  There are only two things to say about the only source we have, the Greek geographer, Strabo (ca. 64 BC-AD 21):

  1. Strabo was talking about a period 600 years before his time, and therefore was relying on oral stories, hearsay and myth; and
  2. All Strabo says is that the temple devoted to Aphrodite was reputed to have “had,” as in “owned,” prostitutes, who may have been male or female, and who may or may not have conducted their trade on temple grounds.

They may have been concubines or slaves owned by the temple for income in a relationship of dependency not unlike working in incredibly sexist capitalist workplaces,  where women (like men) are regarded as things that make money for the institution, and where women are regarded as the least valuable or worthy things, which are also often the biggest money-makers for the institution.  Whether or not temple prostitution existed during 600 B.C.E., is not so interesting.  The really big news is that there are many good reasons to suspect that if it did, it DID NOT survive into the first century, B.C.E, when Paul was living in Ephesus.

This blows me away. Wide-spread, bald rumors about temple prostitution at Ephesus (for which there is no evidence!) on Christian talk-show are another totally obvious example of the rewriting–Pierre Bourdieu calls is “dehistoricization”–of history by men in order to make women look bad.  Worse yet, it’s another example of the way that group that got control of the early Christian movement demonized members of different religious groups by denouncing them as debauched indulgers of carnal sex for money. You’ve heard this before:

They were so evil then, and we are so evil now, brothers and sisters.  We have to remember that we are sinners, that we were born in sin and dwell in sin except that Christ our Lord save us and cleanse us.  And once we humbly admit to our Lord and Master that we are humbly sorry for the sorry state of our souls, and begging for His help to correct ourselves, and overcome our weaknesses, then, and only then, and only with much continual scrutiny and soul-searching, and constant vigilance, we may be, MAYBE, saved.

This is the Protestant mindset.  I know it intimately.  I was born into it and I love it although I have spent my entire life trying to unwind myself from it.

I don’t know.  It is actually kind of interesting.  Every believer is feminized, put into a position of subordination to a figure who is supposedly neither male nor female but who has for so long been referred to and represented as male, as a father, and governor that the deity has been effectively gendered male.  Think, for example, of John Donne pleading with God to beat and “rape” him.  Sometimes this Father-God is a war-monger who scourges his enemies muscularly.  His human children have wives and concubines.  This kind of prostitution is okay, because it ultimately serves the right God.

I think the paradox of Christianity is that Christian men are supposed to be all strong and powerful in governing their wives and children and family compounds (like Abraham’s) and states (like David’s), and yet, in relation to God, they are women: weak, subordinate, suppliant.  This is a problem because in mainstream and traditional Christianity, as in mainstream and traditional Judaism and Islam, masculinity is lauded, celebrated.  It is the mode of being that is most like God, the best, the strongest, the most powerful, while femininity is denigrated as the worst way to be, or trivialized at best.  That’s because masculinity can only define itself in terms of what it is not, of course.   But contemporary Christian men can never really be confident in their masculinity because they are always made to feel–as they think about it–like wimps in relation to God, who still exhorts them to be “men.” God as Coach, as Army Sergeant, or, for the more new-agey types, God as therapist, guru, teacher, Abba.   He helps them to be men even while He’s constantly reminding them, sometimes by screaming it at them, that they are women.

So in the theological and social hierarchy that Christianity embraces, men are higher, more dignified, and more powerful than women, okay?  It’s not good to be a woman in this world.  Especially if you are a man.  This is not an easy place to be–and while this conundrum makes a lot of thoughtful Christian men really lovely human beings, it and lots of other pressures in our society make a lot of other Christian men very scary, very domineering and aggressive men.  They are especially scary and domineering when they lower their voices into a soft, intimate tone.  Have you all seen The White Ribbon?

I think the guys who go round spreading the rumor about temple prostitution at Ephesus in order to prove that Christianity was somehow the better religion have been doing this for a long time because, as  bizarre as it may sound, men have been under a lot of pressure to conform to a rigid notion of masculinity that is not at all human, or Christ-like, for that matter.  The war-mongering Contantine, who is said to have introduced the symbol of the cross to Christian iconography after he saw it in the shape of his sword handle, did not help matters.  It’s all one big game of men playing “who’s got the biggest.”

We are not evil.  If there is a God, and if that God is good, and that God created us, then we must also be good, like everything that would come from an all-good God.  You could say that what has happened is not the fault of God, but rather the fault of the human beings who invented these stories, these paradigms for understanding the world, and who have gotten trapped, like the limed thrush, in their own shit.