Human traditions and rites of passage are interesting. Many have existed thousands of years, formulated when our ancestors believed that spirits and deities needed to be appeased to prevent bad things from happening. One frequent tradition we hold is the advent of a New Year as a transition of life from the elder to an infant. That concept goes back to ancient Egyptian symbolism and was codified by Greeks who believed Dionysus was reborn with the New Year as the spirit of fertility.
I hadn’t planned on writing anything this week, but given the events that have transpired, I’m not sure that I have any choice. There is rhetoric and danger and diatribe but there is also thought and analysis that needs to happen to bring these events down to their simplest form.
If we take the concept of treating the New Year as we would a new baby, then most traditions, even those of pagan cultures, prescribe certain rituals to take place within the first week of a child’s life. In fact, it’s only among non-liturgical evangelical Xians that the birth of a new child is ritualistically ignored. For liturgical Xians, this Sunday is the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In many churches, a number of families will bring their infants to be baptized; a ritual involving water as a sign of cleansing, inclusion, and commitment.
The pattern of baptism falls in line with that of other traditions of carefully managing a child’s entry into the world. The father whispers the Adhan into the baby’s right ear minutes after it’s birth in Islamic faiths, following by the Tahneek ceremony, rubbing softened dates on the child’s upper palette. The Taweez ritual involves tying a small pouch containing a prayer around the baby’s wrist with a black string.
Among Hindus, there are ceremonies both before and after a child is born. Among those rituals, the Jatakarma involves putting honey in the child’s mouth and whispering the name of God in its ear. That is soon followed by the Namakarma where the baby is named, the Nishkarma, for the child’s first trip out, and the Karnavedha where the lower ear lobe is pierced.
Buddhist rituals vary from region to region but generally involve similar properties. Among Japanese Buddhists, for example, on the third day after the baby’s birth, parents perform the Miyanoiwa, purifying the baby’s room with mounts of salt placed in the northeast and southeast. Few Buddhists name their child until after it is born, and initially give it a horrible name like “mud face” at birth to keep away evil spirits. A week after the child is born, they hold the Oshichiya, a baby naming ceremony involving family and friends.
Jewish traditions, such as Brit Milah for boys or Brit Bat for girls also involve naming and any variety of traditions that have become parts of different sects over the centuries. For example, Ashkenazi tradition calls for naming a child after someone who has passed. Sephardic tradition suggests naming the child after someone still alive, often a grandparent.
Among the many African traditions, most hold that an infant comes from the spirit world with important information and has been commissioned to accomplish a particular mission. So, a birth chart is created before a child is named to determine their personality, talents, and gifts. The child is given a name that reflects and reminds them of their purpose.
Pagan traditions tend to center around when the child is brought home for the first time. Surrounded by family and friends, a cup of water, wine, or milk is passed around prior to saying a specific chant, after which the liquid is placed on the baby’s gums. The act is performed twice, inside and outside the house, with different chants.
As varied and still similar as all these traditions are, one thing strikes me as critically important: For a child born on January 1, they all would have happened this week, and many would have happened on the seventh, the day of Epiphany in Xian tradition, and the day when violent and deadly terrorists attempted an unprecedented insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. How dare anyone interrupt the important ritual of initiating both a new year and a new presidential administration? What disturbs me more is that many of the people committing acts of sedition claim to be doing so because, in some convoluted fashion, they think they are defending their deity. We need to be steadfastly aware that true deity does not need human defense. Deity is not a Tinkerbell fairy who fails to exist based on whether we believe and clap our hands.
What was this? What really happened this past week? Was this some group of disgruntled, misguided malcontents who got lucky? No, it wasn’t. They aren’t patriots. They aren’t defenders of the faith or the Constitution. They’re racists trying to hide under both the flag and the Bible, neither of which care to have them anywhere close.
A portion of today’s liturgical reading is Acts 10:34-36.
The timing is interesting both in terms of what was going on in the Roman empire (Cornelius was a Roman Centurion who observed Jewish traditions but could not, for political reasons, convert), and what is happening in the United States now. Since Jesus was a Jew and most of his followers were Jewish zealots, there was an issue with what we now see as Xianity being considered by the Romans and others as simply another Jewish cult. By making the statement that God shows no partiality between races, that barrier is broken. Xianity steps firmly forever away from Judaism and separates itself as a unique faith.
What’s important for us to understand is that Peter is making a bold statement of anti-racism. Systemic racism is not just 420 years old, it’s at least 6,000 years old. For people in the first century, being Roman was the ‘master race’ and everyone else was second-class or worse. Into that deeply embedded atmosphere, where this topic has been simmering among believers for a while, Peter stands up and says, theos esti ou prosopoleptes, literally, God does not differentiate race. This statement right here is what set early Xianity apart from the majority of other religions that were deeply dependent on where and to whom one was born.
And here we stand, January 10, 2021, trying to say that the same Xianity supports systemic racism. Heresy, anyone?
Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand and sing ‘In Christ There Is No East Or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.” Try to convince me that has changed and I will call you a liar to your face.
Did you notice as I went through the various birth rites and customs how many are not only associated with a specific religious belief but also a narrowly-defined racial population? Left to its own devices, without social pressures to be inclusive, religion is racist. Read that again. Yes, it stings and one is welcome to argue intent, but we have to recognize that much of the systemic racism plaguing the earth for eons is fundamentally based on the deities we worship.
Sure, there are plenty of examples where people of different races have “crossed over,” but those are still the exception, not the rule, and few of those would have happened prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that eliminated the rule of ‘Separate But Equal.’ Prior to that, Xians and Jews alike were quite happy forcing believers of color to worship elsewhere.
What happened in our country this week is the direct result of such religious racism, heresy so extreme that it led to a level of violence not condoned by any religious texts no matter how hard its followers might try to twist it. There is no justification for insurrection at any time and to make the fallacious claim that one’s allegiance to a deity is sufficient excuse puts one outside the bounds of Xianity, or Judaism, or Hinduism, or Islam, or Buddhism, or any other deity-centered faith. To make such claims put one deep in the well of apostasy.
As I’m writing on Saturday morning, word comes of a fire in the western Indian state of Maharashtra killing ten newborn babies.
A Boeing 737 passenger jet (not a 737 MAX), flying between Jakarta and Borneo was lost with over 60 souls on board.
Life is fragile and one of the reasons all those birth rites exist is that from our most ancient beginnings we have recognized that extreme care is necessary if the next generation of us is going to survive.
The first week of the New Year is no different. This is that time of year when we make resolutions to be better. Yes, we know when we make them that most won’t survive to the end of the month, but at least we recognize that with the New Year comes some obligation to make this one better just as we want our children to be improved versions of ourselves.
This year, we failed week one. We botched the birth rites of a New Year and instead gave in to a lust for power, greed for political ownership, and openly hostile racism. We gave in to ignorance. We bypassed what we know to be right and embraced darkness like Star Wars fanboys worshipping at the feet of Darth Vader.
As Walter tells Donnie in “The Big Lebowsky,” that’s over the line.
Our New Year is not lost. We can still recover. Birth rites, after all, are merely traditions handed down over the centuries. They don’t guarantee a child a long and healthy life any more than our resolutions ensure we’ll lose that extra 30 pounds. We are not restrained because we botched a ritual. The year, and our lives, are salvageable.
How we go about that salvage operation is something that requires many to step outside comfort zones and risk offending those who refuse to listen.
We have to commit ourselves to the concept that we have to redefine what we mean by “all.” For too long, we’ve followed the Roman concept that “all” meant white Europeans. Change that. “All” has to mean Black lives matter, Gay lives matter, Latinx lives matter, Trans lives matter, Persian lives matter, Indian lives matter, Asian lives matter, Indigenous lives matter, and your life matters. If “all” doesn’t include each of those, specifically, and it has not for thousands of years, then “all” is simply another word for “white.” None should be denied equal access on every conceivable level and those historically disenfranchised must be elevated so that society improves.
We must commit ourselves to stand up to racist violence, whether it is bring perpetrated by police with no-knock warrants or self-proclaimed rebels pretending to “take back” something they never understood in the first place. We must recognize the systemic racism embedded in all aspects of our society and actively argue for their removal.
We must advocate for changes in a system built around bigotry and exclusivity. No longer can we sit idly with our smartphones in our hands, replying to outrageous acts with a sad or carrying emoji. We have to use our voices and speak up when we see black people harassed simply for existing. We have to make noise when a gay person is trolled online before they consider suicide. We have to openly and vehemently announce that trans women are women, that trans men are men, and that gender-binary souls don’t have to follow either set of gender norms to deserve respect.
This is the time when we must speak the name of equality into the ear of this New Year. This is the moment when we place the sweet taste of justice, on the gums, real justice, not the artificial, bigoted substitute, creating an expectation that this year crimes of the past are no longer tolerated.
We know that violence is born of fear and fear is the manifestation of doubt. In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert Persig writes:
You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.
There are many people this morning with a lot of doubt. They doubt their deity. They doubt their country. They doubt their neighbor. They doubt themselves.
If we are to take something from the destructive actions of this week, let it be this Benediction:
In our efforts to dismantle racism, may we understand that we struggle not merely against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities – those institutions and systems that keep racism alive by perpetuating the lie that some members of the family are inferior and others superior.
May we create in ourselves a new mind and heart that will enable us to see brothers and sisters in the faces of those divided by racial categories.
May we find the grace and strength to rid ourselves of racial stereotypes that oppress some of us while providing entitlements to others.
May we create out of this disaster a nation that embraces the hopes and fears of oppressed people of color where we live, as well as those around the world.
May your family know physical and emotional healing, and may we be one in spirit, in union with our brothers and sisters, and empowered by the ability to see each other first and foremost as human.
Peace be unto you.