By T. M. Luhrmann
In March 1997, the bodies of thirty-nine people were discovered in a mansion outside San Diego. They were found lying in bunk beds, wearing identical black shirts and sweatpants. Their faces were covered with squares of purple cloth, and each of their pockets held exactly five dollars and seventy-five cents.
The police determined that the deceased were members of Heaven’s Gate, a local cult, and that they had intentionally overdosed on barbiturates. Marshall Applewhite, the group’s leader, had believed that there was a UFO trailing in the wake of Comet Hale-Bopp, which was visible in the sky over California that year. He and his followers took the pills, mixing them with applesauce and washing them down with vodka, in order to beam up to the spacecraft and enter the “evolutionary level above human.”
In the aftermath of the mass suicide, one question was asked again and again: How could so many people have believed something so obviously wrong? [my emphasis]
I am an anthropologist of religion. I did my first stint of fieldwork with middle-class Londoners who identified as witches, druids, and initiates of the Western Mysteries. My next project was in Mumbai, India, where Zoroastrianism was experiencing a resurgence. Later, I spent four years with charismatic evangelical Christians in Chicago and San Francisco, observing how they developed an “intimate relationship” with an invisible God. Along the way, I studied newly Orthodox Jews, social-justice Catholics, Anglo-Cuban Santeria devotees, and, briefly, a group in southern California that worshipped a US-born guru named Kalindi.
Most of these people would describe themselves as believers. Many of the evangelicals would say that they believe in God without doubt. But even the most devout do not behave as if God’s reality is the same as the obdurate thereness of rocks and trees. They will tell you that God is capable of anything, aware of everything, and always on their side. But no one prays that God will write their term paper or replace a leaky pipe.
Instead, what their actions suggest is that maintaining a sense of God’s realness is hard. Evangelicals talk constantly about what bad Christians they are. They say that they go to church and resolve to be Christlike and then yell at their kids on the way home. The Bible may assert vigorously the reality of a mighty God, but psalm after psalm laments his absence. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Beliefs are not passively held; they are actively constructed. Even when people believe in God, he must be made real for them again and again. They must be convinced that there is an invisible other who cares for them and whose actions affect their lives.
This is more likely to happen for someone who can vividly imagine that invisible other. In the late 1970s, Robert Silvey, an audience researcher at the BBC, started using the word “paracosm” to describe the private worlds that children create, like the North Pacific island of Gondal that Emily and Anne Brontë dreamed up when they were girls. But paracosms are not unique to children. Besotted J.R.R. Tolkien fans, for example, have a similar relationship with Middle-earth. What defines a paracosm is its specificity of detail: it is the smell of the rabbit cooked in the shadow of the dark tower or the unease the hobbits feel on the high platforms at Lothlórien. In returning again and again to the books, a reader creates a history with this enchanted world that can become as layered as her memory of middle school.
God becomes more real for people who turn their faith into a paracosm. The institution provides the stories — the wounds of Christ on the cross, the serpent in the Garden of Eden — and some followers begin to live within them. These narratives can grip the imagination so fiercely that the world just seems less good without them.
During my fieldwork, I saw that people could train themselves to feel God’s presence. They anchored God to their minds and bodies so that everyday experiences became evidence of his realness. They got goose bumps in the presence of the Holy Spirit, or sensed Demeter when a chill ran up their spine. When an idea popped into their minds, it was God speaking, not a stray thought of their own. Some people told me that they came to recognize God’s voice the way they recognized their mother’s voice on the phone. As God became more responsive, the biblical narratives seemed less like fairy tales and more like stories they’d heard from a friend, or even memories of their own.
Faith is the process of creating an inner world and making it real through constant effort. But most believers are able to hold the faith world — the world as it should be — in tension with the world as it is. When the engine fails, Christians might pray to God for a miracle, but most also call a mechanic.
Being socially isolated can compromise one’s ability to distinguish his or her paracosm from the everyday world. Members of Heaven’s Gate never left their houses alone. They wore uniforms and rejected signs of individuality. Some of them even underwent castration in order to avoid romantic attachments. When group members cannot interact with outsiders, they are less likely to think independently. Especially if there is an autocratic leader, there is less opportunity for dissent, and the group becomes dependent on his or her moral authority. Slowly, a view of the world that seems askew to others can settle into place.
When we argue about politics, we may think we are arguing over facts and propositions. But in many ways we argue because we live in different paracosmic worlds, facilitated these days by the intensely detailed imaginings of talk radio and cable news [my emphisis]. For some of us, that world is the desperate future of the near at hand. If abortion is made illegal, abortions will happen anyway, and women will die because they used clothes hangers to scrape out their insides. Others live in a paracosm of a distant future of the world as it should be, where affirmative action is unnecessary because people who work hard can succeed regardless of where they started.
Recently, the dominant political narratives in America have moved so far apart that each is unreadable to the other side. But we know that the first step in loosening the grip of an extreme culture is developing a relationship with someone who interprets the world differently [my emphasis]. In 2012, for example, a woman named Megan Phelps-Roper left the Westboro Baptist Church, a hard-line Christian group that pickets the funerals of queer people, after she became friendly with a few of her critics on Twitter. If the presence of people with whom we disagree helps us to maintain common sense, then perhaps the first step to easing the polarization that grips this country is to seek those people out[my emphasis]. That’s the anthropological way.”
If those Heaven’s Gate cult members had not been so isolated and had been able to talk with those outside their group, perhaps they would have realized that killing themselves as a way to beam themselves up to a passing spacecraft was really not a rational idea.
Find someone you just can’t understand. Talk and listen. It’s likely to be good for both of you.
“This troubled planet is a place of the most violent contrasts. Those who receive the rewards are totally separated from those who shoulder the burdens. It is not a wise leadership” – Spock, Star Trek
“May the force [of imagined and real heros] be with you.” We can choose change.
“[I]n 1860 only around ‘5 percent of the Southern population owned even one slave, and a significantly smaller percentage owned more than twenty.’ . . .
Millions of human beings were held in bondage. It’s mind-boggling to me [says author Camille T. Dungy] that such a small number of people controlled so much of the wealth back then — and much of that wealth was accrued through the bodies of other human beings. A black human being was a commodity, an object, not particularly different in value from a piece of jewelry, a few head of livestock, or several bolts of fabric. My point is that most white people didn’t have the kind of wealth that the institution of slavery was protecting, just like most people today don’t have the kind of wealth protected by tax codes that allow a billionaire to write off a private jet but don’t allow schoolteachers to write off $250 worth of school supplies. . . .
America would not be the wealthy country it is without slave labor. We would not have our power or wealth if we had not, for a very long time, depended on the unpaid labor of millions of human beings . . . Cotton wasn’t king just in the South. Many of the most productive cotton mills were in the North, as were the insurance companies and other industries that profited off those mills. Without a lot of unpaid labor, those profits would have been significantly less. And we are still depending on the unpaid or underpaid labor of millions of human beings — from prison workers to immigrants to foreign labor. The question of slavery is still with us [my emphasis]. America has a legacy of harming other human beings and justifying that harm by glorifying the wealth it brings to a few. Thankfully America also has a legacy of resisting that impulse. . . .
It’s sometimes difficult to accept the fact that whole portions of our society were built up–are still built up– to support the wealth of just a few. Why don’t more people object to that? Perhaps because so many Americans think maybe one day they will be the billionaire with access to the unchecked power to acquire wealth at the expense of other human beings. When the focus is on the glorification of wealth rather than on an honest examination of how that wealth might have been accrued, we routinely ignore brutalities visited upon our fellow human beings (7). . . .
“Racism – and resistance to racism – is part of the fabric of this country. When our twenty-dollar bill celebrates a man who is connected to the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of black people, I can’t see how I can say, ‘Let’s just focus on this one area.’ We are part of an ecosystem. We can’t just worry about the whales, so to speak. We need to address what’s happening to our oceans.
But, as individuals, I know we sometimes have to choose the battles that matter most to us” (9).
There is much to do to make our world more just and equitable for all. Let’s get working.
From: “Poetic Justice: Camille T. Dungy on Racism, Writing, and Radical Empathy” by Airica Parker – The Sun, June 2018, p. 4-12.
Banner photo: Andrew Jackson – Popular General in the United States Army and from 1829 to 1837, seventh President of the United States.
Some Hawaiians here in our state don’t vote because our U.S. government overthrew the legal monarchy of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 when businessmen (children of U.S. missionaries) garnered the help of a U.S. warship in the Honolulu harbor threatening mass killing of the Hawaiians. Queen Lili’uokalani, the royal monarch, acquiesced, to prevent the deaths of her people. She hoped the United States President would right the situation. Though President Cleveland and his special commissioner James Blount supported the return of the Queen’s sovereignty, the Provisional Government refused to step down. They quickly proclaimed themselves the Republic of Hawai’i and by 1898 they’d received status as a U.S. Territory. Nothing was done to reinstate the islands to the Hawaiian people.
So it is very understandable that some Hawaiians today don’t want to be part of this system.
However, when you don’t vote and make your voice heard, the ones who do vote win for their ideas, their way of life, their benefit.
Besides, Queen Lili’uokalani saw that having a vote was important!
“We have no other direction left to pursue, except this unrestricted right to vote. Given by the U.S. to you the Lahui [the Hawaiian Nation], grasp it and hold on to it. It is up to you to make things right for all of us in the Future.” Queen Lili’uokalani
So if you are Hawaiian, please make choices that will be the best for you, your family, your community.
And for those of us who aren’t Native Hawaiians, I’ve learned that it is important to vote for the candidates for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Until this last Primary Election in August, I left those three spots unchecked each election – because I’m not Hawaiian and didn’t think I had a real right to be making those choices. However, I’ve learned that the Hawaiian community can use our votes if they are well informed. The mission of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs includes protecting the ‘aina and Hawaiians. What is good for the land and the Hawaiian people is likely good for all of us.
It’s not too late in Hawaii to register to vote (although official early registration ended last Tuesday, October 9th). The Maui County Clerk’s Office is relaxing deadlines, so if you have valid identification with you, you can register to vote on the day you vote.
Early walk-in voting here on Maui is October 23-November 3, Monday – Saturday, 8am- 4pm at the Velma McWayne Santos Community Center in Wailuku.
The General Election is November 6, 7am-6pm at your designated polling place.
Watch for the various candidate forums. Kihei Community Center has another one this Tuesday, Oct. 16 at St. Theresa Church. Go to <olvr.hawaii.gov>, put in your address, and see the ballot for you. UHMC will be having a “Teach In.” Get informed.
Then VOTE. Queen Lili’uokalani knew it was important. Our future depends on it.
Banner photo: https://www.biography.com/people/liliuokalani-39552
On March 23, 2017, President Trump signed the permit approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline – where Native American led protests, says Wikipedia, have united environmental groups, citizens, and politicians over the potential negative impacts of the Keystone XL project. The main issues are the risk of oil spills along the pipeline, which would traverse highly sensitive terrain, and 17% higher greenhouse gas emissions from the extraction of oil sands compared to extraction of conventional oil.
On that day, Mekasi Camp Horinek, a member of the Ponca Nation, told reporter Alleen Brown:
“I want to say thank you to the president for all the bad decisions that he’s making — for the bad cabinet appointments that he’s made and for awakening a sleeping giant. People that have never stood up for themselves, people that have never had their voices heard, that have never put their bodies on the line are now outraged. I would like to say thank you to President Trump for his bigotry, for his sexism,
[for his attacks on our environment, for his support of gun rights over the rights of our children to be safe in schools, for his attacks on immigrants – in this country that is filled with people whose ancestors came as immigrants, for snubbing our Allies and becoming cozy with ruthless dictators, for celebrating hate and disrespect, for filling the pockets of the richest from the suffering of the poorest, . . .]
for bringing all of us in this nation together to stand up and unite”
From: Naomi Klein’s NO IS NOT ENOUGH: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, p. 190-191.
Let’s stand together and VOTE on November 6th.
Aloha, in light and action, Renée
What you must see about “survivors” of the A-bombing of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. What you can do to promote peace and end war!
If you – and your elected officials – need another convincing reason to do everything possible to prevent another nuclear bombing, read Melinda Clarke’s book, Waymakers for Peace and if possible, go to her free talk on Saturday, August 4, 2018 at 1:30p.m. at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center campus in Kahului, Maui. Call 808 244-6862 to make reservations or for more information.
Now a resident of Maui, Melinda Clarke first went to Japan in 1964 and then returned for many years. She saw her mission was to record what most people – especially in the U.S. – don’t really want to know. In her book of interviews, Waymakers for Peace, and in her talks, Clarke gives a a clear understanding of the devastation and suffering caused by a nuclear weapon (much less powerful than the ones we have today). Clarke also suggests what citizens can do to promote peace and end war.
On August 11, 2018, The Maui News featured an article by Lee Imada about Melinda Clarke and her experiences and mission. Go to http://www.mauinews.com/news/local-news/2018/08/maui-woman-tells-stories-of-atomic-bombing-at-hiroshima/
Clarke’s website can be found at http://www.worldaloha.net.
Clips of the original photographs (very troubling) We must work to make sure this never happens again. “Lost Generation” can be viewed at .https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUv-wBK00eM&app=desktop
Recently, we had a Servas visitor from Israel. Servas, established in 1948, is the oldest host and traveler organization in the world. Its mission is to foster peace, goodwill, and mutual respect among a world-wide network of travelers and hosts.
More than 15,000 Servas hosts in more than 100 countries open their homes to travelers – like you. For two nights/three days, you can share and experience the lives of Servas hosts. For Barry and me, our very best travel experiences have often involved being with Servas hosts. For more information, go to < https://usservas.org/> or for international travel < https://www.servas.org/>.
On Maui, Barry and I are Servas hosts and feel the world comes to us. Last week, our Servas guest was Sharon, a most interesting man and wonderful visitor. His visit enabled my friends and family to have direct interaction with an Israeli; he works in a bomb deactivation unit.
Sharon realizes that many U.S. citizens don’t know the whole story and so judge Israel harshly without knowing the complex situation.
He suggests my friends to see the following links:
- The first video is done by Danny Ayalon, Founder of the “Truth About Israel,” Former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Israeli Ambassador to the United States:
“The Truth about Jerusalem” < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zz9CTBOKK4g>
- The second is by David Brog, Executive Director of the Maccabee Task Force, which was created in 2015 to combat the disturbing spread of anti-Semitism on America’s college campuses.
“Why Isn’t There a Palestinian State?” <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76NytvQAIs0>
These videos are only about five minutes each. Please watch them.
The on-going Israeli and Palestinian situation is very difficult and multifaceted.
In December 2014 – January 2015, Barry and I spent five weeks in Israel, traveling all over including being on the 10-day Servas tour of the country, living a week at Kibbutz Lotan on the Jordanian border near Egypt, visiting our friends Ruthi & Danny, whom we met through teaching in China, spending Hanukah with Clair’s Israeli relatives (she was our son John’s girlfriend at the time), being there for Christmas, and for me (not Barry because he is Jewish), going into the Palestinian Authority area to see Bethlehem; this all gave me an understanding of Israel and the very complex situation there.
I hope you can travel to Israel. The Servas hosts there, including Sharon and his family and those Barry and I met in 2014 are wonderful – and the country interesting, diverse, and complex.
Go see for yourself. If you go as a Servas traveler (a few hosts are Palestinian), you will glean insights and have experiences not readily available to most visitors – and you’ll certainly have more knowledge than you can glean from the newspapers or T.V. And talk to people, like Sharon, who actually live there.
Sharon’s visit here to Maui allowed for discussion and mutual respect. One of my friends who considered herself pro-Palestinian concluded, “Sharon is a good man.”
May Israeli and Palestinians (and all of us) walk forward in the light.
Aloha, Shalom, & As-salaamu 3aleikum (peace be with you), Renée
[America] is really where the experiment is unfolding. This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another. This is the real laboratory of democracy”
– Leonard Cohen
“After baseball, America’s favorite pastime may be the process of reinventing itself, continuously redefining its identity and searching for its soul”
– Brenda Payton
“We take freedom for granted, and because of this we don’t understand how incredibly vulnerable it is”
There is much to be done wherever you are.
Quotations from The Sun, Issue 493, January 2017, p. 48.
“Imagine you open the faucet of your kitchen sink expecting water and instead out comes cash. Now imagine that it comes out at the rate of $1 million a minute. You call your plumber, who thinks you’re crazy. To get you off the phone, he opines that it is your sink and therefore must be your money. So you spend it wildly. Then you realize that the money wasn’t yours and you owe it back.
Now imagine that this happens every minute of every day for the next three years. At the end of the three years, you owe back more than $6 trillion. So you borrow $6 trillion to pay back the $6 trillion you owe.
Government produces no products that consumers are willing to pay for voluntarily, and it doesn’t sell shares of stock in its assets. It doesn’t generate wealth; it seizes it. And when it can no longer politically get away with seizing, it borrows. It borrows a great deal of money — money that it rolls over, by borrowing trillions to pay back trillions to prior lenders, and thus its debt never goes away.
Last week, after eight years of publicly complaining that then-President Barack Obama was borrowing more than $1 trillion a year to fund the government — borrowing that the Republicans silently consented to — congressional Republicans, now in control of Congress and with a friend in the Oval Office, voted to spend and hence borrow between $5 trillion and $6 trillion more than tax revenue will produce in the next three years; that’s a few trillion more than they complained about in the Obama years.
That’s borrowing $1 million a minute.
Obviously, no business or household or bank can survive very long by borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Yet the federal government, no matter which party controls Congress or the presidency, engages in staggering borrowing — borrowing that will cripple future generations by forcing them to pay for goods and services that were consumed before they were born.
Wilson’s $30 billion debt 100 years ago has ballooned to $20.6 trillion today. At the end of President Donald Trump’s present term — because of the Republican budget signed into law — the government’s debt will be about $27 trillion.
That amount is a debt bomb waiting to explode. Here’s why. Every year, the federal government collects about $2.5 trillion in revenue and spends it all. It borrows another $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion and spends it all. To avoid paying back any of the $27 trillion it will owes, the federal government will need to spend about $1 trillion a year in interest payments.
That $1 trillion is 40 percent of the revenue collected by the federal government; that’s 40 cents on every dollar in tax revenue going to interest on old debts — interest payments that are legally unavoidable by taxpayers and voters.
Register – and vote!
Aloha, Barry & Renée
Here’s a point of view that I hadn’t considered from the Krista Bremer’s essay, “American Winter.”
“The fact is he [my husband] was disturbed by the outcome, but not shocked or dismayed. He did not lose sleep or become paralyzed with dread. He has not given in to despair. Long ago, while growing up in Libya, my husband developed the skills needed to endure a Trump presidency. Living under Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi taught Ismail how to survive a narcissistic, sociopathic leader. My husband is as matter-of-fact about the election outcome as my favorite cashier at our grocery store, a Christian from Gambia who wraps her hair in plain black cloth and wears men’s running shoes that appear to be a size too large. Her dream is to buy land to farm back home. She and her husband, who is working in Europe, are sending as much money as they can back to their children in Gambia. She has worked in this country for more than a decade and hasn’t seen her youngest child in seven years. This is her second job and, at nine dollars an hour, her highest-paying one. . .
When I made a comment about the election results, she lowered her voice so no one else would hear. “Of course Trump won,” she said with a hint of impatience. ‘God is not sleeping.’ Stuffing my purchases into thin plastic bags, she added, ‘God sees the suffering America has spread around the globe.’ She . . . [feels Trump is] a fitting representative of a rich country that pursues its interests with callous disregard for vulnerable people at home and abroad.”
Read the essay at: https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/494/american-winter