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What the Pope Knew: Plenty, but He Keeps his Mouth Shut

This weekend I watched a CNN documentary, “What the Pope Knew” about the never-ending child sexual abuse scandal. I was hoping I would learn something new, but they didn’t have much original reporting, other than tracking down some victims and letting them express outrage. The rest of the show rehashed what I already knew from The New York Times, while packaging it with a dark, dramatic soundtrack and lots of pictures of crucifixes, flickering candles, statues of saints, confessionals and guys in vestments. The story of the abuse is riveting, complex and international, but this report was fairly superficial. It did, however, spur me to do some more searching and thinking, as well as imagining a conversation tomorrow night, when I’m hosting a very small house Mass and dinner party with my spiritual director, her husband and a new friend, an Episcopal priest from New Jersey by way of Toledo.

I fantasized that if we discussed this horrible issue (not exactly dinner party-thrilling), they might press me to say what I think is really going on. I’ll tell you in just a sec, but more important is what the research shows, what the facts are.

I imagined telling my friends something like this. “We know that clergy pedophilia has been going on for decades; there are cases that go back to the 1950s and even earlier. My suspicion is that it’s been going on for centuries, in a somewhat systematic way, aided and abetted by underground friendship networks of priests, such that the pedophiles tended to know each other and advise each other on how to keep out of trouble.”

I base this not on any knowledge of pedophiles, but some first-hand experience of Gay Catholic priests. Child abuse and Gayness within the clergy aren’t in any way the same, except that Gay Catholics, and especially the clergy, are also driven underground by the Vatican. And we all know that people in the closet develop their own ways of finding each other; for centuries this was the only way of finding a safe Gay friend.

You drop a hint one day, quickly change the subject and wait for the other guy’s response to your hint; he might be outraged, neutral or enthusiastic, and then you go on from there until you’re out to each other.

I can’t believe that male pedophiles worldwide each independently came to the notion that becoming a Catholic priest was the perfect cover for plying their trade. But it is; an all-male priesthood, an official vow of celibacy whatever the reality turns out to be, clergy put on a pedestal by the faithful (and taught to build those pedestals by the priests), all backed by an authoritarian hierarchy that considers a culture of secrecy essential to its mission.

Catholic ordination is the perfect setup for pedophiles’ criminal enterprises.

Protestant clergy abuse children and adults too, but the institutions backing them up aren’t nearly so rich, powerful and impermeable from the outside. An Episcopalian has a bishop, vestry and diocesan convention to answer to; Baptists and others have a board of deacons to keep an eye on them. Nearly every Protestant group has some kind of accountability system (whether it works well or not) that the Roman Church not only lacks, but rejects.

“So the issue,” I’d tell my dinner guests, “isn’t the criminal infiltration, it’s the secrecy.”

From this little adventure in Walter Mittyism, I actually Googled “Catholic secrecy,” and ran across a brief but fascinating article by a former Benedictine monk and priest – published in the National Catholic Reporter, “Secret Sex in the Celibate System.” It’s a gem of concise clarity.

Ratzinger’s (2001) document demands that all canonical cases of clergy sex abuse of minors be sent to his office under the requirement for strictest secrecy.

And this is considered a reform, that there’s now an office to receive such reports. No one in the hierarchy has challenged the secrecy demand, because the benefit of the doubt always goes to the priest, not the accuser.

Unlike CNN, which wanted to gain ratings by trying to assess Cardinal Ratzinger’s (now Pope Benedict 16’s) personal culpability for covering up decades of child abuse throughout the world, I think it’s more helpful to focus on the secrecy and why it’s in place; how it both shields the innocent and operates as a mutual protection racket.

Ratzinger had to wait until John Paul 2 was dead before he could take down Fr. Marcial Maciel, the serial abuser who founded the Legionaries of Christ, a protegé of the late pope’s who raised millions of dollars and used to pass out money, cars, tickets and apartments to his Vatican friends.

What did Fr. Marcial know about John Paul? And does it seem likely to you that the pope didn’t have informants inside the Legionaries? Wherever you have secrecy, you have spies.

But before we get lost in the many hallways, reliquaries, catacombs, museums, libraries, archives, nooks and crannies of the Vatican, let me clearly say: It’s to Benedict’s credit that he did take control of the Legionaries once he got Peter’s keys. That little bit of intrigue is now effectively over.

Instead, let’s restage this drama on a lesser scale, in a small obscure diocese somewhere.

The bishop has served respectably for 20 years; people like him, or at least respect him, and he’s done some good here and there; he’s hoping to retire in peace. One of his priests on the far rural fringes of the diocese serves three rural parishes that once were served by their own local priests; now this guy is doing the work of three men. The bishop has had some minor success in scaring up new vocations, but the current generation doesn’t believe in priestly celibacy anymore, so clergy are at an absolute premium; the bishop appreciates what that local pastor has done. Meanwhile the pastor is Gay and has a lover, another priest who works a few miles away. They both have official residences, but they keep an apartment together in the see city away from their prying parishioners. The bishop doesn’t approve of this arrangement, but if he were to try to punish these two priests, he’d end up with six churches needing new pastors that he hasn’t got. So what does the bishop do? He pretends not to know what he knows; he keeps the secret.

When the bishop keeps the secret, those two lover-priests have no reason not to open the reality of their lives to all their brother priests in the diocese – many of whom have similar situations; a male lover, or a longtime girlfriend, or a wife and a couple of kids.

The lack of vocations ties the bishop’s hands; thousands of Catholic men would love to be priests, but they get stopped by that celibacy rule, so the bishop has to scratch and claw for every seminarian he can find. God only knows what happens to the small rural parishes if Fr. NN gets sick or drops dead; the bishop needs every priest he can get.

So he keeps the secret. It isn’t even that much of a secret anymore; all the clergy know, and a quarter of the laypeople, who would worry too if Fr. NN got sick or dropped dead.

Now multiply this scenario times a billion Catholics in 200 countries; and you can see why secrecy is how the Church keeps going. It doesn’t take conspiracy theories. It isn’t necessarily a matter of good people doing bad things; the issue is personnel management.

Is the celibacy requirement one of the villains here? I think so, but I’m an Episcopalian. Read what the ex-Benedictine wrote in NCR.

Celibacy was a voluntary ascetic practice of early Christian monks and some clerics, but not universally required of Roman Catholic priests until 1139.

Roman Catholic priests now are mandated to make a promise or vow of celibacy before they can be ordained. Clerical celibacy precludes absolutely any willful sexual release.

Questions about mandated clerical celibacy have bombarded general consciousness in light of the onslaught of reports of clerical abuse and its cover-up by church authority. It is fair to ask: What is the connection between the demand for cultic purity and abuse of minors?

The current crisis poses a serious challenge for church authority to answer that question.

“Poses a serious challenge for church authority” means in the vernacular, “Is totally nuts and may destroy the church.”

This is why every Western church that has broken with Rome – Lutherans, Anglicans, Old Catholics, Baptists, Quakers, Huguenots, Presbyterians, everyone – has quickly abolished clerical celibacy. It’s untenable, unsustainable, it isn’t Biblical (St. Peter was married), it’s historically dishonest (you think popes weren’t married and screwing around?) – and it isn’t what God requires.

I’m in favor of it when people can do it, but celibacy is a gift of God dispensed to very few; meanwhile the Church needs priests.

Still, I think it’s wrong to blame clerical celibacy first, or even the all-male priesthood. (I’m an Episcopalian, I favor women’s ordination.) The celibacy requirement contributes greatly to the problem; pedophiles wouldn’t have such perfect shelter if normal people could be priests. But secrecy and authoritarianism – how the Church is governed – is the problem.

The Roman Church operates as if the autocracy and divine right of kings is still viable. It isn’t; thinking, educated people won’t put up with it. But Catholics are still kissing bishops’ rings like serfs groveling before the lord of the manor.

When the Church is governed by a czar – whether that’s “Bishop Eddie” Long or Benedict 16 – without a self-correcting mechanism, you’re guaranteeing yourself trouble. Somebody has to be able to tell the emperor he’s naked.

More to the point, someone has to tell the emperor that if he doesn’t cover himself in two minutes flat, he’s going to be out on his fat and naked behind.

Checks and balances; you can’t run a church without them.

But Rome doesn’t see it that way, and indeed it completely misunderstands its mission; feed the hungry, heal the sick, proclaim freedom to the captives and justice in the year of the Lord’s favor.

Rome believes its mission is to teach what Jesus taught, and “the Church has always taught” (though it hasn’t; celibacy came in 10 centuries after Jesus) against all dissenters, ignoramuses, fools and enemies. Indeed, dissent has become the enemy – and Benedict is as bad at that as any pope ever has been.

I wouldn’t cross the street to set foot on St. Peter’s Square. I approve of Catholic people (including priests), but I wouldn’t give you five cents for all the bishops put together.

It’s all one gigantic con!

And Rome knows it; our correspondent says half the priests are screwing around, and it starts at seminary.

Although the church propagates the myth that bishops and priests are celibate, this is not based on fact. Several modern studies have used various methods to measure the degree of celibate observance. No researcher so far has assessed that more than 50 percent of Roman Catholic clergy at any one time are in fact practicing celibacy.

He doesn’t give citations, but the National Catholic Reporter isn’t the Journal of Secret Catholic Social Science; it’s the mainstream magazine for educated people in the pews.

Sexual abuse of minors is only one type of clerical sexual activity. The 2004 John Jay Report concluded from a survey of church files that 6.5 percent of priests ordained between 1960 and 1984 were involved in sex abuse of minors. My study from ethnological data concluded that 6 percent from that same period were abusers.

It is nonetheless a significant symptom of pathology within clerical culture.

Pathology is right, buddy. Six percent of Catholic priests are pedophiles? Maybe so, but that sure sounds high; it may be evidence that child molesters gravitate toward positions of authority and power.

Now read ’em and weep; emphasis added.

Is mandated celibacy alone causal to sex abuse of a minor? As the single factor the answer is no. Vowed celibacy does not drive a bishop or priest to have sex with minors. The answer, however, is also yes. Required celibacy in concert with the clerical culture of entitlement and secrecy is a prominent element for some clergy seeking out minors as sexual partners.

Many priests who abuse minors were themselves abused as special friends of older priests or others. These kinds of liaisons are frequent in seminaries where solitary or mutual masturbation is looked upon as an “innocent” failure. Secrecy about all clerical sex is sacrosanct within the system.

Roman Catholic clerical culture favors doctrinal rigidity, conformity, obedience, submission and psychosexual immaturity, mistaken for innocence, in its candidates. These are the personality elements that lead to advancement and power in the clerical system. Single men are more easily controlled if their sexuality is secret. Double lives on all levels of clerical life are tolerated if they do not cause scandal or raise legal problems. Sexual activity between bishops and priests and adult partners is well known within clerical circles. The secret system forms a comfortable refuge for unresolved gay conflicts. There is a new emerging awareness of the systemic nature of sexual/celibate behavior within the Roman Catholic ministry that is increasingly destabilizing to the church.

Dire consequences will follow the exposure of this sexual system embedded in a secret celibate culture. Authorities who are or have been sexually active, although not with minors, are hard put to publicly correct clerics who are abusing minors. The need for secrecy, the cover-up, extends beyond defending criminal activity of a sex abuser.

The easiest way to control a man is to grab him by the balls. And that’s what the celibacy policy does – of every priest.

St. Peter was married!

But the popes knew exactly what they were doing when they made celibacy mandatory 1000 years after Christ. The control issues – thought control, primarily – dominated every other consideration. And secrecy is the result.

When Rome defined itself as the only defender of “orthodoxy,” Catholicism, Christianity and Christ himself – and not the whole world’s bishops meeting in council, considering that Eastern Orthodoxy walked out in the Great Schism after getting sick of control freakery out of those Romans – it set in motion everything that’s followed, including the Protestant Reformation, worldwide pedophilia scandals, bankrupt dioceses and the almost complete loss of Europe.

The power and control that holds the Roman Catholic church together depends on preservation of the celibate myth. The Vatican and Pope John Paul II declared its inviolability.

Well, it’s tragic to watch but I’m not sorry. A church more worried about its power, authority, control, secrets and approval ratings than it is about 200 deaf boys in Milwaukee abused by Fr. Murphy deserves whatever it gets. (CNN did a good job talking about the deaf boys tonight.)

The NCR author, A.W. Richard Sipe, a mental health counselor and former Benedictine, closes with this.

If celibate violations beyond minor abuse and cover-up are exposed, will the church fall like Humpty Dumpty? Or will the truth about clerical celibacy and its systemic corruption lead to a needed reformation?

I would never underestimate the cunning and skill of the Vatican to resist its own destruction; after all, they’ve learned how to do this for 2000 years, and if need be (considering their warped mission of the Church’s survival at all costs), they’ll lie, cheat, steal and worse to ensure their own power, which they mistake for Jesus Christ’s.

But what I sense will happen – probably not soon – is that they’ll fall like Humpty Dumpty, who couldn’t be put together again.

We are after all talking children here, all over the world. So let a little child lead them.++

George Lucas's inspiration for Jabba the Hutt.

Bishop Eddie Goes Down Flaming

Clue #1: that's him up there on TV, not Jesus. (Jessica McGowan/The New York Times)

You may have heard that self-proclaimed Bishop Eddie Long, of a megachurch in suburban Atlanta called New Birth Missionary Baptist, has been sued by four young men who claim he sexually molested them.

You may not know that Bishop Eddie Long is an outspoken opponent of Gay people who: a) has a cure-the-homos ministry at his church; b) once led an angry march against same-sex marriage; and c) is so wealthy and politically prominent in north Georgia that Coretta Scott King’s funeral was held at his church.

You may not be shocked by much of this; who can be shocked anymore, when so many anti-Gay pols are caught tapping their toes in the men’s room or hiring rentboys to “carry their luggage” across Europe?

Still, The New York Times tells the whole sordid story of what is being alleged.

As just another sex scandal, this isn’t worth my time or yours, except that if The Times story is correct, everything about this man has screamed scandal for years. And still he has a congregation of 25,000, including MLK’s widow!

His message that God wants people to prosper has attracted celebrities, professional athletes and socialites

Ah, the good ol’ prosperity Gospel; “come to my church and get rich!”

Millions of people fall for this all over the world. It is a staple of life in third world countries, but you’d think educated, sophisticated people in Atlanta would see through it.

But they don’t.

When you come to my church to get rich, the only person who gets rich is me!

The rapid expansion of the church — often called “Club New Birth” because it attracts so many young black singles — has also made Bishop Long a powerful political player, especially in DeKalb County, home to one of the wealthiest black communities in the country. The church has become a mandatory stop for many politicians — local, state and national — and Bishop Long supports candidates of both parties.

Thus a sexual undercurrent has been running in Bishop Eddie’s church for quite some time; no one’s ever called my parish “Club St. John’s.”

Picture all the young, affluent Black professionals in Atlanta joining the church so they could cruise the opposite sex. Not even MCC at its worst was ever that bad – and in MCC’s early days some people did treat it as if it were a Gay bar, since there were so few Gay places to go.

Four former members of a youth group he runs have accused him of repeatedly coercing them into homosexual sex acts, and of abusing his considerable moral authority over them while plying them with cash, new cars, lodging and lavish trips.

Well, who paid for the cash, new cars, lodging and trips, but 25,000 greedy professionals at the church?

Bishop Long has denied the accusations in a letter sent to a local radio station and has promised to address them from the pulpit on Sunday. He declined, through his lawyer, to comment for this article.

A local radio station? When the story’s on the front page of The New York Times?

CNN headquarters is 30 miles away, but he’s denying this in a letter to a radio station?

If you were aggrieved and internationally famous, would you write a letter to a radio station to protest your innocence?

I’d load up my black SUV with bodyguards and entourage and storm the world media citadel, I wouldn’t write a letter. (And if you think newspapers are hurting these days, you should see how bad radio’s doing.)

The accusations are all the more explosive because Bishop Long styles himself a social conservative, rails against homosexuality and calls for a ban on same-sex marriage. His church even holds seminars promising to “cure” homosexuals.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” – Wm. Shakespeare

(By this measure half of Viagraville must be downloading pictures of guys in Speedos when they’re not trying to destroy the Episcopal Church.)

The accusations center on the LongFellows Youth Academy, an exclusive group of teenage boys handpicked by Bishop Long for spiritual mentoring.

The boys went through a bonding ritual, known as a “covenant ceremony,” in which Bishop Long gave them jewelry and exchanged vows with them while quoting from Scripture as ceremonial candles burned, according to court complaints filed against the pastor. Reciting Bible verses, the pastor promised to protect them from harm and called them “spiritual sons.”

But four former members of the group now say the real purpose of the academy was to provide Bishop Long with young men whom he could lure into sex.

This is what greed’ll getcha, fellas. While you had bling on the brain, he allegedly had something else on his mind.

Bishop Long cuts a flashy figure in Lithonia, the Atlanta suburb where he lives and has built his church. He is often seen in a Bentley attended by bodyguards. He tends to wear clothes that show off his muscular physique. He favors Gucci sunglasses, gold necklaces, diamond bracelets and Rolex watches.

Oh yeah, I want to contribute to that guy’s church!

The man drives a Bentley and even Coretta couldn’t see what was going on?

His lavish display of wealth is in keeping with his theology. In his sermons, he often tells his congregation that God wants them to be wealthy and asserts that Jesus was not a poor man.

That isn’t theology, it’s ripoff-ology.

That quote is what pissed me off so much I wrote this post. Because here’s what Jesus actually said (Matthew 25:34):

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'”

And these “missionary Baptists” never heard of that? Coretta Scott King never heard of it?

Puh-lease. There wasn’t a bit of “missionary Baptist” about Bishop Eddie until he started getting bad press.

So what did he do? He hired a PR guy.

The Times again:

In 2005, for instance, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published tax records showing that from 1997 to 2000 Bishop Long had accepted $3 million in salary, housing, a car and other perks from a charity he controlled.

(snip)

After the article about his compensation, Bishop Long hired a public relations firm and went on a campaign to improve his image, Mr. McDonald said. He began charitable programs to feed the poor, help struggling people with mortgages and even offer haircuts to the homeless.

From there The Times explores Bishop Eddie’s background.

He studied business at North Carolina Central University, then went to work as a sales representative for the Ford Motor Company, but was fired over inaccuracies in his expense accounts.

From here on Bishop Eddie’s story turns banal. Thieves aren’t interesting, they’re common. Yes, Christians believe in forgiveness, but we still keep an eye on our wallets.

These “missionary Baptists,” though, kept hoping that Bishop Eddie would miraculously make their wallets fat while he was emptying them right in front of their eyes.

Christians believe in miracles, too, but those mostly happen with loaves of bread, not wads of cash. Prayer cloth, anyone? Reverend Ike used to send you one if you gave him a “sacrificial gift.”

Now back to Bishop Eddie’s ideas about sex:

He also adopted what has become known as “muscular Christianity,” a male-dominated view that emphasizes a warriorlike man who serves as the spiritual authority and protector in a family. His books on relationships suggest that men get in touch with their inner “wild man” and channel their fighting instincts into taking responsibility for their lives. Women are to submit to their husbands, he says.

Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was not a “wild, warriorlike” man. He wasn’t a milquetoast, he wasn’t a fool, and he broke every religious law on the books talking things over with a Samaritan woman. Indeed, women were (and still are) his most faithful followers.

B. J. Bernstein, a lawyer for the four young men who claim to have been coerced into sexual affairs with Bishop Long, said the pastor exerted a paternalistic and, at times, autocratic influence over young men.

The four complaints filed in court describe how Bishop Long arranged for the church to provide cars to the young men and put them on the church payroll. Two of them also said they received free lodging in church-owned houses, where, they said, Bishop Long visited them for sessions of kissing, oral sex or masturbation. He also took them on trips to other cities and abroad, sharing rooms with them, with the knowledge of several church officials, the complaints say.

“There are biblical and spiritual passages that were given to them to make them comfortable and make them believe that they were not gay,” Ms. Bernstein said.

He must be quite the salesman, if he can make you believe you’re not Gay even when you’re sucking his d—.

I admit, he must have gifts that leave me in the dust. I could never convince any guy of that when his mouth was full.

Finally there was this, which just made me livid.

“We’re not just a church, we’re an international corporation,” he told the newspaper in justifying his compensation. “We’re not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can’t talk and all we’re doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around this world. I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation.”

An “international corporation.” Yes, let’s entrust our souls and bodies to one of those. Say, British Petroleum or Halliburton or Blackwater USA. Let’s all worship at the international corporation.

I’m not shocked that Laura Bush might be induced to do it, but I never expected it out of Coretta Scott King.

(Alan S. Weiner/The New York Times)

“We’re not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can’t talk…”

Apparently the gift of gab is all this guy’s got. Apparently that’s all it takes and there’s a sucker born every minute.

“…and all we’re doing is baptizing babies.

Baptism is the single most important thing that will ever happen in your life. But here this guy is, trashing it as unimportant. I suppose it’s not the way to get ahead as he has done.

While Bishop Eddie is going down flaming, he’s taking 25,000 affluent, educated professionals down with him, all so he could drive a Bentley, flash his Rolex and suck some d—.

I’m appalled at the Biblical illiteracy of his wealthy and educated congregation. I presume none of them went to Morehouse, Spelman, Georgia Tech or Harvard to study the Bible; I guess they all majored in Rolex.++

Bishop Eddie in an arena, with a Hooters ad over his shoulder.

What Exactly Does Jesus Have to Offer?

Jesus had no business talking to this unclean Samaritan woman; but he did. (Simon Dewey)

I’ll answer that question shortly, but first, a little personal news I’m excited about.

My friend Bob, an Episcopal vicar who lives in New Jersey, is visiting his family and friends in Ohio this week and will stop by my house on Monday for a day or three. That evening we’re going to celebrate Mass at my dining room table, then have what the ancient Greeks called agapé and normal people call dinner!

No matter what you call it, it should be a love feast, because I’m asking him to concelebrate with my spiritual director Marcia. Her husband Ote (pronounced like Oaty) will also attend.

Sixteen months ago when Peter was here from Amsterdam, I found a blue plate at a pottery shop in Berea, Kentucky, which I snapped up because it kinda matches a blue chalice I bought from a potter in New Harmony, Indiana. I’ve always intended that these two vessels for bread and wine be reserved and consecrated for the Eucharist, if I ever got the chance to have a priest come to my house.

This is a big deal when you live in smalltown Indiana as I do; my parish church is two hours away. (One for driving and one for crossing the twilight zone into Eastern Daylight Time.)

I have no way of knowing whether an Episcopal mass has ever been said in my hometown. Maybe we’ll make history, but even if we don’t we’re going to have a good time.

I’m asking Bob to consecrate the plate and cup, and to help Marcia consecrate the bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ.

This is a Big Deal to me in every way, because Marcia is a Presbyterian; the theology she comes from is Calvinist, not Catholic. To Bob and me, apostolic succession (a straight line of bishops from Jesus Christ, Peter and Paul to Our Gal Cate™) is crucial. But in the nearly two years I’ve been seeing Marcia, I’m totally convinced of her priesthood, even if she Didn’t Do It Right.

She’s been great for me, and I want her to preside.

(Afterwards we’re having Chicken Cashew, which is basically a stir-fry that won’t take long to throw together so we can feast. During and after dinner I’m hoping we can have a discussion on What Exactly Jesus Has to Offer.)

This is how I’ve phrased it to her: “Why is Christianity a difficult sell in the current American culture?” Or, “What do we have to do to share this Jesus we think so much of, in a spiritually-starving culture that thinks Jesus is morally reprehensible?”

It’s actually the Followers of Jesus who are disapproved of in pop culture, not The Man Himself, but you get my drift.

What’s the problem here in 2010? To me it’s fairly obvious; Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, the Pope and TV preachers are the problem. Guys or gals get on TV, make big bucks and fly in jet planes but make no moral sense whatever.

If they’re the spokesmodels for Jesus, thanks but no thanks.

They’ve turned nearly all GLBT people against Jesus because their message is immoral. As a Gay Christian, that hurts me, but I recognize what we’re up against.

Their message isn’t Jesus’s message, but you’d never know that from TV.

Still, I’m not going to attack fundamentalists here; they’re too easy a target and who’s got time. Instead I say: the problem is TV.

Mass media, YouTube, the internet – but much more, what’s behind them; the willingness of fools to tolerate corporate propaganda (advertising) in exchange for snippets of entertainment.

My dog Luke and I take a walk every evening. Every home we pass has the TV blasting.

So when TV’s what you “consume,” with its invariable corporate propaganda (“Fast food tastes great!” “Bank of America loves you!” “Save now while spending $50,000 for a car!”), Christianity’s self-proclaimed spokesmodels become your version of Jesus.

I’m fully aware that only a crank would blame all the ills of modern society on a household appliance. I mean, that’s just nuts.

The problem isn’t the appliance; it’s the greed and envy of those who turn on the appliance, subject themselves to the propaganda, buy the fast food, trust Bank of America and fantasize about the BMW until they can’t live without it.

The 7 Deadly Sins never vary, though the TV preachers never mention them, being greedy and envious themselves.

This doesn’t leave Episcopalians much room to proclaim an alternate reality.

What Jesus Has to Offer is a way out of the materialism, envy and greed that have taken over pop culture, all so you can be entertained.

The first Christians weren’t capitalists, they were socialists with all goods in common. (Acts 2:44 [NRSV], “All who believed were together, and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”)

Now the corporatists, Tea Partiers, Congresspuppies and preachers want to convince you not to live according to the Way. It’s in their financial interest to argue you out of it.

“Obamacare,” “socialized medicine?” Here’s how capitalized health care works. If you’ve got the capital, you get the health care. If you don’t, you don’t.

Sorry, Grandma. These million-dollar machines cost money.

Yet people stare at their TV screens night after night, absorbing one corporate propaganda campaign after another, in order to get snippets of “entertainment.”

In other words it’s your own damn fault. And I have no sympathy for you whatever.

Any photographer with talent can make a Big Mac look good; but there isn’t anyone who can make it taste good.

You’re eating corn they’ve convinced you tastes like beef. Cattle don’t eat corn, bucko, they eat grass. But that Big Mac is all corn, made to look like beef.

So where does this leave Bob, Marcia, Ote and me in our discussion? We live in a capitalist economy, and it takes money to live. None of us are powerful enough to change that; maybe Jesus himself doesn’t have that power. Here I’m making my little argument as an American, not a Haitian living in a tent camp eight months after the earthquake, wondering if anyone will give her babies bread. (Answer: no.)

I speculate that “Jesus doesn’t have that power” because he wasn’t a politician, but a spiritual leader. So let’s ask; what was his advice? Sure, he’s timeless, but does he have anything to tell us now?

Does he have anything at all of value to tell us in 2010 in Barack Obama’s (or Sarah Palin’s) America?

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

He doesn’t say, “Blessed are the rich.

“Blessed are those for whom money takes the place of God.

“Blessed are those who exploit and poison the earth.

“Blessed are those who game the system for their profit.

“Blessed are those who watch corporate propaganda as if it’s entertaining.

“Blessed are those who think they’re saving money by spending more of it.

“Blessed are those who tout private property instead of feeding the hungry and housing the poor.

“Blessed are those who distort my teachings for their own profit.

“Blessed are those who scapegoat others who live on the other side of the river, the mountain or the sea.

“Blessed are those who buy lobbyists so they can get contracts.

“Blessed are those who lie, cheat and steal in my Name.

“Blessed are those who make war.

“Blessed are those who think they’re morally superior.

“Blessed are those who distort science.

“Blessed are those who testify one way, then hire rentboys when no one is looking.

“Blessed are those who exploit the poor and call themselves successful.

“Blessed are those who downsize and rob the children of bread.

“Blessed are those who carry guns.

“Blessed are those who lie on TV.

“Blessed are those who watch it.

“Blessed are those who say they are spiritual but aren’t.

“Blessed are those who fill their minds with excrement and call it ice cream.”

Jesus never said a one of those things. You know it and I do. He wouldn’t have been caught dead saying one of them.

And that is why, despite the current unpopularity of the Way, I humbly and sincerely believe Jesus was right, even the Son of God; and why I do not believe Robertson, Falwell or the Pope, even though they’re on TV.

Look at your own life, understand why you’re so unhappy with how you spend your time that you’ll sit through hours of corporate propaganda – “Bank of America, which got billions in bailouts of your tax money, loves you!” – for mere glances at celebs.

They’re not worth following; Jesus is.++

Looks pretty on TV, but it's garbage food and you know it.

The Verdict Is In on My Leeks

Are they gorgeous? Are they delicious?

Guilty as charged!

Were they somewhat mishandled during their upbringing? Um, yes, the judge has decided. “What we have here,” he said today in an opinion being released right here and now, “is a woefully ignorant gardener.”

The jurist kind of went on and on from there, detailing just how woeful and how ignorant, but I’ll spare you the gory details. He did not accept the gardener’s excuse that there were “too many seedlings.”

The defendant told how it all began. “I spent 97¢ on the smallest container Murphy’s sells. I’ve never even eaten a leek before, Your Honor. But people say they’re good so I bought some.”

“What happened next?” the judge inquired.

“Well, the little plastic marker didn’t really give much information, so I looked up how to grow leeks on the internet,” the defendant claimed.

“Oh,” harumphed the judge. “You looked it up on the intranet.”

“But the information there wasn’t that helpful either. It was all about starting them from seeds, but I was trying to transplant them as seedlings.”

In a harbinger of the final decision, the judge declared, “This is what you get when you try to look things up on the intranet.”

“When I went to plant them, there were dozens of these little bitty seedlings,” the defendant testified. “Hundreds maybe.”

Actually, mine were even smaller than these guys.

The judge looked down at him over half-moon glasses. “Hundreds. For 97¢.”

“At Murphy’s,” the defendant nodded.

“Retail malpractice,” the judge wrote in a note to himself. Then he added a question mark, since no foundation had been laid for this conclusion. “What exactly did you do?”

“Well, I separated them into 9 or 10 little bunches. I only had so much space in my garden, Your Honor, and this is the first year I’ve had a proper vegetable garden. I mean, with planks and everything.”

“I see. Could we pick up the pace now? Only the information that’s relevant to this case.”

“Sure. I planted them in bunches.”

“Did you get that?” the judge asked the court reporter. “He planted them in bunches.”

She nodded, an experienced hand in the courtroom. The judge returned to the witness. “Then what happened?”

“Well, judge, they kind of took off. They started growing, and where I’d thought before that after a few weeks I should thin them a little maybe, I never got around to it. But I kept them weeded.”

“Gardener malpractice,” the judge wrote, and this time he left off the question mark. “So, did you set out to abuse these poor seedlings deliberately? Or is this more a case of neglect of a dependent?”

The defense attorney finally spoke up, “Objection, Judge. These things were like vegetables the day he got them.”

The defendant answered, “Actually, Your Lordship, I had a theory I was testing. A scientific experiment, you might say. After all, these seedlings were my own personal property.”

Ooh, a clever defendant invoked his Constitutional right to dispose of his property however he saw fit. If the judge wasn’t careful, soon Tea Partiers, Libertarians and Mad Hatters would be wanting his scalp. “What experiment?”

“I believed, and wanted to test the thesis, that even a person inexperienced with leeks, but who was otherwise somewhat knowledgable in the garden, could figure out how to grow them next year, by monitoring how they acted this year.”

“And what did you learn, young man?” the judge scowled.

“Well, they really should be planted more thinly, in rows, in a trench. But even when you handle them like I did, you get some nice ones. And they taste good.”

The defense lawyer approached the bench. “Exhibit A, judge.” She handed him some specimens.

“They look like fancy onions,” the judge frowned. He’d never eaten one either; no one in Kentland has. They’re a foreign food, from Europe or somewhere.

“Pretty tops, don’t you think?” the defendant asked. “Especially when they’re trimmed.”

“Silence in the court,” the judge ordered. He picked up a leek and smelled it; vaguely oniony. “What were the results of your experiment?”

“I first tried picking one in July,” the defendant testified. “It wasn’t much bigger than a scallion, not at all like the leeks one finds on the internet.”

“Ah,” the judge muttered, “again with the intranet.”

“So I let them grow awhile longer,” the defendant stated. “By August they were getting to be a decent size, about three-quarters of an inch in diameter. In September, though, they really start coming on.”

“Can you cook with them?”

The defense lawyer motioned to an assistant, who disappeared momentarily outside the courtroom, then carried in a foil-covered baking dish.

“What have we here?” the judge inquired, suddenly interested. The clock on the wall said it was getting toward lunchtime.

“Exhibit B,” said the lawyer. She personally placed the glass loaf pan on the bench and removed the foil. Steam rose.

The judge sniffed, “Baked beans?”

“Yes, Your Worship,” the defendant replied. “Made them myself this morning.”

The attorney handed the judge a spoon. The judge looked at his reflection in it, then wiped it off on his robe and dug into the beans.

He ate a bite, savoring, or maybe judging.

“Mustard,” he said finally; “a bit of Worcestershire, I think.”

“Oh yes,” the defendant agreed, “a tablespoon each.”

“Brown sugar, judge,” the defense lawyer asserted, glancing at her notes.

“I love brown sugar,” the judge said. “A bit of vinegar, perhaps? For a little sweet-and-sour action?”

The defendant nodded eagerly, “Just a teaspoon, Your Excellency. I measured carefully, too.”

The judge ate another bite, tasting, pondering. After a third spoonful he said, “Aha!”

“What’s that?” the attorney asked worriedly.

“You left something out,” the judge thundered at the defendant. “No hot sauce!”

The defendant collapsed momentarily in the witness box. He didn’t want to make any incriminating statements in open court, but yes, he had indeed forgotten the hot sauce. Besides, his recipe only called for a quarter-teaspoon.

He asked, “What about the leeks, Your Honor?”

“No objection,” the jurist pronounced. “The leeks are fine.”

“Judge, the defense moves for an acquittal on all charges,” the attorney said confidently.

The judge moved the whole pan of baked beans in front of himself and began eating. “Denied,” he said. “This defendant’s guilty as hell.”

“Of what?” the attorney asked.

“Mistreating leeks. And a second count of neglecting them. Claims he weeded but forgot to thin.” The judge banged his gavel. “Guilty!” he shouted. “Now let me think of a suitable punishment.”

He wiped his lips with the hem of his robe and asked the defendant, “What else can you make?”

“I was thinking of potato-leek soup, Your Worshipfulness,” the defendant said sorrowfully.

“You’re hereby sentenced to make a big pot of potato-leek soup. On my desk one week from now – at lunchtime. Court adjourned!” Bang bang bang.

Then the judge made off with the baked beans. Before the defense attorney could say anything, the judge told her, “Evidence.”

The attorney then wanted $500 from the defendant. “I thought you took my case on contingency,” the miscreant exclaimed.

“That was assuming I got the baked beans,” she answered.

But the defendant was quick; “Trade you for your own batch of potato-leek soup.”

“Deal!” she cried. Everyone went home happy, and the defendant made plans to sell his own leeks next year at Murphy’s – for 97¢ a half-dozen, planted carefully in trenches and rows.++

Good at twice the price.

Don Armstrong Pleads ‘No Contest’ to Church Theft

Looks pious, doesn't he.

The Denver Post has the news; Episcopal Café has the background. So first, the news:

Pueblo Special prosecutor Stephen Jones announced today that former Episcopalian priest Donald Armstrong, ex-pastor of Grace Church in Colorado Springs, has entered a “no-contest” plea to felony theft in exchange for a deferred judgement and sentence.

Armstrong, 61, indicted by a 4th Judicial District grand jury in 2009 on 20 counts of felony theft, was accused of embezzling almost $300,000 from church and trust funds over eight years to pay for his two children’s college.

Armstrong and his loyal congregation already had lost a civil trial last year to determine who owned Grace Church and St. Stephen’s Parish, a historic downtown property valued at about $17 million.

The Episcopal Diocese of Colorado and parishioners loyal to the bishop won back the church that Armstrong’s congregation had been occupying.

Here is John B. Chilton’s reporting for Episcopal Café:

A charismatic founder of the Anglican Communion Institute and current priest in good standing in ACNA is pleading no contest to felony theft from The Episcopal Church. The Rev. Don Arrnstrong had long contended he would be proven innocent of charges. The charges first came to light while Armstrong was still a part of the Episcopal Church. Armstrong had claimed the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado had trumped up the charges and the true nature of the dispute was rooted in theological differences. Martyn Minns and Peter Akinola immediately accepted Armstrong and his congregation into CANA even while threat of state criminal prosecution hung over Armstrong.

“ACNA” is the anti-Gay, schismatic Anglican Church of North America, which was originally a product of the Anglican Church of Nigeria and its former archbishop Peter Akinola. Martyn Minns is the former rector of the breakaway Falls Church in Virginia; he’s now a bishop in ACNA.

None of the prominent commentators in ACNA Land has anything to say so far about Armstrong’s copping a plea to the theft charges. Viagraville is silent; Baby Blue, George Conger and the other anti-Gay schismatic cheerleaders have put away their pompoms for the weekend.

But let the record show: The Episcopal Church was right all along. The man is a thief and a liar.

Money’s just money, but leading sheep astray is a sin.

Colorado Springs, home of Focus on the Family, Ted Haggard, the indoctrinating machine at the U.S. Air Force Academy and unconstitutional Amendment 2, remains the belly of the Beast foretold in St. John’s Revelation.++

POLICE TAPE DO NOT CROSS

The Politics of Rage

If you need a politician to advise you about masturbation, this Delaware tea person is ready.

The primaries are over, at last. The nominees for Senate, House and governor are set. The general election will take place in about six weeks, November 2nd. To a lot of the media this is a big whoop-de-doo, but to most normal folks it’s more like a big whoop.

(Note to Dutchmen and other foreigners: a “big whoop” isn’t one.)

This is not to say it won’t be an important election; it will be, perhaps as important as 2008. But America’s in the midst of a collective funk, and the only people excited about voting are right-wing extremists, who’ve convinced themselves they have a chance to bring back Jesus, John Birch and new episodes of “Gunsmoke.”

I call it the politics of rage. “We want our country back!”

But as I look around me, Indiana’s still where it always was; Illinois’s right next door, with Michigan on top of us, Ohio to the east and Kentucky down south with all the hills and hollers.

I think the tea partiers are way too optimistic. A new poll by The New York Times shows that Americans’ view of the movement skews a bit negative, with 29% unfavorable to 23% favorable, while the majority hasn’t figured it out yet or isn’t even paying attention.

This is not what I’d call a wildfire with only six weeks left to go – and they’ve been at it for over a year now, guns, Hitler and Stalin images at the ready.

Meanwhile the media-ocracy is busy proclaiming that this is a Republican year, with takeovers of one or both houses of Congress routinely predicted. The economy’s bad, Obama is weak, the Democrats are clueless, and look at all this tea party enthusiasm!

No one can predict the future, but I suspect there are surprises yet to come. My sense is that the results will be mixed, with most races turning on local issues and personalities, not an outburst of national fervor one way or the other.

This election may not be “a referendum on Obama.” I doubt it will be a referendum on much of anything, except whether Nevada goes for unpopular Harry Reid, unpopular Sharron Angle or very popular “none of the above.”

If “none of these candidates” wins, Reid’s likely to be re-elected, because Nevada throws the election to the next-highest vote-getter.

This isn’t Britain or the rest of Europe; we don’t vote for parties here, we vote for candidates. There will be 435 local elections for the House of Representatives, plus a third of the Senate and 37 governors.

The country as a whole is likely to get redder, but I bet we’re still purple in the end.

Still, these are exciting times for political junkies; I’ve never seen a dynamic like this one. The closest analogy I can see is the presidential election of 1980, when Jimmy Carter was weak and had a strong opponent in Ronald Reagan.

But lemme tell ya, these tea people are nothing like Ronald Reagan. He was a two-term governor of California, the biggest state; he wasn’t an unknown who came out of nowhere, he was a movie star and an experienced politician. He was handsome and genial; his ideas were backward but people liked him – and they did want to register their disapproval of the incumbent. He looked like a president, acted like one and people voted for him. He was cynical, but he was also skilled, and he took the White House despite all the power of the presidency to prevent it.

These tea people may have some ideological affinity for him, but they are nothing like him. He was a star; these folks wouldn’t make it as extras on “Bedtime for Bonzo.”

• Sharron Angle in Nevada threatens that if the tea partiers don’t get their way, “a Second Amendment remedy” may be necessary – in other words, we’ll shoot people. Let’s have armed insurrection.

• Christine O’Donnell, the anti-Gay bigot/Senate candidate in Delaware, used to make anti-masturbation videos for Jesus and MTV. She doesn’t pay her taxes, has no real income, pays her living expenses from campaign contributions, claimed she graduated from college 17 years ago when it was only last month, and even lies about how well she did in the last election. There is no Google in Christine’s world.

• Carl Paladino, the new Republican nominee for governor of New York, likes to send racist and pornographic e-mails to his friends. He threatens to take a “baseball bat” to Albany, the state capital.

• Rand Paul in Kentucky thinks the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a bad idea because the Federal government “intruded” on the right of business owners to refuse service to African-Americans. That’s not the “free enterprise system” he’s for!

They’re all like this. Every one nuttier than the last.

Abolish Social Security! That’s sure a winner politically.

Abolish unemployment insurance! Make jobless people and their kids starve to death, that will surely pick up the economy.

Make welfare recipients go to prison – and while they’re there, make them listen to lectures about personal hygiene!

Secure the borders! – As if illegal immigrants don’t contribute billions to the economy.

I live in a small town, in a depopulating rural area. Mexicans are visible and audible here, though there aren’t very many of them. Considering that this town was all-White when I grew up, even a few people of different color and nationality would be visible. But they rent houses and apartments and work jobs and start businesses – and best of all, we still have a grocery store. The four nearest towns have all lost their grocery stores. Immigrants provide population stability in my hometown! They’re the difference in whether I can buy a can of peas or not.

But to the enraged, they represent the “others.” Life isn’t what it used to be, back in the days of “Gunsmoke.” Back when General Motors was a big business; back when Wall Street wasn’t robbing everyone blind; back when the Soviet Union was a constant threat; back when Jesus reigned supreme; back when the president was always White.

The tea partiers have won Republican primaries in state after state – which mostly proves the complete political bankruptcy of the Republican Party. It hasn’t taken much for the new folks to muscle in.

Sorry, Mitch McConnell, being the Party of No gets you no-where.

After Obama shellacked John McCain, and the GOP realized how rudderless it was, Just Saying No was the only alternative. As a strategy it’s empty, but as a short-term tactic it may prove successful, especially given Obama’s squandering of every political advantage he ever had.

He reminds me of the newly-ousted mayor of Washington, D.C., Adrian Fenty, hailed as a star four years ago, and with a considerable record of accomplishment he thought would see him through to re-election.

The chairman of the City Council trounced him. Fenty made a series of classic mistakes (hubris, cronyism, remoteness) and now he’s out on his behind. Maybe this will happen to Obama in 2012; it happened to Carter, when faced with a very talented opponent.

Obama’s best hope is that… there aren’t any talented opponents. Newt Gingrich? One sex scandal after another, now reduced to promoting anti-Muslim paranoia. Sarah Palin? Too dumb to read a magazine – and too smart to leave TV Land, where she’s making big bucks. Mitt Romney? Mike Huckabee? Mitch Daniels of Indiana?

Lou Dobbs? Bill O’Reilly? Glenn Beck? Jon Stewart can take down every one of them.

Meghan McCain? Lightweight. Dick Cheney’s daughter? Been there, heard that. Marco Rubio, when Bobby Jindal didn’t exactly work out?

I fault this president nearly every step of the way. I worked my ass off for him and he didn’t deserve it. I saw it when he failed to take down Hillary Clinton in debate prior to the Texas and Ohio primaries in 2008; she gave him the perfect opening and he wouldn’t walk through it.

If you can’t demolish an opponent you’re not worthy to be president of the United States – and he can’t, so he isn’t. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, anyone? “I promise to end the war in Iraq and shut down Guantanamo.” Hasn’t done it. Never will.

Can’t defend his health care bill, so neither can any other Democrat on the ballot. He’ll never say it, but let me write his speech for him, the one he’s too timid to say: “Some people call it socialized medicine; some people say they don’t want it. I guess they liked it when the insurance company could cut you off for a pre-existing condition. I guess they liked it when the insurance company could deny you a treatment that would save your life. I guess they liked it when 45 million Americans couldn’t get health insurance – and the rest of us had to pay for it with higher premiums to cover the ER’s losses, or the uninsured had to go bankrupt. So now it’s all about ‘socialized medicine.’ Well, let me tell you how the alternative works. Here’s how capitalized health care works. If you’ve got the capital, you get the health care. If you don’t have the capital, you’re stone out of luck.”

If Obama doesn’t have the balls to tell the truth – and he doesn’t – why should I drive three blocks to my precinct?

Blue Dog Democrats are running away from him as fast as they can get. Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-South Bend) is buying ads attacking Nancy Pelosi, his own Democratic Speaker of the House.

Meanwhile Obama’s surrounded himself with every Goldman Sachs exec he can find. The man’s not just tone-deaf, he’s stuffed his head with earplugs.

I like him as a person but I have no reason to vote this year. I live in a Democratic district; my Congressman is one of the “ten most corrupt members of Congress,” according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

His opponent, a perennial landslide loser, isn’t worth listening to. So I have no reason to vote for Congress.

The Senate? The Democratic nominee, Brad Ellsworth, is an anti-Gay, anti-abortion, anti-Obama Blue Dog. He’s slightly better than his Republican lobbyist opponent, but not by much; what if it rains on Election Day?

The Indiana Legislature is a perennial hotbed politically, with Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats barely in charge of the House; but I don’t even know who the current candidate is. The last two Assembly races here were very close, with my hometown sheriff running on the D side; but now he’s the U.S. Marshal (Matt Dillon!) for Northern Indiana and his replacement is a non-entity. Here 2010 is a census year, a reapportionment year, with control of the legislature and the Congressional delegation very much up for grabs, and whoever the Democratic candidate is he’s a ghost, invisible. Why should I vote?

Despite my disillusionment, I expect to turn out; I know the county assessor, a Democrat and former social studies teacher. I interviewed him once and I think he’s probably honest. I also favor the Democratic nominee for county prosecutor, because he’s not the ex-liquor store owner who got into a bar fight at 2 a.m. this spring in a nearby town. This is a Republican county, but Democrats do win locally here (more than when I was a kid), and if I have to I’ll grab an umbrella and punch a computer card for Lester, the assessor, and maybe the mom of the kid who used to mow my yard, who’s also running for a courthouse job. She turned out a revolving-door Republican this spring and, y’know, the kid mowed my yard more or less.

Not exactly a referendum on Obama, is it.

Then there’s Brad Ellsworth, the former sheriff in Evansville, two-term Congressman/Blue Dog trying, but poorly, to succeed the awful U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh (who just like George W. Bush thought he was smarter than his daddy; in this case Birch Bayh, an actual liberal). Why vote for Ellsworth? There’s one thing only in his bio that speaks to me. It’s the only good thing about him I know.

Years ago he was a young deputy sheriff, and there was a proposal before the Vanderburgh County Commission to buy bulletproof vests, protective gear. The Democrats on the commission were in favor of spending the money, but the Republicans balked; $40,000? How can we justify this to the taxpayers (when we’re totally committed to spending nothing extra ever, so we can get re-elected by proving we never raised taxes)?

When the local-yokel Republicans weren’t willing to spend a pittance to save the lives of the officers who protected them 24/7/365, non-political Brad Ellsworth became a Democrat.

I wish he’d remember that incident more often; I wish he’d remember it every day, because the middle class is getting hammered in this economy, and the poor (including cops) are getting wiped out.

The real reason for the tea people’s rage isn’t the end of the Cold War or the demise of James Arness; it isn’t the arrival of Muslims and Hindus and Mexicans and Gay people; it isn’t that we have a half-Black president and a watered-down health care plan when it takes effect five years from now.

It is that the America they knew is not the America we’re becoming – and they have every right to feel concerned and even angry. But they’ve been led by commercial interests (Goldman Sachs, Rupert Murdoch, Republican politicians) to target the wrong folks.

They should have taken their pitchforks to Wall Street. (I’m still a bit surprised that they did not. The last time this happened, someone tried to blow up J.P. Morgan’s Bank, and even killed a couple of folks.)

Instead “We’ve got a socialist in the White House.” No, we’ve got an idiot in the neighborhood, who will not survive scrutiny by the voters.

No one needs a senator to advise them about masturbation. You want “the land of the free”? Shut the damn door.

House: Republican. Senate: Democratic. President: Re-elected.

Democrats: wounded. Republicans: collapsing. Extremists: marginal. Common sense: modest but still in control.++

Brad Ellsworth, back when he stood for something.

Minor League Symphony: Fun at the Ol’ Ballpark

Tonight I went to the season opener of the local minor league team. The Twin City Crescendoes play a good brand of ball, the tickets are affordable, parking is always free and their home field, though not the newest stadium you’ve ever been in, is comfortable, well-maintained, the perfect size for seeing all the action, without a bad seat in the house. The ushers are friendly, the crowds are enthusiastic and you never get hit by a foul ball.

The Lafayette Symphony Orchestra opened its 60th season at the Long Center for the Performing Arts with a world premiere Fanfare for Freedom, Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino, Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Bruch’s Concerto in G Minor with Bella Hristova, violinist. I had a great time, even if you’ve never heard of the home team.

Sixty years ago this team was semi-pro at best. They were starting from scratch without any money in a small market, where no one really knew whether there was any interest in their brand of ball. But a few fans got together, formed a syndicate (they called it a board of directors) and issued a call for players. That first year they could barely afford uniforms and equipment; they played their first game in a room built for dancing, not for playing ball. But they were good enough that they attracted some fans and investors.

It took a decade or so before they could afford to pay a first baseman. Then they got a pitcher, a catcher, an outfield, a double-play combo and a big guy to cover the hot corner. But the key, of course, as with any team, was that first player-manager, who taught them to work together and win ballgames.

They stopped playing rookie league and took their place as professional ballplayers in Class A. I think they’re breaking into AA right now.

The current skipper, Nicholas “Dizzy” Palmer, has just signed a five-year contract extension. He also leads the Kentucky Opera, the Owensboro Symphony, the Duxbury Music Festival Orchestra and is a frequent guest conductor in Prague, Sofia, Milan, San Remo and Lausanne.

The Dizzy Dean of the podium, Dr. Nicholas Palmer.

In person he is warm and engaging, a fan favorite; he seems like a perfect fit in this small (150,000) Indiana city. He is a passionate conductor; his players are precise, integrated and coherent.

Still, classical music isn’t baseball. On the minor league diamond half the excitement is seeing young guys on their way to bigger and better teams, if only they can impress at this level. Go to a minor league game and you’re pretty well certain to see one or two future stars – get ’em while they’re young, so you can brag, “I saw him when.”

It’s different on the classical music scene, in age, experience, maturity and individual goals. Age is an enemy in sports, but it’s a friend in the arts. Among the LSO’s 72 players, ages range from early 20s to late 60s. This isn’t a naive orchestra like you often see a brash young baseball team, full of promise but also quick with an error. A company like the LSO that’s grown and lasted for 60 years has learned all along the way, with everyone who’s been a part of the effort, whether musician, patron or volunteer. This band has developed an institutional memory, and that translates over time into an identity – a place in the community – a network of friendships (and occasional foes) – and a level of competence and artistic mastery you’re not going to get with a bunch of talented rookies, each out for himself.

So I was completely happy with the musical experience; these people are damn good. The fact is that what separates a world-famous orchestra from one you’ve never heard of is less the talent level than the size of the city, the wealth of the company and the amount of publicity garnered. A professional musician – one who gets paid to play – can fit into any number of slots depending on the group and the venue. One week s/he might be a local hire for a touring star, the next week playing on “Prairie Home Companion,” teaching classes at the conservatory, and the next week playing midnight mass on Christmas Eve at my home parish. (The LSO’s where we get our string quartet – and I swear to God, those people can walk on water.)

The snootiness and snobbery that surround the serious music scene are really mostly reflections of competition among big-city patrons to appear more knowledgable (richer, better connected) than others in the audience. It’s not generated by what the musicians do – and there are no sharp elbows in the audience here. The musicians like playing, performing and sharing what they’re good at, whether they’re wearing white tie and tails or a pair of jeans. They don’t care what the audience wears either; some people dress up out of respect for the music and the players, and other people come as they are. (I aimed for the middle, office clothes but no tie, and fit right in.)

Most musicians at the LSO could move up to bigger, more prestigious companies if they had the ambition and life circumstances to allow that. But climbing the musical ladder is a young person’s game, a single person’s game. Once you get involved in a relationship, maybe get married and have kids, Carnegie Hall loses some of its allure. Your parents are getting older, you want to stay close to home. You take a job at a university, a regular weekend gig with a jazz band, and all of a sudden you’re not going to jump on a plane for Los Angeles for $500; who would take care of the dog?

For a minor league orchestra, the key thing is how well it fits the local community. Tonight in Lafayette I saw a company that really fits well.

Many of the people in the audience know each other; it’s a small city. Many of the ticket-buyers are also donors and volunteers, for many years or just a few. The LSO has a family feeling to it, without coming across like a suffocating clique. The audience wants the home team to do well, and rewards them when they do; Ms. Hristova, tonight’s soloist, received a standing ovation. She also brought a certain glamor to the evening, and that’s a fun part of the classical music scene too; she’s 25 and gorgeous, a doctoral candidate at Indiana University’s music school, which has produced concert stars like Joshua Bell (whom I heard at Purdue two years ago). When she stepped onstage in her bright red strapless gown, with her 1665 Amati instrument under her arm, she brought excitement with her.

Combining serious musicality with small-city friendliness and affection is, I think, the LSO’s specialty. Here’s an example. At a previous fundraising auction, a longtime patron won the right to conduct the National Anthem, which opened the concert. But he’s no conductor, so he gave the baton to a friend, who then got called out of town. So we got a second pinch-hitter, a fellow named Dick Jaeger, a retired choral director and arts teacher at the local high school (whose theater is named for him) who for years has written music and theater reviews for the newspaper. Even I know who Mr. Jaeger is – and when he came on stage, there was an outpouring of affection, from people who know how long and how well he has supported local arts and the LSO in particular.

That wasn’t any ol’ pinch-hitter up there, “It’s Larry Doby!” And even at 80 he can still swing the bat.

Being no slouch, he even had a little comedy bit with the maestro; it was fun. The orchestra then proceeded to fondly ignore him, since they can play that number in their sleep.

There’s no more beautiful version of The Star-Spangled Banner you’ll ever hear than that of a symphony orchestra. Yes, you get the military drums and the bombast from the brass, but for the pretty part in the middle, professional violinists take over and make you proud to be an American; proud that this is your song.

The Cincinnati Symphony always used to start every concert with the Anthem; in Lafayette tonight, the audience sang along, hands over their hearts like Hoosiers still do.

This band fits the city like a bespoke glove.

But the ultimate question perhaps is this: why go to a symphony orchestra concert at all? If you want the best rendition of the best music in the world, chances are you listen to a CD in your living room by some famous guy with a famous band conducted by a major-leaguer. You don’t have to dress up, you can pause the music while you run to the fridge, and the admission price is cheaper than even my front-row center seat in the upper deck at the Long Center, which was only $20.

What you hear through your headphones or speakers will, if you’re lucky, transport you to a sublime mental place – unless the dog starts wanting attention.

But that’s listening to a recording, not attending a live performance – and being there to see it and hear it live makes a big difference.

A live concert is better than a recording in that there’s so much to look at! You might not think so if you only know classical music from records or the radio, but when it’s live, you can watch this group of musicians produce their sound out of their bodies as well as their instruments. It’s a physical thing. In that sense it’s almost like baseball. The body (heart, mind, soul) is what makes the sound.

Bella Hristova, tonight’s soloist, looked the part of a concert violinist, and made music like one – but she also worked up a sweat doing it. And the 73 people behind her got a workout too.

As the composition changes and develops, you hear new sounds and look intently; flutes, oboes, clarinets? Who’s singing that? Then the brass comes up, and look at those trombones!

My favorite thing (and this is really homely, I admit) is watching the string players when they’re called upon to pluck instead of bow. For some reason I love plucking. And yes, I can tell you certain favorite recordings where I know that sound (say, the very ending of Schubert’s Unfinished) was produced by a finger plucking a string, though I could not see it happen. But it’s so much better, more exciting, more thrilling, to watch them do it live, as the cellists did tonight. Here these players have spent their entire lives learning how to master the bow on those strings, but the ending to my all-time favorite piece is just them and their fingers on a taut piece of catgut. It’s so basic, elemental and physical that it reminds us that all music – the New York Philharmonic, villagers in Soweto or the Rolling Stones – comes from inside our bodies.

So the big reason why people in Lafayette, Indiana and surrounding areas ought to support their symphony orchestra is because it offers high musicianship with the thrill of live, once-in-a-lifetime performance, much like a night on Broadway.

We go to the theater to be lifted out of ourselves and shown other planes of existence – where we can dwell for two hours or, if we make it happen, the rest of our lives.

We pay musicians like these not just because they’re technically proficient and united as an orchestra, but because, whatever their individual stories, they live both in the world and beyond the world – which is the way we’d all like to live if only we knew how.

I knew a guy named Gary once, a nurse in Cincinnati who was really good at honky-tonk piano; his idol was JoAnn Castle of the Lawrence Welk Show. But he only came alive when he was performing at the Gay piano bar in Clifton; then he had a great time and gave others lots of fun. But when it was over it was over; he went back to his humdrum existence. Nursing was his safe job, not his vocation. (He did play professionally when he was younger, but when the pickings got slim he didn’t have the finances to continue. Being an independent musician is hard.)

The difference between a bassoonist in New York and one in Chicago is infinitesimal; between the Chicagoan and a bassoonist in Indianapolis, barely detectable; between Indianapolis and Lafayette, non-existent to the untrained ear.

But the difference between any professional bassoonist and someone ordinary like you and me is that the bassoonist or typanist or oboeist made a commitment to pursue his or her vocation instead of a safer job. Maybe it works out well; maybe it’s a constant struggle. Musicians in the LSO will never be rich and famous (and neither will a mere bassoonist at the New York Phil). But the reason to support a minor league orchestra is that even the unknowns can show us to reach for the sublime and not settle for less.

If during a concert they can also make us sit back, close our eyes and just listen – then sit up and look, look, look at these folks making beautiful, intelligent noise – that $20 ticket for the upper deck in an old refurbished movie house in a minor Hoosier town is worth more than the Yankees or the Reds.

Those guys are just batting a piece of horsehide with a stick, chasing after a ball. The Lafayette Symphony Orchestra transported me to New York on 9/11, Milan in 1862, Bremen a few years later, and an English country house in late Victorian days, while welcoming me as a newcomer to their extended family.

Whether theater, dance, opera, orchestra, visual arts or baseball, go, see the professionals play. Don’t get caught up in the hype of who’s got the big reputation; those people may disappoint you and they’ll surely be overpriced. Look around you in your own area, find the arts and the artists where you live. They’re worth knowing and you might actually become friends.

Then watch out; that tuba player may secretly double on the honky-tonk piano.++

Bella indeed: Ms. Hristova and that gorgeous violin.