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The End? (from “Forward”)

Published Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Have We Reached the End of Traditional Religion?
Jews and Christians Alike Are Straying From Affiliation

By Jay Michaelson

Changing Church: ‘The Catholic Church seems to be doubling down on its most conservative teachings. You know something’s changing when Rush Limbaugh calls the pope a Communist,’ writes Jay Michaelson.

Maybe the Christian Right is right. For almost 40 years now, they’ve been warning us that we’ve entered the wilderness, that traditional religion is being eroded. Did 2013 prove them right?

Item One: the Rise of the Nones. This phenomenon — nearly 20% of Americans listing “none” as their religious affiliation — was first documented in 2012, but only in 2013 did it emerge as a demographic and political fact, impacting how we vote, how we live and what we think about political issues. Strikingly, there are more and more Nones the younger the demographic sample gets. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 32% are Nones.

Item Two, or perhaps One-A, is the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews, which showed that 20% of American Jews (there’s that number again) consider themselves “Jews of no religion,” and that their non-religious Judaism is not a deep or sticky enough of an identity to be sustainable.

Third, even among non-Nones (Somes?), religious affiliation appears to be growing more polarized: There are now more fundamentalists, more liberal-to-atheists and fewer mainliners in between. Denominationally, this means fewer Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Conservative Jews and Reform Jews — and more evangelicals, Pentecostals, ultra-Orthodox and non-denominationals.

Mega-churches are spreading — it’ll be interesting to see whether charismatic forms of Judaism will mimic their success — and old-line churches are dwindling. It seems that the center cannot hold.

And then there’s the Pope. Under Benedict XVI, who resigned amid swirling rumors of sexual and financial scandals in the Vatican, the Catholic Church seemed to be entering a second Counter-Reformation, doubling down on its most conservative teachings and, by way of enormous “charitable” organizations, working to eviscerate legal protections for women and sexual minorities.

Now, Pope Francis tells us he won’t judge gay people, that the church is too obsessed with sexuality and that untrammeled capitalism is immoral.

You know something’s changing when Rush Limbaugh calls the pope a Communist.

Finally, even among those who still profess religious belief, the LGBT equality movement has caused a striking moderation in views. Staying with the Catholic Church for a moment, over 60% of church-going Catholics in America support same-sex marriage (compared to over 80% of Jews), which is above the national average. Even younger Evangelicals, galvanized around the Emerging Church movement, are beginning to say “live and let live” when it comes to gays, although they remain as staunchly anti-abortion as ever. Taboos are falling.

And at the same time, the influence of the so-called Christian Right is at a low point. Think about it: A few years ago, when we talked about conservative Republicans, we talked about the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council. Now, we talk about the Tea Party. Yes, many Tea Partiers are just warmed-over Christian Rightists. But the rhetoric is different, the issues are different and the churchmen aren’t calling the shots.

Clearly, no one factor explains all of these disparate trends. We still don’t know why Americans are becoming more like Europeans when it comes to matters of (un-)belief: secular culture, science, the excesses of “bad religion,” interfaith marriages and so on. It may just be a matter of survey respondents feeling more comfortable saying “None.”

Nor do we really know what the future holds, for Jews or anyone else. We can speculate that the growth in secularism and the concomitant growth in fundamentalism are related — but which is the horse and which is the cart?

It does seem, though, that 2013 was a year in which traditional religious affiliation underwent significant change. Is this the dawning of a new, liberal age, in which America finally starts to look a little more like the rest of the Western world?

Don’t count on it. American religion is nothing if not resilient. It is malleable enough to change with the times, and if anyone ever does declare war on Christmas, they will lose. We remain a weirdly religious country.

There are signs of innovation and renewal, too — forms of religion which focus on the pastoral and the personal, rather than the dogmatic. And these values are timeless. No matter how shopworn and threadbare our religious language sometimes becomes, the mystery and tragedy of human experience still remains — and so religion endures. Remember, even that famous sermon about losing one’s religion begins, “Oh, life, it’s bigger — it’s bigger than you…”

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.

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Letter from The Learned Mr Fry

Dear Prime Minister, M Rogge, Lord Coe and Members of the International Olympic Committee,

I write in the earnest hope that all those with a love of sport and the Olympic spirit will consider the stain on the Five Rings that occurred when the 1936 Berlin Olympics proceeded under the exultant aegis of a tyrant who had passed into law, two years earlier, an act which singled out for special persecution a minority whose only crime was the accident of their birth. In his case he banned Jews from academic tenure or public office, he made sure that the police turned a blind eye to any beatings, thefts or humiliations afflicted on them, he burned and banned books written by them. He claimed they “polluted” the purity and tradition of what it was to be German, that they were a threat to the state, to the children and the future of the Reich. He blamed them simultaneously for the mutually exclusive crimes of Communism and for the controlling of international capital and banks. He blamed them for ruining the culture with their liberalism and difference. The Olympic movement at that time paid precisely no attention to this evil and proceeded with the notorious Berlin Olympiad, which provided a stage for a gleeful Führer and only increased his status at home and abroad. It gave him confidence. All historians are agreed on that. What he did with that confidence we all know.

Putin is eerily repeating this insane crime, only this time against LGBT Russians. Beatings, murders and humiliations are ignored by the police. Any defence or sane discussion of homosexuality is against the law. Any statement, for example, that Tchaikovsky was gay and that his art and life reflects this sexuality and are an inspiration to other gay artists would be punishable by imprisonment. It is simply not enough to say that gay Olympians may or may not be safe in their village. The IOC absolutely must take a firm stance on behalf of the shared humanity it is supposed to represent against the barbaric, fascist law that Putin has pushed through the Duma. Let us not forget that Olympic events used not only to be athletic, they used to include cultural competitions. Let us realise that in fact, sport is cultural. It does not exist in a bubble outside society or politics. The idea that sport and politics don’t connect is worse than disingenuous, worse than stupid. It is wickedly, wilfully wrong. Everyone knows politics interconnects with everything for “politics” is simply the Greek for “to do with the people”.

An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential. Stage them elsewhere in Utah, Lillyhammer, anywhere you like. At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world.

He is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews. He cannot be allowed to get away with it. I know whereof I speak. I have visited Russia, stood up to the political deputy who introduced the first of these laws, in his city of St Petersburg. I looked into the face of the man and, on camera, tried to reason with him, counter him, make him understand what he was doing. All I saw reflected back at me was what Hannah Arendt called, so memorably, “the banality of evil.” A stupid man, but like so many tyrants, one with an instinct of how to exploit a disaffected people by finding scapegoats. Putin may not be quite as oafish and stupid as Deputy Milonov but his instincts are the same. He may claim that the “values” of Russia are not the “values” of the West, but this is absolutely in opposition to Peter the Great’s philosophy, and against the hopes of millions of Russians, those not in the grip of that toxic mix of shaven headed thuggery and bigoted religion, those who are agonised by the rolling back of democracy and the formation of a new autocracy in the motherland that has suffered so much (and whose music, literature and drama, incidentally I love so passionately).

I am gay. I am a Jew. My mother lost over a dozen of her family to Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Every time in Russia (and it is constantly) a gay teenager is forced into suicide, a lesbian “correctively” raped, gay men and women beaten to death by neo-Nazi thugs while the Russian police stand idly by, the world is diminished and I for one, weep anew at seeing history repeat itself.

Published on August 7th, 2013
Written by: Stephen Fry

– See more at: http://www.stephenfry.com/2013/08/07/an-open-letter-to-david-cameron-and-the-ioc/#sthash.JvPwyAIc.dpuf

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Mother Maria (from Frank Schaeffer’s Blog)

Mother Maria’s life makes her someone for me to look to for guidance as to how to redeem the irredeemable. “Mother Maria of Paris is a saint of our day and for our day; a woman of flesh and blood possessed by the love of God.” So wrote British intellectual and Orthodox bishop Harold Bloom. Born to a prominent Russian Orthodox family, Mother Maria (then known as Elizaveta Pilenko), renounced her religious beliefs at age fourteen when her father died. She later became a committed atheist and Bolshevik. In 1910 she married and was actively involved in literary and revolutionary circles. By 1913 her marriage ended in a divorce. When the anti-communist White Army took control of the town she was in they put her on trial as a communist. The judge was a former teacher of hers and Mother Maria was acquitted. The two fell in love and were married. Mother Maria and her husband fled Soviet Russia and arrived in Paris in 1923. By then Mother Maria was involved in both theological studies and carrying on social work amongst impoverished Russian exiles. Her second marriage also dissolved.

Mother Maria began her journey back to Christianity because, as she would later explain, “Christ also died. He sweated blood. They struck his face.” After getting to Paris, her Orthodox bishop – aware of her work on behalf of the poor and her failed marriages — encouraged her to take vows as a nun, something she did only with the bishop’s promise that she would not have to live in a monastery. In 1932, Mother Maria took the monastic Christian name Maria and made her rented house in Paris into a place that became a hybrid of commune/homeless shelter/intellectual/theological salon and a food pantry rolled into one. As Jerry Ryan wrote (in a review of Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings), “Many were scandalized by Mother Maria. This woman had been twice divorced, had an illegitimate child by another man, had leftist political sympathies and was an eccentric. At her becoming a nun she took the name of Maria in memory of St. Mary of Egypt, a prostitute who became an extreme crazed ascetic.” Mother Maria continued to scandalize. Her habit was filthy with grease from the kitchen and paint from her workshop. She would hang out at bars and had no patience with long Orthodox liturgies, and found strict ascetic fasts impossible to keep.

As Olivier Clement writes in the preface to Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, “If we love and venerate Mother Maria it is not in spite of her disorder, her strange views and her passion. It is precisely these qualities that make her so extraordinarily alive among so many bland and pious saints. Unattractive and dirty, strong, thick and sturdy, yes, she was truly alive in her suffering, her compassion, her passion.” Mother Maria wrote, “In our time Christ and the life-giving Holy Spirit demand the whole person. The only difference from state mobilization is that the state enforces mobilization [to care for people], while our faith waits for volunteers. And, in my view, the destiny of mankind depends on whether these volunteers exist and, if they do, how great their energy is, how ready they are for sacrifice.”

Mother Maria dismissed people like me who are preoccupied with our spiritual life and so-called personal relationship with God. She said that my sort of spiritual narcissism must be abandoned if one truly loves. Christian egocentrism is a contradiction in terms, she said. In her essay called “Types of Religious Life” Mother Maria denounced the church’s institutional structures, rituals, even esthetic beauties, as dead ends. Mother Maria also dismissed “trends of social Christianity … based on a certain rationalistic humanism [that] apply only the principles of Christian morality to ‘this world’ and do not seek a spiritual and mystical basis for their constructions.”

After the fall of France to the Germans, when the order from the Germans and the collaborationist Vichy French government requiring Jews to wear the yellow star was published, Mother Maria wrote this poem entitled “Israel.”

Two triangles, a star, The shield of King David, our forefather. This is election, not offense. The great path and not an evil. Once more in a term fulfilled, Once more roars the trumpet of the end; And the fate of a great people Once more is by the prophet proclaimed. Thou art persecuted again, O Israel, But what can human malice mean to thee, who have heard the thunder from Sinai?

Jews began coming to Mother Maria begging for Christian baptismal certificates in order to escape deportation. To help them was to risk death. Risk notwithstanding, Mother Maria took in Jews and gave them forged documents declaring that they were non-Jews. Soon her house was literally bursting at the seams. Mother Maria once remarked, “It is amazing that the Germans haven’t pounced on us yet.” She also said that if anyone came looking for Jews she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

The children’s book, Silent as a Stone, St. Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue, tells the story of Mother Maria’s rescue of Jewish children. Her home was near the cycling stadium of Vélodrome d’Hiver where the Jews were held on their way to deportation. The book is based on firsthand accounts of what Mother Maria was able to accomplish during her visits to that stadium in the terrifying days of June 1942. As those who had been rounded up awaited transport to the camps, Mother Maria used her status as a nun to bring food to those waiting for transport and then smuggled some of their children out of the stadium in trashcans. This was taking place while Mother Maria continued to help the Jews who managed to come to her house to escape.

On February 8, 1943 the Germans “pounced” at last. They arrested Mother Maria, her son Yuri, her priest Father Dmitri, and their helper, Elia Fondaminski. Father Dmitri was interrogated by Hans Hoffman, a Gestapo officer. A portion of the interrogation has been preserved, as transcribed by the ever meticulous Nazis.

Hoffman: “If we release you, will you give your word never again to aid Jews?”

Father Dimitri: “I can do no such thing. I am a Christian and must act as I must.” (Hoffman struck the priest across the face.)

Hoffman: “Jew lover! How dare you talk of helping those swine as being a Christian duty?”

Father Dimitri: (holding up the crucifix from his cassock): “Do you know this Jew?”

Mother Maria was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Prisoners who survived have shared some of their memories of their time with her: “She exercised an enormous influence on us all,” wrote one survivor after the war, “No matter what our nationality, age, political convictions — this had no significance whatever. Mother Maria was adored by all. The younger prisoners gained particularly from her concern. She took us under her wing. We were cut off from our families, and somehow she provided us with a family.”

On Easter Saturday, 1945, Mother Maria took the place of a terrified woman who was about to be sent to the gas chamber. She died in her place. Another account makes no mention of Mother Maria taking anyone’s place that day. Either way she was sent into the gas chamber. Irrespective of what happened in those final moments Mother Maria was a martyr who died because she had saved others.

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An Amazing Gentleman – Ray Pierzchajlo

Years of horror made Auschwitz survivor’s humanity stronger
BY SHEILA PRATT, EDMONTONJOURNAL.COM JULY 22, 2012
Ray and two of his sons, from left, Jan and Karl.  Ray Pierzchajlo, 92  survived four years in the Auschwitz concentration camp. He was apart of the Polish resistance and when the Nazis came looking for his brother, he stepped up in his place.

A gentle giant of a man who just turned 92, there is inspiration in his life story, especially as his generation dies off and society begins to lose direct connections to those who survived the Nazi death camps.

For Ray Pierzchajlo, a four-year journey into hell began with a sacrifice he made at the front door of his family’s Warsaw apartment.

Facing the German secret police, he took his brother’s place.

On Dec. 5, 1941, the Gestapo came looking for his 14-year-old brother, who had been delivering flyers for the Polish resistance. Pierzchajlo, 20 at the time, pretended to be his brother, figuring the Gestapo would let him go when they realized their mistake, while giving his brother time to go into hiding. “I whispered to my mother, ‘Send him (my brother) away.’ ”

But the Nazis kept Pierzchajlo, and after three months in a Warsaw jail, he was shipped to Auschwitz. Just before he left, he smuggled a note to his father, who was being held in the same jail.

At the camp, prisoners were divided into different lines. Most Jews were sent to the gas chambers. Pierzchajlo, young and strong, joined the lines for forced labour.

With the number 12632 tattooed on his arm, he worked alongside other political prisoners, Jews and Gypsies, barely alive on thin soup and bread full of sawdust.

Through his barracks window, he watched Nazi guards shoot hundreds of Jews, Poles, Russians and Germans as they walked out of a nearby “death barracks.”

Then, in 1942, the trains filled with Jews began arriving. They were systematically killed in the gas chambers in the nearby Birkenau extermination camp, built in 1941. It is estimated between 1.2 million and 2.5 million died at these two camps, mostly Jews but also Poles and Gypsies. Pierzchajlo remembers the smoke from the chimneys and the terrible smell.

“It was terrible watching the Jewish people being slaughtered in gas chambers,” he recalls. “I could not believe what the Nazis were doing.”

Most prisoners lived only a few weeks in Auschwitz.

“But I survived one week, then another. Then I was determined to make it through this and I wanted to take revenge on the guards.”

Eventually, he got a job in the camp carpentry shop, which helped him survive the harsh winters. A devout Catholic, Pierzchajlo recalls the prisoners occasionally organized a clandestine mass after the guards locked the barracks at night. A priest among the prisoners led the service, though it was dangerous. They knew they’d be shot if discovered.

But faith is what sustained Pierzchajlo.

Tears well in his eyes when he recalls the moment of liberation on April 23, 1945. By then, he’d been moved out of the camp to work in a bomb factory. When the Allies began bombing, the factory was abandoned and the prisoners were put on a forced march. The destination was a quarry where they would be killed.

Weaker prisoners fell at the side of the road and more than 100 were shot, Pierzchajlo recalls.

Then one day, over a hill, a tank appeared. Many feared it was the Russians.

But a U.S. soldier poked his head out the top of the tank.

After the war, Pierzchajlo was reunited with his younger brother, who had survived the war in hiding.

Both later came to Edmonton, where Pierzchajlo and his wife, Jadwiga, eventually had careers as school teachers.

Looking back, Pierzchajlo counts his blessings — his four children, Richard, Karl, Jan and Megan — and 10 grandchildren.

“It’s like a miracle, the good Lord looking after a sinner like me,” he says.

His son Karl was always impressed with his father’s resilience and upbeat outlook on life, given his experiences.

“I cannot recall a time when my Dad complained about anything, he’s such a positive guy,” says Karl. “This experience made him stronger and closer to God, more spiritual, not negative — and that’s amazing.”

Like many survivors, his father didn’t talk much about Auschwitz and “we didn’t pry,” says Karl. But in the last few years, Pierzchajlo has been telling the story to get it on the record.

By the time the war ended, he’d seen enough killing and brutality, and lost his desire for revenge against the German guards. “It just evaporated,” he says.

But how was it possible to keep that sense of the goodness of humanity when he had been surrounded by so much evil?

“I’ve always said, ‘If you are a good person and treat people like you should, there would be no problems.’ ”

There was another small miracle. In 1945, after the war, the authorities in Warsaw opened a massive grave of prisoners executed by the Nazis. His father’s body was found, identified by the note Pierzchajlo had written to him just before leaving for Auschwitz. It was perfectly preserved in his shirt pocket.

Shortly after the war, Pierzchajlo was travelling by train when a pregnant woman fell between two carriages. He heard her screams and pulled her out. The husband was so grateful and wanted to be friends, and even asked Pierzchajlo to be godfather to his children. The man told him he had been a top Nazi official in the area.

Still, Pierzchajlo agreed.

“The human race got crazy,” he says about those terrible years. “But in the end, a person is a person.”

His wife of 64 years, Jadwiga, died last year. A few days after the funeral, Karl took his father back to his apartment, worried the old man would be lonely.

“He was sitting in that very same chair, looking out the window and smiling. I said, ‘What are you smiling at?’ And he replied, ‘I’m thinking about how lucky we are.’ ”

spratt@edmontonjournal.com

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July 24, 2012 · 11:38