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We've all heard the idea that you never should talk about religion and politics. These topics are problematic and will frequently get you in trouble. Writing an article for a spiritual ezine is going to difficult if I don't talk about religion. My intention is to write about both religion and politics in spite of the warnings to the contrary. If I get into trouble then I have been warned.

Don't Talk Rev. TonyRecently we've had several very popular debates between the Democratic candidates for United States President. On Thursday, January 31, 2008 the Cable News Network (CNN) televised a debate in Hollywood, California between Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama. It was the most watched pre-nomination debate ever to be on a cable news network. 8.3 million viewers watched that debate. This is a very large number considering that this is not a debate against Republican and Democratic candidates for President but only against potential nominees.

The most watched primary season debate, a debate against four potential nominees, was just a few weeks before on January 5, 2008 in New Hampshire. This one was on broadcast television on the ABC network. 9.4 million watched that debate.

On Tuesday, February 26, 2008 a different cable news network, MSNBC, televised another debate between Senators Clinton and Obama in Ohio and the number of viewers was almost as many as the previously mentioned cable news network debate. This time, 7.8 million watched and while this didn't beat CNN's numbers it was the highest rating ever for an MSNBC broadcast. These numbers not only show the huge interest and popularity of the current presidential nomination process but they also show us that cable news networks are now just about at the same level of viewers as broadcast news networks.

There have been record voter turnouts for these primaries and obviously a lot of people are talking about politics, regardless of the opening admonition to avoid these topics. I love this election process. I think it brings people together. A lot of people see it as divisive because people take sides but I think it brings us together in a conversation. We have an interesting topic that we all can talk about. I have been talking to my biological sisters about the election. One is a Republican and one is a Democrat so we have had spirited discussions. At least there was something for us to talk about. I think it's great. People are in conversation; people are in relationship. Record numbers of people are interested and the society is giving itself permission to talk about these "forbidden" topics.

The candidates have emerged. Senator John McCain will most likely be the Republican nominee. McCain is a war hero so there is no question about his patriotism. He's been a senator since 1987, more than two decades. He supported the troop surge in Iraq this past year that many say has accomplished positive progress in the Iraq war. There is more political stability in Iraq now and there has been a substantial decrease in violence there.

If John McCain wins the Presidential election it will be the first time we have ever elected someone over 70 years old to the office. Previously the oldest person to become president was Ronald Reagan who was 2 weeks shy of his 70th birthday when he was inaugurated. If elected, John McCain will be 72 when inaugurated next January beating the age record by more than two years.

The Democratic candidate will either be Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. We will either have a mixed heritage / African American with a Moslem name and some Moslem roots as the nominee, or the nominee will be the first woman to win a major parties nomination who is a former "First Lady." All of these distinctions are interesting and significant things – a 72 year old, a mixed heritage / African American, a woman and former First Lady – whatever happens will be record breaking and revolutionary.

I'm curious, if Hillary Clinton wins the Presidential election what will we call Bill Clinton? We've always called the wife of the President the "First Lady." The obvious thing would be to call Bill Clinton the "First Gentleman." However, I don't think that is what it would be. He could just be called the "First Husband" except that lends itself to the question, "Is there a 'Second Husband? Maybe a 'Third Husband?'" Maybe he'd just be called the "President's Husband." Also, we have a tradition in this country of calling all former presidents just plane "President." Most likely he would just be called "President Clinton." So, when they both walk into a room it will be, "Here comes President and President Clinton." Or possibly, "Here come the Presidents Clinton." I like that. I love being in this election conversation.

Now I want to talk about religion.

On the Community Miracles Center's web site there is an A Course In Miracles On-Line Discussion Group. Many of our members who mir all over the country, and all over the world, participate with us through this on-line discussion group. Recently there has been a discussion going on there about a documentary that I encouraged many members to watch. This four hour documentary dealt with the early history of Christianity. The name of the documentary is, From Jesus To Christ – The First Christians. This documentary was on PBS in 1998. It's about the evolution of the Christian movement. It talks about how Christianity evolved out of the Jesus movement that took place in the Jewish community after Jesus was crucified. It talks about the movement being small at first, in a remote part of the Roman Empire and that it took about three centuries before it was widely spread. Eventually it would predominate the Roman empire to the point of becoming the state religion. From this foundation Christianity, in the broadest sense of the term, has become the largest religion in the world today. It is estimated that one third of the world can be broadly labeled as "Christian." This translates into 2.1 billion individuals.

I found this documentary fascinating when I saw it 10 years ago. Many of the things it spoke of have stayed with me and influenced my thinking. Recently, on our A Course In Miracles On-Line Discussion group there was a discussion that asked the question, "Are ACIM students actually 'Christians?'" Should we embrace this title for ourselves by virtue of being ACIM students and followers of a study that allegedly comes from Jesus? Should we identify with the larger Christian faith? That discussion reminded me of many of the issues that the PBS documentary delved into. I watched the From Jesus To Christ ... documentary again since I had recorded it on VHS when it was first aired. I encouraged our members to also watch it. I purchased several DVD copies of it on the internet and I have been circulating copies among our members. Many of our members have now watched it.

Our members have different perceptions of this documentary and I feel From Jesus To Christ ... is most likely a little different than they thought it would be. It is also very challenging to long held ideas about the broader Christian faith and how it was formed. It is not a spiritual documentary designed to give a spiritual teaching. I think some expected this. It is actually an historical documentary that gives us a much more accurate historic and archeological perspective of what was going on during those first three centuries, both in religion and in politics, in the Roman Empire. From Jesus To Christ ... talks all about politics and religion during the first three centuries of our modern age.

One of our members actually shared that the documentary sounded more like politics than religion. She was right, and I think it is important for us to realize how religions and spiritual movements start. It's important for us to see how political this process is. Spiritual movements and religions have to fit into the sociopolitical structure of the time if they are going to succeed, last, and carry their spiritual message forth to new generations in the future.

Some very interesting and challenging information is talked about in the documentary. Our current perception of Jesus and his ministry is most likely skewed. When scholars look at the historical Jesus, what he was actually teaching, it's obvious that he was what is called an "Eschatological Prophet." This a prophet who is interested in the "end time." Think about what you might normally think of as "crazy" people in a bustling urban setting walking down "Main Street" with a sandwich board sign saying something like, "Repent, The End Is Near!" Jesus was really in this vein. This was a big part of Jesus' message and teaching.

Society, and modern Christianity have tried to make Jesus more politically correct and more of a "touchy feely", "nicey nicey" prophet. We like to picture him with children and lambs. We like to think of him as kind of sweet. Jesus actually wasn't all that sweet. Jesus did not tout "family values." The Christian right would have it's followers think that he was a family values type of person. "No." He told his disciples, "Drop everything. Leave your families, your wives and your children. Stop your fishing and earning a living. Come with me. Your former life doesn't matter anymore because the Kingdom of God is at hand." Do we ever think about this? What about the wives, children and families of those poor fisherman who suddenly found themselves deserted without a means of support? Those weren't modern times with a social welfare system for the wives and children to fall back on. Jesus was encouraging men to dessert their families and become "dead beat dads." He told many to drop their mirs and forget about everything that they had in their mirs because the end was near. He preached the "end time." Jesus told people that now was the time to repent and be: good, kind and fair. He had that message as well. However, the reason for this radical shift in life behavior was because the end was coming and people had to clean up their acts. Modern Christianity forgets about this. The historic Jesus doesn't fit the remade perception of Jesus that most Christianity has.

We don't just do this with Jesus. Look at the life of Buddha. Buddha is, of course, highly revered and even worshiped. Yet, Buddha was also a person who ditched his family, ditched his wife and ditched his child in Buddha's early thirties. Sounds like he was having a mid-life crises to me. He split. He didn't encourage others to be dead beat dads, he was a dead beat dad himself! We forget this part of his life.

I am not saying that we shouldn't revere these people. I actually think we should revere them but they all had an edge. They weren't the sweet, "touchy-feely" people that we tend to think of them as. We've romanticized our images of them. They were most likely quite different than we think of them now. To truly appreciate them we have to put them back into the historical perspective that they mird in.

When I was a young Catholic boy, the image I got of Jesus was that he was the only Son of God. We humans were some kind of bastard son, but Jesus was the real Son of God. God sent him here so that he could die for our sins. He was so much better than we were so he had that sin purging ability. His death could take my sins away if I accepted him as the only true Son of God and my personal savior. His redemptive death became very important to the Christian experience. His death, could free me from my guilt and from my stain of sin. I could be saved because of Jesus' life sacrifice. I was taught that Jesus' religion forming message, his religious crusade, started with his life and carried forward after his death and resurrection. I was told that this movement flowed steadily into the world religion of 2.1 billion people that it is today.

In truth, it didn't happen that way. The evolution into a new religion took several centuries. It was molded and adapted. The message of this new faith was changed to meet the changing society it found itself in. The earlier followers of Jesus were not even called "Christians." The idea of the Christian faith starting with Jesus and then the apostle Peter becoming the first Pope of an organized Christian church was not what actually happened. Jesus never called himself "Christ." The term wasn't ever used to refer to him in his lifetime. It wasn't until many years later that people started calling Jesus the "anointed one" or the "Christ." Plus the early Jesus movement was not centrally organized and was a very diverse experience within the Jewish faith. Jesus did not start to organize a new religion to find it's own place in the world. Jesus taught worldly endeavors were useless because the Kingdom of God, the end time, was at hand.

The first reference that we have to anybody calling followers of Jesus "Christian" didn't occur until the second century, around the year 110. This is when a governor in Northern Turkey, whose name was Pliny the Younger, wrote some letters to the Emperor of Rome, Trajan, asking for some advice on how to deal with these "Christians." At that time, Christians were considered to be a small, potentially dangerous, cult following a peasant superstition that had seditious overtones. Roman law outlawed dangerous cults and every government outlaws sedition. Roman citizens had to be part of an established religion and citizens had to give honor and offerings to the Pagan Gods that formed the foundation of Roman society. This was how the "Pax Romana" was maintained. If Roman citizens did not do this they were considered to be undermining society and the established Roman culture. The Roman culture was based on the tradition of honoring the ancient Roman Gods. Citizens also honored the Emperor as being an earthly representation of the Gods.

Roman culture did respect other religions as long as citizens still did the offerings that all good Romans were supposed to do. The Christians didn't want to do these things. The Christians did not want to honor the Roman Gods. This kept getting them into trouble. Christians became an easy scapegoats for all the troubles of the society. Think about it. You are a shoemaker living in the ancient world. You have a little successful business but one day another shoemaker opens shop across the street and the new shoemaker happens to be a Christian. Now he gets the business from the other Christians who stop coming to you and now go to him. Your business is not doing that well anymore. You don't like him. You begin to think he's bad for society. "Yea! Christians are bad for Roman society. They don't worship our Gods." Then one year a flood happens. You start saying, "The Gods must be angry and the reason the Gods are angry and have cursed us with this flood is because we're tolerating these heretical Christians in our culture. We've got to do something about these Christians. They don't worship the Roman Gods. Now Jupiter has cursed us with a flood and my shoe business is failing!" This is how the Christians got into trouble. They didn't blend well.

Pliny the Younger wrote the Emperor Trajan and asked what to do about these Christians that the other Roman citizens didn't like. Pliny comes up with a plan. He decides to bring the Christians in and ask them if they are Christians. If they say "Yes" he will tell them that they can not be a Christian because that is a seditious cult. Pliny then asks them if they would be willing to recant their Christianity. Would they be willing to curse Jesus Christ and then go and give some offerings to the Pagan Gods? Pliny tells them if they are willing to do that, he will let them go. Plus, Pliny also tells them, "If you will not do that I will have to put you to death."

A vast majority of the Christians were pragmatic people. They said, "Damn Jesus! Sure, I'll go make some offering to the Roman Gods. Absolutely. Point me to the Temple of Apollo!" Pliny let those people go. He wasn't concerned if they were being honest or even sincere. Pliny merely wanted a show of Roman dedication. However there were those few, the religious zealot types, who wouldn't recant. These Christians said, "No. I'm a Christian. I'm a follower of Jesus the Christ. I will not make an offering to the Roman Gods." These zealot Christians Pliny tortured and killed. This was the beginning of putting Christians into the arenas and then letting in the lions. These executions were public entertainment events. The governor Pliny asked the Emperor Trajan if Pliny was handling this correctly. Trajan said, "Sounds good!" However, Trajan said that he didn't advise seeking out any of these Christians, only deal with the ones who were turned in by angry citizens. Don't go looking for Christians. These policies set the precedent for the next two centuries for how Romans dealt with Christians who angered their fellow Roman neighbors. Christians who were willing to damn Jesus and bring incense, wine and meat into Pagan temples and then say, "God bless Emperor Trajan" were allowed to go back to their mirs. The few who didn't became the martyrs.

Pliny the Younger merely asked the Christians to do something outrageous. How would an A Course In Miracles student respond to a similar demand. "Recognize what does not matter, and if your brothers ask you for something outrageous, do it because it does not matter. Refuse and your opposition establishes that it does matter to you. It is only you, therefore, who have made the request outrageous, for nothing can be asked of you, and every request of a brother is for you. Why would you insist in denying him?" (Tx.Or.Ed.11.27) The martyrs, who we generally venerate, might possibly have been the deluded ones. They didn't recognize the outrageous request for what it was. They couldn't merely do what was asked because it really didn't matter. They refused and the consequences were deadly.

Generally the Roman Empire was tolerant of other religions. The trouble was the Romans had a difficulty seeing these early Christians as a religion. To the Roman view, religions had to be ancient and generally based on mythological figures. The Pagan religions of Rome were based on the Roman Gods: Jupiter, Apollo, Minerva ... mythological figures not human beings. Jesus of Nazareth they knew. Not only was Jesus a human being, he had been executed as a dangerous political criminal in part of the Roman empire. Jesus wouldn't have been a natural figure for the Romans to think of as the foundation for a religion. To the Romans, Christianity must be a cult. It must be a superstition. It couldn't be a real religion so there was no religious tolerance for it.

Similar things go on with us A Course In Miracles students today. When we are trying to figure out what it is we're doing when we study ACIM we don't know how to describe it. It's hard for many of us to think of the study of ACIM as a religion. Many ACIM students do not want to think of ACIM study as religion. They like to think of it as "self-study, spiritual psychotherapy." I find it interesting when these terms are bantered around a lot. You hear these terms frequently. However, nowhere in the ACIM material does it ever use the term "self-study" nor does it ever use the term "spiritual psychotherapy." However, early ACIM teachers talked about it this way and these definitions have taken hold.

In the early history of the A Course In Miracles movement a lot of the key people who were involved: Helen Schucman, Judith Skutch, Ken Wapnick, Gerald Jampolsky were all Jewish people. Many of these people claimed to not be "religiously Jewish" but more "culturally Jewish." However, most Jewish people are not "religiously Jewish" but are more "culturally Jewish." They have a strong cultural identification with their Jewish society and their Jewish upbringing. That is their faith even though they might not consider themselves religiously Jewish. So I understand. To these early ACIM people not thinking of ACIM as a religion was a way to still give symbolic offerings to their traditional "Pagan" / Jewish Gods. They most likely did not want to incur the disfavor of family and professional associates. They still needed to be good societal citizens plus ACIM was new. It surely wasn't a religion because religions are old and historical.

However, if you look up the definition of "religion" in the dictionary you will see that our basic study and practice of A Course In Miracles fits the definition perfectly. The fact that ACIM has it's own distinct body of literature is a major factor in it being defined as a religion. It doesn't matter what we call it. Call it a religion if you feel comfortable with that. Don't call it a religion if you don't want to. It doesn't matter what a student calls it. What matters is how society will define it. Society has already defined the word "religion" and our beloved discipline, plus the way we study and practice it, fits the definition.

It is true, that our society and our culture deals harshly with things that it doesn't quite know how to classify. Maybe they are religions. No, they probably are just cults. We like to call them cults if they are not historical. If they don't have a long history then they have to be a cult, or a superstition as the Romans thought of them.

In 1993 we had a new church, a religion named the Branch Davidian. It was led by David Koresh and they were located in Waco, Texas. They were a religion by definition however, they were new and controversial in a lot of ways and we didn't know how to deal with them. There were troubling issues with the Branch Davidian and I do not want to paint an image of them being saints or victimized martyrs. There were polygamy issues and child sexual abuse issues plus they were stockpiling weapons and ammunition. The controversy ended with the US Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) laying siege to the Branch Davidian compound. The siege lasted 51 days. It ended with a tear gas raid and an ensuing fire. In that fire, 76 Branch Davidian members were killed and this included 21 children. We thought of them as a dangerous, seditious, superstitious cult. We had a hard time conceptualizing them as a religion. The US government felt they needed to defend the American people against this danger.

Remember that A Course In Miracles teaches us, "It is essential to realize that all defenses do what they would defend. The underlying basis for their effectiveness is that they offer what they defend. What they defend is placed in them for safekeeping, and as they operate, they bring it to you." (Tx.Or.Ed.17.33)

The US Government thought it was protecting the society by going coming down on the Branch Davidians. However, not only did the US government manifest a terrible tragedy in Waco, Texas, this siege on the Branch Davidian was the angry inspiration for Timothy McVeigh bombing the Oklahoma City, federal building. He was very upset with what the US government had done in Waco, Texas and this added on top of other upsets he had with the government. After the Waco tragedy Timothy McVeigh started planning his bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building that happened in 1995.

We have to always be careful about what we do. We think we are defending ourselves against something dangerous but we end up creating more of a problem. The US government is very much like the ancient Romans. We have difficulty changing our conceptualizations. Our society has ideas of what things are. Things that are outside of normal confuse us. They make us nervous. In the Roman society these Christians doing different things made people nervous. Pliny the Younger told Emperor Trajan they he didn't really understand what the crime of the Christians was. They hadn't done anything bad. As a matter of fact, Pliny related to Trajan, the Christians were basically "good" people. However, they were not giving tribute to the Roman Gods. Then there were these floods and fires and other Roman citizens thought that it must be the Christians fault even though the Christians were loving people.

A Course In Miracles tells us, "To learn this course requires willingness to question every value that you hold. Not one can be kept hidden and obscure but it will jeopardize your learning." (Tx.Or.Ed.24.2)

We have to question all our ideas of what makes a religion. What is politics? Are these topics we can talk about? Can the A Course In Miracles movement define itself as a religion? One thing great about the ACIM movement is that it does not ask you to give up your other religious affiliations. You can still be Jewish and an ACIM student. You can still be a Catholic and be an ACIM student. You can still be Buddhist and an ACIM student. You can be Moslem and an ACIM student. You do not have to give up any of your other affiliations you can still make all the offerings to all those other "Pagan" gods that you want. You don't have to attract any attention to yourselves. You don't have to be the cause of floods, plagues and scourges of any kind.

History has thought of the martyrs as the heroes. Those unwilling to recant their Christianity, who would not give offering to the Pagan Gods and then were killed – or thrown into the arenas for blood sport entertainment – are looked upon favorably by history. These "heroes" stood firm for their faith. That's the world's way of looking at it. However maybe the heroes were actually the ones who said, "God damn Jesus! Give me some incense and I'll bring it to the Temple of Apollo." They were the ones who survived and who carried the teaching forward. If all the Christians had chosen the martyrs path the Christian faith would have died out. The martyrs didn't make sure that the faith survived. The ones who were willing to play politics made sure that the faith survived. We need to look at this.

David Koresh's martyrdom was not heroic. Maybe he could have given in to the US government and found a compromise. He could have given up his cache of weapons and ammunition and allowed them to come and inspect the compound. Even if he had been arrested his followers would not have died as they did. The Branch Davidians might be amir and prospering today if David Koresh had found a way to recant and give honor to the Pagan Gods of the US government. He could have been teaching his spiritual message instead of having to have been a martyr. Who really are the heroes?

I believe the heroes are the ones who play politics. The heroes are the survivors who keep teaching. Sometimes we all need to bend to the forces in control.

A Course In Miracles tells us that death is not what we think it is and that nothing is actually accomplished by it. "Many think this is accomplished through death, but nothing is accomplished through death because death is nothing. Everything is accomplished through life, and life is of the mind and in the Mind." (Tx.Or.Ed.6.61)

The martyrs probably didn't accomplish anything by their death. Possibly the ones who truly accomplished salvation were the ones who were able to play the system better and who mird to teach the wonderful Christian teachings and principles to their children, to their friends and families who were around them so that this faith and it's teaching of love, brotherhood, sisterhood, and forgiveness could become the major world religion that it is today.

I don't think politics is such a bad thing. It's actually a good thing. It's good to have a sense of how we fit into the whole sociopolitical structure of our time. That's why I love this election and that's why I love that people are so involved. It is teaching us all about our place in the current sociopolitical structure. It is showing us that we have a voice in molding and evolving this sociopolitical system.

Vote for the candidates of your choice. Practice the religion of your choice. Challenge the idea that you shouldn't be talking about religion or politics. Go forth and bravely have these conversations because the time is now ripe with the possibilities of a new exciting future.

Love, Rev. Tony. 

© 2006, Rev. Tony Ponticello, San Francisco, CA – All rights reserved.


Rev. Tony Ponticello
c/o Community Miracles Center
2269 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94114

This article appeared in the March 11, 2006 (No. 22) issue of CMC Ezine. CMC Ezine is published by Community Miracles Center in San Francisco, CA. CMC is supported solely by people just like you who: become CMC Supporting Members, Give Donations and Purchase Books and Products through us.