Sunday, March 30, 2008

Thank You Mask Man

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Ten Days That Changed Capitalism

Officials Improvised To Rescue Markets; Will It Be Enough?

March 27, 2008; Page A1
David Wessel
The past 10 days will be remembered as the time the U.S. government discarded a half-century of rules to save American financial capitalism from collapse.
On the Richter scale of government activism, the government's recent actions don't (yet) register at FDR levels. They are shrouded in technicalities and buried in a pile of new acronyms.
But something big just happened. It happened without an explicit vote by Congress. And, though the Treasury hasn't cut any checks for housing or Wall Street rescues, billions of dollars of taxpayer money were put at risk. A Republican administration, not eager to be viewed as the second coming of the Hoover administration, showed it no longer believes the market can sort out the mess.

"The Government of Last Resort is working with the Lender of Last Resort to shore up the housing and credit markets to avoid Great Depression II," economist Ed Yardeni wrote to clients.

First, over St. Patrick's Day weekend, the Fed (aka the Lender of Last Resort) and the Treasury forced the sale of Bear Stearns, the fifth-largest U.S. investment bank, to J.P. Morgan Chase at a price so low that a shareholder rebellion prompted J.P. Morgan to raise the price. To induce J.P. Morgan to do the deal, the Fed agreed to take losses or gains, if any, on up to $29 billion of securities in Bear Stearns's portfolio. The outcome will influence the sum the Fed turns over to the Treasury, so this is taxpayer money; that's why the Fed sought Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's OK.
Then the Fed lent directly to Wall Street securities firms for the first time. Until now, the Fed has lent directly only to Main Street banks, those that take deposits from ordinary folks. That's because banks were viewed as playing a unique economic role and, supposedly, were more closely regulated than other types of lenders. In the first three days of this new era, securities firms borrowed an average of $31.3 billion a day from the Fed. That's not small change, and it's why Mr. Paulson, after the fact, is endorsing changes to give the Fed more access to these firms' books.
Increased Leverage
In the days that followed, the Republican Treasury secretary leaned on two shareholder-owned, though government-chartered, companies -- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- to raise capital that their boards didn't want to raise. In exchange, their government regulator allowed them to increase their leverage so they can buy about $200 billion more in mortgage-backed securities.
So Fannie and Freddie will get bigger, a welcome development when mortgage markets are in trouble. Already, they have regained lost market share. They accounted for 76% of new mortgages in the fourth quarter of last year, up from 46% in the second quarter, Mr. Paulson said Wednesday. But everyone knows that if Fannie or Freddie stumble, taxpayers will get stuck with the tab.
And then, the federal regulator of the low-profile Federal Home Loan Banks, which are even less well capitalized than Fannie and Freddie, said they could buy twice as many Fannie and Freddie-blessed mortgage-backed securities as previously permitted -- more than $100 billion worth.
Was this necessary? It's messy, uncomfortable and undoubtedly flawed in many details. Like firefighters rushing to a five-alarm fire, policy makers are making mistakes that will be apparent only in retrospect.
Too Great to IgnoreBut, regardless of how we got here, the clear and present danger that the virus in the housing, mortgage and credit markets is infecting the overall economy is too great to ignore. The Great Depression was worsened because the initial government reaction was wrong-headed. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spent an academic career learning how to avoid repeating those mistakes.
Is it working? It is helping. One key measure is the gap between interest rates on mortgages and safe Treasury securities. A wide gap means high mortgage rates, which hurt an already sickly housing market. A lot of recent activity, including Wednesday's previously planned auction in which the Fed is trading Treasurys for mortgage-backed securities, is aimed at increasing demand for those securities to drive down mortgage rates.
The gap remains enormous by historical standards, but has narrowed. On March 6, according to FTN Financial, 30-year fixed-rate mortgages were trading at 2.92 percentage points above the relevant Treasury rates; Wednesday the gap was down to 2.22. Normal is about 1.5 percentage points. Money markets are still under stress, as banks and others hoard cash and super-safe short-term Treasurys.
Is it enough? Probably not. Although it's hard to know, the downward tug on the overall economy from falling house prices persists. The next step, if one proves necessary, is almost sure to require the explicit use of taxpayer money.
Cushion the Blow
The case for doing more is twofold. One is to cushion the blow to families and communities, even if some are culpable. The other is to disrupt a dangerous downward spiral in which falling prices of houses and mortgage-backed securities lead lenders to pull back, hurting the economy and dragging asset prices down further, and so on.
In ordinary times, a capitalist economy lets prices -- such as those of homes, mortgage-backed securities and stocks -- fall to the point where the big-bucks crowd rushes in, hoping to make a killing. But if the big money remains on the sidelines, unpersuaded that a bottom is near, the wait for bargain hunters to take the plunge could be very long and very painful.So the next step, no matter how it is dressed up, is likely to involve the government's moving in ways that put a floor under prices, hoping that will limit the downside risks enough so more Americans are willing to buy homes and deeper-pocketed investors are willing, in effect, to lend them the money to do so.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter

Friday, March 21, 2008

Secret Theocratic Organization Infiltrates the Government

From Alternet:

Meet 'The Family'
by Anthony Lappé, Guerrilla News Network

Posted on June 13, 2003

Printed on March 21, 2008
It sounded like a reality show on the PAX network: Six conservative politicians living in a DC townhouse owned by a fundamentalist Christian organization. What happens when you stop being polite and start finding Jesus?
In April, the AP broke the story that six U.S. congressmen were paying the bargain rate of $600 a month each to live together in a swanky DC townhouse owned by a secretive fundamentalist Christian group known as the Fellowship or the Foundation. Many, understandably, were curious. Who is this organization, and what is its agenda?
The group, the AP reported, is best known for holding the annual National Prayer Breakfast at the White House, which offers scores of national and international heavy hitters the opportunity to praise God in close proximity to the President. In the article, the congressmen boarding at the house denied owing any allegiance to the group, and several professed ignorance of even the most basic facts about the organization. Little else was reported about the group's history, motives or backers.
There is a reason for that. The Fellowship is one of the most secretive, and most powerful, religious organizations in the country. Its connections reach to the highest levels of the U.S. government and include ties to the CIA and numerous current and past dictators around the world.
Last month, Harper's magazine published
a rather extraordinary article by Jeffrey Sharlet, editor of the irreverent web site and co-author of the upcoming Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (Free Press). The piece chronicled Sharlet's three-week semi-undercover stay at Ivanwald, the Fellowship's mansion:
Ivanwald, which sits at the end of Twenty-fourth Street North in Arlington, Virginia, is known only to its residents and to the members and friends of the organization that sponsors it, a group of believers who refer to themselves as "the Family." The Family is, in its own words, an "invisible" association, though its membership has always consisted mostly of public men. Senators Don Nickles (R., Okla.), Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), Pete Domenici (R., N.Mex.), John Ensign (R., Nev.), James Inhofe (R., Okla.), Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), and Conrad Burns (R., Mont.) are referred to as "members," as are Representatives Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), Frank Wolf (R., Va.), Joseph Pitts (R., Pa.), Zach Wamp (R., Tenn.), and Bart Stupak (D., Mich.).
Regular prayer groups have met in the Pentagon and at the Department of Defense, and the Family has traditionally fostered strong ties with businessmen in the oil and aerospace industries. The Family maintains a closely guarded database of its associates, but it issues no cards and collects no official dues. Members are asked not to speak about the group or its activities. The organization has operated under many guises, some active, some defunct: National Committee for Christian Leadership, International Christian Leadership, the National Leadership Council, Fellowship House, the Fellowship Foundation, the National Fellowship Council, the International Foundation. These groups are intended to draw attention away from the Family, and to prevent it from becoming, in the words of one of the Family's leaders, "a target for misunderstanding."
The Family's only publicized gathering is the National Prayer Breakfast, which it established in 1953 and which, with congressional sponsorship, it continues to organize every February in Washington, D.C. Each year 3,000 dignitaries, representing scores of nations, pay $425 each to attend. Steadfastly ecumenical, too bland most years to merit much press, the breakfast is regarded by the Family as merely a tool in a larger purpose: to recruit the powerful attendees into smaller, more frequent prayer meetings, where they can "meet Jesus man to man."
If this all sounds like something out of a conspiracy theorist's wet dream (or paranoid nightmare), you're right. Sharlet's account of his three weeks of "man to man" interaction can only be described as disturbing and downright bizarre. In fact, it was so creepy many accused him of making the whole thing up.
So what did Sharlet find?
GNN: You went undercover into this house. Who were you posing as and what were you trying to find?
SHARLET: Actually, I was posing as myself. I write about religion. A friend said go check it out, it's an interesting place. I went not knowing the politics. Within a few days I began to see things were not at all what I expected. This was connected to a pretty vast political network. Still it was quite a pleasant place to live. These people had a different approach than I did, but I was interested in learning. As time went on I started hearing more and more disturbing talk.
That's when I started keeping my ears open. I didn't go in undercover, but I suppose I left undercover. But I told them who I was, I never told a lie.
GNN: Some people have called your story a hoax.
SHARLET: I've got lots of letters from people saying this has got to be a hoax, or please tell me it's a hoax or curiously from people who know a little too much to be saying the things they were saying.
GNN: What are some this group's core ideas and what level of secrecy is involved here?
SHARLET: The goal is an "invisible" world organization led by Christ -- that's what they aspire to. They are very explicit about this if you look in their documents, and I spent a lot of time researching in their archives. Their goal is a worldwide invisible organization. That's their word, and that's important because it sounds so crazy.
What they mean when they say "a world organization led by Christ" is that literally you just sit there and let Christ tell you what to do. More often than not that leads them to a sort of paternalistic benign fascism. There are a lot of places that they've done good things, and that's important to acknowledge. But that also means they might be involved with General Suharto in Indonesia and if that means that God leads him to kill half a million of his own citizens then, well, it would prideful to question God leading them.
GNN: Who are these guys, and how many are there?
SHARLET: The only estimate was made by Charles Colson, Nixon's chief dirty tricks guy who went on to become the head of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Right before he went to prison the founder [of the Fellowship] Doug Coe turned him on to Christ. Colson said there are about 20,000 people involved in the U.S. But you aren't really supposed to talk about it.
I always say to interviewers, "This is not a conspiracy." There's no secret badge or anything. It's much looser. This is how the vast right-wing conspiracy works, by being associates, friends.
GNN: But they speak of themselves as operating in terrorist-like cells.
SHARLET: Yes, they do. Inside your cell, you might know six or eight guys.
Let me give you a real quick history. In 1935, Abraham Vereide starts it. By the 1940s he has about a third of Congress attending a weekly prayer meeting. In the mid-50s, he gets Eisenhower's support.
[According to a 2002 Los Angeles Times article, during the 1950's Vereide played a major role in the U.S. government's anti-communist activities: "Pentagon officials secretly met at the group's Washington Fellowship House in 1955 to plan a worldwide anti-communism propaganda campaign endorsed by the CIA, documents from the Fellowship archives and the Eisenhower Presidential Library show. Then known as International Christian Leadership, the group financed a film called 'Militant Liberty' that was used by the Pentagon abroad." Showing Faith in Discretion, Lisa Getter, The Los Angeles Times, Sep 27, 2002]
It's sort of stabilized now. By the mid-60's, they sort of realized they didn't want too many people. Too many people dilute the organization.
One scene I saw was Congressman Todd Tiahrt, Republican from Kansas, who seemed as if he was interviewing to be in the organization. He was very nervous. The leader of the organization was asking him questions, sort of leaning back and testing him. I think he wanted into this network, and he would fumble a little by talking about abortion. They don't really care about abortion. They are against it but they aren't really concerned about it.
GNN: What are their core issues then?
SHARLET: The core issue is capitalism and power. The core issue they would say, is love. There are a lot of different things love means. They will always work with both sides of the issue. I saw some correspondence with Chinese officials before Deng Xiao Ping was in power. They had some very clandestine associations with senior Chinese officials, and were told Deng was a guy they could do business with. So that was fine with them.
GNN: When you say 'do business,' was it all about actual business deals?
SHARLET: I wouldn't say it was all about business deals. But if you happened to be praying with someone and you were done praying and said, "Hey, I have some F-16s to sell..." They would deny there is any connection.
They are pretty careful about those kinds of things. They will never say, "We are out here to help set you up in business." They will always help out their friends. "Let me introduce you to someone. The Prime Minister of Malaysia is coming."
GNN: It sounds to me like some sort of extended Skull and Bones, an Old Boys Network crafted onto a religious context.
SHARLET: The religious context is real. The Old Boys Network is about business. This is about more than business. This is about maintaining a certain kind of power, a certain view of how power should be distributed. The Episcopalian Old Boys Network was a lot more easygoing than this. This is a lot more militaristic. Really at its fundamental core, almost monarchist. We would be told time and time again, "Christ's kingdom is not a democracy" This is their model for leadership. They would often say, "Everything you need to know about government is right there in the cross - it's vertical not horizontal."
GNN: In that vein, reading your article I got the impression they are praising guys like Adolph Hitler and Ghengis Khan -- a lot. Is that a fair assessment of your intention?
SHARLET: In fact, Harpers made me cut back on that stuff. [They said] 'We know it's true, but this is already so much to absorb.' That's why I included that line at the end of the story. The leader of the group is having dinner with the younger members of that group and is talking about the bond, the covenant. And he says, "Can anyone think of someone who had a covenant?" And the answer, of course, and everyone knows it, is "Hitler."
This goes back to the 1960's, Vereide was instructing young men by having them read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich -- "Look at what those guys did." But they will say, "We are not trying to kill Jews." What we are talking about is imagine if you took the "Hitler Concept," and they'll use that phrase, the Hitler Concept, to work for Christ, or the Mao Concept. We're not right wingers, they'll say. You can use the Mao Concept.
GNN: Define what they mean by Hitler Concept.
SHARLET: A loyal leadership cadre, which is interesting because guys like Hitler and Stalin were famous for purging, but they seem to focus on a couple of guys. "If two or three agree" is a phrase they use a lot. If you can get together and focus you can accomplish anything. You don't need to sway the electorate. You don't need to convert everyone to Christ. Everyone doesn't have to believe in Christ, and that's where they differ from other fundamentalists. Some fundamentalists really distrust them for that. [They say] "We need to convert everyone, the high and the low." The Family says, "No we don't need the high." All these guys Hitler, Lenin, Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden is another guy they cite a lot, are guys who understood the power of a political avant garde. That's what they mean by the Hitler Concept. Also keeping your message simple, and repeating it again and again because there is only one message and it is "Jesus Loves." You can express lots of different things with that term.
I always try to play the devil's advocate. They are not the traditional right wing bad guys. They have been able to do what they do for so long because no one has been looking for this kind of thing.
A lot of this is already in the culture, take [the book] "Ghengis Khan Business Secrets," for instance, the admiration authoritarian leaders.
GNN: Here's where I'm confused. To me they sound like Nietzsche. They don't sound like Jesus Christ. They sound like they are creating the Nietzschean superman above the moral universe the rest of us slaves live in.
SHARLET: I don't think I mention Nietzsche in the article, do I?
GNN: I don't think so.
SHARLET: That's really perceptive of you. Many of them love Nietzsche. They think he's fascinating.
GNN: But he hated Christianity. He was the ultimate amoralist.
SHARLET: I know it's weird. There is one really wacky fundamentalist group that thinks Doug Coe could be the Anti-Christ. They're not sure yet, they might need to shave his head and see if he has the mark of the beast.
They have gotten into trouble with a lot of evangelical groups. They invited Yasser Arafat to the National Prayer Breakfast.
They've boasted, and I don't know if it's true, that they had special permission from the State Department to bring anyone they wanted to the Cedars, that they'd brought some Sudanese on the terrorist list to their mansion headquarters and they'd love to get Osama bin Laden down there.
GNN: But where does Christ fit into all of this? This seems like a lot of Old Testament stuff, not the new [Testament], meek-shall-inherit-the-earth Jesus part.
SHARLET: That's an interesting point. For them, Jesus is just a regular guy, a buddy, a guide, the standard evangelical stuff, no sex. It's sort of a weird hipster puritanical view. If you met them you wouldn't think they were uptight.
GNN: Actually, they sound like complete homophobes to me.
SHARLET: They definitely think homosexuality is a sin.
GNN: But they seem like they can't stand women.
SHARLET: They're just not that interested. It's a very gendered point of view. Jesus is everywhere. Jesus is right there with you on the basketball court.
But at the upper levels there is this weird emphasis on the Old Testament. It's in the story, they talk about King David, who in some ways was a really bad guy. They are really interested in the biblical concept that whether you are good or bad it doesn't matter, what matters is whether you are chosen. That's part of the Hitler Concept. It doesn't matter whether Hitler was good or bad, Hitler was chosen for leadership. That was part of God's plan. Nothing happens that isn't part of God's plan.
GNN: Let's cut to this house where these six congressmen are living on C Street in DC. What is the connection, if any, to the Bush Administration? The White House seems to have its own relationship to religion and people who are influencing them on religious issues. Is there a relationship here?
SHARLET: Yes, though I will say it is not exclusively Democrat or Republican. They say there are six guys at the C Street house, there were eight when I was there. They say there is one for members of Parliament in England, and I think there are similar ones in other capitals. The house is constantly rotating. Steve Largent used to live there. John Elias Baldacci, a conservative Democrat who is now the governor of Maine. As for the Bush connection, there is Ashcroft. I discovered in their archives a correspondence between Ashcroft and Coe that began in 1981. Al Gore at one time referred to Doug Coe as his personal hero, which is easy to believe. Doug Coe is an incredibly charming man.
The Bushes have visited the Cedars many times, but all presidents have. Bush Sr. when he was Vice President was hosting dinners for Middle Eastern ambassadors there. There are going to be people at all levels.
GNN: When you say someone "is a part of it" what does that mean? Are you in or out, or is it a loose thing?
SHARLET: It's a loose thing. But there are levels of participation.
GNN: Are they codified like the Masons or something?
SHARLET: There is an inner core group that is codified in their documents, called the Core. I don't know who is in it other than Doug Coe. The documents I saw only went up to the late 80's with senators, congressmen, and a lot of military men. Before he died, Senator Harold Huges was Core. Former Senator Mark Hatfield used to be Core, and may still be. In the AP article, there is an Air Force officer who I hadn't known about. Then there are associates, usually about 150 associates and they are the key individuals in their areas, and then there are the people who are in a cell with an associate and they are very close. And then there are close friends. Senator James Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma, is frequently, for instance, referred to as a close friend. President Museveni of Uganda is a close friend. There is no membership card. In all of their letters there is a paragraph that says this is a private, confidential relationship and we don't talk about it when they are recruiting a new person into the group.
GNN: Are there formal events and meetings, other than this national prayer breakfast?
SHARLET: There are literally thousands of governors', mayors', prayer breakfasts around the country. Some of those probably launched forty, fifty years ago and have long since lost their connection to the mothership, as it were. But that's the idea. They're part of the movement. The system is in place, that we should turn to God to make all our decisions. Up until the 1970's, they had Core meetings around the world, but that's as far as I saw in the documents.
GNN: So how scared are you of this group? Are they a force for fascism or some sort of cult-like group with big connections that comes and goes?
SHARLET: I think they are definitely a force for fascism. I think a lot of the way the world looks is a result of their work. They were instrumental in getting U.S. government support for General Suharto, for the generals' juntas in Brazil. Just take those two countries alone, they are two of the biggest countries on Earth. Those countries might have been progressive democracies a long time ago had it not been for U.S. support for those regimes ...
GNN: But don't you think the CIA and the U.S. government's own agenda had a lot to do with those decisions?
SHARLET: Yeah, but they made those connections.
GNN: What are the connections between the CIA and the Fellowship?
SHARLET: A lot of their key men in a country would be the intelligence officers in the American embassy. Throughout their correspondence, that's the kind of guy they would like to have involved. They always had a lot of Army intelligence guys involved, Pentagon guys.
Doug Coe in the early 70's was touring the frontlines in Vietnam with intelligence officers and South Vietnamese generals. That's the level of connections they are talking about, like the Salvadoran general Carlos Eugenios Vides Casanova [convicted by a Florida jury for the torture of thousands] and Honduran general Gustavo Alvarez Martinez [a minister also linked to the CIA and death squads]. They are the people who brought those people in. They said you need to meet this person. That's how it works.
Their diplomacy can affect some good things, like the truce in Rwanda. They had a lot of connections with the South African [apartheid] regime, where they were generally a moderate, even a progressive force. But it's kinda hard to name a nasty regime around the world that doesn't have really well-documented connections to them. Franco was a hold-out. So they started winning over a bunch of ministers in the Franco regime and then they went to Franco and said this is a good group, we can do business with them.
GNN: Why hasn't there been more mainstream press on this?
SHARLET: Lisa Getter of The Los Angeles Times, a Pulitzer prize winning investigative reporter, did a piece on it, but there was no follow-up. I got a little press out of it when my article came out. There is a big reason there hasn't been a lot of press about it and that's the war. On the other hand, and this isn't a conspiracy theory, if they can't see it then it's not there. I mean if you read that your local congressman is sitting there saying Hitler is a leadership model, the local paper should at the very least call up and say, "Congressman Tiahrt do you believe Hitler is a good leadership model?" If he had said, "Noam Chomsky is a great philosopher" then there'd be an investigation in a minute.
Why they are not following up on it? I don't know. Partly because it's so crazy, and partly because there is this idea that religion and politics are separate and religion is a personal thing. The media has always been pretty dumb when it comes to religion. In the New Yorker profile of John Ashcroft they talk about his weekly prayer breakfast, Steve Largent, [former congressman from Oklahoma] in The New York Times, same deal. I think they interviewed him while he was living at the house. The reporter never asked, "Hey, how did you get involved in this? Is this something that existed before you?" The reporter sort of implied it was Largent's idea for the weekly prayer breakfasts.
It hasn't been that secret. The New Republic did an expos� in the late 60's, early 70's, and no one really followed up. Robert Scheer did a piece on it in Playboy in the 1970's.
GNN: Any fallout from the members?
SHARLET: I've talked to several who swear we are still friends.
One guy did say, I'm paraphrasing, 'You're a traitor and you'll be dealt with as a traitor.'

Anthony Lappé is Excutive Editor of He has written for The New York Times, New York, Details, and Salon, among many others.
© 2008 Guerrilla News Network All rights reserved.View this story online at:

Thursday, March 20, 2008

R.I.P., Arthur C. Clarke

"The greatest tragedy in mankind's entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion."

-- Arthur C. Clarke, Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! : Collected Essays, 1934-1998 (1999), p. 360

"Finally, I would like to assure my many Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim friends that I am sincerely happy that the religion which Chance has given you has contributed to your peace of mind (and often, as Western medical science now reluctantly admits, to your physical well-being). Perhaps it is better to be un-sane and happy, than sane and un-happy. But it is the best of all to be sane and happy. Whether our descendants can achieve that goal will be the greatest challenge of the future. Indeed, it may well decide whether we have any future."

-- Arthur C. Clarke, 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Of Hookers & Hypocrites

Hallmarks of a "hit job" ordered from the very top: Forget Spitzer, fire Bernanke
by Chan Akya
Global Research, March 14, 2008
Asia Times Online

There must be something about men achieving power that exposes them to frequent misuses of authority. In particular, infidelity seems a particular curse for the powerful across the world. This week's events involving the governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, may however have helped to hide a more egregious misuse of authority, namely that of Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke and his central banking cohorts around the world. In another one of those nice coincidences that seem to happen whenever Wall Street is down and out, the unpopular governor of New York was found consorting with prostitutes through a Federal investigation that has all the hallmarks of a "hit job" ordered from the very top. Spitzer was deeply unpopular in the corridors of power, and especially with the current Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, for daring to take various Wall Street firms down a few notches earlier this decade.
After also hitting other sacred cows such as large insurance companies, Spitzer was readying ammunition to strike at the heart of the current subprime crisis by attacking the monoline insurers and rating agencies. It is almost too convenient that the disclosures of his extracurricular activities came this week. Still, let us take everything said at face value and not attempt to conjecture any conspiracy behind all this. People in Europe and Asia always find curious the preoccupation of Americans with sex, especially as the country appears to look askance at acts of immeasurable violence. This has been the formula for Hollywood - nary a nipple in sight but more than a few torsos getting blown to smithereens. Be that as it may, the focus of the Spitzer case on two separate legal areas, namely using a prostitute and secondly for potential money laundering, both appear strangely exaggerated in the rest of the world. So the guy was having sex with a hooker; that's essentially a problem between the married couple rather than being subject of intense public debate. Spitzer is said to have been neither crooked nor incompetent. If anything, his personal use of prostitutes may have contradicted his public crusade against brothels and pimps. In essence, Spitzer had to resign because he was a hypocrite. Reading that line, perhaps a few of you would wonder as I did about the implications of other politicians around the world being asked to resign for being hypocritical. Nope, I couldn't think of anyone who'd survive that either. Sleight of handThe sorry story of the governor and his extramarital affair though helped to achieve something much more important, namely to hide a brewing problem in the securities industry. On Monday, when the Federal Reserve announced a new facility to help banks finance themselves by posting previously unacceptable collateral, stock and credit markets jumped for joy. That is, until someone started asking slightly cute questions on the lines of just who was in so much trouble that the Fed had to rush through an ill-prepared intervention. As with the Sherlock Holmes dictum of "who benefits from the crime", it is clear that this week's moves were intended to help beleaguered brokers. While it is perhaps impossible to speculate just which company is in most trouble because of poor disclosure and the use of opaque valuation techniques, the most important brokers whose failure would have systemic implications include the likes of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. Coming as it does so close to the expected announcement of first-quarter earnings (most brokers close their financial year in November, hence their first quarter ends February), the fear being expressed on the street was that it had to be one of the bigger firms as otherwise the Fed would not have bothered. Brokers hold billions of dollars in the very securities that are suddenly eligible for refinancing with the Fed, such as mortgages and other securities that have proven well nigh impossible to sell to investors for the past few months. This has spilt over into the rest of the financial system, hurting various cities and towns across the US as they try to refinance themselves. That in turn must have gotten the government and its central bank all hot under the collar. At this stage perhaps readers will be wondering why I implied a crime had taken place on Wall Street when all that seems to have happened is that a central banker has tried to quietly save one of the large financial firms in its backyard. The answer is a little more complicated than that, and touches upon the curiously ignored principles of central banking. Walter Bagehot, the patron saint of central bankers, suggested the following basic principles for central banks to help the banks under their supervision to avoid liquidity runs. A. Only lend against good collateral to avoid losses for taxpayers at a later date.B. Lend at extremely high interest rates to avoid the facility being used willy-nilly by greedy bankers.C. Make public the availability of such facilities, so as to prevent doubts and suspicions in the minds of depositors and other creditors. This week's announcement by the Fed violates EVERY one of those principles. Firstly, the collateral being accepted by the Fed is tainted as the market’s complete lack of appetite (at any price) for the securities shows. By providing the ability to liquefy these securities, the Fed has effectively signaled that it would accept just about any junk. Secondly, the cost of borrowing is not punitive; indeed it is agreeably low for anyone who cares to fill out a couple of forms. Thirdly, this facility was not used previously; therefore the market has been in some doubt about really how useful it could be. In essence, this is a US$200 billion facility that is being misapplied to rescue a specific part of the financial system at a preferential rate, and without any disclosure required on usage. Given all this, it is impossible for anyone to expect that the ultimate cost of this facility will not be borne by US taxpayers. In my last article on Europe (
Euro-trash, Asia Times Online, March 11, 2008) I pointed to the failures of the European Central Bank, which similarly violated the Bagehot principles when widening the range of acceptable collateral and lowering the discount rate made available to banks at the refinancing window. The Fed has entered into an arrangement that is eerily similar to that of the European Central Bank, whose actions have resulted in parts of the European financial system essentially becoming "zombie" companies, ie dead but still walking around. From where I sit, it appears that Bernanke has opened a whole new can of worms in his efforts at maintaining the structural integrity of the US financial system. The financial means used are clearly at odds with what Americans have preached to the rest of the world, including Asia following its 1997 crisis. To that extent, it is clear that Bernanke suffers from a similar complex to Spitzer, ie that rules do not apply to them because of magical exclusions that are self-derived. Once we decide that both have committed acts that are essentially illegal, it then becomes a question of gauging just who committed the worse crime. Spitzer through his actions hurt his family and a small band of friends very badly. That however pales in comparison to the wide-ranging systemic damage being wrought by Bernanke through his ill-considered actions. The wrong government official resigned this week.
Big Daddy says: You can't take on these guys & these guys & these guys & expect no retaliation. Spitzer should've known he had a target on his back & kept his tool in his trousers. I mean, duh.
UPDATE: Greg Palast has more.

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Jefferson Bible

Jesus Without The Miracles
Thomas Jefferson's Bible and the Gospel of Thomas

ERIK REECE / Harper's Magazine v.311, n.1867 1dec2005

Back when the WHAT WOULD JESUS DO bracelets were appearing on the wrists of young people all around the country, I found myself in an argument with an old friend, a fellow Virginian who, like me, is the lapsed son of a Baptist preacher. We had both fallen pretty far, far enough to spend many nights together in the local Irish pub, putting away Guinness and commiserating about how the Church had crippled our spirits and misunderstood our complicated souls. The crux of our argument was over the bracelets' merit and utility. My friend saw them as just another example of hollow piety. For my part, I said it would indeed be a positive step if Christians actually began to follow the teachings of the founder.
Something similar was no doubt on the mind of another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, when he took a pair of scissors to the King James Bible two hundred years ago. Jefferson cut out the virgin birth, all the miracles—including the most important one, the Resurrection—then pasted together what was left and called it The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth (fifteen years later, in retirement at Monticello, he expanded the text, added French, Latin, and Greek translations, and called it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth). In an 1819 letter to William Short, Jefferson recollected that the cut-and-paste job was the work of two or three nights only, at Washington, after getting through the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day." Jefferson mentioned The Philosophy of Jesus in a few other personal letters, but for the most part he kept the whole matter private, probably guessing that the established Church would see the compilation as one more example of his "atheism." Nor did Jefferson care to give Federalist newspapers another reason to remind him of alleged sexual relations with his slave Sally Herrings, an entanglement certainly out of keeping with the philosophy of Jesus.
But Jefferson's severe redaction was probably a retaliatory act, as much as anything, against priests and ministers—"soothsayers and necromancers," Jefferson called them—who had unleashed attacks on his character during the acrimonious presidential election of 1800. Jefferson believed that an authentic Christianity had long ago been hijacked by the Christian Church. The teachings of its founder had become so distorted as to make "one half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites." Jefferson would no doubt have agreed with Tolstoy that the Christian Church had supplanted the Sermon on the Mount with the Nicene Creed to create a system of beliefs that Jesus himself wouldn't have recognized, much less laid claim to. "I abuse the priests, indeed," Jefferson wrote to Charles Clay in 1815, "who have so much abused the pure and holy doctrines of their Master." By stripping away the gospelers' claim that Jesus was the divine son of God, and by strip-ping away the subsequent miracles they invented to prove it, Jefferson boasted that he had extracted the "diamonds from the dunghill" to reveal the true teaching of Jesus for what it was: "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."
Up until that point, Jefferson had claimed Epicurus as his patron-philosopher. Two thousand years earlier, Epicurus had taught that life would be much easier to endure if we stopped fearing God and death—about which we can know and do nothing—and followed instead a program of prudent self-sufficiency. "Everything easy to procure is natural," Epicurus wrote, "while everything difficult to obtain is superfluous." Such a philosophy certainly would have appealed to Jefferson's agrarian vision for the new American nation. But after suffering the personal attacks of the 1800 campaign, Jefferson discovered that the philosophy of Epicurus didn't go far enough. "Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves," Jefferson wrote to William Short, "Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others." Jefferson no doubt felt that not a few people owed him some charity.

Jefferson's tombstone at Monticello does not remind visitors that the deceased was once president of the United States. Rather it states that Jefferson authored the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. So it was fitting that in 1904 the Government Printing Office published 5,000 handsome, leather-bound copies of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth for the first time, one hundred years after Jefferson pasted it together.
To read the Gospel story—the "good news"—through Jefferson's lens is instructive in a number of ways, the least of which is its representation of Jesus' "life." Many New Testament scholars agree that the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke are pure myth. And no one has solved the mystery of the "missing years"—the two decades between when Jesus supposedly taught in the temple as a precocious child and when he came ambling along the Jordan river, asking to be baptized by the fiery zealot, John the Baptist. From then until his execution a few years later, Jesus' life was a combination of walking, eating with followers and social outcasts, preaching, fishing a little, telling stories that no one seemed to understand, and offering largely unsolicited diatribes against the powers that be. That is to say, the life of Jesus—if unconventional—was nevertheless ordinary enough. Thousands of homeless men and women do pretty much the same thing every day in this country. But to find the historic Jesus within the fabulous accounts of the four Gospel writers is indeed an exercise of looking for diamonds in the compost heap.
Jefferson's gospel could not solve that problem. Nor did it need to. The life of this itinerant preacher was much less important to Jefferson than what he taught. Somebody, after all, spoke the Sermon on the Mount, or on the plain, or wherever it was spoken, and somebody told fascinating parables that explained nothing and left everything up to "he who has ears." What's more, Jefferson's objection to the version of Christianity taught in American churches was precisely that it did put so much more emphasis on Jesus' life and, consequently, his sacrificial death. By excising the Resurrection and Jesus' claims to divinity from his private gospel, Jefferson portrayed an ordinary man with an extraordinary, though improbable, message.
Indeed, reading Jefferson's gospel one hundred years after its publication, it's hard not to become depressed, as did the Rich Young Ruler, about how nearly impossible Jesus' program would be to follow. To read the Gospel of Matthew or Luke is to be dazzled by one miracle after another. In that con-text, the actual teachings seem almost mundane. But to read Jefferson's version (what Beacon Press now publishes as The Jefferson Bible) is to face a relentless demand that we be much better people—inside and out—than most of us are. Which leads, as Jefferson must have suspected, to this unfortunate conclusion: the relevance of Christianity to most Americans—then and now—has far more to do with the promise of eternal salvation from this world than with any desire to practice the teachings of Jesus while we are here.
But Jefferson's gospel also leads to an impressive clarification of what those teachings are. One can make a list, and it need not be long.
Be just; justice comes from virtue, which comes from the heart.
Treat people the way we want them to treat us.
Always work for peaceful resolutions, even to the point of returning violence with compassion.
Consider valuable the things that have no material value.
Do not judge others.
Do not bear grudges.
Be modest and unpretentious.
Give out of true generosity, not because we expect to be repaid. In all of his teachings, the Jesus that Jefferson recovers has one overarching theme—the world's values are all upside down in relation to the kingdom of God. Material riches do not constitute real wealth; those whom we think of as the most powerful, the first in the nation-state, are actually the last in the kingdom of God; being true to one's self is more important than being loyal to one's family; the Sabbath is for men, men are not for the Sabbath; those who think they know the most are the most ignorant; the natural economy followed by birds and lilies is superior to the economy based on Caesar's coinage or bankers who charge interest.
Above all, this Jesus cannot abide hypocrites. He has nothing but contempt for men who would kill a woman because of adultery when they themselves have thought about cheating on their wives, or for temple officials who tithe mint and cumin but would do nothing to help a poor woman with a child. "Stop talking about righteousness," this Jesus is saying, "and be righteous." It sounds simple. But of course nothing could be more difficult, as Jefferson's own life illustrates.
In his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Jefferson urged readers to resist the factory life of large European cities and stay on the land. "Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue," Jefferson wrote in the famous chapter called "Manufactures." Farmers intuit the laws of God within the laws of nature, and so become virtuous, he reasoned. They are, by the nature of their work, resourceful, neighborly, independent. They are the elemental caretakers of the world. Nor do they succumb to the crude opinions of the masses. But the farmer is free-thinking and inquisitive. The manufacturer, by contrast, is a specialist, a cog, a wage slave. "Dependence," Jefferson concluded, "begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition." A manufacturer cannot be a citizen of a democracy, only a consumer within an oligarchy.
Four years later, Hamilton submitted to Congress his Report on Manufactures, in which he dismissed Jefferson's agrarian vision in favor of developing industry, division of labor, child labor, protective tariffs, and prohibitions on many imported manufactured goods. Today, fewer than 1 percent of Americans work on farms, and many of those are huge, industrial farms that generate massive amounts of toxic by-products. That Jefferson's self-reliant farmer is so unrecognizable to us today is evidence enough, should we need any, that we have inherited Hamilton's America, not Jefferson's.
The difference between Jefferson and Hamilton is the difference between a version of Christianity based on Jesus' life and death and Resurrection, and one based on his teachings. Or to put it another way, it is a difference between where one locates basileia tou theou—the kingdom of God. Is it, as Luke's gospel says, "in the midst of you" (17:21), or is it, as John's gospel claimed, a reward saved for the sweet hereafter? To live by Jesus' teachings would be to live virtuously as stewards of the land; it would be to create an economy based on compassion, cooperation, and conservation; it would be to preserve the Creation as the kingdom of God. Jefferson was proposing a country of countrysides, a pastorale in which we would want to live; Hamilton was giving us a nation of factories from i which we would want—perhaps in the end need—to be saved.

"Thomas" is the Aramaic word for twin. That Thomas Jefferson's version of Christianity actually found a twin gospel—one that included no miracles, no claims of divinity, but only the teachings of Jesus—hidden beneath an Egyptian cliff, and that this ancient gospel was also recorded by a man known as Thomas, makes for a remarkable story.
Sometime near the end of the nineteenth century, two British archaeologists, Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, were searching through an ancient trash heap along the Nile River, at a site known as Oxyrhynchus, when they found three small papyrus leaves. One of the fragments read, "These are the [ ] sayings [ ] the living Jesus spoke [ ] also called Thomas [ ]." New Testament scholars had long known that there once existed a Gospel of Thomas because in the third century Hippolytus denounced such a text in his Refutation of All Heresies. And because Thomas's gospel ran afoul of the early Church bishops, particularly Irenaeus, most copies of it were likely destroyed.
In 1945, 150 miles upstream near another river town called Nag Hammadi, an Egyptian farmer named Muhammad `Ali al-Samman was guiding his camel beneath the nitrogen-rich cliffs that line the Nile, collecting fertilizer for his fields. As he dug at the base of one cliff, Muhammad `Ali found a sealed jug, obviously ancient. Fearing a jinn but hoping for gold, he broke the jar open with his mattock. He found neither. What fell out were twelve books (codices), made from papyrus and bound in leather. Figuring the manuscripts might be worth something, Muhammad `Ali gathered them up in his turban and carried them home. According to New Testament scholar James M. Robinson, who has pieced this whole story together, Muhammad 'Ali's mother used some of the leaves from the books to ignite their out-door clay oven. Muhammad `Ali traded others for oranges and cigarettes.
Meanwhile, shortly after the discovery, Muhammad `Ali and his brothers hacked to death a man they claimed had killed their father six months earlier. But when local police started poking around, asking about the murder, Muhammad `Ali didn't want to answer any further questions about the codices. Since the manuscripts were written in Coptic, an Egyptian variant of Greek, he hid one at the house of a Coptic priest. The priest, in turn, sent it to Cairo by way of his brother-in-law to ascertain its value on the antiquities market. But someone tipped off Egyptian authorities, who then threatened to take the brother-in-law into custody and told him he could return home only if he sold the codex to the Coptic Museum, which he promptly did.
Here a one-eyed bandit named Bahij `Ali enters the story. Cairo's leading antiquities dealer, Cypriot Phocion J. Tano, had retained Bahij `Ali to acquire as many of the codices as possible. But again, the Egyptian government heard about Tano's acquisitions and pressed him to entrust the manuscripts to the Coptic Museum for "safe keeping." Tano spent much of the 1950s trying unsuccessfully to get the codices back.
In 1952 the French scholar Henri-Charles Puech realized that a tractate in Codex II contained sayings that matched the Oxyrhynchus fragments. Less than sixty years after Grenfell and Hunt uncovered hard evidence that a Gospel of Thomas did at one time exist, Puech was able to conclude that the entire text had been found.
When all of the remaining codices were accounted for, there turned out to he fifty-two separate tractates hidden at Nag Hammadi. How did they end up in this remote port town? In 325 C.E. the Roman Emperor Constantine, newly converted to Christianity, called for a conference of bishops in Nicaea. He charged them to come up with a short document that would unite Christians and eradicate heresy. The result was the Nicene Creed. Forty-two years later, one of the drafters, Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, issued a letter to Egyptian monks calling for all heretical manuscripts to be destroyed.1 Scholars suspect that monks at the St. Pachomius monastery, near Nag Hammadi, refused the order, and instead buried the codices in a large jug.
Unfortunately, years of infighting among international scholars stalled the publication of what came to be called the Nag Hammadi library, and the European countries that controlled the publication rights showed a remarkable indifference to the task. In the end it was an American, James M. Robinson, who obtained photographs of the individual Coptic tractates and passed them on to a team of American translators. As a result, the first complete edition of the Nag Hammadi Library was published in English.
Perhaps because of this head start, much of the ground-breaking scholar-ship devoted to the Gospel of Thomas has come from Americans: Robinson himself, Stephen J. Patterson, John Dominic Crossan, Helmut Koester, Ste-van Davies, and Elaine Pagels. But I have another theory: it was Thomas Jefferson's Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth that prepared the Americans for what they would find in the ancient Gospel of Thomas. In some Borgesian way, Jefferson's gospel has become a predecessor to the Gospel of Thomas, though it was composed some 1,700 years later.
The similarities between the two gospels are remarkable, as much for what they do not say as for what they do. Like Jefferson's gospel, Thomas's ignores the virgin birth. Thomas's Jesus never performs a miracle, never calls himself the Son of God, and never claims that he will have to die for the sins of humankind. Instead he tells parables, he issues instructions, and, most alarmingly, he locates the kingdom of God in that one place we might never look—right in front of us.
On the topics of sin, sacrifice, and salvation—the real Trinity of mainline Christianity—Thomas's Jesus, like Jefferson's, is silent. In fact, what we find in the Gospel of Thomas is not really Christianity at all. There is no attempt in the Gospel of Thomas to tell the "story" of Jesus, and there certainly is no inkling of some impending Day of Judgment. Instead, Thomas offers a collection of 114 "sayings" that Jesus is remembered to have delivered in the presence of his followers and before anonymous crowds. These were compiled under the name of Thomas and were circulated throughout Syria among a group that scholars now call the Jesus movement.
As a literary type, the Gospel of Thomas bears kinship with the "wisdom literature" of late Judaism, such as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Wisdom of Solomon. But its closest counterpart is the sayings gospel Q (after the German Quelle: "source"), from which Matthew and Luke took much of their material. Many of the sayings in Thomas's gospel also appear in Q; almost half of the sayings in Thomas would be familiar to any reader of the New Testament. Such collections circulated around Hellenistic Palestine simply because they contained advice people wanted to remember. The advice in the Gospel of Thomas—like that in Jefferson's gospel—is extreme, however, so much so that Stephen J. Patterson has labeled it "counter-cultural wisdom."
This Jesus is especially hard on the rich. As in the canonical Gospels, he says that a man cannot serve two masters and that the poor will be the first to find the kingdom of God. He warns against lending with interest. He tells the parable of the rich man whose friends were too preoccupied to come to dinner, and so he sent his servants out to "bring back whomever you find."
But unlike Matthew and Luke, Thomas ends his story with this damning line: "Buyers and merchants [will] not enter the places of my father."
This Jesus also has no time for empty ceremony, such as fasting and praying. Nor is he too concerned about sins of the flesh. "Why do you wash the outside of the cup?" he asks. "Do you not understand that the one who made the inside is also the one who made the outside?" On the subject of circumcision, he points out, quite sensibly it seems to me, "If [circumcision] were useful, children's fathers would produce them already circumcised from their mothers." At one point he tells his followers that when they "strip with-out being ashamed," then they will be ready for the kingdom of God. The word "sin" occurs only once in the Gospel of Thomas.2
As in the canonical Gospels, this Jesus urges his listeners to abandon their families and follow him. In Thomas this charge takes the form of the succinct advice: "Be passers by." It's a phrase one might expect to find in the
Tao Te Ching. Indeed, many scholars have noted the "eastern" feel of Thomas's gospel. Edward Conze has even suggested that the Thomas Christians intermingled with Buddhists in southern India. I suspect it is the spirit of "nonattachment" in Thomas that seems so Taoist or Buddhist. It isn't a concept American Christians have ever been too comfortable with, but it is the crux of Thomas's gospel. His Jesus is trying to convince "whoever has ears" to shake off all of the world's distractions and encumbrances so they might finally see something real. It is the same impulse that drove Henry Thoreau out to Walden Pond.
But what is it exactly they are supposed to see? A radically revised version of the kingdom of God. Throughout the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus' followers are clearly preoccupied with John the Baptist's vision of an impending apocalypse, at which time the Ultimate Arbiter will hear all grievances and right all wrongs. But in Thomas, Jesus openly ridicules such divine intervention or the promise of heavenly compensation for worldly injustice. In the third saying we read: "Jesus said, `If your leaders say to you, "Look, the kingdom is in heaven," then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they say to you, "It is in the sea," then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you."' We recognize in that last phrase a variant of Luke 17:21. But scholars have puzzled over whether Luke's Greek should be translated as "the kingdom of God is within you" or "the kingdom of God is in your midst." Thomas leaves no doubt. In his gospel's penultimate saying, when the followers ask yet again when the kingdom will come, Jesus replies, "the father's kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it."
When Jesus' followers ask when they will enter the kingdom of God, he replies, "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one . . . then you will en-ter [the kingdom]." This idea of making two into one is central to the theology of Thomas. Unlike Paul's lawgiver and eternal redeemer, this Jesus rejects the verbal and psychological dualisms that divide the world into good and evil, black and white, heaven and hell, body and soul, male and female, straight and gay. Like Zen Buddhists, Thomas's Jesus believes that to divide the world up into abstract categories is to miss seeing the world as it is. At one point Jesus tells his followers, "On the day when you were one, you became two. But when you become two, what will you do?" When we come into being, Jesus seems to be saying, we are necessarily separated from the Creator, the One. What then? Jesus' question implies that we must rediscover the one, not by a return to some heavenly realm but by recognizing the world before us as an emanation of that One—an immanent wholeness, a kingdom of God.
This Jesus is obviously no savior, certainly no messiah, which alone would account for why early bishops would have ordered the Gospel of Thomas destroyed. But beyond that, they must have realized that while this teaching might serve the cause of the Jesus movement, an itinerant group of passers-by, it would never do as the basis for an established church. Unlike the Jesus of John's gospel, this arresting figure does not glory in his own divinity or brood over his sacrificial fate to save mankind. You can save yourself, he tells the crowds: "If you bring forth what is with-in you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you [will] kill you." What everyone has within is some fragment of divine light. That spark is proof of our kinship to the Creator—of our own divinity. But human vanities blind us to it. We walk around wearing all sorts of lampshades until we finally convince ourselves that such a light never existed at all. The Jesus of Thomas's gospel is simply trying to give us back something we already possess. Here is a crucial passage:
Jesus said, "Images are visible to people, but the light within them is hidden in the image of the father's light. He will he disclosed, but his image is hidden by his light."Jesus said, "When you see your likeness, you are happy. But when you see your images that came into being before you and that neither die nor become visible, how much you will bear!"
There is an empirical way of knowing, and there is an intuitive way of understanding. The "father's light" exists within everyone and "will be disclosed," but we cannot know it intellectually—we cannot give it an image. Likewise, we comprise two selves—the one we see in the mirror, and the face we had before we were horn. This last paradoxical image exists in nearly all mystical literature—Zen koans, the Kabbalah, the Upanishads—and here, in the Gospel of Thomas. To "see" this imageless image, to know this original self, is to arrive at a nexus where the light within illuminates the world without, and finally shows it for what it truly is—the kingdom of God. For that reason, the kingdom must exist simultaneously within and without. When Jesus' followers ask him to show them "where you are, for we must seek it," Jesus replies, "There is light within a person of light, and it shines on the whole world.

The intuitive mysticism of the Gospel of Thomas would have made Thomas Jefferson nervous. He was a rationalist, a child of the Enlightenment, a student of Locke and Newton. But twelve years after Jefferson's death, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered the commencement address to the graduating class of Harvard's Divinity School, a speech that mightily upset many in his audience. If we set "The Divinity School Address" beside Jefferson's gospel, we can begin to understand how the sayings collected by Thomas present us with an oddly but uniquely American gospel.
Emerson shared Jefferson's concern that "historical Christianity" had muddied the message of its founder. But whereas Jefferson worked to retrieve the ethical teachings of Jesus, Emerson was mining the Gospels for something far more elusive—"the mystery of the soul." Standing before the small group of graduates on a summer night in 1838, Emerson advised the young ministers to renounce preaching the "tropes" of the Gospels and instead point their parishoners back toward their own "divine nature." The problem with the established Church, Emerson charged, is that it teaches our smallness instead of our largeness. "In how many churches," he asked, "by how many prophets, tell me, is man made sensible that he is an infinite Soul; that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God?" Emerson, with breathtaking sweep, was replacing American Puritanism with transcendentalism, replacing the Church's emphasis on sin with the individual's concern for his or her own soul. Jesus, he said, was ravished by the soul's beauty—"he lived in it, and had his being there." He had climbed to the fountainhead, the fundamental intuition. "One man was true to what is in you and me," Emerson concluded. "He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World." Emerson did not, like Jefferson, deny Jesus' divinity; he simply said the same potential resides in every human heart. He was offering, without knowing it, the first American commentary on the Gospel of Thomas.

Because the of Gospel of Thomas presents a portrait of Jesus so at odds with the canonical Gospels, if one wants to argue, as I do, for the primacy of this version of Christianity, then one must date Thomas closer to its source—the talking Jesus—than any of the other four Gospels.
I am not a New Testament scholar. All I can bring to this debate is eighteen years of compulsory churchgoing and a master's degree in reading literary texts. But I am convinced by Stephen J. Patterson's claim that there is no pattern of dependence to suggest the Gospel of Thomas borrowed from Matthew, Mark, or Luke. Furthermore, there are, in Thomas, none of the "secondary accretions" found in the synoptic texts. The four canonical Gospel writers allegorize extensively, but Thomas almost always lets the sayings and parables stand, as Patterson says, "in forms that are more primitive than their synoptic parallels." For instance, Jesus' well-known remark about the impossibility of serving two masters stands alone in both Thomas and in the other sayings gospel, Q. Luke, however, who would have borrowed it from Q, positions this saying within his narrative to function as a direct attack on the Pharisees. But the compilers of the two sayings gospels presumably knew the context, and saw no reason to replicate it, nor did they try to distort it to fit their own purposes. Later, Matthew and Luke combined information from Q and Mark's gospel to invent their own narratives. But given the Gospel of Thomas's resemblance to Q as well as its independence from the canonical Gospels, there is good reason to believe, as does Helmut Koester of Harvard Divinity School, that it is older than the Gospel of Mark.
One question remains: who was Thomas, the author of this ancient collection of sayings? Was it the same Thomas who, in John's gospel, doubted that Jesus had risen from the grave until he saw the scars on his hands? John claims to be "the beloved" of Jesus; Thomas claims to he his "twin." Indeed, John himself makes three references to Thomas, "called the twin." Whether this is the same Judas Thomas, whom Mark and Matthew mention as the brother of Jesus—and whether he really was Jesus' twin brother—are questions that still keep scholars busy.
Trying to attribute authorship to ancient religious documents is a nearly hopeless task; too much mythologizing has gotten in the way. But in her most recent book, Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels argues that the author of this gospel is indeed the same Doubting Thomas who, significantly, appears as a doubter only in John's gospel. Pagels argues that these two inheritors of Jesus' teaching had reached profoundly irreconcilable understandings of that message, particularly with regard to the kingdom of God. John's Jesus is a divine savior, on his way to prepare a better place for those who believe in his redeeming power. Thomas's Jesus, as we have seen, is just the opposite. Pagels suggests that John actually preached his gospel to refute Thomas's teachings, which would explain why only John's gospel depicts Thomas in a poor light.
In the end, of course, John's savior Jesus, who could forgive sins and assuage our fear of death by promising an eternal afterlife, proved more attractive to the early Christians than Thomas's wandering mystic who called for voluntary poverty and spoke in maddening paradoxes. But along with John's "good news" comes the not-so-good news that we are all guilty, sinners by birth, consigned to serve out our sentence in this toilsome, fallen world.

I have spent exactly half my life sitting in churches, listening to preachers enumerate my many sins and declare my inherent deficiency in the eyes of God. My father, however, was never one of those ministers.
He shot himself with his hunting rifle before I was ever old enough to sit with my mother in his congregation. I do not lay all of my father's problems on the steps of the Church, but I do believe it bears much of the blame. My father was also the son of a Baptist minister. My grandfather was a country preacher who, every Sunday, delivered a simple message about earthly hardships, mortal sin, and the crucial choice between eternal salvation or damnation. The atmosphere of guilt was so pervasive within my grandfather's fundamentalism that one didn't even have to do anything wrong. We were born with the mark of sin. Just being alive, just waking up in the morning became a dubious endeavor, a transgression of the flesh. For someone like my father, who was already given to long stretches of depression, such a psychological burden must have finally be-come unbearable.
I've come to see that disbelief, unlike the Christian "conversion experience," is not a cataclysmic event. I can't say exactly when I lost my family's faith in a redeeming messiah. But I do know that at some point during one of my own lengthy bouts of depression and self-loathing, I decided, however unconsciously, that I could best avoid my father's fate by abandoning my grandfather's beliefs. Of course losing faith is never that simple, and in my case it involved bitter recriminations and long, terrible silences between me and the rest of my family. When my grandfather died last year, we were barely speaking. And, of course, the problem with losing faith is that you never really do, not completely. You never quite shake off that internal surveillance mechanism that William Blake called the "mind-forg'd manacles" and Freud later termed the superego.
So when I first discovered the Gospel of Thomas about a decade ago, I was shocked to find a version of Christianity that I could accept and one that, moreover, could serve as a vital corrective to my grandfather's view that we live helplessly, sinfully, in a broken world. According to Thomas's Jesus, humankind never suffered an irredeemable Fall. The world only appears to be a realm of separation from the Creator and from one another. When Thomas's Jesus tells his followers that "Adam came from great power and great wealth, but he was not worthy of you," he is implying that Adam's first sin was to take on the knowledge of good and evil—the knowledge that continues to divide the world into us and them. The stunning message of Thomas's gospel is that such divisions are arbitrary, destructive, and, finally, unnatural. Only the talking animals believe in them. Thus Adam's sin, ironically, was simply ignorance. True, that ignorance proved to be congenital, but it wasn't terminal and it didn't demand divine intervention. What it demanded was a realization on the part of each individual that he or she still possesses a divine light lodged within the heart, and that light can reveal the world to be a beautiful, undivided wholeness.
This teacher of reconciliation was the same Jesus whom Thomas Jefferson hoped to recover through his own gospel project. And whereas Jefferson found in Jesus' teaching an ethic for how we should treat others, Emerson found in it an alchemical light that transforms flesh into spirit. In some uncanny trick of history and geography, the ancient Gospel of Thomas combines these two visions of Jesus to give us what I would call a truly American gospel. By pulling the kingdom of God out of the sky and transposing it onto this world, Thomas's Jesus returns us, in effect, to Jefferson's agrarian America, where the farmer intuits the laws of God through the laws of nature.
Read together, as the world all around us sickens and dies from the poi-son discharges of Hamiltonian industry, these twin gospels suggest that it is time we inverted Pascal's famous wager to say not that we should believe in heaven because we have nothing to lose but rather that we should believe first in this world, because in losing it we may lose everything. And if we can somehow live justly, modestly, with generosity and compassion, we have everything to gain. Perhaps we do not have to wait for the kingdom of God.

1 Athanasius's letter is the first known list of the twenty-seven books that now make up the New Testament.
2 "Jesus said to them, `If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits.'"
Erik Reece's last article for Harper's Magazine, "Death of a Mountain," appeared in the April issue. His new book, Lost Mountain, will be published by Riverhead in February. is the website of Harper's Magazine, an American journal of literature, politics, culture, and the arts published continuously from 1850.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Does Somebody Feel Faint?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

One Toke Over the Line