Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Inspiring holiday stuff

Gainesville State School is located 75 miles north of Dallas, next to a town of 15,000.  It was originally a girls’ school, but became co-ed in1974 and eventually all-male in 1988.  The school offers courses in agriculture, horticulture, welding, and business in addition to the standard high school curriculum.

Gainesville State is also a maximum-security youth prison facility.  Incoming students are an average of three years below grade level in reading and four years behind in math, and less than 30% will return to High School upon re-entry into society.

The school has a football team.  Lacking adequate practice time, space, and equipment, the Gainesville State Tornadoes are understandably lousy.  Up against prep school teams with involved parents, endless resources, and home field advantage, Gainesville scored a total of two touchdowns en route to a miserable 0-8 start.

Kris Hogan is head football coach at Grapevine Faith, a Christian school located just outside Dallas.  The Grapevine Lions are high priests in the Texas Football Temple (services Friday evening like Jews).  The Lions made the state title game in 2007, and returned this season with a strong 7-2 record.

Coach Hogan decided to do a good turn for the boys from Gainesville.  With the overmatched prison team on the schedule for the season finale, Hogan emailed team parents and fans requesting that half the group cheer for the visitors.  “Here’s the message I want you to send,” he wrote: “You are just as valuable as any other person on planet Earth.”  Faced with understandably confused parents and players, he stuck to his concept:  “Imagine if you didn’t have a home life. Imagine if everybody had pretty much given up on you. Now imagine what it would mean for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.”

Hogan’s commitment converted the unbelievers.  Some 200 hometown fans, approximately half the crowd, sat in the visitors’ bleachers cheering for Gainesville State.  Additionally, for probably the first time in football history, the road team was met with a spirit line, banner to run through, and dedicated cheerleading squad.

Other schools have done things for Gainesville, including providing the students with meals and small gifts.  However, no one had ever given them a cheering section.  It meant a lot more than some trinkets or a snack.  As a Tornadoes lineman explained:  “We can tell people are a little afraid of us when we come to the games.  You can see it in their eyes. They’re lookin’ at us like we’re criminals. But these people, they were yellin’ for us! By our names!”

This wasn’t The Longest Yard. Gainesville was severely overmatched, and Faith went up 33-0 to start the game.  Eventually, however, Gainesville managed two touchdowns on the day on which three of their players had been cut from the team; released from prison.

The score didn’t matter.  In another football first, the head coach of the losing team was doused with Gatorade:

I know people who teach in the prison system, including both maximum-security adult prisons and facilities like Gainesville for youth offenders.  Sadly, adult offenders including those serving lifetime sentences often have better access to educational programs than seventeen-year old first-time offenders who should still have their whole lives ahead of them.  In New York State, this is partly the understandable legacy of Attica and partly due to the fact that D.O.C.S. is its own agency whereas underage offenders are folded into the Office of Children and Family Services.  (I’d be curious if anyone has had any experience with other states; feel free to post in the comments.  New York is actually regarded as one of the best prison systems in the country for adults, in terms of rehabilitation, security for both prisoners and staff, and a relative lack of gang activity.)

The boys on the Gainesville squad are not unrepentant thugs, not inherently violent kids, not the simple stereotypes too often assigned to convicts.  Only those who have served at least half of their sentence, passed all of their classes, and maintained spotless behavioral records are allowed on the team.  Gainesville State head coach Mark Williams explained the importance of seeing his players in human, humane terms:

“A lot of these kids don’t have hope because they’ve taken a wrong path, somebody’s told them that they’re going to be negative,” he said. “They’re not negative. They were very positive tonight. They were just like the other kids.”

After four quarters of football, the winning players greeted their parents and friends while the losing team returned to their bus under watch by a dozen armed guards.  Before the game, and ten minutes from the final whistle, the Gainesville State Tornadoes were faceless statistics in America’s best growth industry.  For 60 minutes, as Gainesville superintendent Gwan Hawthorne put it, the boys “[felt] like any other high school football team.”

A winless season never ended so well.

(For more on this story, see Rick Reilly’s detailed account and the Waco Tribune‘s local coverage.)

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The other day, Mireille introduced the weird philo-semitism of Ajax Football Club.  Ajax fans, however, are not alone in appropriating Jewishness.  A number of teams worldwide identify with Judaism.  Among them are M.T.K. Hungaria and England’s Tottenham Hotspur.

There are multiple reasons a club gets tagged as “Jewish.”  MTK was founded in 1888 by Jewish businessmen.  Through the end of World War I, this held little stigma.  However, post-war nationalist politicians explicitly attacked MTK in the press, and the team was shut down in the 1940s.  Although the Communists revived the club under a series of political patrons, it still remains identified as the “Jewish” team; which may explain their poor attendance despite an impressive league record.

Rival club Ferencvaros is considered the “authentic” Hungarian side.  It’s a pretty explicit link, framed openly in the political discourse by right-wing MPs:

“Those who consider themselves proper, working-class Hungarians oppose the spirit of business conduct practised by upper-class Hungarians with foreign roots.  The upper- class supports MTK, and Fradi [Ferencvaros] supporters have always felt that they are the oppressed, ordinary children of the nation, while the Jews have secured their place in high society.”

Ferencvaros fans chant “the trains are leaving for Auschwitz,” among other things, and through the 1990s celebrated goals with Nazi salutes.  These days the club has bigger problems, having been demoted to the Hungarian second division due to financial mismanagement.  Predictably, supporters blamed the “red media” and the Jews.

Tottenham is a different animal.  The club has no particularly Jewish roots in its founding.  It earned the badge of Zion either because of the large number of Jews in the White Hart Lane neighborhood; or because of a 1970s television show.  Whichever the cause, opposing fans have long targeted Spurs supporters with chants about Hitler and gas chambers.  Obviously, the great majority of Tottenham fans are gentiles.  They have met these taunts by building the “Yid Army” identity, a strange co-optation of Jewishness if there ever was one.  Franklin Foer, whose book is the source for much of this post, relates the story of Manchester City fans chanting the following during a game against Tottenham in the 1980s:

“We’ll be running around Tottenham with our pricks hanging out tonight,

We’ll be running around Tottenham with our pricks hanging out tonight,

Singing I’ve got a foreskin, I’ve got a foreskin, I’ve got a foreskin and you ain’t

We’ve got foreskins, we’ve got foreskins, you ain’t.”

How did Spurs fans reply?  A handful went around their group identifying Jewish supporters, and then brought them together to simultaneously drop their pants and wave their dicks at the Manchester City crowd.  Statement made.

What does it mean when a largely gentile group decides to identify as Jewish?  Michael Brenner, author of Emancipation Through Muscles: Jews and Sports in Europe, notes that Spurs fans also began flying Argentine flags during and after the Falklands War.  The co-optation of Jewish identity is an attempt to build solidarity and kinship through victimhood.  Marginalization, real or perceived, adds depths to the supporters’ emotional ties to their club.  Unlike MTK, there is no historical Jewish context for Tottenham supporters to draw on.  Simply, as Brenner cites one fan saying, “Spurs supporters…really like putting two fingers up to the rest of the world.”

Judaism is useful shorthand for any number of things: defiance, group unity, or even hipness.  Witness the counterculture philo-semitism of Holland’s greatest club.  During the 1960s, it was Johann Cruyff and Ajax whose “total football” trashed traditional formations and forced players, coaches, and fans to rethink the game.  Cruyff, who was not Jewish, had a pregame ritual of eating Kosher salami and decorating his pep talks with Yiddish phrases.  The club’s Jewish physiotherapist recalled, “the players liked to be Jewish even though they weren’t,” and Cruyff himself has been spotted wearing a yarmulke in Israel.  Foer suggests a link between the cultural radicalism of Amsterdam in the 60s and the faux-Jewishness of the Ajax clubhouse.  While it is obviously impossible to prove directly, it can’t be a coincidence that the one club revolutionizing football was the one trying hardest to look like outsiders.

It’s strange watching non-Jews revel in Jewishness, probably not unlike how Chuck D must feel knowing that rap is mostly consumed by suburban white teenagers.  Fake Jewish identity gives the gentile fan something to cling to, a sense of victimhood and authenticity without the historical baggage that would actually justify those feelings.  (All the sympathy, half the Holocaust!)  There’s an old saying that a philo-semite is simply “an anti-semite who loves Jews.”  That may be a little unfair, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find some of those gentile Spurs fans voting BNP before donning their Yid Army gear for match day.

Go out and get Foer’s book for more on this and other random social insights drawn from the beautiful game.

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I would imagine by now most people are aware of my aversion to using ethnic groups as sports mascots and how deeply bewildered I am by the fact that my home town’s football team happens to be the Redskins. I’m not even going to entertain the idea that the name isn’t racist– the very fact there is a debate over if ‘it is or isn’t’ shows the invisibility and disenfranchisement of Native peoples in the United States.

Often I illustrate how offensive this name is by saying something like: “Could you imagine if it were any other minority group? People would be up-in-arms over the San Fran Chinks or the Tri-State Area Jews.”

Tickle me surprised when I find out that there is in fact a Dutch football club nicknamed the Jews. According to Ye Olde Wikipedia:

This nickname for Ajax fans dates back to before World War II, when Amsterdam was home to most of the Netherlands’ 140,000 Jews and the Ajax stadium itself was located near a Jewish neighbourhood. Most Dutch Jews were killed by the Nazis during the occupation, and today very little remains of Amsterdam’s old Jewish quarter. But the tradition at Ajax survived.

The truth of this account is still up for debate.

Sociological Images has an interesting dissection of the appropriation of Israeli political symbols by Ajax fans and this NYT article spotlights some of the more sinister anti-Semitic antics of both rivals and fans. This includes Nazi salutes, people shouting “Hamas! Hamas!” and hissing to imitate the sound of gas entering a death chamber. Let me be the first to say: Keep it classy, European futball fans.

And what of the Ajax fans who are actually Jewish? Well, many of them reportedly find the atmosphere so hostile they are unable to attend matches. Quoth a former member of the board of directors: “A lot of Jews all over the world believe that Ajax fans are proud to call themselves Jews, but it’s a kind of hooliganism.”

The outsider status fans feel by labeling themselves Jews has become a badge of honor, they think of themselves as being part of a distinctly oppressed subculture and gain a sense of group cohesion from that. The only problem is that they aren’t actually members of this oppressed ethnic group and appropriating the symbols and rhetoric of that struggle for the sake of sport is totally . Despite Ajax’s best efforts to nip this thing in the bud (spurned not by the rampant antisemitism, but by a chant calling a star player’s girlfriend a whore), decades of identification can’t be stopped–I mean, honestly, do you expect all those gentiles with the Star of David tattooed on their shoulder to just drop it?

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Earl Stafford is one of 12 children of a Baptist minister.  The Air Force veteran is also the founder of  a successful Fairfax County technology company.  With the historic victory of President-elect Obama, Stafford decided to bring some friends to the inauguration.  (Note to WordPress: “Obama” is no longer a typo.) He dropped $1 million on the Marriott’s “Build Your Own Ball” deal, covering 300 rooms, four suites, and $200,000 of food in a location overlooking the parade route.

So what well-connected political and business leaders are coming?

“…the homeless, battered women, disabled soldiers, and the terminally ill.”

Stafford, who runs a philanthropic organization, will also host a prayer breakfast and a lunch on Martin Luther King Day before the Tuesday inauguration.  Participants won’t pay a dime.  He is working with the Urban League to help identify participants.

My computer is doing weird things and I have to yell at Comcast, again.  So here’s an interview with Stafford and the full feature on it.  And it’s good to see religion inspiring something useful.

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Sometimes you read an opinion piece so incredible, so ludicrous, that you just have to spend the next 10 minutes watching Pac Man in a college library to get your head back on straight.  I’m not talking about Tom Friedman hawking his latest catchphrase, nor some dead-ender propping up an ideology.  I’m talking about monkeys throwing crap at the wall.  I’m talking about Deputy Editor Daniel Henninger’s effort in the Wall Street Journal:

“This year we celebrate the desacralized “holidays” amid what is for many unprecedented economic ruin — fortunes halved, jobs lost, homes foreclosed.  People wonder, What happened? One man’s theory: A nation whose people can’t say “Merry Christmas” is a nation capable of ruining its own economy.”


“One had better explain that.”

The author knows he’s spinning towards Munchkin Land, but continues by walking us through some boilerplate financial crisis narrative.  And then:

“What really went missing through the subprime mortgage years were the three Rs: responsibility, restraint and remorse. They are the ballast that stabilizes two better-known Rs from the world of free markets: risk and reward.  Responsibility and restraint are moral sentiments. Remorse is a product of conscience. None of these grow on trees. Each must be learned, taught, passed down. And so we come back to the disappearance of “Merry Christmas.”

Apparantly, the war on Christmas is over and we won.  Our wanton sacking of Christmas destroyed the strict moral code that had previously dominated the world of finance.  With Christmas left prostrate, financiers and borrowers alike devolved into a post-apocalyptic terror-sex orgy of reckless capitalistic activity.  It wasn’t deregulation, Henninger argues, nor a structural problem with a system that encouraged people to overvalue worthless paper.  The problem was, we lost our virtue.

Strangely, this only happened just now.  Not the Gordon Gecko ethics that led to the 1989 savings & loan crisis; nor the salacious profligacy of the Clinton period; nor the first seven years of Bush’s YOYO economics.  All that was well and moral so long as we had Christmas.  Tragically, something gave in September of 2008.  Henninger doesn’t explain the trigger: Was Santa lanced by a secularist Janissary?  Did Dobson surrender his credentials to Rochambeau at Yorktown?  How could the strong moral fiber of early 21st century America have folded so quickly?

“Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.”

That explains it! The legions of Southern evangelical bankers, who built this country’s wealth on a sound moral platform, suddenly disappeared in the autumn of 2008, shifting control of the economy from Biloxi seminary students to secularist northerners.  The nomination of a not-baptized, not-born again Republican wiped out the last systemic protection of our heretofore Godly financial system.  Or something.

I have a guess at Henninger’s intentions.  He’s trying to set up Kathleen Parker and Jonah Goldberg on a blind date.  (No touching, children!)  The goal is to reconcile the God Squad with the millionaire branch of the party.  Henninger hopes that blaming secularism for the financial collapse will help redirect the increasingly vicious self-flagellation of the Republican Party towards a common enemy of those greedy, Godless northerners.  (The regionalism is a nice little touch.)  Whither Madame Rudy?

Moral failure is a hot explanation for the financial crisis.  Lefty minister Jim Wallis makes a similar case here.  It may be true that a lack of ethics contributed to the problem.  However, anyone who thinks that the down-home decency of Southern evangelicals was the glue holding the system together can please drop me an email because I’ve got this bridge for sale.  This effort to spin fact-free religious moralism into a party building exercise is one part Newt Gingrich and one part Elmer Gantry.


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The American Family Association is a Christianist 501(c)(3), Sobieski’s winged hussars in the War on Christmas. They’ve boycotted 7-Eleven for selling porn, Sears for advertising on Logo, and, in perhaps their greatest victory, the American Girl doll company for supporting a “pro-lesbian, pro-abortion” charity. They also sell buttons and other Jesusy tchotchkes, like this year’s light-up cross for your yard:

Merry Birmingham, neighbors!

Merry Birmingham, neighbors!

Because nothing says KKKristmas like a burning cross.

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Remember the atheist bus?  (I know we’re supposed to call ourselves “humanists” these days, but that implies a halfway decent opinion of humanity…)  The bus is now stateside:

WASHINGTON (AP) — You better watch out. There is a new combatant in the Christmas wars.

Ads proclaiming, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake,” will appear on Washington buses starting next week and running through December.

The American Humanist Association is dropping $40,000 to get the message out in time for Christmas.  According to a spokesman:  “Our reason for doing it during the holidays is there are an awful lot of agnostics, atheists and other types of nontheists who feel a little alone during the holidays because of its association with traditional religion.”

This / being / America, there’s backlash.  (Full disclosure: A relative of mine copy-edited Gibson’s ridiculous War on Christmas book.  She tells me he misquoted the first amendment.  Hint: it’s one damn sentence.)  The American Family Association called the ad “stupid,” and the Dean of the Liberty University Law School called it “insulting.”

The ads are running on the inside of buses…

…and on the ouside:

So keep an eye out for the atheist bus this holiday season.  And check out this article by the only (openly) atheist Congressman, California’s controversial Pete Stark.

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Some religious news

Today, Israel’s highest Rabbinical court handed down a crucial ruling effectively annulling the conversions of some 40,000 people.  The Rabbis argued that the Israeli government has been too liberal in approving conversions to Judaism.  The matter is now being referred to the Israeli Supreme Court.

The Rabbinical court’s decision will not retroactively impact the citizenship of these individuals.  However, the ruling will likely make it harder for these converts to find Rabbis willing to oversee Jewish rituals for them, whether marriages, funerals, or other events.  Israel’s conversion management process is the unique byproduct of a technically secular state in which citizenship is determined by religion.  All Jews are citizens; Rabbis determine who are Jews; and the secular state has hiring and firing power over those Rabbis.  Prime Minister Olmert recently sacked the 76-year old Haim Druckman, the previous head of the conversion authority, for authorizing too few conversions.

There is no simple solution for this.  So long as citizenship is determined by religion, the state will be subject to the whim of the Rabbis.  At the same time, the state picks the Rabbis.  This all occurs, of course, on the backdrop of the usual Jew versus Jew arguments.  Unless Israel rethinks its fundamental premise of religious-based citizenship, this is a perpetual problem.

(In other religious news, Muslim scholars are meeting with the Pope to discuss a “joint crisis management plan.”  It’s a nice idea, and I’m imagining a Mecca-Roma red phone.)

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A Catholic church in Midlands, Texas has made the news with an inflammatory sign.  The message outside St. Michael’s chapel reads:

“Lepanto 1571:  Mary and her Rosary, Annihilate Islam.”

When asked to comment, church officials stuck to their cannons:

“Islam is a false religion, it cannot offer eternal life,” Michael Banschbach, with St. Michael the Archangel Chapel, Inc, said when asked about the sign. “We live in a day and age now where everything has to be politically correct, we wouldn’t want to offend anybody, we wouldn’t want to make them feel bad.”

The pastor of another local church denounced St. Michael’s as “schismatic”  (Oh snap!)  But really, these folks deserve some credit.  How many well-educated people even remember this critical naval battle from their high school history classes?

In October 1571, the unified navy of the Holy League (consisting of Spain, Venice, the Papacy, the Knights of Malta and others,) dealt the first significant defeat to the Ottoman galleys under the command of Ali Pasha and his allied Corsair commanders.  Led by Don John of Austria, the 24-year-old illegitimate son of Charles V, the Catholics’ superior cannons routed the Turkish fleet and sank or captured approximately 200 ships at a cost of barely a dozen.  Afterwards, the Ottomans regrouped with impressive speed, constructing a new fleet of some 250 ships within 2 years of the battle.  This allowed them to reassert control over the eastern Meditteranean, and prevent the Christians from pushing forward to retake Cyprus or any other territories.  However, the loss of almost 30,000 soldiers, sailers, and galley slaves (either killed or captured) was irreplaceable and ended the empire’s naval dominance for good.

So:  While the church may be a bunch of ignant-ass haters, their grasp of history is commendable.  That’s all I’m sayin’.

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The London bus system sells advertising, and they aren’t terribly picky who they sell to.  In June, ads on London buses carried a link to a website explaining that non-believers would “spend all eternity in torment in hell.”  In response, journalist Ariane Sherine wrote in The Guardian that atheists should counter with their own bus advertisement.  So they (we) did.  Donations from individuals are pouring in, almost GBP 50,000 compared to the organizers‘ modest goal of raising 10,000.  The British Humanist Society is also ponying up, while the world’s most prominant atheist has promised GBP 5,500 of his own.  All this money will help put the following on the streets of London starting in January:

Roll on, Atheism Bus

Roll on, Atheism Bus

It’s a fun, cheery message.  Good for Dawkins, Sherine, and all involved.

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