Presidents Day

I saw Marty on Wednesday night for the first time in years. We used to spend a lot of time together. Marty used to live in what is now my office, and we used to ride the subway a lot or squeeze into the back of a hatchback together for longer trips.

Most Wednesday nights I go to movies, a perk of being the spouse of a member of the Directors Guild. But last Wednesday we went to a concert of renaissance and baroque music at the Friends Meeting House downtown.

The Friends are better known as Quakers. I’m no expert on their religion, but I suppose it wouldn’t be inappropriate to call the Meeting House a place of worship.

Next door to the building where the concert was taking place, 11 homeless people were using a shelter run by the Friends. Another small homeless shelter run by the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church has been in the news lately for the battle that congregation has been having with the city. The church wants to allow homeless people who cannot fit into the shelter to sleep on the church steps so they can use the shelter’s sanitary facilities; the city doesn’t want to allow it.

There are more than 2550 Christian churches in New York City. There are about another 450 synagogues, 80 mosques, 20 Buddhist temples, and a few houses of worship of other faiths, not counting storefront and home-based congregations.

At the Friends Meeting House, there was a sign relating to September 11 on a bulletin board. It said, “Our Grief Is Not A Cry For War.” Of course, not all religious people necessarily feel the same way about anything. Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, noted the problem even just among American Christians of the North and South:

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

The United States is still largely a Christian nation, and our lack of knowledge about such religions as Islam might lead us to jump to conclusions, based on some news reports. Last week, for example, the Harry Potter books were banned in the United Arab Emirates as being a threat to Islam. Then there are those reports of how some Muslims consider non-Muslims to be “infidels.” There are reports of how some Muslims consider Islam the only true faith and want the whole world converted. And, of course, there are reports that Muslims hate Jews.

“I have children; the Jews have kids,” one cleric said, implying that Jews were goats. “But I’ll teach my children to hate Jews. Of course, I’ll teach my children to be just like me. To hell with the Jews! Jews are the children of Satan, and I hate them with a perfect hatred.”

That interview was broadcast Friday on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

What Islamic state was that cleric from? He was from the State of Pennsylvania and considers himself a Christian pastor, albeit one whose views are not shared by the other Christian ministers of his area.

The “one true faith”? The head of the Southern Baptists called on the members of his church in December, during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, to convert all Muslims to Christianity, “the one true faith.”

“Infidel”? The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is for the sense of the term as meaning non-Christian.

“Harry Potter”? The captain of a Pennsylvania “fire police” group refused to provide traffic control for a local YMCA event because children could hear readings from Harry Potter at the Y. The captain was “horrified” that the institution, which “professes to hold Christian beliefs, would hold classes for young and receptive minds on the subject of witchcraft.”

Christ Community Church in Alamogordo, New Mexico went beyond that and burned all the Harry Potter books they could find. According to the pastor, “Harry Potter is the devil, and he is destroying people.” As I pointed out previously, the Harry Potter movie was a hit in Malaysia, a largely Muslim country.

Then there is the strange case of Reverend David Benke, the Lutheran equivalent of a bishop. He has been charged by six other Lutheran ministers (one of whom has recanted) with what the New York Times called “heresy and idolatry.” What was his heinous crime? He spoke at the interfaith memorial service in Yankee Stadium on September 23.

The official charge is “syncretism,” “the reconciliation or union of conflicting beliefs or an effort intending such,” according to Merriam-Webster; “worship with non-Christians,” according to the Lutheran synod. Worst of all, Benke is a repeat offender! He participated in an interfaith service for the poor at New York’s Roman-Catholic St. Patrick’s Cathedral a few years ago. Oh, horror! He had to apologize for that sin.

If an interfaith service for the poor is taboo to Lutherans, and even reading children’s books to children is anathema to other Christians, I wonder how well George Bush’s faith-based solutions to poverty will work out. I’m afraid I’m not very hopeful, despite such good signs as the Friends shelter for New York’s homeless.

Although it was not a religious service, the concert at the Friends Meeting House was clearly attended by people of different faiths. It being Ash Wednesday, at least one Roman Catholic had a dark cross on his forehead. Another concertgoer was wearing a Jewish yarmulke. I don’t know much about the others, but I know of more than one atheist.

Marty showed up for the final piece of the concert, a religious work, as it turned out. Marty had undergone surgery since last we’d been together but looked and sounded good. I suppose Marty, brought into the world in 1979, could be considered the first offspring of our marriage.

We are newlyweds. We were married in 1978.

I expect to remain happily married for the rest of my life. My father died at age 97 and held hands with my mother until the very end. But people come in different sizes, shapes, religious beliefs, and relationships.

We have close friends who have been married longer; we also have close friends who have never married. We have friends whose first marriages are going strong and others who have found lasting love in a second marriage. And we have friends in long-term loving relationships that the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, a Federal law, says need not be recognized even if certified by a state:

“No State, territory, or possession of the United States, or Indian tribe, shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship.”

I do not understand the rationale for that law. Certainly, no religious institution should be required to perform any ceremony it chooses not to perform. But a civil marriage, although it may be performed by a cleric, is not a religious institution. It has many legal and economic implications. And it is permitted to be performed by an atheist.

There have been arguments that marriage is for procreation, but sterile individuals are permitted to marry. There have been arguments that, religion aside, marriage is a sacred and solemn institution, but states were required to recognize the “ceremony” of “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” and are still required to recognize even the bond solemnized in a few minutes by an Elvis-impersonating minister in a drive-through Las Vegas wedding “chapel.”

Nevada chooses to authorize instant drive-through marriages, and the other 49 states have to recognize them. Why should same-sex marriages authorized by a state be any different?

Some of the victims of September 11 were in long-term loving relationships that weren’t state sanctioned. In some cases, it was because the couple hadn’t yet gotten married; in others, it was because they weren’t permitted to. Both are running into problems with victim compensation and even with simple survivor benefits. Parents can leave long-term partners out in the cold.

Marty doesn’t live with us anymore, but we were never Marty’s parents.

Technically speaking, however, we are still owners. Marty is on permanent loan. My wife couldn’t devote the time anymore to practice on Marty every day.

Marty is a Flemish-style harpsichord. Above the keyboard, it says “Martinus me fecit,” Latin for “Martin made me.” Master-builder Willard Martin created the instrument. He also performed the recent surgery that allowed the keyboard to transpose up from modern pitch to Venetian pitch as well as down to standard baroque pitch. The higher pitch was required for the Bach cantata that ended Wednesday’s concert, sandwiched between Lincoln’s birthday and Valentine’s Day.

The romantic nature of February 14 stems from the ancient pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia; St. Valentine was celibate.

Nevertheless, a Hindu group calling itself the Army of Shivaji went on a rampage last week destroying Valentine’s Day symbols in India as forms of Westernization.

As for Lincoln, his holiday has been subsumed into today’s Presidents Day. It’s closer to March 4, the anniversary of his second inaugural address.

My mother used to quote the end of that address to me whenever I got angry with someone. I thought of it this week when a Justice Department official announced new indictments of a former Air Force sergeant charged with attempted espionage. The alleged spy reportedly tried to sell our military secrets to China, Iraq, and Libya. The indictment was announced in a matter-of-fact tone that seemed appropriate, as opposed to the disgusted, disdainful way John Ashcroft spoke of the lesser charges against John Walker Lindh.

This was the end of Lincoln’s second inaugural address:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”



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