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TODAY

Thursday, November 15

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Airbags

Former Chicago liquor czar Winston Mardis was a wildly unpopular man, not only among citizens, but among the city's Aldermen, too. The tight-fisted Mardis threw around licenses like so many Faberge eggs and the city's residents, and politicians, hated him for it. Not only because it hurt revenue, but for a deeper, cultural reason: it smacked of piety, of legislating morality, which is anathema to Chicago's deeply personal religiosity.

Perhaps it is unhip to be way into the Bible, but I really love the Bible. Not in a literal sense -- meaning I don't read it literally -- but as a book of guidance and wisdom. There are some remarkably touching passages in there that too often people are unwilling to explore because reading the Bible has taken on a self-righteous, pious connotation in modern popular culture.

For Assyrians, it is considered bad luck to move into a home before it has been blessed by one of our clergymen. Since I lack the resources to get a clergyman over to my house, whenever I travel anywhere for long periods or move into a new place, the first thing that goes up in my room is a Greek ikon depicting Saint George, the Canonized warrior often depicted slaying a dragon. My middle name, Gewargis, is the Assyrian version of that Saint's name, and every year on that saint's day my mother makes a donation to our Church, to honor the pledge she made to him when I was born.

Faith is a difficult thing for people to talk about, and many people, especially young people, aren't comfortable discussing it. Unfortunately, religious zealots have transformed what was once a beautiful religion into a political ideology -- so it is understandable why so many people perceive anybody who defines themselves as a Christian as a fundamentalist.

We are lucky in Chicago to be in a city so Catholic. I recall growing up, I always found it so peculiar that people would have opposed John F. Kennedy because he was a Catholic. Everybody I knew growing up -- including many Assyrians -- were Catholic. Our largest immigrant groups -- Irish, Bohemians, Italians, Polish and Latinos -- are all Catholics, and so Chicago is a uniquely Catholic city. The Assyrian church -- properly, the Holy Apostolic Church of the East -- has many similarities with Catholicism, with the exception that there is no confession (sin is to be confessed directly to God) and there is no belief that the clergyman is an intercessor between the individual and his Deity. But like Catholicism, great weight is placed on a personal relationship with God and the value of good works and tolerance, unlike the evangelical, fundamentalist traditions of the so-called "American" churches. This is a major reason why the Democratic Party enjoyed such great success here, and why Chicagoans have for so long embraced social responsibility (at least, social responsibility to the poor -- when it didn't extend towards people of other races).

So here in Chicago, public displays of faith make most people uncomfortable, exactly because Catholicism is an intensely personal religion not given to outward, forceful displays of faith. The Moral Majority, Christian Coalition types exploit this sentiment to imply that liberals and those who interpret faith as a personal calling are not real Christians, because they don't wear their faith on their sleeves.

But there is a good reason for that; witness Matthew 6:1-6:

[1] Beware of practicing your piety before people in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. [2] Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. [3] But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, [4] so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. [5] And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. [6] But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

This Catholic sensibility pervades the Chicago mentality of insistence on privacy and a sense of modesty. You don't find in Chicago the sort of bombastic self-righteousness you find in other cities. We are a quiet, modest, and friendly city because our city's culture has historically been one where we don't judge others for their failures and impose our faith on them. Historically, Chicagoans have been strongly opposed to vice laws; unlike our friends in the South, where evangelical faiths hold sway, Chicagoans are embarrassed to legislate their faith. When early Protestant settlers tried to outlaw whiskey as a shot against the Irish, the German Catholics, Bohemians and Poles all cried foul -- faith is to be practiced at home, not in the halls of power.

It is unfortunate that the simple wisdom and sense of social responsibility that pervades the Bible has been lost due to the despicable politicization of faith. Right-wing ideologues have even tried to twist Jesus' words to fit their economic policies. Where Christ said, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven," Conservatives argue that Christ was telling a joke; they say there was a narrow gate in Jerusalem called The Eye Of The Needle that camels would wiggle through; therefore, rich men can get into heaven, they just have to be careful.

This is a complete falsehood -- and I'll tell you why. The "eye of the needle" passage is a mistranslation. I know this because the original is written in Aramaic -- a language I speak -- and the original reads, "It is easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven." The words for "rope" and "camel" in Aramaic are very similar: "gemel," is rope, and "gemela" is camel. The two words carried over to Greek as "kemalon" (camel) and "kemilon" (rope -- actually a ship's cables).

Take that, Billy Graham!

These religion warriors should take a lesson from Abraham Lincoln, who at the height of a very justified war against the inhumanity of slavery and the survival of the great American experiment, said, "I do not boast that God is on my side, I humbly pray that I am on God's side."

When I decided to call this column "Revenge of The Second City," I did so because I wanted it to explore Chicago's cultural traditions and do my own tiny, little part to stake Chicago's claim as the Great American City. Our political history -- Democratic -- our cultural history, our history in the arts; all of these things make us the quintessential, perhaps only truly, American City.

Our tradition of personal and responsible faith permeates all these things, and is one of our greatest assets.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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