RELIGION

johnwstiles.com

Working On Another Way

We were called back to church the other day by a friend who needed help managing a wedding. Turning on a major thoroughfare running behind the church I noticed two different sets of police lights in the vicinity of our destination. There were two constable cars and both sets of deputies were out talking with what appeared to be homeless people.

Constables are county police. The city has their police force, the state theirs, and the Feds theirs. The city police force is generally a professional bunch as city politicians are held responsible if not. The state police tend to be fairly straight arrows, and federal police range from Fish and Wildlife to the Forest Service to the Diplomatic Security Service. The heavy guns belong to the Justice Department with the US Marshals, ATF, DEA, and the FBI. Imagine for a moment you want to pursue a career in law enforcement. The likely pecking order would be, the feds, state, city and, in a fallback, the county. Now I spent the better part of a day with a county constable a few months back and he was an intelligent, delightful, forward thinking, inclusive fellow. (Editor's Note: Strike the last sentence. When you begin writing defensively you should probably look to a different hobby. If you're afraid that a reader will think you are making sweeping generalizations that preclude exceptions to the rule you might as well begin every other sentence with, 'on the other hand.')

County cops are poorly supervised, rarely accountable, travel in packs, and, here at least, think of themselves as akin to the sheriffs of old. Marshall Dillon, Wyatt Earp types, swaggering their way across the country side dispensing justice where they see fit. In truth, they more resemble a fellow I once knew, a diminutive, over compensating lout, who took a gun course and became certified as a "peace officer." Next thing I knew he was regaling us with stories of enforcing the rules at the county jail, refusing to allow a woman to visit her locked up son because she was dressed inappropriately (she was wearing a halter top, the county says no tummy views). Or the deputy who commented with a grin as he walked through the broken glass door an hour and a half after he was summoned to the scene of the burglary, "Guess you pissed somebody off, heh-heh." Or the guys parked under the overpass during the afternoon because it's too hot to drive around in the sun. Or the half dozen slobs being prosecuted for beating up minorities who were, in several cases, guilty only of reporting a crime and summoning "law enforcement." One, a friend of mine, was burglarized and called the county. Arriving at the scene and taking one look at my friend (he's African-American) grabbed him from behind, threw him to the ground and cuffed him. The scene was captured on the store's security camera. Another, a municipal court judge, called the deputies and was herself arrested for "impersonating a public servant," which she was. One can only assume probable cause would rest in her gender and skin color.

I've used sheriff, deputy, constable interchangeably. Technically, county police are deputies of the county sheriff and constables applies to any number of police types but only the county police and rural British folk use the term. I sometimes wonder if the county police have to furnish their own vehicles as they often appear in the sort of muscle car generally reserved for teen-agers. I've yet to see one painted with flames around the hood, maybe there is some ordinance against it.

When we left the wedding I asked the private security guard the church pays to direct traffic what was up with the deputies and the homeless. "One of the parishioners said she saw one with drugs so we asked the constable to help clear them out. You know since they were kicked out of downtown for the park, they've come up here." The park he referred to is the new "Green Park" some downtown stakeholders put in place of the parking lots and abandoned buildings that were once there. It's a lovely place, really, and I'm glad we have it. There are paving stones along the walkways marked with advertisements for banks and hotels and it sits between the new basketball arena and baseball stadium. It used to be a place where the homeless could gather in the relative safety of their numbers but the "revitalization" of the inner city has made their presence an economic liability. Now, it seems, they were trying to gather near a church and mission across the street from the church that serves the homeless. Unless a parishioner complains, it seems, and then they need to shuffle off or face the wrath of the deputies.

A friend suggested we attend a talk being given by a molecular biologist turned monk. Sounded interesting and the talk was being held in the Rothko chapel, a magnificent space on a college campus dedicated to quiet meditation amid the paintings of Mark Rothko. Arriving with only minutes to spare we had to wait in the lobby while more chairs were brought in. Dozens of additional chairs were added but we ended up sitting on the floor at the back along with several dozen willing to be uncomfortable for an hour or so to hear from this most different fellow. Born of a French philosopher father he was an accomplished researcher in molecular biology before a trip to India and a meeting with Dilgo Khyentse, a Tibetan monk and teacher. He soon departed the laboratory for India and a life of contemplation and teaching. He sometimes serves the Dali Lama as his French interpreter. He spoke for an hour and a half about achieving the life we want. He does operate from the assumption that the life we want is one of peace and happiness. He spoke of what now seems the obvious truth that achieving the change we want to see in the world is less a function of political movement than a personal manifesto. Be the change you want to see in the world. If you long for a more loving and kind world, be loving and kind.

While I sat on the floor, unable to see him without stretching, I closed my eyes and tried to internalize his words. He is the latest in a long line of teachers, from Jesus to Gandhi to Mrs. Mansel, my first grade teacher, all saying the same thing. Treat others the way you would be treated.

On the way out I scorned the pushy people wrestling their way into the chapel for a seat. Didn't take me but three minutes to revert to the cynical social critic. I have the same schizophrenic attitude when I drive. I alternate between letting people go in front of me and tailgating the tailgater.

There is another way but it's harder than it sounds. I'm working on it.

The God of the Others

The lady I interviewed today really wanted the job. She crossed her fingers and said "I've been praying to all the gods that might be out there." Are there many gods? Is the god of Abraham (the God of Jews and Muslims) the one true God? Did he beat the others in some galactic contest? What does more than half the population of the planet, the half that lives on the other side of Greenwich Mean, believe?

As Judaism is the oldest surviving western religion, Hinduism is the oldest surviving eastern one. In much the same way that Juadism gave birth to Chirstianity and Islam, Hinduism is the parent faith of the other two major Eastern faiths, Jainism and Buddhism. Interestingly, as individuals are responsible for the children of the parent faith Judaism (Christ for Christianity and Mohammed for Islam), individuals are responsible for Hindu's children - Buddhism was founded by Guatam Siddhartha Jainism by Mahavir Jain.

The origins of both Judaism and Hinduism pre date written history. Much of the core belief system of both faiths appears to have been handed down through oral tradition. In another striking coincidence, the lost tribe of Israel could be compared to the ancient lost Harrapan peoples of the Indus River valley. Predated only by the Egyptian, Sumerian and Minoan (Greek) civilizations, and rising long before the Chinese and American (Mayan) civilizations, the Harrapans lived in northwest India between 2500 and 1400 BC. They disappeared around he same time that an Indo-European "invasion" occurred. The Aryans, a nomadic tribe from Europe, settled (or took over, no one seems to agree) the northern portion of the Indian sub-continent between 1700 and 1500 BC.

The oldest surviving Indian literature, the Rig Veda, can be traced back to this period. The Vedic period in Indian history (so named for the Rig Veda) lasted from 1700 to 300 BC. The Rig Veda is a collection of over 1,000 praise poems and forms the first "canon" of Hinduism. Two great epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana together with the Puranas, Dharmasutras, and Dharmashastras, (more poems and the beginnings of Hindu religious law) form the Smriti, the second canon and the foundation of Hindu belief and practice. The Brahmanas and Upanishads (composed between 900 and 600 BC) complete the quad of Hindu canons. The Brahmanas seek to establish priestly authority while the Upanishads consists of mystical and philosophical meditations on the meaning of life and our role as sentient beings. At the core of Hindu faith is the belief in the cyclical nature of life and existence. All existence is divided into repeating units of time. The largest unit is more than 4 billions years. This 4 billion year unit is divided into a series of smaller units and so on. Our lives are a part of this cycle of regeneration and degeneration. As we pass through each cycle (lifetime) we gather positive or negative points (Karma) that carry forward to the next cycle.

The absence of a ruling body or generally accepted dogma allowed the Hindu faith to evolve over the centuries into a broad and, to many, confusing array of beliefs and practices. It was into this atmosphere of uncertainty that both Siddharthta Gautama (the Buddha) and Mahavir Jain were born six centuries before Christ. The beliefs they espoused focus more on the methodology of living than on mystical explanations of life. While embracing the Hindu belief in the transmigration of the soul (reincarnation), neither is too concerned with worship of even recognition of a supreme being. This has led some to decry these faiths as more akin to atheism than Hinduism. Neither faith's founder, though, speaks directly to the issue but instead focuses on the "right" way to live. "Right" thinking, "right" action, "right" perception dominate both the Buddhists Eightfold Noble Path, and the Jainists Five Vows. Both espouse non-violence and respect for all faiths. Both aim toward liberation from the "self" as their ultimate goal. The Buddhists view life as inherently tied to suffering and misery where the Jainists hold that an earthly paradise is not outside the realm of the possible. In practical terms, though, these faiths are not so much about what lies outside our daily lives but about how to conduct them. The Buddhist faith, having gained footholds in China and Japan, as well as its birth country, India, is the more common of the two sub-sets of Hinduism.

Shinto, the religion of Japan, was, in its original form, a purely animistic faith. The introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century AD supplied Shinto with a more structured system of faith than the infinitely diverse animism of ancient times. The Sikh faith is a hybrid of the Hindu and Islamic faiths. Guru Nanak founded the Sikh religion in the early 1500's in northwest India. The central features of this monotheistic faith lie in an absolute commitment to purity and right action. To be Sikh is to fiercely subscribe to the writings of the fathers of the faith (the 10 gurus whose writings make up the Dasam Granth or holy book). The zealous pursuit of righteousness at the direction of God as interpreted by the Gurus has given rise to an almost militaristic cadre of believers. Their efforts to create a separate nation of pure "right-believers" have created a history of violence that surrounds the Sikh faith.

As any reader of the history of the Crusades is aware, the Sikhs have no corner on religious violence.

Evil

The absence of good. This is evil. No act of kindness, no self-sacrifice, no generosity, no compassion. We speak of being in God's nearer presence while eastern faiths speak of becoming one with God. These are images of connectivity with God. As darkness is the absence of light, evil is the absence of good. Evil is not a living force. God did not create evil. Nor did God create good. God created life. Life then, human life at least, takes on characteristics of good or characteristics of evil. We exhibit behaviors that are either good or evil. To hold to the belief that a force exists in animate form that embodies evil is to deny responsibility for our own choices. If evil exists in the form of Satan, for example, and Satan is actively and aggressively pursuing our souls for nefarious purposes, then God must occupy the other end of the field, pulling us toward Him. This image of some titanic struggle between God and Satan for the souls of humanity relegates God to a role more akin to our limited (finite) perception than to the more likely truth. Terms like omnipotent and omniscient are, by definition, beyond our capacity to comprehend. What we see are, as Plato described, shadows on the inner cave walls of some panorama outside the cave and beyond our reach. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, we are compelled to try to make sense of those shadows, to grasp and then share the images darkly visible to us. In that effort we create icons that help us understand. Satan is such an icon. Hitler is another. Osama bin Laden only the latest.

Doesn't Anyone Get It?

Stories of atrocities committed by and insensitive acts attributed to "organized religion" fill history books and newspapers. Stories about people long dead or individuals we've never met carry within them an insulation that precludes or diminishes the empathy we might otherwise feel. Occasionally, though, we experience the insensitivity first hand. My first reaction is normally shock (I can't believe what I'm hearing or seeing), followed by outrage (usually manifested in some sarcastic or caustic comment), then exasperation and finally, resignation.

A former vestry member (vestry is what we call the group of people elected by the members of the church to handle the day-to-day church business) came to a meeting I was chairing with a letter in hand he had written some twenty years ago. The letter spelled out the original intent of the vestry in setting aside the funds realized from the sale of a piece of church property some two decades earlier. The current vestry, the one I was on at the time, had borrowed some twenty thousand from the half a million-dollar fund to meet operating expenses at year-end. This fellow showed up at our meeting so upset he was shaking. He announced that we were all in danger of going to jail because we would, by borrowing from the fund for operating expenses, invalidate the fund and thence our tax-exempt status. Since we had not paid taxes, his reasoning went, we could be guilty of tax evasion and could all go to jail. Now, the point here is not that he was confused about tax law. The point is that this had become such a huge issue for him that he was in danger of having a stroke. The fund that occupied his attention this night was the rectory fund, traditionally used to finance the purchase of a home for the rector. It was his intent to protect the sanctity of this fund. It had grown to nearly half a million dollars; more than double what any church would, or should, spend for a rectory. Those of us who threatened the integrity of that fund had become the enemy, criminals even.

The fund had taken on an import far in excess of its intrinsic value. Here we sat on top of a huge mound of cash that could feed people, house people, teach people, and instead we were hell-bent on protecting it so it could be used to seduce some minister into taking the job we offered. That we had used it to fund the day to day operation of the church represented, to him, the height of irresponsibility.

Doesn't he get it?

I attended a retreat a few years back. A four-day retreat where forty people gather under the tutelage of a "team" of twelve lay persons and three clergy. The purpose was to "reconnect" to our spiritual roots. One of the functions was a voluntary nightly confessional, heard in private by one of the clergy. I was the logistics guy on the team and had to direct people interested in confessing to one of the private locales where a clergy person waited. All three clergy complained about what awful duty hearing confession was and how they would do anything to avoid it. Two of the three conspired to "stick" the third with confession duty every night. They managed to do it.

Didn't they get it?

I once served on the committee that coordinated the annual pledge drive. One of the functions was to contact people who hadn't pledged and gently remind them that their pledge was due. More than once I heard that no pledge would be forthcoming as long as "women are allowed at the altar," or "those (gays) keep coming," or, fill in the blank. For these people, giving was about what you got back. Conditional pledges, we called them. If you promise not to spend the money of x, y, or z, I'll give it to you.

Don't they get it?

I sat in on a meeting once where the topic was providing care and connectivity to members of the church who were too sick to come to the service. One particular fellow's name came up with the suggestion that both members of the clergy staff should make themselves available for a lunch meeting with him on Wednesday. I asked why the poor soul was unable to get to the Sunday service and was told the drive was just too far. He was willing to come in on Wednesday, though, since he had an office in town and had to come in to get some things done anyway. Moreover, a committee member added, he has loads of money and has always given plenty to the church. This fellow needed help getting connected, but only on his terms and, the members of this group of "caring angels" fully supported his demands because of his money.

Don't they get it?

Another homebound soul called the other day in a panic over "the end times." Seems a couple of popular religious authors have produced a series of books based on the Book of Revelations. Seems those people who "confess the name of Jesus" and are "right with Him" get to go straight to Heaven while the rest of us are left behind to suffer the nightmare of the tribulations. This is the same passage from the Bible that David Koresh was working so hard on figuring out when the ATF fired off a few grenades in the direction of the wooden structure that housed the Davidians. Revelations reads like a hallucination, with multi-headed beasts and trumpet blowing angels announcing the death of one-third of all the trees, the sinking of all ships at sea, and so on and so forth. This dear woman was calling looking for some assurance that she wasn't going to be "Left Behind" (the name of the series of books which are enormously entertaining). Several of their "saved" survivors struggle regularly with a murderous rage. These are people who've "seen the light" and want to join their relatives in Heaven. These "Biblical scholars" appear to have deciphered the full and complete meaning of what is, without any doubt, the most complex book of any in the Bible. Surely they don't assert to "know the mind of God," yet they make no effort anywhere in or out of their text to reassure the reader this is their interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Disclaimers please.

Don't they get it?

Last night while looking for something on TV I stopped on a televangelist. He was striding up and down rows of telemarketers in booths taking calls from "the faithful." He was repeating in a staccato fashion, "go to your phone now, go to your phone right now, sow your seed of thirty seven dollars and the Lord will double your portion, go to your phone now, go to your phone right now." I didn't stay around long enough to see it but he had seven earthen jars lined up on a table into which he was putting the $37 pledges. He planned to crash the jars to the ground resulting in the pledgers receiving a doubling of their portion. "Just like Jesus' miracle at Cana." The alarming thing was it looked like all the telemarketers were busy taking pledges, dozens by the minute.

All these folks, the former vestryman worried about the nest egg he wanted to use as a luxurious fringe benefit for the new rector, the clergy trying to avoid the confessions of their charges, people who'll only give money if their conditions are met, the caregivers who want to make sure the big money givers get first-class treatment, the authors trying to win converts to their brand of faith by terrifying people with apocalyptic horror stories, the televangelist hypnotizing the lonely into giving their 37 dollars all have one thing in common. They all belong to a faith founded by an impoverished rabbi who hung out with the bottom rungs of the social ladder while advising the monied to give all their possessions away. Give your money to the beggars and your coat to the homeless, he said. Give without reservation. Love without qualification.

One of Jesus' followers was worried about money, worried the expensive perfume used to anoint the teacher could have been sold for money. His name was Judas.

Doesn't anyone get it?

 

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