The 19th-century movement of people from farm to city was the beginning of our modern separation from nature and natural processes. Many people don’t know where their milk comes from, and when they find out, their reaction is disgust. And that’s not even to consider the pot roast, the hamburger, or the breakfast bacon.
We’re closer to mud than our waking life ever allows us to acknowledge, and there’s nothing in our culture to remind us of this truth. Separate from food, we are separate from nature’s way– which is also our way– of life and death.
And so our culture that denies mud and death is, ironically, a culture that fears death inordinately. Halloween has become, for some, a ritual enactment of mastery over what is dimly felt as the horror and nothingness of death. Halloween taken to that level becomes a false ritual in a false religion, because the truth is that we are not masters over death. Rather, we are creatures who live by eating, and who die at a time we do not choose.
(I am prompted to think also of what our culture has done to Christmas. That birth had a lot of death in it– death we don’t want to see. More on that in December….)
The authentic religious alternative to the illusion of control and mastery over death, is trust and abandonment: the giving away of the ego-self to a Higher Power. False religion props up the ego-self and defends against death; authentic religion, of whatever kind, calls us to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves, more fully. That’s how nature works: life leading to death; and death leading to life.
The unexamined assumption of the American “more is more” consumer American-Express-Gold-Card culture is that economic success is the same thing as success in life, and that making money means that our needs are met.
Beyond basic material needs of food and shelter, our needs are not met by money; our needs are met in relationship with others.
Specifically, it is in relationship that our need for understanding and being understood is met; that our need to belong is met; and that our need to escape the prison of self-interest and narrow egoism is met. Everyone– with the exception of sociopaths– knows this, consciously or unconsciously.
The free-floating anger in American society is due, at least in part, to an epidemic of unmet needs. Like enraged infants who need held, we are screaming for connection– while ironically pursuing ways of life that are antithetical to meaningful connection. Placing supreme value on economic success works to sabotage meaningful relationships, and therefore the meeting of our deepest needs. Hence, the anger (which itself is displaced fear).
I’m not advocating a return to subsistence agriculture. I am suggesting that it is the role of religious people and communities– Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Whatever– to expose the vacuity and destructiveness of the dominant but false notion that making money means that our needs are met.
I’m very excited that Aziz Abu Sarah and Kobi Skolnick (photos below) will be joining us here in southern New Hampshire for a presentation on Sunday called “Conflicting Peace: From Revenge to Reconciliation in the Holy Land.” (Note: Aziz will be with us via satellite from East Jerusalem, due to issues in Israel with his Jerusalem identification status.)
Kobi is Israeli and Jewish; Aziz is Palestinian and Muslim. Each of them shares their personal story of the transformational power of suffering. Pain can shrink us into bitter and vengeful people, or it can enlarge our capacity for empathy and compassion. Kobi and Aziz have chosen the latter– a risky and costly choice.
What we make of the suffering in our lives is a quintessential religious question. There’s nothing abstract or theoretical about it: how we find meaning (or not) in our suffering informs all our relationships, shapes all our attitudes, and affects all our choices in the things that matter. Kobi’s and Aziz’s presentation goes to this level of our human journey.
This kind of public discourse goes far beyond the shriveled nature of today’s political sloganeering to remind us both of our human vulnerabilities, and of our potential to enlist those vulnerabilities in the cause of affirming life’s goodness.
Sunday evening, 6:30pm, Souhegan High School Auditorium. Free.
Compare the following reports coming out today, regarding settlement construction in Israel/Palestine. The first is from the Maan News Agency, a Palestinian news source; the second is from the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli news source. You don’t need to understand the intricacies of the current conflict to see how descriptions construct reality. Language is not neutral. (In the following citations, the emphasis is mine):
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved Friday more settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, the PLO’s top negotiator said Israel had all but declared an end to negotiations.
via Maan News Agency: Netanyahu `chose settlements over peace`.
Compare the above, with this from the Jerusalem Post:
Palestinians reacted negatively to the Housing Ministry’s announcement to build 240 housing units in Jerusalem neighborhoods Pisgat Ze’ev and Ramot and accused Israel of attempting “to kill” any chance to reignite peace negotiations, AFP reported on Friday.
By JPOST.COM STAFF
The Palestinian news outlet calls a particular piece of land “occupied East Jerusalem;” the Israeli news outlet calls the very same particular piece of land a “Jerusalem neighborhood.” The descriptions are different not because one description sees something factually, physically, materially, different than the other. The descriptions are different because one ascribes different meaning to that piece of land than the other. And that makes all the difference.
Several points could be made here; I will simply say this: the religious (broadly defined) calling of our day, is to pay attention to how meanings are ascribed; to expose meanings that are ultimately destructive, life-negating, empty, or exploitative; and to proclaim a word that has the power to shape a new world grounded in a hope that all can participate in. That’s the calling of the peacemaker in the Middle East; that’s the calling of leadership in an imperial America that has lost its way.
From the Boston Globe we find that Cambridge schools will be closed for one Muslim holiday each year, beginning in 2011-2012. This follows school districts with similar policies in Dearborn, Michigan, and Burlington, Vermont:
The school will either close for Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha, also known as the Festival of Sacrifice, depending on which holiday falls within the school year. If both fall within the school calendar, the district will close for only one of the days.
In communities with a significant Muslim population, this is appropriate school policy. Of course, the larger questions are about religious pluralism in America today, and more specifically about our cultural perception of Islam:
“At a time when I think the Muslim population is being characterized with a broad brush in a negative way, I think it’s important for us to say we’re not going to do that here,’’ Cambridge School Committee member Marc McGovern said.
Cambridge schools already close for some Christian and Jewish holidays, and McGovern said he believes Muslims should be treated equally.
“The issue that sort of came up was should we celebrate any religious holidays, but there was not the will to take away Good Friday or one of the Jewish holidays,’’ he said. “So I said, if that is the case, I think we have an obligation to celebrate one of the Muslim holidays, as well.’’
He’s right. In a city with significant Muslim, Jewish, and Christian populations, this kind of policy is fair. Bigots and others who are in the thrall of fear will be incensed. But this is the right way to go– it is in the spirit of recognizing the Other (in this case, the Muslim community) as part of us.
Could this gesture of giving mean more than the food on the plate?
I’ve got nothing against letter-writing campaigns, and I don’t know anything about Bread for the World’s David Beckmann. However, I do think it’s worth questioning the premise of the following paragraph:
Beckmann believes real change comes through politics, not soup kitchens, which is why Bread for the World encourages its member churches to launch letter-writing campaigns on such unglamorous issues as tax credits for the working poor. Moses, he points out, was not sent by God to pick up a few cans and warm blankets at Pharaoh’s court. He was sent to change the world.
via Miller: A Minister’s Mission to Fight Poverty – Newsweek.
The question that author Lisa Miller begs is, “What counts as real change?” As James Hunter points out (post here and others), most of us– including those of us who profess that God’s rule is ultimate– readily go along with the popular notion that “real change” is the province of politics. In the spirit of confession, I’ve been one of those people.
That unspoken assumption needs aired; it doesn’t withstand examination. Politics, in fact, might be the very last place to look, in order to find “real change.”
Lisa Miller gives us a false choice: that churches must choose between acts of compassion (which, in her reading, are well-intentioned but naive), and acts of lobbying (which, in her reading, are savvy and worldly-wise). Both can be good and helpful things to do, and both can effect some kinds of change. But real change?
Moses wasn’t changing the world– God was. Real change , while inevitably involving human actors, will be deeper and broader than any end we might imagine.
Driving down a busy road last week, I saw a man with a sign standing in the median at an intersection. He faced the other way, but I could see that the back of his sign had writing on it. The light turned red; I slowed and read his sign. It said, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
As traffic piled up behind the red light, I found myself stopped just behind this man, who still faced the traffic coming the other way. I wanted to ask him a question, but I was a little afraid– after all, not only was he mad as hell, but his sign suggested that there were others too, and maybe they were in the bushes ready to pounce.
I rolled down the window. “Excuse me, sir. What are you mad about?” At that point, he turned his sign around, and written on the front were the names of two incumbent state and national politicians. “Gotcha. Thanks,” I said, and waved. He smiled and waved back; the light turned green and I was off.
It’s helpful to remember that anger is a defense– a defense against either fear or pain. Meaningful relief is possible only by getting behind the anger, to trace it back to its source in fear. Politicians might make handy scapegoats (someone needs to pay– the thinking is– for how miserable I feel), but politicians are as scared as you or I, or my friend by the side of the road. The nature of political life (its risk-aversion, its zero-sum thinking, its reduction of meaning to slogan, its fundamental commitment to coercive power) makes it singularly unsuited to address the fear in our society today.
We’re scared as hell. Authentic religious life tells the truth about our fear, and calls us to stay open even when everything in us says, pull in tight and clench.