MIDDLE OF THE ROAD

I’ve gone beyond caring about Democrat and Republican, about laying blame with one party and spouting phrases that in the end “signify nothing.”  Really I have; and it’s seems as a nation, as a world, there might be some sanity in this chosen, but not resigned, approach.  Election year notwithstanding. What is at risk with an aversion to identifying solely with any one belief system?   

It’s not that I’ve gotten complacent about matters of human injustice, environmental concerns, or the sadistic powers that lead to horrific crimes against humanity. 

It is more that I would prefer to plead the case of the adoption in our culture of (what may be classically deemed an Eastern culture school of thought), the middle way.  Incumbent upon us at this juncture of our nation and the world’s history is to find the in-between space between rapid dogma and the insipid and weak refusal to stand up for anything.  Herein lies change, herein lies greatness

From our ominpresent consumer perspective, this is a hard concept to sell. So instead what is being peddled year after year, is division, is separateness. What is continually wiped from our memory is the fact that we have been and are a pluralistic nation with many truths, just as the world in which we live has always been. Embracing a multiplicity of ideas can be daunting, and the “hegemonic imagination” (i.e., those in power) are continually thwarting any efforts by those who are attempting to undertake this task (consciously and unconsciously).

Added to this paradigm, much of our religious identity in the United States has stemmed from the Enlightenment conception of self. The main idea being that “each person is an independent unit that is an autonomous, self-determining ego”. Key, here, is the notion of autonomy. This has unleashed an unrestrained individualism in many of our private and public beliefs and practices that stress personal responsibility and despise any hint of or the reality of dependency.

Richard Niebuhr, along with other modern theologians, have cautioned against this tendency which focuses excessively on me, blindly on us, and divided from them. The underlying flaw in this logic is that it limits our sphere of responsibility to some degree, instead of widening the scope to humanity and the Universe. What emerges is that “I must find my center of valuation in myself, or in my nation, or in my science, etc. Good and evil in this view mean what is good for me and bad for me; or good and evil for my nation”, etc…but not that what is good in a more broad sense of looking toward sources of creativity or social solidarity.

For any ongoing process of transformation to take place, we need to put boundaries around our own needs or desires and make room for the legacies of others to penetrate our awareness. This means being able to sit in the discomfort of another’s painful story, a piece of our collective memory.

It takes conscious effort and continued discipline to form a nuanced and educated opinion.  It takes work and discipline to stay engaged in the complex issues that change and morph daily.
 
The commitment to these ideals will turn the tide of our daunting nation’s issues and not who wins any election, no matter what they try to tell/sell us.                
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FEEDING THE RIGHT WOLF

A Native American grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about.  He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his own heart.  One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind.  The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart.  And the grandfather answered, “The one that I choose to feed.”

I think this is the spiritual work for all of us, the challenge for me, anyway.  So many of my reactions are automatic and cause me to unwittingly feed the wrong wolf.  Just last week, I made a commitment to myself to not respond in the same predictable ways with my boundary pushing-prone 17-year-old son…to pause before engaging with him in any ‘discussion’ about consequences, truth-telling, accountability.  Yet it was only minutes later that there I was, at it again.  Quick with a comeback,  not fully engaged in listening in a way that invites conversation, having already made up my mind, keeping us stuck in a loop of frustrating dialogue.

It just reminds me of the vigilance required to notice which wolf I am feeding in the first place.  As Budddhist nun Pema Chodron points out in her book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears: “The first step in this learning process is to be honest with ourselves.  Most of us have gotten so good at empowering our negativity and insisting on our rightness that the angry wolf gets shinier and shinier, and the other wolf is just there with its pleading eyes.  When we’re feeling resentment or any strong emotion, we can recognize that we are getting worked up, and realize that right now we can consciously make the choice to be aggressive or to cool off”.

Pause, pause, pause.  Just the slightest turn towards remembering myself, a hiccup really, brings my reflexive thoughts, feelings, and actions briefly into clear focus; it reminds me I am the one doing the thinking, feeling, and acting . From there, I’m in a better place to choose.  A sense of humor is vital, the journey really impossible without it; with myself and others.  Taking yourself too seriously on the spiritual ascent is deadly, killing both the spiritual and the ascent!  Realizing that the pull to be busy in a thousand different ways is really just a distraction that gets me caught up again.  Recognizing how I get twisted up in my own story, some crazy yarn being fabricated out there in the recesses of my mind.

Potent fantasy most often, that’s what’s usually going on in my private movie while these two howling hounds are duking it out for primacy.  Ruminating about what she’s going to do, about what he’s thinking, about what’s going to happen to me next week, next month, next year. Taking things personally as if that were ever really true, especially seeing as everybody is busily building their own twisted tale of good and evil, villian and victim.  I can choose to say “No thank you” when someone pours me their ‘poison’ and asks me to drink.

Instead the low growls and the sharp bites of a fearful wolf; I can pick the wolf of warmth.  I can welcome a stranger or one estranged from me back into the pack.  I can howl at the moon in search of company.  And I can lick my wounds, trusting that healing will follow.

If I can do this for a few moments today and today and today, there will be more peace. 

WHO ARE THE TALIBAN?

The recent demise of Osama Bin Laden (couldn’t help but think when listening to Obama that night, “Those that live by the sword shall die by the sword”) on the Pakistan and Afghani border has renewed interest in al-Qaeda and their kin, the Taliban.

We have our men and women giving their lives in that region on a daily basis and in many instances, fighting against Taliban insurgencies.  Some may not need to know more than the fact that they are radical Islamists who systematically violate human rights.  Yet to make any lasting progress and attending peace, we must begin to have at least a rudimentary grasp of the cultural and historic constructs by which their very existence was created.

So who are the Taliban?

In brief, the liberation of Afghanistan from Soviet occupation in 1979, left a vacuum of leadership in an already war-torn country.

Afghanistan, primarily a Sunni country, had previously enjoyed but a fragile unity, offset by the realities of its multiethnic tribal society (Pathans, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Persian-speaking Shiites in the West).

The mujahideen (Muslim militia) who were lauded the world over (the US providing arms and aid)  for driving the Soviets out, pasted together a mujahideen government which quickly fell prey to a bloody power struggle. Mujahideen leaders (or perhaps more accurately, warlords) vied for supremacy, resulting in more deaths and devastation than its liberation cost.

An 18 year civil war ensued between the ancient tribal, ethnic, and religious rivalries.

And then, the seemingly endless state of carnage and chaos was abruptly reversed.  As if out of nowhere, a band of students (taliban) from the madrassas (schools whose primary purpose is the teaching of Islamic law and related religious subjects) appeared in 1994 and within two years swept the country.

Denouncing the warlords, they claimed the mantle of moral leadership as representatives of the Afghan majority who were victims of the internecine warfare.  Although initially portrayed as young students from the madrassas with no military background, they were in fact a force of mullahs and taliban, religious leaders and students.  The mullahs were primarily veterans of the Afghan-Soviet war, who returned to the madrassas (the religious schools) with harsh battle experience but little in the way of real religious education.

Because little was known about the Taliban and they were portrayed simply as young students from religious schools, inexperienced in warfare and poorly armed, they were initially not taken seriously.  In time they proved to be a formidable force, feared by warlords but embraced by ordinary citizens.  They were hailed as liberators who secured towns and made the streets safe.

However, soon, the Taliban’s strict form of Islam soon became an issue.

Like al-Qaeda with its puritanical notions of Islam (known as Wahhabism, springing from Saudi Arabia), the Taliban segregated the sexes outside the home, closed girls’ schools, required that women be fully covered in public, and banned women from the workplace.  Television, cinema, and music were also banned.

Most austerely, they re-instituted ancient (hudud)punishments, taking only literal translations of the Quran and hadiths, such as amputation for theft, un-tried death for murder, and stoning and/or death for adultery.

This is a convoluted interpretation of Islam.

The notion of the law in Islam is expressed by two different but semantically related terms: sharia (the “way” or method set out by God) and fiqh (the “understanding” of application of this method in specific cases). While speaking about Islamic law, informed Muslims use the term sharia to connote the sacred law as a global concept or ideal, while fiqh is used to connote the ongoing interpretation of the law through the schools (four Sunni and one Shiite) of judicial practice.

From the earliest days of Islamic history, knowledge of the law was regarded by Muslims as essential knowledge, the very epitome of “science” (ilm) itself.  But the science of the law, like any other science, does not stand still.  Ideal principles are useless unless they are put into practice, and the changing conditions of Islamic society demanded new interpretations and applications of the way.  For this reason, the interpretative science of fiqh was developed in the first Islamic century (about 1400 years ago) .

Yet in the past century, Islamic law has been weakened considerably.  With the resented substitution of Western notions for Islamic conceptions of justice under colonialism, attempts by authoritarian regimes to bypass the judicial process, and the lack of standard religious training (makeshift madrassas an enormous problem) have conspired to undermine the status of fiqh.

A common belief fostered by the Taliban and modern political Islamists in general is that only the sharia-but not fiqh- constitutes the true law of God.  They actually want the elimination of fiqh (interpretation).  They see it as a source of dissension that undermines Muslim unity.

This negative view of Islamic jurisprudence is advocated by the Taliban and al-Qaeda and denies Islamic law the ability to adapt to changing conditions.

To eventually stunt the proliferation of this kind of radical fundamentalism, the only real deterrent is economic and social justice, education and equality. In the countries where fundamentalism has the greatest hold…Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia (to name but a few), the work towards freedom and opportunities made available for a better life will eventually out the propensity for extremism.

WAITING AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

Waiting as a spiritual practice is found in almost every religious tradition I can think of. 

For Muslims, the month of Ramadan, the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, marks a month of fasting, giving alms, abstinence from all things of the flesh,and active prayer. This is in an attempt to cleanse the soul, but also it is thought that using these methods of emptying out the cares and desires of the physical world, one is preparing and waiting for the revelations of God to be experienced.  This is what happened to Muhammad.  In fact, the holiest night of the Muslim year is Laylat al-Qadr, it falls just before the close of Ramadan, and commemorates the night when the Qu’ran was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad. 

In Jewish tradition, waiting and the practice of patience in the face of daunting circumstances, has been a recurring theme since the Book of Exodus and those ensuing dark days in the desert.  The Jewish people wait for the angel of death to pass over their households during Passover and recreate the stories of bitter times and the promise of sweeter days in the Seder.  Again, fasting, prayer, and self-denial carve pathways to this opening up of the soul.

The Christians now find themselves in the heart of Lent.  Christians too share these same tools of purification.  Yet they wait for something unique to the other monotheistic religions.  They wait for the day of Resurrection, the Day that Jesus rose from the dead.

And, yet, even if one does not believe in the actual physical revival of the Christ from the dead, the stories that rise up from the New Testament can resonate with each of us, teaching us the power of waiting in faith.

These are stories that speak of yearning and suffering.  Yearning for a better life, a purpose, a meaning, and the reality of pain.  The stories of Jesus of Nazareth are stories of hope and fear, loyalty and betrayal, acceptance and denial, life and death.  Jesus tasted both the success of his mountain ministry (see Matthew’s feeding of the 5000) and yet was still determined to go to Jerusalem, with death threats and a certain persecution.

His followers were waiting for a triumphant crowning of a king as the culmination of a glorious ministry.  Instead, they were confused and angry by a leader ridiculed and crucified.  Jesus tried to point out that this path he was on, was not one easily understood by the ways of the world, that his lessons were those of the spirit and not of earthly successes and kingdoms.  Certainly choosing to undergo great suffering is not a natural inclination. 

Our own stories of waiting for a better day, whether for a job that has not yet materialized, a healing from an illness (our own or a loved ones, or even a death), can find much solidarity with the Bible stories of Lent.  They are filled with expectation on one day, as Jesus heals a leper and brings the dead to life, and then disillusionment, despair, and death on the next.

 One of the definitions of resurrection that I can hold up to a broader, secular audience is the Greek notion of resurrection as the “state of one who has returned to life.”

We all have seen the grief-stricken and the broken find a way back to a full and happy life after the most unmitigable tragedies, this is the promise of resurrection that casts it net wide and yet does not strain the boundaries of the intellect.  It is the faith of waiting. 

Quote for the day: “Even if one glimpses God, there are still cuts and splinters and burns along the way.”

YES WE CAN TOO

Tonight, sitting snowbound in front of the TV, I watched the persistent and passionate protest of the Egyptian people.  One woman held up a sign which read “Yes We Can Too.” It caught me off guard.  Not too long ago, the slogan “Yes We Can” helped to elect the first African-American president of the United States.  For a short and wonderful time, the world applauded and was reminded of the promise that was once pervasive, that here was a land of opportunity where anything was possible.  With a decade of unpopular and devastating choices in the global arena over the last decade and a recently unleashed financial crisis, we had chosen idealism and hope.  Yet fear and impatience, and the politics of blame quickly snuffed out the change that many of us had voted for.  Or has it?

There is no way to underestimate the bravery, determination, and passion of the Egyptian people over the last week. When I read that protester’s sign, I was reminded of recently read quote of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”  It demonstrated to me that an authentic message of hope that has real substance and that resonates with the deeper part of our universal human nature, may be temporarily extinguished in one area, only to reignite in another. Egyptians too are campaigning for change and while not looking for any help (or interference) by us, can be encouraged by the power of these words.

It is my prayer that the citizens of Egypt will realize a free and democratic system for themselves and their children.  They have suffered too long under an ineffective and unjust regime that favors the few and provides little or no opportunities for the majority.    

Ironically too, the social networking mechanism that has helped win elections, is also fueling the movements in Egypt and Tunisia. I hope not only their ongoing commitments reminds us of how blessed we are to have the freedom and liberty of free speech and assembly.  Equally important, it shows the Western world that Muslims too are seeking a better life for themselves and their families, to put bread on the table, and have a voice in their government.  It is a much-needed counterpoint to the daily sound bytes of Islamic terrorists and radicals. 

May it be a peaceful transformation and be a shining example to other nations still ignoring the will of the people.

EMPATHY IN A WORLD OF SYMPATHY

Recently, I was asked to say a few words on the topic of “empathy in action” as much of what I do involved listening to people in an open and caring way.  Here is some of what I said, and some of what I didn’t have the time to say, in the time alloted to me:

“When I was asked to speak today, to give “a testimony on empathy”, it was framed at first as perhaps talking about my dual roles here as the communications and membership staffer who also serves as a lay pastoral care minister, and how being a good listener plays into those roles.  I immediately laughed, because you see, I do not consider myself a very good listener.  In my great enthusiasm to connect with you or what you’ve said, I can sometimes miss the nuances.  I hear the content…but in my common state of exuberance and haste, I can miss hearing you, you know the real you, the YOU that really matters behind the words.  As a matter of fact, that I’m standing up here talking on the subject, to me, reveals God’s great sense of humor and irony.

But what I can say, is that I have been trying the last several years, to the best of my ability, to earnestly develop this talent, this talent of active listening, engaging my body and all my sense, to in essence, absorb what you’re experiencing.  This is what empathy means to me and it is really unnatural to my constitution.  Yet is has become a conscious and deliberate spiritual practice because there is really no greater gift to give someone, than your full presence.  Not ever.  Isn’t it hard to not speak or not attempt to smooth things over when something horrible is happening in someone’s life?  It is hard work to simply be with someone else’s pain, not asking them to feel better or saying it’s going to be alright.  Sometimes it’s enough, to just look a person in the eye, and say, “This really sucks.” And then nothing.

But not nothing.  That I am willing to stand with you, sit with you, be uncomfortable, and not judge anything that comes out of your mouth because your feelings are just having their way, that is empathy.

Ever sine I’ve made this commitment, weird things have been happening to me.  I was at the drugstore a while back, looking at birthday cards.  A women, ostensibly also looking for a birthday card for her daughter, started to tell me of how she is trying to decide whether to divorce her husband. She has been with him since she was 15 in Brazil, and he is like a father to her, as well as a husband, as her own father had died when she was seven.  She has been married for 25 years and he has always made her feel special, but he has violated her trust in an unspeakable way with a child family member.  I didn’t know what to with this.  So I just walked over to her and hugged her and she cried.  I said I didn’t have any answers but that I trusted that she would have the courage to find her answer.

To emphasize with someone involves getting involved.  It means that I am you, and you are me.  I say thing because a lot of people confuse sympathy and empathy.  You will never get a sympathy card from me.  You will get a hand written note on blank stationary or one with a poignant quote that resonates somehow, but never one that reads with sympathy.  Sympathy, implies that I can kind of (similarly) understand what you are going though and I feel bad for you.  Empathy means I am attempting to the best of my ability to be in the trenches with you.

Please know that I am not saying that in all situations to simply say wow, this is really awful, I feel your pain, is the appropriate response.  We hear of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, no even a year ago (200,000) dead and we are shocked.  Then they have a tropical storm and there’s more hardship.  Now there is an outbreak of cholera sweeping the country, an epidemic from which they have no immunity.  Having pity does nothing.  Praying for them is a step up, but still does not serve them.  Empathy sometimes needs feet and arms and alms.  It needs to mobilize doctors, nurses, food stuff, and medicine.  It is active listening AND action.

This commitment to radical acceptance listening (which I still stumble at, at any given moment), has given me the blessing to get know some of you and know your stories.  It is a rare gift to share the deepest and sometimes darkest nights of another’s soul.  With empathy, we come to know how strong the spirit is, how incredibly resilient we humans are, even after our losses, how being heard allows us to move through and forward in our lives, touching the lives around us.

THE TORCH OF REASON AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT

On the eve of the elections and the “increasing heat and decreasing light” of free expression, I think it apropos to remember that in the end it is the torch of reason that should determine how far our first amendment (the right to free speech) is allowed to go.

In the Oct. 4th issue of the Christian Science Monitor, the article “Free Speech, How Free Should it Be?” covered this very topic.  Using many recent examples, among them the US Supreme Court case now underway examining whether members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, went too far when they staged a protest at a fallen marine’s funeral in Maryland.  The demonstrators hoisted signs proclaiming: “You are going to hell” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”.  Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro church, has made a career out of using blunt and offensive statements to try to shock Americans into joining his crusade against gay rights.  His followers show up at military funerals and announce that God is killing American soldiers for the sins of the country.  Funeral goers are urged to repent…or else.

In Maryland, it was too much for the grieving father, Albert Snyder, to endure.  He sued. The case pits Mr. Snyder’s First Amendment right to peacefully assemble in a church to mourn his son’s passing against the Westboro protesters’ right to chant  harsh slogans and display shocking signs in their campaign for so-called moral salvation for the nation.

The Monitor adds: “The essence of free speech in America is not that you can say whatever you want.  There is no constitutional right to libel someone, or to use ‘fighting words’ that are sure to provoke fisitcuffs…there is no constitutional right to falsely yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.  Government regulation of that speech is appropriate because of the predictable outcome of panic.”

Yet we are also a country that can paint a Hitler mustache on the president’s likeness without fear of the government’s wrath (something I personally find utterly deplorable nonetheless), while a poem critical of the King in Jordan can land its writer in jail.

So what is the yardstick?  Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis provided a sage response in a 1927 case: “To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion.  If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

In other words, “It is the principle that the best way to counter a stupid idea, a hateful idea, a dangerous idea, is through the expression of better ideas.” 

Sound advice.  We have been hearing from the rabble rousers, the stirrers of the pot, and the haters for months now.  We must use our first amendment to speak up and out against those who will not let a family bury their dead in peace.  We must vote for those who represent us in the forum of public civil discourse, that will be, well, civil. It is not in yelling back, but in providing thoughtful responses that seek consensus and equanimity that the wonder of our first amendment stands.  If we do not use our first amendment right to counter the “stupid, hateful or dangerous ideas, we have no one to blame but ourselves, and oh yeah, as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert would say, “the media”!