Thursday, March 30, 2006

Playing the God Card

In contemporary American politics when your back is to the wall, and you have to distract voters from failed policies, play the God Card. This is what some Christian conservatives are doing when they claim that there is a war against Christianity being waged in the United States today. The idea is a scam.

First of all, given the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans are Christians this “war” is at best an insurgency waged by secularists and liberals. Using the word “insurgency,” however, reminds us of Iraq, and the whole War on Christianity is supposed to distract us from Iraq, so the inventors of this conflict will conveniently forget that America is the most Christian nation in the world, and pretend that Alec Baldwin is the Anti-Christ marshalling the dark forces of Hollywood (notice the blasphemy: Holy Wood, referring to the Cross of Christ?).

Secondly, the insurgency is not against Christianity but against extreme conservative Christianity. Does anyone other than conservatives have a problem with Unitarians, or the Evangelical liberals who support Sojourners Magazine?

Thirdly, the insurgency isn’t against Christianity, the Nicene Creed, the Trinity, or even the divinity of Jesus as Christ. The insurgency, if there is one, is against the right wing conservative politics that seek to legislate a specific brand of Christian moralism.

Case in point is a letter to the editor in today’s USA TODAY by Rick Scarborough, president of Vision America, a right wing Christian organization. Here is a bit of what Mr. Scarborough sees as evidence for a war against Christianity.

1. The movie “V for Vendetta,” is set in a totalitarian Christian state, and is therefore anti-Christian. No, the movie is an attack on totalitarianism. It is only an attack on Christianity if we assume that Christianity is by its very nature totalitarian. Maybe Mr. Scarborough is revealing more than he intends.

2. An ad in the NY Times frets that the United States is becoming a narrow-minded Christian theocracy. First of all, all theocracies are narrow-minded. Secondly, the ad attacks the idea of theocracy not Christianity. This is an attack on Christianity only if you insist that Christianity is right wing and narrow-minded.

3. Robert Reich, in an article in The American Prospect magazine, calls conservative Christians “a clear and present danger to religious liberty in America.” Again the attack is on the conservative view of Christianity and not on Christianity itself.

4. Ruling against opening sessions of the Indiana House of Representatives with prayers in the Name of Jesus, U.S. District Court Judge David Hamilton’s claimed that they amounted to “an official endorsement of the Christian religion.” In commenting on this ruling Mr. Scarborough says in response to endorsing Christianity as the official religion of America, “AS IF THIS WERE A CATASTROPHE (sic).”

Yes, it is a catastrophe! And it is because the Christian right does not see it as a catastrophe that they are a danger to the very values that makes the United States the creative beacon of liberty that it is meant to be.

If there is a war on Christianity being waged in this country, it is being waged by right wing conservative Christians who reject the Sermon on the Mount in favor of an Apocalyptic agenda rooted in guns, oil, fear, and unfettered capitalism that has nothing to do with the radical and loving message of Jesus.

Monday, March 27, 2006

God's Work

This morning I was asked to participate in a virtual roundtable discussion on how people can do God's work while at work. I have no idea how my remarks will appear in the newspaper, so I thought I would share what I said in its entirety:

Before we can say how we go about doing God’s work, we have to be clear as to what God’s work is. I imagine there are many definitions, I take mine from the Prophet Micah: “You know what God requires: Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Every moment of our lives we are given opportunities to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. The jobs we do are simply more of those opportunities. So let’s take up each aspect of God’s work in turn.

Doing justly. No matter what your job, your actions must be just. A recent news story reported a trend among many hospitals to inflate the costs charged to the uninsured sometimes by thousands of dollars. While many who work for such hospitals may say they are doing God’s work— healing the sick, for example— can they say so unequivocally if they are participating in a system that is fundamentally unjust? Doing justly requires that you look not only at your actions, but the system within which those actions take place.

Loving mercy. No matter what your job, your actions must be compassionate. I have met many healers, social workers, and therapists whose job descriptions might lead us to believe they are doing God’s work, but whose attitudes are so lacking in kindness that, by God’s own standard, we would have to challenge that claim. It is not just what you do, but how compassionately you do it that matters to God.

Walking humbly with your God. This is a bit more subtle. Why “your God” rather than simply God? The answer is that God is speaking not about God as God truly is, but about our ideas of God. Each of us has an image of God that we hold true, yet God is beyond imagining. Walking humbly with your God means knowing that your image is only an image, and not God. We don’t like to think of our theologies as idols, but when they are not held humbly, they become nothing less. Walking humbly means walking without idols, trusting in God rather than insisting on our particular image of God. Given this, even clergy who by definition are said to do God's work, may in fact be working not for God but for their cherished idols. Any rabbi, priest, pastor, or imam whose god sanctions injustice and cruelty is not doing God's work, but simply using his or her idol to excuse his or her own fear and violence.

God’s work is done moment-by-moment, at work and at home, in the office and on the roadways, when we meet face to face or over the phone or email. And it is always the same: do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Coo-Coo for Christ

A brief follow-up to my last blog regarding Abdul Rahman, the 41 year old Afghani who converted to Christianity sixteen years ago, and is being tried for this crime against Islam. If convicted he could be executed.

Sarinwal Zamari, a state prosecutor, says that Mr. Rahman may not be mentally fit to stand trial. On what grounds is his sanity being questioned? On the grounds that only a madman would convert to Christianity. Is this the democracy we so proudly hail in Afghanistan? Is this what we fought and died for? Is this the best we can hope from the President Bush’s “crusade” (his words) against militant Islam? True, I believe that the President and many if not most in his party would love to establish their own theocracy in this country, but that just makes the Muslim theocracy in Afghanistan all the more painful.

My wish is that the Afghan government makes a bold and clear statement about the centrality of religious freedom to democracy, and rescinds all laws that limit this freedom. Of course that will never happen. Most likely the Afghan courts will find Mr. Rahman mentally incompetent and hope to Allah that the infidels in America drop the matter.

Having said this, I have to agree with Mr. Zamari: Abdul Rahman is insane, but not because he converted to Christianity, but because he was stupid enough to go back to Afghanistan and announce it.

What was Rahman thinking? Did he imagine that no one would notice when he invited his Muslim family over for baked ham on Christmas? Did he think being the only guy ordering take-out during Ramadan would go unnoticed? Did he think that buying pirated copies of “The Passion of the Christ” to give to friends on Easter was a good idea? If he did, then he is insane. If he didn’t and did these things anyway, he is even more insane.

I sympathize with Mr. Rahman and hope he is freed. But I also have sympathy for his neighbor in Kabul who said, “There is no way we are going to allow an Afghan to insult us by becoming Christian.” Insanity knows no bounds. So I guess I should also have sympathy for our President who thinks that establishing a Muslim theocracy in Afghanistan is somehow in the interest of the United States. Talk about insanity!

Monday, March 20, 2006

To Die For

Islamic Democracy At Work

I was in favor of the war in Afghanistan. I am in favor of serious efforts to help the Afghan people create a free Afghanistan. I just wonder if this is possible in a state that is clearly theocratic rather than democratic.

Take the plight of Abdul Rahman who was arrested in February after this family accused him of converting to Christianity. It turns out that rejecting Islam is a crime in Afghanistan, and Adbul could be sentenced to death if convicted.

This should not be a long trial. If I were the defense attorney I would call one witness, Abdul himself, and ask him point blank (may be not the best choice of terms), “Abdul, are you a Christian?” Abdul could then decide what he is at that moment. What would he say? You might hope that Abdul simply tell the truth and, if need be, die for his beliefs. I, on the other hand, would hope that he was smart enough to affirm his loyalty to Islam and save his ass.

When I was growing up during the Cold War (which was only cold if you didn’t happen to be in Korea or Vietnam) I was taught, “Better dead than Red,” red being the color of the Soviet Union. I never really bought this idea. Would I really be better off a dead American than a live Comrade?

The same is true of my Jewishness. Given the choice of dying for Moses’ God or living with Mohammed’s God, I would choose Allah. Christians used to put Jews in similar situations all the time: praise Jesus and live, praise his Dad and die. Praise Jesus!

Am I a coward? Could be. But maybe I just don’t think religious ideas are worth dying for. First of all, I suspect we made them all up. So why die for a fiction? Second, even if they are true, I really have no way of knowing which one is true. What if Islam is true and Judaism is false and I die for Judaism only to have Allah pissed off at me when I get to meet him?

I worry about poor Abdul. I hope the judge has mercy on him for rejecting Sharia law, but I doubt he will. And I am sorry that as a citizen of the United States I am implicated in this theocratic farce.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Not So Great Expectations

I love stories. One of my favorites is The Tortoise and the Hare.

Tortoise and Hare are to race. Hare is cocky and sure to win. Tortoise is steady and plodding. He has no expectations of winning. He is simply focused on moving. So sure of victory, Hare fools around. He eats, he naps, he gets distracted. And in the end he loses. Yet he is still faster than Tortoise. What happened?

The moral of the story is that the race does not always go to the fleetest, but I don’t think that gets to the heart of the matter at all. The race does always go to the fleetest if the fleetest do their best. All things being equal, the Hare will never lose to the Tortoise. I think the real message of this story is that the Hare lost because he expected to win; and the Tortoise won because he had no expectations at all. Notice I did not say he expected to lose. If the Tortoise expected to lose he would be a fool to race. The Tortoise ran without expectations; and the Tortoise won.

You wake up in the morning filled with expectations. But what happens when things don’t go according to plan? You get anxious, frustrated, worried, angry and upset. You might object that if you don’t make plans nothing gets done, and I agree. By all means plan. But don’t expect Life to follow your plan.

Living without expectation is not living without a plan. It is living with the good sense and humor to know that nobody cares about your plan but you.

You are planning to go to the beach and it rains. You have several choices. You can go to the beach anyway and insist it is not raining. In the end you will be wet and miserable. You can stay home and stare out the window cursing your luck. You will be dry and miserable. You can punish yourself by finding something hateful to do and force yourself to do it. You will just be miserable. Or you can find something else to do that is pleasant. You can simply note the rain and move on to something else, maybe something like an indoor picnic or a movie rental marathon with friends that could only be done on a rainy day. No disappointment, no resentment, no expectations.

Living without expectations is not about being foolish. It is about being realistic. Living without expectations is not about abandoning plans for the future, but about abandoning surety regarding the future. Living without expectations is taking care of yourself and your world here and now, and letting life unfold as it will.

There is no guarantee that you will win the race. It isn’t even necessary that you do so. All that matters is that, if you choose to race, you choose to race wisely, enjoying each step. I promise, the end will come of its own accord, and if you haven’t enjoyed the journey the end holds only terror.

Monday, March 06, 2006


I love slogans, bumper stickers, greeting card sayings, proverbs on posters. I am convinced that anything worth saying can be said on the side of coffee mug. But I am concerned that many of the slogans we toss around are counter productive and may even be making us ill.

The slogan I hate the most is “Attitude is Everything.” Attitude is nothing. The thought does not count. Actions count. Attitude is not a prerequisite for right action. Attitude comes from right action. Do good and you will often feel good. If I had to wait until I got myself to have the right attitude before I did the right thing, I would do a lot less and feel a lot worse.

Here is another one that drives me crazy: “Never stand still.” Can you imagine never standing still? Some of us live our lives according to this motto: we are always rushing. We have no idea where we are headed but as long as we keep moving we are satisfied.

There are lots of times in our lives when standing still is just what we need to do. Times of sadness and profound change requires standing still. Too often we trying to keep moving in order to avoid having to face the change. We keep busy rather than pay attention. Eventually our bodies will stop us. When we have to stand still we will, even if it is in response to illness rather than a higher wellness.

Fast food retailers are a great source of slogans. “Have It Your Way” is one we all know. The problem arises when I want the whole world to look at me and say: Have it your way. We want our friends and spouses to do what we want. We want our kids to do what we want. We want our jobs to go the way we want. We want the people around us to do what we want. And so much of our pain and suffering arises from the fact that they have the same slogan we do. They want us to do what they want.

Or take the slogan “No Fear.” What a terrible idea. Fear is essential to survival. What we should say is Know Fear and act accordingly. If you wish to overcome your fears then do so. If you wish to live with them then do so. But do not deny them. Know them and act accordingly. You need fear. You need pain. You need failure. You need heartache. You need suffering. This is are what make us humane, compassionate, soulful. Perfection is deadly. Imperfection is life.

People like to say “I am perfect as I am.” How sad. That which is perfect cannot grow, cannot change, cannot really live. Or they tell me “I am perfect in the moment.” If they said they are perfectly in the moment, I would be happy for them. But being perfect in the moment means what? They are closed to change, to life, to suffering, to growth.

So here are my slogans; think of these whenever you see the others:

“Attention is Everything; Attitude is Nothing.” Take care of yourself and your world. Whether you feel like it or not. End even if your attitude is always sour, your life will be sweet and you have sweetened the lives of those you love.

“Stand Still Once In Awhile.” Take a break. Make time for dreaming, and don’t fill your days with busyness and doing.

“Put Other People First.” Imagine that you are in the business of helping people. The whole world is your customer. What are their needs and expectations? How can you help them achieve those needs and meet those expectations?

“Know Fear.” Recognize your limitations and decide how best to approach them. Use the fear to clarify your values and suggest areas for growth.

“Be Imperfect In The Moment.” Lighten up. Life is not here to serve you; you are here to serve Life. We take ourselves too seriously. Certainly don’t do anything to endanger your health, but there is a broad range of acceptable behavior, don’t narrow you judgments, broaden them.

I truly believe that the key to living well is not complicated or complex. God gave Moses the keys to right living on two tablets. All I suggest is that you make sure the mottoes you live by work for you and not against you.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Living Spiritually

The key to spiritual living is living with attention. When we live with attention we see the richness of life: its diversity, its unity, its transience, and its rootedness in the eternal and ineffable reality of God. While everything we do should be done with attention, there are certain moments that lend themselves to spiritual awakening: rising up in the morning, going to sleep at night, eating, talking, and going to the toilet.

When you wake up in the morning take a moment to center yourself. Close your eyes. Invite any dream messages to clarify themselves in your waking mind. Think for a moment about what you can do today to make the world a little more just and kind for your having been born into it. Offer a prayer of thanks for life, and commit yourself to not wasting this gift in the vain pursuit of self.

When you go to sleep, take a moment to review the day. What did you do right that needs to be repeated? What did you do wrong that needs amending? What did you learn today? If there are pressing concerns write them on a piece of paper and place them under your pillow, inviting your soul to dream on these and send your waking mind insight into what is going on and how to deal with it in a manner that is uplifting both of self and other. Give thanks for the day and the blessedness of sleep.

When you eat, take a moment and give thanks for the food, and all those who made it possible for you to enjoy it. Before you end a meal, give thanks to God for life and the ability to transform food into energy for life. Pledge your life to enriching Life for otherwise you dishonor all who participated in your eating.

When you talk with people really meet them. Pay attention to what they say and not simply what you want to hear. And above all treat them and yourself with respect— say what you mean and do what you say.

When you go to the toilet offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the ability to eliminate waste. Without this you would die. Ask yourself what other waste threatens the quality of your life and then begin to eliminate it.

These five opportunities occur naturally during any given day. They can be supplemented with more disciplined spiritual practice as well: meditation, chanting, and spiritual reading. A fine guide in such things is Eknath Easwaran. I recommend any and all of his books, but start with his classic, "Meditation".

Spiritual practice is serious business. It helps to have a teach to guide you and a community to support you. There are many wise, compassionate and accessible teachers. Talk with them; find one who speaks to your deepest self. You will know if this person can be your guide not by the power of his or her presence but the room he or she makes for yours.

And while you are seeking don’t neglect the five daily opportunities for thanksgiving. These alone can transform your life and how you live it.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Gay Gene

One thing I respect about people of faith is their moral clarity. Take, for example, Reverend Sam Pascoe and the Grace Church in Orange Park, Florida. Formerly members of the American Episcopal Church, Rev. Pascoe and his flock have left the American church and joined the Episcopal Church of Rwanda. Why? Because the Rwandan diocese is clearly homophobic, a value that the good people of Grace Church really cherish.

Since the 2003 approval of opening gay Episcopal priest Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, more than three-dozen American Episcopal churches have jumped dioceses to align themselves with their anti-homosexual coreligionists in Rwanda, Uganda, Brazil, and Bolivia.

I have no problem with people preferring a church that reflects their values to one that does not, but I can’t help but wonder, Why Rwanda? Bishop Robinson’s homosexuality may present Orange Park Episcopalians with a moral challenge, but is a church that welcomes homosexuals actually less moral than one that is implicated in genocide?

The 1994 Rwandan genocide of Tutsis by Hutus killed an estimated 800,000 men, women, and children. One man on trial for genocide is Episcopal Bishop Samuel Musabyimana. As stated in the Indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda against Bishop Musabyimana, “On 7 May 1994 soldiers and militias arrived at Shyogwe Diocese aboard a red pick-up vehicle to transport civilian Tutsi refugees to the killing sites. On that day Bishop Samuel Musabyimana was present and, addressing the soldiers and militias, publicly stated that he did not oppose the killing of Tutsis, but that he did not want killings at the Diocese and that the Tutsis should be taken to Kabgayi to be killed."

Of course Musabyimana was not the only person of faith willing to slaughter Tutsis. Catholic nuns, Gertrude Mukangango and Julienne Kisito, were implicated in the slaughter of at least 5,000 civilians that had sought refuge in their monastery at Sovu. Survivors of the genocide say that Bishop Aaron Ruhumuliza, head of the Free Methodist Church in Gikondo, Kigali, helped the militia carry out a massacre in his own church on 9 April 1994. According to an African Rights report Michel Twagirayesu, the President of the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda and a former vice-president of the World Council of Churches, is alleged to have worked closely with the killers in the Presbyterian stronghold of Kirinda, Kibuye, betraying both parishioners and fellow-clergy. It is heartening to see such ecumenism in Rwanda.
What troubles me is that the good Episcopalians of Orange Park are leaving the American church because it refuses to condemn homosexuals and sides with the Rwandan church that is tinted by the genocide. We can draw only one conclusion from this: being gay is a greater moral offence that being a genocidal murderer.

And that is why I love people of faith. They are unafraid to tell it like it is. I don’t envy Bishop Robinson’s position as the first openly gay bishop in Anglicandom, but it could be worse. He could be Tutsi.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Slice of Christ

A few days ago I wrote about a Protestant movement to take over South Carolina. In response I suggested that each religion move to take over its own city-state. I was kidding, but Domino's Pizza mogul Tom Monaghan is not. Tom sold Domino's for one billion dollars and has donated a quarter of a million to erect a Catholic university and to build a Catholic town around it.

Called Ave Maria, the town will enforce Catholic values on those who live there. What are Catholic values? You might think they had something to do with Jesus: loving one's neighbor, caring for the homeless, the poor, and the powerless. If you did think that, however, you would be wrong. Catholic values seem to be fixated on other concerns: no pharmacy in Ave Mariaville will be permitted to sell condoms or birth control, no cable company will be allowed to beam X-rated channels to its customers, Protestants will have to pay for their own stake burnings, and Jews will live behind locked ghetto walls. Actually I made up two of these.

The ACLU is concerned that the city will violate civil rights and even the Constitution of the United States. I wouldn’t worry about either of those, however. With five of the nine Supreme Court justices being Catholic and the former head of the Inquisition now head of the Catholic Church, our rights are pretty much toast anyway.

Ironically (though I am sure the irony was lost on most viewers) I heard about Ave Maria on Fox & Friends. They were interviewing some student from Yale about a senior member of the Taliban who attends school there. They ranted (rightly) about the theocratic insanity that is the Taliban and then, without so much as a wink and a nod, they interviewed two guys who are building Ave Mariaville. I guess it’s only a theocracy if the religion running the place isn’t your own. That is certainly the case among Jews in Israel.

Personally I don’t there is anything wrong with Catholic-town, and I don’t buy the ACLU’s criticisms. First of all, the town isn’t built yet, and you have to apply to live there, so anyone who does choose to live there is voluntarily giving up his or her civil rights and that is their right. Second, I don’t see the difference between living under the heavy hand of a theocracy and living under the heavy hand of a fascist homeowner’s association. If the latter is legal, so is the former. And as for Jews living in ghettos in central Florida, just look at South Florida. If they can afford it, Jews are opting to living in ghettos (they call them gated communities) where their lives are run by their homeowner’s association. True, you don’t have to wear a badge when you go out, but you still need one to get in.

So come on, let the Catholics have their town. It will be the largest formally Catholic city outside the Vatican, and I wish them well. In fact let me off a couple of suggestions to make the place really fun. First, they should dress their cops up like the Vtican's Swiss Guard. Second they should hire a Pope impersonator to wander the streets and bless visitors. Third the city council should revive the practice of selling indulgences and use it to raise money for special projects like building a miniature Vatican. After all Central Florida is already home to the Holy Land theme park, and what loyal Catholic wouldn't pay to ride in the Popemobile?

And if the freedom loving, Constitution hugging, ACLU doesn’t like it, let them build their own damn town. Soon, actually. The rest of us will need someplace to run.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

What the Founders Found

Do you like buying things second hand? I don’t. Knowing that someone else wore the clothes I am now wearing bothers me. Even when I buy a new shirt or pair of pants I tend to pick one that is folded tightly rather than one that has obviously been picked over. This is craziness on my part, I know. And it doesn’t stop with clothes.

I have trouble with second hand cars, cds, furniture; you name it. Even gods. I want to know God for myself rather than take someone else’s God on as my own. That is why I have a hard time in conventional religious settings. We spend so much time picking over well read words and well worn ideas that I long for something untouched and fresh.

I know lots of people who feel the just the opposite. At least about God if not about clothes. They take great comfort in reading the words that others have read for thousands of years. They find a deep level of joy holding and being held by the God of history. I admire them for this. I wish I could feel the same. But I don’t.

I think that is why I like to read about the Founders of the world’s great wisdom traditions; about the prophets and radical reformers; about the crazy wisdom teachers who break all the rules in order to reveal the fresh light of God for which they so deeply hunger.

The Founders were not loyal followers of their inherited paths but radical iconoclasts who rejected the conventional wisdom of their day and struck out on their own. Abraham, Moses, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Jesus, Paul, Mohammed all left home (physically and spiritually) before they could encounter God. The irony is that where the Founder’s internal drive for God pushed them to leave home, the religions they founded demand that we never even cross the street.

Not everyone is called to leave home, of course. The geniuses of the Talmud, for example, felt no need to wander in the wilderness. They were content to fine tune the wisdom that the wandering Moses passed down to them. Indeed, if there were no one happy to stay home there would be no religions at all. I admire and respect them. But I am not one of them. I am driven to wander.

Why? Because the actual experience of God is unique to each individual. There are no followers there. You either experience it for yourself or you don’t, but you cannot follow another or take on their experience. If you could follow someone to God, God would be reduced to a commodity. Do “x” and God will happen. But it isn’t that way at all. There is nothing I can do to find God. Indeed, every effort to find God only seems to make God appear more hidden.

So what shall I do? If I want the God of the Founders I have to do what the Founders did: leave home: leave behind all the conditioning of my tribe, culture, and family; strip myself of everything I know so that I can encounter the Unknown and Unknowable. How do I do this? There is, of course, no “how”. That is my point. There is no way to God, there is only God. So how can we go where there is no going? Is there a know-how in this world of no-how? Yes: meditation.

You could object, saying that meditation is also second hand. And it is. But the analogy is more to recycled writing paper than to recycled clothing. The threads of the paper are old, but the page itself is clean and empty. Meditation is old, but the experience of meditating is fresh every time you do it. When you sit in meditation you silence the mind and all it imagines. You set out into the wilderness of the unknown to hear the Still Small Voice of Silence hidden within it. The Voice speaks ceaselessly, and yet it never repeats. Its message is always the same and yet it is always new. It is something that no words can convey, and no ritual impart. It is the simple truth of God’s Presence in, with, and as you. It is experienced as pure joy; it is expressed as pure love.

I am not saying that we should abandon the religions of the Founders. I am only saying that once in a while we should seek the experience for ourselves just what it was that what it was the Founders found.