Tuesday, July 19, 2016

And the Choice Goes by Forever

the other day one of the republican vice presidential hopefuls came out with a disturbing proposal, perhaps one of the most disturbing proposals i've heard in my lifetime.  when newt gingrich suggested that we "test" every muslim in this country to determine if they "believed in sharia law" and then to expel those who do, he demonstrated that he and all those who would have one set of laws for one religious group and another set of laws for all others engage in the most vile sort of prejudice.  jewish religious courts have functioned in this country and other countries, serving the needs of those who subscribe to certain expressions of the jewish religion, with no outrage from the bigots who scream about "sharia law."  in israel, sharia courts are permitted for the resolution of legal questions among its muslim residents who choose to use them, and those courts seem to serve their purpose just as the jewish halacha courts do.

the scapegoating of an entire group of people for the bad acts of a few of its members is reprehensible.  after the senseless murder of members of a prayer group in south carolina by a "christian" white supremacist, there were no calls from right-wing politicos to examine the practices of christians or to ban christians from coming into the country.  clearly, it wasn't the religion that was at fault, rather this tragedy was the work of a warped mind with little understanding of the christian religion.  similarly, the terrorist acts in france and elsewhere and the actions of the islamic state extremists have nothing to do with islam and everything to do with using religion as an excuse to justify the most hateful and repugnant practices.  blaming islam for the misapplication of its teachings is anathema to everything that the usa stands for.

how frightening it is that there seems to be a large group of people in this country who are ready to follow politicians who spout such hateful rhetoric!  how disturbing it is that there are candidates for high office who pander to bigots who have little understanding of the principles upon which the country was founded!  may we condemn bigotry of every sort in the strongest terms.  may we look for the common decency that we all share, regardless of religious belief or the absence of belief.  may loving-kindness and compassion win over hatred and discrimination.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Somewhere in the Darkest Night a Candle Glows

as i rode my bike through the park a few days ago, my mind turned to the meaning of morality and the role of religion in instilling morality in human beings.  these thoughts came against the backdrop of needless gun deaths in louisiana, minnesota, and texas.  i wondered then and continue to wonder if morality is truly a function of religious belief.  are believers any more or less moral than non-believers?

one thinks of all the evil done in the name of religion--the crusades, the havoc wrought by isis and al-quaida, the troubles in northern ireland, the persecution of an ethnic minority in burma, the hindu-muslim conflict in india, the murders in bangladesh--just to list a few.  if one takes a literal reading of the bible as one's guide to morality, then slavery, incest, honor killing, the repression of women, and genocide are justified.  we see the claim that discrimination against lgbt persons in the name of "freedom of religion" is a valid christian moral choice.

it seems to me that religion is all too often an excuse for the powerful to seek control over those less powerful.  one wonders if the source of the problem is not religious belief, if perhaps the world would be better off if the practice of religion were abandoned altogether.  are atheists more moral than believers?  in many cases, i think so.  the tribal nature of religious practice often diminishes individual responsibility for the moral choices that are made.  it becomes easier to harm others as part of a group than as an individual, particularly when there is consensus among the members of that group as to what constitutes "good" and "evil."  a non-believer must develop a lone sense of what is right and what is wrong.  certainly, there are individuals without belief that pursue hedonistic lifestyles without concern for the harm done to others, but belief or non-belief have little to do with such a choice; some self-proclaimed believers live such lives, as well.

when we define morality as making choices which do ourselves and others the least harm or the most good, religion has little to do with it.  every day is filled with such choices.  do i sit on my rear playing computer games while my spouse labors to take care of all the chores necessary to keep the house running?  do i make healthy choices so that i can be more productive, long-lived, and beneficial to myself and my family?  do i hoard my money or spend it on that which brings me fleeting pleasure while others are without the necessities of life?

may we embrace a moral ethic which brings us true happiness, increases good, and diminishes suffering in the world.  may we not use religion to justify the harming of other beings.  may the world be better because you and i have lived.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

From All the Easy Speeches That Comfort Cruel Men

it seems to me that there are three basic beliefs/attitudes/opinions about the existence and nature of God.  first, one may hold that there is no god; second, that there is a God who set creation in motion but does not intervene in how that creation is proceeding; and third, that God is active, directing the course of creation and each infinitesimal part of it.  from previous posts, it is clear that i am a believer in the second of these views about God.

within that second attitude toward God, there are two opposing beliefs: one, that once God set creation in motion, God allowed it to proceed and observed its progress dispassionately or two, that while God does not intervene directly in the ongoing process of creation, God is always present as the very force binding all things together.  it is in this camp that i find myself.  it is my belief that God is a benevolent, encouraging, loving Creator who comforts, strengthens, and cares about creation and the beings in it.  i have no evidence for this belief; it is simply what i seem to have experienced in my life.

those who reject belief in god(s) would say that my belief is a vestige of my upbringing in the christian faith that i refuse to let go, and they may be right.  i see much to support the non-believing position.  much of what we call "religion" is an attempt to explain that which we cannot explain, and as scientific understanding increases, much of what we accept "on faith" is explained by evidence-based knowledge.  we no longer need to make sacrifices to appease angry gods, and we know there are reasonable explanations for natural phenomena that humans once saw as acts of capricious or vengeful gods.

there is great danger, i think, in the last sort of belief in God.  when one believes in a "personal" God that has a plan for creation and every being in it, it becomes easy to act as if everything that happens and every action that one takes is not only known in advance by God, but is in fact caused by God.  i read an article recently about a leader in the "christian right" who had proclaimed that ted cruz was ordained by God to be the next president.  when that didn't happen, this person encouraged his followers to vote for trump, telling them that God had another plan for the country, and, that despite trump's past and current actions that are contrary to conservative christian philosophy, God must be using trump to carry out God's plan.  his attitude is "who has the audacity to question God's plan?" so if trump has won the republican nomination, it must be God's will that trump become the next president.

since those who insist on a god who has every detail of history and each individual life mapped out into an infinite future are convinced of their own rightness, anything that happens that runs contrary to their own view must be evil that will bring the wrath of an angry god down upon us.  if marriage equality is the law of the land they say, god will be angered and punish the country.  if transgendered people are protected by law, all manner of evil will come upon us at the hand of a vengeful god.  if businesses are not allowed to discriminate against those who are evil in god's sight, religious freedom no longer exists.  these are very dangerous positions that flow from the belief in this sort of a god, and every reasonable person should oppose a faith like this that creates a god in the likeness of those who purport to follow such a god.

may we not allow faith to overwhelm reason.  may we see the dangers in intolerance and bigotry, particularly when we claim that such evil is endorsed by god.  may we not be quick to condemn those who are different from us and to wish them harm.  if we believe in God, may that god be one of love.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy

while traveling in the mid-section of the usa recently, my wife and i attended a dinner theater variety show.  the show began with an audience warm-up by the m.c., a pleasant young man who told jokes, did a few magic tricks, and played a game with some audience members.  during the meal, the show's band played some so-so jazz numbers, and after dinner the young performers, including a female singer, a male pop group, and a male dance ensemble, presented the main show.  all the performers were talented and well-trained.  the show was much better than i had anticipated, featuring lots of broadway and movie tunes and some inventive dance numbers, and the musical arrangements were first-rate

the entertainment company that puts this show on owns several other venues in the area, including water and amusement parks, all of which are run quite professionally and appeal to people of all ages.  this company has a knack for bridging the generation gap with a variety of offerings that attracts families with small children, teens, young adults, and seniors like us.  i was surprised when, near the end of the show we attended, one of the singers came on stage and made a short speech about the singers' need to share their faith, after which he and the female singer sang a duet which was vaguely religious.  this was followed by a spiritual sung by the male pop group.  had these two numbers been presented without reference to "faith-sharing," i would not have been bothered by them; i've often heard the duet performed as part of a secular program, and the spiritual arrangement was more about the energy of the song and its performers than any message conveyed by the text.  what troubled me was the assumption by the show's producers that the christians in the audience were entitled to a faith-based message that was out of place in this secular setting and indeed made that message seem more an attempt to pander to evangelicals in the audience than a sincere expression of belief.  i wondered how non-christians in the audience felt about being subjected to this proselytizing, having paid the hefty admission price for what they thought would be secular entertainment.

i was troubled, too, by the patriotic finale which immediately followed the "faith" songs.  the tie-in between the two segments seemed to be typical god-and-country fare that used patriotic music in a way that for me is contrary to true patriotism.  there was a speech about how grateful we should be for the veterans of the armed services, with a call for all veterans to stand and be recognized, and a tribute to first responders, again with a request for the audience's applause.  following this a medley of service anthems was sung, and the veterans of each branch were asked to stand and be recognized as their branch's song was performed.  the medley ended with a huge slide of the american flag projected on the screen at the back of the stage, as the entire cast sang "you're a grand old flag."

i don't have anything against patriotism or patriotic music, but the wedding of christianity in this secular setting with an over-the-top patriotic extravaganza seemed contrived and inappropriate.  i wonder if veterans tire of being used in this way and if such casual recognition makes some feel as if their service is cheapened.  how many of those veterans were hurting from the horrors in iraq and afghanistan?  how many were mourning the loss of comrades lost in the war?  how many were pained by the injuries that they and their fellow soldiers were struggling to overcome?  a round of applause seems too easy a recognition for the great sacrifices that veterans have made.  we applaud in such a setting but don't provide the resources that veterans need when they return home, and our consciences are assuaged by a show-business medley and a giant flag.

may a christian majority not force its beliefs on those who don't share them, cheapening those beliefs in the process.  may we show our gratitude for the service of our fellow citizens in substantive ways, rather than using those veterans to promote our own agendas.  may we consider how our actions affect and are perceived by others.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

May Our Dreams Prove Rich with Promise

this morning i am thinking of two different, maybe-related-in-ways-i- don't-see-yet ideas that i can't get out of my head: the tendency of everything to fly apart or dissolve and the necessity of proving things by opposites.  my mind is often drawn to contemplation of that instant where everything flew out of nothing.  how did it happen?  what was the cause? will there be a point at which this constant expansion, this "flying apart" of the universe reverses itself and all things collapse into nothing?

what about opposites?  can we understand tall without a short with which to compare it?  can we understand complete without incomplete?  empty without full?  whole without fragmented?  or the reverse.  is noise the absence of silence or silence the absence of noise?  this brings me to suffering and happiness.  if suffering is absent, does that mean one is happy?  can we understand happiness without having suffered?  can one suffer and at the same time be happy?

i am much drawn to the dalai lama's teachings about happiness and his idea that every being has the right to be happy, that indeed this should be the basic direction of life.  we should all be moving toward happiness, claiming it as our natural state of being.  i don't know enough about buddhism to know if this is a (the) central teaching of buddhism, but i am convinced after living almost seventy years, that happiness is the best goal one can have.  so i'm back to opposites and what happiness means.  if i could let go of all clinging and craving, attain a perfect state of emptiness, would that be the point at which i am happy?

i find that i catch fleeting moments of happiness from time to time and that those moments are less fleeting that they once were.  i'm not sure that means i am coming to an understanding of emptiness, but i am sure that more and more i sense a deep state of happiness that transforms suffering into experience rather than pain, suffering becomes non-suffering.  would that i could have gotten farther along this path earlier in my life, but that is craving something that is tinged with regret for past failings!

here in the stillness of this morning as i think about matters that are too deep for my shallow mind, i touch the happiness that is elusive, and i feel at peace with the flying apart of the universe and all things in it while i am at the same time bound to each bit of matter that makes up what we call "environment."  may we all find peace.  may we find happiness that transcends momentary joys and suffering.  may we be complete while all things are coming apart in the slow progression of time.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

It Is Well with My Soul

a friend's 101-year-old mother recently had a major health crisis.  during her hospitalization she had several ups and downs.  one day she would seem to improve, and our friend would begin making plans to bring her mother home.  the next day, she would take a turn for the worse, and our friend would talk as if her mother might never leave the hospital alive.  after a little more than a week, our friend's mother was able to return home.  

our friend sent a text to all of us who were close to her and her mother that said something like, "thank God for answered prayers; prayers really do work."  my wife's response was, "she should be thanking the doctors and all those who cared for her mother in the hospital."  as i thought about what my wife had said, i was reminded of my own beliefs about "intercessory" prayer.  God had little (or nothing) to do with the recovery of this frail lady beyond giving the health care providers the skills to assist in her holding onto life, and i'm not sure that God deserves credit even for that.  the success of her struggle was owed to many: those who attended her in the hospital; those who devised the procedures and medications that helped restore her; a concerned and loving daughter; those who trained the doctors, nurses, and orderlies who attended her--the list could go on and on.

we have so many to thank for the good things that happen.  perhaps God is the first cause, but that initial impulse set so many things in motion.  they are all tied together and interdependent.  we are the products of forces that stretch back through the millennia, and the
smallest act can produce results that are unimagined and unanticipated.  life just happens, and we don't know why.  we search for causes and want there to be a god who is the cause rather than the randomness of living coupled with the deeds of countless others.

why did our friend's mother survive while others in the same circumstances did not?  there are so many possibilities--her will to live, the good fortune of exactly the right interventions at exactly the right time, maybe random good fortune--another endless list of causes for this result.  maybe it wasn't good that she survived.  maybe she will live the remainder of her life suffering physical pain, limited in her mobility, finding little enjoyment in life.  maybe her strength and courage to fight on will inspire others.  maybe her survival was a salve to her daughter's conscience so that our friend can feel that she has done everything possible for her mother.

always more questions, and the only answer is that life is what it is.  we can accept and find happiness where we will, or we can rail against what we believe to be the causes of our suffering.  may we be thankful for minds that question and for the resources to seek the way to end suffering.  may we say, "life is," and let that be enough.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Old Times There Are Not Forgotten

this past weekend, my wife and i decided we should pay a visit to my uncle, my dad's only surviving sibling.  uncle is a few months shy of his hundredth birthday, still lives alone, and still drives, though he probably should give up driving because of his failing eyesight.  as he reminisced about his boyhood, i was reminded of the terrible legacy of that blight on the great american experiment that was, and is, the institution of slavery.  in his conversation, uncle spoke of the camaraderie he and my dad, who was less than two years younger than uncle, had with the boys in the neighborhood, which included both black and white youngsters.

my parents were fortunate to have grown up in situations where they had many contacts with the black community--my father because his father employed many black men in his business and my mother because most of the customers of the small business her parents owned were black.  both families lived in neighborhoods that were bi-racial, and like uncle and my dad, my mother's brothers'  playmates included black youth who lived nearby.  this was not true for many white families in the south in those days between the two world wars, where racial separation was strictly enforced and where most whites and blacks lived in different worlds that rarely interacted.  when they did interact, one world always benefited at the expense of the other.

yet even for my parents, there was this implied sense of separation.  in the innocence of youth, skin color made little difference when it came to playing in the neighborhood, but both black and white playmates knew that a day would come when the easy relationships would end.  the black children with which my dad and his brother played would grow up to be employees of people like my grandfather most likely, and the black peers of my mother's brothers knew that they would grow up to become that debtors of people like my maternal grandparents.  i am sure this rigidly observed difference in social status influenced their play.  a black playmate dare not strike a white one or insist too loudly on his right to take his turn in the game if a white wanted to steal it.  even in subtle ways on the playing fields, white entitlement was certainly evident.

my great-grandmother--the matriarch of my mother's family, my mother's mother's mother--was old enough to remember the last vestiges of slavery in the old south, having been born just before the outbreak of the civil war.  she lived until i was a young teenager, and we were never sure of her real age because there were no accurate written records of her birth.  but it amazes me that i am still connected to the awful institution by this link.  the civil war seems long ago, but i have only to recall my great-grandmother's stores of her young childhood to be transported back to that era when slavery was accepted as normal.

slavery casts a long shadow over this country, and especially over the south.  uncle and many of his generation still fail to see that awful legacy.  he sees nothing wrong with speaking in ways that subtly disparage people of color, including the president.  though he recalls his black friends who later became his and my grandfather's employees with fondness, he will never see those dark-skinned former playmates as his equal.  he will always believe that his light skin entitled him to be the boss, and that any other arrangement of the social order would be unnatural and morally wrong.  for all his wonderful qualities, uncle is a racist, and those of us who are of my generation must be vigilant lest we be racists, too.

those who had little or no contact with black culture in their formative years are unfortunate.  they have not seen this cancer on our national body up close.  they have not experienced this awful caste system in our country by watching almost-equals become something far different as buddies/playmates/friends matured.  those who grew up in a white world with little or no contact with the parallel black world cannot understand what havoc slavery has inflicted on the united states.  it is all to easy for those whose lives were not bound up with the fortunes of members of the black community to fail to recognize the social forces at play, to see the preponderance of our prison population as a monolithic sea of black that deserves to be incarcerated, to believe that black families fare less well economically because of some innate traits that pass from generation to generation.  those who have experienced life in close contact with members of the other race know, even though they may force themselves to ignore it, that these inequities have nothing to do with whether one has dark or light skin and everything to do with the forced immigration and forced labor of dark-skinned humans by light-skinned humans.

may we constantly strive to wipe out the vestiges of slavery that loom over us.  may we recognize that the debt that whites owe to blacks in this country can never be repaid.  may we open our hearts to the truth that the promise of freedom and equality can never be realized until the inequities in our social fabric are acknowledged and addressed.  shalom.