Bullies and Religion

“Radiolab” replayed a story this month that mentioned hockey great Wayne Gretzky (NPR 2/9/2014,”Secrets of Success,” original air date 7/26/2010).  At the age of two, Gretzky’s parents put hockey on TV for him and when the game was over he would cry.  It seems at two, he loved the game that much.  My own early memory is so much less, but still similar.  On the first day of fourth grade we were required to write about our summer.  I recall thinking that I could probably survive fourth grade if all I had to do was write, of course, that was before the math began. 

I think that writing is a little different from the obsessive passion of the Wayne Gretzkys and Olympic hopefuls of the world, for example, because the writers I most enjoy have read a lot and lived life.  While it may be true about many passions, vocations, or the arts in general, it seems that there is a need for times of reflection and quiet – passion alone is not enough.  It has been my experience regarding both religion and writing, that periods of solitude and retreat are essential, especially when we are struggling.

Islam is projected to be the fastest-growing religion worldwide according to Pew Research (link follows), rising IMG_0924from 1.6 to 2.2 billion people by 2030.  All that started in a cave, with one person.  Mohammed, before he was the prophet he was to become, needed some solitude and developed a habit of retreating to a cave in the hills of Mount Hira outside Mecca, (Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, 1991, p.224).

“The Future of the Global Muslim Population”

The Buddha, before he was the Buddha, was Siddhartha Gautama and born to a wealthy family, offered every comfort and luxury of his culture.  But he left it all behind, including a wife and son, to “live the life of a lonely forest-dweller…to rejoice in solitude,” (Huston, p.83-4).  And so, from solitude, two of the world’s great religions began.

In part, the retreat by Mohammed and the Buddha was a response to the suffering around them. In our post-modern world of runaway capitalism, I ask you to think about a basic and common form of suffering, workplace bullies.

The Philadelphia Business Journal did an unscientific survey of 173 responding readers and 58 percent said they knew of a supervisor at work who was bullying people; another nine percent said there was one who quit or was fired, which makes 67 percent.  PBJ asked the wrong question.  The question should have been: “Have you or any of your coworkers been bullied at work?”  I guarantee the number would have been higher, and 67 percent is not small.  If this number is representative, or as I suggest low, then lots of people are miserable at work.  They fear for their jobs, their health, and have little peace of mind.  Job satisfaction is a ridiculous fantasy when your spirit is crushed on a daily basis.  And even if your passion is outside of work, you drag home too depleted to pursue it.  You become Wayne Gretzky forgetting that there was a hockey game on tonight and just losing interest in the puck.

Bullying at Work in the PBJ

I assert that in a capitalistic society with the ever-widening gap between the disgustingly rich and the working poor, threatening someone’s livelihood is economic violence.  The expertise of the bullies is convincing you they can harm you, they are willing to do it, and enjoying the whole dirty business.  In some cases, they really can hurt you.  If, like most folks, you can’t quit because you need the job, you are stuck.  Has anyone noticed the workplace has gotten meaner?

There are a number of reasons that Mohammed and the Buddha needed solitude, and their response to suffering was, in my opinion, one of these reasons.  I had a shrink once who called it “strategic retreat.”  With enough retreat, meditation, contemplation, and if you are a person of faith – then prayer, I believe you can survive.

This is not my tidiest column.  I have started to write this several times over several months.  I intended to go on a rant about bullies and how I am just sure God doesn’t like them.  What I won’t do is defend them or rationalize their bad behavior because of a difficult childhood, or crap like that.  It doesn’t matter why they are a bully.  It matters who they are bullying and what weapons they are using.  It might be a jealous co-worker starting gossip or a supervisor who thinks you remind him of the sister who regularly called him on his shit.  The bully is not my preoccupation or priority, it is the victim.  If that is you, I want to let you know that you that you do not deserve this and that I recognize that your pain is real.

There are no easy answers for suffering, whatever the cause.  If your religion is not helping you with this, then consider reframing it.  I have read a little something about all of the major religions and some of the minors.  They all have something to say about suffering and some of it is helpful.  Don’t take any of it at first reading or what you were taught by others.  Allow yourself, like Mohammed, some time alone in the cave and see what comes to you.  I don’t have much faith and it is not common or traditional, but I do believe that if you are suffering, eventually there will be some measure of comfort come into your life.  You may not see justice served to the bully, but you might get some for yourself, which is much more important. – J.B.

Hell Hath No Fury: The Pissed-off Passive-aggressive Church Lady

ChurchTrialAt the time of this writing, two weeks have passed since the Methodist church trial in Pennsylvania, and two weeks remain for the final response to the quickie guilty verdict.  It is sad and paradoxical that the church denomination this minister served for 20 years wants him to choose human rules over his own conscience.  Rev. Frank Shaefer said, “Love was my only motivation.  I did what I believe Jesus called me to do and I acted out of love.”

One tension between atheists and people of faith is the response to paradox.  It is difficult to be a religious person if you have an intolerance of paradox.  Atheists interpret it as hypocrisy or evidence that religion is not valid.  I see it as interesting, often frustrating, and certainly sometimes it is hypocrisy.  In this case it is also tragic. 

I attended the first day of the Methodist church trial in rural Pennsylvania (11/18/2013) and read most of the news stories that followed.  It took place at their camp in rural PA about 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia.  Serving as judge, was a retired Methodist bishop with a pronounced southern accent and perpetually creepy smile.  He frequently reminded everyone that “this is the work of the church,” something about which I thought he should have been embarrassed.

Philadelphia Inquirer on church trial

Usually the secular press is not very good at covering religion.  I asked one of the reporters if he liked doing religion stories.  He said he likes the ones that are less theological and more about crime and religion, then told me that this one is “largely a theological argument.”  He is the same reporter who had the stones (literally and figuratively) to follow Shaefer into the men’s room at one of the breaks.  This guy did write a good story, but I do not agree that the trial represented a theological debate.  It is a story of church politics, which is not really about God or theology.  The trial and what it represents is exactly like current secular politics, with the conservatives waging war on progressives, in this case using obscure Bible passages and an outdated Methodist rule book as their weapons.

Reuters story

Methodists call their rules the Book of Discipline.  The index alone is 75 pages and the two sections of content are 364 and 467 pages.  What do you think are the odds that some Methodist pastor around the country is breaking another one of those rules?  Of course they are.  So the trial of Frank Shaefer and others is selective enforcement of a cultural hot-button issue.  Please don’t pretend that the church is above the prevailing culture.  The no-gay-marriage rule for Methodists is only 38 years old.  It was not carved in stone on the 10 commandment tablets.

The Methodist gym-turned-courtroom had bailiffs, a jury, and clergy serving as lawyers.  The jury was not truly comprised of Shaefer’s peers because the “leadership” of the Methodist church is not only clergy but deacons and elders who are lay leaders and not obligated to have a theological education.  The “counsel for the church” was an Ichabod Crane (pre-Johnny Depp) sort of conservative.  The defendant’s counsel seemed educated, well-intentioned, but weak.  The only two witnesses were first the accuser, Jon Boger, and then the accused, Rev. Frank Shaefer.

Meet the first witness, the accuser Jon Boger, who is active military and clearly fancies himself as a hero in this.  It seems on Facebook that he lives in North Carolina with his wife and two kids, though at the trial he said he hasn’t lived with his family for 27 months, while starting to weep slightly – in a manly way, of course.  If you take a look at his Facebook wall you will see guns, dead animals, and the link to a story on why semen is good for women’s health.  Boger has “liked” Pat Robertson, yet on the stand he said he doesn’t go to church.  On the stand he also lumped gay rights, abortion and gun control together and talked about his “interpretation of the Bible,” which of course is more morally correct than Rev. Shaefer’s.  The Pennsylvania church-goer in the family is Boger’s mother Deborah, who is a Century 21 real estate agent in Lebanon, PA.  On her real estate Web site, she lists being a “senior choir director” at Shaefer’s church for 33 years.  Do you see where this is headed? 

Deborah Boger was at Shaefer’s church before he was, and she clearly expects to be there after he’s gone.  I maintain that hell hath no fury like a pissed-off passive-aggressive church lady.  No one reported, at the trial or otherwise, what that disagreement was about.  The “defense counsel” barely questioned son Jon about it.  The accuser, young Boger, described the disagreement as “Pastor Frank requested my mom’s termination.”  Termination means fired, though other accounts are that the pastor suggested she resign, which she didn’t do.

Within 30 days of the disagreement between the choir director and the pastor, the non-church-going out-of-state son, did some online research.  He located a document for a legal gay marriage in Massachusetts.  By the way, why didn’t Deborah Boger do her own dirty work?  And why did the Methodist church accept the accusation of a non-church-goer?

Nearly seven years ago, Shaefer presided at a restaurant wedding of his son and gay partner.  He reported this to his Methodist supervisor at the time.  Shaefer did not disclose it to his Pennsylvania church – probably because there are lots of homophobes there, but also because it was a private family function.  He was not making a political statement at that wedding.  He has not presided at any other gay weddings.  The gay community has not been a ministry for him, either expressed or covert.  He did not lie to his congregation; he kept family business private.  He was acting as a father who loves his son and believes God also loves and accepts his son.

When testifying, one of the quirky things Jon Boger said, which was picked-up by a few of the reporters, “When I see him, I see a clerical collar that is shattered.”  That is a nice sound bite; however, it was odd because every single clergyman (of course they were all white men) at the trial wore a suit and tie, not the collar of clergy, which many Methodist ministers do not wear.  Further, take a look at the church’s Web site and you will not see even a necktie on Pastor Frank.  So who coached Jon Boger on that sound bite?

Zion United Methodist Church of Iona

Methodist Web site version of the first day of the trial

A huge blow to Christian compassion was delivered in the closing comments by Ichabod.  Here’s how the Washington Post reported: ‘“You’ll give an account for that [verdict] at the last day, as we all will,” he told the jury, to audible gasps from spectators.’  Prior to that threat, Ichabod had implied that the reason Shaefer’s son is gay is because of parents who don’t “have their children in proper submission.”  He raged against “sexual immorality and perversion.”  Again, this is why people don’t go to church.

Washington Post story

Even with seedy church politics, vengeance of the church lady, and the redneck military son, there was an inspiring paradox.  In the gallery during the trial there were about 100 people, with another 30-ish outside.  Among the spectators, inside and out, about 90 percent were there supporting Shaefer.  When Ichabod was on his final tirade, appointing himself to speak for an angry judgmental god, something happened in the gallery with the spectators.  Slowly, without prior collusion, the people started to stand silently in an unspoken protest of his homophobic Biblical interpretation.  It was not pre-planned because most of the people there came from different geographic areas and didn’t know each other.  It was silent, one-by-one, and powerful.  It gave me chills.  As the jury was being dismissed the same people started spontaneously singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

In everything I write on this blog, now nearly 10,000 views, it is my intention to tell you a story that is worthy of your consideration, whether you are a person of faith, an atheist, or someone in between.  It is my hope that as a reader, in the story of Rev. Frank Shaffer, you see something of humanity at our best, in a father risking his career for his son and his conscience.  For every good and decent Frank Shaffer in this world, there will be a pissed of church lady, an avenging son, and a host of those in hierarchy who want to put someone in their place, simply to prove they can.  This is not only in religion, but neither is religion above it.  It is a human dynamic, sadly.  So when someone is out there trying to do good stuff, stay tuned, because there will be someone trying to undermine them, fire them, or worse.  I encourage you to look for your opportunity to stand silently – or not so silently – supporting the Frank Shaefers of the world. – J.B.

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“Open Door” – Closed Minds

If I was younger and had a lot of money, I would go back to school and become a shrink for people who are messed-up by religion.  For now, I am writing a blog while trying to work some things out with you.  To that end, I have written about news stories that are perceived as religion but aren’t.  Well, not today because there are some truly dreadful clergy out there.  (Here’s a link to an all-time awful list posted in 2008 by Foreign Policy.)  My new favorite worst clergy are the type that are up front nearly every Sunday spewing bad theology, usually accompanied by bad psychology, and frequently laced with acidic politics.

 “The Worlds Worst Religious Leaders”

Initially I started visiting churches because I came to wonder why people went at all.  If you are atheist or agnostic and patient enough to read this blog (thank you), then you may still be wondering why and I’m not sure this column will help.  Regardless, here are links to the two prior columns on the weekly worship visit project.

 All Things Religious: “Real Estate, Happy Hour and Weekly Worship”

All Things Religious: “The Dying Church

To accompany these visits I’ve been reading the Diana Butler Bass (2007) book ButlerBassChristianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith.  She did her own research, far more in depth (and better financed) than mine.  She looked for and found successful mainline Protestant churches and took a close look at what made them vital.  I decided to drive to one of the churches she wrote about, to which I will return later.

I have biked past another church many times and when I was a server, waited on a couple that went there.  (As I recall they said something homophobic and tipped 15 percent.)  Since I intend to visit every church, mosque, or synagogue within two miles of my house, I went.

A word about context, if you are inexperienced with Christian churches.  What used to be called the “Old Testament” is now referred to as the Hebrew Bible, though there are variations in content.  The “New Testament” has the Jesus stuff, as well as writings from early Christianity.  The “Gospels” tell about Jesus life and allegedly quote him.  In my recent visits to Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and UCC churches, it was common to have multiple readings from different parts of the Christian Bible (as with Roman Catholics).  So when the independent “Open Door” church had only one reading from the Hebrew Bible, it was odd.  That is was the book of Ezra, was especially unusual.

One other word of context, this time regarding “independent” churches; “independent” meaning they are unaffiliated with any larger church group or denomination, though you should not assume they are independent thinking.  In fact they are a theological island without ecclesiastical oversight.  In other words, the guy at the pulpit (and it usually is a guy) can say anything he likes.

The primary message that this pastor extracted from Ezra, for which he had PowerPoint slides, was threefold and I think might be used by the CIA to teach agents not to trust anyone.  He warned church goers about the “mask of support, the menace of temptation, and the misery of advice.”  In his 50-minute performance he repeatedly talked about spiritual battles and “Satan’s bag of tricks.”  In other words, just because people appear to be supportive, doesn’t mean they aren’t being used by the Devil.  I interpreted this as don’t trust anyone.  I sat there wondering why any of them chose to trust him for advice.  To me, he seemed to have a lot of issues.  He was nurturing fear and distrust.  If they took him at his word, every human interaction is suspect.  This kind of paranoia is no way to live, and neither is it a Christian way to live.

In the sermon that seemed to never end and the pastoral prayer that was also long and meandering, there were four sarcastic political comments.  Yet in all this time, not one mention of Jesus or reference to the Gospels.  There was no talk about the love of God or Jesus’ ministry of social justice.  There were snide remarks about the NAACP and Palestinians.  Though I doubt that there was much political or economic diversity in the congregation of nearly 200, I estimated racial diversity at three percent.

With this guy, I kept wondering, why is he so angry?  Not his delivery, exactly, but worse, the content.  I do understand that feeling angry and self-righteous attracts a lot of people to religion.  But that clergy should nurture fear and anger is egotistical and irresponsible.  In fact, this is exactly how terrorists are cultivated.

Fortunately, I had taken my Kindle.  I’m sure the locals thought I was following along in my Bible.  Actually I was reading Butler Bass because I desperately needed to remember there are some normal compassionate folks out there.  But I do have 50 Shades of Gray loaded on the same Kindle and could have just as easily been reading that – and it did amuse me to think I might.

Not surprisingly, other than the formal hand-shaking in the service, not one person spoke to me or invited me back.  I thought I saw someone I knew so I even hung around in the lobby for an extra five minutes, and still not a word from anyone.  (Did they know I wasn’t one of them?)

The Church of the Open Door and Closed Minds experience was unlike my field trip to Virginia.  It was 11 hours travel (round-trip, same day) for about a one-and-one-quarter hour service.  I was greeted by several people and invited back.  Even though St. Mark’s was about the same size as “Open Door,” the atmosphere inside was different, even before the service.  Folks were really mixing it up in the large, open interior courtyard.  There were several displays for service projects and they have a “café” that serves full meals twice a week.

In the St. Mark’s sermon, which was about 15 minutes, what I took away was hope and “You are the presence of heaven in this world.”  I think they take this seriously because they listed over 30 areas of service in their weekly bulletin.  (There were none unrelated to proselytizing in the Open Door’s bulletin.) The children’s story at St. Mark’s was about helping kids across the globe.  It was goofy, but sweet with an old guy acting the part of a kid from Ecuador.

I could go on, but I want to emphasize the contrast in these two experiences.  At St. Mark’s there was an atmosphere of welcoming outsiders, a theology of hope and love, and the action of serving the needs of the community – locally and globally.  It is hard for me to understand how these two churches could even be the same religion.  Though really, they are not.  The Open Door-Closed Mind “Church” is the religion of Rev. What’s-His-Name, building distrust, validating judgement and encouraging petty politics.  St. Mark’s participates in a religion of compassion.  I wish it could be said that for every Open Door-Closed Minds church there’s a service oriented community of faith like St. Mark’s.  Not likely, but I’m glad I found one.  – J.B.

Real Estate, Happy Hour and Weekly Worship

My neighborhood is what planners would call ‘older ring suburbs.’  We are close to the city limits (five miles), we have mixed-design housing, and there are actually large, mature trees.  While our house is probably the oldest and most modest in the neighborhood, you can be sure that the majority of our neighbors have granite counter-tops in their kitchens, unlike our c. 1940 pre-Formica.  One close neighbor tore down a 1960-ish two-story colonial and built a mini-mansion on top of it, well beyond the original footprint.  They have an uncharacteristically large yard in which their children seldom play and the hired help grooms.  This house appears to meet the needs of their ego, but I am unconvinced it is truly necessary for their family.  Not surprisingly, this same family needs two trash toters every week, unlike the one everyone else is allotted.

This neighborhood is in a school district where the public school is considered good.  I’m not sure if that perception refers to the quality of the education, the absence of violence, or the real estate.  The highly-paid administrators decided that the condition of the local high school was not becoming of their ego and launched a major expansion.  (The vote for this increase in property taxes took place during an off-peak primary when many retirees were wintering in Florida.)  A friend of mine who is a PhD went to one of the hearings and asked how new buildings would impact the student-teacher ratio and how the property enhancements would improve education.  There was no answer.  Before the final landscaping was completed, the same school claimed budget distress and started laying-off teachers.  Seriously, the grass had not grown next to the newly expanded parking lot when teachers lost their jobs, you know, the people who really do impact the quality of education.

With my local school and with churches, I would question how organizational mission and core activities correspond to theOpenHouseChurchSign real estate.  I have been taking a look at churches and places of weekly worship.  I first announced this research in a previous blog, “The Dying Church,” last March.

“The Dying Church”

According to ChurchPick.com there are about 15 churches or synagogues within two miles of our home.  I have been collecting data and taking notes on these visits.  (I haven’t been to mosques or synagogues yet, but I will begin those visits this fall.)  On my way to visiting 30 churches in 50 weeks, I am about halfway.  I have been to Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quaker services.  I have nearly finished my Baptist visits which included a small church in a suburban town, a mega-church in the city, a large suburban church (near a strip mall, but not a neighborhood), and an urban, family congregation.

I am collecting measurable specifics in my data, and I am making observations whether these houses of worship are welcoming and/or friendly.  I define this by: 1) Friendly = was I greeted by anyone other than the usher (it’s their job); 2) Welcoming = was I invited to return? 

Most often I go alone, but sometimes my spouse joins.  Now he makes friends wherever he goes, so his presence tends to skew my data slightly.  Still, with or without him, I have been shocked to see how few churches invite me back.  Also, my experience has been that the larger churches didn’t have anyone greet me, beyond an usher handing out programs.  Every place I visited had some ritual toward visitors as part of their service, and many had a structured greeting of each other in the service.  Well, that doesn’t count folks.  If I were sincerely church shopping and not one person talked to me except at the required time, I would not return.  Period.  Once and done.

If I expand my ChurchPick.com search to five miles, I have more than 50 possibilities.  Naturally, folks would narrow their selection to the brand name of their liking, Methodist, Roman Catholic, etc. but there are still there are a lot of choices.  If you just need a brand name and a place to go, it’s a buyer’s market.  (I once told someone I didn’t like the town in which I worked because there were too many churches and not enough bars, which inevitably means long on judgment and short on fun.)

The former Episcopal bishop in Philadelphia said it takes 200 people for most churches to be financially self-supporting, but the average attendance of churches is under 100.  This simple math takes me back to real estate.  One church I visited has capacity of 200 and has an average attendance of 60.  There is another church I visited a couple years ago that has dealt with their declining participation by renting to the Christian Scientists on Saturday, the Korean Presbyterians early Sunday morning, then enjoying their own service late Sunday morning, with a part-time priest who participates little in the life of the church during the week and whom they share with another parish.  Kudos for welcoming the Koreans and Christian Scientists, but why do you continue to strap that real estate to your back?

All this finally takes me to Happy Hour.  My spouse and I have a favorite dive bar where you can get a half-pitcher of Yuengling Lager (America’s oldest brewery and a nice beer, thank you) for about $4, and it’s usually more than half-full.  We can either socialize, or sit in a booth and mind our own business.  It is a familiar and comforting setting.  Whether we go there with old friends or by ourselves and we feel welcome.  We are always greeted.  We are always invited back.

I have spent time with more than one seasoned member of the clergy who has reminded church committees that church is not entertainment.  Well, in its ideal state, perhaps not.  I remain unconvinced that church is different from Happy Hour for most people, if they are painfully honest with themselves.  It is an affordable place to go where they expect to meet like-minded people. 

Whether or not church is more than a Happy Hour experience, what kind of worship space do you really need?  How much of the group’s collective ego is attached to the real estate?  Is the building an expression of the church you wish you were?  In the absence of a building, how would you define church?  What I am finding in my visits as a barometer of church vitality is what John Dilulio (former faith czar for two presidents in two different parties) calls “non-member services.”  What are you doing for people other than yourselves?

Whether the Christians like it or not (and lots don’t) this is a pluralistic society.  Religious diversity is not just about denominations, but other religions.  When I think about real estate and religion, I have a dream of one building housing three Abrahamic religions (to start).  The Muslims can pray on Friday, the Jews can pray on Saturday and the Christians can pray on Sunday.  They can each have shared worship space and shared community space.  During the week their young people can use the community space for after-school programs where interfaith community is not just talked about, but lived.  The real estate becomes the metaphor for what each of them could tell you their God expects from them.  And perhaps they could work together to tackle social justice, because there is no end to the possibilities for service there

Let go of the building and redefine what weekly worship and church mean to you.  Find a way to distinguish yourself from Happy Hour.  By the way, Happy Hour is crowded – church, not so much. – J. B. Good

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American Hero: Imam W.D.

What’s happened to “Star Trek”?  It’s gone mass appeal with little time for a story in between faser fire, fisticuffs and bodies spit into space.  This is not your parents’ action and adventure of the old Indiana Jones days.  No, today it means convincing, gratuitous violence, thank you J.J. Abrams (the over-lauded young director).  The title “Star Trek into Darkness” is entirely appropriate.  Yes, I admit I’m a bit of a Trekkie.  I like that it was always easy to find several interesting heroes in a “Star Trek” episode or movie.  Still, the question this disappointing movie made me ask is: who are our heroes?  What constitutes an American hero these days?

First of all, there’s trouble with the word ‘American.’  Linking our identity to this continent reminds us (or should) of the historic fact that the Europeans stole this resource-rich continent from the Native Americans, along with economic prosperity for the elite built on the backs of African (et.al.) slaves.

The exploitative heritage of this country is often glossed-over, or worse, a cliché.  In fact every time I look at Andrew journey-into-america-cover211Jackson on a $20 bill I shudder.  His systematic and unapologetic intention to exterminate Native Americans would easily be called genocide by today’s standards.  Author Akbar Ahmed assigns him the category of “predator” in describing “three distinct but overlapping identities – primordial, pluralist and predator,” in Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, (p.45).  Ahmed’s examples and explanations of these identities are interesting, but for the sake of brevity in this column you can take them at face value, using Dick Cheney and Andrew Jackson as examples of predators, Thomas Jefferson being a pluralist, and the Puritans primordial.  Ahmed looks at these conflicting identities and their impact on society, and foundational for the conflicts we all live with today.

The book flap of Journey into America said, “This eye-opening book also offers a fresh and insightful perspective on American history and society.”  I’m backing into the story of this book because reading about my own country’s history through the eyes of immigrants was powerful.  I was not ignorant to America’s inglorious past, but Ahmed put some of this country’s history in the context of how Muslims are currently treated in America, immigrants and natives.  Not surprisingly, he reveals story after story of bigotry, though this book is much richer than any of those stories in isolation.  In fact, the context he provides is what makes reading Ahmed compelling.  It matters in general, but also because there are six to seven million Muslims in the U.S., and globally, one of every four persons is a Muslim (p.7). 

Ahmed chairs Islamic studies at American University in Washington, DC and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  He chose an anthropological methodology because, “Anthropologists believe that society consists of interacting parts, and that anthropology is therefore the only discipline attempting to study society as a whole,” (p.10).  Ahmed travelled the U.S. and beyond with a team of researchers for visits to mosques and personal interviews, as well as collecting 2,000 questionnaires from people of all backgrounds all over the country. 

With all these stories, from first-hand accounts and from history, there was one person who especially struck me as what I think of as a real American, and my idea of a hero.  Ahmed described him by saying, “The genius of Imam W.D. was that he single-handedly moved the African American community toward identifying with a pluralist American identity while moving away from Black Nationalist Islam,” (p.174).

In my effort to get to know him better, a well-informed source referred me to two books.  Both are dated, but offered me a fuller picture of Imam W.D.  In American Jihad: Islam After Malcolm X (1994), author Steven Barboza titled the chapter on W.D. Mohammed “Prodigal Son,” (p.94).  (The Black Muslims in America, 3rd Edition 1994, by C. Eric Lincoln was also consulted for this column.)  Over time, the world would see how W.D.’s interpretation of Islam differed from his father, Elijah Mohammed.

Barboza’s book had an undertone of disappointment that W.D. did not build on his father’s legacy and empire, which was successful, but harsh.  As one example of sanctioned non-religious activities, the Nation of Islam (NOI) under Elijah Mohammed had a team of “enforcers” (“Fruit of Islam,” FOI) which were known as the ‘punch your teeth out’ arm of NOI.  That may well have been the case since there was a story of ten people killed ‘for no other reason than they didn’t want the FOI completely dominating their lives,’ (p. 96).  Imam W.D. also ended the exclusion of whites (p.95-6).  Louis Farrakhan and his followers eventually split from Imam W.D., retaining many of Elijah Mohammed’s doctrine and practices.

Akbar Ahmed compares Imam W.D.’s impact on American Islam akin to Martin Luther’s impact on Christianity (p.173).  In 1992 he was the first imam to offer morning prayers in the U.S. Senate (Barboza, p.98).  Not only did he make great strides in pluralism, he also taught his followers how they could be good Muslims as well as patriotic Americans.  Another imam said of him: “He is the greatest inspiration to us; he inspired us to accept our obligations and responsibilities as Americans.  Since 1975 we have identified as Muslim Americans.  We have rights, duties, and responsibilities as Americans.  We have to support good wherever we see it,” (Ahmed, p.192).

I now see the late Imam W. D. as a peaceful, devout spiritual man who sacrificed and persevered to lead people of his own faith on a devout path, while maintaining and building inter-faith relationships.  In this country he was a pioneer in teaching a more Orthodox, compassionate Islam.  He’s not taught in American history classes.  Probably many more non-Muslims think of Louis Farakhan or early Malcolm X.  Imam W.D.’s influence was quieter, but likely more widespread, and more spiritual than political.  That was heroic.

With no disrespect to Imam W.D. or Akbar Ahmed, I leave you with something less lofty.  I have been enjoying Canada10340‘s Islam-light on Hulu.com.  Take a look at “Little Mosque.”  It’s not quite a sitcom, but it’s not drama either.  It is an everyday interpretation of the lives of Muslims in a small town in ‘America’ (remember Canada is on the American continent).  This show makes me makes me smile, and sometimes laugh out loud.

“Little Mosque” on Hulu.com

Asalaam alaikum: peace be unto you. –J.B.

Nuns, Cows and Inspiration

There was a summer when I sang “How do you solve a problem, like Maria?” 52 times.  I was home from college andSOM76 managed to get a miserable summer job in a tourist trap during the day and playing a nun on stage at night.  I suspect I was not good at it, but I don’t really know.  I do know I got in trouble for talking trash within ear-shot of the little “Von Trapp” children off stage.  I seemed to need something to balance wearing a habit every night.  It was hard to view it as serious theater because backstage was a livestock sales barn, usually with cows.  The mooing and the cow dung were equally distracting.  And contrary to the delicious rumor, I did not go bar-hopping in my nun’s costume, though I wish that it had been me.

When the “Sound of Music” movie was in theaters in the early sixties, Karen Armstrong had just joined a severe, conservative convent in England at the age of 17.  The day her family took her to the convent, they went to see the “Sound of Music” after they said good-bye, while she was entering an entirely different world than the movie convent.  Armstrong spent seven long, painful years there and many more recovering, but eventually wrote The History of God, and many other books.  I just finished reading her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, and re-reading her follow-up memoir, The Spiral Staircase.

These two Armstrong books reminded me of The Empty Mirror: Experience in a Japanese Zen Monastery, by Janwillem van de Wetering, and the book by my friend The Orange Robe (Marsha Low Goluboff).  I admit that not everyone is fascinated by people who go to extremes on their own spiritual quest, but I am.  In Armstrong’s case, she was in pre-Vatican II draconian communities that sounded quite like prison to me.  For van de Wetering, it was in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan with austere conditions that resulted in high-risk weight loss and numerous very serious physical and mental ailments.  My friend Marsha travelled the globe living on next to nothing that she most often had to scrape-up for herself in a guru-centered cult, Ananda Marga, which she calls a “spiritual sect.”

It is easy to be amazed by people making such personal sacrifice of physical and emotional comfort.  Granted, the stories I’m referring to here are written by people who have left the group.  Those who stay are less likely to write books that appeal to others or offer more than proselytizing.  Still, we can learn more about an organization, or a family for that matter, from those who have left.  Take a look at the black sheep of a family and you will learn more, faster.  Well, in my family that’s me, so maybe I’m biased.

What struck me in all three books was the arbitrary and brutal behavior of many in leadership who were viewed by themselves and others as spiritually advanced.  While I can understand the value to challenging and managing our own ego, I have never liked the people in power having to ‘break’ others. Upon arrival at the monastery, van de Wetering said, “In every training the ego is broken, the ‘I’ is crushed,” (p.17.)  Armstrong described that approach by saying: “We are, the great spiritual writers insist, most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away, and it is egotism that holds us back from that transcendent experience…” (p.279).  Armstrong offered another way of looking at the ascetic search for God or enlightenment; “…a disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy,” (p.279).  Really?  Is it just another buzz?  The Buddha himself, moved on from asceticism and to the middle path (The World’s Religions, Huston Smith, p. 85).

One reason I am so skeptical of extreme lifestyles is a result of growing up around plain Mennonites and Amish.  What I have seen from all three books and while growing up, is that people are people.  By my idea of ethical behavior and compassionate interaction, I don’t see any greater measure of ethics and compassion coming from the Amish, the convent, or the Zen monastery.  For you religious readers I would say: Orthodoxy is not Piety.  For those of you scratching your heads at that one, I will add that rigid religious practice does not guarantee religious enlightenment or even sincerity.  In fact, often the severity of practice is in itself a distraction.

What I have learned from these stories is the value of ordinary life; for example, the struggle of staying employed and sane as an ethical person.  For many people, this is a fierce internal battle.  It’s just not that easy to find a civilized work environment where you don’t have to worry about who is going to throw you in front of the political bus, or how many people will be laid-off to protect the CEO’s inflated salary.  Your ego doesn’t need to be broken when it is beaten down by life every day.  I think more of us need the creativity and strength to keep some balance and perspective in our lives without being demoralized or immobilized.

In this, I have to refer (briefly) to education in our country.  I don’t have the research to present you with a full treatise here.  What I have are stories: stories of laid-off teachers and entire schools systems that are chronically under-funded in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  This week 30 school children went to see the governor of Pennsylvania with 4,000 letters.  He refused to see them.  Most of the state is controlled by white Republicans who see the School District of Philadelphia as poor blacks who have no right to expect the same education as white children of privilege.  Why is this ok?  Why is education considered a luxury?

That’s a long walk around the barn to say: what can I do to make a difference when I’m hanging on to my job by my fingernails and watching those in power abusing those who have even more meager resources than I do?  How do I manage my daily stress, and still find energy to make my voice heard?  And worse, will it make a difference?

What I’m hanging on to is knowing people like my friend Sara.  She took a vacation day to go to the state capitol to try to get callous legislators to care about education.  Every day she works full-time, cares for her mother and family, volunteers on two nonprofit boards, and was the volunteer of the year at her church.  At work she is fierce and vocal about workplace ethics and she has my back.  Always.

I can tell you I find more religious ecstasy in knowing Sara than contemplating my navel or being bullied by religious extremists.  I know there are more like her.  Truthfully, I’m not in her league.  But I aspire to be, and promise to keep trying harder.

If I have distressed you, then I do have a suggestion.  If you get really bummed, just put in the “Sound of Music” soundtrack and sing along really loud.  Nothing works for me better than the goat-herd song.  Just don’t stop listening to your conscience and protecting your soul, whether it is from your own ego or from bullies, in religion or at work.  –J.B.

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Born Agains Be Gone

When I’m flipping through the cable TV channels, sometimes I catch a few anecdotes from Wayne Dyer with his latest book pitch, “Excuses Begone.”  When I hear him trying to make it sound so easy, I picture Samantha on “Bewitched” just wiggling her nose to make anything appear or disappear.  Well, that’s what I’d like to do with those Born Agains.  To be clear, I’m not wishing them dead, I’m just wishing their behavior (and attitude) would be gone.  And I know I’m not the only one.

Here’s how one person described it (p.24):  “Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.”  When I heard that quote I had to buy the book.  Well, that was an unfortunate impulse, but I’ll share the few things of interest here so you don’t make the same mistake.  (Don’t even check it out from the library.)

unChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity, is written by David Kinnaman aunChristiannd Gabe Lyons.  They researched what 16-29 year-olds think about Christianity with a few statistics about all adults throughout.  Though this research was clearly biased, I found their conclusions interesting because they were so unflattering to the authors’ own orientation – as the book flap says, “Christianity has an image problem.”

In 16-29 year-olds, 57 percent know “Evangelical Christians” and 49 percent have a bad impression (p.23).  The three most common perceptions of Christians by this age-group are anti-gay/91%, judgmental/87%, and hypocritical/85% (p.25).  These “perceptions” are based on interaction with Christians, as the authors describe, 85 percent of young “outsiders” say they have had significant exposure to Christians.  In other words, these are not just random perceptions, but a result of personal experiences.  That makes it much more than an image problem.

The authors start on page one by characterizing folks of other religions/no religion as “those outside of Christianity” and then shorten future references to “outsiders.”  I was repeatedly disturbed that they didn’t see this distinction as demeaning.  Throughout the book the consistent assumption is that not only are other religions wrong, but so are other kinds of Christians.  The Born Agains see themselves as the sole moral authority for the world and the only acceptable interpretation of Christianity.

In case you dozed-off, here’s how I would summarize this book: the Born Again authors are shocked and dismayed that there are so many people who think that their exclusive club is hypocritical and judgmental.  They want to learn from their “data” so they can do a better job of converting more of us “outsiders.”  Even as they write about arrogance, their underlying assumptions have tremendous hubris.  Here are examples of the authors’ rationalizations: “Keep in mind that part of the reason Christians possess a bad reputation is because our faith perspectives grate against a morally relativistic culture…Christians are known as judgmental because we address sin and its consequences…Christians should identify homosexual behavior as morally unacceptable because that is what Scripture teaches,” (p.34).  In that last sentence the authors leaped from interpreting data as the Barna Group (which Kinnaman runs) to interpreting the Bible, and without attribution, neither on Biblical scholarship nor Bible passages.  (I remind you that on the gay issue, Jesus did not say one thing in the Christian Gospels.)

Born Agains are so sure they are right and the rest of us “outsiders” are wrong that some of them turn their arrogance into full-time jobs, fund-raising from each other to proselytize the rest of us.  One couple, now middle-aged, has done this with relatives for over 30 years without ever having to work for a living.  They still make regular visits to an elderly retired couple, a school teacher and a tradesperson, who donate more money every year than they spent on the education of their own children.  One of the donors is now exhibiting signs of dementia – but that doesn’t stop the tireless fund-raisers from asking for additional support, above and beyond the regular amount.  They have even sent one of their children to fund-raise for a “mission” trip to Paris.  Nice work if you can get it.  I will take a Secular Humanist’s ethics over these Born Again exploiters any day of the week.

I have written before (link below) about a more compassionate Evangelical, Rob Bell. who reminds us that whatever happens after death is “speculation.”  Two amazingly intelligent and compassionate Evangelicals are Bill Moyers  (public television) and  Jim Wallis (Sojourner magazine), so those folks do exist.  It seems that there are fewer of them and their voices are not as loud and intrusive.  They are willing to express their faith, but respect the faith of others, regardless of what shape that takes.  Faith is a part of life that can’t be proven, by definition, and so there are no absolutes.  The only ultimate truth is the one we choose for our own life.

“What the Hell?” and Rob Bell

By way of contrast, and to leave you with something more positive, I want to ask you to think about the Pueblos.  These Native Americans lived an apparently peaceful, agrarian life for over 2,000 years.  They didn’t have a word for religion because the lives and religion of the people were inseparable (“Treasures of the Past: Mesa Verde,” Mesa Verde Museum Association, Inc., 1993 video).  They minded their own business.  They lived their lives.  They didn’t need to convert anyone to anything.

Here is how I would pray to an inclusive, loving God.  Perhaps it will remind you of another famous prayer, after which I modeled it. – J.B.

Mother and Father, in heaven and earth
Making all things sacred
Your riches fulfilled, your preference for us
On earth, the same as heaven

Your providence meeting
Our earthly needs
Teaching forgiveness by forgiving

Guide us from fear
Protect us from harm
That we not forget all is connected

Your Spirit
Our Spirit
Forever
Amen

© 1999 J. Good

Anger Mismanagement

It is probably a mistake to admit this, but on the way to church, I flipped someone off.  Even at the time, I recognized the irony of my actions.  I admit I think they deserved it, and I did feel better doing it.  They were walking in the middle of the street in slow motion.  It was in a quiet neighborhood – but it was a street.  They saw my vehicle and just kept walking slowly in the middle of the street, before they finally sauntered to the shoulder. 

Even though at the time of my indiscretion I was driving to church, I don’t consider myself one of those typical church ladies, mostly because I enjoy cursing like teamster.  (Yes, I have heard them do that.)  But in my experience, very often church ladies have the same inclinations as me and my one-finger salute.  You see, I think passive aggressive is still aggressive and sometimes worse because it masquerades as nice.

At a place I worked I had a co-worker who was one of those sweet middle-aged women who everyone thinks is kind.  She was in church about four times a week always talking about praying for people and God’s will.  My perception is that she was more of a self-martyred doormat, and expected other women to be the same.

In the department in which I worked I was being picked-on by a male co-worker and quite honestly had groused about it a little too much.  Church Lady didn’t come to my rescue or defend my honor.  Nor did she communicate directly to me that my commentary was wearing thin.  When she became chilly (passive aggressive) I made several attempts to offer to help her with work or see if anything was wrong and got no response.  Instead she complained to a manager about me.  No complaints about the male for his actions, but instead about the female (me) and my reaction to being harassed.  As a female, she expected me to suffer in silence.

It seems that there are too many opportunities to feel out of control, frustrated, pissed off, and even enraged.  Fewer and fewer people know a safe way to handle those feelings.  Here’s what I don’t do – pray it away.  Turning anger in toward religion just creates an angry religion.

In my readings, I have come across an expert on this: a humble Vietnamese, Buddhist monk whom I have heard speak and whose books I have read.  His writing style is not challenging to serious readers (English is not his first language), but thePanOnStove content of his books is spiritually inspired, and almost magic in its simplicity.  (It is wise to read it as poetry.)  In Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thich Nhat Hahn talks about “cooking anger,” (p.29).  He compares it to cooking potatoes.  “But even at a very high flame, if you turn off the fire after five minutes, the potatoes will not be cooked.”  I take this to mean that my anger deserves respect, and a minimal amount of time to process.  My anger has validity and deserves recognition by me, though perhaps something more positive than flipping someone off.

What kind of anger led the two men accused of the Boston Marathon bombing to such behavior?  Like most of us, this has been disturbing to me.  The Wall Street Journal article (link follows) tells the story of a lost, frustrated young man (the older brother).  The guidance he received from his mother was to pursue extreme Islam.  That’s not a reflection on Islam.  It is, in my opinion, bad parenting.  I sincerely believe that any religion, or any ideology for that matter, could have been exploited to the extreme by this young man.  He had a need to lash out, as he did once at his local mosque.  Reasonable Muslims told him to knock it off, just like moderate Muslims have condemned what it seems he did in Boston.

Wall Street Journal on family religious issues of accused Boston bombers

Salon article on deceased and accused Boston bomber disrupting mosque service

Religion News.com on Muslim leaders against terrorism

Religious people will likely disagree with me, but I don’t think religion is the answer for all one’s woes.  Religion may offer inspiration or guidance, and hopefully spiritual growth, but if someone has serious psychological problems or is socially disenfranchised, religion will be received and exercised in that same way.  Every religion is interpretive and angry people will interpret religion as angry.  Put more simply: people find the god they want.

That takes me to Bill Maher.  I usually agree with him, so when he went on a rant about Islam I really had to stop and think.  It is difficult to argue that Islam is not a dangerous religion, though I don’t really believe that it is.  With religion, much like human beings, context is everything.  There is a difference between understanding the Islam of Mohammed and his writings, and perceiving Islam only through the eyes of angry Muslims who have embraced a cult-like interpretation of what is truly an inclusive, peaceful religion.  As tragic as recent incidents have been, the actions of extremists represent a very small minority of practicing Muslims.  In the same way most Christians would not want to be thought of as people who bomb abortion clinics (I hope); nor would Buddhists want to be known for the “War Monk” in Sri Lanka.

When Bill Maher judges a religion on the behavior of its practitioners, it makes sense and seems fair.  But we live in a mass-media, global world with a lot of troubled people.  Some of them are going to choose a religious interpretation that validates their anger and allows them to lash out.  That can happen in any religion, or political group for that matter.  Remember, the moderate people are not newsmakers.  Peaceful, reasonable people do not make good headlines.

Bill Maher on Islam

I feel like we have learned enough about the accused Boston Marathon Bombers.  It was a sensational and horrible tragedy played out on live feeds for days on television and the Internet.  But now it is time to learn and heal.  We need to “cook” our own collective anger and learn from what has happened while we find ways to support those who have been hurt.  I do not want to see one more photograph of those young men. They should not be the news any longer.  We are the news.  People helping people is “Boston Strong” and that’s the only news I want.  And religious people around the globe – for this is not just about Islam – have to prove our worth by serving.  It takes a lot of compassionate service to offset those working for angry interpretations of religion. – J.B.

The Dying Church

George Carlin has a great rant about golf, paraphrasing and skipping the enjoyable expletives, he said golf is an arrogant game taking up too much prime real estate for one little ball.

George Carlin on golf

I promise that I won’t extend the metaphor too far, but I want to ask folks to consider how much real estate they really need to do whatever it is they think they need to do in churches.  Most church property sits idle for most of the week.  I’m just asking: does that make sense?

This has led me to another thought, and that is to consider why people go to church.  It may seem obvious to some people, but it isStainedGlass_edited-1 no longer obvious to me.  For Christianity, this is Holy Week, the most significant week of the church year.  Many Christians believe in making some sacrifice for the Lenten season which precedes Easter Sunday.  I gave up church committees for Lent.  It has been my best Lent ever.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a study October 9, 2012 called, “‘Nones’ on the Rise: One-in-five Adults have no religious affiliation.”  (The online link follows.)  “Nones” is the category used by Pew and others to describe those with no affiliation to organized religion.  The category includes atheists, agnostics, those who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious,’ and just ‘none’ in general.  While most organized religions in America have been in decline, this is one category that has been “on the rise.”  The Pew study reported an increase from 15 percent to 20 percent in just five years, with a current total of 46 million adults.

Pew Forum report

Duke religion scholar Mark Chaves has provided a great deal more depth and analysis in his new book American Religion: Contemporary Trends (2011 Princeton University Press).  If you want to read just one book about what’s really going on with religious trends in this country read this one.  Chaves showed that the trends in American religion are more generational than year-to-year (p.50).  In this context and citing two surveys, Chaves said that the changes in religious organizations reflect the changing demographics of society.  Demographics are their own story and I’m not going to tackle that here, except to share Chaves’ observation that the decline in religious involvement is the same as the overall decline in civic involvement and volunteerism in America (Chaves, Congregations in America, p.29).

Chaves’ primary measure for religious participation was attending services at any religious organization.  In 1965 it was 40 percent of Americans (not adjusted for people saying they go more than they do) and in 1993 it was 27 percent (p.44).  The current rate is 25 percent, which is still “high by world standards.”  The median number of Christians at worship weekly is less than 100 (p.61).

This takes me back to George Carlin and real estate.  How much building do you need for 75 people a week?  I have a friend who is a New Englander who told me that the two small, struggling Lutheran churches in his home town can’t combine because one is German and one is Swedish.  They have no difference in doctrine or practice, they just come from a different heritage.  This is no disrespect to Lutherans because I have all confidence I can find you a similar example with no difficulty whatsoever in any (using Chaves’ description p.52) “conventional mainstream American religion.”  Yet while religious practice and participation has been declining, the belief in God has not declined at the same rate.  It was 99 percent in the 1950s and 92 percent in 2008 (p.11).

I participate in a Christian service with some regularity.  I find myself looking around and wondering why folks are there.  What is it that keeps them coming?  There are those who would tell you that God expects or even requires them to participate regularly in some religious service or ritual.  Well, good for them.  First of all, I am skeptical of anyone who says God has spoken to them.  Very many weird and bad things have happened by people spouting that line.  Even so, the question remains: why is it that so many people who believe in God are not inclined to act on that belief by going to a service?

I want to suggest several issues for which I don’t have statistical evidence.  First of all, it doesn’t seem churches have clarity of mission.  (By mission, I mean organizational priority, not as in “missionary’ or proselytizing.)  Second, churches are greedy with their real estate.  I don’t see how they need all those buildings.  I do like a pretty church and I love stained glass, but it takes a lot of resources to support that property.  Third, many churches function as social clubs and carry with them the same dysfunction of any group of human beings, as well as the inevitability of committees.

It could be that the church is dying, certainly that is true for some congregations.  Maybe it’s not on life support, but in some cases, groups are struggling for survival and their real estate hasn’t adjusted to their reality.  Maybe it’s like the post-dot-com stock market changes.  It’s painful at first, but it’s just a correction and now we just have realign our attitude and assets accordingly.

Here’s my mission: 30 churches in 50 weeks.  I’m going to start with an ever-expanding circle from my home in suburban Philadelphia and just be the visitor to see if I can figure out why people are there.  Feel free to write me – here or at my e-mail address on the contact page.  Why do you go to church?  Why don’t you go to church?  It’s Easter this week for Christians, so I’ll start with my home church, and I’m going to count last week when I checked out the Presbyterians.

Before I go, let me add that I really miss George Carlin.  Maybe the world needs more George Carlins and fewer churches.  -J.B.

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Past post on the Roman Catholic leadership

In light of the pope’s extraordinary resignation, I re-offer some thoughts from a previous blog on the Roman Catholic Church and make the distinction between the established leadership and many of its devout practitioners on the link below.

Sins of the Fathers: The original sins of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy

-J.B.

 

 

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