Category Archives: Democracy

March on, Democracy. March on.

When you look up at the sky, what do you see? Meteorologists must see the presence or absence of clouds and the likelihood of precipitation. Astrologers probably think, “When are we finally going to rotate away from that sun so I can 16142735_10211738442004652_2931030917139632431_nsee stars?” Religious people often look up there and imagine God in Her heaven, wistfully, blissfully, earnestly, or desperately. I’m not sure what atheists see. Maybe they just say, ‘I’m glad I’m alive to look up at this sky.’ That’s close to what I was thinking on Saturday, January 21st when I was in our nation’s capitol for the Women’s March on Washington. I looked up to the sky and said, “I am glad I am here.” And just in case Mother God was listening, I said, “Thank you.”

When I first decided to march, it was to protest the election of a wannabe Emperor who has boasted about assaulting women and inspired millions to freely come out to express their inner bully and wide-spread bigotry. His character flaws and shocking mental health issues are too numerous to waste words here. As we got closer to the March day, I just wanted to make myself a better citizen. I traveled with three acquaintances whom I barely knew before the March and I now consider good friends. They stayed overnight at my house so we could make a 5:15 a.m. bus with as little pain as possible. The night before we all admitted to both hope and skepticism that the March would make a difference.

The March program opened with one of the most deeply spiritual expressions I’ve ever experienced  – and please note here I’m a religion writer who has been in quite of few religious gatherings in my life. The program started with what the organizers called a “song” but I would call a chant or a musical prayer. If YouTube is correct, it was the Native American Norine Hill from #IndigenousWomenRise. I hope you will find a quiet place and click on this link. Please imagine yourself outdoors under an overcast sky with people in every direction, and even in the trees. Then listen. I don’t know if there were words, or what her intention was, but I heard a call to all of our souls, to rise to the greater good.

Native American opening song

I don’t really like crowds. I like to be home where it’s quiet with my dog and cat at my side. It takes something to get me out, other than working for a living, of course. But the experience started much before daylight when three buses left from my small suburban community and joined 1,900 of them in the stadium parking lot. Then a very diverse river of people climbed stairs, walked to the Metro station, got in and out of subway cars, then inched out onto the street. All the while in the metro station there were sweeps of chants and a sort of woo-hoo kind of high musical sigh that was to your ears what the wave at a sports stadium would be for your eyes.

The YouTube video was shot close to where I was standing, which was blocks from the stage. You can see people actually climbed the tree to get a better look. This img_20170121_100727street was intended to be a route for the walking part of the March, but it was too crowded. After a couple hours of standing with a crowd pressing in, I got a little claustrophobic, so we inched our way from where the crowd was packed to an area where it was only slightly less packed behind the Smithsonian and toward the Mall.  All the while, people were pouring in from every direction. We walked about 10 or 15 blocks to find something to eat. The whole time we were walking away from the stage, people from every direction were streaming in. While we ate lunch we watched the March on a muted CNN in the restaurant and realized that it so much bigger than we could comprehend at street level. When we went to return to the marching part of the March, it was everywhere. It was not just one street, but many streets, all filled with people marching. There were spontaneous chants to fun rhythms (picture Bill Murray in “Stripes”). The one I’m still chanting while I walk my dog is: “This is how democracy works!” Oh, yes it is.

It was difficult to hear all the speeches while we were there, so I’ve been listening online. (Thank you New York Times; link follows.) I was able to hear most of Gloria Steinem and some Michael Moore live, and they remain my favorites.

New York Times online speeches

What was clear on Saturday, and is even more vivid listening online, is that the speakers were embracing multiple issues, not just their own agenda. The over-arching theme was democracy, tolerance, equity. These values were more powerful than the crowd’s clear disdain of the newly elected  “Groper-in-chief,” (quoting Jane Fonda on Bill Maher’s show). In fact, much more potent than the mass dissatisfaction with the incoming president was the urgent need to put common values in place that assure people are treated fairly and have more equal opportunity.

It’s important to ask: What started all this? One idea, from one woman in Hawaii on Facebook. Her what-if/what-can-we-do moment launched an important action for millions that was not just an expression but a movement to a more engaged populace willing to work to keep democracy vital. One woman’s idea started this. As Steinem told us, “…370 marches in every state and on six continents…” Check out the New York Times article with photos from around the globe and highlights of signs and chants.

New York Times global photos

The United States is a secular democracy with a constitutional commitment to the separation of church and state. I remind you that it matters because while all religions are protected, it assures you can practice the one of your choosing, or none at all, without fear of imprisonment. The new president is threatening to require Muslims to register. With no exaggeration at all, this is not unlike what Hitler did to Jews before he started the genocide. It’s also a short walk from registry to rounding people up for camps like the Japanese in this country after Pearl Harbor. Make no mistake that the current governance threatens to take us into very dark times. Are you going quietly?

In spite of the efforts of the White House to make shameless bigotry and greed the new policy, Steinem tried to give us perspective and said, “I have been thinking about the use of a long life and one of them is that you remember when things were worse…This, [she waved her hand across the crowd] this is the upside of the downside. This is an outpouring of energy and true democracy like I have never seen in my very long life.” Right with you on that, Gloria.

Saturday’s global March proved that we don’t need laws or religion to guide us into a secular morality that can be embraced by diverse masses. Click on the link below and scan the list of speakers, most of whom mentioned other issues in their own speeches. And when is the last time you heard someone running for office even talk about the common good? Well, of course, we can thank Hillary for: “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.”

List of speakers

Rhea Suh, NRDC president said, “Each one of you is an individual that made a powerful decision – a choice to be here…because you believe in the fundamental principles that we matter…We are not helpless. We are still a democracy.” The March was a call to remember that democracy only thrives with engaged citizens, who are watching to assure the balance of power. Democracy also needs a free press to recognize and publicize corruption. Some work needs to be done there since they largely failed us in this last election cycle. But we need to do our part by buying newspapers and turning off fake news and reality TV. We need to demonstrate that as media consumers and citizens, we want more than unsubstantiated or un-investigated sound bites.

And, since this is a religion column, I am compelled to remind you that freedom of religion means you get to make your own choice and practice it as you want. If you want the government to impose your religion on others, then prepare yourself for the day when what they impose is not your religion. That said, if they really do impose a Muslim registry, I’m with Madeleine Albright and I’m signing-up as Muslim. -J.B.

New York Times photo: Chang W. Lee

 

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The Gospel of Star Wars

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, I was in high school.  It was a mediocre public school in Lancaster County, PennsylvaniaPaulBarberEdit1 where there was a holiday for the first day of deer hunting season, but not for Martin Luther King Day.  This is, however, where I met Mr. Paul R. Barber, my own Jedi  master.  Mr. Barber died this month, so this column is in his honor.

Having lived in the Midwest and visited Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, I can tell you that Lancaster County trumps all of them with Bible-belt influence.  Some people consider that a good thing, I am not one of them.  The predominant Biblical interpretation for this region is literal, which strips Christianity of the rich potential of metaphor.  It was in this environment that Mr. Barber volunteered to teach world religions.  He was a devout, practicing Roman Catholic, but when he taught Hinduism, he became a Hindu.  He was so effective that invariably the Biblical fanatics in class – and there were always several of them – would barrage him with angry arguments.  They expected his approach to teaching non-Christian religions would be to offer up what was wrong with them.  Living where I did, I think I understand what it was like for Luke Skywalker on the desert, trying to farm, when he finally met Obi-Wan Kenobi (Episode IV: A New Hope, the first movie produced), who would become his own Jedi master.

With Mr. Barber, I took an independent study in philosophy where he introduced me to the likes of existentialism and pragmatism, while also letting me read Jonathan Livingston Seagull and showing me how to find philosophy in popular culture and simplistic books.  At the time of this writing, All Things Religious is up to about 6,500 views.  I recognize that CNN gets that many hits in 15 minutes, but think about how long it would take the majority of clergy persons whose average Sunday audience is 70, to be able to say their sermons were heard 6,500 times.  I would not have taken this path without Mr. Barber.

Star Wars creator George Lucas said, “I’ve always tried to be aware of what I say in my films, because all of us who make motion pictures are teachers — teachers with very loud voices.”
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/george-lucas/about-george-lucas/649/LucasC3PO

The values and mythology of Star Wars was not accidental.  Lucas told “American Masters” (PBS): “There was no modern mythology to give kids a sense of values, to give them a strong mythological fantasy life…Nothing was being done for young people with real psychological underpinnings.”  Lucas said that he set out to write a “modern fairy tale” for children and was greatly influenced by mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell (substantiating YouTube link follows).
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSyyqctan2c

Joseph Campbell warned us (“The Power of the Myth,” with Bill Moyers, PBS) that without mythology, society starts to fall apart.  If you would challenge that, then observe the shocking and ever-increasing incidents of random shootings.

It is possible that a secular culture, like Lucas created in Star Wars, can still share stories, fantasies and a value system.  The Galactic Republic of Star Wars was the democratic union that governed the galaxy of many races and species in peace for a thousand years with the Jedi Order as guardians of peace and justice.  Then slowly and surreptitiously, the (evil) Empire rose to destroy democracy to the benefit of the few.  Their challenge was all the easier in a culture that had succumb to corruption and bureaucratic inertia.

The Jedi Knights were the spiritual sort in the galaxy who trained and self-governed with telepathy, insight, and wisdom.  I see them as conscience police.  When bad things happened, it was good to call a Jedi to investigate and defend.  They were armed with lightsabers which were more for defense than offense and had both power and grace.

Lucas mixed the temporal and the meta-physical by introducing the “Force” and the midi-chlorians.  For help on this, I found a site that calls itself “Wookieepedia,” the Wiki for Star Wars.  (Don’t know how good it is but it the name makes me smile.)  It convincingly described the Force as “a pervasive energy field.”  It’s a little more than that because it seems to have a “will” for the creatures of the galaxy.  To help interpret that will, there are the microscopic midi-chlorians which are present to varying degrees in different species, highest of course in the Jedi.
http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Midi-chlorian

At this point I remind you that the creator of the Star Wars phenomena – for it is a great deal more than six movies, set out to tell stories to children.  The movies have all been extremely successful.  There are Web sites, games, toys, Halloween costumes and products that seem to reach to the stars.  One year for Halloween I was a Jedi Knight and my little dog was Yoda.  Some silly neighborhood kid came as Darth Vader and was freaked out when I drew my lightsaber on him.  Well, what was he expecting?  I’ve got your lightsaber now, kid.

I propose that Star Wars is more than entertainment and Joseph Campbell was right.  The attraction to those stories speaks to our natural desire for myths that serve our time.  Curiosity about the metaphysical is natural.  A common morality is essential.  As a global community, we have to stand outside our own traditions to recognize our common values.  I don’t see how we can survive otherwise.  I challenge you to present me with a culture that doesn’t value justice, for example, though of course not as much agreement on how it is defined.  Or view from the reverse perspective; examine what’s behind those trying to impose micro-ethics on others.  I predict you will see a desire to control, oppress, or subjugate someone who is different, and it is often fear-based.

Here’s what Master Yoda said about that (Episode I): “Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”

Thank you Jedi Master Paul Barber.  May the Force be with you. –J.B.

Religion and democracy and blogging

Why does religion matter in a secular society?  First of all, I am thrilled this is a secular democracy, even when the democracy part isn’t working very well.  That means that there is not an official state religion and those governing are expected to separate their religious views from their governance.  In other words, clergy (of any religion) do not have the right to approve government action.

I don’t want a state religion because it will inevitably be a religion I don’t like; also, because it’s not fair.  Remember how we learned about what’s fair by either having siblings or getting to kindergarten?  Well, democracy should be fair.  It’s not fair to impose your religion on someone else.  I really think that is a kindergarten-simple value.

The vast majority of folks in these United States believe there is a God.  (Feel free to e-mail me if you want citations, I have several.)  We are increasingly a pluralistic society, with practitioners of many different religions in close proximity to each other (learn more in A New Religious America by Diana L. Eck).  The majority (over 70 percent) of religious people in this country claim to be part of some kind of Christianity.  That is the rub: how to manage undue influence by the majority religion.  That is a secular issue.  That is a subject that should matter to everyone, especially the non-religious and those in minority religions.  It matters to Christians who disagree with each other.  It matters in society and it matters in how religion is covered by the press.  And that, my friends, is why I write.

I have been writing this blog since April 2010 and the views are nearly at 3,000 now.  This particular column is intended to provide new readers with some general information on how and why these blogs are posted.  In high school, one of my favorite English teachers, Murphy, told me you can’t be a good writer if you’re not a good reader.  It was one of the smartest things he ever taught me.  I do not ever write a blog without research and some general reading.  Though I quite enjoy musing and an occasional rant, the actual writing is the result of research and reflection and is not just reactionary.  Honest.

I recently completed a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania.  In order to graduate from Penn I had to be able to read, write and be competent at doing primary research.  My master’s research was a content analysis of the Philadelphia Inquirer in contrast with the Wichita Eagle (Kansas) and Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly (public television).  Sparing you tedious (and perhaps sleep-inducing) findings in this column, I will summarize by saying that I entered the research with low expectations and was still amazed at how poorly religion is covered by most of the press.

The reason religion in the news matters is because even if you are not religious, most of your neighbors have some religious orientation that may influence how they vote, and how they vote has impact on your life.  Sadly, intelligence in not required for voting, so when politicians trot out religious-related rhetoric, most people are ill-prepared (or disinclined) to understand the real implications of that propaganda.  (See my April 1, 2011 column “Newt the Nightmare” for a specific example.)

If you read a number of my columns you may conclude I am more critical of Christianity than other religions.  That is intentional.  The majority religion takes looking after.  Constant reminders are required to challenge the influence of the majority religion and the interpretations by its practitioners.  I have appointed myself to this watch-dog role.

I have a favorite animal communicator, Anita Curtis, who does amazing work.  She said that most of our domestic animal family (my words, not hers) have a perception of what their role is, or what their “job” is.  My cat, Sunny, has appointed herself to watch birds.  (Unlike my other cat Zoey who stalks bugs.)  It is very important to her to be able to go from window to window keeping an eye on those rascals.  She is quite serious about this job and seems to find satisfaction in keeping watch on behalf of the household.  Well, I have appointed myself to be the watchdog of religious rascals, and perhaps to no greater end than my cat watching birds.  I hope you find some measure of interest in reading my blogs as I find in watching Sunny watch birds.  –J.B.