Category Archives: Social Ethics

Of Race and Men

Since Heather Heyer was run down and murdered by a racist while she was protesting Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, there have been more offenses to decency and democracy. It’s difficult to keep track. Like these three who were in Gainesville, Florida, stirring-up violence to show their support for white supremacist, Richard Spencer, who was also previously in Charlottesville.

I wonder if you see the pattern I see? When I watched HBO’s “VICE News Tonight” story on the spectacle and violence in Charlottesville, I was not surprised that the agitators were mostly young, white males. Let’s be honest: they weren’t protestors or free speech advocates, they were a heavily-armed militia. They want to overthrow civility and civil rights, which is essentially democracy. Their march was an exercise by radicals committed to intimidating anyone unlike themselves, or anyone even disagreeing with their self-serving, hateful ideology. Even the word ideology is a flattering description because it implies thought-out ideas, rather than the narcissistic trash talk it is. Their attempt to elevate white male supremacy to a political platform would be laughable, if it weren’t so dangerous. These are playground bullies, grown-up and armed, wearing their whiteness like a divine right.

 

I really can’t figure out why they are so perpetually pissed-off. From where I’m sitting, white males still have it easier than anyone else. But how we have de-evolved? Remember the good old days when it was frustrating to try and talk or work with men thinking with their dicks? Ah, simpler times…Now they’re thinking with their guns.

After Charlottesville, I watched cable news and listened to NPR podcasts. I read online stories and even had a complete stranger at the train station talk to me about the state of our country. Usually everyone on the train platform has their head-down with eyes and thumbs on their mobile device. I guess she was reading some news and just had to say something to someone. That is a feeling I understand. For me, it’s the additional confusion of disagreeing with the nothing less than the ACLU, which is quite rare for me. I send them checks. I consider them one of the organizations with the ability to impact some of the countless shames of the current president and his regime. However, they’re getting this one wrong. Very wrong.

These are not the good-old-days of street protests. Free speech is not relevant when there is an action by an armed militia. Make no mistake that Charlottesville was a coup rehearsal. The ACLU is trying to conduct business in a civil democracy that is currently operating like a Banana Republic. Stop being naïve. It’s not hip or enlightened to sanction a platform in order to give voice to violent radicals who intend to overthrow the very system that is allowing them this opportunity. And by the way, violence often starts with rhetoric. I wouldn’t fault the ACLU if they hosted a panel in the local school auditorium with speeches from both sides. Invite the damn Nazis to that. But you better have security at the door because these are the domestic terrorists with whom we now live. They are exploiting our commitment to free speech and an open society, in order to advance their mission to destroy our foundational values and democracy itself.

ACLU internal tensions

The article link that follows is about white supremacist, Richard Spencer, speaking in Florida. The University, the municipality, and the state spent lots of money to make the community safe from everyone his hate talk attracted. Yes, the same guy (one of them) who fomented violence in Charlottesville. Again, this is not free speech. This is allowing a forum for anarchy and oppression. Free speech does not mean we have to allow every thought into the public square. The photo below is Spencer in Charlottesville, and we know how that turned out.

Gainesville shooting and Spencer

Gainesville state of emergency

With all this news, things seem hopeless. I went to the Women’s March on Washington, and it was one of the best days of my life, but I don’t think I would have had the courage to go to Charlottesville. I am sad to say that since that immediately after Charlottesville, I heard a few white people try and rationalize by saying, well, there were actions on ‘both sides.’ (I don’t mean the racist president. I mean regular people.) Only white people would say something that outrageous. When you have an angry, armed militia of white men from all over the country invade a small town, then why is anyone surprised that some of the people protesting their presence would get upset? I ask you, who died? This is just about blaming the victim so white folks can excuse themselves from speaking-up.

I have been reading a Joan Chittister book from 1998, Heart of Flesh: Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men. Though I expected it to be dated, I found it sad how little things have changed. In writing about patriarchy and spirituality, Chittister said, “The patriarchal society, agreeable as it may be, is an essentially violent thing (p.24)…Patriarchy is built on the backs of the powerless by the powerful, who take all power to themselves, public, intellectual, and religious,” (p.27). I can’t do Chittister justice here, but bear with me while I try to provide a glimpse of all 175 impeccably written and researched pages here.

Chittister could not have imagined the current president (who could?) in the nineties. She wrote about narcissism (p.96-97). She said it was named as a disorder by the American Psychological Association in 1980. Then she gives us context when she describes narcissists, “They are the beginning and end of what is important to them; they can’t possibly be sensitive to, aware of, or concerned about someone else…it is also surely a by-product of a system that demands competition, ambition, self-aggrandizement, and superiority as a matter of course…Narcissism is a patriarchal disease.” And there we have it. This puts our angry, white males in context. They have drawn faulty entitlement conclusions and when the world is not indeed their oyster it pisses them off. And then they need someone to blame.

Chittister recommends a “feminine” approach to spirituality. She is smarter than me and I do get her point, though I am uncomfortable with defining feminine in traditional terms. I don’t see how improvement is possible until at our cultural core, we are willing to finally address the immorality of patriarchy. I have written of this before, so I hope you don’t find it tedious. But we live in a Christian-dominant culture and I challenge you to find a Christian church which isn’t praying to a god-the-father every Sunday.

“Women are subsumed, excised, erased by male pronouns, by male terminology, by male prayers about brotherhood and brethren, even and always by exclusively male images of God,” (p.116). So if we can’t count on the church for fairness and inclusion, where can we go? I don’t believe my fear of white men is irrational nor my concerns strictly anecdotal. I agree with Chittister that patriarchy is the root evil (my word, not hers). And if we don’t address the root evil, more people will die – which doesn’t excuse the everyday oppression. This white male entitlement is the biggest threat to our safety and society. Supposed Islamic terrorists are insignificant in comparison. And as one aside, why isn’t anyone asking about the religion of the latest white male domestic terrorists?

Mother God, please have mercy on us. -J.B.

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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

 

Don’t Pray for Me

Usually in these columns, I build up to some conclusion, but this time I’m starting at the end. Prayer is what you want it to be. Perhaps prayer is a connection, like my cat sitting next to me. (Thanks, Ralphie.)Ralphie Even atheists can find their spirit resonating with music, or maybe nature, in a way that is not just pleasurable, I think, but lifts us out of ourselves and our everyday existence. That is how I would define spiritual. When by intention or experience, we step outside of our daily worries to connect with the universe, I think we can call that a prayer.

Some people define prayer as the petitions they present to an all-powerful and interested God. I would liken that approach to wishing on a star – not that there’s anything wrong with that. When I was in the process of becoming Roman Catholic (I am now Episcopalian), I had some difficulty sorting out culture Jiminy Cricketfrom dogma from theology. One of the things the nuns talked about that I knew was strictly cultural was that when you go into a chapel for the first time you can make a wish. I saw it as a Jiminy Cricket sort of thing. At the time I was working two full-time jobs, and it follows that I had no social life. It was about December 17th and in spite of the fact that I would be working until at least 7:00 p.m. and the previously stated realities, I wished for a New Year’s Eve date. Admittedly a self-serving fantasy, I viewed it as a throw-away request. Surely God had better things to do. I didn’t even take my own wish seriously. I told no one, and forgot about it.

At about 6:45 p.m. New Year’s Eve, I had sent all my staff home and was tending to final work that I could handle alone when a man I had previously only spoken to casually asked me to accept an extra ticket to Penn and Teller because he had a friend who cancelled. This is the story that I tell my nieces under the theme of ‘God has a sense of humor.’ I had a lovely New Year’s Eve and one or two other dates, then found out he was gay. Well, at least now I knew God’s idea of a perfect date for me.

About those petitions…Though I don’t really believe in a personal god, in times of duress, I think we all wish we had a super-power from whom we could request intervention or relief. In that I am no different from anyone else. And in spite of the fact that I don’t think things work that way, when I am in the middle of a struggle, I do in fact yearn for not only relief but an acceptable resolution, and maybe even a rescuer. Who doesn’t? What I think is crucial to human contentment and spiritual insight, is what we expect during the ‘dark night of the soul’ and after. What I’m suggesting is to consider how we view prayer and what we expect as a result of prayer. Why? Because I’ve had too many people tell me they would pray for me instead of actually helping me. Also, I want to reconcile for myself what may seem like the hypocrisy of wishful prayers that are an understandable response to loss, sadness, fear, worry, and despair.

In this capitalistic society, when someone exploits your need to be employed to fulfill their ego’s hunger to exercise power, it is oppression. There are a lot of people longing for relief from oppression, whether it is external like workplace bullies, or internal like clinical depression. As for me, I have had a lot of very bad bosses who have made my work day miserable, and some eventually put me out of work. (I know I am not alone with these problems.) One day on the train commute to such a job when I was feeling overwhelmed by the dread of the coming workday, I looked out the window to see the most spectacular sunrise I had ever seen in my life. The clouds had formed in a way that created rays of brilliant colors that I am unable to fully describe. In that moment, surrounded by other apparently oblivious commuters, I felt that the vibrant and fleeting sunrise view was a gift just for me. It produced in me such a sense of joy that I carried it with me the rest of the day, and in fact I still remember it clearly even though it was about seven years ago. If my yearning for a better situation was a prayer, then that sunrise was an answer. And in that moment, the bliss I felt was more powerful than the relief from getting a new job, which I continued to pursue and did eventually land.

It would be an oversight to discuss prayer without addressing suffering. I have ended the old year and DalaiLamastarted the new year reading The Art of Happiness (His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, MD) which weaves lengthy conversations with the Dalai Lama into prose. Reading so much from His Holiness on suffering and pain has expanded my understanding of Buddhism. I have always had difficulty with what was my perception of Buddhism’s casual acceptance of the bad stuff in life in the old ‘life is suffering’ phrase. I heard it as a trite aphorism. Now I see that by accepting that there is loss and pain for everyone, my suffering is neither unique nor unfair. That is not to justify oppression which is unfair and unethical behavior, but suffering itself is a common human condition. This subtle shift in perspective helps me connect with humanity, rather than feeling apart, which served to increase my suffering.

If I can get myself to see suffering as a universal human condition, then it also changes my view on prayer. My prayer becomes a desire to connect with the universe in a way that reduces suffering, not just for myself, but for others as well. My prayer becomes a meditation on working to heal my soul in a way that makes compassion possible – toward myself and others.

I weave prayer and meditation together as complementary practices. I pray to release my suffering and affirm my wishes, then I meditate to quiet my ever-noisy head, to touch my bruised heart, and to restore my weary soul. These practices are very personal and I would never impose my approach on others. I write about it here as a means of reconciling my frustration with those who pray from an apparent desire to remain un-involved or from the arrogance of their own theology. I also write to work through my own hypocrisies.

Eventually, my practices include listening. I listen for what I would call the whisper of the universe. My Buddhist friends may consider it getting in touch with Buddha-nature. Some Christians might say it’s the Holy Spirit. I would not make any of those presumptions. I just know that I want the greater good for all of us, and that includes me, though I don’t know exactly how that will happen or even what comes next. How you pray or if you don’t, is just not my business. If you insist on praying for me, then I thank you for your good wishes, because sometimes wishes do come true. Please don’t expect reciprocity, because that is not my practice. Just know that my practice is intended for compassion. For you. For me. For friends and enemies. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.” Well, I’m not making any vows, but I’m trying to head that direction. –J. B.

Lies and Myths

Aren’t kids in elementary school, or before, taught lying is wrong? Is that social convention or morality? Is lying always wrong? If you’re lying to protect the Underground Railroad, for example, then I’m going to go with not wrong. And perhaps to that classic question: Do I look fat? – it might be wise to say no, regardless of one’s honest opinion. Socially, we rarely say, ‘No, I’m not busy, but I don’t want to meet you;’ we create a socially acceptable alibi. And what about lying to our parents? I know several of the world’s religions have something to say both about how we treat our parents and about lying.

I have a friend whose 20-something offspring lies to him on a regular basis. It seems like this happens even when it just doesn’t matter, over the simplest questions. Perhaps the lies started when the kid wasLiarLiar younger and trying to craft a conflict-free space between divorced parents. Perhaps lying was easier than working things out honestly. A short-cut. What I have noticed from the outside-looking-in, is it seems that these routine lies present no apparent moral dilemma for my friend’s progeny.  Nonetheless the pattern of willful deceit is as hurtful to my friend as it is habitual for the kid. So maybe, the moral measure of the lie is the impact it has on others. In this case, I believe these lies are wrong because of how they hurt the parent and damage the relationship.

In everyday vernacular, the word myth has come to be interpreted as something that’s not true. I have the 1997 publication of the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (John Bowker, ed.) and in spite of offering numerous thorough and worthy definitions in over two pages, the Oxford also says that the word myth has “become synonymous with falsehood” (p.671). That is an unfortunate use of the word. Myths, some related to religion and some not, are more like fairy tales, by best definition, as I wrote about previously.

“Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales and Religion”

Not too many people read “The Three Pigs” and debate whether the story ever happened. Fairy tales entertain us with a story and offer some moral guidance. No one wants a house that the Big Bad Wolf can blow down in one exhale, so perhaps this story suggests we might prepare for the worst and take more time to build a safer house, literally or metaphorically. Myths can offer social and moral guidance, when the word myth is used in the most accurate sense, and perhaps we shouldn’t use cable TV as an example. I just tried to watch two different shows with myth in the title: “Myth Busters,” and “Myth Hunters.” The first program was just an excuse to crash cars and de-bunk or recreate movie stunts. I couldn’t stand watching more than two minutes.

I watched two episodes of “Myth Hunters” on Netflix with two different men trying to prove two different Biblical myths. One guy tried to locate Noah’s Ark and the other claimed he located the Ark of the Covenant (both of Jewish and Christian legend). What I could not understand is why. They thought that by “proving” these two things existed, they would prove god exists. The thing is that even if someone locates what seems to be Noah’s Ark, there there is no way to actually prove that’s what it is. The other thing is that faith should not come out of proof, but rather inspiration, study, meditation, or life experience, to name a few different paths. Faith is all about believing what can’t be proven. If you need a series of facts to support your religion, then maybe religion is not for you. Stick with science – which is not to say science and religion are mutually exclusive. The complexity and grandeur of the universe is inspiring to me. Mystical in fact. But my inspiration not destroyed by basic scientific principles like gravity, climate change, or evolution.

Our culture needs more myths. I can imagine a modern myth about a greedy stock broker who nearly caused the collapse of the economy while amassing so much personal wealth that he literally exploded and all his wealth was turned into gold coins that rained down on public housing. I can also imagine a kid who lies to a parent so much that every lie sucks her into a hole from which only her parent can provide rescue if there is just one honest request, but the kid no longer remembers how to tell the truth.

Myths offer us the possibility of social subtlety, which I would think would be welcome in our screaming mass media world. An entertaining story with a variety of interpretations and moral lessons can be appreciated or politely ignored. You get to choose. By contrast, there is no need for the arrogance of shallow, accusatory television evangelists spewing simplistic answers to complex issues. That is the dumbing-down of moral lessons, and again, arrogance.

I would cite the popularity of Harry Potter as evidence on how myth serves humanity, especially the young. The book series had a clear value system, primarily social justice and defeating oppressors. Who doesn’t want to hear that story? There was personal sacrifice for the greater good and compassion toward outcasts. These are welcome messages, with the potential for positive social impact. And apparently, I’m not the only one who likes the Potter myth or J.K. Rowling would not have gone from welfare mother to billionaire.

While suffering the fools pursuing a real Noah’s Ark on Netflix, I found myself pondering it as a myth. It is not so hard to imagine a god disgusted with humanity and ready for a do-over. Then I think about Noah and what I take-away from that myth is that maybe, just maybe, one good person can make a difference. You may be mocked, it may mean tremendous sacrifice, but the flooding will come to an end and there will be rebirth, somewhere, somehow. And all that rebirth was made possible because God found one good person. One good person prevented the complete destruction of the world as he knew it; and, also noteworthy, lots of animals were saved.  Finding Noah’s Ark doesn’t prove Noah or God exist, but not finding his boat doesn’t mean the story is a lie, or without value. It doesn’t matter if it happened, it is a myth. It is a story that engages our imagination and gives us something to think about. One good person made a difference in spite of personal sacrifice and that is a myth to live by. – J.B.

Families and Religion

Most of the major religions have stories about families, and often they’re confusing. However, if you are not comfortable with paradox, then you probably won’t be comfortable with religion in general, because many religious messages appear to be contradictory and are at least ambivalent, especially on messages about families.

Before the Buddha became the Buddha he left his family to find enlightenment. He never returned. Buddhism is a religion of compassion but it could be argued that abandoning one’s family is not compassionate.

Gandhi’s (Hindu) family was not so happy, with his parenting approach apparently as ascetic and tenacious as he lived his life. There was a play about Gandhi the man in the late nineties where the character of Gandhi’s wife said, “You have filled the entire sky with your love, like the clouds of a monsoon, but bend a little as you do, and pour a few drops into my son’s mouth.”

New York Times on Gandhi the man

Judaism has a story of God asking Abraham to kill his son. At the last minute God changed his mind and some poor goat was murdered instead. One irony of that story is that Abraham’s only (legitimate) son was supposed to father a nation, and there was Abraham raising a knife to him.

According to legend, three of the dominant religions of our time, came from that one man: Abraham. I’m not asserting that it is literally true, I’m telling you about the mythology of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Abraham was to be the father of the Jewish nation by his second son Isaac. His first son was Ishmael, who had a different mother than Isaac (not Abraham’s wife), and could be considered the father of Islam. Jesus became the catalyst for Christianity, and was himself Jewish.

I’m not going to interpret all these stories, I’m just pointing out that even in our religious mythology, families are not easy. In our routine lives, it can be a stretch just to have a pleasant special occasion. When it comes to hoping for a Hallmark-card kind of holiday, or even more unlikely – expecting a real family to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting – I think it is only for the lucky few or those in denial.

For many people, being around family requires sedation. I admit that I do not like to attend family events if there is no opportunity for a glass of wine. If that’s not possible-short of having a brown bag in the car, I allow myself the option to pre-medicate with my legal prescription of Xanax, the same as when I go to the dentist. I wonder what holidays are like with Bill Maher’s family? I bet they’re more fun than mine.

I love watching Bill Maher. It seems his two favorite drums, on which he beats regularly, are bad religion and good ColoradoSignmarijuana. With limits, I don’t disagree. Most of what Maher identifies as evidence that religion is bad, is evidence that religion is used badly. Most of what is good about marijuana, is not evidence that no one abuses it – or that there are not some very bad things about the infrastructure supporting marijuana use.

Here’s the thing, if marijuana were legalized it could be taxed and regulated. I call that job and revenue creation. And as to corruption and abuse, well there’s just no question that abuse and corruption occur even with legal substances. There’s also that ‘gateway’ argument; when it comes to marijuana as a gateway to worse drugs; well, for some people, beer is a gateway drug. For me, being around relatives is a gateway to drugs.

If we are to believe the mythology of the three Abrahamic religions then their inability to get along could be interpreted as an endless family feud, related as they are. What don’t families fight about? Who has more sheep? Who got a bigger inheritance? Who has a bigger house? Who gets to run the oilfields? Who has more successful kids? Then families turn into clans. Clans turn into tribes. Tribes turn into territories. Territories turn into countries. And all the time, the squabbling doesn’t stop. At some point people get killed.

For those of us who choose to explore religion, it goes with the entire complicated package of families and humanity. I have written this before and I still don’t know the original source, but human beings imagine the God we are capable of imagining – and most often our god resembles ourselves. People who thrive on hate, see an angry god. People who need rules and structure see a rigid, demanding god. And people who believe in love see a God of love.

Because bad people claim their actions are a result of religious imperatives, doesn’t mean it’s true. Bill Maher (on HBO’s “Real Time”) had Bobby Ghosh on his panel June 27th (managing editor of Quartz, qz.com). When it comes to religion and politics in the Middle East, he said it better than I ever have:

“ISIS is the worst, most successful terrorist group in modern times…They hate everybody. They are killing more Muslims than they are killing anyone else…It’s not about religion…It is a power struggle in which religion is a uniform. The Shia are not trying to convert the Sunni, the Sunni are not trying to convert the Shia. They are fighting for power…”

So, my point is that if families can’t get along, why does anyone expect it from tribes and countries? My big disappointment is if these three religions come from the same guy – according to their own mythology, then they ought to cut each other some slack and freaking learn to get along.  I mean, I keep showing up for Thanksgiving.  I’m the vegetarian bringing the damn turkey already.  True religious leaders should lead in promoting the common good, not themselves, and condemning – loudly – violence in the name of anyone’s religion.

Getting rid of religion would not reduce wars, violence, or conflict. These are unfortunate aspects of the human condition that all of us have experienced to some degree in our own flawed families. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be better. And I think it’s ok if that takes a little sedation. Maybe they should pass around joints at Middle East peace talks. They could all relax and eat junk food and forget what they were fighting about. Think about the possibility of marijuana as a gateway drug to peace talks. And isn’t it great we have several months before Thanksgiving? – J.B.

Happy Graduation, 20-somethings – and good luck

Every time I hear Tom Brokaw talking about the “Greatest Generation,” I wince.  I understand why he would honor World War II veterans and want to tell their stories, but I’m hoping the 20-somethings, and all the Millennials, will be greater.  The reason for this is because things seem a bit of a wreck to me, and I’m hoping they will do some fixing. I’m also hoping those graduating 20-somethings will forgive crap commencement speeches.

A few weeks ago I listened to a white, male, forty-something with this theme: “Be thankful. Be proud. Be great.”  His speech did not get any better than the lame title, worse, in fact.  And just when I was thinking he was too young to say anything interesting, the senior class president redeemed the whole day by saying, “I’m going to be someone who helps other people achieve their goals.” You go, Girl.

When I graduated from Penn we had Denzel. Yes, the Denzel Washington.  I’ll give you the link here because he really was that good.  He told us to “fall forward,” which should be read in the context of Ivy League super achievers unaccustomed to failure – and Denzel was recommending you be willing to fall on your face.  Here’s how he summed it up: “First, you will fail at some point in your life.  Accept it.  You will lose.  You will embarrass yourself.  You will suck at something…If you don’t fail, you aren’t even trying.”  I especially hope the 20-somethings, and all the Millennials, embrace his thinking because as Denzel said, “And let me tell you, the world needs your talents.”

Denzel Washington’s graduation speech at Penn

In case you weren’t already depressed about the state of the world, there was a scientist on the Aljazeera network talking about the tons of plastic frozen in arctic ice.  It’s not bad enough we’re making polar bears extinct or that one day Pennsylvania will have beach-front property, now we have to think about the toxic plastic in the melting ice.   But that’s not all that worries me.

On the way to pondering the Millennials fixing the world, I noticed my 20-something relatives seem adverse to advance planning.  Since I am now the generation who shops for, prepares, serves, and cleans-up holiday meals, I have noticed great difficulty in getting a head count.  In fact the only way to know if there will be representation from that generation is if I see them walking through the door – seldom on time.  Not me, I’m a list person.  I might even add something already completed, but not listed, so I can feel the satisfaction of crossing it off.  Sick.  Yes, I know.  Now you can see why not planning ahead is beyond my understanding.  Still, how can they save the world if they never plan ahead or make a damn list?

In my effort to understand those younger, non-planners I read The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now, by Meg Jay, PhD, who writes on all 20-somethings, not just Millennials.  In Defining Decadewriting about the twenties she said, “Eighty percent of life’s most defining moments take place by age thirty-five,” (p.xiv).  The current context for today’s 20-somethings is that they are “more educated than ever before, but a smaller percentage find work after college,” (p.xxiii).  Now I’ll be the first to say that money isn’t everything – but survival is, and for most people that takes having a job.  Dr. Jay tells us that those who do have jobs are making less than their 1970s counter-parts, adjusted for inflation.  Here’s the thing, I don’t think they’re going to save the world if they can’t even find a job – or find one that pays the rent.

With all her case studies, research, and good advice for anyone who is floundering a bit, I was surprised that she didn’t talk about volunteering, or civic involvement.  There was a time civic involvement or church attendance were social obligations that only the most nefarious people ignored.  While it is good that these things are no longer empty obligations, it is sad to me that volunteerism continues to decline.

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, volunteerism in this country has been around 26-27 percent for about a decade with a bump-up after 9/11.  In 2013 it fell to 25.4 percent which may seem insignificant, unless you understand that means that about two million fewer people are volunteering (4/7/2014, p.1).  The Corporation for National & Community Service reports that 65.4 million people volunteered in 2012, and if someone had been paying them it would have cost $170 billion.  Volunteering had been trending up with Generation Xers at 30.1 percent; Millennials are below Xers and the national average at 22 percent.

Volunteering in America

The Pew Research folks define Millennials as 18-29, named for “coming of age” at the millennium.  The Pew Forum’s “Religious Landscape Study” reported that only 18 percent of Millennials currently attend religious services weekly/nearly weekly.  When their Baby Boomer parents were young, it was 26 percent.  If you look at the percent of people who do not affiliate with a religion, 25 percent put themselves in this category.  For the generation in their 40s or 50s, it would be 15 or 14 percent respectively.

The Pew Forum

Here’s some good news, fewer Millennials are homophobic. Among Millennials, 65 percent say they should be accepted by society, whereas it is only 35 percent of people of 65 and older think that.  Our Millennials are not afraid of science, at least that is what I conclude from the percent who think evolution makes sense, 55.  And lest you think they are so liberal they have no moral compass, 76 percent believe there are standards of right and wrong, which is within one percent of older age groups.

Dr. Jay agrees that they are not all good at planning ahead, like my 20-something relatives.  But she agrees with the Pew research people that they do care.  They may volunteer less or have less interest in religion than the next demographic older, but they do care about a sense of right and wrong.  Still, they are better educated but more likely to be unemployed or under-employed. I hope they don’t go all French Revolution on us and storm the castle at Wall Street.  No wait, I would love that. I just hope they don’t revive the guillotine.

Reluctantly, I admit I am at an age that there are things I will not do and probably won’t see.  And though I have done my part to reduce my carbon footprint and recycle, I acknowledge we are leaving the next generation a hot mess. Tom Brokaw can have the “Greatest Generation” because we need the Better Yet generation to fix the mess the Greatest and Baby Boomers have left them. It’s time for a change in focus.  How can we help Millennials do what we didn’t do ourselves? Can I show you how to make a list?  And I’m ok if you’re always late or unable to RSVP, if you’re working on global climate change.  I’m sorry we stole Facebook from you, but you still have Instagram and Pinterest. How about using all these amazing resources for solving problems other than finding a ride to the next party?  I promise I will stop nagging about being on time and making lists.  – J. B. Good

Got soul?

When comparing the Pacific, Gulf and Atlantic, perhaps many would find the Jersey Shore lacking.  I am not one of them.  Living in Pennsylvania, I enjoy proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.  This summer I am part of the large group of Americans to whom the euphemism ‘under-employed’ is applied, so I have contented myself with day trips and good books.  Sitting on the beach, even in Wildwood or Atlantic City, comforts me and heals my soul in a way that church never has.  So here’s what I was reading on the beach this summer:

Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore (1992)

What Really Happened: John Edwards, Our Daughter and Me, Rielle Hunter (2012)

In his introduction, Moore said, “When soul is neglected, it doesn’t just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning” (p.xii).  Well, between daytime talk television and online or mass media news, the violence is abundant.  As Moore said (p.270), “We can only treat badly those things whose soul we disregard.”

In this country, I would add misplaced moral outrage to the symptoms that Moore names, which brings me to Rielle Hunter.  Part of the reason I read her book is because of the angry rants aimed at her by complete strangers on Facebook, online book reviews, and in casual social circles after her book was released early this summer.  She had a relationship with a married public figure that resulted in a child.  That is not an unusual occurrence and has no actual impact on the public at large.  But she does have the right to tell her story and it was interesting.  I don’t know how Moore would respond to Hunter’s story, but here is the quote I would select:

“One of the difficulties in care of the soul is to recognize the necessity of pathos and tragedy.  If we view love only from a high moralistic or hygienic peak, we will overlook its soul settling in the valleys” (p.85).

The entire U.S. Civil War is an example of misplaced moral outrage by the South.  I am astounded by how the rich got the poor to suffer and die in such numbers when there was no possible gain for them.  One book (The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara) suggested the wealthy Southerners convinced poor whites that the North would take away their “rights.”  What rights? – Was it their right to be poor?  The Southern propaganda machine kept the details vague, invented falsehoods, and turned on the outrage with all vigor.  They exploited ignorance, racism and xenophobia to other (used as a verb here) black slaves and inspire a to-the-death-rising-up.  If slavery had been defended by wealthy Southern whites alone, the Civil War would have been over quickly.  The prolonged and painful years of Civil War was only possible with the ongoing support of the Southern ignorant poor and their misplaced moral outrage.

While I am tempted to use this as a jumping off point to correlate the wealthy Civil War Southerners to today’s wealthy Republicans, instead I want to ask you to think about the soul’s place in our world.  Perhaps you would be more comfortable if I would use the word spirit.  Even Moore in 305 pages refused to define soul.  In defining soul Merriam-Webster online said, “the immaterial essence…of an individual life.”  Moore extends soul to be present in places and things.  For me that has happened most easily, and sacredly, with my animal friends.

For you skeptics or atheists I would say there is an essence or spirit in us and around us that offers energy and life lessons.  These forces, as I have experienced them, have both light and darkness.  Many people label energy, people and events as good and evil, of God or the Devil.  As you wish.  The problem is that when you are busy labeling the source, you may miss the message.  Socially this matters because in the labeling, we distract each other from the root of the suffering that then goes unaddressed.  The most powerful tool of propaganda and oppression is DISTRACTION.

I choose to believe we are more than eating, working and procreating carbon life forms.  But how we define our humanity is made real by how we exercise our spirit as individuals and as a society.  Even as we search for meaning we lash out externally instead of exploring internally.  Moore said it best on page 296.

“We want to steal fire from the gods for the sake of humanity.”

So I thank Rielle Hunter for telling me an interesting story on my vacation.  And I thank Thomas Moore for reminding me to listen to the subtle and too quiet songs of my soul.  I don’t usually have patience for poetry but I want to leave you with these final thoughts, from my soul to yours.  -J.B.

I want to die after winter
on a grey, windy day.
The spring winds will know
to carry my ashes,
to the place where the animals rest.

There is a pond
where the goldfish swim,
having given their lives for games at the fair.
The frogs share the pond,
forgetting their hall pass from biology class.

Rabbits from tractors and possums from roadsides,
will meet unwanted domestics who were too long at the animal shelter.

There is a place
where murdered parent orangutans
will be reunited with their stolen baby,
and toothless circus tigers,
will regain dignity.

Pigeons from recreational shoots and three-legged muskrats from traps,
will know rhinos that bled to death for their horns.

There is a vast meadow
where veal calves find their mothers
and learn to graze,
while mice from adhesive traps
run free to fresh grain.

This is the place I will go
to be whole.

I will listen to animal spirits.
I will hear and understand
what I only imagined before.
I will not be lonely for humans
my humanity, forgiven.

And I will be with the animal friends who passed through my life, but left before.
And they will remember me fondly.

The near dead young bunny I found on the road,
will welcome me home.
She will let me hold her without trembling,
and take me to the place
where kittens are kittens forever.

©J.B.Good July 1993