Category Archives: Violence and Religion

So many guns, so much time

Ralphie is about 12 years-old, a rescue cat from my local shelter. He’s been with me four years and has established himself as the boss. He was astounded that I apparently went somewhat insane and adopted a dog. Charlie is about 10 pounds, so Ralphie outweighs him even though they are about the same height. I have integrated numerous animals as a family over the years, so I am optimistic. What amazes me is that they manage to posture with each other, hissing and yipping, without anyone drawing blood. I don’t allow them firearms, so we have that going for us.

At the time of this writing, the latest mass shooting was of police officers in Dallas, TX on 1468100638-open-carryJuly seventh. (It’s even likely that before I’m finished editing there will be another.) Texas is considered an “open carry” state allowing citizens to walk around in public with a visible gun. When I was in Texas in December, more than one restaurant had a sign that they didn’t allow guns. I didn’t feel better. That they needed such a sign was upsetting. On July ninth, Dallas mayor was quoted in the Dallas Morning News saying: “It’s logical to say that in a shooting situation, open carry can be detrimental to the safety of individuals.” Oh really? I have to ask, how’s that open-carry working out, Texas?

Dallas Morning News

Back in January, BBC News online reported that way back in 2012 in the US (the most recent comparable data available), “the number of gun murders per capita was nearly 30 times the UK.” In 2015 alone, there were 64 school shootings, including incidents with shootings that did not include murder. I hope we are not so de-sensitized that we can’t see how outrageous school shootings are.  Here’s another nugget from the BBC: So many people die annually from gunfire in the US that the death toll between 1968 and 2011 eclipses all wars ever fought by the US. In that same article the BBC reported that the National Rifle Association boasted that after the Sandy Hook shooting (elementary school), its membership surged to five million.

BBC gun statistics

These statistics (and there are more) demonstrate that Congress has failed, capitalism without any regard to the common good has failed, and we voters (especially non-voters) have all failed miserably. It is time to not let another day go by without writing to your federal senators and representatives and let them know that if they don’t pass gun control legislation, you will work to fire them by campaigning against their re-election. Write an e-mail. Write a letter. Write it now.

And you know who should be leading the charge? Clergy. For those who speak to their congregants weekly, there is the consideration of whether to offer empathy (pastoral care and support), or whether to challenge the listeners to be better human beings (or more devout, if you are more comfortable with that word). And many, many, clergy simply enjoy the sound of their own voice. I worked at a seminary once and I can tell you that there are many different reasons individuals pursue religious leadership – and not all of those reasons are good ones.

There are very few churches showing strong leadership, but I would especially challenge Roman Catholics. I drove past a parish last week that had a sign in the front yard about how many abortions there were last year. I’m sure they used the word murder somewhere on that sign. I can’t find a way to understand why they are so passionate about their perception of “murdered” fetuses and so very mute about everyday gun murders of walking around realized human beings.

After the previous recent shooting in Orlando (one actually loses track), the Episcopal bishop of Philadelphia did call for gun control. I also read a Tweet about a Kansas bishops requiring that no guns are allowed in Episcopal churches, though I remain astounded that anyone has to make that a policy.

Message from Philadelphia Episcopal bishop

Kansas bishops ban guns from churches

Why are the religious zealots so noisy about policies and laws on women’s health and sex but so very quiet about gun control? I’m not saying there are no voices, kudos to the Quakers, I’m saying that if the majority of religious people got as activist as what we saw in civil rights movement, things would change. And I am not the first person to say that they are indeed related.

I read a Facebook post super-imposed over a white model that said: “How about all lives matter. Not black lives, not white lives, get over yourself no one’s life is more important than the next. Put your race card away and grow up.” These kind of comments can only come from white privilege, insensitivity, and ignorance. Look at who has been killed, who has been doing the killing, and who is in jail. The following link is a very in-depth story about the social conditions that have contributed to not only gross incarceration, but also the disproportionate incarceration of minority males. This is not white liberal guilt speaking, it is data. From the article: “The United States now accounts for less than five percent of the world’s inhabitants – and about 25 percent of its incarcerated inhabitants.

The Atlantic on mass incarceration – a must read

Not only do “Black Lives Matter,” there needs to be a whole lot more conversation on white privilege and classism across all races, because ain’t nobody likes being poor. Very often the fear of poverty is acted out in disdain for the poor. And clearly, for many people in this under-educated, unenlightened country, the response to mass incarceration is taking up arms, instead of considering root causes and social failures. Stop the madness.

I’m tired of reading these stories and more so of watching them online and TV. I especially hate writing about this. But I consider it my moral responsibility to challenge myself and you to write some damn e-mails, at the very least. I vote consistently and frequently campaign for a variety of candidates, and I will do more. But it’s not enough because systematic injustice is inevitable when capitalism is absent morality. Democracy without grassroots active involvement becomes oligarchy, which is pretty much where we have arrived. Religious organizations that are mute on social pathology, well that’s pre-World War II Germany when the Christians were silent while Jews were marginalized, persecuted, then murdered. I really didn’t want to mention The Donald here, but when a leading presidential candidate becomes more popular by spewing hatred against Mexicans and Muslims, we really are living in pre-WWII Germany. The front page of Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer said, “This is not who we are.” Really? Apparently it is.

I am left asking the same question so many others have asked: how many more shootings? How does that photo above not look both preposterous and terrifying? There are so many guns and it seems no urgency to change that. No urgency. Why? How many more shootings? How many more deaths? I’m calling all clergy (well, truthfully, I doubt they will read this, but you can tell them) to talk about gun control and keep talking about it until we have it. -J.B.

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Unholy Land

Living in the suburbs as I do, I would have difficulty in deciding which Saturday morning sound is worse: the leaf-blower or the chainsaw. Both make me want to scream – which I may have done once. Not unlike the sound of adults talking on Charlie Brown cartoons, when I hear Benyamin (Benjamin) Netanyahu speak, I hear a leaf-blower. Recently Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been spouting his typical doomsday rhetoric over the diplomatic agreement to place limits on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Limits on nuclear weapons – of course that’s a bad thing.

Al Jazeera America online led with this paragraph on July 14, 2015. “Iran and six world powers announced a historic deal Tuesday morning that places limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions, a development that represents the most significant diplomatic milestone in a dispute that has lasted for more than a decade and could significantly alter geopolitics in the Middle East.” This is what Netanyahu has been complaining about, from which he could be comforted if the United States just sent Israel more money.

Al Jazeera article
Netanyahu response

The pending agreement to limit the development of nuclear weapons with Iran is just one story from a region that is violent and complex and which I wish I could ignore.  (I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.)  It was with great reluctance, and in fact dread, I decided to start reading about Palestine and Jerusalem, the entire Armstrong-Jerusalemregion being too overwhelming. Further, I admit that my research is never exhaustive; I try to identify a few good sources that I believe are reliable and work with them. I trust anything by Karen Armstrong as well-researched and well-written, so I have been reading Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (Ballantine Books NY 1996, new preface 2005). With all due respect to Armstrong, you can summarize thousands of years of Jerusalem’s history by saying: nobody gets along for long, and somebody’s gonna get killed.

I have supplemented the Armstrong reading with a publication by the Episcopal Church, which in my view is gloriously liberal, inclusive, and socially aware. The Episcopal Peace Fellowship produced, Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace, an annual report-type 50-page book (second edition, August 2011). Accidentally, I also listened to two Philip Roth audio books. His characters provided insight into archetypes with regular interaction between Zionists and secular Jews (not mutually exclusive), weaving in an ongoing conversation about Jerusalem as the Homeland.

My research about Israel and Palestine has included the US role, which forces an awareness of the planeloads of money we lavish on that small country. In 2007, US foreign aid to Israel was $3 billion in direct assistance, which was two percent of their entire budget. Later in 2007, the Bush administration promised to increase the aid to $6 billion over the next 10 years (Steadfast Hope, p.33). Let’s say it’s five billion by now, and for a country of eight million people. In 2015 the US will spend only a little over double that, $13.13 million, on food and agriculture for a US population of 317 million. The math gives me a headache but no matter what the calculations, that’s too much money for too few people, with much of it spent on the military. That is not how I want my tax dollars spent.

US Budget Basics

Neither do I want my tax dollars spent on aggression against the Palestinians while Israel breaks international law. “US aid has been used to support Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, to build illegal colonies and segregated highways on Palestinian lands, to construct what Palestinians call the apartheid wall…” (Steadfast Hope p.33). The Israelis regularly use US made and paid Caterpillars to bulldoze Palestinian homes, businesses, groves of olive trees and more. Between 2000 and 2005, nearly 465,000 Palestinian olive trees were uprooted. That is not to say that olive trees are more important than people, it is to illustrate that however Israel tries to justify aggression, it will never be able to prove olive trees fired the first shot. Palestinian farmers are denied access to their own fields and residents are denied access to hospitals. Since 1972 the US has singularly vetoed 43 Security Council resolutions that were responding to Israel’s aggression against the Palestinian people.

When I was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, I was never allowed to cite Wikipedia as a legitimate academic source. Nonetheless, I found a terrific timeline for the history of Jerusalem and the link follows. Let me tell you why this matters: because in the history of Jerusalem, lots of different folks have called Jerusalem theirs. The Jews are only one group. I have condensed the Wiki timeline below.

Wikipedia’s Jerusalem timeline
Ancient period – starts 4500 BCE with Canaanites
House of David rules after military conquest from 1010 BCE to 740 BCE
Classical Antiquity – 332 BCE “Hellenistic Kingdoms” & Romans
Life of Jesus and development of early Christianity
Late Antiquity – 324 CE Byzantine period
Middle Ages – 636 CE
1099 The Crusaders capture Jerusalem and slaughter most Muslims and Jews
Early Modern – 1516 Ottoman period
Modern Era – 1821 Ottoman, British, Israeli
1948 Arab-Israeli War
1967 The Six-day War

The current state of unquestioning, and in my view irrational and excessive support of Israel, takes us to Evangelical Christians in the US. Christianity is a majority religion in the US, but it is declining. Evangelicals enjoy a large percent of the Christian majority, but among Christians, they do not comprise a majority. (See the Pew study, the link follows.) What Evangelicals are good at is making noise and getting news coverage, and only seeming to be a majority. They embrace unquestioning support of Jewish rule of Israel. This political position has nothing to do with the life and ministry of Jesus, and in itself is un-Christian.

Pew’s Religious Landscape study

The irony of Evangelical support of Israel is that it is rooted in anti-Semitic, apocalyptic mythology. The political advocacy for a Jewish state in Israel pertains to end-time prophecies in which a Jewish state in Israel precedes the ‘second coming’ of Jesus, after which all the Jews are annihilated. Simply put, it is just one manifestation of cheering for the end of the world.

The excessive financial and unquestioning political support of Israel is neither Christian, patriotic, nor humanitarian. It is expensive and unjust. Neither is sole ownership of Jerusalem theologically valid for any of the three Abrahamic religions. In the Armstrong book she described Christianity as “the religion of love” and Islam as “the faith of unity and integration” (Kindle location 4762). Of Judaism, Armstrong said, “Crucial to the cult of Jerusalem from the very first was the importance of practical charity and social justice,” (location 289).

“All the great religions insist that the true spirituality is practical compassion,” (location 286). Additionally for Judaism, as it developed from a small sect to a more established religion it evolved: “As the religion of Yahweh changed during the Axial Age, justice and compassion became essential virtues, and without them, it was said, devotion to sacred space was worthless,” (location 1478).

Connecting the sacred to geography is not uncommon. It is paradoxical that human beings love the metaphysical aspect of religion but keep trying to connect it to the physical. “Historians of religion believe that it is one of the earliest manifestations of faith in all cultures. People have developed what has been called sacred geography that has nothing to do with a scientific map of the world, but which charts their interior life,” (location 185-6). Experientially, that makes sense for individuals; however, it is not politically valid.

It is inconceivable to me that any particular piece of land was promised to any specific tribe or religious group. And even if you think so, how in the world can you imagine that the God of a compassionate religion would approve of killing people to dominate property? The very acts of killing and aggression would make that land unholy. These conflicts have nothing to do with any god, only with politics and greed. It is all very human and entirely unholy. – J.B. Good

Wet Suits and Suicide

The first time I was breathing underwater with scuba gear it was in a Kansas YMCA swimming pool. Breathing underwater was as amazing as the final test was terrifying, for which a mandatory free-ascent without oxygen was required. It took me three tries. However, my success had the intended result. I learned that in spite of my instincts, I could ascend from 40-feet of very cold, muddy water on a single breath. Since the test was early spring in a huge Arkansas lake, we were wearing wet suits.

Wet suits are another thing that don’t seem logical. When you get in the water, it soaks WetsuitCroppedyour suit. Your body then warms the water, very quickly, which continues to serve as a layer of warmth and protection from the cold water. I would love to walk around life with a social wet suit, protecting me from the cold-shoulders we inevitably bump into.

The thing about a wet suit is that out of water, walking around is exhausting. What was a layer of protection in the cold water becomes untenable on land. I think that clinical depression, for some, is like walking around land in a wet suit, but without it actually keeping you warm. It is like a permanent, cumbersome weight that you can’t figure out how to peel off. And at the risk of extending the metaphor too far, I would say that the wet suit of depression can convince one that taking it off would be worse than the misery of wearing it. Those on the outside might say, “Just take it off,” as in ‘get over it.’ But of course, it doesn’t work like that.

There are probably many groups of experts on suicide, but one of them which keeps statistics is the American Association of Suicidology (which is a word, and is the study of suicide prevention per Webster). They tell us that more women attempt suicide, but more men succeed, for example. A Washington Post story reports that there has been an alarming spike in the rate of suicide in white, middle-age men since 1999.

The Washington Post on Suicide and Robin Williams

While I am very sad about the loss of Robin Williams, I believe he made a choice that was his to make. We’ll never know what he was thinking at the time, but I can see that maybe he was just tired of walking around on dry land in a wetsuit and flat-out couldn’t figure how to get the damn thing off. The Parkinson’s was one more utterly exhausting obstacle – like trying to run track in a wetsuit. In Robin William’s case, he would have been expected to make jokes for everyone else while doing it.  Maybe he just thought,  “Enough is enough.” That he apparently hung himself does creep me out, but there should be some recognition for him in staying clean-and-sober to the end of his days, after what I’ve read was years of struggle.

In the last few days, in casual conversations in various settings and comments online, on radio and television, I’ve heard people say, “What about those he left behind?” “What a shame.” I remember someone telling a suicide story about an acquaintance saying, “Suicide is an angry act. It hurts everyone left behind.” Suicide may have a ripple effect on those left behind, but it is the most deeply personal act possible. It’s just not about you. That is not said to diminish the pain of those left behind. It is just to ask, why can’t people make a choice about their own exit?

HelenNearingBookCover

Loving and Leaving the Good Life, by Helen Nearing

Helen and Scott Nearing come to mind. They were the original hippies, leaving a comfortable Manhattan life during the Great Depression and teaching themselves subsistence living in rural Vermont, then Maine. Their story is a good one, but what is relative to this topic is that at age 100, Scott was finished. He accomplished what he intended, he had no life-threatening illness, he simply stopped eating. He did indeed make a graceful exit. And it was his to make.

Goodlife Website on Scott and Helen Nearing

Disclaimer: I realize depression it is a treatable condition, not all people with depression are suicidal, and not all suicides can be linked to depression. Some would say that suicide can only be the result of mental illness. America may be a financially wealthy country but when it comes to mental health this is a primitive, unenlightened society. So, maybe the argument that suicide is linked to a treatable mental illness is often correct, but it is a moot point when mental health treatment is even less available and/or affordable than physical healthcare, for many of the non-wealthy. There’s the added problem that even if you have some insurance to help, you really don’t want mental health problems on your medical record. You know I’m right about that.

In our less-than-enlightened society, medical advances have outpaced ethics and common sense. People are living much longer, but not necessarily doing it well. Human beings are lingering beyond their ability to be productive, or even happy. Many are suffering painful, prolonged illnesses without the opportunity to get off the runaway train of medical science that lengthens life but can’t help us live it.

I was a hospice volunteer for several years. I learned that religion does not always support the dying or the suffering. In fact religion contributes to the shame around suicide. If someone is in so much pain they see suicide as a viable option, shaming them exacerbates the misery. One argument religions have used in condemning suicide is to assert the unerring sacred value of life – at all costs. This position is promoted even while all the major religions venerate martyrs. There are religious martyrs who died at their own hands and those who engaged in behavior that would make their death inevitable – that doesn’t even count religious wars. So a sweeping assertion about the unerring sacred value of life doesn’t hold consistent with how religions have been practiced historically.

As the article linked below says, it is not that long ago that a funeral mass was denied if the deceased committed suicide. While the Roman Catholic Church is now responding to suicide with more compassion, church teachings still make it clear that suicide is morally wrong. I single out the Roman Catholic Church because it is an easy and obvious target, but don’t think it is the only religion with discomfort around suicide.

CatholicDigest.com on Suicide

The thing about shaming suicide is that it makes people less willing to talk. The American Society for Suicide Prevention counts “Positive connections to family, peers, community, and social institutions such as marriage and religion that foster resilience,” as “protective factors for suicide prevention.” If someone is too ashamed to talk, how can they make those “connections?”

Preventing Suicide

I remind you that when it comes to faith, there are no certainties. That is actually what faith means – believing what can’t be seen or proven. So since it’s all speculation, maRobinWilliamsFBybe we could do the right thing and back off the judgment of the suffering and the tired. Suicide is mysterious. We can’t truly know what was going on. We can only try to pay attention to the people around us. And in any case, every adult deserves the opportunity to make a choice about their exit. To Robin Williams I say: Thank you. I respect your choice. Though we wanted more, you gave us plenty. – J.B.

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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.

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 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.

Potato chips and religion

Having grown up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I know from potato chips.  My great-grandmother made them on GroffsChipsher stove-top in lard and sold them at the local farmer’s market, which later turned into a hugely successful business.  Sometimes you can find a Groff’s can on display at Cracker Barrel.  As a kid I visited my great-uncle’s factory and snatched a few fresh, hot, salty chips from the conveyor belt on their way to one of those cans.  Today, I can pretty much leave chips alone.  I can see a bag and know the pleasure of the taste, but walk away.  However, if they are a particularly good brand sitting next to French onion dip, it is conceivable that I would sit there and eat the whole damn bag.  But perhaps I have extended the metaphor too far.

Gossip is like potato chips.  It is seductive.  Once engaged I can’t stop.  After consuming a quantity of it, I feel disappointed in myself for doing something that just wasn’t good for me or anyone else.  I once tried to give up gossip for lent.  I don’t always participate in that Christian custom, but there were times I tried the big ones like sex, chocolate or booze with reasonable success.  Gossip was the hardest.  I didn’t last two weeks.

This brings me to churches and gossip.  Holy crap.  Literally.  In my work life, I have spent more than 15 years in both leadership and support roles in nonprofits of various sizes with different missions.  So I have quite a bit of experience with organizations that are similar to churches.  Sadly, I have to say, that I have never seen gossip as vicious in any of those organizations as I have witnessed in churches.

I was involved in one church where a new clergy person was hired and after only a few months was under siege by a barrage of brutal gossip that any secular organization could have labeled a ‘hostile work environment’ and perhaps even slander.  In my opinion, the behavior was unfair by basic social standards, but also unreasonable by secular professional standards.  And here’s what was missing: in a Christian church, the standards established by the words of Jesus were ignored.  Simply put, these church folks, however dedicated to their church activities and church friends, were not behaving like Christians.

On a good day, I would describe myself as a reluctant Christian.  I have views on the Bible and the salvation theology of today’s church that are not pertinent to this column, and would make many Christians uncomfortable.  But the overpowering reason I hesitate to proclaim an association with Christianity is how many really awful and embarrassing Christians I have experienced and have the displeasure of bumping into on a daily basis.  This is one curse of Facebook, for example.  I have relatives that are regularly posting Bible verses and praise-Jesus rhetoric who are the same people who refused to visit our cousin who was dying from AIDS.  So they can post as many Bible verses as they want, I will always remember what they didn’t do.  For those of you who are less familiar with the Bible, let me report that there is a verse where Jesus responded to questions by saying, “’And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’…I tell you just as you did it for one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it for me,” (Matthew 24:35-41 NRSV).  I’m no Bible scholar, but I’m thinking this is exactly the kind of thing to which he was referring.

For reasons I can’t explain, self-appointed religious personalities frequently get away with worse behavior than non-religious people.  Unfortunately this takes me to responses to the  December 14 Newtown, Connecticut shootings.  Even one of the darkest forces of our culture, the National Rifle Association, had the good sense to shut-up for a week.  Not so with religious wing-nuts like James Dobson.  The link to a Huffington Post story on his comments follows.  They are too appalling to quote, and malicious gossip of the worst kind – gossiping for god in the media.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/17/james-dobson-connecticut-shooting-gay-marriage_n_2318015.html

Not only are these type of charlatans guilty, but so are those who listen to them and send them money.  There can be power in community.  If no one listens to them or sends them money, what they say will be marginalized and eventually the moot will become mute.  They don’t deserve the platform they are routinely provided.  (Kudos to the mainstream press for not giving Dobson et. al. much coverage.)

What amazed and encouraged me about the responses to the Connecticut tragedy, is how many people found a way to come together.  People created community in candlelight vigils and prayer services around the country.  These were both organized and ad hoc.  Ordinary people and complete strangers looked for ways to express empathy and support in a situation where all of us felt powerless.  Not one of us can bring back the deceased and innocent children and adults.  We have been touched by the loss.  Even the fat, lazy, cowardly politicians in Congress have been stirred to at least consider appropriate action.

I have to admit, I am overwhelmed by the tragedy and consider the ongoing news stories now exploitative and painful.  Still, the night of the shootings, I found some solace in seeing full churches.  This is not because I am a church promoter or one who fantasizes about the conversion of others.  It is because I am encouraged that in the midst of grief and anger, large numbers of people were seeking to come together and look outside of themselves.  Perhaps they were looking to God.  Perhaps they were looking to each other.  But they were and are looking out and up, not in and down.  They are not dwelling on the hate and evil that were the very forces that provoked this tragedy.

It seems that more often than not, organized religion disappoints rather than inspires.  But we could say the same thing about our families and friends, our spouses, our jobs.  We are all flawed human beings trying to get through the day.  And whether it’s at church or school, in tragedy or in decadent pleasures, maybe this week, we could just cut each other some slack.  I’m pretty sure that most religions would agree with me on this one.

So this week, be kind to yourself.  Eat some potato chips.  Don’t feel guilty.  And spread it around a little if you can.  –J.B.

Religion and Theatre of the Absurd

If you think religion and religious people are not influenced by popular culture, then you just aren’t paying attention.  More often, the religious folk are in search of headlines and news clips, not truth or enlightenment.  This happens in small towns and mega-churches.  For the record, I have blogged about mega-churches before (“The Religion of Me Part Two: The Mega-church,” 09/29/2010).  They are not churches, they are theatrical events with a religious theme.  If you disagree with me, then I ask you to consider a Texas story.

Yes, I understand Texans like to do things in a big way.  My best friend from college lives there and turned me on to this story, so apologies to the Lone Star state, but sometimes y’all are just crazy.  At Fellowship Church in Grapevine, “Rev.” Ed Long thought the Easter story of Jesus rising from the dead was not dramatic enough.  He authorized the church to hire a real lion, lion handler, and four-day-old lamb to symbolize Jesus as both a lion and a lamb (April 2012).  One story reported the show cost the church $50,000.  I guess that’s not a lot of money to Pastor Ed because he makes more than $1 million per year.  (Usually I would offer links to stories, but my best source was the Dallas Morning News and you can’t get the story for free.  The Humane Society of Flower Mound has a good summary.)

I was unable to find anything about the pastor’s credentials or education online, but I was able to find plenty of press.  He and his wife made news (February 2012) by doing a 24-hour bed-a-thon on the roof of the church to promote sex in marriage.  More accurately, Rev. Ed was promoting his latest book, from which he doesn’t have to share sales revenue from with his church.

The absurd is not limited to big-time money-grubbing showmen.  It also infects in smaller arenas.  I posted a story on my Web site (http://allthingsreligiousonline.com/) about an Assembly of God Church in Central Pennsylvania that kidnapped youth group teens at gunpoint to show them what life is like for missionaries.  Neither the teens nor their parents knew this was going to happen and the designated kidnapper was an off-duty police officer with a real gun.  It wasn’t loaded, but the kids didn’t know that.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/27/pennsylvania-church-kidnaps-teens-holds-them-at-gunpoint-to-teach-a-lesson_n_1382605.html?ref=religion

Stories like these are why atheists think religious people are nuts.  It’s a difficult point to defend.  The practice of faith is not a concrete endeavor.  Still, there are lots more people quietly honoring their own spiritual interpretations without circus stunts and contrived violence – or real violence for that matter.

If the church folks in Central PA wanted to demonstrate real courage, they would fire their minister.  Rural Pennsylvania is known as fertile ground for hate groups like the Klan.  I am certain that the Assembly of God church could find actual mission work spreading compassion, if they chose, like that ‘love your neighbor’ stuff that is in their Bible.

The best thing that they could do in Grapevine, Texas would be to convert their ‘mega-church’ into a homeless shelter and soup kitchen.  Then they wouldn’t need their $1 million-per-year Showman Preacher and his private jet.  Even if they took all that money and started a business, they would be creating jobs, which would be of more service to the community than devoting extraordinary resources to religious theatre.

Jesus had a lot to say about peace, poverty and humility.  But you wouldn’t know that if you went to church in Grapevine, Texas or Middletown, Pennsylvania.  It’s not just ironic that these two churches are doing such a poor job of representing their own religion – it’s tragic.  These stories demonstrate that you can’t immunize religious practice from human ego any more than you can protect organized religion from politics, or politics from organized religion.

There is a desperate need for reasonable people to have a stronger voice.  This is true in religion and in democracy.  Quite frankly, I don’t know how to make that happen.  The only response I can think of for us non-wealthy regular folks, is to respond to news stories.  I want to believe that if regular people, regularly, demanded better news, we would get it.  If we stopped being consumers of sensationalized non-news, maybe there would be less of it.  That means writing letters and e-mails to news editors.  It also means turning off the TV, or changing the channel.  It might mean getting more news from National Public Radio.

I admit that watching a story about “tanning bed woman” from New Jersey (where else?) who is being referred to as beef jerky on Facebook is a hoot.  We might need to watch a water-skiing squirrel to balance our day.  But if we don’t work in some real news stories of greater length and depth than sound bites, then we can’t expect much more than sound bites and beef jerky, the latter offering more to chew on.  –J.B.

Atheists in Foxholes

As it turns out, there are atheists in foxholes.  As reported in an AP story that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the U.S. Army has 2,500 soldiers who describe themselves as atheist, and 101,000 who report no affiliation, out of approximately 548,000 (11/8/2009 “Faith and furor: Muslims say Ft. Hood gunman does not define Islam”).

When I mentioned to someone that I was reading a book about atheism she said, “Oh, it’s good to know the enemy.”  I admit it was my mistake for trying to have a sensible conversation with a Christian fundamentalist, but calling someone with different religious views an “enemy” is simply not very Christian.  I will return to the vitriol later, but I want to address what I believe are the essential issues first.

I finished reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  I am struggling to finish The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  Both of these books were New York Times best sellers. Since I am a person with a life-long interest in religion, I never felt compelled to study atheism before now and reading both of these books was both challenging and disturbing, as I believe both authors intended.

Hitchens’ book was a brilliantly written page-turner while Dawkins’ book is occasionally amusing but primarily tedious.  For people of faith, or those even mildly interested in religion, it doesn’t make sense to be afraid of, or worse – hate, atheists.  Faith is the opposite of fear, so how intelligent, well-read atheists think should provoke consideration not anger.

The Hitchens’ book builds a convincing case for the negative impact of religion on social history and individual experience, especially in the treatment of children and when connected with politics.  Ordinarily I enjoy sarcasm, but the Dawkins’ book is so relentlessly facetious it was nearly impossible for me to appreciate his perspective.  While Hitchens hoped to influence readers, Dawkins’ was shameless in attempting to convert the faithful into godless.  I found Dawkins’ attempt at proselytizing no more or less offensive coming from an atheist than a born-again Christian.  (See my blog column “Missionary Go Home” 8/25/2010.)

I don’t see value in arguing over the existence of God.  That is ultimately an individual question.  No panel of theologians can prove the existence – nor can a panel of atheists disprove it.  I see theologians denying science or atheists disavowing the possibility of anything mystical equally non-productive.  The intersections that matter are when theologians try to dictate to science or atheists want sanitize culture of any presence of religion.  That time would be better spent by theologians speaking to their own followers and leaving the rest of us alone, and atheists limiting their arguments to the inappropriate influence of religion in this secular society.

Atheists make an important contribution to our culture by being the conscience of religion.  Religion does enjoy too much societal protection legally, financially, publicly, and tacitly.  For example, in a capitalistic country, tax breaks are an enormous practical advantage as well as a demonstration of governmental approval.  There is no real reason why churches should be tax-exempt any more than social clubs.  This will be a future column, but my short answer is that if churches or religious organizations are not contributing social services to those outside of their own group, there is no reason for exemption from taxes.  Locally, I see very little difference between the YMCA and LA Fitness, except that the Y has a better swimming pool and is tax-exempt.

I would distill these issues to a few basic questions.  Primarily, the pivotal question is: Do you believe in the supernatural?  If not, then any god arguments are irrelevant, as well as any discussion on humans having a soul or spirit.  Dead is dead.  That is not a subject that is possible to debate.  As impossible as it is to debate, it is pointless to be angry because that is someone’s point of view.  Both books had stories of hate mail and death threats.  There’s no excuse for any person of any religion to stoop to bullying atheists.  You discredit your own religion.  If someone else’s view is that threatening, then your faith doesn’t really amount to much, does it?

Often I conclude these columns with what I personally believe, and I am tempted to do so this time, but I resist that temptation because it is irrelevant.  I read an amazing book by Hitchens that deeply disturbed me in many appropriate ways.  He influenced my thinking but did not change my point of view.  I am grateful such a great thinker lived among us and was unafraid to ask difficult questions that make us uncomfortable.  I would like to say, rest in peace, but that would be disrespectful.  So, Mr. Hitchens, I celebrate your life and contribution to this planet by encouraging tolerance of atheists and promising to read more of what you wrote.

To the religious, I would say that a faith unquestioned is just stupidity.

-J.B.

The War Monk: Yes, there is one

The death of Osama bin Laden is an opportunity for reflection.  He was a religious wanna-be.  He did not have religious training and his interpretation of Islam was neither Orthodox nor representative of the majority of Muslims (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/04/bin-ladens-theology/).  Every religion is vulnerable to the theft or distortion of ideology for political gain.  Buddhism is not immune either.  Yes, there is a “War Monk,” and he is Buddhist.

I was introduced to the War Monk in an article in Foreign Policy (FP) magazine.  He was quoted saying, “We musn’t talk to them; we can crush the LTTE [Tamil Tigers].  It is like surgery.”  He was not alone – he made the list: “The List: The World’s Worst Religious Leaders,” (4/7/2009).  FP was quoting Athuraliye Rathana, a Theravadan Buddhist Monk and member of the Sri Lankan parliament.  FP did not coin his nickname, and their list included representatives from Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.

Most Americans are not looking for the latest news about Sri Lanka.  Searches of CNN and MSNBC produced very few stories.  There is one MSNBC/AP story today (5/6/2011) and one story on CNN posted 5/2/2011.  BBC News Online posted a story on April 13, “Sri Lanka rejects secret UN war report as ‘flawed.’”  The United Nations was looking into war crimes associated with the civil war between the victorious government and the Tamil Tiger challengers.  The top leaders of the Tamil Tigers are dead and the UN wanted to investigate both sides in regard to the civilian deaths which human rights groups say are in the thousands.

One would think that a UN report on war crimes would be sensational enough to grab headlines, but apparently not when it’s Sri Lanka.  What really grabbed the UK media was that the War Monk, Rathana, was wielding his rhetorical sword their direction.  On May 21, 2009 the London Times Online posted the story “Victorious war monk Athuyaliye Rathana turns on Britain.”  Well now, that’s a little closer to home than the Indian Ocean.

The history of this exotic Indian Ocean island should be required reading in all seminaries, kibbutzim, ashrams, and madrasahs.  The story of Sri Lanka is one of years of tragedy and violence that in proportion to its population, compares to the U.S.’s Civil War, World War II, Darfur, and al Qaeda all in one little slice of hell that is slightly larger than West Virginia.

The New Yorker had a comprehensive article (01/17/2011) by Jon Lee Anderson who had been to Sri Lanka before and since the current government crushed the Tiger rebellion.  His 15-page story is worth every word.  It should be read as a shocking example of what people around the globe have in common with Sri Lanka.  The Tamil Tigers were using suicide bombers back before most Americans gave that phrase a thought.  Sri Lanka’s 26-year conflict has followed ethnic and cultural lines in which the majority is Buddhist and the minority is Hindu.  The Tigers were “guerilla fighters” (p.41) who were eventually crushed by the government in shocking brutality which caught up thousands of civilians – one report said 40,000 (p.42).

When Anderson was in Sri Lanka in 1986 he said, “The Army had developed a pattern of mass arrests, torture, and, with growing frequency, murder.  He met with a Tamil Catholic priest about whom he said, “The conflict had grown so terrible that he had come to question the very existence of God,” (p. 45).

Remember, Hinduism was the religion of Mahatma Gandhi.  One of the five precepts of Buddhism is do not kill.  But in the end, the Sri Lanka story is not about Buddhism or Hinduism.  It’s about power and exploitation.  The exploitation is more potent when a religious imperative can be contrived, like using the Bible to justify slavery.  Sadly, Sri Lanka has shown us that any religion can be hijacked.

It seems disturbingly easy for humans to desensitize themselves to violence, and even grisly oppression, when all that matters is that you are not the one who is being oppressed.  When tracing the roots of atrocities (in which most religions have had some role over time), there is also some relationship to the local economy.  The poor were bin Laden’s target audience and the lack of egalitarian economic opportunity set the stage in Sri Lanka.

Bin Laden was one of the most notorious opportunists in recent history, but there are many like him and the War Monk, who take advantage of poverty, exploit religious rhetoric, and justify their own political agenda.  We should be more frightened of poverty than terrorism.  If people are not hungry and have jobs, it becomes easier to learn to separate the religious practices of the faithful from the propaganda of the unscrupulous.

I’m not sleeping better because bin Laden is dead.  When there are enough jobs in Sri Lanka and no more hungry children in Afghanistan, then I’ll sleep better.  That goes for things at home, too.  The original terrorist is poverty.

– J.B.