Sunday, July 17, 2016

Putting the ethical alchemy of religion into our lives

“Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.” (Karen Armstrong: The Spiral Staircase, My climb out of Darkness)

It is so refreshing to read these words from Karen Armstrong, the former Roman Catholic nun who has for many years reflected, studied, written and taught a comparison of world religions. At one time she offered tutoring to the American government on the discernment between the radical jihadist Muslim terrorist movement and authentic Islam. And one of the insightful notions in this passage is the word "apply"....the notion that religion demands a way of living that, of necessity, breeds more application.
The objectivity at the top of the "value" totem in a scientific world so easily slides into the consciousness as a standard for all aspects of one's life. And that objectivity requires evidence that we have integrated specific formulae, propositions, theories and (in religion) dogmatic principles and rules. If one manipulates the physical, emotional, financial, familial and the professional 'chess pieces' of his/her life in a manner approved by the conventional wisdom of the surrounding culture, then one becomes a respectable, trustworthy, honourable and "proven" individual. The sheer effort that is required to accomplish this "perfect world order" (in the micro sense of one's private life) especially when buffetted by the judgments of others when and if one deviates from the "pattern" is exhausting. Others do have a penchant for determining whether or not the actions of one's life are ethical, moral, God-centred and thereby worthy of approval. How a marriage functions, for example, is never beyond the purview and the social critique of colleagues who believe they know how a marriage must function even though their own marriage, if put under a similar and parallel scrutiny by those they judge, would fail. 
In fact, so important is our openness to challenging the public opinions of those who consider it part of their duty as people of faith to judge others, and so important is our readiness to reflect on and evaluate our own attitudes, perceptions, actions and especially our judgments of others that these personal clarifications, through both formal and informal search initiatives that we argue both precede any overtly public acts of empathy, compassion and altruism. I know this story appears in this space already, but perhaps bears repeating here.
In a class that found itself veering into an exploration of race in the United States, I asked this question: "If you were attending a Saturday evening party where you were listening to racist jokes, what would you do?"
One person, in response, said, "Well I would move away from those telling such offensive jokes."
When asked why, she responded, "Well I certainly would not want those people to think that I thought I was better than they are."
"So then," I retorted, "your reputation with those people telling racist jokes is more important than the reputation of the people against whom the jokes were directed? Is that right?"
After she recovered her dropped jaw, she muttered, "I guess so, if you put it that way."
There is much public discourse during the American presidential election that focuses on race relations. In this context there is also an increasing acknowledgement that white people simply do not comprehend the full reality of what blacks endure especially from the white establishment. While that failure to understand black reality is true on a superficial, empirical and legal level, the roots of that failure of comprehension lie within the white population who refuse to put themselves in the "shoes" of their black counterparts. Just like the woman in the story above, most white people have never even considered the "other" as important, in a culture in which rugged individualism wildly trumps empathy, compassion and altruism. This attitude is expressed most clearly in an early interview with the Republican presidential candidate. "I consider the world a very dangerous place, and you have to fight in order to win in that world; otherwise you are a loser" is the tenor of that verbatim.
And when one's worldview is based on a "winners v losers" template, there is no place for empathy, compassion and altruism, except in solo, siloed and exceptional instances, designed more for inclusion in a resume, more to impress the world, to generate public approval, and clearly a debasement of the core intent and meaning of altruism. It is so facile, easy, and glib to write a cheque for a chosen cause, and then to reap the tax benefit from such generosity. It is far more demanding to serve in a "street health" clinic where the homeless and the hopeless cringe in dark corners of buildings and also of fear that they have to be approached as if they were terrorized and beaten puppies. We have done an outstanding job, collectively and then individually, of sanitizing our social and political issues, that we have effectively put them in a "problem file" often too large and too complicated for ordinary people to try to resolve. We have, thereby, effectively removed any responsibility from our lives for the remediation of those problems, even though we know that public issues demand public responses, in order for those in positions of power to respond.
If our individual attitudes and perceptions and actions comport with a view of the world that replicates the view expressed by our lady in the race joke story, then we will contribute to their continuation, to their complication and to their festering into a full-scale cancer.
Bill Maher, appearing in a special edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews, made a significant statement about race relations in the United States. He said he had interviewed a white policeman who had worked in a black community who told him, "When I worked in a black community, I hated all blacks; when I worked in a Latino community I hated all Latinos; when I worked in a white community I hated all whites." Maher continued, "Of course, police officers have to deal with the worst elements in any community so it would be natural that they would come to hate what they have to work with. However, this is a job they signed up for, so this attitude needs to be addressed."
In portraying the worst acts of any community, the media makes an overwhelming contribution to the "public attitude" of their viewers and their readers, and listeners. The recent shootings of black men by white police officers, and recently the assassination of five white police by a black man in Dallas are evoking loud and piercing cries for change. This change, from both whites and blacks will only come when the attitudes and the perceptions of equality ( a legal concept) and empathy (a moral concept) and identification ( a psychological concept) and a political requirement ( a legislative concept) merge into a force founded on those same elements of the religion to which Karen Armstrong refers in the quote above.
And those attitudes, perceptions and actions in the public arena will not emerge unless and until their corresponding attitudes, perceptions and actions are firmly ensconced in the nurseries of the nation ( very easily applied) to the kindergarten classrooms, (still relatively easily and readily applied) to the middle school and high school classrooms ( a little more hesitantly applied) and the part-time employment venues (almost never applied) and the college classrooms (rarely applied) and the full-time employment venues (only applied when required for legal purposes to comply with contractual obligations or to avoid legal sanctions).
And these attitudes, while cogent and the sine qua non of religious experience, are so far removed from the daily discourse, and the daily reflections and the water cooler conversations, except when a person know in common suffers from a mortal diagnosis, is seriously injured in an accident, is the victim of a terrorist attack, or is the object of some clearly visible victimization. 
Other than the headline-grabbing incidents, we keep our empathy, our compassion and our altruism safely locked in the vault of our hearts, so that no one will 'rob' us of our good intentions, and make us vulnerable, in the same manner that our woman in the narrative described avoiding embarrassment by calling the racist jokes, and taking a "stepping to the plate" position to push back against the racism that she failed to confront.
Such failures are not exclusive to the woman; they belong to each of us. And unless and until to walk the first few tentative steps in the moccasins of our beleaguered colleagues, we will own the implications of all of our individual and collective failures of both commission and omission.

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