Friday, August 27, 2010

Hitchens: Religion, Dr. King,, and the Civil Rights Movement

In God is not Great Christopher Hitchens attempts to explode the notion that religion causes people to do good things. The chapter entitled "Does Religion Make People Behave Better?" looks at the story of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the United States. While King was a religious man and used biblical imagery in his speeches, especially the story of Moses and the liberation of the oppressed people of Israel from their Egyptian masters, "the examples King gave from the books of Moses were, fortunately for all of us, metaphors and allegories."

While employing biblical rhetoric to inspire his followers, King was trying to throw off the "heavy burden" of southern Christian racism:

The southern churches returned to their old ways after Reconstruction, and blessed the new institutions of segregation and discrimination. It was not until after the Second World War and the spread of decolonization and human rights that the cry for emancipation was raised again. In response, it was again very forcefully asserted (on American soil, in the second half of the twentieth century) that the discrepant descendants of Noah were not intended by god to be mixed. This barbaric stupidity had real-world consequences. The late Senator Eugene McCarthy told me that he had once urged Senator Pat Robertson - father of the present television prophet - to support some mild civil rights legislation. "I'd sure like to help the colored," came the response, "but the Bible says I can't." The entire sefl-definition of the south was that it was white, and Christian. This is exactly what gave Dr. King his moral leverage, because he could outpreach the rednecks. But the heavy burden would never have been laid upon him if religiosity had not been so deeply entrenched to begin with.

Hitchens points out an interesting fact about the people around Reverend King:

As [King biographer] Taylor Branch shows, many of King's inner circle and entouraage were secular Communists and socialists who had been manuring the ground for a civil rights movement for several decades and helping train brave volunteers like Mrs. Rosa Parks for a careful strategy of mass disobedience, and these "atheistic" associations were to be used against King all the time, especially from the pulpit. Indeed, one result of his campaign was to generate the "backlash" of white right-wing Christianity which is still such a potent force below the Mason-Dixon line.

Hitchens concludes:

Anybody, therefore, who uses the King legacy to justify the role of religion in public life must accept all the corollaries of what they seem to be implying. Even a glance at the whole record will show, first, that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out the best. The chance that someone's secular or freethinking opinion would cause him or her to denounce the whole injustice was extremely high. The chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to take a stand against slavery and racism was statistically quite small. But the chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to uphold slavery was statistically extremely high, and the latter fact helps us to understand why the victory of simple justice took so long to bring about.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sister Margaret McBride

Life as a Human  just published my article, "The Common Sense of Mercy," on the controversy surrounding the excommunication of Sister Margaret Mary McBride by Thomas Olmstead, Bishop of Phoenix, for her role in the approval of an abortion performed at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix in late 2009.

To read the article, go here.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"God is not Great" is not Great

Along with The Bishop's Man, I am also reading Christopher Hitchens' God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. After eight chapters and some, I am finding it a bit of a tough slog, a bit like certain chapters in the Old Testament.

There is no question that Hitchens is an excellent writer, an intelligent man, and someone who is passionate about religion - obviously in an anti-religious way. But there are two things that strike me about God is not Great. First, what was the purpose of writing it? Did Hitchens think that by proselytizing his anti-religious views, he would win converts to atheism? Did he hope that Christians or Muslims reading his books would suddenly see the error of their ways and remove the blinkers from their eyes?

The second thing that strikes me about this book is the fact that Hitchens virtually ignores the good that religion has done for people throughout history. Does he really think that an individual intelligent and curious enough to pick up his book and read is not going to quickly notice that it paints an utterly one-sided picture of religion, thereby utterly invalidating everything he says?

I can hardly wait to read Dawkins.

More on this later.

Or maybe not.

Photo Credit

Creative Commons: Some rights reserved

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"Relating an opaque theology to contemporary circumstances"

I am reading, for the second time, Linden MacIntyre's award-winning novel The Bishop's Man. It is the story of a priest, just turning fifty, who is assigned by his bishop to a small parish in rural Nova Scotia. This is his first pastoral appointment after many years of being the "bishop's man," a special agent of the chancery sent out to deal discreetly with the problem of wayward (i.e. abusive) priests.

Here are some of his reflections on being a pastor:

Nothing in the seminary or since had prepared me for what I now faced every day. Relating an opaque theology to contemporary circumstances. Seeking guidance in the ruminations of great medieval minds, now rendered unintelligible except in transparently manipulative parables, the old promises and threats designed to sway the superstitious, now empty. I thought of Pat and laughed aloud. I thought of Sextus and my sister. There was nothing in my experience, personal or pastoral, to help me deal with these realities.

But it didn't seem to matter. It seemed to be sufficient that I was here. It hurts, they've told me, when a place loses a school, a post office, identity. Losing the church would be the last straw. I agreed with everything. The church is the guardian of life itself, a lonely sentinel. I didn't tell them what I really thought: how the spire has been supplanted by the satellite dish. I dared not tell them what I think about the right to life.

They wouldn't listen anyway.

I wonder how many real priests come to the same conclusions as this fictional one and how they deal with the cynicism, the disillusionment.

This one seems to like to drink.

Photo Credit

by cphoffman42 at

Creative Commons: Some rights reserved

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The $18,000 Dead Cat: Please do not tell anyone in Pakistan

In Pakistan some 20 million people have been affected by flooding; thousands have already died, and thousands more will die. People are so desperate to escape the rising waters they are climbing trees, only to be bitten by poisonous snakes. Refugees are forced to live in squalid makeshift camps, with filthy water, mosquitoes, and little or no medical attention. The suffering is unimaginable, and it is likely to go on for a very long time. Aid organizations are complaining that the response from the public around the world to this disaster has been weak at best; donations trickle in.

Of course, this is a big international news story.

At the local level in the meantime, this story: Harley the cat, who was found soaked in paint thinner in a Vancouver suburb last month, had to be put down last Friday. The thousands of dollars raised for the cat's care as a result of public outrage over the incident was apparently not enough to save his life. According to the news story, "Before Harley's condition deteriorated, the hospital capped the bill for his care on compassionate grounds, but it still came to $18,000." The cat's owner says the cat was that important to her and her young son.

An administrator at the animal hospital has said that she will likely have to bring in a counselor to counsel some of the nursing staff who are distraught over Harley's death.

This is a true story.

God help us see the tragic and absurd errors of our ways.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Struggle and Surrender

Much of what we do in life involves struggle. For billions, of course, the struggle is for survival. Most of us in the so-called developed world, however, do not have to be concerned with survival: we have shelter, clothing to wear when it is cold, and enough food to eat. Yet we do struggle. We struggle to get, to win, to accomplish, to measure up, to understand, to control. In fact, we spend a significant part of our lives in struggle.

The root of most of our struggle is “I want”—to buy a better car, to hurt my spouse (because he or she hurt me), to be a great cook, to make my father proud of me (finally), to understand why someone suffered and was taken from me. We want to control our own lives and those of others, often because we are afraid of change or of loss.

Winning the struggle often brings the illusion of happiness, but that “happiness” soon disappears because a new want presents itself and we are right back in the struggle. The Buddhists say that desire is the root of all suffering and that our suffering will not end until our desiring ends. And we do suffer for our desire; the suffering is called stress in modern-day terms.

I wonder if we know all this but are somehow compelled to continue the struggle—to keep on wanting—perhaps because we know of no other way. Our parents struggled, after all, to feed and clothe and educate us and pay for Christmas presents and vacations and weddings. And we see struggle all around us, often in the form of conflict, presented in TV news stories and “discussion” forums, in movies and TV dramas, in personal relationships. We even see it in the Church: progressives vs. conservatives, modernists vs. anti-modernists. Read a few pages of Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and you will immediately recognize the constant struggle that takes place within your own mind.

What if we just stopped for a moment and thought about what we are doing, to ourselves and to each other? What if we considered another approach?

“Surrender” has never been a particularly positive term in our culture. It has usually meant giving up, conceding defeat. An army surrenders to a force of superior power or strategy; the losing side is shamed. A fugitive surrenders to authorities and is seen on TV in handcuffs and leg shackles—humiliated. We are outmatched in an argument and reluctantly surrender, embarrassed at our ineptitude.

And none of these surrenders is complete. The defeated army is eventually rebuilt and made ready to fight again. The fugitive surrenders his physical self because he has been outnumbered and outsmarted, but it is unlikely that he has surrendered his heart in humility and contrition for his crime, if indeed he committed one. We vow to regroup and win the next argument to heal our wounded pride. The struggle, then, does not end with the surrender.

The only time we see surrender in a positive light is when a person surrenders his or her heart to another in a romantic relationship. The other night I watched with a friend the beautiful film Tender Mercies, in which a broken and defeated and angry man gradually surrenders his heart to a struggling young widow and her son. I have watched this movie many times yet it never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

Each of us is, to some degree, broken and defeated. Yet we struggle on, seeking victory over our unhappiness. We try to fix our brokenness by working harder, playing harder, planning and plotting more intensely. The last thing we want to do is to acknowledge and accept our brokenness, our defeat.

But if there is no struggle, there can be no defeat. If there is surrender to God’s love, there can be an end to desire and a beginning to happiness. This of course does not mean that we stop working, go on welfare, and meekly accept everything evil that takes place in the world. It is more about a change of consciousness—from a mindset of struggle to one of surrender.

Like many others, I have been angry with the Church over many issues, especially homophobia, which touches me personally. I know that my anger is ignored by the Church and harmful to me, yet I allow myself to be controlled by it.

In a recent post on the blog The Open Tabernacle, blogger Terence Weldon wrote about “attending the launch of theologian James Alison’s new book ‘Broken Hearts and New Creation.’” Terence noted that in the interview and Q&A that were part of the launch,

Alison again placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of not allowing ourselves to fall into a feeling of “victimhood” because of our position in the Church. Victimhood, he says is a dead end. Instead, it is important that we relax into a new identity, given to us by God – for which we must wait, based on trust. One danger in creating our identity based on victimhood is that we then shape our identity in terms of the other victims like ourselves, and set against the others who do violence against us.

Alison’s idea of relaxing into a new identity equates, I believe, to the idea of surrender. If we think of ourselves as victims, we struggle against the forces that “victimize” us rather than surrender to God’s love for us, no matter who we are, thereby neutralizing the effect of the “victimization” and offering instead an example of charity and humility.

Can any of you, for all his worrying, add a single cubit to his span of life? If the smallest things, therefore, are outside your control, why worry about the rest? Think of the flowers; they never have to spin or weave; yet I assure you, not even Solomon in all his regalia was robed like one of these. Now if that is how God clothes the grass in the field which is there today and thrown in the furnace tomorrow, how much more will he look after you, you men of little faith? (Luke 12: 25-29)

I know that this passage speaks to me as much as it does to anyone.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Toilers in the Vineyard

Sister Joan Chittister has written a courageous article which appears in the National Catholic Reporter today; the article is apropos the Leadership Conference of Women Religious currently meeting in Dallas and the ongoing "visitation" of women religious in the United States by the Vatican, which seeks to determine if American nuns have strayed too far from tradition and Church teaching.

Sister Joan says:

What shall we think about such a time as this when the women religious who have built, carried, led and staffed every work of the church from the earliest days of this nation to this present time of turbulence and transition are being accused of being unorthodox, unfaithful, and unfit to make adult decisions about what they need to hear and who they want to have say it?

The problem is that in the face of opposition they have also been unafraid.

It is time for thoughtful Catholics to recognize and acknowledge that the hierarchy of the Church, increasingly obsessed with maintaining power and preventing change - in fact, with returning to the pre-Vatican II Church in which all authority was held by Rome - is not the Church. The Catholic Church is the People of God, the workers in the vineyard, who every day, quietly and joyfully, obey the "new commandment" to "love one another as I have loved you."

Sister Joan makes a clear distinction in her article between leadership and authority, taking a shot at the hierarchy in the process:

Now we are at another crossroads moment in time. This is a time, too, of deep crisis and great needs, of the rejection of those who raise new questions and a reaction against those who raise new ideas in a system trying to preserve the old ones in order to preserve itself.

It is a time, as it has always been, for leadership.

But leadership and authority are not the same thing. It can take a long time to learn the difference between the two but there is nothing in life that demonstrates the difference between the two better than a crossroad.
At the crossroads in life, authority goes one direction: back. Authority goes in the direction that's already in the book; the path that has been clearly trod before now, the way that is safe and sure, clear and certain, obedient and approved, applauded and rewarded.

Leadership, on the other hand, rewrites the book. It takes the direction that leads only to the promise of a better tomorrow for everyone however difficult it may be to achieve it now. "The seed," the Zen master teaches, "never sees the flower."

The times are clear. The needs are now. The time for new decisions is upon us. Authority is not enough for times such as these. We need leaders now.

Amen, Sister. Amen.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Old Souls

For cynical people with questions about life and death and doubts about heaven, hell, and purgatory (thank goodness Limbo has been confined to the theological landfill), reincarnation is a most attractive concept. It just seems to be able to provide more satisfying answers to the age-old questions like “Why are we here?” and “Why is there so much suffering in the world?”

The CBC National News usually includes one or two in-depth feature stories in its nightly broadcast. A recent story took veteran reporter Joe Schlesinger to Calgary, Alberta, where he interviewed 14-year-old classical pianist Jan Lisiecki, who is considered a prodigy. Schlesinger says, “He may still be a child but Jan Lisiecki …has a record of mature, sophisticated performances that have wowed critics and audiences the world over.” The maturity and sophistication are manifested in Jan's gorgeous tone and in his interpretation of the pieces he plays with such astonishing mechanical facility. Violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman says of Lisiecki that “talent of that magnitude comes at least two or three generations apart.”

If there is such a thing as an “old soul,” Jan Lisiecki truly fits the category. When he was six years old, his piano teacher had him play “a boringly technical finger exercise.” Jan’s teacher says, “Usually it’s just a matter of playing the notes. He played it so beautifully, I…never could’ve even imagined it played so musically. It transformed these kind of dry notes into beauty.” Think of the average six-year-old. Then think of a clever and talented six-year-old. Now imagine a six-year-old that can not only recognize and understand beauty but can express it through a powerful and sophisticated musical instrument.

Zukerman said the first time he heard Jan play, “within the first seven or eight bars” the boy had already impressed him deeply. “I can tell you that if I didn’t know who was playing, I would hear an old soul. An old soul is what you hear in great talent.” Conductor Boris Brott, another admirer and supporter of this young pianist, marvels at Jan’s ability to interpret composers like Chopin, Mozart, and Beethoven, “to literally don their cloak, to wear their jacket as it were.”

The “old soul” deal is sealed for me when I hear this young man speak. Because he is fourteen, there is “childish impishness,” an impishness often seen in the 80-year-old Vladimir Horowitz. But there is also wisdom, insight, and humility rarely seen in human beings of any age, never mind a young teenager.

On being called a child prodigy, Jan says, “I really dislike being called a prodigy or a genius because I feel that doesn’t really describe me. I feel that I’ve been very lucky with the people that I’ve met and with the people that have been helping me, and that I’ve also worked very hard for what I’ve got. And possibly I do have talent, depending on what your definition of it is. But really I don’t think that being called a child prodigy and thinking of ‘Where will he go? What will happen?’ is not really a good thing for the child.” He keeps the numerous awards he has won in a box on a shelf in the basement.

After music, Jan’s second love is flying. When asked by Schlesinger, “And what if a career in music doesn’t work out?” Jan replies, “Well, I think I’d be a little bit disappointed, but I would still love the music, and [big smile] I would have the option of becoming a pilot.”

Jan has skipped three grades in school and will likely graduate at fifteen.

How is it that a 14-year-old can have such depth and maturity, yet a 75-year-old still has not recognized that he or she is acting out childish insecurities through jealousy, compulsive behaviour, bigotry, and self-absorption? How is it that this boy is able to experience a thrilling, fulfilling yet peaceful life, embraced by the love of wise parents, while other children his age are neglected or brutalized or suffer disease or starvation?

We could, as Christians, say that God has smiled on Jan by giving him talent and tender support, but that does not explain the depth and the maturity of this young man. Nor does it explain his apparently privileged position, one that other children could not even dream of.

But could it be that Jan’s hard work has not just been the work of this life? Is it possible that Jan has worked hard through many lives, including lifetimes in which he suffered terribly and seemingly without reason? Perhaps that is what the 75-year-old is doing—working his or her way through the mystery, not only in this lifetime but in many more to come. And maybe those children who suffer—needlessly, we think—are working their way through the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth as well, and will some day, like Jan Lisiecki, be called an “old soul.”