Religious Platitudes

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I have been watching reruns of the seminal late Eighties/early Nineties television show thirtysomething. At one point in season three, the character Nancy goes through treatment for ovarian cancer and along the way meets a fierce fellow cancer victim who is dying. One evening over a glass of wine, Nancy asks her new friend if she believes in God. Her friend tells her a story. As her mother lay dying – losing her own battle with cancer – their parish priest tried to comfort her by saying, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Nancy’s friend remembers wondering, “Does that mean if I had been a weaker person, my mother would still be alive?”

“God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” is one of those religious sayings that I just can’t abide. The statement implies that God is a puppet master visiting various calamities upon us. Indeed, many people believe this is how God works, and it makes them bitter and angry. But if you believe that God is love, that God is merciful, you must agree that He does not give us illnesses or cause us misfortunes. A better way for that priest to have comforted the sorrowful daughter would be to assure her that God is there to give her grace and enable her to survive the terrible loss of her mother.

Another saying that really bothers me is often uttered when a child dies. “God just wanted her up in Heaven with Him,” people will tell the grieving parents. Or “God just needed another angel up in Heaven.” Again, how is that a comfort? It implies that God is selfish and willing to rip a child in an untimely fashion away from his or her parents so He can have her around. And it makes no sense. God is everywhere, so He doesn’t need to rush us to Heaven. He is literally dwelling within us.

I’m convinced that people mean well when they utter these religious platitudes, but what they are ultimately trying to do is reassure themselves. But sometimes bad things just happen to people. What faith offers us is a way to bear our suffering by believing God is with us always, even in the depths of our pain and despair. What human beings can offer the suffering is the same: their presence, their willingness to hold that person up when they are about to fall. The only words you really need to say are, “I’m sorry” and “I’m here.” No platitudes necessary.

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Fundamentally Flawed

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22960284-Religions-and-Holy-Books-Stock-Vector-yin-yang-prayerLast summer, when I read a news story about Buddhist extremists in Myanmar slaughtering hundreds of Muslim villagers, I was stunned. Buddhist extremism seems like an oxymoron. How can the religion of the peace-loving, wise Dalai Lama be the impetus for hate?

The answer lies in the problem of religious fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism is not confined to one faith tradition. There are fundamentalist Muslims, Christians, Jews, Mormons, and, it would appear, even Buddhists.

One hallmark of religious fundamentalism is the strict and literal interpretation of holy scriptures. Another is the refusal to brook dissent within the ranks of the faithful. These features of fundamentalism in themselves can create violence, as can be seen in the barbaric institution of strict sharia law within some Islamic countries, as well as the use of extreme corporal punishment in some Mormon and Christian sects.

But by far the worst aspect of religious fundamentalism lies in the hatred of the “other.” Such hatred has led to untold violence over the centuries whether it be the tortures of the Inquisition, the slaughter of millions of Jews, or more recently, the beheading of Christians and other non-Sunni Muslims by the Islamic State. In Myanmar, which in the past few years has begun a process of democratization, some zealots among the majority Buddhists have whipped up anti-Muslim sentiments that have led to wholesale massacre.

Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because the overriding values of  the religion are ignored in favor of strict, authoritarian rules that can be backed up by cherry-picking from the holy texts. Who among us has not heard the adage, “Spare the rod, and spoil the child” as a justification for corporal punishment? Or “an eye for an eye”?

The results of this fundamentalist mindset can be deadly. Stonings and beheadings, ethnic cleansings, the bombing of abortion clinics or shooting at a Planned Parenthood facility, military-like standoffs at the compounds of religious cults. It’s no wonder that the atheist community has stepped up their condemnation of organized religion.

It’s up to believers in all faiths to unite in the message of love and peace that truly characterizes God. War, strife, and violence are of human design and can never be justified by invoking God’s name. To do this, we must move away from fundamentalism and fear and toward understanding and tolerance.

Let’s Stop Blaming Islam

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The-Battle-of-JerichoIn the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament to Christians, God tells his chosen people to enter the Promised Land and “put the ban” on every town and city they encounter. To put the ban on a city meant to wipe it out completely: kill every man, woman, child, and animal; destroy every building and possession, and burn the city to the ground.

How many modern Jews and Christians believe that they should go around wiping out unbelievers by killing them and burning their every possession? The answer, of course, is that these stories are part of an ancient holy text, and they are to be interpreted in the light of what they might mean to people in a spiritual sense. In a spiritual sense, God was telling his people to rid themselves of vices, obsessions, and associations that keep them from holiness.

In light of the recent horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and elsewhere, critics have begun denouncing Islam itself rather than just the barbaric fanatics who have twisted the religion into a violent call for jihad around the world. So the same people who realize that stoning adulterers, while in the Holy Bible, is not a justifiable action in modern society, turn around and assume the jihadists are truly representative of Islam by harking back to a quite literal interpretation of its holy book, the Koran.

ISIS quite literally wants to create the conditions laid out in the writings of the prophet Muhammed and bring about the apocalypse. (“What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, March 2015) Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg put it well when he called this movement “medievalism.” It should be obvious that the vast majority of Muslims do not subscribe to this medieval interpretation of their religion. In short, ISIS doesn’t represent Islam any more than the Ku Klux Klan represents Christianity.

The danger of the current hysteria is that people will lash out at Muslims and Middle Eastern people in general. Numerous governors have already stated that they will refuse to house and help Syrian refugees on the grounds that terrorists might be infiltrating their numbers. This kind of fear-mongering and thinly disguised racism has been seen in this country before.

In 1942, shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps across the country. Today, America recognizes this action as an egregious violation of Japanese Americans’ civil rights, and reparations were paid to surviving families of those unjustly imprisoned.

What is happening in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Africa, and even in the beloved capital of Paris, France, is frightening. It requires a concerted effort on the part of our allies to help end the reign of terror imposed by such groups as ISIS and al-Qaeda (Remember them?). But let’s all take a deep breath and use our reason, as well as our heart, to direct our actions in the upcoming months and years.

Rather than blaming Islam, we need to work with Muslim countries around the world to stamp out the fanaticism and promote the ideals so beautifully represented by the red, white, and blue.

 

 

Disgraced

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Who are we beyond our race and religion? What is the cost of rejecting our cultural and religious heritage? Is admiration for another culture actually appropriation? Of whom should we be afraid? Does treating people like terrorists radicalize them?

These are some of the penetrating questions asked by Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play Disgraced. Set in a post 9/11 New York, the drama revolves around Pakistani immigrant Amir, who has disavowed his Muslim background and become a successful mergers and acquisitions attorney at a powerful firm. When his idealistic Caucasian wife asks him to get involved in the case of a local imam accused of funding terrorism, things unravel for the couple, their relatives, and friends.

While Disgraced gives no easy answers, the play implies that our hatreds and prejudices lurk uneasily just under the surface of our politically correct veneer. As the couple and their two colleagues/friends, also a married couple, converge at a dinner party, alcohol loosens tongues and inhibitions, and things go horribly awry.

Akhtar has also written an interesting novel titled American Dervish that explores a young Muslim boy’s coming of age and wrestling with the expectations of his parents, his insular Pakistani community, and the deeply held faith of a beloved family friend. The difficulty of being a “hyphenated” American and the temptation to erase one’s ethnicity seem to be themes in Akhtar’s work.

Successive generations of Americans have struggled with this tension between assimilation and appreciation for one’s cultural heritage. In the play, a character has changed his name to one that sounds less “Muslim.” A similar phenomenon occurred during World War II when Jewish and German Americans hid their backgrounds by Americanizing their names. In today’s society, blacks are often criticized for naming their children unique and colorful names, some of which reflect their African roots, and most of which reflect pride in a black culture that grew up alongside mainstream white culture in the United States.

There is a human tendency to categorize people – by race, religion, ethnicity, social class. We ask the seemingly innocent question, “What kind of name is that?” or “Where are you from?” to someone who seems different from ourselves. We hold in our minds the stereotypes that go along with a given group. Taken too far, we assume the worst of someone whose race or religion are very different from our own. And we act, often in destructive ways, towards those we don’t understand and so fear.

Disgraced is 80 minutes of heart-pounding tension and a sense of unease. The audience is taken out of its comfort zone and asked to examine its own prejudices and fervently held beliefs. It is not an easy play to watch, yet the issues it brings up are absolutely essential for Americans to consider in the current age of globalization and worldwide unrest.

When Art and Life Collide

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How far should an artist be willing to go for his art?

That is the question at the heart of the novel My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Just yesterday I saw a stage version of this semi-autobiographical story done by the excellent Chicago-based Timeline Theatre Company.

The play disturbed me, not only for its display of raw emotion, but because it spoke directly to me about my work as a writer.

Asher Lev is a young Hasidic Jew growing up in Brooklyn, New York. His pious parents love him but don’t know what to make of his obsession with drawing and painting. As Asher Lev grows up and starts to learn what it means to be a true artist, his depictions come into direct conflict with his parents’ feelings and his religious upbringing.

As I write my memoirs, I struggle with the need to be honest and true yet at the same time not hurt the people I love. The tension is between my need to love and be loved and the need to be heard and really seen. Is art that compromises really art at all?

I also feel tension between my Catholic religious tradition and my passionate beliefs about freedom and women’s rights. Sometimes I consider myself a coward and a hypocrite if I don’t come out strongly against Catholic Church teaching in these areas. In Asher Lev, the artist paints nudes and crucifixions, two things his Hasidic parents find morally reprehensible. Yet he is driven by a need to express himself through these images.

At one point Asher tells his father, “I respect you, Papa. But I can’t respect your aesthetic blindness.”

His father replies, “What about moral blindness, Asher?”

Therein lies the dilemma for the artist – how to stay true to one’s vision without doing harm. It is a question that I will continue to ask myself as I pursue my writing career.

The Ten Suggestions?

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images-13 Most everyone from the Judeo-Christian tradition is familiar with the Ten Commandments, the laws Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai after he got up close and personal with the Creator. Growing up, I dutifully memorized these rules but didn’t really dwell too much on their meaning. But I was thinking recently about how hard it can sometimes be to know if what we’re doing is right or wrong.

To be sure, some of the commandments are cut and dried: Thou shalt not kill, thou shall not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery. I can say with some confidence that I have not had a hard time steering clear of these sins. But some of the laws are a little bit more open to interpretation. Take, for instance, the prohibition against worshipping false gods. Obviously, I don’t bow down in front of little statues or golden calves in my spare time. But are there other idols in my life? Is it okay to want more money or clothes? What about spending time reading trashy novels or seeing violent movies? Should I be ashamed of getting goo-goo-eyed when I see a celebrity?

Another vague commandment is the one to honor your father and mother.  In the Bible, dishonoring parents was punishable by death. By those standards, all my children would be dead! I could really use some clarification here, Lord. I love my mom, and I would never do anything intentionally to hurt her. But is that enough? What is the line between living my own life and being a cause of shame to my parents?

Then there are the commandments that are just so hard to follow. I don’t know anyone who never takes the Lord’s name in vain – that is, if saying, “Oh my God!” is taking His name in vain. This expression has become so commonplace that I scarcely notice when I or other people say it. But does that make it okay? Our parish priest recently admonished us that such epithets are mortal sins. But I have a hard time buying the idea that off-handedly muttering, “Oh my God” is on a par with killing someone.

The anti-coveting commandments are also tricky. When I was learning the commandments as a child, I think the nuns left off the “coveting thy neighbor’s wife” rule. But I certainly learned not to be envious when my brother got a new bike and I was stuck with an old one. In practice, it’s often hard not to wish we were the ones with the brand new car or bigger house or cool clothes when we see friends or acquaintances have such good fortune. So when does mild envy turn into sinful covetousness?

Luckily, the Bible has an app for that. It’s called the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So I guess that’s what it all comes down to – love. If we can strive to make our lives ones of loving actions for others, maybe those Ten Commandments will take care of themselves.