Monthly Archives: November 2015

It’s not a question of what you are; it’s a question of who you are.

I have recently found myself contemplating the question of identity.  The term “identity” is often bandied about in popular media in relationship to a variety of topics – politics, religion, and human development among them.  The way in which we identify ourselves as individuals, group members, and nations has a powerful influence on our opinions and behaviors.  Mental health practitioners tell us that a realistic and balanced sense of who we are in relationship to others is crucial to healthy psychosocial functioning.  For many of us, our sense of self is often tied to group memberships ranging from genetic/biological categorizations like race and gender to our identification with political parties, professional affiliations, and national character.  Such connections give us a sense of belonging and often compel us to act the way we do.

The problem is that there can be tremendous disagreement over what it means to be a member of a certain group – both from within and outside of it.  For example, the construct of gender itself has changed to such an extent that to expect an individual to behave in a certain way simply because she has two “X” chromosomes is ludicrous.  Hard and painful experience has taught us that presuppositions about behavior based on race can be deeply destructive.  And, despite the progressively more polarized ideologies of American political parties, it is unwise to assume that people who call themselves “Democrats” and “Republicans” espouse only ideas unique to either of those parties.  The same is true of religion, and yet many people fail to acknowledge this reality – people from both within and outside of religious groups.

I am a Christian and I know many other Christians, but very few of them believe exactly as I do.  While many of these people gracefully acknowledge the differences between our individual theologies, others have suggested that the disagreement in our beliefs means that I am not a Christian.  When I was a young woman I moved three thousand miles from my home of origin to be with the person I loved.  We had agreed that, although we were both committed to our relationship it was unwise for us to marry based only on the understanding of one another we had developed during what had been primarily a long-distance relationship.  Both of us came from relatively conservative families who did not (at that time) believe that people should live together in a non-platonic way without being married.  Nonetheless, we moved in together because we believed that such a step was important in our relationship.  We had a rocky start.  My boyfriend’s mother passed away during our transit across the country.  I was terribly homesick.  We had friends but they were generally adventurous folks who were unable to understand my adjustment difficulties.  I was therefore thrilled that my first job in my new home was at a Christian preschool.  Having been raised in a supportive Christian church community I believed that my Christian affiliation would be helpful in my new job and through it I might make friends to sustain me in my new life.  I was wrong.  Upon finding out that I was living with my boyfriend, my Christian colleagues asked me if I was uncomfortable with the fact that I was going to hell.  When I began carpooling with one of my fellow teachers and developed a headache from the volume at which she played her Christian praise music, she asked me why I didn’t love Jesus.  I can only imagine what would have happened if I had suggested we stop by Starbucks on the way to work.

The conflict I had with my Christian colleagues was one of identity.  We all considered ourselves to be Christians but we had different ideas about what that meant – and each of us was acting according to what we believed was foundational to that identity – with disastrous results.  The dissonance in our beliefs was compounded by the preconceptions we had about one another.  The same thing happens daily on a global scale with much more significant consequences.  Assuming knowledge of what a person believes and how they will act based on one understanding of what it means to belong to a certain group can have far more severe consequences than making a fool of yourself.  And it makes no sense.  If two psychologists can evaluate the same person and come up with different diagnoses, then two Christians can certainly differ as to what constitutes the core tenants of their faith.  Losing our expectations in regard to what others believe is vital if we are ever to understand ourselves and one another.

And understanding is only the beginning.   Appreciating our differences is important, but only when it leads to tolerance – and tolerance requires emotional flexibility.  I am not suggesting that individuals should adjust their beliefs to accommodate changing situations.  Faith is not fashion.  I am arguing that faithful individuals need to recognize that we live in a diverse world and it makes sense that there is a broad spectrum of belief represented in it.  And I submit that God is beyond the comprehension of any faith or intellectual schema.  The danger lies not in any one belief system.  The danger lies in an inability to accept the necessity for differing perceptions about such beliefs.

We demonstrate our religious identities by acting on our beliefs.  The more rigid those beliefs are the more circumscribed our actions will be.  Put simply, living according to our faith is easier when the rules are clear and uncomplicated by moral ambiguities.  But easier is not better.  The most seductive words in the universe are “Do [this] and you will be saved,” particularly if those words are not open to interpretation.  There is a difference between pure faith like that of a child and rigid faith colored by the experiences of adulthood.  The most treacherous believer is the one who accepts without thought – whose identity is based on doing without apprehending.   Regardless of what he may call himself, that believer is not a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist or an atheist.  That believer is a zealot, and zealotry is its own identity.  The conviction that their way of thinking is the only pathway to fulfillment is the core of a zealot’s identity.  It is not the religious belief itself that matters; it is the unconsidered and absolute adherence to the individual’s perception of it that is crucial.  Zealotry is highly individualized.  Although there are communities of zealots, their associations are practical, not spiritual.  Zealots maintain a narrow focus that leaves no room for consideration of the needs of others.  An unambiguous belief system cannot navigate the complexities of human nature.  There is no “think” only “do.”

But human beings have the capacity to think.  Human beings have the have the ability to empathize.  Human beings crave community.  I believe these are gifts from God – and my belief system reflects this understanding.  I am a Christian.  This is what that means to me: I adhere to a Christian practice based on what Jesus said when asked what the greatest commandments were.  Love God, he said, and love your neighbor as yourself.  This means recognizing both the capabilities and limitations of being human.  It means working with and for others.  It means thinking before acting.  It means being firm in my faith without condemning those who do not believe.  These things are not what I am, but who I am.  Such is my identity.

Violence is not civilized, but Christians should be.

11/20/15

I have several quotes hanging on my refrigerator.  One of the shortest of these reads, “Civilization is just a slow process of learning to be kind.”  If this is the case, then recent evidence suggests that the people of the United States, unfortunately led by several individuals and groups of people calling themselves “Christians,” are rapidly becoming vastly uncivilized.

I think we always hope – and sometimes find- that tragic events bring out the best in people.  This idea, which is popular among the religious, proposes that suffering is emotionally educational for the individual; it helps us to grow in self-understanding and grace.  It is also unifying for the community, bringing shared values and basic human impulses like compassion and generosity to the forefront.  It doesn’t seem to be happening right now, however.  In reality, what is occurring in the world this week is the exact opposite of nobility in the face of tragedy.  Recent tragic events instead appear to have made us more ignorant, less graceful, extremely narcissistic, and spiritually miserly.

Since the Paris attacks last week, the racist and anti-Islamic rhetoric that has been gradually increasing in this country since the 9/11 attacks fourteen years ago has been legitimized by the openly irrational and hateful responses by numerous government officials and presidential candidates.  The governors of several states have said they will not accept Syrian refugees for fear that such individuals are terrorists in disguise.  Donald Trump has supported this notion, providing it with an air of rationality by calling it a “Trojan Horse” strategy.  Despite the fact that President Obama clearly stated that movements to inspect Mosques, allow only Christian refugees, and track the activities of Muslim individuals are “shameful” and do not represent who we are as a nation,[1] and the President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission described himself as “shocked” by them, they are being supported by many Americans.[2]  Other incidents – like the recent vandalization of  #blacklivesmatter signs at predominately white churches and the increasing anti-immigration rhetoric on the U.S. political stage, demonstrate a deeply antagonistic and paranoid stance against anyone perceived of as “other” by Americans.

This observation is supported by a recent study that found that Americans feel besieged by anxiety-provoking circumstances and are nostalgic for an idealized version of America past.[3]  A majority of participants across cultures said they believe the values of Islam are contrary to those of America.  Thirty-five percent of those surveyed identified racial tension as a significant issue in the United States, although, unsurprisingly, this opinion was much more frequent among minority respondents.  Evidence of unfocused free-floating anxiety is demonstrated by the number of people who feel that most people are not given a fair chance to succeed in the U.S. (65%) but also have issues with immigrants (48%).

All of this defies logic and factual evidence.  As President Obama stated, there is no proof that America has anything to fear by providing the possibility of simple survival to the widows and orphans who make up the vast bulk of Syrian refugees.  There is no evidence that being Muslim makes an individual more likely to be violent.  In fact, a recent review of terrorism indicates that the vast majority of terrorist acts carried out on American soil since the 9/11 attacks were not perpetrated by Muslims.[4]  And there is plenty of evidence to indicate that Muslim people are not exempt from terrorism; death tallies in France confirm that there were Muslims among the dead in Paris.[5]  So there’s a lot for everyone to be worried about and afraid of.

The question is whether we will allow that fear to rule us -because tragedy brings out the best in people only when they choose to allow it to.  Basic human neurobiology is actually on the side of panic and isolationism.  The limbic system, which controls emotion in the brain, is more developed and automatic than the frontal lobes which house judgement and rationality.  Ideally, our frontal lobes can mediate the wilder instincts of our limbic systems – but such mediation is learned.  The same is true of community behavior.  While banding together is a natural human impulse, it is at base a selfish instinct because it serves to protect the individual.  Gathering in community to promote higher-level ideals like sacrifice, compassion, and love is the action of a rational, self-actualized society.  In other words, kindness in the face of tragedy is the hallmark of civilization.

That is why many Christians find value in suffering, because it forces both individuals and societies to develop the capacity to deal wisely with events and attitudes that trigger our most base emotions and savage instincts – and Christian thought offers a pathway for that kind of growth.  David Brooks has suggested that all great religions are founded on love, but also demand justice.[6]  Love is instinctual; it is based in the limbic system.  Justice is not.  Justice is a frontal lobe function.  It requires learning.  It requires effort.  It requires faith.  I believe that there is a great deal of violence perpetrated in the name of religion, but I do not believe, as many do, that religion causes violence.  Rather, I believe that religion can solve violence.  But only if we temper our passions with wisdom, if we fuse love with justice, and if we commit to the slow process of learning to be kind by being civilized.

 

[1]Kimberly Winston (November 16, 2015), “Obama denounces religious test for refugees: ‘That’s not who we are,’” Religious News Service, http://www.religionnews.com/2015/11/16/obama-denounces-religious-test-refugees-thats-not/?email=drdebowhite%40gmail.com&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The+Slingshot+Acronyms+for+terrorists+Christians+response+to+refugees+no+prayers+for+Downton+Abbey&utm_content=The+Slingshot+Acronyms+for+terrorists+Christians+response+to+refugees+no+prayers+for+Downton+Abbey+CID_7c1aa7cc5c4c1cec2df395d92a9374eb&utm_source=Campaign%20Monitor&utm_term=Obama%20denounces%20religious%20test%20for%20refugees%20Thats%20not%20who%20we%20are.

[2]McKay Coppins (November 19, 2015), “Conservative Christian Leader Blasts Anti-Refugee Rhetoric, Calls For Compassion,” Buzzfeed News, http://www.buzzfeed.com/mckaycoppins/conservative-christian-leader-blasts-anti-refugee-rhetoric-c#.grQwN5Aeg.

[3]Cathy Lynn Grossman, (November 17, 2015), “Americans fret about Islam, immigrants, the future – and each other,” Religious News Service, http://www.religionnews.com/2015/11/17/islam-terrorism-black-lives-matter/?email=drdebowhite%40gmail.com&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The+Slingshot+Acronyms+for+terrorists+Christians+response+to+refugees+no+prayers+for+Downton+Abbey&utm_content=The+Slingshot+Acronyms+for+terrorists+Christians+response+to+refugees+no+prayers+for+Downton+Abbey+CID_7c1aa7cc5c4c1cec2df395d92a9374eb&utm_source=Campaign%20Monitor&utm_term=Americans%20fret%20about%20Islam%20immigrants%20the%20future%20%20and%20each%20other.

[4]Scott Shane, (June 24, 2015), “Homegrown Extremists Tied to Deadlier Toll than Jihadists in U.S. since 9/11,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/25/us/tally-of-attacks-in-us-challenges-perceptions-of-top-terror-threat.html?_r=0.

[5]Reuters, (November 19, 2015), “Muslims also killed in Islamic State attack on ‘Crusader France,’” http://www.religionnews.com/2015/11/19/muslims-isis-paris-islamic-state/?email=drdebowhite%40gmail.com&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The+Slingshot+Terrors+aftermath+continues+refugees+and+religion+under+scrutiny&utm_content=The+Slingshot+Terrors+aftermath+continues+refugees+and+religion+under+scrutiny+CID_d280124ce2bd31248c4bd7532d767237&utm_source=Campaign%20Monitor&utm_term=Muslims%20also%20killed%20in%20Islamic%20State%20attack%20on%20Crusader%20France.

[6]David Brooks, (November 17, 2015), “Finding Peace within the Holy Texts,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/17/opinion/finding-peace-within-the-holy-texts.html?emc=edit_tnt_20151117&&_r=0#038;nlid=20621639&tntemail0=y&_r=1.

Putting the “holy” back in the holiday season

11/10/15

Batten down the hatches, gird your loins, and check your credit score: the opening salvo in the annual stress relay we call “the holiday season” has been fired.  The issue?  Starbuck’s, the apparent arbiter of holiday good will, has opted to go with a (horrors!) plain red holiday cup design instead of a more “traditional Christmas” look.  Call the elves; Christmas is cancelled.  I would desperately like to say I am being satirical when suggesting that the chosen motif of a Starbuck beverage cup is of any importance to those who practice traditions related to the holiday many of us call “Christmas,” but, sadly, I’m not.

The situation is this: self-described, “former pastor and American evangelist, internet and social media personality”[1] Joshua Feuerstein has taken it upon himself to speak for the country’s millions of Christians by telling Starbuck’s that the cups constitute an attempt to “take Christ out of Christmas.”  I don’t want to be simplistic, but Feuerstein’s antics have no relationship to the form of Christianity which I practice.  The way in which I understand my religion – recently rebranded by Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in an effort to get back to basics as “the Jesus Movement” – is about loving your neighbor.  And as far as I can figure out, my neighbors would love it if I got them Starbuck’s gift certificates, regardless of the color of the cups.

The truth is that the holiday season represented in modern American culture has little to do with the traditional idea of a holding a mass venerating a belief in Jesus as the Christ.  While traditions like gift-giving, Christmas trees, and Santa Claus are vaguely based on Christian notions, other customs – like Christmas snow, Christmas parties, and Rankin-Bass television specials, for example – are purely modern inventions.  The hybrid Christmas-holiday season we currently “celebrate” is instead the result of a natural cultural evolution in which non-Christians have adapted to a national-majority custom which was foisted upon them.  If you are among the millions of non-Christian Americans born in the twentieth century, you probably grew up feeling isolated during what was then called “Christmas season.”  For many people it was simply a matter of survival to develop ways in which to function within this majority-culture phenomenon while remaining faithful to their own beliefs.  Thus, Chanukah became for my Jewish friends a more significant holiday than religious tradition demanded, while pioneering African-Americans created Kwanza as a way to celebrate their heritage, turning the “Christmas season,” in “the holidays.”  Unfortunately, however, the true foundation of the “season” that bracketed these celebrations (as well as the singularly nationalistic festivity of Thanksgiving) is consumerism, that most universal of American values.  And anyone who was in any kind of mainline Christian church last Sunday and (once again) heard Jesus’s negative opinion of income inequity knows that that is definitely not a Christian value.

Feuerstein is one man – a man who courts controversy- and does not speak for the millions of Christians in this country.  The fact that anyone (including me) feels a need to respond to him at all is more a symptom of how twenty-first century communications work than it is of true religious conflict (not that there’s not plenty of that to go around).  But it is also symptomatic of something author Diana Butler Bass calls, “Big C Christianity.”[2]  This is a popularized version of Christian history characterized by an “us” versus “them” mentality which portrays Christianity as the God-approved religion which has struggled throughout time to overcome those who would oppose it.  Bass suggests that not only is this version of Christianity divisive, but is also largely inaccurate and frighteningly incomplete.  In its American version, “Big C” Christianity is integrally connected to patriotic ideals like democracy and freedom.  But for those who have been persecuted in the name of the Christian church, as well as those who have simply born witness to the manipulative political use to which this mythology has been put, this is idea is patently ridiculous.  The majority of mainline Christian churches (including my own) have demonstrated a significant lack of love for their neighbors related to a vast majority of American social justice and political issues including slavery and LGBTQ rights.  Calling out “Merry Christmas” to people who feel oppressed by Christian churches will not only fail to heal these wounds, but it serves only to salt them.  In other words, making the demand that the word “Christ” be used in relationship to what is only peripherally the “Christmas” season, is the exact opposite of demonstrating the true Christian ethos of loving one’s neighbor.

Bass has argued that western Christianity needs to understand its history in order to function authentically in today’s society.  Rather than distancing ourselves from a sullied past, we should learn from it.  The desire to cling to a Christian-centered American cultural idea of Christmas is both outmoded and intolerant.

I am not fond of the way in which this country’s “holiday season” has turned into a primarily commercial venture, but I am also strongly opposed to efforts to “re-religionize” it.  In truth, I would be happier if our holiday season focused on efforts toward group reconciliation, civil discourse, and income redistribution in favor of those who have less.  Those values are consistent with those of Jesus and his movement.  But I don’t believe that “putting the Christ back in Christmas” is consistent with such desires.  Reaching those goals involves open dialogue between individuals with different understandings of the world.  It involves thoughtful (and, for those of us who pray, prayerful) consideration of what it really means to be an ethical person in American society today.  It involves loving one’s neighbor.

Bass has suggested understanding Christian history through a different lens – a truthful lens that acknowledges the evils wrought in the name of religion as well as the vast amounts of good done by those who follow Jesus.  She calls it “Great Commandment Christianity,” based on Jesus’s answer to the question of what is the greatest commandment: “Love your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”[3]  It seems to me that the time of year touted as “the holidays” – whatever that means for each of us – is a good time to attempt to practice “Great Commandment living” – by putting the “holy sowing” back into the “holiday season” by planting love and by loving each other more than shopping, more than decorating, even more than coffee.

[1]“About Josh” blog. http://www.joshuafeuerstein.com/about-josh/4585043155.

[2]Diana Butler Bass, (2009), A People’s History of Christianity: the Other Side of the Story, (New York: Harper Collins.

[3]Diana Butler Bass, (2009), A People’s History of Christianity: the Other Side of the Story, (New York: Harper Collins.

Meditation on Motives

The world is a scary place

when viewed through fearful eyes.

“Are you looking at me?!

Nobody said you could look at me.

Keep your eyes to yourself.”

That way you can’t see me as I am –

frightened, anxious, shy,

beautiful, brilliant, valuable-

human –

just like you.

Just let me look at you – 

give me a chance to know you,

to appreciate you,

to share life with you.

Just give me a chance.

Just give me a chance.

look at each other

What’s My Motivation?

11/5/15

I took a long ride on the subway today.  The opportunities for me to engage in my favorite sport – people-watching – were tremendous.  But I got a little worried after a while when a few people began gazing back.  Were they looking at me because I was looking so intently at them?  Were they offended by my stare?  Or was it something about me?  Was it what I was wearing?  What I was carrying?  What I looked like?  I began to think that maybe I should be checking my email after all.

Such anxious feelings are the risks of human contact – even the minimal human contact represented in a direct gaze.  We begin to attribute motives to one another.  Personally, I was fascinated with what I perceived to be the beauty of my fellow travelers.  Within ten minutes of my entry on the train, I saw a tall man with wavy, chin-length hair and coffee-colored skin leaning exquisitely nonchalantly against his bike (which was, in turn, leaning nonchalantly against the wall of the train).  I saw two beautifully-dressed African-American women who were clearly twins, sitting next to one another and displaying completely different facial expressions as they spoke on their separate cell phones.  I saw a fashionably dressed blonde woman who was so tall that her head hit the top of the train.  I saw a man with asymmetrical features that defied common ideas of attractiveness but whose sparkling brown eyes winked at me with enormously appealing humor and intelligence.  I saw a young woman whose hair style – dyed-grey and worn long and straight – seemed to me to be a perfect cross of the hairstyles sported by a middle-aged mother and teenaged sister in the mid-1970s.  It was a smorgasbord of vastly different but equally gorgeous humanity.  I could have spent an hour simply considering why one of the twins has a scar over her left eyebrow while the other one doesn’t – that is until one of them looked up at me and frowned – and I began to wonder why she thought I was staring at her.

I think we’ve all had an experience of catching someone looking intently at us.  Sometimes such moments bring about unparalleled joy – like the first time the person you like “in that way” looks at you as if s/he might like you that way too.  But sometimes moments like that engender fear – like when you are the only person of color in a train full of white people who are returning from a rally in favor of denying rights to immigrants or when you are the only woman on a street when a frat party lets out.  Usually such moments are neither intensely pleasurable nor paranoia-inducing – but they are generally thought-provoking.  I wear a clerical collar when I go to work.  It is my uniform, and like most of us who wear uniforms I often forget I have it on so I am surprised when I walk through a restaurant or a store and sense people looking at me.  I find myself attempting to interpret any penetrating looks that come my way.  After all, many people have strong reactions to seeing someone wearing a priest’s collar, especially if that someone is a woman.  But it is extremely rare for someone to actually say anything to me.

I frequently wish they would – because I would love to know what they are thinking, and what they are feeling.  I would love to talk to them about it.  I would feel better if I could.  It’s been my experience that when people speak to one another they find out that they have been attributing incredibly inaccurate motives to one another.  Sometimes they are projecting their own feelings onto someone else.  More often, I think, they are attributing socially-common or popularly-held beliefs to them.  I once sat with a woman on the subway who kept sneaking glances at me under her eyelashes.  Since I was wearing a clerical collar at the time I began to wonder if I should initiate some kind of conversation about religion or spirituality or something – but she beat me to the punch by finally coming out with what was on her mind: “Where,” she asked, “did you get those pants”?

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th century spiritual guide, developed a series of Spiritual Exercises that continue to be practiced by members of  The Society of Jesus (of which Pope Francis is one) and countless others.  Ignatian spirituality emphasizes contemplation in action and the Spiritual Exercises are designed to help individuals discern and do God’s will in the world.  One of the annotations in the Spiritual Exercises (22) is accompanied by the comment, “It is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false.”[1]  Anthony Lusvardi suggests that this means we should, “Stay away from motives.  If you find yourself attacking somebody’s motives, you are almost certainly violating Annotation 22.  Attributing presumed motives to others shifts the discussion away from the issue and onto the person.”[2]  My experience on the subway (and other places) confirms the truth of this interpretation.  Almost always, when we start guessing the motives of others, we’re wrong.  More importantly, we seem to be far too eager to assign negative motivations to innocent actions.  In other words, maybe that person staring at you on the subway is not questioning your faith or disapproving of your clothing or demonstrating hostility to your race, culture, gender, choice of partner, or behavior.  Maybe they just find you interesting or charming or beautiful.  Or maybe they’re just wondering where you got your pants.  And maybe if we wondered about each other less and talked to each other more, we’d find out.  Maybe we’d learn a little something – perhaps about fashion – or possibly about something significantly more important.  You’ll never know unless you ask.

[1]Manney, Jim, (2014), An Ignatian Book of Days (Chicago: Loyola Press), 309.

[2]Anthony Lusvardi, SJ, “Stay Away from Motives,” Whoever Desires blog, in Manney, Jim, (2014), An Ignatian Book of Days (Chicago: Loyola Press), 309-310.