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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Of Hypocrites, and Wretches, and looming Precipices

(I originally published this article under the title "Of Hypocrites, and Bitches, and Looming Precipices ". I have updated it to its present form for verbally esthetic reasons. Seriously. It has lost nothing in translation.)

"How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye." --- Yeshua

A Hypocrite is defined as: "a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs."  The word hypocrite itself is derived from the Greek concept of the actor as a person who wears a mask designed to hide his or her real face while he or she pretends to be someone else. Anyone watching the current social and political theatre will immediately connect with the concerns about how real our political, religious, and other civic actors are. The frustration with what is being presented before us is real.

Our contempt for many of those presenting themselves before us can barely be contained. It is understandable that we are at times moved to curse them with all our psychological might. Remember that saying about "sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me"? Well that does not apply here. Words have the power to stigmatize. They can hurt you. Hypocrite is an example of a word that can hurt. Despite the sentimental declarations of that well known song "Words Are Impossible"; words without love are still words with meanings. They can actually leave us with the feeling that something or someone has died, or is dying. 

There is such a thing as the connotative and the denotative use of language. Words have literal meanings, and they also carry cultural denotations. These are added meanings that evolve from how concepts are connected in our experiences. Consider the meaning of the word wretch as an example; literally meaning an unfortunate or unhappy person. The word can also be used to mean a despicable or contemptible person, as in "an ungrateful wretch". In this sense it has the same connotation as: scoundrel, villain, rogue, rascal, reprobate, criminal, or miscreant. We can all attest to the fact that words can be used to hurt us. We can't escape the damaging force of someone hurling the curse "Wretch!", or "Hypocrite!" at us. Like flying knives they bear sharp edges that can do real harm. Like the curses of old, we must either "duck" to escape their damaging effect or suffer the consequences.

The Prophets spoke powerfully against the hypocritical tendencies in their society. Their words applied equally to individuals, and to groups, and to the nation. The inherent wisdom of the warnings in Jesus' message sound loud and clear to us today. As individuals and as groups and as institutions and as a nation, we are solemnly warned against our propensity to judge others by standards that we only pretend to adhere to ourselves. We should pay attention to that warning whenever we demand justice for ourselves, while we dispense injustice to our neighbors.

We brutalize our neighbors, and then complain about police brutality. We demand that other nations comply with the standards of international morality; while we commit crimes against humanity. Extremist Christians and extremist Muslims criticize each other for atrocities that both groups have been, and still are guilty of. We say we serve a just God; while we make ourselves available to do the bidding of whoever will buy our allegiance. We say our religions are based on Love; while we worship gods, and declare the infallibility of scriptures that sanction genocide and other expressions of mass murder. We profess our love for, and our allegiance to a God we cannot see; while we actively hate our fellow humans who we can see, and hear, and touch, and taste, and smell. We sanctimoniously declare the fatherhood of God while denying the implied brotherhood of man. What hypocrites we are! What wretches we have become!

As hypocrites we have gone from wearing masks to donning blindfolds. This is the crux of the matter regarding the existential threat we face. The "log" in our eyes has made the "speck" in the eyes of those we criticize redundant. Our hypocritical statements do not matter because the deficiency of vision that results will be a reason for the demise of us all.  It is an existential altruism... a fact of life... that  "where there is no vision the people perish". (The Book of Proverbs) The blind leading the blind will only result in them both falling into a ditch… Into the beckoning precipices that lie in the path of those who depart from the straight and narrow path of righteousness.

The inherent idiocy of walking around in the chaos of the dark night created from our hypocrisy and wanton wretchedness, must be faced with humility. There is none so blind as those who celebrate the unwillingness to open their eyes to Common Sense and Truth. The precipice of mutual destruction is just a few steps away on the dreadful roads of our inhumanity toward one another. Those roads run through our civic lives wherever we may be. Roads in Ferguson, Missouri. Roads in New York, New York. Roads in Chicago, Illinois. Roads in Paris, France. Roads in Africa and the Middle East. Roads in Kingston, Jamaica. Roads in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

When the way to the City of Peace becomes instead a habitat of rogues, then what awaits us is the Valley of Destruction. We can all bet on that... Hypocrites, Wretches, and their unreasonable belligerence notwithstanding. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Get Up! Stand Up! Rise Up!

A young and rather creative minister was assigned to serve a congregation that was riddled with numerous issues which impeded its growth. Many who had gone there before him ended up frustrated as to the possibility that this church could be turned around. The common sentiment was that the church was “dead”.
Having given much thought to his predicament and the obvious challenge that was before him, the young preacher sat down and carefully prepared his inaugural sermon. In preparation for this service he ordered that a casket be made. Instead of the usual first Sunday communion service, he sent word out that the congregation should come prepared for a burial. This, he told all the leaders and other members of the congregation, was to be a unique funeral service.
Arriving at the church that Sunday, no one knew what to expect. There in front of the podium stood a covered casket. No one had died as far as anyone knew, so who was being buried…? Out of morbid curiosity a great crowd showed up for this spectacle; some wondering aloud if this new preacher was “a little out of his mind.” The church was filled to capacity, as word spread far and wide about the new preacher’s announcement.
As the time to begin the service approached, the young man stood before the gathering and introduced himself. Having done so he then made the following pronouncement: “I have been told by everyone that this church is dead. Many have told me that not even a miracle could revive her. And so today we will do with this church what is done with every dead thing. We will bury it.”
Not knowing what to expect, everyone was silent. It was a silence born out of the latent expectations of people who had long lost any spark of dynamism. They had all shrugged off any hope for a revival. The preacher continued: “And so, as the custom is, I will now ask that you all line up and take a final look at the dead before we bury it. Please approach and take a good last look at the dead.”
And they all did; because in the bottom of that casket was a mirror.
That church has never been the same since.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Pharisees and Publicans vs Democrats and Republicans

In light of the fundamentalism which insists that we must give prominence to the religious foundations of our nation’s origins, it becomes imperative that we raise some fundamental questions about those foundations. What, we must ask, are the social and political ramifications of a belief system that assumes the “fatherhood” of “a common Creator”? 
In the words of Cain… "Am I my brother’s keeper?". Do I have the right to demand that I be treated as a “fellow person”?  In the tradition of Martin Buber, a prominent twentieth century philosopher, religious thinker, political activist and educator; shall we cultivate amongst ourselves “I-thou” rather than “I-it” relationships. Do we truly believe that “all persons are created equal”?
Religious belief is by no means separable from the anthropological assumptions of the faithful. The evidence from our human experience is that in fact people do create gods in their own images. Our religious ideals bear the indelible imprint of our social, economic, and historical biases. For this reason it is a semantically perilous exercise to underlay any conversation about a just and civil society with required assumptions about commonalities in religious belief. As I have observed elsewhere, our theology is for the most part the deification of our anthropology. An obvious peril of religious dialogue is therefore its inherent subjectivity.
It is ironic that in a culture where the God of the prophet Amos tells the oppressors of the poor to go to hell with their “sacrifices” and their other religious observances, these same oppressors never cease to warn the poor about “a godless ideology”. I am reminded of the Epistle of John where it is unequivocally stated, and here I paraphrase again… If a man says he loves God whom he cannot see, while he is oppressing his brother whom he can see… That man is a LIAR. So, one may ask on the basis of this declaration: Whose is the godless ideology?
As for me and my house... We will stay away from those who seek the endorsements of self-serving charlatans.

Friday, January 15, 2016

These Three Things... and a Prayer

First Humility... There are many challenges that we face as individuals and as a nation. Like the explorer looking out at the great unexplored ocean, we must come to terms with the ways of viewing the world that have served to discouraged us, and others before us. We must overcome the myths that function to prevent us from going beyond the prescribed boundaries of this vast sea of possibilities that we call life. To venture beyond the boundaries that limit our lives, it becomes imperative that we deconstruct our fears.

Life is filled with many perils; some real, and some imagined. We must face and overcome these perils in our quest to live into the beckoning horizons of a broader, more fulfilling life. Some of the perils we must face are presented to us as great monstrous beasts, ready and waiting to destroy us and our dreams of a more fulfilling life. Monsters may be all too real in our imaginations, but in reality they are only as real as our fears about them. We should not carelessly discount the dangers that are present in our world. In fact, we must eventually come to terms with our responsibility to overcome them if we are to succeed in our quest to broaden our horizons... to better our lives. Every idea we cultivate about the world and the dangers therein, results in choices that either encourage us to move forward, or generate in us the fears that keep us in a state of despair.

Where do we begin in our quest to overcome the monsters that inhabit our ocean of possibilities? We must begin by admitting our own limitations. We do not always have the resources to tackle the various challenges we face. Where this is the case, we must humbly acknowledge it. Humility is the willingness to admit to our own deficiencies. In the absence of humility we rush forward with a certain hubris that leads to our demise. Humility saves us from the certain destruction that awaits us when we rush into battles we are unprepared for. The truth here being that we cannot act effectively without the resources required to accomplish the tasks ahead of us. It may be a deficiency of will that we suffer from... an inability to act in our own interest. We may face a deficiency of knowledge, or technical abilities. It is never a good idea to "take a knife to a gun-fight". Whatever we lack in our efforts to move toward to a better future, we can begin to acquire by first admitting the fundamental truths about our inadequacies.

Then Courage... Moving forward against the challenges we face requires the appropriate resources, and the will to act against whatever those challenges are. The aweful beasts that inhibit our will to act thrive on our insecurities about them.The more fearful we are, the more powerful they become. The will to act  is what we commonly call courage. Courage, we are told, is not the absence of fear. Courage is the willingness to engage in the battle for our lives and our futures despite the inherent dangers of doing so. Courage is the will to act despite our fears. There are no guarantees that we will win every battle; but we must never give up in the fight against those forces that stand in the way of us realizing our potentials as the exquisitely limitless beings that we are meant to be.

In our own times we have great examples of men and women who have lived their lives in tribute to the will to act, despite the risks to themselves. From the champions who risked everything in their stand against Slavery and colonial domination, to the bulwarks against Apartheid and Jim Crow. From the courageous maroon Nanny to the enablers of the Underground Railroad. From Sam Sharpe to Marcus Mosiah Garvey. From Mahatma Ghandi to Nelson Mandela. From Fanny Lou Hamer to Rosa Parks to The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King to Malcolm X... to all those in whose lives and examples the struggle against injustice now continues. These lives, and the many others like them who stood up to Fascism, Nazism, and all the other expressions of Xenophobia in our time, are testaments to courage. They are shining examples of what can be accomplished when, individually and communally, we cultivate the will to act against the monstrosities arraigned against us. Our courage will bear fruit, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

And Then Wisdom... Wisdom is the product of the distillation of all our experiences. It is the exquisite wine that flows from the press of Life's university. Wisdom is the Word that leaves the peddlers of words...speechless. It, wisdom, is what is to be learned from all that we have learned.

It is Wisdom that helps us to separate fact from fiction in the myths that become the foundation of our fears. Wisdom opens our eyes so that we are able to see our own viciousness in the brutality of the monsters that we project into the depths of the unexplored oceans, and in the dark underworld of our national and our communal lives. Wisdom helps us discover ourselves in the others we conveniently speculate about in order to disguise our own cruelty, and our deepest insecurities. Wisdom forces us to consider how our own insecurities inform the viciousness in ourselves, and that which we assign as the defining characteristic of fellow creatures whom we regard with suspicion and fear.

Wisdom teaches us that we cannot conquer fear with hate. In the midst of our own internal turmoil, Wisdom calls us to act to heal ourselves... not to perpetuate our dysfunctions by creating scapegoats for the hypocritical expiation of our transgressions. Wisdom requires of us that we take responsibility for the strengthening and enlightenment that we need... That we dispel our ignorance and the fear that proceeds from it through learning... That we develop the tools we need to clear the path to our futures. She, Wisdom, awakens in us the will to act even in the presence of our insecurities. Wisdom bids us go forth into the unknown, knowing that the truthfulness that proceeds from our humility is a trustworthy partner in our will to act on the journey of discovery that is our life... And our future.

And so as we set out on the adventure of our lives - let us take these three things with us... humility, courage, and wisdom. Together they will serve us well. Like the sages in our spiritual traditions, let us pray for: "the humility to accept the things we cannot change; the courage to change the things we can; and the wisdom to know the difference".

Friday, January 8, 2016

Compassion... A Better Way

A new year presents new opportunities for discovering and rediscovering the world around us. We should face each day knowing that it is up to each one of us to develop and perpetuate more viable visions of what our lives can be. In the midst of all the negativity around us, we must face and own up to the responsibility to create for ourselves the lives we want. We do not need a political stage to do so.  We can build a better world right there in our own families, in our own immediate circumstance. To do so we must commit to engaging in our own lives and in community in ways that are redemptive and hope sustaining.

The world is in reality much more than that which is presented to us each day in our popular media. There are many circumstances that need correction. There are cultural and political challenges that we must somehow come to terms with. There is war and strife. But despite the efforts designed to create a sense of insecurity that become the means by which we are riveted to our seats in the theater of a consumerist culture, we must reclaim our attention. All isn't doom and gloom. On the one hand we may have carnival barkers incessantly screaming for our attention with their vile prescriptions for what ails our world. These characters thrive on the creation of chaos because it is a reflection of their own inner states. Misery loves company. But against the nonsense they represent we are challenged to remain vigilant in our commitment to keep on building a better world.

The development of more sustainable lives and communities is a function of new and more dynamic ways of thinking and being.  Change your mind... Change your world. Against the hopelessness of those who would impose on the rest of us their tragic visions of life, we must represent in our own lives a more hopeful way of being based on the old formula that we should do to others as we would have them do to us. Instead of imposing our insecurities on others through our politics, our religions, and our general ignorance; we must challenge ourselves to be more compassionate. It is compassion that can move us out of the cul de sac of stale ways of seeing things into  more creative ways of being. Compassion is the willingness to walk a mile in the shoes of others in an effort to develop the empathy we need to not instinctively condemn them for the things about them that we do not understand. It is the harder way. But it is the necessary way that peace and justice requires.

Imagine a world where racism, sexism, and genderism were not obstacles in the course of our every interaction. Imagine an economic culture in which we all agreed that greed is in fact a disconcerting evil. Imagine a world in which to do to others as we would have them do to us was more important than to force others to believe as we believe. Ultimately our willingness to walk a mile in each other's shoes is more productive than riding roughshod over each other's hopes and dreams.