When I arrived at college I began to read the scriptures of other world religions. It was reading the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism that helped me understand that Christ was speaking, not as the monomaniacal leader of my own religious sect, but from the heart of being itself. Just as Jesus had his “I am” sayings, so Krishna said, “I am the soul of all beings… seated in the hearts of all living entities. I am the beginning, the middle and the end of all beings.” It was the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads that convinced me that Christ was calling us not to Christianity, but to life itself.
Understanding our own privilege is very difficult. For one thing the culture disguises it. For another, if we are white or male or rich we probably do not want to see it. Is their anyway to get past these defenses?
To understand the systemic nature of oppression, pretend that you were born on a monopoly board. Pretend you are a poor black female Muslim lesbian, which for our purposes, is like being born on Baltic Avenue or some other square that does not derive automatic value in the game. Now, imagine your opponent is a rich white Christian heterosexual male, which is a bit like being born Boardwalk or Park Place. Imagine further that your opponent has inherited the houses and hotels of his parents.
Your opponent insists you are being treated fairly because you get the same number of dice rolls, and the same two hundred dollars when you cross “go.” He speaks of competition, but refuses to look down at the Monopoly Board and admit his advantage. You can work much harder than he does, but if he lands on your property it is a minor inconvenience. If you land on his property, even once, the game is over.
Your opponent may speak of freedom and initiative but you both know that unless there is some strange twist of fortune, he was born to win and you were born to lose. That, in a very small and trivial way, is what it is like to be born into systemic oppression.
I do not believe piety requires the notion of a personified deity. There are those who sense the sacred all around them without such images. In fact, many of those who must declare themselves to be atheists in this culture, would be considered great mystics in a culture with a wider religious imagination.
Jürgen Habermas once gave an obituary to the philosopher, Richard Rorty which makes this point very clear, at least to me.
“One small autobiographical piece by Rorty bears the title ‘Wild Orchids and Trotsky.’ In it, Rorty describes how as a youth he ambled around the blooming hillside in north-west New Jersey, and breathed in the stunning odour of the orchids. Around the same time he discovered a fascinating book at the home of his leftist parents, defending Leon Trotsky against Stalin. This was the origin of the vision that the young Rorty took with him to college: philosophy is there to reconcile the celestial beauty of orchids with Trotsky’s dream of justice on earth. Nothing is sacred to Rorty the ironist. Asked at the end of his life about the ‘holy’, the strict atheist answered with words reminiscent of the young Hegel: ‘My sense of the holy is bound up with the hope that some day my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law.”
If anyone cannot hear the same music of the Sermon on the Mount, or Isaiah, the Bhagavad Gita, or Buddha’s Dhammapada playing behind the words of that charitable atheist, we might question whether they have ears to hear.
Literalism is a tag on the toe of dead religion.
To insist that the events of scripture are of no worth unless they physically happened is the very essence of materialistic philosophy even when said in defense of the faith.
A playful religion is the cradle of spirituality, as orthodox religion is its tomb.
A God that must be defended is already dead.
“TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
- Howard Zinn
Do people have a right to hold pre-scientific ideas? Do they have a right to teach those pre-scientific ideas to their children? Do they have a right to risk their children’s lives based on those beliefs?
My own tendency is to say adults can believe anything they want but, in contradiction to that belief, I also hold that we all have a corporate responsibility for the well being of every child. Our corporate responsibility would mean interfering in the “religious right” of parents to force their children to handle poisonous snakes, to perform female genital mutilation on their daughters, or to leave children trapped in views of the world that will make it very difficult for them to study science or views of history that treat the voices of those outside our own group as valid.
I am posing this question after reading about Herbert and Catherine Schaible who were just convicted for refusing medical treatment for their sick child. The child died. It was the second time one of their children had died as a result of their belief in faith healing. The couple defied a court order telling them to seek medical care for their children when they lost a 2 year old son after refusing medical treatment in 2009.
So what does religious freedom mean when other people are effected by our beliefs? Do any of us have a right to put others at risk, or to teach our children a view of the world will leave them little chance of joining the rest of us in making this a better world or ever having a rational thought of their own?
Fear is almost always your own energy turned in the wrong direction. When you are terrified to speak to a group, the adrenaline you feel is your own body mobilizing for the challenge. Once you get in harness, that same adrenaline will be your best friend. Fear does not arrive to undermine you, it is there to empower you so you can run faster, jump higher, or bring full awareness to a challenge. It is a great day in our lives when we stop running from fear and embrace it for what it is, our own power. As Joseph Campbell put it, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
In a recent Pew poll, 88% of African-Americans said they face discrimination in their lives. 46% said they faced a lot of it. By contrast, only 16% of white people said there is a lot of discrimination against black people, although 57% agreed there is some discrimination.
It can be frustrating trying to advocate for a fairer world when people of privilege don’t want to hear about it and feel like victims when asked to treat others fairly.
The following link may be helpful in making the situation clearer to someone who doesn’t want to hear about other people’s problems. One chart shows that the difference between the average income between a white wage earner and black has nearly tripled in the last twenty five years. Another chart shows how 1 in 15 black males is incarcerated, while only 1 in 106 white males suffer that fate. Still another chart shows that black males are 38% more likely to be executed for the crime of murder.
Some of the charts also include statistics for other racial groups. Perhaps it will be useful in helping your reluctant friends to stand in someone else’s shoes.
Frank Ehman is a friend and a very wise Presbyterian minister in Flower Mound, Texas. When I’ve been in trouble in my denomination for offering grace to groups that some believed were the wrong kind of people, Frank has often called with words of reassurance.
I’m not sure I remember the specific details, but Frank once told me of a meeting he had with a very powerful member of the community when he first got to Flower Mound. It seems like this person was angry with him for being nice to a gay man, and to some others the man deemed to be “the wrong kind of people.”
Frank was new to the church, and my memory is that he invited the man to coffee, pulled out some paper and a pencil, and as if to make a list, said, “Bill, I just need to know who all I will have to hate in this town to be your friend.”