I realized only today that the word “religion” means being bound. That’s startling, because I associate religion with boundlessness, with access to transcendent experience and possibilities. Instead religion is a limit, a binding of oneself, mainly in a spirit of reverence, although in many cultures religion is a coercive belief system that one has little choice but to conform to.
Furthermore, there is a curious double meaning in the word religion, for “being bound” means “being tied,” whether literally or figuratively (as a slave is bound to a master). But “being bound” also means heading in a certain direction, advancing toward a specific destination (as in “bound for Rio” or “bound for the Olympics”). Taken altogether, religion is a thing that both limits and orients and propels.
It’s noteworthy that reverence is the impulse central to religious practice and identity. A reverential spirit leads us forward in exploring spiritual mysteries, but reverence also entails obeisance, an acknowledgement or conviction that there exists something greater and more enduring and ineffable than ourselves. That conviction or faith corresponds to the evidence everywhere that reason can’t cover all cases: that in our souls and voices, and in the created world, we discern wonders and mysteries that no amount of intellection and tinkering can mimic or explain. Thus, even a seeker after religion is religious already.
Organized religion is just one manifestation of religion, but it is important as a reservoir of value and thought, bringing together communities of believers and giving their instinctive faith and wonder a vocabulary and form. As mass society eclipses older cultures built upon the rock of creative individuality, so too modernism is eclipsing many once-flourishing religious venues that existed for feeding spiritual fires and strengthening souls. We may still be votaries, more likely to travel alone because our bonds are loose.
The coordinated slaughter of Muslims in two New Zealand mosques last week was the latest atrocity sociopaths have committed in the name of the white race. The idea that there is such a thing as a “white race” and that it is superior to all others defines a disgusting but deeply historically rooted movement that civil society must stamp out. White supremacy is a comfortingly naive ideology that turns its adherents into soulless monsters, waging war on the racial and religious toleration central to peaceful, free, democracies.
In the US, white supremacy has long been associated with the local and provincial order of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s commitment to violence against blacks takes the form of a face-to-face fraternity whose members “man up” by getting together in numbers and donning disguises that mask the essential cowardice of their heinous acts. The psychology of the cult and its rituals binds powerless and feckless individuals together, emboldening them to commit terrifying sins against their neighbors.
Lately, however, white supremacy is taking a different form, manifest in the persona of one of the gunmen who mowed down the Muslim worshippers in New Zealand. He committed his crime in broad daylight, alone, even broadcasting it live on social media. This was an individual zealot who methodically prepared for this day, justifying it with a manifesto he published on Facebook and linking his actions to a “tradition” of ideologically motivated hate crimes committed in recent years in Charleston, South Carolina, and in Norway, where a so-called “white knight” slew 77 people.
In an outstanding segment of the PBS Newshour, historian Katherine Belew urged viewers to recognize that these apparently disparate “lone wolf” attacks are part of a global “White Power” movement. Though perpetrators are often socially and geographically isolated, they share the same creed and believe their crimes serve a common purpose, that of “defending” “white civilization” (typically defined as Christian) against people who are non-Christian or non-white. Civil society, the ultimate victim of these kindred crimes, must cease to reward such sociopaths with publicity and fully discredit the febrile ideology that fuels the assertion of “white power.”
Image: Charles Henry Dana, “Like the Moth, It Works in the Dark” (circa 1922) from this source.
It’s Ash Wednesday, March 6, and Lent is beginning. The Christian season of Lent has many meanings, but essentially it is a season of preparation, observed during the forty days leading up to Easter. Over the centuries, many Christians have chosen to make this a season of self-denial, mortifying their flesh in imitation of Christ, who, according to the Gospel, spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness just prior to his crucifixion. Scroll to the bottom or click here to listen to the audio version of this post.
Although Christ did withdraw for a period of fasting and prayer, during which time he was tempted in the wilderness by a “deceiver” whose temptations he resisted, the larger purpose of Jesus’s spiritual retreat was to understand his mission on earth: how he should live the remainder of his days, what he had been put here to do. In this sense, Lent is a season of spiritual renewal, or, as our dean has informed us in this week’s newsletter, ”Lent is Easter in disguise.” It’s a time to be revived, renewed, and rejuvenated. At least, I am approaching Lent as a season of renewal this year.
Specifically, I’m going to be reading a devotional booklet put out by an Episcopal organization called The Living Compass. The booklet is called Living Well through Lent 2019, and its overarching theme is Practicing Forgiveness With All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind. Although I’m using the booklet in printed form, it’s also available as a free downloadable PDF. Or, you can sign up to receive the content of the booklet via email daily. There is a Spanish-language version, too. For more information about Living Well Through Lent2019, go to the website, livingcompass.org.
The opening reflection for Ash Wednesday, written by the Right Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, introduces the topic of “extreme” or “radical” forgiveness. At the outset, she describes extreme forgiveness as a divine attribute. It is in the character of God to have mercy and to forgive every category of human sin. She then describes the case of Ms. Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor who was subjected to Dr. Mengele’s eugenic testing. Late in life, Ms. Kor, who emigrated to the US, has chosen extreme forgiveness as a way to transcend the weight of all that she, and millions of others, suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
Reverend Burrows writes,
Lent is our time to be intentional about taking stock of the most broken parts of our lives and our world as we seek forgiveness for our sins of omission and commission. It may be too much to imagine writing a letter of forgiveness to someone who has caused us pain or done violence to us. It might be beyond our fathoming to recount the pain, let alone forgive. It may seem too extreme. And yet . . . Jesus, who had an enviable well of forgiveness to draw upon even as he hung from the cross, continually calls us to the Way of Love and new depths of grace, mercy, and liberation. There are many paths to liberation, and extreme forgiveness is but one. However we get there, may this Lenten journey lead to the healing of ourselves and our world that allows resurrection, not evil, to be our defining story.
For each day of Lent, the booklet offers a brief written meditation on a different aspect of forgiveness as a concept and a process, and how the work of forgiveness can engage our minds, hearts, souls, and bodies. The reader is then invited to write a response to each day’s reading. Here is my response to Reverend Burrows.
To be honest, I worry that thinking too much about forgiveness will destabilize me. It is a complex topic, embracing as it does sins of commission and omission (i.e., “things done and left undone”), as well as social wrongs for which we might bear complicity. Meditating on this topic involves dwelling on recent and perhaps slight hurts, as well as those that are more grave and may have occurred long ago. In addition, “practicing forgiveness” is an entirely different process, at first glance, than seeking forgiveness—the former involves giving pardon to someone who may have wronged me, while the latter involves being pardoned for something regrettable or damaging that I have done. The process of forgiving seems to involve almost godlike strength, but for that very reason promises to draw us into a new relationship with one another and with God.
Many of my sins are those of omission, for I have often been indecisive, immobilized by doubt and fear: in a word, cowardly. I often wake up feeling awful about something decent that I just don’t have the nerve to do, or do yet.
Finally, in thinking of forgiveness and those who have hurt me, I am struck by how few of those people have ever taken the initiative to acknowledge their injurious acts and how they wounded my feelings or inflicted tangible and lasting harm. But in the “practicing forgiveness” model, that doesn’t matter, because putting my finger on those hurts and proactively pardoning the people who inflicted them is all on me. When someone hurts me and doesn’t admit that or apologize, that leaves me feeling very small. So I get why Ms. Kor found that offering radical pardon to a Nazi perpetrator left her freer and lighter afterward.
The Paris attacks confirm that all Western civilization must act to repel the various threats to itself that radical terror poses. I agree with Pope Francis’s perception that such global violence, deliberately targeting ordinary people and intending to undermine the peace and order of civil society, represents a third world war. The values of toleration, openness, freedom, and mutual respect are the real targets of such bitter and retrograde attacks.
It is easy to imagine an end to ISIL, but more difficult to imagine assuaging the resentment and hatred of Western values that fuels all such violent extremist movements. Such hatred is never-ending, and, given the accelerating pace of modernity and the West’s pervasive influence in far-flung lands, destined only to multiply. Modernism and the universal creed of human rights pose a grave threat to tribal thinking and to some forms of religion and religious authority, outraging those who look to such certainties as a source of personal power and identity.
The doctrines of religious toleration and universal human rights, born out of the Enlightenment hundreds of years ago, remain radical, a centuries-old legacy that continues to transform human culture and behavior. These values belong to no one country but are being embraced by growing numbers of peoples and societies around the globe, partly because they promise liberation from the narrow tribalism and sectarianism that has been a principal source of violence throughout human history.
Live and let live. Viva la différence! These mottoes are the very hallmark of a tolerant and inclusive culture that (it’s no accident) enjoys the blessings of peace and order while guaranteeing its members safety under the rule of law. All that is under attack now.
The perpetrators of the Paris attacks wish to turn back the clock, to return all of us to a dark age where ruthlessness and rage would provide the sole organizing logic of human life. Strangely, though, the battle is already up with them: their weapons and tactics betray their pathetic dependence on the West and on its cultural hegemony. Their craven reliance on Western publicity and social media and their inability to live modestly and peacefully demonstrate the contradictions of their movement. Their notion of godliness is one that the truly godly eschew.
Pope Francis spoke to Congress in halting and heavily accented English. His slow, thick cadence demanded utter silence. For once, the government that talks of listening really was. In this atmosphere of rapt attention, much emotion flowed.
The remarkable hype surrounding the pope’s address owed something to its novelty. Here was a highly unusual interjection of moral consideration into institutional politics. The pope is a teacher and gospeler whose authority is old and wide; he represents Christian thought as it has evolved over two millennia, from far before the birth of our American Protestantism; all which jibes uneasily with the secular, natural-rights foundation of our legislative government. The Congress, mostly too curious to stay away, ostensibly has no need of persons like the Pope–or do they?
Francis’s remarks thoughtfully addressed the predicament of our politics, being inwardly eroded by the twin evils of narrow fundamentalism and moral indifference, while outside it witnesses the chaos that violent Islam is engendering. The Congress is a sophisticated amoral entity, whose challenge is to act in a world that extreme religious passions are constantly agitating.
Francis used the theme of ‘American dreams‘ to recall the humane impulse that has been one of Western society’s glories. The belief that all persons are equals, that all merit individual consideration, that all life demands respect: these ideals, deeply embedded in national history, continue to suggest a middle way of peace, generosity, and forbearance, that our atomized and materialistic society has lately been inclined to turn away from.
Many resist Francis’s call to end the arms trade, minister to the poor and friendless, respect the earth, and abolish the death penalty, though these flow from the most basic Christian teachings. Others, though, will have quietly absorbed his remarks. Will they be moved to create a more ‘modern, inclusive, and sustainable’ economy?