Lately, I've been having what I call my "Buddha" experience. For those of you that don't know the story, according to legend the Buddha encountered a sick man, a dying man, and a corpse in the course of a single day. These experiences, occurring in that order, led to a great revelation – according to the version I hear most often, that life is suffering. Now, I would never put myself in the same league as Siddhartha, but the power of one experience after another, that I get. Really get. Maybe it's the artist in me, always wanting to string things together as a narrative. I don't know. But whatever the reason, whenever I am on the verge of really understanding some deep truth, life seems to hammer at me through experience to experience.
So what's been going on?
The weekend after the April Synchroblog topic was announced, I found myself rereading parts of the Nicomachean Ethics. Book II of the N.E. is one of my all-time favorite philosophical texts, and I often read it just for fun. (Yes, I am weird like that.) Anyway, given this month's theme of rocks, I was particularly struck by a line I'd skimmed over a hundred times. To wit:
For nothing natural can be made to behave different by habituation. For example, a stone that naturally falls downwards could not be made by habituation to rise upwards, not even if one tried to habituate it by throwing it up ten thousand times; nor can fire be habituated to burn downwards, nor anything else that naturally behaves in one way be habituated to behave differently. (1103a; Crisp tr.)
Basically: some things never change. Some things can't change. Some people can't change, or refuse to. And there is a nature inherent in all things that we really, really shouldn't try to go against. At root, every rock is a rock in the respects that matter – whether it's granite or limestone isn't nearly as important as the fact that they're all a rock. That's experience #1.
Experience #2 was Wisconsin. For a lot of people, the stand-off over public unions was just politics or a distraction; for me it was much more personal. I heard in his rhetoric a speech pattern I associated with the worst abuses of Christianity. And I had read a blog post over at HuffPo about Walker's reaction to criticism from Catholic and mainline Protestant clergy. Rightly or wrongly, the whole conflict took on a religious undertone, and I was having a sort of mini crisis of faith.
It wasn't just Walker, though. I was railing against a society where there seemed too little concern for the poor and for the stranger living within our gates. If anything they're demonized by the right and coopted by the left. I was seeing a country that called itself Christian, but as far as I could see the only real reflection of Christianity was pushing other folks down. If (as I believe as a Christian) God has relationship built into His very Essence, it is a perversion on the highest order to say that each person is only responsible for himself. Maybe "crisis of faith" is the wrong word, because that suggests that I thought the theology was wrong. Whatever the case, I certainly was having a hard time thinking of myself as a Christian, thinking of Christianity as something I should be proud to claim.
Experience #3? Dunk-Dunk.
See, this isn't the first time I have felt this way. And as in the past, often the best salve for my wearied soul is what I affectionately call "dunk-dunk": the TV show "Law and Order," preferably the earlier seasons. I found myself watching an old gem, "Out of the Half-Light," where a teenage Afr.-Am. girl has accused cops of sexually assaulting her in the hopes that her Catholic family will let her have an abortion. It's later discovered that she made up the whole incident when she found out she was pregnant by her boyfriend, but by that point things have gotten out of control, and a community organizer/lawyer is pressing her family to go forward with the trial because it has pretty much galvanized their whole community to demand more just treatment. One of the D.A.s trying to sort through the whole mess is himself African-American, and the community organizer gets quite frustrated with him. There's a great line from the community organizer: "Another zombified soul casts his vote for order rather than for justice. Negative peace over positive peace."
Those terms, "positive peace" and "negative peace" are from MLK's famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Hearing them used, in the context of my own frustrations over a struggle against what I thought was a very bad law... well, obviously they resonated. But they also reminded me of something else King wrote. Specifically:
All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.
Obviously King was talking about Jim Crow laws that segregate Caucasians from African-Americans. And I think he's right: when you denigrate other human beings to a less-than-human status (or at least less-than-me status), there's something deeply – deeply – wrong there. Laws that lead us to build ourselves up by putting other people down are wrong.
What does all this have to do with April's synchroblog theme? It's easy to look back at the sixties and say that's what they were doing then. Or to look around at other people, at birthers and skinheads, perhaps, who today try to say some people aren't fully human because of their race. But I grew up with a very different type of segregation, where people were put down less by their skin color than by the building where they pray on Sunday. Or Friday night, or by their never praying at all. If you've spent significant time in the Bible belt, you may be familiar with a similar phenomenon. Often the first question I was asked by new friends was where I went to church. Sometimes it would be phrased a little differently, but I think the basic question was the same. Do you believe like we do? Are you like us?
The truly sad thing is, in my experience, the people asking those questions didn't have a real understanding of why the distinction matters. Sure, Baptists and Shiites will say there's a big difference between Allah and the trinitarian God. But can they really explain what that difference is? These are real issues, but even among theologians often the answer rests on ineffability: God's nature is beyond our ability to really understand. Certainly your man on the street couldn't explain why Maichaeanism is seen as a heresy today. Perhaps your average church-goer has heard his pastor rail against the church across town with a female pastor, or that sponsored a pro-gay marriage speaker or something along those lines. In practice, what they usually know is that those people are different from me.
There is of course a place for serious discussions about theology. Manichaeanism is important, as is its modern cousin of blaming the devil for all the evil in the world. And when people are genuinely wrong, it's a Christian – and human! – duty not to shy away from that fact. But there's a big difference between critiquing an idea and dismissing a person. It's scary, really, how many use the Crucifixion as a way to divide the world into "us" and "them." And make no mistake, the "them" are seen as less worthy in some way than the "us." That's the whole point in separating them off.
What are they guilty of? As far as I can tell it is more often than not a question of form. They do not end their prayers with the right way, or follow our customs, or look like us. At its deepest, this division seems to be a difference between how we divide the world. I look at the world and see evidence of a certain order or guiding principle that I cannot quite describe but have learned to describe as God. A person of a different religion will see a very different type of supreme being, and an atheist would likely see what Dawkins calls the Einsteinian God: a first principle, perhaps, but not the anthropomorphized God who answers our prayers.
But can I really explain what makes my belief different from other people? Do I understand my belief well enough to say that? Do I have a good reason to say that the Muslim or the atheist or the Hindu or whomever is not a person like me? Or am I, to borrow King's language, "relegating persons to the status of things," naming them as not a real American or whatever other distinction I want to draw between myself and them?
All of this ties in – for me at least! – to the question asked of synchrobloggers: Do you live under a rock? This is posed in the context of Easter, and perhaps "behind a rock" might be the more fitting phrasing. According to the Gospel story Jesus's body was put behind a rock for three days, and his followers came there to find him. But even in that story, Jesus doesn't stay behind the rock. It's in the garden outside that the apostles first find him. He's already left his holy, separate place. And while Jesus certainly demands changes in his followers, it's rarely a change of identity. Rather, the Jesus I see in the Gospel is calling people to act justly and with mercy. To change their substance.
Sometimes I think too many Christians use Christ to separate ourselves from the rest of humanity. Myself included; I have used the special jargon, spent too much of my time in the church and other walled-off institutions. But the passion story is about joining and re-joining: not just each individual to God, but between person and person as well. If the institution that claims to be built on that reconciliation drives us to separate ourselves off from people we think are too different from ourselves, then shame on us.
I was going to end this with a quick discussion of the elephant in the room: do I think those non-Christian groups going to heaven? But that seems a bit above my pay-grade, and in any case it seems to be a big step in the wrong direction to even ask the question. So I think I'll just end things here, at least for tonight. :-)