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For the Common Good

Giving Up Religion for Lent

by Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS

Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, March 5, is the 40-day period when Christians fast and pray and do penance in preparation for Easter.  It is commonly perceived as a time of giving up what they normally enjoy eating, drinking, inhaling and/or doing—with a worthy charitable cause benefiting from this abstinence.  The sacrifice, penance and almsgiving are said to aid reflection on the suffering, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus on behalf of the salvation of believers.  A spiritual marathon of self-denial, reflection and repentance—the emphasis on individual redemption more than on social reformation.   Upon reflection, I believe Lent is a good time to give up religion.

What I mean is the kind of religion that stunts a person’s emotional, intellectual and multicultural growth.  That stresses believing over thinking, certainty over inquiry, conformity over diversity, exceptionalism over egalitarianism, individual salvation over social justice.  Religion that emphasizes rightness of belief over the right to believe as one chooses.  That is about being right, not doing the right thing.  That values uniqueness of faith, not faith in everyone’s uniqueness.   That is about Christianizing, not humanizing.  About evangelizing, not ending inequalities.

Lent is an exceptionally good time to give up the kind of religion that represses and straightjackets sexuality, and wars against what is natural and human and varied.  Religion that alienates individuals from themselves for their assumed “unnatural” and “disordered” sexual orientation, and marginalizes them—and their loved ones—from society.

Like The United Methodist Church’s homosexual witch-hunts against Methodist ministers for performing same-sex marriages.  And the Roman Catholic Church’s “cleansing” of its body by ousting gay employees from Catholic institutions across the country for marrying their same-sex partners in states where such marriages are now legal. (See “Another Methodist clergyman faces charges for gay wedding,” by Rachel Zoll, Associated Press, The Boston Globe, Jan. 18, 2013; and “Gay Marriages Confront Catholic School Rules,” by Michael Paulson, The New York Times, Jan. 23, 2014; and “Bias alleged over same-sex marriage: Catholic school rescinded job offer, man says,” by Milton J. Valencia, The Boston Globe, Jan. 30, 2014))

Pope Francis can say about homosexuals in the Catholic Church, “Who am I to judge?”  He sounds accepting.   But he appears to be putting a friendly mask over a straight-laced institutional face.

One might think that religion especially would inspire people to affirm the sacredness and rights of other human beings.  Ironically, the opposite is true.  Conservative, Biblically-limited, Christian groups in 10 Republican-controlled states are reported to be seeking to use the Constitution’s Freedom of Religion guarantee to discriminate against same-sex couples.  An example is Arizona.  The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by that state’s legislators, and not yet signed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, would allow public business owners to use their Bible-based, anti-homosexual religious beliefs to justify refusing to provide services for same-sex wedding couples—services like photography, wedding cakes, reception halls, limousines, honeymoon sites, etc. (See, “Arizona ‘religious freedom’ bill: Attack on gays or shield for some Christians?,” by Patrik Jonsson, The Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 21, 2014)

“Religious Freedom Restoration Act?”  Or “restoration” of the “freedom” to deny freedom to those Americans considered to be The Other?   Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director for Arizona’s Human Rights Campaign, is reported to have said about this attempt to use religion to legalize discrimination: “This is not about the freedom of individuals to practice their religion, this is about a license to discriminate against individuals.” (“Religious Right Cheers a Bill Allowing Refusal to Serve Gays,” by Michael Paulson and Fernanda Santos, The New York Times, Feb. 22, 2014)

The power and inclusiveness of love cannot be confined to the “straight and narrow.”  Love transcends sexual, national, religious, racial, political and class borders.   Lent is a good time for Christians to discover a god big enough to embrace the inherent worth and rights of all of human beings—equally!

Lent is a logical time to give up the kind of religion that ignores so much that is human.  That leads people to individually look to heaven for salvation, rather than to earth in solidarity with others for justice.  To look prayerfully upward rather than around them for the causes of and solutions to social conflicts.  Religion that dumbs down its god to fit the assumed infallible “Good Book,” which is used by theological doctrinaires and evangelists to claim irrefutable authority to power over people—instead of empowering them.

The Bible is a source of comfort and inspiration for countless people.  But its pages also contain historically-limited knowledge and cultural biases, which believers use as an authoritative source to rationalize their own ignorance of human behavior, prejudices and societal inequalities, and to accommodate or justify the oppression of The Other.

Lent is an especially good time to give up the religion of faith leaders who serve as chaplains of the status quo.  Who may engage in important charitable work, like providing food banks and pantries, soup kitchens, clothing distribution centers, and homeless shelters.   Who may also advocate for a higher minimum wage or for affordable housing for the alarming and growing, numbers of economically strapped Americans.  But who avoid confronting, and seeking to change, the political and corporate powers that make war and keep people poor.   And whose service to the status quo includes using their hierarchical power to keep the consciences of their clergy: by rewarding those who toe the line and punishing those of conscience who step over it and “cause trouble”— the corrupting influence of hierarchical power.

I’m referring to faith leaders who are far more concerned about being an integral part of the status quo than about confronting U.S. imperialism abroad, and advocating for those who are without economic  means and political status at home.  Who do not rock their denominational boat with such controversial issues for fear members of their denomination will jump ship and board other religious vessels offering safer, non-controversial, more “religious” and certain, harbors.

A case in point is the apparent invisibility of religious leaders and their congregations in response to the new farm bill recently passed by a bipartisan Congress and signed by President Obama.  A bill that, as reported, will “cut about 8 billion from the food stamp program over the next decade . . . for 850,000 households,” while providing a “crop insurance program” for big farmers that “covers loses from poor yields or declines in revenue.” (“Farm Bill Compromise Will Change Programs And Reduce Spending,” by Ron Nixon, The New York Times, Jan. 28, 2014) “Anti-hunger advocates” state that the “850,000 American households” represent “about 1.7 million people spread across 15 states, which would lose an average of $90 per month in benefits because of the cuts in the food stamp program.” (“Senate Passes Farm Bill That Cuts Food Stamps, but not Agribusiness,” by Ron Nixon, The New York Times, Feb. 5, 2014)

Who are the big farmers favored by the farm bill?  They include 15 members of Congress themselves.  This shocking disclosure is made by the Environmental Working Group, which reported that the “2013 update of its Farm Subsidy Database shows that 15 members of Congress or their spouses benefited from a total of $237,921 in taxpayer-funded farm subsidy payments last year.” (Members of Congress Received 238K In Farm Subsidies,” Contact: Donald Carr, June 3, 2013) But the new farm bill keeps that kind of information from taxpayers.  This lack of transparency in the bill is disclosed by the National Review Online: “the replacement of direct payments with a new crop-insurance subsidy will prevent the names of many members of Congress who get farm payments from being publicly disclosed. (“The Farm Bill Will Make Some Subsidized Congressmen Anonymous, and More, by Vernonique de Rugy, June 17, 2013) Bloomberg Businessweek puts Congress’s secrecy this way: “Negotiators left out a House measure to require members of Congress and the president’s cabinet (italics added) to report what they receive in crop insurance aid.”  (Congress Passes Farm Bill to End Fight Over U.S. Food Stamps (1),” by Alan Bjerga, www.businessweek.com, Feb. 4, 2014)

The Environmental Working Group listed the amounts and names of the 15 Republican and Democratic Representatives and Senators who cashed in on farm subsidy payments in 2012.  The 11 Representatives are all Republicans.  And two Senators are Republicans and two Democrats. (See, “Members of Congress Received 238K In Farm Subsidies,” Ibid)  Ironically, Congress voted to cut the food stamp program because an influential number of its members believe that many of the recipients are “moochers” and “takers.”   Those closest to the law are obviously the ones most likely to make it serve their own self-interest.

A number of anti-hunger advocates criticized Congress for failing to provide for the least fortunate Americans, while making sure the most fortunate maintain and continue to increase their fortunes.    None of these reported advocates was a bishop, or a cardinal, or a denominational executive or its council or board.

One of the quoted critics of the new farm is Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, who rebuked Congress, saying, “They are gutting a program to provide food for hungry people to pay for corporate welfare.  This vote,” he added, “is a tragic, heartless and economically counterproductive departure from America’s bipartisan history of fighting hunger.  Members of Congress who voted for this should be ashamed.” (“Farm Bill Compromise Will Change Programs And Reduce Spending,” Ibid)

Another farm bill critic is Sheena Wright, president of New York’s United Way, “who expects to see a surge of hungry people seeking help because the bill cuts $8 billion in food stamps over a decade.”  Wright said, “You are going to have to make a decision on what you are going to do, buy food or pay rent.  . . . It’s absolutely devastating.” (“Senate Passes Farm Bill That Cuts Food Stamps, but Not Agribusiness,” Ibid)

A third critic is Children’s Defense Fund president, Marian Wright Edelman, who “react[ed] to the passage of the bill,“ stating, “With record numbers of children in poverty, Congress should be launching a war on child poverty and strengthening the safety net for children including SNAP.”  She continued, “It is shameful that Congress continues to treat poor Americans like second class citizens by cutting supports they desperately need.” (“’Corporate Welfare’ Triumphs as Farm Bill Fails the Hungry,” Common Dreams staff, Common Dreams, Feb. 4, 2014) Instead of a war on poverty, Congress is actually waging a low intensity war on people in poverty.

Such truth-speaking to power should also be coming from faith leaders and their councils and boards.  Instead, the prominent news stories they often generate are more likely to be about, worthwhile and non-status quo-threatening, events that bridge Protestant, Catholic-Christian-Jewish-Muslim divides, than about conflict-producing ecumenical and interfaith cooperation that addresses America’s ever-widening economic—and human well-being—divide.  Inter-religious cooperation in confronting America’s critical and growing income inequality may be happening, and not be adequately covered by mainstream media, which are guardians of the status quo.

President Obama signed the farm bill, after lauding it in a speech before some 500 farmers and local politicians at Michigan State University.  It is as if the 1.7 million Americans, cut from the bill’s food stamp program, do not exist.  Obama said, “The second thing this farm bill does—that is huge—is help  make sure America’s children don’t go hungry. (Applause).  . . . That’s the idea behind what is known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP,” he stated.  “And,” he continued, “in 2012, the SNAP program kept nearly 5 million people—including more than 2 million children—out of poverty.  (Applause)  Think about that—5 million people.  That is why,” he went on, “my position has always been that any farm bill I sign must include protections for vulnerable Americans  . . . this bill does that. (Applause)  And,” he said, “the truth is a lot of folks go through tough times at some points in their lives.  That doesn’t mean they should go hungry.  Not in a country like America.” (“President Obama Speaks on the Farm Bill and the Economy,” (Transcript), www.whitehouse,gov, Feb. 7, 2014)

So called “conservative” members of Congress want to cut the food stamp program even more.  Continued silence from America’s faith communities will help encourage these self-serving “moochers” and “takers”—and a president willing to thrown them a bone from subsisting food stamp recipients.

The Hill newspaper put this class war in perspective.  “The vast majority of adult SNAP recipients who are not disabled or elderly work.   Despite the weak economy, more than 80 percent of working-age SNAP recipients have a job, while just before or soon after receiving benefits.”  The Hill continued, “None of this seems to matter to house Republicans.   Nor do they seem to reflect on the cruel irony of cutting food aid for children while keeping in place huge tax giveaways for corporations and the wealthy that cost our country hundreds of billions of dollars every year.” (“Cutting corporate tax loopholes is not food for kids,” Sept. 18, 2013)

Nineteenth Century social reformer and Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker wrote that “a church . . . should lead public opinion, not follow it.” (“The Coming Church,” Great Companions, Vol. I, The Beacon Press, 1927, Renewed, 1955)   Lent is a good time to embrace his words and give up religion that takes its cue from public opinion.  Religion that accommodates the glorified militarization of America, and our bi-partisan government’s imperialistic domination of, and war on, the world.  Religion that tolerates the sentencing of Pvt. Chelsea Manning to prison for disclosing American war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And remains silent while U. S. government leaders and intelligence officials slander, seek to prosecute, and even threaten to kill whistleblower Edward Snowden. (See “Snowden talks industrial espionage, death threats in German interview,” www.france 24.com, 1-27-2014)  His crime:  revealing the National Security Agency’s illegal spying on every American’s e-mails, telephone calls, and social media in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Lent is a particularly good time to give up religion that encourages people to use prayer as another way of folding their hands and doing nothing.   Prayer is a great source of comfort, inspiration and empowerment for so many people.  I’m talking about the kind of prayer in which issues like economic inequality, discrimination, and America’s imperialistic wars are lifted up heavenwards—not to inspire action, but to become a substitute for it.   Such prayer is magical, in that its pious words and gestures upward make discomforting issues disappear into a holy, steepled atmosphere—and worshippers made to feel better.

Lent is an exceptionally good time to stop praying for our political leaders and start confronting them with truth and accountability.  Like former president George W. Bush.  He said that he was “Praying for peace.  . . daily.”    Two weeks later his administration launched a long-planned, falsely based, unnecessary, illegal war against non-threatening Iraq.  With horrible deaths, injuries and up-rootedness suffered by millions of Iraqis, and severe sectarian strife raging to this day.  And the unnecessary sacrifice and scarring of tens of thousands of young American lives.  One should ask, “What god was Bush praying to?  Who would put him up to committing such horrible war crimes?

And then along came President Obama, who extended George Bush’s 9/11-sent, made-for-imperialistic power-and-profit so-called “global on war on terrorism.”  Using drones to violate the national sovereignty and fill the skies of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.  Bringing crippling fear and sudden death and injury and loss to countless innocent women, children and men—in our name.  Creating a “kill list” of so-called “terrorists,” including Americans, who are denied due process and assassinated—anywhere.   Maintaining American hegemony and committing war crimes, which have created innumerable enemies and blowback violence against us Americans.  World domination in the name of protecting our national security.

It would be rare indeed to hear faith leaders call into question America’s bipartisan government’s “global war on terrorism.”  Such prophetic truth-speaking to power appears to be especially taboo.  Again, more such activism of people of faith may be occurring than is being covered by America’s status-quo-guarding mainstream media.

George Bush and Barack Obama and their administrations would be happy if people of faith folded their hands and prayed for them day and night—without ceasing.  What they need is not our prayers for divine intervention to guide them, but our intervention and demand for accountability and restitution from them– and their administrations.   Bush and Obama have demonstrated they cannot be trusted with “God,” whom they confuse with “American exceptionalism.”

In a like manner, what many of America’s faith leaders need is not our prayers but our pushing, so that they will “do justice, and “love kindness,” and not merely “walk humbly with” their god. (Micah, 6: 8)  And when they move from their needed pastoral role toward the status quo to their equally needed prophetic role in reaction to the way things are, they will require and deserve our support.

The use of the word “reaction” is intentional here.  Speaking truth to political power upsets people: it creates conflict and anger, and many people of faith have little tolerance for either.  And the word “politics” itself leaves a bad taste in their mouths.  Which leads to a final form of religion that is on my Lenten-not-to-do-list.

Lent is the best time of all to give up the kind of religion that encourages people to vicariously identify with Jesus’ suffering and death, and thus avoid following his status-quo- upsetting,  conflict-producing model of “preach[ing] good news to the poor . . . and  liberat[ing]” his “oppressed” Jewish people from Roman occupation. (Luke 4: 18, Common English Bible)

A very risky model indeed!  According to New Testament accounts, when Jesus was arrested, all of his followers “deserted him and fled.” (Mark 14: 50)  He was accused of blasphemy, and of “stirring up the people” against the religious and political status quo (Luke 23: 1-5), and crucified by the Roman occupiers.

It is far more comforting, and safer, to believe, abstractly, that Jesus died for the sins of the world, than to follow his conflict-producing example and join in seeking to rid our world of concrete political, corporate and military sins that deny people their birthright of freedom and fulfillment.  Thus vicarious identification with Jesus’ liberation struggles can be a way of avoiding involvement in similar controversial moral struggles today.  His movement is turned into a monument and worshipped.  The stature is found in the statue.  The right is remembered in the rite.  The power is in the prayer.   Institutional Christianity often immortalizes its saints in order to immobilize them.  It is easier to worship what Jesus did than to do what he worshipped, which was, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22: 39, 40)

However, one Christian leader taking Jesus at his word is Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of North Carolina’s NAACP and Disciples of Christ minister.  Barber has led regular “Moral Monday” sit-ins at North Carolina’s State House for a year, with over 900 demonstrators arrested for civil disobedience— Barber and other clergy among them.  The protests culminated in a February 8 “Moral March” attended by 80,000 to 100,000 people, including faith leaders and their people, non-faith-motivated persons, and educational, women’s, LGBT, immigrant, criminal justice and other groups adversely affected by North Carolina’s Tea Party-controlled Republican Legislature and governor.

ThinkProgress spells out the broad-based moral issues that brought this inclusive coalition of people together: “Since North Carolina Republicans took over both legislative chambers in 2010, legislators have eliminated a host of programs and raised taxes on the bottom 80 percent, repealed a tax credit for 900,000 working families, enforced voter suppression efforts, blocked Medicaid coverage, cut pre-Kindergarten funding, cut federal unemployment benefits, and gave itself the authority to intervene in abortion lawsuits.” (“15 Photos From The Massive Progressive Protest You Didn’t Hear About This Weekend,” by Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, Feb. 9, 3024)

The Moral March organizers’ confronted the state government with a reported “five demands”:

1. Secure pro-labor, anti-poverty policies that insure economic sustainability.

2. Provide well-funded quality public education for all.

3. Promote health care for all, including affordable access, the expansion of Medicaid, women’s health, and environmental justice in every community.

4. Address the continuing disparities in the criminal justice system on the basis race and class.

5. Defend and expand voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, LGBT rights, and the fundamental principle of equality under the law for all people. (“’Forward Together, Not One Step Back’: Moral March Brings Out Tens of Thousands of Progressives, by Peter Montgomery,” rhrealitycheck.org, Feb. 9, 2014)

Rev. Barber defines the moral issues in terms of right and wrong, not left and right.  In terms of good vs. evil, not Democrat vs. Republican.  In terms of “the common good.”  In an interview with Common Dreams, he said that people “are united by the overarching principle of morality.  ‘We are deeply committed to a society where people love one another and don’t kick people when they are down,’ he said.” (“Marching Forward as One: North Carolina’s Moral Movement Wants to Change America,” by Lauren McCauley, Feb. 12, 2014)

At an interfaith gathering, the night before the Moral March, he again put flesh and blood on Jesus’ Great Commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  As reported, “He said members of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, Baha’i, Sikh and Christian communities have found common ground on ‘the principles of love and justice.’  ‘Justice’, he said, ‘is what love looks like in public.’” (italics added) (Religion at the Moral March,” by Peter Montgomery, www.religiondispatches.org, Feb. 10, 2014)  The March was reported to be “largely ignored by mainstream media.” (“Check Out the HUGE Progressive Protest in N.C. This Weekend that the ‘Liberal Media’ Barely Mentioned,” posted by Liam O’Connor, Americans Against The Tea Party, Feb. 11, 2014)

People are better prepared to love their neighbors as themselves if their religion and political ideology help them to become more human, rather than more “exceptional”—and thus more entitled.  Beyond our theologies and ideologies is the shared human need to be loved, and to love.  Therein is our common ground: our humanness.  Every child, everywhere, reveals this precious insight to us.  Religion and politics should be judged by the extent to which they teach and enable people to love themselves and to make room for and to value and love other persons for themselves.

The Golden Rule is a basic teaching of most religions, inspired by the widely held belief that “God is love.”  Surely, any god worthy of worshiping must be big enough to love all people equally, and to inspire them to do unto and love all other persons as they themselves would want to be honored and loved.  Not that one needs to believe in “God” to be legitimate and authentic and worthy and honored and loved.  Our humanness makes all of us entitled.  And our humanity enables us to transcend religious, political, racial, national and sexual orientation differences and make room for and honor each other.  Lent should be about love in action.

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy.  Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care.  His book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling.  It is available on Amazon.com.  His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com