The other night, I was fortunate enough to be sitting in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, transported by an extraordinary rendition of Handel’s ‘Messiah.’ The voices soared, the columns rose heavenward, seemingly lifted by the music to incomprehensible heights. Grace, beauty, grandeur, devotion all in the service of transcendence.
But inevitably, my thoughts went to those outside the ornate and massive doors, in the cold, who had neither the price of a ticket nor a warm place to sleep. The Christian faith, like all orthodoxies, has many stories by which it reveals itself. At this time of year, the narrative tends to be filled with wonder and celebration of the ‘Prince of Peace,’ but ranged against this Christmas-y joy, we have many candidates for highest office, Christians all, who incredibly, want to tell people of other faiths and colors—vociferously– that there is no room at Their Inn.
The tired middle-aged woman standing on the cathedral steps as we poured out after the concert, inspired and uplifted, asking politely for money to pay for a shabby night’s lodging prompted me to think about Christianity, the vying stories that can be told, and what—if anything– of value might be gleaned from this social and spiritual force which has so powerfully shaped our current world.
Here is a look at one version: Wave upon wave of young men, heavily armed and outfitted to fight, travel thousands of miles from their home countries to battle and kill on behalf of their god. They slaughter, burn, rape, and ultimately many die. But it is a noble death, in service of the highest ideals of their faith. All sins are forgiven and the doors of Paradise opened for those who bear arms against the Infidel. Incidental pogroms against Jews committed en route only add to the accumulated virtue of the undertaking. The Pope and other Church leaders exhort the faithful to rise up, to kill Saracens and to die for the spiritual heartland of their religion.
Their call is heeded and over the course of two hundred years, a swath of terror is cut across the continent. Unknowable numbers of hectares of crops are destroyed, unimaginable numbers of women are raped and more than a million people die in the Crusades.
Soon afterwards, recent converts to the faith come under intense scrutiny and many are tried by ecclesiastic tribunals throughout Europe and eventually, the Americas. Those found wanting are routinely beheaded or burnt alive. The notion that individuals whose religious beliefs stray from the current orthodoxy should be put to death gains traction. Secular courts take up cases of witchcraft and heresies of all sorts on behalf of the religious majority, resulting in widespread terror and untold numbers of executions.
Fleeing such persecution, a number of Christian sects set out for the ‘New World’ and the freedom to worship as they feel called to. In virtually no time at all, they are at war –spiritually and materially–with the indigenous populations, leading to massacres, famines, epidemics; the decimation of the people whose ancestors have lived on this land for tens of thousands of years.
Having at length conquered the land and herded the remaining native population into camps, indigenous children are kidnapped by the Christians, stolen from their parents and erstwhile homes, and held captive in institutions where they are kept until adulthood, forced to abjure their spiritual beliefs in favor of those of their captors. The stated goal: to ‘civilize’ and ‘Christianize’ these pagan children, bring them into the fold of the true faith. For over a century Native American and Aboriginal families come to live in terror of Christian missionary do-gooders.
Fast forward a few years while the US goes from fledgling to consummate empire. In the born-again George W. Bush White House, bible study groups thrive and staffers—including the highest level advisors–are encouraged and even pressured to participate. ‘Shock and awe’ is the tangible manifestation of this piety, along with a morass of lies and deceit. Charity and compassion are notions that are anathema in any form but the rhetorical to this band of outlaws.
Today, we can only wonder what prayers are being offered up to the Christian god of Barak Obama prior to each Tuesday’s ‘Kill List’ meetings. How does he square his relationship to god and the assassinations he orders? (Weep, O Prince of Peace.)
It’s a shameful telling that barely scratches the surface, an awful ‘end,’ making one wonder about the vitriol and slander currently being heaped upon those of another faith by many Christian Americans. How is it that those whose backstory is one of brutal repression, intolerance, murder and mass slaughter have the temerity to assume the moral high ground?
Almost all of the current candidates for highest office, in their own way and to their own degree, accepts the idea of an Islamic enemy, of a religious ‘other’ that must be defeated and destroyed, locked out or locked in, in order to keep the rest of us safe. ISIS is undeniably an issue, but we who see the solutions otherwise must beware of getting stuck, of rousing ourselves repeatedly with righteous indignation which may, with endless repetition, actually degenerate to the point that it is a cousin to the outrage and fear expressed by the xenophobes.
On the one hand, reasonable anger and concern–aroused by hubris, jingoistic rhetoric and the pseudo-solutions proffered by our national leadership–are, to a certain extent, very important. It is critical that any perpetuation of the legacy of Christian-sponsored hatred and violence be countered, both because if we—as a culture– proceed along the present trajectory, disaster is a given, and because it is always an obligation for people of courage to call out the emperor’s nakedness.
Alternatively, there is a danger of falling into the very kind of ‘othering’ which underlies the hate-filled nonsense being spouted by most of the aspirers-to-the-throne about non-white, non-male, non-Christian, non-gender conforming human beings. Make of them monsters and buffoons! This is an easy—shooting fish in a barrel–but ultimately counterproductive reaction. If we are drawn into the same means, the same strategies for opposing that which we fear and abhor, then what makes us different? What changes?
This is where I go looking for another story about Christianity. Clearly, some of the most exquisite and transformative art and literature produced by the Western world has arisen from Christian inspiration. Over the last two thousand years, there have been untold numbers of men and women whose lives have been deeply devoted, quietly and often invisibly, to Jesus and his open-hearted populist teachings, who have given themselves in service and love along this path, who have striven to live those teachings.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had plenty to say about why and how the church he loved ought to lead the moral fight for justice and equality. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail he writes, “Over the last few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use be as pure as the ends we seek.” He references Paul Tillich’s definition of sin as separation, and exhorts his followers to disobey segregation ordinances, which, de facto, legislate separation, precisely because separation and thus, segregation are ‘morally wrong.’
Dr. King understood that Christianity starts with being human, and that the walls and divisions we erect diminish us, put god exactly as far away as those we would banish from our neighborhoods. On the other side of the tracks or the security walls that are so much in vogue these days.
I find myself, with increasing frequency, contemplating how to live these days. Literally: how does one keep going, swimming upstream against the ever higher tide of sewage? The anger and rage which arise inevitably as we see the things we love—be they ideals like justice, equality or freedom; be they other beings; be they of the planet and its elements—trampled and destroyed, are toxic in their own right and they poison us if we feed on them too deeply or frequently.
Clearly, rage and anger can be powerful fuel for action. These are emotions hard to avoid if you allow yourself any awareness of what is happening in the world, so it makes sense to find a way to put them in service of positive change. Dr. King surely knew this, and he wielded his anger with precision, like a surgeon. While rage and frustration with intolerance motivate us to act for a more just world, King stipulated that in order to truly create change, the means must be in harmony with the goals.
It is tempting, but probably pointless to ponder how Martin Luther King, Jr. might have sparked and coaxed into transformative flame today’s fuel of anger. Fortunately, there are many passionate, courageous ones amongst us who are doing just that, following in his footsteps, who have found the right outlet and the action to give meaning to their rage.
For others, though, the insults just keep coming and the anger and disempowerment grow and compound one another. Whether it is Israel/Palestine, fracking, Syria, racist police murders, gun violence, or simply the mendacity of those at the helm, reading the news is truly an attack upon the heart. And many of us do not know what to do, do not know how to manage the pain.
This is where we can, perhaps, back up a step from the anger and allow ourselves the truth of what lies beneath it. Dr. King further wrote in Letter from Birmingham Jail that “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.” To feel rage at the course of human affairs is to reveal a depth of love and longing for connection that we rarely, if ever, display as itself. It is far more common, and probably much easier, to express hatred of the oppression or the oppressor than it is to demonstrate love for the oppressed, to despise and rail against the abuse than to openly cherish the abused.
As we confront the loss of so much we love–from monarch butterflies to clean water to the lives of children–anger is absolutely correct and potentially useful. It is a powerful force, and in addition to motivating us, it shields us—temporarily–from the pain of loss.
But if you feel yourself, like so many people I know, growing toxic from it, despondent and despairing, it might be time to give yourself over to the love. And to the grief which always accompanies the loss of that which we hold dear. The simple truth of our situation is that we are watching a flood tide wash out to sea, carrying with it on huge waves our fondest hopes and our highest aspirations for humanity, for our planet.
There remains behind a reservoir of sorrow which we ignore at our peril, for it is there that our shared humanity is often experienced most deeply. We are in this together, and that connection, no matter where we find it, is the portal for transcendence, for freeing ourselves from the limitations of fear and all it engenders. For changing the means. Find the connection, the shared humanity, wherever it is—in anger, in joy, in truth, in inspiration and yes, even in sorrow. We are all things, from monsters to saints, and I see no reason to believe that is likely to change anytime soon. It is in understanding and accepting this, in allowing ourselves to bravely love what we love anyway, consciously, despite the pain and the potential for more loss, that we begin to erase the fearful separations which rob us of our humanity as well as our divinity.
In this time of ratcheting madness, when the ancient inclination to strike at one another in fear and loathing clamors, I will take the liberty of imagining that Dr. King might encourage those of us who already resist mob mentality to guard against letting the poison of anger, no matter how pure, keep us from the nostrum of love. To weep, to grieve, to ululate, to do whatever we must to feel through the rage down into the grief, which ultimately opens the door to the love. Which in turn undergirds all. To sit in that love, to taste it and remember the incredible power and range of human compassion: this offers us the chance to re-emerge, to enter the fray again, with an open heart, our means purified and in alignment with our deepest longings. So that we can fight, organize, pray, serve—whatever it is that we are called us to do—with an energy that reflects those longings. This may not alter much in the visible world, but if we are willing to entertain the notion that ultimately, we are both the ends and the means, then quite possibly, it changes everything.