Monday, April 14, 2008

Religion, Politics and Compassion

I just finished observing part of the telecast of the Democratic Presidential discussion entitled "Compassion" on CNN. This forum format was both fascinating and disturbing at the same time as the Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama strove to answer to everyone’s satisfaction simple questions like "when does life begin" and "do you think God wants you to be President". To my minds eye, this competitive grill session was anything but compassionate by grilling these two professional politicians on religious topics that even their various pastors could not find common ground or answers to. While some of the chatter was laudable regarding our government taking a more "compassionate" role in the world...I still couldn’t get away from the core question of "how is it we have now placed candidates religions as a core qualification for their job?" Of course, Hillary did her best to sound like a part time catholic, part time protestant, has a Rabbi as best friend, and has read the Quran. Obama on the other hand suffered most I fear as he consistently stressed his inability to play Gods role in the world...and that he felt government should support all agendas to help fight things like AIDS and abortion by doing everything from teaching abstinence, to teaching birth control, to supporting women’s choice on abortion. Talk about a divisive stand to take in that room full of the whole rainbow of American religions...ouch. In other words...everybody should do everything they can to fight these social ills...whether from the spiritual conservative agenda to the liberal secularist approach. IT’S ALL GOOD I guess.

Much of the debate or discussion focused on an apparent absolute of our democracy that believes OUR government’s role in the world is to bring humanitarian support to all starving and abused countries...because we are a "Christian" nation. Apparently the government has taken over the role of the church and religion where it comes to being your brothers’ keeper. Whatever happened to biblical concepts like "render to Ceasar what is Ceasars, and to God what is God's"...perhaps the first recorded statement on separation of church and state? How is it that "Ceasar" now is responsible to take his peoples tax money and redistribute it to the poor and downtrodden of the world? Perhaps this stems from a hidden guilt trip about TAKING so much of its citizens money if they do something “good” with it. I always thought the Federal government’s role was to provide for the execution of constitutional justice, and protect our borders and personal freedoms or rights. I don’t think the founding fathers ever perceived the USA's role as policeman and financier of world governments (Ah...but I guess I need to publish soon my treatment on Libertarianism as a preferred federal govt model on another thread).

While I acknowledge that religion is a strong factor in our country's social and cultural dynamics, I continue to grow more and more uncomfortable with the role of religion in our politics. Nothing is dividing our nation...and world...more than religion and other totalitarian philosophies. It used to be bad enough when we were divided simply by color lines...whites, blacks, Indians and Asians...all living in their own neighborhoods or reservations and "staying to their own". Jews were not allowed membership in many of the nation’s most renowned social and golf clubs. Let’s face it, we so soon forget that women didn’t even get to vote in our country until the 19th amendment to the constitution was passed in 1920. But now...we have a woman AND a black candidate running to be the Democratic nominee for President. And now, the biggest fights being picked are about these candidate’s religions, churches, their pastors, and analyzing their every position based on someone’s religious values. So...our leadership will now be divided by religion...not race or sex. Is that an improvement? Does that really help us determine who has the most leadership capacity in this troubled world we live in? It’s scary to contemplate.

As for "Compassion"...I find very little compassion demonstrated between religions, political parties, the races or the sexes. Most humor on late night talk shows and in comedy clubs is a reflection of continued difference and ridicule of those differences. Sure, it can be humorous to see our own silliness and stereotypes brought to the limelight by a funny comedian…but most of the time it reflects no compassion or understanding of why those differences or mannerisms exist. And when it comes to “compassion” for the fallen or “sinners”…there is a lot more judgment and smirking about people’s private lives than there is forgiveness and understanding of the human condition. Just trying to find national news that isn’t totally focused on a politician’s sex life or an actors drunkenness or divorce reveals how focused we are as a “Christian nation” on compassion and acceptance.

My biggest struggle with most of the world’s religions has been this lack of compassion and a sense of dictating to the masses how they must behave in order to gain God’s (or the churches?) acceptance and support. I believe true faith should be based on a relationship to God as an individual’s life long pursuit of understanding and wisdom. I experience my faith from a variety of directions and forces. From the beginning was the parental caretaking and education received that tells us what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Family members become the first molders of what we believe in and help determine how secure we feel as we grow and mature. This for obvious reasons is quite subjective. Then later in life we start grappling with our own identities, thoughts, emotions and reactions to the new stimuli around us. In some cases we start evolving in more independent directions than originally suggested by our families, communities or church. The average person starts asking the where, what, when and why questions of the meaning of life. Some of us seem bent towards the intellectual while others go with the “senses’ or emotions. Some of us most screwed up humans are grappling in some personal zone in between those extremes. Still…faith and belief to me are more about God and truth finding us than vice versa. The more I travel and the more I experience, the more I realize how much I DON’T know for sure. And yet that also expands my respect for life and what it offers if we just open up our minds and our eyes to what is sometimes obvious if we face realities in our lifetimes. It is in this pursuit of life that real religion begins for me…an ongoing discovery of my spirit, my truths, and yes, my limitations. No one else can take responsibility for me in this process…and nor can I be responsible for another’s faith.

On the other hand, most world religions are built on a creed of belief and a code of conduct that is unrealistic in most cases, and unnatural to the human condition at the least. As religions try to pave the way to explaining God, creation, the universe and all the mysteries those subjects encompass, they usually fall back on a huge gauntlet of rules and regulations to live by that prove you are in…or out…of God’s (that churches’) graces or acceptance. Based on those core principles, you now see the world divided by various religions, labels and doctrines…all believing only THEY have the truth…the acceptance of the Creator…and the only way to live. Men are judged by their deeds and appearances to the common religious community…how they dress…how they talk…how they act.

Mixed into these various religious communities you have the aspect of the “wolves and the sheep”. Most members of a religion are “the sheep” who need a Shepard (sometimes known as “the wolf”). The sheep are deemed as too weak and feeble minded to understand the big picture of life, so they are groomed to submit to the Shepard or leader to whom they can submit their wills and their minds…usually in some form of “blind faith” that will help them explain all the unknowns surrounding them. For other sheep, it is just a matter of having a “curriculum of life” to follow that will give them boundaries and controls from which to live their lives and make their daily decisions. It is deemed much safer, and more acceptable, to submit to a religion and its dogma than to live in sovereign control of your own life and thoughts. Somehow the individual’s thoughts, desires and leanings must always be subservient to the “church” or religious figure that is respected and in some cases “worshipped”. In this submission there is much humility, fear, self deprecation and sense of personal worthlessness. In place of the sovereign individual’s independence, religion gives a sense of belonging, not being alone, a sense of absolutes about that which is beyond our comprehension. You have community, a cause, and an easy answer for all the hard questions…and when you don’t have the answer you can just easily shrug and say “may God’s (Allah, Jehovah, His/Her) will be done”. Or in modern slang…”Que sera, sera”.

When it comes to faith based on compassion, I still have to go with my roots and fundamentals of Jesus’ teachings and example. Here was a practicing Jew who developed a whole new way of looking at life and God in the middle of some horrendous times for his people who were not living free and under Roman rule. From my reading of his story, he was a cast out and unaccepted by his peers…and those who ruled over him. His fights were primarily with the religious and government leaders of his time, and his followers were simple people who had potential. These people were from all walks of life…fishermen, tax collectors and prostitutes. These were not people coming from the main stream of life in that day. They were taught the golden rule and the early Christian church grew because they took care of each other…took in the poor and needy…and from my reckoning tended to be disconnected individuals searching for light in a very dark world. Jesus words and example brought meaning, unity and yes, compassion… in a day and age where there was little of that…in the government OR the church. These people didn’t meet in big fancy buildings or cathedrals. They started out meeting in each others homes…or spending the weekend together out on the Jordan River or by the Sea of Galilee. They fought among themselves for leadership and “who was the greatest”. These were the most human people Jesus could find if you ask me. And in a short 3 years or so this group/community formed a movement based on forgiveness and acceptance that to some extent over ran all other religions and movements of that day and has grown for over 2000 years into a huge religion whose principles arguably have brought the worlds best ideas for building community, developing economically, and yes, taking individual responsibility for actions and reactions. This mixture of Judeo Christian religion in the world has influenced much of what is good in the world. Concepts of freedom, rights, love, and compassion itself have come from this tradition though I believe there are other religions that have many of the same attributes.

At the end of the day, I believe it was this compassion and openness to disparate individuals that caused the growth and popularity of Christianity over other religions. But now it seems the term “Christian” has come to mean just another “organization” with laws and bylaws. This organization’s focus is membership committees to bring in enough support to pay for the building, utilities and a pastors salary so he’ll stay in that building and tell us what we want to hear. And these churches feature judicial branches (deacons and “sessions”) to examine behaviors and write conformity clauses for those members. It seems we humans live in a cyclical mentality where we are initially compassionate until we get to know people. Then we “group up” and become critical of how that person we were compassionate to reacts or grows from our compassion. If they don’t become more like us, we begin to disassociate and look for others. We tend to be one sided in the human condition where we want to influence and change others, but we ourselves don’t want to be flexible for change or to be influenced. We want to talk, not listen. We want people to see things our way, and when they don’t, we just go our separate ways instead of accepting difference and focusing on the majority of the human experience we have in common. Jocks don’t mix well with nerds. Intellectuals don’t have much patience with laborers. The pretty people tend to look for others of like image to associate with. And drunks and partiers…well, their best friends are usually from the same lifestyle for a reason(s).

At the end of the day, I am looking for a religion that shows compassion for ALL humanity. Not just educated or pretty people. Not just those who are programmed to believe the same and “drink the same koolaid” together. I am suspect of any religion that does not include some prostitutes, gamblers and government officials…because those are the types Jesus called into his family from the beginning.

And which of the Presidential candidates do I want to vote for and go to church with? Who shows the most compassion in their agenda? Who is most fair and impartial about the distribution of wealth and justice in our country? Who does the least talking and takes the most action? Who practices what they preach? That’s who I want to associate with…and vote for as my President. Now…just where is that compassionate leader? And what religion is he?

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