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Our Pieces of Pie in the Sky | Part 3 of 3

This is the final blog in a series of three originally titled “Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation.” Like Reza Aslan reminded FOX’s Lauren Green, I too write from a PhD in history of religions perspective (although I have 1 versus his 4 PhDs), so please bear that in mind as you read this and other faith-related blogs.

Some delicious childhood memories of mine are of pies: strawberry, coconut cream, chocolate and french silk varieties (esp those with a graham cracker crust).

If you have only leisure and pleasurable pie eating memories then you likely are either an only child, one of two children, or from a family who never quarreled.

I’m the fourth of five children. A pie cut into seven does not big pieces make! Therefore, in my family, dessert time was satisfying, yes, but also stressful. It was imperative that you either dibs the pan or dibs your piece early, thereby ensuring you got, maybe, a half-bite more than anybody else (especially satisfying was getting the extra few strawberry syrup saturated graham cracker crumbs lining the pie pan).

Our childhood illogic, then, was as adult illogical as buying gas (petrol) today. You might travel 5 to 10 miles to buy discounted wholesale gas at $3.40/gallon, when a nearby station is selling it at $3.45, and the total cost saving differential for one tank of gas is only $.50 to $1 (before factoring in time and gas cost of traveling to and from).

Many people view salvation with a prized pie mentality. Heaven (or eternal life) is the ultimate pie or piece of pie, yet it simultaneously poses a troubling question, “How can I be sure I’ll get my piece if other, strangely different people are claiming they know both an equally good recipe and baker (perhaps identical, though different in name), themselves?” 

Gaining admittance and exclusionary bragging rights to heaven seem somewhat comparable to passing “GO” in Monopoly, except that, instead of a single player dominating the real estate market, a single religious perspective attempts to monopolize criteria for eternal eligibility and what constitutes truth.

Furthermore, the secret to passing “GO” without going bankrupt, landing in jail (hell) or being penalized by unlucky draw-cards, is to acquire insider knowledge of and obey prescribed code words (e.g., from Christianity – “Steps to Salvation,” “Four Spiritual Laws” or “Roman Road”).

Determining “who” is eligible and declaring “how” one may gain access to heaven is much easier if you have the power to entice and enforce people’s lifestyle and beliefs, which Christianity as a whole has had the privilege of doing for the past millennium-plus . . . . first, as the official religion of the post-Constantine Roman Empire, then, as the religion of European colonial powers, and finally, as the dominant religion of Super Power America and its global economic and political reach.

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An example of enticement, is an 1864 letter of American missionary Hyman A. Wilder, who wrote the following appeal for increased funding from his stateside “commander-in-chief,” Rufus Anderson –

“The greatest number of those [Zulus] who are now members of our churches, were first brought to listen to the gospel while in our service.  At present the only way in which we can get any one in a heathen kraal under the daily influence of divine truth is by giving him employment as a servant.  He is then willing to learn to read & to attend our religious services as a part of his daily duty.  Some of our servants are paid more, & some less, per month—the average is about 10 shillings exclusive of food, which costs from 5 to 10 shillings more.”

A colleague of Hyman’s, James C. Bryant, similarly wrote that he and his wife had twelve Zulu children in their family, all of whom “we have to hire them to live with us. . . . and pay them a trifle for their services—twenty-five to seventy-five cents a month.”

As a child growing up in a conservative Christian environment (Southern Baptist), I wasn’t enticed with money like those 19th Century Zulu children. But I was frequently poked (to borrow a FB term) to “make a decision,” and enticed by promises of “sins forgiven,” “a new life” and “the assurance of salvation/eternal life.” I was also coerced to some extent by required daily chapel attendance in high school and college, plus subjected to frighten-you-into-heaven apocalyptic movies, like The Burning Hell and The Hellstrom Chronicle.

Despite what some of you likely are thinking after reading Part 1, 2, and now 3, I do believe in the transformative, life changing experience of salvation or “being saved,” but just not in the overly prescribed (often by self-righteous, duplicitous fundamentalist-type Christians/preachers), supernatural, and exclusionary manner that many do (“only through Jesus” . . . although, this is how I initially came to know God).

Like many of you, I became a Christian early on, in the 3rd grade. It likely was a genuine “coming to God” moment, if for no other reason than that I remember it! Praying “the sinner’s prayer,” while seated on my tiled bedroom floor accompanied by my dad, as well as then meeting with our pastor to “confirm” that I understood the essential basics of my decision, prior to being slotted into a Sunday baptismal service.

Several decades later, and a lot of spiritual and wilderness walking since, I don’t look back on my conversion experience as having redeemed, ransomed or reconciled me to God. I view it as the beginning of a more intentional and conscious relationship with God, and one in which through the ensuing years following my initial “decision,” God helped me in a continuous process of reconciling “all things,” including my understanding and acceptance of self, plus a more inclusive perspective of the other, and toward the world.

If an Ultimate Being/Reality, God, exists (as I believe), thought me into being like a parent, and whose affection toward me exceeds even my own biological parents, then it’s inane, if not pathological, to think and live as if your eternal favor (salvation) is contingent upon right beliefs and right actions.

Who of you as parent would consign your own child to a fiery furnace or a forever-ever separation (however you may understand hell) from you, simply because s/he refused to believe this or that, or failed to demonstrate enough contrition? If one says, “But that’s the ‘biblical’ teaching,” then I say one has an unhealthy love and worship of the (literal) Bible, not to mention entirely Western (American) interpretation perspective, which all brings Matthew 23 to mind.

As a parent myself now (so much of who I envision and have experienced God to be derives from a family context), it’s unconscionable to imagine a god, who would create/birth humanity out of love all people, that is, not just Christians – yet then have so much righteous anger and repulsion of sin and sinner that it requires the violent death of a more than man in order to procure the amelioration of God’s wrath.

When it comes to this type appeasement theology, I share affinity with Desmond Tutu and his thoughts on an alleged homophobic God. He told participants at a recent UN meeting in Cape Town, “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this.”

In the same way, if God is so repulsed by our humanness – which s/he is the author of, btw – that his “righteous anger” needs appeasing by sanctioning his son’s death, then I too refuse to go to such a heaven.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, my theology is more experiential than theoretical when it comes to Jesus’ death on the cross and the purpose and meaning behind it. I see it primarily as evidence of the freedom that humanity has to choose good and bad, and of Jesus’ acceptance of the false accusations and judgement, resulting in his choice to self-identify with struggling and hurting humanity. I do not see in it an essentialism way, whereby my redemption/reconciliation was “purchased.”

Rather, Jesus’ death as seditious insurrectionist is more a model for the world (not for inciting political upheavals, but for identifying with the poor and marginalized), but especially for “Jesus followers” of how we are too suffer alongside those who are hurting, in some ways analogous to how Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr are models of non-violent response to unconscionable acts of injustice.

DavidErik

My theology of Jesus’ death on a cross is analogous to my South African mentor’s narrative of the death of his 5-year-old son, David Erik, who incidentally, my fourth-born daughter Erika is named after –

“The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, was a public holiday.  The family decided to go out to ‘Blue Bend,’ Doreen Caldicot’s farm, along the Ingogo River.  The children were playing together.  I was chopping wood and preparing the fire to boil water for tea.  We called the children for the meal.  David was not with them.

The next 7 hours were ‘gethsemane.’  David was nowhere to be found.  I must have run miles, hither and thither, up and down stream, tormented, exhausted, panic-stricken.  Exhausted and dejected, with encroaching darkness, as the sun was setting, my brother-in-law ran up to me and informed me that David’s body had been located at the bottom of a pool, near the picnic site.

As David’s body was being lifted from the water, I recall taking hold of his damp, cold, lifeless body and hugging him to my chest. . . . I felt demented as I carried this treasured child, now cold, limp, and lifeless up to the farmstead.  Everything was in a state of disarray . . . what was – no longer mattered.  High hopes, expectation and promise had evaporated.  The future ceased to be. . . . In the days and nights that followed, the good shepherd may well have been walking with us in the valley of the shadow of death.  What composure there was, was within the texture of nightmare, disbelief, and shock. . . . at the graveside, as the coffin was being lowered into the grave life-long friends quite spontaneously broke into song – ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus, Safe in his gentle breast.’

What peace there was came, but we were hurt and in need of healing, broken and shattered of all self-confidence.  We spent a few days with family, which was the kind of comfort that gave enduring strength.  We found little consolation in romantic and pious platitudes such as ‘God plucks his most beautiful flowers,’ and ‘Take comfort that this was the will of God.’  All we were concerned about as parents was ‘Is it well with David?’

I kept asking myself where the living Lord of the universe could possibly have been when David was drowning.  Then I remembered back on my mother’s death and a passage from Hebrews 4:14, ‘Since, then, we have a great high priest that has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.’

This gave me hope.  I knew then that the One who said, ‘Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the ages’ (Mt 28:20), . . . was none other than the One who in his promise was dying with David as he was drowning.  Jesus was drowning with David in the Ingogo River on December 26, 1962.”

I believe that confession of sin, of guilt, of whatever in life is keeping you and me from becoming the best (for all humanity’s good) and happiest version of ourselves possible, is life changing, but not as a precondition for God to forgive and start loving us again.

Rather, I see confession in a theologian C.H. Dodd type metaphor, as a thoughtful, emotional and potentially transformative act that initiates a seedbed of new opportunity, new life beginning, by helping facilitate inner healing of mind and soul within a safe and nurturing context or people.

In other words, for me, “salvation” is greater part psychological or psychosocial, than it is a once-off, other-worldly and supernatural act that somehow mysteriously transacts forgiveness and eternal access with God.

Part of the reason Christians, in particular, are so exclusive and adamant that “biblical teaching” insists on a ONE-WAY, “Jesus only” route to heaven is that their faith is almost entirely knowledge based – a residual aspect of the Enlightenment, where knowledge trumps experience.

It’s my assumption that most American Christians, especially Protestant-evangelicals, belong to the middle to upper echelons of society, their lives seldom, if ever, intersect with the world’s majority poor, marginalized, and “different peoples,” unless, of course, it’s of a quick and harmless type, such as landscape “leaf blowers” or “tree pruners,” most of whom in Austin, anyway, seem to be Latino, and Spanish-speaking-only.

What is true for many Western/American Christians today, is what was also true when slavery and the era of Jim Crow de facto segregation. As Winthrop Jordan noted, “Slavery could survive only if the Negro were a man set apart; he simply had to be different if slavery was to exist at all.”

In Relating to People of Other Faiths, former Emory University religion professor, and Christian, Thomas Thangaraj, similarly remarked that dichotomous boundaries of “saved” and “lost” are incapable of being maintained once the religious and cultural “different other” become your neighbor and your colleague.

Therefore, sustaining a sense of comfortable, sheltered from the cultural, religious and socio-economic different other, is essential to preserving a dichotomous self and religious identity, where you are the exemplar of truth and the “other” is the caricature of “lost” or “sinful.” Tragically, this also explains why, in my opinion, we are such a spiritually and wisdom impoverished people/nation – because we have isolated ourselves from the choruses of different voices and perspectives, which equally communicate “the manifold wisdom of God.”

That’s probably much more than you wanted to know about my perspective on eternal pie-in-the-sky, salvation, but if you persevered to the end, I’m sure you earned yourself a few heavenly gold stars!

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The Positive Power of Difference | Us + Them

I remember the wall that encased my third grade home in Kenya.  It was quarried rock, thinly plastered with cement, and as a security measure, injected along the top with jagged, multi-colored shards of glass.  I was sitting atop that wall one day (at a point void of glass!) when my family’s first of two pet Vervet monkeys, Penny, decided to join me, and then out of sheer pleasure at the prospect of terrorizing a young boy, bit my arm.  I screamed more in fear than pain, and shoved her off the 6 to 8 foot wall.

Glass as Crime Deterent

Glass as a crime deterrent

Aware that neighborhood, community and nation are rapidly changing toward a kaleidoscope of racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic hues – and interspersed with varied degrees of crime – it’s easy and enticing to buy into the myth, marketing and politicking, which advocates that people and nations are predetermined to be in perpetual conflict and hostility with each other.

Such thought and argument utilizes fear of the unknown and different to persuade us that the best defense and antidote against inevitable change and conflict is an impenetrable barrier – or, as former Republican presidential candidates Herman Cain and Michele Bachman suggested – either an electrified fence or one that stretches the entire length of the Mexico/U.S. border.

A not uncommon residential security - Durban

A not uncommon residential security – Durban

It’s a modern-day circling the wagons scenario.  Confronted by a perceived or real threat, we erect barriers  to protect self, family and assets.  Sadly, we disregard the inevitable and historical fact that we are building nothing more lasting than structures of sand, which will not last beyond a spring tide of social discontent. Look no further for evidence than the Berlin Wall or France and the storming of the Bastille.

1989 - Fall of Berlin Wall

Fall of Berlin Wall, 1989

Walls are physical structures, yes, but they are also symbolic.  China’s Great Wall was built as a northern barrier against the threatening barbarian Huns.  Andrew Sinclair, however, noted that walls suggest “a mentality which still persists—the view of a world in which the limits between the civilized and the barbarian are exact and impassable.”  Today we might revise this “wall mentality” to express our longing for an impenetrable divide that guarantees personal protection.

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

What precipitated my thinking about walls and barriers, you ask?

Two things.

First, midpoint on my daily run are two separately owned houses for sale.  A distinctive of these two residences has been a shared, unpartitioned backyard.  What is now distinctive is that prior to sale, a high, dividing fence is being constructed that will effectively restrict one new homeowner’s access to the formerly shared swimming pool, as well as minimize social interaction.

The second precipitating factor? My own long-held thoughts on difference, well enunciated by Todd Pittinsky and his book Us + Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference.

I frequently voice – particularly post-senseless acts of mass violence – that despite their unconscionable and numbing reality, given a burgeoning global population and people’s access to firearms, as well as the pervasiveness of mental illness and socio-economic disparities, it’s a miracle many times more random acts of violence don’t occur.

It seems we individually, as societies, and “the media” conveniently overlook and under-report the positive dimensions of stories (the many examples of how people positively and daily relate to one another), focusing instead on telling and showing the macabre because that is what sells and excites social consciousness.

As Pittinsky observes, “We are letting the worst of the news become our underlying picture of us-and-them relations.  We know the negative power of difference very well, but we are barely acquainted with the positive power of difference.”

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

This is exactly Pittinsky’s point.  Since the Holocaust and extending into the Civil Rights era, social science research has singularly focused on the negative – on hate and negative prejudice type studies.  Positive research and reporting on “liking of the other” (which he calls allophilia) is largely excluded.

Social sciences’ singular and myopic research on causes of and ways to eliminate or minimize the negative (hate/prejudice) has over the decades thoroughly and negatively saturated and shaped society at large (via education), especially government, military, business, education and civic leaders’ perceptions, attitudes, and responses to difference and “them.”

This overwhelming negative outlook has adversely affected societies at large because leaders and groups views of and approaches to difference and “the other” reflect an “us versus them” or an “us against them,” and seldom, if ever, a positive science of “us and them” or an “us plus them.”

Us + Them

Us + Them

There’s something wrong, Pittinsky notes, when all focus, effort, and expenditure is on tracking “hate back through generations while overlooking positive attitudes and actions that happen today, never mind seeking their distant roots or long-term effects.”

Take Africa for example.  Western coverage of the continent is dominated by news of genocide, dictatorial atrocities, and ethnic massacres.  Yet, Africa has an “estimated 2,035 linguistic groups and more than 3,000 ethnic groups.  It is not uncommon to find more than 20 ethnic groups in one country.  And yet, at any given moment, most Africans are not hating or fighting.  Why not?  We really don’t know.  It’s mostly the hate we study.”

In researching his book, Pittinsky found more than 200 published measures of hate and negative prejudice toward “the other” group, yet not a single measuring tool for constructing positive attitudes toward “the other.”

The Core of the Problem

The Core of the Problem

North Americans have at least two significant challenges ahead of us.  First, as Harvard’s Diana Eck states, “Simply open our eyes.  Discover America anew, and explore the many ways in which the new immigration has changed the religious (and cultural) landscape of our cities and towns, our neighborhoods and schools.

Secondly, strive to maintain our nation’s e pluribus unum (out of the many, one), given the twin facts that we’re the most religiously diverse nation in the world, yet also the most religiously (and culturally) illiterate.

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Our economic prosperity, global dominance and geographical size has in the past minimized our “need” to initiate relationships or understanding of difference with the “other.”

Like South Africa, the United States is a rainbow nation of diversity and multiple cultures.  We need to discard/unlearn any and all notions that suggest people and nations are predestined and hard-wired for conflict and hostility, as Samuel Huntington’s popular book title suggests, The Clash of Civilizations.  For the passionately religious minded, this will require, in part, a cessation of bearing false witness against those different from oneself.

All it takes to begin reversing the centuries’-long cultural and religious ingrained notion that hostility and conflict are immutable aspects of our created differences, is to risk sharing in what Eck describes as “the common tasks of our civil society.”

If that is too risky or demanding a task, then share a cup of hot tea/coffee and a conversation with “the other” about shared memories of life and loss, perhaps during what Elizabeth Lesser calls, “Take ‘the other’ to lunch.” It would help communicate across cultural, political, economic and social divides, if you took along a few personal photographs to share, too.

We all, yet leaders, in particular, “Have the responsibility to understand and increase what we want (peaceful and productive multicultural societies), not just to understand and decrease what we don’t want (prejudice and hate).”

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