Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives


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COLLEGE STUDENTS GIVE MY LIFE MEANING

bare tree

The university academic year begins for me this week, and—not for the first time—my thoughts are heavy with the implications of the grave responsibility of educating the young. This year, though, seems to weigh heavy on my heart more than any such year in the past, with the possible exception of the years in South Africa during the end of apartheid and the first years of democracy. It could even be because of those years, and the comparisons that can be made between South Africa then, and the United States now, that my concern is great.

Of course, no comparative study would find a perfect correlation between the two countries. But there are many similarities, especially when observing the issues of race, intolerance, social injustice, disenfranchisement, rule of a power elite—I could go on, but already it become obvious that there are points to be made, as well as huge differences in the two situations. Can anything be learned from the past in another country, that would shed light on a way forward for us in the present?

My course load this semester consists of Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Social Theory, and Political Anthropology. All three courses contain a great deal of material that directly relates to August 2016 in the United States. Some of these situations, like the failed war on drugs and its ongoing, devastating aftermath, do not appear to be related to anything that occurred in South Africa. But when you look deeper at the combinations of political misinformation, low intensity violence incited deliberately by the government, and antipathy between police and the often innocent subjects of their brutality, a shared trend appears.

In fact, one can see that the troubles in both nations were not caused by failed societal structures so much as by a shared failed personal accountability for human actions. I always try to find an opportunity to explain to my students why it is true that to the extent we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. And the more often that we do that, the less human we become. At some point, it no longer matters who we hurt, or how much we hurt them. Having reached that point, nothing is sacred—we can lie to each other, cheat in personal and public relationships, and shame our religious traditions by turning them inside out and using them against each other, rather than in enjoyment of the sacredness of our existence. Some people blame this on the capitalist profit motive; I blame it on unrestrained greed grown to inhumane size, however you want to rationalize it.

Our inhumane behavior is seen in social media pages, day after day. Many posts are deliberate lies, some are propagated by people and organizations who make a great deal of money developing the ways and means of destroying political opponents, or spreading ideas in order to challenge inconvenient truths about how we should live. Our youth often do not trust our government, our news media, or our religious leaders. We have an entire generation of youth who have grown up in the midst of uncontrolled verbal and media bile, day after day. Yet many parents and teachers are still able to reflect the values of integrity and community to their children; too many others have failed.

I don’t want to be one of those who fail those precious young people. It would be safe for me to just present the information in the texts as is, and avoid controversy. Unfortunately, sociology and anthropology are not calculus. They exist to provide a learning situation whereby we may study, compare, theorize, and determine the state of our world, and consider possible ways to improve our situation and that of others. If we learn anything at all from these disciplines, it is that humans are not meant to live just for themselves. We are psychologically and mentally geared to living in community, from whence we learn our sameness as well as our beautiful uniqueness; where we learn to share, to care for others, and to be cared for. It is where we discover the meaning of our lives, as Victor Frankl explains so beautifully.

On the surface, our country is in what Durkheim would call a state of anomie; of “normlessness.” There are too many who live by disregarding the norms of human interactions, of human responsibility. The rest of us are not free of responsibility for this state of affairs. The rapidity of progress has allowed us all to enjoy an unprecedented mobility, separation from family and old friends, from the norms that defined our lives when we were young people. The sense of normlessness that has grown has produced political and religious apathy, as our values as a nation have withered into weapons for some groups to hurl at others in hatred.

It could appear that all is lost. It is not. We can, and must, regain our humanity by treating others as the precious human beings they were meant to be. We cannot separate ourselves from community, especially from communities of meaning. We can look to the examples of those around us who are good people, who live honestly and compassionately. We can seek justice for those whose lives have been broken by injustice.

…..We can demand from our government leaders the same values that we hold for ourselves, and make sure not to repeat errors in judgement on that score.

….. We can bring family life back into vogue, securing the early years of our children with the nuts and bolts of honesty, responsibility, and community.

….. We can demand improvements in our education systems so that our children learn to think, not just to memorize.

And we can treat the people we run into each and every day as though they were human beings like ourselves: imperfect, yet full of potential; sacred to their Creator and therefore sacred to ourselves. Deserving of respect—enough so as to inspire those who have none for themselves to strive for improvement.

 

……Yes, this is indeed a heavy responsibility to owe to the students in my classroom. But why else would I even want to be there? The intergenerational discussions and learning that will take place give my life meaning. My students, who are also my teachers, are the joy of my life. When I meet with them again, that “heavy responsibility” will be rediscovered as a great privilege. So begins another year.

classroom


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CAN RELIGION BECOME EVIL?

love others

My friend had joined me in the adjunct professor’s office when I finished my class, and because the day’s lesson had been on anthropology and religions, we were discussing religion. My friend is an atheist, so the discussion not only required a lot of honesty and thought from both of us, but it also became deeply rooted in my thoughts as a result. It was no surprise that when pain awakened me during the night, as it has so often done, that my friend’s final question not only returned to mind, but was interwoven with my ongoing concerns about the disruptive and heartbreaking laws and actions that have so negatively affected physicians and their patients.

It was a long night. The pain was intense and unforgiving. I thought that there is no more “alone” a person can be than when being alone and in pain. Especially if nothing can be done to alleviate the pain. In my case, it is because my body will not tolerate many medications, including pain medications. But for so many others it is because an unthinking and unfeeling state and/or federal body of lawmakers has taken their medication from them. Some lawmakers have gone so far as to falsely claim that chronic pain patients are the reason that addictions and illegal drug-induced deaths occur*. The majority of these lawmakers claim to have made their decisions in the name of Christianity, and/or morality. Thinking about all this, I again considered the final question my friend put to me:

 CAN RELIGION BE EVIL?

 It is a legitimate question. Jesus was put to death, in the name of religion. The decision was made by a government official under intense pressure from religious leadership – the separation of church and state is not always clean or clear! Again, the apartheid laws of South Africa were based on religious beliefs and carried out by members of the most conservative and pious of denominations, while being upheld by churches throughout the country. Islamic followers have also left bloodshed in their wake since the Prophet died, and ISIS makes religious claims for their terrorism. And I haven’t even scratched the surface of the harm done to humanity in the name of religion. On the other hand, Christians, Muslims, and members of other faiths have spoken and fought against these evils, and lived lives that more fully represented the tenets of their faiths.

There is also the emotional and psychological harm done in the name of religion. On the first Mother’s Day after my infant son died, which happened to be the first anniversary of his birth and death, my own father announced from his pulpit that God had taken my son because I had married a divorced man. I left the church—and the Church–that day, 52 years ago, swearing never to give my heart and work to another church. It was not God I was mad at, it was the Church. I had been both beneficiary and victim of its teachings my entire life, but uneducated as I was at the time, I still was able to see organized religion as a human construction, using the power of the name of the Creator to manipulate and control entire populations to submit to the will of its’ very human membership. It took 51 years to the very day for me to finally give up that resolve, when I was confirmed into a church that not only accepted me as I was, but has a membership that loves and cares for each other and our community, living as best it can the highest commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, ….and love your neighbor as yourself.”

So today I can say from the knowledge and experience of an entire, long life lived observing, loving and hating religion–while remembering the reason for the religion–gave me, among other really great truths, this understanding shared with my friend: Can religion be evil?   No, my friend, nor can it by itself be good.   Just as its human members have the ability to choose whether they will do good or evil, so do we choose whether to use our religion and our beliefs for good or for evil. I suppose the litmus test would then be the two commandments quoted above.

Which brings me back to my lonely and painful vigil of the night. Actually, I realized I was not alone. My thoughts—my very soul—amplified my own pain alongside the hundreds and thousands of pain patients sharing my misery, who might have been sleeping relatively comfortably had they been allowed their medications. It would do me no good to go to the streets for illegal medications, but my heart broke for those who that very moment were deciding to do so–the very law intended to end illegal drug use actually making criminals out of law-abiding citizens. I also hurt for those physicians who, at that same dark hour, might be considering suicide because of a life ruined by the harassment of a law enforcement chain of events that considers them “guilty until proven innocent.”

So, in the dark with my physical and emotional pain and in the awareness of a company of fellow sufferers, I prayed for us all. And especially for those who take it upon themselves to decide to use religion and their “moral” values to make everyone live by their very low standards, no matter who it kills.

“Low standards?” you say? Yes. Low standards. Slash and burn is the low road. Restore and rebuild in the name of the Creator is a much higher road.

 hands, heart

*I can say that this is a false claim because drugs and alcohol have been used by almost every culture as far back in history as we can document. Drugs had both religious and recreational purposes., and still do in many cultures. Up until recent history, most people did not live long enough to acquire the long-term chronic pain suffered by the majority of such patients today. Today’s chronic pain patients are not the cause of the problem.


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A VERY BLESSED CHRISTMAS

The first Sunday of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas, signals the start of the New Year for the Church. Throughout Advent we consciously await the Nativity, which is then joyously proclaimed through triumphant music, beautiful decorations and pageantry, and renewal of the reverence and faith that accompanies the wonder of the manger scene. Sharing this time together as a church community gives strength to our love for each other and for our shared walk in faith. It is both a fitting and necessary beginning to each new year.

Not everyone is always able to be present at the festivities, however. Many are shut-ins, too ill or disabled to attend. Others may be away from home, serving country and faith in other lands while being homesick, and being equally missed at home. Still others have either abandoned the church, or felt abandoned by it, and will not be a part of this renewal. Christmas is not always a time of joy for many reasons.

Today, Christmas Day 2014, although I had planned to participate in all events at my church home, as well as get-togethers in the homes of friends, I am confined to home on this day. Despite having had two flu vaccinations in the past ten months, I was afflicted with the particular strain of flu that this year’s vaccinations won’t protect against. For once, I was grateful for email and the telephone! Friends and family kept up with me, kept me entertained, and projected the warmth of their personalities into my days, even when they were mad a me for refusing to let them anywhere near me. If nothing else, I was going to make sure that the particular bug that infected me would not infect anyone else!

That still meant a lot of time alone, and time to reflect on present days and past blessiings. As I relived this past year, I recalled so clearly the long days and nights of a year ago when in my pain and illness I begged God to deliver me from this life. He did, but not as I expected. For most of this year my pain has subsided to very manageable levels, and my activity has returned to near normal. My various physical conditions have been identified and treated, and in the New Year I will begin teaching again as an adjunct at a local University. The year 2015, unlike its predecessor, is a year filled with hope and purpose for me.

I am reminded of a similar year, half a lifetime ago, when at the end of my resources and without hope I made a decision that took me on a 33-year journey of challenge, adventure, and great satisfaction in life. https://maryleejames.com/2014/06/19/this-is-why-it-matters-to-me/   The satisfaction came from knowing that my purpose was to share with others the gift of education that had been given to me, and I have been allowed to do that on two continents.

Now it appears that I have been blessed with a third chance to rise from the shambles of my life, escape the worst effects of chronic pain and illness, and live again. This time, in order to give back, my time and efforts will be made on behalf of that huge segment of our society that lives in chronic pain and is way too often discriminated against by a range of people within their own families and friends, all the way to departments in our state and local governments. Equally distressing, the very physicians who actually do listen and try to help them are also targeted for discrimination, if not actual harassment.

Some progess has been made, but not nearly enough. At some point, we must stop blaming inanimate objects for our social ills and accept the facts that guns, pills, alcohol, cars, computers, cell phones , money and other material things are not at fault for our misuse of them.

Today, I realized anew that the pageantry, decorations, music and companionship are not the real Christmas. The real Christmas is within me, and has filled me with peace and joy on this blessed day.

I humbly pray for the same for all of you. A very blessed Christmas, and renewed peace and joy for the New Year!

 xmas scene


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BLESSED ARE THE RICH????? NOT REALLY.

1587_landing_of_the_pilgrims_at_plymouth_-_color_versionThe mythology got mixed up with theology and became canonized byScene_at_the_Signing_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_States our founding fathers somewhere between the 16th and 18th centuries. That didn’t make it Biblical, or even an unsacred truth, but somehow because of the nature of our patriotism and need to believe that those who “started” us were wonderful, upstanding people who got it all right, there are people today who still believe the lie. Mostly they are wealthy people. The same ones who believe that the beatitude “Blessed are the poor” ends right there. Look it up—there’s more. Because the “more” is also somewhat opaque for our understanding, I will leave that to those trained in exegesis. However, there is little doubt as to the nature of scriptural direction about wealth—in particular, excessive wealth.

For example, in the New Testament we read about the Rich Fool, who refused to help the beggar at his feet but instead tore down his barns to build bigger barns so that he could hoard more wealth. Wealth was not just money, then or now. It included material possessions like land, cattle, crops, and even family. His reward for such activity was to burn in Hell, pleading for a drop of water from the hands of the beggar he never helped, who was in heaven. (He was denied, by the way.) Sure, this is a just a parable; it is a story with a moral point– “Moral” being the key word.

Another story, this one repeated by eye witnesses, is about the rich young ruler who came to Jesus, claiming to have kept all the religious laws from his youth. He inquired “What must I do to be saved?” and Jesus replied “Give all that you have to the poor, and follow me.” The young man could have lived in America today, because he turned away sadly and left the followers of Jesus.

Maybe that is why scripture also tells us that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Old and New Testaments alike repeatedly tell us to take care of the poor, the widows, and the orphans, the sick and disabled. The commands are unequivocal: Don’t hoard wealth. Don’t succumb to greed.   Take care of those who are in need. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. What’s more, most religions have similar values and ethical concerns about matters of wealth, poverty, and human relationships.

For example, in many cultures one who would be holy must give up all material things as well as family and other relationships, wandering alone and without visible support in order to meet the requirements of holiness. In the Christian traditions, the closer one is to God, the more likely it is that one would join a holy order and renounce wealth and personal possessions. We have a long history of people defined as saints because they dedicated their lives to caring for others, rather than for themselves. Nowhere in anything I have ever read or experienced has anyone achieved sainthood by loving and caring only for themselves.

st francis

 So how did the Puritans—and our founding fathers—get it so wrong? What made them believe that being rich and powerful was a sign that they were truly better than others? Well first of all, they came from a country steeped in the mystique of the aristocracy. Even though they came here to found a new nation that would denounce the way of life they left behind (yes, our forefathers were rebels and immigrants!) there were some ideas deeply rooted in their zeitgeist, to which they still clung.

Reinforcing the belief that wealth and power signified a better race of human beings was the Calvinistic belief in predestination. Actually, the concept of predestination was not the problem. The problem entered AFTER these people were taught to believe that there was a heaven and a hell, and that God knew and had always known who was destined for each place–and the outcome could not be changed. The problem came to life because these folks needed to believe that they were among the chosen. After all that they had sacrificed, and all the difficulties they encountered in the new world, they needed to believe that there would be some post-death reward to make it worthwhile.

So, the Puritans were smart and lived well. They worked hard, saved for the future, and circulated their money in the community.   They prospered accordingly (see Max Weber’s Puritan Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism for a classic sociological analysis of this phenomenon). And when they prospered they chose to believe, lacking evidence to the contrary, that they were among the Chosen. They prospered, therefore they believed that they were special, and that God was showing them that they were predestined for eternal life in His heaven.

This need to connect prosperity with God’s blessing returns again and again in our history. A few years ago the “prosperity gospel” gained in popularity with the promise that God would prosper those who followed Him according to the tenets of that particular line of interpretation. Followers of this belief system may still exist, but they are much quieter now. Louder are the voices of those who were disappointed by the lack of evidence that the purpose of Christian living is to gain wealth.

I believe that right now we are experiencing a far more malignant resurgence of the myth that the wealthy are superior beings, blessed by God (in those cases where they claim a belief in any God but money). Their belief not only justifies to them the dehumanization of the vast majority of the world who are not wealthy, but also the hoarding of wealth. Many of the latter—exemplified by the pre-Christmas Scrooge of Dickens fame—care for nothing more than wealth and power. scroogeLike Scrooge, they are quite literally insane with this addiction, justified by an ancient myth that has been repeatedly denounced by philosophers, poets, theologians and followers of holy writ from every religion. In their insanity, these believe they are doing the “right thing” to destroy all that has been good about our nation.

As it happens, I have met very few people of wealth and power who also were people of integrity. Some who began public service with honorable intentions to change the system from the inside soon succumbed to the seductive nature of wealth and power. But not all of them. There are a few truly fine people who hold positions of power, and who manage despite everything to remember the nature of wholesomeness, trust, and accountability.

Accountability is vitally important. I must be accountable to others if I am to be an ethical person. Moreover, alone I cannot effect  positive societal change. I can speak out, and I can join others who recognize our need to be free of the idea that our nation should be returned to a time when people believed that a few wealthy persons were of a superior race. But, unlike those of the present, the Puritans of our past usually knew that if you would prosper, you had to build up the people around you as well. The necessary recirculation of wealth and resources made communities stronger. They were accountable. There was no such lie as “trickle-down” economics.

The past is done. Today the idea of strength in numbers can still be applied: Together, we can reclaim the excellence in education, health, and industry that once made us strong. It is a new day, a new time, and the ways and means of doing this have changed. But the values that built our nation have not. Those values are timeless.people-holding-hands-th

How many times are we going to have to renounce the mythology that the rich are superior beings, blessed by God and destined for a heaven populated only by their “own kind?” Probably again, and again, and in ever more determined and righteous ways. Of course, those who actually believe that ethical rules or the holy writings of many religions are just nonsense will laugh at all this, and return to the pleasures that help to salve the perceived injury they suffer from constantly being challenged by the resilient presence of those they would choose to ignore, to dehumanize and disenfranchise. But we who do not buy into any belief in “superiority” simply by virtue of wealth are not going away. The scriptures attest to that, as well.   And we are many.

 

People are hungry for God.

People are hungry for love. Are you aware of that?

Do you know that? Do you see that?

Do you have eyes to see?

Quite often we look but we don’t see.

We are all passing through this world.

We need to open our eyes and see.

 

Mother Teresa