Who Are We to Be?

I confess that, watching the political discourse over the last few years I have become increasingly discouraged. I have watched American politics, not as an obsession but as a citizen interested in public discourse, since the late Johnson administration. To my more smart assed younger friends, I should specify that I mean the Lyndon, and not the Andrew Johnson administration. What I have noticed, at every level and in every party, is a loss of any sense of value or integrity. People just seem to feel fine about dishing bald faced lies to the American public if doing so advances their cause, career, or (more likely) lines their pockets.

If we are honest, these are the kind of people we wouldn’t want to invite into our homes for dinner for fear they would steal the silverware. Like a drug addicted child, we would have to exert so much energy monitoring their behavior while they were visiting that we couldn’t possibly enjoy the visit. If we are honest, we don’t have to stretch our imagination too much to imagine a current politician or one of their employees searching through our bank records while ostensibly on a trip to the bathroom.

As someone who has spent the vast majority of his adult like studying and working in the fields of spirituality, religion, and psychology, it is clear to me that a significant segment of our population has come worship power and money above all else. Values such as integrity, truth, loyalty, and dependability take a back seat in these belief systems. Perhaps even more telling is the truth that the worship of power and money arise in a person who is profoundly fearful and lacks a way to understand and process that fear. They become a starving man in front of a tray of food, who takes it and eats it without regard because he knows he must do so to survive – except that most of these people have more than enough to survive. Their starvation is a starvation of soul, and the result is an ego run amok. The result of their strategy is a life chasing something they will never catch.

I don’t care if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Moslem, or a follower of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You might be a Jungian, a Freudian, or a follower of Fritz Perls. Maybe Elkhart Tolle helps you make sense of your world, and Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday makes all right in your world. Whatever it is, the human psyche needs a way to make sense of its world and to find in it something bigger than itself. It doesn’t need to be complicated. The Dalai Lama reminds us the his religion is kindness. Each of us must find a way to care about something other than ourselves at least some of the time. If we can’t do that, we are likely to find ourselves trying to lie, cheat, and steal our way to happiness – and pondering a run for political office.

What We Are Missing

It seems to me that we have lost sight of a basic ethical principal. I would state that principal as follows: An action is right or wrong independent of the impact of that actionBurning-House on me. Stated another, perhaps less gentle, way no one of us is the center of the ethical universe. Indulge me as I offer some examples.

If it is wrong to set fire to my neighbor’s house, it is wrong even if he offers to share the insurance money with me. My personal profit is irrelevant in making decisions about right or wrong. Similarly, telling someone at the bar that I am personal friends with Brad Pitt is wrong (unless of course I am), even if telling them that makes it far more likely they might go home with me. It’s wrong to lie, even if it means I stand a better chance of getting laid. This is the same principal at work as in setting fire to my neighbor’s house: My personal profit is irrelevant. Taking this to the employment environment, it’s wrong to lie on my resume or CV even if I think doing so offers a better chance of me getting hired. Again, same principal.

I am afraid that we have come to conflate and confuse several related topics. We have decided that lying by a politician isn’t lying, it’s just “playing politics.” As Shakespeare said, “A rose (or in this case a turd) by any other name is still a rose (turd).” There is nothing about our goal in lying to people that makes lying a moral virtue or even morally neutral. Politics and integrity should walk together, not be opposed to one another. When that’s not the case, the result wide ends snlis what we have today in both parties: a highly corrupt system.

The idea that the ends justify the means may have valid applications, but we have pushed it too far and find ourselves left with, in practice, a system in which some believe that if the ends are of value then any means to achieve them are valid. That is absurd. If my wife asks me if a particular dress makes her ass look big and I want to stay married, a nuanced my answer may be justified. If I can make more money by lying about the environmental impact my actions will have, an impact that endangers countless lives, no level of nuance is acceptable. Nuance is okay if it saves marriages and avoids being needlessly cruel, but it’s not okay if someone becomes sick or dies. That should be as plain as the nose on our faces, but we’ve lost sight of it. We desperately need to correct our vision!

Much ado about nothing

The truth is that the divisions we create between Spiritual and political perspectives are most often a way to pump up our own egos and little more. We imagine there is some qualitative difference between a Buddhist and a Christian and theologians on both sides make a very tidy living perpetuating that misperception, but mystics on both sides agree that our commonalities far outnumber our differences. The same could be easily said of republicans and democrats.

If we look closely we will see that underneath every assertion that I am right and you are wrong lies the unspoken belief that I am better than you. That [erroneous] belief is the product of an insecure mind driven by an out of control ego. In truth we are not better and worse, just diverse, and that is really quite lovely – hardly something we should be trying to eliminate!

From what do you hide?

I happened to be out in the country the other day, about forty minutes west of downtown Milwaukee. It’s beautiful out there in what’s known as the Kettle Moraine part of Wisconsin. It is here that the glaciers did some of their most beautiful work during the ice age, and the countryside rolls in a way that would make you forget you were in the Midwest. It’s the part of southeastern Wisconsin where people own horses and their yards almost look as if they are part of a pine forest. Some of the homes are modest, some far from it, and one in particular was a festival of excess larger than a small office building.

I started to reflect on who might need that much space. I wondered if the escape into such space might be an attempt to isolate themselves from a world they is afraid of, yet from which they extract a rather exorbitant living. Then I happened to stopped at a home with a rather large American flag, under which flew an equally large Trump 2020 flag, making America great again by flying in a yard so protected by tall pine trees that nobody could possibly see it, an insulation against the intrusion of a far less idyllic but far more real world that contains a diversity the home’s owner simply cannot tolerate. MAGA is a prison of its adherents’ own construction, and with it comes only the illusion of freedom. An ironic prison is still a prison.

It is easier to understand moats and draw bridges when you see homes like this – homes with slightly more subtle but no less real barriers to intrusion by those perceived to be the enemy. The acquisition of material goods has not brought happiness but rather fear that someone will come along and take those goods. The god of materialism then compels the construction of a fortress to protect the goods, which itself requires even more materialism to pay for the protection,resulting in more anxiety for fear the protection will fail. When will the condom of materialism burst, and rather than semen mad hordes who want our stuff will come rushing in? This is the picture of the contemporary American dream, a dream that if someone is not careful leads to early departure at their own hand.

Morality is not a Popularity Contest

I have noticed that, quite often, when an organization determines that a certain course of action is the right course of action their next step is to enter into a long process to determine how to best implement that course of action. What they really seem to be doing is determining how to implement their decision in the way that will create the least amount of public relations damage possible. While I agree with the old adage that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, there are some problems that require action sooner rather than later. If your house catches fire, you want the fire department to arrive as soon as they can rather than wait until they determine the route that will offend the fewest people with their sirens and horns. The humanitarian crisis at our borders is a house on fire, but the issue is being referred to committees at a frantic pace.

second-guessingI understand that everybody wants to afford everybody else the illusion of empowerment (God help us all), but in some situations the reason we have placed leaders in  position is to take action while some well meaning soul forms committees in hopes that nobody gets offended. We have so battered many of our leaders that they are afraid to take action because they don’t want to weather the second guesses of their constituents, and so they fail to take action when required. We have a lot of damage to repair!

We might start that repair by learning to trust our gut. I believe there are many ways in which we communicate with one another that we can’t see or measure, but they exist nevertheless. Whether we call it intuition, a hunch, or trusting our gut, we respond to that information that is subtly communicated. How many times have each of us ignored our hunches only to later discover we should have listened to them? Sometimes we just need to take action. If we lose our position for doing the right thing, or the best thing we could, we need to ask ourselves if we would have wanted to remain in a place that confuses popularity with right action. I hope not.

Thoughts on the Weekend

Who is to blame?
Shooters keep killing
Moscow Mitch keeps on ducking
Problem will remain unchanged

The Lie
Guns don't make a man
Violence is always wrong
Real men suffer with

The Truth
Feel less than manly?
The problem is not outside
You must look within

Honesty is Such a Lonely Word

Billy Joel was right, not only about love but also about spiritual and religious circles – though he may not have had that in mind when he wrote his song.

There is a practice that I have seen both in Newage* circles and in Evangelical circles of 220px-Honesty_singleblatant dishonesty about the ideas and even the integrity of other teachers and preachers. If you run in the motivational speaker/Chicken Soup book circles, the odds are you do nothing but heap praise on others in those circles. According to these folks, everyone is wonderful at everything they do. Indeed, some of them are. Others mostly push content that is rather vacuous, largely rehashed and diluted ideas from long ago. The problem is that when everyone says everything is wonderful, people tend to believe them and go out an spend their hard earned money on books and conferences that are largely newage.

In Evangelical circles, particularly the Jim Bakker/Jimmy Swaggert circles, the same sort of things happen on a regular basis. I have seen it for myself. Almost every one of these high profile organizations gets hit with a scandal sooner or later, and they run to each other’s defense – especially if the person currently in the fire stood behind others when they were in the fire. I have witnessed these discussions. The problem here is even worse than it is in newage circles, because quite often what is being covered up and dismissed is serious misconduct that is abusive toward those the offender is supposed to be serving. If you think that only the large denominations traffic in cover ups, you are fooling yourself.

What we need in all corners of our world is a lot more honesty, no matter what the consequences may be. This may cause some sort term discomfort, but it will protect people from getting hurt by the unqualified and disqualified charlatans posing as authentic teachers and leaders. Imagine what might happen if we went so far as to require honesty from politicians!

 

*I borrow the term “Newage,” which rhymes with “sewage,” from Lama Surya Das to distinguish between solid and dubious New Age teaching.

No More Crusades

As I wrote the title of this post, it occurred to me that the word “crusade” has three uses in contemporary spiritual culture, and so my title might lead to some confusion. I’m not beyond using a little confusion to attract readers, so rather than change it I thought I might explain it.

black knightThe historical sense of “crusade” hearkens back to medieval times and the unfortunate wars undertaken by the Church in an attempt to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslin powers that held it. While there were a few jewels in the rough during these times, from a contemporary perspective they were horrific, genocidal undertakings by a Church more concerned with temporal power that spiritual concerns. These are not the crusades to which I refer.

Then there are crusades of the type that Billy Graham and others undertook. While thereCrusade-Cities-Featured isn’t anything wrong with this sort of crusade (if you’re into that sort of thing), I never have and never will set out on one.

The crusades to which I refer are the ones to right what’s wrong, to challenge the status quo, to get the [metaphorical] troops fired up to do [metaphorical] battle in the great arena of social justice. Mind you, I still believe in these crusades and I will still occasionally write about these topics, but not with the zeal of a younger man who perhaps foolishly believes he can change the world. These past few years have taught me that the world may well be fucked up beyond my ability to help it recover in an activist sort of way.

Many years ago when I worked as a field service engineer on diagnostic ultrasound equipment, a very insightful man named Dick Cline summed up the difference between sales and service people in this way. He said that when a sales person hears, “no,” they get excited and see it as a challenge. When a service person hears, “no,” they pack up their stuff and leave. As he spoke those words, I knew that I was a service person. I don’t like wasting a lot of time trying to convince people to do the right thing. I will happily identify the right thing, explain why it’s the right thing, and offer suggestions about how best to implement it. If you want to argue with me about why the wrong thing is the right thing, I’m just going to pack up my stuff and go home. There are other people who will be more than happy to fight the good fight, and I will leave it to them.

angry (1)Why? There are two reasons I feel this way. The first is that crusades simply don’t work in a country already profoundly divided and profoundly angry. The result is that campaigns and crusades end up preaching to the choir, reinforcing the views of those who already agree with the crusade but causing those with differing views to simply become more entrenched. The second is that, from a spiritual perspective, I feel our time is much better spent by trying to rebuild fractured relationships and thereby start a much needed healing process. That will in turn provide the foundation for the change that is needed. Of course, you can feel free to disagree – just don’t expect me to debate it with you.

Faith, or Politics?

The time has come – in fact, it probably came long ago – when no person of any faith whatsoever can support the current President of the United States. I say that because this President has repeatedly said and done things that are contrary to the teachings of every legitimate faith tradition. What follows is not an exhaustive list, but rather a sufficient list, of his speech and action that forces every person of faith to make a choice between their faith and the President:

  • Repeated misogynistic actions and speech, including confession on tape of (at least) fourth degree sexual assault.
  • Repeated racist speech and actions against virtually every ethnic group and Trumpincluding members of Congress and his predecessor, President Obama.
  • Holding rallies at which he has incited violence against political opponents including (but not limited to) Hillary Clinton, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
  • Violating long-standing ethical standards by refusing to divest of his business holdings in such a way that he derives no profit from being President of the United States. Most flagrant are his repeated trips at taxpayer expense to a golf resort he owns.
  • Separating children from their families in detainment centers, and also holding those children for longer than 72 hours in direct violation of United States Law.
  • Denying those detained at the border due process and their right to legal representation – again, including children.

There are many more problems I could list, but the above are more than sufficient. What’s more, the President has transformed the Office of his Press Secretary and others into Propaganda Offices that no longer serve their intended function. Much like those offices, supporters of the President do not engage in discussions but rather parrot the same lies his propaganda officials spout. The time for talking is past, because the President and his supporters have repeatedly shown that talking is ineffective. We must now move to concentrated, non-violent resistance to this man and his actions. Failing that, we must confess that we really aren’t people of faith at all, but rather political hacks interested primarily in getting ahead at the expense of others. Where will you stand?

Stop Saying, “This Is Not Who We Are.”

America please, seriously, stop saying, “This is not who we are.” That statement is trump_baby_blimp_getty_0categorically false. This is precisely who we are: a country that has elected a serial sex offender; a small minded, profoundly mentally ill, petty dictator President of the United States. We have filled Congress and the Courts with people who think this is a great idea; we have a malignant, obstructionist, pathological liar leading the Senate; and a woman who should be posing for advertisements for the local assisted living center leading the House of Representatives. A significant number of people running for President in the Democratic Party are or soon will be wearing adult diapers, making that job the only one we feel our elders are fit to do because we sure aren’t hiring them in the private sector to mentor young people.

WE THE PEOPLE created this mess, WE THE PEOPLE are responsible for it, and this certainly is precisely who we are. Before you start shouting that Hillary won the popular vote, I would remind you of four things. (1) Most Americans didn’t vote. (2) She won by less than one percent of our population, a stridently unimpressive margin. (3) We allowed the DNC to torpedo the campaign of Bernie Sanders so that someone who was, at best, a second choice power broker could lose the Presidency. (4) WE THE PEOPLE created the system that allows the person who lost the popular vote to inhabit the White House and WE THE PEOPLE are either unwilling or unable to change that system. So, yes, this is precisely who we are.

September 29, 2015All of the ugliness, the confederate flags, the children in concentration camps, imperialistic foreign policy around the globe, all of the misogyny, even Alyssa Milano trying to resurrect her flagging career by hoping that we will forget that actors can cry at the drop of a hat – it is precisely who we are. Denying it isn’t going to help because denying reality never helps. Protesting it isn’t going to help, because protesting simply burns off the energy that might be used to effect change.

As Thomas Merton pointed out when he wrote  …for, you see, when “I” enter into a dialogue with “you” and each of us knows who is speaking, it turns out that we are both Christ… the only way to change this is to enter into dialogue with our neighbors. That dialogue need not be about things of any substance, because what is needed is relationship. You can’t build relationship by entering into it with a political agenda, you build it by entering with no agenda beyond getting to know your neighbor. It takes time, it’s messy, and we are not always successful – but it is the only way to build relationships, decrease suspicion and mistrust, and begin to see one another as human beings rather than political pawns.

Many of us subscribe to the religion of politics, and it is an idol just as surely as golden calves are idols. Politics is a human construct and as such has only the power we give it. Relationships, on the other hand, are the point of human existence. We need to develop these relationships not only with those who are our physical neighbors and therefore are mule1probably very similar to us, but most especially with those who live across town and whom we perceive to be different from us – because they are not, and we need to overcome that mistaken belief. Most of all we must come to see that, as Thomas Merton pointed out in No Man is an Island, “…truth never becomes clear as long as we assume that each one of us, individually, is the center of the universe.” We need to get off of our asses, and start building relationships.