Monday, June 27, 2005

Ubi Caritas Et Amor - Or Lack Thereof

Run for the hills, because Karen is going to talk about religion again.

I always get nervous about entries like this one. Some so-called Christians will probably be angry, if they ever read this; and non-Christians who come across the similar entry on my personal blog will probably skip it. I may even get a hateful comment or two--it wouldn't be the first time. Still, I'd prefer that you stick around. It may not be quite the sermon you expect.

I had lunch yesterday with a friend I've known for fifteen years. This friend has numerous problems--multiple physical and mental illnesses, family and money problems. She also happens to be Wiccan.

Now, I'm not a big fan of Wicca, especially as practiced by 21st century Americans. In my extremely limited experience, it seemed silly and fake, more like a self-conscious fantasy role playing game and snubbing of the prevailing culture than a deeply held set of beliefs. I could be totally wrong here, and probably am, but the only Wiccan ceremony I ever witnessed left me with that impression.

Still, D/S believes in it, probably more deeply than I would be inclined to credit from my one brief encounter with the religion. She does absolutely no harm thereby: does not curse or sacrifice or worship the devil, or partake in any other evil practices of which witches have been falsely accused over the centuries. Wiccan, as I understand it, is predicated on a respect for life, human and otherwise. She commits no crimes or atrocities, and is therefore entitled to her consitutional right to freedom of religion. It is appropriate, perhaps, to briefly express gentle disagreement with her, but she should not be subjected to discriminatory treatment, harrassment, hatred, or neglect because of her beliefs.

Nevertheless, as she moves through the patchwork system of government social services and government-sponsored health and rehab programs, my friend frequently encounters all of the above. She is labeled a troublemaker and treated with hostility by people in authority, or expected to change her ways if she wants to be helped. "They wanted me to move to a facility that has three hours of Bible study every night," she told me. A former Christian, my friend is already familiar with the Bible, but that's not the point. The implication is that she would receive nightly pressure to recant and change her mind about religion, as a condition for receiving government-sponsored treatment. Sorry, but that's just plain wrong, on several counts. It's unconstitutional, it's unfair, and it's unChristian.

Equally wrong is the treatment she gets from her pain doctor--or rather, lack of treatment. Having seen a "Goddess Bless" sticker on my friend's mobility scooter, the doctor immediately expressed his disapproval. My friend has since been told by the doctor's staff that she never will be allowed to see him again, and will only deal with the nurse practitioner instead. Aside from the insult, and possible violation of the Hippocratic oath, the treatment itself is inadequate. My friend's pain medication was changed to a famously addictive drug that's "as cheap as dirt," as a result of which she recently spent time in the hospital with withdrawal symptoms.

Not right. Not fair. Not Christian.

I just posted Father Smith's sermon from earlier today on the St. Michael's sermons page. Two brief quotes are appropriate here:

Doesn't that look welcoming?In this age it is not enough to throw biblical statements to the outsider. For God’s words remain empty until they are lived. But when the word is demonstrated in our lives, relationships, lifestyles and loves, it becomes "alive and active," manifesting the living Christ in the world so that the unbelievers or the enemy themselves are forced to ask: where do those Christians get this love and this peace?

But it's never an easy peace. Jesus goes on to say to His disciples, "I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter in law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household." In Jesus’ time, Semitic peoples had a striking way of expressing the love they felt for different people. Instead of saying, "I love you more than I love him," they would say, "I love you and hate him." This was their way of expressing preference in relationships, and did not mean the second person was hated. So when Jesus said these words it was not meant that we should hate our families but, that our love for Him should come as a priority. Some of you live this reality: a family member doesn't believe in Jesus, but you love them and would do anything for them, but your belief in Jesus Christ and knowing Him as Lord and Savior is a priority. You still love them and help them, but you won't follow their beliefs.

This sermon follows on a recent Gospel reading at St. Michael's, in which Jesus eats with tax collectors, 1st century pariahs who were considered sinners and collaborators. In a choice between the self-righteous or the sinners, the rich and powerful or the humble laborers, Jesus always chose to hang out with the lowly ones: the pariahs, the fishermen, the tax collectors and the lepers.

My friend is as close to being a metaphorical leper as you'll find in the modern world. She has no husband, no money, and lots of illnesses. Her own son seldom consents to see her, although he lives nearby. She is terribly lonely. My friend is fat because of her disabilities, and a vegetarian in a McDonald's world. She wants to work, but even self-employment seems to be beyond her at this point. She furnishes her small apartment mostly out of dumpsters. To top it off, she's an adherent to a minority religion that is little tolerated and less understood. And yet she is intelligent and generous and kind, with a keen sense of justice.

So how would Jesus treat a woman like that? Certainly not with disdain and hostility and neglect! He would bring her love and peace and healing. This is what we should also try to do.

But contrast this with the text of a banner I saw last night on a website that a Jewish friend of mine considered absurd enough to be funny. The web page was primarily about Noah's sons riding dinosaurs. Frankly, I was too angered by the page's header to be amused by the pseudoscience:


I totally missed the fact that the page was satirical, no more in earnest than The Onion. The words on this banner are more blatant than most of what one sees from the religious right, but I found it all too plausible. Churches all over the country struggle with issues of tolerance, and all too many come down on the side of exclusion. I'm thinking particularly of the gay issue here, but it also extends to the denial of communion to politicians who don't want to pass secular laws to enforce church doctrine. Admittedly, there's a serious issue of morality involved here, but it seems short-sighted to place that single issue above all others, especially since reasonable people disagree on the subject. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, birth control or abortion, but that's all some people seem to care about, not the "love your enemies" stuff that Jesus did talk about.

Some groups of Christians routinely declare that other Christians aren't really Christian at all, because they don't pass some sectarian litmus test. Come to think of it, I suppose I'm doing that myself here. It's not that I think that the most homophobic, intolerant Christian conservatives don't believe in Christ. It's just that they have a twisted way of showing it, informed more by Us and Them mentality than by the Beatitudes.

It galls and astonishes me that after all these centuries and all we've learned, after crusades and pograms, burnings and persecutions and an Inquisition, people still use Jesus to promote hatred and discrimination instead of love and peace. My friend will never be inspired to return to a religion that's supposedly about love and peace, when its practitioners primarily exhibit the opposite qualities in dealing with her.

Welcome - even if you don't conform.Reminds me of the Whos of WhovilleFather Smith's sermon today pointed to a much better approach, and St. Michael's sets a much better example. This church and its parishioners feed the homeless, help the sick, and welcome refugees and the marginalized. Despite the current strife over the gay clergy issue, the graphics provided by the Episcopal Church USA send a better message than those who hate others in the name of Jesus. They tell us we are welcome. We are here for each other. We are one.

When religion and hatred and intolerance go hand in hand, neither God nor humankind benefits thereby. Instead there is evil and malice. This is true whether the religion in question is Islam, some form of Christianity, or anything else.

If, on the other hand, a person practices peace and love and tolerance, helps others and does not judge them harshly, that person is following Jesus's example. This is true whether the person believes in Jesus or not. These principles are universal ones, taught by many religions as well as secular ethicists. The Ten Commandments are not a Christian invention, although certain presentations of them may be. Even the numbering of them varies by denomination. But the basic principles of honesty, kindness, and fairness are acknowledged the world over in one form or another.

Myself, I'd rather eat lunch with a kindhearted Wiccan, or Jew, or atheist, than someone who claims to love Christ and yet treats non-Christians (or gays, or any other category of "Them") with hostility and disdain.

And so, I think, would Jesus.


Ubi caritas et amor, ibi Deus est. - "Where charity and love are, there is God."