“Religion” in the News

Religion is in the news again.
Well, considering the nature of “the news” this is not a good sign. It shows the growing dysfunctionality of our society, and this is something to worry about.

First of all, there is all this hysteria being drummed up by certain conservatives and Republicans and other folks about the so-called mosque at Ground Zero. Sadly enough even some decent Democrats have succumbed to that bombardment and have proposed that it would be “wiser” to move it elsewhere. What is really frustrating is that the facts of the case are seldom articulated. First, the “mosque” is not a mosque but a community center built by American Moslems that would be open to all people–called Park 51. It does have a room for Moslem people to pray in–afterall they are called to prayer 5 times a day–something like Christian monks. Secondly, this building is not on Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center but 2 to 3 blocks away. Within a 3 block radius of Ground Zero there are a porn shop, a gay bar, and 2 strip clubs–seems like no one thought these were any kind of desecration to Ground Zero. By the way, the majority of the residents of the area approved of the project. Furthermore, there is a Moslem Prayer Room right within the Pentagon, and it got hit by one of those planes.

Let us take a closer look at the problem. How very strange to conflate pious Moslems with these crazy radical extremists who distorted the Koran and their own faith in undertaking their horrible deeds. One suspects there must be some underlying motive in fanning hatred for Islam among the American people. Considering how many people there are of this faith and how many countries there are where this faith is dominant, one suspects that a potential exists for many wars and conflicts if this hatred is fanned and exacerbated–much, much money can be made by certain people and certain enterprises with countless conflicts and wars or threats of wars. One can’t help but suspect that….. In any case, the results of all this hateful fear mongering are scary in themselves. Just a few days ago some pastor in Gainesville, Florida decided to have a “burn a Koran Day.” Fortunately 16 other pastors in that same town in response will read from the Koran in their prayer services. This is just an example. There are so many poorly educated, ill-informed, irrational, fearful, anxiety-ridden people in our society that it doesn’t take much to cause trouble. And it doesn’t help if our leaders, including the President, simply say that these people “have a right” to build their center–no these leaders should be brothers and sisters whose piety and goodness adds to the greatness of America. But American politicians are afraid of really associating with people of Islamic faith–unless it is for their oil. By the way, it is funny and strange how one “criticism” of President Obama is that he is secretly a Moslem! As if being a Moslem were some bad thing.

A few more thoughts: So there is a Moslem prayer room in the Pentagon itself. American Moslems work in the Pentagon. American Moslems worked in the World Trade Center and were killed also. American Moslems were among the first responders–firemen and policemen. Some died as they bravely were trying to rescue non-Moslems. Moslem dead hallow that ground also. It is such an outrage to demonize Islam or any one religion. All the religions have their problem people and their problem moments, and one needs to sort through all of that. Just think of Christianity, for example. During World War I both sides were very clearly self-identified as “Christian.” Heck, on Christmas Eve both sides would stop shooting at each other and sing “Silent Night, Holy Night”! How strange! Yet nobody here in the U.S. complained about the Christian churches because there were Christians shooting at Americans over there. Actually what they did do is focus on people of German extraction, and these did have a problem. Consider that those irrational young men who identified themselves with a distorted Islam and who did that horrible deed were mostly from Saudi Arabia and our government to this day is on the best of terms with the Saudis(oh, how we need their oil!), well, we see how religion has really very little to do with all this except in a very distorted way. But Americans seem to really need an enemy, someone to demonize, someone to hate, someone to consider themselves superior to–the list of such targets is long. Recently, once Russian communism was out of the picture, Islam became a convenient target. And so the story goes. How few Americans there are who recognize the beauty and depth and power of Islam in human hearts totally turned toward God.

A Postscript to the Above:

This is from a blog by Roger Ebert:

“I find hope in the words of two American strippers interviewed by the Wall Street Journal. Cassandra, who works at New York Dolls, just around the corner from the proposed community center, said she worried that calls to prayer might wake up the neighbors. The WSJ writes: ‘But when she was told that the organizers aren’t planning loudspeakers, she said she didn’t have a problem with the project: ‘I don’t know what the big deal is. It’s freedom of religion, you know?’

“Chris works in the Pussycat Lounge, even closer to the site. When the airplanes struck the World Trade Center, Chris became a Red Cross volunteer working with survivors. The WSJ writes she “sat on a barstool in a tiny, shiny red dress and defended Park51. ‘They’re not building a mosque in the World Trade Center. It’s all good. You have your synagogues and your churches. And you have a mosque.’ Chris lost eight of her friends on Sept. 11, 2001, firefighters from the Brooklyn firehouse she lived next to at the time, but ‘the people who did it are not going to the mosque.’

“Cassandra and Chris reflect American values more instinctively and correctly on this issue, let it be said, than Sarah Palin, Howard Dean, Newt Gingrich, Harry Reid and Rudy Giuliani, who should know better.” – Roger Ebert

Now another very unfortunate example is a recent article from the New York Times–dated August 21, “Sex Scandal Has American Buddhists Looking Within.” In a posting some time ago this blog pondered the scandals surrounding the San Francisco Zen Center–a very sad state of affairs stretching almost 2 decades. This is another example along the same lines. It has to do with the revelation of the papers of Robert Aitken, a very well-known figure in American Zen Buddhism. Apparently the roshi he was associated with engaged in numerous sexual exploitations of his women students, and Aitken kept meticulous notes on this which were kept secretly by him–all the details, names, places and dates–and now the papers have been made public upon Aitken’s recent death. Another serious blow to American Buddhism. No Catholic is in any position to “throw stones” at these people considering the history of Catholic priests, recent and otherwise! However, there is a peculiar quality to these Buddhist situations that needs to be looked at.

One wonders why Aitken never stood up and protested while he was a student of this roshi–perhaps it was because he himself wanted to be a recognized master and this required a “transmission” from this roshi. Just speculating. It could be simply that there was this awesome reverence for the roshi and one hardly dare speak against him. The teacher – disciple relationship was/is sacrosanct. It seems that this might be the center of this problem. Whether in Christianity or Buddhism or anywhere else, it seems that this role of roshi, guru, master, teacher, spiritual father is very problematic–especially for us moderns. It imbues one party with enormous power over the life of another who willingly enters into that relationship surrendering their autonomy for a so-called higher good. An idealized view of some special figures in the tradition, who may or may not have been as portrayed, who nevertheless were rare, this becomes a kind of cloak that too many put on. The enticements and seductions of this kind of authority are enormous–a very, very rare few can exercise such authority with anything approaching authenticity. Yet there are literally thousands of people who present themselves as spiritual teachers, gurus, masters, spiritual fathers, etc. When I was a student years ago in Berkeley, I remember seeing often a bumper sticker: Question All Authority. Loved it. The emphasis should be on “ALL.” Not just political and social, but religious too, and especially spiritual, yes, spiritual. Too many people accept “spiritual authority” as if that were beyond questioning. No such thing. In fact, considering all the problems all religious traditions have been having, it would be a good idea to have a moratorium on having roshis, masters, gurus, teachers, spiritual fathers, etc. Drop all the titles, distinctions, specialness, etc. at least for a generation or two and see how that goes. We will be better off simply learning from one another. And to have a coherent community we might elect someone as “leader” for a time who would keep things focused and coherently working but then would step down and another person would be elected and so on. And what if the pope lived in a simple house and simply visited every church as a simple pilgrim and prayed with everyone that they truly follow the Gospel…. But now I am dreaming….

There are many Desert Father stories pertinent to the above topic, but let us conclude by simply referring to Jesus in the Gospel. On Holy Thurday, in the Gospel of John, he showed what a real “spiritual teacher” is. And he warned the people around him about wanting to be “masters” and “leaders”–they should take “the last place”–not one of distinction—not exercising power in the way of the world, etc. Jesus is actually a deconstruction of that kind of spiritual authority that exploits and uses people–no matter in what tradition it is found

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