Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Losing Winter's Order

Winter is my favorite season, but as I chipped at the ice of the last freezing rain/ice storm/blizzard of February, even I thought, “Enough is enough.” So for once I sympathized with those burdened by snow and cold. Recently, I heard such a person say she really disliked the loss of familiar markers and paths.

It had never before crossed my mind that this might be painful, because I’m delighted each year when square city lines disappear under amorphous snow piles.

In winter the choices of ordinary folks, and earth processes, swamp the plans of civic engineers. Sidewalks become sinuous channels narrowing and widening erratically. Getting to them means crossing diminutive mountain passes on twisty, one-foot-wide tracks – between parking meters buried up to their necks. Trails meander idiosyncratically over any large, flat space - a park, an unplowed walkway. The first to cross walked as they wanted and everyone else followed – previous footsteps offering some protection against sinking in deep.

My way home from high school crossed recent landfill. Wandering a snaking path across the snow, I imagined several miles thickness of ice below my feet, and that my destination was a handful of huddled yurts lost in a wintry waste as vast as space.

But I was raised by a woman who more than fulfilled her teenage goal of traveling the world. Holding back in fear of the unknown was not allowed to her children, and she never indulged our desire for familiar toys, clothes, food, homes, schools, friends or household routine. Not only did I follow my mother by traveling, even my scientific work explored trackless wilderness.

It takes a certain comfort with pathlessness to shuck the security of worldly success – job, house and social connections – for a monastery, especially when your family culture contains no such concept. Certainly, among those Catholic sisters I often felt as if I were in a country more foreign than any I’d lived in as a child. It was my mother's training that made it possible.

Of course, despite near-record snow piles, this winter has really been nothing compared to pre-global warming decades. We barely dipped below 0º F. In those years, we had several weeks of minus 40º. Then, our last blizzard was in mid-April - invariably canceling my youngest brother’s April 9th birthday party.

We may yet have another blizzard, but winter has lost its grip. During a handful of 40º days, rushing water filled the gutters as the snow mountains beat a retreat, baring strips of muddy grass buried months ago. On mornings moist with spring, mist hovered over the snow fields - thawed and refrozen into course granules. Like little glaciers, the melting snow gave up all it once carried in suspension: pebbles, branches, trash, city grit. Concentrated on a diminishing surface, debris turns the old piles a rough, dull black, and where their mountainous edges once pushed back the street, only minute moraines of rubbish are left.

All the winter-haters are lifting their heads to sniff the air, and planning gardens. Total strangers grin and greet each other with glad cries, excitedly chattering over winter’s end.

I try hard to smile back, but already I sorely miss the sharp clarity of ice cold.

And I hate to see the return of square-edged, human-made order. As the markers with which we claim the earth shake free of snow, we can once again imagine we own this place. But we don’t. Each winter we are offered a chance to see how a little nature undoes all we build, yet leaves us perfectly capable of surviving – if we bend our needs to the weather’s necessity.

The Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí said, “Straight lines belong to men, but curves belong to God.” We expend huge amounts of energy to maintain our little, spider web of straight-line roads across the globe, but all the while messy, exuberant, creative earth, and God, are the real bosses.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Practical Theology of Nonresistance

In “Prophetic nonviolence: Toward a Unitarian Universalist theology of war and peace," Paul Rasor notes that belief in nonviolence is theologically grounded. Proponents are convinced intuitively in the heart, not through rational argument.

This world view often results from direct, spiritual experience. I had just such a religious conversion. That's why I know I must learn to replace violence with radical nonresistance in all my dealings.

But even if arising intuitively from spiritual understanding, there are practical arguments to be made for radical nonresistance. For example, a cursory glance at history suggests that when violence is used to right social wrongs, it generally results in the exact kind of suffering it was meant to alleviate. The names of the characters change (e.g., who is oppressed and who has power), but the plot remains the same.

If violence is not an efficacious means of social progress, why not try something different - like nonresistance? It can’t work any worse.

There is also a “natural law” that observes: as energy meets resistance, it grows stronger. So, if you resist evil, you are strengthening evil (even if you alleviate some effects in the near-term). If you want evil to melt away, you stand up in the face of it, yes. You name it, yes. But you stand without resistance, and name without rancor - in complete, open, compassionate vulnerability.


Do I act with that kind of radical nonresistance? Especially where it really counts, i.e., in daily responses to family members when my buttons have been pushed? Well…


But I intend to & I practice, and that is a start. I’ve noticed that when I do manage to meet upset with compassion, not only am I less agitated, but so are others.

I imagine myself like a drop of water tossed in the middle of a crashing, storming sea, and desperate for calm. Which would bring more overall peace: whacking at the waves while screaming, “Calm down, dammit, just calm down!” or calming myself? If even one drop calms down, the whole sea is more peaceful.

HOWEVER: Although radical nonresistance is my personal belief, I wouldn’t want UUs to officially adopt any such policy (or Just War, for that matter).

For one thing, as Rasor points out, we do not have the religious basis - or the history of living out of this world view - that Quakers and Mennonites have. But more importantly, our great, UU strength is the original tenant that we can gather without the constraint of shared creeds. All war, Just War, conditional pacifism, radical nonresistance: we can be UU together – ‘though the arguments might get just a teensy bit heated at times.

Anything else is just another form of violence.

Footnote: What does “radical nonresistance” means to me? For an idea, here are some paraphrases of the not-your-status-quo-spirituality in the canonical Gospels:

"Don’t judge others. Don’t condemn others. The measure you give is the measure you receive. Don't resist evil. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Praise those who curse you. Whatever you do to the least of these you do to God. God's love is like the sun that shines equally on good and bad, just and unjust - to be whole as God is whole, love all without distinction. The kingdom (actually "Queendom" since the word is feminine in both Aramaic and Hebrew) is already here, inside and among you.
Focus on the log in your own eye; it is that which makes the Queendom invisible to you. Whoever would be great must be a servant. The low shall be high and the high shall be low. However you wish other people to act, act that way towards them first. The students will become like the teacher. Blessed are the peacemakers.

Die to your self that your self may live. Leave everything and follow. Renounce all that you have. Surrender all possessions – goods, social status, family roles and security. Sell what you have and give it to the poor. For those who have riches and are full (as in “not hungry”) will leave empty handed.
Go out and heal.

Which of you by being anxious can add to your life? If God dresses the wild flowers, why worry about what you will wear? Don't worry about what you will eat or drink. Take nothing. Stay where you are & eat what you are given. If you are not welcomed simply move on. Take care for what comes out of your mouth, only that can hurt you. Pray in secret, not to be seen.
Only those who do God’s will enter the Queendom, not those who cry, "Lord, Lord" (for God's will see above). By their works you will know them.”

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

From Radical Spirituality to State Religion: Justifying War

My attention was caught by a line near the beginning of Paul Rasor’s interesting article, “Prophetic nonviolence: Toward a Unitarian Universalist theology of war and peace” (UUWorld Spring Issue).

“The just war tradition… originated in the Catholic Church during the fourth century CE.”

“Ah ha!” I thought, demonic, amateur-historian’s gleam in my eye. “What major, MAJOR event happened in fourth century Christianity that might have necessitated creation of a “Just War” theology? Why that’s when a conquering emperor adopted as his state religion a multifarious, once-Jewish sect grounded in egalitarian community, extreme social justice and absolute, radical abandonment of violence for nonresistance.”

In other words, that’s when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, thus originating Christian orthodoxy. This included requiring all his soldiers to join the church. His… soldiers? Join a religion committed to nonviolence?


Although his mom was Christian, Constantine himself didn’t seem to have been much of a believer. (For instance, he refused to be baptized until he was about to die.) It’s possible that, like a good pagan, he simply respected all possible gods. Once the Christian god helped him win the battle that made him emperor, he merely elevated that god’s worship. He didn’t seem to care about the details of the theology. He only demanded that there be one, unified set of beliefs, an “orthodoxy,” to be enforced by imperial law.

Except… As emperor of a huge, imperialist empire, he needed police, criminal prosecution, jails, capitol punishment, autocratic governors, laws that kept the rich rich and the poor poor - with ordered trade amongst them, and – most importantly – war. But these were aspects of social organization that Christians had traditionally stood against… (Although many offshoots had already moved from their radical roots into typical, patriarchal church organization - as witnessed by the spreading suppression of women within a century of Jesus’ death.)

Ergo the need to justify war.


As the teachings of Jesus were abandoned, a Christian “Just War theology” was born.

Footnote: There was then no “Catholic Church” (as in “Roman Catholic Church”) such as exists today. In the fourth century, members of the newly established, state church fought long and hard over exactly which of a multitude of beliefs would be called orthodox and which condemned as heresy. The center of church authority was also soon to reside, with the center of imperial power, in Constantinople. Although full of factions, orthodox Christianity had not yet split between Eastern Orthodox and Western Orthodox. …And there were lots of Popes.

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Do Not Lie. Do Not Do What You Hate.

In the Gospel of Thomas, the disciples ask Jesus, “Do you want us to fast? How shall we pray? Shall we give alms? What diet shall we observe?”

He answers, “Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate.”

Wow! That's all it takes?

“Do not do what you hate” has been interpreted as another wording for “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself.” But I imagine it means don't do anything you hate. Don’t do work you hate or foster relationships you hate, much less do to others what you’d hate to have done to you.

I’m pretty o.k. at that - in all senses.

(Of course, born into middle-middle class America, I was raised rich – compared to most of the world. So ‘though I presently make less than peanuts as a freelance writer, I feel I can afford job freedom. Yet, Jesus mostly spoke to those who could NOT afford to be picky about work and still expected they could follow his radical prescriptions.)

Only the thing is, I am absolutely crappy at telling the truth.

One of the old desert hermits, Abba Poemen, instructed spiritual seekers to “teach your mouth to say that which you have in your heart.” And he meant speak your true feelings all the time, not just when they were pretty.

Mega strike one for me.

Still, I’d thought I was pretty good at old-fashioned honesty in the marketplace.

I just found out I’m not too hot there, either.

I’m selling a used car. It's in great shape for its age (and Wisconsin), even starting immediately in our recent sub-zero weather - after sitting for four days. ...It only has this one, itsy, bitsy problem. The problem first showed up over a year ago. I considered it one of those annoying things that old cars can do. Anyway, it was intermittent. And ‘though the problem can be exceedingly annoying, the car always ran. So when it came time to sell, I pushed the problem from my mind.

The car sold quickly for a pretty nice price.

And I felt just awful.

Because I had not told the buyers about the problem before the sale.

“O.k.,” I argued to myself, “I bet that problem won’t even show up… Certainly not for awhile.” (Like it was ok as long as the buyer thought it was just bad luck when something went wrong a week or a month after they took it home.) “Even if it does show up, it’s probably no big deal. Besides, the price was less than the blue book value for that car with no problems. So it was fair.”

But all the dissembling in the world didn’t change anything. I’d known there was a problem with the car and I'd lied by not mentioning it. This might be good buyer-beware capitalism, but I knew perfectly well it was spiritual disaster – made obvious by the way I got busy lying to myself just so I could get away with lying to others.

Well, luckily for me, and the buyers, the problem showed up that very night. They returned the car. I returned their money, and made an appointment to have my mechanic deal.

Suddenly I felt a whole lot better, even with the prospect of futzing with this old car after I’d thought it was gone.

Then today, someone else called – although I’d pulled the ad. This time I told the whole truth. She drove the car and wants it - once we have an idea what is wrong and what it will take to fix. And I felt great dealing with her.

One of my oldest friends once told me, “I’d rather be taken advantage of than be the kind of person who takes advantage of people.” I’ve always wanted to live up to his standards. After this interesting experience, maybe I’m a small bit closer to doing so.

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