Confronting the Dark Side in Portland

It’s just too stark—the contrast revealed in the tragedy on the commuter train outside Portland, Oregon a week ago jumps out at you.   The images say so much: On the one hand we have Jeremy Christian a scowling, angry, self-styled nihilist, spewing his message of hate, wrapped in the American flag, a blind nationalist xenophobe, someone who is clearly unbalanced, hoping for a chance to cut someone down, shouting out death threats even in a court of law…

…and then there are those brave souls who confronted this darkness: first a student/poet, second an ex-soldier-father-of-four, and finally, Taliesin Myrdden Namkai-Meche, a young man just out of college, full of life, beloved by all his friends and family, beaming with bonhomie and good-will-toward-men, who as he lay dying in the care of a stranger managed to say, “Tell everyone on this train I love them.”

And who can forget his mother,  Asha Deliverance, who at the vigil for the victims urged us to say no to hate, to “give it up for love.” As a Muslim girl in a headscarf approached her afterwards she reached out and….well, one picture is worth a thousand words.

Forget the photo of Iwo Jima, the Moon Landing, or the Fall of Saigon–this picture beats them all.  It’s a moment of transcendence, a glimpse of our higher selves. It’s the Pieta for our century, and like Michaelangelo’s masterpiece, we feel the mother’s grief at the child lost, a good life destroyed by the Dark Side, but amidst that pain the triumph over death through love.

Nihilism versus Lovingkindness. Is there really a choice about the way forward to a better world?

New Church’s Motto: It’s Relationships Not Religion

A very moving story appeared in the local paper about a married, Christian couple who started a successful pizzeria years ago. Then she came down with multiple sclerosis.   Their lives became very difficult as she grew worse, but their faith only grew. When she became nearly immobile, they began holding non-denominational church services right there in the restaurant with family members attending. Then word spread and others began to join them.   Currently their congregation is small, but thriving and they’re moving into a larger space.     But what jumped out at you in the article was what her son said about their gatherings. Commenting on the falling membership in churches around the country, he said he hopes to “reinvigorate people’s faith—we’re a relationship, not a religion.”

Relationships.

Isn’t that what it’s all about, when you come right down to it?   And the point is, relationships with other people. This is what brought friends and acquaintances into their services in the restaurant. Her illness required support from others, spiritual support and physical support. That’s something we all need.   It’s what I call the extension of the Sacrament of Death because it’s not just at a deathbed that we need to become caregivers.   We all get sick, and we all need help when we do. Sometimes we get better soon, and sometimes they last a lifetime, but what doesn’t change is our need for courage to get through it, and our need for support when we’re weak and in pain.

Some may argue that as far as relationships go, the primary one is between you and Jesus or God or Allah.  Some may call on the deity or on one of the many saints for help in these crises, and if that works for you, more power to you. But that still doesn’t change the basic need for human-to-human contact and the touch of a hand or a cheering word from someone at your bedside. The Spirit, or if you like, the “Hand of God” works through our fellow human beings and it is through human relationships– compassion, friendship, caregiving and caring–that we can provide and receive some degree of solace in these difficult times.

Some Christians like to remind us that the Bible says “only through Christ” can you be saved, and maintain that these humanistic teachings get us off the track.  More on that later.

 

Murdering Your Way to Freedom and Power

It’s a momentous day in Europe. The last armed rebel group on the continent has laid down its weapons and disbanded. ETA, the Basque independence fighters will no longer be blowing people up or kidnapping and shooting them. Hundreds have died in the name of Basque freedom, thousands have been injured. Now they realize it wasn’t and isn’t worth it.

Their reasoning was this: we want an independent Basque region. Spain will not give it to us. But if we make life miserable for the ordinary Spaniard, they will eventually say, “Get out, and take your damned region with you. Just leave us alone.” And the way to make life miserable is to set off bombs in random shopping centers, detonate cars for assassinations–the usual formula for mayhem and murder. It’s a harsh calculus, trading the lives of many hundreds of innocent people for political sovereignty, and it didn’t work.

There’s hardly a country in Europe that does not have some group agitating for autonomy or outright secession. Catalonia and Galicia in Spain, Scotland, and Wales in the UK, some in Belgium want to split that country up into Flanders and Wallonia. It makes you ask yourself, is life so onerous under the yoke of these existing nations that all these people want out? The grass seems always greener on the other side, and yet, is it? And is it worth anyone’s life to get it? Let’s hope everyone keeps cool and the issues can be resolved peacefully.

The other good news is that the rebel group FARC in Columbia is in the process of disarming as well. They, too, seem to have realized that their goals might be more easily achieved in a different way than through armed conflict.   But, alas, a renegade group has rejected the peace deal, and this week blew up a car full of soldiers. Once violence becomes habitual, it’s never easy to stop it. A single disgruntled combatant can cause a lot of damage.

This brings us to the Middle East where the violence goes on and on. This week in addition to the marketplace bombings that have become commonplace, we had the bombings of two Egyptian Christian churches, killing dozens on Palm Sunday. You can’t help but ask yourself, what would it take for these deluded killers to see what the Basques and FARC have seen?   The answer, unfortunately is, it would take a lot: a whole new worldview, a whole new religion, replacing the death cults that currently reign.   For the Basques, the violence stemmed from a political ideal, but in the Middle East, it comes from leaders who claim it’s what God wants.

One of the hallmarks of what it means to be human is to recognize that death is  sacred, and to deprive someone of their life randomly,  in the name of a deity is to have gone over to the Dark Side.  Deprograming the thousands who have signed on to this bloodthirsty agenda will be the work of many years.    God help us.

Dementia and the Right to Die

If anything is writ upon the Wall of Fate, it is that the right to die will eventually become as much a part of the culture as the right to choose who to marry. Think of where we were 300 years ago: marriages were arranged by parents, women were viewed as the intellectual inferiors of men, minorities were denied basic human rights, homosexuality was utterly taboo. Today, although there is undeniably work to be done to achieve equality in each of these areas, we are well on our way to a world where each of these groups of people are accorded a status equal to the once all-powerful white male, at least in the Western World.

The right to end a pregnancy was won several decades ago, and, while not on as solid a footing as the other advances mentioned, it would be difficult to turn back the clock on that issue. Now the turn has come for the right to die.

Currently five states allow terminally-ill citizens to choose a painless, immediate death rather than wait for nature to take its course with all the agonies, both mental and physical, that accompany a lingering death. More states will surely follow in the near future as poll numbers show : 70% now support euthanasia for the terminally ill.

The next step after that will be to ensure that the right to die includes those suffering from dementia.   A moving and convincing manifesto by Canadian Gillian Bennett, “Dead at Noon,” says it all and should be required reading for all politicians and citizens weighing in on this subject. Bennett realized the road ahead for her was not a pretty one as she became more and more forgetful. “All I lose is an indefinite number of years of being a vegetable in a hospital setting, eating up the country’s money but having not the faintest idea of who I am.”   Prevented by law from seeking a doctor’s help in ending her life, she took action herself with a handful of barbiturates in 2014.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote about “Ethical Suicide Parolors” in one of his futuristic short stories, “Welcome to the Monkey House,”  a comfortable setting with support from professionals and family on the day of the last chapter of our lives.  That’s what we need now, so that anyone who can sense the approach of a debilitating dementia can opt for a death with dignity.

Of course there are potential problems, but the good that would result far outweighs any of them.   And if you believe that God doesn’t want us to take our own life, the question then becomes, how do you know that? and would God rather have us live for months and years without even knowing our own names, knowing nothing but how to chew food?

The Death of Immortality

A young person living in a society that’s safe and secure doesn’t think about death that much. In fact, there’s a feeling when you’re young, that death is a long way off, that it can’t touch you.   Yeah, sure you know it will at some point, but you don’t need to worry about it because there are so many people in your family older than you—they’re your cushion, your buffer between the guy with the scythe and you. More likely than not he’ll be paying  them a visit before he turns his empty eyes in your direction. Because Death seems so far away, with so many in line ahead of you, a healthy young person quite rightly focuses on the long life stretching before them and attains what could almost be called a feeling of immortality.

And then your great-grandparents die, then your grandparents one-by-one, and finally your parents and their brothers and sisters. All of those members of the older generations succumb to the inevitable until no one stands between you and the grave. You’re face-to-face with that fellow with the grinning skull, la Camarde as the French call him—the one without a nose.  He is holding an hourglass  in your direction and there’s a lot more sand in the bottom than in the top.

The Germans are a melancholy people and also good at coming up with jawbreaking words to describe what otherwise defies description, words like Schadenfreude, Weltanschauung, Wanderlust.  To designate this arrival at the gateway to our final decades the German language gives us Unsterblichkeitstod—“The Death of Immortality”—a word, that captures this disquieting realization perfectly.*

With the passing of my father this week after 99 years of healthy living and unfailing memory, I find I can’t get that word out of my mind.  Time to face it. You’re not going to make it out alive.   Dad anchored our whole family’s lives for what seemed like forever and now reality has shifted.

So…

Dig out that old copy of “Death Be Not Proud” or the Bible or whatever philosophy does it for you,… you can’t put it off any more.

*Benn Schott created this word for his book  Schottenfreude.

The Power of Death

Amid the trivialities of our day-to-day life comes that force that slices through it all, grabs you by the throat and brings you to your knees—Death.

With the passing of one of my dearest friends, the power of Death once again overwhelms the Everyday, leaving that gaping hole in the universe.  The mind spins uncontrollably… lost…..gone… Grief floods our very being and saps our strength.  What now?… How can we come to terms with it? …The finality of existence, that feeling of despair slipping into hopelessness… How do we stand up to Death’s power?

The Church has an answer. The Stoics have another. The Hindu sages take refuge in maya—it’s all illusion.

Believe what you can, as Darwin told us. But what’s important is the Universal, that in its extreme sorrow, Death brings us to the same place as extreme joy– the transcendent dimension of existence where we can connect with the Divine.  Through meditation, through prayer if you like, by connecting with others through rituals, the madness of Death becomes something sacred. We circle the wagons, link arms with survivors and feed on the memories of those we loved.  We find our humanity in loss.

But it’s still hard.

 

World War III–It’s Here

World War III has started, folks. Don’t wait for a nuclear weapon to go off or a Gulf of Tonkin incident that will kick things into high gear. It’s here, and has been here since 9/11, first in Iraq, then Afghanistan, and now Syria, Yeman, Pakistan, Bengladesh, Libya, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Mali, Egypt and Turkey. And it’s not just the developing world:  The massacres in Brussels, Paris, Orlando, and San Bernadino were battles in this war.  Future battles are being planned right now.

The sides?

Radical Islam vs. the rest of the world

and

Islam Type A vs. Islam Types B, C, D, and F

It’s a war without borders, a truly world war, where no one knows when an angry man or woman, prompted by a religious leader, facilitated by social media, lax gun laws or ambitious gun-runners, will kill anyone anytime anyhow.   It can be soldier vs. soldier but doesn’t have to be–any death will do and the more the better.   Get used to it. There is no end in sight.

There will be, however, an end. That will come in one of two ways:

1) we all sink into such a miserable state of endless bloodbaths and fleeing refugees that we heave a collective sigh of despair and swear off all violence forever, every last man and woman of us on this planet

or

2) we stop listening to leaders and sacred texts that justify killing innocent people in the name of religion.  We recognize that the Sacred does exist in this world, but it can be found in our hearts.  Death itself is sacred.  We know this when we watch our loved ones face its challenges and are taken from us.  Killing in the name of religion, however, is the antithesis of the Sacred, it defines the Dark Side.  It robs the victims of their lives and the killers of their humanity.

We will only come to this point if parents can begin to teach their children that life and death are both sacred, despite what you learned from your religion.  Start teaching!

For more on this see ISIS and the Phoney War 

Brussels Aftermath: The Search for Humanity

What do we do after a terrorist attack? How do we keep going? We feel afraid and helpless.  How do we deal with our fear?  Just as when someone close to us has died, the urge to do something, anything, is so strong. But what?

One European Union official on BBC radio this morning had an excellent suggestion. In an age where the first reaction is to go online and write something to our Facebook friends, he declared that it’s time to get away from the pull of social media, and come together in real time with real people.   He is urging Belgians later today to gather at one of the large squares in Brussels, to come together face-to-face with strangers, to show solidarity with the victims, to hold hands…in short, to vivre ensemble–to live together.

I know what this feels like.   In the days after 9/11, I, along with all other Americans and so many people around the world, were overcome by a profound need to connect with others.   I talked to people in Germany I hadn’t spoken to in years.   I went to the town square and sang in a crowd in front of the post office.   I found myself one day at the Unitarian-Universalist church (where I was not a member) holding hands in a circle with a group of strangers.   At that moment the idea of feeling like a citizen-of-the-world was not some far-out concept—it was happening. It’s happening now again, unfortunately as the result of despicable, misguided, inhuman acts designed to make us afraid of each other.

And we are afraid.   How can you not be? The world has changed and it’s no good sticking your head in the sand. But as we come to terms with new dangers, as we make sensible adjustments to try to protect ourselves from the unfathomable desire in some to deny their humanity and massacre the innocents, we have to reach out with greater determination than ever to resist that part of us that wants to demonize entire groups of people who are as innocent as the victims of the bombings.  We need to connect not just with our friends, our co-religionists, or fellow-countrymen, but with the entire world.  We must find a path into the future together based on what we all have in common: our humanity.

Stop reading this and go hold someone’s hand.

The Massacres of Innocents

Jakarta, San Bernadino, Paris, Boston, Mumbai, Baghdad, Baghdad, Baghdad….this is just the beginning of a list that will go on and on into the future as it becomes clearer and clearer where the world is going. A combination of easy access to guns and bomb-making instructions, worldwide media attention, and young men overloaded with a desire to fight have made all of us targets in what will perhaps be known as World War III. Unlike the other two world wars, this won’t be fought just with standing armies, navies, and airforces. It will be fought by individuals and small groups anywhere in the world who get excited by angry leaders anywhere in the world, leaders who grab their attention and make blowing yourself up with as many bystanders as possible sound like a good thing to do. Young males programmed by natural selection to fight find themselves living in what a Belgian official on the BBC today called “a mental ghetto” where they constantly hear the need to kill the infidel, kill the apostate, kill the oppressors, the bullies, the Other.   In these ghettos there is a very little debate or serious reflection or reason–it’s all about a Cause, Glory, and Death.

We have to face the facts.   There is no way to stop this unless we were to un-create the internet where any hothead in a distant country can spew hate and teach someone to build a bomb.  It’s not going to stop until we shut down the social media sites where young people are seduced into joining the Holy War,  or until we stop arms trafficking, or censor the media so the attacks do not get so much play and convince others that similar massacres are excellent ways to further their Cause. None of that is going to happen anytime soon.

The other facts to face were made clear in a Zogby survey that showed that, yes, a vast majority of Muslims in every country found extremist movements like IS and Al Qaeda were a “total perversion of Islam,” but unfortunately in every country there is a group who thinks the methods of IS are in accord with the teachings of Islam. That number is 15% in the Palestinian sectors, 13% in Jordan, and 10% in Saudi Arabia. What that means is that in Saudi Arabia alone there are 2.8 million people who would seem to support the wars, massacres, torture, executions, kidnappings, and rapes that we’ve seen of late.

There has been no end to the young men and sometimes women streaming to Syria to join the fight, shoulder-to-shoulder with IS. So where will it all end? Prepare we are in for another Hundred Years War, a war of attrition where dozens of innocents are killed every so often, more and more bombs are dropped in Syria and Iraq, and more and more draconian laws are put in place at home to try to stem the tide of attacks.

The only hope of changing any of this in the long run is to do what the Charter for Compassion is doing, and what the idea of Universal Sacraments is all about: find some common ground that everyone of every faith or no faith can agree is part of what it means to be human.   Teach young people that death is a sacred part of life, and that killing someone is not an avenue to God, but a plunge into the Dark Side. To counteract the power of a holy book is a tough job, but it’s being done—remember the vast majority of Muslims do NOT find IS’s methods acceptable.  They have rejected the jihadists’ death-worship.

Every country should enact laws, if they have not already done so, that to teach the slaughter of innocents, to persuade someone to become a suicide bomber is the foulest crime against humanity.  Freedom of Speech should not extend into that dark realm.   Rallying around the sanctity of human life is just a starting point to arrive at other universals that can bring us all together in a world that is coming apart at the seams.

The Sacrament of Laughter

I wrote earlier about the passing of my friend Rick two months ago (The Sanctity of Death). His memorial service took place yesterday, and it was really something. Rick was a professional clown and his wife was a mime. They met at the World’s Fair in Knoxville at a circus event and raised a family of performers. There was a lot of music and funny stories at the service as hundreds of friends and family members gathered to honor his memory. It was the best service I’ve ever been to or could imagine.

With the horrific news from Paris fresh in all our minds, and Rick’s death at a far-too-early age weighing on us all, the service managed both to make us ponder Life more deeply and to lift our spirits.   The family members who spoke brought us a picture of a man who was not only a funny guy, but also a profound thinker, a philosophy major in college, who went off to make a difference in the world, a warrior doing battle against the downsides of life with optimism and laughter as his chief weapons.   Rick believed in laughter, said it was a universal. In his younger days he had the idea of taking his clown act into little villages in Africa and Asia, to bring just a little bit of joy to places where people were struggling to get enough to eat. He called it “the search for the comic denominator.” Funded by the Peace Corps and Project Troubador, he hit the developing world like the Pied Piper.   After arriving in a village, Rick would get into costume (thick eyebrows and mustache, cane, oversized shoes–see the link to Project Troubador) and take a walk—or a waddle–in character through the village.   Children and adults both would come running, following him to an open spot where the performance would take place. Photos of mesmerized, happy children leave no doubt that he’d found that common denominator he was looking for.

He also found some lifelong friends in a group of musicians who ended up travelling with him through Project Troubador. Like Rick they wanted to bring the world a little bit closer together through what I have called the Sacrament of the Arts—folk music in this case. Yesterday the group re-united, playing during the service and afterwards. This was the perfect ending. With banjo, guitar, fiddles and voices, we all lingered in the church listening to these talented musicians, singing along on the songs we knew, letting the spirit of life flow into us with renewed force in the welcoming confines of the Unitarian-Universalist Church. It was the perfect remedy to stave off the darkness outside.