Christianity and Islam in the Pursuit of Pain

The greatest threat to the modern world can be found in the revival of a belief from the Middle Ages: the pursuit of pain is a good thing. As Stephen Greenblatt points out in his recent book The Swerve, once upon a time there was a notion that inflicting pain upon our sinful bodies was a holy pursuit.   To mimic the kind of pain that the Savior experienced on the road to Golgotha would allow us to share the sanctity of His suffering, so it was not unusual in those benighted times to wear a hairshirt, or to find groups of flagellants publically flogging themselves with iron-pointed whips, or monks beating each other with rods, all in an effort to imitate Christ.

Common sense would dictate that this is a bad idea. It calls to mind that unfortunate group of young people today who are cutting themselves in order to feel the pain.   Any parent who finds their child has sunk into this practice will get that child to a therapist as quickly as possible.   Homo sapiens is programmed to  pursue the pleasures of life, not the pains, but in the Middle Ages a powerful force overrode this basic instinct. That force was belief in the afterlife.

Yes, the afterlife… The Great Beyond… The Happy Hunting Ground– or the Not-So-Happy if you have been a sinner and failed to get right with God before the end. As Greenblatt reminds us, Sir Thomas More’s 16th century book Utopia which was so progressive in many of its policies (sharing the wealth, universal health care, freedom of religion) drew a hard line in the sands of that fabled island: if you did not believe in the rewards and punishments of a heaven and hell, you would be executed immediately. Rejection of an afterlife was dangerous in Utopia, because without the fear of hell, More felt that people will always try to lie, cheat, and murder their way into greater wealth and power.    We only need jails and punishments in the here and now because people don’t believe in the punishments of the hereafter.

Sir Thomas may have been right about the power of the fear of God.   Certainly there is no sign since the Enlightenment began increasing the ranks of the atheists that we’ve created a Utopia anywhere, though Scandinavia may be getting close. But More was beyond a doubt wrong about making the afterlife the foundation of his belief system. Under radical Islam, that belief is what is causing so much senseless death and destruction every day, coupled as it is with a revival and glorification of the medieval pursuit of pain.   Who would ever have believed that this cult of death would take root in the 21st century, a cult where suicide bombers and martyrdom become the highest form of community service, where men and women are encouraged to undertake “missions” that they know will lead to their painful deaths, all for a misguided idea that a reward awaits you in Paradise?

Some might argue that it’s not belief in an afterlife per se that is the problem, but rather, the particular afterlife that is being peddled to these would-be heroes.  But the problem here is that, if you are a rational creature, you would like some evidence of which afterlife that’s being offered by the religions of the world is the genuine article and not some knock-off fakery.    How would you talk a suicide bomber out of his belief that the koranic Paradise is really there, just waiting for him if he blows himself up in the right spot? By offering him an alternative view? Christ on the cross? Abraham’s bosom? Angels hosanna-ing?

What would therapy be for a deluded young person whose greatest aspiration is to be a martyr? Perhaps if we do in fact need the fear of God to keep the world from disintegrating it should be the God of Compassion–focused on making this life as pleasant as possible for as many as possible without reference to what happens when we cross that unknowable Divide.

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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 

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.

“Our Town” at Northern Stage.

I’d never seen Our Town before. I’d read it of course.   Thornton Wilder’s best-known play has been a staple in high school English classes ever since its debut back in 1938, and for good reason. But reading it is nothing, seeing it is everything. There’s no scenery and not much in the way of costumes. It’s not that kind of play. But in the third act, watch out. When it’s done right, you’ll be thinking about what you saw for weeks, or maybe even a lifetime.

And it was done right at Northern Stage in White River Jct., Vt. in a run that just ended on Saturday. Carol Dunne, the artistic director, knows how to cast, and knows how to get the best performances from her actors. There wasn’t a weak part in the ensemble, even among the children who populate Grovers Corners. John Hutton as the stage manager was terrific, with a voice any performer would envy, and a presence that was at once commanding, but serene in his omniscience. Sutton Crawford in the role of Emily had the audience in the palm of her hand with exactly the right combination of innocence and maturity. We loved Emily from the beginning and when she’s up in her room, gazing at the moon—what an extraordinarily beautiful thing to witness!

But the image that haunts us, that slices through us right to the depths of our being, is the end of Act III, with those dead souls in the graveyard, waiting, waiting… They know what we don’t. They stare straight ahead, speaking laconically, without moving in the dim light. They are in touch with the stars, with eternity, with the Divine, while the grieving husband collapses sobbing on the grave of his wife. No words can describe what the stage brings to a scene like that. It’s the power of live theatre, the Sacrament of the Arts, and Wilder understood it better than most.

Our Town may be the best American play ever written.   It’ll be around forever. Let’s hope Northern Stage in its brand-new theatre will be, too.  If you’re in New England, check them out!

The Sanctity of Death

One of my friends died this week after a months-long fight with cancer. He was an extraordinary guy, a real clown.   I mean a REAL real clown: a professional gag-master who worked in and with circuses all his life, one of those people who has made the world a much better, happier place, but I’m not going to eulogize him here. His passing has put me in mind once again of the subject of Death itself, something most of us try to avoid thinking about too much.

Death is unsettling at best. It shakes you up. It makes you lose your footing in your day-to-day trudge through the world. It breeds disquiet and despair.   Coming to terms with it is something we have to do if we’re going to live. In my book I devote a chapter to the “Sacrament of Death” and a model for what I meant could be found in the passing of my friend.

To illustrate, I’m sorely tempted to share his wife’s searing descriptions of their last weeks together.   Some things, however, are too personal. In the selfie era where we want to make sure everyone knows everything about us all the time, it’s important to carve out some sacred space where only friends and family are allowed in, and you can’t help feeling that her writings on Facebook and CaringBridge are  only for those who knew him.

But as we read about his final days, it was evident that these were holy moments that brought the family members into a closer circle, doing their best to maintain their usual good humor amid the frightening approach of the inevitable.   Tending the needs of those who are dying is a sacred trust. We need each other so profoundly in those moments. It’s exhausting, it’s discouraging, it’s fulfilling, it’s transcendent. This particular path to the other side—the slow approach, without too much pain, is a great blessing in many ways. As my wife’s uncle put it the week before his passing, “I’m coming in for a nice soft landing.” There is an opportunity for a great deal of reflection and connection, if you open up and allow it to happen. It’s one of those times we feel most vulnerable, most generous, most human.

Let me also once again sing the praises of the good people of Hospice.   We need them so badly at this time in our lives and there they are, giving so much of themselves. There was also the benefit of another friend who is a death midwife, or as she prefers to call herself, a spiritual midwife. This much-needed service is a godsend at a time when most of us are an emotional wreck. It’s an inestimable boon to have on hand a caring, competent professional who knows what to do every step of the way to the frontier. There was no need to call any doctors at the end, no 911, no hospital. He slipped away day by day in the comfort of his home, surrounded by those who cared most about him.

They have chosen a three-day vigil in the home with calling hours for friends. His spirit has flown, his body lies in a homemade casket encircled by photos, posters of his circus days–and love.   Today, after a brief home funeral, the casket will be taken to the crematorium as our local band plays “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Vaya con Dios.

Two Views of Death.

I have a friend who plays the harp for hospice patients. One of the facilities on her circuit is an Alzheimer’s unit. She brings her harp to the bedside where these lost souls lie confused, physically depleted, dying of cancer or heart disease.   Their race is run but they often cannot grasp what is happening to them and often no longer recognize their families.

This afternoon she entered a room where Barbara lay in bed with the TV blaring at full volume. Some well-meaning caregiver or visitor probably thought it would distract her.   She lay there with her mouth open–tense, moaning with every breath. Extreme suffering was etched on her features and she gripped the sideboards until her knuckles were white. She wasn’t able to talk. The TV blithely announced: “Warning: The following program contains scenes of surgeons performing operations that may be upsetting to some of our viewers.” My friend immediately flicked it off and began playing a quiet melody.   Within the first measure, Barbara had released her grip on the sideboards. By the end of the first song, she had stopped moaning. After half an hour Barbara had relaxed into a steady, calm breathing. Her face was peaceful, her mind at ease.

The Sacrament of Death is a time when caregivers and the dying come together in a spiritual union that can transcend the everyday world we normally inhabit. It’s a person-to-person connection.   Music can be transcendent too: the Sacrament of the Arts, a balm to soothe the soul in time of trouble. TVs are intruders, or worse, tormenters.

The second example has been in the news all week : seven men and women dead in their own church, victims of someone they didn’t know, someone filled with hate, someone who was fed a steady diet of rage and ignorance with the help of that technological wonder and curse, the internet.

This is the Dark Side of death, what happens when we fail to teach our children that all life is precious, and death a sacred moment, a spiritual opportunity.   Failing to acknowledge the sanctity of death leaves the door open to its worship, to the kinds of death cults that are destroying lives all around the world and have caused this tragedy in Charleston.  This is a profound sacrilege.   Call it a sacrilege against God if you like, or against humanity: it’s the same in the end.

What do we do about Terrorism?

The threat of terrorism is growing around the world. Sometimes it seems that we’re living through an age unlike any other, but something I read recently points to the cyclic nature of history.

I picked up a small volume at a used-book sale that contains a collection of accounts from colonial Vermont and New Hampshire, describing the settlers’ confrontations with the Native-Americans. This was the ur-terrorism of the New World. What must it have been like to be living with your family in a log cabin in a small settlement in an endless forest with nothing but a single-shot rifle for protection, and have gangs of people who hate you lurking in the woods, waiting for a chance to cut your throat and take your scalp as a trophy–a sickening, barbaric practice if ever there was one. The warriors would attack, kill some, and take the rest prisoners—men, women, and children—marching them over the mountains in all weathers to their villages in Canada where, if they survived, they might be tied to a stake and mutilated as part of an amusement for the tribe, with the object being to inflict the maximum amount of pain while prolonging the moment of death. These were the terrorists of the 18th century, and the courage it took to live in the wilderness should never be forgotten.

Of course not all of the Native-Americans were out for blood, and some of the whites were equally as adept at terrorizing the Native-Americans, in fact Columbus found a peaceful people, the Arawaks (Taíno), in the Caribbean, and began a process of enslavement and genocide that ended with their extinction as an ethnic group within 100 years. But let’s not forget either, that this was not just a struggle of Europeans against Native-Americans. The various tribes of North America fought and tortured each other long before the whites arrived, some of them happily destroying entire villages and absorbing the survivors into their own families.

So let’s recognize that our ancestors, both Native-Americans and Europeans, fought the same kind of terrorism we’re facing now and go the next step and ask how that earlier threat ended. The answer would be:

1) wiping out villages (i.e., killing everyone)

2) eradicating their food supplies (including the buffalo in the 19th century to deal with the Plains Indians) and forcing them on to reservations

3) “civilizing” them by converting them to Christianity.

No one is going to support 1 in this century, 2 is problematic because would-be terrorists often live among us now, not in separate areas, so that leaves 3.   Just what the Islamic world was afraid of—a Christianizing crusade against them.

But what if we draw up our campaign along different lines?   In my book I suggest there are “universal sacraments”—aspects of life that are sacred, not because a God said they were, but because by honoring them, we become as human as we can be—we find our “higher selves.” Death is a sacrament, but the cult of death is an abomination.   Using terrorism as a weapon to sow fear in a civilian population and targeting innocent people in order to create chaos should be something everyone rejects, no matter what God you serve.

If we could all agree to that and agree we must teach our children that, we could then go on to the root of the problem: how to create a just world where the inevitable conflicts can be solved peacefully. It should be at the top of the list of things children learn.  But I would suggest that this kind of thing is almost never taught in any school in the United States. Am I wrong?