Last week we talked about the religious discussion following 9/11 as presented in the thoughtful and provocative documentary on PBS’s Frontline which they called ‘Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.’
Many of those who were quoted were clergy and were quite revealing…sort of looking in the mirror. The first comment was made by a rabbi who said, “Religion drove those planes into those buildings!”
A Roman Catholic priest responded with surprising candor, saying, “From the first moment I looked into that horror on September 11th, into that fireball, into that explosion of horror, I knew it…I recognized…religion … the force, energy, instinct, passion…the passion that motivates people to do great things is the same one that that day brought all that destruction.”
This priest and this rabbi, and many of the others who spoke, were talking about the worst part of religion – all religion. Since all the religions were invented by us, by human beings, they were really talking about the worst part of us, the worst aspects of what it means to be human.
Many thoughtful, sensitive people stay away from religion altogether. We know that. There’s nothing new about it.
But that’s not the whole story. If it was the whole story, why would I be here in this pulpit? There’s another side to religion’s story and that’s what I’d like to talk about today.
What would you say is the best in all the religions? What are the highest, most noble aspects of humans?
To reach that part of religion, that part of what it means to be human, you must acknowledge those aspects of religion, those aspects of humanity, that are not pretty to look at. If you don’t first acknowledge those aspects then you have little or no credibility.
It is acknowledged in Christianity – it’s called the doctrine of original sin, referring to Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden – the mythological way of saying that humanity is flawed, that we’re not perfect.
The doctrine of original sin is not found in the Jewish religion, but there’s a hint of it’s origin in the High Holy Days, in Yom Kippur, the day of atonement whose central them is repentance.
During this time the observant Jew seeks forgiveness for his or her imperfections, or so-called sins.
There are categories of sin that need to be acknowledged – sins against God – breaking the commandments. Then there are the wrongs committed against other persons. The time in the Temple takes care of the wrongs committed against God.
The wrongs committed against other persons – or their perception of wrongs committed against them – need to be resolved with appropriate apology, face to face, if possible.
Then there’s another very interesting category – sins, or wrongs committed against God, or against other persons, that you didn’t realize that you committed!
Early on in my ministry here in Westport a member of the congregation approached me one Sunday morning, just before the service, and said, “I just want you to know that I forgive you.” I did a quick Google-like search in my brain and found nothing about which I was aware – nothing for which I needed to be forgiven.
I never asked. Forgiveness is mostly for the benefit of the forgiver, not the forgiven. As a matter of fact, being forgiven for something you didn’t realize you’ve done or said is a bit unsettling.
Rosh Hashanah, literally means ‘head of the year,’ the beginning of a new year. According to Jewish tradition the world was created by God 5772 years ago.
The New Year, the High Holy Days, begins by cleaning the slate, making a new start, resolving to be more like the person you truly want to be and the kind of person the world needs you to be, poetically expressed during the High Holy Days as having your name written by God in the book of life.
What’s required? Forgiveness. It’s all about forgiveness, it’s as simple or basic as that. Suffice it to say, however, that forgiveness is anything but simple. It’s complicated.
I want to take a look at the opposite of what we looked at last week with reflections on ‘faith and doubt at ground zero, which focused on hatefulness, selfishness and greed, the tendency to try to dominate others, all in the name of religion.
The best part of religion is the opposite of hatefulness, the opposite of selfishness and greed, the opposite of trying to dominate other persons, or to claim that your religion is better than the other guy’s.
Karen Armstrong, a highly respected historian of religion – not only the Western religions – the so-called Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but the Eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
She’s written forty or so books. My favorite is A History of God, a survey of the concept of God in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In the closing chapter of A History of God, which she titles: Does God Have a Future, she suggests that the old idea of God as a person, a bigger version of ourselves, has to go.
That doesn’t mean that God has to go, but the man-like God-in-the-sky has to go.
The best in all the religions, she says, is not a complicated theology but simple kindness and compassion.
She says, “Compassion is a particularly difficult virtue. It demands that we go beyond the limitations of our egotism, insecurity and inherited prejudice.”
“This image of the divine Tyrant imposing an alien law on his unwilling human servants has to go.”
She closes the final chapter of A History of God with this sentence:
“If we are to create a vibrant new faith for the twenty-first century, we should perhaps, ponder the history of God for some lessons and warnings.”
Karen Armstrong’s most recent book is titled, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. She said that she used the reference to twelve-step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, because we need to be reminded that acting selfishly is an addiction. The need to be ‘right’ and to dominate others gives us a kind of buzz; the need to excel, to be ‘better than’ gives us a high.
At our General Assembly last June she spoke about the idea that motivated this book:
She said that the bottom line, after years of researching religion, is that there is one common ingredient at the heart of all religion – compassion.
She said, “In every single one of the major religions compassion (the ability to feel with the other) is not only the test of any true religiosity, it is also what will bring us into the presence of what Jews, Christians and Muslims call God or the Divine. Buddha says it brings you to Nirvana.”
Compassion is summarized in the Golden Rule, which she traces to the teachings of Confucius around 500 B.C.E.
Confucius said that this is the essential rule of the moral life. He made no theological assertions. No dogma. No religious creed. Your religion, in other words, is about the way you live your life from day to day, from moment to moment…all day, every day.
The Golden rule can be stated in either the positive: ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you,’ or my preference, in the negative: ‘do not do to others what you would not have done to you.’
(The problem with stating it in the positive is illustrated by the Boy Scout who was trying as hard as he could to live up to the scout motto: ‘do a good turn daily.’ He helped an old lady to cross the street even though she didn’t want to go.)
The Golden Rule is about refraining from doing as much as it is about doing something.
(There’s an old saying: ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’ It has a Buddhist ring to it – it’s used in Lewis Carol’s Alice and Wonderland, which also has a Buddhist ring to it!)
Karen Armstrong reminds us of the story about Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus: one day a Pagan comes to him and offers to convert to Judaism if Hillel can recite the whole of Jewish teaching while standing on one leg. Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” He said, “That’s the Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.”
Regarding the need for compassion for oneself as well as for others, Hillel said, “If I’m not for myself, who will be? If I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
In her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong has a chapter she titled Compassion for Yourself. She uses the Biblical commandment to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’
Long ago I came to understand this statement less as a commandment and more a simple acknowledgement of the way life is: we way we treat others – the way we love our neighbor – is an reflection or consequence of the way we love ourselves. Harsh, judgmental treatment of one’s neighbor is an indication of a lack of self-love, or self-respect.
Recently I was surprised when a woman came up to me after a sermon at Chautauqua in which I quoted Karen Armstrong about the need for compassion and said, “I hate that word – compassion.”
She could tell from the look of surprise and confusion on my face that I didn’t get it, so she explained, “Last year when I was suffering from a life-threatening illness I felt like people were feeling sorry for me, that I was pitiful, a pathetic case. I found it very demeaning. That’s why I hate that word – compassion!”
The meaning we attach to words is a consequence of our personal experience. Once she explained it to me, there was no way I was going to try to convince this woman that she had the wrong idea about compassion. I simply thanked her for letting me know – it explained the look I had seen on her face during the sermon.
In the second half of life, or the mature part of life, we tend to become less ego-centered, less critical and judgmental, and more sensitive, caring and kind.
Armstrong says, “In every single one of the major religions compassion (the ability to feel with the other) is not only the test of any true religiosity, it is also what will bring us into the presence of what Jews, Christians and Muslims call God or the Divine. Buddha says it brings you to Nirvana.”
It can also bring you to a painful place.
I’m reminded of those lines in Whitman’s poem: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” (from Song of Myself)
That’s compassion. It’s the essence of what it means to be human, to bridge the gap, to connect with the suffering of another, to celebrate the other’s joy, the other’s success.
All the stories in the Bible, all the verses of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, then, are simply commentary on the Golden Rule, an admonishment to live your religion not by what you say you believe, but how you live your life.
If scripture leads to hatred or disdain for other people, it is illegitimate.
Karen Armstrong says, “We live in a world where religion has been hijacked, where terrorists quote verses from the Koran to justify their actions.”
Armstrong says, “We have the spectacle of Christians endlessly judging other people, endlessly using scripture as a way of arguing (about religion) with other people, putting other people down. Throughout the ages religion has been used to oppress others, and this is because of the human ego, human greed. We have a talent as a species for messing up wonderful things.”
“A lot of religious people prefer to be right rather than compassionate.” She need not limit persons who have the need to be right rather than compassionate to religious people, the tendency is universal.
Her notion, however, is that people want to be religious in the best sense; want to be compassionate, but to be compassionate is to suffer with others and to be vulnerable; people want to be spiritual, if not religious in the traditional sense of assenting to a particular set of theological dogma.
I would say that people want to be religious in the sense of being moral, living and ethical life; people want to connect in a meaningful way with other persons. To paraphrase Karen Armstrong, people want to ‘create networks of mutual understanding and an appreciation for differences as opposed to feeling threatened by their differences.’
In her talk about compassion, Armstrong points out that the word for holy in Hebrew is ‘Kadosh,’ which means, separate or the other. She says, “The very otherness of our enemies can give us intimation of that utterly mysterious transcendence which is God.”
To make her point she tells a story from Homer’s great poem, the Iliad, the story of the ten-year war between Greece and Troy.
In one incident, Achilles, the famous warrior of Greece, takes his troops out of the war, and the whole war effort suffers. In the course of the ensuing muddle, his beloved from Petroclus is killed – and killed in single combat by one of the Trojan princes, Hector, son of Priam, the king of Troy.
Achilles goes mad with grief and rage and revenge and he kills Hector and he mutilates the boy and then refuses to give the body back for burial to the family, which means that in Greek ethos, Hector’s soul will wander eternally lost.
Then, one night Priam, the king of Troy, comes into the Greek camp, disguised as an old man. He makes his way to the tent of Achilles to ask for the body of his son, Hector, and everybody is shocked when the old man takes off his head covering and shows himself, and Achilles looks at him and thinks of his own father, and he starts to weep.
And Priam looks at the man who has murdered so many of his sons and he too starts to weep, and the sound of their weeping filled the house. (The Greeks believed that weeping together creates a bond between people.) Then Achilles takes the body of Hector and he hands it very tenderly to the father, and the two men look at each other and see each other as divine.
Addendum: Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others – even our enemies – is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.
We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings, even those regarded as enemies.
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.