Sunday, 30 January 2011

Breaking The Chains Of Low Expectations

"They brought forth to the Children of Israel an evil report on the Land that they had spied out, saying, "The land through which we have passed, to spy it out is a land that devours its inhabitants! All the people that we saw in it were huge! There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of the giant from among the Nephilim; we were like grasshoppers in our eyes and, so we were in their eyes" Numbers 13:32-33

Let me embark on a little light speculation. What was Zacchaeus, mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, like? What can we make of his personality? Well all we are told is that he was small in stature and that he was a wealthy tax collector in Jericho, actually he was chief tax collector in Jericho. Now that last piece of information tells us quite a bit about his personality. Perhaps his small physical stature gave rise to "small man syndrome" and led to him having an insatiable desire to succeed? The political situation of his time, Roman occupation of the Land of Israel combined with highly corrupt local lackeys, most of whom wintered in Jericho, provided him with an opportunity to increase his wealth and status. Yes he would be considered a traitor by the overwhelming majority of his people and perhaps even by his family but the people who matter would rely on him and reward him handsomely. He would be an important somebody. What must he have felt the first time he knocked on the door of a poor family and demanded the exorbitant taxes demanded by the ruling powers? No doubt he would have had some pangs of guilt but then inevitably he must have overhead someone calling him a scoundrel, and subsequently the pangs of guilt were crushed under the weight of indignation, rationalisation and the false flattery of false friends. As time went on, and as he became more and more successful and as he took more and more money from the people to line the pockets of the despotic king and emperor and a little extra no doubt to line his own pockets, his name in the close knit community of Jericho became synonymous with wickedness and crookedness ultimately the very opposite of the name Zacchaeus (innocent). Having been labelled as a traitor and cheat he probably became trapped in that identity, a classic example of a "self fulfilling prophecy", or in the more ancient wording of King Solomon:

"For as he thinks in his heart, so he is" Proverbs 23:7

And then came that fateful day that Jesus of Nazareth came to Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. A crowd formed in eager anticipation of seeing a man whose reputation for goodness and healing preceded him. Our friend Zacchaeus having heard that Jesus was in town wanted to catch a glimpse of him and see what he was like. He probably did not particularly esteem Jesus' reputation for goodness, and no doubt assumed that such a holy man would want nothing whatsoever to do with a sinner like himself. No doubt all the good and pious men of Jericho had already made it clear to him, that the God-fearing keep a great distance from wickedness, and presumably he assumed Jesus would also want nothing to do with a reprobate like him. But still curiosity got the better of him and being of small stature he climbed the tree as we are told:

So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today" So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner". Zacchaeus stood there and said to the master, "Look, half of my possessions, lord, I will give to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much". Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the son of man came to seek out and to save the lost" Luke 19:4-10

What exactly happened to lead to such a turn-around of Zacchaeus? I believe that it was two principle factors. Firstly he was inspired by Jesus' example. Here was a man, a good and righteous man, who was prepared to be tarred by association. Who was prepared to have his reputation sullied as a fraternizer with sinners, all for the sake of showing kindness to a man whose life as lived up until now, was the very opposite of all Jesus stood for! And he, Zacchaeus, could not even refrain from stealing from the poor in order to increase his wealth and the wealth of a corrupt and illegitimate leadership. This contrast no doubt struck him and inspired him to change. Being in the presence of greatness often has a way of shaming us into improvement.

But even more importantly than this, the sudden turnaround was to my mind, the product of Jesus having changed Zacchaeus' self image. And he did this through love. If this holy man thought him so worthy as to wish to be invited to his home and spend some time with him, then perhaps he is not as irredeemably beyond the moral pail as others thought! Jesus' actions smashed a hole in Zacchaeus' self image, allowing him to glimpse his potential for goodness and true greatness. And seeing that opportunity he immediately took this inspiration and made it real by promising to give away to the poor much of his wealth and pay back what he had taken. Someone showed faith in him and he rose to demonstrate that he was deserving of such faith.

Self image is hugely powerful. As King Solomon pointed out in the verse I mentioned earlier, in a very real sense we are what we label ourselves as being. This self-perception is immensely powerful and can lead to huge success or terrible pain. Having read some of the works of the celebrated psychiatrist Aaron T Beck, the father of Cognitive Therapy, I see that this very idea is also a strong factor in clinical depression and anxieties including phobias. A person suffering from depression has often at root a self perception of themselves which is very low which leads quite naturally to feeling of sadness and deep desperation. Likewise a faulty self-perception can lead someone to feel incredibly vulnerable and frightened. This was the situation of the spies sent by Moses to scout out the Land of Israel. In their eyes they viewed themselves (incorrectly) as weak as grasshoppers, and as a result were viewed as such by others.

We have seen this past week the power of altered self-images in the events unfolding in Egypt. The events in Tunisia opened the eyes of millions of Egyptians. Whereas before they saw themselves as frightened victims of a powerful despotic dictatorship, the events in a fellow Arab country, caused them to see themselves as powerful and in charge of their own fate. They saw their regime as vulnerable, and with this change of perception fear was lost and the protests began. This new self image will not be easy to shift and up against this powerful force I doubt that even Mubarak will be successful. Positive self perception can lead to spectacular endeavours such as in the case of Richard Wright. This amazing man was the leading light of the Unitarian Fund, the missionary society set up by Robert Aspland in 1806. He travelled many hundreds of miles all over the country, many times on foot, in order to bring the Unitarian Gospel to towns and villages far and near. In many places he was passionately opposed by ministers of orthodoxy who were terrified that members of their congregations might be drawn to the Unitarian "heresy". He put up with all these hardships because he was convinced that he was in his words a "soldier of Christ". He understood himself to have as his prime purpose in life, the spreading of the simple truths of the Gospels, and this drove him on even when undoubtedly he like us had a little voice in his head saying "why bother, you are only one man what can you achieve".

I was saddened this week to hear during a radio debate concerning education, person after person reinforce the culture of low-expectation that has plagued our teaching establishment and our wider society for many years. The discussion centred around the English Baccalaureate, and a feeling by many that it will lead to a devaluing of the humanities and arts. One lady said that as children today are from the "gameboy" generations they have very small attention spans, and therefore to focus on academic subjects would be wrong, instead education should focus on those subjects that are more easily grasped. We must, apparently, adapt education to the "reality" of short attention spans! What ever happened to trying to elevate children's knowledge? If attention spans are a problem why, instead of resigning ourselves to this situation, do we not try and remedy it? What exactly is wrong with trying to give all children a basic grasp of academic subjects that will be useful to them all? Voice after voice was extolling the value of vocational learning in opposition to academic learning, which in the opinion of one caller, would lead to more kids becoming bankers which is something that apparently we don't want!! But surely even vocational work requires the basic skills of good communication and maths. Providing children with good knowledge of the 3 R's gives them choice. With this knowledge should they wish, they can enter the academic field and attain careers that subsequently become available. And if they choose to enter into vocational training, they will be well equipped to excel in this area too. Youngsters who lack these basic education skills are denied choice. Why are we allowing a diminished understanding of our children's abilities to take root?

This low-expectation also applies to behaviour and moral conduct. It is assumed that youngsters will just behave in unruly ways, that they will drink excessively etc. Suggestions that children should be properly disciplined and that efforts should be undertaken to prevent unruly behaviour and under-age drinking and sex, are dismissed as unrealistic and sinister by educationalists and social theorists. The mockery that is often pored onto those (religious) parents and youngsters who advocate abstinence until marriage demonstrates a low-expectation mindset. Young people amazingly can refrain from drugs, booze and sex. They can exceed in learning and concentration each at their own level. To believe otherwise let alone to intimate to youngsters that one believes otherwise will forge the chains of a collective self image that will condemn young people to mediocre expectations and increase behaviour that is decried as regretfully inevitable.

The same goes for us as individuals. How often do we sell ourselves short? How many of us have justified our laziness, our selfishness, our grumpiness and a host of other acts of wrongdoing by saying "That's just how I am, I can't do anything about it"? How many of us have felt unable to reach out and help others because of a feeling of "I'm not brave enough to do that", or failed to take on a project at work or in the community because of arguments like "I am not able, clever, interesting, popular or talented enough"? We should all be aware that the potential for growth and improvement is always with us, and that we can become much more than we are now. This is not to say that we should have an inflated self-image. We should be truthful with ourselves about our abilities, strengths and weaknesses.

To assist us we should keep before our eyes the example of those who have excelled in personal, moral, religious conduct. Many of us have relatives or friends to whom we look up to in admiration, many of us have had our lives touched by inspirational people. And even if not, then one can turn, as did Zacchaeus, to the example of our teacher Jesus. By meditating on the goodness in others, we can develop a desire to emulate it.

In our interactions with others we must be sure to always broaden their self-perception and not God forbid limit them. Recognition and praise for the success of others should be on our tongues. Feelings of jealousy must not prevent us from celebrating the success of those around us, and we must try not to fall into the trap so particular to Britain, of finding pleasure in the bringing down of the successful. For after all, others failing does not make us more successful. When the need arises in our role as parents, employers or even good friends to rebuke, we should do so in a way that does not create the ingredients for negative self-fulfilling prophecy. Jesus himself had harsh words to say about those who diminish a person in his own eyes;

"And whosoever shall say to his brother "raca" (empty one) shall be in danger of the council, but whosoever shall say; "you fool" shall be in danger of gehnenna " Matthew 5:22.

Ultimately our potential can be seen in the grace and love of our Creator who bestows upon us all that we need to triumph in our own personal journey to greatness. The Jews have a custom to recite a prayer at the very moment of awaking in the morning:

"I thank you Living and Eternal King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me. Great is your faithfulness"

How beautiful and how useful it is to start each day by reminding ourselves of The Only One's faith in us! Yes yesterday we might have failed, yes yesterday we did not make the most of those gifts God had given us, but in His mercy our Father gives us another day of life, trusting that today we will do better. Being aware of this how can we not but strive to do better? If you read nothing else, I suggest you read the Chief Rabbi's essay on the book of Job, which so eloquently and convincingly demonstrates that the prime question of faith is not our faith in God, but His faith in us.

Let us start the week by aiming high remembering that while it is no indictment of man not to be perfect, it is an indictment of man not to want to be perfect, and that all the Supreme One expects of us is our best effort.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Happiness Agenda

"What gain, then, has the worker by his toil? I have observed the task which God has given the sons of man to be concerned with: He made everything beautiful in its time, He has also put an enigma into their minds so that man cannot comprehend what God has done from beginning to end. Thus I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and do good in life. Indeed every man who eats and drinks and finds satisfaction in all his labour - this is a gift of God." Ecclesiastes 3:9-13

I am glad to see that The Moral Maze has finally returned to the airwaves after its Christmas hiatus, and am also glad that the subject under discussion this past week was "happiness", in particular our Government's stated ambition to measure the happiness/welfare of our nation the results of which will shape the direction of their public policy. Despite much of the discussion having drifted off the theme of measuring and responding to happiness statistics, and onto the promotion of happiness by government, some good and thoughtful arguments were made by both sides.

I suppose the question we must ask, even if we can not adequately answer it, is what is happiness? The definition offered by Professor Richard Layard "feeling good and wanting to go-on feeling good" is not perhaps too far off the mark. A sense of contentment with a positive view of oneself and one's life is pretty much the long and the short of it. Some of the contributors to the debate held the view, shared by many, that there is a clear distinction between pleasure and happiness. And in the words of Philip Hodson "euphoria and ecstasy" are to be considered different from happiness. This seemingly neo-platonic, division between the earthly, physical sensation of pleasure and the elevated spiritual reality of happiness is also a concept that many religions, especially Christianity, have embraced and promoted. The most extreme associating pleasure with sin and even the devil.

Well I am sorry to have to disagree with this weight of opinion. As far as my observations of myself and those around me go, happiness is a mixture of both inner contentment and pleasure. Life is filled with many pleasures from the physical to the psychological, and these contribute immensely to the happiness of human kind. By themselves they are rarely sufficient for any sense of lasting happiness, and those devoid of that transcendent inner contentment, will often find that an endless chase after transient pleasure only leads to an increase of sadness. But likewise to achieve immense happiness in the absence of life's pleasure is also a task that so few are able to achieve. But certainly that inner happiness, is what gives each and every one of us the ability to find joy and peace in even the most trying of circumstances. God has filled our world with pleasures for us to enjoy, let us not ungratefully reject the gifts we have been given, instead let us rejoice in them, always cognisant of, and ready to bless He who bestowed them upon us. So too we should recall the boundaries He Himself has set for the enjoyment of the pleasures that He created, and not chase after those wants that in the words of James Martineau, God "wilt never bless."

This leads on to a point that was made during the radio debate, most specifically by Claire Fox. She correctly pointed out that many people who actively seek to promote happiness often have other, value based world-views that they are seeking to transmit or even impose. Matthew Taylor himself made the argument that it is the "moral duty" of our political leaders to point out to us the "systematic errors" we hoi polloi make when it comes to our own happiness. Apparently we only think we are happy, and we need the state to come along and tell us how to actually be happy! Also despite studies indicating that religious people are by far happier than their secular counterparts, few in the Action for Happiness brigade actually advocate religion! Instead they search for secular alternatives. This patronising attitude is not new for even that powerful and intelligent advocate of utilitarianism John Stuart Mill himself believed that the simple pleasures and happiness of the uneducated majority were lesser than the supreme pleasures and happiness of those people....well those people much like himself. The same argument of course is used by religious advocates themselves, who often preach a message that suggests that "you are not really happy it is an illusion, but convert to our faith and you will be blissfully happy forever" often accompanied with personal testimonies about how life became so happy with the embracing of the faith. What many of these secular and religious advocates of happiness have in common is that they are not actually seeking and promoting happiness for its own sake, and really they should be more honest about their motivations.

It seems to me that there are many things that make people happy. The idea that there is only one type of happiness and that the rest is illusory or of temporary duration is simply wrong. There are many people living lifestyles which if I were to embrace would cause me not a small amount of misery and yet they are brimming with happiness. Can the libertine who lives a life of happiness and pleasure really be happy living the strict and demanding life of your average Plymouth Brethren or Amish? Could many people in those said religious communities really enjoy the almost meaningless excesses of hedonistic libertarianism? Most certainly not. And yet both exist, the hedonist and those that sacrifice much of temporal life for God, and many in both camps live happily. We are told that more and more education is a guarantee of happiness, yes to many it is, but not to all. Some live completely happy lives with a simple naiveté, did not Solomon himself say that:

"For in much wisdom is much grief. And he who increases knowledge increases sorrow" Ecclesiastes 1:18

Some people yearn to go to work and get depressed as bank holiday follows bank holiday so eager are they to return to the office. Others find the greatest happiness in not working, but having a day or week or year why not, free to enjoy a long walk, a quiet meal or even a sit-down in front of the telly.

However I, as many readers may already know from my previous posts, am not a relativist. I do believe that there is an ideal sort of happiness. Upon what is this ideal based? On that which to me is more important than happiness itself, goodness. Righteousness and virtue are to me the foundations of a life well lived, and the happiness that living a life of righteousness and virtue creates is supported by these pillars whose only support is the Creator who's will gives them existence.

This is one of the problems (but not the main one) I have with the idea of government using surveys of happiness to decide public policy. Does the fact that something makes people happy make it correct? Does the fact that something makes people unhappy make something wrong? In our own lives we know that not to be the case. We know that often we become incredibly unhappy (and a few of us even become grumpy, sulky and downright mean on occasion) at others even when they did nothing wrong, and the fault lay with our selfishness, arrogance or simple stupidity. Feeling upset does not mean someone wronged you.(A lesson fast disappearing from our blame society). Also we know that people, ourselves included, have garnered great pleasure and happiness when doing something we know to be wrong, such as when a person succeeds in revenging themselves, when a person is enjoying the thrill of marital betrayal, or when a person sits gossiping and mocking. Many people in our own country would have been awash with happiness if they had succeeded in lynching the children who murdered Jamie Bulger, but would that have been right?

Policy should be decided on two grounds: ethical/moral legitimacy and efficacy. A government should work at constructing policies that are good and just, and that work, and if these bring happiness then that is a very welcome bonus.

Of course if government is going to have at its heart a desire to advance the good and discourage the bad, then surely these two concepts also need defining. In theocratic societies or in those in which there is one dominant religion this answer is often easy. Good is what God says is good as was revealed and bad is what God says is bad. In muscled secular societies this answer can also be quite easy. Good is what a small yet powerfully influential clique of people define and promulgate as good and bad is what they define as bad. In a society where there is a mixture of faiths, both religious and secular, such as ours, the definition of good and bad is not quite as neat. While I think it is good and necessary for individuals to hold onto clearly understood principles of good and bad (preferably rooted in the transcendence of God) no one individual or group can or should impose his views on everybody else. So clearly the best option is for each political party to put out their own understanding of what constitutes a good and moral society, and let the public decide, while remembering as much as possible the hard won rights of dissenters to disagree. To our misfortune, our political parties tend to shy away from any moral issues as much as possible until after they win if at all, and these decisions are instead often foisted onto a nation by the courts of the European Union or by politically motivated unelected judges at home. This is not good for democracy or society.

My second and main problem with this government involvement in the happiness of the nation is more of an ideological one. I simply do not believe it is the duty of the government to involve itself in those areas which are the provenance of the informal and personal structure called society, and especially into the private emotional lives of individuals. I see the state as having the role of protector of society by doing its best to prevent those anti-social elements from harming society and the individuals of whom it is made up. I also see its role as restricted to ensuring that those institutions set up for the benefit of society are run effectively and fair. Its final role is to ensure (not necessarily to provide) every individual with the basic requirements to live a productive and safe life. The highly emotional and subjective personal reality of happiness, is best left to the individual alone, and those people and institutions in society which he/she cares to voluntarily attach him/herself too. I have to agree with those who feel that they are not at all that willing to take lessons in good living or happiness from our political leaders some of whom are hardly the best models for either!

Again, could this be yet another example of the failure of our churches, both the established one, and all the others, to address a widespread yearning for guidance and happiness? Would our political masters have even considered entering into the happiness agenda if the churches were addressing this issue in a coherent and passionate manner? Who knows?

There is a great deal on unhappiness in our society, and we should all be playing our part in alleviating it.

It should spur us on as people of faith to reach out to others and to demonstrate by example the happiness that living a life devoted to the Almighty can bring. Without falling into the trap of falsehood in promoting our happiness as the only real happiness, we can certainly provide people with an alternative to the choices that are so often sold as panaceas to permanent happiness. As Unitarians we are wonderfully placed to allow people to explore in supportive atmospheres, what indeed makes them happy and what changes can be made to their lives to increase their share of happiness. We can be there for people when the inevitable unhappiness of life come upon them, we can shy away from the approach of Job's friends and instead seek only to empathise with them and to alleviate their unhappiness. We can also as so many of our Unitarian forebears did allow the sadness we feel when we look at the injustice, cruelty, indifference and yes immorality of our society and world, spur us on to instigate changes that will increase the happiness of the nation while keeping it rooted in what we believe to be truth.

For me happiness can be found in a life entrusted into the hands of the Almighty, reliant and grateful of His compassion and goodness. On an eye focused on the good of any situation and a heart rejoicing in even the smallest pleasure. And on an eye focused on the needs and feelings of others.

We should walk in the footsteps of our teacher Jesus who spent very little time in talking about happiness and instead went out and strove to remove the causes of people's unhappiness by healing them and turning them away from sin back into the arms of their ever awaiting Father in heaven.

"Those who are well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance" Mark 2:17

Our approach can be summed up so concisely by the hymn inspired by the words of the prayer of Francis of Assisi.

Make me a channel of your peace,
Where there is hatred let me bring your love,
Where there is injury your pardon Lord,
And where there's doubt true faith in you.
Make me a channel of your peace,
Where there's despair in life, let me bring hope,
Where there is darkness, only light,
And where there's sadness, ever joy.
O Master grant that I may never seek,
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love with all my soul.
Make me a channel of your peace,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
In giving to all men that we receive
And in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Eternal Leson Of The Good Samaritan

"When a stranger dwells among you in your land, do not taunt him, The stranger who dwells with you shall be like a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself." Leviticus 19:34

The tragedy that unfolded last Saturday in Tucson Arizona was truly heartbreaking, however I found things began to get progressively worse as commentator after commentator attempted to put the blame for the atrocity on those of the political right, and specifically Sarah Palin. Prior to any evidence regarding the murderer or his motivation becoming known, these people sought to make political capital out of the suffering of those killed and injured, in a desperate bid to create ill feeling towards their political enemies and discredit them. That American politicians and pundits would stoop so low was bad enough, but that voice after voice on the BBC joined in such speculation with such relish was more than a little distasteful and made a mockery of its fabled (or should that be mythological) impartiality.

Subsequently we learned that in addition to US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the victims of the shooting spree included a federal judge appointed by President Bush, an aide to Mrs Giffords and an 11 year old girl. It also became clear that the murderer's political views could hardly be called conventional or Tea Party, embracing as they do, aspects of far right and far left ideology which reveal little of his motivation. By all accounts he is a highly unstable individual, whose psychological problems were no doubt exacerbated by the large amounts of cannabis he was said to have smoked (something quite underplayed by the same BBC that invested so much time in speculating if Sarah Palin's rhetoric was influential in causing the shooting). Finally and thankfully however, President Obama gave a wonderful speech in which he tried to bring to an end the cynical abuse of the tragedy, by eloquently instructing his nation to come together to grieve and to pray for the victims and their families and warned them not to use the events as a reason to turn on one another. I add my own prayer for Gabrielle Giffords recovery to his.

During this week I have also been learning about the plight of Zimbabwean refugees. I was struck by the contrast between their reception in South Africa and that in Botswana. During 2008 at least 68 Zimbabwean immigrants were murdered, some in the most horrific ways imaginable, by enraged South African mobs who believed that the Zimbabweans were taking their jobs and causing a rise in crime, while in Botswana, despite the widely held belief that small increases in crime were also the result of increased immigration from Zimbabwe, the attitude of the majority of Batswana was to extend the hand of friendship and understanding to those fleeing Mugabe's wicked regime. Some took to the airways to inform their fellow citizens of the situation in Zimbabwe so that they could better understand the plight of those left with little choice but to cross the border. Many Zimbabweans have testified to the good and kind treatment they have received in Botswana.

What I came to realise is that both the political opportunism in the US and the welcome offered to strangers in Botswana both are opposite examples of the way tribalism can manifest in positive and negative forms.

It is a fact of human nature, that humanity will always self-divide into small groups. We cannot live as individuals completely removed from our fellow man and so form bonds of association with others, naturally we feel greater affinity and ease with people with whom we have more in common, or with those with whom we live in greater proximity and therefore share the same conditions of life as ourselves. This is also central to human identity, central to how we understand who we are and what role we have in life, after all the majority of us do enjoy having a label that identifies us however much we insist we don't, in reality we generally just don't like anyone other than ourselves labelling us. Sometimes that label might be a religious one at other times it might be political, sexual, national, geographical and among many the label of choice is dependent on a chosen sports team, its colours and symbols embraced passionately as marks of identity and pride. What's more we all have multiple identities encompassing those matters of central importance to our lives.

There is nothing wrong in any of this. Sharing a common identity and affinity with a larger group of people is important for a healthy life and for preserving culture and memory and ultimately it enriches our world and the cultural life of the broader human family.

So why has such "tribalism" so often led to conflict, hatred and sadly violence and murder? Why does pride in one's own group often lead to hatred of the other group? A simple answer that can go some way to explain this reality is that of the competition for resources. Sometimes groups of people clash over land which both sides believe to be theirs. Sometimes revenge for historical wrongs is the cause for the fires of hatred. Looking at many of the conflicts in today's world, one or more of these reasons could be used to provide a reasonable explanation, but there is something else, some concept that I think is fundamental to the mix, and that is arrogance.

As with individuals, group arrogance in my opinion, is often fuelled by deep-rooted self doubt and even low self-esteem. Just as an individual seeks to mitigate his feelings of inadequacy by striving to convince everybody just how great he is and by demeaning others to feel better in himself so too groups can attempt to demean the other. Just as the arrogant individual can not allow criticism, for at heart she/he is terrified that what is said might be true, and so strives to silence or discredit the critic, so too are the actions of many groups. I feel this is perhaps the primary cause of inter-religious conflict. At the heart of many a religious believer or community is the doubt that they might be wrong and that those others might be correct. Sarah Palin called the speculation about her and the Tea-Party movement a "blood libel". The actual Blood Libels that haunted the Jewish people down the ages are to my mind a clear example of the self-doubts of Christendom at that time. It was hard for many Christians to deal with the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, by the Jewish people. Jews as a community didn't and don't accept Jesus as the Messiah simply because they believe that he failed to achieve the necessary requirements of the Messianic role laid down in the Bible. They also can't accept the Trinitarian understandings of the nature of Jesus as it conflicts with the fundamentals of their faith, also laid down in the Bible. But the Christians of yesteryear could not accept this reality, as it spoke directly to their doubts regarding their doctrines and the support claimed for them in Holy Scripture. So instead they convinced themselves that Jews did actually accept the Messianic and/or divine nature of Christ, but rejected it due to their evil natures and wickedness. This led directly to the blood libels, as in these paranoid minds it was believed that Jews sought to receive the benefits of Christian salvation without embracing the Christian faith, by killing Christian children and consuming their blood, in some sort of horrific re-enactment of the crucifixion and last supper.

Sadly the same hateful and deluded outlook is present in parts of the Muslim world today, which in addition to actual blood-libels also believes that Jews in Israel plant Gharqad trees to protect themselves from the fulfilment of a Hadith that teaches that the time will come when even the trees will call the faithful to come and kill the Jews hiding behind them. This Hadith informs the reader that only the Gharqad tree will not divulge the Jews location. For such people it is inconceivable that others do not believe in their religion, so again they assume that everyone believes it but that some ignore the truth because of their wickedness. The assumption of conspiracies against one's faith by unbelievers is a symptom of self doubt, and often fuels the vanity which leads to attempts to impose one's faith on all others. Perhaps the naked attempt to discredit the Tea-Party movement by associating it with the atrocity in Arizona, is symptomatic of growing doubts in the minds of those critics of their own political position.

Our teacher and guide, taught us to go beyond these limited horizons, to reach out beyond the limits of our circle. Many people feel that to reach out to and associate with sinners would taint them. Aware of our own faults and sins we would rather forget them and would prefer others never to know of them, and so to be seen with sinners terrifies, instead we would rather condemn with passion the sinners as much as to say "see I am not like them" than from a genuine dislike of sin. Jesus was confident enough to go beyond this mental restriction and by so doing he taught us to do the same. However he was not some sort of universalist. On occasion he felt the need to tell his disciples to limit their mission to the people of his nation and refrain from association with those of other nations. But when people are in need, whoever they are, it is our duty to reach out. And to this end he taught us his Parable of the Good Samaritan:

"Teacher what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?" "So he answered and said "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself" "And he said to him "You have answered rightly: do this and you will live" (Then the man asked) And who is my neighbour?" Then Jesus answered and said " A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him and departed leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite when he arrived at the place came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds pouring on oil and wine and he set him on his own animal brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day when he departed he took out two Denarii, gave them to the innkeeper and said to him, "Take care of him and whatever more you spend I will repay you." "So which of these three do you think was neighbour to him who fell among the thieves?" And he said "He who showed mercy on him" Then Jesus said to him "Go and do likewise" Luke 10:25-37.

Samaritans and Jews were not the best of neighbours. Both viewed themselves as the true People of Israel and while there were and are many similarities between the two peoples, the differences were regarded as intolerable by the other. Jews were angered by Samaritan attempts to thwart Jewish observances, and attempts on the sanctity of the Jerusalem Temple. They were unhappy that large regions of their land had become no-go areas leading Jewish pilgrims from Galilee to take circuitous routes on their journey to Jerusalem to avoid Samaritan territory. Samaritans nurtured hatred for Jews mainly for the Jewish role in the destruction of the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim. Into this hostile theatre, Jesus placed his most memorable parable. The Samaritan of the parable had every reason to turn away from helping his Jewish enemy. He could so easily have argued "I didn't harm him, and if I were in a similar position he would not help me. There are more than enough of my own people in need of help and so I am not going to waste my time on helping him. Let his fellow Jews help him". That certainly might have been the argument presented to him by his fellow Samaritans had he consulted them for their opinion. But he did not conclude that. He realised that this injured and desperate person was a fellow human being, and as such he transcended the borders of faith, nation and tribe. Jesus taught that this Samaritan was the definition of neighbour. Now the way that Luke has recorded this parable implies that we are to consider as a neighbour, only those that help us! Clearly this is not the case, and it flatly contradicts Jesus' teaching:

"For if you only love those who love you what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?" Matthew 5:46

What he clearly was saying is that the only one who regarded the injured man as a neighbour and behaved in a neighbourly way was the Samaritan. In other words, who is your neighbour? Anyone and everyone especially those who need your help.

The people of Botswana embodied this teaching regarding their treatment of their neighbours from Zimbabwe. The people who tried to pin the blame for the murders in Arizona, on their political enemies sadly did not.

I end with a true story of human kindness transcending divides, that the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks records in his book "To Heal a Fractured World". In 1966 an 11 year old African American boy Stephen Carter, moved with his family to a white neighbourhood of Washington DC. It became obvious very quickly that the inhabitants of that neighbourhood wished not to confer any welcome or recognition on the black family. Passers-by would look at the family sitting on the porch of their home, but would not say anything and would not greet them. The family had an overwhelming sense of not being welcome. Then one day a white woman, Sara Kestenbaum, came over to their home with trays laden with drinks and sandwiches and greeted them with a broad smile. At that moment they were made to feel completely welcome, and they never forgot the actions of that woman, bravely breaching the walls of division to reach out to her neighbours in need.

There are many strangers around us, perhaps this week we can each reach out to one of them and extend the borders of our own lives.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Honesty With Yourself And Others.

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely upon your own understanding. In all your ways know Him, and He will smooth your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes, fear the Lord and turn away from evil." Proverbs 3:5-7

Happy New Year to all in blog land. I very much hope that you all had a wonderful Christmas and that your New Year has begun on a positive note. May the Almighty bring you all much happiness.

Just a moment what was that noise? Oh not to worry, I think it was the sound of several resolutions breaking, for I am sure that I once read that a large number of New Year's resolutions are broken, or are well on the way to being broken, by the end of week one. If this is true is it such a problem? I would say that considering the nature of the majority of New Year's resolutions, it is not a problem at all.

Apparently the top 10 resolutions for this year are:

1) Stop smoking
2) Get into the habit of keeping fit
3) Lose weight
4) Enjoy life more
5) Quit drinking
6) Organise yourself
7) Learn something new
8) Get out of debt
9) Spend more time with family
10) Help people.

On the website on which I found this list there was a voting facility, and of these resolutions the majority voted for "losing weight" as their top resolution. Helping people or spending more time with family were picked first by only 4% and 4.7% respectively. Does this tell us something about our society?

The first thing I notice, that to my mind spells failure from the outset, is the non-detailed nature of the resolutions. If one really wishes to work at changing behaviour, then detailed and incremental steps are often the best path to success. So not "lose weight" but "lose 5 pounds by the end of two months" is more likely to achieve the desired results. I sometimes feel (having learned from personal experience) that making sweeping resolutions instead of detailed plans for change, stems from the absence of a genuine desire for change. How many of us make a resolution because we feel that it is what we ought to want to do, when in reality we would rather continue the activity. Not likely to succeed with that sort of mindset, but hay-ho at least for a small while you can enjoy the pleasure of the pretence. (And then enjoy the guilty pleasure of breaking your resolution!)

What saddens me the most about that list, is how lacking in inspiration it is. Have we really become a society that is focused on the physical and material to the detriment of the spiritual and ethical? Don't get me wrong, each of the resolutions has value, for some more than others, and living a healthy life is important, but why have so many people opted not to change their behaviour for moral reasons? Why does the list not include ideas such as;

I will avoid raising my voice in anger to my spouse or children.
I will set aside a sum of money each month to help the needy.
I will try to avoid the use of bad language.
I will cease my affair and be faithful to my spouse/partner.
I will thank God for at least one good thing in my life every day.

And why did spending time with family and helping others come so far down the list?

As an aside I have to ask what is this obsession with weight? I may be biased as I am not overweight, but I have to agree with Precious Ramotswe of The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame, when she argues that a "traditional build" is far better as people who are not starving themselves and torturing themselves with diets are simply happier, and happiness increases health and extends life! Interesting argument, and if it works for fictional Batswana female detectives perhaps it can work for real folk back in Blighty. Also have you ever wondered about the contradiction between claims that being overweight is unhealthy and the claims that the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest, when one considers the plumpness of many mature ladies and gentlemen relaxing in the shade on many a Greek island or in the café's of southern Italy, France and Spain? Maybe all that good food and sunshine gives them a big dose of that happiness medicine. Quite ironic that resolution number 4 on that list "to enjoy life more" would in the eyes of some be quite difficult if several of the other resolutions on the list were achieved :-)

On a more serious note, I do feel that there is a unfortunate separation in the lives of many Britons between the material and the spiritual. The view that holds that aspects of a single life can be kept in separate boxes and need not be mixed, especially matters concerning religion. The caricature of the British, summarised by Alastair Campbell, of "not doing religion" is certainly based in reality, but then again it is fair to say this has not always been the case. I doubt a month goes by without some comment in a newspaper or on the radio stating that religion is fine, but it should keep its nose out of the public sphere and certainly politics. Any religious person who brings his or her faith to the office, market or parliament is looked at with great suspicion and often greeted with some degree of mockery. Religion apparently should be kept in a box marked "private and confidential". As a phenomenon this is experienced primarily by Christian believers, but of course Muslims have to contend with another set of presumptions if they attempt to bring their faith into a wider setting.

Then there are those believers who themselves make a clear distinction between their faith and their life in general. Who feel that their religion is exemplified by ritual, meditation or prayer but who don't give it a second thought when at work or when relaxing in the pub. This can range from the most liberal "new age" type believers who see no reason why their beliefs should impact on their behaviour, to the deeply conservative religious orthodoxies of the word's great religions, who on occasion behave with great rudeness and plain nastiness to their fellow man, and yet brim with indignation at others who are not punctilious in those observances that only affect the relationship between man and God and not man and man. Jesus was highly aware of such an attitude amoungst some in his day, and was not shy in condemning them.

But surely any religion or even any set of moral principles, should be lived in a holistic way.

The Hymn written by Thomas Toke Lynch 1855-1871 is a majestically eloquent plea for people to take to heart the teachings and values of their faith, and to embody them, not to view them as separate to a life well lived;

Where is thy God, my soul?
Is He within thy heart?
Or ruler of a distant realm
in which thou hast no part?

Where is thy God, my soul?
Only in stars and sun?
Or have the holy words of truth
His light in every one?

Where is thy God my soul?
Confined to Scripture's page?
Or does His spirit check and guide
the spirit of each age?

It is the epitome of misapprehension for one who professes belief in the One sole Creator and Master of creation, to see God's hand in every being and phenomenon, to see the orchestra of creation playing out its song of service to the Almighty, and yet feel as if somehow, the divine Will plays no part in how he or she should live their life. But I humbly suggest we all make this error, and daily!

It is considerably unfair for people to say that they are in favour of others having religious beliefs and then working with considerable passion to prevent them living their faith in society. That is the antithesis of religious freedom. Every free person in our society has the right to express their views and play their part in shaping our nation in ways they feel are beneficial. Religious believers should not be disqualified from the pursuit of a better society. And what is there to fear? Are our secular fellow citizens so unsure of their own doctrines and viewpoints that they must silence or stigmatise those that are held by people of faith? A common fault-line that brings this conflict into stark relief is over the issue of Homosexuality.

It has become the default belief of many that homosexual sexual behaviour is as moral as heterosexual sexual behaviour. That Gay men and women should have their relationships recognised and validated as equal with heterosexual relationships. Anyone who expresses doubts about these views is exposed to not a little amount of scorn and sometimes naked hatred, and is almost always vilified as a bigot. Those (nearly always Christians) whose faith leads them to disapprove of homosexual sexual conduct are exposed to calumny and are frequently compared to racists. It seems as if on this issue there is only one view allowed.

Now as a homosexual man myself, I find this attitude deeply unpleasant. I have known many people of several faiths who strongly believe that sexual relations between two men are deeply wrong. I may not share all their views, but I try to understand where they are coming from. I have experienced great kindness and genuine friendship from such people, and have never felt the need to force them to validate that which their conscience tells them is unacceptable, and in fairness they have never attempted to prevent me from living my life the way I chose. By getting to know me, I feel that they have understood that I am a normal human being who happens to have a certain set of attractions and desires that I have not chosen, and that while they correctly regard me as having the ability to chose to behave in accordance with or against my desires, they now have a better understanding of the nature of that choice they feel I should make. After all how many straight people could pledge themselves to a life of celibacy, not many and so I hope they understand the nature of what they expect from me and exhibit tolerance and compassion when I fail to live up to the demands of their faith. Being open to others beliefs, in a spirit of mutual respect, can bring about greater changes in the long run than belligerent approaches rooted more in identity politics than in any meaningful desire to improve the lot of everyone in society. I am though perhaps fortunate, as I have never experienced any hatred towards me due to my sexuality. However I have seen a less tolerant attitude towards individual homosexual persons, exhibited by some who feel that not signing up fully to the views of gay activism is a fundamental act of betrayal of the gay community (whatever that is).

It is reasonable, however, to find unpleasant the shrill voices of some religious believers who demand that others follow their moral code, and offer nothing by way of explanation, except that their scripture commands it. What sort of argument is this? Does this not reveal an arrogance that loudly proclaims, "I believe that this scripture is truth and you better had too, and if you don't, you are evil". Very often these same people are avid violators of their own moral/religious code and use outrage towards others as a way of assuaging their guilt. Such people see only words in a book and not the hearts and minds of God's creations. Also how many countries have been torn asunder by those who are not content with the use of shrill voices to convince others, but who have resorted to the gun or bomb. Recent examples of this are the attacks against the Coptic Christians of Egypt and the continued persecution of Christians in Iraq. Fear of this religious coercion has encouraged some otherwise liberal people to engage in the deeply illiberal attempt to silence the public voice of faith in our country.

Those of us, who have deeply held religious convictions and who try to express them in every aspect of our lives, must feel confident to play our part in the wider conversations of our land. We must, if we have any real desire to improve our world, attempt to convince the wider community of the value and importance of our approach by presenting rational and well thought-out arguments and better still by demonstrating a positive living example. We must strive to have a well-rounded faith, that does not ignore human nature or human needs or feelings but considers them with the respect they deserve. As important is to always consider that what we understand as true, may indeed not be so for after all are we not all fallible and prone to error, and as such should we not be open to the thoughts and views of others. Let us not let fear keep us from examining if what we believe is true or not. Truth as the Sages of Israel point out, has a sure and strong foundation. (They saw that the Hebrew letters that spell the word truth are the first, middle and last letters of the alphabet (as such not immediately obvious) but have firm foundations which will last, while the 3 letters for the word "lie/untruth" are next to each other (easier to see) but stand only on 1 leg and as such have shaky foundations".

Many modern Unitarians feel a great need to stress the "non-creedal" nature of their religion and their openness to a multiplicity of doctrines. "Many beliefs, one faith" goes the tag line of the General Assembly Of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. But in reality is this really the case? I speak with little experience, and of course congregations differ considerably from one another, but it seems to me that some members of modern Unitarian congregations are quite dogmatic on social and political issues, almost to point of being creedal about them. These views are assumed to be axiomatic not to mention virtuous and those who don't share them sometimes feel (rightly or wrongly) that they are not all that welcome. Even certain theological views find themselves a tad unwelcome in some congregations. This may be completely understandable as people with similar mindsets naturally tend to flock together, and if a common theological or religious belief is not the unifying element of a church, other views naturally develop into the glue that binds one to another. But should there not be some deeper honesty about this, some analysis of what non-creedalism actually means and its sustainability? Honesty in ones one heart will surly go together with a happy and pure heart, just as is written in the words of that Welsh classic Calon Lan.

If I have learned anything in this regard is that it would appear that even professed relativists have their own hierarchy of beliefs and dogmas.

So perhaps the number one resolution of 2011 should be something like this:

"I will strive to be more tolerant of others who think or behave in ways that I disapprove of. I will listen carefully and with respect to their arguments and not immediately close my mind to what they have to say. Even if I still disagree with what they believe or do, I will try and see their inherent humanity and their value in the eyes of God, who created them as well as me. I will not attribute to them false motivations in order to discredit or humiliate them. And above all I will strive when confronted by someone who I am convinced is thinking/behaving in ways that I regard as wrong to remember the words of Jesus of Nazareth who taught:

"Judge not lest you be judged. For with what judgement you judge, you will be judged and with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye".
Matthew 7:1-5