Sunday, May 29, 2011

Prayer Walks; Prayer Talks

“The person of prayer is not a person of private agendas” (Joan Chittister)*

What is prayer?

Is it the desperate call of last resort to One who is everywhere? Is it the recitation of set words over and over again, in a meditative state of relaxation? Is it the ongoing conversation in our heads with a Divine being that we neither see nor touch? Is it the emotional ecstasy provoked by beautiful music and fellowship? Or is it the quiet flooding silence of knowledge of being in the presence of God?

Prayer of course is all these things. Intensely personal, always soul-building, prayer is often a neglected practice in today’s world. We may forget that prayer is the embodiment of our lived connection with God at all times, not only in the pews.

And this is key: prayer cannot be disconnected from life and action, from justice and peace. Though prayer can provide comfort, it can never become idle and selfish, nothing more than a panacea to personal pain, deaf to the pain of creation.

Prayer walks. Prayer talks. Prayer emboldens us to follow conscience, take risks, suffer ridicule, for the sake of God, for the sake of humanity. Prayer drives us to speak for truth and act for peace. Prayer lives in heart, mind, soul and body, calming us, driving us, bringing us together. One world, one God, one beating compassionate heart.

A dull prayer life reflects a dulled life, one separated from the condition of one’s neighbor, one living for the self, not the community. If we feel no need to pray, could it be because we have detached ourselves from the unpleasant problems and issues of our world? Could it be that we have turned away from the poor, the marginalized, the needy, the forgotten?

Martin Luther King Jr knew this. So did Gandhi. So did Mother Teresa. We all search for meaning in our lives, but too often we look only within. We need to do both, seeking the presence of God within, and the presence of God in a world where the voiceless are relentlessly crucified by violence and greed. We cannot do otherwise. When we find something outside ourselves to care about, something to work for, not for personal gain but for the good of all, we find prayer easy, necessary and fulfilling.

What might that be? Food for the hungry? Shelter for the homeless in our community? Peace in the Middle East? Nuclear Disarmament? When we pray meaningfully we find ourselves drawn to help build in some small way the Kingdom Jesus described in the Beatitudes, one where the poor, the mourning and the hungry are truly blessed.

Prayer brings us inner peace, and urges us to spread peace, to be a voice for eternity, for love, for all that is truthful and meaningful in our world.

*The Breath of the Soul, Novalis, 2009

Monday, May 9, 2011

Torturous Truth

Does the end ever justify the means? This past Wednesday I had the strange sense of waking up in an altered universe. While waiting for the washroom to be free (two teenagers in the house), I checked out the online edition of the New York Times, and immediately wondered if I was still in some kind of bizarre waking dream. The Times had posted a serious article entitled ‘Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture’.

First of all there were the words Torture and Value within two spaces of each other. Then there was (finally, at long last) the admission that the US uses torture, but with no sense of moral outrage. (The Times actually, unbelievably, has had a policy of not referring to waterboarding as ‘torture’). Then there were the pompous Bush era politicians self-justifying. And finally the word ‘revives’, as in ‘revives the debate’.

What debate? I don’t recall the last ‘debate’ on torture. I pretty much thought every reasonable American opposed torture. They certainly didn’t like it when American prisoners-of-war were tortured in Japan in the 1940s. They didn’t approve of the Nazi torture of Jews. So how is it alright now? I doubt that it is for the majority of Americans.

What truly scared me was the accepted premise at the start of the piece that if torture works it would be alright to use it. According to the article, the only question on which the use of torture should be weighed is on its effectiveness, not its morality.

Well. I’ve been working in education for a quarter of a century now, and the strap was banned long before I started. I thought it was immoral. Maybe someone just decided it was ineffective.

And it is. All torture is. I’m pretty sure the Catholic Church proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt with the Inquisition. The threat of torture and death provoked even Galileo to go back to teaching that the earth was the center of the universe, even in full knowledge that it was not. People under duress will say anything to make the immediate pain go away: Torture me and I’ll tell you whatever you want to hear. The years it took to find Bin Laden despite the torture of countless unprosecuted (and often innocent) detainees in Guantanamo Bay simply cements the fact.

But torture’s lack of effectiveness remains a smokescreen for a deeper truth. Torture is immoral. Torture is wrong. And that is all that matters.

I realize that it’s difficult for the educated mind to accept absolutes. I too relish shades of grey. But educated people in particular should be able to accept a few moral imperatives. Does no one study Kant anymore? The ends do not justify the immoral means. The ends never justify the immoral means. It’s simple, clear, absolute.

In Christian terms this might read as “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you,” or perhaps, “Love your enemies as yourself.” Now, who said that? Oh, yes, just some ancient itinerant preacher from Galilee who lived as a member of a conquered population, and who ultimately suffered torture from whipping, a crown of thorns, and death on a cross. Fortunately, maybe, the Romans hadn’t thought of waterboarding.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bin Laden and the Problem of Hate

What does it mean to create a compassionate world? What does it mean to live as children of God, as Christ followers who do not celebrate the destruction of the enemy, but instead strive to live in love? What does it mean when Jesus says, “Love your enemies”?

Like so many others I was disturbed by the public celebration of Osama Bin Laden’s death. It’s not that Bin Laden fit anyone’s idea of a good person. It’s not that I don’t recognize the evil that he wrought in the world. But his killing once again marks our failure to convert war into peace, anger into compassion, and hate into love. It’s not cause for celebration. It’s cause for sorrow.

Yes, one person can do much evil in the world. Like Hitler, like Pol Pot, Bin Laden fomented hate and destruction. But no one acts alone. Destroying the one does not solve the problem of hate, nor should it mask our inability to maintain true peace in the world. Killing spirals into more killing, creating an ongoing cycle of destruction that eventually seems normal, so much so that it infiltrates our movies, stories and games, and becomes our structure for understanding the world. Ask any media savvy teen.

Hate caused Bin Laden and his followers to mindlessly destroy people he’d never met, who became no more than tokens in his war against the West. Hate propelled the West to retaliate, to kill more innocents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, regardless of the cost both in terms of money and humanity. Hate works with violence and greed to decimate the weak, the poor, the mourners, in short the beatitude people that Jesus names and blesses in the Sermon on the Mount. Hate dehumanizes the other until their face no longer matters, their dreams have no value, and the innocence with which they were born becomes an irrelevant and forgotten part of a life that retains no dignity.

Hate produced 911, and hate was on display at the many celebrations that were held in the wake of the announcement of Bin Laden’s death. That feeling, juxtaposed behind the flags, the chants and the songs, is not lost on those of us who live outside of the US. Nor is it lost on so many American citizens, many of whom lost relatives and friends in 911, who cannot understand why these strangers, their fellow citizens, would think that the death of Bin Laden would somehow create restitution for the death of their loved one, who remains dead, lost, out of reach, gone.

I am heartened by the many, many Americans who have spoken up to criticize the celebrations. The death of Bin Laden is not some extreme Super Bowl celebration. It is one more piece of a tragedy that continues to encompass our world, one founded in hate, dehumanization, and nothing any religion should recognize as Godly.