Sunday, November 29, 2009


Thanksgiving thoughts

While many religions call on people to give thanks, Thanksgiving isn't tied in with any specific religion--it's not "owned" by Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism. Yet members of these and many more religions--and of no religions at all--have celebrated Thanksgiving. Each culture celebrates it with its own unique traditions, but usually a large meal of some kind is at the center.

It occurred to me that this is something I value about Thanksgiving. When members of different religions get too caught up in saying, "My religion is right and yours is wrong," and people have even committed violent acts in the name of religion, having one holiday that allows people to give thanks in whatever way has meaning for them gives me a glimpse into a more hopeful way of viewing faith or religion.

It gives everyone a chance to focus on what they're grateful for, and at the heart of this gratitude seems to be close connections with others--family and friends, This bond seems to be the one that most unites different religious traditions. Sometimes the bonds are bittersweet, but the hope remains--the shared meal is the emblem of that hope, the need to move out of our loneliness to be fed together. And the food isn't just what's on the plate. It's something much deeper--what everyone is hungry for: "companionship" comes from a Latin root meaning "bread," and suggesting that while this word might seem abstract to us now, its history has much to do with sharing both food and lives--human needs that cross religious/cultural boundaries.

If we can recognize the depth of this bond, maybe we can find some common ground as a human family.

Happy Thanksgiving every day!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

In the news this week was the mass shooting at the military base in Fort Hood, Texas. An officer went on a shooting rampage and killed 13 people, wounding many more, and as always with these incidents, people ask why. The shooter, wounded by a police officer, may not live to explain his actions, and even if he does, may not fully understand himself why he did what he did.

People also often ask where God was in such an act. The shooter had been a devout Muslim, and although that's not my religion of choice, I don't see it as an automatic explanation for his actions. Religion, it's true, can sometimes be a pretext for violent actions--the man who stormed an abortion clinic and shot people there. But I tend to think this man's motive wasn't religious--he seems to have reached a breaking point, with his work bringing him in touch with a LOT of mental pain and anguish (as a psychiatrist treating returning vets, many suffering from PTSD). Who heals the healer? It was said he was becoming increasingly anxious about being deployed, based on his contact with those who'd been to Iraq and Afghanistan. Did he seek help? It may be one of the ironies of military life that he was offering that help to others, but perhaps feeling unable to find it for himself. He spoke of being taunted for being a Muslim. I don't say all this to justify what he did, because it was a horrific act.

But was it a free choice? Many Christians, confronted with events like this, will trot out "free will" as an explanation, and I wish they wouldn't. For one thing, it gives free will an unfair rap. Why is it always used to explain something like this, but not the saving of lives through skillful surgery or heroic action or starting a foundation to help fund some worthwhile cause? Aren't people free when they do something positive? I'd say possibly all the more free.

When someone shoots at people because, for instance, he hears voices in his head telling him to do so (not that this was the case for the Fort Hood shooting) or is short of cash to buy more crack or still thinks he's on the firing line in Iraq or has lost hope for his life for one reason or another, how free is that? People might say, "well, his choices up until then led him to that point," but the drug addict who has been bounced from one foster home to another, subject to abuse (possibly sexual abuse) or neglect has had his choices limited. So then people say "It was his parents' choices." But maybe they too were robbed of choices.

Not to dismiss personal responsibility--but why always badmouth free will at times like this without giving it due credit when good things happen? This is disrespect for what many Christians in the same breath refer to as a gift. But if it's a gift, is this any way to give thanks for it? Blame it for all the bad things that happen?

If it's really the good thing they say it is, why not encourage its use by pointing to times when its use results in good? Why not cite the doctors who worked on the wounded people and saved lives? Or the woman who prevented more casualties by stopping the shooter? Were they not free? Christians want to give God all the credit for any good that's done. But what happens when people (not necessarily in this case but in others) kill people because "God told me to"? If God doesn't get the blame at such times, don't people deserve credit for doing good when they don't have God as their motive?

Which isn't to say I don't believe in God or believe that God can inspire much that is good. It's just that I think if free will is truly a blessing, it should be appreciated as such in good times, not just used to explain bad behavior.But so often, what I see religious leaders do is to use fear instead of hope to motivate people's choices. "Do x or you'll go to hell." "Do x and you'll go to hell." Must we always be motivated by fear? The greatest discoveries made in the arts and sciences often arise when people have the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them in a safe environment. I don't say give a five-year-old a chemistry set with explosive devices--but let that five-year-old have a chance to make some messes without keeping her/him inside every line.

I also wonder how freeing is to threaten and taunt people due to religion, sexual orientation, race, etc. Or to assume things about people without taking the time to know them. "All Muslims are terrorists." "People on welfare just want to cheat the system and are lazy." "Homeless people are all drug addicts or alcoholics." So easy to slap labels on people. Maybe too I have to watch myself, assuming things about Christians.

Last night on PBS, I watched a program about two musicians coming together to create a symphony on the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The symphony drew together Native American songs and stories, and involved the cooperative effort of people from a variety of cultures and religions. That, it seemed to me, was the true act of free will: coming together to create something beautiful.

If we as human beings can, in our daily lives, come together to create beauty--whether it's to save a life in an operating room, to help someone learn to read, to share poetry, to clean up litter in a park, to dance, to encourage someone at work who's having a tough day--we help set one another free, and isn't this the real tribute to "free will"? No guarantee doing these things will protect us from all harm, but maybe we can help increase the odds that more good will happen than bad.

That's the free will I honor and pray for.