Why Spiritual Life is Not a Competition (The Morning Call, Faith and Values Column, Saturday, August 8, 2009: p. GO 7)
When the Dalai Lama offered a public lecture during his visit to the Lehigh Valley a year ago, the question was put to him: “What in your view are the central spiritual problems facing Americans.” He answered, “Americans are perhaps too concerned with competition.”
Without more comment, this curious statement was easy to ignore. Yet those few words remind us that spiritual reflection often asks that we examine matters that we never think to question. Competition is one of those things.
Who could deny that we value competition and never think to wonder whether competition is the good thing we think it is? We assume competition in so much of what we do. We prize the competitive spirit. We spend much of our lives caught up in the dynamics of competition.
The word “competition” suggests a relationship of rivalry aimed at gaining advantage, and it has meaning in several areas of life.
Competition is central to the marketplace of limited or scarce resources, the question being who will get those resources and how much. The answer will be found in competition.
Competition is also a motivation word to account for the kinds of efforts we make to acquire things we desire. It is an energy word. It is the fuel that makes things go. It is vital to winning and central to all kinds of activities and achievements: buying and selling, sports, college admissions, jobs, salaries, elections, and on and on. Competition put human beings on the moon. It also puts officials in office and one kind of car rather than another in the driveway. It drives the decision-making process as we enter the marketplace of ideas or work to formulate policies that affect how we live together in community—the best ideas should win out. And competition is a powerful dynamic in ordinary human life affecting how we go about acquiring status, power, money, life partners, jobs, recognition, advancement, success, in short all the things that make up “the good life.” And as Darwin presented through his theory of natural selection, competition infuses nature itself—it is in the order of things. It is how things work.
So of course we value competition. We could not live without it. Even God is not immune. Does not the First Commandment to “have no other gods before me” indicate that a competition with other gods is at issue even for God?
Competition is far-reaching, so what could it possibly mean that competition can be valued too much?
The question does not make much sense in the world of sports or market economies, but if looked at as a spiritual issue, the question makes this point: competition has a downside.
It can impede spiritual progress by fostering antagonistic relations where cooperation is not valued. It can led us into a world of winners and losers. This may make a certain amount of sense in a violin competition, but should losers include 47 million people without health care who are in that position due to conditions of life where they, for whatever reason, most of them beyond their control, have not landed the great job with a full complement of benefits? The great impediment to health care reform right now is that too many of us in American society are actually health care winners. And having this benefit ourselves, we cannot find the inner strength to insist that those left out and in need of help get the same kind of benefit the winners enjoy. Competition can blunt our sensitivities to the need of others and allow us to settle for injustices because “that’s the way things are—it’s just how things work.”
Competition can also spawning jealousy and envy, anger and hatred—afflictive emotions that are destructive of relationships and obstacles to spiritual progress. When we look at others’ success and ask, “Why is my luck so bad?” or resort to bad-mouthing others who seem to be doing better than we are, we divert ourselves from attending to our primary spiritual task, which is to grow in wisdom and push toward greater self-understanding, self-knowledge and self-awareness.
“Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?”Jesus asked (Luke 12: 57). To know what is right requires that we know ourselves, that we center our attention on the project in our lives that is uniquely our own. From a spiritual point of view, that project is never concerned with competition or defining oneself in terms of someone else. When we “compete” with the beautiful people in glossy magazines, envying their lives, or, conversely, when we take a perverse satisfaction in seeing at the grocery checkout tabloids with pictures of the latest star who is battling the bulge or some unflattering cellulite, we are griped by afflictive emotions—envy or wishing another ill. The great spiritual chore is to find the project in life that is truly our own project, to keep focused on it, and to fight afflictive emotions.
Jesus criticized those who stand and pray on the street corners so that they “may be seen” by others” and then said, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door,” (Matthew 6.6). He was reminding his hearers that the spiritual life is not an occasion for boasting or self-assertion. It is not a competition. In the spiritual life, competition only exists in one’s own mind.
Criticizing competition may seem like criticizing the flag or mom’s apple pie. But when a spiritual observer comments that perhaps we are too much caught up in competition, we should listen. Competition is a spiritual issue. The comment that we value it too much is an observation we should attend to so that we might keep in mind what is truly important and receive that spiritual reminder hopefully—finally—with gratitude.
Lloyd Steffen is University Chaplain and Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University.
Reflecting on Justice and Forgiveness (The Morning Call, “Faith and Values Column,” Saturday, April 11, 2009: p. D7, D9).
As Easter approaches in the religious calendar, Christians turn their thoughts to a centerpiece of Christian affirmation—resurrection. Resurrection was not a new idea in the time of Jesus, for a belief in the resurrection of the body was fundamental to Pharisaic Jews, who included it in their liturgies, and to the Dead Sea Scroll community, the Essenes. Followers of “The Way,” however, claimed dramatically that Jesus, who had died a criminal’s death at the hands of the Romans, had arisen, and the faith-filled proclamation of that particular resurrection provoked a new religion—Christianity. By professing faith in God’s resurrection of Jesus, Christians were saying Jesus was special, so special in fact that God brought him back to life,and because of this “pioneering” event (Hebrews 12.2) all would be brought back to life.
Many Christians around the world today still affirm the literal meaning of the ancient hope of bodily resurrection. For others, the literal affirmation is not the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is that Resurrection is a symbol of God’s vindication of the life and work of Jesus, and that in this mystery of faith, God acted to overcome his death and restore humanity to a relationship with God that promises life. For many Christians, resurrection is a symbol of the power of abundant life over suffering and death; and this in turn allows people of faith to affirm that God is willing to draw life even out of death and to continue relationship with us even though we die.
Resurrection is a mystery of faith for Christians, but what comes from believing in it? When we ask such a question, we turn from the abstractions of theology toward practical considerations about resurrection as it affects relationships and how people live.
In other words, this mystery of faith celebrated at Easter is also a practical guide for living—resurrection includes a resurrection ethic.
A resurrection ethic will direct us to the idea of newness of life and assert the power of life and goodness over death and destruction. One Christian ethical idea that serves this purpose and may be central to a resurrection ethic is forgiveness. Forgiveness was vital to the teachings of Jesus, as was demonstrated in his preaching (Sermon on the Mount) and his parables (the prodigal son). So central was forgiveness to the kingdom of which Jesus taught and to his vision of God, that the Gospels even record that Jesus, while on the cross, prayed for the forgiveness of those who had put him there. (We sometimes overlook that his cry was to God to forgive—Jesus himself, the victim of cruel state torture and execution, could not, for Jesus obviously recognized that what was happening to him was an offense against God, and that is what his executioners did not understand.) Forgiveness, Jesus taught, is to be offered even to one’s enemies, and offered continually, seven times seventy, Scripture records—which Biblically referred to an infinite number of times.
Yet who forgives like that? Who forgives one’s enemies—really? And are there not some offenses, some trespasses we commit, that simply are beyond forgiveness? Do people have it in them, even professing Christians, to forgive those who have slighted them or caused them harm? Is a forgiveness ethic realistic?
Jesus’ teaching is clear. He pushed forgiveness in a radical way, yet that is exactly whey there are problems. If anyone can be forgiven, then what are we to do with justice? Ignore it? Should murder-victim survivors be expected to forgive a person who has killed their loved one? Should the families of 9-11 victims forgive the Al-Queda operatives, even Osama bin Laden? Should those who have lost loved ones to genocide forgive those who perpetrated it?
If we take Jesus seriously on the question, and if Jesus is to be authoritative for Christians on this question, the answer is “Yes.” But what about justice? Is not God just and would God not also want justice to be done to those who have caused harm? Isn’t an ethic of forgiveness simply impossible in the face of injustice?
Jesus ethic of forgiveness is often considered unrealistic and even a “bad” ethic because of the way it undermines justice. This criticism seems reasonable as far as it goes, but it overlooks what can happen when forgiveness connects with resurrection.
People caught in the grip of resentments and a desire for vengeance, however much justified, often cannot get beyond those feelings. They find themselves immobilized and unable to experience abundant life or newness of life. Jesus did not say to forget about offenses and hurts, and he certainly did not say to ignore injustices. The point, however, is that he turned away from vengeance, revenge, and “eye for an eye” thinking when it came to justice. He sought to resurrect justice itself, turning it away from retribution, the infliction of pain in equal amount to that received, toward a way of restoring broken relationships. Is not the creating of new relationships by seeking to restore and put right broken relationships not at the heart of the Easter event celebrated by Christians--and at the heart of the teachings of Jesus?
Easter is, of course, a time for “in house” theological talk among Christians. But Easter proposes a new ethic, a new way of living and being in relationship with others, so that embedded in the Easter story is a more universal message, one that awaits consideration by people of good will everywhere. That message is focused on the practical reality of moving ahead by letting go of the anchors of resentment that hold us back, of finding new life rather than dying in the ruts where we relive old hurts over and over. That resurrection ethic pushes us to consider the challenge of forgiveness as the dynamic that will change our relationship with others, even our enemies, because it changes us, and if we are changed, the relationship is changed. That resurrection ethic pushes us to the heart of justice itself. For in the work of striving for a better world, a more humane and decent world, forgiveness ultimately transforms justice itself, recreating it as an idea of restoring broken relationship rather than inflicting harm in equal measure on those who cause harm. This resurrection ethic is still a challenge and still the object of skepticism, but that may simply mean that this ethic, which is two thousand years old, is still ahead of its time and is still waiting to come to life.
Tough Questions at Christmas (The Morning Call, “Faith and Values Column,” Saturday, December 20, 2008: p. D6, D7)
“There are three kinds of questions,” a friend recently said to me: “Easy questions, hard questions, and tough questions. Easy questions—those are the ones you know you can answer; hard questions require work.” “And tough questions?” I asked. “You have to be brave to ask tough questions. Tough questions require courage.”
I was wondering about the tough questions we are facing today. With so much distress in the world today, is not almost any question we ask a tough one? (Easy question). What does the future hold in store? Will the economy recover? What about health care and college affordability and looming unemployment? War? Recession? Terrorist attacks? The list goes on and on, arousing so much anxiety, even fear, that hard questions become tough questions that take actual courage to face.
Are there good reasons for hope in the face of all the doubt and insecurity we are experiencing today? This is a hard question, one that requires some work, but I am not sure it is a tough question. There is always reason for hope, whether it be grounded in a new administration about to take over in Washington, or an economic readjustment that may lead to an vibrant economy built on different kinds of energy sources—or the hope all parents have for their children. We can always poke around in our lives and find a little hope—but can we do so with faith? Tough question.
Hope is based on the unknown, faith on moving into the unknown. Faith requires courage more than curiosity. Hope is a possibility of seeing of the light, faith a coming into the light. Hope anticipates but faith acts—and acts in the here and now. Rather than faith being a synonym for belief, faith involves trust and reveals what we believe and how we understand. Faith is a matter of action and attitude, and in faith we express our beliefs by what we do, which is visible in the public world and discernible by all. When we ask in moments of challenge, disorder or stress “Where is my faith?” faith would have us look at ourselves, at what we do and how we act, to get clear on what we believe and where we put our trust. It takes courage to do that.
The Christmas season is traditionally a time when Christians focus on hope and expectation, but it may be that faith questions are even more important, for they ask us what we will do in light of what we believe about this season. Will that old familiar story remind us in new ways about hospitality and welcoming the stranger? Will the idea of birth and new beginnings invite us to reexamine our habits and routines, our everyday certainties, perhaps even our prejudices—so that change might come? Do we believe we can act for change—and in a different way than through an election? Can we change destructive patterns of behavior, or close-minded attitudes, or the unwholesomeness in our relationships? Where is our faith and in what or whom? How do we show it?
Christian theologians have often described Christmas as a divine gift-giving, a gracious and I would say courageous action expressing God’s faith in humanity. It also ought to be seen as an announcement to the world that even God is willing to try something different. And what would eventually grow out of that Christmas story was a communication about something different—that the old ways, the old patterns, the ruts we have created for ourselves must change. We all know the words, but it takes courage to hear what we are being asked to do through faith—that we love one another, that we not create enemies or hold onto enmity and divisiveness, that we forgive and offer ourselves in service to others: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sick and visiting the imprisoned. We may believe that these are good things to do, but when we dismiss these actions of faith as idealistic but impractical, as requiring too much, we turn away from faith, reduce faith to a kind of idle belief, and show ourselves to ourselves as lacking the courage faith requires to act.
A Christmas faith looks beyond the hope of the season to see what we are doing—now, right now, in this world, at this moment. At this Christmas time, when we are caught up in all the trappings of the holiday--the fun of it, the music and story, the gathering times with family and friends, the gift-giving and shopping, the much needed calls for aid from those who seek to address the needs of the disadvantaged, even the loneliness for many —we remind ourselves that faith is a doing and that every moment is an expression of what we believe and how deeply we care. Every moment is a revelation of who we are—of our trust and understanding. Christmas is a story of faith as well as a story of hope and joy; and asking “How am I doing my faith this Christmas?” can be a gift—the gift of courageously confronting what for many us will be a truly tough question that we can resolve to answer with our lives—in faith.
Lloyd Steffen is University Chaplain and Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University.
To the Editor /Brown and White/, published 14 November 2008:
The Lehigh community has been hard at work trying to confront the meaning of the racially charged acts that took place in the wake of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, and many people I have talked with, and many people I have heard speak about the problem, both at the Movement meeting and at the Town Hall meeting, are wondering what to do, how to react, how to make something constructive come out of this.
My concern is with the spiritual aspects of all that is going on. Spirituality is what you do with your freedom, and there is much to commend about the many people in our community who have been using their freedom to organize meetings and conversations, to wear red shirts as symbols of opposition to racism, and especially to “show up.” It matters that people “show up” at meetings to address issues of importance to the community, for that is a way translate concern and care for the community welfare into action.
But I am concerned that we may not be tapping into the depth of the spiritual problem before us. We have been focusing in on the racism, and people of good will know that racism is a terrible evil. Racism, however, is an attitude, and as difficult as it is for me to say this, and perhaps for some to hear, racism is not really personal. Racism is a generalizing attitude and a hate-filled motivation directed in a sweep at anyone who happens to fit the profile of the group where the hatred is directed. What makes it so pernicious is that it is not concerned with individuals. It cannot see individuals, it cannot take time to hear their stories or care about their lives—it just blankets people with hatred because they are part of this group--that race, this religion, that ethic group.
What we have yet to confront is that the incidents last week were more than racially motivated—they were also very concrete, and very personal, acts of violence. Violence. When a derogatory epithet was hurled out of the window of a passing car, a human being, a person, a member of our community, was hurt by that. The dignity of an individual person was assaulted, and an individual received an unjust infliction of injury. What occurred was an act of violence. To focus in on the racism without seeing the violence is to miss the whole picture and perhaps to miss why those who were injured are so outraged and why they feel so violated. I thought some at the Movement meeting did not hear the outrage, but that is because they could not translate the racism so much on the floor for discussion into a concrete act of violence that fell on a particular individual, a person whose dignity had been assaulted and injured.
So we are trying to figure out what to do. We can address racism in many ways—I think all people of good will deplore racism, and the witness against racism is important. But racism is often hidden, sometimes even unconscious, and it does not always explode into acts of violence. We can deplore racism, but let us not forget that what we are dealing with in this situation are acts of violence that happen to be motivated by racism, and we must address the violence. We must face that what happened were acts of violence.
I have two things to say. First, people of good will must stand against violence and resist it. That means that we must resolve to oppose violence when we confront it. It also means that we must not contribute to its perpetuation. We must resist violence and refuse to allow it to grow in our midst. We can so focus on the impersonal racism of benighted attitudes that we miss the very personal acts of violence that cause suffering to individuals. To see the violence as violence is the first step in resisting it. We may have to educate people out of racist attitudes, but we must oppose violence individually ourselves—we must assume responsibility and personally resist it.
Secondly, we have to realize what constitutes violence. Violence is the deliberate infliction of harm on people. We are too quick to think of violence as only a certain kind of act, like hitting, shoving, raping, stabbing or shooting someone. But violence is inflicting harm on others deliberately, and there is a continuum of violence. And the continuum starts with eye rolling, then moves to gossiping, starting rumors, gesturing, staring or leering, writing graffiti, name calling, taunting, ridiculing, stealing, cheating, sexual harassment stalking, intimidating. If the question before us a community is violence, then we should very much be concerned with what to do and how to respond. Here’s something concrete to do: Resist eye rolling or putting people down or talking behind their backs and diminishing them. These are acts of violence, and if you do these things, you are part of the problem. We may deplore the recent racist acts and want to stand in solidarity with those injured by them, and that is good, but we must also address the violence and then ask, “What can I do to reduce violence, to stand against it, to resist it?”
Violence is a great challenge to each of us because we all confront every day opportunities to participate in a culture of violence by our actions and inactions. Many of us at Lehigh will never experience a racially motivated injury like those inflicted in the recent events, but all of us can claim a responsibility to stand in defiant resistance to the violence that threatens to tear people down, to demean others. Our spiritual and moral task to stand with one another in solidarity against those who would inflict harm on others; we must refuse to be a part of such activity; we must not allow ourselves to be participants. We must stand against violence—and that is something everyone can do because the opportunities for violence arise every day. If you stand against violence you will also stand against racism and sexism and every other attitude that assaults the dignity of persons. My hope is that we shall not lose sight of the violence that occurred last week—it was very personal, and my heart aches for those who had to bear its injury.
Remarks at Dalai Lama Display Opening in Linderman Library – October 14, 2008
Location: Linderman Rotunda
Dr. Lloyd Steffen, Professor of Religion Studies, University Chaplain
I am pleased to be here today, pleased to see the display, and pleased to acknowledge once again the significant help that the staff at Linderman Library has given to all of the efforts made by Lehigh University in regards to the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to our campus in July of this year.
What a remarkable event that visits was. Two years in the planning, Lehigh University worked alongside the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center
and their directors Joshua and Diana Cutler, along with the Office of Tibet in New York City, the State Department, and a variety of other people. We went through a year of preparation that brought to campus major Tibetan Buddhist scholars, the President of America's only Buddhist inspired university. We heard from some of our own faculty who have been working in Tibet, some for years. We had Tibetan meals in the dining halls, new courses in the curriculum, film showings, an orientation common book reading of the Dalai Lama's autobiography, photography and art displays. And standing here, I am reminded that several Tibetan Buddhist monks spent a week in Linderman a year ago this month creating an extraordinarily beautiful Mandela—a spiritually disciplined construction effort presenting the home of the Buddha. This was constructed right here in this rotunda, much to the delight of those who saw it come to life, then pass away in the flow of waters and time.
Linderman opened itself in a most hospitable way, our librarians contributing not only to the Mandela effort, but preparing bibliography of extant resources on Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama for the library and for the Dalai Lama web sites; they connected as well with the local Bethlehem Area Public Library to put on a series of talks related to the Dalai Lama's teachings, doing so in hopes of involving the wider community. That we remember the visit of the Dalai Lama to campus here in Linderman is special and appropriate—all of us who were involved in planning the visit are grateful to the library staff for all the hard work and dedication they showed.
So the Dalai Lama came, he taught, and he conquered. For five and one half days he taught a rapt audience in Stabler the wisdom of the Tibetan Buddhist way as laid out in Tsong Kha-Pa’s sacred text, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment—Lam Rim Chen Mo. And he delivered a public lecture for the edification of the many Lehigh University faculty, staff and students in attendance, along with many of our neighbors, not only in the Lehigh Valley but from other areas of the country and even the world.
And he did present a challenge. Responding to a question about American values, he said something like "You are perhaps too concerned with competition." We have in recent days seen how competition gone mad can lead to global financial upheaval, how competition can be spurred on by greed and bizarre, arcane practices many of us never knew—selling short, or the role of derivatives that require highly specialized knowledge at odds with simple justice and honest brokering. Our current crisis could be seen perhaps as a perfect metaphor for competition gone frenzied and out of control.
And even today I doubt we are able to hear his criticism that perhaps addresses the spiritual and moral problem behind the losses and gains, the foreclosures, the looming unemployment, the anxiety and uncertainty—perhaps the remark was too simple, and by being too much to the point of a values orientation, it presented too much of a challenge to the way we live and what we value to even hear it or take it seriously. But perhaps we should wonder: what would life be like if cooperation were to fill every space in our lives where competition now holds court? We may be in the process of finding out, since it is now cooperation and the idea of pulling together that has emerged as a necessary fall back position—the only course of action that seemed to hold any hope for rectifying matters and moving us beyond the current crisis.
We have moved on. Another school year has begun, and we see in the distance the conclusion of another semester, another year—a year that saw Lehigh University the host of a spiritual leader whose message to the world is cooperation, dialogue, peace and compassion.
My own feeling is that this was an event of great moment for our community—a moment of teaching and learning, of acknowledging that we are in need of wisdom, and that wisdom is a spiritual attainment—and to acquire it we need to be listening to spiritual leaders if we are fortunate enough to find them. The Dalai Lama is such a leader, and his touch of grace and good humor affected many people in positive ways.
And I am reminded in this moment of all the people who helped plan for this visit. For planning included many good Lehigh citizens cooperating with the Tibetan Learning Center and with one another: from the Provost’s and President’s Offices, from the bookstore, from the campus police, from dining services, from facilities services, from Stabler, from residential services, community relations, from communications and from library technical services—over 300 people in all I am told—and yes, from our librarians. And it is not that there were not bumps and sometimes a miscommunication to deal with, but this intensive preparation and planning was undertaken in a way that was, I believe, marked by respect for the message of the Dalai Lama himself—it was undertaken by people who respected one another, who found ways to work together, who did so with humor and good cheer, who came to enjoy the work and the contact with others they do not typically see in the course of their work lives here at Lehigh—and we worked to make something significant happen.
I think in this moment, as we mark the opening of this display, we should as a community extend to one another a thank you for work well done. This Lehigh University community deserves a thank you for all the good work, yes, but even more so for all the good will that marked this event. We are grateful for the beauty that appeared to us on the stage at Stabler as well as in this rotunda – once a Mandela construction site; we are grateful this day for the learning opportunity created by this visit, for the learning that that took place, and for the wisdom we may have glimpsed but are reminded we must still seek.
Living the Questions
"Faith and Values" Column, The Morning Call, Saturday, September 13, 2008: D7.
By Lloyd Steffen
Given that questioning is an activity we often associate with science or philosophy, we might expect a truly philosophical scientist like Albert Einstein to have something to say about question asking; and so he does: "If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I knew the proper question I could solve the problem in less than five minutes."
Getting the question right is hard work—that is Einstein's point, and question asking is critical for advancing knowledge and achieving understanding. We ask questions when we are trying to understand things we don't know or understand. And although we can accept that philosophers and scientists must be about the business of formulating questions, many of us do not typically think of the spiritual life as urging people to focus primarily on this activity of questioning. Some might even go so far as to say that the spiritual life is where we finally put an end to the anxiety created by not knowing, so that religion functions to provide authoritative answers that put our questions to rest. Many religious people, and their observers, think that religion is about answers, not questions, and that faith bestows a wonderful gift that cannot be acquired by constant question asking—certainty. In the face of certainty, questioning may seem subversive, even an impiety—for if the spiritual life involves mystery and not knowing, we must take things on faith and let the questions cease.
I myself very much agree with those who say “It’s all a mystery,” but I am not so quick to belittle questioning as a central aspect of what it means to be spiritually alive and engaged. The activity of questioning and the willingness to engage in the activity may be more important than any particular question that is asked or any answer that is given. For questioning is about expressing a desire to learn—it always puts the questioner into a learning posture, which is necessarily open and humbling since a question is also a confession of not knowing, not understanding—yet wanting to.
Einstein's remark reminds us that learning to ask questions may really be what learning is all about, and that any system of education that does not emphasize learning through questioning is to be pitied. A great deal of our American educational system is directed towards rewarding "right answer" thinking, symbolized perhaps by the one correct answer exam question. Learning based on conversation and dialogue around questions that open out and reach beyond informational tidbits and "true/false" thinking has a hard time making a meaningful impact in a technologically driven learning environment focused on problem-fixing.
Authors Eric Vogt, Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, in their article "The Art of Powerful Questions," argue that America is enmeshed in a culture that is actually averse to the question, and that aversion, they write, is "linked to an emphasis on finding quick fixes and an attachment to black/white, either/or thinking." They note, by contrast, the way in which organizations can sometime place a high value on questioning. They point to some German corporations, like Daimler, Bayer and Siemens, that employ a "Director of Fundamental Questions" or Grundsatzfragen. Some large corporations even have entire departments dedicated to thinking about what questions should be asked within the community around all kinds of different activities, from production to marketing to human resource administration. The authors note that when American companies acquire a German company, the Department of Fundamental Questions is usually among the first to be eliminated.
Questioning exposes hidden assumptions, motivates fresh thinking and helps to stimulate creativity by opening up new possibilities for conversation and learning. While it would be reasonable to hope that our educational systems would direct efforts toward helping students become skillful at the activity of question asking, going after the whys, hows and whats and not so much at the "Yes/no" and "true/false," should we not encourage this in the spiritual life as well?
In "Letters to a Young Poet," the great German poet, Rainer Rilke, offered this advice: ". . . try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."
The idea of "living the questions" points to how questioning can become central to the spiritual life. It is not that answers are not available to the great spiritual questions like, "Who am I?", "What is God like?" "What is my purpose?" "How do I find—make—meaning?," but that questions too are important and to be valued. Jesus once asked his followers, "What do you want me to do for you?" (Luke 18.41), and many answer even today with a laundry list of things he can do, including bringing them happiness, wealth, health and every good thing. But if one lives that question, as I suspect Jesus may have lived it, it might be that Jesus was not looking for answers but for another sympathetic soul, perhaps even another fellow questioner, one willing to reply, "No, what can I do for you?"
Questions—your questions, my questions, our questions, whatever they happen to be—must be allowed to live and breathe. They must come up out of our deepest longings for connectedness to others, and they must express our deepest cares and concerns. We must not stifle them or shoo them away as nagging nuisances, but instead welcome them, allow them to take shape, and dwell with them even as they unsettle us. Living the questions means that we can and should live, as the poet said, toward answers. Disciplining ourselves to live the questions leads us to more and better and deeper questions that inevitably take us into the lives of others, where we come to see and appreciate their questions even more deeply than our own.
Lloyd Steffen is University Chaplain and Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University
Why the Dalai Lama Matters
The Morning Call, Wednesday, July 9, 2008: A 13. (web published several places internationally, (e.g. http://www.tibet.ca/en/newsroom/wtn/3097,http://temp.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=21906&t=1&c=4)
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, visits the Lehigh Valley this month. Why all the excitement? Why is the Dalai Lama so important?
One thing everyone knows about the Dalai Lama is that he is famous. His face and cheery smile are known the world over. He is, in fact, an iconic figure whose status as a bona fide "celebrity" was confirmed when a Dalai Lama 'paper doll' cut-out book was published not long ago. But why does he command so much attention? Does he not come out of a religious tradition—Tibetan Buddhism—unfamiliar to many Americans? And the conflict between Tibet and China that has put the Dalai Lama in the news lately—does that not involve a regional history over issues that for most of us are simply obscure? Why is the Dalai Lama thought to be important? Fair question.
To answer the question requires just a little “Who’s Who in the World” background. The title "Dalai Lama" is a Mongolian and Tibetan hybrid term that literally means "ocean teacher." The Dalai Lama is believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be the reincarnation of the Buddha (or bodhisattva) of Compassion. He is believed to possess a wisdom as deep as the ocean, and the title identifies its holder as the highest spiritual authority in Tibetan Buddhism. The current Dalai Lama, born in 1935, was recognized as a living Buddha when only three years old. He began monastic training at the age of six, completed doctoral studies in Buddhist philosophy at the age of 25, and was acknowledged as the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. In 1950, when only 15 years old, he was named head of the Tibetan state.
After the success of the communist revolution in China, Mao Zedong tried to unite Tibet with the People’s Republic of China, the ostensible purpose being to modernize Tibet. Chinese military forces invaded Tibet, and the incursion was met with resistance and bloodshed. With his life threatened and with efforts to bring peace to his homeland having failed, the Dalai Lama was forced into exile. In 1959 he crossed the Himalayas and took up residence in Dharamsala, India where he has lived ever since. He is known the world over today for his teachings and writings on spirituality, ethics, human rights and nonviolence, and the numerous awards he has received in recognition of his efforts to promote justice and resolve the Tibetan situation nonviolently include the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.
There have been many spiritual leaders, many different heads of state, even other exiled heads of state, and quite a few Nobel Peace Prize winners—so why is this man, who describes himself always as “a simple monk,” important? Let me suggest three reasons.
First of all, the Dalai is an extraordinary teacher and a gifted communicator. His fame derives from his efforts to stay in constant communication. He is a New York Times best selling author many times over, able to reach wide audiences; he is a lecturer to hundreds of thousands of people across the globe—a true global citizen; and he is the subject of many films and documentaries, including Martin Scorsese's bio-pic, Kundun. The Dalai Lama has succeeded in translating central ideas from his Buddhist tradition to people in a way—and through all kinds of media—that speaks to their common spiritual needs and longings, regardless of whether they are Buddhist or even religious at all. But he has also taught Buddhism along the way. Much of what many people know about Buddhism comes from their encounter with the Dalai Lama, who has connected with people as only great teachers can, embodying in his life and words a message that speaks to the great questions about life and its meaning.
Secondly, the Dalai Lama is important because of the specifics of his message. The Dalai Lama reminds us that we are all in the same boat, that suffering is our common condition. He humbly suggests that we are responsible for one another, and that geographic boundaries should be no impediment to our sense of responsibility. We are all connected. And we all want the same thing out of life—we want happiness. His teaching, then, is designed to illuminate the pathways that might get us to happiness. Learn patience. Show tolerance. Seek wisdom. Forgive. Make love your aim as well as your mode of operation. Offer compassion and help those who are in need. Calm yourselves and seek peace within—meditate. Bring peace to the world through a life of care and empathy. Shun violence and hatred. Channel anger and overcome fear. Build your life around these values, rejecting the excesses of materialism and the temptations to resolve conflict by resorting to violence. Make kindness your ethic. You cannot be too kind.
These are messages that can be found many places, including the religion of Christianity. What is unusual about the Dalai Lama as teacher is that he has extracted these messages from theological trappings and offered them as wise counsel and living directives to those seeking spiritual enlightenment. This is radical business and the kind of teaching that many Christians find difficult, since in many versions of Christianity the message about what is required to do is subordinated to requirements about belief. The Dalai Lama dissociates the two—he focuses on the doing, on the requirements of peaceful living and wisdom seeking. He does not force his Tibetan beliefs on those outside his tradition—when people tell him they don't accept reincarnation he laughs and says, "How could you? How is that a part of your life?'
And this leads to a third consideration. The Dalai Lama is important because the challenge of his message is this: "Stop doing business as usual." The idea that we can find peace through force of arms or happiness through acquisition is illusory. He urges people to rethink what they want and how to get what they want, and with so much misery and unhappiness in the world, the way to happiness will not come from doing things as we are used to doing them. Reprioritize and revalue, he seems to be saying. Emphasize dialogue, not confrontation. Think about cooperation rather than competition. Think about advancing the interests of others as much as you do advancing your own. Make every encounter with another person the greeting of a new friend. And when you are told this is impractical, remind your skeptic that if we do not reshift to an alternative set of values and refocus our concern to include all others, even the well-being of the planet itself, we imperil our very existence.
The Dalai Lama relates this message from his Buddhist sources—it is not an alien message for me as a Christian. What I celebrate is that the Dalai Lama has found a way to make this message heard today, even if it is through massive media exposure and paper doll cut out books. The message goes to the hope for human happiness. The message is that business as usual is a well doomed to run dry, and alternative values, an alternative spirituality, will be required to energize peaceful and meaningful life in the days ahead. The Dalai Lama offers an alternative path away form the present unhappiness; he emphasizes a way of living that challenges what most of us value and how most of us live—and that, for me, is why the Dalai Lama stands in a long line of great spiritual teachers; that for me is why the Dalai Lama is so important.
Lloyd Steffen is Professor of Religion Studies and Chaplain at Lehigh University.
Mother Teresa's Saintly Struggles by Lloyd Steffen
Published in The Morning Call: September 15, 2007
Ten years ago, within the space of a week, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa both died.
While the 10th anniversary of the death of the princess was marked with various remembrances in the media and even memorial services in Great Britain, that same anniversary for the Saint of the Gutter, Mother Teresa, went mostly unnoticed.
Mother Teresa's name might not have arisen at all, except for a book that was being published that brought Mother Teresa back to the front page. The book, ''Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light,'' a collection of previously unknown letters written to her superiors and confessors over a 66 year period, revealed something so unexpected as to be sensational.
Mother Teresa disclosed a long experience of lonely spiritual emptiness, a darkness of soul in which the presence of God was nowhere to be found. Yes, this is the same Mother Teresa acknowledged by so many as a true saint, the Mother Teresa known the world over for her simple but profound faith, the Mother Teresa who in the spirit of Christ and with a joyful heart ministered to the poorest of Calcutta's poor.
The letters in ''Come Be My Light,'' however, reveal that this woman so widely honored for her deep faith was a tortured soul.
According to the letters, she had been for 50 years of her life racked with doubts and spiritual turmoil, what a recent Time magazine feature cover story would describe as her ''deep and abiding spiritual pain.''
Mother Teresa was for many years the most admired woman in the world, and for good reason. Sometimes in my classes, when I needed to grab onto an exemplar of noble, saintly behavior, I would invoke Mother Teresa's name as if by that invocation I could rest my case that selfless individuals --saints -- are among us.
I disagreed with Mother Teresa's opposition to birth control and reproductive choice and had no feel for her authoritarian leadership style, but Mother Teresa put her faith into action. She concerned herself with the material well-being of those she served, being with people when they died and making her order, the Missionaries of Charity, a witness not only to the ministry of service but to the injustice of a world where so many people were reduced to deep material want. She donated her entire Nobel Peace Prize award to the poor of India. Who could not admire this? Who could not see in her a saint?
Mother Teresa has been beatified by the Roman Catholic Church and is on the way to formal sainthood, but most people have for a long time reckoned her a saint as we understand saints in ordinary ways. But saints also present a problem. At the very moment they show us what we could be, they seem to reassure us that we are not like them -- and cannot be. They possess gifts and capabilities beyond ours. And because we are not like them, we are relieved of any obligation to try to be like them -- they present an unrealistic, unrealizable spiritual or moral perfection.
So identifying saints has become a way to take ourselves off the hook: what the saint did we cannot do, and although we admire the saint, because the saint is unlike ourselves -- that is why they are saints and we are not -- we do not have to feel that we need aspire in our own lives to such acts of spiritual daring or selflessness as we see exemplified in their lives. Our easy assumption that Mother Teresa was a saint, a spiritual ideal unattainable by the rest of us, is about to undergo revision. With the publication of Mother Teresa's letters, readers will encounter a woman of high religious dedication who is also besieged with doubt and tormented with an experience of the absence of God.
She will express utter loneliness and the feeling that she is abandoned in a spiritual desert. Her interior life, once assumed to be ideal and perfect, is exposed, and suddenly she is not an imaginary representation of something none of us can be -- she is one of us and she is returned to a spiritual life many of us find recognizable and familiar.
Some people have been upset that Mother Teresa expressed doubts about God; others have wondered about how these revelations will affect her canonization. The reality is that even -- especially -- people eventually recognized by religious authority as saints have almost to a person experienced doubts and the deep and abiding spiritual pain expressed by Mother Teresa. Even Jesus had his Gethsemane.
For saints experience spiritual dryness and even the sense of abandonment. Ordinary people do as well. There are rhythms in the spiritual life, times when all is not connected and the sense of absence dominates. And then there are experiences that can affect the spiritual equilibrium. If Mother Teresa once looked like a saint to me, she now looks very human and perhaps is more to be appreciated because of that. She is now detached from the untouchability of sainthood--which in a paradoxical way makes her even more like a saint, since saints commonly suffer such things in their lives as she did.
Readers of ''Come Be My Light'' are saying that it will become one of the great spiritual autobiographies. Mother Teresa had the gift of faith, not the gift of belief. She never walked away from her calling or ceased her work or stopped trusting -- and trust, not belief, is the heart of faith.
Lloyd Steffen is university chaplain and professor of religion studies at Lehigh University.
Rethinking Suffering by Lloyd Steffen
Published in Morning Call, May 20, 2007
An important way to gain insight into one’s own religion is to study faith traditions not one’s own. I have come to think hard and critically about my own Christian values as a result of having studied Buddhism, especially around an issue no one thinks trivial: suffering.
Buddhism and Christianity both take suffering seriously. In Buddhism, suffering is the first of Four Noble Truths: “All existence is suffering,” it goes. That does not mean that all of life is a continued experience of pain, as if every moment loved ones are dying, open sores are everywhere on the body, or hunger or thirst are constant and unrelieved. As a Buddhist once explained it to me, this idea about suffering is like sitting on an old wooden ox-drawn cart moving down a rutted dirt road. One of the wheels is out of round, so there is an ever-recurring bumpiness and unsettledness to the ride. It is hard to rest, hard to enjoy the ride, and hard to take one’s mind off of the situation. The rider’s consciousness becomes focused on a desire for a smooth ride and relief from the unpleasantness, which may not be too bad if one is up for it, but may be horrible if one is not. This is suffering—and that is a metaphor for our existence.
Buddhism then goes on to say that the suffering is caused not so much by the bumpy ride but by the desire to be somewhere else, and that what is needed is to get beyond this craving to flee into some other reality. Buddhism then turns moral and says that by following a path of right conduct, right speech, right vocation—an Eightfold path before the teaching is done—the suffering can end.
So what I learn from Buddhism is that suffering is an important and even foundational condition of our lives, but I also learn this unmistakable yet simple insight: suffering is not a good thing. In fact, the next move is to acknowledge that there are things we can and should do to alleviate it. The reason Buddhism emphasizes compassion is because compassionate people realize beyond their own suffering that others are suffering too, and that fills the heart with sympathy and a willingness to help others come to a place where suffering is overcome.
I like this understanding and think it not only rational, but wonderful as a religious perspective giving rise to an ethic of non-injury and attentiveness to others. When as a Christian I think about the stories I know of Jesus, I think this view conforms to what Jesus taught, since Jesus appears in the Scriptures as one concerned for the suffering of others. Biblical scholars are quite willing to say we cannot be sure of many things concerning the actual historical life of Jesus, but one thing they do seem to agree on is this: Jesus was a healer—there is so much attention to this aspect of his life and work that there is every reason to believe healing affliction and addressing suffering were defining aspects of his ministry. Whatever Jesus believed about God, somehow it expressed itself in an ethic of sympathy and compassion for others—it was a way of addressing suffering, and alleviating it by acts and a presence of healing.
That is Jesus—healer. Now we come to Christians, those who follow Jesus and his teaching, and this is where things get difficult. Many Christians, it seems to me, have ideas about suffering that do not grasp suffering as a bad thing or set us to work to relieve it in others. In fact, there are parts of the Jesus story that have led this Christian tradition that is my own to valorize suffering—that is, to make it actually a good thing, something we should honor and hold up as good.
We can look to the story of the Passion of Jesus, even Mel Gibson’s film by that name. Many Christians were moved by that gory film, and it was because they believe that the suffering Jesus underwent was something God needed to have as expiation for human sin, so by those bloody wounds we are healed, saved, restored to God.
Here’s what I think. That suffering was terrible and cannot be justified. Even though I have no doubt that Jesus was guilty of the crime of sedition for which he was executed—he did not condone the cruelty of the crushing Roman empire and all it did to harm people—not only did he not deserve that punishment: no one does, not any one of those three Good Friday offenders. But Christians have made that terrible suffering of Jesus a good thing because they have theologies where that suffering leads to their salvation. No wonder so many Christians support the death penalty—how bad can it be if it was through that means I am saved? In my view, Jesus’ suffering should lead us to say, “We failed him then, God could not possibly have wanted this, and we must work in this world so that what happened to him never happens again—to anyone.” If we ask, “What would Jesus think?” I actually believe he would agree with that.
And the idea of valorizing suffering—making it a good thing—appears in some Christian approaches to medical care. There are hospitals affiliated with Christian denominations that are guided by theological ideas that wind up inflicting, rather than alleviating suffering. Therapeutic abortions to save a woman’s life have been denied at some religiously affiliated hospitals. Other facilities have refused to give emergency contraception to rape victims because of theological teachings opposing contraception. And in one situation I know of a woman was denied an experimental treatment because it required contraception due to possible fetal injury if the woman became pregnant, but the hospital where the doctor worked would not allow the contraception, so the woman was denied a possibly life-saving treatment.
These actions cause suffering. It is a short step from thinking suffering is a good thing to actually causing suffering in others. And if we who are Christian were to ask “What would Jesus do?” can we really think Jesus would refuse a rape victim access to the kind of help that would alleviate her suffering—as if Jesus would assert some theological belief as more important than alleviating the horrible suffering of a rape victim for whom a pregnancy would simply make the suffering worse?
The religious life is so interesting because we are continually trying to figure out what it means to be spiritually attuned to truths bigger than the little ones that keep us comfortable and in the illusion that suffering is God’s to heal, not ours. If Jesus is any guide, the suffering of others is our responsibility. And we need to start thinking about this in different ways theologically: that if I let the suffering of others pass me by, if I assume it is someone else’s responsibility, then it is not only the other person hurt by my action or inaction—it is God. Perhaps as we ponder suffering, we shall come to see that God does not want suffering, does not enjoy it or require it or offer it as a “gift,” but wants only to alleviate it—and is depending on us to do it. And when we fail, and even use God as a reason for inflicting even more suffering, the pain that is caused reaches into the very heart of God.
Lloyd Steffen is University Chaplain and Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University. He can be reached at LHS1@lehigh.edu.
Remarks at Dedication of Linderman Library - May 17, 2007
In these days of information technologies built on the electronic wizardry of high performance computing, high-speed internet and CD rom collections of once inaccessible research materials, we are constantly reminded that a library is about more than books. It is about more than stone walls and new shelves and beautiful stained glass windows and even wireless connectivity—but it is even about more than books.
But having said that, let’s not forget that in some essential, defining way, this place is about books—and what every book is and hopes to become. For on the shelves housed in this temple of learning are hundred of thousands of conversation partners anticipating a hoped-for footfall, awaiting the catch of an eye, the reach of a hand, the sudden stretch of the spine and the deep breath of the opening of pages—and then, the exposure of thought and desire, passion and understanding, and even love as the book is given a chance to speak, even to commune. So this library is about more than books, but it is about books; and even more than that--it is about conversation partners. And all who come here as students and scholars and teachers, and all who work here, are in the business of arranging conversations.
Linderman now opens its contents, like a book itself, to show the world who we are and what we value. Now refurbished, rebuilt, restructured and reconfigured, air conditioned, electronically up to date, this library is now beautifully restored to its long standing purpose on this campus—to aid and encourage knowledge-seeking on the part of those who would be the servants and interpreters of nature—meaning not only the world external but all that is human.
If these books here are conversation partners, to be found here are many of the wisest sages of the ages. But we must also be honest—and perhaps this next thought is a distinctive faculty contribution to this occasion—for on these shelves are errors beyond counting and so many words that are mistaken, wrongheaded and even foolish that one would search in vain, I suspect, to find in this shelter of thought one book in which everything written is true. Truth eludes, even as the lure of wisdom persists, even prevails. And we acknowledge this even though many faculty at Lehigh have contributed their thoughts and insights to books shelved in this and in other libraries because of that insatiable desire to contribute to the conversation, to the learning. So have we contributed to the mistakes, even the folly? Of course. But we take heart—even Plato, who banished the poets, could get it wrong.
The faculty at Lehigh university, always eager to engage in conversation, that noblest of human pursuits, expresses gratitude to the benefactors and to all in the university who have created out of a landmark of tradition a new, revitalized conversation space. For faculty this will be a welcoming work space where attentive ears hear the call to move along, to think the next thought, to allow the imagination to fire through the energetic exchange of ideas and sharing of points of view, whether in the closed rooms of the classes or in the silence of the reading room. And this facility, now open and working again, will continue to reflect who we are and what we value even as it expresses a dream, which I hope as a faculty member I can say on behalf of my colleagues—is a dream for understanding, peaceful encounter with others, respectful disagreement, and above all a hope for wisdom.
Opening Remarks, Noon-time Service of Prayer and Remembrance at Packer Memorial Church, concerning Events at Virginia Tech University
April 17, 2007
Rev. Dr. Lloyd Steffen
University Chaplain, Lehigh University
The terrible news that came out of Blacksburg, Virginia yesterday has shocked a nation; and for all of us who live and work and study in colleges and universities, this news has brought with it a deep sense of violation. For our institutions of higher learning are among the most important symbols of what a free and open society should be—for in these places, we pursue knowledge and we share common values; we do not say this enough, but among those values is a deep and abiding dedication to peace and non-violence, without which we could not be free or open; we could not go about the business of leaning and teaching.
Yesterday, we witnessed how on another campus that context of peace was violently disturbed; and even all these miles away from Blacksburg, we experienced here, as has every other college and university in the nation, how vulnerable those of in this setting can be. We should, I think, be mindful that a free and open society is always vulnerable to those who would tear at the fabric of peace out of confusion, or hatred, or misplaced anger, or with some profound dislocation of madness. We can be prudent and do many things to protect the peace of a community, but incidents like yesterday remind us that an individual who wants to hurt and kill others and die in the effort may very well succeed in doing so, since that particular scenario is hard to predict and even harder to prevent—and were this not such a difficult moment we might even remind ourselves that events like yesterday are rare because, in fact, we are able, in many situations, to help people and relieve the stress of the demons that attack sanity and thus threaten the safety of others.
Because of our vulnerability, a vulnerability created by the fact that we choose to live together not in defensiveness against the outsider, but in peace and in accordance with the values of inclusion and difference, we may at this moment be tempted to give over to fear. I hope we do not give into that temptation. Fear is a terrible dynamic that if unloosed creates suspicion, barriers, and a shifting of values away from openness and freedom. Our university communities must resist giving into fear even as we continue to emphasize the prudence and caution that all members of our community must continue to exercise for personal safety. But as I say, yesterday was the kind of event it is hard to predict, harder to prevent for one willing to die to do what that gunman did.
We do not yet know what may have motivated a Senior English major at Virginia Tech to open fire on students and beset the Virginia Tech campus yesterday with mayhem. We do not know all that happened as university officials tried to respond to and contain a shocking situation in the early morning that compounded exponentially by late morning, but I hope we shall keep this in mind: we are always looking for someone to blame when these things happen—that is natural, I suppose, because in the face of such outlandish absurdity and chaos, we want to blame someone, for that is a way we can control our own sense of vulnerability. So blaming will go on, a sign of our own coming to terms with a need to make sense out of the senseless. It takes real courage to face the poet’s truth, a truth Jim Cohn has put this way: “sometimes the threads have no weave.”
We do not have the weave, only threads, and we need in this moment to be reflective and to understand that in a moment of crisis, information is sometimes sparse, there is no weave, no pattern, and decisions are made in contexts where all kinds of things are not known, and timing is everything—though in the moment we do not even know that. There is much we do not know and much we shall never know, but we must not let our desire to control this event by understanding the details of it obscure the fact that something terrible happened yesterday, and that how it happened may have simply been unpreventable, for someone was willing to die to do what happened, and that is hard to predict, and even harder to prevent.
What we do know about yesterday—of this there is no lack of information—is that there was a terrible loss of life on the campus of Virginia Tech University, and for that our hearts here at Lehigh are grieved. We here at Lehigh University, in this place, extend our condolences to all the families and friends of those who were killed and wounded yesterday in Virginia; and we gather to hold in prayer those so deeply hurt by the attack yesterday. We know that there are people in our community who know students and faculty there, who know professional colleagues, who know the campus and have friends there. Paul Torgerson, class of 1953 here at Lehigh, is a former President at Virginia Tech, and a 1994 honorary degree recipient at Lehigh—there are probably many connections between our institutions some of which you know even if the rest of us do not. For those affected by a personal loss of a friend or colleague, our hearts go out to you. We hold you today in prayer, and offer you our hand in hope of healing.
Father Killian and I shall offer an opening prayer for this time together; then the podium here is open for any who would like to share a thought or prayer. We gather in silence, and you are invited to meditate or pray in silence or share with others a thought or prayer as you will.
God of peace, God of comforting love: We find ourselves gathered here today in the midst of confusion over the frailty of our condition. We turn our thoughts to friends and colleagues, faculty and students and staff at Virginia Tech University, and extend to them our deepest sympathies over an experience of unimaginable loss. We ask that we might join your spirit of embracing compassion in extending our love as well to those recovering from wounds, to the families of victims, to the friends of those killed and wounded, to those who are offering medical assistance and counseling help, to those wounded in body and spirit so that they might be healed by your grace of hope and understanding.
We give thanks that the Blacksburg community afflicted by so much pain is resilient in hope—we give thanks that in a time of crisis, heroes arose to help and sacrifice and make pathways to safety possible for many. We would ask that the spirit of peace overcome the desire for recrimination; and that among those to whom we extend our sympathy is the family of Cho Seung-Hui whose suffering is every bit as great as any other in the experience of loss. We know the threads do not sometimes make a weave, and we ask that you be with all those suffering the pain of loss in holding them in your comfort, your peace, your fabric of faith, the weave of which we can see only dimly.
We ask blessing on your gathered people heartbroken by loss, that you might be with all of us, to comfort us, to hold us as we hold the threads that sometimes do not make a weave.
Remarks: Parent Weekend, November 5, 2006 (Packer Memorial Church)
"Religious Diversity on Campus: A Problem in Need of Attention"
By Lloyd Steffen, Lehigh University
I was recently asked by someone curious about the higher education world what is the big issue of concern at my campus? I had to pause for a moment to consider the usual suspects—careerism, sports, social life, politics; and then I said something that surprised even me. “Diversity.”
A campus-wide discussion about diversity is currently underway atLehigh. It was prompted in part by an admissions profile two years ago that included less than two dozen African-Americans entering the first year class. The small number exposed the uncomfortable reality that we were not doing enough to make our academic and social life offerings attractive enough to matriculate most of the African American students who had been offered admission. The revelation about this admissions problem embarrassed the entire community. It also provoked worried and widespread conversation—and calls for action. Students with faculty support initiated a movement which they called “The Movement,” the purpose of which was to address diversity issues and strategize about action with the administration. “The Movement” is ongoing today; the university administration has in turn set up task forces to recommend action steps to improve our diversity profile.
As we have turned community attention to the issue of diversity, we are still concerned to increase underrepresented populations on our campus. That said, however, diversity in the university setting is not and should not be simply about numbers and percentages—it is about education. Students who to come to into the contemporary university should expect to encounter people who are different in all of those ways people can be different; and students who do not experience change because of living in a richly diverse environment are cheated of the kind of education they need to succeed in our world today. As Lehigh continues to adjust its curriculum to involve students in a global learning environment, our educational mission has focused on educating citizens for life in a culturally complex, racially, ethnically and economically diverse world. The diversity issue is—and should be--about education.
But one aspect of diversity I have not heard discussed much has to do with religious diversity, and this is what I want to address.
Religion is one of the major transmitters of values. Religion shapes attitudes about such things as sex, family, marriage, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, uses of force, war and peace, economic justice issues; and even people who do not consider themselves religious cannot escape the power of religion as it affects the dynamics of cultural life in the wider society. Religion can inspire people to attitudes that may be positive and life-affirming, yet it can play a destructive role and cause people harm, for religion can inspire hatred, even violence. We are certainly familiar this aspect of religious in our time.
Religious diversity begins with the affirmation that people have a right—a right guaranteed by our Constitution—to religious freedom. What this means is that, in general, people can believe all kinds of things religiously as long as the free exercise of religion does not harm others.
Religious diversity in the university takes into account the uniqueness of the university population. Non-sectarian universities are more diverse places religiously than society at large. In society at large there are twice as many Protestants as Catholics; at Lehigh Roman Catholics equal and may even outnumber Protestants. In the university setting, the percentage of secular humanists is much higher than the national average; and Jewish, Muslim and Hindu students comprise a larger portion of this population than the society at large.
Religion provokes a diversity worry in the university but it is not due to the mix. The problem, I think, arises out of the university’s mission. That mission is to advance education, and, as I said, diversity in the community is integral to the educational product the university wants to sell. So in our effort to be non-discriminatory and welcoming to all kinds of people with all kinds of different backgrounds, we actually welcome people whose religious viewpoints and beliefs are at odds with our educational mission. That is a diversity issue we have yet to confront.
Consider this example. Our university nondiscrimination policy allows us to welcome into our community gay and lesbian people. That same policy honors religious freedom and welcomes people of diverse religious backgrounds. Some religious perspectives do not welcome gay and lesbian people—some people dislike, even despise gay and lesbian people, and do so for religious reasons. Diversity is up against diversity. Respect for religious freedom brings into our community people who hold negative attitudes about gay people—attitudes that contradict our basic mission of openness and hospitality to gay and lesbian people.
Our mission of inclusiveness creates an internal conflict concerning diversity. On the one hand, we honor non-discrimination; but observing that policy means that we inevitably admit people whose religious views regarding gays and lesbians are quite discriminatory indeed. We have had on the Lehigh campus some bias incidents and many students have been upset by them—rightly so. But what is the issue? Can we be upset solely at the individuals who might write a demeaning and discriminatory epithet on a wall—without also seeing that some who might do such a thing have the attitudes they do because of their religious formation? And do we not want to preserve respect for religious diversity as well and not discriminate against people because of their religious beliefs.
Do you see the conflict? We welcome people of different faith traditions here and do not discriminate on the basis of religion—yet religion is one of the major transmitters of the very values that stand opposed to the university’s mission of inclusiveness.
If we are going to have a thorough conversation about diversity, we are going to have to ask where these attitudes of hatred and discrimination come from, and if we should finally tease out their origins in religious ideas, we must move the conversation to religious ideas themselves. The question we have to face—and it is a troubling question—is, do people with such attitudes belong in the university? Can the university community—not just ours but any university with our mission—welcome into it people whose religious ideas and values put them at odds with the basic educational mission of the university?
I believe that the answer to this question is yes. We must continue to honor religious diversity. But the troubling part is that we can honor religious diversity only if we insist that individuals who hold beliefs and values that defy the university mission not act on them. Just as in our constitutional system religious freedom is limited and can be overruled to protect people—think of courts ordering blood transfusions for the children of Jehovah’s witnesses who would die without them--the university, likewise, must insist that its mission trump religious freedom if exercising religion might lead to harming of others. We are not free to exercise religion in such a way that it leads to harm; and religious freedom will not protect anyone who defies the code of conduct we have put into place to protect the community and to support an intentionally created, religiously pluralistic environment.
Religion is one of the major transmitters of values—positive as well as negative. And the reality is that if we are going to live together amicably, we have to subordinate religious values to moral values of respect and cooperation. The hope is always that religious values will conform to moral values, but the fact is that they need not. What is clear, however, is that in the university, that moral vision must prevail. If individuals are in a religious tradition that authorizes them to be hostile to gays for some theological reason, the solution for the community can be nothing less than this: to affirm that these individuals are free to hold their beliefs while also insisting that they are not free to act on them—they are not permitted to enact their hatred behaviorally and tear the bonds of respect that make possible our experiment in diversity.
When students convened a campus discussion to address what it feels like to be a gay student on the Lehigh campus, I did not hear anything in the time I was in attendance about religion. And the fact is that most of the hatred gay people experience in our nation, and on college campuses, springs from religion. Yet the university is committed by its policy of non-discrimination to the view that a straight person’s college experience is impoverished without an experience of living and learning with gay folks. The question then is, “How do we do diversity when diversity tells us we want gay people in our community, yet we also want to say that that we will not discriminate in admissions or in job hires against people whose religion tells them gay people are perverse or evil?” Inclusivness and religious freedom are both diversity issues. Both need discussion. Nothing is simple when religion comes into the mix.
My hope is that by bringing religious issues into the discussion in more explicitly ways, we will actually begin to allow the pull of what we do in the university as educators to affect people’s beliefs and understanding of religion. To hold a belief and not to be able to enact that belief will affect the strength and meaning of the belief for the person who holds it. By not allowing people to act out the negative, even destructive meaning of some of their beliefs, perhaps we invite reflection and even change those beliefs; and is that not all to the good? I do not think we should be afraid to challenge people’s beliefs, even their religious beliefs, in this setting—for asking questions and pushing conversation is what we do. That is our mission too. The purpose is not to question a person’s right to believe anything in particular, but to raise questions about our understanding, our limited perspectives, our different experiences, our interpretive fallibility.
We have had bias incidents on the Lehigh campus, and, like others, I am upset that they have occurred. But I also want to say this: how could we not expect to have such incidents when students come here from the wider society and in the wider society they learn bias? Out there is racism, sexism, hatred of gays, hatred of women, discrimination against people who are poor, or ugly, or short, or tall, from this ethnic heritage or that religion--all kinds of discriminatory attitudes. People come in here with what they bring in. What we try to do here is educate and raise prejudice to the level of conversation—for a prejudice that is under discussion is a prejudice that is dying.
Diversity is a pressing issue: if we do not attend to it, we can fail in our mission to provide an educational experience that attends to the reality of life in this rather complicated world of ours. And we move toward accomplishing that mission when we mix people up racially, ethnically, politically, religiously, in terms of class and gender and sexual orientation. We create a community where people expose their differences to one another, then have to talk with one another, which means they will have to learn from one another. And we impose a rule of respectful engagement to govern those conversations. That conveys a moral vision as it is expressed in the values of our mission. Respect for others is more than an ideal—it is a practical reality that members of the university community enact everyday behaviorally; and we can demand respectful behaviors of all members of the community whatever beliefs might be held, whatever the sources of those beliefs—even if they be in religion.
My thought is simply that as we discuss and strategize about diversity in our university settings, we must not ignore the role of religion. Religion can be divisive and exclusionary, and even in the university religion can provoke fear, even the fear of confronting religious ideas in their negativity, should such negativity surface. But in the university setting, it is a moral vision of respectful engagement that governs our encounters, our conversations, our learning; and religion must, in this setting, submit to that moral vision so that learning can take place, which includes, presumably, the dispelling of ignorance. The university can model for the wider society how to honor diversity by welcoming difference and insisting that it be treated with civility and respect.
Opening Ceremony for the “Eyes Wide Open-Pennsylvania” event at Packer Memorial Church, Lehigh University, October 6, 2006.
Good Morning. We are pleased to welcome to our campus the “Eyes Wide Open—Pennsylvania” project of the American Friends Service Committee. Today’s exhibit is a part of the national Eyes Wide Open project, and it brings to the Lehigh Valley, beginning today, here on the Lehigh campus, a reminder of the human cost of war. The exhibit features one pair of military boots for every Pennsylvania casualty in Iraq (and 50 pairs of civilian shoes, tagged with Iraqi names, representing the 50:1 ratio of Iraqi to US casualties in the current conflict.)
As of July 2006 Pennsylvania has lost over 128 soldiers, the third highest state casualty count in the US; and this includes Sergeant Jennifer Hartman, of New Ringgold, Pennsylvania, a Tamaqua High School Graduate, who died in a car bomb explosion in West Baghdad on September 14th.
This project is a reminder that war is a desperate and tragic means for solving conflicts; and it is also a memorial to those who died. Wherever the Eyes Wide Open project has gone, whether here in Pennsylvania or around our country, it has met with acclaim as it has reminded us, the same way the AIDS Quilt did here some years ago, that casualty statistics hide in their impersonal numbers very personal stories, very personal losses, and very personal grief, pain, and sorrow.
We open this event with some brief statements from a representative of this event’s on campus sponsors, the Progressive Student Alliance (Tamara Nisic); fro Professor John Pettegrew, Director of American Studies; from Terry Briscoe representing local community people working with LEPOCO, and from Scilla Wahrhaftig, from the Pennsylvania American Friends Service Committee. Following these statements, the names of each fallen Pennsylvania soldier will be read along with an Iraqui civilian casualty. The exhibit is open for you to walk through, to pause for prayer or reflection or meditation; to leave notes or flowers or other tributes; to remember and to mourn.
This event is a memorial tribute to the dead—and it is offered as hope to the living, that by remembering, we might renew our efforts as individuals and as a nation to work always for understanding, to work always for peace.
(Note: As of yesterday, the total number of deaths in Iraq number 2728, with 11,335 wounded and returned to action and 9352 wounded and not retunred to action.
“When the World is too Much With us. . . .” ( A Reflection on Hope and Choice) (A somewhat shorter version published in The Morning Call on August 19, 2006, p. D9, Faith and Values Column)
“The world is too much with us” William Wordsworth sighed two centuries ago in a short poem--and who would not agree?
Our world is filled with discord, violence and hostility. So many things seem out of control. Everywhere we look we face seemingly intractable conflicts and problems that defy solution. Think of the world that is “too much with us” us today: war in Iraq, Israel’s war with Hezzbolah, religious extremism and terrorist plots to blow up airliners. Poverty is pervasive all over the globe, and environmental degradation, illiteracy, overpopulation, disease and natural disasters pose continual threats to human well being, even survival. In the United States, we face unprecedented calamities in geopolitical affairs, and looming about are the domestic crises of health care, public education, immigration, a massive and unparalleled public debt, oil production interruptions and rising prices at the gas pumps. The warnings about global warming are suddenly real, and in the background: hurricane season. The world is too much with us, and we wonder what will come next.
A few months ago I was involved in a discussion with some college students about “the great issues of our day,” and one student put her finger on a problem that is often obscured when we catalogue all that is not well with the world. The student asked a simple yet arresting question: “But what can I do?”
That question reveals bewilderment and powerlessness. As new and complex problems arise and do so in the immediacy of a news break, bewilderment is a natural response. Events seem to catch us off guard, and we often lack the background for grasping the news of the day. How many Americans really knew about Hezzbolah before the recent conflict broke out? And moral compasses seem to spin rather than point, as when the American ambassador to the United Nations prepared a release (not formally delivered but nonetheless prepared) stating that the deaths of Israeli civilians are somehow worse that the deaths of Lebanese civilians? Amid so much conflict, ignorance and moral confusion, we find ourselves at times simply inadequate to the task of understanding what is going on. We are bewildered.
But more than bewilderment is the feeling of powerlessness that rushes in on us like a wave of exhaustion. So much seems out of control, and like that student, we feel personally helpless to affect change and make things better. When powerlessness joins bewilderment, the poet’s insight seems to say it all: “the world is too much with us.”
Our religious traditions address questions like “But what can I do?” by moving us to the spiritual resources that then allow us to make positive and creative responses to the problems of our world. Christianity, for instance, emphasizes the need to take into the world faith, love and hope—and in these days perhaps the greatest of these is hope. Hope is not optimism. Optimism is a kind of personality orientation whereby people approach the world as if things will not only get better but have to, for clouds do have silver linings and streets have sunny sides. Optimism has foundations in character—some folks are just oriented that way.
But hope refers to an attitude, even a confidence that things fit together even though “the events of the day” would suggest otherwise. An antidote to feelings of helplessness, despondency, or hope’s classic antagonist—despair, hope is what puts things into motion and impels us to labor; it directs us to envision possibilities and surround them with care; it stirs our imaginations to expect things—and not only to expect but also to attempt. Hope can mitigate grief and make consolation possible; it can heal even when there is no cure and move us to overcome difficulties. Hope directs us to the expectation of meaning and then makes real the possibility of spiritual truth, allowing us to approach the events of the day with balance, even some calmness, urging us to live as if we have yet to see the bigger picture.
That bigger picture inspires people to create possibilities for change. Recall how the original American constitution condoned—legalized—slavery and the political suppression of women. The curve of constitutional change since the time of Lincoln has been consistently in the direction of increasing freedom, equality and inclusiveness in our society. That is a big picture hope for those who experience discrimination before the law. Gays and lesbians are today victims of a terrible bigotry in American society, but as Bishop John Shelby Spong has said, “When we start talking about bigotry, its days are numbered.” As painful as this time is for gay and lesbian people, there is comfort—hope—in that insight.
So “What can I do?” when the world is too much with us? Buddhism lays out some guidelines for its vision of right living, directing people to respect life, avoid anger, gossip and boasting, and to act with kindness. And Buddhist teaching instructs people to find a right livelihood. A college student wondering “What can I do?” ought to give serious attention to that issue. What kind of occupation or career can I pursue that will contribute positively to peace of mind and the peace in the world? In Buddhism, this end cannot be accomplished by, say, making armaments or feeding a desire for wealth. The message: think about the need to conform work to the values of peace and compassion rather than sacrificing those values to the necessity of making a living.
“What can I do?” is a moral question about how we shall live, and it is a spiritual question about how we will use our freedom—to what end. In a world too much with us, heed Gandhi, who said, “Be the change you seek.” The question “What can I do?” ought not be a lamenting cry of despair but an opportunity to take hope into the world and an occasion to build that world through the pathways we take and the choices we make.
Lloyd Steffen is University Chaplain and Professor Religion Studies at Lehigh University.
AIDS and Faith (Published in edited form as a Spritual Journeys Column "Churches Offer Conflicting Messages about Gays" in the Express-Times, Friday, December 16, 2005: C 12, C 9.)
The issue of homosexuality and the Church has led to heated, often divisive debates in the Christian Church. Many Protestant Churches have been torn apart by disputes over including of gay and lesbian people into the full life of the church. These disputes sometimes center on ordination, sometimes on equal marriage. The Bible is not the fuel for these debates—the fuel is homophobia--but it is like the oxygen source needed to sustain the combustion. Some argue that the Bible condemns homosexuality, which in some places it does, while others argue that other values than obedience to the letter of the text must guide practice, values such as love, acceptance, and inclusion.
Given how rancorous and hate-filled some of these debates have become in various religious communities, all peace-loving people of good will, religious or not, ought to be grateful that those who appeal to, say, the Hebrew Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality do not push their literal interpretation so far as to agree with the divine commandment that homosexual people should be put to death, which is, literally, the punishment the Lord imposes on those guilty of homosexuality (Leviticus 20.13). Religious morality often has a “pick and choose” quality to those who claim to be literal interpreters of Scripture. It is as if they find themselves saying, “I’m literal when I quote the verse or part of the verse I like, but I can ignore what I do not like.” Nothing like the attention given the few verses in Scripture that deal with homosexuality is given to the more than 2000 verses that deal with the poor.
Roman Catholic Christians have recently heard from their new pope, Benedict the XVI, that gay men should be barred from the priesthood (unless they are free of “profoundly deep- rooted homosexual tendencies” and have overcome transitory homosexual inclinations in a three year period prior to ordination to the deaconate). This document arises from a study begun in 1994 and reinforces a stance the Church has taken since 1961.
Although this recent pronouncement argues that homosexuals suffer from an “objective” disorder that “gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women,” there is no doubt that the context for this document is the clergy sex abuse scandal. The papal pronouncement subtly reinforces an irresponsible stereotype. Read against the backdrop of the clergy sex abuse scandal, that unfounded stereotype is that homosexual people are sexual predators. (In fact, social scientists contradict this idea with data showing that sex offenders are as likely to be heterosexual as homosexual.)
The papal document does not mention clergy sexual abuse but it suggests that in order for priests to related correctly to men and women, the Church must refuse holy orders to men who happen to be gay and who want to respond to a call to the priestly vocation. The suffering this may cause gay men who feel called by God to the priesthood will never be fully known. The Roman Catholic Church is facing various problems with the priesthood, but this document, which does not address the sex abuse scandal, provides a basis for concluding that homosexuality is the problem underlying that scandal. That conclusion is uninformed and irresponsible.
Lest it be thought Christianity is inherently hostile to gay people, it is worth noting that some Christian Churches have taken progressive stances of support for gay people, welcoming them into congregations and into leadership roles, including ordination. There is even a Protestant denomination that directly targets its ministry to gay, lesbian and transgendered people, the Metropolitan Community Church. We are blessed to have an MCC congregation in the Lehigh Valley.
The beliefs advanced in the Metropolitan Church denominational Statement of Faith says nothing about gay and lesbian people. The statement of faith accepts that the Bible shows forth God to “every person” that “all people are Children of God being spiritually made in God’s image,” and that God’s love is available to “all people.” On the basis of this theological vision, the Metropolitan Community Church reaches out to those who suffer exclusion in the community of faith, which in very real and practical ways includes gay, lesbian, and transgendered people. When, at a recent Sunday service, the local Metropolitan Community Church recognized World AIDS Sunday, the invitation to communion was extended to all, including those who have been turned away elsewhere in faith communities.
At that service, speakers acknowledged 46 million people world wide who are infected with HIV/AIDS, over 1100 of those people known to be living in the Lehigh Valley. The congregation focused on the healing power of faith and the difference people of compassion and inclusion can make in a world where condemnation and exclusion too often rule the day. Part of the AIDS quilt was draped behind the altar. Some acquainted personally with loss due to AIDS were present in the congregation.
The themes of this service were echoed elsewhere around the world. The Ecumenical AIDS Consultation issued a letter from Bangkok, Thailand to Christians everywhere reminding the Church that it is a healing community with a mission of “love and compassion,” and that the “Church can achieve much more than it has in the areas of awareness building, training, networking and advocacy to overcome prejudice, ignorance, fear and judgmental attitudes.” That letter called upon all member churches to “deepen a spirituality based on the love of God, the love of neighbor and love among ourselves especially as regards people living with and affected by HIV an AIDS.” The Church was itself envisioned as a sanctuary of love.
As debates in some areas of the Christian community focus on excluding gays, lesbians and transgendered people, others are reaching out to acknowledge their suffering and offer a healing place of refuge where the focus is not on judgmentalism but on compassion. They transform the community of faith by this emphasis.
Having experienced the celebratory service on World AIDS Sunday, I was reminded that those of us who are religious finally chose how we shall be religious. Although religious faith can always be used to sanction hatred and fear, there are other choices to make, choices that turn in the direction of healing, compassion and love of neighbor. And those are the choices that hold, I think, the world’s only real hope for peace and healing.
Lloyd Steffen is University Chaplain and Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University.
Homily for Parent's Weekend - November 6, 2005
Packer Memorial Church
Parents Weekend Interfaith Service
Rev. Dr. Lloyd Steffen
Already? (A Protestant Meditation)
Protestants are a mishmash of oddly disparate ideas, organizational systems and beliefs-there are over 250 different denominations within Protestantism, and they are all over the map: liberal, conservative, moderate. If they have anything in common, it may be those shared conceptions that go back to the Reformation idea that every person should be his (or her) own priest-and with that as a founding principle you can see why there are so many different forms of Protestantism. Protestants in general hold that the Scriptures testify to God's revelation, and the center of worship is not prayer or music or a sacramental rite-it is the proclamation of the Word in preaching. Protestants preach-if you see Christian programming on TV where someone is preaching from the Bible, you are watching a Protestant in action..
With all the differences dividing Protestants from one another it is important to remember what they do hold in common. Protestants think the Word is important. The Word of God by the way is supposed to be Christ rather than the Bible-but many Protestants think the Word of God is the Bible, and that then leads to all kinds of problems and confusions. I could straighten all that out but do not have time this morning. The point I want to make is that the Word is important, but I am one protestant who thinks words about the Word are important, and sometimes the words are very small and ordinary, humble even, and seem not to be designed for carrying heavy theological freight.
I want you to consider with me one word this morning. And here's the set up. Our Commencement Speaker at Lehigh last June, poet and novelist Maya Angelou, is a person of deep faith. This fact is widely known. Accordingly, people sometimes approach her when they first meet her and say of themselves, "I'm a Christian." Ms. Angelou-Dr. Angelou-always responds to this statement from the strangers she meets the same way. She says, "Already?"
"Already?" Now that is a great word in this context. Think of the rich implications of responding to someone's confession of religious identity, "I'm a Christian." "Already?"
Dr. Angelou is reminding those people who say "I'm a Christian" that they are claiming to have arrived at a kind of destination-a destination of identity. "I'm there" they are saying-"I know you're a Christian. I'm a Christian-we have this profound religious identity in common." Her little response, "Already?" is proposing a different point of view on the matter-oh that is very Protestant. The Christian prospect and possibility, that little ordinary word "already" seems to say, is, rather, a process, a traveling rather than a destination, an open-ended on-the-road notion rather than a closed, sealed up identity. Its more like a question than an answer, more like a verb than a noun, more like a hope than a realization. People who identify themselves as "being Christian" rather than becoming Christian take a lot on in the way of assumptions and understanding. Maya Angelus little ironic question pricks and even rebukes that little bubble of self-enclosed identity.
But the question, "Already?" challenges the idea that things are settled in the realm of the spirit. That word asks us to reflect on what it might mean when people say "I am a Christian" and mean by that that they have arrived and reached the destination. Could it be that that final destination, that place of ultimate realization is where one is a Christian because one has become, dare I say it, Christ-like? And if the Christian identity is to be Christ-like, what is that?
I wonder if it might be all those things that Jesus of Nazareth exemplified and called for in his ministry and teaching: that compassion for others, that unfettered freedom to be a presence of peace and understanding, that attention to the beauty of the world and the suffering that goes on in it, that willingness to sacrifice for friends, that willingness to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the imprisoned, heal the sick and broken of spirit. Those are all things Christians believe Jesus exemplified. Is saying "I'm a Christian" -meaning I am already a Christian-like making a claim that I have realized these things in my life: "I am that person of peace and mercy and compassion-I have realized in myself the Spirit of God I have learned to see in Jesus of Nazareth, in Christ. It is accomplished."
To become such a person-to have accomplished the Christian challenge to be Christ-like--is actually a very beautiful thing to contemplate, I think, and one does not need to be a person in the Christian tradition to appreciate this beauty. But is that what it means when someone says "I am a Christian"--that to be a Christian means that I have become Christ-like, no, even more, I am Christ-Christ to others, and as such I can even see Christ in others?
That word "Already?" makes me wonder if we Christians invest too much in thinking about faith as something that transforms us from one thing to something totally different and distinct -I was a sinner, now I'm saved; I was lost, now I am found.
While this is an important part of the tradition, it seems to me that the great spiritual task we who try to be Christians must make is integration, not transformation. Can we take our brokenness, our doubts, our many failings, our insensitivities, and find ways to integrate these realities about who we are into our projects of faith? Maya Angelou offers a gentle rebuke as well as a reminder that all is not accomplished when she responds, "Already?" What our task is, is not to see this rebuke as mean-spirited but as the exemplification of what humility looks like in the realm of the spirit. Maya Angelou has known terrible adversity and suffering in her life-she has chronicled that in her writing. And it is the pain and despair she has experienced that has affected her and changed her and challenged her-it is that pain and suffering that has been integrated into the person we know today as wise and compassionate. She did not transform, convert from one thing into something totally different -which by the way seems always to fail, thus leading to charges of hypocrisy, which can arise anytime someone claiming to be Christian doesn't seem to be very Christlike. Maya Angelou did not transform, she integrated and grew.
The challenge we face in the spiritual life is not to be but to become-we are who we are, and our challenge spiritually is to become aware of who we are in our weakness and frailty, in our failures and foibles as well as to see our abilities and talents and the possibilities that lie before us. Our challenge is to shun the too quick identification of this somewhat ragged and humble self with the spiritual ideal, which for Christians is to be found in the life and ministry of Jesus.
We Christians are frail and fallible people. We can be mean-spirited, vengeful, unable to forgive, unwilling to lend a hand, selfish, violent, supportive of violence as a solution to all kinds of problems-and we can be that way even in the moment we go up to Maya Angelou and say, "Hi, I'm a Christian"
I would ask you to consider today what it would mean for those of you in the Christian faith tradition to identify yourself as people do to Maya Angelou. What should come back to you, not from Maya Angelou, not even from a curious Christ, but from your own awareness of who you are and what is required of you in faith, is a simple word, a reminder, a prod, a rebuke, a skeptical "Oh, really?" Maybe even that little word, that little question "Already?"
Noontime Service to Remember and Pray for the Victims of Hurricane Katrina
Rev. Dr. Lloyd Steffen, University Chaplain
Packer Memorial Church, Friday, September 16, 2005
President George Bush declared this day, September 16, a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the Victims of Hurricane Katrina. Our meeting here in Packer Church is our Lehigh University community response to that call. I am Lloyd Steffen, the University Chaplain, and on behalf of Father Wayne Killian, Director of the Newman Center and Catholic Chaplain to this campus, I welcome you to this brief service of prayer and reflection.
In response to Hurricane Katrina, President Gregory Farrington wrote to the Lehigh community saying, "Our primary focus since the tragedy has been on providing support to members of the Lehigh family from that region to help them through this terrible time. Recognizing that this crisis is far from over, we will continue to provide our community with information on how each of us can help."
After that communication, the President's Office announced that Lehigh University and its four colleges --- College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business and Economics, College of Education, and P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science --- have available office space and library resources, as well as some laboratory facilities, to accommodate faculty members from Gulf Coast universities who have been displaced by hurricane Katrina. The University Admissions Office undertook to offer guest student status to academically qualified students who had been at institutions forced to close by the hurricane. As of this moment we have 8 such students on campus.
Institutions of higher learning in the Gulf Coast region were not all similarly affected, but those seriously affected have had an excruciating difficult time. In New Orleans alone, Tulane University had some flooding but mainly downed trees and wind damage; Xavier University was flooded up to the roof tops of many buildings, historically black Dillard University was a 55 acre campus covered by 5-8 feet of water.
Lehigh's response to the disaster included some other notable efforts. The Student Senate passed a resolution offering student encouragement and support for university efforts to open Lehigh's doors to displaced students. The Dean of Students Office organized a general relief effort idea session last week, and among the ideas receiving attention is organizing volunteers for an alternative Spring Break or early summer trip to the affected area to lend a hand in the rebuilding effort. Faculty were gathered by the Global Citizenship program to discuss the broader societal questions provoked by the disaster and the response to it.
The efforts that Lehigh and other institutions of higher learning have made to offer a lending hand have been commendable, and the opening of pocketbooks and the flow of contributions to disaster relief organizations to displaced persons has demonstrated once again the willingness of Americans to show their generosity. Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster of enormous national consequence, and it reminds us of how connected we are-and how connected to one another we should be-as Americans.
But all of us are aware that this hurricane, terrible as it was, is not responsible for all the suffering and death that has occurred in the Gulf Coast area. The tragedy of Katrina was compounded by decisions human beings in positions of power and responsibility made about how to respond, and it is important to remember that inaction and not responding quickly were decisions people made, not simply inattentiveness or ignorance.
In our outrage and consternation we seem to have overlooked that the response of the federal government in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane was actually consistent with a reigning political philosophy, confirmed by national elections, about what the role of the federal government should be-that it is a limited role, and that states and local communities must take the lead in dealing with local problems. The federal government has identified its role as concerned primarily with external terrorist threats to our national security-and accordingly, it has reorganized government at the federal level to lessen involvement in responding to natural disasters.
Budgets express moral priorities-they are moral documents. They reflect what we care about and what we do not care about. When our national relief effort as represented by FEMA for such an event as this one is considered organizationally and as a budgetary concern, it is clear responding to a disaster like Katrina has been subordinated to the federal concern with terrorism. As you, I was shocked to hear some government officials initially responding to the disaster with words of relief that there was no evidence terrorists had broken the levees in New Orleans or were in any other way-as far as we knew, they said--taking advantage of the situation in the Gulf Coast, This is good to note perhaps, but should that be the focus given the immensity of human suffering that was presenting itself to us?
I think these are issues worth contemplating as we are called by the President of the United States into a day of prayer and remembrance. A question worth considering today is, "How should we, not only as individuals but as a nation, respond to such a disaster?" How should we think about our fellow citizens in trouble and the resources that will be necessary to help them? Do we as citizens want to empower our government to act as our agents of concern, and do we want to direct our concern for our fellow citizens with our tax dollars, with our governmental structures, with our budgets? These are very practical questions, but the practical questions have to affect how we think and theorize about the role of government. As I say, there is a deep philosophical consistency in the initial governmental response that has only changed under political pressure fueled by moral outrage from the vast majority of American citizens.
And we need to ask ourselves how as citizens we can support efforts to help affected and suffering citizens. Will it be through ad hoc volunteer ways, which are certainly useful; or do we also want to insist on a national response where our agent of action is actually the federal government, which we empower to be concerned with the welfare of all-black and white, rich and poor-and express that concern through our tax dollars, knowing that it is the tax dollar that makes possible the care for shelter, medical attention, food and water, and hope for recovery-that we as citizens want to extend to others as we would want to have the same directed to us? Perhaps we should even revisit the Golden Rule and consider this: Do unto to others as they would have you do unto them. That would be a hard test in the present situation.
The question worthy of considering today as we ponder and pray for our displaced fellow citizens is a moral challenge that asks whether we have done all we can to lessen human suffering A consensus is forming that we have not and did not, and I think at this point that is not a controversial statement, even for such an occasion as this. The President has admitted that the response was ineffective and has actually taken responsibility for failures in offering meaningful and effective help to lessen the loss of life and ease human suffering. What that acceptance of responsibility means we shall have to wait. Finger-pointing kinds of questions will continue to be asked about all of this in the days ahead, but there are even bigger questions we should be asking, questions that go to issues about what we as a nation care about and how we establish priorities, and how we think about the role of our federal government, the extent of federal responsibilities and the issue of security; and even what it means to contribute to the national capabilities for responding to natural disasters by organizing government, prioritizing budgets, and paying taxes.
In calling for a day of prayer and remembrance, the President has asked us to pray for the victims of Katrina, and we shall do that today, both in silence and in our shared expressions of concern. But let us also pray for the President, and our other national leaders, and for ourselves as a nation, and reflect on whether we are doing what we need to be doing to lessen suffering, to lend assistance to those whom Jesus called "the least among us," the poor and those dispossessed of access to the goods of life because of race and economic status.
We have seen the underside of America in the last two weeks, and the picture of Americans being left behind, not only figuratively because of economic status, but literally-as people who could not leave, who were left stranded, as a hurricane tore through their communities and destroyed their homes and their lives, --is nothing if not disturbing.
Let us pray today for the victims of Katrina and pray as well for our nation and its leaders, so that in the days ahead we might transform our individual concerns for the thousands who are suffering today because of the hurricane and the response and transform our willingness as individuals to show generosity into a broad community response that reflects the best that is in us as a people.
I invite you into a time of quiet reflection and silent prayer.
Mobilizing for Justice
by Lloyd Steffen
(Published as Nation's Problems Demand Call to Action, /Express-Times/Bethlehem-Easton](Friday, July 2, 2004): pp. C-1, 2.
The Rev. James A Forbes, Jr., senior pastor at the Riverside Church in New York,
has several times visited the Lehigh Valley. One of America's great preachers, he has been the
guest speaker at local Martin Luther King Day events, and among other visits here and honors
he has received, Lehigh University invited him as its Baccalaureate speaker in 1991, and he
received an honorary degree that year.
Rev. Forbes has, over the years, used his pulpit at Riverside to address a variety of public
policy and social justice issues, and he, like many other Americans, is distressed about the nation's
direction at this moment in our history. The leadership at Riverside Church, realizing that their pastor
is a prophetic voice and a spiritual resource for the nation, has encouraged and supported Rev. Forbes
in a call to action that aims to inspire, inform, and rally the public to actions of justice. Rev. Forbes
will be coming to the Lehigh Valley to be featured speaker at Rally in the Valley on October 12;
and on July 4th , buses will leave the Lehigh Valley to journey to Riverside Church in New York City
to hear Rev. Forbes preach on the occasion of Independence Day.
Rev. Forbes has written to the Christian Church community that at no time in the nations's
history has our witness been more urgently needed that it is now. The year 2004 is a critical one for
our congregations to come together and create a collective witness to reconnect America with its moral,
spiritual, and democratic values.
The crisis to which Rev. Forbes refers is economic, social, political and ultimately, spiritual,
and it does not take hard investigative reporting to discern its parameters.
Consider the economic issue of poverty in the United States. The federal government claims
to have taken five million people off the tax rolls, helping low income workers through tax cuts and
training programs. The poverty rate, however, rose from 11.7 percent in 2001 to 12.1 percent in 2002
the latest statistic available, and critics point out that the federal government underestimates the problem
because it fails to classify many low-wage workers as poor, due to unrealistically low poverty standards.
According to the government a family of four with an annual income of about $18,500 an hourly wage of $8.89
is poor, but the economic reality is that any family of four with income below $30,000 in any city in this
country is going to have trouble making ends meet. A $30,000 a year income requires an hourly salary of
$14.42, and according to the Economic Policy Institute, about 24 percent of workers earn less than $9
an hour, the federal poverty line for a family of four.
This is poverty in America, and were we go global in our outlook, the economic reality
is even more devastating. A Bread for the World reports that 842 million people across the globe
are hungry on any given day, and in the developing world, more than 1.2 billion people currently live
below the international poverty line, earning less than $1 per day. Eleven million children younger
than 5 die every year, more than half from hunger and related causes but that is over 30,000 per day.
The issues of concern could be multiplied on several fronts. There is disease, for instance,
the AIDS problem that is not only pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa but increasingly an American crisis,
especially in the black community. Environmental degradation and lack of safe drinking water for
millions in the world today is another concern, along with high child mortality rates, poor maternal
health, lack of universal primary education as well as a lack of decent housing. The problems we
face in America as American citizens and in the world as global citizens are mind-numbing, then
add to the mix religious and ethnic conflict, violence, war and terrorism. No wonder people of
good are distressed and troubledBand perhaps even reluctant to face any more: it seems too much.
What Rev. Forbes has said is that religious communities have a responsibility to address this
crisis, and he is speaking directly to clergy. Writes Forbes: If clergy
are silent, intimidated, afraid to speak up; afraid to confront, where there is injustice and untruth; if
we are scared, hiding behind pulpits while the nation is starving for justice and peace and compassion; if
preachers are hiding in the pulpit, what good news will get out to the nation?
Forbes cherishes America's democratic ideals, and is, like many others, distressed at the
problems we face concerning jobs, health care, education, affordable housing, elderly options,
safe communities, and peaceful resolution of conflicts. And he is wanting to hold the religious
community and its clergy leadership responsible for failing to address our problems in ways
that mobilize people for action. He not only accuses preachers of hiding in the pulpit, but
has said on several occasions that if preachers Aare not going to speak up, then turn in your badge.
Mobilization 2004, the name Forbes has given his effort, is designed to get Protestant, Catholic,
Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders to work their leadership roles for the good of the nation and
for the good of people who are hurting, suffering, and dispossessed.
What will become of this effort is yet to be determined, but it is heartening that local religious
leaders in the Lehigh Valley have formed an inter-faith "Mobilizaton 2004" coalition aimed at reconnecting
citizens to democratic values and people of faith to ideals of personal and communal responsibility. The mobilizers
are calling on local Lehihg Valley people of faith to reflect on the crisis so many see so clearly, assume responsibility,
and even ask if their own local religious leaders are attending to it. Are they speaking out, urging people
of faith as people of faith to mobilize for action directed at addressing inequality and human suffering?
Are they propohetic voices for justice, or, as Forbes suspects many are doing, hiding in the pulpit?
The prophetic voice of our time may or may not come from clergy, and Forbes has performed
an invaluable service by reminding clergy that their greatest temptation may be parochialism. But as mobilization
2004 gets underway, the point for spiritual reflection is that the responsibility for addressing the great
issues of our time belongs not simply to clergy but to all of us, which means that people of faith must
address these issues, not as political partisans, but as people of faith committed putting faith into action.
Blessings (published in the Express-Times, November 7, 2003 under title: "We all have power to bless others generously")
Spiritual Journey Column
"Who will say the blessing?" This is a question that sometimes arises as people sit down
to eat a meal together. Out of family traditions a ritual of blessing invites people to say
together words of gratitude and thanksgiving for the food before them, which they pause
to see as a gift; and the words of blessing usually express a resolve to dedicate the gif
t received in service to God. Blessing is thus a complex matter: it is prayer; it is
thanksgiving, it is a bond of community and intimacy; it is consecration and dedication to service.
Blessing comes in the saying of it, being one of those unusual words that performs its work in the
speaking: "Bless this food" or "Bless me" or "God bless you" and by the utterance the deed is done.
Blessing makes happy with gifts; to bless someone or something is to confer well-being and
happiness out of abundance. "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" Yahweh says in the
first commandment uttered in the Hebrew Bible. Abundance and generosity attend this divine
blessing of plenty, and elsewhere in the texts of the Bible one can find a God
blessing by providing, whether it be bread from heaven or springs of water in the desert.
God provides by blessing, seeing to it that people's needs are met.
The whole creation reflects a divine generosity that confers well-being and brings happiness
out of abundance.
Blessing, however, need not express abundance, and even the scriptures show another meaning.
Blessing can figure into an economy of scarcity, as if it were a rare commodity that had
to be carefully conserved and parsimoniously doled out. When Cain and Abel offer up
to God their sacrifices in hopes that they will receive blessing in return, Abel's offering is
accepted and Cain's rejected, as if God has not enough blessing to go around. And the
lack of blessing for Cain leads to terrible consequences. Cain is upset and resentful of
the blessing his brother received. God offers Cain no comfort or reason for his rejection
but tells Cain he ought to master his feelings of anger and rejection, which he cannot do.
Rejection and anger spiral into the first murder. Brother against brother. The first homicide a
fratricide. And at issue is the shortage of blessing, as if it were not as abundant as the waters
of the earth or the stars in ths sky, but a scarce resource, not enough for two brothers but one
only, as if there were simply not enough to go around.
Blessings are powerful and desirable, and we seek the benefits of blessing in life
even if we are not accustomed to using the language of blessing. But blessing confers the
sense of well-bing that comes from feeling included and accepted, affirmed in who we
are and what we are doing. Who does not want that? And who does not want to feel
special, unique, esteemed? Blessing confers these gifts on us, and to receive these gifts
is a wonderful experience. If blessing is scarce, however, if there is not enough to go
around, people can find themselves put in competition for blessing, experiencing
resentment and anger as the feeling of blessing eludes them. Competing for blessing
can lead people to do things they ought not to do, as Cain did, as Jacob did when he
resorted to trickery and deception to receives a blessing from his father that by birth
order should have gone to his older brother. The competition for scarce blessing can
result in a feeling of exclusion and not-belonging, fostering a sense of rejection and even
abandonment by those who should love and care for us.
What the scriptures have to say to us about blessing is of course complex, but this
is clear: since there are different and competing ideas about blessing, we have a choice to
make. Which vision of blessing do we want to carry with us into the world? Is it to be an
idea of blessing based on abundance, or based on scarcity? We all have the power and
ability to bless and to receive blessing? Which kind of blessing do we want to offer others,
and which kind of blessing will we accept?
These are difficult questions, since we operate more out of scarcity models
of blessing than we do out of abundance. For the scarcity model offers us the possibility
of feeling distinct and unique, of receiving happiness and good things due to something
special we are. But in the abundance model, who is not special? The Cain and Abel
story ought always to remind us that a bestowing of blessing at someone else's expense
is a terrible thing for those denied blessing. Scarce blessing is always a potential source of
conflict and tension. Think of the different world we would be living in if in the land of Palestine
all who inhabited the area felt blessed to be there and respected each other as blessed -
and out of that sense of having been blessed could then freely and without fear bless one
Consider family dynamics. As we enter this period of upcoming holidays and family
gatherings, how might family dynamics be changed by rethinking our relationships in terms
of abundant blessing. Imagine parents blessing their children and children their parents,
conferring all those things that come with abundant blessing: a sense of well-being and
being loved, gratitude, generosity, thanksgiving, forgiveness and acceptance, appreciation
for the gift that they are to us.
Blessing presents us with one of the great spiritual challenges of life, for we must ask
how to bless, how much to bless, and whom are we willing to bless? When the question
is next asked before a meal "Who will say the blessing?" remember that the power to
bless is a power each of us possesses; and we should offer blessing mindfully so that
we might offer blessing generously. For we offer blessing in thanksgiving and
dedication for that which sustains us and nourishes us, be it the food we eat or the
company we keep, and nothing is a greater sign of having received blessing than
that we should offer blessing freely and with joy to one another.
Lloyd Steffen is University Chaplain and Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University.
Globalized Spirituality? (A Spiritual Journeys Column to be published in the Express Times Friday, April 25, 2003)
Many Americans have become accustomed to thinking about spirituality in
a privatized, personal realm. For many, the idea of "my spirituality"
is completely divorced from institutional religion and various forms of
traditional religious practice. An important book published last year,
however, suggests that this kind of a viewpoint on issues of religion
and spirituality does not represent any kind of trend in the world
today. In fact, if Philip Jenkins is right in his book, "The Next
Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity," institutional religion
will continue to be the catalyst for spiritual reflection in the decades
ahead, and shifts in cultural influence will, Jenkins warns, lead to a
time of even greater religious conflict.
Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Penn
State University, has chronicled global shifts in religious affiliation. He
lends support to the observation others also have made that Christianity
will grow exponentially in the areas of the world experiencing enormous
population growth-Asia, Latin America, and Africa-the "global South."
Christianity has always been a culturally adaptable
religion, and this has been the legacy of the tradition since Saint Paul transformed a
small Jewish reform sect that originally met in synagogues, into a
religion that claimed cosmic significance and transcended geography and
accommodated important aspects of the Greek thought world. As much as
Islam is today booming around the world, Jenkins claims that it is
Christianity, the world's largest religion, that will continue to claim
dominance, but that it will be a Christianity different from that
inherited from Europe and represented by "mainstream" liberal churches
and denominations in the United States. Jenkins predicts that by 2050,
only about one-fifth of the world's three billion Christians will be
non-Hispanic Caucasians. The other four-fifths of Christians from the
dominant South will be overwhelming the world with a form of
Christianity that is more traditional, morally conservative,
evangelical, and apocalyptic.
The form of Christianity that is dominant in the South,
associated with independent churches in Africa and Pentecostalism in Latin America, is
transforming Christianity's faith center. European-based Christianity,
which is becoming increasingly moribund, hence the decline in
traditional "mainstream" Christian churches in the North, emphasized
involvement with liberal and progressive political and social concerns.
The "the next Christendom," however, will center on a faith that is
mystical, puritanical, concerned with belief in prophecy, exorcism,
faith-healing and dream visions. A fourth Christianity beyond Roman
Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestant, is emerging as the dominant form
in the South-Pentecostalism, a hybrid religion that takes the
traditional Protestant emphasis on the centrality of the Bible then
fuses it with the ecstatic, mystical "folk religion," associated with
such things as Mary devotion from Catholicism and local folk concerns
such as ancestor worship.
Jenkins' analysis takes existing trends and forecasts a
potentially difficult future. Although Jenkins could be challenged because he seems
not to give adequate attention to the way political power and economics
may affect religious organizations, his central claim deserves serious
attention. That claim is that religion is going to affect global
politics over the next fifty years and do so dramatically. Jenkins
claims that religious identification is becoming the primary loyalty of
millions of people in the South, taking precedence over national
loyalties. This shift in loyalty can lead to religious conflicts,
which may continue to arise as they already have in Indonesia, the
Philippines, Nigeria and the Sudan. Many of these terrible and
consuming religious conflicts the "northern" media simply refuses to cover as
stories of importance.
Jenkins' book is a plea to seek understanding of what may prove
to be the great globalization issue of this and future generations-the clash
of globalizing religions, especially Christianity and Islam. This clash
may lead to actual warfare, but even in places where it does not, it is
conceivable that the new forms of religion dominating the world scene
may inspire movements toward displacing political secular nation states
with theocracies. Islamic Arab states are not the world's only
experience with theocracy-theocracy has been a reality in Christian
history, and if today it is seemingly dormant it may be awakening
tomorrow. Already we are familiar with evidence that the values
expressed in a "southern" trend are present and growing even in
countries like the United States, where attacks on the separation of
"church and state" continue and seem even to increase; where sexuality
issues are cloaked with a conservative mantle, for which the drapes on
the statues at the Department of Justice are an apt symbol; where
intolerance of homosexuals seems to increase even as support of a
religious conception of fetal humanity imposed on all persons by law
seems not so threatening to many any longer as an issue of basic civil
rights or religious freedom.
What all of this may mean for persons in America on their
spiritual journeys is not easy to fathom. But the spiritual life is never lived
outside of our social and cultural contexts, and the reality is that
religions like Christianity in its "Southern" expression are going to
infiltrate and affect how Americans do religion. Global missionaries
were once sent out from America: America is now their missionary field.
Even the priest shortage in American Roman Catholic churches is being
met to a significant degree with "missionary" priests coming to America
from the "South."
This southern infusion of religious life and spirituality will
provoke a serious values challenge to those who understood the call to a
spiritual life out of that European-based context of tolerance, reason,
diversity, respect for difference, and appreciation for a privatized
spiritual development pursued outside the dominant religious
traditions. Jenkins does not and cannot say what American spirituality
will look like 50 years hence, but it is clear that changes will be
coming, that America's great religious experiment in religious diversity
will be tested, and that in the Christian world, the declining Churches
of the "North" will have to find ways to enter into dialogue and
communion with the religious communities from the "South." Globalized
religion and its impact on politics, culture, and even private
spirituality ought not to be ignored..
Lloyd Steffen is University Chaplain and Professor of Religion Studies
at Lehigh University.
Parent's Weekend Service. November 10, 2002
Meditation: "Destructive Faith, Demonic Religion: King Saul and the Westboro Baptist Church" by Rev. Dr. Lloyd Steffen
Text: I Samuel 15:1-15, 33B.
Last year at this time, when students and parents came to this worship service, we were still reeling from the 9/11 attacks. In the meditation and prayers offered during that service, we remembered those in our Lehigh community who died that day-and many of us were trying to discern the role that religion might have played in motivating 19 al Qaeda hi-jackers to commit murder and suicide.. Some folks directed blame for the 9/11 events at Islam, obviously not knowing much about the religion; others looked elsewhere for explanations, especially in the arena of geo-politics and international economics.
Here, in this place, we considered the contributing role of demonic religion-religion that is not false religion but an authentic expression of religion; demonic religion, religion that is powerful, that addresses and meets the spiritual needs people will have for meaning, for identity, for belonging and community, for power derived from relation with the ultimate values, ultimate reality. Religion concerns ultimate things, those things deemed most important-at its heart religion provides ways for us to establish relationship with ultimacy and thereby meet our spiritual needs.
I don't mean to make religion sound academic or bloodless-to the extent 9/11 had anything to do with religion, religion certainly cannot be called bloodless. But the point of reflecting on such events, on the religious and spiritual dimension of how people engage the world religiously, is simply this: we choose how we will be religious, and we are morally responsible, both individually and in community, for how we choose to be religious. And we have an option in religious life. We can be religious in life-affirming ways, in ways that promote goodness. We can be religious demonically. One way is creative and seeks to build more inclusive community and ever greater unities between people; the other is exclusive and excluding. Demonic religion does not promote the value of life but gets itself entwined in destructiveness, using ultimate values to tear down and tear apart. Demonic religion invokes ultimacy to foster hatred. It will be grounded in a certainty that all who are not like us are enemies with a false message-they are wrong of course, but not only wrong, but condemned, and not only condemned, but worthy of disregard, disrespect-in some cases the demonic will go so far as to advocate and justify killing. Religion is concerned with the mystery of life and death-when religion turns demonic, it serves a death-dealing vision that can inspire the worst imaginable destruction.
Now every religion knows about destructive faith and demonic religion. Does Islam contain within it folks who pursue faith demonically-of course. But we can find that demonic dynamic in native American religion, in Taoism, in Buddhism, in Hinduism, in Judaism and in Christianity-as well as in Heavens' Gate and Jim Jones Guyana. We can even find examples of traditions dealing with demonic religious notions in their preserved sacred scriptures, which brings me to the reading for today.
The story in 1st Samuel concerns Saul, King of Israel. The text relates a sometimes obscured command that comes from God-a command called "herem." Herem is a notion of total warfare, total destruction. It was a best practice in the ancient world, and not only for Israel but her neighbors. Herem required that a people destroy all they could of their enemies, both animate and inanimate things, on the religious grounds that what was sacred to one nation was anathema to the other-so it all had to be destroyed. The command to destroy utterly was a divine command-in Israel that command came from God, and the story I read, tells what Saul was commanded to do. He was to kill all the Amalekites, men, women, and children, and then everything else Amalekite-all property-all the sheep and goats and ducks and geese-everything-total obliteration.
Saul as the story is told does not do all that he is commanded to do by God-he does not undertake herem but disobeys. Now when you read pious commentators-and perhaps that is what I am supposed to be here-they will say one of two things. They will say that we must understand this in context and not be too quick to make moral judgments since we raise the specter of being hypocrites if we do. Thus does one commentator on this story says this: "[Herem] was an ancient practice especially abhorrent to us today. It is the belief that God could order the extermination of a whole people. We do not feel the same horror about the near extermination of th American Indians or about the massacre of whole cities by aerial bombardment, presumably because these inhumanities have not been perpetuated in the name of religion" (John Schroeder, p. 871). This scholar seems to hint that we impose a double standard if we condemn extermination as a religious practice but not do so if it is undertaken on non-religious grounds. That may be true, but the moral question of course is how any act of total extermination could ever be justified-even if God commands it.
And the second response is so to construe the story that the objectionable thing is not the command to destroy but Saul's refusal to do so. So Saul's motives are impugned and he is made to appear the worse for showing some restraint in his use of religious violence. In this story, the Biblical account points out that Saul is disobedient and that his motives for refusing God are selfish. Saul does go to battle, he does kill more than the combatants-he goes after the women and children as he is commanded; but he is made to look like the greatest of sinners because he spares the life of King Agag, and he doesn't do the total obliteration-he spares the things that are valuable and good. The biblical narrative, and those who comment on it, go out of their way to show Saul in the wrong-he is selfish for sparing the king; saving the good things means that only the worthless things of the enemies are given in sacrifice to God: Saul is disobedient and showing disrespect. The idea that Saul might have had a nobler motive in preserving things he saw as "good" the text even says good-is not even entertained much less dismissed. Saul is condemned. The story proceeds to show how he is made to repent his disobedience, and the religious authority, Samuel, does God's bidding: the prophet and spokesperson of God undertakes to hack Agag to death and then kill all the best cattle-herem is obeyed: total obliteration is accomplished finally at the hands of the religious authority.
I find this an extraordinary story. It is about religiously inspired violence; it is about power and religious power used for death dealing.
Two things we should always remember about religion. One is that religion is powerful. The other is that religion is dangerous. It is true, I think, that many American do not experience religion as powerful. Religion is a Sunday morning thing for many, and for even more there are lot's of better things to do on Sunday morning than attend to religion. Religion in our culture today appears to be marginal, easily controlled, understandable, an aesthetic ornament to life, and its importance can be dismissed-O, it is important, but not that important. It takes a jarring encounter with people who are religious in different ways to wake us to religion's power and danger-and that I believe is one of the enduring lessons that needs to come out of September 11.
Religion is powerful, and the power of religion can be seen in the command that came to Saul to obliterate. Taht power can be seen in the way the religious authority, Samuel, finally overrules the political leader and fulfills the command to obliterate from a religious rather than from a political base of power. The divine will have its way.
And the danger of religion is to be found in the core of this story-the danger comes from the way religion can turn power not to the end of peace-making but to the end of warfare and killing, all in the name of ultimacy,all in the name of God. Dangerous religion identifies enemies and then seeks divine sanction for acting to obliterate them. This is demonic religion-religion that is destructive, even blood-thirsty. This is religion that wants all other religious competition eliminated and eliminated utterly; this is self-righteous religion possessed of absolute truth, religion that will sanction and sanctify the worst that human beings can do in the name of ultimate truth. Herem. Samuel. A hacked up King Agag. A dejected and repentant Saul. What a story.
And remember Saul is condemned religiously for failing to do all he was commanded. From a moral point of view, his refusal to obey a demonic command from a destructive God is itself praiseworthy-Saul is to be criticized for not going far enough in his refusal and resistance. After all, he killed the women and children as commanded. Its just that this demonically portrayed God wanted, for reasons of religious purity, even more death and more destruction.
Demonic religion can infect any religion, any religious tradition. When the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich back in the 1950s contemplated demonic religion he went nowhere else but to his own tradition, Christianity, the same way many today go to Islam. And Tillich identified as demonic the Christian practices of Inquisition, formulas of condemnation, Crusades, the doctrine of papal infallibility, the tyranny of protestant biblical fundamentalism and the fanaticism of protestant sects.
Discerning that faith can serve goodness and creativity or go destructive, that religion can be life-affirming and promote the goods of life, or turn demonic is necessary today, for without it, one will miss the complexity of religion and the options for how people can choose to be religious and meet their spiritual needs.
We are at Lehigh facing a confrontation with demonic religion, and I want to speak to this issue only briefly here. For parents here who don't have background on a local community event, an interfaith memorial service was held on September 11 of this year in Bethlehem, sponsored by the Bethlehem Council of Churches. At that service, a Baptist pastor made disparaging comments about the Metropolitan Community Church, membership of which is largely dominated by gay and lesbian Christian people. The minister of this church was in attendance and participating in the service. The Baptist pastor's comments were to the effect that the sin of homosexuality played a role in God's judgment on America and thus contributed to the events of 9/11-a reprise of the Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson comments made in the immediate wake of the actual September 11 attacks.
The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas got wind of this story, and have now planned to come to Bethlehem the first weekend of December to picket the churches involved in the Bethlehem Council of Churches. And they also got wind of a diversity forum held here at Lehigh, that was a follow-up to Lehigh's new diversity initiative. The forum involved conversation between university officials and corporate officers talking about steps they were taking to diversify their work forces. Westboro understands the word "diversity" to be code for defying a biblical prohibition on homosexuality, so they have now placed Lehigh on its list of picketing sites. Cedar Crest College is also going to be picketed since they awarded an honorary degree to Bill Jean King.
Students of course are upset, and many want to respond to the Westboro picketers, which, of course is what Westboro want-they are publicity hounds and deem any attention at all as a victory for their cause. And what is their cause: it is a radical religious vision of sexual purification that expresses hatred pure and simple to those who do not accept it. These folks are the one's who demonstrated at Matthew Sheppard's funeral; these are the folks who have picketed President Bush's ranch because 9/11 is all about America failing to address its problem with homosexuality. Their signs say, "Thank God for 9/11" and "God Hates Fags." Their web site shows a picture of Matthew Sheppard surrounded by hell-fire, with a counter below informing the reader how many days Matthew has been in hell. Click on his picture and you can hear him scream
These are not nice people and their religion is not centered in goodness: Their religion does not inspire them to charity-they have no love in their hearts, no mercy, no kindness toward the stranger, no forgiveness; and if they want to get literal about Leviticus and all it says about homosexuals, then they must at some level be advocating killing gay and lesbian folks, since Leviticus says homosexuals should be put to death. Leviticus by the way, sanctions death for 26 crimes, including a child cursing a parent, death for touching the sacred mountain, or violating the sabbath with a condemned animal product-all who get involved in non-worshiping Saturday afternoon events involving a pigskin are worthy of death according to Leviticus.
Lehigh students in the days ahead may get a chance to encounter demonic religion directly, out on the public sidewalks in front of Zoellner, where Westboro has scheduled a picket. I'm one of the few people who is not totally convinced they will show up-if they don't get attention, they sometimes don't. Getting people all riled up sometimes suffices for their needs.
But they may very well show up. And what are we to think? Remember that religion is powerful and dangerous-your religion may not seem powerful and certainly not dangerous, but religion taken seriously as concerning ultimate things is always powerful and always dangerous. And remember that being religious the way Westboro folks are is an option-that such religion is real religion, authentic religion: it is not a perversion of religion or something real religion condemns. It is one form religion can take. It is the destructive, demonic form. You could do your religion that way if that way met your spiritual needs, if the allure of that way of being religiousworked on you.
But why might it not work on you? I go back to Saul and his refusal to do what he was commanded. For all we are told about Saul and for all the unworthy motives imputed to his refusal to pursue the total obliteration as commanded by God and the religious authority, remember that Saul exercised choice. That means Saul realized his freedom and acted in freedom, even in defiance of an order from God. He evaluated that order as itself unworthy of God, else he would have followed it. In his freedom, in his exer4cise of spirituality-spirituality is what you do with your freedom--Saul said "No." When demonic religion presents itself, we can do that too. We can resist and just say "No." But it is God commanding these things, some will say. Is it?
And what if it is? We image God in ways different from the world of 1st Samuel, and we have sought to conform God to an even more important idea-that of goodness itself. By the time of Jesus, the association was completed-Why do you call me good, Jesus says, Goodness belongs to God. Turn your eyes to goodness: when you turn your faith to God and integrate religion into your life however you do that-and we all do that one way or another-be sure that goodness is the hub of that universe: let God endorse and sponsor goodness, and let the power of faith work toward the building up rather than the tearing down of people and communities.
We may have some interesting days ahead with Westboro folks-it may all just dissipate: but we ought not to forget that there is no one way of being religious, and that choices have to be made. Let your choice be a "no" to destructive faith and demonic religion, but more importantly, let it be a yes to a faith grounded in goodness, a goodness that builds up and issues in the fruits of a life-affirming faith, found in those things I mentioned earlier in our liturgy: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Those things identify life-affirming religion. That is a religious option you can choose. That is an option for spiritual life just awaiting your attention. That option-- for your good and for the good of us all-is waiting your response, your "Yes." AMEN.
Saying NO to Demonic Religion
by Lloyd Steffen
Spiritual Journeys column published October 11, 2002, in the Express -Times, pp. D1, D2 under title"Say 'No' to Kansas Church's Demonic Religion"
The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas--the "WBC"--planned to come to Bethlehem to protest Christians in our area who are gay and lesbian and who may be members of the Metropolitan Community Church. The WBC recently announced a change in plans due to "scheduling conflicts." The nature of those conflicts was not given, but who could fail to see a December visit to "The Christmas City" is designed to attract attention and provide a better platform for their religious protest? "Stay tuned for more information" says their web site.
Citizens of Bethlehem might want to acquaint themselves with this Church. Their web site offers a bracing antidote for any who foolishly persist in thinking that religion is a soft-headed enterprise that is only interested in advancing syrupy platitudes about love and kindness. "God is love" does not appear on any of placards these church members carry. Their signs say things like "God Hates America" and "Thank God for September 11."
The WBC is not religion for the feint of heart. It deals with big and powerful emotions-and it mobilizes the faithful. In 11 years of anti-homosexual picketing, the Westboro church has sponsored over 22,000 demonstrations around the county, including the notorious protest at Matthew Shepard's funeral. Their web site actually has a counter telling how many days they think that brutally murdered young man has been in hell.
People who dismiss religion for the insane hatreds that it generates can look at the "WBC" and see all the evidence they need for their distaste. And people who do not do religion this way can be tempted to say that the WBC does not represent true religion. But I think that too would be a mistake.
Religion meets deep spiritual needs people have for meaning, for understanding, for belonging. It is concerned with ultimate truths and ultimate realities. There is nothing in religion itself that says religion has to be directed at love and forgiveness and goodness-it can be directed there, of course, but it can also express hatred, destruction and wrathful vengeance against outsiders to the community of faithful. Religion itself understands destructive and hateful religion to be "demonic"; and demonic religion is real religion. It is not false religion. It is simply religion of a certain sort, just as "God is love" religion is religion of a certain sort.
So how do people find their way to one form of religion or another, and how are we to understand the difference between creative, life-affirming religion, and religion that is hateful and condemning of persons. I suggest the answer to this is quite simple, but that the answer is not in religion itself, but in morality.
Religion has not only to do with beliefs but with actions and decisions-religion is a great motivator for action and determines what-and how-we make certain decisions. Actions, decisions, and motivations are all moral matters. How we are religious-how we choose to be religious-is thus a moral matter.
And just as people can in their daily lives make decisions and act in ways that are harmful to others, or filled with resentment and hate, they can make decisions to be religious that way as well.
The Westboro hatred of gay and lesbian persons reflects a decision that that particular religious community made about how to be religious. This is authentic religion in that at stake are ultimate values and ultimate realities, and these people are referring their way of life and their perspectives to God and believing that they are "absolutely" right in what they are doing. Religion derives its power from this concern with ultimacy.. Religion is one of the few things so powerful that it can even incite people in pursuit of ultimate truth to kill and even sacrifice their own lives, as we saw in Jim Jones' Guyana, or the Heaven's Gate suicides, and even the September 11 attacks to the extend they might have had some religious motivation.
These activities ought not to be attacked as being false religion but as expressions of religion's power and danger, and they can be morally evaluated. A moral evaluation would allow us to say that these acts of destruction and harmful violence do not express or manifest goodness. A moral evaluation will even allow us to say that the God whom these people believe is sanctioning their acts of hatred is not a good God, but a mean and vindictive God who inflicts pain and harm and violence on gay and lesbian persons. This is a God of hatred who is, from a moral point of view, unworthy of being followed either as a guide to goodness or as its embodiment.
Morality is all involved with goodness, and there is nothing good in murder and suicide, which is why Jim Jones, and Heaven's Gate, and September 11 are so repulsive and worthy of criticism and repudiation. Good acts are creative, build relationships on the basis of mutual respect, and foster understanding and compassion for others. These are the positive signs of goodness, and we all know them. Hatred tears down, encloses the mind in bigotry and demeaning attitudes towards others, supports harmful violence in act or attitude, and judges without mercy or understanding. Religion can turn destructive and demonic, and when it does it expresses itself in ways that offend the consciences of people of good will.
But people who seek to be life-affirming and who want to live out of a vision of goodness must, as moral persons first, repudiate such attitudes as Westboro Baptist Church expresses. Those attitudes are violent and harmful. They offend against the canons of moral decency. We have a wonderful opportunity at the moment in Bethlehem to join together in our community to repudiate the demonic hatred expressed through Westboro Baptist Church religion while supporting our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as brothers and sisters, in our common humanity.
The Westboro web site says "Stay tuned for more information." Let us hope that if members of this church come to Bethlehem in December they will encounter here a moral community unified in respecting all persons of good will and repudiating those who threaten the violence of demeaning taunts and ignorant prejudices. And let us also hope that most-if not all-of our religious communities take a stand and express a faith that is conformed to a vision of goodness-and even to the idea of a good God.
Remarks at Packer Church - September 11, 2002: 4:15 Service of Remembrance
Dr. Lloyd Steffen
A year ago this day, we assembled here, in Packer Church at the end of a long and hard day.
We came in shock. We were bewildered, confused. We were gripped with uncertainty, even fear. Some already were angry, more were grief-stricken. Nothing like this had happened to us before. And we didn't know who did this -or why. We didn't know what the next day would bring.
Individuals who, in one way or another, were part of the Lehigh community, would be directly and personally affected by the events of September 11, 2001. We would have our victims. A Lehigh senior, Jill Merdinger, did not know for certain at this time last year but she would lose her father that day. And she would speak at his memorial service in Allentown. And at the high liturgical moment we still recognize here as our Baccalaureate Service, she would say the Kaddish-for her father, for other Lehigh-related victims - for all who lost their lives in the attacks of September 11th.
The pain of that day was intense, and for many- -too many- it would only increase as the full magnitude of the horror-and the loss - came into clearer focus.
When we met here last year, in a hastily assembled gathering, we lacked perspective and clarity. We lacked information. We didn't know what all the events of that day meant.
Here we are a year later. For many not directly affected by loss of a loved one, life has eased back into familiar habits and patterns. But we have been affected, we have been hurt, and life is different ---and should be.
We now have to live with a greater caution and vigilance and concern for security. We are inconvenienced in many ways. We have as a nation authorized military action to combat global terrorism. We have acceded to the curtailment of certain civil liberties. Life in America is different even as we have tried to return to our routines--under yellow terror alerts that yesterday went orange.
Over this past year we have looked within ourselves, and we have found ourselves to be a people of resilience and determination. We have exhibited enormous generosity and extended sympathy not only to victims but to others in need. We have rediscovered our sense of humor and the need to be critically engaged as citizens concerned for the welfare of our nation and the world, concerned for acting justly and with restraint. We have reaffirmed our love for the liberties and symbols of country that are our inheritance as Americans.
But there is, in the wake of 9/11, much to do and much to ponder.
We have not yet, as a nation, come to appreciate why we are so hated. We have not done enough to understand the power and danger of religion, which can take demonic form-any religion can turn destructive and oppressive and call out, in the name of ultimate values or absolute truth, what is small and mean in the human heart.
We have seen our Muslim brothers and sisters subjected to disrespect and sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle, demonizing. We have not learned enough about Islam, and too many seem satisfied to rest in ignorance.
And we have not adequately fathomed that in our world-where almost 2 billion people live in what the U.N. calls "conflicts zones," and 3 billion people live on the equivalent of $1.00 a day or less-our world is not in balance. We have yet to see how "justice for all" is a necessary step in the effort to blunt hatred and improve the prospects for peace, security, and even personal happiness.
So we have much to do, and much to learn about ourselves and our world.
But that is what we do here, that is why this community exists-to dispel ignorance, to advance learning, to provoke all that leads to understanding.
In coming together today-one year after a terrible and tragic day-we do so as a community that has shared pain and experienced loss, and we shall remember these things.
But as we come togther this day, doing so in remembrance, we need also to reaffirm our commitment to be a people who love freedom and require justice. And here at Lehigh, we must renew our commitment to our community mission-to advance learning and promote understanding.
For the constructive response to "9/11" is to continue to do what we do here, though to strive to do it better. We know that our world is beautiful, but we make our world hard and difficult-we are surrounded by conflict, by ethnicide , by violence.
Yet our task is a noble one: for we must live in this world and tame its savagery. We must seek wisdom and build community based on mutuality and respect. We must seek knowledge and require trustworthy information for making decisions. And we must resolve-- with all that is within us-to work for a peace. Peace, built on knowledge and understanding and fellow-feeling. Peace.
And that is my word-my hope-for all here: that you might receive from God - from one another: peace.
Peace be with you.
Just War Ideas Principles Must Guide Debate over War
(Published in the Express-Times, August 23, 2002 [D1,3[ under title: "Just War Theory Gives Legislators Much to Consider.")
It was Cicero, the Roman statesman, who is credited with having put forward the first idea of just war. Cicero held that the end of war must be the creation of peace, that a justified use of force must rest on a legitimate cause, and that "no war is just unless it is waged after the government has demanded restitution or unless the war is previously announced and declared."
The just war tradition was picked up by St. Augustine and handed down through Roman Catholic moral teaching, with several medieval philosophers and theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, contributing to it. The theory has been developed, modified, transmitted by religious community, and not only Christian. The Qur'an, Islam's sacred book, advances a just war theory, specifying that wars ought to be defensive and that non-combatants should be immune from the conflict.
Just war theory is actually a theory designed to constrain violence-it is often not understood that way. But the theory is based on the idea that conflicts should not be resolved by use of force: if force is to be considered, it must meet several tests that are imposed as the criteria of justice itself. A use of force that does not satisfy the criteria cannot be justified and ought not be undertaken. Here is the theory: A use of force, in order to be morally justified, must be undertaken by legitimate authority, the cause must be just; there must be a right intention; force must be a last resort; there must be a reasonable hope of success; values must be preserved that couldn't without resorting to force. In addition, just war demands that non-combatants not be involved in the war, and use of force must be proportionate to the end of restoring peace. We call it "just war," but it is a theory that governs any use of force, from that of a parent contemplating a spanking of a child, to police action, to America's leadership at this very moment contemplating an incursion into Iraq.
Many people hear "just war" and dismiss it as a convenient way for military or political leaders to justify doing whatever they want to do. There is some truth to this charge, but the fact that the theory has been perverted says something more about the people who misuse it than it does about the theory itself being inadequate. The fact that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the amendment that guarantees "equal protection" of the laws, was for almost a century used to enforce a "separate but equal" doctrine of racial discrimination does not mean the "theory" of that Amendment was flawed. The problem is always with the interpretation. It was, after all, that very same Fourteenth Amendment that was used to overturn that "separate but equal" doctrine and desegregate American schools.
In the same way, just war theory can be misused. The criteria can be misrepresented. Many of the conditions can even be dropped from consideration. So citizens must be alert and insist that all the criteria be discussed.
Just war theory does not of itself settle any conflict or justify any particular use of force. It is rather a structure for discussion and debate in light of commonly agreed upon principles and guideline for actions. The theory makes explicit what people of common sense and good will do anyway, which is to avoid a use of force. Just war theory provides a way to consider it in certain difficult situations-but only as a last resort and only if the other conditions are met
We saw the last resort criterion of just war invoked in 1990 when the Senate debated whether the United States had given sanctions long enough to work before entering militarily in Kuwait. And we see just war being invoked to frame moral concerns as President Bush contemplates an attack on Iraq.
The very first criteria of just war-the idea that it must be sanctioned by legitimate authority-is under debate. Does the president have the legitimate power to authorize an incursion into Iraq? Recently, Senator Byrd insisted that Congress alone has the power under the constitution to declare war-and in this he is surely right. Said the Senator: "I am determined to do everything in my power to prevent this country from becoming involved in another Viet-Nam nightmare. This determination begins with Congress being fully and sufficiently informed on the undertakings of our government, especially if it involves commitment to military action."
No other countries seem to be signing up to support an American preemptive strike against Iraq, and the UN disallows any such move unless there are no alternatives and the danger is imminent. The President has claimed "our cause is just"-another appeal to just war, but debate on this criterion must center on whether our effort is the just cause of self-defense or whether the motivation for use of force is revenge for the 9/11 attacks, a desire for retaliation, or even geo-political and economic concerns, which hardly rise to the level of just cause. One can go through all eight of the criteria of just war and find many serious challenges to the idea that a proposed attack on Iraq is morally "justified."
Just war theory insists that all the conditions of justice be met, and if any are not, the conflict ought not to be undertaken. That is the action consequence of failing to meet the requirements of justice. Just war theory conforms in many ways to the theory of non-violent resistance advocated by Gandhi, who saw non-violent resistance as a use of "soul force" to resist evil. Just war theory veers from this perspective at the point of "last resort"-it would allow a use of force in particular circumstances, say, for self-defense or to protect victims of aggression.
Just war discussion must be reclaimed in our civic discourse as the guide for making decisions about how to wield power responsibly and use force with restraint. The religious communities that preserved this tradition of moral thought and transmitted it to secular society still have a role to play. They can and should insist that the "theory" be used in good faith, honestly, with the government sharing information and telling the truth about the nature of threats to America's safety and security. Just war can help people in religious community assume their role as peacemakers. The theory reaffirms commitment to settling conflicts without resorting to force. And it also insists that any use of force be justified by convincing evidence and persuasive argument and then only for the purpose of accomplishing legitimate ends, which, in just war, are always the ends of justice and peace.
Religious and Moral Issues Attend Church-State Distinction
A version of this article was first published in the Express-Times, July 5, 2002 (D1,D3) under the title, "Jesus Distinction Separates Church and State." This version has been posted to the web site of the organization, American United For Separation of Church and State, and will be published soon in a hard copy collection of articles and sermons based on the First Amendment.)
by Lloyd Steffen
A wise and rather well known religious leader was once asked if religious people should pay taxes and be subject to the civil authorities. To respond he asked for a coin and pointed to the face of the military and political leader to whom both he and his interrogators were subject. And he asked, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said to him, "Caesar's." And then the teacher drew a distinction of great spiritual importance: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." Eighteen hundred years later, some contentious but also wise leaders, concerned to guarantee basic civil liberties would inscribe into a "bill of rights" these words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." And with that, a civil society endorsed a politics aimed at keeping religion free of governmental interference and government free of religious interference.
Both notions, both the "Jesus distinction" and the First Amendment distinction, recognized that the political realm and the spiritual realm were separate domains of interest and should remain so if freedom itself was to be preserved. The Constitution of the United States is, by virtue of the First Amendment, committed to keeping such a distinction. The enormous amount of litigation over the years concerning the protection of religious liberty indicates, however, that we are a nation uncomfortable with the separation. Many would like to see the distinction compromised if not actually obliterated.
Lest I be doubted about this claim, consider the month of June, 2002. On June 17, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a city ordinance in Stratton, Ohio that had required all religious advocates to register with the city government before going door-to-door to pitch their religion. The Court's ruling preserved the right of people to practice their religion free of governmental interference.
That same day, June 17, the House of Representatives passed a bill (H.R. 4103) that would require the federal government to sell, in a non-competitive process 940 acres of land in Wyoming to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which the Mormon church holds sacred. The Senate has yet to consider the legislation , but in singling out a particular religion for special treatment, the bill clearly flies in the face of the separation enshrined in the First Amendment.
And June was not yet over. On June 26, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that congressional action in 1954 at the height of the McCarthy era amending the 1892 Pledge of Allegiance with the words "under God" was unconstitutional. A firestorm of hostility to the June 17 decision has broken out. One religious leader actually claimed to be certain that God would be offended by such a change. But overlooked in the discussion was the essential moral sensitivity of the decision. And we can find the ethic to guide us toward that sensitivity in these words, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
We live in a religiously pluralistic society, and as Americans we welcome diverse religions and extend to all of them hospitality and protection through the First Amendment. Since it is a fact of sociology that not all religious people use the linguistic symbol 'God', invoking the Golden Rule would require that advocates of God language accept as a matter of simple fairness symbols sacred to those more comfortable with the language of "under Buddha" or "under Shiva" or "under Zeus." Perhaps we should rotate the symbol of the transcendent in the Pledge every few years since that would at least demonstrate a basic sense of fair play when over 2000 religious groups populate our country.
Serious moral issues attend our debate over Church-State relations. Fairness, respect for difference, and the right of persons to be free of interference on religious matters head the list. And these moral issues raise questions for the kind of nation we shall be. Can we live together as Americans in freedom if we allow one religious symbol to dominate all others? Or do we do allow the wisdom of our traditions, both religious and secular, to guide us morally in distinguishing the things that are God's from the things that are Caesar's?
The most serious challenge to the First Amendment came with the Supreme Court's June school voucher decision. The Court disingenuously claimed that no 1st Amendment prohibitions on governmental support of religious schools were violated since voucher checks would be made out to parents rather than to schools. Given the practical reality that most parents will then sign the governmental checks over to religious schools, this most momentous of decisions signals a legal blurring of the Church-State relation.
For over two centuries, Americans have lived somewhat uncomfortably with the legal doctrine of Church-State separation even though our Founders have time after time been proven wise in their insistence that such separation serves the long-term interests of the American experiment in democracy. But religious people ought not to overlook that such separation has had its advocates from the religious side as well. The idea that what is God's should be kept distinct from what is the State's has an even longer history than the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Religious people in America have a long history of advocating for legal action to conform the state to a particular religious viewpoint. That advocacy is itself protected by the First Amendment, but actually winning the battle and putting such a policy in place is dangerous. It poses a threat not only to the American aspiration to expand and improve a politics of democratic pluralism, but it poses a threat to the spiritual life itself. For the spiritual life is about freedom and the exercise of freedom in relation to transcendent reality. When we seek to subordinate spiritual freedom to a politics of religion, we threaten spiritual freedom with political coercion. The founders of our nation understood this. That "render-unto-Caesar" teacher understood this.
One of the things free people can do with their freedom is to renounce it, and all that happened in June, 2002 around issues of church and state relations indicates that there are those who would restrict religious freedom and pull in the welcome mat from all who do not conform to a particular way of thinking about religious matters. The issue at stake, politically and spiritually, is whether freedom will be expand or contract. And this issue ought to be of concern not only to students of law and citizens committed to the preservation of democratic institutions, but to people of faith.
LENTEN MEDITATION: 13 FEBRUARY 2002
Packer Memorial Church
"It's Not About Chocolate"
Rev. Dr. Lloyd Steffen
We begin this day-this evening-our Lenten Journey. We know the solemnity of the occasion;
we know that we are opening ourselves to a time of introspection and reflection. We know that
what is required is a heightened awareness of the journey Jesus undertook, and that that journey
is to be a model for us. There is much we must attend to as we attach our stories to His story,
as we go forward through this time in the wilderness, this time of preparation for all that awaits
in the days ahead. We must attend to his need for our companionship and our need to offer
ourselves to him fully and freely, not burdened by distractions and possessions and the constant
attention we give to our needs for comfort and full stomachs and congested living.
So duely chastened and introspectively attentive to our spiritual needs, let us enter our Lenten
journey. Let us begin it together. Let us in this moment of reflection be clear about some things,
about what this journey is, and about what it is not.
This journey ahead is not about-chocolate.
Many of us will undertake fasting in the weeks ahead, a typical sign of spiritual attentiveness,
and we think of fasting as a "giving up." We give up something for Lent as a symbol of
identification with the 40 days of preparation Christ had in the wilderness -and since
what we want to give up is something that we care about, something so important that its
absence is noticeable, many opt to forego chocolate. But the journey ahead is not about
chocolate; it is not even really about giving something up. It is about taking something up-
taking up fasting and practices of prayer and spiritual devotion. We fast not to create suffering,
but to make room for other things.
And we remember this evening that many of the things we do, fill us up rather than take us
out of ourselves into the lives of others, into life with God. The journey ahead is about disciplining
ourselves and becoming aware of all that we do to fill our lives: if chocolate symbolizes this
for you, then crowd chocolate out of the way for a while. But it is not about chocolate-the Lenten
journey is about getting on the road and taking up the life that is free of the many burdens of
everyday living, burdens that distract us from spiritual attentiveness.
Our lives are busy and crowded. We need to create room so that we can reflect on just how just
how busy and crowded our lives are. The question is whether we can find time in our busy lives to
devote proper attention to the spiritual life, and whether we can do so without letting something else
go. Just as prayer reminds us that we must make time in our busy lives to think, and meditate,
and pray, so too fasting provides us with a reminder that we do not experience the pain of hunger
as many do, and that we must, on the journey that awaits, align ourselves with those who hunger.
In the experience of hunger we can reflect on how we live. We can become aware, by fasting,
of our need to live with more balance in our lives, and that we need to make room for things and
take things up, not just crowd one more thing in, or pile one more thing on top.
Our lives are sometimes filled like an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord you've seen some of those plates,
haven't you, over at Country Buffet? Not a pretty sight-too much, piled too high, too mixed up-green
beans mixing with cherry cobbler-- and lacking even the most basic color coordination, and too ravenously
consumed. The spiritual life is not a smorgasbord. It is not like adding as much as your plate will hold-it is
about prioritizing and simplicity, and yes, a little coordination. The spiritual disciplines want you to reflect
on the size of your plate and asks how much do you really need-how much could you leave for others.
During Lent, we need to be attentive to busy lives that need balance; and we need to make room for
things we usually crowd out. Lent is a serious time and calls for people to get serious about what is-
and what is not-- spiritually important in their lives.
Lent is also a time of penitence, a time to consider all that is not Christ-like in our lives. And in remembering
the journey of Christ and how his journey led to trouble and rejection and even death, we too ought to
remember that as his companions we are apt to do exactly what his closest followers-his own disciples-
did to him: flee him and deny him and betray him. He had prepared them, but they had not prepared
themselves-they lacked awareness of who he was and what his journey was all about, and in the end,
they cried out in anguish for his forgiveness. Reflection on who you are and what you value, and how
you establish the priorities in your life, will, if the Lenten story touches spiritual truth, direct you to
those inward places where you see your shortcomings and your unfaithfulness. But more than that,
such reflection calls us to name these shortcomings, confront them, and with penitent hearts, let them
go. Penitence prepares you to unburden yourself by your shortcomings, but more importantly, you
unburden the Christ who carries them with you, as long as you do. Penitence is a way of relieving
the suffering of Christ. We remember this season of Lent that we must not become self-preoccupied.
The Lenten journey is about us, it is about God and us, and about the journey of Christ--but it is
not about you. It is bigger than you, and in calling you on the journey, it calls you out of yourself.
We often read a wonderful passage from Isaiah 58 at this time of year, and let me share a bit of it
with you as it pertains to a divine understanding of the meaning of fasting:
Is this the kind of fat that I require
a day of mortification such as this:
that a person should bow his head like a bulrush and use sackcloth and ashes for a bed?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Rather, is not this the fast I require:
to loose the fetters of injustice
to untie the knots of the yoke,
and set free those who are oppressed, tearing off every yoke?
Is not sharing your food with the hungry,
taking the homeless poor into your house,
clothing the naked when you meet them,
and never evading a duty to your kinsfolk? (Is. 58.5-7 NRSV)
Your fast can be seen as a giving up of food, but Isaiah says to share your food with the hungry.
Let your giving up be a sharing, a "taking up" and a "taking in" a "making of room" so that other things
once unattended now receive your attention-the need of the homeless poor for shelter, the need
of the ill-clad for clothing. Your duties now extend far and wide-to all the kinsfolk, and it is God
who connects us in a kinship relation each to all and all to each one-so that what you must do, in
your fast, and on your spiritual journey, is work for justice and loosen the ties of oppression and
tear off every yoke.
This is not a giving up but a taking on of big and serious responsibilities. Will you have the heart
to take this on? The courage? Will you share the vision of the God who stands along side those
who seek freedom from the bonds of o oppression?
Let this Lenten season be for you a time of "taking up" and even a penitential "letting go" so that
you might make this journey in good company with the God of justice who reaches out to all in
freedom. Take chocolate-don't take chocolate. The symbol is not the critical issue. The critical
issue is your willingness to make room in your lives to attend to the needs of those about you,
even your own need for forgiveness, and your need to extend forgiveness to those who, in Christ,
are your kinsfolk.
May God bless you this Lenten Season as you begin once again this journey of spirit; and if you
decide to give something up, do so in the spirit of making room for things you have no room for now;
do so in the spirit of Christ, who found a way to make room for you in the heart of God.
Published in the Express-Times (C1,3,4), Friday, February 8, 2002 under title under title, "Being Spiritual Means Resecting Differences"
Americans Struggle with Religious Diversity
In a hefty, 400 page book published in 1999 called "The New American Spirituality," Elizabeth Lesser devotes
a great deal of attention to the idea that the search for spirituality in America reflects basic cultural commitments
to democracy and diversity. Spirituality in America, the author argues, is open and accessible to all (democracy)
and it reflects the openness of Americans to incorporating ideas and practices from a wide variety of religious
traditions (diversity). Furthermore, American spirituality honors individualism. Each person's spiritual journey is,
the author says, "different, worthy, and unique." And at the heart of the spiritual journey, says Lesser, are the
fundamental questions of meaning: Who am I? How should I live?
In a highly secular, diverse society, many Americans today want to meet their spiritual needs apart from organized
religions, and a smorgasbord of alternative spirituality options has arisen in what is called the "spiritual marketplace"
or the "spiritual supermarket." The "market" notion captures the idea that the spiritual life is subject to market forces
and financial transactions. The market is big business, as the millions of copies of "The Prayer of Jabez" sold last year attest.
Traditional religions like Judaism and Christianity have found ways to put forth wares in the new supermarket
of spiritual offerings. Native American religion is highly regarded as a path to spiritual wisdom. And Eastern
spirituality, mainly Buddhism but also Indian religions, including yoga, have achieved enormous levels of
acceptance and spiritual respectability.
Americans seem to have incorporated perspectives and practices from Buddhism with ease, which is surprising
given how distinct the core values of Eastern cultures are from American values. Yet, in a deeply secular world,
the Buddhist insight that spiritual growth and enlightenment are available to all as a natural part of our human
capacities and endowments is particularly attractive. No highly transcendent, God-centered faith is required
for the revelation of spiritual truth. In Buddhism, gods and goddesses express aspects of the human self, and
the expansion of consciousness is derived not from an encounter with the Other, but is available to all as a
purely natural state.
On the other hand, Americans have not tapped the deep spiritual resources of a tradition like Islam. Although
conforming much more closely to central affirmations in Judaism and Christianity, Islam has not been embraced
by American spiritual seekers. Rather, Americans seem to be continuous with the European traditions in which
Islam was feared and reviled; its spiritual resources have been held suspect and associated with political radicalism;
and even Mohammad's status as an independent religious visionary of commanding stature has been denied,
distrusted and distorted in the West. Dante put Mohammad in one of the lowest pits of hell, viewing him as
an anti-Christ, so that his only meaning is over against Christian traditions.
Islam, as a religion of universal significance yet steeped in Arabic origins, has been a victim of the Western
anti-Semitic bias we so easily associate with anti-Jewish sentiment. But this "anti-Semitism" extends to
Islam in that Arabic is, like Hebrew, a Semitic language, and there is no doubt that Arabs and thus Islam
have been hated, caricatured and misunderstood in the West over the centuries. Yet the spiritual traditions
of Islam are quite profound. That Americans seem not able to open their minds to Islamic spirituality, to
admiration for all that happened, say, in Mohammad's mystic visions on the Night Flight, or the peculiar
social justice concerns that attach even to the most self-annihilating aspects of Sufi mysticism, points to
blind spots in how many of us go through the spiritual cafeteria line.
In the spiritual marketplace, we pick and choose; and the question is, "How and why do we make the
choices we do?" Are the choices we are making really creating greater spiritual unities or in subtle ways
simply reasserting the old barriers of misunderstanding? That spirituality book I mentioned above has,
in its over 400 ages only a couple of references to Mohammad, none to Islam, yet Eastern traditions
are more liberally sprinkled throughout the text as meaningful reference points.
Many Americans today are pushing themselves to grow spiritually. Affluence, like poverty, breeds discontents,
and many affluent Americans, dissatisfied with all they have acquired, have become aware of spiritual need in the
midst of plenty. And that is how they think about it-as spiritual, not religious. Although this focus on spirituality
should confirm openness to difference, we saw in the wake of September 11 just how uncomfortable some
Americans are with the religious patchwork that covers the American religious scene. Political leaders
asserted that diversity in America does not go deep and that our spiritual differences are only superficial
when they asserted that we are, at our cultural center, still bound by a shared religious vision they call
"Judeo-Christian"-a reference point they assume everyone understands and accepts. But who is
included in that vision? More importantly, who is excluded? It may exclude your neighbor, even
someone you call friend.
With over 4000 identified religious groups or communities in the United States at the present time, America
is in the midst of perhaps its greatest experiment. It is an experiment of diversity. And in that-and beyond
that--are the millions of people who are attending to the great questions of spirit-"Who am I?" and
"How should I live?" We would do well to remember what spiritual means. Spiritual means freedom.
It refers to the choices we make in freedom and what we do with our freedom. It means freedom to
extend hospitality to a stranger and live in peace with difference. It means freedom to open the mind
beyond the biases of received traditions and freedom to confront myths that by erecting barriers also
creates outsiders. It means freedom to journey into the world of everyday, respectful of all that is
"different, worthy and unique" with a willingness to offer, as well as receive from others, a word of peace.
Packer Memorial Church Service, Rev. Dr. Lloyd Steffen (8 PM, 11 September 2001.)
This message was presented by Rev. Dr. Lloyd Steffen, University
Chaplain, professor and chairperson of the department of religion studies at
Lehigh. It was published in the Express-Times as a "Spiritual Journeys Column"
on Friday, 20 September, 2001: PP. C1, C3 under the title: "Always Present
Goodness in the Face of Evil."
The irony is that it was such a beautiful day - not only here in Bethlehem,
but in New York, and in Washington, even out in Somerset, Pennsylvania.
When this day is written about, that will be remembered. It will be said that
September 11, 2001 was a beautiful day.
What was given to us was a beautiful day, but human beings-people,
we do not know who and maybe we never shall-took this beautiful day and
turned it ugly. They unloosed chaos upon us; driven by anger and hatred,
they assaulted people going about the business of daily living, and visited
them with terror. They turned blue skies grey with smoke and debris; they
commandeered and crashed aircraft; they collapsed buildings and sent what
will probably turn out to be thousands and thousands of persons to their
deaths. And we were caught off guard-as we should have been; for human
beings ought not to live in fear and terror and in expectation of such things
happening as happened today: civility and decency exclude such
Yet here we are, grieving and bewildered, as a nation, as individuals.
We have been touched here, on this campus, by what has happened. There
were undoubtedly Lehigh alumni in the Twin Towers this morning. I was with
two students today, both of whose fathers worked in the Trade Center
Towers. They are at this moment suffering the agony of not knowing,
anxiously waiting to hear word. I spoke with another student whose father
this morning, on his way to work in Manhattan, witnessed the plane crash.
His office was in that building, and he was not in it because his train had
What a day. And it is not over. Sad to say, it is likely that among us
on this campus are friends and colleagues who are going to find out that
they have lost loved ones in the various disasters of this day-and it is all so
overwhelming. "How could this have happened?" we ask ourselves, 'Why?'"
There have been tears shed today here and in every part of our country.
They are tears of sorrow and grief, and those tears do not have answers to
our questions. Whatever answers are finally given to questions about who
did this and why, there will never be any response more important to it than
tears. We shall go about the business of seeking justice and redress, and
that is vitally important. But while the tears are still fresh, perhaps we
should remind ourselves that there can never be a righting of this wrong-to
think so is to trivialize the magnitude of the crimes we have all witnessed.
Tears of sorrow for victims and victim survivors are appropriate, and in all
that shall happen in the days ahead, we will never be able to demonstrate a
clearer, truer understanding of what has happened this day than by these
We must now be vigilant and exercise some critical caution in
responding to what has occurred this day. If it should turn out that those
who sponsored and carried out today's violent attacks were from the Middle
East and acting in concert with various political and religious ideologies, as
reports are already indicating, we must remember that we have welcomed
into our community persons from this area of the world--and yes, they are
welcome here. We must go out of our way to renew our pledge to
demonstrate hospitality to all persons who come into our community from
abroad. And we must not allow so grand and glorious a faith tradition as
Islam to be vilified, distorted and misrepresented, or seen as the authorizing
agent of today's terrorist activities. In moments of insecurity and chaos,
ignorance is an eager companion. But we must not stereotype, or adopt
anti-Semitic attitudes against those whose Semitic language is Arabic.
Today has been a day you and I will remember for the rest of our lives.
Our children-your children--will know this day. They will read about it, and
know the pictures and discuss it as a day of national tragedy. It has been a
hard day. For some, even some among us, it may yet prove to be a day
when a loved one perished, or a loved one escaped harm. We shall not
forget this day.
And this terrible day, September 11, 2001, a day that started so
beautifully, is now coming to a close. We acknowledge that anger and
hatred played an important role in everything that happened today, but by
coming here, to this place, we can close the day by saying that the very
emotions which gave rise to murder and mayhem will not cause even more
destruction by coming to rest in our hearts. So we gather tonight for a time
of reflection and a time of prayer. We call upon the God of peace and
understanding to give us both, for great is our need for peace and
understanding. We ask God to help us as we reach out to help those
struggling under the terrible burden of grief or uncertainty that has befallen
them. We ask God for hearts of sympathy and understanding, hearts that
refuse to return hatred for hatred-hearts always disposed to present
goodness in the face of evil.
Pubished in Express-Times as "Now is the Time to Prepare a Place for Wisdom," Friday, June 15, 2001: C1,C2
Some Thoughts on Wisdom
Young people who are graduating from high school or college at this time of year inevitably receive a lot of advice. They get it from parents and relatives, from friends, even from the prominent people who address them at graduation ceremonies in that time honored tradition of the commencement address. They are told many things. They are told to keep working hard, but not too hard, to live with optimism and hope while being realistic, to keep up friendships and relationships, even as they enter years where many relationships will change.
One piece of advice that is not often given, but perhaps should be, is to remind young people of the importance of seeking wisdom. Wisdom is not the acquisition of information, it is not the amassing of more information or building a larger data base. Wisdom is a power of discernment that balances things in life and helps us to avoid extremes in behavior. "It is a characteristic of wisdom," Henry David Thoreau said, "not to do desperate things." Jews and Christians regard wisdom as "the greatest good." It is even a feminine name for God in the Hebrew Bible (Sophia). And Buddhism regards wisdom as the highest spiritual capacity. The Koran says that "those to whom wisdom is given; they truly have abundant good."
We often associate wisdom with advanced age and white hair, so the question arises, why should young people be thinking about wisdom? After all, they are focused on the adventures that await, which will undoubtedly plunge them in the deep experiences of life, and from those experiences wisdom will emerge. Wisdom, I would say, is not just a consequence of experience, however many experiences one may have. These are years when young people make momentous decisions, decisions that will affect the course of their lives. To make these decisions well, wisdom is needed. Wisdom is not a power to see the future. It is an excellence of mind and heart that allows us to make decisions, establish priorities, and chart a pathway for living well.
Wisdom seeks to understand what we can call the central issues of life, issues that are fundamentally spiritual. Those issues include finding and creating meaning and purpose in life; coming to appreciate how fragile life is and how resilient; developing the ability to manage and deepen relationships to self and others; coming to grips with mystery in life, uncertainty, and the vastness of all that surrounds us. Wisdom empowers but also enlightens and transforms, awakening us to the possibility of living with greater sensitivity to the world and to others, and in greater harmony with ourselves. Having high SAT scores and a Jeopardy-like command of information is not, and never will be, wisdom.
What anyone who would seek wisdom must know is that wisdom does not just show up like an unexpected guest. It is often said that wisdom must be awakened, but there is more to it than that. Wisdom only comes to those who prepare for wisdom's arrival and who are ready to receive wisdom with hospitably and welcome. This is accomplished by making choices about how to live. Anger and resentment must not be allowed to dominate the emotions. Habits of respect and empathy for others must be cultivated. Those who would seek wisdom prepare for it by developing the capacity for compassion and a willingness to help others. And wisdom seekers will develop into trustworthy individuals, persons of integrity who live honestly with themselves and others: "Wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul" says the Torah.
To prepare for wisdom will require listening to the sources of wisdom with at least the same mount of attentiveness we give to sources of information. Wisdom's sources are not CNN and the Web, but such things as nature; silence and solitude; persons we know to be wise, friends and teachers and writers; and even ourselves. The wise person acquires not only self-knowledge, but self-understanding, and with self-understanding comes the recognition that we are, all of us, participant in a common human experience even as the particulars in each of our stories will differ according to variability of life itself: we are all afflicted by the same stresses and strains in life; we are all of us made joyous by love and friendship; and all of us have the potential for being our own worst enemy.
Young people going through the change of school endings and whatever new beginnings await them could use a reminder at this time of year about the importance of wisdom and the need to prepare for it. The reminder is that wisdom is essential to anyone who seeks to embrace life fully and live it purposefully, meaningfully, and mindfully. Preparing a place for wisdom in one's life ought to be today's work, not tomorrow's.
Alternate Version of article published in the Express-Times as "McVeigh's Death will Not Even the Score": Spiritual Journey Column, Friday, April 27, 2001, C1,C2.
Illusions of Justice, Illusions of Healing
The moral horror of the Oklahoma City bombing staggers the imagination. At the center of this crime is Timothy McVeigh, a mass murderer for whom 19 dead children in a day care center-children he killed-are "collateral damage." His victims include 168 dead, over 1100 victim family members, and a nation. His recently reported statements indicating callousness and lack of regret over what he did are unfathomable. Yet if you ask me whether he should be put to death, I say "No."
Killing McVeigh will perpetuate two illusions that are already widely accepted as truth. The first illusion is that killing McVeigh will serve justice. Although an execution will certainly be an act of retributive punishment, justice has, in a classical sense, been concerned not with "paying back" so much as making even. Justice is concerned with proportionality and putting right a balance of justice upset by someone's wrongdoing. If that is justice, then the idea that killing McVeigh will restore the balance of justice that his exploding Ryder truck upset seems absurd. This act of mass murder cannot be put right, and it is an illusion to think that killing him is a just and proportionate response to what he did. The numbers do not add up: one death for 168 deaths. And while the classic notion of punishment is that offenders should be put in a worse position than they were prior to their offense, killing McVeigh will certainly not achieve this end. McVeigh will go to his death escaping any confrontation with the moral meaning of his political act, and only that confrontation, and the suffering it would necessarily cause, could make matters worse for him. That the government he hates is moving to kill him simply reinforces his views and his hatred. Punishment is McVeigh's just desert, but if he is not given the opportunity to confront the moral horror of his deed it seems unlikely that he will suffer punishment even though we kill him. I would not let him off so easy.
That McVeigh's killing will balance justice is one illusion, but there is one other. This illusion is wrapped up in the many concerns we hear expressed for the victim survivors. Many of the victim's families want to witness the execution, and while I understand their anger and hatred for McVeigh, I also think this desire for vengeance has become confused with the idea that after McVeigh is dead, they will experience moral closure and begin to put their lives back together. Retribution defines action that inflicts harm on a wrongdoer, who is the sole focus of concern It does not attend to victims, and it certainly is not aimed at such fuzzy notions as "healing." It is an illusion to think that retribution, the pre-Biblical idea of an eye for an eye, will concern itself with victims when it is directed solely at inflicting harm on the wrongdoer.
The idea that closure and healing will come to survivors as the result of McVeigh's execution is, I believe, the saddest illusion of all. McVeigh will die, and survivors who have expended tremendous amounts of the energy seeking vengeance for their loss will, in the wake of McVeigh's killing, have to confront, once again, the enormity of their loss. The object of their rage will be gone, and when they most need attention and help, they will find themselves alone with their grief. All the attention prosecutors and the media have given these victim family members will disappear. There is no story any more-the legal case will be closed. And although pundits and even some survivors are now claiming that with McVeigh killed they will be begin to heal, what is more likely to happen is that anger and rage will find other objects and tear away at other relationships. Unless the rage is broken, its destructiveness will find new outlets. That is how passions and emotions work. Killing McVeigh's will not bring healing to the grief-stricken, and it is an illusion to think so.
Every American wants healing for the family members and a lessening of their pain. I am convinced Timothy McVeigh's execution cannot possibly deliver that to them, no matter how much they may say otherwise.
I think the only kind of healing that will come to the victims of Oklahoma City will be when in cherished love for lost loved ones, they move beyond the desire for vengeance and personal hurt to see, then attend to, the hurt of others. Oklahoma City survivor victim Bud Welch lost his daughter and was overcome with anger and the desire for vengeance. But it occurred to him that Tim McVeigh's family must also be suffering. So this suffering father went to visit another suffering father. As a result of that meeting, Welch's life changed. His grief has been no less than any other of Tim McVeigh's victims, but transformed by all he went through-- shock, pain, grief, and then reaching out to others--Welsh today talks as one who knows that no good will come from one more death, one more killing. His is a voice worth listening to in these days before McVeigh's execution.
McVeigh's death will do nothing but feed illusions about justice and deeper illusions about healing. By opposing his execution, I hold out the hope that those directly terrorized by Timothy McVeigh's chilling and evil deed might live to hear from him one day words that he has refused to say and now may never utter, but which he owes many people, myself included-the words, "I'm sorry."
Spiritual Journey column to be published March 2, 2001: Express-Times
On Spiritual Needs
A friend who works with at-risk children in our public schools recently shared with me that when a student misbehaves or is otherwise in some kind of trouble, someone is always ready to say: "This student needs counseling." And recently when I listened to a clergy person share before colleagues the story of a parish that proved so difficult that it led to the minister's resignation, a similar reaction came forth: "That's a person who needs counseling."
It is not the idea of counseling that has prompted me to share these incidents, but the idea of "need." An old prayer asks us to "be mindful of the needs of others," but do we know how to discern needs? What is a need? When we say that a person needs this or that to help them with a problem, do we know how to distinguish a need from, say, a service that might-or might not-- help with the need?
It is no accident that we associate needs with singularly important things. We commonly talk about our having needs for food, clothing, clean water, shelter, companionship, love, security, even money. All of these things are big things, important things, things that one must have as a condition for meaningful life, life that flourishes and is able to be enjoyed.
A need points to the lack of something big, important, and central to our ability to enjoy life. A need, then, is a hole in the fabric of life, and it is a big hole, one that if not patched threatens a person's well-being. Needs point to places of suffering, for unlike unmet wants, which cause disappointment, unmet needs are actually harmful. We sometimes talk casually about needs, but our actual needs may be fewer than we think if, in fact, they concern the big and important things I am suggesting.
A student facing challenges may indeed need something, but is it counseling? What a challenged student needs may be peace of mind, an understanding adult, a stress-free environment in which to study, a strategy to express anger without violent words or actions. And there may be several services that help meet those needs-counseling included. Counselors help persons identify, understand, and then respond constructively to needs. But counselors are not themselves the need-they are a resource to help people respond to certain of their needs. The same thing can be seen when considering physical illness. When we get sick, we often go to a doctor. But what is our need when we become ill? A sick person has a need to be healed and restored to physical well-being-that, I suggest, is the need, the big thing. The services a physician provides take on importance in relation to the threat to well-being an illness poses. But the physician is not the need. The physician is a resource to address the need. Sometimes when we are ill, a physician's intervention may not be important at all, while at other times it could be critically important to a healing process, whether or not the malady threatening physical well-being can be cured. The need at issue in illness is for healing and a return to well-being. Physicians lend help, sometimes invaluable, to serve that need, but they are not the need itself.
Spiritual needs are less obvious than physical ones, but nonetheless real.
A need is"spiritual" when we are driven in freedom to seek meaning, acceptance, and even transcendence in our lives. This may not seem like religious talk, but it is no easy thing to find meaning, and acceptance and transcendence--and my topic is spiritual need, not necessarily religion. True, we sometimes associate spirituality with religion, but many people today identify themselves as spiritual and not as religious; and spiritualities, whether or not associated with a specific religious tradition, are the not the need but ways we choose to respond to the need. An acquaintance recently told me of a men's spirituality group he had joined at a local church, and when I asked this husband, father, successful professional, homeowner, and dog owner what compelled him to join, he said words to the effect: "I'm blessed with a happy marriage, wonderful children, I own a home and cars and a dog named Spot. And I keep thinking, there has got to be more to life than this."
The feeling that there has got to be more to life indicates a spiritual need, and not meeting this need can be as harmful to the spirit as not eating or finding adequate shelter is to the body. When basic needs are not met, harm threatens. When the needs of the spirit are denied, freedom itself is threatened. Spirit is a term always associated with freedom, and the need at issue in anything we call spiritual is freedom related. So the question is, shall we use our freedom to satisfying the deepest longings of our souls for meaning, or will we confuse this need with those "spiritualities" that serve as resources to help meet the need? Spiritualities are means to satisfy spiritual needs-they are not the need itself. The need itself is for a relationship that will not disappoint. The quest for that relationship may lead us to a men's group, a women's group, a faith community, a spiritual guru, a new diet program, meditation, prayer, therapies and self-help programs. These are all available in what is today being called "the spiritual marketplace" and all of these option are competing for attention and dollars, and a huge spirituality industry has arisen to service the need. The need is real, and if the need is not met, harm will result-the harm of facing meaninglessness, disconnection, loneliness, hopelessness, and failed relationship after failed relationship.
All of us are in some ways on a spiritual journey. We would do well to keep in mind that we have spiritual needs, and they are real and powerful. They shape our lives and affect how we live. And how we live--the choices we make, the relationships we enter, the multitude of ways we use our freedom--all express our response to spiritual need. But they are not the need itself. Keeping the need, which is common to all, distinct from the diversity of pathways people choose in response to that need, may go a long way toward helping us live with greater sensitivity and balance, renewed compassion for others, and a more awesome hope.
Spiritual Journeys column to be published 9 January 2001: Express-Times, Easton, PA
The In-Between Time
This was the week to drag trees to the curb and put the decorations away. The children have gone back to school; the holiday leftovers are just about gone; and the bathroom scales have reminded many of where the obvious New Year's resolutions ought to begin. We are now on the other side of all the expectation and the frenetic pace that was Christmas this past year. We are now having to face, without benefit of an impending Christmas hope, the harsh reality of a sluggish economy, a change in administration in Washington, and continued violence in the Middle East.
Christians are supposed to enter the New Year with an eye toward keeping the festivities and good spirit of the holiday season going, for no sooner is the calendar turned than a feast day appears: Epiphany. Although it was originally a day to mark the Baptism of Christ and is still celebrated as such in the Eastern Church, Epiphany today is associated with the adoration of Christ by the Magi, those three wise wayfarers who journeyed from a far country to present their gifts. They came not as family members familiar with promise and prophecy but as outsiders and strangers, star gazers who every night observed the heavens and wondered at the celestial changes. They left their homes not knowing where they were going or what they would find, seeking new things. Before their journey was through, they had found reason to celebrate.
The high pitch of Christmas does not hold for long, and not many of us would want it to, given the toll the season takes on our wallets, our waist-lines, our patience. In the aftermath of Christmas we are tired, having "Stayed up so late" writes poet W. H. Auden, and "attempted-quite unsuccessfully-to love all our relatives." A day or two after Christmas the gifts under the tree are gone. A toy that brought delight to a child early Christmas morning sits idle, perhaps needing a battery, perhaps broken, perhaps an object of disinterest. A feast day celebration looms, but no attempt is made to revive the Christmas fever with an Epiphany encore. No one has energy to keep Christmas going-visions of sugar plums are not easily induced in January although the white sales do bring the bargain hunters out shopping once again.
Post-holiday let-downs are a common occurrence. Vague feelings of sadness touch many, feelings that may have been hovering in the background during the days of Christmas but which the frenzied pace-or was it the joy?--of Christmas suppressed. In the cold days of January, the "blues" visit many. Psychologists will tell us that sad feelings are generated by unresolved family conflicts, re-experiencing the loss of loved ones, and not enough sunshine. Some adults are even affected by a nostalgia for the childhood joy of the season, which deepens as we get older.
But these may not exhaust all the reasons for the sadness so many experience. In a poetic masterpiece, "For the Time Being," W. H. Auden suggested another set of reasons for the feelings. "The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory," he writes, "And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware /Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all,/Be very far off." It's true. Lent and Good Friday are just around the corner. But should the thought of them be provoked so soon after Christmas?
Clearly the poets think so. They ponder the meaning of epiphany, and imaginatively give voice to the uncomfortable and unsettled in-between time before Lent, when magi are journeying home, thinking past the story's beginning and wondering about its end. T. S. Eliot imagined the Magi looking back on their journey years later, recognizing that "This birth was different" but then wondering what it had all meant: "Were we led all this way for birth or death?" What a sober question to ask in the post-Christmas season.
Sadness lurks around the edges of Christmas. It is provoked by poets and even by the tradition itself: the old Christian legend that those first Christmas gifts of frankincense and myrrh given by the wise men would one day be used to anoint a crucified body. In the end of things we come again to the beginning, even as we flow from Christmas back into the routines of the world we know and accept. Auden sees the sadness as spiritual: "As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed/To do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility." The post-Christmas blues may arise because the Christmas promise, wonderful and miraculous is it seems, has yet to become a transforming reality not only for each of us but for all of us. That promise of peace and new beginnings is hard to live out of as we return to the post-Christmas world of Middle East violence and job anxiety, not to mention that there are bills to pay, meals to make, snow to shovel, toys to play with-so many things to occupy our time and distract our minds.
The post-holiday blues are akin to a post-partum let down. Mothers know the change that occurs when the rush of high feeling in anticipation of birth is over, when the pampering they received after delivery suddenly disappears, when they return home to resume life in that "in-between time" of everyday living and routines where we all live-that time between Christmas and Lent, birth and death. The Christian Church calls this "ordinary time," and it is in this time beyond the great joy of the Christmas moment that we realize we have arrived back home from the far country and now need to resume the business of daily living.
It is in these moments, not just in the high drama moments of life--the Christmases and Good Fridays that we must ponder all that has happened, and resolve to take journeys of spirit. It is here in the everydayness of ordinary time where we must be open to epiphanies and moments of celebration, where we must find nourishment in one another's company even as we experience all that life has to offer. The sadness comes from knowing that the intense joy of a new beginning is over. The birth is done and now life in ordinary time awaits. The hope is that we have been changed by all that has happened even as the poets sadly muse to the contrary. But ordinary time is the spiritual challenge. The challenge of spirit is to keep the celebration alive, to move toward epiphanies so that we might share with others the gifts of life that surround us, even if our travel is now restricted and we are only star gazers who must journey in wonder.
"Spiritual Journey" Column, original version that was edited and re-titled for publication in Express-Times, April 7, 2000: C1,C5
From Forgiveness to Accepting Responsibility
by Lloyd Steffen
In recent weeks, Pope John Paul II has put forgiveness in the headlines. First came his March 12 prayer in Rome, asking God's forgiveness for two thousand years of sins committed by those in the Church. Then came the Pope's moving pilgrimage to Israel where he tucked into the Western Wall a written plea to God asking forgiveness for Christian persecution of the Jews, a theme also emphasized at the papal visit to the Israeli Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.
The plea for forgiveness cannot be understood apart from the confession of wrongdoing. The Pope connected the hope of forgiveness to an acknowledgment of responsibility for the many acts of hatred and violence Christians have caused in their history. His confession on behalf of all those persons in the faith who have acted contrary to the tenets of the faith was meant to deal with past iniquities so that from confession and forgiveness, Christians might move forward in reconciliation, especially with persons in other faith traditions. Clearly the Pope expressed a desire to advance Catholic-Jewish dialogue when he said in Israel: "We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have cause these children of your to suffer. Asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant."
Criticism of the Pope, while scanty, did arise, and it amounted to saying that the Pope did not go far enough: he did not acknowledge that the Church itself has sinned; he did not address the specific Holocaust involvement of Pope Pius XII; and he passed over in silence contemporary persecutions where Christians figure prominently, such as that suffered by homosexual persons.
Despite the criticisms, and valid as they may be, the Pope did more than make headlines: he made religious history, doing so by bringing the failings of Church people over the course of Church history into the spotlight of criticism. This was a remarkable event, though many people, myself included, were somewhat puzzled by the Pope's focus on the sins of Christian persons rather than on those of the Church. But on reflection, I began to see the wisdom of this move, even beyond the one that the Pope undoubtedly was appealing to: the idea that the Church is not simply an institution but is to be regarded in faith as the mystical body of Christ. As such, the Church neither sins nor requires forgiveness. That theological explanation, however, is not the whole story. There is an ethical issue at stake that should be of concern to everyone, not just Roman Catholics or Christians.
The ethical issue in the Pope's position might be put like this: that persons sin, institutions do not. The Pope reminds us that institutions do not act. They do not kill or maim, or wage war or bring about destruction. People, not institutions, do these things; and people working in, with and through institutions, be it government, church, or corporation, participate in the decisions and undertake the actions that can lead to all kinds of consequences, both good and evil. Institutions do not act. Only people can be agents able to act in freedom. Only people can envision the good and pursue it. Only people in pursuit of the good can fall short of it, deceive themselves about what is good, violate moral standards, engage in evil and assume accountability for the consequences of actions. Only people act.
When the catalogue of sins committed in the name of the Church by servants of the Church is paraded before the eyes of history, it is a sorry sight indeed; and it was an honest if not also surprising moment to see the Pope acknowledge the contributions Christians have made to human pain and suffering and the sadness of the past. But by making the distinction he did, by attributing responsibility to Christian persons and not to the Church, the Pope put responsibility for evil deeds where it appropriately lies-at the doorstep of individual persons who, acting alone or in concert with others, violated the Church's vision of love and justice and acted to injure persons and denigrate their dignity. The Pope's point, ethically considered, is that it is not the Church as an institution that has persecuted, killed and committed evil, but persons in the Church acting without due respect and true devotion for the theological guides for action the Church envisions and maintains.
People are responsible for what they do and what they make, and we make our institutions-even religious communities. The Pope reminded us of a church institution where members made decisions and acted to crusade, to conduct inquisition, to persecute, oppress, execute and kill. These are particular sins in a particular church community with a long history, but any person in a religious organization-not just the Pope but any church member-could attest to the fact that people of faith can create savagely spiteful and destructive organizational environments at times. The Pope's message about the need for forgiveness in the institutions we create may not have been clearly heard, but it is an important message: Institutions can serve us for good or ill; and it is not the institution per se that hurts and injures, the people who direct it and serve it, who seek to advance it and promote its values, who make decisions and act.
Institutions involve us in a web of association with others, in our family lives, our work lives, our lives as citizens and as persons of faith. We do well to remember that these institutions are ultimately of our own making and that we are responsible for what happens in them, and through them, and in the name of them. And it is because of what we do with them, in them, and through them, that we need reminders such as the Pope's: that our faults are many and our need for forgiveness great.
Full version of Spiritual JourneysColumn published in Express-Times, Friday, February 4, 2000: pp. C1, C3.
A Spiritual Journey to Death Row
People are sometimes shocked to hear that our criminal justice system sends innocent persons to death row to face execution. In a recent conversation about the death penalty at a local college, a professor of criminology, to my disbelief, tried to say that wrongful conviction in capital cases could not happen, that where death is concerned so many safeguards are put in place that a mistake is virtually impossible. I responded with the information we have about this, that of the over 1500 persons who have been sent to death row in the last thirty years and then removed, 85 have been released because of proof of actual innocence.
With a thirteenth person recently freed from death row, the State of Illinois has now exonerated more inmates than it has executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty, and just this week the Illinois Governor called for a moratorium on executions, noting that something is dreadfully wrong with a system of justice that allows this to happen. A moratorium movement is growing across the country, with the Pennsylvania Senate scheduling hearings about undertaking an investigation into death penalty practices later this month.
Most persons of faith who oppose the death penalty do not ground their opposition in the fact that the criminal justice system is fallible and makes mistakes-their opposition usually rests in the belief that using the state execution power to kill a citizen is a response to violence with even more violence, thus morally abhorrent, and that it represents an illegitimate encroachment on an ultimate power that ought to belong to God and not to the state. The people who need to be concerned about the execution of the innocent are not death penalty opponents, but death penalty supporters, for they are the ones who carry the burden of justifying the use of this awesome power, and if they justify executions, they must only do so on the basis of assuring the rest of us that every execution conforms to the requirements of justice. Executing an innocent person fails to meet this requirement of justice-no ethic can justify a wrongful killing.
Raising this issue could lead to an ethics lecture-and I am prepared to give one. But I raise the idea of executing an innocent person in this column because I recently met such a person-a man on death row who is innocent-and I marveled at the spiritual journey he has taken.
Death Row in Tennessee, a Southern state that has had no executions since 1960, has a hundred inmates. One of them, Philip Workman, was convicted of capital murder in 1981. Strung out on drugs, Workman robbed a fast food restaurant and fled carrying a loaded gun. In a struggle with police, the gun fired and an officer was wounded in the arm. With other police joining the scene, chaos broke out and before it was over, a police officer was dead. Workman was convicted of the killing and sentenced to die. His court appointed lawyers did no investigation and mounted no defense.
When the attorneys who took over Workman's appeals reexamined the evidence, they discovered that the kind of bullet that killed the police officer was not a bullet that could have come from Workman's gun, and all kinds of ballistic and medical experts have signed affidavits to this effect. The fatal bullet caused the kind of damage that was consistent with ammunition carried by the police. Workman has been trying to get a new trial so that this evidence can be heard before a jury, but has failed. His only hope now is with clemency from the Governor, who has said he would like to see executions start again on his watch. Workman is out of appeals. He is facing execution. Evidence exists that he is actually innocent of the crime that brought him to death row. Nationally renowned constitutional lawyers, some from Illinois, have visited Tennessee pleading in the media that the kind of evidence that has emerged in the Workman case is exactly the kind of evidence that has halted executions in other states and taken capital inmates off of death row.
I recently met Philip Workman with several other clergy. We asked him about his hat, which has sewn onto it Job 13:15: "Behold he will slay me; I have no hope; yet will I defend my ways to his face." He translated for us, "Though Tennessee slay me. . . " Surrounding this on his cap were the familiar WWJD: "What would Jesus Do?"
For the several hours we spent talking with him, Workman told us about life on death row, and how he has avoided trying to evangelize other inmates yet still be a witness for to his Christian faith. His command of the Bible is impressive. Workman is bright and articulate; he talks law and theology, rehearsed the outlines of his case, at one point remarking that things have gone sour on the legal front because "I guess I am just not innocent enough." He said he does not understand how Tennessee could deny him a new hearing, but he said God must understand. I know I should not have said this to him, but I did: "Are you really so sure God understands?" He said without skipping a beat-yes.
Tennessee will give him a choice of execution method and if he does not choose, the default option is the electric chair. Philip said he has his own preference but in no way will participate in his own extermination. "Would Jesus have done that?" he asked us. "Jesus was silent before the authorities and refused to grant any legitimacy to what they were doing." He talked about his family-he is a 46 year old grandfather and delights at showing pictures of his daughter and grandchildren. He is a man who is at ease and offers visitors a ready smile. He is attentive to others, and his desire for mental and spiritual clarity has led him to get rid of his television and its distractions-even two days before the local Tennessee team was to go to the Super Bowl. He holds a deep concern for all those who are offering him love and support, especially his family. His journey to death row, terrible as it has been, has also been a spiritual journey to faith and concern for others.
Were Philip Workman's sentence to death commuted, he would not go free. He would still face imprisonment for an armed robbery. But his fate is in the hands of a Governor, and an outpouring of support for clemency is being organized in Tennessee, with the religious community taking the public lead. The hope is that 50,000 post cards pleading for Workman's life will arrive on the Governor's desk in time to persuade the Governor that this life should be spared.
What an awesome power to hold, this clemency power over life and death. I left my meeting with Philip Workman having put a face to his number, his prison number, his designation as possibly Tennessee's first execution in forty years. I left feeling that I had not ministered to him but he to me. Our guide to death row, Rev. Joe Ingle, says that is a typical feeling. These are persons of worth and value, some with horrendous stories, some with terrible crimes in their past, but all persons whose lives have worth and value. When I asked Workman what a group like us could do for him, he said one word only: "Education." His feeling: "People don't know."
My spiritual journey to death row death row brought me back committed to helping. So I begin here: Know from these words something you would not have known without them: that if Philip Workman is put to death in Tennessee on April 6, 2000, it will not only be an innocent man who has been killed, but a good man.
Full version of a "Spiritual Journeys" column published in The Express-Times, January 8, 1999, pp. A9, 10.
Practice Forgiveness in the New Year
It has long been known that certain spiritual activities, especially prayer and meditation, contribute to over-all health and well-being. They yield positive effects on the body. Over the past two decades, research has indicated that people who include some centering time and the spiritual communion we associate with prayer in their daily routines, along with a high fiber diet and a brisk walk around the block every day, live longer, healthier and happier lives.
In the wake of a holiday where on average we have gained four pounds, gone into debt, and dealt with the dynamics of strained family relationships, many of us resolve to improve ourselves by living with fewer calories, less stress, more exercise and greater balance. Some of us may venture into thinking about becoming more generous and less resentful, but these are usually blind spots in our self-assessments. Few of us think about how we contribute actively to the anxiety and distress we experience in our relationships and in our daily lives, and most of us are not equipped to simply confront ourselves as selfish, or spiteful, or lacking in generosity, not when facing all the Christmas bills coming due.
One of the great advantages of referencing spiritual masters and religious traditions is that they provide access to these problems all of us experience, and, more than that, offer some practical help. Help comes by way of attending to familiar things, but the problem sometimes is that what is offered is so familiar that it does not penetrate and become a part of who we are.
One such help comes in the concept of forgiveness.
Forgiveness has long been central to the world's religions, but it hasn't always been appreciated, especially as a practical value that yields positive benefits. The 19th century German philosopher Nietzsche associated forgiveness with weakness, saying people only forgive to get what they want, and that those who are strong shun forgiveness in favor of getting even. And even today, many are critical of the idea of forgiveness because it is associated with "forgetting"-forgive and forget. Some wrongs clearly cannot-and must not--be forgotten.
Forgiveness, however, must not be used cynically to "get what you want" nor should it be associated with forgetting. Forgiveness, rather, can be offered while continuing to hold a person accountable for unacceptable behavior and recognizing that they need to change. It does not seek to repress feelings of resentment but seeks, rather, to move beyond resentment, offering compassion and benevolence when the person doesn't deserve it. Forgiveness is an active endeavor to replace bad thoughts with good ones, to stifle bitterness and anger with compassion and affection, which is no easy task. One author on forgiveness, Lewis Smedes, has written, "Forgiving remains the hardest job in the whole business of human relationships."
So why should we forgive? There are many reasons, but an interesting one I ran across lately brings to bear the concern for health and healing. Recently, psychologists have been studying the positive benefits of forgiveness. "Forgiveness studies" programs have begun on some university campuses, and the John Templeton Foundations's Campaign for Forgiveness Research is seeking to raise $10 million to sponsor research into forgiveness and its effects. Already research has demonstrated that forgivness programs can reduced anger and anxiety both short and long term. One Loyola University psychologist has said, "Anger and pain are the price of holding onto a grudge. We've known for a long time that anger and hostility-Type A behavior and all that-is unhealthy, that it makes people more vulnerable to heart disease." As those who practice forgiveness move beyond recrimination, revenge, and the destructive emotional states associated with resentment, it becomes clear that giving the gift of forgiveness can be an act of emotional healing.
We have had remarkable examples of forgiveness and its power: Cardinal Joseph Bernadin forgiving a man who falsely accused him of sexual abuse; the Pope meeting with and forgiving his almost-assassin; Nelson Mandela responding to an unjust 27 year imprisonment by setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal a nation torn by apartheid.
Forgiveness at work is transformative of persons and their relationships, but forgiveness is work: it requires that we reduce our motivation to withdraw from or retaliate against those who hurt us. And learning to forgive can be a long process. It is especially hard when the forgiveness recipient-the offender--does not apologize, or the hurt they have caused goes exceptionally deep.
Yet the benefits of being a person willing and able to forgive are clear. Forgiving brings equilibrium to the psyche, starts the process of restoring broken relationships, elicits compassion in encounters, and requires a generosity in one's attitudes. Forgiveness is active healing, and it requires not that someone do something for us or to us, but that we act--as healers, as initiators, as persons willing to take responsibility even for those who harm us. Forgiveness expresses religious ideals and reflects spiritual attainment. It displaces resentment and the desire for revenge, negative and destructive emotions, with a benevolent calming aimed at peace. It lowers stress and anxiety, moving us beyond our hurts while liberating us from the past.
It was Bishop Tutu who said that forgiveness "has to do with the real world" and that without it, "there is no future." In thinking about the future-even this new year that awaits us-we would do well to ponder forgiveness and all that it could contribute to our living happier and healthier lives. Be assured that practicing forgiveness in the complexity of life will be no small task, however, for our ability to forgive will depend, finally, on our willingness to enlarge our hearts.
Full version of a "Spiritual Journeys" column published in The Express-Times November 27, 1998, pp. C1, 3 under title, "The Spiritual View World Differently."
On Spiritual Knowing
Fridays are spelling test days in the lives of my sons who are in elementary and middle school, so Thursday evenings I find myself, with what must be countless other parents, going over spelling words to make sure they've got the right number of s's in 'accessory' and c's in 'necessary.' And then it's on to check the math homework and the geography lesson. And I asked myself on one of those Thursday evenings, "Why? What's this for?" because I know this is their question, and they sometimes ask 'why?' just as simple and plain as can be.
They ask 'why?' because such learning as they are doing is hard, demanding their time and attention; and it is not as interesting or fun as other things they could think of doing. As a parent I can offer answers. I can say that mathematics is involved in everything from building the bridge you cross on the way to school to balancing the family checkbook. And as a teacher I can offer some of those answers teachers are trained to give: that learning is the process whereby we master subjects, pursue truth, and conquer the unknown by coming to know.
It wasn't the spelling words that were concerning me, but the question about learning. Is it really the case that learning is a quest for something "out there," some object that it is our duty or desire to master, so that by study and learning we can control whatever it is we are pursuing and studying-some object of inquiry, some body of knowledge, even the world itself? Is that what learning is? Is truth really out there and subject to a human desire to control and conquer?
I was reminded of some words written by Louis Dupré, a professor of theology at Yale: "The spiritual person," he wrote, "comes to view the world in a different perspective. Underneath ordinary reality he or she recognizes another dimension. At the core of each creature, the contemplative finds an otherness that compels him to allow it to be itself and to abstain from the conquering, objectifying attitude we commonly adopt. This does not reveal a new idea of God; rather, it allows reality to reveal itself."
Dupré's point was that perhaps we make a mistake by thinking truth is out there-an object-to be pursued, or that what is going on in education and learning is mastery and control. What if such objective knowing is an illusion? That is a hard question to ask when we think about the world and how we come to know the world scientifically. But think how objective knowing expresses control. The tree out my window as object of my knowing is under my power and control. For it is I who look at it and subject its life to my purposes. It is I who decide if it is beautiful, I who criticize it for all the leaves it drops in autumn, I who put bird feeders on it, water it, prune it, cut it down. In virtue of knowing it as an object, I master the tree. I control its life and destiny. I am not changed by the tree or affected by it-it is a fact in the objective world and I act in accordance with what I know.
In the spiritual life, the great temptation is to say that we can know God like that tree. In our desire to understand God or spiritual life, we can try to objectify God the way we objectify a tree. We can fall into a way of knowing whereby the fact of God allows us to tell ourselves and each other-and God-who and what God is. We do this by defining God and making of God an object, then show our mastery over God by showing our command over all the God facts we claim to know--all that has been thought and said and written about God, now an object of our knowledge.
But Dupré is saying this: What if that's missing the boat? What if the big chore is not to tell God who or what God is, but to refuse to do so. What if another kind of knowing is needed to understand spiritual things? What if what is needed is not objective knowing aimed at conquering God with our language and concepts, but simply opening ourselves to a truth which to know must be revealed? What if the great educational need is attunement and listening, and the skill to be learned is to be silent?
Good anthropologists do not take their social science concepts into a village under study and impose that knowledge on those they encounter. Good anthropologists entering an unfamiliar society will be silent, unobtrusive, look in respectfully from the margins, tentatively step in and participate, always listening and trying to understand by receiving the reality the people make manifest in their lives. The good anthropologist will get to know the people being studied and discern the dynamics of their lives. Such an approach, such wisdom and skill, is how anthropologists come to learn and understand and know other cultures. Such ways of knowing seems even more relevant to how we learn and come to understanding in the spiritual life.
It just may be that God is not an object at all, and neither are we. What is needed is an education of the heart that allows us to discern the truth of such a claim, and to do that we shall have to learn to privilege a knowing grounded "in here" as well as "out there." Distortion in knowing is always a danger, for just as the objectivist's mistake is to tell the world what it is rather than listening to hear what it says about itself, the subjectivist mistake is to listen to no one but oneself. Balance must be sought; and balance is realized in community and in the understanding we offer each other. The spiritual life always leads to community formations where dialogue and conversation and consensus-seeking call for new meanings to attach to truth, and where spiritual wisdom is served by skills other than those seeking mastery and control.
None of these reflections arose in the moment I was reviewing my son's spelling words for the next day's test. But it did occur to me that in the question I still hear from them, "Why? Why are we doing this?", is the child's openness to other modes of learning, ways that may be deeper and even closer to spiritual truth than mine--and maybe, as they seem so sure, more fun. If we could hear their question and not too quickly dismiss it as the child's complaint, perhaps we could open another conversation, not about facts and what is objectively known, but about people on spiritual journeys open to expressing to one another the truth that is in our midst, waiting to be revealed.
Column written on the day of President' Clinton's grand jury testimony--submitted but not published.
Clinton and the Sadness of It All
The Clinton scandal began like indigestion after a great meal, annoying, even painful. But indigestion, when its only indigestion, goes away. This squalid affair has been with us so long, and the implications of all that have gone on are so profound, that to step back and assess it is to realize this is not like indigestion at all. There may be a problem here with the heart. This is, if not a heart attack, at least a heartbreaker; and so politicized has this sordid cover story become that it is likely to get worse before it gets better, and who knows what "better" really is?
The heartbreak is big and goes to the core of national identity. It touches not only on law but on the moral question of justice and fundamental fairness. Some traditionally un-American things have happened--the actual target of grand jury testimony has been called to testify; secret proceedings have saturated the airwaves, clogging Internet search engines and allowing for a public political prosecution unlike any we have seen; and given that a sitting president can now be sued in civil court, we should expect all future presidents to be tormented by such suits, financed by political enemies trying to overturn elections.
And all of these dangerous consequences have flowed from a failed investigation that needed something to justify its enormous expense, and a President who, for all his political savvy and accomplishments, foolishly, self-indulgently, and with blind arrogance, gave them what they needed. He has acknowledged his inappropriate behavior and accepted responsibility for what he has done, even confessing his wrongdoing as sin and asking forgiveness. But for all his contrition, we are at this moment in no position to measure the size of this upheaval or foresee all of its consequences.
Locating the true heartbreak of this affair is to be found in the question that seems irrepressible: What are those of us who are parents and teachers to say to our children? Our children, who watch television and surf the net, cannot escape the scandal; and to them we come to answer the questions they may not even want to ask, questions about sex and the character of a man who holds the office once entrusted to Lincoln. There is heartbreak in all of this, and reason for profound sadness. For we are experiencing disappointment in a leader and in a political process that designed a legal trap, which may yet succeed in removing the president from office.
It's the sadness of this I want my children to understand, for at the heart of this affair--the broken heart--is a president who has let a lot of people down, not only his wife and daughter, but many friends and citizen well-wishers. The sexual details so lurid and graphic to behold obscure the lies that are at the heart of the moral story here. Arrogance and self-centeredness make possible all kinds of justifications for such behavior as the president has (sort of) admitted to, and the lies told others easily become lies told and accepted by oneself. And such lies can become self-consuming, the core of real evil; for to maintain the lies, one must betray one's friends, doing so, the self-deceiver will reason, "to protect them." Them?
Clinton has let down his family and friends and well-wishers; and they--we--deserved better from him. Better treatment, more respect--the respect given those who deserve to be told the truth and not treated contemptuously with the arrogant cover story that a lie is not harmful if I'm the one who tells it.
But there is in this story even more reason for sadness. Counsel Starr has proven himself a ruthless and thin-skinned antagonist not enamored of the Bill of Rights and due process of law; and the kind of prosecutorial power given him is to be feared. If evil is what Reinhold Niebuhr said it was--"the assertion of some self-interest without regard for the whole"--then Starr's destructive investigation and the partisan politics it has unleashed must join ranks on the moral front as no better, and probably worse, than the infractions he uncovered in others. If Monica Lewinsky understands her role in contributing to this seamy mess is anyone's guess, but all those men I know who say they would never want their daughter working for Clinton probably ought not compare their daughters to Monica Lewinsky. She has a history and it, too, seems sad; and her character is likewise exposed in this current situation.
How the Clinton scandal will resolve itself in the short run is not clear at the moment, though clearly the legal changes wrought by this whole affair have implications for the American experiment in democracy that will extend far into the future, particularly regarding presidential power.
But that I cannot really share with my children. With them, I must speak of sex, lies and videotapes. I must speak about trust betrayed and what it means to let down the people who care about you and believe in you. I must explain how lying, which is so easily performed not only in public but in private life, is disrespectful of the office of person, even if done by the person holding the office of president. If impeachment hearings commence, I will no doubt find myself talking about the hypocrisy of those who will sit in judgment of him, some of whom will be casting stones for offenses they themselves have committed.
But beyond any words, what I really want to convey is a deep sense of sadness; for better people, or just people aware that they want to be better people, by making other, better choices and acting responsibly before the fact rather than after it, could have prevented this needless sadness and heartbreak.
Full version of a "Spiritual Journeys" column published in The Express-Times March 13, 1998, pp. C9. 11 under title, "Self-Discipline is the basis of shepherding spiritual growth."
Self-Discipline and the Spirit
At the opening of an exhibition of religious paintings and ritual objects put on display this week at Lehigh University, four Buddhist monks came into the rare book room of the library and formally opened the exhibit with prayerful chant. The chant was extraordinary. For one of the monks effortlessly reached down to some low notes I've never heard a vocalist reach, and out of this single voice came three distinct sounds. Fascinated by this "multi-vocalization" as the sound is called, I joined a discussion later with one of the monks and asked if this is something anyone can learn to do. I was told "No." The monk himself lacked this ability and said so. He shared that when monks gather in great halls to chant--sometimes several thousand at once--those who are experienced will carefully listen for novices who may have a deep "vocal cavern," and they are invited to study with masters and develop the skill.
I asked the monk if this mutivocalization is considered a spiritual gift, and I was told, "O, yes." And how long does it take to learn how to loosen the vocal cords and produce from one voice three distinct sounds? "From five to ten years."
This spiritual gift--so distinctive, so arresting, so beautiful--came from a natural capacity discerned by others, and was developed by hard work and study, and long years of practice. It was produced because the particular monk worked to develop and perfect the skill; and he did so by what can only be described as self-discipline.
We do not ordinarily have trouble associating the spiritual life with self-discipline, for we all know that spiritual activities do not come easy or quickly. It takes time to learn how to enter into patters of life that express spiritual depth and fullness. To be fruitful, meditation or prayer- time must be cultivated, like a garden. And what makes this possible is self-discipline. Self-discipline is like the attention a gardener gives to a garden to help it flourish--watering it, weeding it, helping it to grow. Self-discipline is what brings the gardener out day after day to see how things are going; it is how we pay attention. But learning how to pay attention is difficult, since it seems that you have to be paying attention to the need to pay attention before you can pay attention. Glenn Van Ekeren put the puzzle this way: "The tough thing about self-discipline is that we need self-discipline in order to learn it."
We do not come to our habits and patterns of self-discipline by ourselves. We are schooled into self-discipline, beginning with parents putting limitations on the desires and freedom of their children, and requiring the doing of all those things that are hard and sometimes painful: memorizing the multiplication tables, getting the homework done and the spelling words for the next days' test reviewed; building up the body with those boring calisthenics; studying a musical instruments; and religiously, studying the faith traditions and learning religious practice.
I do not suspect that a novice Tibetan monk working to loosen the vocal cords in the first couple of weeks of training has any more fun that a third grader leaning the multiplication tables. But fun is not the point--not in the beginning. In the beginning, we need some assistance, an external authority to keep us on track and in line to help us develop so that after a time, we may come to discipline ourselves. The child who masters the multiplication tables may or may not come to love mathematics, but learning those tables is hard work and once learned it is a powerful skill to possess. The effort that goes into this learning may show the child the kind of work that is involved in mastering new skills, so that the next challenge that comes up may not rely solely on mom or day insisting on practice, but on the child cracking the book without a prompting. Growing in understanding and mastering new feats will rely on learning how to discipline oneself to take on the challenge, the motivation coming not from without but from within. The joy and serenity and peace that comes to those who "master" things is a product of self-discipline, and self-discipline is an essential for growth an development wherever leaning is going to take place-- whether in learning a musical instrument, calculus or a computer language--or a spiritual practice, like prayer or meditation, or spiritual attitudes, like being mindful and attentive, generous and kind.
Self-discipline is important not only in our individual lives as we go about learning and pursuing the things we care about. It is important for our life in community. A lack of self- discipline can lead to all kinds of problems, including the obsessional behaviors of wanting too much and wanting all the time. We can find a lack of self-discipline in uncontrolled eating and drinking, television watching, computer game playing; shopping and spending--the average credit card debt I am told is around $7000 a year; and we can see it in an increase in anger between people and impatience. Getting cut of in traffic is leading some people today to respond with a spewing of venom, even violence. When that happens, the clear meaning is that self-discipline has fled the scene, the same way it disappears when a child talks back rudely to an adult.
There is a story told about the great golf great, Bobby Jones. Like Tiger Woods, Jones learned to swing a golf club when he was only five, and was beating all the clubhouse regulars by the age of twelve. The problem with Bobby Jones was a self-discipline problem--he had an uncontrollable temper. A good friend of Jones, a retired golfer forced off the links by arthritis and an employee of the local club pro shop, developed a keen--and critical-- friendship with Bobby. This friend, Grandpa Bart, offered Bobby some hard words when at the age of fourteen he lost a national amateur competition. Said Grandpa Bart: "Bobby, you're good enough to win that tournament, but you won't win until you can control that temper of yours. You miss a shot--you get upset--and then you lose."
Bobby Jones did not win a tournament until he was twenty one.
When he did win, however, Grandpa Bart said this: "Bobby was fourteen when he mastered the game of golf, but he was twenty-one before he mastered himself."
Leaning self-control is not easy, and it requires help. Children need their parents to help them learn not only study skills, but manners and socially respectful behaviors. Adults need help, from friends and counselors and spiritual advisors, to learn to shun anger and impatience and obsessive self-indulgences. And through this help we offer one another, our disciplining can finally become self-directed and express our deep desires to be persons of a certain sort--generous and kind, able to pay attention to what in life is most important, so that we can find in that discovery true joy. To miss or ignore or postpone or refuse developing in the direction of greater self-discipline is to interfere with our need to grow as persons of spiritual depth.