Who Deserves What?

    Wednesday, September 26, 2012, 1:28 PM [Spiritual Practices]

    While on the topic of justice, forgiveness and consequences deserved, and on this Day of Atonement with it’s Closing of the Gates imagery, I’d like to ponder how dwelling on deserving drags our discourse down.  Because it is election season, let’s pick a political example.  The flap over Romney’s secretly recorded 47% statement seems to be timely fodder.  While I’m uninterested in speculating about Romney’s intention, I am interested in the question his words beg of us all.  Here’s what Romney said:

    “All right — there are 47 percent [of US citizens] who are with him [Obama], who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing.”

    Lingering over the last few words, I can’t help noticing we’re talking the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, here.  I posed this question on Twitter:

    What do social justice Jews and brother’s keeper Christians think of folks feeling “entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing?”

    Jews view the question through the lens of tzedakah.  Often translated “charity,” tzedakah is actually the opposite of charity in important respects.  Whereas nobody is compelled to give charity, tzedakah is commanded.  Recipients aren’t entitled to charity, but tzedakah recipients are entitled to what’s fair.  Mainomides organized tzedakah into priorities and levels of giving.  Tzedakah priorities are like concentric circles around the giver, obligating the giver first and foremost to be responsible for himself and his immediate family before seeing to the needs of his more extended family, his religious community, his community at large, his fellow countrymen and, ultimately, people in dire straits across the globe.  The lowest level of giving is to give grudgingly.  Higher levels are defined by whether one gives after being asked or before, whether recipients are known or strangers, and whether a donor receives recognition or gives anonymously.  The highest level of all is giving someone a way to become self-sufficient.

    Jews are nothing if not pragmatic, and the tzedakah tradition does require the giver to give responsibly, but it is important to note the emphasis on the giver’s obligation, not what the recipient deserves.

    What does Christian teaching have to say?  Jesus left a pretty robust bread crumb trail on this one.  We have the socially despised Samaritan who saved a stranger’s life and paid his hotel bill, no less.  We’re told much will be required from everyone to whom much has been given.  And perhaps most germane to this topic is the admonishment to pay your taxes AND to give charitably.  Here again, the Christian tradition emphasizes doing the right thing for the sake of righteousness, not based on the merits of the guy lying in the ditch.

    What happens to the conversation when we focus on the guy in the ditch?  Ponder this:

    To blame the poor for subsisting on welfare has no justice unless we are also willing to judge every rich member of society by how productive he or she is.  Taken individual by individual, it is likely that there’s more idleness and abuse of government favors among the economically privileged than among the ranks of the disadvantaged. ~ Norman Mailer (1923-2007)

    No one deserved to be born on 3rd base.  Self-made millionaires didn’t deserve to be born in the land of opportunity instead of in an oppressive regime.  If you want to focus on who deserves what, I would make a case for the hard working immigrants who came to the USA with nothing and made the most of opportunities that came their way, not unlike our nation’s founders, but the current prevailing view is that immigrants aren’t deserving if their parents broke the law to get here.

    No matter where you stand in the political spectrum, dwelling on deserving leaves us wanting to take something away.  Tax wealthy estates.  Deport the high school valedictorian.  Let poor kids go hungry.  They didn’t earn it.  We sit in the judge’s seat when we focus on deserving.  When we focus on human dignity and human potential instead, we are reminded of ourselves.  When we do so with gratitude, we realize our cup is running over and we lift others up out of the abundance of our blessings.  The twitter question was not rhetorical.

    Join the conversation.  Is healthcare, food and housing too much to require from those to whom much has been given?

    Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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    Iterative Progress

    Friday, May 18, 2012, 7:32 PM [Spiritual Practices]

    Spiritual maintenance starts with a candid look inward.  For some people, taking an inner inventory feels cathartic and liberating.  For those who are approaching a major life change, introspection can reveal truths that validate their new direction and propel them towards it.  It can give them a new energy and peace for the next life stage.  For others, however, there is just too much pain in the past to confront it all at once.  Twelve Step recovery seekers sometimes describe the Fourth Step “searching and fearless moral inventory” as an onion with layers.  If one doesn’t have the capacity to cut to the core all at once, he peels back as much as he can handle, and then returns to peel back more as he is able.

    Some people take this onion layers approach not only to introspection but also to forgiveness.  Forgiving is a key ingredient for healing and spiritual growth.  It is also an obligation in several faith traditions.  Medieval Rabbinic authority Maimonides instructed:

    “The offended person is prohibited from being cruel in not [forgoing the other’s indebtedness], for this is not the way of the seed of Israel.  Rather, if the offender has [resolved all material claims] and has asked and begged for forgiveness once, even twice, and if the offended person knows that the other has done repentance for sin and feels remorse for what was done, the offended person should offer the sinner [forgiveness.]“

    The stakes are even higher on forgiveness in the Christian tradition.  Scripture makes clear that forgiveness requires forgiving and that God extends it under no other terms.

    And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25)

    For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.  (James2:13)

    Even with intellectual assent to the moral obligation of forgiveness, and an earnest desire to be rid of resentment, releasing it in the act forgiveness can take time.  Resentment acts like terrible blinders that restrict our view.  After releasing resentment for some aspects of wrongdoing, other more subtle aspects of the offense may come into view.  That gives us yet another opportunity to release resentment in deepening forgiveness.

    Progress on the spiritual journey is individual.  Our eyes might be opened to great spiritual insights in a flash, and we may wander in a wilderness of uncertainty for long periods.  One child abuse survivor shared her story of coming into the ability to forgive her abuser suddenly and unexpectedly on this blog several months ago.  Whether your ability to release resentment deepens with effort over time or arrives all at once in an unexpected moment, forgiveness lightens our load on the journey.

    Join the conversation.  Have you ever discovered something you thought you had forgiven lurking in your psyche?

    Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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    Spiritual Maintenance

    Wednesday, May 9, 2012, 8:33 PM [Spiritual Practices]

    It takes spiritual maturity to recognize dependence on God when things are going well—either before we hit rock bottom or after salvaging life from a broken place.  When we have been saved from that broken place, and when we have experienced some healing and perhaps some spiritual growth, embracing redemption means leaving the past in the past.  We can look inward to see if we are being called to further life change without rehashing the past.  Introspection can focus less on one’s past and more on one’s present relationship with God.

    A regular practice of inner inventory will keep us moving from intellectual awareness into action.  Many spiritual traditions rely on introspection to keep us from settling into a comfortable rut.  The Catholic tradition has a practice of confessing weekly before celebrating mass.  Early Buddhist texts indicate monks confessed individual faults to a superior privately twice a month at the full and new moons.   Jews observe Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, annually with prayers of confession spoken aloud in community.  Outside of ancient religious traditions, Twelve Step addiction recovery programs rely on the power of introspection in the Fourth Step, searching and fearless moral inventory, but also as an ongoing practice.  The Tenth Step calls for frequent inventory in order to make prompt amends.

    What is the optimal interval?  It’s individual, of course.  Some Twelve step recovery programs encourage nightly examination.  Several protestant traditions incorporate weekly confession into Eucharistic prayers.  When we look at our challenges with a daily or a weekly focal length, however, we can overlook patterns.  Most of us have to step back from what occupies us day-to-day and week-to-week to discern the major themes at work in our present journey.

    Jewish and some liturgical Christian traditions also give a framework for annual self-examination with Yom Kippur and Lent.  For a truly searching and fearless moral inventory of the patterns in my life, I find that a yearly interval is practical.  Embracing your own new life alongside others in your faith community can intensify the experience.  Traditional symbolism can deepen meaning as well.  Alternatively, confessing annually on the anniversary of a first confession or, in the case of addiction recovery seekers, the anniversary of one’s last drink may have special meaning.

    An American commentator (and I am hopeful an alert reader will remind me of which one) drew the analogy that a white fence grows black over time unless it is repainted every year.  We, too, are in need of spiritual maintenance at intervals.

    Join the conversation.  How do you know whether you need spiritual maintenance if you don’t stop to look?

    Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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    Spiritual But Not Religious: the Way or the Church?

    Friday, April 20, 2012, 2:02 PM [Spiritual Practices]

    It’s often remarked that any institution is principally concerned with its own survival as an institution.  Perhaps this remark is made concerning religious institutions more than any other.  Mark Twain wrote in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

    Concentration of power in a political machine is bad; and an Established Church is only a political machine; it was invented for that; it is nursed, cradled, preserved for that; it is an enemy to human liberty, and does no good which it could not better do in a split-up and scattered condition.

    Jews did exactly that – split up and scattered—after the destruction of the first temple.  In making the move to diaspora over edifice, the kitchen table replaced the alter table and Jews looked simply to the Torah as the Way.  The temple was reconstructed, however, and came to represent the institutionalization of authority and codes of conduct that Jesus rebelled against.  Much has changed over the millennia, and it is now Christians who have priests, alters, and lines of institutional authority.  And some things haven’t changed.  Codes of conduct fuel splintering divisiveness in religious communities today.

    Standing in contrast to the hierarchical structure of many religious traditions, the Twelve Step tradition is starkly egalitarian in nature.  The enduring success of Twelve Step programs can be attributed not only to steps that capture a spiritual essence shared by many faith traditions but also to organizational philosophy.  A.A. is a self-organized, self-supported “fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”  The A.A. support organization assiduously avoids religious, political or ideological affiliation.  There are no dues or formal membership, so the number of participants isn’t known.  The best estimate is 2 million members.  Its operating structure has been described variously as an “inverted pyramid” with no top-down authority and as “benign anarchy” by one of its founders.  Even in meetings, there are guiding principles but no leaders.  Everyone enters with equal authority.

    Theologian and Rabbi Shais Taub writes movingly of the theology reflected in the Twelve Steps.  When asked whether it is in agreement with Jewish theology, he says, “The answer I usually give is not only that is there nothing in the Twelve Steps that is problematic from a Jewish perspective, but also that the Twelve Steps can actually help Jews to better understand their own God.”  I have observed the same to be true for Christians.  There are those who left the church for the Twelve Steps because they just couldn’t get there—to spiritual awakening or profound life change—with what the church offered.  Truly for those, the Twelve Steps were the Way.

    The question—the Way or the Church—is particularly germane following yesterday’s announcement of a Vatican crackdown on US nuns.  Along with the recent Catholic involvement in political discourse, the move appears to elevate institutional authority over compassion for the poor and powerless.  Here is the article’s poignant conclusion:

    “I don’t know any more holy people,” [canon lawyer and former dean of Duqesne Law School Nick] Cafardi said of American religious sisters. “I see a lot more holiness in the convents than I see in the chancery.”

    Join the conversation.  What attachments is your faith community willing to surrender to follow the Way?

    Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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    Spiritual But Not Religious: Meet me where I am

    Wednesday, April 18, 2012, 12:20 PM [Spiritual Practices]

    Growing public discussion about the decline of religion, and Christianity in particular, highlights to my mind many things that the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous do right.

    Most poignant, perhaps, is that no one is left out.  There are no excluded or castigated groups.  Everyone is accepted as they are.  Christians may be thinking, “Gee, that sounds a lot like Jesus,” but serious observers of religion know that every Christian era has had its pariahs.  The Twelve Step tradition meets people where they are, no matter how despicable or lowly that place may be.  It doesn’t tell anyone what they must believe to be included.  Rather, it simply encourages openness to spiritual possibility.  It says, “Healing is possible if you’re willing to reach for it.  Here are steps that worked for us.”

    The huge irony is some of those most in need of saving grace want nothing to do with God.  They’re mad.  So mad, they ignore his presence whenever possible, and failing that, they face God with seething resentment.  “I was an innocent child!  How could you unleash unspeakable abuse against an innocent?  What kind of almighty monster are you?”  The incidence of childhood trauma among substance abusers has tragic proportions.  Is it not logical that, if healing proves elusive, one might at least find an anesthetic within reach?

    The Alcoholics Anonymous founders were sensitive to this spiritual hostility, namely because they were agnostic at the beginning of their journeys to recovery, and they didn’t want to discourage other alcoholics from beginning the steps.  “We find that no one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the program. Willingness, honesty and open mindedness are the essentials of recovery. But these are indispensable.”  They knew what looks preposterous at the journey’s beginning morphs into profound truth after spiritual awakening.  The Twelve Steps don’t foist the unbelievable on the unbelieving.

    For the sake of inclusion, most Twelve Step programs recognize God across many faith traditions, and many interpretations of God are respected.  The “higher power” can be understood as the consciousness of the fellowship, in that the group consciousness may offer recovery seekers some power to do what they cannot do on their own.  Others find the higher power in nature, a la Mother Earth and Father Sky.

    Religious traditions coalesce around common experience and belief.  Some are rigid about belief, behavior and belonging while a precious few treasure the richness of their diversity.  It seems to me that some of the ancient religious institutions experiencing a decline (moral, cultural, financial….pick a category) could learn something from the Twelve Steps.  The steps recognize addiction as a spiritual malady at its root, and thus they invite spiritual growth and intimacy with God.  Isn’t that also the aim of religion?  Or at least, isn’t that what religion purports its aim to be?  While the Twelve Step tradition goes to great lengths to avoid dictating beliefs, it goes to equal lengths to encourage people to expose their lives to the transformational power of God, however they might experience that.

    Join the conversation.  What could your house of worship learn from the Twelve Steps?

    Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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