THE SPIRIT OF THANKSGIVING AS INTERFAITH

[editor’s note: this is an older letter by Rev. Leland Steward from Nov., 2015. Sorry, I was not able to update the site for a while]

 “Offering our skills, services, or time for listening can be a true expression of our gratitude and appreciation.”      –Richard Kimball, quoted in Science and Spirituality, page 146

One of the great challenges of our time is the effort to transcend the different faiths and find ways of communicating that speak a universal language of understanding.  Some call it being “spiritual” rather than “religious”; others simply use a language that omits the traditional terms of religion, such as God, prayer, grace, etc.  Science is in the process of introducing other elements that in the past had not been associated with the moral and spiritual life.

Thanksgiving is a time when we attempt to express our gratitude for the blessings of life that have come to us, and finding a way of expressing these blessings so that they give meaning to people of all faiths and no official faith.  I was present at a Thanksgiving party in which we began the evening by holding hands and sharing with the group what we were grateful for.  There was no sense in that sharing that what was being shared was relevant only to people of a particular faith.

To be able to enter into the interfaith world is to change from feeling that our faith is the only one that matters, to where we have respect for all paths, even if they are not officially religious.  We are encouraged to make the effort to understand the meaning in each path and to help each path blend into the larger picture of a world of diverse paths.

When the pilgrims first came to America, they had many challenges just surviving the winters, and in many cases clashing with Native Americans.  Thanksgiving was a time to give thanks for surviving in the new land.  The challenges now center around coming to respect each other and learning how to live without violence and war.  In many cases, the violence we are experiencing is the result of previous violence our beloved nation has inflicted on others.  Now is the time to be grateful for living in a nation which is learning to transcend its past and to forgive others for their violence toward others and toward us.  Together we must find a better way to live on this beautiful planet.

By learning the ways of interfaith, we will be helped along the path of mutual respect and forgiveness.  We are grateful for the opportunity to give up violence and to help create a world that is peaceful, just, and loving.

Spirit is One; paths are many!!!

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THE IMPORTANCE OF RESPECT

Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people.  A nation does not have to be cruel in order to be tough.

– Franklin Roosevelt, qtd. in Science and Spirituality, page 160

The violent events that took place in Paris in the last few days bring up two principles that seem to be in conflict with each other.  One is freedom of speech, and the other is the need to avoid violence.  A magazine in Paris prided itself on its satirizing of important matters: in this case the person of Islam’s prophet Mohammed.  Instead of treating him as the revered figure he is for millions of Muslims, he was belittled and made light of.

The contrast was that religions are supposed to be nonviolent and respectful of different opinions.  It is well known that Muslims are very sensitive about how their religious leader is treated.  The magazine did not take that into account in its pages.  While one can say that the principle of free speech would allow different opinions to be aired, it is not respectful to downgrade any individual, and especially the head of a religion who is held in high esteem by millions of people.

These two contrasting principles came into conflict in Paris because of the way in which the magazine pushed the limits of free speech.  The result was a violent confrontation that resulted in the death of a number of people and the unsettling of a major city and its surrounding communities.

One of the most needed attitudes in order to have a world at peace is respect.  The world’s religions generally teach respect as one of their most important values.  In the present period of transition, this sacred value and others have found themselves ignored, with other lesser values take their place.  The situation in Paris is a good illustration as to what can happen when the basic human values, which are supposed to be taught and followed by religions, are not kept in the consciousness of the world’s peoples.

Perhaps the simplest way of teaching this principle so that it is remembered and applied is The Golden Rule, which now is most quoted as “Treat others as you would have them treat you”.  UDC’s Interfaith Celebration in the Los Angeles area has been focusing for the last year on developing a Global Code of Living.  Now that we have entered 2015, which is UDC’s 50thanniversary, we are moving into applying the teachings of a Global Code of Living.  We invite those who are concerned about having such a code of living as guidelines for our present and future ways to live are invited to join us in this effort.

Spirit is One; paths are many!

~Rev. Leland Stewart

On Respecting Our Fellow Human Beings

In seeing a lot of the news these days I was quite discomforted by a couple trends in the dialogue surrounding some current events. It took me a serious moment of contemplation and digging into personal feelings before I began to see what was really bothering me. In the US, I see people now suddenly carrying large weapons and the reasoning in it is to “not take weapons away from the good people, leaving only the bad guys with guns.” In the more serious issues going on in the middle east, I’ve seen comments thrown around at times calling other people “beasts” “animals” or “inhuman.”

Well, besides the irony of many animals being actually quite gentle, kind, and cuddly, what really does bother me is this mental act of pushing other humans so deep into this category of otherness.

I’m thinking back and wondering how long as a human society we’ve conditioned ourselves through these stories of “good” and “evil.” It’s so extremely prevalent in most Western cinema, but can be found in many old tales and legends around the world. It’s so simple: We root for the good guys, and hope the “bad” guys lose. Admittedly, it is a natural human function to categorize and put things in boxes. And our brains need it- we couldn’t effectively do anything in this world if we had to rediscover what a chair or table was every time we saw one. But at the same time we have to be soooo vigilantly aware of this human tendency to categorize, especially when it comes to … other humans.

The fact of the matter is in the real world, there are no clear lines that separate the “good” guys and the “bad” guys. These are not real. What is real? Anger is real. Trauma is real. Pain and suffering are real. Even though memories may become distorted, the feelings which arise from them are real. People have pasts. People have stories.

And we cut ourselves off the second that we stop hearing those stories. It’s a little bit natural. When our hearts and minds find something offensive to our sensibilities, whether minor or major, the gut reaction is often to create a sort of mental scab that separates us. But I think, in many cases, this is a scab that does not allow us to heal. It instead masks both the pain we could potentially understand in others and our own pain as well.

I am no professional mathematician, but I’m going to propose a theorem: The extent to which we dehumanize others is directly proportional to the extent in which we allow ourselves to commit or comfortably witness violence upon them.


I fully realize other different factors are involved: e.g., media coverage based more on quality profits and good stock returns than quality journalism; and of course, various social conditions such as lack of security, food, water, and shelter can make people more desperate and inclined to violence. Consider a population in which around 80% of people have been displaced from their homes, mostly living in refugee camps in the (no exaggeration) world’s most densely populated area, while dealing with terrain that offers little water to begin with and only 10% which is clean enough to drink, and to top it off, having that area of land designated by the UN to be likely uninhabitable for humans within 6 years. (Yes, that’s the Gaza Strip). I don’t condone violence, but the realist part of me is honestly surprised there hasn’t been much more violence given such conditions.

However, getting back to the point, even these conditions are still in many ways a part of dehumanization and turning our back on the story of others.
There are no real good guys. There are no real bad guys. There are stories. There is pain. There is suffering. And there are reactions to those.

Sometimes, when we begin to turn off our ears, even slightly, we can also seriously damage our ability to help when bringing good intentions.

There is one American Jewish Rabbi and head of a conflict studies department whom I really respect named Marc Gopin, who has worked plenty with different groups in the Middle East. He keenly observed, “We are particularly prone to generate conflict by our stereotypical expectations of and sensitivity to what we think are the worst qualities of our enemy. Conversely, when reconciling with an enemy – an extremely difficult moment for the human psyche – we offer what we consider to be our best qualities of prosocial engagement, our ideal selves, and utterly reject the methods and character of what we perceive to be our enemies’ worst traits. Most important, we expect our enemies to do exactly the same thing. But here is the catch! We expect them to engage in peaceful gestures that reflect our own highest selves, not theirs. And here the tragic failings in communication occur.”

People are ultimately very similar, but definitely not the same. We share many basic values … but its important to recognize that we might prioritize those values differently. It is a bit tragic that most communication breakdowns come when learning the different priorities, and before listening to hear the similarities that still underlie them.

But this is where listening, openness to others and turning on compassion become so critically important.

There are no good guys. There are no bad guys. What I think is truly bad is anger, greed, and the tendency to turn away from seeing the heart of the suffering before us-and the suffering inside us. Aside from a few extremely rare and highly advanced spiritual people, I’d say we all have at least some of these tendencies. During these moments of wanting to turn away or shield ourselves from what we witness, these are the true moments of battle. Can we become better at recognizing those times? Can the recognition of these tendencies, the understanding of them help towards releasing us from them. Yes, that at least is my own heartfelt religious belief. And I also believe that this can help us to engage the world in ways which don’t simply continue the cycles of violence, but contribute to ending it. I’m not saying that one simple mental thought moment will automatically lead to instant world peace – but the little things are what add up to the big picture, and this is a realistic practice I can do in any moment: See my seeds of frustration, and turn them into seeds of listening and compassion. See those seeds of my own dialog which separate and cause harm, and be open to changing, adjusting them.

I don’t like seeing a dehumanizing world. I don’t like seeing the suffering in it. I honestly wish deep down that as painful as it would be at first – that everyone could feel each other’s pain. In the long run, though, I feel the understanding would help bring it down. I hope that at the very least we can try to see other people for who they are: people.

 

~ Nathan Michon