Q: For Rev. Peter Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
In light of current incidences ignited by religious fanaticism:
What actually makes the extremist and the terrorist, who in name of God, do horrible things to people who do not belong to their ideology? If it is ignorance, what kind of personal growth may help the social tolerance? Is social tolerance is a necessity for survival of human race in general?
Good Evening! I will use two reference points for my brief discussion with you tonight… The first comes from the socially conscious entrepreneur Paul Hawkins speaking about the power of community, and the second, from Martin Luther King Jr’s writings on social evils…
“[There is a growing and hopefully sustaining sense of a “blessed unrest” in our society today… That phrase coined by Paul Hawkins speaks to the subrosa or under the cultural radar movements, that are coming together to work constructively, spiritually and compassionately on our current social ills…
His outlook emphasizes the intention of group energy to provide solutions to our challenges in ways that an individual or any isolated actions cannot achieve or accomplish. He speaks passionately when he declares,” how 200,000 people in these diverse groups worldwide are working together to overcome political disease, economic infection, and ecological corruption.]”
Second, we have this statement from MLK Jr… Towards the end of his life, King spoke and wrote more and more about what he described as the “dangerous giant triplets: Racism, Extreme Materialism, and Militarism.”
He goes on to say:
“If I may borrow again from Christian Scriptures, this fight is not against individual people, but rather “powers and principalities.” ( Ephesians 6) It is best to see our fight against racism rather than against unique racists. The dismissal or conviction of a racist police officer, careless prosecuting attorney, or corrupt judge is certainly important, but it does not solve the root and source of the problem”…
“Racism draws power from materialism (financial interests) Those financial interests or powers secure themselves by way of militarism (at times military and police forces) and that force is too often employed in a way that it benefits small certain groups and serves to suppress others…”
Given the complexity of these intersecting powers that threaten human dignity, freedom and cooperation what outlooks, ideas, and values, if they were allowed greater and broader social expression, would work effectively together to lesson or resolve our stubborn cultural inequalities and injustices?
We have to ask: What is a spiritual minded person or small group to do? How does the variety of religious expression and the wide diversity we find in our American society work to encounter and face down these issues?
When we begin to look at the religious dimension of our lives and look toward the possible solutions of our social problems, it is first critical to our understanding that we admit that here is wide variance in the levels of religious understanding and ethical comprehension that exists within every religious community. In the same pew, you can find someone with a grade school knowledge of religious teachings and ethical applications sitting next to someone with a graduate school level of comprehension and application.
As an acknowledgment of this wide range of understanding, as I see it, there are at least three factors each person can learn about that will increase their greater appreciation for the scope of the problems we face, and these three factors when better or more deeply understood, can be seen as “the principalities and powers” we have to contend with IF we wish to resolve any of the social and spiritual evils that are present in our society today.
These three factors are:
1) Tribalism- resistant, narrowly focused and reinforced approach to safety, security and identity
2) Patriarchy- oppressive insistence on exclusive male authority and the established/historical patterns of preferential power structures
3) Sectarian Violence- entrenched prejudices and rivalry that inhibits cooperation and fans the flames of division, chaos, etc.
These three factors – widely dependent on the cultural or interpersonal realities such as the level of education available in that society, the degree of political oppression, media manipulation or lack of a public voice, and the reinforcement of these teachings found in each of the great religious traditions that emphasize freedom, dignity, self worth, etc. .
To this mostly socio-cultural underpinnings, I would add this theological and spiritual corollary: Maybe most important of all, is the teaching that surround the premise that we can find a transformative grace that exists within our human participation in the allness and the wholeness of God as our common source for justice and compassion. That this sustaining identity and participation are among the most dynamic spiritual principles that would encourage and enable change in any opposing or repressive attitudes, opinions, and values.
Given the time limits this presentation… the rest of my remarks will now focus on the issue of tribalism…
Tribalism presents itself as the obstacle that supports the other factors, and can be seen as the most obstinate and stubborn. Tribalism is the primitive way of understanding one’s religious identity and identify one’s place in the larger world that is then repeatedly reinforced by commonly held irrational fears. Chief among them is xenophobia or the fear of the stranger, and deep suspicions about any person who is different from the members of one’s own tribe or clan. The emphasis in this outlook is for the sake of safety and security in what can be easily perceived as a dangerous outside world. The need, therefore, is to stay with people who are just like us- people or members of our own tribe who repeatedly share the same ideas and ideals that reinforce one’s sense of identity and security through a well defined, rule bound, small circle of association and lifestyle.
While some version of this tendency towards tribalism might have been a developmental necessity for cultural cohesion and economic survival in ancient days, such as among the children of Israel, or at the founding of Islam, or for that matter, at the beginnings of any nation or ethnic identity, such an emphasis on conformity for identity or for survival no longer works well in current society.
Modernity can be defined by its multicultural realities which consist of an amalgam of traditions, religious expressions, and cultural patchworks which exists in our current culture. Most cogently, we can readily see this dynamic diversity in our daily lives, in the everyday workings of our immigrant society in the USA…
(Yes… We ARE an immigrant nation… get over it! Just ask a Native American!)
Tribalism acts as a divisive agent; whether its around the world or around the corner… and threatens to hold us back from the greater appreciation of enriching tapestry of ideas and practices that affirm value of our national diversity.
Tribalism insists on its own narrow interpretations of behavior and beliefs, and it can act, in both its arrogance and ignorance, to suppress any dissent or the altering of any of its iron clad rules that would welcome any contrasting ideas or any competitive opinion and practices…
Living in Charleston, the evidence of continuing sense of tribalism is hard to escape or ignore. We who live here cannot afford to be unaware or resistant and blind to the fact that embedded within any shiny claims of its illustrious history, there is also an insistent glare of institutional racism and the curse of slavery that tarnishes any attempt to whitewash its historical acclaim. These tendencies, and worse, these harsh realities are still active in the civic descision-making, and that the deep impact of those exclusionary attitudes still affect the city on a daily basis, and can be seen as remaining a powerful divisive factor in our city today.
The South as a whole, with its tendency towards recalling a more sentimental history could be considered to be tribal. Similarly, The WASP socioeconomic preferences around our country (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) has had a nationwide and long standing, profound negative impact on the Native Americans and as a deterrent imposition to Asians, all the way down to today’s battles over inclusion where the well established white Protestant culture would willing erect a wall- a literal physical barrier to full acceptance and assimilation for Latinos who wish to live among us…
So one of the most powerful answers that will defeat the obstacles and oppressions of tribalism, maybe its most effective remedy, would be to create and implement a nationwide, multicultural educational reform. This empathetic and honest curricula would seek to dispel attitudes of ignorance, lessen any fears of the stranger, and expose and diminish any sense of exclusionary cultural practices or economic preferences. As it has been said during our current political debates, the symbol of our country and its people cannot be a defiant wall of separation and exclusion, but rightly understood and in accord with our nation’s highest ideals, the symbol of our country would be the Statue of Liberty that would light our way, and the inclusive noble promises of the Declaration of Independence that would guide us…
Lastly, moving from a more sociological outlook into a more theological one, when looking at the need to move towards diversity, people of faith are encouraged to widen their heartfelt concern, and to move beyond tolerance for differences in faith, belief, customs and practices. While being tolerant and being nonjudgmental might well be all we can ask of secular society, and it remains a worthwhile goal, there is a further step people of faith need to be willing to take. Regardless of which pew or practice defines your spiritual life, the need for compassion is universal, and the next step- of full acceptance becomes our cherished goal…
While secular society will often operate on a “Quid pro Quo” basis- this for that as a basis for cultural trade off and compromises, the spiritual life requires us to go a step further… in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, towards a “Quid pro Bono” or doing this… because it is good… Because it is good, right, and just- not only for us, but for all humankind!
Every human being is a gift, a blessing, and needs to be recognized for the miracle that she/he is… That each person has inherent worth, dignity, and value. Every one of the great religious traditions, has within its mystical and ethical writings, teachings that speak to us of the intimacy and honesty of this ideal, and that we can express a sustaining belief in a compassionate and loving Source many of us call God.
As Meister Eckhart, the medieval mystic and as Matthew Fox the best modern advocate for the uplifting approach called Creation Spirituality reminds us: “God is always giving birth to compassion” always providing us with creative and redemptive ways of being in our world, always offering us gracious potentials for service and understanding that would create a more sacred society. In short, nothing, in truth, prevents us from offering one another empathy and affirmation and that can be shown to all of our brothers and sisters, to the animals, to all life on earth!
I will end my thoughts and remarks with this quote from Dr. James Doty, MD, from his book, The Science of Compassion. He writes:
“As human beings, we will inevitably encounter suffering at some point in our lives. However, we have evolved very specific social mechanisms to relieve that pain: altruism and compassion. …
“While survival of the fittest may lead to some short term gain, research clearly shows it is survival of the kindest that leads to long term survival of a species. It is our ability to stand together as a group, to support each other, to help each other, to communicate for mutual understanding, and to cooperate that has taken our species this far.”
May a lasting sense of our personal dignity and worth recognize the value of our human diversity, and promote a wholehearted acceptance of that truth as our spiritual and ethical goal- our working outlook, and our exalting ideal…