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There is a lively sport, wherein people sit around and decide how someone else should have spent his money. I’ve seen it kick in at both ends of the spectrum: when the spender was poor and being unpractical, and when the spender was rich and flinging gobs of money at something that the backseat spenders considered frivolous. For that matter, I’ve seen it done amongst asset-equals. But the broadest participation seems, to me, to involve people looking with exasperated or sneering disapproval at those who have a great deal more money than themselves.

It’s a delightful sport in some respects, and I’ll admit to having indulged in it myself from time to time, especially when I was younger, more idealistic, and leaned more toward the postmodern Left. But perhaps that is beside the point, since participants seem to range from rich to poor, from Left to Right, and from atheist to priest.

I’ll not say it doesn’t have its upsides, this second-guessing.  Some uses of money are immoral, certainly, and it seems to me that we ought to speak out against spending that causes actual harm. (I’m sure you can come up with a few examples. I’ll save mine for another day, to prevent too much of a detour just here.)

But I’d like to suggest that, for the sake of civility, sanity, and integrity, in most cases we’d be further ahead to spend all that energy and intellect contemplating what we’d do if we had that much money instead of acting like we’re little dictators who have been defied when someone else doesn’t have the same priorities we do.

This is not to mention that so often (nearly always, I’d say), when we’re backseat driving in the spending lane we’re making our sweeping judgements with just scraps of information to build on. (Oh, goodness. How’s that for mixing metaphors!? And slaughtering grammar? Is there some sort of award for Worst Sentence of the Day?…)

In other words, (to come back on topic) you can’t know, really, what another person must take into consideration, or chooses to take into consideration, at any rate. Or, maybe you can, but I sure can’t. News has a way of being both superficial and selective, just like gossip. (Another discussion for another day, I see…) And then there’s that little matter of not being able to see into someone else’s heart.

This brings me to the post that prompted this post. Over here (via here) I came across statements about the horse Barbaro, and the gist seems to be that it was inexcusable, even shameful, to have spent so much money on a horse when that money could have gone to providing medical care to poor people instead.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, I guess. I knew some people would feel that way. But the vehemence of these people set me back a little, and it also made me a bit angry. It’s not your money. It wasn’t your horse. It’s not your heart. Your soul wasn’t at stake, nor your reputation, nor…

Oops. Vehemence for vehemence probably isn’t a great idea?

But my starting point is that the owners of Barbaro weren’t faced with a trade-off between helping poor people and fighting for their horse’s life. If they’d had to choose between helping a person and trying to save a badly injured horse, and they’d chosen the horse, then I’d agree with the teeth-gnashers. By all means, let us not confuse beasts with humans, even a grand and noble and intelligent and big-hearted, personable beast like a remarkable horse. I am an animal lover, and I’ve had pets and I’ve had horses, and I’d have gone to great lengths to protect them, but kick me out of the human race if ever I forget the sanctity of human life or become blind to the suffering of the poor or despairing amongst us.

But that wasn’t the issue here. These folks were thrown in an instant into a nightmare, and in the middle of it they refused to bow to the prevailing attitude in their industry, which expects a horse to be put down as soon as it loses its utility and/or its profitability. Good for Barbaro’s owners. Choosing on the side of life, even animal life, especially when it’s a personal sacrifice to do so, I think is a good, a noble, an inspiring stance. And, oh, what a sacrifice they made, without complaint, for the sake of an animal that was entirely at their mercy.

I think it’s unfair, and also unsupportable, to say that they only did it so they could use him later to make money. Being able to recoup their investment was always a long shot. This was a matter of principle, or love, or refusal to quit, or some combination thereof. From a money standpoint, it made no sense at all.

Ah, and that’s the other thing. Why do so many backseat spenders act like spending money somehow destroys it?

No, no, wait a minute. Think about it. To complain that money spent at a vet center cannot help the poor is to assume that the money somehow gets trapped in the vet hospital, instead of swirling out again into the world. Money changes hands. Sometimes the person who got paid hoards it away, sometimes he flies with it, sometimes (most of the time, most likely) he just uses it to keep a roof over his head and food on the table or keep the business he’s in afloat, to provide jobs and services another day.

Who’s to say that the people who have it now won’t spend it wisely, or that some of them won’t go out and help the poor with it? It’s not a sure thing, surely. But that money is out of the bank now. Redistributed, if you will… In the short term, it’s provided jobs, and promoted research, some of which will probably improve human medicine down the road, and it’s helped pay overhead that has to be paid one way or another. I wouldn’t be willing to bet how much or how little good will result of the type the ‘oh-my-God-they-wasted-money-on-a-horse’ people want, but to act like all that money somehow got sucked into the horse, and the horse is some sort of black hole which never will let it out again, well…

All of which is rather beside the point. It wasn’t your money. It wasn’t your responsibility.

By all means, if you disagree with how the money was spent, sit down with your most responsible and thoughtful, most discerning, grown-up friends and hash out how and why you think you would have done it differently if you’d been in their shoes; and after you have your priorities nicely lined up sit down with your kid and tell him why and how you hope/expect him to do better if ever he finds himself in a similar situation. Use it as a teaching moment. Bad examples are good teachers, after all.

But, please, if you could take it easy on trashing the people who fought to save Barbaro I’d appreciate it. Because, you see, through all this I’ve seen quite a few kids – and adults – find inspiration. I have no doubt, none, that lots of parents have pointed to Barbaro’s owners and said, see, that’s what selflessness looks like, and selflessness is a good thing. I have no doubt, none whatsoever, that the horse himself, by refusing to lay down and die, transmitted the ideas of perseverance and grit into some heads that hadn’t met those concepts before in a way they could understand it, much less admire it. For crying out loud, we were treated to heart. In a world gone mad with finding the easy way out and in a popular culture that celebrates people who say me-first!, where on any given day you could walk down the street and find people who think even marriages are only ‘binding’ as long as they don’t actually require any commitment, bother or unhappiness; in such a world when a situation comes along that showcases sacrifice, hope, faith, and loyalty we have to have religious people publicly denouncing it because they can, from a safe distance, think of something they’ve decided might have been better?

Let’s say I’m disappointed. Because I am. Have you never heard of the saying The perfect is the enemy of the good? It fits here. Sure, it would be nice to help poor people, too. No, that’s not putting it right. Sure, we are obliged to help poor people. As children of God we are expected and enabled to spread mercy and hope and feed the starving and share material comfort as well as spread messages and offer moral support. But there’s nothing to say we can’t help one horse and people. It’s hardly an either/or situation.

Maybe that’s why I’m upset, really. I believe, strongly, that most people come to God through seeing God in someone else. Not through sermons, not even through examples, per se, but through actually seeing holiness or approximate holiness (if I can put it that way). And I suspect, strongly, that there are a few people who see selflessness and selfishness, loyalty, courage, and duty in a new light, thanks to the people who didn’t give up on Barbaro when lesser people might have. Is that such a bad thing?

Is standing beside a fallen friend – even a four-legged one – instead of walking away such a bad example?

What strikes me as funny/sad about all this is that those posts were by Catholic bloggers.

Why is that funny/sad? you might ask. (Besides the fact that you might expect that they, if anyone, should appreciate people who chose to bear their own heavy and heartbreaking crosses without complaint.)

I’ll tell you. As it happens, the number one complaint I’ve heard from people who don’t like the Catholic Church is… drum roll, please… How it spends its money.

No, really. I’ve heard other rants, of course, some founded and some not, some theological and most worldy, but if you take all the years of my life rolled together the number one sneer I’ve heard is that Catholics waste money by pouring it into buildings, and art, and vestments, trappings and ceremony, instead of spending it directly on the poor.

Some days, you just can’t win for losing.

P.S. Note to self: It would probably be a good idea to take the time to read the comments on someone else’s post before you write a response to the post. It could save you some trouble, or at least help you hone your message. (Or feel less out on a limb, at any rate.)

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Is it just me, or is there a bit more normalcy this year than last as far as Christmas goes? It seems so, at any rate. Ad agencies seem to have moved past their jitters for the most part: somewhere in the text or narration there is usually a Merry Christmas included, and I’ve seen several TV ads that feature crosses in the jewelry sales, right along with everything else. The school concerts around here were called Christmas concerts, and nobody seems to have had a heart attack over it. It seems even headline writers at some news agencies have picked up on it, after a fashion. For instance, I saw a headline a few days ago that called the signing of some sports star to some team “an early Christmas present” for the fans. Imagine that. A Christmas present instead of a holiday present. Right there in print. From a news agency. It’s pathetic, I know, that we’ve been reduced to noticing such things and hoping they augur something, some lessening of hostility, some reduction of a virulent fever or the falling away of mass madness. But there it is.

On the other hand, like any bullies I think the folks who go into temper tantrums at the mention of the phrase “Merry Christmas” or city decorations that showcase angels or Santa Claus instead of merely snowflakes or snowmen – like any bullies I think they like to make people angry. They feed off the reactions they get. And so this year I’m not giving them the satisfaction, if I can help it. I am going about my business as if they don’t exist. If we bump into each other and they take a swing at me, that’s different. I will defend myself – although perhaps not in the angry way they might like to see. (I don’t subscribe to the silly notion that religious people are supposed to wander around saying, “Peace, Dude, Yeah, right, whatever floats your boat, don’t mind me, I’m busy being nice and can’t be bothered with, like, you know, standing up for anything or actually having principles, because, you know, like, can’t we all just get along?” Neither do I let my enemies choose where and when and how I fight back. Heh.)

But sans being mugged I will proceed to wish one and all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year without blinking, without undue emphasis, without a chip on my shoulder, and as if I assume that everyone on the planet is capable of accepting greetings of good cheer in whatever terminology.

I believe that everyone is capable of that, by the way. I think the grinches choose to be that way. I think they can choose to stop being grinches, too.

I grew up in a community that had many Buddhists and I can’t remember any of them making spectacles of themselves when somebody wished them a Merry Christmas. I seem to remember some of them wishing me Merry Christmas right back, in fact.

Perhaps that was because Christmas was no more religiously significant to me than it was for them so we were being mutually secular about it, but I don’t think so. I think they were just nice people and friendly neighbors, who knew how to celebrate Christmas in their own way without being distressed by those of us not walking the same path.

When I was a child, my family went whole hog on Christmas. We put up stockings. We bought and wrapped gifts. Lots of gifts. We decorated the house. We had a feast. We put up a tree. We decorated that tree to beat the band, every year trying to do better than the year before. We’d put a star or an angel on top of the tree. We had little angels we hung on the tree, and Santas, too. Some years there was a small creche on the fireplace hearth. And every year, if I seemed interested in what the angels or the creche meant, my mother gave me one of her infamous lectures on how people used to believe in stuff like that but we knew better these days. These ornaments were just for fun, like the flying reindeer ornaments we also had. They were just traditional, and tradition was good as long as you knew it was only tradition. Angels and Santa and Jesus and Mary and Joseph and The Three Wise Men were just representations of fairy tales that had been found to be just stories, stories that some people still bought into, but only if they were taught the old superstitions by unscrupulous church leaders who used the fairy tales to hold onto power and make people follow them around like sheep.

Uh, huh. You read that right. My mother used Christmas as a teaching moment for her atheism, which she thought was going to free mankind to finally achieve its full potential. (I beg to differ these days.) But I never saw her attack Christmas as a holiday, or make a stink in public, or tell anybody else how to celebrate the day. She’d bundle me up and let me go caroling house to house with friends who were doing it as a church group, and wish us all a good time. To her, of course, it was only singing and spending time with friends. The songs didn’t mean anything. And when I got back from my lovely time, if there was any sign that any of that ‘awful mind-numbing religion’ had tried to rub off on me, she’d give me the full treatment on how it was so sad that some people were that credulous and actually wasted their time believing in that stuff. Another teaching moment, neatly utilized.

Christmas in our house was a way of showing how nice and generous people could be without religion. It was “proof” that nobody needed a God.

While I think she was right about individuals being able to “be nice” without religious observation, Mother fought a losing battle on the religion-as-superstition front. Somewhere along the way I figured out that the religion she hated wasn’t what religion really was, and that ended that. I mean, when what you’ve been taught is to bow to reality, and you find God is real…

Well, at any rate, I do think some people have either grown tired of the Christmas battles or have decided such battles are counterproductive. And thank goodness. I was tired of all the noise and mindless lashing out. I am glad to see it subsiding. My heartfelt thanks to anyone out there who has decided to be neighborly instead of confrontational this holiday season.

On the other hand, if you do run across atheists and other non-Christians who don’t have the courage of their convictions and therefore go nuclear to find themselves sharing the planet with people who like to spread some joy at Christmas, may I suggest a niceness offensive first (for instance, invite them to join in the fun instead of standing on the outside looking in, if they feel like outsiders looking in), and then an email to the Alliance Defense Fund if that doesn’t work? ADF provides free legal help to people who find their religious freedoms being trampled.

This may come as a surprise to you, but the law is actually on the side of Christmas celebrations, even in schools and other public buildings. The ACLU doesn’t win many actual skirmishes on this front, except by intimidation. Once they get into court, in other words, they usually get trounced, or so I understand. There are some rules and boundaries to observances on public property and with captive audiences of young folks rounded up for educational purposes (as well there should be), but they’re pretty easy to follow. You can find out about them from ADF or other places that have people who specialize in religious freedom laws, and they are also covered in John Gibson’s book The War on Christmas. Gibson’s book, in addition to covering outrageous illegal moves by people intent on pushing Christianity into the closet, has some good notes on bad mistakes made by people trying to fight back. Unless you’d like to make the same mistakes out of ignorance, I’d suggest reading the book. (Not that I can remember all the lessons I picked up reading it! Time to reread it, I guess.)

On a related note, could we try to remember, during all the hustle and bustle and battles over what’s right, that retail businesses are private enterprises? The people who run them are free to celebrate or not celebrate however they want. If you want to thank them for Christmas displays, or snort at Happy Holidays displays, feel free. But please. Could we be civilized about it? For one thing, not everyone who is saying Happy Holidays is trashing Christmas. Happy Holidays used to be a standard greeting that included Christmas as well as other holidays, and I suspect for many people that’s still the way they mean it. Season’s Greetings – same thing. That’s fair enough, in my book. For another thing, it is their store. You are under their roof. They do have rights. I mean, would you walk into somebody else’s house and tell them how to decorate, talk, or think? Store owners and managers and clerks no more ought to be expected to leave their minds and hearts at home than anybody else.

Engage them in conversation? Sure.

Abuse their hospitality, when they’re sitting ducks because of the job they have? I wish you wouldn’t. It’s bad form and bad manners, if nothing else.

The sad case of the Kim family from California, which got stuck in snow and stranded while trying to take a shortcut in the Oregon Coast Range on their Thanksgiving vacation, has prompted a lot of people to trot out the saying “There but for the Grace of God go I.” This is fine as far as it goes, since we know what they’re saying is that they can see themselves getting into the same situation, and are – for the most part – showing that they emphasize with the family. (In the Kim’s case, James Kim tried to walk out to get help and died in the attempt. His wife and their two young daughters were rescued when spotted by air search crews. And, indeed, they had stumbled into just the sort of situation anybody who likes to travel off of main highways has stumbled into at one time or another.)

Empathy is good. But may I say that the phrase is horrid? As used that way?

I’m speaking both as a former atheist and as a woman who tries to be godly these days. As an atheist, that phrase held me back. Think about it. Atheists hold that God doesn’t exist, but they’re also prone to thinking that if He is out there he’s not worth worshipping for one reason or another. They also contend that religious people are superstitious fools. To say ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ when somebody else suffers a tragedy plays into that. Nicely. Completely. It paints a picture of people who are sunk in superstition or a God who rolls dice and capriciously hands out sorrows. It sorts people into us versus them. It certainly doesn’t paint a healthy picture of what Grace is or what it does. Does it?

I don’t mean to undercut the amazing power and realness of God and of His Grace. But that’s just it. I think this phrase reduces the concept of Grace to something mean and narrow. It reduces the concept of God to something mean and narrow. It reduces religion to something it isn’t. Religion isn’t a neat-o vending machine that lets you have nice things and good luck in return for going through a few rituals. Perish the thought.

Religion is turning toward God, who can make you whole. Whole isn’t the same as lucky. And, if I may say so, I think it’s not right to say “There but for the Grace of God go I” when what we mean is “There but for dumb luck go I.”