WHY BOTHER? GETTING A LIFE IN A LOCKED-DOWN LAND
Chapter Seven: Witness
Whether you call it God or Nature, argued Thor Heyerdahl, "the disagreement is about the spelling of a word." Unfortunately, a great many people have died in the name of correct orthography. In fact, many religions now considered benign long had characteristics we ascribe to "hate groups" -- extreme self-righteousness, certainty that everyone else was going to hell, and social (or worse) sanctions against the unbeliever. Hear, for example, what comfortable words Martin Luther had to say about Jews:
In 1870 the Vatican Council was still declaring that
That most politically and socially powerful strain of American thought -- Calvinism -- justified itself by declaring earthly success an outward and visible sign of inward grace, hardly a charitable theology for the poor and the weak. The Southern Baptists were formed in the mid-19th century by whites demanding the right to own slaves. Only in the 1990s did the denomination formally apologize and begin to think about having multi-ethnic congregations.
Even today, anomalies remain. As recently as 1998 the Catholic Church anathematized all who believed in salvation by faith alone, i.e., the entire Christian fundamentalist population, no small group to disparage.
In this country, problems of religion and the individual have been with us since well before the founding of the republic. The idea of tolerance got its first real toehold in the mid-17th century colony of Rhode Island thanks to Roger Williams, who was a fundamentalist far to the right of, say, Jerry Falwell. Tolerance to Williams meant simply that one could practice one's own religion without being punished by the state or by other sects. It did not mean turning religion into a theological conglomerate in which faiths were just so many barely distinguishable product lines. In fact he considered the Pope the anti-Christ and declared that Quakers were but a confused mixture of "Popery, Armineasm, Socineanisme, Judaisme, &c." His virtue, however, was that, unlike many others of the time, he didn't want to hang them.
Much as some would like to believe that this country originally consisted of a bunch of Jeffersonians defending the rights of non-believers, agnostics, Jews, deists and the like, the truth of the matter is that religious intolerance was quite common. Right up to the Declaration of Independence, Baptist ministers were still being charged with disturbing the peace and imprisoned in Jefferson's own Virginia. One prosecutor complained, "They cannot meet a man upon the road but they must ram a text of Scripture down his throat." The state even had an official religion until 1821 as did Massachusetts until 1833.
What that exceptional and atypical group of leaders who designed our government did well -- and it was no mean feat -- was to ameliorate contemporary and future competition between religions. What they did far less well was to end the tension between religion and the secular. The prevailing view of the time was not far from that of New York state judge James Kent. A man named Ruggles had been found guilty of drinking heavily at a tavern and then going outside and blaspheming God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Chancellor Kent, on hearing the appeal in 1811, upheld Ruggles' conviction on the grounds that "the people of this state, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity." He further argued that to revile "the religion professed by almost the whole community" is to act "inconsistent with the peace and safety of the state."
In 1848, Supreme Court Justice William Story explained that the First Amendment was not there to protect the non-religious but rather "to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government."
Thus the Jeffersons, Paines, and Franklins were curve-busters on the matter of religious liberty. Thanks to their consummate political skill, however, the apostate and infidel, the Missouri Synod Lutheran, the Roman Catholic, the Jew, the Muslim, and the Revolutionary Church of What's Happening Now ended up with many of the protections of the Episcopalian and the Presbyterian.
This didn't mean, however, that we wouldn't keep on fighting many of the same battles. They remain, albeit more subtle and complex. A few years back, I had lunch with a white anthropology graduate student from a suburb of Minneapolis. She was the product of a conservative Christian college and an unabashed fundamentalist. Towards the end of the lunch the student told me that as her faith had become more conservative, her politics had become more radical. You mean more like those of Jesus, I suggested and she agreed. And on many other issues we agreed as well.
The following summer she was to get married in the church that she regularly attended. She was worried about the reaction of her relatives because they too were Christian conservatives from Minnesota but unlike their daughter had never been in a nearly all-black church before.
Such people often pass us by because they don't fit the mold of what we think the debate to be about. They spoil the simplicity of the struggle, force us to look beyond cliched dichotomies and into hearts, away from rules and rhetoric and towards a vague tone, an elusive atmosphere, an unexpected smile or an irrelevant kindness that turns out not to be irrelevant at all. They make yes and no seem less important and give religion back its grace.
Today the theological provenance of those consorting at annual prayer breakfasts is happily overlooked. Ecumenism has smoothed the rough edges of faith so that ethnic and class prejudice now has a much harder time escaping under the cover of religiosity. There are exceptions to be sure; Muslims, atheists, gays, or doctors performing abortions are still considered worthy targets by some with excessive pride in their godliness, but we have come a long way from when the most powerful of the world went around singing "Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war" and meant it. Literally.
Contemporary adaptations have also dimmed the recollection of how long the church in the west stood in place of the individual. And made no bones about it. In fact, as recently as 1997, the Catholic church was still denouncing individualism. A Rome gathering of hundreds of church leaders from the Americas, convened by Pope John Paul II, heard a bishop attack the "heavy emphasis on the individual and his or her rights" which had "greatly eroded the concept of the common good and its ability to call people to something beyond themselves." Cardinal Adam Maida, Archbishop of Detroit, warned that "we in the North are constantly seduced by the false voice of freedom that calls for individual choice."
In fact, the pull of individualism, even in a conformist era, does remain strong. In 1996, 51% of Americans told pollsters that teaching children "to think for themselves" was the most important thing for a parent to do in preparing their offspring for life. 18% listed "to obey," and still smaller numbers favored "to work hard," and "to help others when they need help." Only 1% listed "to be well-liked or popular" as most important.
Nonetheless, within Western culture the idea that we should think for ourselves is, in historical terms, still a relatively novel one. While there were ancient prescient voices like the Florentine philosopher Pico della Mirandola who said that it is given to man "to have that which he chooses and to be that which he wills," more typical was the advice of St. Augustine: "Hands off yourself; try to build up yourself and you build a ruin."
Today it's quite a different matter. Here, for example, is a list of some religious choices currently only a click away at Yahoo.com:
Yet despite such a cornucopia, religion's cruel side and painful personal association still leave many with an ambivalence, indifference, discomfort, or even anger towards any formal organization of the spirit. Some depart their church or synagogue before they leave their families. Some leave until they have taken their unassisted selves as far they can, and then return. Some no longer want a roof between themselves and their god. Others attack every intrusion of church upon state with almost religious fervor, holding in contempt Reinhold Niebuhr's view that one does not resolve such conflicts by doing away with the church.
As one neither particularly offended by, nor attracted to, formal religion, I find myself often trapped between opposing certitudes. In truth, this Seventh Day Agnostic has met as many religious individualists as I have met non-religious zealots and robots. In the manner of other communities, those of faith can either stifle or liberate.
Freedom floats as well. If you violated the conformity of the ancient church you might have found yourself branded a heretic or an apostate. Today, if you violate the rules of the secular culture you may find yourself branded a neurotic or dysfunctional. Not all churches are run by people in robes.
Nor are all moral choices made in church. It helps, in fact, to separate our moral decisions from religious form, not because they are mutually exclusive, but because it allows us to see morality out of costume. Thomas Mann wrote of the need for those who would be individuals to recognize the difference between morality and blessedness, which John Ralston Saul describes this way: "A man who depends upon blessedness is one who relies upon God and his representatives to define morality and to enforce it. He is a child of God -- a ward who would not dream of claiming personal responsibility. The individual is more like a child who has grown up and left home."
If we opt for blessedness, becoming wards of someone else's certitude, there is always the risk that we will confirm Oscar Wilde's view that he had never met "anyone in whom the moral sense was dominant who was not heartless, cruel, vindictive, log-stupid, and entirely lacking in the smallest sense of humanity."
The great danger of morality has always been the hypocritical arrogance of the righteous, centuries of whom have failed to distinguish between sharing a vision with others and imposing it upon them. They have also failed to see in themselves many of the evils they so strongly condemn.
On the other hand, if we take moral concerns -- whether within the context of formal religion or not -- as part of our normal business, but only in modest and conscientious concert with others, and only as sinners helping each other along the way, then potentially obnoxious or oppressive parody can become gently productive instead.
Once you remove the rituals and rules, even sharply contrasting moral traditions can share common ground. This was what Kim Hays found in a study of three Quaker and three military boarding schools. Though three caught the ways of war and the others non-violence, Hays found that together
There were differences other than the opposing curricula of war and peace, such as the source of moral authority being internal in the case of the Friends schools and external at the military academies. But none of these institutions practiced indoctrination. Rather they taught morality in the context of conflict and ambiguity. They also shared "a desire to live consistently and with integrity, in service to certain strongly felt truths; a willingness to make sacrifices; and a belief in the sacred nature of their responsibilities."
Among the common values of the six schools were
Hays rejects the idea that morality is a social straitjacket on individualism:
In order to accomplish this, however, one must keep talking, a great deal of which went on in both Friends and military classrooms. It is also, interestingly, what happens on the Internet -- a daily discussion and debate on the values and politics of a society in which too many of its leaders have far too little to contribute. One of the most common complaints about the Net by the archaic media is that it lacks "gatekeepers" or "middlemen" of information, which is only to say it is a medium without a hierarchy, one in which individuals become responsible for their own morality. When an early Friend was asked whether it was true that in his religion there were no priests, he replied, "No, in our religion there is no laity." The Net is much the same.
The basic tenets of Quakerism were well described by a Friends headmaster:
When I was a student at that school, I was already a rebel and so would say things like, "The trouble with Quakers is that they don't fight hard enough for their beliefs." I would only later come to realize that the Quaker influence was on a delayed-time fuse; it was not until I joined the "real" world that I found how unique even the flawed application of such principles had been.
It would take still longer for me to grasp part of the wisdom of the faith: an ability to stand outside of time. Quakerism exemplifies the power of choice because it prescribes personal witness as guided by conscience -- regardless of the era in which we live or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And the witness need not be verbal. The Quakers say "let your life speak," echoing St. Francis of Assisi's advice that one should preach the gospel at all times and "if necessary, use words."
There are about as many Quakers today in America as there were in the 18th century, around 100,000. Yet near the center of every great moment of American social and political change one finds members of the Society of Friends. Why? In part because they have been willing to fail year after year between those great moments. Because they have been willing in good times and bad -- in the instructions of their early leader George Fox -- "to walk cheerfully over the face of the earth answering that of God in every one."
Those who think history has left us helpless should recall the abolitionist of 1830, the feminist of 1870, the labor organizer of 1890, and the gay or lesbian writer of 1910. They, like us, did not get to choose their time in history but they, like us, did get to choose what they did with it.
Knowing what we know now about how it's turned out, would we have been abolitionists in 1830?
Knowing what we know now would we have joined feminist Lydia Maria Child who recognized she would not live to see women's suffrage, but said that when it happened, ''I'll come and tap at the ballot box?"
In 1848, 300 people gathered at Seneca Falls, NY, for a seminal moment in the American women's movement. They recorded a long list of grievances including the lack of access to higher education, the professions, and the pulpit; the lack of equal pay for equal work, and the lack of property and child custody rights.
On November 2, 1920, 91-year-old Charlotte Woodward Pierce became the only signer of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions who had lived long enough to cast a ballot for president. Would we have attended that 1848 conference? Would we have bothered?
Other religions also place a strong burden of responsibility on the individual. For example, Islam, notes one writer, "believes in the individual personality of man and holds everyone personally responsible and accountable to God." Which is not that different from the Babylonian Talmud: "A person is always liable for his action, whether awake or asleep." Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains in Jewish Wisdom:
On the other hand, Judaism doesn't require you to feel responsible for the entire world's problems nor to commit the odd Christian sin of supererogation -- doing more good works than the Lord demands of you. Rabbi Yochanam ben Zakkai even suggested that "if there be a sapling in your hand when they say to you, 'Behold, the Messiah has come!' complete planting the sapling, and then go and welcome the Messiah."
Such a blend of individualism, pragmatism, and responsibility has been translated into a wealth of prescriptions for social behavior that have stood the test of time far better than, say, those of the Harvard Business School. In Exodus, for example, it advises, "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan." Similarly, Prophet Mohammed declares, "He is not a believer who takes his fill while his neighbor starves."
For the non-orthodox of whatever religion, the struggle for individual space within their religion is often hard-won. For some Jews it began with a rebellion against the centuries-old plenary power of the rabbis. A part of the story is told by journalist Paul S. Green in his memoir, From the Streets of Brooklyn to the War in Europe. He notes that by the dawn of the 20th century
Out of this grew several new movements, one of which, Zionism, looked towards retrieving a Jewish nation. Others were socialist, ranging from hard core Bolshevik to the Bund, which Green describes as
And so we find, not too many years later, the New York City Jewish cigarmakers each contributing a small sum to hire a man to sit with them as they worked and read aloud the classic works of Yiddish literature. The leader of the New York cigar-makers, Samuel Gompers, would become the first president of the American Federation of Labor.
Green's own family joined the rebellion:
They became part of a Jewish tradition that profoundly shaped the politics, social conscience, and cultural course of 20th century America. It helped to create the organizations, causes, and values that built this country's social democracy. While Protestants and Irish Catholics controlled the institutions of politics, the ideas of modern social democracy disproportionately came from native populists and immigrant socialists.
It is certainly impossible to imagine liberalism, the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam protests without the Jewish left. There is, in fact, no greater parable of the potential power of a conscious, conscientious minority than the influence of secular Jews on 20th century modern American politics.
Sadly, however, social and economic progress inevitably produced a dilution of passion for justice and change not just among Jews but within the entire post-liberal elite. Thus we would find a women's movement much louder in its defense of the corrupt Clintons than about the plight of sisters at the bottom of the economic pile. Conservative black economists would decry the moral debilitation of affirmative action but fail to defend those suffering because of the massive incarceration of young black males.
Economic progress calmed the sound of revolution and reform; in its stead we found the conservative Ben Stein speaking at a Jewish anti-abortion conference:
The great 20th century social movements were successful enough to create their own old boy and girl networks, powerful enough to enter the Chevy Chase Club. and indifferent enough to ignore those left behind. The minority elites had joined the Yankee and the Southern aristocrat and the rest of God's frozen people to form the largest, most prosperous, and most narcissistic intelligentsia in our history. But as the best and brightest drove around town in their Range Rovers, who would speak for those who were still, in Bill Mauldin's phrase, fugitives from the law of averages? The work of witness remained.
While Quakerism and Judaism are the religions in America that perhaps have most directly confronted the issues of individualism and communal responsibility, larger faiths have also produced their share of strongly committed individuals. For example, Gordon Peterson, a highly respected long-time news anchor in Washington, came out of a strict Worcester, Massachusetts, parochial background without any apparent loss of identity: "The Sisters of Mercy taught me how to pray, and that's a good thing. The Jesuit Fathers taught me how to challenge authority, and that's a good thing. And the Xaverian Brothers taught me how to take a punch -- and that's a good thing, too."
There is also, right in the midst of highly centralized, conservative, and hierarchical Catholicism, a strong tradition of personal witness. The best known examples are radical priests and nuns opposing war or engaging in civil disobedience, but a Los Angeles Times poll in 1994 found that even among average American Catholic priests, nearly half believed that birth control was seldom or never wrong and even more approved of masturbation. A Georgetown University study in 2000 of 1,200 Catholics found that two-thirds supported legal abortions, six in ten endorsed capital punishment and half supported physician-assisted suicide -- leaving only 15% of Catholics backing the official church position on all three subjects. Another survey a few years ago found that more than two-thirds of American Catholics said that their own conscience trumped that of the Pope.
The New York Times' Jennifer Egan found among Catholic seminarians a particular emphasis on personal choice and responsibility:
A seminarian once asked Saul Alinsky how, as he made his way up the church hierarchy, he could retain his values. Alinsky said that was easy: just decide right now whether you wish to be a cardinal or a priest. One of the seminarians interviewed by Egan had another idea: he kept a folder in which he placed any cards and letters he received that described the impact he had on people's lives: "There may come a day when I say, 'Was this all worth it? What am I doing here? Has this made any difference to anybody?' And if I ever come to that, I'm going to open the folder on that day. And if I get to the end of my life without ever having opened it, that'd be awesome."