Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Incredible popular demonstrations and political changes are occurring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, and Iran. There is something about the protests that transcend culture, religion, and the various other adjectives that we employ in daily thought and conversation. Like the young student who stood squarely in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square, these current protests are a testament to the human spirit. The use of the word “spirit” can be somewhat uncomfortable for non-democratic rulers, including religious autocrats.

Wounded or rejected by organized religions many often say, “I am spiritual, but not religious.” They have left the religion of their infancy due to rejection by religious leaders. People are thrown out or alienated from their faith for many reasons. Common reasons range from impossible marriages, institutionalized misogyny, and institutionalized bigotry/persecution of persons due to their sexual orientation or gender issues. In the case of Roman Catholicism, the pedophilia Cover-Up Scandal of the Pope and bishops is tragically another wound unjustly inflicted in the name of God.

Amazingly despite of, or perhaps precisely because of these attacks, rejections and wounds, people remain spiritual. In the silence of wounded hearts, in life’s great moments, we connect with our self, others and something that is paradoxically both transcendent and immanent. This happens for us on a personal level with the death of a loved one, illness, unemployment, or when our own imminent death confronts us. While such moments are painful and difficult, they force us to reflect and reevaluate life and its meaning. Joyful moments, such as falling in love, the birth/adoption of a child, etc can also accomplish similar reflection and reevaluation of life’s purpose and meaning.

The international events we are witnessing today accomplish this same existential reflection and sense of meaning on a collective level. These events are not just political, economic or sociological in nature. These events are tangible eruptions of the human spirit that unites us all. This is why people of radically different cultures can “feel” for and internally “connect” with people they have never met and with whom they have apparently very little in common.

The desire for freedom is part of what defines a human being. Freedom is necessary for full human development. Philosophically all people have this inner freedom. Even individuals living under the most extreme and cruel tyrants possess (and are sometimes tormented by) freedom of thought. The philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, “I think, therefore I am.”

Freedom is also essential for authentic spirituality; however, it remains merely a starting point for authentic spirituality. “What do I do with my freedom?” Egypt and other newly liberated people must now answer this question. This question implies many things. It means that I am ultimately personally responsible for who I chose to become. My decisions, my words, my deeds shape who I become; once we arrive at conscious thought and we can make personal choices, we become responsible for who we are and who we become.

Consider the passage in the Bible depicting the liberation of the Jewish slaves from captivity in ancient Egypt. Exodus 12: 35-36 speaks of the Israelites using their newly acquired freedom to demand material wealth. The Israelites wandered for forty years in the desert. Forty years represented a lifetime in the scriptures. In other words, this life is a journey from slavery to true liberation. After they had left Egypt and found themselves in the desert, they expressed very different sentiments about freedom “Would that we had died…as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you [Moses] had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!” [Exodus 16:3]

This reveals something very human regarding the reality of freedom. The sudden joy of attaining liberation from slavery (i.e. freedom) is quickly forgotten once the cost of freedom, personal responsibility, is revealed. The appreciation for freedom is replaced with a longing for the security of slavery. Winston Churchill quipped, “Those who would trade freedom for security, deserve neither.”

Many paradoxically fear freedom, precisely because it assigns them (me/us) personal responsibility for their actions. This is the seductive appeal of many ideologies and religious fundamentalism. In exchange for unquestioning obedience and conformity, they promise their adherents salvation. Additionally, the adherent is no longer personally responsible, since he/she had submitted himself or herself to the collective reality, the state or church.

In fact the adherent relishes this absorption into the state/church since it confers on them identity. A false, prefabricated identity, but an identity that requires no personal development. Specifically, it does not require them to face their own fears and demons. This also poisons adherents with a spiritual pride, a delusion that they are superior to those outside their belief system.

This is part of a spiritual seduction by some religious leaders and institutions. They are happy to assume such responsibility and in fact claim that God has bestowed it upon them, in exchange for power, influence and wealth. This also explains the growing divide between progressives and literalists within Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam.

The idea that individuals are exempt from personal responsibility for their deeds due to external factors was rejected at the Nuremburg Trials. “I was just following orders” did not work, as a viable defense at those trials and it will not serve as an excuse for people today. However, the chilling reality of such totalitarian regimes does posit a legitimate question. How does authentic spirituality deal with fear? The Roman Senator Cicero stated, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The Book of Numbers contains a fascinating treatment of this spiritual dilemma.

Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food! In punishment the Lord sent among the people saraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of them died. … Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and if anyone who has been bitten looks at it, he will recover.” [Numbers 21:5-8]

Read carefully again that ancient text. It reveals something about the human condition. We will all be stricken with fear on life’s journey. It is only when we confront (look upon) what we most fear, that we are healed.

If we opt for the security of slavery, we may find it once more; however, our spirit will rebel against it once more. Freedom means walking through the desert, it means dropping into the sand those things we immaturely thought would be the cause of our happiness. It means facing our personal fears and in doing so, being healed and becoming whole.

In the case of individuals, this process takes a lifetime. In the case of nations, regions and humanity it can take several lifetimes. On both levels, the human spirit seeks freedom to develop and flower into personal and collective integrity.

1 comment:

Tal said...

Fr. Geoff, mighty fine sermon. I think you've hit on a fundamental truth, that tyranny is in some sense a partnership between the tyrant and the oppressed. The tyrant offers the false choice of easy conformity, of rules instead of conscience. Conform to the rules and you're a good person. Defy them and you're a bad person. Of course, whether you are truly a good person is irrelevant.

It reminds me of Jesus' injunction in Matthew 6:1-6, to be not like the hypocrite, who cares only to be seen to do right. Or Jesus' rebuke in Matthew 15:1-20 of those who place value only on empty ritual and legalisms, while ignoring the rotten impulses of the heart.

The Catholic Church seems to have a problem with the tyranny of rules and the easy morality it promises. Gays in loving relationships are excoriated by the Church to the point of being driven from the pew, and their children are denied places at Catholic schools. Even homosexuals who are called to holy orders--by God's gentle urging no less--are barred from entry unless they can prove their fundamental selves "transient." Yet wife-beaters, adulterers, cheats, thieves and those who harm others in thought, word and deed receive nary a mention, but sit happily with their faces pressed up against the altar.

Jesus warned the Pharisees that "you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition," and invoked Isaiah 29:13, that "[t]hese people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules."

So what is God's rule? John 13:35 gives simple answer: "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." How much harder that command.