I look forward to the occasional Saturday morning when I join a group of friends for breakfast at one of the many charming 'country style' eateries because the company and conversation are so good. We're a diverse group-a Jewish doctor, a black Christian professor of ethics at one of the local universities, a bi-racial couple who are fellow members of the UU church I attend, a woman who was married in an off-shoot Hindu church, a Buddhist and me. Four of us are clergy. All of us enjoy the discourse over a full breakfast with lots of coffee. This morning we were joined by a black fundamentalist minister who works as a janitor and is a tireless advocate for the homeless in the area. Most of us know him personally: he's a great guy.
The topics of conversation are many, varied and shoot by like flies on their way to a picnic- that is to say we don't spend much time dwelling on anyone subject longer than necessary because we like to cover as much territory as we can in the precious time we share. We sit at a round corner table and create sacred space- everyone can see all the other faces as the humor, pain and other emotion form lines and frowns and smiles. It's a very honest way of communicating because it's personal, it's face to face. We have been a part of one another's lives long enough that there are no masks- and no pretension. The conversation is always lively...and not always comfortable. We don't always agree and many times there is a debate going on.
This was one of those mornings. After the usual moaning about the war in Iraq, the state of the economy and things the kids of some of us do that we don't approve of, we turned to the witch hunts in Africa. We all agree that what's happening is horrible...we don't all sit in condemnation, but none of us try to justify the events in the name of our particular God. Phil, our fundamentalist minister friend, says that his faith tradition stresses conversion to Christianity because they are trying to save others from eternal damnation...and he is horrified by the events in Africa in the Name of Jesus. Sam-the Christian ethics professor-agrees and makes what I found to be wonderfully refreshing statement, " If Christians object to the abuse and torture of those accused of witch craft in Africa, then why don't more Christians speak up and become proactive about ending it?" We roll that question around the table for awhile, giving various reasons, and I weigh in with my own take on the situation," For one thing, the opinion of the laity often conflicts with that of the clergy because they have a different understanding of what is behind the issue and drives it. They don't speak up and they'd never go against the hierarchy of their church." To which Phil replied, " Because they're afraid of being rejected by the church by questioning the teachings." Sara, one of our UU friends and a former Baptist minister said," And because they're not empowered. They don't have the money or the voice to take on the leadership of the church." We all nod and get refills on our coffee. Round Two is about to begin.
" ABC news had a story about how children are being accused of witchcraft in Africa. It's all a a flim-flam game.The preacher literally scares the hell out of the parents by saying they see the Devil working in their child,, then charges an huge amount of money to perform an exorcism. It's extortion. If no one ponies up the bucks, the child is killed." This is Phil, the fundamentalist speaking. I notice the tear hanging on the edge of his bottom eyelid. I say nothing because there is nothing to say. He's nailed it. Someone is making money off people who are scared to death of unfounded superstition and condemnation from their church-the group of people who love them and care for their very souls. It's a sobering realization that ignorance has this sort of power, and that faith has such close ties to it.
Jim is a Buddhist worship leader, a coach in his mundane life, who sometimes teaches meditation. He is articulate and precise with both his questions and answers, so when he joins in the conversation, we listen with interest. " I'm concerned about that kind of thing happening here, in this country.", he begins, taking a thoughtful sip from his cup." There are religious extremists attempting to dislodge the underpinnings of the democracy that is upheld by the First Amendment throughout this country...and one of them is meeting at Harvard University this weekend." There-it's been said. The can of worms has been opened...and not by me.Someone makes a remark about Harvard only renting them space, and someone else counters that with the fact that they are incredulous that," Harvard, of all places, would do that. They should know what it means, because it amounts to lending its name and sanctioning this newest round of religious fueled shenanigans. Harvard is my Alma Mater."
The voice comes from Fred, our doctor friend, who is the oldest one of us at the table. Fred's parents didn't survive the Holocaust; he was smuggled out of Germany by sympathizers who later saw to it he was adopted by a Jewish family in England. The pride of survival still shines in Fred's eyes through seventy years of PTSD
" They're an off shoot group, and if their PR is to be believed, they're attempting to create a new world order." I chime in, because everyone at the table knows I've been active in the objection to the content of this group's 'social transformation conference', they've seen my posts on Facebook and Blogger. We all chuckle nervously, because of the fact that every one of these groups aim is to 'take over the world'. Jim adds a sobering thought, " This bunch seems to have the connections and resources to try and succeed." Phil has been silent throughout this part of the conversation, and I don't want him to feel as though his position as a fundamentalist Christian is being attacked, so I ask him what he thinks about this situation and this group, and he replies, " They don't know Jesus. They just don't know Him...but the people they're talkin' to...they don't know. They're poor, a lot of them don't have secondary educations. They're mad at the government and blame everything bad in their lives on people they think look down on them because they're hurt...they hurt so bad in their hearts because they think they've been forgotten. That's why they love Jesus so much, he cared about the people around him who were in need." He takes a ragged breath to pause and says," They listen to people like these, and they think about what they don't have and their hurt turns to hate because they're being told by those they think are brothers and sisters that they are Chosen and they should do these things in the Holy Name of Jesus. They just don't know."
The cups are refilled again, and Round Three commences. The questions and answers are genuine, heartfelt, honest. No one attacks anyone because Phil and Fred have both provided insight that allows us to understand the dynamic behind the situation, " I think we're all a little afraid because there have been violent words spoken by this group before..." I begin, to be cut off by an impassioned Phil, " I'm afraid for you, Kate. I'm afraid for Sara, and Fred and Sam, and all of us. I'm afraid for all of us, because people don't understand that God loves all of us-those who are Christians and those who aren't. Maybe the ones who aren't more." Phil's tone is apologetic: he is clearly distraught and we all reassure him that no one is blaming him. he isn't one of them. The most logical among of us at the table is Sam, but not because he's an ethics professor, because he's been a minister for over 40 years and that he has faced this sort of question before. I respect Sam and admire his wisdom. He has a difficult time understanding why I am a Pagan, and he still has a smoldering resentment that I have rejected Christianity.He takes it very personally because he equates the man Jesus with the religion founded in his name, and I understand. The saving grace of our relationship is that I still honor Jesus as a teacher, I remain connected to his view of what is right and wrong, I believe in holding up some of the 'saints' as examples for the rest of us because of their work and sacrifice. Neither of us accept the self- serving rules and the dogma, and neither of us think that everything in the Bible are the exact words of God and that some of the ancient Judeo-Christian teaching is politically suspect. He thinks that Jesus was sent by God as a sacrifice to pay the price of sinful humans and I question how a loving God could set-up His human creatures to fail, then volunteer his unsuspecting half-mortal son to pay the price for a situation He created. Jesus, in my humble opinion, was set up. We continually go round on the fine points, and we get frustrated with one another: but we listen to one another, and we appreciate the other for far more than our religious view points.
" Jesus came...: Sam, with forty years of Baptist Conference experience behind him ," ...to make all things new. He came in love, and taught love and was peaceful in his message. He stopped Peter when he cut the centurion's ear off, and he healed the man. Now Peter thought he was defending Jesus and his ideas, and his response was to injure the man-I'm certain he would have killed him if Jesus allowed him. But Jesus didn't allow him to be violent... he rebuked Peter... his response was to heal the one who had come to arrest him.. Jesus did not allow violence against anyone or killing in the name of His ministry."
Let's all breathe a unified, "Amen".