An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question:
Another politician (John Edwards) has admitted to having an extramarital affair, and another spouse (Elizabeth Edwards) has been forgiving. At what point does a person of faith cease to forgive? At what point does forgiveness become destructive?
A cynic might say, in the wake of so many adulterous politicians, that in future they should issue a preemptive confession before running for President to save The National Enquirer excess ink. Why wait until you are caught? John Edwards’ gotcha moment hasn’t stirred much glee, perhaps because a rich personal-injury lawyer was an unlikely figure to mold into presidential stature to begin with. On the more humane side, his wife’s illness and Edwards’ own political failures create a sense of sadness. They both deserve sympathy and the right to retreat into the shelter of home, family, and hopefully a marriage whose wounds will heal. The confession itself smacked of hypocrisy — as with other cheating politicians, one suspects that Edwards is mostly sorry that he got caught. that he would cheat on a devoted spouse with cancer is best passed over with a cringing silence.
But the question posed is whether forgiveness can be so difficult that it stretches religious faith too far. Yes, of course. The most devout Jews are not expected, required, rewarded, or pressured to forgive the Holocaust. Such forgiveness would be the same as saintliness. Human nature is vulnerable. Violence and persecution create wounds in any faith that not only last but are exacerbated, because for true believers attacking their faith is the same as attacking God — an unforgivable affront. The notion that God is bothered by being attacked seems irrational to someone outside organized religion, but it is a persistent article of belief and has been for centuries.
A more probing question, then, would be whether forgiveness and faith are compatible. Yes again. The devout, like the rest of us, are capable of holding two contradictory ideas at the same time. As unforgivable as Christians in the past found it that the Jews crucified Christ (their perspective, not ours), forgiveness is a primary tenet in Jesusʼ teachings. He asks for the most difficult form of forgiveness when it is offered to one’s enemies. How does a Christian bridge the gap between that ideal and the natural reaction of revenge and resentment? I feel that traditional Christianity doesn’t bridge the gap. Without a shift in consciousness, it’s impossible to clear the psychological slate and forgive deep hurts just because you aspire to be moral. The imprints made on the psyche by violence and humiliation, guilt and shame, prejudice and lack of love, are as real as wounds to the body. The psyche possesses some healing mechanisms that work — the passage of time, forgetfulness, the will to forgive, a strong sense of self, and love. These healing methods, however, have their limits.
Eventually, forgiveness cannot be accessed simply because you want to forgive. The essence of forgiveness is transcendent — it lies in a domain of consciousness where the wound doesn’t exist and the wrong never occurred. Whenever we forgive our children and other loved ones, we do so by transcending the normal responses of blame and judgment. To find a larger sense of forgiveness, you have to undertake a journey that leads to this transcendent place inside yourself. Sadly, few people begin the journey with enough knowledge and guidance to arrive at the goal. As Edwards will discover, it’s an unforgiving world. But one must be deeply grateful that transcendent forgiveness is real. After all, the day may come when we need it ourselves for our own transgressions.
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Societies don’t remain the same after a war but find that they have radically changed. Sometimes the change is catastrophic, sometimes not. But it can never be ignored. A major undercurrent in the 2008 presidential campaign centers on this fact, because the people who devised and promoted the Iraq war want to preserve the illusion that nothing in America has really changed, when in fact a host of illusions died on the battlefield. On the other side, the anti-war party (as the Democrats became de facto over the past five years) is struggling to invent new realities to replace these lost illusions. The public is caught in between, for there’s no doubt that comforting illusions have a way of springing back to life, if only history could be reversed.
Consider the major illusions that perished — or should have — in Iraq:
1. The illusion of a “free” war.
2. The illusion that American nationalism is good nationalism.
3. The illusion of America as the friendly superpower.
4. The illusion that alliances are expendable.
5. The illusion that America and the free market are synonymous.
Each one has a complex history and will continue to, but there’s no doubt that reality has shifted so dramatically as to undercut all these false beliefs.
1. The illusion of a “free” war. In the wake of the first Gulf war and the so-called Powell doctrine, it was supposed to be true that overwhelming force could reduce U.S. casualties to a bare minimum. Conflicts would essentially cost us close to nothing as long as victory was certain beforehand and technology could quickly overpower an under-equipped enemy. But this notion of a “free” war was dead before it began, as witness the quagmire of Vietnam and the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. A determined insurrection cannot be defeated quickly, easily, or by conventional means.
Iraq was supposedly free in other ways. The war was going to pay for itself through Iraq’s resurgent oil revenues — until the rebels started blowing up pipelines and terrorizing the contractors hired to rebuild the oil industry. Another free aspect was the social cost on both sides. The Iraqi population was going to suffer minimal damage compared to Saddam’s elite corps of soldiers in the shock and awe campaign. Instead, innocent citizens died by the tens of thousands, while the Iraqi army dispersed into the shadows and turned into bitter insurrectionists. As for minimal loss to American civilians, it’s true that only a small percentage have been wounded or killed, but the vast majority became lulled into allowing the war to continue years after it failed, thus promoting and extending its toxic effects.
2. The illusion that American nationalism is good nationalism. (One could easily say the only good nationalism so far as the right wing is concerned, since God approves of it wholeheartedly) Because of the humanitarian effect of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe in the late forties, the U.S. firmly believes that it holds a patent on good nationalism, the kind that the whole world loves. We are shocked to find out that we might be hated elsewhere, and when that revelation dawns, our nationalism reverts to the bad kind, which invades, kills, and wreaks havoc. After five years of doing this in Iraq, and threatening more of the same in Iran, a realist would abandon good nationalism for something more palatable to the world at large.
Specifically, the U.S. possesses such strength that it can afford to put nationalism on the back burner and reinvent itself as the leader of a global interests vision. There are stirrings of this new role, and it may yet prevail. But a huge amount of old conditioning has to be overcome. We are conditioned to believe that the U.S. is the freest country on earth, which makes no sense given the equal freedom enjoyed in England, Australia, Canada, Scandinavia, and the rest of Western Europe. We conveniently forget the numerous countries, as many as 29 by some counts, that the U.S. has either invaded or tampered with internally since the Fifties. We overlook our greedy overconsumption of natural resources. Most of all, we use nationalism as a wall, protecting our insular view of the world — in large part the fiasco of the Iraq war was due to deep ignorance about that country and Islam in general. Finally, American nationalism is outdated, running on the fumes of victory in World War II and the notion of defeating nation-based enemies through a large standing army, when in reality the enemy is diverse, scattered, and free from national boundaries. The invasion of Iraq was a nationalist cause to begin with based on landing in Normandy on D-Day, again an illusion that should have died in Vietnam but refused to.
(to be cont.)
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An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question:
What’s your response to this question from a Post national poll of low-wage workers? “What role does God or your faith play in helping you get through tough financial times?”
The new poll on poverty has a certain brazen quality about it, or is it rubbing salt in the wound accidentally? The poorest people in any society are the most vulnerable to economic anxiety. They are the least able to afford downturns and have almost no power to improve their lot through political leverage. The poll revealed that the poor are aware of their teetering situation. Did anyone expect that they would discover anything other than pessimism?
To the degree that the poor still believe in the American dream, a Marxist would say that they have been duped. There are more opiates of the masses than just religion. However, there are no unbesmirched Marxists left, it seems, so the social wheel must turn in a new direction. Having abandoned the welfare state in its most liberal and generous aspects, America ignores the poor as never before — the idealism of the “respectable poor,” the compassion shown to victims of the Great Depression, and the social crusades of the sixties are gone. Is there a new idea that can bridge the immense gap between rich and poor in income, education, health, and opportunities?
Religion certainly isn’t that new idea. Asking the poor if they turn to God in hard times — and discovering that the vast majority do — revives the specter of Barack Obama’s “clinging” episode. It also validates, if validation was needed, that clinging to religion is a very real phenomenon, one that has its own dignity and worth. Few people in any income bracket fail to pray in a dire crisis or to hope that a higher power sees their plight. There may be no atheists in the foxholes, as the wartime slogan went, but there are few on a sinking ship, either. The pessimism revealed in the poll is simple realism as seen from the lowest deck.
Forty years after Michael Harrington’s groundbreaking book, “Poverty in America,” which launched the War on Poverty with high ideals that never materialized, our knowledge about poverty is enormous, but our will to attack the problem is slim. One reason is obvious. As many economists point out, the poor subsidize America’s enviable lifestyle. Every underpaid hotel maid, McDonald’s cook, migrant farm worker, and school janitor living below the poverty line is contributing money to the rest of us. Without the poor there would be no American dream, and yet they are the least likely to benefit from it. If I am being asked what sustains me in economic hard times, my answer isn’t conventional religious piety but a new vision of possibilities. Such a vision must be spiritual at its core. Begin with the notion that all souls are equal, and that each person can evolve in consciousness. Give the poorest people — and everyone else — the tools to expand their own awareness, and heartless questions about how it feels to be poor won’t be necessary anymore.
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