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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People need a way to deal with the global changes suddenly surrounding us. As often happens, second-hand opinions are gaining the most power. The vocabulary on the left speaks of positive change, a new order, rising prosperity in what used to be the third world, and creative possibilities. The right employs a darker, more pessimistic vocabulary of turmoil in the credit markets, military threat from China, the need to seize on traditional values and exclude immigrants. The basic difference comes down to embracing the emerging global community or holding tight to isolated nationalism backed up with military threats.
Yet both attitudes are second-hand, and as people take sides, passing around the same few slogans and attitudes, something important is being missed. To deal successfully with turbulent change, you have to envision a new life for yourself. Despite the instinct to contract and defend, the real need is to expand and create. Unless each of us can see a new life for ourselves personally, there can’t be a new world — or if one arises, we will be left behind. The basics of existence are up for renewal at this moment, and people are asking themselves some very basic questions:
–Can I find a new way to be happy? Americans have long been addicted to over-consumption and wastefulness — with only 6% of the world’s population, we use 30% of its resources — and yet we consider waste to be a negligible byproduct of pursuing happiness. Is there a better way that doesn’t lead to ecological contamination? Can we prosper without earning the resentment of the whole world?
–Can I find a new way to be healthy? This society leads the world in developing new drugs and surgery because we don’t want to sacrifice the fantasy that a magic pill equals health. Is there a way to nurture well-being that avoids the medical system almost entirely?
–Can I live as long as possible with real quality of life? The outworn concept of old age as a time of decrepitude and inactivity gave way to “the new old age” twenty years ago, and now aging is gradually being absorbed into the human life cycle as a positive contribution, not a depressing decline. What will my place be in this new vision?
–Can I find a new way to grow spiritually? The rear-guard action in defense of organized religion mounted by fundamentalists, although loudly voiced by the right wing, is at odds with reality — organized religion has been fading for decades in the developed world. Yet instead of seeing this as a loss, new avenues of faith have opened. How will you fulfill your spiritual yearning ten or twenty years from now?
In all these cases, the individual is far ahead of society as a whole. Every society is essentially a conservative institution. It forms a framework for personal freedom, but it cannot be expected to dictate how that freedom is best used. The new world that is being born contains as much strife and uncertainty as the old, its great advantage being newness, ferment, and clearing the stage of outmoded behavior and beliefs. In this clearing process lies enormous possibilities, but these will be defeated if you cling instead to the fixed attitudes of any faction, right or left. You are the great possibility, something worth remembering every day.
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An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question:
Three in 10 Americans acknowledge feelings of racial prejudice, and yet 9 in 10 say they believe in God. How does racial prejudice reflect on one’s religious beliefs?
It’s very hard not to see God in color. From childhood everyone is taught to imagine God as a person, and inevitably that person has skin the color of those who worship him. Not that the gender “him” is any more accurate than the color black, white, or brown skin would be. A humanized God in any faith is a projection, not a reality. Blue-skinned Krishna is symbolically significant to Hindus but not to believers who see that image as pagan and primitive. Cultural judgments abound in religion, and these quickly deteriorate into the inane argument over whose God is better than someone else’s. Matters grow worse when the argument turns violent.
Religion has always been linked with conversion, and conversion with “lesser” races. For centuries the map of the world had two kinds of blank spaces: the places yet to be explored and the places yet to be Christianized. The moral duty to spread one’s faith doesn’t always imply using force, but the whole enterprise of converting the heathens was tied up inextricably with empire and conquest. And so, if military power was needed, squeamish missionaries and monks could avert their eyes until persuasion had cost enough blood. Generally they didn’t bother to avert them, however, since God had damned the lesser races anyway, salvation being their only hope. Kipling thought he was being supremely moral when he wrote “The White Man’s Burden.” (This isn’t to say that other religions didn’t convert by force, since of course they did.)
In the aftermath of colonialism, deep scars remain, and the question of racism is entangled in people’s minds along with religion. Outright condemnation of the British empire, for example, doesn’t erase how successful Livingstone and less famous missionaries were — the Anglican church today is dominated by Africa, not the home country of England. In the U.S., outright condemnation of slavery can’t erase the tradition of black churches and their stabilizing role in the community. Sadly, the general tendency remains the same: defining yourself by your faith also defines who you aren’t. Racism won’t disappear from religion until religion stops being exclusionary, a profound flaw that modern believers (some of them, at least) struggle to overcome.
In any system of organized religion, belief trumps first-hand experience. Such an experience, when it is truly spiritual, brings a sense of universality, far beyond our concepts of race and creed. In the most liberal denominations, one senses the color-blindness is real and sincere. but as long as other denominations preserve the concept of “pagan,” the specter of lesser races will hover over the altar.
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Will information technology trump military strength? What if a hand-held computer could hijack airplanes by interfering with air traffic signals? We need to use technology to heal the rift in our collective soul or risk using it to destroy ourselves.