Monday, September 21, 2009

So a U.S. Buddhist Jew and a U.S. Palestinian Christian sit down to talk...

[image is from here, where there is a fascinating discussion about Jesus as Jew or Christian, discussed with Swami B. G. Narasingha]

...and some stories are shared between the two.

The most important stories, I believe, are not academic and intellectual. The most important stories are emotional or operate on a variety of levels all at the same time. Some important stories are told between people about their lives, how they've lived, what they've come to value and why. But being men raised in a society that teaches us to "get into it" about various things, in discussion at least and in full-fledged violent argument at worse, two men get all intellectual for a while, skirting around the deeper matters of the heart which lay between them.

One--the Jew--is gay: let's call him "Pete"; the Christian is heterosexual: let's call him "James"; both were raised in the U.S. James passes as white quite easily except once when in Ramallah, where he is interrogated for four and a half hours at an airport by Jewish Israeli officials who suspect he's got some ties to "Middle Eastern Islamic terrorists" because he has dreads and is due to fly in the pricier seats of the plane, and his stay in the region lasted all of four days. (James gets the seat in the expensive section of the jet because he works for an airline, and can travel for free, taking whatever seats are available; he always flies "on stand-by". He went for four days because he had to return to go back to work, not because he was transporting some maps and other key papers to terrorists. He was understanding of the needs to do that sort of profiling, but I found it outrageous, what with me living here and all, and not appearing too much like "a terrorist threat" to anyone; four and half hours: they went through ev-er-y-thing of his, and stopped short of a cavity search!)

Only part of James's heritage is West Asian; other parts of his family were apparently from white Western Europe. His Palestinian father was an atheist and he died in a motorcycle accident when James was in his twenties; he had raised James also to be an atheist. When James got into his later teens, before leaving for college, he "found Christ", came home and told his father all about it, and was kicked out of their home immediately and forever. James went homeless for three weeks, then enlisted in the U.S. armed forces, something his father had wanted him to do.

He wants to explain to Pete (whose family came from Eastern and Western Europe), why Judaism and Islam are riskier religions, because they don't lead one to "be reborn in Christ". And being "reborn in Christ" is, apparently THE SUREST ticket to everlasting peace and unconditional love. Unlike most people of most religions (other than Islam) in the U.S., James is very knowledgeable about the Islamic faith. He is less knowledgeable about Judaism but has studied the Old Testament, and he's barely knowledgeable at all about Zen Buddhism. His understanding of Indigenism as it relates to understandings of Spirit and G-d are seemingly non-existent.

Pete goes through an explanation of the differing worldviews between non-mystical Christianity and Zen Buddhism--one dualistic, the other not; one with an understanding of G-d as Being, one with an understanding of G-d as a Being; one working with a primary metaphor of "G-d The Father"; the other working from an occasionally useful metaphor of self as wave on the ocean, with the ocean as "Ultimate Truth" or "The Ground of Being"(or an inseparable G-d);

James argues that the other major religions believe you have to work to please G-d or that G-d has ways for you to live (laws, codes, and customs), but with Christianity, no matter how you've lived your life, on your deathbed, you need only accept "Him" and "His Love" is yours. He agrees, though, that how you live your life before death is still important. James has chosen to do missionary work through two websites, preaching from the cyber-pulpit, as it were. Pete views "Christian missionary work"--on- or off-line--as something akin to behaving as a cultural/spiritual genocidalist, but doesn't share this at this time.

James seems not to be content with Pete's views on G-d as ocean, person as wave. He seems to want Pete, who, btw, has never practiced Judaism but who strongly identifies as Jewish, to come to see the value of becoming Christian, by bringing into the conversation a particular intellectual chess move called "Pascal's Wager".

A third man present, also raised and living in the U.S., who is heterosexual, white, and Christian and is entirely of Western European descent, wonders out loud if the motivation behind Pascal's Wager really all that "Christian". Let's call him Ned. Ned wonders out loud whether, for example, Jesus himself would use such a manipulative conversation tactic to coerce people to seeing the wisdom of becoming Christian, "just in case the Christians are right". Ned suspects not. James and Pete agree.

Under this story are more stories. One of them disturbingly racist-sounding to Pete. James tells him about the websites, and how he uses images of key Black figures (including the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.)--all male--interspersed with white ones to "attract" Blacks to his message--it is important to him to reach across racial lines in his preaching, effectively. Pete wonders, to himself only, "Why would any Black person who is seeking knowledge about Christianity need a white-appearing intermediary to find Jesus?" And he wonders, again to himself, "What IS GOING ON with all these white or white-appearing Christians traveling around to places, via the web or by jet plane, where people of color live to preach about Jesus as "The One True Way"?

Which leads to a deeper story. James tells of his father's lack of love for him, how he believes "unconditional love" can only be known in the presence of Jesus Christ, the Father. Pete responds: "I've had a taste of unconditional love from my grandmother and for me G-d as "a Father" just doesn't work at all. Pete asks James, "Why would G-d have a gender?" James responds that according to some Christian texts, He doesn't. Pete responds, "But you only ever refer to G-d as a male." James concedes the point. But this is where the story gets less intellectual.

James tells of his father's emotional distance, of the lack of love he got from his father and how important it is for him to have faith in a G-d who is The Father. And he acknowledges, with rare honesty among men, that his faith is shaky and his trust is generally absent that he can just let go and be embraced by Jesus.

Pete asks him "What keeps you from trusting?" And adds, from the religious tradition Pete has most been engaged by, "As I see it, the issue isn't 'allowing yourself to trust enough to fall into Jesus's loving arms'"--using James' G-d language. "The challenge is rather to remember you are always already in his arms."

James contemplates this. James wants to continue to discuss this on a theological level. Pete is filled with sadness about James' childhood, the loss of his father, and how difficult his live has been both before and after that accident. Pete wants to ask James questions about how his father's emotional distance hurt him and shaped him into someone who, of course, would have trouble trusting in the father's presence, in the father's love. But it is time for bed, and they embrace warmly and say goodnight.

James goes upstairs to join his female spouse and their four month old daughter, Ned gets ready for bed downstairs, and Pete leaves for home, feeling grateful for James's sharing and questioning, and also feeling a bit annoyed at having to deal with the whole "Why don't you join us in becoming Christian" thing, which he got from part of his family ever since he was little.

Pete wonders, yet again, "Are all Christians so insecure about their own faith that they need to bolster it by 'spreading the Word'?" He knows the answer to this question is no, because his Christian grandmother, the one who showed him unconditional love, never spoke to him once about Jesus. For her, faith was a private affair and to preach was to pretend you knew The Truth, but The Truth, to her way of thinking, comes from G-d, not people, and so to preach "The Truth" was to be arrogant, to think yourself "G-d". But in practicing unconditional love in her day to day living, she was indeed following her understanding of who Jesus was and what he taught.



Anonymous said...

Christians don't preach because they are insecure. Christians preach because they truly believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven, and if it's true than that's certainly something you want people to know. If somebody you know were about to do something really dangerous you would warn them about it right? I'll admit, Christians are notorious for being hypocritical or judgemental. But true Christianity is about being morally straight in a world full of evil. Why people feel threatened by a religion that encourages humility and service is beyond me. The basis of Christian ethics are even comparable to the ethics of Buddhism, and are the same as Judaism, as we share the Holy Tanakh. You don't have to agree with Christianity, but please do not criticize those who wish to share what they believe. I understand that it is difficult from a Jewish standpoint to fully understand the concept of evangelism (many Christians don't either), as the Jewish people are truly a race and therefore do not seek converts. But Christians believe that the news about Jesus is relevant to everyone, that the world is G-d's chosen people, and he wants all people to come to him. I'm not telling you to be a Christian or even support Christianity, but please consider the fact that we all want to do the right thing, and Christians are trying their best all over the world to see to it that they can look forward to a new life of peace. I admire so many things about Judaism and Buddhism, and I think that all religions can learn something from each other. So it's important to keep an open mind. I'm sorry if this is irrelevent to the post, I'll admit I didn't read the entire thing. But it's something worth mentioning, anyway. Maybe someone who needs too see it will see it.

Julian Real said...

To Anonymous above,

Christians don't preach because they are insecure. Christians preach because they truly believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven, and if it's true than that's certainly something you want people to know. If somebody you know were about to do something really dangerous you would warn them about it right?

Your assessment of why Christians preach is not my experience, and how could you possibly know why ALL Christians preach? Have you spoken with all Christians? Did the Catholic priests/rapers of children preach for the reasons you say, or were they trying to gain access to children?

Do the Christian husbands who rape and batter and control their wives and children preach to those they abuse because of the reason you say, or because it is one other way to mind-fuck those they wish to dominate?

You are aware, I hope, of the propensity of seemingly "good-meaning" white Christians who, in fact, used the New Testament to conquer and destroy people of color around the world? If you are not, please read Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, by Andrea Smith, as well as Yurugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior, by Marimba Ani.

I will agree that SOME Christians do preach because they believe Jesus is the only way to heaven. But I have known most Christians to be very shaky and unsure of their beliefs, of their faith, including Mother Teresa, and people who are Christian around me behave as though "If only you believed what I believe, it might help me believe it too". That's my experience of MANY white Christians. Too many to count, but certainly most of them come across that way, not as people who have love and a desire for justice and peace in their heart. I know many white Christians extremely well, and they speak of their insecurities in this regard. So I'm not just projecting something onto them that I wish to be true. They admit it.

And as for your question, my answer is: No, if someone I knew were about to do something dangerous, how I would respond would depend largely on how I understood their own agency, will, and spiritual beliefs to be operating in their lives. I wouldn't be so arrogant or presumptuous as to seek out others to make them think "my truth" has to be their truth too. I have a friend who throws bottles at neo-Nazis in Europe. That is dangerous, no? Should he not do it? (part two follows)

Julian Real said...

I know people, women, who march in the street for an end to rape. That is dangerous, no?

You are obviously speaking about the "danger" of not believing in Jesus as Christ. For you that's a danger, due to your worldview, beliefs, faith, and experience. Can you accept that it is not "dangerous" for others to believe differently than that?

Frankly, I resent the implication you make here that it is "dangerous" to not be Christian, and that those who don't register this "danger" need to be warned by you as if it were "a danger". I find that attitude arrogant and incredibly self-serving, also profoundly racist, heterosexist, and misogynistic, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic, and utterly disrespectful of everyone who is not Christian.

The Christian proselytising and evangelising of the white West imposing its most popular and pro-capitalistic faith tradition onto others is evil and genocidal, to me and goes completely against anything Jesus did in his lifetime. When white Christians rise up, en masse, and renounce their racist ways, their genocidal actions, their pro-capitalist practices, and admit that G-d, should one exist, is not male, then I may begin to be interested in what Christians have to say about Christianity. Until such time I seriously wish that Christians would just shut up about their beliefs. We Jews keep our beliefs to ourselves. Jesus was a Jew: he spoke only to his people. Please do the same.

And why does it follow that if something is true that you'd want people to know it, especially if it concerns what happens to us after we die, which no living person knows with any certainty--unless they are lying? You can have your faith, of course. I welcome you to hold tight to it. But as soon as you speak about it to me, or to anyone else as if it should be their truth, I will call you a blasphemer, an a perpetrator of evil.

That fact that Jesus preached that "the kingdom of G-d is within you" (Luke 17, KJV) leads me to wonder what Christians think heaven is and where it is. (part three follows)

Julian Real said...

For me, as a Buddhist and a Jew, the goal of life is not to get somewhere allegedly up above the Earth after I die but is rather to live life here and now, fighting with the oppressed for liberation from human kingdoms (patriarchies), which is exactly what I understand Jesus to have done. I understand Jesus to be a Jewish man preaching Jewish spiritual lessons often through parables that were not meant to be understood literally ever. Jews do not hold to the notion of "one way of viewing things"--nor did Jesus as a practicing Jew.

Historically, Jews told history differently than did the non-Jewish followers of Jesus who later called themselves Christians. Jews, generally, understood history as story-telling. Those who later called themselves Christians grossly distorted what Jesus was talking about, in part because they took the word of someone like John, who lived 100 years after Jesus, to be more spiritually significant than what Jesus himself is alleged to have said.

Patriarchal Christians drew from incomplete stories, purging from the story of Jesus the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdelene, in the book now known as the New Testament.

They grossly distorted it by literalising everything that is said to have come from Jesus's lips. And most of that has been shown to be not what Jesus said. And that has been agreed upon by many Christian scholars--Christians, not anyone of any other faith traditions.

I think what Jesus said is largely ignored or misunderstood by most Christians I know, but not all. I think white Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has a deep and wise understanding of Jesus, and I recommend his books to any white Christian who cares about Christianity and who prosyletises to me.

Without having any way to back up this claim, I don't believe Jesus wouldn't give a [----] if people prayed to him, or Muhammad, Allah, HaShem, or G-d, to any of the Hindu and African Gods and Goddesses, to the Goddess Herself, or to the Earth, or if they instead meditated as their primary spiritual practice.

Although it was written into the NT later, I don't belief Jesus was at all concerned with people worshipping him. He seemed far more concerned with the Romans oppressing his people, and how such oppression can result in political corruption among the oppressed. He seemed far more concerned, in his life, with standing with those who are cast out by the most socially powerful.

Jesus, the Jew, is a hero of mine. What Christians have done to his story is incomprehensible and abhorrent to me.

You may preach wherever you like in the world where you find a welcoming ear, but you may not perpetrate your genocidal beliefs here without being seriously challenged.