Sunday, April 28, 2013

Religious Radicals And Terrorists

There are many tragic stories that have come out of the recent Boston Marathon bombing.  Stories that cause us to quietly contemplate the numerous events such as this, and whatever larger lessons we need to draw from their occurrence.  Lessons in the positive power of government and law enforcement working in cooperation, demonstrating public service at its best.  Stories of selfless heroes, rushing into potential harm’s way to help strangers in need.  These are the good stories we etch into our minds and speak of to others.

Then there are the other things we say that betray our real intentions.  I have written before that “words matter.”  They matter because words create images and impressions either for ill or good – depending upon the degree of thoughtfulness and the intentions of the speaker.  One of the worst of the thoughtless use of words is the media’s and public’s overuse of the terms “radical Islamist” or “Islamist terrorist” as they speculate on the bombing perpetrators’ sick motives.

Islam is a religion.  Islam is not a person.  Just as Christianity and other religions are a religion, not a person.  One who follows Islam has a different name – i.e. “Muslim,” one who “surrenders unto God” (as we all might well do).  Just as a follower of Christianity is a Christian but more appropriately a Methodist, a Baptist, a Catholic, an Episcopalian, an Evangelical, etc.  These are the actual people.  People who interpret and practice what and who they believe across a wide spectrum of words and actions regarding themselves and their fellow human beings.

When we accuse someone who makes extreme statements, or takes violent actions against innocent people, as being an “Islamist radical or terrorist,” we inherently (and inappropriately) confuse the religion with the individual.  An individual who has perverted an expansive religion into a misrepresented personal belief.  Islam did not call for those bombs on Boylston Street to be set.  Rather, two young, disaffected men compensating for their self-perceived inadequacies struck back to make a public, attention-getting statement – as is the case with virtually all terrorists and mass shooters.  But when we paint them with a broad “Islamist” brush, we betray the message of love and peace in the Qur’an nearly as much as those two men betrayed it.

For whatever reasons of history and cultural bias, we seem to find it easy to incorrectly link the religion of Islam with its disaffected radicals.  But we are self-servingly reluctant to apply the same reflex to disaffected Christian radicals and terrorists.  We are quick to criticize Muslim fundamentalists, even as we willingly accept Christian fundamentalists all around us; yet both are extremely rigid interpretations of their core religious teachings.  But what else can you call a North Carolina legislator who recently proposed that Christianity be declared the official state religion?  Or the callous Westboro Baptist Church members who picket funerals of innocent victims and servicepersons as being “an affront to God?”  Or the several Christian shooters and bombers who have killed supposedly “to save lives” from abortion doctors?  Or the Catholic Oklahoma City bomber who killed adults and children as a protest against the government?  Or the bigot who indiscriminately killed peaceful Sikh worshipers in Wisconsin?  Or the small-time minister in Florida who burned the Qur’an to protest Islam and incited ill-will the world over?  Or the Fox News commentators whose continual anti-Muslim rants – done to bump up their ratings – fall just a hair short of being legally classified as “hate speech.”  These people claim a Christian affiliation, purporting that their acts and statements are done “in God’s name.”  But theirs is a God most of us do not recognize.

If we insist on speaking of “Islamist radicals and terrorists,” then let us similarly label the many “Christian radicals and terrorists” who live among us.  Let us at least be consistent in our verbal slandering of good religions and good-hearted people because of the inexplicable and despicable acts of miscreants.  Or better yet, let us just leave religion out of our terminology altogether, and simply call all purveyors of hate what a Muslim acquaintance called the 9-11 perpetrators several years ago: “These people are just a bunch of thugs.”  No religion has a monopoly on thugs.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Doer Of Good Deeds

In the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” the Tin Man laments that he has no heart.  Just a hollow, empty echo results when one taps on his metal chest.  To compensate for that and grant him his wish for a heart, the Wizard gives him a heart-shaped watch as a Testimonial recognition to his being a “Doer of Good Deeds.”  Good deeds are what a good, warm heart does.

This is a message echoed fully in most all religions.  Be generous to the poor.  Support the widows and the children.  Assist the labored with a relieving of their heavy load.  Give to charities.

The payoff for all these good works of the heart comes in the next life, or the afterlife.  In Islam and Christian teachings, we are given the image of the heavenly ledger where our actions – our good and bad deeds – are recorded through our lifetime.  If the “net balance” of good deeds outnumbers the bad, then the door of heaven will be opened for us.  Similarly, for the Buddhist, good deeds accumulate “merit,” resulting in good karma from this life transferred to our next rebirth into a higher, more realized form.

But is the doing of good deeds enough to warrant such future rewards?  I think not.  It is very easy to put a check to a favorite charity in the mail.  To volunteer at the hospital, AIDS clinic, or museum for a day and then return to the protective safety of one’s home.  To be a tutor or mentor to a schoolchild, particularly for an orphan.  Or to set aside your own personal ambitions in order to give a greater opportunity to your child.

All of these actions, and similar others, certainly constitute being “good deeds.”  But if they are done, or given, without the packaging gift of the heart, then they are a hollow gift.  As hollow as the chest of the Tin Man.

Good deeds given from the heart means that we are truly connected to the recipient of our action.  They are not a nameless, faceless being to us.  Even if we do not know them personally, we create a representative vision of them as we drop the dollar bills into the Christmas red bucket of the Salvation Army.  We give of ourselves without a need, or even a desire, for acknowledgment or recognition.  No need to sign our name over the door of the new building or the memorial plaque.  As the Taoist says, “do your work quietly, and then step back again.”

We do our good deeds with no expectation or demand for an equal return.  There are no IOUs in truly good deeds, no reciprocal contracts.  As Jesus explained to us, a large gift made with no sacrifice means less than a small gift of great sacrifice.  Good deeds are a one-way gift, with no chains of obligation attached.  The gift of “freedom” is always embedded in a good work.  Yet we also know fully in our hearts that “we reap what we sow.”  That “what we send out comes back to us many-fold.”

Good deeds are not deposits made into our heavenly salvation accounts.  They are not design fees for shaping our rebirth.  True good deeds are simply expressions of what is already perfect in our own heart – the very Buddha-nature that already resides in each of us, waiting to be realized.  They are simply the ways that we find to express our best feelings toward one another, towards all living things, without keeping score.

Good deeds are the way we emulate God, through realizing that piece of God that is already in us.  In our generosity, truly good deeds are the gift of our expression that we give to ourselves.  So that when we tap on our chest, we do not hear the empty echo of the Tin Man.  Rather, we hear the warm gong of God’s voice speaking within us.  To us.