Misunderstood

Reza Aslan interviewA TV interview dubbed “the most embarrassing ever” is garnering bad press for the interviewer and book sales for the author interviewed.  Although admittedly painful to watch, the interview lacks any real substance.  The ensuing brouhaha is classic news-making-the-news media sensationalism.  I suspect the only reason it is getting coverage is the interview comes off as a Christian-Muslim ambush fail.  The aftermath leaves me wondering who ambushed whom.

I happen to think the interviewer asked a good question, and the author, Reza Aslan, missed an opportunity.  The interviewer asked why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus.  Aslan responded, perhaps a bit patronizingly, that as an academic New Testament historian, it is his job.  By responding to the question as a personal attack on his authority or motivation, he missed an opportunity to elucidate Muslims’ regard for Jesus as a great prophet.  The bigger opportunity he missed, in my opinion, was making a case for why anyone from any spiritual tradition ever considers different ways of looking at things—it fosters deepening spirituality.

No spiritual tradition has cornered the market on truth.  The spiritual experience is full of mystery.  Some questions are bigger than the human capacity to comprehend.  Yet some people are more perceptive than others.  How do the perceptive ones do it?  We expand our power to perceive when we steady ourselves with truths anchored in traditional wisdom and reach into the unknown.  Some truths transcend many spiritual traditions.

When making the case for reaching across traditions, I like to point out that Moses changed his perspective to get a better look at the burning bush.  (Ex3:3)  We too must change our perspective to see truth in a new light.  We work harder to understand even our own comfortable beliefs when we are drawn into tension by differing views.

On a personal note, Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew fundamentally changed my understanding of Jesus’ parables.  Oh, and by the way, Levine is a New Testament scholar at predominantly Protestant Vanderbilt who also happens to belong to a Conservative Jewish congregation.  As songwriter and occasional Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman sings, “They Ain‘t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” and Levine quite compellingly explains how Jesus’ Jewishness is essential to understanding his ministry.  It’s a good read.

Christian-Jewish dialog, however, is nowhere near as charged as Christian-Muslim dialog these days.  Christian and Jewish authors can only dream of receiving the publicity Reza Aslan is getting.  Aslan made the question all about him when he could have made the question about all Muslims or about all spiritual seekers.  Maybe he has a publicist who told him being a jerk and making a spectacle of the interview would sell more books.  While true, it obfuscates the substance of his book and leaves unanswered important questions about what we all can learn from each other.

Join the conversation.  Have you had a spiritual experience that transcended a particular religion?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Prisoners of the Past

past wounds and forgivenessLast month in the county jail we were working on healthy communication, but we had one of those sessions where we never got to the class material because some issues needed airing out.  This is where group therapy gets its potency.  The women’s honesty and courage in sharing their experiences raise everyone’s self-awareness and understanding.  Here’s what came out.

Lauren (name changed) forgave her abusive mother.  It happened in a worship service a local congregation provides for inmates on Sundays.  Lauren described feeling lighter, as if chains wrapped around her ankles had fallen off.  Her mother died years ago, but Lauren’s experience was as powerful as if she had spoken to her mother directly.  Without the blinders of anger and resentment obstructing her view, Lauren could see her mother suffered the same kinds of child abuse to which she had exposed Lauren.  Lauren can now see the threads of both victim and perpetrator weaving through the complex tangle that was her mother’s life.

Lauren said something I lingered over.  Seeing her mother as an abuse victim didn’t allow Lauren to release resentment.  Releasing resentment allowed Lauren to see more clearly the reality of her mother’s complicated situation, and finally, to have compassion for her messed up life.  Forgiveness came first.

Christa (name changed) had a tough week.  With several new inmates in the pod, the environment gets loud at times.  It’s driving Christa crazy, and she’s struggling to contain her anger.  In the jail we talk about anger as a secondary emotion, like the visible part of an iceberg floating on top of emotions hidden under the surface.  Christa had no hesitation in identifying the emotion underlying her anger.  It’s loss of control.  In childhood, Christa endured rampant sexual abuse by her father, brother, uncles, “pretend uncles,” and anyone else to whom her family made her available.  It started at an age before she knew it was wrong.  There was no protection for Christa.  And no control.

Christa drags feelings about loss of control from her childhood like chains wrapped around her ankles into her present situations.  “It’s all connected,” she lamented wearily when examining the origins of her recent anger.  Indeed, it is a worthy lament.

We all do that.  Whenever anger flares, the source of the flame is rarely the immediate situation.  The present situation is merely a spark igniting something that was already there deep within us.  Unresolved hurts from our past – feelings of betrayal, abandonment, humiliation, or shame—lurk within us like invisible explosive gas.  For me it’s hurt pride—feeling put down, belittled, or disrespected.  Even being ignored can be felt as a form of disrespect.

We may think we’re hiding our feelings or that we have reconciled ourselves to past misfortunes.  Here’s the test.  If a seemingly innocuous situation can send us into a fiery fit of anger, then something lies unresolved within.  And we drag that tinderbox of past emotions into every new encounter.  Christa protested, “But forgiveness is hard.”  For someone with her past, I honestly cannot fathom how hard.  Nonetheless, forgiveness remains the only way I know to free us, once and for all, from the chains of painful pasts.

Join the conversation.  When your anger flares, what underlying emotions fuel the fire?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com

What Fear Gets You

MLK Trayvon juxtopositionThe Zimmerman verdict had me moping around for a couple days. I read a little about Zimmerman when he was first charged, and he really sounded like a manipulative bully. Just the kind of guy who would want, but shouldn’t have, a gun. And then there was his “apology” that expressed regret for the consequences of his actions, but notably, not for the actions he chose. He even had the gall to assert Trayvon’s death was God’s will. The Guardian had a piece I thought sounded all the right notes.  Namely, since Zimmerman targeted Trayvon, where was Trayvon’s ground to stand?

After sleeping on it, I wonder if in some ways this tragedy is playing out in miniature a dynamic happening in America at large. Both men acted out of fear for their lives. One had lethal power and one had no power at all, but each felt genuinely threatened (whether justified or not). Likewise, almost half the people in this country own almost all the wealth, while the other half has almost none, and yet both feel threatened. To be more specific, the top 40% of Americans enjoy 95% of American wealth while the bottom 40% cling to 0.3%. The top 1% holds 42%–almost half–of American financial wealth, and yet many of those at the top are genuinely afraid that somehow healthcare for all or better public education or some other common good will take something away from their own wellbeing. They genuinely feel financially threatened and, frighteningly, have the clout to drive domestic policy.

Imaginary threats drive foreign policy as well. We dove into a decade of war that cost thousands of lives and trillions in taxpayer debt predicated on imaginary weapons that never turned up. The fear is not rational.  Dare I say, Americans would be more secure today had trillions been spent on diplomacy and education instead of war. And the richest Americans would benefit financially from a healthy, educated workforce. Despite this, much of policy discourse is driven by (and in fact depends on) people feeling genuine fear.

What happened to courage? High school kids all over Dallas have been assigned Devil in the White City for summer reading. It’s stacked on bookstore display tables and has long request lists at area libraries. Two kids in my house are reading it. From what I can remember from having read it a decade ago, it offered a fascinating account of how architecture and police work were done in the 1890’s. More fascinating still was the civic pride of ordinary citizens and their courage to undertake such an ambitious project. Where today, in our vapid celebrity culture, do we find ordinary people undertaking extraordinary things for the sake of human achievement?  Please comment with examples.  They would surely lighten my mood.

For both Zimmerman and Trayvon, fear drove the fatal missteps. If Zimmerman had had the courage to question Trayvon without a gun, if Trayvon had had the courage to respond without fists, if either had had the courage simply to ignore the other, what would have been possible? What would be possible if the 1% advocated common good or governments advanced diplomacy over jingoism?

Join the conversation. What fears can you identify within yourself, and what could a little courage make possible for you?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.