Who Deserves What?

While on the topic of justice, forgiveness and consequences deserved, and on this Day of Atonement with it’s Closing of the Gates imagery, I’d like to ponder how dwelling on deserving drags our discourse down.  Because it is election season, let’s pick a political example.  The flap over Romney’s secretly recorded 47% statement seems to be timely fodder.  While I’m uninterested in speculating about Romney’s intention, I am interested in the question his words beg of us all.  Here’s what Romney said:

“All right — there are 47 percent [of US citizens] who are with him [Obama], who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing.”

Lingering over the last few words, I can’t help noticing we’re talking the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, here.  I posed this question on Twitter:

What do social justice Jews and brother’s keeper Christians think of folks feeling “entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing?”

Jews view the question through the lens of tzedakah.  Often translated “charity,” tzedakah is actually the opposite of charity in important respects.  Whereas nobody is compelled to give charity, tzedakah is commanded.  Recipients aren’t entitled to charity, but tzedakah recipients are entitled to what’s fair.  Mainomides organized tzedakah into priorities and levels of giving.  Tzedakah priorities are like concentric circles around the giver, obligating the giver first and foremost to be responsible for himself and his immediate family before seeing to the needs of his more extended family, his religious community, his community at large, his fellow countrymen and, ultimately, people in dire straits across the globe.  The lowest level of giving is to give grudgingly.  Higher levels are defined by whether one gives after being asked or before, whether recipients are known or strangers, and whether a donor receives recognition or gives anonymously.  The highest level of all is giving someone a way to become self-sufficient.

Jews are nothing if not pragmatic, and the tzedakah tradition does require the giver to give responsibly, but it is important to note the emphasis on the giver’s obligation, not what the recipient deserves.

What does Christian teaching have to say?  Jesus left a pretty robust bread crumb trail on this one.  We have the socially despised Samaritan who saved a stranger’s life and paid his hotel bill, no less.  We’re told much will be required from everyone to whom much has been given.  And perhaps most germane to this topic is the admonishment to pay your taxes AND to give charitably.  Here again, the Christian tradition emphasizes doing the right thing for the sake of righteousness, not based on the merits of the guy lying in the ditch.

What happens to the conversation when we focus on the guy in the ditch?  Ponder this:

To blame the poor for subsisting on welfare has no justice unless we are also willing to judge every rich member of society by how productive he or she is.  Taken individual by individual, it is likely that there’s more idleness and abuse of government favors among the economically privileged than among the ranks of the disadvantaged.
~ Norman Mailer (1923-2007)

No one deserved to be born on 3rd base.  Self-made millionaires didn’t deserve to be born in the land of opportunity instead of in an oppressive regime.  If you want to focus on who deserves what, I would make a case for the hard working immigrants who came to the USA with nothing and made the most of opportunities that came their way, not unlike our nation’s founders, but the current prevailing view is that immigrants aren’t deserving if their parents broke the law to get here.

No matter where you stand in the political spectrum, dwelling on deserving leaves us wanting to take something away.  Tax wealthy estates.  Deport the high school valedictorian.  Let poor kids go hungry.  They didn’t earn it.  We sit in the judge’s seat when we focus on deserving.  When we focus on human dignity and human potential instead, we are reminded of ourselves.  When we do so with gratitude, we realize our cup is running over and we lift others up out of the abundance of our blessings.  The twitter question was not rhetorical.

Join the conversation.  Is healthcare, food and housing too much to require from those to whom much has been given?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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You Choose the Consequences: Justice or Forgiveness

The past week has seen widening violence throughout the Middle East and threats of violence on US college campuses.  What initially may have looked like isolated extremist reactions to an amateurish You-Tube video now looks like a bubbling up of deeply seeded anger and resentment aimed at local power holders in addition the US.  The long simmering discontent merely brandished the silly video in effigy to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  The cascade of consequences seems to be an ever-escalating loop of one group retaliating for the destructive actions of another group in the name of “justice.”

My spirituality group just finished reading Forgiving Ararat, a novel that explores themes of justice and forgiveness.  The notion of justice portrayed in the book, however, is limited to retributive justice, a kind of justice that seeks to settle the score by giving wrongdoers what they deserve.  It thereby juxtaposes forgiveness against justice, as if they are opposites.

Who can’t identify with that?  Sometimes the ones who wronged us appear to be getting off scot free.  No one is holding them accountable for their misdeeds.  We might cling to resentment out of our sense of justice, to hold the wrongdoers to account.  But Oprah and Dr. Phil tell us holding anger and resentment is like eating rat poison and expecting the rats to die.  Our resentment really doesn’t hurt our offenders as much as it poisons our own lives.  Knowing this intellectually, however, doesn’t make releasing resentment in an act of forgiveness a slam dunk to do.

When I am working with folks trying to escape their resentments, I try to get the offenders and what they deserve out of the middle of the matter.  I encourage folks to put their own spiritual reality and relationship with God in the center instead.  Our injuries impair how we respond to others.  Harms suffered get tangled up with harms done.  When we take a cold hard look at our own actions and can honestly say we care more about receiving forgiveness for the harms we ourselves committed than what our offenders deserve, forgiveness is within our reach.

Are forgiveness and justice really mutually exclusive?  It’s a timely question in the Jewish tradition.  Today marks the beginning of the Days of Awe, the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when Jews examine their misdeeds over the past year, repair their wrongdoing and seek forgiveness from those they harmed.  Making amends not only repairs harm to the victim but also restores the soul of the sinner.  Thus, the Jewish approach to justice makes both the wrongdoer and the one wronged whole. Through the healing power of forgiveness, this restorative justice promotes peace and reconciliation.

Join the conversation.  What kind of justice are you going to seek today—the kind that restores wholeness or the kind that settles the score?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

I Sure am Sorry I Got Caught Robbing that Bank

This is my new expression whenever I hear someone close to me offer a pseudo-apology.  Readers who have kept an eye on this blog lately know I have posted instructions on the correct—and incorrect—ways to apologize.  Not to throw anyone under the bus, lately I have heard quite a few apologies that, candidly, miss the mark.

To recap the basics, “Robbing that bank was wrong,” expresses regret for my actions.  “I sure am sorry I got caught robbing that bank,” expresses regret for the consequences of my actions but no regret for my actual actions.  Other consequence statements are:

I’m sorry you feel that way.
I’m sorry you misunderstood me.
I’m sorry you took it that way.
I’m sorry you got frustrated.

See the difference?  All this regret is about what YOU did, not about what I did.  It says, “This situation went south on your side of the street.  My side of the street is looking pretty good over here.”  A genuine apology requires taking responsibility for what I chose to do or to say.  Expressing sadness or regret for another’s response is nothing more than deflection thinly disguised as an apology.  It is not a legitimate apology.

Now let’s throw in a curve ball for extra credit.  Are either of these statements a legitimate apology?

I’m sorry my words frustrated you.
I’m sorry my actions hurt your feelings.

Nice try, but these examples STILL express regret for consequences.  Just throwing “my words” or “my actions” into the sentence does not constitute taking responsibility for the wrongness of my words or actions.  That would look more like this:

I said something I shouldn’t have said.
I didn’t intend harm, but I see now I caused it and I regret what I did.

Now for advanced placement apology, what should you do if you actually believe you did absolutely nothing wrong?  Let’s say you are convinced your side of the street is spic-and-span, and the person who is upset with you is overreacting or is reacting to something other than what you actually did.  I always say when in doubt, go with the truth.  Acknowledge the person’s feelings and ask for their help to see their side.  Something like this:

I see you’re upset.  That’s distressing because I care about you.  Will you help me understand exactly what I did?

I hope you don’t get, “It’s your tone of voice,” or “You flashed that look,” because subjective observations aren’t terribly actionable.  I hope you get an answer that is truly illuminating, and you should be prepared to receive (i.e. don’t block) those rays of illumination shining your way.  You might, however, get an answer you don’t understand.  You may have to ask questions to grasp exactly what sparked the response.  You might also sense the person is responding to something you didn’t actually do or say.  Sometimes a harmless comment triggers a harmful memory.  Can you find a gentle and compassionate way to ask the person if there is an older, deeper wound swirling into the present angst?  Draw on your spiritual strength and compassion to turn conflict into an opportunity to encourage healing and intimacy.

If, failing all of this, you can’t rise above the blame game and remain convinced of your blamelessness, ask for time to think before further discussion.  A little distance can change your and the other’s perspectives.

Join the conversation.  Can you share examples of an apology gone wrong?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Obstacles to Intimacy: Preserving Pleasures

Many of us want different consequences to our actions without actually altering our actions. I might want to get my budget under control but resist curbing my shopping habit, for example.  Or I may hope for people to start trusting me without relinquishing my controlling and manipulative behaviors.  Excessive consumption may have terrible health consequences but I can’t imagine enjoying myself without it. It helps here to focus on the “yes” rather than the “no.”

Rather than focusing on the thing we crave, we can ask God to ignite a passion for something else.  It could be something once loved but edged out by addiction, like the exercise of some natural talent that glorifies God or lifts others.  Perhaps she once loved performing musically, but excessive drinking made Rachmaninoff impractical.  Perhaps he had a gift for writing poetry, but words escape him under the influence.  Maybe something as simple as walks with your toddler in the stroller after dinner delight and attract you.  Don’t “Just say no” to one thing without saying “Yes!” to something better.

If you have trouble imagining more pleasurable pursuits, meditating on the fruits of the spirit might bring possibilities to mind.  If I were in possession of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, what pleasures would become possible?  When we surrender our wants and ways to God, we make room for God to act in our lives, joining God as a partner in the creative process and inviting the kind of life change we cannot even imagine.  When our imagination wanes, C.S. Lewis encourages trusting God’s imagination:

We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.

When I realize God’s imagination for me is better than mine for myself, I can relinquish my silly notions that I know best how to satisfy myself.  Whether those notions have led me to complete devastation or to a dull ache of emptiness (“There’s got to be more”), relinquishing them will free my imagination for the pleasures God would have for me.  Replace life-snuffing pleasure with life-enhancing pleasure.  I hope these verses and breathing prayers encourage you to have fun, for God’s sake!

6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. (Psalm 51: 6-8)

Inhale:  sweet humor
Exhale:  mean humor

Inhale:  keen acuity
Exhale:  drunken dullness

Inhale:  intimate knowing
Exhale:  anonymous sex

Inhale:  Eros (life force)
Exhale:  Thanatos (death drive)

Join the conversation.  Is there anything in the attic of your psyche that needs to be given away?

 Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

When Remembering Hurts: Part 3

There are memories, and then there are consequences.  Recognizing that we have veered off course or missed the mark on something we tried to accomplish can be discomfiting.  Consequences – incarceration, legal action, foreclosure—can be excruciatingly painful.  So is facing what has been irretrievably lost.  It’s natural to feel grief concerning the loss of a relationship, an opportunity, a job, another’s trust in you, your trust in another, years gone by, money spent foolishly, pleasures given up, and, of course, the loss of life itself in death.

When mired in grief over the consequences of our actions, we can take some comfort in knowing that grief is not a permanent state but a journey towards something else.  The destination—acceptance—can give us hope.  When we have an idea of where our life is heading, we can put obstacles and hardships into perspective and persevere.  We can examine past choices, and while regret for them may be heartrending, we can look forward with hope that they won’t be repeated.

The honest seeker will, at some point, stop defending himself from the truth.  In an effort to rationalize our actions to ourselves, we erect barriers to truth.  We hold our victims culpable in some way for our actions against them.  When we release ourselves from the self-defense pretense, we have an unobstructed view to the pain we caused others.  Feeling their pain, compassion, is a natural consequence of confronting this truth.

God, in his infinite compassion to all, is present to all the pain—the pain someone caused me, the pain I caused someone else, and the compassion I feel for the one I hurt. Perhaps most heartbreaking is God’s faithful and unwavering presence to us even when we fail to hold up our end of the relationship with him.

Imagine how it feels to be in a relationship in which you’re ignored.  Your continual shows of love and support are overlooked or taken for granted.  Your intervening help saves the day over and over, but your partner acts as if she had it under control all along and you didn’t have anything to do it.  You work hard to dream up the perfect gift and are excited to give it, but it is left unopened, not even important enough for her to bother unwrapping.  What kind of relationship is that?  It is how I treat God.

When we own up to all the ways we turned our back on the one who never stops seeking us, we grow into compassion, reciprocal compassion, for God.  This compassion bears an exquisite kind of pain.  To feel the pain God feels over you is to grasp just how much he loves you.  It is a big step into intimacy with God, and it is perhaps our greatest source of hope.

Join the conversation.  What becomes possible when you release yourself from the self-defense pretense?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Do Beliefs Matter?

Preoccupation with belief is a distinctly Christian attribute.  Its origins trace to a concept introduced by the first century Jesus movement, namely that belief in Jesus, or more specifically that the person of Jesus was fully human and simultaneously fully divine, confers eternal life in some fashion.  The gospel of John, written significantly later than the other accounts, is the only one to put such an emphasis on belief.  One statement, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” (John 11:25-26) immortalized in canon two startlingly new concepts that thereafter marked Christianity.  The concepts are (1) beliefs have consequences and (2) the possibility of life after death.  

Other religious traditions don’t emphasize belief.  Jews care more about what one does than what one believes.  Whether I am deeply conflicted about what action to choose or I’m steadfast, it’s of no consequence if in the end I chose the right action.  Action matters.  In Buddhism, it’s perception and understanding that matter.  Believing without perceiving or understanding is a construct that has no merit or usefulness in Buddhism. 

Beliefs do influence our choices, however, and thus do have consequences.  Beliefs inform actions which form habits which reflect character.  My understanding of God’s nature influences how I respond to him.  We are responding to God all the time, whether or not we are aware of it.  Especially when we are looking for life change—significant emotional healing or life change—the road we take depends on our understanding of God.  If we are seeking God-help rather than relying solely on self-help, we will ask God to do something for us that we cannot do on our own unaided.  Our beliefs inform how we approach that request.  

The Old Testament recounts story after story of people saved by faith.  The New Testament makes many references to people healed by their faith.  Our faith is what we believe about God’s ability and his inclination to intervene for us.  If we lack belief in God’s power, we can go through the motions of searching ourselves for what needs to change, but we are unlikely surrender our way (that has led to despair) for God’s way (that leads to healing). 

The Twelve Step tradition teaches recovery seekers are not prepared to embark on the Fourth Step moral inventory until they have an understanding of God and also a willingness to trust God based on that understanding.  Significantly, the Twelve Step tradition does not dictate what that understanding should be.  It simply asserts that an understanding and trust are necessary 

Join the conversation.  What is your understanding of God?  What difference do your beliefs make? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.