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.