Romans 15: 1-2,4-9, 13 NRSV
The fact that we are on the 10th step of the 12 steps to a compassionate life not only means that this sermon series is coming to an end, it also reflects the fact that the unofficial end of summer is right around the corner – Labor Day. Did you get to do all those things you thought you’d get to when you had the whole summer before you? I never have. Are you ready to turn a new leaf? It is a fitting question. I associate fall with school, new learning and new beginnings. I like how today’s step, knowledge, fits with that concept.
In some ways this ties into the Step 7. Do you remember what that is? How Little We Know. Time, once again, to remind ourselves of how little we know. Or in other words, we don’t know what we don’t know. As Armstrong suggests, “we owe it to our own nation and to others to develop a wider, more panoptic, knowledge and understanding of our neighbors.” (Karen Armstrong: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.) I love books where I have to go look up words used – panoptic: seeing the whole at one view. While we may have some knowledge of some country, she asks us to “make a serious effort to fill in the gaps in our knowledge and challenge some preconceived notions.”
Upon my arrival in Las Cruces five months ago, Fr. Ron invited me to join a Friday book group consisting of laity and clergy. Various faith traditions are present around the table: Roman Catholic and Catholic (Fr. Ron), Presbyterians, Baha’i, Methodists, DOC and UCC, and a Rabbi and a Muslim. That could be the start of a joke, don’t you think? A Rabbi, a Muslim, and a Protestant Minister go to a bar . . .
This group’s current reading is God: A Human History, by Reza Aslan. The author delves into the earliest human understanding of God by looking at petroglyphs and pictographs found in ancient caves. In conversation this past Friday one of the Protestant clergy mentioned understanding the Muslims are not allowed icons/images within their tradition.
Mohammed graciously interjected a correction to that preconceived notion, and noted that images in pictures and sculptures are not really prohibited. The teaching is that Mohammed’s followers wanted to make an icon of him and he wouldn’t allow that to happen. The reason was that he believed that the icon would then be worshiped rather than Allah. That conversation broadened our knowledge and understanding of a tradition other than our own. That conversation broadened our knowledge and understanding within the room as well and may then help to broaden understandings in other communities also – like ours.
So we begin with ourselves. It is true as Armstrong notes that, “We often have a myopic view of the history of our own country or religious tradition and criticize others for behavior of which ‘we’ have been guilty in the past or even continue to be in the present. Armstrong confesses, “After the atrocities of September 11, 2001, I was often taken aback by the way some Christians berated the violence and intolerance they attributed to Islam, showing not only an embarrassing ignorance of Muslim history but a surprising blindness to the crusades, inquisitions, persecutions, and wars of religion that had scarred their own faith. I often felt that alongside programs titled ‘understanding Islam’ there should be a parallel course called ‘Understanding Christianity.’ There was also a worrying lack of awareness about Western behavior during the colonial era, which had contributed to some of our current problems. A double standard, albeit unintended, violates our integrity and damages our credibility. In a global society, conflict is rarely the fault of only one party. All participants in a conflict have sown bad karma in the past, and we are all now reaping the results.”
Reflecting on earlier steps, it is helpful to step back and reflect impartially on our own behavior, as well as the behavior of our country. “Building on our reflections we can try to cultivate the equanimity that is essential to the compassionate life. The Sanskrit upeksha (‘even-mindedness’) gives us a more objective overview that sees the situation as a whole. Upeksha presupposes an awareness of prejudices, preconceptions, attachments, and blind spots that can cloud our understanding. We are striving for an equability that can look at world problems without undue attachment to our national self-interest and that can transcend religious or cultural chauvinism in an appreciation of others.”
Armstrong encourages us to, “concentrate our efforts initially on getting to know just one or two of our global neighbors. During this step, two exercises will help you to expand your sympathies. First, choose a foreign country that you find attractive. It may be one that you enjoy visiting and know quite well, or if you have not had much opportunity to travel, choose a country that has intrigued you.
Instead of another nation, you might prefer to look at a religious or cultural tradition other than your own. What about Sufi and why is it they practice twirling as a spiritual discipline? Or, how about learning the deeper meaning of karma within the Hindu tradition? What can the Hope spirituality teach us?
“The point is that you will now be activating an interest in the ‘stranger.’ Once or twice a month make a point of reading an article or a novel or watching a movie about the stranger you have chosen, so that it becomes a vivid and regular presence in you life. Ask yourself what this foreign national or religious tradition can teach you. Are there things that they do better than we do? Have they influenced us in the past? What do you think that we could teach them?”
As you do your research also include poetry or literature, music or games, or dance, or even attempt to learn the language. The research should be fun in the pursuit of knowledge. If your research includes another religion, attend a worship service, speak to those who follow that tradition. Ask questions. Celebrate their holy days, pray their prayers, sing their songs, and ask questions, and ask more questions. This knowledge goes beyond simply reading about a culture or a religion to really understand it – live it, be a part of it.
Armstrong realizes that, “getting to know other peoples and traditions is not easy. There will always be things that we do not understand or find difficult to appreciate – just as we are sometimes puzzled by the behavior of our closest friends – but to experience the limits of our understanding, realizing how little we can know is itself a valuable experience.
Through this exercise we come to learn and appreciate another culture or religious tradition, being thankful for all that you are aware of their qualities, their contribution to humanity and how this knowledge colors your understanding of them. In addition, it is also important to recall its suffering and failures and its crimes and to extend your compassion to it. All traditions are, “flawed as well as our own, yet you extend your compassion, friendship, and sympathetic joy to them nonetheless.” It is all very complex and that is a good awareness to have as we strive to live a compassionate life.
The second exercise Armstrong encourages us to delve into is “investigating issues that are more sensitive. Read about the current tension between the West and the Islamic world.” Google books that may be helpful in this process. Or go to the library and peruse the shelves. “Read the titles and get a sense of the range of issues that are being discussed. Then select a book that you think will reflect your point of view and another that will probably challenge it. Here too you will need to apply the ‘science of compassion’ and the ‘principle of charity.’ Again, remember the seventh step: How Little We Know. As you read, list the ways in which both authors have altered your thinking.” Rather challenging.
And we are encouraged, “not leave this tenth step until you feel that you are beginning to change your mind. This does not mean that you should reverse all your former opinions; rather, you will be developing a healthy distrust of what the Buddha called hearsay. During this step, you will have been engaging in a Socratic dialogue with yourself, overcoming the limitations of the unexamined life, and the dangers of habitual tribal thinking.” I think this could also be called an exercise in open-mindedness.
Armstrong suggests including this early Buddhist poem in our daily routine. “Let all beings be happy! Weak or strong, of high, middle or low estate, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far away, alive or still to be born –May they all be perfectly happy! Let nobody lie to anybody or despise any single being anywhere. May nobody wish harm to any single creature out of anger or hatred! Let us cherish all creatures, as a mother her own child! May our loving thoughts fill the whole world, above, below, across –without limit; our love will know no obstacles– a boundless goodwill toward the whole world, unrestricted, free of hatred or enmity. Whether we are standing or walking, sitting or lying down, as long as we are awake we should cultivate this love in our hearts. This is the noblest way of living.”
As long as we are awake. As long as we are awake is exactly the challenge of today’s scripture reading. As long as we are awake we are aware of the world around us, can look with compassion on our neighbors. Look with compassion upon our own religious traditions. Look with compassion upon other religious and spiritual traditions. Look with compassion on our own country. Look with compassion on other countries. As long as we are awake.
I close with a blessing from today’s passage: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (NRSV) Amen.
Copyright DMC 2018