Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Religious Intolerance

I was sorely tempted, this morning, to write once again about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and my dismay at his seemingly intentional subversion of the Obama presidential campaign. In his appearances these past few days--cocky, snide in his remarks, intemperate, self-congratulatory, playing to the gallery--he would have you believe that this whole brouhaha is about religious intolerance, an attack on African-American religion. I don't see it that way. I believe it to be more about monomania, vanity, personal envy and spite.

But I decided to contribute no further to this unseemly and depressing spectacle. Instead, I'm choosing this morning to pass on a story of real religious intolerance, one that I heard just a couple of days ago from a friend about a mutual friend of ours--more an acquaintance, really, than a personal friend of mine, but a man I have known for some forty years, and one whose privacy I would not wish to risk violating in these pages. He will remain, then, anonymous. Call him Greg. And understand that parts of the story are suppositions on my part, based more on guesswork than actual fact.

I'm guessing, then, that Greg was born into a secular Jewish family--refugees, I perhaps, from post-World War II Europe, rather than Holocaust survivors--and was raised in this country as a non-religious, non-practicing Jew. As such, reaching adulthood, he married and became the father of a son, whom he raised, in turn, without any particular religious affiliation or belief. By mid-life, not unlike myself, he found himself searching for some spiritual underpinning for his life and--again, not unlike myself--found in the Buddhist teachings and the practice of meditation a resource for the rational but spirit-yearning mind, a religion that required no suspension of disbelief but, rather, welcomed healthy scepticism and curiosity. He studied the teachings and developed a strong meditation practice.

Greg's son, meanwhile, clearly felt the call of the spirit at a much earlier stage of life and turned to his neglected Jewish heritage. Perhaps because of his sectarian education, he was attracted to the farther extreme, an embrace of increasingly strict orthodoxy that led him, eventually, to religious education in a yeshiva. His enthusiasm even carried his father along--perhaps in part, at least, out of love for his son and respect for this new path that he had chosen. Greg began to rediscover his own Judaism, to study kabala, to venture into kosher eating practices, and to embrace the Jewish faith. He told friends--including, at one point, ourselves--that he had found in Judaism a richer and more rewarding resource than Buddhism, and he seemed committed to a serious change in his affiliation.

We were surprised to learn, then, in that recent conversation with our mutual friend, that Greg had returned to Buddhism and his meditation practice. According to our friend's account--and I remind you, none of this is told first-hand--Greg's son had become increasingly strict and intolerant in his views, to the point that he began to complain, on visits home, about his mother's kitchen habits, to criticize her for not being "kosher enough," and finally to issue threats to the effect that he could not continue to come home to visit unless she would conform to his requirements. Greg, it seems, was willing to risk alienation from his son in defense of his wife, asserting that he, the son, must be willing to accept his parents for who they are, and not for who he imagines or requires them to be. At the same time, he made the decision to return to his Buddhist practice.

A sad story, then, of religious intolerance and its destructive and divisive potential, even in a close and loving family. And this is not about Judaism. The story could equally well have involved Muslims, Catholics, or Protestant Christians. It reminded me of another, similar story, of a very old family friend, a Kindertransport survivor from Austria, who lived for a while in our house as a child and, uprooted from his Jewish origin and partly under the influence of my Anglican minister father, whom he dearly loved, even idolized, became a committed Episcopalian when he arrived in America after the war and was reunited with his parents. The last time I met him, in Chicago, many years ago, I was appalled to learn that he had disowned his daughter because she had decided to become--an Anglican priest! He believed that the priesthood was reserved for men.

I was happy to learn since, from other sources, that this particular rift was eventually healed. But I am saddened by the never-ending evidence that religious beliefs, while purporting to teach us to live better lives and promoting love among human beings as their ideal, continue instead to foster hatred and intolerance in the world. It's another good reason, for me, to value what I have discovered in the tolerant, always skeptical wisdom of the Buddha.

1 comment:

John Torcello said...

Peter,

Thanks for relating the story...

It seems we all have examples of this sort of thing;...clinging...belief...righteousness...
dogma...narrowness...hurt and pain...

All from a source that is/was intended to heal and provide comfort...

I agree. too, with you about Rev. Wright/Wrong...

Your piece today is part of the message I intended to portray through the abstract language of music in the 'CrazeeOlTymeReligion' SoundSketch I referred you to recently...

Even more disconcerting politically, is the seemingly popular common assumption that this 'stuff' has something to do with the political process in this country...

A country which had the insight to protect religion from government; but sadly, not the foresight to protect government from religion...

John Torcello