Race, Religion, and Empathy

Donald Trump at his June 20 rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma

The National Catholic Reporter reports that Trump support declines among white and Hispanic Catholics. From my perspective, that’s a good thing. This indicates that the president’s support among Catholics is trending in the right direction. But … and there’s always a “but” … that story’s sub-heading is not so positive: But poll finds he would still win the white Catholic vote. Based on a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, it seems that 57% of White Catholics still say they would “vote for/lean toward voting for” Trump. Though different conclusions may be drawn from the same data, these data continue to paint a picture that says this: White Catholics tend to value their “Whiteness” more than their “Catholicity.”

As a White Catholic who is also gay and of Irish heritage (today would be the 108th birthday of my Dublin-born maternal grandmother!), this is what I find so troubling: I and those who came before me know what it feels like to be “othered,” to be excluded, to be on the outside looking in. Thankfully, great progress has been made for Irish-Americans, though there was a period not too long ago when there was significant anti-Irish sentiment in America, and “NINA” (No Irish Need Apply”) signs often accompanied employers’ Help Wanted advertisements. Even more recently, the increased acceptance in American society of LGBTQ people has been a beacon of hope for those who, less than a generation ago, were often compelled to remain closeted about a fundamental aspect of who they/we are. The great promise of America is that there is no such thing as the “other.” Our national motto — E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) — enshrines the more folksy sentiment that in this country, every stranger is simply “a friend I haven’t yet met.” Americans’ greatness becomes real when we practice what we preach, when we welcome with open arms the world’s tired, poor, and huddled masses “yearning to breathe free.”

And yet … when we look at our current president, and especially at our fellow citizens who so vocally support him at his rallies and online, we hear nothing but “othering” language which tries to build walls between the false dichotomy of “us and them.” Trump’s entire presidency (some might say his entire life) has been marked by using race, religion, sex, gender and ethnicity to “other” any and all who might challenge him, disagree with him, or see things differently than he. As humans, the experience of having been “excluded” is an experience that should increase our empathy, not propagate discord, disdain, and division. Empathy is the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through their eyes, and recognize that their experience is valid and valuable. Empathy opens my mind and my heart, and leads me to embrace more deeply the truth that we are much more alike than we are different. Empathy — and my faith — tell me that, deep down, there really is no “us and them,” there’s only US.

“Fundamentalism is always a falsification of religion.”

On the flight to Lebanon for his current pastoral visit to that troubled part of the world, Benedict XVI answered journalists’ questions.  He was asked:

“Many Catholics are expressing concern about increasing forms of fundamentalism in various parts of the world and about attacks that claim large numbers of Christians as victims. In this difficult and often violent context, how can the Church respond to the imperative of dialogue with Islam, on which you have often insisted?”

Benedict replied:

“Fundamentalism is always a falsification of religion. It goes against the essence of religion, which seeks to reconcile and to create God’s peace throughout the world. … The essential message of religion must be against violence – which is a falsification of that message, like fundamentalism – and it must educate, illuminate and purify consciences so as to make them capable of dialogue, reconciliation and peace”.

I couldn’t agree more!  Fundamentalism — including so-called Christian Fundamentalism and its many iterations here in the United States — falsifies the truths of Christianity and the Gospel of Jesus.  It picks and chooses bits and pieces that serve the narrow purpose of its proponents, usually based in some ideological starting point. In context, such starting points can be understood correctly. But out of context and not seen as part of a larger and unified whole, they can undermine the Truths of the religion they purport to uphold.  As a falsification of religion, fundamentalism is not merely the absence of faithful religious expression; it is its antithesis.

Even within Catholicism we have our “Catholic Fundamentalists” who fail to see the full breadth and depth of our Catholic Christian tradition, choosing instead to limit the power of the Gospel by boundaries of their own making. When the Sacraments are used as tools to exclude rather than heal; when the Scriptures are presented as support for one partisan perspective over another; and when the rules and regulations of human institutions become more important than the mission they are meant to serve … when these things happen, fundamentalism and false religion are present.

The Divine and Religion

I’ve become mesmerized by the words, wisdom, and captivating brogue of the late John O’Donohue.  He died too young, but has left a lifetime’s worth of insight into life, humanity, beauty, the Divine, and the spiritual dimension we call soul so often ignored in our dizzyingly fast world.

Here’s a snippet from Wisdom from the Celtic World:

Everyone hungers and longs for the home that we call the Divine. And what’s really sad is that very often peoples’ ability to come into the Divine presence is most damaged by religion.

Religion has filled so many holy and lovely people with such a sense of fear and sense of guilt. And this fear and guild have often been used by religion to control people.

And you should never let any religious power or institution take away from you that intimacy and depth of belonging that you have to the Divine, because the Divine is your secret name.

Sally Quinn’s Five Lessons after Five Years “On Faith”

I’m glad that The Washington Post publishes its On Faith section regularly. I was disappointed, however, in Sally Quinn’s reflections on five years of managing this important forum for discussion and mutual education.  Her Five lessons from On Faith makes one wonder how much she was paying attention, especially given her final statement that the one thing she knows is that God is whoever anyone of us says God is.

Here’s my comment that I posted there:

While this article has a few good points (especially the reminder about the common search for meaning, a la Viktor Frankl, that is present in all human cultures and times), on the whole Ms. Quinn doesn’t seem to have learned much in five years, at least not much about what religions and faiths and spirituality at their best do for humanity. 

Ms Quinn, do you realize the utter absurdity of concluding an article about “lessons on faith” by stating, “God is what you or I or anyone else says God is,” and then following this with the statement, “This I know”??? By definition, “faith” cannot be “known.”  If it were knowable, it would not be faith.

The Latin root of the word “absurd” means deaf. You say you came to the perspective that God is whoever or whatever anyone of us says God is because “nobody has the same view” and there are such different views about God held by people throughout the world. Instead of looking for cookie-cutter “definitions” of God that were the same everywhere, did you ever consider that such divergent views of the Divine themselves were evidence of the many paths to the same Ultimate Reality? Did you hear nothing of people’s views that God is utterly Transcendent and beyond our ability to categorize? Did you not listen when people of faith spoke of the divine as Mystery? Did you not ponder in silence, letting go of your rationalistic “need to know” when people of faith told you that their experience of God lead them to find forgiveness for enemies and deeper love for others?  If religion does this, then it is indeed “true religion,” and it helps us see that God is precisely NOT who or what we say God is. Such a god would be an idol, a “thing” of our own making. For people of faith, any faith, God, however, is indeed “no thing”; God is Being Itself and the source of all that is good, loving, kind, wise. As the scriptures from my tradition says, God is “I Am Who Am.”