In his column last week, The Clarion-Ledger's Sid Salter quoted the fifth chapter of Matthew to justify Gov. Haley Barbour diverting federal money away from low-income Katrina re-housing and into a port project instead. Yes, he said, Jesus cared about the poor, but "God allows people to suffer the havoc of disasters without regard to virtue or vice." Thus, the rest of the column argues, it's OK to use the money to expand the port and create needed jobs instead of using it the way Congress intended it.
Clearly, it's true that hurricanes don't cherrypick between rich and poor neighborhoodsbut what struck me about this column was how easy it is to twist the Bible to one's own point of view. Me, I'm big on the part where we're supposed to be in solidarity with the poor, and I think that applies to shelter and jobs. I don't believe the Bible tells us we have to choose.
With that on my mind, I saw that, in our cover story this week, John Perkins tells everyone to go read Matthew 4 . Perkins has spent his entire life trying to help African Americans eat, have a good roof over their heads, get educated and fight for good jobs, and in teaching the more-fortunate how to find true faith within. In his Matthew, it's not a choice we should have to make.
I like his Matthew better than I like Salter's or, apparently, Barbour's.
Faith is a funny thing. It comes in so many sizes, flavors, tones of voice. When I was growing up, it was usually used in an angry fashionto tell people why they were going to hell, or to distract attention away from one's own transgressions by going to church the next morning (especially the unfaithful preachers and deacons), or even to justify pure evil. I've never gotten over the fact that some of the loudest "Christian" soldiers this country has ever known wore white robes and hoods, and burned crosses and people.
The kind of faith I was exposed to in churches and in my community growing up turned me off to religion in a way that's painful to express. It was such a mixed message for a young person with a big heart who should have been able to embrace faith as fuel for doing good in the world.
Of course, as I got older, greed has replaced violence as the ugliest part of American religionit seemed in recent years that driving a Hummer was seen by way too many as a way to worship. And that never made sense to me, either; I really identify with that whole stewardship of the planet thing, no matter who preaches it.
I ran from Mississippi as a young adultchasing my ego while trying to figure out how to make a difference in the world. Out there, I learned and saw much, including some remarkable acts of faith and courage on behalf of the needy. I also saw more hate.
Meantime, many of my adult years have been marred by a sad trend of belittling the needy and those who care about them. It's no wonder that so many younger generations of Mississippians, and Americans, have had a problem coming to terms with faith and spirituality. We simply can't handle the hypocrisy of hateful people trying to own words of love and kindness, regardless of what spiritual text they are trying to co-opt.
Ironically, it's been since my return to Mississippi that I have really found the strength that faith can provide. I've seen the power of progressive religion all around me here, from people of various faiths. In my own readingand my obsessive weekly listening to NPR's "Speaking of Faith"I have delighted in learning that all religions, at their best, have the same things at their core: love, charity, forgiveness, compassion, social justice. And all religions, at their worst, have the same things in common: greed, hate, spite, distrust, fear of "the other," massive ego.
What's been most shocking to me personally is that it is has been through my widening study of the common features of spiritual faiths and practices that I have realized just how wonderful the ideas and teachings are at the root of Christianity (thank you, Thomas Merton, Karen Armstrong, Ross Olivier, Annie Lamott, Keith Tonkel, Dolphus Weary, and others), and just how obscured those basic principles have been in recent years in our country. And I've realized just how far afield the people who have claimed the faith for all the wrong reasons have been.
I can happily say the same for other great faiths, such as the tikkun olam of Judaism and the peacefulness and compassion embraced by true Islam, and the remarkable power of mindfulness and meditation by the Buddhists and other Eastern philosophies.
More importantly, I have found my own power and source of strength "within" myself, and have learned to work hard at getting my ego out of the way of myself, my faith and my actions, clearing a path for service.
I have come to the firm notion that talk is cheap when it comes to faith; it's how one practices and lives and loves and reaches out to those unlike oneselfnot to mold them into what we think they should be, but to encourage them to become the best that they can be, regardless of religion or background.
At the heart of all real faith is service. When I read those Matthew chapters, and many others, that is what I now see. Serve each other. Spread love. Build connections. Help others help themselves. Resist greed.
It is not easy to throw down our ego and admit that we are not always right. It is tempting to serve others so people will say nice things about us, or to bow to the temptations and justifications that we hear preached from a pulpit. Greed is powerful, and sometimes it's easier to turn the other way than to face the need that is right in front of our faces, whether living in crumbled housing in our city or in poison trailers on the Gulf Coast.
And it's damn hard to forgive the people who will line up to tear you down when you decide to cast fear aside and feel compassion for the people who create and justify the problems we need to fight every day.
But if there is anything I've grown to understand it is that faith is believing that we can overcome. It is believing in the possibility of anyone and everyone we meet. It is seeking out the positive. It is that faiththat we can make our world a better placethat is behind all good deeds and service.
This season, we face tough challenges. And it is faith that we can come together and overcome them that will not only get us through, but leave us stronger as a city, a state and a nation. Happy holidays, all.
And King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham were respected public servants just trying to fairly maintain law and order in the Kingdom.
Thanks, Diane, for raising the bar on how to consider Sid's arguments. His column completely avoided the fact that Congress had specified the purposes for which those dollars were intended - and Barbour gets away with ignoring the Congressional restrictions, and Sid passes his blessing over the whole lot.
If Congress wanted to fund an enhanced port for corporate bounty, they could spell it out that way.
Perhaps the next administration will hold Barbour's feet to the fire - and if the Senate Demos would just elect a leader with backbone, the Governor of Mississippi would have to follow the mandates and the prohibitions built into the allocation.
It's Donna, but that's OK; common mistake. Thanks much for the shout-out. ;-)
Diane Ladd? From Charlie's Angels? I just had to point that out. Back to your regularly schedule posting and Merry Christmas!
- golden eagle
No, no, Golden ... that was Cheryl Ladd. Diane Ladd is older than that, but still an actress. You need to get your Ladd chicks straight! ;-)
Happy Holidays all :-)