"Olive Tree at Sunrise"
- At the Desert Retreat House -
I just learned that our local city government has abolished a long-standing custom of opening city council meetings with an invocation offered by a clergy person from one of the many faith communities in this desert region.
I have mixed feelings about the elimination of the religious “invocation.” On the one hand I totally understand why city leaders might want to silence some local pastors who have used this time as a platform for propagandizing their churches or as vehicle for publicly spewing their own brand of religious intolerance. And yet, there is another side of me that says we also need to hear the voice of religion in a public forum like a city council meeting. In fact, we may need to hear this voice now more than ever in this age of so much hateful and defamatory politics.
Throughout history, and in our own contemporary times, there are countless examples of “religious voices” that have been strident, judgmental, divisive and destructive. In the name of religion wars have been waged, people have been tortured and killed. Religion has been used to cast away the powerless - elevating the strong, reducing the weak and denigrating human dignity. In the name of religion entire societies have been subdued in order to convert them to the "true faith."
Many people today have turned from this kind of divisive “religion,” seeing it as a vehicle for judging others, imposing guilt and tearing people apart. So, I get why a city council might abolish a religious invocation and why some people are very hesitant about a “religious voice” in the political and public forum of a nation which, on the surface, values liberty and justice for all
On the other hand, the very word “religion ”comes from the word, “to bind together;” and in fact, when you examine the “heart” of all authentic world religions you find compassion, mercy and reconciliation as the core wisdom and essential teaching.
The foundation of Judaism is “love of God” and “love of neighbor,” the basic teaching of Jesus is "respecting the dignity of every human person," at a fundamental level the Quran directs all people to treat one another with compassion, Buddhism and Hinduism are grounded in a spirit of compassion for all beings.
Since “compassion” lies is at the heart of all religions, any authentic religious voice is always a voice of compassion.
Renowned authority on world religions, Karen Armstrong, put it this way:
At their very core all world religions are grounded in compassion.
The chief religious task of our day is to build a global community where all
people can live together in mutual respect
and where the powerful treat the weak as they wish to be treated themselves.
As I think about the place a religious voice has played in the history of this United States, I recall the numerous, monumental, progressive social movements that have lifted up this nation and made us all a more noble people. Our most notable schools and hospitals were born out of religion, the humane treatment of immigrants and foreigners were set as a national priority because of people like Dorothy Day and her famed “Catholic Worker Movement,” and the “Civil Rights Movement” of the 1960’s would have never even gotten off the ground were if not for the voices of religious leaders like Dr. King.
So, while some people may feel that the religious voice should be silenced in the public forum, I think perhaps we need to hear the voice of that core religious message more vociferously than ever in our own day - a voice speaking out for those who have no voice, a voice of compassion in a land that is more and more becoming barren and void of human kindness.
Karen Armstrong also said:
At their fundamental core all religions are designed to teach us
how to live joyfully, serenely and kindly in the midst of suffering.