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Posts Tagged ‘Moral drift’

My home in 1956

I wish to comment on a really wonderful article written by David Brooks that reviewed how American Christians, expecially evangelicals, have responded to “three big issues that have profoundly divided them: the white evangelical embrace of Donald Trump, sex abuse scandals in evangelical churches and parachurch organizations, and attitudes about race relations, especially after the killing of George Floyd.” David Brooks, NYT

Having read his thoughtful article, asked myself this question. Is it legitimate to blame much of the current stress in our society to the failures of modernity?

Below is David Brook’s quote that provoked me to thinking about this.

Finally, Karen Swallow Prior said something that rings in my ears: “Modernity has peaked.” The age of the autonomous individual, the age of the narcissistic self, the age of consumerism and moral drift has left us with bitterness and division, a surging mental health crisis and people just being nasty to one another. Millions are looking for something else, some system of belief that is communal, that gives life transcendent meaning.

David Brooks, NYT,

To contrast the quote from Brooks, I offer a second provocative quote from years ago, and one that changed my life along with many others.

“Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time. And, ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down – they are truly down.”

Joseph. R. McCarthy, Lincoln’s birthday address to the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, February 9, 1950

When I was ten years old, my family fled a small village in rural Ohio after my father was threatened with a lynching. I remember the men coming to our door at night, threatening him. It was described many years later in a tiny little church bulletin that I found on line while digging up my past and trying to understand what really happened. For several years, my father had been the pastor of this little church. We fled the small village, leaving all behind but for a few things that we could take with us in our brown paper grocery bags that we hurriedly packed.

It was 1956 and feelings were still politically hot in our country. Although the power of Joseph McCarthy’s false accusations in the Senate had begun to fade, there still was a strongly held belief among many Americans based on McCarthy’s political charges, that there was an infiltration of communists, socialists, atheists and civil rights activists ruining our God-loving American church way of life.

I am not really certain which of these activities our little community thought my father was involved in. Perhaps all four? But in any case, it resulted in my mother, father, brother, two sisters and the family dog having to escape this small village and live in a used school bus in which we rambled the roads from central Ohio to northern Michigan for a number of months until my father found another job and our family could get our feet back on the ground again. From our point of view, my father’s transgression was that as a soldier returning home from WWII, having been in the Asia-Pacific region for almost 10 years, he was out of tune with local attitudes and practices and thought that his small community of constituents would be open to thinking about the importance of “turning the other cheek”, pacifism, racial equality, equal opportunity and civil rights as part of Jesus’ teaching. My father clearly erred.

As a result of our exclusion, this old school bus became our sole home and form of transportation, it was everything to us. Unfortunately, it had no running water, toilet facilities, closet space or communications technology such as radio, television or phone. Most of the school bus seats, but for the first two rows, were removed leaving sufficient footage for us to put down our sleeping bags. Since we had no car, we children had a choice between standing on the road and playing under trees while waiting for our parents to drive the bus to the grocery store and come back to pick us up, or we rode the bus to the grocery store with them, while hauling everything that we owned with us, on the bus.

We felt that we were an item. Our father talked us into believing that we were on an adventure, looking for an exciting new place to live while roughing it in parts of Ohio and Michigan county and state parks. Often we stopped at the side of the road and spent the night at roadside picnic stops. This went on for a number of months.

Neither of my parents had a job. So, in today’s terminology I guess we would be described as “homeless” or at least “houseless” and our parents were certainly unemployed. That year I learned to pick cherries, filling big wooden crates called lugs, along with the rest of my family in partnership with Spanish speaking migrants, to bring money for groceries. We ate a lot of bologna sandwiches with slices of American cheese on white Wonder bread while standing outside next to our bus, as we had no table. Our hands were our usual plates. Our fingers were our forks. We had a small kerosene stove that we carried with us for heating up water for oatmeal. We ate oatmeal and drank from old navy tins. We had little money, and therefore stopped often to keep from using too much gasoline while our father was driving the bus.

However, frustrating and lonely the experience might have been, it was also an eye opener. My family felt the powerful sting of what we now often call the “religious right”, and its list of proscriptions, intruding on my family’s ability to survive. In their eyes, my father’s support of racial equality and religious freedom were threatening, so threatening that we were expelled from our community.

He avoided being lynched through fleeing, but interestingly, we have never as a family ever discussed what happened to us that year. It was an incident without an explanation. It was a huge block in the road that we slowly maneuvered around while experiencing some hardship, never to mention it again. There must have been some shame for my parents associated with what happened as we never spoke of it, or even referred to it. But the threat of a lynching of our father that we experienced, the rejection and injury, and the silence that followed, shaped my life forever.

I realized, even as a child, that other people’s traditional religious beliefs were being involuntarily imposed upon us. Our expulsion was a result of Christian traditionalism telling us explicitly how to behave and that if we did not follow their instructions, we would be in danger. This same religious traditionalism wanted women to be guided by their husbands, to wear traditional clothing and hairstyles such as braids and bonnets, to reflect their intended modesty. Women were expected to not show their bare legs or arms in public and they often wore longer dresses with long sleeves that covered their arms as a show of modesty. In our small community, men sat separately and first, while they waited for the women to serve them their food and drinks.

There were other important distinctions in the traditions of these local religious institutions that I observed as a child. The churches for white people in our communities were separated from churches for people who were referred to as “coloreds”. The term “colored” covered a lot of ground including people of African origin, people of Asian origin, people from specific parts of Eastern Europe and often referred to as Roma or gypsies, and people whose origins were from South America and the Carribbean. In northern Michigan, where our family visited in the summer, there were separate but “similar” churches for whites and Indian tribes. In any case, as a child growing up in the various comunities of Ohio and Michigan, I was struck with the fact that there was not one universal church for an entire community, without distinction to ethnic or racial background, or sex of person. Racial and ethnic segregation and strict differences between men and women were openly practiced in many churches when I was a little girl.

As a pastor’s child, I was told by other children who were being brought up Baptist, or Catholic, that they were sorry that I could not go to heaven. They were sure that I was going to hell unless I converted to their beliefs. This is what they were being taught at that time. It was not enough to be Christian, one had to be the right kind of Christian. I wondered back then, was there a Methodist heaven, and a Baptist heaven, and a Catholic heaven? Was there only one hell where everybody else was dumped? Was it possible that a protestant could be in a Protestant heaven and at the same time in a Catholic hell? I wondered, what if no one ever introduced someone to the church, and they never heard the words of the Bible, did they go to hell too? Was that considered just? Was that fair?

My childhood did not suffer from so-called “modernity”, but from the lack of it. I confronted at a very young age, the power of small church proscription traditions and their potential for negative consequences. I saw the traditional power of religion was being used to keep people out. Traditional power was used to expel people from the church for being different, for appreciating differences, or for embracing a dialogue covering a wider range of ideas.

In my public elementary school, once a week we received bible school lessons. There was no separation between church and state in this little town. When my parents protested that religous teaching did not belong in the public school as all children should be welcome there, regardless of their religious beliefs, I was expelled from the classroom and made to sit in the hall during the children’s bible school study period. I was punished and excluded because of my parents’ opinions about the separation of church and state and rights to religious freedom.

This dynamic of proscription, inclusion and exclusion brought about largely by religious traditions played out in small villages and in big cities. Church groups maintained their traditional identities through hair styles and clothes worn, especially women. As a child, I saw women who were required to cover their hair with specific kinds of scarves, hats, and white bonnets as a way of identifying their religious sect. Some covered their heads so that no hair showed at all. In some cases, they wore long sleeved dresses. Bare arms in church were proscribed for women. Dresses were mandatory, but without knees showing. Dress pants were not allowed. In some cases, for women, their were proscriptions for wearing lipstick or makeup, smoking in public, publically smiling as they might be associated with “loose” women, no playing cards in public, and the list went on. Not only were women dressed uniquely so as to be identified correctly, so was the church leadership. Among some groups, as a way of recognizing the religious sect, religious leaders wore long flowing robes of specific colors, special collars, scarves and patterns in order to be identified as leaders of a specific Christian sect or group.

My question is, why must we blame modernity for this fix we are in? Were we actually better off without it? What is modernity, anyway? Must it take the entire blame? Modernity, as I understand it is reflected in when we shifted from a predominately agricultural society to an industrial one, eventually recognizing a broader range of social and economic classes that reach beyond solely religious and/or ethnic identity and which opened economies to some aspects of capitalism. This shift to “modernity” made way for people to be recognized according to such characteristics as occupation, economic status, and educational attainment, in addition to religious affiliation or ethnic identity. It also made way for people to be more socially and economically mobile.

I find it difficult to believe that modernity is the cause of our current moral drift and surging mental health crisis. Perhaps we have taken modernity too seriously and given it greater credence than it should rightfully have.

Aren’t the traps associated with moral drift more likely to be from participating in immoral acts that may or may not be associated with any particular religion, race, ethnicity or social class? In my mind, narcissim, consumerism and moral drift are reflections of old-fashioned, traditional, human greed put to purpose and strengthened through the lust for power. This hunger for power is also humanocentric, denying all other aspects of importance beyond human life.

If it is true that millions are looking for something else, some system of belief that is communal, that gives life transcendent meaning, then why not walk away from proscriptive tribalism and religious proscription, and uncontrolled narcissistic consumerism and head instead toward participating in education through scientific observation and mathematial reasoning and philisophical dialogue when seeking a larger truth?

To better understand the concept of a communal belief system which many of us now desire, we might look to other cultures for ideas. For example, in the earlier practices of the native tribes who lived and worked in the Americas, many tribes were taught to respect all aspects of life including the lives of plants, all animals including humans, and to be respectful to air, water, land and sky. The early American tribes did not embrace humanocentricism but instead, embraced a broader respect for the community of all life forms across many earth and even the universe.

Perhaps we should explore our potential for living in a post-humanocentric society, allowing room for consideration to the environment.

I would like to see narcissim, consumerism and moral drift brought under control through a communal system of public education, available to all. I believe in thoughts and ideas being respectfully shared through books, libraries, schools, universities and public media. I believe in the importance of learning how to objectively conceive of, measure and test ideas and hypotheses while offering multiple ways to present the results using respectful and objective public dialogue educating and informing us about the results. These educational activities should encourage improved questions, broader discussion and respectful comparisons of life’s many options.

Then, perhaps, we may seek and share more meaningfully, life’s transcendency.

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