Monday, May 29, 2006

Practicing the art of digression

So for some reason my mind wandered back last night to a meeting of my Political Economy of Racism class, which I just happened to be taking in September of 2001. The teacher was (is) an American woman of Afghani and Pakistani descent. Members of the class included me, the old(er) white lady, and my groupmates, a young, first-generation American woman whose parents emigrated here from Pakistan – she was doing her semester abroad type of deal only her home school was Clark University in Worcester, about forty-five minutes away - and two young women from Smith College are extremely well-read and typical of the bright, questioning, civically (is that a word? because I was going to say politically but that doesn’t seem to cover anything outside, well, politics) involved students who attend colleges like Smith and Berkeley and yes, even UMass. The rest of the class were students from UMass, Mt. Holyoke, Amherst, and Hampshire Colleges. I must say it was one of the most diverse groups I’ve ever had the pleasure of being involved in. Many of the “kids” were international students representing the Caribbean, Brazil, Niger, Kenya, Poland, and southeast Asia. Some were from red states – like I said, a diverse group.

Anyway, this class was held in the aftermath of 9/11, which made it an interesting time to be learning about, and with, this type of multi-cultural group. Sure, we covered the effects of racism in America, especially the effects of slavery and the civil rights movement, typical standard fare in an American class on racism. But we also discussed religious persecution as a form of racism, and the effects of religion on culture, values, and interactions. While we were delving into the relationships and conflicts between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a question popped into my head that was so basic, so simple, I couldn’t help but ask it. Why can’t these groups find some kind of neutral ground? Both sides lay claim to the same Holy Ground. The instructor’s first reaction was incredulousness at my having asked such a stupid question. Didn’t I get it that ownership of the Holy Ground was what the fuss was all about? Well, sure. I get that part. And yes, I understood that people have been trying to devise a peaceful solution. But if you go beyond the simplicity of the question and take it seriously, it ended up being a good jumping-off point for a discussion. What I really was wondering was much more than “Can’t we all just get along.” What the real question was, and continues to be, at least for me, is why can’t people accept and respect the beliefs held by others? Why can’t the Israelis see that the Palestinians are no more amenable to giving up their hold on the Holy Land than the Israelis? Why can’t the Palestinians see that the Israelis have an equal right to worship and honor their Holy Land?

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that most religions teach that theirs is the one True religion. That theirs is the one True God. All the Jews are taught that the Catholics are wrong in their beliefs. The Sunnis are taught that they are more faithful than the Shiites. The Catholics are so cocksure about their beliefs they barely teach from the Bible. (Disclaimer, I was raised Catholic and did - spent - twelve years in Catholic schools.) The so-called Christian Coalition members are taught that the Scriptures are to be followed to the letter, unless, of course, it creates an inconvenience, and then it’s a matter of interpretation.

Another problem is that religious fanatics can become so overzealous that they can’t allow for different opinions or beliefs. Some are so intent on following the one True path they don’t, can’t, or won’t recognize that the path to religious freedom is actually more like an interstate, with many roads leading to the same “place.” You can get there from here. It just takes a little guidance, kind of like a righteous GPS system.

But that analogy introduces another question. Science and technology versus religion. There’s a lot of dissidence about whether schools should teach creationism or evolution in the classroom. That’s an interesting problem. I’m not sure there’s a solution. Not an easy one, at any rate. Creationism is a theory upon which many religions are based. We all know the basic premise, that there is ONE GOD who created the world and everything, animal-vegetable-mineral, in it. Now we have scientific evidence that the Big Bang Theory and evolution played a greater part in the development of this planet and all the creatures on it. This is where faith comes up against cosmology. Cosmology being the study of the origins of life as we know it. Not that stuff you learn at the local beauty school.

I have very little background in cosmology, but I understand the basics of it and the theory of evolution. It makes sense. I also have faith, despite my wanderings from the Church, that there is a god. Maybe not your God. Maybe not just one God. But some higher Being who gives us something, someone, to believe in. I used to wonder how scientists can reconcile their faith, their belief, their religious truth, with their knowledge and understanding, their evidence, their scientific truth. My best answer to that is, That’s the difference between Belief and Faith. One can believe that there was some cataclysmic event that caused the Big Bang, resulting in matter exploding through an infinite space that eventually developed into planets, at least one of which sustains life as we know it. At the same time, one can have faith in Genesis, that God is responsible for, well, everything. Despite the scientific finality of death, one can believe there is a higher purpose, that there is life after death in some form (and I don’t disregard reincarnation). Faith and Belief can co-exist. At least in my life. Of course I also strongly believe in the separation of church and state, despite the fact that, for the most part, man’s law is based on religious doctrine.

I still have a lot of thinking to do about these issues. I’m not looking for a solution to the world’s problems, just a better understanding of them.

Food for thought. Don’t forget to tip your waitress.