Beat Yourself Into Plowshares
When I first started studying Buddhism in my twenties, I thought of it as a means to an end, a trusted and reliable vehicle for escaping the religion of my childhood. I reasoned that as I turned towards the Buddha, I would obviously be turning away from the Catholic Church. To me, at that time, that logic was rock solid.
It’s hugely common though not reinforced in Buddhist settings. Many young, educated people seek out new faith traditions because they grow disillusioned with the vague Christianity or Judaism of their parents and need fresh ways of relating to the universe. It’s what I guess you might call the displacement theory of conversion, the belief that by adopting new beliefs, one’s old beliefs are displaced and pushed out of mind.
While the willingness to open one’s self up to new ways of thinking is good, the idea that adopting new beliefs could disabuse me of old ones was completely fallacious. That’s just not how belief works. Beliefs don’t just get up and leave your head because they can sense that they’re no longer wanted in your life. Convictions come with a stubborn obstinancy about them.
Nothing in the universe is that binary. Not two, just one. Just because you set out with the intention of escape doesn’t mean that you ever actually leave.
Like many other brain genius skeptics, I used to assume that that religions organize society by monopolizing the truth, that priests dictate dogma as doctrine, and that mass is always an aggregation of fools. But the way that I came around to thinking about religion in seminary and in my training as a chaplain was as social software, varied suites of shared operating systems that people use to interface with the universe.
Religion is a human invention, sure, but so are computers and we use those to organize the entirety of our lives.
In every religion, there are programs for establishing lifecourse priorities and directing finite human energy to what matters most for sustaining vitality, family, and community. In theory, religion codes protocols and schedules for distributing and channeling the flow of resources and means to ensure maxium societal wellbeing.
Practiced well, religion liberates by creating enormous space for big questions with wide open answers. When religion is practiced well, it attracts community to itself by building vibrant, resourced spaces for people to keep asking bigger and continually better questions in search of bigger and better answers.
A good religion practiced well is known by its fruits, as it creates better outcomes not just for its membership but for the world. It’s a multiplier of good fortunes, becoming unto itself an everlasting orchard of fruitbearing trees.
Of course, the caveat being: when it’s practiced well. As with anything else, from sex to socialism to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, practiced poorly, religion is just awful and cruelly punishing.
Anyway, so back to me and my dipshit twenty-something assumptions about religion and spirituality. The irony of becoming Buddhist so as to get away from Christianity is that practicing Buddhism ultimately made me a better Christian. I’m definitely not the first practitioner to make this connection between zen and the cross, but it’s my truth. Buddhism challenged me to open my heart to the universe in ways that terrified me, to think of myself as valueless and nothing but also, strangely, as everything and infinite. It’s a mindfuck of a religion, laden with paradoxes. But all that mindfuckery is necesssary to get you to just learn to sit still and be.
And from learning to sit still, from sitting in silence, Jesus became a contemplative subject for me. Worship for me has never meant thinking about Jesus was a sky god ruling Earth from his cloudship palace up in the kingdom of Heaven. It has always been a living relationship with the figure of Jesus himself, though what that relationship has been has changed quite a bit from my childhood into my thirties. Where once I imagined Jesus as a kind of omnipotent guardian angel, today I imagine him simply as a thirty-something man who in three years radically changed the world by being so loving and kind to the poor that it threatened the foundation of empire.
That’s my guy!
So as the late poet Mary Oliver phrased it so well, my way of praying became to ask myself what was Jesus actually doing with his wild and precious life? Meditation for me was sitting with the answers.
I was admittedly pretty late in coming to this dance but the pivot towards Buddhism made me truly conscious for the first time that where the Eightfold Path of Buddhism and the Boddhisattva vows are to train the practitioner to love the world with the heart of the Buddha, the entire praxis of Christianity is to love the world as Jesus Christ. To love as he loved was, in fact, his only commandment. That’s it, the miracle wine sauce boiled down into roux.
The role of a good minister, as I understand ministry, is not to judge or shame people into belief and confession from a place of authority. Instead, a minister’s function is to create and hold space for those seeking spiritual direction to look inside and answer for themselves the question of what it would mean to live out the questions. A minister makes space for others to ask the same kind of questions that we ask ourselves: just what the hell was Jesus doing trying to make heaven on Earth?
Christianity as I personally understand it has less to do with theological doctrine than with honoring the capacity held by each of us to show up as integration and wholeness in a fractured world going to hell.
So What Would Jesus Do? Is not just a cute, hypothetical question that fits on a rubber bracelet, it’s a question that critical Christians ask themselves on a regular basis. Jesus is the challenging yardstick of virtue we return to again and again, whose legacy is not a story of domination or supremacy but of quiet rebellion and prophetic dissent. He lived his life perfectly, as the human embodiment of love, so that we’d all be able to know our shadows by comparison.
Jesus lived out a story where the main character inarguably aligned himself at every opportunity with the poor and the downcast, the sick and forgotten. In the story told by the Gospels, Christ continually throws himself down as a guantlet, a challenge to all of humanity to love each other as much as possible. He was dismissed as a fool because everything that he said sounded competely absurd to everyone who needed to believe that loving that much was impossible.
So the way I see it, to be Christian means to ask yourself a ton of absurd Christian questions like whose side of a housing market crash would Jesus be on? How many of God’s children have to suffer and die before we universalize access to healing? Whose version of Heaven is it that business owners should get a bailout before the poor are even fed? How Christian is it for children to be evicted the week before Christmas? How aligned with Christ’s mission of love is warehousing those seeking asylum in for profit cages?
Whose hands are helping and whose hands are hurting?
What, if anything, about our present policy response could be called Christian?
How is any of this how Jesus would legislate during a pandemic?
Is this what discipleship looks like for politicians who in every other context would so loudly proclaim their faith?
Well, anyway, Merry Christmas. Reason for the season and all that.