During this terrible week of murders in Paris, massacre in Nigeria – more chapters added to the growing tome of senseless killings by extremists around the world, I’ve thought about how embers of belief can be fanned into flames of terror. Even traditionally peaceful Buddhists are not immune to extremism as we’ve seen with the violence perpetrated by monks and their followers in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. How does this happen?
How can religious ideology become warped into motivation for such horrible behavior? How can faith turn into terrifying righteousness? How can an individual ever be so sure that the way they have chosen, is the right way? I don’t get it.
The seeds of doubt were sown early in my childhood and continued to be fertilized throughout my life.
I attended Catholic School through the 3rd grade. When we moved to a different Bronx neighborhood I entered the glorious freedom of the NYC public school system. Preferring to sleep late rather than shlep to the new parish church for mass, everyone else in my family abandoned Sunday rituals. But loathe to have a mortal sin (as opposed to venial – think felony vs misdemeanor) on my soul lest I die and immediately be sent to hell, I continued going to this new church by myself. Imagine a 4th grader sitting self-consciously alone in the back pew, bored stiff. By the time Easter rolled around, my routine had lapsed and I needed my tainted soul to be absolved in order to receive communion again.
When I admitted to my missed masses, the priest behind the screen in the coffin-like confessional box, barraged me with questions including the rather invasive (since confession is supposed to be anonymous) “Where do you go to school?” I slunk out of the box up to the altar to recite my long penance. With knees pressed into velvet, hands clenched together against the polished wood bannister, I peered up at Jesus on the cross and completely blanked on the words of the prayers I’d been assigned to recite multiple times. I’d forgotten how to say an Our Father or Hail Mary so abandoned my post. To this day, I don’t really remember.
Instead, I cleansed my own soul on that walk home from St. Margaret’s Church, leaving my belief further behind with every block between me and that 1960s edifice. And over the years, nothing, including this new, admirable Pope, has enticed me back to the Church. Yes, you might argue, that was an unfortunate experience with just one asshole priest. But what clicked for me at that tender age, was a conviction that I needed no intermediaries in my spiritual life. And that is where I stand today. Not even the Dalai Lama – as much as I think he’s a very cool, enlightened guy gets to stand between me and my not-knowing.
More so than ever, as contradictory as it sounds, I trust my doubt. I am less righteous than I have ever felt before and that feels right. I have lived too close to the destruction caused by those convinced that, in the name of their religion, their ethnicity, destruction, murder – war – was acceptable. Four years of living in what used to be Yugoslavia where cousins killed each other mercilessly was all I needed to feel clearer about my uncertainty.
To some extent, I understood how hatred came to combust in hamlets, villages, towns and cities across the Croatia, Bosnia. I experienced the power of oral history growing up in very Irish-American home. Repeated tales of injustice left me with no love for the British. My animosity was further fed in the dark years of the Troubles and the death of Bobby Sands and other hunger strikers of the Maze prison in the early 1980s. A decade later, I met and fell in love with my husband, a Brit who’d been a soldier in Northern Ireland during those years I was hating his people. His perspective, his stories and experience including shame, anger, compassion, laid my righteousness to rest. We loved traveling together between the torn communities of the Balkans, happily flashing our Irish and English passports at checkpoints, like some poster-children of reconciliation. We married during the siege of Sarajevo – our personal gesture of putting ancient ethnic hatreds to rest.
This same feeling extends to patriotism. I do not have it. I do not believe the United States is the number one country in the world and that we are better than other places. Yes, it’s my home and a beautiful, lovely country full of wonderful opportunities and benefits but so are other places I have also called home. I do not fly the flag outside my home and though I will stand respectfully for any anthem, you will not find me with my hand on my heart pledging any allegiance. Rituals like this were banned in other places because of the atrocious destruction caused by nationalism. I do not participate in any kind of chauvinism.
When I lived in Japan in the 1980s, I rarely saw the Japanese flag – certainly not in classrooms, never outside a private home or flapping from cars like the ubiquitous display of the American flag here in the States. Nationalism was a prime ingredient used to inspire the Japanese to commit atrocities during World War II. The Japanese haven’t forgotten that shame and a commitment to never repeat history.
Don’t get me wrong – I respect others beliefs, pride in their country. But personally, I am at peace with my not-knowing. I am at home in this corner in the country of my birth where I landed but remember well, and still long for, other lands where I was also home. If a label is necessary, I pick – agnostic citizen of the world with allegiance only to love and justice for all. Anything else feels dangerous.