Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Uniform Betrayed

For the better part of the last decade, we have watched a very public agony of revelations regarding a major religious organization. Seemingly month after month, more stories of the sexual abuse of countless numbers of children over the past 60 years by priests of the Catholic Church have come forward. Originally this sad phenomena appeared to be a purely American aberration, albeit it a national one. But subsequently this story has become international, from Ireland to across the European continent.

For a long time I had avoided commentary on this subject. The severity of these actions by so many priests across such a broad geography seemed to speak sufficiently for itself; I had nothing to add to the revelations themselves. But as the stories of abuse continue to unfold, there is perhaps a broader theme of betrayal that emerges.

There are three stories of fact that have emerged from this religious debacle. The first is that thousands of children were sexually abused by church leaders. As bad as that story is, the second correlated story is that the abuse was not acknowledged by church superiors in spite of the documented evidence and victim telling, and in fact was denied and/or covered up by church officials. Disciplinary action, such as it was, meant no acknowledgment of the truth of these occurrences, but simply moving offenders to another locale, often in a similar capacity for access to new children, thereby allowing for a third story of the abuse cycle being continued unchecked. The priorities of protecting the image and reputation of the church and its priests trumped the physical safety and mental / spiritual development of these vulnerable children. We hear these very personal stories come forth, watch and judge the inconsistent responses of church officials, and wonder what lessons we should draw from all of this.

The abuse of a child – whether physical, emotional or sexual – is inherently a horrible thing. Horrible because it is a corrupt expression of adult power, made possible by the very vulnerability of a child. A vulnerability arising from: the child’s physical inferiority of size and strength (thereby lacking the physical ability to resist), as well as; mental / emotional immaturity – a lack of sufficient life experience to provide a context for understanding what is happening to him/her. Yet something deep inside that child, from some unknown source of being, alerted the child that something wrong was happening, caused by someone who should be doing no wrong. And that is the true abuse: the violation of trust by someone the child assumed to be his/her perfect teacher and protector. Which then typically leads the child to a lifetime of mistrust, confusion, and a false seeking of (defensive) control over one’s life instead of the trust to live one’s life fully as it comes.

In these instances with the Catholic Church, the sin of inappropriate contact between priest and child was doubled by the sin of its repetition, and of the silence and cover-up that followed. For that which the child inherently knew to be wrong, no punishment of the perpetrator ensued; no quick end of the activity came; and in all likelihood the child continued to be told what “a good saintly person” his/her perpetrator was, leaving the child in total confusion and self-blame. When a supposed institutional greater good (protecting the church) is built on a foundation of wrong (abuse of children), there is no greater good to be had. There is only an insidious cancer created and lurking inside that institution, chipping away like an unseen (unspoken) termite at whatever institutional good was previously there. The Catholic Church (or any number of other current institutions) risks being undone as much by its failure to address its wrongs as by the original act of indecency itself.

In these instances of abuse, supposed priestly goodness was all for show, a sham covering a very human weakness. Adorned in the special robes and collar, reinforced by pronouncements of supposed dedication to living in God’s way, the uniform of the priest is designed to separate one from normal adult roles and accountability. The uniform is intended to make an immediate statement about one’s self, even if no facts have yet been presented for substantiation. It is the same for me when I put on my special robe for meditation, or the pendant that I wear around my neck that garners so much comment. I wear these to help reinforce in my mind that I am not in my everyday doing of things, that I am spending a few moments to be in a different place mentally than usual, experiencing a different experience. And these adornments do in fact help me make that transition.

So it is with all of the uniforms that we wear, which is why we wear them. A policeman’s uniform to show invested authority; the military uniform and the distinctive service branches and rank within each; the uniform of the janitor, the fast food worker, or the IT geek; the pin-stripe suit of the business man or woman; the overalls of the farm worker; the apron or the cocktail dress of the housewife; the torn jeans and colored spiked hair of the adolescent; and the American flag lapel pin that seeks to proclaim one’s patriotism. All of these uniforms are worn to make immediate visible statements - to ourselves and to the world - about who we believe we are, who we associate with, and who we aspire to be. Carried to the extreme, even “no clothes” serves as the uniform of the nudists.

The problem becomes when we, the insider, begin to believe that those uniforms in/of themselves make us who we want to be. The other problem is when we, the outsider looking in, accept another’s uniform as a confirmation of whom one is aspiring to be versus who one is. We forget that is all about who one truly is inside, not who he/she claims to be on the outside. In the case of religious leaders, the need for us to look beyond the trappings is even more crucial. Most all of the great spiritual masters warned us against accepting false gods (Moses) or false teachers (Mohammad, Jesus and Buddha) who claim spiritual authority but live untrue and unspiritual lives. The challenge to us is to look beyond the frock and to ignore the nice words. We need to remember that whether priest or nun or pope, lama or roshi or imam, reverend or pastor or bishop – the uniform (and title) means little. We must not be cynical, but we must be vigilant in our questioning and assessment of those who seek to lead us.

As Jesus and Buddha told us in their different ways, look not at the robes but at the deeds, and whether those deeds have led to positive or negative actions. Where love and acceptance flows forth downstream, that is where spiritual and godly leadership can truly be found. It is in the actions of love and benefit to others, not the adornments of uniform, that trust is truly deserved.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Educate, Not teach

Much has been written of late about the Texas Board of Education’s rewrite of American history textbooks. In normal circumstances, this could be one of many “local actions” in the hinterlands that we could safely choose to ignore. Unfortunately, the reality is that “as Texas goes, so goes textbooks around the country.” Why? Because of Texas’ volume buying, publishers will do whatever Texas specifies, and then pass those changes on to all other states as the “standard text.” Only California has greater buying power and influence, but they will not make their next revisions until 2014. So Texas in effect sets the standards for all our kids for the next 4 years.

Why do we care? Because their changes are not being defined by academics, historians, or the teachers of this subject matter. Each change is being decided by majority vote of Board members, none of whom are academics, historians or teachers. They have expressly stated that their intention is to “correct” what they view as a “liberal bias” in existing textbooks. And what corrections need to be made to restore their version of “balance”? Examples:

• Removal of Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures who inspired the American revolution because he coined the phrase “separation of church and state” (apparently his authorship of the Declaration of Independence is an irrelevant qualification);

• Confederate President Jefferson Davis is to be treated as equally important to American history outcomes as Abraham Lincoln (even as a native southerner, that is hard to see as a “balanced” intention for what was clearly a poor performance as a president, regardless of his cause);

• “Capitalism” (apparently a negative term) is to be replaced by “free enterprise system” (thereby ignoring any goals of replacing rhetorical labels with substance);

• Studies of cultural movements in music will include Tin Pan Alley, the Beat Generation, rock ‘n roll, and country music, but hip-hop music was voted out as culturally unimportant (and American blues music – a truly indigenous musical form that has impacted all other American music forms – wasn’t even considered!);

• According to this Board, Joseph McCarthy’s slanders during the 1950s were apparently true (even though he never proved a single one of his “communists are everywhere” charges and ruined many countless innocent lives by his unsubstantiated accusations);

• Ronald Reagan was “our greatest U.S. president” (pushing aside the entire portfolio of presidents carved into Mount Rushmore); and

• Edward Kennedy and Justice Sonia Sotomayor will disappear entirely from view as irrelevant to our history (apparent figments of our imaginations).

Don McLeroy, Board member and former Chair, wrote that, “The theme of [American history] is freedom. [Our founders] understood America and the principles upon which she stood: self-evident truths; liberty, with its twin corollaries of limited government and individual responsibility; the embrace of Judeo-Christian values; and a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”

Sounds nice. But a true student of history who has actually read the writings, actions and statements of our founders knows that every one of McLeroy’s statements (except for the first statement about freedom) is counter to documented truths, documented even by the founders themselves. And my freedom starts with not having my education limited to Mr. McLeroy’s personal view of our history. But such recorded history is apparently of little concern to Mr. McLeroy. Welcome to a white, protestant, single-culture view of America’s history that discounts all other cultural contributions not in McLeroy’s personal experience. A view based upon one’s personal learnings, perspectives, experiences and dream-scenarios that someone seeks to make everyone’s truths.

I could actually make a partial case for what the Texas Board is doing except for one thing. The problem that seems to be escaping Mr. McLeroy and his colleagues is not just that they are putting out shameful distortions of information they clearly do not understand. The bigger concern is that they are unapologetically committing the exact same sin that they are accusing the left-wing biasers of – including in textbooks only that information which one has personally chosen to believe. That would leave both sides in error. The error of believing that teaching kids is about presenting a point of view that is purported to be “the single truth.”

In reality, our schools should be about education, not teaching. An educated person is not really marked by memorization of a determined set of facts. An educated person is one who is open to and knows about many perspectives and aspects of a topic, and has developed the experience and skills to apply a good thought process to those perspectives in order to derive a personal conclusion. A conclusion that most often leads to ACTION – hopefully a wise and good action. On that basis, those who truly support “education” should feel a responsibility not to advocate, but to present all possible points of view to a student, and then help that student develop fact-finding, filtering and discernment skills to analyze those facts, and logic and intuitive skills to derive his/her conclusions.

We should not fear differences of opinions. The reality is that if we are truly comfortable in our own skin and beliefs, most of the time it does not matter if you and I believe the same thing. If you believe in evolution and I believe in a creation story, what impact do our differences really make to the way either of us lives our everyday lives? If you believe Alexander Hamilton was our greatest founder and I think the same instead about his arch-enemy Thomas Jefferson, and we both have read their life stories and their writings, should your support of Hamilton’s view of government cause me to treat you any differently? Even if he was president of a confederacy that supported an aspect of a way of life that we now view as abhorrent, shouldn’t Jefferson Davis’s influence on American history be assessed on his performance as a government leader rather than his support of the cause of that period?

We need to trust in our kids better than we do. The only “corruption of their minds” that I fear is that they will grow up not understanding that there are different points of view in this world, views that come from different experiences and thought processes, and they have a right to hear those differences and decide for themselves. I fear more greatly their lack of exposure to all ideas than I do their exposure to “the wrong ideas.” Truly educated kids are the ones who grow up to be adults that make high-quality informed decisions. And that is why freedom of speech and freedom of the press are formalized ideals in our American Constitution.

Our schools should be laboratories of ideas where students can experiment with and create intellectual outcomes. After their schooling is complete, these kids are going to spend the rest of their adult lives encountering situations, propaganda, self-advocating demagogues, ideas, and beliefs different from what they have been previously taught. We need to arm our kids not with seeming facts and conclusions that we believe, but with all of the information available from which they can develop their own opinions. And in that process, hopefully they learn tolerance and appreciation for the views of others, without fearing differences of opinion. As much as I am a lover of history, history is ultimately not about knowing facts. It is about knowing the many stories of our history, the different values that have clashed over time, and how the stories and values have led to personal or collective decisions of belief and actions. We need to not teach our personal views; we need to educate all people, regardless of age or backgrounds, how to learn for themselves. And then get out of their way.