People are faithful to idols. See Gods, Governments, Bicycles. And because faith is involved, there’s no talking them out of it.
Jeffrey is faithful to odd rituals. He avoids professional work on holy days. He follows irrational dietary taboos. He lights candles at certain times. Et cetera.
But Jeffrey will not let someone else suffer for his quirks. When a refugee was late providing documents, Jeffrey worked on a holy day rather than miss a deadline that would have scuttled her work permit. Jeffrey took a refugee’s collect telephone call on a holy day, worked furiously that afternoon and through the night, and the client escaped a firing squad (click here to see how). Et cetera.
Unless you’re a hermit, you can’t avoid being asked for help. And people’s needs don’t fit your clock or calendar. Fear and suffering make us into kids again. Kids can’t wait.
What’s the right balance between ritual and action?
Two thousand years ago, a smart-aleck asked Rabbi Shammai to summarize Jewish Law while standing on one foot. Shammai answered by whacking the guy with a ruler. Then the guy asked Rabbi Hillel, who replied: “What’s hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor. That’s the whole Law. The rest is commentary. Now, go and learn.”
Ritual minutiae, the “commentary” that consumes many clergy today, were not the point for the great Hillel. Ditto for Micah and Isaiah and Jesus and others whose goal was to humanize the world.
Now that we’re standing on one foot, let’s consider the Declaration of Independence, the basis for American Law. (As Lincoln recognized, the Declaration is fundamental. The Constitution was written only to implement the Declaration.)
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Citizenship is not required to enjoy equality and those “unalienable [sic] Rights”.
Just as we must not let religious ritual deafen us to our neighbor’s plea, so we must not elevate American ritual above human rights. Non-citizens living here have the “unalienable Right” to pursue “Happiness”, even if Congress pretends otherwise.
Hillel and the Declaration set high standards. Jeffrey does not meet them. He is openly self-indulgent. For example, instead of using his time in April to battle the Bureaucratic Beast on behalf of refugees, Jeffrey will enjoy a weeks-long cycling adventure. He’ll feel guilty, but that won’t stop him.
At least Jeffrey is honest about his weakness. When he turns away from someone in need, he doesn’t twist God’s law to justify his sin. And he doesn’t twist American law to justify denying “aliens” their “unalienable Rights”.
If we don’t use the cults of religion and Americanism to relieve the loneliness and pain of our and others’ pathetic lives, what good are they?
And when we fall short morally – as ever we do – let’s blame ourselves rather than give religion and Americanism a bad name.