The Friday Comment: Thinking About Faith – I am person of faith. Perhaps, it is encoded in my DNA. I know it was rooted in my cultural rearing. I grew up Christian. I was baptized as an infant and I grew up in participating in all the ritual practices of my congregation. I never hide the fact I was confirmed as a member of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church at the age of 12. In my memory my faith tradition was never negative. In point of fact, it informed my intellectual trajectory.
Additionally, being a southern born African American male also aided in shaping my faith. Seeing the civil rights movement through a childhood lens also gave me faith. I don’t think anyone can go out and throw their bodies into the vicious jaws of American apartheid without having a kind of faith.
And that sense of collective faith exercised by many black believers to change the civic order for good influenced me.
It came in the schoolteachers who religiously believed that it was not an oxymoron for a black child to be highly intelligent. It came from the men who worked an entire career at the YMCA creating programs for boys to play sports and learn social skills.
It came in the prayers of old people who told me, “baby, I’m gonna pray for what you tryin’ to do! Gawd will see to it!” It came as I witnessed people taking up neighborhood offerings for someone who had died and needed a burial or a family who had been burned out of their house.
I saw people bring together in both large and small filled with their transcendent hopes and their all too human fears mobilizing trying to re-write global history.
This was the religion of my childhood, the religion of my rearing.
I know my experience wasn’t true for everyone. It wasn’t true for many of my friends. I know that institutional religion can be unkind and hateful. In fact, religious institutions, like all institutions, are often used as instruments of power.
Religious faith has been used to exploit, silence, and oppress. And this is a part of the history we cannot blot out or excuse.
At the Elmina fortress on the Ghanaian coast one of the first things that any visitor will note are the competing chapels—the oldest Portuguese Catholic and the latter Dutch Reformed.
At this fortress built in 1482 and used as a slave shipping facility, Christianity was used imperially.
As an imperial faith Christianity gave theological justification to enrich the crown over the humanity and upon the backs of thousand upon thousands of enslaved Africans.
I give this illustration not solely to criticize Christianity. The same could be written of any religious faith and even non-religious faiths (e.g. Stalinist and Fascism).
Holding a faith is dialectical. Faiths can be used to mobilize people for good! Think of the hospitals, orphanages, shelters and universities all begun under the auspices of religious traditions.
But also think of the carnivalesque violence and carnage from the burning of heretics, wars enacted upon the heterodox, to the American style lynch mobs; all done in the name of faith to justify greed and arrogance. This is why all faiths call believers to be self-critical.
There is never a time when a person of faith can rest comfortably with his or her beliefs, even when espoused by religious authorities.
Being faithful requires self-reflection. Too often self-reflection is use to solely indict personal behavior that we have been taught are shameful. Of course, there are things we ought to be ashamed about.
We ought to feel ashamed when we say something cruel or damaging!
We ought to feel ashamed when we take advantage of someone’s naïveté..
However, personal shame alone does not change individual behavior and often it just leaves one to self-loath.
The central question of faith is not whether we are individually guilty of misdeeds, but how well do we live collectively. Just recently scientist have agreed to stop doing testing on Chimpanzees, our first cousins. This was an outstanding move.
However, from a religious perspective more is required. Here’s the question, how are we treating the microscopic species? Aren’t we related and interdependent upon them too?
If we treat the most microscopic species with respect, how much more should we treat the individuals around us with dignity and justice?
Everyday I remind myself of the Anglican burial rite: “From ashes to ashes and from dust to dust based on the Torah’s (Genesis 3: 19) “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” These texts remind me I share with my kith and kin of the cosmos the fragility of living.
The key to our humanity, whether it is define through our faiths or non-beliefs, is that we live justly and treat all things great and small with loving respect.