Monday, April 25, 2016

Being Good Is Not Enough

My partner’s mother hails from conservative small town Texas. Now pushing seventy, I’ve heard her tell the same story on numerous occasions. It must have left quite a lasting impression, as I hear it every time I’m visiting family during the holidays. The latest retelling is always delivered with a kind of amused pity. She relates to the unfortunate but is very glad to not be one of them.

Our setting is some time in the 1960’s. A group of young God-fearing Baptists kids are intent on disguising their actions. Men and women drink beer at a restaurant, quietly chatting, calling no attention to themselves. They are trying to conceal what they are doing. Someone evidently came across the idea of sticking lemon slices on the lips of the plastic cups that the eatery provides paying customers. The effect was pure plausibility denial, designed to make it seem as though they’d only been consuming iced tea instead. Such is life in the Bible Belt.

This story is an excellent demonstration of the limitations and weaknesses of any system of belief that insists upon the strict undertaking and completion of good works. Perfection is an ideal that no one can ever truly reach, and we know this innately, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. Jesus’ ministry holds particular scorn for religious hypocrisy, particularly directed at an elite priestly caste who add meaningless rules for the sake of adding rules. As Scripture puts it, they strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. Their priorities are totally askew, indebted almost to absurdity, much like watering one’s house plants when one’s house is on fire.

The famous Protestant reformer Martin Luther spoke out against similar excesses of the Roman Catholic Church in his own day. Taking communion was not enough. Confessing sins was not enough. Being baptized was not enough. These rituals shouldn’t take the place of inward conviction and honest belief. Furthermore, it was his view that groups of people and large religious institutions should not have the right to define purity and salvation only for themselves.

I recall the old joke about Baptists and fishing. The yarn goes like this. “Why should you always take two Baptists fishing with you?”

Answer:  “Because if you only take one Baptist, he’ll drink all your beer.”

The news over the last several weeks from my home state of Alabama has been quite embarrassing. The current governor, Robert Bentley, is embroiled in a sex scandal. His hand has been caught in the cookie jar, but he brazenly refuses to resign or even to admit to his numerous indiscretions. Briefly, the Governor had an extramarital affair with an top aide, made said top aide almost equal in power to himself, and conducted all of this with absolutely no discretion or thought for legality whatsoever. The affair led to a scandalous divorce from his wife of fifty years, which is where the drama began.

To provide some context, this is a man who was elected to office as an unapologetic born-again Christian. He raised eyebrows in the inaugural address of his first term by very nearly implying that his chosen faith was superior to others. In the present day, he may not be indicted for breaking the laws of man, but guilty or innocent of those charges, he has certainly broken the tenets of his faith. In addition to violating the Old Testament commandment against not committing adultery, his sins (if we interpret biblical teachings by his standard) now include obtaining a divorce, as well as a vast multitude of parsed lies and half-truths that are simply too numerous to mention here.

Kindly pardon a quick change of scenery. Baseball season has resumed recently, much to the joy of its fans. My memories of the game are often bittersweet, as I was a long-suffering fan of a hapless club. Though times eventually changed for the better, they are back to their old ways today in 2016. The Atlanta Braves baseball team of my childhood were perpetual cellar-dwellers. One couldn’t even excuse their pathetic play by calling them lovable losers. They were just bad. The team’s line-up was a paean to mediocrity, with the exception of one player. The outfielder Dale Murphy was the team’s lone star, but his religious piety separated him from most superlative players in the sport.

Murphy's clean-living habits off the diamond were frequently noted in the media. A devout Latter-day Saint (Mormon), Murphy did not drink alcoholic beverages, would not allow women to be photographed embracing him, and would not pay his teammates' dinner checks if alcoholic beverages were on the tab. He also refused to give television interviews unless he was fully dressed.

People gravitate to laws and rules because they promise easy resolution. Quakers have their Testimonies, but they are far less strictly applied. We have far more freedom of choice, but that same freedom challenges us ever more to live a worthwhile life. We must hold ourselves responsible for being the best Friends we can manage, not needing to feel shame, guilt, or the disapproving gaze of others to do what is right. It might be simpler and more comforting in the short term to come up with a system of laws to easily address and eradicate every weakness, every perceived imperfection. But in hindsight this approach is not really any satisfactory resolution. We’ve learned that building higher walls or more prisons might not necessarily make us any safer, only creating other problems that require new rules and laws to fix.

It’s difficult enough for me to hold my tongue and not swear profusely. I cursed too much in my teenage years to defy authority figures. I’m now ashamed of my earlier behavior. If I can’t even clean up my talk, what makes me think that laws put in place to address complicated societal problems are enough for every person? The first law and its observance lies within us, whether we call that self-control, restraint, inward conscience, even the Inward Christ. That’s the philosophy Quakers and those of liberal religious faiths usually profess. Orthodoxy can be loose or robust, black and white or shades of grey, but it still requires adherence and some degree of conformity.

Those who prefer the comfort of a more authoritarian mindset might need to go elsewhere. And this isn’t true just for religion, it’s true for whatever groups we identify with or actively participate within. How much do you trust yourself with your life and your life’s decisions? For some of us, that answer changes dramatically over time. Intense, even painful life events can necessitate what philosophy we choose. It’s this kind of internal honesty, rather than acting the part that is needed. Where we are today might not be where we are later. If we are honest with ourselves, we won’t deny it.

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