Saturday, July 04, 2015

Reflections on the 4th of July

I’ve had the opportunity over the years to deliver a number of Unitarian-Universalist (UU) church sermons, but last Sunday was the first time I’ve ever been asked to deliver a talk targeted especially for children.  My topic was the relationship between Judaism and Islam, and the “props” that I used were a yarmulke and a Qur’an – two symbols that many of us think of in opposition to one another, but which in fact are actually quite harmonious.

My talk went along fine enough as I explained that “Jews” and “Muslims” were truly first cousins in the family of Abraham.  But I’m not sure that the UU kids were especially riveted by the profound similarities and differences between these two so-called “enemy” faiths.   That is, until I mentioned the holiday of Ramadan.   That holiday is especially noteworthy this year because it started only a few days before June 21st – the date when the period from sunup to sundown is at its apex.   I mentioned to the UU children that during Ramadan, Muslims refrain from all food and all drink, including water, from sunup to sundown for an entire month.  As I explained, the age at which Muslims begin this ritual differs with the person (traditionally, the responsibility commences with the onset of puberty), but some Muslims start this practice at age 10 and it is extremely common to start by age 12.   In other words, I told the kids at the UU church, millions of Muslim children age 11, 12 and 13 are spending an entire month from 5:30 in the morning until 8:30 in the evening not even drinking a drop of water, let alone eating a piece of food.

After discussing the basic facts about Ramadan, I asked the kids a question:  “How do you think the Muslim kids are able to fast for more than 15 hours every day for an entire month?”   I received but one response:   “Magic.”  

Magic, indeed.  It sounds like a silly answer, but what it reveals is no laughing matter.   Here we are, it’s July 4, 2015, and in an increasingly large swath of our society, more and more families are losing their passion for religion, losing their passion for patriotism, and losing their passion period.   In the place of passion, we can tranquilize ourselves with the relaxation that comes from browsing Facebook, binge-watching a TV show via Netflix, or traveling to a beautiful beach resort.  In other words, we can exemplify the perspective described by George Santayana as becoming increasingly dominant in the first half of the 20th century: “the mood of impatience, conceit, low-minded ambition, mechanical inflation, and the worship of material comforts.”

When maximizing creature comforts becomes the goal, passion becomes a nuisance – and the Muslim children’s ability to thoroughly put aside those comforts sounds almost magical.   For many, the passions I have in mind get in the way of what’s really important:  “relaxing.”  If we need exhilaration to supplement our relaxation, we can get that from a bike ride, not a political or religious cause.   From the standpoint of today’s secular hedonist, the idea of parents encouraging their 11-year-olds to deprive themselves of food and drink for 15 hours every day is abusive, if not insane.  And when I put the question at the UU church as to how this feat of starvation was possible, the kid who responded thought first of magic, because the act at issue would either be viewed as superhuman or subhuman, depending on your perspective.  It’s certainly not anything a contemporary secular hedonist can relate to.

July 4th is a holiday that speaks to hedonism – far more than, say, Veterans Day, Labor Day, or Presidents’ Day.   While the Muslims fast, the contemporary American material-comfort-worshipper is literally pigging out on hot dogs and beer.  But of course, this day does have deeper significance for other Americans, including an increasing number of American Muslims.   The 4th calls to mind such statements as “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.”   The 4th calls to mind a bold experiment to introduce a Democratic/Republican form of government that would be hegemonic on a massive scale.   The 4th calls to mind all the successes that have resulted from that experiment – successes such as the elimination of the “peculiar institution” known as slavery, the creation of a vast network of roads and a vast network of land-grant institutions of higher learning, the rise of a huge and fairly prosperous middle class, the use of the military to defeat totalitarian regimes, and the ability to put men on the Moon.  

Oh sure, there have been failures too.   We all know what they are.  We’re constantly reminded of how and where we fall short, including in this Blog.  But one day a year, Americans are permitted to think patriotically and proudly about what we have created and what we have stood for, which above all else can be summarized by the word “Liberty.”  We can, in other words, take immeasurable inspiration from that word and from our collective devotion to it.   And we can be passionate about our need to ensure that it never dissipates from these shores.

Whether or not they are citizens, you won’t find Muslims eating hot dogs or drinking beer – not after sunup, not before sundown, not ever.   Observant Muslims, you see, have a whole series of rules that they follow besides simply fasting during Ramadan, and those rules trump the conventions that have come to characterize American life.  But that doesn’t mean that Muslims can’t be patriotic Americans.   In fact, I suspect they can be among our most patriotic citizens – because those same passions that fuel religious faith can also be channeled into fueling wholesome patriotism.   In either case, we’re talking about a deep, enduring love for something that isn’t tangible, isn’t immediately translatable into material comforts or other pleasures, and that is associated in the mind of the lover with righteousness, honor and duty.  

That kind of love can be extremely powerful.  It can move people to accomplish tremendous feats of beauty, just as it can move people to commit horrendous acts of destruction.  When we become people of faith – regardless of whether the faith we have is in God or in the symbols of a nation – we depart from the “mood” that Santayana found to be so off-putting.   Then, even if we are only 11 years old, we can accomplish all sorts of things and feel privileged in doing so.

Don’t take my word for it.  Just ask the next person you see who is wearing a military uniform, or a priest’s collar.  Hell, just find a bird in a nest with five little ones beneath her; if that bird could talk, it would tell you the same thing.

Love and devotion are incredibly potent forces.   Those who tap into them aren’t magicians.  They’re just beneficiaries of that which makes life worth living.   With all due respect to my hedonist friends, you can have your beers and your hot dogs; I’ll take my appreciation for Jefferson’s quill pen and my anticipation for the spiritual bliss that is Yom Kippur (the central Jewish fast, which is just a miniature version of Ramadan).

So yes, Americans have their differences – different behaviors, different philosophies.  But at least on this July 4th, we can all agree on one thing:  thankfully, we can choose for ourselves which path to take.  In the Land of Liberty, there is nothing quite as holy as the freedom to choose.    

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