We’d been invited to a Friday evening Shabbat dinner at the home of a Portland Jewish family. It had all the trappings of the ritually kosher home I grew up in. We lit the candles and said the familiar, traditional Sabbath blessings in Hebrew. Our host, an accomplished professional woman and the mother of three, held her hands over the heads of her teenage sons and prayed that they would grow to be men in the likeness of their forefathers: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Together we offered gratitude for the loaf of hand-twisted challah before us. In all ways, it was the Sabbath of my childhood. ‘Iokepa and I were grateful for the invitation, the intelligent company, and the home-cooked meal.
Somewhere in the middle of the Shabbat dinner on that spotless white tablecloth, the husband and father – the owner of a microbrewery, a professional chef, and a transparently good-natured man – confessed. “I don’t believe in organized religion.”
These are words that ‘Iokepa and I hear with surprising frequency. They come across-the-board from men and women reared within Roman Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Islamic and Jewish traditions.
Most typically, these words seem to be a plea for understanding, a means of demarcation, a way to distinguish between the organized religion in which they’d been reared and the spirituality that now nurtures them.
These are not people without a belief in the unseen; these are not atheists. They want ‘Iokepa – and they want me – to know (with our two viable, culturally-based religions) that they are not us. .
They are distancing themselves, not so much from the religion of their birth, as from the ways their religious traditions have failed to practice what they preach – from the lapses.
It isn’t the organized religion they are rejecting (though those are certainly the words they use); it is the failure of its adherents to adhere to the fundamental teachings of those religions. It is the compromises of the practitioners that insult, embarrass, and ultimately shame our friends. In sum, it is the hypocrisy.
So to my ears, “I don’t believe in organized religion” means: I am sickened by trips to the Torah that are bought by the biggest financial donors to the synagogue; I am horrified by the church covering up child molestation; I reject ministers who live like sultans; I refuse the distortions of Jesus’ and Mohamed’s words to justify war
Theirs is an absolutely credible reaction to the false prophets, to the racists who call themselves Christians, to the crooks who secure aliyah. Where there has been falsehood, hypocrisy, and outright blasphemy, it has, at times, been difficult to remember the truth.
Yet ‘Iokepa’s ancestors remind us, “You haven’t gone back far enough.” Our ancestors, the indigenous peoples from around the world, had to embrace community responsibility and compassion to survive.
The problem is not with the organization of religion – or its authentic origins and teachings. The problem is with the human shortfall. The problem is us – humans who attempt and fail to practice what the originators perfected.
To my eyes, that makes it all the more imperative for us, who’ve been reared within powerful religious traditions, to seize the reins. It’s up to us to steer our congregations and our communities with our example.
Culturally, we have never condoned abandoning a difficult child. We don’t believe it wise to run away from our aging parents. Turning our back has seldom healed a wound.
Our lives – the way we live them, far more than the words we speak – are the light for others. The very example of how we place our feet along our singular path is what inspires. We are the models for change, the lantern in the dark, the way to fulfillment of the ideas and the ideals from our traditions and our ancestors.
We are the realization of our “organized religion’s” highest aspirations. It is truly selfish to leave the rest of our family alone in their struggle.