Browsing the blog archives for November, 2009

Good for Goodness' Sake?

Bus Wars are a new front in the battle over God, goodness and freedom of speech. In Portland Oregon, king size ads are on 10 of the city’s buses asking: “Are you good without God? Millions are.” Similar signs are on subways in New York, Boston and Philadelphia and on billboards in Chicago, San Diego and other cities. Is this a strike against religion and spirituality or is it an invitation to what it means to be ethical? It might just be a reminder to get down from our perch and realize that we’re all made for goodness – no matter where we stand on the G question.

The Portland Coalition of Reason and its national umbrella group, United Coalition of Reason, want people to know that being a moral and ethical person has little to do with your belief-in-God credentials. President Obama, a practicing Christian, may have emboldened the atheists to expect more respect for their position. In his Presidential inaugural address he observed, “We are a nation of Christian and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and nonbelievers.” Along with Buddhists, Sikhs, Wiccans and a host of other Americans.

A similar ad campaign in Britain last summer unleashed a Bus War of ads for and against belief in God. In London it began with the ads sponsored by The atheists responded first with their own volley of ads. Not to be outdone, various Christian groups promoted their own viewpoints on these transit billboards. 800 British buses became a mobile chat room for sound bites about belief and God.

In Des Moines, Iowa, 20 buses carried ads asking”Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.” They were not seen by many people in Des Moines. The transit authority removed them because they mentioned “God”. The ensuing conversation about free speech and civil liberties brought change to the policies of the transit authority in Des Moines. God may now be mentioned in an ad in Des Moines. Thanks to the atheists!

Are the Bus Wars just a silly distraction? Not to those involved in them! Surely God is not threatened by the ads? That question is of course a non-starter for those who do not believe in a deity. The ads invite discussion about civil liberties and free speech. They also invite awareness that we are not a monolithic or exclusively theist nation when it comes to the G question. Almost 25% of Americans claim to be spiritual rather than religious. Many who fall into this category have little use for what they see as the religious correctness or dogma battles of religion.

The Bus Wars mask a deeper question about what it means to each be ethical people who live with a moral code. Most of us have experienced a seismic breach in public trust about our financial system in the last few years. Many of us question the truth telling and ethics about going to war with Iraq. No matter what we think about the G question, we each spend our lives making sense of meaning.

We are each made for goodness. The Bus Wars are a reminder than in our diversity of opinions about belief we share a common quest for meaning and ethics. Wars are usually fought with the intention of winning. The victory of the victor always comes with a price paid by all. How much more life-giving to engage in conversations about what goodness means in our common life.

The Russian Orthodox, a religious minority in Britain, possibly understood the tragic cost of building walls between people or seeking to vanquish the perspective of others. They joined in the parade of bus ads with one that affirmed God and invited people to believe. The ad then declared, “Don’t worry and enjoy your life.” A reality check of that sort might be a helpful prescription for us!

The tag line from the Russian Orthodox ad serves as an invitation to the question of what it means to be good, to seek goodness for all. Goodness is measured not by what we chose to believe. Goodness is measured by where our own life connects with the common good.


Watch the Robert discussing Buidling a Values Based Framework on You Tube

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Hate Unleashed in DC: A Religious Value?

Christian clergy will spew hatred in Washington DC on Monday.  Their fury has been aroused by the new Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act.   Venomous, hate-filled language is an odd thing for religious folk to spend time on.  Imagine that energy being used to promote compassion, love, mercy, justice or feeding the hungry. Gay and lesbian people are the target of this vitriol.  Religiously motivated disdain and hatred are not pretty.  Or spiritual.  Why this bizarre confluence of hate toward LGBT people?

The organizers of the Rally for Religious Freedom say they want to raise “alarm” over the new hate crimes law.  They claim that the new legislation infringes on their religious right to rail against lesbian and gay people.  They say the legislation prevents them from proclaiming the “whole counsel of God”.  They believe that the “whole counsel of God” includes stirring up disdain and hatred towards LGBT people.

Outside the Justice Department building in DC these religious leaders hope to be arrested for their proclamation against gay and lesbian Americans.  This coalition, which includes the Christian Anti Defamation Commission and Liberty Council, is a more polished iteration of Fred Phelps’ one gospel tune of protesting gays wherever he imagines us to be found, including the burial of US soldiers.

I’ve been the target of Fred Phelps’ protests.  The level of venom and hatred is so shocking to most people that it invites a lot of personal reflection.  Most Americans are decent folks who do not want to be associated with such naked hatred.  Fred Phelps, like the organizers of Monday’s protests, actually becomes ambassadors of a more tolerant, diverse America.

The spit-fire from Monday’s protests is also aimed at the Obama administration.  One of the organizers, Gary Cass, believes that Obama’s support of the legislation was to “pay back militant homosexual activists who raised millions of dollars for his campaign and worked to get him elected.”  Cass says that this is all part of Obama’s “radical, anti-Christian agenda”.

The legislation is named in honor of Matthew Shepard who was murdered in Wyoming for being gay.  The new law makes acts of violence against LGBT people illegal.   Is it radical to legislate to ensure that no young woman or man is put to death as Matthew Shepard was? Is it radical to enshrine in our laws that every human life is sacred and should be free of the threat of violent acts?

The Judeo-Christian scriptures have very little to say about homosexuality as we know it.  They do have a lot to say about loving our neighbor as ourselves.  They speak at length about mercy, justice and love for all.  The defining mark of these sacred texts is love of others.  It is the mirror image of loving God.  This is the “whole counsel” of spirituality!  It is a way of seeking dignity and freedom for all people.

Hate is a consuming business.  The wisdom of most spiritual traditions is about compassion.  Spirituality is about becoming fully alive.  The path of becoming fully alive is sabotaged by the energy needed to keep fueling hatred.

I’ll happily cast my lot with Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Bono, Thich Nhat Hahn and the other spiritual bearers of love and compassion.  Our human story is about seeking goodness in one another.

Not far from Monday’s protesters is a small park with a statue of Mahatma Gandhi.  In the park is his mantra – “My life is my message”.   Love and compassion for Gandhi were never known in tearing down or inciting hatreds.  The good spiritual energy is known when we detach from disdain and hatred and cast our lot with love, compassion and justice.  For all.


Watch Robert discussing exclusion and inclusion on YouTube

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Compassion: a dynamic new movement?

Compassion appears to be in short supply these days.  The Charter for Compassion is a new movement to reclaim this ancient truth found in most spiritual and moral traditions.  Yesterday it was unveiled in 125 cities around the world!  The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were among the initial signers of the charter.  They may be onto something.  The people who showed up in those 125 cities are certainly onto something too!

A multi day gathering called Seeds of Compassion drew more than 150,000 participants in Seattle last year.  The lead line-up included His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  During their visit I hosted a breakfast conversation with them.  Those present could not have missed their playfulness and humor!  What is striking is that these two spiritual leaders have stood against powerful forces of violence and hatred.  They are unflinching in their resistance to injustice. Yet there they were joshing with each other, taking delight in life.  Their playful interactions, like their lives, reflect compassion within, without and for others.

I marveled at the vast number of people who showed up in Seattle to engage in conversations about compassion in the world.  For many who refer to themselves as spiritual not religious, compassion is an authentic, compelling spiritual value.  When you experience it in another, you know that is for real.  The large crowds in Seattle are, I believe, indicative of a deep spiritual hunger for meaning and purpose.  There is no elaborate dogma attached to compassion.

The Charter for Compassion begins with a reminder that the principle of compassion I sat the heart of all traditions – ethical, religious and spiritual.  It calls for the restoration of compassion to the center of morality and religion.  The signers express urgency about making compassion “a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world.”

Reflecting the simplicity of compassion, the document speaks simply about compassion as a way of being.  It does not side-step the question that drives so many away from, or into ambivalence, about religion.  It asks that there be a “return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate.”  Simplicity is not to be confused with shallowness or lack of spine!  Breeding disdain, violence and hatred of any kind is rejected with simple clarity.  That is a breath of fresh air billowing through the religious clutter of disdain and hatred! Is this what people all over the world are responding to in the unveiling of the Charter- compassion as the legitimate grounding of spiritual life?

The language of the document reminds me of Desmond Tutu’s persistent reminder that we are all made for “oneness”. Or of the Dalia Lama insisting that we are all inter-twined.  Is the authentic compassion of these two spiritual leaders what caused over 150,000 in Seattle to come out and talk about compassion?

The Charter for Compassion recognizes that compassion is taught and instilled in the lives of the young when they are given, “accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures.” It doesn’t stop there.   It urges a pro-active apperception of cultural and religious diversity.

Is this all simply about a “feel good” experience?   The Charter reminds us that when we denigrate others, even our enemies, we deny “or common humanity.” It invites us to “cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings.”

I read this and I think of Tutu and the Dalai Lama poking each other in the ribs and laughing like delighted children over breakfast.  Their joy, in spite of all they have lived through, is palpable. It is the real thing.  They have each cultivated compassion for themselves and for those who have been their enemies.  Compassion for them, as it is for us, is a way of being.  It is about a mindful approach to life.  We cultivate it.

Compassion may be the only bridge across which divisions, violence and hatred can be re-imagined.  As I looked at those present at the unveiling of The Charter for Compassion last night in Seattle I had the feeling that I was witnessing the start of a grassroots movement.  A spiritual movement that reflected the hope, yearning and expectation in the eyes of the 150,000 who came to hear Tutu, the Dalai Lama and others speak about compassion.  Unlike those crowds, the supporters of the Charter are part of a connected network that technology has made possible.  Technology is making possible the reminder that compassion is the abiding, central truth of all spiritual and moral traditions.


Watch Robert discussing Building a Values Based Framework on YouTube

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Pitting Gays, the Homeless and the Sick Against Each Other: Religious Schizophrenia and Olive Branches?

In Washington DC the homeless and the ill are being pitted against gay and lesbian people. In Salt Lake City an anti-discrimination bill protecting the LGBT community passed unanimously. In DC the threats are coming from the Roman Catholic Church. In Salt Lake City the new bill was blessed by the Mormon Church. They were both kissing cousins in uniting against Proposition 8 in California.  Have their California dating days come to an end? An olive branch offered in Utah; hostage taking and threats in DC. Is this a case of religious schizophrenia? Are some spiritual fundamentals at stake?

Most LGBT people have experienced threats made against them. Many have learned to navigate the shoals, to protect themselves. The Salt Lake City bill bestows on LGBT people the freedom enjoyed by others; freedom from discrimination in employment and housing. The bill’s provisions are unremarkable. Salt Lake City joins a long list of American cities with similar laws. Salt Lake City is to the Mormons what the Vatican is to Roman Catholics. What is remarkable about the bill is that it was publicly blessed by the Mormons on their sacred turf.

The Mormon benediction came a year after Mormon financial support and door to door canvassing was widely credited in overturning same-sex marriage in California. Some degree of protection from threats and hostile actions directed to LGBT people are now no longer permissible in Salt Lake City.

Is this an Olive Branch? Or is this an expression of a spirituality of justice found in most spiritual traditions? Most spiritual traditions not only invite, but expect spirituality to include working against injustice, against harm to people. The Dalia Lama likes to remind us that we are all inter-connected, that there is no independence. We all part of the one bundle of humanity. The attention given to the Mormon support of Salt Lake City’s legislation is an expression of that.

Most spiritual traditions expect tangible care for the outcasts, the fragile, and the vulnerable. In DC, Catholic Charities – known for generous and laudable work throughout the country – has threatened to withdraw from the city contracts that it manages which provide care to 68,000 people in the District of Columbia. These include the homeless, adoption services and health care for the poor. The threat is intended to persuade the DC Council to withhold their expected approval to a same-sex marriage law.
Opposition to same-sex marriage is a perspective that may be held freely. It seems unfathomable to me that the homeless, the sick and children are offered as hostages in support of that opposition. Pitting people against one another is an odd expression of any Golden Rule or spirituality.

In Utah a gay rights group backed the Common Ground Initiative to seek commonalities and build support for equal protection under the law in both the Utah State Legislature and the Salt Lake City Council. Might the organizers of Common Ground consult with religious institutions to help them lead the way in building up, rather than setting people against one another?

Too often some use religion to divide, separate and sow discontent or worse. The Common Ground Initiative is a secular reminder of the spiritual practices of compassion, of oneness, love and the dignity of every human life.

Divisiveness may play well for politicians. Surely the spiritual moral and ethical high ground is in honoring each life and seeking common good? Imagine the results of religious and spiritual energy directed to towards that!


Watch Robert V Taylor discussing Exclusion in the Name of God and how spirituality invites inclusion on YouTube

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Rejoicing in death of a child? Nathan Halbach, Son abandoned by Father

Nathan Halbach has only several weeks to live before his 22 year old life ends. His battle with cancer is coming to an end. Nathan’s biological father is a Roman Catholic priest who chose to be an absent dad. The Roman Catholic Church has wished Nathan and his mother away. Nathan’s mom, Pat Bon, believes the church will rejoice when her son dies. If only they had followed President Obama’s advice ( on the ethic of responsibility: “What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one.” Nathan’s courageous life sheds a light on responsibility.

Nathan’s dad is Fr. Henry Wallenberg, a member of the Franciscan order of St. Francis of Assisi. As a young priest he fathered Nathan. After this family lived together for five years the Franciscans demanded a legal agreement with Nathan’s mother to separate the family and guarantee her silence. ( Surely not a pro-life move to break up and silence a family?

Pat Bond’s attempts to get support from the church for the exorbitant medical bills for Nathan’s cancer treatments were fruitless. Until the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) picked up on the story. It turns out that Nathan’s dad is facing allegations of abusing a female high school student. SNAP’s involvement resulted in yesterday’s announcement that the church would pay for Nathan’s burial expenses. How ironic.

Last night Pat Bond spoke on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 ( about how the church had wanted her and Nathan out of their lives. Speaking about the offer to pay for Nathan’s funeral expenses she said, “The day my son goes, the church will rejoice”. It seems incomprehensible to imagine that Pat Bond is correct. The thought of such rejoicing is vile. More so, because it is consistent with Pat’s experience. She is not looking for retributive justice. Will restorative justice be offered?

This is not a story about the merits, behavioral impacts or wisdom of celibacy. It is not a story of sexual abuse. Although it may raise those questions for many.

It is a story about the value that marked St. Francis’ life and for which he was hounded – love. Hundreds of years ago Francis wrote about imagining God coming to his house and asking for charity. Francis says he fell on his knees and asked what he might give. “Just love. Just love.” Pat and Henry had the love of a family destroyed by an imposed agreement. Nathan had no choice in this matter of love being turned in on destruction.

It is also a story about responsibility. President Obama’s Father’s Day remarks could be a study guide for institutions that are in the business of supporting life and families. It takes courage to raise a child. Abandoned by his own father, the President’s words are a call to be responsible for one another. Francis would have approved! He knew that words were no substitute for actions. For centuries, legions of Francis’ followers have lived by his rule of love and responsibility for all.

It is a story that co-joins love with responsibility. Like Obama, Nathan was abandoned by his father, Father Henry. Nothing will restore that loss. Like the President’s own mother, Pat Bond has been a single parent whose life reveals what responsibility means. The lack of responsibility on the part of the other players is jarring.

Is it possible that the legacy of Nathan’s all too short life will be a gift shining new light on responsibility? Francis would have approved. If that is so, there will not be rejoicing at his death, but profound thanks for a life of courageous responsibility.


Watch Robert V. Taylor discussing Ethics and Spirituality at:

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Scapegoating Muslims is Kooky

The tragedy of the Fort Hood massacre is horrific. A backlash against Muslims serving in the US Armed Services is expected. This is kooky. This is classic scapegoat theory at play. It is misplaced energy cutting away at the heart of what it means to be an American. The kookiness will stop if we expect our leaders to avoid the cheap fleeting advantages of nodding and winking at scapegoaters. Our “No” to scapegoating will be a measure of who we are.

The rational for the backlash is that Major Hassan is Muslim. 3,500 of the 1.4 million who serve in the US Armed forces share his faith. The evidence to date suggests he was a lone operative, possibly deranged. The unanswered question is why his known comments in support of suicide bombing were never acted on by authorities. Muslim Americans such as Corporal Karen Rashad Khan have served with distinction and given their lives for the US.

There was no public backlash against Christians when Scott Roeder assassinated Dr. George Tiller in Kansas. The Christian groups who applauded Tiller’s murder for performing abortion services were not described as terror cells. What is at work unleashing a backlash based on one claimed faith and not another?

Scapegoat theories tell us that people act out their anger, fear and prejudice by choosing a group that they dislike. We did it to Japanese Americans during the Second World War. The most extreme example of scapegoating remains German targeting of Jews in that same war.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, many American cities experienced a sharp increase in attacks against those perceived as “different”. In Seattle, attacks were committed against the Sikh community while threats made it necessary to protect mosques and synagogues. Fear was driving equal-opportunity scapegoating.

Major Hassan and Scott Roeder do not speak for the majority of those who claim the Muslim or Christian faith. To use these extremist bearers of terror to tarnish entire groups of people is opportunistic fear-mongering. Left unchecked, the backlash that is feared for Muslims in the US will feed the perniciousness of scapegoating.

The overwhelming majority of Americans are tolerant and proud of the freedom from religion which is a defining mark of our nation. Inter-spiritual understanding is needed – urgently. Eternal spiritual truths of love and compassion towards our neighbors are not feel-good sentiments. They’re made known in concrete actions. The values and principles of our nation invite honoring difference.

The kookiness of back lashing becomes less powerful when named and confronted. We need to reclaim the conversation. Perpetrators of violence of any kind are to be resolutely condemned. As are the scapegoaters. New conversations about shared American mores and common spiritual values will have the kookiness make way for forging a stronger diverse America. Scapegoating tears people apart. Surely it is time to build up?


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