Friday, April 19, 2013

It Gets Personal, Part III: Religion, Peacebuilding, and You (Me.)

My last couple of posts discussed my ongoing difficulties squaring off with religion, faith, and spirituality in my own life. The current crisis stems from a song I heard a couple of weeks ago that contained some subtle Christian overtones, and I've been using the blog to work through my relationship with these dynamics. Today, we reach the exciting(?) conclusion, where I connect these themes both to my background and my potential future.

A subtle but nonetheless highly salient component of a Maine upbringing is a strong sense of individuality and a corresponding reluctance to push others toward adherence to my own belief system. Casey says that it's because "we're good people," and he may be right. That which makes me uncomfortable with GOP legislation of morality or religious proselytizing also repels me from making judgments about the ways in which others live their lives, but that seems like such a big part of being faithful/religious in the Strange Land.  Here in DC, when I ask someone how they're doing, I'm about as likely to hear "Blessed" as anything else. And I've been repeatedly told that not spreading my faith to others is akin to not having a faith at all. I refuse to accept that, but the fact that so many folks seem to feel that way gives me lot of angst about the role of religion or faith in our daily lives. 

That angst isn't so much a problem in and of itself, but for a peacebuilder, it complicates things. War and violent conflict almost never occur across national borders for reasons of territory or disputes between heads of state anymore. Conflicts are primarily internal and fought over identity, socioeconomic inequity, or political exclusion. Religion and faith, so essential to identity in many cultures and contexts, can be both a key motivator of violence and a strong draw to reconciliation. It all depends on the ways in which the tenets and  symbols of a faith are activated. To wit, my first professor at the School of International Service, Dr. Abdul Aziz Said, was a strong supporter of the power of religion and faith to motivate forgiveness and reconciliation. He often quoted a colleague/mentor of his from the days of SIS' founding, who was wont to explain "I don't believe in God, I see god in everything I do." Both Aziz and his grad assistant, Sheherazade, worked with this personalized notion of holiness and an inner deity to motivate forgiveness and reconciliation in transitioning societies. By the same token, if you neglect to include religious leaders or groups in post-conflict peacebuilding, at best you'll alienate a wide segment of the population, at worst you've made yourself an adversary or "spoiler" who's going to work against your goals. 

Openness to the inclusion of religious elements comes as close to a hard-and-fast rule as anything else in the peacebuilding/development world, and I don't have any problem with that on an intellectual level. Religiously based support for love and justice can be essential to promoting lasting peace. In practice, though, I'm concerned that my discomfort with some PDR or "public displays of religion," will make my life difficult. When it finally comes time to address religious groups as part of a capacity-building exercise or policy workshop, what if I can't properly identify with the faithful? Will I come across as resistant or unreliable because of my trouble integrating spirituality into my life? The harder I try to understand faith, though, the harder some of the faithful seem to try to alienate me and those who think like me.

As the arguments coming from these self-appointed standard-bearers of tradition and societal soundness get eviscerated time and time again, it seems they're turning to more abstract language and ever-greater intellectual leaps. Now, the Archbishop of Paris has spewed a bunch of nonsense about impending violence if France goes ahead with legalizing same-sex marriage:  
Does this procession look photoshopped to anyone else?
Cardinal Andre Vingt-trois taking a break from authoring
inscrutable positions on the state's role in people's personal lives
to take part in the Stations of the Cross.
I wonder if Jesus' cross was that nice and polished.

"This is the way a violent society develops," he told the spring meeting of the French bishops' conference. "Society has lost its capacity of integration and especially its ability to blend differences in a common project."


I'm not entirely sure how a state that's trying to give a broader swath of people equal treatment under the law is doing anything other than showing its capacity for integration and the blending of differences, and the Cardinal doesn't appear to explain his logical gymnastics. But I'm quite sure that he's ignoring structural violence, which can be just as damaging as overt violence, though tougher to see. A major concept in peace and conflict resolution, structural violence refers to the structures and dynamics within a society that allow people to be marginalized or made second-class citizens. In many cases, structural violence actually legitimates overt violence, e.g. our acceptance that a certain degree of youth violence is going to occur among our poorer, darker-skinned, and more urban fellow Americans. If development or conflict resolution interventions are ignorant of these structures or give too much deference to localized, traditional understandings of societal norms and social relations (often based in religion,) they end up doing little more than reinforcing social oppression. And I ain't about that. Drawing on both religious and localized perspectives in conflict resolution is super important, but I'd have a (justifiably) hard time, I think, with the idea that it could end up damaging social inclusion or buttressing oppression.  

Of course, it's unlikely that I'll be in that situation any time soon, so I suppose I have time to iron out my relationship with faith, spirituality, religion, whatever you'd like to call it. Still, if there are even small ways that I can make myself more like the peacebuilder I someday hope to be, continually asking myself these questions will hopefully help me do that. Even if it means I have to bore everyone with an interminable series of idle thoughts I had when singing an OK song by a reasonably skilled contemporary rock/pop/Christian artist. 

I probably should just have my iPod on at all times and stop listening to the radio.

Friday, April 5, 2013

It Gets Personal, Part II: Music, Movies, and Faith on Two Wheels

Welcome back. Earlier this week, I talked about about how it affects me to have a song stuck in my head and then find out it's got religious/Christian themes in it. My inner reactions, though slightly varied, tend to coalesce around No Sir, I don't like it. Today, I'll explain a bit about why I think that might be.

I've encountered situations like this many times over the years. I would find bands like The Rocker Summer, Needtobreathe, Switchfoot, or even Paramore, grow to sort of like them, and then realize that their music was often faith-driven. I suppose it makes sense that this kind of music would be attractive. After all, it's impossible to completely divorce overall sonic quality of a given song from its lyrical content, and "CCM" often contains compelling themes like persistence despite adversity, the search for deeper meaning, struggling with a sense of alienation, and maintaining a positive outlook when things inevitably start looking bleak. Depending on how I feel at the time, those could be very useful devices.

So I can't really say for sure why discovering the band or artist's Christianity frustrates me so much! I suspect it's because I have struggled with my own faith/religion/spirituality for roughly the last 15 years, ever since I began to perceive that part of myself as distinct from the culture I was raised in and around. When, at 12 years old, I suggested that my family start going to church again, it wasn't out of any deep thirst for religion or faith. The truth is, it came from watching "Home Alone" with my family for the gazillionth time.

It was the scene where Kevin McAllister's elderly neighbor, Old Man Marley, who has been presented as creepy and possibly homicidal for the entire movie, is discovered (!) to be kind, wise, a good member of the community, and excellent at relating to children. He's basically Santa's more introverted brother who just looks gruff (due to taking his style cues from Civil War generals) and feels lonely and isolated after a falling-out with his own family some time ago.

"You can be too old for a lot of things-- you're never too old to be afraid."

Old Man Marley reassures Kevin on several fronts- fear is not something he needs to grow out of, his furnace probably isn't trying to eat him, and that they're sitting in a place where both of them (and by extension we) will always be welcome. Kevin, precocious prankster that he is, brings a childlike simplicity to Marley's internal conflict over whether to reach out to his estranged son. That all felt so powerful to me in that moment. In the popular mind, the scene tends to take a backseat to images of Kevin lip-syncing to a mobster movie while firecrackers go off like a Tommy gun, or Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern being continually jacked in the face by a paint can or whatever. Obviously that's a lot of fun, but I think the messages sent in the church scene are ultimately of much more value. 12-year-old me wanted to feel that sense of positiveness and warmth, so the following week we started attending the West Auburn Congregational Church/ United Church of Christ, which I remain a member of today.

For me, it was never really about God, who remained more a symbol or cultural reference point than anything truly active in my life. Much like a song getting stuck in my head, church was about capturing a feeling I had, then and there. Have I gone to a single non-Christmas, marriage, or baptism-related service in the last five years? No. Do I miss it? Rarely. But hearing that type of song or being reminded of those symbols and images brings my own internal conflict over spirituality rapidly to the fore, making me wonder if I ought to find religiosity for real.

It's not as though I haven't tried. Multiple times throughout my adult life, I've made a sincere effort to put religious faith into my heart. Of course, I never actually went back to church, since I considered it to be essentially separate from faith, and it somehow didn't seem right without my family and the people I knew. Maybe that was the missing piece, who knows. Either way, it hasn't worked, and approaching the end of my third decade I still oscillate between agnostic and "secular humanist." Frankly, even secular humanism bothers me, because those guys seem so adamant about the ridiculousness of being religious- they dismiss spirits and souls as constructed, almost immature inventions of humanity. By contrast, though those things do not play a huge role in my life, I do not doubt their importance or value to other human beings, whether constructed or not. We all need some form of mysticism or ritual to help us make sense of the world.

For me, singing songs helps, but I never feel more connected, clear-headed, or capable than when I'm riding a bike. Sure, it's fun to move fast(er,) feel the wind pushing back against me, and play fast and loose with the occasional stop sign, but there's more to it than that. My worries and issues seem to blow away on the wind, my reflexes sharpen, and I begin to feel my consciousness expand beyond my immediate physical body as I become part of a hybrid organic/mechanical form and feel the contours of the city as my wheels connect with the road. It's an incredibly liberating experience, and I don't suppose it's coincidence that an activity which makes me feel so connected to the world is often afforded a somewhat environmentalist bent. This is already sounding incredibly pretentious, so instead of continuing I'll just pose a question. If someone gets a similar feeling from a relationship with a god or similar entity as I do from cycling, who am I to decry that? But that question cuts both ways, and I have trouble with any system of beliefs in which so many of the faithful seem to be trying to force it on others. The idea of being religious feels so tied up in wanting other people to adhere to the same doctrines and mores as I do, and that's just so completely at odds with the kind of person I am.

Next time, I'll explore how that attitude relates (maybe) to my past, and its possible implications for my future. Stick around!


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

It Gets Personal, Part I: I heard a song. Here's what I think about that.

Yesterday, I was bombarded by a rare moment of insight into the way my weird mind works. Obviously, seeing a flash of the inner workings of one's psyche is profoundly disturbing, and my only way to process it was to write a blog post. This series of ruminations turned into a wide-ranging (and ongoing) exposition of my relationship with music, religion, and my chosen career path. Due to sheer length, it'll be in at least two parts, probably three. I hope you get as much from reading it as I did from writing it!

I'm not sure whether "That Awkward Moment" is still a thing or not, but if it were, tonight I would have tweeted "That awkward moment when you realize the song you've been singing to yourself all day and really like has been from a Christian music artist the whole time."

One of the first things you're likely to learn about me is that I sing to myself pretty much always. I like to think that it sounds good. Chances are, I'm wrong on that- although I was in a cappella groups for something like 6 years, listening to one person sing to an audience of one (himself) using a one-foot voice is seldom entertaining. Despite that knowledge, I persist, because it's a good way to carry myself through menial tasks, and most people probably don't notice at any rate.

Some days though, I hum/sing a song for many hours and later learn that the artist belongs to that sort-of-nebulous genre called "Contemporary Christian Music", then feel weird about it. Yesterday was one of those days. The offending song was "Down" by Mat Kearney, which probably came up on my Pandora last week or something. I should emphasize that I can rarely identify the point at which a song got stuck in my head, and almost never recall hearing it recently. If you listen to the song, there's very little reason to be sympathetic to my ignorance of its Christian overtones:

The chorus goes thusly: Can you hear when we call?/ Be there when we fall?/ We're standing, our backs against the wall/ Top of our lungs, Hallelujah/ Where pain and love bleed into one/ Baby when all you see is darkness (it's coming down now)/ We all need forgiveness (it's coming down now.) It tells the story of several people facing varying degrees of adversity, their search for support and their struggle to maintain hope.

So yeah, I probably should have noticed. But that's the (possibly) strange thing about the way I relate to music: it's not usually about the lyrics of a song. Sure, the words can be interesting and engaging, and bands like Mumford and Sons, Say Anything, Motion City Soundtrack, the Decemberists, or Stepdad write lyrics that I want to read, understand, and unpack. But when I'm just listening to or singing a song, the lyrics aren't usually important because of any inherent quality, just for being lyrics. They derive more meaning from their effect of adding a melody and punctuating the overall "soundscape." That completed piece of sound evokes a state of mind or a set of emotions that I can use to frame, interpret, and respond to the things going on around me, or even to my own thoughts and ideas. There's a chicken-and-egg debate in there somewhere: whether the music interprets my thoughts/feelings or I select music based on the thoughts/feelings I already have. Not going to get into it. The important thing is that the framing device created need not have anything to do with what the song is about- I wasn't feeling particularly hard-up or hopeless when going over and over "Down" both in my head and under my breath. The full sound somehow just seemed right for where I was, what I was doing, and how I felt, even if only I could hear it.

And then I looked up the lyrics and realized that it was just a little more God-themed than I would have liked. For some reason, that just sort of...bugs me.

In the next post, I'll attempt to explain why that is. So, um, stay tuned.