Thursday, May 22, 2014

Saints to emulate

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”, Mark Antony, “Julius Caesar”, by William Shakespeare.

Last week I wrote “Criminals hiding behind religion”, those who use religion to justify violence against others, whether physical or mental.

As an antidote I would like to write about a few people who have a view of religion as a way to help others.

What is a saint?  Many individuals and institutions have their definitions, exemplary behavior, martyrdom, and performing miracles.  I define a saint as one who strives to help others, whether spiritually or physically.  It is these saints whose good is not interred with their bones, but lives after them.

Let’s start with the good about Islam in conflict with the bad in “Islam”.

Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head on a school bus by a Talib who didn’t like her promotion of education for girls above the age of 15.  She survived the attack and is still promoting education to a much wider audience. Her parents support her.  Her view is that Islam is a religion of “peace, humanity and brotherhood.”  To her, the Taliban are “misusing the name of Islam” and are afraid of education.

Going back over a thousand years, there is the legendary Rabia.  She supposedly ran through town with a torch and a pitcher of water.  She wanted to set fire to heaven and quench the fires of hell.  She thought people should love Allah without the promise of heaven or the fear of hell.

The Red Crescent Societies in various Muslim countries are part of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.  Among recent activities are aid for Syrian refugees.

Jesus may have been a zealot as described by Reza Aslan or the gentle soul of the Beatitudes or some mixture.  But we would do well to heed his words about getting along with others instead of harshly judging those who differ with us.  He did warn about false religiosity, such as praying in the public square to be seen by others.  What would he think of government meetings being opened by prayer?  Is that “rendering unto Caesar”?

Erasmus was a sixteenth century cleric and scholar.  Although he stayed within the Catholic Church, he was critical of many of its abuses.  He was later accused of hatching the Reformation and his books were banned.  However, his view was much wider than mere doctrine.  For example, “That you are patriotic will be praised by many and easily forgiven by everyone; but in my opinion it is wiser to treat men and things as though we held this world the common fatherland of all.”  See Wikipedia for more.

Dorothy Day was many things, a journalist, a socialist, a communist, a labor activist, and a convert to Catholicism.  Above all else, she believed in justice and serving others.  She was a founding editor of The Catholic Worker from which came a “house of hospitality”, a shelter for the poor where they could also receive clothing and food.  These spread into many cities, and many of us know about the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul.

Mother Theresa is well-known for her “helping the poorest of poor”, but I once read that her hospices had a high death rate.  But then I read elsewhere that she was taking in the dying dumped in the street and allowing them to die in dignity.

Quakers and other church groups gave support to the Underground Railroad, a network to move escaped slaves north.  What a contrast; slaveowners used the Bible to justify slavery and others used the Bible to justify freeing slaves.

Nelson Mandela, baptized a Methodist, became an activist against apartheid.  He was sentenced to life in prison by the apartheid government and served 27 years.  Much of his early time was in solitary confinement or at hard labor.  Despite this treatment, when he was released and eventually became president of South Africa he didn’t seek revenge but sought reconciliation.

The current Dalai Lama is a man who is easy to like.  He is well-known for his wide-ranging generosity on many subjects and his sense of humor.  He considers himself a communist and the Chinese Communists as capitalists.  That is, he puts workers before profits and would like to see the benefits of enterprises shared and the poor better cared for.  On the other hand, he gets along well with all sorts of “capitalists”.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born into a Hindu family.  In his resistance to British rule in South Africa and India, he practiced non-violence and encouraged others to do likewise.  He sought more equity for all – women’s rights, easing poverty, and religious and ethnic tolerance.  He helped achieve independence for India, but he could not prevent religious intolerance from splitting his country in two.  Sadly, he was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist.

I thought that the Rabbi Hillel gave a two-part statement of basic belief, but I can only find one of these in a quick search.  Jesus is quoted as saying the first law is “To love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind”.  He was quoting from Deuteronomy.  Then “And love thy neighbor as thyself.”  Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you do not do to others.  All the rest is commentary.  Now go and learn.”

Anything in “religious writings” contrary to this last quote is political.

The above was also published in the Reader Weekly of Duluth at