Barring divine intervention, today marks the end of my newspaper career. I had planned to retire in 2012. That would have been my 40th anniversary of writing for daily newspapers. That's the year the Mayan calendar purportedly prophesies the end of things anyway.
But my tidy plan was derailed by the newspaper industry's meltdown.
I offer some parting thoughts about faith, religion and spirituality, my beat since 1987 (except for a 4 1/2-year break as the daily Town Crier columnist). I've made these points before in columns, blogs and commentaries, but they bear emphasizing a last time.
I've covered some of the best and worst sides of religion, from refreshing ministries of unconditional love and service to the prolonged pattern of sexual misconduct by priests to the scurrilous crimes and betrayal of congregations by clergy, members and others. The faith business is so vulnerable to skullduggery and opportunism. It skillfully employs power and language. It engendered trust and nurtures hope. Out of it can come control, abuse, financial fraud and blind discipleship. I grieve for all trapped in religions by geography and the forces of family. Should they seek the self-realization of something else, they face estrangement and shunning, in some cases treated like they had died.
"Why don't you write about the demagoguery of religions?" one caller groused into my answering machine last weekend.
Someone has said that "civilization is just a slow process of learning to be kind." Religion surely has advanced the human march toward civility, but often much of that advancement has been in spite of religion. Bad religion has brought unfathomable hurt and suffering throughout time, as it does today. Enforced "group-think," which minimizes conflict, ensures apostasy is nipped and reformist ideas go nowhere.
The forces of religion, practiced for good, know no bounds. From the joy and comfort of fellowship to the collective power of outreach that a congregation can perform to hearing a choir sing evocative works of John Rutter - who would pass up what it means to be part of a body of believers that loves you, brings you meals when you are ill and shares in your spiritual walk through faith and doubt.
Tragically, monolithic religions are often so muscle-bound that any significant reform takes centuries and not years. When change is made, from the top down, by octogenarian males, why expect anything?
So, many people have abandoned mainline Protestant and Catholic churches for independent, unaffiliated community churches and Bible-emphasizing megachurches short on creeds and unfettered by tedious rules, such as one church that says a communion wafer is restricted to a specific grain.
People may freely practice their faiths but they should never get a pass from public scorn when some of their practices and theology are cruel, cause suffering, marginalize or discriminate. After all, it may only be our public witness and voices from the outside that give hope, affirmation and the seeds of reform to inspire long-suffering adherents to demand change.
It is not intolerant to condemn religions that deny women (also made in God's image) full equality or to be priests, popes or imams - or just pastors or elders in the range of evangelical churches. Roman Catholics, Mormons, Southern Baptists and Muslims particularly warrant disdain for relegating women to supportive roles at best. Women have ably and effectively led nations, legislatures, corporations, universities, newspapers, denominations and ministries, and so much more. Their instincts, gifts and discipline make them supremely capable. Shame on patriarchal religions (you know, the old white boys) that somehow think that male power is God's ordained plan. The Catholic Church especially sits on a gold mine - not only women's infinite gifts for leadership but those of married men and women who would bring a renaissance to it if allowed to be priests and nuns.
I have grown weary covering the issue of gays in the church. That gays and lesbians deserve full acceptance and participation in the life and leadership of congregations is self-evident. That traditional marriage is threatened by gay marriage is no more valid than that adopting children will compromise the legitimacy of one's own natural children and the family unit. Or that blacks or Asians marrying whites would destroy traditional marriage. Bigotry is always an exercise in rationalization.
The quest for gay rights is clearly an unstoppable social movement, like those historic racial and gender equality campaigns. Just as we had to break the backs of stubborn, bigoted, white Southerners through heroic civil rights activism that won over the public, so the gay rights movement is advancing. It first is winning culturally, especially among the important younger generations who fail to buy the sin/choice argument. Progressive faiths, like the United Church of Christ ("God Is Still Speaking"), are moving past it. Others are in robust debate in a process that eventually will be settled with the acceptance of gays because they are believers, too, and because they are loved members of our families and they offer so much to any fellowship. Rigid religionists will deservedly look like troglodytes as they continue to lamely throw Old Testament Scripture at it. We have come too far in human sexuality and social research to base behavior norms on a handful of Scriptures from Moses' day, which called for putting gays to death.
Just visit a church or temple teeming in diversity and feel the joy and love of a congregation that knows what "all God's children" means.
Fundamentalist Christianity's obsession with homosexuality is both puzzling and destructive. They relish quoting the Bible, but overlook the countless areas of horrid, once-acceptable practices such as slavery, stoning adulterers, killing misbehaving children, keeping multiple wives, and so on. It's just shameless, selective cherry-picking of Scripture to lamely make their case.
An anti-intellectual streak pervades so many faiths. Obscurantism, deliberately keeping flocks away from ideas, is rampant. The Catholics and Mormons are particularly famous for the purgings and firings of academicians from universities and programs to protect orthodoxy and their "truth."
Then there's the issue of defending helpless children from sharp objects in the name of religion.
How refreshing it has been for growing numbers of Jewish families to forgo circumcising newborns, as they put human rights and respect for the body of a child above an ancient ritual. How perverse that a covenant supposedly made with God involved cutting live flesh from the privates of a defenseless, restrained baby boy who has not given his consent. Jews are among the most robust writers calling for the cruel practice to end. It really has no place in a civilized, moral society.
That fewer and fewer Jewish parents even order bris ceremonies with mohels underscores its fading regard as a rite. Meanwhile, Christians are woefully uninformed how the practice is condemned time and again by Paul. I've written about this cruel, painful, needless and medically unethical practice for many years, and I will work with so many others to get the circumcisers to lay down their macabre tools. If somebody today dreamed up the bizarre practice of circumcision and performed it on a boy, they'd go to jail forsexual abuse.
Humanists, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and the nonreligious should not be demonized. I know from hearing them out that they have values, demonstrate love and contribute earnestly to society and especially to the critical debates of the age. Obviously, they are buoyed by religions' misbehavior and hypocrisies.
The relentless work for cooperation and understanding by groups like the Arizona InterFaith Movement and Arizona Ecumenical Council is heartening. But, alas, some faith groups still spurn them and other across-faiths efforts, lest the purity of their doctrines is tainted by association or syncretism.
I owe a thanks for my editors in nearly 25 years with the Tribune for the freedom I've been given, not to mention the acres of newspaper space to tell faith's story. While moments with Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Robert McAfee Brown, Joel Osteen and Jim Bakker stand out in my reporting, the thousands of others who told their stories to me taught me so much - and hopefully our readers. The Valley is a crucible of beliefs.
One of my most transforming moments came in 1995 when Tempe conferred upon me its annual Don Carlos Humanitarian Award. Since then, I've always felt I needed to earn it and live up to it. "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity," the great Horace Mann said. We can all pick noble causes for a better planet?
May we open our eyes and just see what we have been doing and how we can do so much better. We must examine ourselves for humanity's sake, for God's sake. Love is the strongest force of all - not hate, not self-righteousness, not dogma.
Keep the flame burning, good people. We have the moral duty to make a world - make that kinder civilization - for generations to come. My four grandchildren are counting on you. Newspaper ink runs through my veins. Its oils help my torch burn brighter. May religions' dark toxins not cause the flame to go out. Peace be with you all.
Lawn Griffiths will continue to write the Beyond Belief blog at blogs.evtrib.com