Saturday, August 21, 2010

Identity Crisis and Idol Worship

This last month has been the hardest. G*d has begun to show me the truth of my fears and faith. Moving into a different culture, has challenged my own. Before I assumed so much of my culture was "just normal". Here I have to wrestle with my cultures underlying collective beliefs.

For example in India there are numerous holidays throughout the year where the Hindu people spend large amounts of time, money, and creative energy constructing beautifully painted idols. They parade these through town only to dump them into the Ganges River as a sacrifice to the gods. Through the centuries of idol worship, this now polluted river causes all sorts of illness, disease, and death for my community who rely on this dirty water for daily life. And yet these human-made objects are worshipped because the Hindu people believe the deities will reciprocate their devotion providing happiness, fulfillment, prosperity, belonging, among other things. It is the Hindu faith and fear of these gods that lead them to worship. At first sight, coming from my western culture, these idols seem absurd, until my eyes were opened to my own cultures idolatry. If we worship who we fear, then perhaps the question is, "who or rather what do I fear?"

When I first moved to Kolkata, my new community did not know who I was, which was in contrast to the community I had just left who thought quite highly of me (at least I think they did). My reputation, good and bad, did not follow me to India. And because other people did not know who I was, I forgot who I was as well. I had an identity crisis my first few months as I realized much of “who I am” was wrapped up in the lie that I am as good as people think I am. Much like any other idol, a reputation is something human made. It is what we create together as we watch, judge, and remember each other’s actions. This human-constructed idol of reputation is the fear that unless I get everyone, including myself, to believe I am good than I am not really “enough”. The Idol of Reputation promises the false-hope of attaining the fulfillment, happiness, and belonging that I have always wanted.

Looking back, and still now, I give so much time, energy, and critical thinking into winning the praise of others, and thus I worship of the idol of reputation. The problem is this idol creates an "in group" based on the exclusion of others. The idol of reputation excludes those who do not have a good reputation, like perhaps prisoners, prostitutes, drug addicts or other marginalized groups of people in society that are deemed “bad” because of things they have done. Like every idol, it only brings death and destruction in a community as it breed’s comparison, mistrust, and division. Prisoners on death row stand in witness to the death the idol of reputation produces.

But this idol crumbles as we remember our Sav!or died as a convict. His reputation nailed Him to a cross. Chr!st is the only one without sin. Where the Idol of Reputation says there is something to be achieved, G*d’s mercy stands in starch contrast and proclaims, “G*d’s love is for all and it cannot be earned”.

Hindu god of prosperity Lakshmi-->

Another identity crisis took place as G*d revealed my own love for money. In my fast-paced capitalist American culture, I have believed in the lie that “I am as good as my salary. I am as good as the profit I produce for a company. I am as good as the material things accumulate for myself”. Like all idols, money is something we humans create and attribute value to. Money promises to bring happiness, success, security, and prosperity. These promises are rooted in the fear that we might not “have enough.”

So often I have worshipped the idol of money. Whenever I chose my work based on a pay rate rather than the good it did for others, I bowed to the money. Even my understanding of time was sacrificed to money so every second was a quantifiable dollar amount that is best not wasted on things like slowing down, patience, prayer, and living in the present with others.

Much like the idols in my Kolkata neighborhood, the money is another false-hope that steals life and produces death. I see now that this idol in my culture transforms middle class families into a place where mom and dad are absent because they feel they must maintain a livelihood that required 60+ hour work-weeks. This fear brings death to families all over the world as it has created a culture of accumulation in the west where the richest 10% of adults have 85% of the world total wealth (2000). Over 1.2 billion people survive on $1.25 (USD) a day. The fear that drives materialism in my culture is starving the majority of the world. Inside North America, undocumented workers, the unemployed, the mentally or physically disabled, and the homeless are seen as sub-human when we find belonging by what we own or can produce.

But this idol crumbles as we remember we follow a homeless Savi0r. When a rich man wanted to follow, Chr!st told him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. The Me$$iah that explained we can love G*d or we can love money, we will hate one and love the other. We must choose to follow the man who proclaimed, “Blessed are the poor” which stands in starch contrast to a world who fears the fate of the poor. On the Contrary, the life and teachings of our homeless Sav!or’s proclaim, “This love is for all. You cannot earn it and you cannot buy it.”

Hindu people make their idols of visible material like wood and stone. Perhaps it is the invisibility of my own idols which is most dangerous. It is in a Hindu culture I find myself entangled in a worship of wealth and fame. As long as my identity is tied to idols, I will never fear the G*d who Chr!st followed to the poor, the excluded, the marginalized, and the forsaken. Perhaps this is why it is in the loosing of our lives that we gain it. I guess my hope is G*d might woo this rich young woman into loosing herself.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Entering Community with the Poor

My new neighborhood is a place where most people avoid even walking past lest someone find out they were in this part of town. This is because I share this section of the city with over 10,000 women "standing in line" who are entangled in the sex-trade. Most of which are self-less mothers who would rather sell their bodies than watch their children go hungry or uneducated.

My new home is a 15"x8" too-short-to-stand-up-in room and consists mainly of a bed, a kerosene stove, a fan, a TV, and a drain where we do our bathing, cooking, dish-washing, and (occasionally when it is urgent or too late to leave our room) it is for our peeing as well. I have found myself living life alongside the most incredible, warm-hearted woman named Shikha and her far-too-beautiful-to-be-living-in-a-red-light-district 11 year old daughter named Papya. I am happy to say these are my new room mates.

I am discovering there are many beautiful treasures in relationship with the poor.

For instance, as I packed my stuff for the big move, consolidated "my-life" into a back pack, I was required to think critically about my wants verses my needs. Suddenly as I looked over my heaps of belongings scattered on the floor there was a shift in thought. The things that had once brought me feelings of security or self-worth, suddenly seemed quite unnecessary and even shameful as I realized these things were not only excessive, they were too expensive and and large to fit into my new home.

It was at this moment I realized how much of my identity has belonged to those things on the floor called "my belongings" and somehow at one time I had been so convinced I needed. But why?

My new neighbors had lived their whole lives without such things. I looked down at my designer clothes that had once given me so much confidence in America, realizing now they would be hurtful to my neighbors self-worth, as they could never afford such things. I counted my 15 sets of clothes that had once given me a sense of security in their numbers, only now the more I counted the more it seemed like a waste knowing the cost of just one those pants could pay our rent for the next 2 months. And all my gadgets for "well-traveling" now seemed like roadblocks for well-living.

It was in that moment I found I had been owned by the things I owned; possessed by my own possessions.

And for the first time, my rock solid "ideal of simplicity" was shattered. Now I see simplicity is so much more than a principle, it is actually the natural overflow of love when our neighbors are those who are poor. I'm believing more each day that the inequality of wealth in the world is not because the rich do not care about the poor, but we simple do not know them. It has been in relationship with the poor that I'm discovering my own poverty; greed, materialism, and hoarding to name a few.

It brings to mind "Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven".

Friends and neighbors enjoying Shikha force-feed me yet another dessert