Politics of Hate

March 30th, 2016

When I arrived at the offices of Voces de la Frontera, I picked up a sign to carry during the protest march. I found a piece of cardboard with a handwritten message that said, “Stop the politics of hate.” The words appealed to me, so that sign was in my hands during the entire walk from 5th and Washington to the Riverside Theater on Wisconsin and Water.


I don’t know how many people were in the march. I do know that the crowd stretched back for a several blocks. I noticed that we had a diverse group. Most of the marchers were Latinos, but there were also blacks, whites, and Asians. The protesters chanted slogans in both English and Spanish. There were people of all ages: young folks, older men and women, families with little kids. There were people from all over the Milwaukee County, and perhaps beyond.


It is remarkable to me that such a large number of people, many of whom were strangers to each other, would gather and then march together. It reminded me of what Pope Francis said and did last week during his Mass on Holy Thursday. The Pope washed the feet of twelve people, some of whom were not Catholic, or even Christian. Then he remarked to them that “we are all brothers”. It occurred to me during the demonstration that the Pope’s words were true. We are all brothers and sisters. Despite our differences in culture, language, and beliefs, we all have the same biology and we share the same destiny.


Those who practice the politics of hate always picks out the things that divide us from one another. They always try to ways to separate humanity into “us and them”. They look for the aspects of “them” that scare us and ratchet up our anxiety. It is human nature to fear what we don’t understand, and then to hate what we fear. Ignorance and fear are forces that give power to the politics of hate.


How do we stop the politics of hate? We can start by focusing on the things that we all share in common. We all want peace and safety. We all want our children to have a better future. We all wrestle with our fears and doubts. We are all mortal. We all want to be loved.


In a way, it is easy to recognize the common humanity of the people we like. It wasn’t hard for me to connect with the other people at the demonstration. The challenge is to be able to see the members of the opposition as our brothers and sisters. Does it do any good to compare Trump with Hitler? Does it do any good to mock Trump’s supporters? If I really want to stop the politics of hate, I need to realize that those people with whom I strongly disagree are also part of my greater family. I have to show them respect, even if they do not reciprocate. That is the only way to stop the politics of hate.



Ribs and Moonshine

July 4th, 2015

Karin and I were invited to Ernie’s house yesterday for some barbecue. Ernie works with me. We’ve been together for about twenty years. He’s 63-years-old. Ernie was at our anniversary party last year, but Karin never got to meet Ernie’s wife, Merry. I didn’t know who else was going to be there besides Ernie and his wife, but Karin and I were pumped to go. Ernie lives in a bungalow near 18th and Capitol. The neighborhood is nice, but some of that area of town is very hoody. Karin and I drove up to the north side of Milwaukee, fully expecting to be like two grains of salt in a pepper shaker.


Ernie was in the backyard when we showed up. He was busy grilling ribs and listening to Albert King on his stereo. Ernie loves the blues. I brought some beer with me. Karin went in the house to talk with Merry and her daughter, Tanya. I stayed out back with Ernie. We sat under his canopy. Ernie gave me tips for barbecuing. We drank some Sprecher beer, and talked smack. Ernie is recuperating from a hip replacement. He’ll be off from work until Labor Day. He can get around well enough to flip the slabs of ribs, but otherwise his hip is still too tender for walking around.


Ernie has a beagle. It’s the fattest dog I’ve ever seen. Its belly almost drags on the ground. Well, he’s been getting leftovers from the barbecue for years. That explains it.


I mentioned to Ernie that my grandparents made wine in their house during Prohibition. Ernie said, “Frankie, don’t you be telling me about bootleggin’. I’ll tell you about it. Hell, my family down in Hattiesburg, all them bootlegged. Made damn good money too. All them folks in Mississippi was makin’ moonshine. Hey, you want some? I got me some in the house.”


I agreed to have a sample. He told me to have it with ice.


Ernie brought out two glasses, and a bottle that said “Patron” on it. Ernie said, “Now I know this bottle say ‘Patron’ on it, and I do drink Patron, but that ain’t what’s in the damn bottle. This here’s moonshine. Now I don’t pour other people’s troubles for them. You got to do that yourself. You pour your own problems.”


Fair enough.


Well, I never had moonshine before, and this stuff was fine. It looked and poured like water, but there was no other resemblance.


Ernie gave me more moonshine tips. “Now Frankie, I never store moonshine in anything but glass. One time, I was talking on my HAM radio and I smelled something funny in the house. The moonshine had eat through the plastic jug. So, I only use glass bottles now.”


Good to know.


Ernie likes to tell stories. God knows, he has some good ones. He moved to Chicago from Mississippi when he was a teenager. He had some wild times. He told me about drinking Mad Dog and smoking weed with his buddies. He talked about packing heat on the south side of Chicago back in the ’70’s. He talked about bringing moonshine up from down south.

Ernie told me about his sister working at Speed Queen, the source of the best barbecue in Milwaukee. Ernie said, “Your brother, what his name? John? Man, I ain’t never seen somebody eat Speed Queen like your brother. Damn. He love that food.”


By that time, Karin and Merry were outside with us. We ate ribs and potato salad, and cake that Merry had baked. There was a ton of food. The ribs were amazing. They didn’t need any sauce. They rocked.


Ernie and I kept talking and drinking. Merry looked at Ernie, and she shook her head and smiled. She loves the man. They have been married for thirty-two years. Merry and Karin both married crazy men, so they got along just fine.


Well, it got to be about 6:00 PM. Karin looked at me sweetly and said, “Well, maybe we should be going.” (translation: “You’ve had quite enough. Let’s go home.”). So, we got ready to leave, and Ernie and his wife insisted we take home food with us. I sliced off a slab of ribs for Stefan. We also grabbed some cake. We all hugged, and Karin drove me home. No surprise there.


Before we left, Ernie talked to us about a retirement party. “Frankie, when you gonna have your damn retirement party? Tell you what: I’ll do all the grillin’.”


Done. I guess we’re having a party next summer.




September 16, 2016

“My mother is dead.”

Carl Fields told me this as we were driving through Racine to the church where he volunteers. We had been talking for over an hour already, and he mentioned this fact almost as an afterthought. The story of his mother was important in order for me to understand Carl, but somehow it had never come up before in our conversation. Carl impressed upon me that the death of his mother was a crucial piece of his life story, but somehow it had slipped his mind until that moment. He remarked that some things are easy to forget, because they are so painful to remember.

Carl’s mother died when Carl was barely out his teens. Linda Field’s death was violent. She had been strangled. Carl realized after his mother’s death that she had been a drug addict. That made things even harder for him to handle. When the police informed Carl and his family about Linda’s murder, they somehow indicated that her death was partially Carl’s fault, that he bore some responsibility for this tragedy. Carl was filled with an impotent rage, along with his intense grief. He was overwhelmed by emotions that had no focus or direction.

It is impossible to overemphasize the impact that Linda’s murder had on Carl. His mother’s death was the most painful event that Carl ever experienced. Nothing else even comes close. It completely changed the trajectory of the rest of his life.

Carl went to see his girlfriend. He wanted to go on the run. He wanted to take his young daughter out of town with him. Carl’s girlfriend was deeply opposed to this idea. They argued. They fought. Other people got worried. Somebody called the cops.

Now Carl had a target for his anger. He shot at the police. They shot back. Nobody was killed. Nobody was hurt. But the damage was done. Carl had set off a chain of events that would take him to prison in Waupun, and years later would bring him to my kitchen table.

As we sat together, I asked Carl, “So, they didn’t see the humor in all this?”

Carl looked down at his coffee cup, and shook his head slowly, saying “No, they sure didn’t.”

Carl was charged with multiple counts of shooting at the police and recklessly endangering public safety. The judge slammed him hard. The judge told Carl straight to his face that firing at the police was not going to be tolerated, and that he was going to make an example of Carl. The judge wanted the whole world to know that shooting at a police officer had serious consequences. The judge gave Carl eighteen years in prison, of which he has recently completed sixteen of those years. Carl has only been back in the outside world for the last six months.

Carl is a self-described introvert. He is active in the world, but he knows that the real action is inside of himself. Carl is an intelligent man and prone to self-reflection. He told me that when he was young, prior to his conviction, he understood pieces of himself, but he never had the whole picture. After sixteen years, Carl has had the time to put the jigsaw puzzle of his life back together. Carl understands himself now, and he is comfortable with that knowledge. He knows his strengths and limitations. He knows how to let go.

To me, Carl seems to be a man in a hurry. He had sixteen years to think things out, and now he’s ready to get things done. He is passionate about social justice, about politics, about the needs of other people. He’s ready to make up for lost time.

While listening to Carl, I thought about his re-entry into “normal” society. It’s obviously been a struggle for him. He has had difficulty finding work. Carl relies on public transportation, because he has none of his own. Carl even told me about the adventure of learning to use a smart phone. So many things that I take for granted are currently out of reach for Carl. Carl is working to find his niche in a culture that he might not completely understand. This same culture certainly doesn’t understand Carl. The fact is that this culture isn’t interested in understanding Carl.

I asked Carl about his experiences with solitary confinement. Carl had never been in solitary himself, but many of his friends went through that abuse. Carl found it frightening to see a close friend go into solitary confinement, and then later see a stranger walk back out. He described the people coming out of solitary as being like androids; uncommunicative, distant, and often heavily medicated. The people that Carl knew came out of solitary confinement mentally and spiritually damaged.

I got out of the Army thirty years ago. I thought about my experience with re-entering the civilian world, and I considered that with regards to what Carl has to endure. I realize that I am comparing apples with oranges, but I noticed some odd similarities. Both Carl and I left environments that were highly regimented, isolated from the vast majority of people, intensely masculine, and occasionally dangerous. We returned to interact with people who, for the most part, simply cannot understand our experiences. I can’t adequately explain to a civilian what it was like to be a soldier. It’s even worse for my son, because he is a combat vet, and how can he explain the experience of fire fight? How can Carl explain to a person who has never been involved with the Department of Corrections how it felt to be a prisoner? Some things cannot be learned vicariously. Some things can only be lived.

Let’s look at it this way. Imagine that re-entry into the greater society is the subject of a new video game. The player has to attempt to re-integrate into the world at various levels of increasing difficulty and decreasing probability of success. Let’s say that a returning veteran is at one of the easier levels of the game. After all, some people will cut a vet some slack because of his military service. A higher level of difficulty would be for a returning combat vet. A guy, like my son, who has killed somebody, will have trouble adapting to the lifestyle of the average American. A level above that would for ex-prisoners. They too are coming back to a strange world, but very few people will give them a break. The highest level of difficulty might be for ex-prisoners who endured solitary confinement. These guys come out of prison as emotional wrecks, and nobody gives a damn about them. Game over.

Carl told me that his time in prison changed him forever. It has left an indelible mark on him. Just like my son’s combat experience has changed him permanently. Men like Carl, or like my son, Hans, will always find it difficult to fully integrate back into society. Returning vets and returning ex-prisoners can and should become valuable members of our communities, but it is a struggle for them. That is probably why Carl is involved with EXPO, in order to get support from other ex-prisoners and to give support to them. Likewise, Hans is a member of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association. Carl needs to be with people who can relate to him. Hans needs to do the same thing.

It is our society’s interest to help bring ex-prisoners back into the fold. Men like Carl can be assets to our society. They can help to rebuild our communities as they rebuild their own lives. They can build new lives, but they need help to do that. Presently, we, as a nation, aren’t interested in providing that help. We are content to watch them fail and return to prison. Actually, we aren’t even willing to watch them fail. We prefer to ignore them completely.

Carl is going to make it. I have no doubt of that. More importantly, Carl will help other ex-prisoners make it. I don’t doubt that either.


September 8, 2016

Caliph Muab’El is a well-built man, muscular and fit. He has a friendly face, and a ready smile. When I met Caliph, he was wearing a black shirt, and his locks hung down to his shoulders. He wore a large ring designed to look like a crescent moon and a star. He also wore a chain around his neck that held a pendant shaped to look like the Arabic word for God (Allah).

I said to him, “Assalam wa’laikum.” (“Peace be with you” in Arabic).

He replied, “Wa’alaikum assalam.” (And peace be with you also”).

Caliph was a bit surprised by my greeting, and asked me, “Are you Muslim?”

“No, but some of my friends are.”

We sat down and I asked Caliph to tell me about himself.

He started off by saying that most people call him Minister Caliph Muab. He defines himself as a minister, as somebody who serves others both spiritually and physically.

I asked him, “Are you an imam?”

He replied, “I’m an imam… a sheikh…a minister. I am a Sufi (Muslim mystic).” Caliph went on to describe his spiritual journey, and how his mother was Christian while his father was Muslim. Caliph finds truth in all religious traditions. He has spent years, especially while in prison, seeking to understand God and to understand himself. Self-awareness and an awareness of God’s presence go hand in hand.

Caliph told me about his prison experience. He was a pioneer in a way. Caliph was the first juvenile to be sent into the adult portion of the Wisconsin penal system. At age fifteen, Caliph had shot a man. He hadn’t killed him, but that had been his intention, and Caliph had gone to prison for fifteen years. He didn’t get released until he was thirty.

I had to pause and think about all that. I view things through the lens of my own experience. Perhaps all people do. When Caliph spoke about shooting a man, I had to think about my eldest son, Hans. Hans shot and killed a man, but that was while he was a soldier deployed in Iraq. Hans didn’t go to prison. He might have even received a medal for what he did. I don’t know. I do know that killing another person changed my son. I wondered to myself how shooting a man had changed Caliph.

While in prison in Green Bay, Caliph had often responded to threats in a violent manner. Caliph had always survived by resorting to violence. This behavior eventually got him transferred to the supermax in Boscobel. It was there that Caliph spent ten years in solitary confinement. It was there that he learned through a mentor that violence solves nothing. It was there that Caliph became a jailhouse lawyer, a litigant. It was there that Caliph found God.

I asked Caliph about his time in solitary. He said that the system was designed to torture people, to break them. He described it as evil, and he gave me examples of how the guards and the administrators did their best to break his mind and his spirit. Once again, Caliph’s words made me think of my own experiences. Many years ago, I went through a version of Army basic training during which the people in charge relentlessly messed with my mind. However, there were basic differences between what I endured and what Caliph experienced. I volunteered to have somebody screw with my head. Caliph didn’t. I knew that somehow, some way, my pain would end. Caliph never knew when his suffering would end, or even if it would ever end. I had people tear at the core of my very being for two months. Caliph had ten years of that sort of abuse. After only two months of madness, I became a very different person. How does ten years of that change a person?

Caliph told me that years of abuse in solitary confinement destroys most people. If they had no mental illness problems before they went into solitary, they have them when they get out. Solitary confinement eventually makes a person incapable of functioning in society. Solitary confinement sets up a person for failure once they leave the prison system and return to the outside world.

I found all this to be irrational. Why would the Department of Corrections operate a system that all but ensures that inmates will fail when they get paroled? It makes absolutely no sense if the goal is for convicted felons to eventually re-integrate into society and become useful members of the larger community. Caliph pointed out that maybe that really isn’t the goal. Maybe the goal of the prison-industrial complex is for inmates to come right back into the system. Maybe the goal is to have a revolving door at the prisons, and to keep the cells full. Maybe this makes a profit for someone. Maybe it’s all about the money. If that is true, then the use of solitary confinement to break people makes all sorts of sense.

Caliph survived. He endured solitary confinement, and he made it out again. How? If the system is set up to destroy inmates, how did Caliph come out of prison intact?

Caliph credits his faith in God and his faith in himself for his survival. He also said that it was crucial for him that he was helping other inmates while he was serving in prison. While Caliph was in solitary, it made a huge difference to him that other people were depending on him. He kept going through a sense of obligation to others.

Humans have an overwhelming need to be needed. We are social creatures, and we wither and die if we only live for ourselves. We derive our sense of purpose from how important we are to the welfare of others. We can endure many things if we believe that we are somehow helping another person. We can keep going, despite all obstacles, if we know that somebody else is depending on us.

Caliph is still needed. He uses his own suffering to serve others who are hurting. He is an example that others can follow. He makes a difference.



Tea With Mohamed

August 14th, 2016

I went to Mohamed’s house on Monday evening. He had invited me over to look at his garden. I had feebly attempted to help Mohamed with the planting several weeks ago, just before Mohamed went overseas to be with his family in Tunisia. Now he and his wife and children were all back home. Mohamed called me when he got home from work, and then I drove over to his house. It was already a little after 7:00 PM, and the sun was starting to set.


I rang the doorbell, and Mohamed answered. He was carrying Zaynab in his arms. Zaynab is the nine-month-old daughter of Mohamed and Soumaya. The little girl was dressed in pink. She looked at me curiously with her deep, dark brown eyes. Zaynab has dark hair that is already beginning to curl. She didn’t smile at me (most people don’t), but she didn’t seem afraid either.


We went inside, and there was Soumaya standing on a towel in the dining room, trying to soak up the water that Zaynab had spilled on the floor just seconds ago. Ah, the joys of having small children; always only a moment away from utter chaos.


“Assalam alaikum”, I said to Soumaya. She smiled and replied, “Wa alaikum assalam.”


Soumaya looked frazzled. She was wearing her white hijab and a long black dress. She had that look on her face that every young mother has. Even though she was smiling, I could tell that all she wanted in the world was five minutes of quiet.


Mohamed and I went into the living room. There was a large blanket spead on the floor for Zaynab. Yahya was also in the living room. He is their three-and-a-half-year-old boy. Yahya also has dark eyes and dark hair. He doesn’t say much, but his eyes are clever and bright. He has an impish smile. Yahya obviously enjoys being with his father, but he is willful young man. Yahya is always testing his boundaries; always testing, testing, testing…


I spoke with Mohamed, and really didn’t notice Soumaya’s absence. She was in the kitchen making tea. She brought out the hot tea on the platter, with a dish of Tunisian sweets, but only two glasses for the tea. Mohamed came over to where I was sitting, and he served me tea. The teapot had a long, slender spout, and Mohamed raised the pot up high to pour a stream of tea into my glass. Then he poured his own.


I asked him, “So, are you just showing off?”


He replied, “No, Frank. Pouring a thin stream of tea through the open air helps to cool it before it reaches your glass.”


I learned something new.


Soumaya laid Zaynab on to the blanket. She sat on the couch opposite me and asked, “So how are your children?” Then she laughed, saying, “They aren’t really children any more, are they?”


No, they aren’t. It felt strange for me to sit in the living room with this family, and vicariously relive that time when Karin and I had little kids. It’s weird to look back at those days from this end of the wormhole. There was so much about the future of our kids that we didn’t know then. I thank God for that ignorance. How would we have kept going if we had known then about a son going to war, or about a daughter lying in a bed in an emergency room, or about late night calls from the police, or about the news of a motorcycle accident?


I kept thinking of the words of Khalil Gibran:



Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

I thought about Yahya and Zaynab, and what they might be like in fifteen years or so. What would they think of their immigrant parents? What would they think of their traditional ways? Would the children embrace their heritage, or would they reject it? Our own children are comfortable with the German background that they have from Karin. Our kids are American, but they also accept the German part of their identity. What will the children of Mohamed and Soumaya do?


It was getting dark when Mohamed suggested that we go out to the garden. Yahya followed us to the backyard. The sun was down, and the sky was a dull red in the west. It was still light enough to see. Mohamed showed me his tomato plants that were bursting with fruit. He also showed the places where we had planted lettuce, but now none remained. Mohamed had placed a wire fence all around the garden, but somehow the rabbits had made it inside the perimeter. Mohamed seemed non-plussed that the rabbits had eaten his lettuce. “How did the bunnies get in?”



We got a hose to water the garden. As I sprayed the tomato plants, the water suddenly stopped. Yahya was standing behind us. He had crimped the rubber hose to stop the flow of water. He was grinning. Mohamed said something to his son in a dialect of Arabic that I couldn’t understand. Yahya quit fooling around. We finished watering, and went back into the house.


Mohamed and I drank the rest of our tea. As I was leaving, we talked about the similarities between gardening and parenting. In both cases, we are dealing with living things, be they plants or children. Each of these living things is unique in the world, and each of them will grow in its own way. We can nurture and care for these growing, living beings, but we can’t control them. We can’t keep the bunnies away from them. We can’t know what or who they really are until they are fully grown. We can only marvel at their beauty.



Last night I dreamt of our son, Stefan. In my dream, Stefan was once again a little boy, perhaps Yahya’s age. Stefan was tired, and he crawled up on to my lap, and rested his head on my shoulder. In the dream I could feel the warmth of his small body, and hear the gentle rhythm of his breathing as he fell asleep.


I miss that.




Palestinian Poetry

October 24, 2014

I went to the Islamic Resource Center last night (10/23/2014). The Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition sponsored a “poetry slam down” to promote peace in Gaza. That’s what the advertisement said anyway. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I wanted to check it out. I needed to experience something new.


I got there a little late, but the program hadn’t started yet. A young woman, probably college age, was running the show. Except for the hijab (or perhaps even because of the hijab), she looked chic and confident. People were sitting and chatting in a small classroom/auditorium where the IRC often hosts lectures and meetings. I knew the place well. I had been there before, when I was taking a refresher course in Arabic. Most of the people there were quite young, some still looked like they were high school. I was by far the oldest person there. There were two young man sitting nearby, their hair gelled and appearing to be Muslim hipsters. I sat toward the back and watched.


After welcoming the attendees (the young woman made some remark about everyone there being Muslim; well, not quite everyone), she showed a video of a Palestinian woman, Rafeef Ziadah, speaking at a gathering in London, reciting her poem, “Shades of Anger”. It was a very moving poem, heartfelt and emotional. It was definitely angry. That set the tone for the evening.


A number of young people got up to recite poetry about the suffering in Gaza. Their voices were very honest and very moving. The poems were about injustice and violence, and they cast the Israelis in the role of oppressors. The Palestinians were described purely as victims. There was quite a bit of talk concerning the anguish of the Arabs in Gaza, but nothing at all was mentioned about rockets being launched into Israel. The poets talked about their desire for peace, but mostly in terms of achieving justice. Justice meant, as far as I could see, ending Israeli domination. Peace appeared to be something that would automatically come into existence once the Israelis were no longer an issue.


Another young lady gave a presentation about her college group, Students for Justice in Palestine. There is a chapter of this group on the UWM campus, and the young woman talked about their protests and political activities. Once again, the Palestinians were shown as victims of fate. The Israelis were clearly the problem, according to the speaker. The conflict in Israel/Palestine was presented in stark terms, black and white. There was no nuance, there were no shades of grey.


At that point, the poetry readings stalled out. Nobody really had anything ready. A young man, who was now acting as host, asked people in the room to come up and speak. I raised my hand and asked if the speaker needed to use poetry. The young man said no. Then I asked if the subject needed to be specifically about Gaza, or could it relate in some other way to war and peace. The man told me that was fine, and I told him that I could tell a story, if he liked. He was good with that, so I went up to the stage.


I sat down in a chair and faced the group. I started telling the story of our son, Hans, and how he went to war in Iraq. I told about how, after the war, he didn’t come home at first, and we didn’t understand why that was. I told them about the phone call from Hans in January of 2012, when he told me about shooting an Iraqi in a fire fight. I told them about how I asked Hans if the other man died, and Hans said, “Yeah, I guess so…I must have pumped thirty rounds into him.” I told them that I know nothing about the man that our son killed, except that somewhere somebody grieves for him.


I did not often look at the crowd as I spoke. When I did, I saw them all staring at me, in dead silence. I don’t know what they heard or saw, but they listened.


I finished talking about Hans. I said, “Well, that’s my story.” I got up and left.


But It Makes No Sense

November 11th, 2015

Lately, especially since the terror attacks in Paris, I have read articles by atheists that not only condemn the violence of radical Islam, but also accuse religion per se as being the source of all the world’s problems. The essence of these essays is that all religions are based on absurd fairy tales and fuzzy thinking. The goal of the authors seems to be to drive out the darkness of superstition from human thought, and replace it with the light of reason. The idea is that, if only people saw things clearly (and in purely material way), all this violence and hate would disappear. There would be a godless form of the Rapture.


I suspect that this is wishful thinking. Humans are not rational beings. The universe is not a rational place. Reason and logic are of great value, but they can only take us so far. There is great suffering in this world, and every person, at some point, throws up their hands and cries out, “Why?”. Science cannot give satisfying answers that explain the death of a small child or the anguish of a person sick with cancer. Reason and logic can give answers that tell us how something happened, but they seldom can tell us why something happened. As humans, we are usually more interested in the “why”. Science cannot explain why I exist, or what my purpose is her on earth, or why life often sucks so hard. One possible answer could be: “We don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter.” That answer isn’t good enough for me or for billions of other people.


One of the reasons for existence of religion is to make sense of a universe that clearly does not make sense. Let me refer to the words of Carl Jung:


“There is, however, a strong empirical reason why we should cultivate thoughts that can never be proved. It is that they are known to be useful. Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe. He can stand the most incredible hardships when he is convinced that they make sense; he is crushed when, on top of his misfortunes, he has to admit that he is taking part in a ‘tale told by an idiot’.”.


We need a story. We need a narrative. We need a myth. We need it to be human.


Religion often helps a person find his or her place in the universe. Religion provides a scaffolding for understanding life. In this sense, I would suggest that atheism is another form of religion, godless to be sure, but atheism (or humanism) also involves “thoughts that can never be proved”. There are assumptions in every tradition that can never be proven. Being an atheist requires an act of faith as much as it is needed to be a Catholic or a Jew. A system of belief, in whatever form, makes human life meaningful. It gives a person a reason to to persevere.


Are there things in religion that are absurd? Absolutely. I will not attempt to discuss other traditions that I have tried, but I can certainly speak for Catholicism, my spiritual home. Catholics believe in magic, pure and simple. We believe that a man rose from the dead, we believe in a virgin birth, we believe that bread and wine become God’s body and blood. These are pretty wild concepts, and we can’t prove any of them. However, although these beliefs may not make sense in the physical world, they speak to our hearts. They make total sense in a non-verbal, intuitive way. These beliefs make our lives livable. They become the truth that we need to become who we are meant to be.


“What is truth?” That was Pilate’s question to Christ, and it is a damn good one. To me, truth is a multi-faceted jewel, of which I can only perceive a small part. Others, be they Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists, see other parts of the truth. These are parts that are hidden from my view. This probably sounds like relativism, but I think of it as humility. I don’t know all the answers, nor does my faith tradition. The truth is there, but it comes in all different sorts of images and words and symbols.


There is a litmus test for truth.  Edith Stein hit upon in it when she said that truth and love must always go together. Truth is never accompanied by violence or hate. The sectarian violence in our world is often based on the perception that one person or one group has a monopoly on the truth. Anybody who kills for the “truth”, does not have it. Truth is found when people are gentle and compassionate and tolerant. Look for it in those times and those places. Love and truth are two aspects of the same reality.


Humans will never be free of religion. It is part of our make up. I daresay that we are hardwired for it. Religion is often glorious, irrational, uplifting, infuriating, and silly; all at the same time. People are just like that.