If we want to live in peace, we need to lower our standards. After all, the Prince of Peace had the lowest standards of all.
Our standards are so high that we live in constant judgment of ourselves and others. We divide our own personalities into our "higher" and "lower" nature. This causes great violence, inward and outward. Our minds are ceaselessly weighing Good and Evil according to the lofty standards we think we should obey. But where does the should come from? Was it not this very "knowledge of Good and Evil" that caused the fall of Adam and Eve?
When we lower our standards until we have none at all, we can live without judgment and eat from the Tree of Life again. We can drop the fig leaves and embrace ourselves just as we are, dark and light, sexy and pure, manic and depressed. This is the difference between Religion and Spirituality. Religion raises our standards until everything we do is unforgivable, and only a savior can redeem us. Spirituality means living by standards so low that we accept all life as sacred.
Free from our mind's ceaseless bickering over right and wrong, we relax into wholeness. Then our very presence brings peace to others. Embracing ourselves, we embrace both sinners and saints, the good, the bad, and the ugly. This was Mother Theresa's secret: "See the face of Christ in his most distressing disguise." She saw Christ in untouchables, men dying of AIDS. This is why Hindus worship the terrifying image of Goddess Kali. If you can worship her, you can find God anywhere! And this why Jesus said, "Do not resist the evil one... Love your enemy... Judge not, lest ye be judged." If Jesus said that in church today, they'd drag him to the parking lot and crucify him all over again.
It was not Jesus' high standards that healed and forgave sinners, but his low standards. His standards were so low, he even forgave you and me. He forgave his most vicious persecutors. He forgave the whole human race with unconditional love: a love without any standards at all.
Mula Nazrudin gave his son a precious porcelain vase to carry down the street to a neighbor's house. Before the boy set off, Nazrudin slapped his face. His friend asked, "Nazrudin, why did you slap your son?" Nazrudin replied, "What good would it do if I slapped him after he broke the vase?"
We are like Nazrudin. We slap each other with judgments, high expectations, demands for perfection. Nazrudin was half right: it doesn't do much good to slap somebody after they've made a mistake. But it doesn't do much good to slap them beforehand either.
When we slap our children, our students, our employees with high standards, we make them tense, anxious, frightened of failure. This fear impedes their performance. Fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. How much better it would be to give them an inspired vision of beauty and wholeness rather than rules and judgments! That is why, in ancient times, students didn't learn an art or a trade in the classroom, by taking tests. Students apprenticed themselves to living masters and simply observed them, absorbing the ideal, not as commandment but inspiration.
Don't say "no" to this and "yes" to that. Just say "YES" to everything. The deepest standard -- both the highest and lowest -- is to abandon judgment completely. This doesn't mean that we give into every impulse without restraint or self-discipline. It means that we respond to the impulse from a deeper level than knowledge -- from an inner silence that senses, on a cellular level, whether the impulse is creative or destructive. Then we don't choose things out of guilt or fear. We don't choose things because they are "right" rather than "wrong." We choose things because they are life-giving.
When religious men were about to stone the adulterous woman, Jesus said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." One by one, they dropped their stones and stole away.
"Woman, where are they now?" Jesus asked. "Did anyone condemn you?"
"No one, Lord," replied the woman.
"Neither do I condemn you. Now go and sin no more." The woman was free from sin, not because Jesus judged her, but because he didn't.
If you encounter a sinner, treat her just like that. If you face a demon, bow down and embrace the demon's feet. When you lift up your head, you'll see Jesus standing where the demon stood. You'll know that you are forgiven, just like the demon.
"Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us," says the Lord's prayer. The whole Gospel lies in that little word: as. The hinge of our salvation is that little as. Forgiveness is mutual. Freeing others from our judgment, we are free.
Shakespeare wrote, "The quality of mercy is not strained." Our mercy will soon be tested.
Few Americans sense the approaching cloud of grief. It will sweep over our land as waves of soldiers return from war, wounded and dispirited by post-traumatic stress. Until now, civilians have been strangely exempt from sacrifice. The soldiers' work will end. Ours is just beginning.
If we supported the Iraq war, now let us show it. Help a soldier carry war's everlasting pain. If we were opposed, holding compassion more noble than war, now let us give that compassion to the warrior. Never again neglect the veteran, as we did after Viet Nam. And if we blame, let us blame the dreamers of this war who never fought, not the fighters who shoulder the nightmare.
Connect with a veteran's family. Share meals with them. Listen without judgment. Breathe a soldier's trouble into your heart. If they can't speak about it, don't abandon them to isolation. Keep returning to say, "I'm here for you." Walk along a beach beside them, skipping stones into silent water.
We are chastened yet wiser now, called not to the arrogance of empire, but the quality of mercy.
(First published in the Seattle Times, May 28, 2007)
I teach Old Testament and World Religion courses to soldier for college credit. It's a distance learning program, and most of my students are in Iraq. I ask them to write their own Psalms and Laments, using the ancient Hebrew literary forms and filling them with their own experience. The following 'Soldier's Lament' speaks for itself. It was written by a soldier who has been in the infantry for 16 years. Thank you, D.L.
A SOLDER’S LAMENT
Lord, be with me and watch over me, because those who plot my death are many and dangerous.
The dangers are many in this place where I dwell; home is so far away and the days are lonely.
The faces are strange and the language so different; hate can be seen in their eyes each day.
My family I have left, so that I can protect those who cannot protect themselves; but who protects me in this place that is not my home?
Trouble and death fill my heart, because this could possibly be my last day.
Lord, be with me and keep me safe; bless my courage and strength.
Keep my enemies away, dear Lord. Weaken their hearts' desire to rise up against me; cast down their will to fight; and make my strength endure their hatred.
You have never forsaken me; you keep me close to your bosom.
Bring me home to my wife and children, so that my eyes can see no more death and pain.
I have wept for friends you have called home to you, but your love has kept me here.
Strengthen my hope and courage, so that I can strike down my enemy.
I crave the courage to perform every day, but it is you, dear Lord, who feeds that hunger; I need to go on.
Strengthen my hope and courage so that I can strike down the wolf that stands at my door.
I feared death and wanted to cower; you comforted me, and became my sword and shield.
Let peace fall unto the children of Babylon, so that the Eagle may depart the unforgiving land.