Seasonal Thoughts

Some friends have participated in religious liturgies this month, and with those friends I’ve been reflecting on the multitude of stories that we recount around Passover and Easter. There are a world of possible insights to draw from them — including the following.

Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, Rabbi David Ingber explored the meaning of freedom for a modern mixed multitude at St. Francis Xavier church in New York. He recounted the Israelite exodus memorialized by the Passover Seder: the Passover/Exodus story culminates with tears of sorrow and tears of relief, some people saved and others drowned. I’ve been thinking a lot about how he read it: a story of Israelites winning and Egyptians losing, a zero-sum game that contemporary freedom evangelists should seek to outgrow.

We won’t be fooled by movements which free only some of us and in which our so-called “freedom” rests upon enslavement or embitterment of others… God help us dream new paths to freedom so that the next sea-opening is not also a drowning, so that our singing is never again their wailing.

— R. David Ingber

The recent and very public arguments among Christian proponents of different hell doctrines put a big spotlight on the zero-sum game for me. Whatever each model might otherwise resolve, all of them amplify the idea that some will drown while others escape, that some will sing a new song while others gnash their teeth, and that this is a good that will be so eternally.

Along with Ingber’s comments, another contrast came to me from Buddhism’ first universal vow, which I read this week. The author who shared it was a Catholic priest who had received this redemption vow from a friend at one of the darkest moments in his life. The vow gave him the language he needed to figure out how to emerge from his darkness, he stabilized, and went on to a deeply transformative ministerial life.

I take upon myself the burden of my suffering brothers and sisters; I am resolved to do so. I will endure it. I will not turn or run away. I will not turn back. I cannot.

And why? My endeavors do not merely aim at my own deliverance. I must help all my brothers and sisters cross the stream of this life which is so difficult to cross. With the help of the boat of compassion I must help them across the stream. I would fain become a soother of all the sorrows of my brothers and sisters. May I be a balm to those who are sick, their healer and servant until sickness come never again. May I become an unfailing store for my poor brothers and sisters and serve them in their need. May I be, in the famine at the ages’ end, their drink and their meat.

My own being, all my life, all my spirituality in the past, present, and future, I surrender that my brothers and sisters may win through to their end, for they dwell in my spirit.

A person who took on this vow might have a rough time assuming that his or her enlightenment could be had at others’ expense: if you live for service to all, then service to just some won’t satisfy you. Instead one must assume that one’s life’s work will be bound up in the lives and experiences of one’s entire human family: the whole with the tribe, not the remnant over the rest. I don’t think this vow is just about universal scope either; Easter sermons ritually describe the Christian narrative as universally important, but whenever the Easter story is framed only in historical terms, it’s rarely also taught as a symbol of universal experience — universal compassion and universal participation.

Twitter is replete with tweets about what the Paschal season “really means,” as if without the Twitterati we’d collapse under a candy avalanche with nary an opportunity to contemplate sacrifice, redemption, or renewal. But thanks to the contributions I’ve shared in this note (one of which I got via Twitter, lol), I’ve been imprinted with the phrase “participation without partiality.” PWP: How might I embody universal relationship while also living in a society and amongst people who treasure partial, zero-sum relationships over impartial, non-zero-sum ones? I don’t have much more to say to that yet, except the sense that it’s something I should keep embodying, and that I shouldn’t retreat into partiality whatever my incentives.

May your coming week be filled with moderate consumption of leftover chocolate. And immoderate perception of love.

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