The Water Carriers
Monday, October 04, 2010
Recent events have got me thinking about language, religious institutions, and politics, but the most direct way to say what’s on my mind is to tell a story.Once upon a time, in the ancient community where the water carriers have always brought the good water to the village, it used to mean something to call yourself a water carrier. People trusted you, and thanked you for your long walk. But when that trust was betrayed in the tribal wars, the language was tainted.Now, when they talk about the water carriers, they mean the ones who brought death. They came from far away and carried jugs that looked the same, but they were carrying poison. It was a quiet battle, but it was still warfare. Many drank what they thought was good water, and weak ones and children got the mysterious sickness from the poison. The warlike ones from far away had devised a strategy that was cruel but effective. They knew that the village’s weak point was the trust people had in their water carriers It took the people a long time to find out who the real enemy was, and where the attack was coming from, because it was the one place they would never look.When the truth came out, the name “water carrier” meant something totally different. It meant the puppets of war who were despised for their trickery. The old jugs were all smashed because they were tainted with the infection, and families just carried their own water. But they would never call themselves water carriers. They just carried water. But I didn’t know. I wasn’t raised in the village. When I first walked over the hill, down into their village, they asked what I had in the jugs. I said water, and they had no problem with me saying it like that. So what’s the difference between saying I carry water and saying I’m a water carrier?Life and Death. It made no sense to me until I knew the story and realized that once people are betrayed with poison, the poison stays in the language. So, I’m sorry I once referred to myself as a christian. I know that it must have frightened many good people, and rightfully so. I didn’t know what the word really meant. I thought it meant someone who carried Jesus in their heart.But a word means what people think it means. Once I came to know about the deception that had been delivered in that trusted word, I realized what the sound of it did to people’s hearts. And what a word does to people’s hearts is what a word really means. So if you are talking about a hidden enemy who brings the poison of deception and division, then you might call someone that word, and people would understand. But that word no longer describes good water from a deep well. The people learned that lesson the hard way. The name has been tainted by those who used it to kill.Lately, we have had a chance to see a similar language problem brought to the surface with what people were calling the “Ground Zero Mosque.” People’s reactions show that we have two different words being used that happen to sound the same. There was the word Mosque, meaning a place of worship, and then there was the word Mosque that meant a weapon of influence in a political war. No wonder people couldn’t agree. There were two different words that sounded the same and were spelled the same and meant two very different things.The people who define a Mosque as a weapon of influence in a political war are angry. They want everyone to wake up to what is at stake. They know what religious institutions are for: indoctrination and manipulation. They know there is a war going on. And it’s a war of our religious institutions against their religious institutions. The future of America is at stake, they would say.Contrast this to the people who define a Mosque as a place of worship. They would say that the future of America is at stake if politics tries to get between worshipers and God. They would say that government has no right to manipulate people by controlling places of worship.I’m sure most Americans would agree with that part, even people who are against the “ground zero mosque.” The difference is that the angry people would not define a Mosque as a place of worship. No one would be angry about building a place where mercy and justice and freedom were taught. No one would protest a building where people could learn about living peacefully with their neighbor even when their neighbor was different. No one would be against a place to pray for forgiveness, or a gathering place for submitting to the will of the one God that holds us all accountable for our actions. If that’s what went on, I would call that a place of worship. And I would guess that anyone who had a similar experience in their own religious institution would not understand what’s so upsetting.Here’s the language problem. Recent events show us that the people’s understanding of the purpose of a religious institution has become split. We need different words. There are a lot of people in America who do not experience their own religious institution as described above. A place that inspires mercy and peacefulness? No, not so much. A lot of churches have toned down the love-and-forgiveness thing, and amped up the us-against-them vibe. It sells better as a brand, I guess. So, for a lot of people, a religious institution is not so much a place to gather for worship, but rather a place to muster a political army.Shouldn’t there be another word for that? What would you call a meeting place that is not tax exempt, and offers not to show you what you have in common with everyone else, but rather aligns itself with one side of some divisive political issue that plays up our differences? Some members-only club that offers to whip people into a frenzy of fear and doom. A place where people could come together to praise their rightness, and marshal their strength to overcome the bad people out there who are different. It’s a growth industry. But what would you call such a place?Well, except for having to give up the tax exempt status, it’s a good description of a whole lot of churches. And that means that a whole lot of people show up on Sunday for a rousing political experience and call it church. And it teaches them that the purpose of a religious institution is to change politics. The mission is to be a weapon of influence in the culture war outside. And if that is the new normal for a religious experience, then of course it would make sense to fight against the building of some rival institution. It’s a game of US against THEM, and the word “god” gets redefined as something small enough to be carried like a mascot by each team.We might not even notice the change in our assumptions, except for times like these when the news shows crowds of angry people who are against the building of a religious institution. Well, they wouldn’t be afraid of a peaceful place that inspired community, submission to God, and worship. No, their reaction reveals the truth about how our own religious institutions function as tools of political influence. People might not chose to describe their church that way, but when an angry crowd is carrying protest signs warning about a rival religion’s political intentions, it is a clear sign that they have political intentions of their own.There are those in that angry crowd who do not really want religious freedom in America. They just want freedom for their own religion and persecution for the rest. There are those who say that we need to fight to keep America a christian nation. And when they use the word “christian” that way, I realize that the word has been poisoned. They could have gotten their own word, instead of ruining the reputation of people who bring good water from a deep well. But their strategy was to confuse the word on purpose. There ought to be another word for sacrificing the teachings of Jesus in order to reduce Him down to a puppet that can be manipulated for political gain. But a word only means what people think it means.The reaction to the “ground zero mosque” shows us the hidden truth of many people’s assumptions about the purpose of religious institutions. The cards are on the table now. The ones who have been spreading fear about rivals trying to take over America can now be honest about their own intent to take over America. We could learn something about the real function of the what is being called Christianity. No, not the word that used to mean a way of forgiveness and grace. There’s a word that sounds the same that means a weapon of influence in a political war. There’s nothing wrong with fighting for power. It’s just politics. But when politics gets disguised as religion, there should be another word for it.