Message 109, Touching the Spirit, Courage, 10-14-12

(This message contains some disturbing information which might be upsetting to children and young teens.)

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Najibullah Quirashi is now a famous man whose life is nevertheless threatened.  An Afghan journalist who was seriously injured and then exiled after the American military invasion in 2001, Quirashi returned to his native country two years ago to investigate an ancient Afghan practice called bacha bazi.  Banned by the Taliban but now popular among rich and powerful men, bacha bazi is a practice where poor boys as young as 9 are bought in order to dance, entertain and be sexually exploited by men at exclusive parties.

In a landmark documentary entitled “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” – shown on PBS’s Frontline last April and available to watch on their website, Quirashi reveals a dark and sinister world of sexual slavery that is quietly endorsed in Afghan culture.  Many of its practitioners are wealthy businessmen, police officers and government officials who talk openly of the prestige in owning boys – often with the acceptance and approval of their wives.  Boys are taught to dance in women’s clothing and sing love songs to men.  They are regularly raped and traded for their sexual services.  One boy of 14 hauntingly confides to Quirashi that his life is ruined knowing that as a sex slave, he will wear out his usefulness once he fully matures, but then be a social outcast because of his past.

Afghan laws officially ban bacha bazi and it is illegal to own another person or to engage in sex with a child.  But the practice is all too common as is the indifference toward the severe harm done to the boys.  One abuser exhibits his scorn – “they are boys,” he says.  “They will forget.”  Those boys who run away or defy the orders of their owners are usually murdered – nameless casualties in a nation where killing is all too common.  “If you don’t please them, they beat you and people get killed.” one young boy says in the film.

While bacha bazi is a disturbing look at the underbelly of Afghan culture, (and, it must be noted, child abuse is sadly common in many others nations including the US) it is the filmmaker’s courage in revealing the abuse that is also startling.  Quirashi courageously acts in the face of prevailing indifference and even acceptance of the practice.  After interviewing several high level police officers who piously claim the practice is strictly illegal and those who practice it will be arrested and punished, Quirashi covertly films the very same officers and government officials at one bacha bazi party.  Men, women, local officials and the police all implicitly accept this practice.  There is no cultural outrage against it and many impoverished parents accept it as a way to earn money.  Indeed, Quirashi says he is in fear for his safety and one Afghan UNICEF official who also investigated the practice, believes he might be killed for speaking out.

Despite prevailing cultural indifference, these men had the courage to confront the practice.  Indeed, they have tapped into a spiritual core within themselves that instinctively knows that child slavery and rape is a universal evil.  Instead of looking away as the majority of Afghan society does, they speak out and thus face great individual peril for their bravery.  As Steve Jobs once said, people of spiritual courage are not trapped by dogma, which is the result of someone else’s thinking.  Spiritually courageous people, he said, refuse to let the noise of other opinions drown out their own inner voice.  They have the courage to follow their heart and intuition.

What leads a person to be spiritually courageous?  How do we confront our own fears or indifference and take a stand against a moral evil – even when we could jeopardize our personal safety or well-being?

To see, feel and act in ways that are beyond our normal abilities, we must touch our inner spirits.  Our inner core of values, beliefs and sense of justice must be touched in a way that is beyond rational or normal thinking.  Our spiritual selves must feel a sense of moral outrage and then, courageously, guide our actions in ways contrary to a normal desire to be safe, secure and go along with the crowd.

In a psychological experiment designed to measure spiritual courage, persons were asked to identify and name certain geometric shapes.  When asked alone and individually, most responded correctly.  When placed in a group of people who were told in advance to give incorrect answers, these same individuals followed the lead of the group and also answered incorrectly – even though they knew the correct answer.  The power of group-think influenced their responses.  Humans are a tribal people.  We hesitate to buck the trend and exhibit the courage to stand out by defying what we know to be wrong.

Of interesting note, when scientists scanned the brains of the individuals after they were placed in a group setting, the part of the brain that registers fear lit up strongly .  It seems fear guided their refusal to defy group answers.  Even when these people knew they were right, they instead went along with a crowd that was very, very wrong.

Indeed, history is full of examples of immoral or incorrect group think.  German indifference to and look the other way attitude toward the holocaust, while it was being carried out, is a prime example.  Crowd reactions to lynchings in this country were much the same – too many feared to stand up against that moral wrong.  And today, we know that bullying in schools is allowed to thrive primarily because the vast majority of students – the bystanders – fear confronting the bully lest they too become the object of abuse.  Each person in all of these groups had a spirit self capable of sensing right and wrong.  And yet, for most of those people, a failure to touch their inner spirit prevented them from acting.

Fortunately, a very few people do allow their inner spirits to be touched.  They refuse to allow fear to override their heart and soul.  People like Corrie Ten Boom, a dutch Christian woman, were spiritually courageous enough to hide Jews and protect them during the holocaust.  As we know, she and others were later arrested and many were killed for their bravery.  Some Americans did speak out against lynchings and some courageous teens now confront a culture of bullying and its destructive influence.  Heroes of courage act in spiritually amazing ways.  They defy majority opinion and indifference.  They choose to ignore the normal instincts of fear.  They touch their inner spirits.

What we learn from the nature of human behavior in going along with a group majority is that it indeed takes supernatural courage to confront wrong or immoral behavior that is popularly or implicitly sanctioned.  As we discussed last week when considering how feelings of wonder and awe touch our inner spirits, the same spiritual force guides human courage.  Such force is the part of ourselves that feels, senses and knows without thinking.  It is a mysterious but powerful inner force that defies scientific or biological explanation.  It perceives things that are beyond rational thought.  It knows wonder and awe.  It knows eternal and universal standards of right and wrong.  It informs our human meaning, emotional intelligence and purpose in life.  No Scripture, no cultural practice, no amount of mental analysis or group led opinion can supplant what the human spirit senses and perceives.

Indeed, when we witness people who act with great courage, we are often seeing the supernatural at work.  We are witnessing people guided by an other-worldy spiritual force.  It is the spirit implanted in every human heart that intuitively knows intolerance is never good, human dignity is an essential right, hate is an eternal wrong and compassion is a wondrous virtue.  The rational brain might agree or disagree with such statements, but it is one’s spirit that deeply feels them to be true.

This a form of inner wisdom that knows without thinking the eternal truths of peace, compassion and generosity.  Many feminist writers believe this spirit center is the female side of humans – that which is able to perceive, emote, feel, empathize and nurture.  When touched or ignited, our minds are then stimulated not by fear or by reason but by this mystery force that compels action in behalf of what is right and good.  The proverbial male side of ourselves, however, that which is prone to analysis, aggressive action and domination, has come to prevail in too many cultures.  Too many humans, myself included, can lose touch with their spirit – the so called feminine in us.  We are out of balance.  We are too reason focused.  Humans often fail, as we noted last week, to experience wonder and awe before the great forces of the universe and nature.  Tired dogma and reason control our thinking and our actions instead of balancing them with amazement, emotion and mute reverence of nature, the universe and timeless truths.

Humans also fail, as we note today, to feel and act from the inner spirit which senses authentic morality.   Such a failure encourages group think and inhibits spiritual courage.  What we ironically learn is that the so-called masculine within us, that which we believe to be the courageous side of the self, is in reality the cowardly side.    It is easy, as Steve Jobs noted, to react with the mind and go along with majority opinion – to choose violence over dialogue, to feel powerful and strong by dominating others, to bully, to hate, to swarm with the mob and feel superior to those who are different, gay, challenged, physically weak or of another race or religion.

Instead, there is great strength in what appears to be weak – the side of the self that feels, perceives, empathizes and cares.  Najibullah Quirashi deeply sensed the moral wrong of bacha bazi and he strongly and courageously acted against it.  The strutting Afghan warlords, corrupt officials and businessmen who think themselves strong and powerful because then can own, dominate and sexually control young boys are the truly weak and cowardly.  So too with the bully, the homophobe, the intolerant race baiter and, sadly, those who stand by the side too controlled by fear to touch their spirits and act accordingly.

Experts assert that in order to touch our spirits and thus be empowered to act with spiritual courage, we must first recognize the fears that are within us.  If we do so, we take the first step in touching our spirits and finding needed courage.

Just this past Wednesday, after I had already finished the first draft of this message, I was driving home at about 9 pm.  I witnessed a woman violently thrown into the street by a male assailant.  She screamed and looked up at me as I passed.  I stopped my car but was very anxious about my own safety.  The man came and hovered over the woman.  I rolled down my window and called out, asking the woman if she needed help.  She said yes but the man told me to “f-off”.  I turned around and then stopped my car in the middle of the street next to the woman.  The man came up to the passenger window and yelled at me to get lost.  I pulled ahead thirty feet or so, stopped and called 911.  I stayed there while the man continued to menace and yell at the woman who strangely did not flee.  They knew I was there.  The police arrived within five minutes and it turned out to be a domestic fight.

What struck me was that I was very afraid throughout this incident.  Every instinct in me told me to just drive away and then call the police.  I did nothing even remotely heroic and yet I do feel my presence may have protected the woman.   Strangely, as I thought about it after I got home, I realized that I somehow sensed during the incident that I could not leave that woman alone and drive away.  Thankfully, I didn’t.

As I have mentioned in here before, I am a conflict avoider.  I fail too often in not tapping into that inner core of me which mysteriously knows goodness, compassion and decency and can give me confidence in what I should do.  Were I to always rely on that core in me, I might be better able to muster the courage to confront myself or others when my spirit perceives something wrong.  By recognizing my fear, and admitting how it holds me back, I have taken a first step.

The next step in mustering spiritual courage is to undertake a personal spiritual inventory.  What are our core beliefs and values?  What provokes our spiritual sense of moral evil and what part of us weeps with joy at moral good?  What parts in us need growth and refinement?  Understanding our spirit, we can know it, trust it and rely upon it when are fearful or too analytical.

Finally, we should acknowledge and celebrate each instance when we exhibit spiritual courage, no matter how minor or small.  With each success, we can know that we have stood on the side of good.  The Dalai Lama once said that true religion is simple.   It has no need of great temples or complicated and elaborate theology.  Our hearts, he said, are our temples and our theology is kindness.

Truth, love and goodness is within each and every person.  We are each born with such innate moral spirits.  It is that spirit that animates the soul, ignites the heart and stirs us to greatness.  As many of you related last Sunday, when our spirits have been touched, we can stand on a windswept shore and thrill at the wonder and beauty of the sea, the stars and all creation.  When we investigate the miracle of our bodies or the wonder of birth and growth in children, we are in awe.  When we witness other creatures alive, active and stirring up the miracles of their own reproduction and daily life, we can be reduced to tears.  Our spirits allow us to feel great wonder.

But so too do our spirits challenge us to be courageous and forthright.  If we allow our spirits to guide many of our thoughts and actions, we are empowered to act courageously.  We defy our fears and our rational minds and in our weakness, we become very, very strong.

How much courage does it take for each of us to come here, to buck the prevailing winds of orthodox religion, narrow minded thinking and dogmatic interpretations of scriptures?  How much courage does it take to continuously explore and ask questions instead of asserting absolute knowledge and faith?  How much courage does it take to meet here in a diverse neighborhood with poverty, crime, and addictions all around?  How much courage does it take to stand for the timeless ethics of Jesus – to advocate for and embrace those on the margins of life, the poor, the mentally challenged, the weak, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned, the transgendered, the lesbian, the gay, the aged and the powerless?   This place, this gathering of souls, is indeed a small place but it is a miraculous assembly.  In our smallness and out of our weakness, may we find our strength.  May each of us gaze into the great realms of the universe and then into the deep recesses of our souls, and touch our inner spirits.  As we do, we will see visions of tremendous beauty and good.  We will have sensed true morality.  We will be emboldened to courageously battle forces of hate and injustice…and in the process, touch the face of the divine and of all eternity.