(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
To download and listen to part one of the message, click here:
Watch the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SheaMMd8H5g
To download and listen to part two of the message, click here:
Some of you may remember the 1994 film entitled “Shawshank Redemption.” It is a grim and often gritty movie that, on the surface, seems to indict our prison system and how it dehumanizes convicts. On a deeper level, and consistent with its title, the film’s theme deals with the subjects of religion and sin. The movie is a subtle but very strong indictment of religion. It’s a modern parable on the struggle all of us have in finding spiritual redemption from religious imprisonment.
Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, is an innocent man wrongly convicted of killing his wife and her lover. He’s sentenced to two life sentences. We watch as he enters and is then confined at the Shawshank prison – the actual film location being Ohio’s Mansfield Prison. He enters a dark and forbidding place with thick, black walls, grey prison cells and a community of prisoners who have been turned into malicious brutes by oppressive and petty rules. The prison is overseen by sadistic guards and a corrupt warden who nevertheless considers himself a devout Christian. Each prisoner is given drab clothing and a Bible – which the warden says is the only path to a prisoner’s freedom. The warden tells Andy that he believes in two things – discipline and the Bible. While Andy’s soul is under the control of God, Andy’s body is his. As the warden tells Andy, he controls when Andy will eat, sleep and perform his bodily functions – said, as you might imagine, in much more colorful language!
Andy befriends a fellow convict named Red, played by Morgan Freeman. As a former accountant, Andy is assigned to work in the prison library but he soon volunteers free financial and tax advice to guards and fellow prisoners. He finds purpose in helping others – even the guards who persist in abusing him.
Andy’s accounting expertise is also employed by the warden who orders Andy to help him “cook” the prison books so that he can embezzle funds collected by renting out prison labor. At one point, Andy learns that the real killer of his wife confessed to the crime and he seeks the help of the warden to win his freedom. The warden refuses, preferring to keep Andy locked up in a sinister, hypocritical and dark filled life.
Over twenty years pass and we learn that during this time Andy has secretly used a rock hammer to methodically dig a hole through the thick wall of his cell. He hides the hole he is digging behind pin-up posters – first of Rita Hayworth, then Marilyn Monroe and finally Raquel Welch. Watch with me now a short video clip of Andy’s dramatic escape from the Shawshank prison…
(YouTube video clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SheaMMd8H5g )
Without being too simplistic in finding meaning from the movie, which is currently listed by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best films of all time, it is not difficult to find anti-religious symbols and themes. Andy is an Everyman – a guy like any of us – who is born innocent but sentenced to a life of guilt and shame within the confines of sin filled religion. As he says, “The funny thing is – on the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.” Implicitly, Andy tells us that without religion, he was good. With it, he became bad – a person who not only compromises what he naturally knew to be good, but one who advances the nefarious interests of prison – or, symbolically – religion. The prison system is, indeed, a metaphor for religion and the actual Shawshank prison building is a symbol of it – a foreboding place that prevents escape. Like religion, it entraps and brutalizes all who enter.
Prison rules and regulations dictate how a person will live – much like religion. Indeed, the character played by Morgan Freeman, upon his release, finds it almost impossible to function without prison rules – or metaphorically – the rules and beliefs of religion. As Red says, “These walls are funny. First you hate them, and then you get used to them. Enough time passes, you get so that you depend on them.” Like prison, religious rules often become a source of ironic comfort to people. It is easy to like the confines of absolute answers and absolute rules of behavior.
The warden of Shawshank clearly represents a religious leader like a Priest, minister or even Pope – a corrupt and evil man who talks about faith and doing good but who lusts for money and whose compassion is twisted. Even the warden’s claim that he believes in two things – discipline and the Bible – is a clear reference to many religious leaders and their emphasis on sin and punishment.
Andy uses a rock hammer to chip away at the thick walls of religion. He hides the hammer by placing it in a cutout within his Bible. The humor of realizing that, indeed, the Bible is his ironic and symbolic means to redemption and freedom is not lost on many viewers. For many people, it is only after genuine and deep examination of ALL interpretations of the Bible that one finds consistent and sensible answers to the meaning and purpose of life. For me, seminary taught me the words and verses of the Bible and one, literal interpretation of it. Only by examining and studying many other interpretations of it did I realize the Bible has wisdom to offer but it cannot, and was never intended to be, something to be interpreted as literal fact.
Andy conceals his escape tunnel behind sexualized posters of women – paper barriers to real freedom. Religion, like many prisons, tries to control human sexuality but it is only by finding sex to be healthy and normal that one gains escape from a prison of guilt and shame. For many people, especially gays and lesbians, religion’s views on human sexuality are inconsistent with reality. Religion tries to define good and bad sexuality without any understanding of its innate function as a natural and, indeed, biological expression. Sexuality is something wired into human DNA. It is the creative force behind all existence. Indeed, as the author Steven Greenblatt writes in his book The Swerve, existence, death and re-creation are all sexual. The entire universe is sexual. Religious efforts to define sex as something dirty and evil are not consistent with the reality of it. It is a natural and creative impulse that is deeply implanted in every person. We do not choose our sexuality. It is wired into us. That fact is something humans intuitively know. We are taught by religion and religiously influenced cultures, however, to feel guilt and shame over it. Symbolically, Andy’s path of escape from religious prison and its rules about sex lies behind breaking through his own sexual desires – in his case, the sensual poster of a nearly naked Raquel Welch.
Finally, Andy must ultimately escape by crawling through a length of sewer pipe. In a scene reminiscent of that of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables fleeing through a Paris sewer, Andy finds redemption only after crawling through filth – symbolic of the lies, prejudices, hypocrisies and sins that religions teach and practice. After he emerges from the prison sewer pipe, Andy is bathed in a type of reverse baptism. He exults in the rain that literally and figuratively cleanses him of prison and religious excrement. The image of him outstretching his arms, like a Jesus free of a religious cross, is powerful. He embarks on a life of spiritual freedom – moving to the place of his dreams: a beach on the Pacific Ocean where the open water and vast skyline symbolize the freedom available to all.
Like Andy, my reason for exploring the sins of religion – those of imposing guilt, racism, sexism and homophobia – is to explore ways to redeem it. My purpose this month has not been to create an echo chamber where we all affirm our distaste for man-made religion. Rather, I want to discuss ways we can redeem religion through an enlightened and free thinking spirituality. We help to redeem religion by, like Andy, working to free ourselves and others from its confines of rules and beliefs that demean and stifle the human spirit. Our goal at the Gathering is to be a place where people can be redeemed from religion and enter, like Andy, a wide expanse of spiritual freedom. That spirituality celebrates human life in the here and now, it celebrates all people and it practices the very simple moral code of the Golden Rule – to love and serve others as we wish to be loved and served.
Redemption, for most of us, is defined as a sincere willingness to confess a misdeed, apologize for it, make amends for it and, finally, to seek ways to change so the same misdeed is avoided. If a person or institution undertakes each of those steps, he or she will find redemption – a state of being washed clean and renewed. For many, redemption includes a restoration of relationship with those who have been wronged. Doorways of forgiveness are opened as love and compassion are allowed to re-enter, while shame, bitterness and anger are pushed out.
In order for us to therefore promote spiritual redemption, we will have to continue telling how we and others have been hurt by religion. Such stories are not intended to impose guilt on those who are religious. Instead, they are a means to tell the truth and to bring into the light the suffering felt by so many. Much like the truth and reconciliation efforts undertaken by Nelson Mandela in post-apartheid South Africa, the world must know how religion has harmed women, how it has practiced racism, how it has burdened countless people with fear and guilt, how it has murdered, how it has loved money over people, how it has turned away millions of gays and lesbians who want nothing to do with anything that tells them are deviant, evil, and hated by God. Stories of hurt and pain, told not to shame but to enlighten, are good. Stories of how religions hurt instead of heal can be told with gentleness and empathy. We can hate the beliefs while loving the believer.
It is an ironic assertion, but many non-religious people are, if we think about it, more moral, more pious and more holy than those who adhere to religious beliefs. Jesus sharply denounced religious hypocrites consumed with status, money and showy piety. He promoted, instead, the kind of spirituality that sought the heart of God – a heartfelt compassion, humility and gentleness that respected everyone – women, the disfigured, the sick, the mentally ill, the poor, prostitutes, thieves, prisoners and all other outcasts. He did not seek the outwardly wealthy, powerful and pious people but rather those who are inwardly genuine and true – those who might be broken by life or burdened by the rules of religion. He wanted to set people free from trying to be good enough according to arbitrary religious rules. He simply befriended and supported those who are pure of heart – no matter their religious belief, or lack of belief.
And that defines many people who are non-religious but nevertheless spiritual. Such people, like many of us at the Gathering, are not perfect or blameless. But, those who have rejected religion often promote the goodness and rights of all people and all creation – much like Jesus did. Is it better to divide and scorn people based on an arbitrary interpretation of ancient religious rules and writings? Or, are those who, like a creator god or goddess, respect and celebrate people no matter their sexuality, race, religion, wealth, status or ability – the truly good and pure of heart? Yes.
Religion can be redeemed and transformed into a Jesus form of spirituality by seeking what many great thinkers and prophets have taught and practiced throughout history. The Greek philosopher Epicurus encouraged the radical notion that all people have the right to pursue happiness. Such a view believes that the great purpose of life is to be happy and thus our goal is to find it both for ourselves and for others. No human should have to suffer hunger, poverty, discrimination or hatred. A spiritual and practical goal for us is to build a world of happiness for all people – a world free of racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty and injustice. If we worship the unique beauty and goodness of all created things, we will transcend the hurts of a materialistic and man-made world and find, instead, the simple pleasures of nature, community, food, sex, contemplation and love. Much like Henry David Thoreau believed with the philosophy of Transcendentalism, the path of spirituality lies through a celebration of nature and all created things. This spirituality seeks the so-called Buddhist middle way that shuns the mindless desires of wealth and also the needless wants of poverty. Pleasure is found not in desiring things or, in the lack of them, but instead in life and people and creation.
Redeemed spirituality will thus pour like a cleansing rain on us. It will free us of confining and absolute beliefs. No rules. No division of people. No judgment. No hell. Instead, freedom! Instead, unity and respect! Instead, only one rule – the Golden Rule.
Our calling as spiritual people, as people of progressive faith, must be to show others the way to religious redemption. That way tears down the prison walls that limit and confine human behavior – behaviors that do no harm to others. This spiritual pathway opens up the prison cell that fears death. It invites a joyful celebration of the life we have now and the heaven we must build here on earth for all people. Our calling is to literally be the change we want to see – people who are spiritually free, giving, open, honest, compassionate, tolerant, joyful, hard working, always questioning, always seeking, non-violent, humble, grateful, and forgiving. Those are not religious ideals – they are eternal, universal and good spiritual ideals.
Let us redeem religion. Let us cleanse it. Let us transform it. Let us find within it a pure and honest spirituality that truly sets us free.
I wish you, as always, much peace and joy.