Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Life, death & St. Peterburg: Two churches & a synagogue

"Churches are deliberately designed to impress the people who go there," someone once told me. And when I visited several churches in St. Petersburg recently, I was DEFINITELY impressed.

First I went to a small but elaborately-decorated cathedral where most of Russia's Tzars and their families are buried -- including even poor young Princess Anastasia. Then I went off to St. Isaac's Cathedral. Wow!!!! It's amazing. And here's my video to prove it:

Because today has been pretty much one of those ABC days (Another Bloody Church), I decided to break up the pace and go visit St. Petersburg's Grand Choral Synagogue as well. It was lovely. It was huge. It is the second-largest synagogue in Europe. And while it wasn't quite as garish as St. Isaac's, it was definitely impressive. If you want to see my video of it, click here:

And visiting all these various Houses of God today got me to thinking about religions. I just love religions! I am completely enthusiastic about the idea that, over multiple millennia, generation after generation of human beings have invested humongous amounts of effort into dreaming up whole bunches of new and better ways to inspire the human race to behave itself and to make the world a better place. That's totally impressive. That's freaking poetic.

But over the course of human history, these various religious ideals have been sorely taken advantage of and abused by unscrupulous men who have used religions merely as pawns in their selfish quest for power and wealth; using their religion as an excuse to plunder and kill. And in my eyes that's the biggest crime that a human being can commit. Humph.

In any case, religions tell us not to kill. But massive slaughters in the name of religion still continue, even into the 21st century -- and they even appear to be on the increase. Why is this?

I just read an article in Rolling Stone magazine about Cornell West. West said something to the effect that, "Death is the biggest thing that all of us have to cope with in our entire lives -- and if we approach death bravely, then the quality of our lives becomes better and more worthwhile."

So then I began thinking that perhaps people who kill other people might do it because somehow they have gotten the twisted idea that if they killed enough other people, then they themselves would not have to die. That's deep. But guess what? It's also magical thinking! Life doesn't work that way. If it did, then people like Adolph Hitler, Attila the Hun and Josef Stalin would still be alive today. And after having given the order to bomb, shoot, maim and kill over a million people in Iraq and Afghanistan, does this mean that George Bush, Dick Cheney and all those warhawks in Congress will become immortal too? NO.

We all die. And the trick that we all need to learn is how to be able to die gracefully. Jesus died gracefully, for example -- with character and with courage. As did Buddha. How do YOU want to die?

General Norman Schwarzkoph once said, "Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one or the other, be without strategy." Character was important to Norman? One of the men responsible for brutally slaughtering up to ten thousand retreating and defenseless soldiers and civilians on the infamous Highway of Death now thinks that "character" is important? Give me a break.

Human beings, whether they be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist or whatever, all need to start actually following the tenants of their own religions -- and stop all this mass killing in the name of their God. That, even more than just fancy places of worship, would make for a beautiful world. THAT would be impressive!

PS: Here is one of my very first blog essays, written way back in 2001. And what I wrote then regarding religions still seems to hold true today:

Christian, Muslim, Jew: Exercises in man's inhumanity to man

What has Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban taught us about Islam? We learned that when "Muslims" were given the perfect chance to demonstrate to the world the wonders of their religion, they instead chose to create a model of man's inhumanity to man.

What has Israel under the control of radical Zionists taught us about Judaism? We learned that when "Jews" were given the perfect chance to demonstrate to the world the wonders of their religion, they instead chose to create a model of man's inhumanity to man.

What has America under the control of the Christian right taught us about Christianity? We learned that when "Christians" were given the perfect chance to demonstrate to the world the wonders of their religion, they instead chose to create a model of man's inhumanity to man.

The whole purpose of religion is to teach us that it is not too late -- it is never too late -- for the human race to evolve into something better and more wonderful. And religion is also here to teach us that life is NOT a competition to see who can grab the most land or grab the most wealth or grab the most power (or even grab the most oil). Life IS a competition -- but it is a competition to see who can do the most good deeds.

PPS: According to an article by Barbara Ehrenreich, America's evangelical religious right-wing has been demonstrating its talent for hypocrisy in another area besides just "Shock and Awe". The right-wingers keep kvetching about how Big Government is controlling their lives and creating a Welfare State -- but guess what? These very same churches find no problem at all with accepting public money to do exactly the same thing that the government does. Whenever you are handing out welfare funds -- whether at the county office or the church office -- it's still the same idea and it's still paid for by taxpayers. Except that when churches hand out these welfare services, they come with lots of strings attached.

If evangelicals truly want to eliminate Big Government, then a good first step for them would be to stop taking government handouts. Duh.

"Not only do the right-leaning evangelical churches offer their own, shamelessly proselytizing social services," stated Ehrenreich, "...but they stand to gain public money by doing so.... The evangelical church-based welfare system is being fed by the deliberate destruction of the secular welfare system.... The closest analogy to America's bureaucratized evangelical movement is Hamas, which draws in poverty-stricken Palestinians through its own miniature welfare state."