Cultural Goats

Inspired by Kiya’s post on a reflection she gave at her UU church today, here’s what I did at my Unitarian church today…

The theme at New Unity this month has been ‘culture’. Instead of delivering a reflection on the subject, this week the minister asked if the congregation would be willing to share things from their own cultures and those that have influenced them. And how we shared: stories, poetry, reflections, songs. From poems that gazed into the death-stare of Kali, through traditional Irish folk songs, via reflections by Egyptian feminists, past freestyling on Greek-British culture, and onto a gorgeous rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, culture was brought home as something many-varied, colourful, and deeply embedded in us. Afterwards, friends and I fell into talking about queer culture over coffee. So many cultures. So much richness of belonging.

This is what I read in the service. If anyone hasn’t overheard me and Shai talking about the ‘goats’, you will at some point. Three months after I met Shai, I became suddenly, surprisingly and distressingly ill. Sometime around then, Shai told me this story, a Jewish Eastern European one. It has been constantly referred to in our home ever since. This is my interpretation of the story.

A man lived in a small, very crowded house with his wife, his in-laws, six children and a dog.

One day he couldn’t take it anymore. The noise, mess and stress were too much for him. In desperation, he went to see his Rabbi, who was known to be a very wise man.

“Rabbi,” the man said, “You have GOT to help me. There are so many of us in our little house. I can’t cope with the crowdedness and the noise and the mess and the stress anymore. What do I do about this situation?”


The wise Rabbi pondered this for a moment. Then he said to the man, “Do you have a goat?”

Confused, the man replied, “Yes, Rabbi. We have quite a busy farm and I have two goats.”
 
“Then take the goats,” said the Rabbi, “and bring them into the house with you.”
 
“Bring them… into the house? With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
The man duly went home, got his goats, and brought them into the house. And then he went back to the Rabbi a week later.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi!” said the man, “it’s terrible! We have even less space than before, and the goat is breaking everything, and there’s goat mess on the floor, and the children are very unhappy. How is this meant to have helped?”
 
The Rabbi thought for a moment. “Do you have a cow?”
 
“Well… yes,” said the man. “I have a cow.”
 
“OK,” said the Rabbi. “Bring the cow into the house with you.”
 
“Bring the cow… into the house? With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog, and the goats?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
The man obediently went home, got his cow, and brought it into the house. And then he went back to the Rabbi a week later.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi!” he said. “This is horrific! The goats and the cow are taking up so much space that we barely have anywhere to sleep anymore! They are fighting and they’re in the way and their mess is all over everything.”
 
“Tell me,” said the Rabbi, “do you have any chickens?”
 
“Yes, Rabbi,” said the man resignedly, “I have chickens.”
 
“Then take the chickens,” said the Rabbi, “and bring them into the house with you.”
 
“Bring them… into the house. With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog, and the goats and the cow?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
A week later the man returned. He looked exhausted.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi,” he said, “I officially cannot cope anymore. The goats and cow are trying to kill each other. The chickens are flapping around making noise all day and all night. We have nowhere to sleep, nowhere to eat, we’re now having to do most things outside, and their mess is everywhere. What are you doing to me?”
 
“Excellent,” said the Rabbi. “Now. Take the chickens, and the cow, and the goats, and put them back outside. And come back to me in a week.”
 
A week later, the man came back. He looked rested and happy. “Rabbi,” he said, “you have no idea how much better it is now. There is space again. It is quiet again. It is clean again! What a relief.
 
The Rabbi smiled. “Then go home,” he said, “and enjoy the wonderful life you have with your family. And remember, if it ever gets too much – there could always be a goat living with you.”

 

There were a few goats in my house as I walked around Camden after church, getting some meanness about my scooter from fellow Camdonians, and thinking about the very hard week I’ve had of defending my stance on disability and access. But then there was tea and trees and work in Regents’ Park, and the goats were out of the house. For a little while. Everything can always wait until tomorrow.

 

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Regents Canal, where it meets the bridge at Regents Park, Camden, London

Honour in Speech: Speaking about Other Religions

It’s that time of year again. The time of year for ‘zombie Jesus’ jokes, entirely inaccurate memes about Ishtar, and dismissive comments about Christian cultural dominance. Even the relatively inoffensive Facebook posts that speak about Christianity and other Abrahamic religions in ‘we’re better than them’ terms, always seem to turn up annually during this season.

This year, it is an atheist who is teaching me most about honourable speech about other religions. SJ, my long-suffering, spiritually-curious atheist spouse, is shifting religious festivals so quickly that they’re practically becoming a chaos magician. And every single word out of their mouth about every one of these religions, including ones they’re not observing this year (like my own), is deeply honourable. I hear a lot of complaints about how atheists talk about our religious traditions – but I’ve not heard nearly so much respectful, honourable speech towards other religions from Pagans. I haven’t heard it from myself.

I understand why some Pagans react negatively to Christianity, and need to blow off steam. Gods know, I know what it’s like to grow up in an environment where your religion condemns you, constrains you, and even directs spiritual and emotional abuse at you. Yet, none of that gives me the right to condemn a whole religion. The only people responsible for that were the specific people in the specific churches I grew up in.

It helps that I also had wonderful, deeply spiritual experiences in Christian contexts, later on in my spiritual journey – to the extent that I haven’t *entirely* moved on from Christianity, and will probably always have some associations with it. (You could call that karma, if you like. I call it holding myself to my confirmation promises.) I’m aware that not everyone has had those experiences, and not everyone will be understand why I continue to find Christianity such a foundational, beautiful spiritual path, despite all its potential and actual issues. That’s OK… as long as others respect that I have a different perspective from them.

But whether we have good or bad experiences of religions, and whether we have any experiences of them at all, I personally feel that honour in speaking of them is important. I’m not convinced by the argument that they treated us badly first. If a few outliers did, they don’t speak for the whole religion. And even if every member of a religion you’ve ever encountered has treated us badly, does it mean we should retaliate with the same?

But I mostly think how tragic it is when we fail to learn from the great spiritual wealth that other religions have to offer us. SJ and I had a big argument recently about whether the major religions of the world have more in common, or more differences. But in the end, that debate doesn’t matter. What we can learn from each other, through both our similarities and differences – that’s what excites me. That’s why I still go to Christian events (under certain circumstances), even when my Pagan friends make cracks about how I’m going to be seen as a Christian again. It’s why I do interfaith work, even when my fellow interfaith activists and I confuse each other. And it’s why I stand up and demand that others respect Paganism – including colleagues and friends who clearly don’t understand where I’m coming from – and who don’t have to, but who I do expect to respect my position anyway. (I wear a pentacle at university sometimes – even though that is not my own symbol – in order to stand in solidarity with other Pagans.)

We all deserve to have our sacred truths spoken of respectfully. Every single one of us. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, Mormons, those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’, those who follow New Age traditions, Pagans, reconstructionist polytheists… All of us.

That doesn’t mean that those traditions are beyond criticism. I have no problem with satire, and I don’t personally believe we have any need for blasphemy laws. (Though I have Opinions on the failure of the European Court of Human Rights to protect people’s rights to manifest their religions. A secular society doesn’t need be a repressive society. Though that’s a bigger debate for another time.)

But it does mean, to me, that I am personally responsible for being mindful of what I say about other religions, how I say it, and what effect I can have on others in the process. I want to be known for honourable speech about the faiths of others. I’d like it if Paganism could be known for that… but I’m only responsible for myself. And I can only do my best.

SJ’s latest post, on Pesach/Passover, talks a bit about the magic behind some of its rituals. You might like it.