This last Sunday, the day on which Mother Teresa was canonized as a saint, Nicholas Kristof wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled “What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?”.  (The title is, I suppose, an attempt to be provocative in a cute, bumper-sticker sort of way.)  His argument is that followers of the world’s religions too often take stands that are the very opposite of those of the religious “founders,” and/or become tangled up in being right about beliefs and ideas, rather than being dedicated to the practice of compassion and the pursuit of justice.

Image result for free image of Mother Teresa

Kristof writes, “I’m not a particularly religious Christian. But I do see religious faith as one of the most important forces, for good and ill, and I am inspired by the efforts of the faithful who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  Perhaps unfairly, the pompous hypocrites get the headlines and often shape public attitudes about religion, but there’s more to the picture. … It is not the bureaucracy that inspires me, or doctrine, or ancient rituals, or even the most glorious cathedral, temple or mosque, but rather a Catholic missionary doctor in Sudan treating bomb victims, an evangelical physician achieving the impossible in rural Angola, a rabbi battling for Palestinians’ human rights — they fill me with an almost holy sense of awe. Now, that’s religion.”

Well, no, Mr. Kristof, that is not “religion.”  That is the fruit of religion.  But in order to have the fruit, you have to tend the tree or plant that produces it.

What inspires “the faithful” to run those kitchens and shelters?  What gives those doctors the motivation and perseverance to do what they do, or provides the strength to the rabbi to keep on fighting for Palestinian human rights?  Why did Mother Teresa do what she did?  Where did Martin Luther King, or Abraham Joshua Heschel, or Dorothy Day find the support and inspiration for their actions?

I am aware that some scientists posit altruistic behavior as something that is “hardwired” in the human brain, and others argue that it is rather a dimension of behavior that owes more to the evolutionary process.  But it is just not the case that people are compassionate and committed to the establishment of justice in human society without a structure that encourages and supports them.

The “doctrine” and “bureaucracy” of religious traditions, which are certainly capable of ensnaring people in grim and self-referential bogs, have come to be intellectually dismissed and widely discarded.  It is fashionable to walk away from religions these days.  But, when not made captive to extremisms or rigid certainties of various kinds, doctrine, “ancient rituals” and religious institutions are the sources or storehouses of inspiration and of ethical discernment,  and the systems of support by which religions plant and nurture acts of goodness, and leadership for justice.

Mr. Kristof,  like so many others,  seems to approach good and just works much like many of us in the U.S. approach food: just go to the store and get the good stuff–never mind about where it comes from, who tends to it, and how it is raised.   But just as we cannot have good food without caring and responsible growers, so we cannot have the acts of goodness we admire and need without loving cultivation.

The cultivation of this human crop involves ideas (even doctrines!), ethical reasoning, teaching, and the life of a community that can and will support compassionate and just action.  Religious traditions, when they are working, have been created to do this cultivation.  Let’s not cut out, or detach ourselves from,  the thinking and support they provide; or, if we do, let’s not wonder that the way of life that results is less loving, and less just.

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