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Good Friday and Eugene’s True Believers

April 1st, 2010 by dk

Good Friday sounds redundant to most Oregonians. The day that reliably ushers us into each weekend is always welcome, and so we call it good. But this Friday is Good with a capital G, following a Thursday called “Maundy,” not “Thirsty.” At last count, fewer than a third of Oregonians attend church each week. Only Nevada and the New England states score lower.
Does this statistic make us a notably unreligious state? Far from it. Religious fervor abounds here. It’s just not often directed toward religion.
Social activist Betty Niven in the 1960s coined a term for the rabid activists we breed in this place. She called them “true believers.” It was not a compliment. She found she could not rely on them to make compromises, broker deals with opponents and move things forward. They hold so tightly to the perfect that they cannot grasp the good.
Their devotion to the cause — whatever it may be — wins admiration even from those who disagree with them. They work hard. They never waver. They don’t quit. Their convictions run deep. But their religion lacks a key ingredient. Without an omnipotent creator and judge, from whom they hope to receive mercy and grace, they can forget to extend mercy and grace to others. Their certainty leaves no room for humility.
We all know Prius owners who work too hard to let others know what they drive. They can only hope they don’t get lured into that conversation by somebody who arrived by bicycle. When moral purity becomes a measure of social stature, there’s always risk of being one-upped.
We all want to be good, but don’t we also fear we’ll never be good enough? I do.
Two campers wake to the sound of a hungry bear. One stops to lace up his shoes. The other says, “You fool. You’ll never be able to outrun a bear.” The first camper replies, “I don’t have to run faster than the bear. I only have to run faster than you.” Being better than others is the goal within our reach, but it cannot make us good enough. We are not pure.
Two years ago, I drew dish duty at an annual event that feeds a thousand diners in just a few hours. Organizers recruited a band of Master Recyclers to help us. We would clean up without creating unnecessary waste. Food scraps would be given to local farmers raising chickens. Paper was rinsed and recycled. Juice boxes were diverted a third direction.
Our assigned recycler was pleasant enough and I’m sure I was the one being cranky. She emphasized the importance of rinsing cups before recycling them, keeping contaminants out of the paper stock. I asked what amount of contaminant was acceptable for the process. She insisted there must be none. I pushed on the idea harder than I should have, and the conversation turned philosophical: “purity” versus “tolerance.” I haven’t been asked back to wash dishes since.
I fear that religious fervor for legitimate causes is making us less tolerant.
Global warming and our response to it has come to resemble more an inquisition than an inquiry. Dissent is not tolerated. Discourse has evaporated. Two cannot converse when one wants only to convert.
Retired architect Bill Neel lives on a ranch south of town. Neel’s father was a geologist, so he’s always paid attention to the world. He asks hard questions about the global warming juggernaut. It makes others uncomfortable.
An overnight guest confronted him recently, calling him a hypocrite. “When I follow you around for a day, you do everything in a sustainable way, but you refuse to carry the banner for the cause.” Neel was being accused of walking the walk, but refusing to talk the talk.
“Stewardship makes good sense to me,” Neel says, setting leftover toast aside for his chickens. “It’s how I was raised. But that’s not a new story. It’s very old.” Neel refuses to adopt the New Time Religion because the old hasn’t stopped working for him.
If Neel’s guest had called him a heretic instead of just a hypocrite, my point would be better made. But a holiday weekend is beginning, so I’ll eat some chocolate, dye some eggs, and call it good.
Don Kahle ( writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.

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