An educated, well established man came to see the Shaman. He’d heard about the healings. He’d heard about the wise teachings. He’d heard that this one was not like all the others. This one spoke without apology, without qualifications. This one spoke to the heart of what burdened those on the margins – truth to power.
There was an authority in the words that rung an ancient bell within the man. It was a vibration that he hadn’t felt ring all the way into his bones for a long time. This was a note of author-ship – as if coming from a source, a wellspring, an un-nameable creative seed that is the origin - the original spark that speaks all life into being.
That was the effect of the Shaman’s words on him.
After the Shaman’s talk, the educated, well established man made his way through the crowd. He jostled into place before the shaman waiting patiently for his turn. When he finally got his attention he asked “Can you tell me how must I live so that when I die it is without regret or fear?”
The Shaman didn’t say what he half-expected him to say. The Shaman didn’t say “sign up and follow me.” The Shaman didn’t say “buy my book and attend my next workshop.” The Shaman didn’t say “Believe in me and I will save you from the flames of regret you fear.”
The Shaman asked him a question instead. (he should have seen this coming) The Shaman said to him “You know the holy scriptures. What is the greatest commandment among them?”
The man answered “Love god – the source of life – with your whole self. With body, mind, and soul as one. And … the second commandment is a great as the first… love your neighbour as yourself.”
The Shaman nodded and began to turn to the next person waiting.
But the educated, well-established, knowledgeable man was not satisfied and snuck in a supplementary question. “But who is my neighbour?”
This is a question that I’ve been living with for some time now.
I don’t have an answer.
At first glance, the answer seems incredibly simple. Love my neighbour. Right – got it. There’s nothing complicated about that. The idea that this is something I need to learn how to do – that I need help with - is a bit ridiculous…isn’t it just a part of how we are all humane to one another? Isn’t this what we learned in kindergarten? Am I just a very slow learner? (I’m only just discovering in mid-life now what I’ve failed to learn all those years when I thought I had the answers.)
Now I want to dig a bit deeper into where the Shaman was pointing. My neighbour is not my friend. My neighbour is not my family. My neighbour – the kind of relationship the Shaman was pointing to – is not someone easy to get along with. My neighbour is not someone with whom I can easily share.
The encounter with a neighbour must challenge me. If I am to discover in this exchange an answer to life’s key questions; Why am I here? What must I do (and what must I let go of to do it)? What gift must I offer in return for this sacred gift of living if I am to live fully – and die without regret?
If I am to come up with answers to these questions in the short time I have to spend here – then this encounter with my neighbour must shake from me my assumptions, my comfort-levels, my truths – like a dog shakes water from its fur.
The apostle Paul tells the first church-goers “even the un-churched are good at loving those who are like themselves. If you are on this path of faith, you must learn to love those who are strange to you.” (or something like that)
Paul echoes an ancient refrain. “Take care when you offer hospitality to a stranger. For you never know when you might be entertaining an angel.” This note of wisdom, this code of conduct, is as old as the oldest stories of Abraham and Sarah.
But there is another story in those ancient texts. There is the story about a jealous, harsh, and tribal god who demands fidelity to a tribal code. This code warns us to remain pure. To not mix with “the others”. To grow only tall and straight from the roots of the truths of one’s own people is the only way to live with honesty and virtue. To mix it up with the stranger is to risk spiritual pollution. This wisdom, and this code of conduct, is also in these holy scriptures.
So, who is my neighbour?
My daughter attended a public school in downtown Toronto where among her five friends, she was the only one born in Canada. Then she attended high school in small town Ontario where she was the stranger - the other - who came with a foreign set of experiences and values. She grew up as a citizen of the world in ways that were never available to her grandparents.
Her grandparents honeymooned in the 1950s as delegates to a European gathering of the World Council of Churches. They were riding high on the wave of this great ecumenical movement. Christianity had reached every corner of the globe (pretty much) and it brought medicine, education, and economic development (to pay for the first two) to share with global neighbours.
Decades later, we see a much different story. That wave has crashed on the shores of the post-colonial failures of Christendom to bring about the kingdom that capitalist-driven progress seemed to offer.
Institutional religion is a human creature. And we see how the institutionalization, and professionalization, of religion’s call to simple generosity among neighbours has become more about sustaining the institutions than about keeping it simple.
Shamanic wisdom is by nature anti-institutional and counter-cultural.
I realize I am taking some long strides of logic here. This is my worldview created by a social-analysis arising from academic theories of liberation and my own experience of working at the fringes of Canada’s poverty-industry. All of what I’m talking about has been so much better explained than this thumbnail sketch affords. But now – if you’re still with me reader – I’m going to ask you to leap off a cliff of logic with me.
Institutional religion’s power depends upon a great spirit of conformity. It seeks to bring everyone into a great melting pot of common thought, common values, common rules. These rules, while delivered as necessary evils for the common good, create a class of rulers. Rule-keepers rise to power and priviledge. Power and priviledge - of course, we all know - have a way of becoming more important to those that have them, than the great common good they were designed to serve.
When those missionaries brought medicine and education and economic development on their corporate-funded missions, they also brought the two gospels. One gospel, or good news, was about the promises of democracy and economic progress that brought medicine, education, science and technology.
The other good news - found in the stories of a tribal shaman speaking truth to power - is always revolutionary to a people who find themselves oppressed – or pushed aside - by institutional priviledge and power. This version of the good news is discovered when the stories are read directly by those on the fringes - and without institutional religion’s spin.
While institutional religion’s version of it seeks to sweep the people into the great mono-cultural conforming tide - the shamanic wisdom feeds the dignity of diversity among those that the institutional systems fail to feed. For those who find themselves oppressed or marginalized, the freedoms offered by the gospel of progress fall flat. The freedoms offered by the call of the liberating gospel are what calls people into radical conversation with one another and with the mother – earth.
Shamanic wisdom’s role is bring us back to earth from the towers and silos we create to “save” us from our human natures. If we fear our human nature and seek to control it, then religion is a necessary evil. If we instead learn to see our natures as integral to the natural world - then fear dissipates and control becomes personal instead of corporate. This is where I’m learning to walk.
If we understand earth as home. If we understand earth as providential, bountiful, sufficient. If we understand earth – even in its wildest, harshest, most life-threatening ways – as the cycle we live within - instead of a force that needs to be conquered and overcome – then a very different set of rules from the corporate, institutional, power & priviledge creating “order” is required.
The earth is speaking to us. The earth is preparing to shake humans from its skin like that wet dog I mentioned earlier.
Our systems and institutions have failed to provide for all. Our best thinking has failed to come up with political and institutional antidotes to the problems they’ve created. Systems that create and are sustained by priviledge, and require great effort and expense to maintain, are unlikely to come up with solutions.
So, where do we turn for solutions?
What about our neighbours?
“Who is my neighbour”
“Who among my neighbours can teach me what I’m missing?”
“Who among my neighbours wants to learn with me?”
I’m going to keep asking this question and will report back as I wander.
I’d appreciate hearing from you if you’ve got any clues.