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Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Religion ... Society ...

I recently wrote about the tragic death two weeks ago of 8-year old Christiana Glenn of Irvington, NJ after starvation and extreme neglect by her mother, Venette Olivde. I wondered if tragic deaths like hers (and there are way too many of them) signify a severe weakening of community in our nation, manifested in different ways in the poorer and better off areas. I argued that in both poor and affluent neighborhoods, the vast proliferation of electronic media (TV, radio, internet, smart phones, I-pods, I-pads, etc.) sends countless messages glorifying the rich and implicitly denigrating the poor, creating a burden of bad feelings and self-image on the part of anyone who hasn’t ‘made it big’.

Furthermore, these devices allow each individual to find and live in his or her own virtual world of common belief, decreasing the sense of “real community” and social solidarity that once existed, especially in poor neighborhoods. Those factors obviously didn’t kill an 8 year old girl; but they may have weakened the social mechanisms that might have saved her, i.e. communal responsibility for children’s welfare.

The Christiana Glenn case has another important aspect however, but one that still feeds back into the community situation. Christiana’s mother was a part of a 12 to 15 person “mini-cult” religion, led by a young self-appointed prophet calling himself Emanyel Rezireksyon Kris. This wasn’t your typical “black church” thing with all the singing and fellowship. This group seems in search of spiritual intensity via solitude, chanting and monastic living. Members live ascetic, closed-off lives mostly confined to each other and Pastor Kris. They hold prayer services daily, chanting long into the night (not unlike Trappist monks with their psalmist chants; except that Trappists quit around 8pm and start again at 4am or so the next day). They also wear white robes, much like those worn by Trappists.

This works just fine in many mainstream Christian monastic communities, such as the Trappists and Camaldolese (and maybe the Sufis and Jewish kaballah sects, and of course the Zen monasteries of the east). In most of these communities, members need to be single and without children (or without responsibility for children, anyway). But the question in Irvington is, what happens when you try to mix ascetic monasticism with children? The result is generally NOT GOOD.

Here is a recent quote from an article about Christiana Glenn and her mother on the nj.com web page. It is from a 2009 interview that child protection agency staff had with Christiana and her sister.

“There were no toys, the girl answered. Christiana’s mother — ‘mommy sensei’, she called her — believed toys were idols.”

I couldn’t help but notice the “sensei” thing. Emanyel Rezireksyon Kris must have known something about Zen or perhaps martial arts. The word “sensei” is a Japanese title of honor for teachers and authority figures. We use the term in Zen to designate our teachers and group leaders; the martial arts people make similar use of the term.

Most Zen teachers that I’ve met seem OK, but there are many I’ve read about that let the honorifics go to their heads and become personality cultists. Some become sexually abusive, but most of them just get neurotic, unpleasant and tyrannical. Luckily, adult members of a Zen community have a sure cure; just use your legs to walk away.

But when your sensei is your mother, there isn’t much you can do. Young children are not good at monasticism. They want to play and run around and be loud and active; that’s just how nature programs them. To attempt to fit children into a monastic community requires harsh tactics. One way to slow children down and make them quiet is to not feed them enough. And that’s just what Christiana’s mother did to her, which led to her death.

Thus far, I have enjoyed my own experiences with my Zen group. But there is one thing about Zen that inherently cuts it off from the world around it. And that regards children. There really is no place for kids in a Zen sangha; I remember one member bringing her 11 year old daughter to our sittings a handful of times, and the kid handled it pretty well. But they didn’t stay the full 2 hours. Unlike most mainstream religions, Zen (and most Buddhism groups that I am aware of) does not get involved with that part of community life devoted to child-rearing. Personally, that suits me just fine. But it does isolate us from an important aspect of human society.

I’m not saying that Zen is unhealthy; unlike Pastor Kris, Zen doesn’t completely take over one’s life. Thus, it generally does not need to deal with kids. We will not starve any children in our search for ‘enlightenment’ (what ever that is; I never did believe in it). But we do stay away from children in our corporate life (such as at weekly zazen).

Although that suits my sensibilities just fine, at some point it does seem a bit sad, somewhat like an ‘active adult community’ where kids can visit but can’t live. It says to me that Zen doesn’t and cannot take on the full range of human experience, despite representing a way of thinking and viewing things that allegedly does speak of life-in-general.

Zen sometimes answers profound questions with silence. In doing so it often shows great wisdom. However, with regard to the Christiana Glenn tragedy, or generally in regard to communal responsibility for the well-being of future generations, Zen’s silence is not very edifying. Some days I wonder if Zen is part of the problem of “radical individualization” that I otherwise blame on information technology, and that I postulate as partly responsible for Christiana’s death.

The local newspaper ran a recent editorial about Christiana, excoriating the state child welfare agency but also noting that “Plenty of people failed . . . Neighbors were aware of their confinement and their mother’s erratic behavior. She was one of several women tightly controlled and ordered to fast by a self-proclaimed preacher. Friends and relatives knew.” Again, it takes a village to save a child, and that village let Christiana down. And we Zennies aren’t doing much more than closing our eyes and following our breath in response.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:51 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I’m not sure, but I think you may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. You certainly have a point. There is much about any organized institution (both religious and secular) that can be criticized. For the most part members of our religious and secular institutions have the good sense to realize what is good about the institution (or corporate entity) and leave the rest. Unfortunately, these people you mention here were the type who would rather not make any decisions, would rather stay children themselves than take responsibility for making even the simplest sensible decision about anything–or so it seems.

    Recently, I’ve read something most interesting by Cynthia Bourgeault. She addresses the issue of monasticism within the RC and Anglican churches. She points out somewhat the same issue you point out–only more broadly. She notes how within Christian monasticism there is no room whatsoever for love for another human being; all love is directed toward God.

    She then addresses this issue by stating a point I wholeheartedly agree with, namely, that “one cannot love God as an object. God is always and only the *subject* of love.” She then goes on to say that “God “unlocks and sustains my ability to give myself fully to life in all its infinite particularity, including the excruciating particularity of a human beloved.” When I read that, I had to say, “thank you, thank you, thank you.”

    So, I’d say don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater: Let Zen, monastic life, eremetic life, etc., “do it’s thing”, (pray for the world, add positively to the collective unconscious of the human race, maybe simply give the regular person some stress relief) any, all of these is important though limited. But keep in mind that if you want to see Christ on earth now, if you want to love Christ (or God or whatever “higher power” one may wish to acknowledge or simply wonder about), the only way to do it is through loving real people. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — June 2, 2011 @ 7:31 am

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