'Ganja: A healing sacrament for every nation'
Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor
Michael Baldasaro is not your typical minister. He is heavily bearded, radical, yet whimsically colourful and free-spirited. He sees himself as a global citizen, but more important, a religious libertarian who, for the moment, has set up residence in Ontario, Canada. He is a religious maverick, a renegade, willing to push the envelope.
He has long confronted the law, hoping that it will cave in to his demands, his inalienable right to plant and use marijuana (ganja) as an integral part of his religious worship. To the followers of Church of the Universe, marijuana is a sacrament, no different than wafer and wine in a Catholic liturgical service.
Not surprisingly, he singles out his "brethren in Jamaica". He identifies with them; his philosophical affiliates, he calls them. He also understands the constitutional challenges that peyote-using churches in the United States have faced.
Baldasaro has long advanced the medicinal properties of marijuana. Harassment by the state has slowed, somewhat. His journey has been uneasy. He has been collared and jailed; his appeal to the Canadian Supreme Court gathers dust. From the experience he has emerged a legal advocate for the separation of Church and State in the purest sense. He is defiant, but remarkably sanguine as he recalls the genesis of his religious group. With palpable nostalgia, the tale of libertinism, of nudity and wanton smoking of marijuana to connect to the divine is told.
The year was 1969 and to this day, Clearwater Abbey is still defined by those annual meetings with Divinity. At times, he seems resigned to a political system outside his control, but his gravitas unfailing. Maybe he is exhausted, bewildered by those ever ready to put the screws on marijuana use but turn a blind eye to alcohol and cigarettes as they run roughshod over its citizenry.
Idiots and hypocrisy will come and go, ad infinitum. It has always been that way. Meet the charismatic and articulate self-appointed minister of a church without walls, an assembly of kindred souls who live by the golden rule, "an ethic of reciprocity, an ethical code or morality that essentially states either of the following: One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself, or, one should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated". You will be judged according to your works. That's an irrefutable truth.
Satan, he chuckles, is a figment of the imagination. "Speak of Satan in one vein, ask for your credit card in the next. Church is a scheming institution. Evil is the absence of the golden rule in one's life. It's not that complicated."
He rails against organised religion, opting for a euphemism over an expletive. A church is a gathering, small or large, of like individuals who experience the Spirit. A church is in the heart of people, not a physical place. The natives of every country had it right, he argues. "Before the garbage that poses as institutions of morality, there was always the Great Spirit, Manitou by the Canadian native."
Jesus, he said, never started a church but was the first universalist.
"In a limited way, we are all gods, guardians, protectors, preservers."
Baldasaro is ambivalent when the subject of human destiny is raised. He extols nature, the "Tree of Life", he calls it. It's the healing of the nations. It's depicted at the beginning and the end of the Bible. It's an infinite gift bestowed on its inhabitants, but we are none the wiser. We are "in a hurry, it seems, to annihilate the planet, our benefactor".
"But this isn't a new narrative," says Baldasaro. "History has always repeated itself. This is why all the sacred books ooze gloom and damnation, but there is always that sliver of hope, if only we live by that immutable golden rule."
Inspired by Revelation
He holds out for some kind of redemption. Oftentimes, Baldasaro cites the Bible. He appears inspired by the book of Revelation.
Called eccentric in some circles, Baldasaro boasts of not wanting government approval or accreditation for a university he established years ago. It is fashioned along the lines of the church. It is an international reservoir of ideas and applicable solutions to problems in our daily lives - a think tank of sorts. Many have signed on, innovative, solution-driven professors.
"Why surrender your faculty of self-empowerment to so-called policymakers who have only dragged the world into a social and economic abyss? The proof is in the tasting. We have messed up, thanks to those who are supposedly bright. Wisdom is not found in books nor proven by degrees from private and government-sponsored institutions."
At times, Baldasaro is self-effacing, unassuming, viewing himself as a comedian. But then again, as the saying goes, the truth is sometimes said in jest.
Dr Glenville Ashby is a social critic and president of Global Interfaith Council. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @glenvilleashby.