Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

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The puzzle of religious identity

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A while back a clinic at which I had an upcoming appointment called me to ask questions in preparation for my visit. One of the questions was “What is your religious preference?” The question took me by surprise—of what medical relevance could that possibly be to an otorhinolaryngologist? Do the nostrils of an evangelical Christian look different from the nostrils of a Zen Buddhist?

What took me even more by surprise than the question was that I answered it quickly and without hesitation. More surprising yet was my answer: “Quaker,” said I. After the call ended, I reflected on the fact that for several decades my response to that question, on the rare occasions it has arisen, has always been “Buddhist.” Why, after decades of identifying as a Buddhist, did I spontaneously have a different answer?

As I began to think about this, I began by reflecting on the fact that I have dual citizenship, being a citizen of the United States by birth and a citizen of Canada by naturalization. For years I carried two passports. When entering the United States I always showed my U.S. passport, and when entering any other country I showed the Canadian passport. When traveling outside North America, I always thought of myself and identified myself to others as Canadian. Now that both passports have expired, I don’t travel outside North America. I now live in the United States again and vote in local and federal elections whenever the opportunity arises, but despite exercising the rights of a citizen, I cannot easily think of myself as a citizen of the United States or any other country. I have ceased to believe in countries; they are at best a conventional conceptual structure that I reject but to which practical life requires some degree of acknowledgement, however reluctant.

My attitude toward religions that have names is parallel to my attitude toward countries that have names and borders. The most emotionally honest answer to the question “What is your religious preference?” would be the same as the most emotionally honest answer to the question “What is your citizenship?” The answer to both questions would be “None.” And yet, I do have membership in two religious organizations, both of which I maintain. I have no preference of one over the other. It has mostly been through force of habit that when asked I tend to tell people I’m a Buddhist.

So why did I recently answer the question of religious preference differently? As I thought about this further, it occurred to me that I have always seen myself as a pretty substandard Buddhist, at lest by traditional criteria. I don’t particularly like or get any inspiration from Buddhist rituals. I don’t really believe anyone has ever attained nirvana, which is traditionally said to be the complete eradication of the afflictions of greed, hatred, and delusion. Nirvana is also traditionally said to be the cessation of rebirth, but I have never believed in rebirth in the first place. As far as I am concerned, everyone who manages to die has attained the end of consciousness and has no worry of being born as an animal or a ghost or a denizen of any of the hells or paradises cooked up by the common human reluctance to face oblivion; it follows from my convictions, if they are true, that either everyone attains nirvana, or no one does.

I find it impossible to believe that anyone has ever existed who can accurately be described by the fulsome praise embedded in the formulaic description of the Buddha: “noble, fully awakened, perfect in knowledge and conduct, knower of the world, unmatched teacher of gods and people” and “the best teacher on two feet.” Are there any gods to be taught? Can anyone who is a teacher of people be called unmatched or the best? Surely there are countless thousands of very good teachers, people whose advice it would benefit almost anyone to follow. Why single out one good teacher as the best? None of the traditional praise of the Buddha makes much sense to me.

All told, if being a Buddhist entails going for refuge to the Buddha and the Dharma (which, as an item of refuge is understood as the ultimate goal of nirvana) and the Community, I fail to go for refuge to at least two out of three of the traditional Buddhist refuges. Truth be told, I don’t even believe in the community as it is traditionally understood by Buddhists, namely, as the community of noble persons, those being the people who have eradicated various false views, sexual desires, anger, pride and various other afflictions. My belief is that if one is born human, one dies human and is human every moment in between birth and death, and being human inevitably involves having an amygdala and all the “base” and “animalistic” mental states that originate in that part of the brain that human beings share with other deuterostomes.

By now it must be clear that I fall short of all traditional expectations of what it means to be a Buddhist. So how could I ever have thought of myself as a Buddhist at all? The answer to that is that one key teaching of Buddhism has made more sense to me than any other teaching anywhere, and that is that all internal and external turmoil arises from the presence of greed, hatred and delusion, and the more those afflictions are subdued, the greater the odds of feeling some degree of comfort while alive. While it is true that many philosophies incorporate that same key teaching in one way or another, it just happens that I first heard that teaching clearly articulated by Buddhists, so it is to Buddhism that I habitually give credit, even while acknowledging that Stoicism, along with most if not all of the world religions, and humanism deserve equal credit.

I suppose I thought of myself as a Buddhist because in my own mind it was the standards of Buddhism of which I was most conscious of falling short. I’m quite confident that I am equally far below the standards of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Daoism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Sikhism, but what stood out in my mind, because of the accidents of who got to me first to shape my thinking, was my being below the standards of Buddhism.

What changed recently, I think, is that I have been reading quite a bit in recent months about the Quaker notion that one’s life—the way one lives—is the only real testimony to one’s faith. I admit to being very weak in any kind of faith, but if I did have any of it to give testimony to, I think I’d prefer to give testimony to it in the specific ways that liberal Quakers do, namely, by manifesting integrity, simplicity, peace, equality and community (or at least as much of community as an introvert like me can face). As I look at the reality of how my life has unfolded, I stand convicted of having manifested those ways of testimony rather poorly. And it is, I submit, because lately I have been far more conscious of being a substandard Quaker than of being a substandard Buddhist that I blurted out that my religious preference on that day was Quakerism.

I still do not see what possible relevance my or anyone else’s religious preference has to an ear, nose and throat specialist. Perhaps I should have answered that I am a secular humanist with a deviated septum.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, November 11, 2019 at 15:05

Posted in Buddhism, Quakerism


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“Nothing can convict me of sin but the evidence in my own heart. From this evidence there is no escape.”—Elias Hicks (March 19, 1748 – February 27, 1830)

A term often used in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) is “convinced Friend,” which is explained on the Quaker Jane website as “someone who experienced a convincement (either quickly or evolving over time) and chose in adulthood to join a Friends Meeting.” A convincement, in Quaker terminology, is what others might call a conversion experience or metanoia (μετάνοια), a sudden or gradual transformative experience that results in a change in the direction of one’s life. A convincement, however, is more than that. It is also a feeling that one has been convicted, as of a crime, and that one is therefore a convict, imprisoned for the time being. This recognition of one’s shortcomings, one’s failure to live according to one’s highest ideals, often results in one’s being less prone to the negative judgment of others for their shortcomings, as is expressed beautifully in the poem of the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier (December 17, 1807 – September 7, 1892) entitled “Forgiveness”:

My heart was heavy, for its trust had been
Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong;
So, turning gloomily from my fellow-men,
One summer Sabbath day I strolled among
The green mounds of the village burial-place;
Where, pondering how all human love and hate
Find one sad level; and how, soon or late,
Wronged and wrongdoer, each with meekened face,
And cold hands folded over a still heart,
Pass the green threshold of our common grave,
Whither all footsteps tend, whence none depart,
Awed for myself, and pitying my race,
Our common sorrow, like a mighty wave,
Swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!

It would be difficult for me to point to any one experience in my life as a convincement, but early in adulthood a number of circumstances led to important changes in direction and alterations in perspective. A chance encounter with a collection of writings by the Stoics had an immediate effect on me, not so much one of making me change direction but of realizing that others had already said better what I was struggling to say about my outlook on the world. Not long after that, in the early months of 1967, I happened to attend two reading groups at a Unitarian-Universalist church in Golden, Colorado, one that was reading Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates and another that was reading several Buddhist writings. Reflecting on those readings had the effect of making me decide that I had completely lost all sense of belonging in the United States—there was hardly anything about the direction the country was taking on those days that seemed reasonable or moral to me—and that realization led to buying a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Oddly enough, I was convinced in those days that I was a Communist, and Winnipeg was a place with a number of Communist bookstores and members of various Canadian Communist parties. It took relatively little exposure to those people to make me realize I was not one of them after all. Fortunately, during those early days in Canada I also came into contact with members of the Religious Society of Friends. Despite a lifelong aversion to any kind of religion, and perhaps especially to anything Christian, I found myself so moved by the kindness, the thoughtfulness and the decency of Friends that I began to think it might be time to reconsider my antipathy. After attending unprogrammed Quaker meetings for worship for several months, I was both impressed by the quality of what was said when Quakers rose to give testimony in meetings and resistant to the notion that these communications were from where Quakers officially said they were from: Spirit. Whenever I heard an inspirational message in meeting for worship, a little voice in my head would say something like “That’s John speaking his own carefully reasoned ideas. It’s not Spirit talking.” I am not sure why it was so important to me to make that distinction in those days, but with time that little voice stopped insisting on saying that sort of thing. Perhaps a factor in my little inner voice’s change of diction was the fact that in those days I wrote fiction or poetry nearly every day, and many times would look at what I had written and would ask myself “Where did that come from? My muse? My unconscious? Reasoning? Spirit? Or does it really matter where it comes from? There it is.”

In those early days in Canada I was in danger of being overwhelmed by my anger with the United States and that country’s seemingly insatiable craving for enemies to blame and countries to invade. On a visit to a bookstore in Lethbridge, Alberta, I stumbled upon a copy of Edward Conze’s little tome on Buddhist meditation, which reminded me of how well I had responded to the Buddhist readings in the Unitarian-Universalist church in Colorado. I bought the book and hit upon a description there of a contemplative practice aimed at cultivating friendship (mettā-bhāvanā), and it was immediately clear to me that that was what I had to do. I had to change my attitude, quit being angry with perceived enemies, begin finding something to love and respect in everyone, and that practice was just the tool I needed to do the job that needed to be done. Fifty years on, I still do that exercise regularly. Practice, I have come to notice, does not necessarily make perfect, but it can at least make a little better.

Now in the early years of my eighth decade as a human being on the planet Earth, I am still not entirely comfortable with such concepts as sin or evil. Those are not categories that readily come to mind as I look at the external world or at the internal mindscape. What does come to mind is some notion that “things ain’t what they spose to be” and that ameliorative measures could be taken. As Hicks said so well, from the evidence of one’s own heart there is no escape. It is that evidence that convicts. And once convicted, one has no choice but to reform.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at 12:55

Posted in Quakerism

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What are we doing to ensure adequate water, food, shelter, education and respect for those who do not have ready access to these blessings? Are we informed about the effects of our lifestyle on the global economy and the environment? (Faith and Practice. Intermountain Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 2009, p. 139.)

For the vast majority of Americans—I cannot speak for the people of other countries—the answer to the second question in this Quaker query is No. No, we are not informed about the effects of our lifestyle on the global economy and the environment. I would like to think that if we were informed, we would choose to live different lifestyles.

I have a hunch there are a lot of people who know that people would choose to live differently if they were better informed. How else can we account for the millions, even billions, of dollars that are spent every year to make sure that most people are misinformed? Just to cite one example, it is impossible to know for sure how many people are lured into believing that America’s economic future depends on finding and extracting petroleum, coal and natural gas in the United States and Canada, and that these extracting industries will create millions of jobs for Americans right here at home, and that the principal obstacles to America’s energy security and independence are regulations aimed at protecting the environment. Given, however, that Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain has said that one of his first acts as president would be to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency so that Americans could get back to work and become energy-self-sufficient, and given that Herman Cain according to USA Today is today the leading Republican candidate in Iowa polls, there seem to be people (at least in Iowa) who buy into the persistent efforts of such organizations as America’s Power to persuade Internet users and television viewers that deregulation and increased energy production is the only sure path to America’s economic recovery and future prosperity.

There are some questions that Herman Cain and his supporters are not asking but should be asking.

  • What impact will it have on the health and wellbeing of Americans if we continue to burn coal to generate electricity?
  • What impact will it have on the health and wellbeing of Americans if we continue burning oil to propel automobiles, airplanes, trucks, trains and ships over great distances?
  • What impact will it have on the health of wellbeing of America’s closest neighbors and America’s more distant neighbors if we continue to consume energy at current levels?
  • What impact is the way human beings are now living having on animals and plants?
  • What will the planet be like twenty-five years from now, when today’s toddlers are young adults? What will it be like in fifty years, when today’s toddlers are middle-aged? How many of today’s toddlers will live to be seventy-five? What kind of future will there be for those who must live in the world to which the current generations are laying waste through our collective reliance on energy produced by something other than our own muscles?

America’s economy is fueled entirely by dissatisfaction. To some extent, dissatisfaction is natural for human beings; philosophers have been pointing out for millennia that being dissatisfied is one of the things we do best. But much of today’s dissatisfaction is carefully cultivated and manufactured. Every time, for example, that Apple produces a new operating system for its computers and mobile devices, the Apple Corporation extends an invitation to all users of Apple products to be dissatisfied with the toys and tools they already have. This year’s line of apparel is an invitation to be dissatisfied with what is already in our clothes closets. If people were to become satisfied with what they already have, quite a lot of the economy would collapse. Civilization as we know it would come to an end.

There are few things that I am more eager to see in my lifetime than the end of civilization as we know it, and the collapse of an economy based not on the provision of the necessities of life but on the creation of desires for goods and services we could all very easily live without, and without most of which we would in fact be much more content.

It is long past time for a revolution that brings capitalism to its knees and that utterly destroys the monstrous American culture of selfishness and greed that has grown like a cancer on this once-beautiful continent. The beginning of that revolution is not going to be the firing of shots or the planting of bombs, nor is it going to be the gathering of crowds shouting slogans and carrying banners. The next American revolution can begin only with a blossoming of individual personal contentment. Contentment with plain, nutritious, locally grown food. Contentment with plain clothing, sufficient to offer protection from the elements. Contentment with conversation and with singing with our own voices and dancing on our own legs. Contentment with watching birds and insects and plants being born and living and dying. Contentment with using our own bodies as our only vehicles. Contentment with talking to friends in the house next door. Contentment with our own breathing and the beat of our own hearts. Contentment with the laughter of children. Contentment with dogs and cats.

If a radical contentment with what is within our own bodies and right under own very noses would seize us all, we could give up our craving for laptops and mobile devices with their highly toxic lithium batteries. A joy with encountering reality would quickly replace our craving for virtual reality. If a content with moving at the speed of living organisms were to overtake us, we would quickly lose our craving for automobiles and airplane flight.

America has been conquered by barbarians driven by greed, who have enslaved us with their unnecessary toxic environment-destroying energy-consuming products. We are the barbarians who have conquered us. There is a way to get the country back. Stop buying their products. Start resisting their lies. Begin by taking a deep breath and looking around and noticing how much of what you have you could easily do without. Be free.

Ask: why did the author of this blog posting use a poisoned Apple MacBook laptop computer to send a message on the energy-wasting Internet to encourage people to consider simplifying their lives?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 16:36

Posted in Faith and practice

View through a needle’s eye

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As he was going out into the way, one ran to him, knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except one—God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not give false testimony,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have observed all these things from my youth.” Jesus looking at him loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross.” But his face fell at that saying, and he went away sorrowful, for he was one who had great possessions. Jesus looked around, and said to his disciples, “How difficult it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus answered again, “Children, how hard is it for those who trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:17–25)

One of the many enigmas that we face as we enter into the year 2011 is the political alliance that has formed in recent decades between some evangelical Christians and the plutocrats who have seized control of much of the world and have waged—and for the most part won—a war on the poor. So successful has the campaign of the wealthy classes against the middle-class and the poor been that the political forces who promote the interests of the wealthy have even managed to stigmatize the expression “class warfare” by suggesting that anyone who thinks in terms of class warfare is anti-American and opposed to the ideals expressed in the Constitution of the United States and in the Declaration of Independence. Consequently, it has become almost impossible to have an honest and accurate discussion of the dynamics of American politics without immediately being dismissed as an extreme-left  ideologue. Fortunately, an increasing number of Christians, and followers of other religions, are speaking out and pointing out that the amassing of wealth—especially when this is done to the detriment of the general well-being of the rest of the human race—is contrary to the core values of nearly every religion and philosophical system in the history of the human race. (Just to give two examples, there is a website called Faithful America and another called Sojourners, on both of which one finds thoughtful and spirited critiques of mainstream American politics by mainstream American religious leaders.)

In his essay Creative Unity Rabindranath Tagore quotes the opening lines of William Wordsworth’s sonnet, The World is Too Much With Us:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Tagore comments on these lines,

But it is not because the world has grown too familiar to us; on the contrary, it is because we do not see it in its aspect of unity, because we are driven to distraction by our pursuit of the fragmentary.

Tagore’s conviction is that the world is a whole, a unity, an integer. To be driven to distraction by pursuing only a part of the whole is to miss the integer; in other words, it is to lack integrity. Lacking integrity by pursuing a part in forgetfulness of the whole is described in other terminology in the Abrahamic religions; in Judaism, Christianity and Islam such amnesia is usually called idolatry, the worship of some part of creation while neglecting the Creator. However one chooses to refer to it, the effects of being driven to distraction range from the merely wasteful to the disastrous.

Among the ways of being distracted from unity that engaged the attention of Rabindranath was nationalism, the favoring of one nation above all others. Who can help cringing every time a politician describes his or her country as the greatest nation in the world—or, worse, that some nation or other is the greatest that has existed in all of history? Those who believe (or at least say) that their own nation is the best (or most free, or most prosperous, or happiest, or has the best health-care system) in the world usually go on to show their ignorance in other ways, such as by suggesting that some peoples living and working within the best of all countries are doing less than others to promote the greatness of that blessed country than others, or are even diminishing the greatness of the country in some way. In India, which became an independent country a little less than a decade after Rabindranath’s death, one finds the disturbing Hindutva movement, which denigrates the contributions of Muslims, Christians and Sikhs to the greatness of India and challenges the painstaking research of all historians whose publications offer a nuanced picture of the cultural diversity and complexity of India.

In much of Europe one finds political movements dedicated to the proposition that Muslims have a substandard grasp of the theories and practices of the European enlightenment and thus pose a serious threat to modernity. In the United States one witnesses a persistent xenophobic current in which Muslims leaking into the country via Canada and migrants storming the borders from points south are targeted as alarming threats to the American way of life. (Muslims and Mexicans seem to have replaced Catholics, Italians and voting women as the greatest internal threats to the indivisible one nation under God that promises liberty and justice to all. No sooner is one threat domesticated, it seems, than another rises to take its place.) None of these social and political phenomena would have pleased Rabindranath Tagore, but probably none of them would have taken him by surprise either.

Probably the greatest single rupture of integrity in the current American way of life is the willful blindness to the damage the pursuit of comfort and convenience has done to the earth’s environment. As if to exemplify the words of Paul the apostle (in II Thessalonians 2.11) that “God sends them a working of error, that they should believe a lie,” coal and oil and gas providers have convinced a substantial number of Americans that there is truth in the lie that human behavior is not a factor in global warming. The commercial sources of opinion (often misleadingly called news) have been complicit in spreading the lie that experts are divided on the question of whether the burning of fossil fuels for energy has been a factor in the warming of the atmosphere and the oceans and the resultant extreme weather conditions that are being seen all over the planet.

Environmental devastation is the inevitable result of a way of seeing the world through the eye of a needle that allows people to focus only on what is of immediate utility to the comfort and convenience and maintenance of power of the most affluent human beings who happen to be alive right now, while ignoring the well-being of the majority of human beings who are not affluent, and while ignoring generations to come after we have all died, and while ignoring the welfare of non-human species of life. When one thinks about it for a moment, it is clear that the American political forces that are most loudly claiming to be aligned with God are doing the most to rupture the integrity of what they call the kingdom of God.

Hypocrisy, savagery and delusion are, of course, nothing new. Our generation has no monopoly on them. Ever since human beings have been recording their thoughts in writing, people of insight and integrity have been decrying the ways of the powerful who have lost sight of the Dao, the principles of Tian, the will of God, the unity of Brahman or the Buddha nature innate in all beings throughout the universe. That there is nothing new in the brutal assault on the fabric of being by those who lose sight of the whole makes that assault no less outrageous and heartbreaking.

There is an alternative to the blindness of power and partiality. It is often called love. Poets, philosophers, visionaries and psychologists have written about love in countless ways. Many call it atonement—at-one-ment, being at one with all there is. Rabindranath speaks of love as an essential feature of the harmony that characterizes the life lived well. He writes in Creative Unity:

The quality of the infinite is not the magnitude of extension, it is the Advaitam, the mystery of Unity. Facts occupy endless time and space; but the truth comprehending them all has no dimension; it is One. Wherever our heart touches the One, in the small or the big, it finds the touch of the infinite.

Being in touch with this infinite, Rabindranath goes on to say, is true joy, a happiness that can be neither compromised nor diminished. It is that joy alone that makes life worth living. It is the absence of that joy that makes living life worthless. It is a wish for just exactly that sort of integrated and harmonious happiness in 2011, and in all years to follow, that goes to everyone out of the living silence.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, December 31, 2010 at 14:11

Posted in Faith and practice

Spiritual socialism

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The multitude of those who believed were of one heart and soul. Not one of them claimed that anything of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. With great power, the apostles gave their testimony of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Great grace was on them all. For neither was there among them any who lacked, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet, and distribution was made to each, according as anyone had need. (Acts 4:32–35)

This description of the early Christian community makes it pretty clear that that community was committed to redistributing wealth. Those who had property divested themselves of it and gave to those who were in need. Ownership of property was communal, not individual. “Not one of them claimed that anything of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” This model of the early Christian community has been emulated repeatedly throughout the history of Christianity. Most monastic orders within Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism have required a vow of poverty of those who are called to that life and have urged the laity to give ten percent of their income to charitable institutions that provide for those in various kinds of need. A number of Protestant communities over the years have favored communal to individual ownership. Those that have not insisted on communal ownership have emphasized the importance of living a life of material simplicity so that one does not waste resources on providing luxury to oneself while others are lacking the requisites of life. The system of social welfare in the United States and European countries was founded largely on Christian principles. The institution of the hospital, a place where the sick and injured could go to be healed, regardless of their ability to pay, has Christian origins. The notion that no one in need of healing should go unhealed lies at the heart of Christian culture.

Somehow, Christian values in the United States have taken a turn from a culture of providing for the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the injured and the needy to a culture of supporting plutocracy—a system of being governed by the wealthy. This change has been relatively recent. One of my grandfathers was a Congregationalist minister who voted for Norman Thomas, who ran for president six times as the candidate of The Socialist Party. Norman Thomas, a pacifist as well as a socialist, was the son of a Presbyterian minister from Ohio, and he followed in his father’s footsteps by going to seminary and being ordained as a Presbyterian minister. As a Christian, Thomas felt called to advocate for workers whose lives were often miserable because of the policies of the companies they worked for. Like Norman Thomas, my grandfather espoused socialist ideals as long as he lived. He was not, however, a registered member of the Socialist Party. Rather, he was a registered Republican, for the Republican Party was for a hundred years or so the home of political and economic progressives, idealists and visionaries. It was also the party of theologically liberal Christians—those who welcomed the methods and discoveries of science and critical thinking and reading the Bible historically and critically and mythologically rather than literally.

As the Republican Party has drifted from its historical roots of compassion for the poor and the weak to an increasingly mean-spirited culture, so has much of American Protestantism.There are, fortunately, exceptions. Among Evangelical Christians, one finds such ministers as Jim Wallis and the Sojourners movement, which is in many ways a continuation of the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. The Sojourners movement is in many ways the antithesis of a kind of Christianity that has evolved in the United States after the Second World War and which has come to be called the prosperity gospel, a theological view based on the conviction that God rewards the faithful with wealth and prosperity.

No doubt the conviction of Oral Roberts and other Protestant ministers of the 1950s that America’s post-war prosperity was a sign of God’s favor became combined with the conviction that socialism is just a step away from Communism and that Communism is anti-religious and ungodly. If Communism is ungodly, the logic went, then Christians, being godly, must be aligned with those who oppose Communism—and socialism. This has led to the paradox that American Christians following this doctrine must feel uneasy with the early Christian community, and with a great deal of traditional Christianity. It is not only the early Christian community that must bring discomfort; even Jesus Christ himself must be regarded with suspicion. Passages such as the following must be very worrying to many an American Christian:

18 A certain ruler asked him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 Jesus asked him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good, except one—God. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Don’t commit adultery,’ ‘Don’t murder,’ ‘Don’t steal,’ ‘Don’t give false testimony,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’” 21 He said, “I have observed all these things from my youth up.” 22 When Jesus heard these things, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have, and distribute it to the poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was very rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he became very sad, said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Gospel according to Luke, chapter 18)

If one were in a mood to pray, the contents of a prayer in these times might be that Americans would find their way back to the essentially socialist values of Christianity and of much of early America. And, not forgetting to pray for those most in need of redemption, one might pray also for the repentance of billionaires who have taken control of what used to be a democratic republic. For, as Jesus said, “Children, how hard is it for those who trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:24–25)

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, November 22, 2010 at 21:07

Posted in Faith and practice