Out of a living silence

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Forgiveness

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manaḥ śamaṃ na gṛhṇāti na prītisukham aśnute
na nidrāṃ na dhṛtiṃ yāti dveṣaśalye hṛdi sthite

The mind does not attain peace, nor does it experience the pleasure of joy,
nor does it find rest or stability, so long as the arrow of hatred is stuck in the heart.

Those words from Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra 6.3 are part of a chapter dedicated to the necessity of cultivating forgiveness and patience. Being the victim of someone else’s harmful behavior, whether the harm was deliberately engineered or the by-product of carelessness and negligence, is pain enough to deal with. Nothing good comes of magnifying the pain by harboring ill will or desires of revenge. When people are harmful to others, says Śāntideva, is precisely when they most need our compassion, our active attempts to alleviate their suffering. Given that contented people do not try to bring misery to others and indeed usually try to establish harmony with others, the best strategy for finding relief from those who are making others miserable is to help them find relief from what is making them miserable.

In the past few days statements have been made by well-known people that show very little understanding of the importance of forgiveness as part of establishing peace and well-being for everyone. One statement was Sarah Palin’s plea to Muslims to drop their plans to establish a mosque near the site of where the World Trade Center used to be in New York. The other was British Prime Minister David Cameron’s strongly expressed disagreement with the decision of the Scottish Parliament last year to allow Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to return to Libya rather than die of a terminal illness in a Scottish prison. Mass murderers like al-Megrahi, said PM Cameron, do not deserve compassion.

Both Mrs. Palin and PM Cameron seemed to be voicing the views of those who say forgiveness of wrong-doing would add to the burden of pain borne by those whose loved ones died in the airplane bombed over Lockerbie or in the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. What they apparently believe is that people are more likely to be pained and vexed by compassion than by their own inability to cultivate compassion. But that is surely not universally true. Without a doubt there are those who have found transformative comfort as a result of finding a way to love those who have harmed their loved ones, just as there are those who will carry their bitterly vindictive feelings with them to the grave. The range of response to deep misfortune is as varied as any other aspect of being human. There is a saying in Sanskrit that hardship is like a rapidly spinning grindstone; when clay is touched to it, it crumbles, but when gold is touched to it, it gets polished. When it was announced that al-Megrahi was being allowed to return to Libya on compassionate grounds, some Scots who had lost loved ones rejoiced at the nobility of the decision, while others ground their teeth and spoke venomous words. It is disappointing to see public figures who have attracted the attention of wide audiences siding only with those who are unable to find forgiveness in their hearts.

The displeasure that has been voiced by those who would like to prevent a mosque from being built in the neighborhood of what has come to be called Ground Zero is psychologically understandable, but it is such a raw emotion that it is difficult to know what kind of decision would not be offensive to those who harbor their unwillingness to forgive. The issue seems to be that placing a mosque near Ground Zero would be a desecration of the memories of those who died. But what distance would be far enough away for these people? Should the nearest mosque be at least a mile away? Or should it be off the island of Manhattan? Outside greater New York City area? One hundred miles away? There are probably some individuals so overcome with bitterness that they would like to see an America entirely free of any publicly visible signs of Muslim worship. Should they be the ones whose feelings determine public policy? If so, one can hardly imagine a deeper tragedy for American culture, since it would be a sure sign of the death of the values that lay at the heart of the formation of the American republic.

There is no calculus for compassion. No one is any more or less deserving of compassion than anyone else. Everyone who is in pain needs relief. Those who cannot forgive need the help of those who can. Those who blame others and attack those whom they blame need the help of those who have no need to find scapegoats. Those who suffer from the arrow of hatred stuck in their hearts need the help of those who have learned to love. Contrary to what some theology says, love is not a grace. It is not a gift that God gives to some and withholds from others. It is a skill. It is something one can learn to do. Like all skills, it is one that improves with practice. The more one loves, the more one can love. The less one forgives, the less one can forgive. The less one can forgive, the more unbearable becomes the burden of life.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, July 22, 2010 at 14:47

Posted in Faith and practice

Wear it as long as thou canst

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There is a widely told, entirely apocryphal, story that at one time George Fox and William Penn met. At this meeting William Penn expressed concern over wearing a sword (a standard part of dress for people of Penn’s station), and how this was not in keeping with Quaker beliefs. George Fox responded, “Wear it as long as thou canst.” Later, according to the story, Penn again met Fox, but this time without the sword. Penn then said, “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.” Though this story is entirely unfounded, it serves as an instructive parable about Penn’s Quaker beliefs. (From Brief History of William Penn)

Myth is usually more suitable than history at conveying ideals and values. The often-repeated story of George Fox’s advice to William Penn illustrates well the Quaker approach to the Quaker testimonies, for it shows that the testimonies to strive for simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship are not approached as absolute commandments but as ideals toward which each individual Friend moves as she is led by her reflections on her own experiences. If one’s experiences have been of the unhappy consequences of violence, and if one reflects on the nature of violence, then one is likely to seek alternatives to the violent solutions to problems that present themselves. At one point in one’s life, one may seek to protect oneself by having a sword (or a pistol or an assault rifle or a strong army or a nuclear arsenal), but if one comes to see the very stockpiling of weapons as a threat to peace, one may follow the example of William Penn in the mythical story and leave one’s sword at home. One may seek to protect oneself by being the kind of person others are unlikely to attack.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Quakers are not invariably pacifists who refuse military service. The peace testimony, like all of the Quaker testimonies, has been formulated in different ways in different times and is always evolving as different communities of Friends discover what the demands of their particular circumstances are. (There is a nice blog posting about the testimonies on The Quaker Ranter). Typically, the testimony is worded in a way that draws upon the words of George Fox, who wrote in his journal that he testified to the Commonwealth Commissioners that he “lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars…”

The occasion, or as we might now say, the causality of all wars is complex. Among the causes are such external factors as social injustices and maldistribution of the world’s resources. More fundamental causes are the internal psychological factors that give rise to social and economic injustices. Xenophobia and other fears of those who act and believe differently give rise to such behaviors are invading the homelands of others, colonizing others, converting others to one’s own religion and marginalizing those who don’t comply. The ancient Hebrews justified their genocidal campaigns in the land of Canaan by portraying the inhabitants of those lands, the Philistines and so on, as godless barbarians and uncultured savages. To this very day, the word “Philistine” is used to describe an uncouth person who has no higher interests; stereotypes die hard if they ever die at all. The reputation of the Philistines has been permanently smeared by the negative stereotyping enshrined in self-congratulatory Hebrew propaganda.

Unfortunately, there is no need to go back to the time of Joshua to find examples of brutality justified. The United States of America has become the land it currently is through several centuries of genocide, enslavement and colonization, most of it justified on the grounds that the victims of European territorial expansion were either benefiting from the largesse and advanced culture of the Europeans or so backwards that they deserved to be killed or banished to nearly uninhabitable lands. The behaviors of the Americans of European descent were rooted primarily in greed, fear of the other and ignorance.

Buddhists would use the terms greed, hatred and delusion to identify the occasion of war. These psychological traits—not other people—are the occasion of war. Since all human beings have to some extent inherited the characteristics that enabled their ancestors to survive long enough to procreate, and since those survival mechanisms of earlier generations were usually manifestations of greed and fear and benighted thinking, most human beings are genetically predisposed to those traits. The fact that those traits worked in the past, when the human population was very small, is no indication that they will continue to work in the present and the future. We may have come to the point where the very traits that promoted the survival of our ancerstors will promote out own demise, perhaps even the guaranteed extitnction of our descendants.

During the past year I have been reading the Bible every day. I have been following a lectionary that assigns passages to read every day. There are many kinds of lectionary, but the one I am following now is one that begins with the book of genesis and reads straight through to the book of revelations; by following it one can read the entire Bible in 365 days. I have to say that most of the reading has been unpleasant and disturbing. There is so much warfare, so much rationalized cruelty, so many prayers for the destruction of one’s enemies. Who can read a passage such as “Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, he will be happy who rewards you, as you have served us. Happy shall he be, who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock” without wincing at the cry for bloody revenge against those who have treated the Hebrews in Jerusalem as the Hebrews under Joshua treated the inhabitants of Jericho? So much of the sacred writings of the Hebrews—then the Christians who had inherited much of the mentality and many of the enemies of the Hebrews, and then the Muslims whose sacred revelations continue in the same general spirit—focuses on external enemies. The message repeated constantly is that the world would be peaceful if only other people were not evildoers bent on tormenting the lovers of God.

There are alternatives to the war whoops found in so much of the sacred literature of the world. There have always been people who have realized that our greatest enemies are not the evildoers from other lands but rather our own minds and the habits we have acquired through the indoctrination of mainstream society provided by war-mongering governments. Most of the Stoic philosophers of the Hellenistic world realized that. With only a few scattered exceptions, almost all the literature of Buddhism and Vedānta and Daoism is an invitation to find the true enemies that disturb the peace, namely, the acquisitiveness, the fear and suspicion of others, the anger that arises when things don’t go as one had hoped, and the hasty conclusions that are formed through lazy and self-centered thinking.

Although Quakerism was originally a form of Christianity based on a deep familiarity with the sacred texts of the Jews and the Christians, many modern Quakers find more inspiration in the inner-enemy theme of Asian religious literature than in the outer-enemy preoccupations of so much of the literature of the Abrahamic religions. The writings and sayings of Hindus, Buddhist and Daoists often require less hermeneutical manipulation to bring them in line with the inward leadings to peace and simplicity of life and thought that seems obviously called for as we emerge from one of the most destructive and soul-destroying centuries in human history.

Is the story of William Penn and George Fox historically accurate? Probably not, but that is not the best question to ask anyway. The better question might be “Is that the right story to tell in our times?” By my lights, it is.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Saturday, July 17, 2010 at 12:29

Posted in Faith and practice

How to feed an ego

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For the past few weeks the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program called Ideas ran a three-part series of programs entitled Have Your Meat and Eat It Too. Themes that run through all three installments are the methods of so-called factory farming and all the distortions that large scale agricultural operations feed into the economy, the environment and the political climate of the countries in which it is practiced. There are examinations of the influence of pharmaceutical companies, chemical companies that produce artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and giant low-price retailers such as Wal-Mart and large fast-food chains such as McDonalds that force prices paid to farmers to such low levels that hardly anyone in small-scale agriculture can make a livelihood any more. Rarely have I heard the word ”unsustainable“ used so many times in a span of three hours.

Episodes two and three both have discussions of the ethical and environmental and health implications of a vegetarian diet. Suffice it to say that it is not obvious that a vegetarian diet is unambiguously indicated as the best way to stay healthy and preserve the environment, although everyone agrees that the current dietary proclivities of Americans are both unhealthy and environmentally disastrous. Unfortunately, American dietary habits are finding their ways to other parts of the world as well, making obesity one of America’s principal exports.

One of the observations that most caught my attention in these discussions was made by a woman who was a vegan for 20–30 years and eventually changed her diet to include some animal products. She observed that being a vegan is much more than deciding what to eat and what not to eat. It is also taking on an identity. It is carrying all the baggage of a persona that must be defended almost every time one picks up a fork. It is, in other words, to take on a practice that has exactly the opposite effect of what most Buddhist (and other spiritual) practices are designed to do, namely, to reduce one’s attachment to a particular identity.

And, said this former vegan, whenever one takes on an identity, one loses perspective and enters into a mentality that warps almost everything one sees, systematically refuses to look at evidence impartially, and enters into the epistemological vices of believing things for which one has insufficient evidence and not believing things despite having plenty of evidence.

Buddhists called these epistemological vices by the simple term moha, which means the state of being perplexed, confused, infatuated or fooled.

Needless to say, there is no invariable causal relationship between deciding to be a vegan and becoming incapable of thinking carefully and impartially. As long as one makes such decisions whimsically and realizes that the decision is a manifestation of sentimentality, everything is fine. It is only when one begins to think that there is something rational and righteous about the decision that one begins to get into spiritual (and philosophical) trouble.

All these observations of the vegan in recovery intrigued me, because they spoke to my own experience. In the early 1990s I became convinced that veganism was the only morally defensible diet for an environmentalist and a Buddhist dedicated to the project of reducing the suffering of the world. I entered into a year of living fanatically. I found myself welling up with disgust when I saw people put a few dribbles of milk into their afternoon tea. As for people who put a spoonful of honey on their yeast-leavened bread, I regarded them as morally equivalent to genocidal maniacs. I exaggerate for effect, of course, but I really did find myself hating the kind of self-righteous judgmentalism that entered my mentality shortly after I began to eschew all animal products from my pantry and my wardrobe. It was as though I had suddenly become a patriot or the member of some marginalized tribe fighting for ethnic survival. It was as though I had become the follower of a quaint religion that forbids marrying outside the faith and associating with out-group folk for fear of ideological contamination. (My readings of the history of Quakerism have informed me that the Society of Friends went through a long period of avoiding, as much as practicality would allow, contact with non-Friends—a decidedly unfriendly attitude.)

To some extent even insistent ideologically driven vegetarianism promotes epistemological warping, but not, in my personal experience, to the extent that ideologically driven veganism does.

One of my cultural heroes was Bhimrao Ambedkar, one of the principal architects of the constitution of India, the world’s largest democracy. Amdbedkar was born into an Indian caste that was regarded as untouchable. Despite having earned two PhD degrees from universities outside India (London School of Economics and Columbia University), Ambedkar was still treated for much of his life as a person whose presence would contaminate the purity of high-caste Hindus. Eventually attitudes changed somewhat, and Ambedkar got at least some of the recognition he deserved. One of his writings was a monograph in which he tried to discover the history of the institution of untouchability in India. His thesis is complex, but an oversimplified version of it is that Hindus and Buddhists became involved in a protracted rivalry of self-righteousness in which each religion tried to depict itself as more concerned with ethical puirity than the other. One of the many foci of attention, said Ambedkar, was diet. Over the centuries, Hindus and Buddhists tried to outdo one another by excluding more and more from their diets. The logical conclusion of this was what we now call veganism, a diet in which no animal products whatsoever are eaten, worn or used. The Untouchables, said Ambedkar, were descended from Buddhists who did not participate in the extreme Buddhist practice of veganism. In fact, they were cattle ranchers. When Buddhism disappeared from India, said Ambedkar, the formerly Buddhist cowboys were rejected by Hindu society and, unlike more educated Buddhists, were never reabsorbed into Hinduism.

Ambedkar’s theory of the history of the Untouchables is highly speculative and, like all speculative theories, questionable. That notwithstanding, the literary record of Buddhism clearly supports his claim that there were Buddhists who advocated a vegan diet so adamantly that they claimed all self-proclaimed Buddhists who did not follow a vegan diet would go to hell for aeons because of their hypocrisy. The argument was that no one who claims to be compassionate would ever eat meat, or consume milk or honey (since both of these products are stolen from the species that produce them) or wear wool (stolen from sheep) or silk (which requires the killing of silkworms). Few tracts in the history of religious literature are as fanatical as Mahāyāna Buddhist writings that insist on total avoidance of all animal products. The tone of those texts is self-righteous and contemptuous of all who make choices other than the ones advocated by the texts. That they had the potential to marginalize and denigrate meat-eating and wool-wearing people is undeniable. It is not at all a pretty picture and hardly lives up to the reputation for tolerance that Buddhists have often had in modern times.

In the early 1990s at a Canadian academic conference on Buddhist philosophy, I wrote a scathing denunciation of the fallacious argumentation found in the vegan sections of various Buddhist texts. Because I was then climbing out of my own descent into a fanatical form of veganism, I no doubt was as offensive to reason as the texts I was denouncing. I recall the moderator of the panel I was on offering an embarrassed apology to the audience for my performance. At the time, I laughed it off, but now I look back on that panel with chagrin. In trying to recover from the fanaticism of my dietary ideology, I was still participating in the very tone of intolerance that I found so objectionable.

What is especially embarrassing to me is that I became so defensive of a persona—of an ego—in the name of Buddhism, a tradition that had always made as its cardinal teaching that all we do to maintain our personas causes pain, conflict and discomfort to self and others. It is small comfort to realize that I am probably not unique in having become so zealous that I ended up exemplifying exactly the antithesis of the path I was so zealously striving to follow.

Unlike my own previous discourses on veganism (both for and then against), which were polemical diatribes, the Ideas program on meat-production and meat-eating is admirably balanced and offers the best arguments both for and against vegetarianism. The programs are exemplars of careful research and dispassionate exploration. My guess is that most listeners would emerge from them with a recognition that many of the opinions they have held on the topic before were overly simple and insufficiently nuanced.

TheIdeas program chased up a rabbit in the labyrinth of my memory. In my grandparent’s sparsely outfitted apartment, the dining room walls were bare except for a framed exemplar of the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.

When my grandfather died, my mother gave me that framed exemplar and apologized profusely for giving me something that might offend my vegetarian sensibilities. I explained to her that the prayer was written in the 17th century, when the word “meat” was metonymic for food, in much the same way that “meal” is in current English, or “go-han” (rice) is in Japanese. So when a 17th century family sat down to have their meat, they often ate bread and ale and perhaps a piece of cheese. But that is really beside the point. The point, which I acknowledge with shame, is that my mother recognized in me the stink of possible intolerance toward those who did not follow my chosen diet.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 20:50

Posted in Faith and practice

Why is migration made illegal?

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There is a term in Buddhism, yoniśo manaskāra, which is translated in various ways, such as “principled thinking.” What the term refers to is focusing one’s attentions on the roots of a situation rather than on the superficial aspects. When one is trying to solve a problem or to heal an illness, then the expression means getting to the root causes of the problem and tending to those rather than trying to alleviate the symptoms. The opposite is ayoniśo manaskāra, which, of course, means thinking superficially, that is, dealing only with the symptoms and failing to tend to the root cause of a malady. Most of the avoidable forms of distress in human life, according to most Buddhist analysis, stems from the persistent tendency that human beings have of reacting to unpleasant effects rather than at eliminating causes.

One of the many examples of reactive, superficial thinking in the United States these days is the way many people are dealing with the fact of people crossing the southern border of the United States from Mexico into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona or California to seek employment. On one level, this is not a problem at all. Mexicans and Central Americans need work, and plenty of American business enterprises need workers. Mexicans, as a rule, work hard and amply repay those who hire them. Mexicans who work for wages in the United States pay taxes and make social security contributions. Their overall contribution to the economy of the United States is substantial. By working in the United States at wages that are low by American standards but high by Mexican standards, Mexicans can send enough money back to their dependents and relatives to support them. There are many winners and few losers in this system. So what is the problem?

One problem is that the United States gives work permits to far fewer migrant workers than are required to maintain the work force that businesses in the United States need to supply their goods and services at affordable prices. This means that many workers are working without the necessary paperwork and are therefore technically not conforming to the law. When hundreds of people are not living in conformity with a law, then the community has a crime problem. When many millions of people do not operate within the requirements if the law, the community probably has poorly designed laws. If, for example, a law were passed making it illegal to brush one’s teeth before noon, millions of people would ignore the law. The law would be difficult to enforce, for many reasons, not the least of which being that it is a pointless law that serves no obvious purpose. Similar observations can be made about current laws governing the citizenship of those who work in the United States. The laws cannot be enforced for a variety of reasons, one primary reason being that there is no good purpose served by restricting who can work in the United States.

A law that cannot be enforced is a danger to a society, because it lays down the conditions for people having contempt for the law as a whole, and contempt for a government that would pass a foolish law in the first place. Much of the contempt that one finds for the Congress of the United States stems from the passage of laws that are not enforced, or are not enforced even-handedly, or are not enforced simply because they are impossible to enforce. The current immigration laws are so far out of line with reality that their inevitable non-enforcement makes people angry, disrespectful of the law as a whole, and contemptuous of legislators who, for whatever reason, fail to replace unworkable laws and regulations with viable counterparts. That America’s immigration laws are unworkable is made abundantly clear by the fact that thousands of people per day cross the borders without the legally required work permits and find gainful employment that is technically not legal for them to do. As the National Rifle Association has reminded Americans repeatedly during the past several decades, if guns are outlawed, then only outlaws have guns. Similarly, if working is outlawed, then outlaws will find work. As Americans should have learned when the constitution was amended to make drinking alcohol illegal, professional crime syndicates thrived by making alcohol available to those who wanted it. Nowadays, professional crime syndicates are thriving by smuggling people from Mexico into the United States, then prospering by blackmailing the very people whom they have smuggled into the country. People who want nothing but to earn an honest livelihood are forced by circumstances into dealing with gangsters, who then put their victims into a sitaution remarkably similar to slavery. Much of that criminality, and the violence that accompanies it, could be eliminated with the stroke of a pen signing into existence a well-considered and realistic law allowing the number of workers who cross into the United States to seek employment to come closer to the number of jobs there are to fill.

Having more workable immigration regulations would, however, still be addressing symptoms rather than underlying causes. A deeper solution to the pseudo-problem of workers working without proper documentation would require looking more carefully into the question of why people migrate in the first place. Even without doing any investigation at all, one can know that people migrate from places where no work is available to places were work is available. When life becomes difficult or impossible in one place, people move to places where life is possible. Mexico’s economy has traditionally been a labor-intensive agricultural economy. As a result of many factors, one of them being the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ratified in 1994, it is much easier for commodities to cross the borders that separate the United States from Mexico and Canada than it is for people. It is easier for corporations to set up operations in a foreign country than it is for workers to sell their labor in a country other than the one in which they have status as a legal resident. The impact of the agreement on Mexican workers has been harsh. In some cases, multinational corporations have acquired lands that were once agricultural and put them into other uses; in other cases, lands have been acquired by agricultural operations that are highly mechanized and require less human labor. The result has been that agricultural workers no longer have as much agricultural work to do in Mexico. Some displaced agricultural workers manage to find low-paid employment in the industrial sector producing goods, most of which are exported to more affluent nations. Others become street vendors or temporary workers. Still others end up working for organized crime syndicates. An increasing number are simply unemployed; according to a Reuters news report, the unemployment rate in Mexico hit a fourteen-year high in October 2009. The government-sponsored unemployment insurance plan is unable to compensate all unemployed workers at a level that sustains life, so workers have few options available to them. Fortunately, there are employment opportunties in the United States and Canada, but unfortunately the bureaucracies in both countries pose formidable obstacles to Mexican workers seeking work in any North American country other than Mexico.

The plight of Mexicans and Central Americans is not simply an economic and political problem. It is also a moral problem, and a spiritual problem. It is worth asking whether the NAFTA treaty serves human beings as well as it serves corporations—whether it serves peasants as well as it serves stockholders. If it does not, it is not a moral document by the moral guidelines of any of the world’s religions. Economic injustice is never moral. Any form of spirituality that does not work to address immoral situations is unworthy of being called spiritual. Any solution to a problem that involves punishing the victims of injustice by presenting them with even more hardships than they already have as a result of being victims of injustice is immoral and offensive. That so many people are deprived of the conditions that make honest and dignified work possible for them is in itself shameful enough. That shame is compounded by the superficial pseudo-solutions of sending more guards to the border to keep migrants from crossing to areas where work is available to them, or by building walls and fences, or by empowering local police authorities to inquire into whether foreign citizens are legally in the United States. The president of the United States, the United States Congress, the governor of Arizona, and the state legislature of Arizona have all done their part to compound the injustice and to increase the shamefulness of allowing a tragic situation to continue.

It is time to stop manufacturing ineffectual superficial solutions to a problem that exists in the first place because of short-sighted policies. It is time to look beneath the surface to the roots and to have the spiritual courage to act accordingly. Meanwhile, all you who have supported policies that compound the suffering of others, be ashamed.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, May 31, 2010 at 17:26

Posted in Faith and practice

Dreams

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It is not only because I am a sentimental old fool that I get a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes every time I hear Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech. The speech brought me to tears even when I first heard it as a young man of eighteen on August 28, 1963. It is a speech I never tire of hearing. My only mild complaint about that particular speech is that it has overshadowed dozens of other brilliant speeches that Dr. King delivered. As a pacifist, I have always especially appreciated his powerful critique of American conduct in Vietnam—and of war in general—as a method of solving problems. It always seemed to me that Martin Luther King, Jr presented not only the best of Christianity but the very essence of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

As a pacifist living in a country that has been at war or on the brink of war almost my entire life and in which arguably the most often-heard religious tradition is Christianity, I have long been interested in Christian attitudes toward war. Perhaps the best-known scholastic attempt to arrive at a set of criteria for when conducting a war is within the moral guidelines of the Christian religion is the so-called Just War doctrine of Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. In December 2009 on the PBS News Hour, David Brooks and Mark Shields took a look at President Barack Obama’s speech when he accepted the Nobel Prize for peace. In the context of that discussion, Shields offered a quick summary of Christian Just War doctrine and showed that few of the criteria for just war are met in the current American occupation of Afghanistan. Among the criteria of a just war are the following:

  • “The reason for going to war needs to be just and cannot therefore be solely for recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong; innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life.” The operations in Iraq obviously failed to meet that criterion, but so do the operations in Afghanistan. The government of Afghanistan does not pose an imminent threat to the United States, nor do the Taliban. While members of al-Qaeda might like to carry out further attacks, it is unlikely that they will be able to do so from Afghanistan. Qaeda is not a nation but a nebulous network of individuals. Fighting such a network with the kind of military equipment and personnel that are usually used when nations fight other nations is doing very little, if anything, to protect anyone from imminent danger.
  • A war is potentially justified according to Christian teachings only if arms are not “used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success.” Presumably the purpose of sending military personnel to Afghanistan in the first place was that it was believed that the masterminds of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 were hiding somewhere in that country. The mission was to find Osama bin Ladin and bring him to justice. Repeatedly during his campaign to be elected president, Barack Obama criticized President Bush for getting distracted from the mission of pursuing Osama bin Ladin. So far, more than 1500 Americans and coalition allies have died, along with several thousand Afghan civilians. It would be hard to argue that the use of tanks, missiles, bombers, fighter bombers and nearly 70,000 troops is proportionate to the needs of bringing a handful of men to justice.
  • “The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms.” It is difficult to quanitfy such things as benefits and harms, especially “expected” as opposed to actual harms. Still, it is difficult to imagine that the amount of benefit could outweigh the loss of life, the destruction of infrastructure, and the enormous monetary cost of waging this war.

President Barack Obama has shown signs of being aware that the way to an African American’s being in the White House was paved by the work of Rev. King and those who marched by his side during the 1960s civil rights campaigns. That President Obama admires the legacy of Rev. King is evident in what he says. It is heartbreaking, therefore, that President Obama does not heed the peaceful Christian message of Rev. King. It is impossible to know for sure what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr would have to say about President Obama’s campaign in Afghanistan. I imagine he may have said something similar to what he said in his famous 1967 speech called Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence:

Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.

Rev. King went on to say this:

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission—a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war.

One can only hope that President Obama is using this national holiday to read and reflect on the speeches that Rev. King delivered on the issues of peace and justice. It is not too late for the president to deliver some of the promised change we can believe in, but time is fast running out. As Bob Dylan said: “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, January 18, 2010 at 17:05

Posted in Faith and practice