Tag Archives: Enlightenment

Ailment of Rivalry and Greed

Three great religions Buddhism-Christianity-Islam

My Christmas holiday began on a plane ride sitting next to a buddhist man on his way home to Myanmar. We spoke about religious differences and the troubled state of affairs among people quick to judge others for their views rather than trying to listen and learn.

My newfound Burmese friend pointed to the importance in his faith of being mindful of one’s own anger, greed and ignorance. In a constant effort to improve oneself one must reserve judgement and hold true to the principle of “do no harm,” which is at the core of buddhist practice – no difference, I pointed out, to the spirit of deference embodied in Christianity and the golden rule.

As one year ends and another begins, it is a good time to remember these universal values we share. Sadly, as religious conflicts and ethnic rivalries abound this holiday season, a spirit of understanding and respect has gone wanting.

In the wake of today’s atrocious murdering of french journalists by religious extremists, we must be mindful that retribution alone will not solve the underlying conflict. Foremost, our thoughts and prayers must go to the victims of the attacks in Paris. Those who perpetrate, condone or applaud such acts have no place in civil society. As we move beyond the violence, we must look at the broader lessons of this event. Ostensibly, the motivations behind the attacks in Paris are the same as the less violent but equally insidious attempt to extort Sony Pictures in an effort to thwart the Christmas day release of the satirical film based on the fictional killing of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Clearly, both events were acts of terror intended to punish and scare the public for exercises in freedom of expression, which in the views of the attackers insulted their own beliefs. While the attack on Sony gives unfortunate credibility to an otherwise idiotic film that deserves to be forgotten, the attack on the cartoonists in France raises more serious issues.

It is valiant that the publics in both France and the United States have taken their outrage against such acts of “domestic terrorism” to the streets in defense of freedom. While rallying for the cause of liberty, though, we mustn’t forget that the underlying dispute remains. What to one person is a legitimate exercise of freedom, may to another be an act of provocation and disrespect that is tantamount to defamation.

Returning to my buddhist friend, we discussed an ongoing case in Myanmar, in which a bar used images of a partying Buddha for promotional purposes, which got the club shut down and the owners arrested. While such an act of “religious insult” may be outlawed in Burma, where a majority of the population is Buddhist, it would be completely legal in the US, France and all western democracies, where Buddhism is followed by only a small minority in society. This begs an important question: just because you can exercise your freedoms to provoke a response or even to criticize rival viewpoints, it doesn’t mean you necessarily should. To some, such “acts of insensitivity” will be viewed as profound transgressions. The boomerang effect of hatred and more disrespect will only lead to an endless spiral of harm.

The right to exercise our freedom of expression is a basic right, but not an absolute one. It is not a blank check to harm others. Like “shouting fire in a crowded theater” there are limits to be defined and observed. We must be mindful of our anger toward others – particularly if we don’t agree with them – and be careful not to unjustly insult the symbols they hold dear. To willfully and repeatedly offend and provoke the different-minded without concern for their well-being is selfish and arrogant. To proclaim righteousness and personal freedom to the detriment of others is greedy.

There is no excuse for the acts of violence and extortion that are in question here. In an increasingly interconnected world, we must appeal to all political and religious leaders to condemn violence in no uncertain terms.

The shift in mindset, though, must begin within ourselves. Without introspection, we are deceiving ourselves. As Pope Francis stated to the highest ranks of an uncomfortable clergy before Christmas:

“A Curia that is not self-critical, that does not stay up-to-date, that does not seek to better itself, is an ailing body. … It is the sickness of the rich fool who thinks he will live for all eternity, and of those who transform themselves into masters and believe themselves superior to others, rather than at their service.”

The new year brings an opportunity. It is time to view our cultural, ethnic and religious neighbors not as inferior rivals but as members of our own global community. To criticize and condemn adverse *behavior* is fair game in the realm of freedom of expression as long as it is done seriously and based on fact. To defame and insult our neighbors for who they are, where they come from or for the religious beliefs they hold dear is wrong. As in any community there will be differences of opinion and interpretation and these should be discussed openly, sensitively and responsibly. I dare say that disrespectful illustrations of Muhammad may be acceptable in the art and entertainment world, but they have no place in political discourse, even by our western standards of liberalism.


Sheep vs. Goats

Screenshot 2014-07-09 11.32.36 Source: UNHCR

If Christian life is full of hardship, whose suffering is worse: the fate of a lost and hungry child or that of the family “forced” to take the child in? Wasn’t it also the fate of Jesus to wander in search of those who are loving and faithful – not only to the Son of God, but also to each other.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.

Matthew 25:35

The United States prides itself as an exceptional nation and a beacon for the poor and downtrodden. Conservatives across the country are quick to declare their moral views and family values. When faced with the current refugee crisis on the southern border, however, these good shepherds look more like the euphemistic goat.

Americans outraged by the inflows of children and their mothers from Central America should consider this – you are not alone. Just this year more that 68,000 refugees from Africa crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach Italy, slightly higher than the number of “illegals” entering the US during the same time frame – and the European refugees were mostly adults, not children. In fact, the most recent UNHCR data shows that many other countries are shouldering a much larger burden than the United States. The number of refugees to the US pales by comparison with Europe for example. At only a quarter of the size of the United States, Germany took in 600,000 refugees in 2010 compared with less than 300.000 refugees to the US.

While the humanitarian refugee crisis is also hotly debated in Europe, it’s mostly a debate about an acceptable level of care for refugees and their equitable distribution within the EU while giving the refugees due process to plead their case. In the US, on the other hand, the debate centers around how to beef up border security and “protect the homeland” against “illegals.” Shutting their eyes to the real source of the humanitarian crisis in Central America, unchristian-like protesters prefer to blame President Obama and block busses of immigrants from entering their communities. Ironically, the more generous European policies are arguably the result of enlightened post WWII politics which were shaped at least in part by the United States.

The reality is that the United States AND Europe ARE beacons of hope for many around the world. Increasing numbers of refugees are not the result of failed border controls, but a symptom of the growing income inequality in parts of the world that Pope Francis discussed with President Obama during their visit in March. Clearly the United States and Europe cannot integrate all of the world’s suffering people into their countries – and yes they have many of their own problems to solve. Unless Americans wake up to the true reality and invest more time and energy in the political and economic development of their neighbor states (instead of fighting long distance wars), the refugee crisis will continue.

In the meantime it would be a welcome change of tone if more Americans would demonstrate a little more patience and Christian-like compassion while working with the President on meaningful long-term immigration reform. Progressive or conservative, most Americans should be able to find common ground. I pray that Washington just gets it done.

‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:40

Refugees in EU

Honor your father AND your mother.

Twitter Prayers for the Pope

Each Spring Fathers’ Day and Mothers’ Day come and go with tradition and ritual, but little thought toward their deeper meaning. Reading the many personal tributes on twitter and Facebook this fathers’ day weekend reminds me of the virtues of my own father and of the Proverb (15:20):

A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish man despises his mother.

To all religions, from Christianity to Islam, fathers and mothers alike are entrusted to be good guardians and shepherds of their flock and children are taught to respect the teachings of their parents. Even those who feel disappointed or misled by their parents can honor their father and mother by giving thanks to the life they were given. Considering the good virtues passed on by the family as a whole, including by grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, wives and partners, we can be thankful that all of these people have shaped who we are.

A few hours ago Pope Francis tweeted this prayer: “May the Lord bless the family and strengthen it in this moment of crisis.” While there are those who will narrowly interpret this as an appeal to uphold “traditional family values” with regard to marriage, sexuality and the respective roles of men and women, it is important to remember that these roles have been the subjects of controversy and evolving interpretations throughout time and across religions. I prefer a more universal understanding of the Pope’s blessings today.

The crisis of which the Pope speaks is manifold and the evildoers are for the most part *men* who show nothing but disregard for their roles and responsibilities as good shepherds within the family, let alone as leaders within their community. By appealing to the strengthening of the family, the Pope is not only suggesting the new roles we must play in honoring our God given responsibilities as parents and children, he is importantly reminding us that we can only solve our crises TOGETHER as a family unit and in a broader sense in the community as a whole, not by the tired habit of divide and conquer.

It is time for us to open our minds to this broader context. Just as the Enlightenment changed the way Western predominantly Judeo-Christian societies have thought about the world, so too has Islam instructed that “seeking knowledge is mandatory for every believer.” Everything that we have learned over the years is that all men and women are created equal (although women are clearly a more level-headed and moderating force in society), that peace comes about through dialogue and understanding, not war, and that the sustainability of our entire world depends upon a mutual commitment and respect to the environment and resources which we all share on God’s green earth.

Given the efforts to which Pope Francis has encouraged a more forward looking, tolerant and inclusive world view, I firmly believe that this is the wise and joyful approach to honor the legacy of my father.

But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

– Joshua 24:15