Sunday, November 15, 2015

After Paris: Love Your Enemy—Really?

Jesus and Buddha: Your Enemy is your Teacher?

In the wake of terrorist attacks like that in Paris last Friday, what sense does Jesus’ famous (or infamous) charge to “love your enemies, bless those who curse you” make? The customary Christian treatment of this has been, at best, to say to Jesus “thank you for sharing” and return to business as usual. 

Hating the enemy is, after all, natural and normal. But, of course, hate breeds hate, which may be what Jesus was getting at. And, anyway, when he said “Love” he didn’t mean warm, fuzzy feelings. He meant something very close to what the Buddha meant by calling humanity to have a clear intention for the other’s well-being, plus a call to compassion for everyone you meet, That links with Jesus's repeating the Jewish maxim “Love your neighbor as yourself. Consider the other to be as human as you are."

Even then, Jesus: do you mean we should intend well-being for terrorists who shot innocents by the dozens at the concert hall in Paris, who blew themselves up and killed others at restaurants? Who killed themselves to kill others? Compassion? Give us a break!

Your enemy is your best teacher

The Dalai Lama, who knows the Buddha far better than I do, insists that “your enemy is your best teacher.” He ought to know, I guess, since the Chinese government has been hounding him ever since he decided they wouldn’t be good for his beloved homeland. 

Such a saying gives me a radical new slant on the meaning of  “love your enemy.” What if the problem with our ever-so-natural horror and hatred of the enemy is that it blinds us? Blinds us.

If we are angry—and hatred is distilled anger—our brain tends to block out any new information. If we are dealing with an enemy the last thing we need is blindness. We need to see, not just what we hate, but the actual human being who is behaving in ways that harm us (or that we fear will harm us). When we say, “How could anyone kill a concert-hall full of innocent people?” we need to hear it as question directed to us by ourselves—or perhaps the Spirit in us. A question that needs an answer. 

Seeing the enemy more clearly

“How could anyone act that way?” we say, not realizing we're inviting ourselves to find out, to get to know the enemy better, to see the opponent in the fullness of their humanity. What is the anger? the alienation? ignorance?—or the reaction to injury?—that leads to terrorist outrages?  Even if we want to strike back, we’ll act with more wisdom if we can see. And if we decide that simply striking back is insufficient, maybe risks jumping from the frying pan into the fire, seeing the enemy more clearly may lead us to more nuanced, varied, and effective responses. We will be clearer, also, on how to distinguish terrorism from Islam itself. 

Not humanity’s usual tactic.  But the Dalai Lama goes on. In response to a human rights activist who says anger is her driving force,  I heard him say, "BE angry! Anger is good! Anger is natural! But don't stay there."

The enemy can “teach” us by provoking deeper understanding. Understanding the sources of the enemy’s anger better,  compassion may arise, however wrongheaded we may think the enemy to be. We might even learn what injuries, real or imagined, provoke the enemy—unless we have some delusion that "we" are perfect, flawless, and innocent.  

Maybe that’s why Jesus tells us to take some time to contemplate the enemy in prayer, to imagine blessing their fundamental, frail and fallible humanity, to ponder how to do such good as will lead to long-term solutions. Even if that involves restraining evil by force to begin, which is never a good place to end. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

It’s Privilege at Stake, Not "Religious Freedom”

People who have been dealt all the high cards for centuries react badly when they get dealt low cards. If they then begin howling that their “freedom” is being taken away, they’re referring to their power to control the game. It’s all about the loss of cultural and legal privilege.

That’s the drama being played out in Morehead, Kentucky, as the religious right uses County Clerk Kim Davis’ conservative Christian beliefs to claim an exemption for “religious liberty” with cries of “persecution” abounding. 

Historic Protestant Hegemony

America’s foundational freedom to practice religion without State interference is not at stake here. As we become more religiously diverse, the power of Christianity, especially one brand of the faith,  to dominate culture and legal systems inevitably wanes. White Protestants of northern European extraction ruled the roost from colonial days until the mid-20th century. Their morality and values were reflected in the law, especially with regard to sexual morality: contraception, orientation, divorce. 

Protestant privilege held sway with great power, with the approval of the majority. Religious minorities had little or no power to exercise their “religious liberty” except in private life and worship: Jewish businesses that closed on the Sabbath had to shut down on Sunday as well. Homosexual acts were against the law. Atheists had no cultural “liberty” to achieve elective office even if there was “no test of religion” in the law. 

Peak and Decline

This Protestant hegemony peaked in the post-War 1950s and talk of our “Christian” nation’s battle with “Atheistic Communism.” Then, in rapid succession, a Catholic was elected President, public school prayer was forbidden, Sunday blue laws unravelled, and abortion was declared legal. Disadvantaged minorities (Jewish business owners, non-believers, and women) gained more freedom of choice. 

The power of Christian privilege to shape culture and law was diminished significantly. But the constitutional guarantee of freedom to practice one’s religion was not touched—just the historic freedom to impose it on society at large. For many millions, especially those who took Christian privilege for granted, the nation-wide legalization of gay marriage seems the final straw.

No Easy Settlement?

As the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wisely observed, differing values really cannot be reconciled perfectly. While it seems abundantly clear that a representative of the State must obey the laws of the State or seek other employment, other clashes between the right to marriage for gays and other situations is probably not as black and white an issue as either side wants to acknowledge. 

The Founders, overwhelmingly, believed that a strong and diverse religious culture, free of government interference, would be a vitally important element in the Republic they were establishing, and supported religions of all kinds (at first mostly Protestant) by special exemptions. Settling this in specific cases will not be easy in the current brouhaha, and the far Right has opened a new battle in the culture war which it has waged ever since the school desegregation undermined the once-powerful white Protestant belief in the separation of the races. 

But the cry of “liberty lost” boils down to the loss of privilege, and shouts of “persecution” to outraged, politically ominous pouts.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Dangers of Righteousness

Righteousness, especially when it turns indignant, can cause as much harm as the evil it opposes. Just think of Prohibition, that bonanza to bootleggers, and midwife of an empowered Mafia. 

Perhaps this is why St. Paul was so suspicious of it. His own righteous zeal had led him into the persecution and even outright lynching of the early Christians he later joined in a dramatic about-face. He insisted that contrasting your good points with your opponents bad points breeds blindness. Humility is the beginning of greater clear-sightedness. 

I was reminded of the the perils of righteousness this morning when I read about an Israeli documentary (photo above) rejected by a Norwegian film festival simply because it was by an Israeli filmmaker. The documentary, about disabled children, ran afoul of a “righteousness aura” growing up around the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Even the Palestinian founder of the B.D.S. movement says that “mere affiliation of Israeli cultural workers to an Israeli cultural institution is therefore not grounds for applying the boycott.”  (1) 

Beware the Polarizing Brain

When righteousness gets up a head of steam, however, such fine distinctions cease to matter, because inflamed righteousness rejoices in simplistic thinking and polarizing stereotypes. Undocumented Mexicans are Trumpeted as “rapists, murderers and thieves,” a government-regulated health care plan is “socialist,” and anyone who opposes gay marriage is an ignorant fool. Inflamed righteousness is an equal opportunity virus, attacking liberals and conservatives of a particular stripe equally. (2)

Such righteousness actually holds us back from its more mature cousin, love of the Good. “Righteousness” so easily becomes about me, and puts me against all those who, because they seem devoted to some other good (or god) are unrighteous (or ignorant, wicked, lesser). Worse yet, I am so easily blinded to the ways I myself am ignorant, or wicked, or participate in policies that foster oppression or destruction. 

So, St. Paul challenges his Greek listeners to come off the high perch of their righteous sense of their own “wisdom” — their intellectual and cultural superiority — which leads them to label all other cultures, including the Jewish, “barbarian,” lesser, just not “enlightened.” And he challenges his Jewish listeners to let go of their stance of superior moral conduct and denigration of outsiders as morally inferior. Greeks can be stupid and Jews immoral, so get over it. “All have sinned and fallen short” (Romans 3:23).

Humility before human complexity and contradiction 

This is not, as is so often assumed, a wholesale condemnation of human nature, but a call to realistic humility in the face of our own complexity and the equally mixed nature of those we may disagree with. When we do that, we have a greater chance of wrestling with complex issues of good and evil with less heat, self-righteousness, blame and blindness.

True love of the Good means growing skill in discerning the good—as in seeing the good in a documentary about helping disabled kids by an Israeli “tainted” only by being an Israeli and therefore inevitably complicit as a citizen in his country’s mistakes and sins. Or seeing the good in one's opponent—unlike the good Norwegian film festival organizers, who are surely exempt from any sins and mistakes in their own country’s growing crisis over Muslim immigrants, touted by conservatives there as a “crime and rape crisis.” (3)

Sounds all too familiar.


2. For a full treatment of this phenomenon see Jonathan Haidt The Righteous Mind, available at

Friday, July 31, 2015

Can you read the morning newspaper without weeping?

Is it nothing to all you who pass by? Behold and SEE.
—Lamentations 1:12

Can you read the morning newspaper without weeping? Try. I dare you—just try. 

Should you read the morning newspaper without weeping? I begin to think weeping may be a duty, an obligation at this moment in our history. At least for anybody who dares the pray to any God imagined to care about people, to care about the earth.  “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus says, which I’ve always taken to mean “Blessed are those who actually see that there and things in the world to be grieved.” 

Today's news

Today, July 31, 2015, I wept reading “DuBoses: Grieving But Determined” by Charles Blow on the NYTimes Op-Ed page. Blow was “embedded” with the grieving family of Sam DuBose, the man killed by a University of Cincinnati police office on July 19 in one of those all-too-common “driving while black” pullovers that have contributed to the extra-high hypertension rates in the African American community for decades. He speaks of their grief and calm stalwartness in bearing witness to the tragic injustice of the encounter that led to Sam’s death. (See link below)

Maybe my tear-ducts had been softened up by the stabbing of six people yesterday at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride March. One could feel grief over the plight of the thousands upon thousands of migrants and refugees fleeing violence and climate-change induced droughts in places like Syria and Africa. But I know men and women who have been stopped multiple times for driving while black, so the Cincinnati incident hits closer home. 

Still, I got close to tears, and didn’t avoid a twinge of grief as I listed to an interview with a Syrian man and his wife, five months pregnant, who were crouching in a wooded area near the “Chunnel” tracks that take trains from France to England, trying to hop a train under cover of darkness. “Isn’t it dangerous,” the NPR reporter asked. “Not as dangerous as Aleppo is today,” the man replied. 

Because of this temptation to grieve, perhaps to weep, some of my friends say “I just don’t look at the news.” Or perhaps they take in a limited dose, laced with snarky Jon Stewart humor, that sugar-coats the bitterness, or at least softens grief into rueful laughter. OK. Fine. Keeping up our spirits is the American way, isn’t it? 

Why grieve? 

Call me crazy, but I feel compelled to “behold and see” these injustices. I’m not so sure—the Declaration of Independence to the contrary notwithstanding—that a God-given right to happiness was in my spiritual birth-packet.  I think God is more concerned about my learning how to care, to have compassion, and to act on those feelings whenever possible, even if all I can do is bear witness and pray. I have happiness in my life, sometimes in abundance, but it is no longer the measure of my “success” as a human being. 

Jesus says we those mourn will be “comforted,” a correct but misleading translation. The word in Greek is stronger, and related to encouragement, even to advocacy: paraklÄ“thÄ“sontai is one form of paraklete, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, the one of “cries in us,” encourages us, strengthens us.  

Even outrage is weak if we avoid the strong growth in fellow-feeling that grief can give. If we always avoid the grief, will the fire in the belly required for participation in real change ever be ignited?