Monday, May 17, 2010

You Can't Take the "Spiritual" Out of Your Social/Political Leaders

Many of you know that I take seriously the idea that Buddha's teachings and grassroots, social justice work need to come together more. In fact, despite all of the miserable failures throughout history when it comes to linking religion to social issues, I still think it's foolish for people who aren't secular to act totally secular in society at large. I suppose for some of you this might put me in the same camp as the Taliban, Christian conservatives, and the Jewish conservatives currently running Israel, but I'd beg to differ.

In the first place, anyone who has seriously embarked on a spiritual journey, be it within an established religion or something on their own, isn't able to truly be uninfluenced by that while working and living in the world. Asking President Obama, or former President Bush, to completely drop off the Christianity while governing is pointless. In addition, asking social activists leaders like Grace Lee Boggs and Joanna Macy to drop their spiritual lives at the door makes no sense either. None of these folks would be able to anyway because the way they see the world is colored by their spiritual paths, for better or worse.

Instead of requesting that people play shell games with their spirituality while leading in our multicultural society, we might instead start insisting on deeper examination of motives behind actions, both individually and collectively. Is there a desire for power and control behind actions being taken? Is there an attempt to get people to convert to a certain religion or spiritual path? Will the actions being taken lead to a hostile environment for those who disagree with the religion/spiritual path of the leaders of a given project?

Speaking of Grace Lee Boggs, who is yet another elderly woman whose actions in the world are anything but elderly, it might be worth a look at her latest blog post about Detroit to get an idea of what I'm talking about. Writing about a new documentary about Detroit's history and potential future, she says the following:

My closing comments make clear that the new American Dream emerging in Detroit is a deeply-rooted spiritual and practical response to the devastation and dehumanization created by the old dream. We yearn to live more simply so that all of us and the Earth can simply live. This more human dream began with African American elders, calling themselves the Gardening Angels. Detroit’s vacant lots, they decided, were not signs of urban blight but heaven-sent spaces to plant community gardens, both to grow our own food and to give urban youth the sense of process, self-reliance, and evolution that everyone needs to be human.

Now, as a Buddhist, talk of "heaven-sent" doesn't do much for me. However, what I do understand and connect with is a return of reverence for the Earth. And the fact that these people, leaders in their community, came to this view through Christianity, Islam, and other religions shouldn't be ignored. Could these people have come to the same conclusions, and began making the same decisions, from a completely secular standpoint? I suppose. Is it likely they would have? I doubt it.

Now, this is a ground up kind of work going on in Detroit for the most part. And obviously, when it comes to top-down examples of leaders influenced by their religion/spirituality, the track record sucks the big one. Here in the U.S., even current President Obama, who has made more efforts than most to speak of the diverse spiritual and secular landscape of our nation, still supports things like the National Day of Prayer, which is decidedly Christian in nature despite attempts to broaden its scope. In Europe, many nations still have state religions, even as the population becomes more detached from those religions. And in places where Buddhism is dominant, like Sri Lanka, it's obvious that the particular blending of religion and leadership present is terribly troubling.

All of these top-down examples tend to be brought up by Buddhist practitioners who want nothing to do with social action informed by spiritual teachings whatsoever. I can understand this, and yet I think it's short-sighted. Why? Because the kinds of social movements that might address things like environmental destruction, degrading education and health care systems, and racial, sexual, and other oppressions come from large groups of people transforming. And where do you often find large groups of people with some common ground already? In churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and Zen centers. And when you think about it, these people also tend to congregate together on the internet as well. Obviously, the secular folks out there aren't in these places, and they, too, have their congregation centers. And this is precisely the point. Social changes starts where you are, with whomever you are with regularly.

I frequently listen to people wailing about the state of world, including myself, and then think "What do Buddha's teachings have to say about all this?" The leap from that thinking to some sort of engagement by a group of Buddhists doesn't seem that terribly hard of one, and yet my experience has been it's a very hard leap. I have an interest - dare I say passion - in making that leap less difficult. Which is why I write so much about social issues and Buddhism, and also why I act in the world informed by my practice.

Now, it's time for me to go to work. May you all be well.


A Green Spell said...

First of all, thanks for visiting my blog, and sharing your thoughts on oil consumption/driving. I appreciate it!

Secondly, wow! I LOVE your blog! This post, especially, is so beautifully-written and inspiring. I'll have to add you to my Reader feed so I can keep up!

Adam said...

Your bit about Detroit made me think of this:

I agree that most of the progress we've seen in the non-profit, social justice type works stems from a religous background. And I definitely agree that without the religous connection these individuals have, most (if not all) of the good works we've seen where people are helping people wouldn't exist.

I suppose a big issue with many is that charity from religous organizations tends to come with strings attached in the way of evangelical conversion attempts.

Nice post Nathan.

Daniel @ Campinas said...

While my view is very different from yours, I "do see" where you are coming from. Just one problem with what you write in your closing: you speak of your passion to make the leap less difficult. Therein lies the problem. When you act, are you acting consciously and rationally, or is your "passion" clouding your judgement? Is what "you would like it to be" affecting "accepting what is? And where is "the line" between trying to improve things and accepting what is anyways?

Some time back my wife got to talking to some American missionaries. While I enjoyed having other Americans to speak to I did not care much for their interpretation of the Bible. Anyways, at one point he said how he wanted a "radical" church, and that Jesus wants "radical" Christians. When you are "radical" you act without thought, sense, reason. How is a radical Christian different from a radical Muslim? How is a radical Buddhist different? (BTW, I am not calling you are a radical Buddhist)

Algernon said...

Yes, a good one -- re-inspiring for me, at a time when I've been feeling a bit tired.

Nathan said...

Hi Daniel,

I don't think Buddha taught just to accept what is. We have to act, sometimes, out of what think will benefit others. Otherwise, the whole thing would be just fatalism.
If it was just "accept what is" people like Thich Nhat Hanh would have never bothered trying to crete peace through their teachings and work.

I agree that passion is tricky, and often clouds judgment. The questions you ask I find myself having to consider almost every day.

La Dimensione said...

I agree with you 100%.

Thanks. Peace.

Daniel @ Campinas said...

Oh I agree, the teachings don't tell us to 'accept what is and shut up'. We should work to improve situations. The trick is knowing how to go about it. There are some extremes here though, and I will cite one: You have some people arguing to revamp the whole Capitalist system, and revert to a 'barter' economy. Sure in small communities this can work on a small scale. In fact, where I live I engage in some of it. I have a student whose father owns a farm. I trade classes for milk, eggs, cheese and meat. But I still need to "make money" to pay the rent, light, water...
My reply was more along the 'passion' line, which you understood and acknowledge very well. If we are questioning ourselves, I think we are on the right path. A tough nut to crack indeed..