October 21, 2007
In the dusk of my dreams I have wandered through pointy roofed pavillions spilling across a shallow hillside, reaching the darkened road that runs below. It is a fair, the greatest exhibition of humankind’s noblest pursuit, born out of a quest for the meaning of being alive. These are the laboratories in which different cultures have have created the social alchemy called religion, a construct of humanity that is valued for its endowment of purpose and plagued by the folly of its zealots. Which shelter will I enter? Who will I be when I come out the other side? What if I must chase my soul down the dark road and it hides behind damp brick walls?
If there were a sign over the entry gate to this campus of religious thought, it might say “Teach me to be good, and I will be good.” This is the awareness we assume as we enter life. So it seems that in this equation, Karl Marx did not quite have it right. Good is the opiate of the people; religion is just the opium den. Go in and see the guy in the robes. “Hey man, is this where I can score some good? Can you hook me up with some good? I need some good, bad.”
And this is what he tells you, or some variation: “Submit yourself to education, and busy yourself with practice, and don’t substitute artifice for belief (Thou shalt have no other gods before me).”
How important is this quest? “We want examples of how to behave,” but “education alone is not the answer,” said the Dalai Lama, in Atlanta, yesterday. “All religions are human religions. All religions carry the message of love and compassion.”
Because of that, “Religion has the obligation to feel compunction for its position in the world,” according to Sister Joan Chittister, an author and activist who writes for the National Catholic Reporter. We must examine, she said, what we have “contributed to the conversation of love.”
His Holiness and Sister Joan were speaking at a summit hosted by Emory University, called The First Emory Summit on Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding. Joining them on the dais were: Professor Rajmohan Gandhi, a human rights activist and grandson of the Mahatma; Rabbi David Rosen, an activist in the arena of interreligious dialogue; and Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a law professor at Emory and scholar of Islamic law and politics.
When minds like that get together, it is moving, inspiring and sparky. Rabbi Rosen called them all “religious personalities,” and I suppose the title fits. I mean, the Dalai Lama is a rock star (and we are all groupies – just what religion needs).
Mischievous People who Cast a Bad Light
Like the title of the summit suggests, it was just a conversation. No pacts were made. No treaties were signed, and despite the larger than life presence of the Dalai Lama, no religion took the lead over any other. The discussion was not about good vs. evil, God vs. the Devil, or do-gooders vs. evil-doers. Instead, there was an instant understanding that, “It is not the traditions; it is the believers,” as Professor An-Na’im said. As for the President’s “evil-doers”, His Holiness forgivingly called them “mischievous” people who cast a bad light on their faith.
Sister Joan was the most direct, talking about how religion is responsible for “a bloody history of oppression in the name of God.”
“We have been following the apostolic tradition [of] ‘those who aren’t with us are against us,’ ” she said. “That’s the seed of division and war.”
The Arab-Israeli conflict is the dark forest that has grown from that seed of intolerance. Rabbi Rosen, in speaking about his interfaith work in the Middle East, pointed out that all the parties there feel like they are the victims, and he pleaded with us to have a sense of responsibility, to “get past the victimization.” Like Abraham, he said, we should “see the angel, the divine image, in every living being.”
“If you make an issue out of every principle,” he added, “in the end, you don’t have any principles.”
Professor Gandhi seems to agree.”When you set out to destroy what you dislike, you also destroy what you love,” he said, relating the story (from his brother Ramchandra’s book Sita’s Kitchen) of a group of Hindus that took hammers to an ancient mosque and ended up destroying an even more ancient Hindu holy site known as Sita’s Kitchen.
Sister Joan, of course, put it more bluntly: “Quit trying to convert each other like a ‘Commie for Christ!’ God is no one’s pigment, no one’s gender and no one’s flag.”
Be the Change
So what do we do to move the conversation past “mischievous” zealotry? “Be the change you want to make,” implored Prof. An-Na’im, quoting Mohandas Gandhi’s famous call to action. Right action is up to each of us. “It is my responsibility [to create change],” he said, “not our responsibility.”
It is the responsibility of each of us to “be part of the solution,” is how Rabbi Rosen put it. By standing up and doing that, perhaps we can satisfy Prof. An-Na’im’s call to lead by example (especially in regards to human rights), and “raise our country’s commitment and standing to that which we expect of others.”
Then, perhaps by the work of each of us who were blessed to attend this summit, and the work you do, dear reader, we can bring alive the light sparked by this amazing event. As the Dalai Lama said, “Light will come from this center, and will reach a more, wider area.”
Then no one’s soul will have to be coaxed out of dark, damp alleys, for mischief cannot hide where faith will bear no darkness.