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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Increasing Compassion Through Witholding Compassion?

It's important for me to say at the outset I don't endorse the idea in the title of this post - but I do think we need to address it.

There's an article by Mia McKenzie on her website Black Girl Dangerous that spouts a fairly common criticism of white liberals - that many of the problems of people of color are due to white liberals not recognizing white privilege. I can't quote her here because she makes it clear on her website that I would need her permission to do so. I will be the first to tell you that more than a few whites, and not just liberals, are ignorant of the level of privilege they enjoy just by virtue of being white. It has a different quality among liberals because liberals imagine themselves quite welcoming and accepting of marginalized groups until a person of color walks into a room and says "motherfucker," at which point all bets are off.

She also mentions the truth that white people seem (lacking any scientific study I don't think we can go beyond "seem" or "appear") to be more upset when large groups of white people are attacked such as at Sandy Hook or the Boston Marathon than at the larger numbers of children of color who are the cumulative victims of violence in separate incidents. I confess there is a part of me that believes that the size of a single incident does intensify public reaction regardless of the ethnicity of the victims, but I cannot cite studies to substantiate that feeling.

The article goes on to say that because white liberals don't care about children of color who are victims of violence, the compassion and empathy the author and other people of color she knows used to experience when confronted with white suffering has been replaced with anger and resentment because they believe white people don't respond in that way to suffering in their community. This is where her argument falls apart. She says that when white people start feeling compassionate toward the suffering of people of color she and her friends will start returning the favor again. The problem is that isn't how compassion works - it's not a commodity you can choose to withhold and then later flip a switch to turn it back on. Compassion takes decades, perhaps even lifetimes, to develop. What's more, her assumption that white liberals have the power to cause her or her friends to feel anything is flat out wrong. Nobody makes us feel anything. We choose how we feel. To believe otherwise is to assume an external locus of control and believe the world acts on us and we are powerless to change our circumstances. Holding such a belief over an extended period of time creates a certain victim mentality that strips us of our ability to fight injustice.

Of course this won't be popular among angry young people like herself, but it has to be said. As a white, straight, liberal who is in touch with white privilege and who stands with all oppressed people and groups and most especially with his friends who happen to belong to those groups - and as a person who has been oppressed himself because of things beyond his control - I have to say it: Don't paint me with that that one size fits all, "white people (or straight people, or whatever) are all evil and insensitive (or whatever)" brush, because we aren't. When you paint us all with that brush, you eventually lose allies. When you say to me, "oh, we weren't talking about you," I have to remind you that when you say all white people, I are one.

Marginalization and oppression are horrible evils, but the decision to withhold compassion and retreat into anger isn't going to hurt anyone but you. The decision to become cold and callous will destroy your spirit, not the spirit of anyone else. After years and years of watering the seeds of anger and resentment in your consciousness, it isn't going to be a matter of just deciding to drop that act and become your old self because the seeds we water are the seeds that grow. As the Dalai Lama has pointed out, you don't cure hate with hate, you cure it with love.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Buddha Nature vs. Original Sin: No Contest

I have always struggled with the idea of Original Sin - the idea that because of Adam and Eve's disobedience in the Garden of Eden that led to their being cast out of Paradise human beings throughout history are born guilty. It is the one of the traditional reasons for Baptism, which is believed to "wash away the stain of Original Sin." It led to such absurd and traumatic ideas that infants who died before being Baptized were destined for a place called "limbo," where they apparently spent eternity dancing under an ever-lowered pole. There have been several explanations offered to counter the whole babies bound for hell business, including one I found particularly amusing while completing my undergraduate work at Wisconsin Lutheran College - the idea that it is rejecting Baptism that is damning. Their theory went that since a baby doesn't have the power to accept or reject Baptism it isn't punished if it dies before being Baptized. That sounds good, as far as it goes, but they also are big believers in Original Sin. Apparently, they, the "stain of Original Sin" must only be detectable when a soul is passed under a black light and the policy in heaven is not to pass babies under the black light? Or maybe the stain doesn't appear until the person rejects Baptism, like some sort of time-released ink?

At the time of the Protestant Reformation the resulting Protestant Churches other than the Anglican, Lutheran, and the later-developing Methodists became part of what is known as the "Reformed" tradition. They apparently didn't feel that Original Sin was depressing enough by itself and so developed an uplifting little concept called the total depravity of man [sic]. This doctrine essentially held that the Fall resulted in there being nothing good or redeemable about human beings, that we were essentially worms waiting for God's grace to save us despite ourselves. To these cheery folks there was no such thing as spiritual growth or development, very little understanding of Sanctification, and no concept of the Deification of Humanity. They could have more accurately called their tradition "You're Screwed."

Can we admit that there are some ideas in every spiritual and religious tradition that were doubtless very helpful at one point in history but aren't helpful any longer? Can we admit that while God doesn't change, our understanding of God certainly does change? When I was a child I remember being told that thunderstorms were caused by God bowling in heaven. Given that a young child doesn't have the ability to understand scientific explanations for thunder I drew comfort from that explanation. As an adult such an explanation  wouldn't be helpful at all precisely because I am able, at least to a degree, to understand a scientific understanding of thunder. Humanity's scientific understanding has evolved over time and fairly exploded over the past sixty years. The Bible explains thunder and lightening as well as other weather related and geological events as punishment from God. Contemporary scientific understanding renders such ideas little more than quaint vestiges of a pre-scientific era.

Are we born with stains not related to diapers? Of course not. The concept of Original Sin is not biblical, and Eastern Christianity never endorsed it. It would be little but a benign item in the history of Christian thought were it not for the enormous self-esteem issues in western culture. Religions that continue to teach what I like to call "original brokenness" are in truth agents of suffering and death that feel a need to justify ancient doctrines at the expense of compassion and love. Christians holding such position are in fact completely denying the Incarnation of Jesus, which says that God became human and in doing so once and for all showed that the created order is filled with God. How in the world can a person on the one hand believe in Jesus and on the other continue to prattle on about Original Sin? It's a direct contradiction! Perhaps they feel they lack an alternative.

Back in the 1980s Matthew Fox wrote a book called Original Blessing. Matthew Fox has many gifts, but economy of words is not one of them so I will tell you his premise was that people are born not with guilt but with blessing. Predictably, his book irritated the Roman Catholic Church because it is difficult to control people who are not guilt ridden. While the idea took off in some circles, in my opinion it never really caught on the way it might have - perhaps because of Fox's verbosity. Fortunately for us, Buddhism has had the answer all along.

The answer is Buddha Nature, which says that all of us and born with a Buddha inside. That Buddha gets covered with detritus because of the adventures of life, but it is nonetheless there. Through spiritual practice we clear away the obscurations which hide our Buddha Nature and allow it to shine through. It was there inside us all along, we just couldn't see it. Of course, this is a simplified and condensed explanation appropriate for our context here but hardly the whole story.

When talking to Christian groups I often tell them they have God Nature rather than Buddha Nature, especially if they aren't Interspiritual. I tell them that no creation story from any tradition that has a creation story beings with God creating a parts warehouse, but rather God creates from Godself. That means humans are made up of God parts, so to speak, an inherent God Nature that cannot be removed and is affirmed in the Incarnation. It's actually a quite biblical concept - but one that doesn't become apparent unless one has been exposed to the idea of Buddha Nature. When we sin we obscure our God Nature further, but we can never destroy it. Through spiritual practice, especially silent prayer, we see through our accumulated debris and experience the God within us and everyone else. Through this we experience the Buddhist notion of Interconnectedness, or what Christians call the Body of Christ.

If our goal is to speak to contemporary people, the majority of whom have been raised outside religion and spiritual practice, we are going to have to find ways to discuss our wholeness rather than our temporary brokenness, to support healing rather than kick people when they are down, and use language and examples that connect to every day life. Of all the traditions, I believe Buddhism offers the best tradition of continually finding ways to retell the story for a new generation - and example we all need to learn from. Because it's perfectly possible to be a Buddhist and a member of another tradition, those of us who seek to articulate a contemporary, progressive spirituality as followers of Jesus have a lot to learn from Buddhism!