Pride and prejudice

Today I’m feeling more focused than I was yesterday, so I’ll take the risk of putting down some fairly scattered impressions and seeing if I can make some sense out of the whole.

To begin with, here’s something for Dale, in reference especially to a recent comment thread at Vajrayana Practice. Actually, it’s an encore presentation, as they say on Car Talk. This odd epigraph appears as a preface to the first part of my book Spoil (which is beginning to give off a bit of a musty odor, I must say). I was picturing two stone buddhas – or perhaps two stoned buddhists – facing each other . . .

The hedonist bows to the image of the ascetic–& vice versa.
It turns out that the buddha in the mirror is an agent provocateur.
You find yourself grimacing, baring your teeth.
Anything to wipe that smile off its face.


It turned out that The Buddha in the Mirror was the title of a popular book explaining the tenets of Soka Gakkai. Now, if there’s one branch of Buddhism that leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s this sect (and to some extent the other followers of Nichiren as well). Why? Because they are just like Christian fundamentalists: their praxis is basic in the extreme, admitting of little nuance, and they state outright that if you don’t belong to their little club, you’re more-or-less screwed. To which I always have the same reaction: if salvation means I have to spend eternity with self-righteous pricks like you, who needs it?


Beyond the quicksand claims of fundamentalists and other true believers to possess a monopoly on the Truth stretches a somewhat less treacherous swamp: the almost universal tendency to assume that others would be happier if only they were more like us. I approached this from one angle with my screed on classism and racism the other day. But many of us simply get caught up in our enthusiasms. And of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to “convert” others to various forms of fandom, as long as one is reasonably respectful about it. But sometimes I do worry that I can be awfully obnoxious about it.

Yesterday I found myself once again trying to nudge a friend of mine into starting a blog. She gently reminded me that she has a variety of very good reasons not to keep one. In some of her remarks about her own reticence I heard echoes of the Amish critique of our “English” cult of self esteem. For an Amish, to sign one’s name to a creative product is suspect (though the nature writer and organic farmer David Kline gets away with it), and to publish one’s photo is virtually impossible. Why? Such gestures are seen as too “prideful.” Now, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to bend my pride and submit to communal authority as the Amish do for one second. But that doesn’t mean I’m content to be a puffed-up asshole, either. And I do like the fact that the Amish emphasis on peacefulness includes a profound disinclination to try and convert others to their way of thinking.

In this regard, they differ sharply from even their closest cousins-in-faith, the more conservative Mennonite sects. Not entirely coincidentally, most old-order Amish honor the Bible’s exhortation to “works” as well as faith. They tend not to want to take the easy way out and say, just believe this one thing and you’ll get to heaven. Submitting to communal authority does not invariably entail mindless obedience, it seems. But I suppose one must expect a certain mental agility from people who are so un-American as to agonize over the possible social consequences of every new technology.


Speaking of faith and works, here’s rich irony. The April 20 Christian Century reports:

On the presidential campaign trail, Senator John Kerry (D., Mass.) is using the New Testament’s Letter of James to imply that the Bush administration may be long on expressing faith but lacks compassionate deeds in dealing with hunger and joblessness. Following Kerry’s appearance in a St. Louis church, a White House spokesman decried the ploy as “exploitation of scripture.”

To shouts of approval on March 28 from worshipers at New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, Kerry cited two verses from James, first 2:14, then 1:22.

“The scriptures say, ‘What does it profit my brethren if some say he has faith but does not have works?’ When we look at what’s happening in America today, where are the works of compassion? Because it’s also written, ‘Be doers of the word and not hearers only,'” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Likewise, Time magazine’s Web site reported that Kerry told a Mississippi congregation on March 7 that President Bush does not practice the “compassionate conservatism” he preaches. The Massachusetts senator then cited James 2:14, saying, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” Bush, a United Methodist, has referred to his beliefs while promoting his faith-based initiative and on other occasions.

In speaking at the St. Louis church, Kerry vaguely criticized “our present national leadership.” But a spokesman for Bush, Steve Schmidt, said the senator’s comments were “beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse and a sad exploitation of scripture for political attack.”


In other news, a bunch of Christian pastors concerned about the environment sent Bush a letter encouraging him to actually read the Bible.


It’s always interesting to hear Republicrats make solemn pronouncements about “the bounds of acceptable discourse.” What does this mean? Could anyone give me an example of unacceptable discourse?

O.K., how about this: Iraq would probably do just fine if the occupying troops pulled out tomorrow. Civil war is highly unlikely to break out. The Sunnis and the Shiites are not at each other’s throats. And somehow Iraqis managed to rebuild almost all the country’s infrastructure destroyed during the 1991 war, which was far more devastating, in less than a year – without the help of Halliburton, Bechtel, the United States Marines, Blackwater/CIA agents, or even the United Nations . . . which was doing its darndest to prevent said reconstruction through economic sanctions and by giving carte blanche to the U.S. and British to continue bombing the crap out of the country for the next ten years.

But perhaps you, like Senator Kerry, consider yourself a liberal and a humanitarian. Don’t we have a responsibility to fix what we have broken? Sure. But exercising such responsibility would be almost unprecedented for the United States (with the exception of the Marshall Plan, which we can debate about). So maybe we’d better experiment, first, and try to fix things up in Afghanistan some – say, commit to paying, dollar-for-dollar, as much as we paid for the ordnance we dropped. That might sound sort of minimal, but it would probably prove impossible to get the bipartisan warhorses in Congress to sign on to anything more ambitious. If it works out and we decide to apply our new-found expertise in reconstruction elsewhere, I’m sure any new, sovereign government of Iraq would be more than happy to accept reparations. (But I forgot, Iraq was supposed to pay for its own reconstruction!)

Shouldn’t we get the U.N. to send peacekeeping troops? But as long as Iraq is occupied by foreign powers, there won’t be any peace to keep. If the U.N. had armies of peacemakers, they could send those. You know, people with experience in democratic organizing, building the cultural infrastructure of a pluralistic society: unions, public libraries, grassroots advocacy groups, zoning boards, all that boring stuff. Such folks could really be quite useful, I think. But for some reason, we in the “international community” of “civilized nations” always leave such essential functions up to poorly funded (and not always democratically run) non-governmental organizations. (Talk about an abrogation of responsibility!) And peacekeeping troops under the aegis of the U.N. would probably be even less effective than the U.S. and British troops who are there now, because not only would they be acting under false pretenses, if recent incidents in Kosovo are any guide, they wouldn’t even be willing to do what occupying armies must do to maintain “peace” – kill people.

Now let me go wash my mouth out with soap, and examine the other side of the coin. What constitutes acceptable discourse?

Money! That’s what the Supreme Court – and the “liberal” ACLU – have said. Money is a form of speech. You can look it up.

What else? How about: Bombs! Great big bombs! All kinds of bombs, and mortars, and grenades, and live ammunition, and things that go explody-boom! That’s what G.W. said over a year ago, wasn’t it, at the very beginning of the bombing campaign, when the evil not-so-genius Wolfowitz convinced him that Iraqi generals would turn Saddam in if we gave them half a chance. We weren’t just bombing, Bush said, we were “sending a message to Saddam.” Then when that didn’t work – something got lost in the translation, perhaps? – we dusted off the not-so-moderate Secretary Powell’s “shock and awe” doctrine. The thinking there seems to have been along the lines of, “These superstitious heathen believe in an angry, punishing sky god. If we drop lots of things from the sky that go boom, they’ll think we’re God and fall down in awe! Then, they’ll welcome our troops with flowers!” Don’t believe me? Check out the original brand name – oops, I mean code name – for the bombing campaign: Operation Infinite Justice.

The foregoing rant was triggered by a remark from Christian Science Monitor reporter Scott Peterson last night on NPR. Reporting from Fallujah, Peterson admitted that the “cease fire” was a fiction – but a useful fiction, he said, because it was a way of keeping communication channels open. If words don’t work, the Marine commander told Peterson, we drop 100-lb. bombs for a while. It’s the only language these people understand.


As long as I’m depressing the hell out of you, I ought to mention another article from the same issue of The Christian Century cited above. “Church Failure: Remembering Rwanda,” by David P. Gushee, concludes that the presence of Christian institutions did nothing to prevent genocide either in Rwanda or in Nazi Germany. “It cannot be assumed that the people gathered to hear the Word proclaimed and to participate in the sacraments are serious about the Christian faith. . . . Jesus himself said that the seed of the gospel is scattered on all different kinds of ground; only one of the four kinds of soil that he mentions has the quality needed for fruitfulness.”

This is a crucial point all too often ignored by both religious and non- or anti-religious people. Religions are, inevitably, an imperfect means to achieve highly provisional ends. At best, we should expect that religious institutions work to provide healing. Complete and irreversible transformation of self or society seems not only unlikely, but quite possibly dangerous as well. I would go so far as to suggest that people who believe in such totalizing transformations, be they secular revolutionaries or religious folks, are precisely the sort of people most likely to heed calls to war, genocide or ecocide.

Unfortunately, folks in every religion have a tendency to believe that a profound conversion, or a mystical experience, or satori, or the achievement of any number of other exalted states will solve everything. Thank goodness that religions also produce people like Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, Gustavo Gutierrez and Desmond Tutu to perennially remind us that God’s agendas are very different from our own.

Now, perhaps some of you are wishing I would stop making these political remarks and restrict myself to spiritual speculations, nature poetry and the like. I wish I could! But I’ve just never been very good at keeping things in separate mental compartments.

We have our work cut out for us. Get right with God or the Universe or the Emptiness of the Self if you must. But don’t keep your mouth shut about everything else – and whatever you do, don’t let the sons of bitches get away with claiming it’s all in our name! If you’re a Christian, pressure your priest or minister to join in efforts like the one I mentioned above – and write the White House and the newspapers yourself. (Never underestimate the power of a well-written letter-to-the-editor!) Agitate in whatever way and to whatever degree you can, without losing your sense of humor, your compassion or your religion.

As David Gushee notes, history shows again and again that “when a ruling elite decides to target a group of people in a society, most of the people who are not targeted will not resist, whatever their religious affiliation. To put it bluntly: politics usually matters more than religion does; or, politics co-opts religion and thus neutralizes it. To put it even more bluntly: people are sheep. Most will go along with what their elites tell them to think and do. Few have the intellectual, spiritual or moral capacity to resist either the genocidal thinking of elites or the genocide itself once it begins.”

May I strive with all my might, through this weblog or otherwise, to help bring about a world where this would no longer be the case – and where treating any injustice, no matter how seemingly minor, as the price of progress would be beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse. Inshallah.

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