I’ve been a vocal critic of religion over the years. I swing between a live and let live attitude towards religion where everyone should be left alone to believe whatever makes sense to them, to feeling fed up with religion that creates so much harm in the world. In the first episode of the first season of Saturday Night Live, George Carlin hit the nail on the head, “Religion is sort of like a lift in your shoe. If it helps you, fine, just don’t make me wear your shoes.”
This week I wondered if religion itself is not be the problem. Maybe it’s the tendency to take religion personally that is the problem. The need to protect and defend religion and the need to force others to believe the same way, is the problem. We saw this again with the burning of Korans by American troops in Afghanistan. Young soldiers, for whatever reason, incited a firestorm of hatred. They either acted naively, which is hard to believe after ten years in Afghanistan, or else they were exercising their own crusade against Islam. Their actions were, predictably, taken personally in the Arab world and people continue to die as a result. Protecting religion is an endless spiral of violence.
I have my own religious theories and preferences but I can’t think of a single one that I would go into battle over. There are other values, non religious values, which I would literally go into battle to fight for. But I can’t imagine I would ever urinate on the bodies of the fallen enemy or mock their beliefs. I understand the testosterone surge that must follow on from killing in war, but there is a line that should not be crossed. Soldiers are trained to not take killing personally. But burning Korans and urinating on dead bodies is a sign that it has become personal. This is not okay.
Of course it’s only a minority of soldiers who have crossed the line and made it personal. The majority understand and hold the line between war and humanity. They model a path of appropriate action that we ALL need to learn in everyday life. There is a way of passionately living your values without becoming personal and spreading hatred.
When Abilene was wrongfully dismissed from her position in the novel, The Help, she came to a major realization. As she left the house, and the little girl that she had been like a mother to cried for her to come back, the voiceover says,
God says we need to love our enemies……. It hard to do……… But it can start by telling the truth.
The Help is brilliant because it tells the story of change that is created dispassionately (or another word I’m playing with “transpassionately”). Change is created when the stories of black women are told without their names, and with a little mud pie insurance policy built in. The author of the book within the book creates enough space and uses enough humor to force change without inciting more violence. (read on for more about taking beliefs personally)
It’s a powerful example of how we can all create change without becoming personal and perpetuating the same energy we are trying to work against.
Transpassionate activism feels the pain of injustice deeply and fully, but doesn’t take injustice personally. In other words, it doesn’t buy into it. It acknowledges the needs of as many stakeholders as possible. It creates a new reality that ends the spiral of hatred. It invites you to have greater strength than your enemies. This Zen story describes the quality of inner strength.
During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived – everyone except the Zen master.
Curious about this old guy, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn’t treated with the submission to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger.
“You fool,” he shouted as he reached for his sword, “don’t you know who I am? Don’t you realize I can run this sword through you without blinking an eye!”
But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved.
“And do you realize who I am,” the master replied calmly, “I am a man who can be run through with a sword without blinking an eye?”
Effective activism requires inner mastery, the presence of mind to stand firm in your convictions without lapsing into vengeance. Where does this inner mastery come from? It comes from knowing who you are, and holding a vision for hatred to become obsolete in the world.
Buckminster Fuller summed it up beautifully,
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.