One thing that strikes me (and many) about this current election cycle is the absolute certainty with which folks who make up the two sides take their particular positions. I can report personal strong feelings on this point. I favor the Kerry/Edwards ticket over the Bush/Cheney ticket, but I'm intrigued that I, like many folks I meet, not only will vote against Bush/Cheney, but literally cannot imagine anyone voting for that particular ticket. Relatives and acquaintances of ours feel exactly the opposite way that we feel--they not only strongly oppose the Democrats, but they cannot conceive of a sane reason to vote for Kerry and Edwards.
This reading I've been doing lately tripped me across some material on that historical absurdity called the Fifth Crusade. I do not claim to be a historian in the best of times, and in large part I would say that the Fifth Crusade sounds only twice as absurd as the prior four (and roughly one tenth as absurd as the movement now termed the "Children's Crusades"). I'm struck, though, by the way in which a religion based on love, and with a specific injunction for turning the other cheek took on the task of a distant war. It does not help, of course, that the wars were undertaken prior to the invention of the internal combustion engine and prior to the invention of anti-malarial drugs.
One could lay a lot of wars at the feet of people who act in the name of religion. The repression of Christianity, the repression of those who opposed Christianity, the militant spread of early Islam, the wars of the reformation and the restoration--all wars caused by power disguised with religious cloaks. Even fellows like Genghis Khan acted in part, ironically, out of a desire to stamp out Islam and install a form of Buddhism. One would be tempted to suggest that abolition of all religion might solve the problem of war, except that the efforts to forcibly do so in the age of communism and the Nazi all resulted in stark genocide and repression in their turn. Even the solution of abolishing all "isms" and "ity" fails to meet the need, as the ideology and theology free state never has persisted.
The western tradition did not invent the notion of religious tolerance. Asoka, from the Buddhist tradition, legislated religious tolerance long before Rousseau ever set pen to paper. He did it in the way some kings do. He invaded his neighbors, and figured out that war causes the death of innocents. He then set up a more sensible way to go about spreading his ideas.
We don't have a huge understanding of Asoka's lifetime, but we have abundant evidence of the rules by which he governed. His major and minor edicts were scattered on monuments throughout his kingdom, many of which monuments still stand. Among the rules were a good few that would seem odd or uncongenial today, but also clear mandates for religious tolerance. Buddhism and Hinduism have both had substantial strains within those faiths that preach tolerance for other faiths. Each has variants and offshoots which are less tolerant (although Buddhism tends to adjust to a "local faith" in an area to which it spreads, while Hinduism often absorbs faiths--indeed, Indian Buddhism was all but "swallowed up" by the Hindu tradition).
Tolerance predates the evolution of European technological civilization. So it's would be eurocentric to pretend that the Enlightenment came, and then democracy sprung up. We'll skip the part about how Athens was "democratic", if you ignore (as scholars for years seemed willing to do) the women, the non-citizens and sundry lacks of civil rights. Yet, the evolution of "new ways of thinking", roughly at the same time as institutions, capital markets and science began to evolve, did help create the potential for a modern true republican democracy--a country in which everyone has "inalienable rights" but aside from those rights, everything is decided by represntatives who determine things by majority vote.
Sometimes it's easy to focus on the negative things--the sheer barbarism of each century, right through our own. But I think that there's a virtue in looking at the good things that have happened, and the sheer potential which people possess. To me, the hope in the Christian story is not in huge churches institutional, but in individuals who built communities in which people acted kindly to each other and to strangers. To me, the beauty of Islam is its spates of nation-building, but the creation of a sense of community from chaotic origins. My heart goes with Felix Adler, a 19th Century fellow who could not believe in a "God up there", but believed that there is a "religious" part of people which can express itself in ethics of tolerance and compassion. The Ethical Culture movement he founded still lingers on today, small circles of people hunting ethical solutions even absent a belief in the supernatural.
I puzzle lately about how we will fill the deep gulf which separates people of different views these days. I watched on early morning television the televangelist Paula White, a Floridian who co-pastors a church of 15,000 congregants. She's an interesting story, a victim of child sexual abuse without any material or social advantages, who discovered a religious faith that led to her a position of leadership. Her goal is try to "win" 10 million converts to Christianity. She speaks with a rhetorical style more reminiscent of African-American preachers in the rural south than of an urban congregation
in a "megachurch". We have megachurches in our area, where the police have to direct traffic because populations as large as small cities attend on a given Sunday. I saw Ms. White, a blonde, fairly attractive woman who this morning wore a "Sunday go to meeting" skirt set coupled with absurdly high heels. She spoke to her congregation of spiritual powers and mysteries given only to her. I found her rather likable, and certainly a worthy showwoman, but also so alien and remote to my experience. If I could lift up my hands, as her listeners do, and feel some secret power, perhaps I would feel differently. For that matter, I do have my own rituals of faith, but they are just different, and not interesting enough to journal here tonight.
I turned the channel, and there on another religious station was the Reverend Joyce Meyer, a sturdy,
plain-spoken, high-tempered but brass tacks good sort, who frequently wins my approval by pointing out that life is just flat out hard, and one does not take up faith for an easy ride, but instead to try to make the ride livable. But today she spoke about how we should all "vote the Bible", and I realized that yet another person had been sorted far onto one side of this tremendous divide which separates us all.
I need not even reach the sad spectacle of Mr. Falwell blaming 9/11 on New Yorkers.
I find intolerance among some liberals, of course, who proclaim that they cannot have Republican friends (or, in the words of one woman we knew, "I'd rather he be a smoker than a Republican"). People shudder about other people's faith, or politics, or even SUV vehicles.
Nothing, of course, holds a candle to the media talking headed circus folks, from the ridiculous Ann Coulter, a woman bright enough to know better, but too fond of free-basing her own conservative celebrity, who proclaims her opponents "traitors", all the way across the spectrum to the wild-eyed conspiracy theories of the left. I think that the thing that intrigues me most is that conservatives no longer seem even conservative to me anymore. All the paradigms have shifted, and the rules of the game have all changed. In four years, we've seen the major political parties each change their foreign policies entirely. The only consistent, I've found, by the way, is a statement by Dick Cheney in his 2000 debate with Joseph Lieberman that if Cheney thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons, Cheney would want him taken out. Mr. Bush's own speeches from that era focused on avoiding "nation-building". I feel that Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Wolfowitz would benefit by listening to the fairly articulate and wise words Mr. Bush spoke back when he was a mere candidate and Governor of a large state with a historic mistrust and disempowerment of its governor's office. By the same token, I get frustrated with my own party, the Democrats, when they fail to recognize that small good social works in a general climate of fiscal restraint, not major social programs outside our economy's current prosperity, led to the Clinton prosperity. Four years ago they understood that, and wisely pointed out the problem with an over-deep tax cut. But I am not sure they fully remember the point now.
But I'm not really going to debate politics tonight, as I have nothing really to add to this 51/49 national dilemma in this country. I'm much more concerned with my sense that compassion and tolerance are on the wane right now. This is a time when I'm feeling particularly mortal. It's a time when folks seem to be battling illness and death and despair, all around me. It's a time when I find that the incredible good fortune I experience does not always translate into full appreciation of how good I have things.
I don't mean that we need more of that mock-earnest, sugar-coated faux kindness which some mistake for compassion and tolerance. I'm not interested in more unicorn stickers or cute slogans. Although I always thought that "random acts of kindness" and "senseless acts of beauty" was a nice idea, I'm thinking more of how to consistently work for the right thing. I'm thinking of infant mortality rates that are far too high,and even of animal control euthanasia that is far too high. I'm thinking of AIDS decimating the working population of some countries. I think of those things, and I think how little I do.
I looked at the website for Heifer International (www.heifer.org) yesterday, which gets livestock to people who need it, under circumstances in which they will breed the livestock and build local economies. A donation equal to one sheep is roughly 120 dollars. I bought a book on amazon the other night that will keep me occupied less than a week. It's a good book. But it cost 1/6 of a sheep.
I'm not saying that I need to sell all I have and buy rabbits, though I like the idea and some wise folks said that's exactly what I must do. But it bugs me that I can click "buy the book!" much faster than I click "buy a sheep!". I want to learn to earn or raise a few geese worth of money, sometimes.
You see, the thing I keep coming back to is that people are less angry when they are well-fed and when alternatives exist to violence. I don't mean to suggest that all hatred is economic--I grew up in the South, and I've seen first-hand what damage ethnic hatred can do. But that's the "second plank" on my simple campaign agenda--in addition to kindness, one must work for tolerance.
This country has so many things to solve if we are not to experience a decline. People on both sides of the aisle must work better together. We must solve the problem of diminishing fossil fuel resources.
We must figure out a way to bridge the gap between rich and poor, while keeping the economy vibrant.
Health care and higher education are in impossible inflation spirals, which neither party has solved in the past 24 years. The baby boom (of which I am a last straggler) is heading into a retirement era in a few years that will strain our resources as a country. We still consume far too much for good conservation and resource management.
But I confess that I feel inert, like something on the element tables with a really cool name and no interaction. I want to smack a flint at the rock of my being, and see if I can't get these stray weeds and dandelions to light. If lamentation did the trick, or card-trick self-assurance, I'd have a blaze going. But I think I'm going to have to rub the flint against the straw the good, old-fashioned way, until something is alight.