One of the best metaphors for our situation is the ancient Hindu and Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant. Each religion—even at its best—is no more than one of the “blind men,” illuminating one part of a larger truth. None of us will ever see life in its totality or see it clearly—we can only “see through a glass, darkly,” to use Saint Paul’s wonderful phrase. That means there must be as many of us as possible at the table, from all religions (and from relevant secular disciplines), and we must learn to speak to each other in languages that include the tender mercies of the others. Only ordinary language can do this.
The other metaphor that can enlighten us is also Buddhist: that all teachings, teachers, religions, and wise traditions are like fingers pointing at the moon. Our mistake is to worship the finger, the gods of any religion. Our challenge is to see the noble ideals at which the fingers are pointing, and work together to embody them.
Jesus described the kingdom of God as the state of affairs when we all treat one another like brothers, sisters, and children of God. The Buddha taught that our suffering lies mostly in the misleading ways we think of things, and if we free ourselves from the need for our illusions—including our comforting illusions—we might find peace in the world as it really is, and in ourselves as we really are. Islam teaches that Allah sent 124,000 prophets (signifying an infinite number) from Adam to Muhammad, meaning that different religions are bringing the same unique message. That’s the kind of mature teaching that makes a tradition great. Most Muslims—though not the violent fanatics masquerading as jihadis—would dearly love to see a return to their religion’s more humane teachings.
It is imperative that we see—and reclaim—the values and ideals that all our religions aspire to and that we use them to critique our politics, religion, and media. This is not a plea for a “secular” society. It is a plea for a society based on deep and demanding morality and ethics that are being betrayed by our politicians, our preachers, and our pundits.
Voltaire once said, “Those with the power to make you believe absurdities have the power to make you commit atrocities.” The danger in literalistic religions is not that they teach people to believe absurdities, but that they prepare them to commit atrocities. Blow people away in the name of the Lord? Kill innocent people in tall buildings and have seventy virgins clamoring to please you? Such statements are both absurd and atrocious.
And so we stand early in this new millennium, a nation goose-stepping to fascist drummers beating out the rhythm of the rich, with our political system and our religions hijacked by the worst among us. Meanwhile, the rich get richer and their command-and-control empire destroys much of our hope, our sense of safety, and our belief that our children will have it better than we did.
But fascism can be stopped by people armed with the courage of their convictions—think of that image of the lone Chinese student standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. We are not really alone. The majority of people in our country and around the world can make good allies in an honest and noble cause.
And given the political reality of a GOP-dominated America today, Republicans can be significant allies—they can speak the loudest and have the most influence. While the business and religious leaders of the Republican Party have control of the political system, the vast majority of Republicans are suffering under their own party’s policies, watching their life savings vanish, their jobs go overseas, their health care subjected to profit-making, and their security diminished. If the majority of Republicans ever awaken, they may be this administration’s most formidable enemy.
All religious Americans, but especially Christians, can also be powerful agents of change—if they take their religion back. Anyone who has read the Bible with a good heart knows it is not the book of bigotry and hatred that the Falwells of the world make it out to be. Christians need to challenge their churches and insist that they preach and practice the radical kind of love that Jesus represented, not the low and mean religion of our worst ministers.
Besides the religious and the Republican, other allies must come from the new Silent Majority of the 60 to 80 percent of Americans who have not gone to church regularly in decades. They need to take the prophetic role of reclaiming high ideals from the priests. Paradoxically, this group can play the most “religious” role of all—like the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures who came from the countryside to denounce the religion of the priests as immoral and unfaithful. It isn’t clear that the major prophets attended, or cared much for, the formal religious services of their day. Yet the highest moral standards of Western religions were spoken by the prophets, not the priests. The same can be true today.
As for the Democrats and those on the political left—they can affect change if they can grow past the individual rights language of the sixties and find a way to reclaim the most important vocabularies in America: nationalism, patriotism, religion, morality, and personal responsibility.
Writing an “ending” to this little book seems premature. We don’t need an ending; we need a beginning. The majority of good people in America have been lulled into inaction, even put to sleep, and we have slept for far too long. As we slept, the world around us was redefined from a nominal democracy into a proto-fascist state that is slowly moving closer to a full-fledged fascist America each day. Can we—will we—wake up and act before it is simply too late? I honestly don’t know—it often seems unlikely. But I hope and pray that we can and will, for everything, absolutely everything, depends on it.