Rising Tide Lifts Only Yachts

From “Apostles of Growth” by Timothy Shenk in the Nov. 24 issue of The Nation: “From the aftermath of World War II through the 1970s, most of the total earnings from economic expansion flowed to the bottom 90 percent of Americans. That came to an abrupt end in the 1980s. Although the Clinton years posted marginally better tallies on this front than the Reagan era, the record since 2001 has been abysmal, and the worst has come under Obama. From 2009 to 2012, the last year with reliable data, incomes for the lower 90 percent have declined, while those for the top 10 percent have increased at a healthy clip, with the greatest gains accruing to the 1 percent and above. The tide still rises, but it lifts only yachts.”

We’ve heard these statistics before.  The economy grows, but not for everyone.  Any human being with a sense of fairness would judge such an economic system to be unjust. But for so many people, the “injustice” is also “unkindness.”  It is hurting them.  Injustice causes suffering.

In the face of suffering, followers  of Jesus and Buddha feel compassion.

And in this case, compassion will insist that an economic system that is producing suffering must be fixed.  Or it must be changed.

Why Are We Not Ashamed? — Can We Call Ourselves “a Christian Nation”?

Some year back, when visiting Norway, a friend asked my wife Cathy and me a breath-stopping question: “Why don’t people in the United States want everyone to have health care?” We couldn’t give a clear, coherent answer to her, or to ourselves.

That question becomes all the more pressing in the midst of the discussions and debates about the Affordable Care Act. Again, my breath was taken away when I read this condensed summary of reality here in the United States (taken from an article in the June 12, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books):http: //bit.ly/NzjqVn

Except for the US, no rich nation in the world fails to provide comprehensive health care that is free or inexpensive to its entire population. Yet roughly 50 million Americans, 16 percent of the population, have no health insurance at all; most of them are relatively poor and nearly one third of them are age eighteen to thirty-four.

Research by the Kaiser Family Foundation and others finds that those without health insurance die younger, work less due to chronic health conditions, and face persistent personal financial problems brought on by illnesses. A Harvard Medical School study found that some 45,000 deaths a year are associated with lack of health insurance.

Despite the lack of coverage for one out of six citizens, Americans pay more than 17 percent of the Gross Domestic Product for their health care, more than any other rich nation by far. Yet American’s health care system is not measurably better and often considerably worse than that of other rich nations.

How can any member of a nation with such an unjust and death-dealing health care system not be ashamed? And how can any citizen who calls him or herself a follower of a Jesus, who called us to love our neighbor as ourselves, not feel an even deeper shame — and a call to do something as they consider their votes in the coming elections?

A Buddhist-Christian Take on the Financial Crisis III

Last night, we brought our “Buddhist-Christian Dialogue on Global Greed” here in Chiang Mai to an end with the formulation of a “Common Word” on the economic mess the world is in and what we might do about it.

That’s quite an achievement.  Finding a common word about the economy between Buddhists and Christians who share few common words about “theology” (Buddhists are uncomfortable with the word, theology) will be surprising to many.  It’s an indication, I think, that religions can more easily find agreement about ethics than they can about doctrine.

In any case, our “Common Word” will soon be announced once it has been vetted by the organizations who sponsored our dialogue (the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation).

For the moment, I can offer a preview of the content of our Common Word under the slogan: “The Way to the Global Is through the Glocal.”  That’s cutesy, I know. But it contains a powerful insight.  Let me try to explain briefly.

Throughout our conference, as I tried to make clear in earlier blogs, we – both Christians and Buddhists – agreed that to understand and do something about the financial crisis that now surrounds us, we cannot talk only about personal or individual greed.   Rather, we have to recognize and grapple with the reality of structural greed. Personal greed takes on the form of structural greed, and structural greed takes on a life of its own.  So to prevent similar economic catastrophes from happening in the future, we have to deal with the greed that has become incarnated in the structures of the global economy.

But how do that?   These structures of greed are incredibly powerful, living as they do, not just in the neoliberal economic policies of Wall Street, but also in the politics of Washington, Berlin, London, Tokyo –as well as in the public media that determine how people think of their nation and its economic policies.

So it’s not very promising to start from the top of the economic, political, and media systems.  It seems impossible to start with trying to dismantle greed in its structural forms.

But that doesn’t mean that we should therefore simply start from the bottom – that is, from the level of personal greed.  Of course, we must always seek to transform individual hearts. But that is not enough to change structures.

Therefore – and this gets to the heart of our Common Word – we should focus our energies not on the structural level, nor on the personal-individual level – but on the local level.

On the grassroots level, in our local communities, at the roots of civil society we should try to create structures that will insure economic policies and practices that will promote the democratization of the economy – that will prevent economic power from being concentrated in the hands of a few, that will provide a process of checks and balances for economic transactions.

We identified four examples of such local efforts that are already taking shape in different parts of the world: local exchange and trading systems (LETS) in which trading is done in local and regional currencies, cooperative banking, decentralized energy, and localizing the production and exchange of goods necessary for basic needs such as water and food.

Such local efforts, which are based in personal values  and which try to create local structures of greater economic participation, will not remain just local.  As these local realizations of a new way of organizing the market and the production and exchange of goods increase, and especially as they network with each other, they will have a transformative effect on global structures.  They will become “glocal.”

But, at the end of the process, the Buddhists reminded us Christians, that all these efforts on the “glocal” level meant to transform the “global” level, won’t really work unless we are also continuously working on the “personal” level.  Our efforts to transform the world have to be rooted in our efforts to transform our own hearts.

As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us:  We cannot make peace unless we are peace.

So the message of our conference is this:  As we all seek to transform our hearts from self-centeredness and expand our hearts toward compassion for others, we work on the local level, trying to create new ways of organizing our local economy that, we hope, will gradually transform the global economy.   Our focus is the local. Our goal is the global.  We act glocally.

A Buddhist-Christian Take on the Financial Crisis II

“If you want to find the causes of the financial crisis that we are in, and if you want to come up with solutions for it, you’re going to have to deal with GREED.”   That was the opening Buddhist contribution to our conference here in Chiang Mai, Thailand on Buddhist-Christian dialogue about the global economic recession.

The Christians responded to their Buddhist partners: “Yes, we certainly agree, but you can’t forget that greed can take on structural forms and become part of the very economic system of free-market capitalism.”

And so the first day of our Buddhist-Christian dialogue began.

After a good bit of back and forth, we came to a working consensus:  We have to make a distinction between individual greed and structural greed.  Though the two are very much related, there is a difference.  Getting rid of one, does not necessarily mean getting rid of the other.  I can remove all (or to be realistic, most) of my own individual greed and still be part of a greedy system that leads me to act greedily, whether I’m aware of it or not.  My heart may be full of love of others, but if I buy a pair of pants made in a sweatshop in El Salvador, I’m part of a greed-based system that is exploiting some people for personal wealth.

But at the same time, we can pass all kinds of regulatory laws that constrict the greedy actions of Wall Street, and still, greedy individuals will find ways around the laws.

A simple analogy was used: Individual greed is like the air that a greedy person blows into a balloon. The balloon represents the greedy structure or system that results from the greedy individual.  The Buddhist point is that without the greedy individual blower we would not have the “structural” greedy balloon.  But the Christians respond that sometimes, the balloon ties itself closed, as it were, and floats away from the blower. Then, even though the individual blower stops blowing, the balloon is still floating around. The balloon, even though it originated from the blower, assumes an existence of its own.

So we came to a Buddhist-Christian consensus:  to do something about the financial mess we are in, we have to try to remove, or at least reduce, both individual greed and structural greed at the same time.   To deal with only one, won’t work. It won’t really bring about any change.

This is the point that was made powerfully by one of the speakers this morning, Sulak Sivaraksa, one of the world’s leading socially-engaged Buddhists (who over the past 30 years has been  on a number of occasions either imprisoned or forced into exile because of his criticisms of economic exploitation in Thailand).

Sulak said pithily: “Without inner peace there cannot be outer peace.” That’s the Buddhists’ point: you have to work on changing your heart and attaining the peace of enlightenment before you can be an effective social activist.  But he immediately added:  “But inner peace can be achieved at the expense of outer peace.”  That’s the Christian point:  To think that we have done enough by overcoming our individual greed and attaining peace of heart is to exonerate ourselves from the necessary job of changing the greedy structures that prevent social peace.

We Buddhists and Christians are realizing that we have so much to learn from each other.

A Buddhist-Christian Take on the Financial Crisis

I’m here in Chiang-Mai, Thailand, at Payap University for a rather extraordinary – some would say strange – gathering.  We are a group of some 30 Buddhist and Christian scholars, leaders, and activists from around the world (mostly Asian; I’m one of two Americans).

We’ve come together to talk about the financial tsunami that moved out from Wall Street in 2007 and covered most of the world. Our questions: why did it happen? And especially: What can we do about it?

We start this evening, Sunday, and will be talking and deliberating – as well as praying and meditating – together for the next four days.

This is exactly the kind of dialogue that I, with many others, have been trying to move along – dialogue based primarily on solidarity with all suffering sentient beings. In this case, the sentient beings are suffering because of economic conditions that have led to a horrible and deplorable disparity in the way the goods of the world are shared.

This is the kind of dialogue that certainly doesn’t exclude the hard work of studying and learning about each other’s traditions and the inspiring work of sharing in the spiritual-mystical treasures found in the religions of the world.  But it sets the context, or prepares the ground, for such theological and spiritual sharing by first deliberating and acting together to address eco-human suffering.

What counts most, what presses most, is, as Buddha told us, to remove suffering.  In trying to do that, we prepare for everything else.

In the following days, I’ll try to report on what happens here in Chiang Mai – how Buddhists and Christians can complement each other in addressing the immediate financial crisis and the deeper causes that brought it about.  And how this practical “dialogue of solidarity” might lead us to a deeper “dialogue of learning” and a “dialogue of spirituality.”

What a privilege it is to be here.