How Does A Buddhist-Christian Feel About Osama Bin Laden’s Death?

So they “got him.”  As someone who is trying to live by the Gospel of Jesus and the Dharma of Buddha, should I join the general dancing in the streets and jubilation in the media?

I can’t.

Yes, I feel a sense of relief – relief that a source of suffering and of violence is no longer present.  But I’m not so sure that removing this particular source of violence is going to remove others – or prevent new ones from arising.

And that brings me to the dominant feeling that I, especially as a Buddhist, have around the killing of Osama Bin Laden:  sadness.

It is sorrow at seeing how inexorably the law of karma really does work.   In very basic, simple terms, the law of karma tells us that when we perform acts that hurt others, inevitably those acts will bounce back and continue to hurt us.  Evil acts produce evil results.

So when Osama Bin Laden, in his anger at what he thought the United States and its “empire” was doing to him and his cause, responded with violence, he unleashed the law of karma.  Inevitably, the violence that he resorted to caught up with him.  As Buddha tells us, when you respond to hatred with hatred, you only produce more hatred.  This is sad, so sad.

But what makes me even sadder is that we – we Americans – seem to be doing the very same thing. For the most part, our response to the hatred and violence of Al Queda has been the hatred of military violence.

Yes, we have to protect ourselves.  But we have to do more than that. It seems to me that we have never really answered the question that George Bush asked, rhetorically, shortly after 9/11:  “Why do they hate us?”

Until we can find ways to respond to hatred other than with more hatred, the law of karma will continue to produce suffering.

Or, in Jesus’ words, until we can learn to love our enemies, they will remain our enemies.

A Breakfast Conversation with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

I had the privilege of being present for a breakfast conversation with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam at the center of the storm swirling around Park51 – the proposed Muslim Center near Ground Zero.  The conversation was sponsored by, and took place at, the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Our breakfast gathering with the Imam numbered a couple hundred people, so things could not get too intricate or intimate.  Imam Rauf was eloquent and engaging as he explained the pain he was experiencing around the controversy between “the religion that I love and the country that I love.”

But a question, raised by Richard Haass, the President of the Council, touched on one of the main issues that I think are fueling the fire of controversy around the Center.

When the Imam, taking his typical moderate and irenic position, pointed out that 99% of Muslims around the world are not terrorists, Haass agreed, but responded that for many people it seems that 99% of the terrorists who march across television screens or headlines every day are Muslim.

Haass’s statement is overstated and certainly needs refining.  Still, his claim is stark and sobering: Yes, the majority of Muslims are not terrorists. But it seems that so many of the terrorists are Muslims.

Why?  — That was Haass’s question – and I suspect the question that perturbs a lot of people opposing Park 51.

Imam Rauf’s answer was, in my view, right on: The primary reasons driving some Muslims to violence in the name of their religion are not at all religious. They are, rather, economic and political – the anger and frustration of feeling pushed aside, taken advantage of, subjected to oppressive systems which are supported by Western powers.

All this is true. But it’s not the whole truth.  There are also religious reasons, or religious motivations, behind this turn to violence.   And these religious ingredients in terrorism have to be faced.

Here Islam is not at all unique.   One can find justification for, even explicit calls to, violence in all the religions of the world – especially, I would add, in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.   In all of the sacred scriptures of these “peoples of the book,” there are examples of Jahweh,  or God, or Allah approving or endorsing the use of violence against the perpetrators of injustice and oppression.

Muslims, together with Jews and Christians, have to face the fact that the God whom they believe in has allowed violence. And to allow violence is to prepare the ground for terrorism.

Unless religious people own up to the fact that their religious traditions have been violent, and unless they try to do something about this, they will not really be providing an adequate, and an honest, response to the critics of religion.

And that includes the critics of Park 51.

Muhammad on South Park – Ouch!

What would a Buddhist Christian American make of South Park’s portrayal of Muhammad  in its April 14, 200th episode?  Was it imprudent?  Impudent? Or was it something you would just expect from the always irreverent, usually tasteless (at least for an old fuddy-dud like me), and sometimes embarrassingly funny fare that producers Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been dishing out since 1997?

Clearly, for many Muslims it was offensive – very much so for the group called Revolution Muslim who immediately after the show announced on their website that they were “outright insulted.”  Okay.  That’s understandable, and their insult should be addressed. But they then added: “We have to warn Matt and Trey that they will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show.”  van Gogh was the Dutch filmmaker stabbed on the streets of Amsterdam by an Islamic militant for making a film that was critical of Islam’s attitude towards women.

So I, and many others, ask ourselves:  Should South Park have aired this program?  Should all comedians in the United States avoid depicting or joking about Muhammad?

These are not easy questions.  On the one hand, I firmly believe that we should respect the religious sensitivities of others.  On the other hand, it is part of our Western-American culture that comedians make fun of all kind of “sacred” topics and people.  Following the South Park blow up, Jon Stewart on the Daily Show reviewed all the religions and religious figures his show had teased and ridiculed and made fun of over the years – no religion was spared (though references to Muhammad were sparse).

Here’s the rub.  Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in our country.  That calls for adaptation on both sides.  American non-Muslims need to know more about and respect Islam.  American Muslims need to, and the vast majority of them want to, adapt to their new home. (I’m speaking, as is evident, about immigrant Muslims, not African American Muslims.)  But this means that Muslims have to adapt to a culture in which religions are taken seriously enough to be laughed at.  Americans are as ready to seriously practice religions as they are ready to seriously criticize them – and much of that criticism will come through humor.  As a child of this culture, I think this is good.  God only knows how much we need to be critical of the excesses that religion is capable of.

So, recognizing that I cannot really understand the depth of offence that a Muslim may feel when they see their Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) “disguised” as a bear (since his face cannot be seen) on South Park,  I still would cautiously and respectfully suggest to them that if they live here in the United States, they will have to put up with such audacities.  “Put up” doesn’t mean that they should keep silent. Not at all. They should speak up, try to explain to their fellow Americans why they feel insulted, make their Muslim presence felt in American culture.

But I don’t think I have to be as cautious and respectful when I address my Muslim friends and add: but don’t respond with threats to kill people!  Not only does that diminish the respect Americans have for your religion; it also, if I may say so, is contrary to what I have understood about your noble religion.

When such incidents as this South Park portrayal of Muhammad occur, I hope they could be learning occasions for all of us: for us non-Muslims, to try to understand the feelings of our Muslim fellow-citizens — and for Muslim Americans, especially their leaders and scholars, to stand up and declare loudly and clearly that responding to such insults with threats of violence and murder is not only un-American, it is un-Muslim.

Rethinking Military Spending

Information is Beautiful/David McCandless

Information is Beautiful/David McCandless

One of the accounts I eagerly follow on Twitter is from Information Is Beautiful. David McCandless truly does make information beautiful, crafting elegantly simple graphics out of nearly incomprehensible data sets. Bravo to him. What, you may be asking, does that have to do with a blog about religion in the media?

It’s not just the subheading on the Guardian blog to which he contributes which states that “Facts Are Sacred”. Rather, there’s a recent post that examines visually some of the data around military spending. One of the mainstays of Christian Pacifism has long been the critique that the United States’ military spending is a runaway cost completely out of proportion with the threat (real or imagined) of any other nation. McCandless shows that this may not be completely true.

If we cannot make an argument rooted in the economically outrageous nature of U.S. military spending, and it seems we cannot from this data, then we need stronger but still riskier grounds to oppose this expenditure. The gross amount of military spending in the U.S. is unparalleled across the globe: that much is not in dispute. However, the appeals to fiscal conservatives don’t hold so well when we understand that U.S. military spending is only 4% of our GDP, ranking us 8th worldwide behind Kyrgyzstan, Burundi and Oman.

I am not sure that this poses an insurmountable ethical issue for the peace movement. We still have other grounds on which to oppose war and militarism in general. What it does do is change the nature of the conversation. Common wisdom in U.S. politics holds that you want to quote the most conservative support for your opinion that you can find. McCandless illustrates that we need to find some different kind of economic argument against war.

Of course, these numbers leave out the human and ecological costs of warfare. The psychological trauma of either participating in or surviving conflict is only beginning to be understood. Perhaps we need to factor the post-conflict costs into the calculus of war. Perhaps we just need to abandon economic justifications or refutations of military engagement all together. I’ll leave it to you to debate in the comments.

Obama and the Middle Way

In the March 8 issue of The Nation, Katha Pollitt concludes an excellent article with: “What is the point of Obama being conciliatory and careful if his opponents are reckless and don’t want to conciliate.” (

I’m sure many of us resonate with what Pollitt is urging:  Get tough, Mr. Obama!  All your reconciliation stuff and your efforts to build consensus have hit the brick wall of Republican obstinacy and downright meanness.  So hit back!   Respond to their recklessness and refusal to cooperate with your own.

But my “better angels” — who include Jesus and Buddha — come fluttering in to hold me back from joining in Pollitt’s calls for responding to recklessness  with recklessness.   The same principle that warns against violence applies here: meanness, nastiness, refusal to cooperate, putting your enemies in their place — it will all only bred more of the same.  The law of karma:  hate begets hate.

And yet, yes, Obama has to change course. He has to get tough.  But how?

Buddha’s “Middle Way” might apply here.  After a life of luxury, he decided to seek enlightenment through six years of rigorous self-denial and asceticism. That didn’t work either.  So he set off on the Middle Way between luxury and self-denial — and that led him to the experience of awakening under the Wisdom Tree.

There is, there has to be, a middle way between Pollitt’s being “careful” and being “reckless” — between being conciliatory and being mean. Again, Jesus and Buddha offer some examples.  Jesus could get tough with the powers that be and endorse language like “brood of vipers,” but at the same time he could forgive them “for they know not what they do.”

To be firm but at the same time open to other ideas.  To resist one’s opponents but never write them off.  To try to get around their filibusters but to assure them that you still seek for cooperation.

I think it all boils down to getting tough without hating.   To resist and insist without hating and demeaning.  That’s the Middle Way.