Category Archives: Interreligious Dialogue

Last Thoughts on 9/11…Social and Religious Considerations

Now that the anniversary is over I feel the need to put a few thoughts “down on paper.”  I remember vividly getting up in the morning to go to work and turning on the TV and seeing the unfolding tragedy.  What an unspeakable horror it must have been to the people on the scene and to the first responders.  And so many lives so randomly cut short.  But I also remember thinking to myself “this is going to be really bad,” referring not so much to the destruction here and now but to our response which turned into a decades long nightmare.  

This is not quite how our mass media looked at it during the recent memorialization.  Not how our social, political, or religious leaders looked at it.  Instead we had this orgy of self-pity and self-adulation, illusions of how unified and how strong we are as Americans.  The speeches were mostly a parade of national pride, with the echoes of that chant, USA, USA, USA, USA, as the pall bearers of the tragically taken lives.  

I like The Onion; I like its biting humor and sharp satire.  Often it seems more on target than our great newspapers and all the pundits on TV.  But for sure I thought that they would never touch the 9/11 anniversary.  Boy was I wrong!  They hit it with a ton of bricks.  Only Chris Hedges could have done anything like this.  Here is the headline:

Americans Fondly Recall 9/11 As Last Time Nation Could Unite In Bloodlust

And here is the link to the story:

https://www.theonion.com/americans-fondly-recall-9-11-as-last-time-nation-could-1847607772

But the story is so cogent that I will quote more fully:

“WASHINGTON—As they reminisced 20 years later about a devastating and historic national tragedy, Americans reportedly took note Saturday of how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were the last time the country was able to put aside its differences and stand united in a bloody, homicidal thirst for vengeance. “Nowadays, there’s political polarization everywhere you look, but back then, we found a shared sense of purpose and agreed to just kill, kill, kill,” said Cleveland native Lewis Romano, one of the millions of U.S. citizens who waxed nostalgic for the days following 9/11, when Americans from all walks of life coalesced around common demands for widespread death, carnage, and destruction in a faraway place that most of them would never visit. “After those towers fell, it didn’t matter if you were from a blue state or a red state, because we all wanted the same thing—blood—and we wanted it immediately. So we came together, and in a single voice we told the world: We’re gonna drop tens of thousands of bombs on Afghanistan and ask questions later. There wasn’t any hand-wringing about whether we might fuck everything up and make it far, far worse. Republicans and Democrats simply locked arms, pulled the trigger, and let the bodies fall where they may. We were truly one then. It was a beautiful thing.” Asked to point to a map and identify any of the 85 countries to which U.S. counterterrorism operations have since spread, the American populace demurred.”

The Onion hits a bullseye!

Now you may ask, what was the response of religious leaders at 9/11 and its aftermath?   I am afraid that for most, including my Catholic Pope, the response was composed of the expected sentiments, benevolent platitudes, and very little about HOW we should respond.  No so with one religious leader: the Dalai Lama.  He was incredible (and very prescient, considering what happened in the following years).   This statement is so good and so important that I will quote it fully:

“The 11th September attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were deeply shocking and very sad. I regard such terrible destructive actions as acts of hatred, for violence is the result of destructive emotions. Events of this kind make clear that if we allow our human intelligence to be guided and controlled by negative emotions like hatred, the consequences are disastrous.

Taking Action
How to respond to such an attack is a very difficult question. Of course, those who are dealing with the problem may know better, but I feel that careful consideration is necessary and that it is appropriate to respond to an act of violence by employing the principles of nonviolence. This is of great importance. The attacks on USA were shocking, but retaliation by going to war may not be the best solution in the long run. Ultimately only nonviolence can contain terrorism. Problems within human society should be solved in a humanitarian way, for which nonviolence provides the proper approach.

I am not an expert in these affairs, but I am quite sure that if problems can be discussed with a calm mind, applying nonviolent principles and keeping in view the long-term safety of the world, then a number of different solutions may be found. Of course, in particular instances a more aggressive approach may also be necessary.

Terrorism cannot be overcome by the use of force because it does not address the complex underlying problems. In fact the use of force may not only fail to solve the problems, it may exacerbate them and frequently leaves destruction and suffering in its wake. Human conflicts should be resolved with compassion. The key is non-violence.

Retaliatory military action by the United States may bring some  satisfaction and short-term results but it will not root out the problem of terrorism. Long-term measures need to be taken. The US must examine the factors that breed and give rise to terrorism. I have written to President Bush urging him to exercise restraint and not to seek a brutal revenge for the 11th September attacks. I expressed my sympathy but I suggested that responding to violence with more violence might not be the answer. I would also like to point out that to talk of nonviolence when things are going smoothly is not of much relevance. It is precisely when things become really difficult, urgent and critical that we should think and act nonviolently.

At times the intervention of private individuals or non-governmental organizations can prove very effective in resolving certain kinds of conflicts in the world.  Therefore one of the things I suggested to several members of the European Parliament during my recent visit was that, perhaps under the auspices of the European Parliament, a meeting could be arranged of private individuals, people who are concerned about peace in the world, and related non-governmental organisations to discuss how the problem of terrorism can be dealt with and overcome. It would be useful to include people who are considered terrorists or who are seen as supporting terrorism, so that we can learn why they are resorting to or encouraging terrorism. It is possible that some of their grievances are valid. In such cases we need to address them. But where they have no valid grievances or reasons, the true situation should be clarified in order to remove misunderstanding and baseless suspicion.

Human conflicts do not arise out of the blue. They occur as a result of causes and conditions, many of which are within the protagonists’ control. This is where leadership is important. It is our leaders’ responsibility to decide when to act and when to practise restraint. In the case of conflict it is important to exercise restraint before the situation gets out of hand. Once the causes and conditions which lead to violent clashes have ripened, it is very difficult to restore peace. Violence undoubtedly breeds more violence. If we instinctively retaliate when violence is done to us, what can we expect other than that our opponent will also feel justified to retaliate in turn? This is how violence escalates. Preventive measures and restraint must be observed at an earlier stage. Clearly leaders need to be alert, far-sighted and decisive.

Everyone wishes to live in peace, but we are often confused about how that can be achieved. Mahatma Gandhi pointed out that because violence inevitably leads to more violence, if we are seriously interested in peace, we must seek to achieve it through peaceful and non-violent means. We may be tempted to use force because it will be seen as a decisive response, but it is really only a last resort. For one thing, violence is unpredictable. The initial intention may be to use limited force, but violence gives rise to unforeseen consequences. Generally speaking, violence is the wrong method in this modern era. If, on the other hand, humanity were to use more farsighted and more comprehensive methods, then I think many of the problems we face could be resolved quite quickly.

We must continue to develop a wider perspective, to think rationally and work to avert future disasters in a nonviolent way. These issues concern the whole of humanity, not just one country. We should explore the use of nonviolence as a long-term measure to control terrorism of every kind. But we need a well-thought-out, coordinated long-term strategy. The proper way of resolving differences is through dialogue, compromise and negotiations, through human understanding and humility. We need to appreciate that genuine peace comes about through mutual understanding, respect and trust. As I have already said, human problems should be solved in a humanitarian way, and nonviolence is the humane approach.

In this context, to punish an entire country for the misdeeds of an enemy who cannot be found may prove to be futile. Dealing with such situations as we face now requires a broader perspective. On the one hand we cannot simply identify a few individuals and put the entire blame on them, but neither can we target an entire country, for inevitably the innocent will suffer just as they did in the USA on 11th September.

Regarding those who carried the attack
Those who carried out the violent acts of 11th September were also human beings.  If something similar had happened to their family and friends, presumably they, too, would have experienced pain and suffering. And as human beings they would naturally have had a desire to avoid that suffering. Therefore, we need to try to understand what motivated them to behave the way they did, if we are to avoid some future repetition of these awful events. I feel that the hatred and destructive emotions underlying the attacks of 11th September have been completely counterproductive for the cause, whatever it might be, espoused by the attackers.

The world in which we live today is no longer as simple as it once was. It is complex and all its constituent parts are interrelated. We must recognize this and understand that in order to solve a problem completely we must act in accordance with reality. For example, as the global economy evolves, every nation becomes to a greater or lesser extent dependent on every other nation. The modern economy, like the environment, knows no boundaries. Even those countries openly hostile to one another must cooperate in their use of the world’s resources. Often, for example, they will be dependent on the same rivers. And the more interdependent our economic relationships, the more interdependent must our political relationships become.

When we neglect whole sections of humanity, we ignore not only the interdependent nature of reality but also the reality of our situation. In the modern world the interests of any particular community can no longer be considered only within the confines of its own boundaries. This is something I try to share with other people wherever I go. The dreadful events of 11th September have filled people throughout the world with a revulsion for terrorism, whatever its aims. Therefore, what happened has actually undermined what the terrorists hoped to achieve.

What can we learn from this tragic event?
This tragic occurrence provides us with a very good opportunity. There is a worldwide will to oppose terrorism. We can use this consensus to implement long-term preventive measures. This will ultimately be much more effective than taking dramatic and violent steps based on anger and other destructive emotions. The temptation to respond with violence is understandable but a more cautious approach will be more fruitful.

The source of such violence
Generations of suffering and grievances have provoked this violence. As a Buddhist I believe that there are causes and conditions behind every event. Some of these causes may be of recent origin but others are decades or centuries old. These include colonialism, exploitation of natural resources by developed countries, discrimination, suspicion and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Years of negligence and indifference to poverty and oppression may be among the causes for this upsurge in terrorism. What is clear is that the shocking, sad and horrific terrorist attacks in the USA were the culmination of many factors.

Who are these terrorists?
It is a mistake to refer to Muslim terrorists. I believe no religion endorses terrorism. The essence of all major religions is compassion, forgiveness, self-discipline, brotherhood and charity. All religions have the potential to strengthen human values and to develop general harmony. But individuals twist religious beliefs for their own ends. There are people who use religion as a cover to achieve their vested interests, so it would be wrong to blame their particular religion. Religious divisions have lately become dangerous once more, and yet pluralism, under which everybody is free to practise his or her own faith, is part of the fabric of contemporary society. Buddhism may be good for me, but I cannot insist that it will also be good for you or anybody else.

To the American people
America is a democratic country. It really is a peaceful and open society, in which individuals have the maximum opportunity to develop their human creativity and potential. After these dreadful incidents we saw the willingness with which Americans, especially New Yorkers, worked to help each other. It is vital to maintain this high morale – this American spirit. I hope that people will keep their spirits up and, taking a broader perspective, calmly judge how best to act.

My own wish and prayer is for everyone to remain calm. These negative events are the result of hatred, short-sightedness, jealousy and, in some cases, years of brainwashing. I personally cannot understand people who hijack an entire plane with its passengers to carry out such destruction. It is quite unthinkable. But these were not acts of spontaneous negative emotion. They were the result of careful planning, which only makes them more terrible. This is another example of how our sophisticated human intelligence and the sophisticated technology we have produced can lead to disastrous results. My fundamental belief is that unhappy events are brought about by negative emotions. Ultimately the answer to whether we can create a more peaceful world lies in our motivation and in the  kind of emotions and attitudes we foster in ourselves.

I am sure everybody agrees that we need to overcome violence, but if we are to eliminate it completely, we must first analyse whether or not it has any value. From a strictly practical perspective, we find that on occasions violence indeed appears useful. We can solve a problem quickly with force. However, such success is often at the expense of the rights and welfare of others. As a result, even though one problem has been solved, the seed of another has been sown.

On the other hand, if your cause is supported by sound reasoning, there is no point in using violence. It is those who have no motive other than selfish desire and who cannot achieve their goal through logical reasoning who rely on force. Even when family and friends disagree, those with valid reasons can state them one after another and argue their case point by point, whereas those with little rational support soon fall prey to anger. Thus anger is not a sign of strength but of weakness.

Ultimately, it is important to examine our own motivation and that of our opponent. There are many kinds of violence and nonviolence, but we cannot distinguish them through external factors alone. If our motivation is negative, the action it produces is, in the deepest sense, violent, even though it may appear to be deceptively gentle. Conversely, if our motivation is sincere and positive but the circumstances require harsh behaviour, essentially we are practising nonviolence. No matter what the case may be, I feel that a compassionate concern for the well-being of others – not simply for oneself – is the sole justification for the use of force.”

Nothing more needs to be said.  Nobody has delineated a vision of a true response better.

To Tech or Not to Tech:  That Is An Important Question

First, before we get to the topic at hand, my apologies for the misuse of language…turning  a “slangy” noun into a “slangy” verb….just can’t help myself!  Secondly, a prefatory word about the so-called contemplative life.  In Catholic culture, especially pre-Vatican II, but even afterwards to this very day, contemplative life is too often seen as simply another “layer” of life on top of all the other layers as it were.  It was something “you did” in addition to all the other things you do.  So you had all these articles, pamphlets, books on the topic of “contemplation and ……..”  There is no “and” in true contemplation.  It is Life lived in a particularly deep way, with a certain vision of the whole of Reality, and an awareness that transcends what’s in front of your nose!  Merton and Abhishiktananda, among others, pointed this out time and again.  Abhishiktananda once wrote to a housewife who had written to him that she could be more of a contemplative than a “professional monk.”  It was a matter of a certain state of heart and mind.

Now for two interesting stories:

First, very recently there appeared a piece in SF Gate with the following title:

“How saying ‘yes’ to tech devices saved one Bay Area family’s Yosemite vacation”

Written by Matt Villano, it describes how he as a father observed his young daughters enjoying their yearly stay at Yosemite in a new way.  Here is the link to the full story:

https://www.sfgate.com/travel/article/Bay-Area-family-travel-Yosemite-devices-hike-16416706.php?IPID=SFGate-HP-CP-Spotlight

Villano takes his family camping to Yosemite every year.  He is obviously a good father, an intelligent and sensitive man, and someone who has some appreciation for the wilderness.  On this trip he senses a new problem.  His youngsters have, during the pandemic, become very attached and proficient in smart phones, social media, and the whole internet thing.  Now they want to bring this to the wilderness.  He writes, referencing John Muir:

“How else would the conservation icon, travel writer, and poster child for the Sierra have reacted to the way my three daughters leaned into technology during our most recent visit to Yosemite National Park? What would he have said about my kiddos making TikTok-style videos amid the big trees?

Muir, a Scottish immigrant,…. wrote his wife that at Yosemite, ‘only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.’ My kids — ages 12, 9 and 5 — took a markedly different approach, bringing an iPad, a Kindle Fire and an iPod Touch to document, and more deeply engage with, every waking moment of their journey.”

He relents, as long as they promise to use the gadgetry to “enhance” their experience of Yosemite, not to shield them from it.  As you read this you see that everyone is truly enjoying the experience.  Villano concludes:

“I couldn’t help but marvel at how a more liberal use of technology had empowered my girls to connect with a familiar park in thrilling new ways. Weeks later, they’re still chortling at their dance videos and still talking about how much fun they had. They’ve even started asking if we can go back again before the first snow of the season.  Maybe Muir wouldn’t have minded after all.”

Ok, I get it.  But I wonder if our author is missing something in his reflection, making a serious mistake.  (It could be that I’m just an old “fuddy-duddy.”)   Yes, for his young girls that was probably a good thing, enjoyable, and maybe it might lure them someday into a deeper encounter with the wilderness.  Very often, however, tech gadgets and the social media world proves to be very addictive and in fact begins to substitute for the Real. 

Villano uses the word “connect.”  A very important word in the techy world.  Certainly there is all this tech gadgetry that facilitates communication and connection at a certain level, a real benefit in modern living.   What is amazing is how much felt need there seems to be for this “connection,” how isolated many people feel.  But no tech can engender true communion, a sense of oneness—it very often simply enables people to bond with similar minded people and this sharing of your “one world” is just a more advanced form of “tribalism”; you encounter only the world of your tribe or you project the world of your tribe everywhere.  

 The encounter with Yosemite that Villano celebrates is not the encounter that Muir invites us to.  That would be more like something from the previous posting: the Romantic vision and the Chinese Taoist; or, to put it more simply, it is a call to a contemplative vision.  And a sense of communion.

Secondly,  there appeared in the Washington Post a story about a British farmer that really intrigued me.  The title was:

“He is Britain’s famous shepherd-author-influencer. He wants to transform farming to save the planet.”

Here is the link to the whole story:

 https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/uk-farming-james-rebanks/2021/08/27/1cbf89b2-fabe-11eb-911c-524bc8b68f17_story.html

The story is about James Rebanks, Oxford grad, a very smart guy who inherited a 600-year-old family farm and has become a “rock-star” farmer in England.  Here’s how the story starts:

“Britain’s rock-star shepherd and best-selling author, James Rebanks, is out at the family farm, giving the tour, waxing rhapsodic about his manure. The glory of it — of the crumbly, muffin-top consistency of a well-made plop from a grass-fed cow.

‘Has anyone in your life ever truly explained grasses to you?’ he asks. And we think, not really.

It’s not just ruminant digestion. Don’t get the man started on soil health. Rebanks is a soil geek, with the zeal of the convert. We’re soon on our knees, grubbing in the dirt. Sniffing. He’s distracted by a red-tailed bumblebee, then by the surround-sound of birdsong. ‘I don’t trust a quiet farm,’ he says. ‘It should be noisy with life.’

This is a man with a very different vision of what farming should be like.  He doesn’t believe it is healthy for us or the planet to have these giant industrial farms.  He has created something different on his little patch of land.   In his words:

“The shepherd riffs on the circle of life, the frenzy of lambing season, the deliciousness of grilled mutton and the wisdom of sheepdogs — speckled with rants against the alleged ruinous stupidity of industrial farming ‘where the field has become the factory floor.’”

He is not into the Amish/fundamentalist thing of being anti-technology or science; in fact he uses it but quite wisely.  The root of his farming, the foundation of his kind of farming is a wholly different vision of nature and our relationship to it.  The “other way” is not simply another choice; it is a kind of suicide on a planetary scale, social, natural, cultural, psychological, even spiritual suicide.  He wrote a book about that.  From the article:

“On one level, the book is about how cheap food culture, globalization and super-efficient, hyper-mechanized, highly productive modern farms (giant monocultures of beets, wheat, corn) are terrible for nature (insects, rivers, climate) and our health (obesity, diabetes) and our farmers (indebted, pesticide-dependent, stressed).”

The German philosopher, Heidegger, proposed that now technology “enframes” our vision of reality.  We have become creatures who seem to be only able to see reality through the optic of technology.  And this distorts not only our relationship to it but also our own self-understanding.  Again, this is not being anti-science or a call to some silly “return” to a world that never existed in the first place.  Rather, it is a proposal to see ourselves and our world in a different and deeper way.

A Tale of Two Visions

Way back in 1959, when I was in 8th grade, I watched one of the early programs on the new public tv channel.  It was Alan Watts discoursing on Eastern spiritual traditions.  He very emphatically made the point that the Eastern vision, especially the Chinese Taoist vision,  of the human being, of nature, of reality, is so radically different from the Western version of these.  He illustrated it by comparing a painting from ancient China and one from the Renaissance in Europe.  I found the whole thing so mesmerizing; never forgot the experience.  I would like to “re-live” the experience as it were, but with two different paintings that I think are even more interesting in this illustration, and maybe they show things may be more complex and more nuanced than Watts presented.  So….let us begin.

Sometimes no words are needed.   All you need do is LOOK.  What you see, what you think you see, and what you don’t see are all interesting.  Here two different sets of artwork invite comparison and contrast.  So, lets begin by just looking and pondering…..

The first painting is a prime example of German Romanticism, early 19th Century, Caspar David Friedrich.

The second one is from China: by Shih T’ao in the Ming Dynasty, 17th Century.

And just for emphasis I’ve included a third painting, another from China, something surprisingly very similar, by Shen Zhou,  also in the Ming Dynasty, 16th Century.

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Some notes on the Friedrich painting:

Romanticism as a movement in Western art, literature, and music is a fascinating phenomenon.  One of its key aspects, but certainly not the only one, is the reaction and revolt from the classical formalism of medieval and renaissance art and the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment Period.  Furthermore, the very place of nature changes radically; it is no longer merely the backdrop, the landscape, the stage on which the human drama unfolds.  Here it becomes almost the protagonist which engages the human.  In classical, medieval, and renaissance art, the religious and spiritual is primarily mediated through the human and its various institutions.  In the Enlightenment all this crumbles (and a lot of Romantic art shows that….like ruins of old churches).  One of the most striking aspects of Romanticism, then, is the mystical human-divine encounter that is now mediated by nature and no longer by the human constructs of civilization.  There is more emphasis on Mystery rather than the clarity and the human-centeredness of earlier art. 

 However, this must also be noted:  at times  in Romantic art the human is “writ-large.”  The human being is not a part of the Whole, but the centerpiece if you will, even if at times the human presence in the scene is minimal.   And nature itself is something “out there,” something outside us, which mediates the Mystery and mysticism of reality.    Romantic art “seeks to convey a subjective, emotional response to the natural world.  The human focus is for all practical purposes on the ego self, human feelings, even irrationality (as opposed to rational thinking), subjectivity, etc.

An interesting note on Friedrich’s art found in Wikipedia:

“The visualization and portrayal of landscape in an entirely new manner was Friedrich’s key innovation. He sought not just to explore the blissful enjoyment of a beautiful view, as in the classic conception, but rather to examine an instant of sublimity, a reunion with the spiritual self through the contemplation of nature. Friedrich was instrumental in transforming landscape in art from a backdrop subordinated to human drama to a self-contained emotive subject.] Friedrich’s paintings commonly employed the Ruckenfigur—a person seen from behind, contemplating the view. The viewer is encouraged to place himself in the position of the Rückenfigur, by which means he experiences the sublime potential of nature, understanding that the scene is as perceived and idealised by a human. Friedrich created the notion of a landscape full of romantic feeling—die romantische Stimmungslandschaft.  His art details a wide range of geographical features, such as rock coasts, forests, and mountain scenes. He often used the landscape to express religious themes. During his time, most of the best-known paintings were viewed as expressions of a religious mysticism.”

And now for something different!

A note from David Hinton on the first Chinese painting:

(David Hinton, a noted translator and student of Chinese poetry and thought, has commented on Shih Tao’s painting).

“Like countless other paintings in the Chinese tradition, this painting by Shih T’ao appears at first glance to show someone gazing into a landscape, an artist-intellectual accompanied by his attendant. But mysterious dimensions quickly reveal themselves, suggesting there is much more here than meets the eye.  The poem inscribed on the painting describes a landscape that includes ruins of city walls and houses, abandoned orchards and gardens, but there is no sign of such things in the painting. The painting’s visible landscape isn’t realistic at all. It feels infused with mystery: depths of pale ink wash; black lines blurred, smeared, bleeding; mountains dissolving into faint blue haze. And there’s so much empty space in the composition, so much mist and sky. This sense of empty space is expanded dramatically by the soaring perspective: the mountain ranges appearing one beyond another suggest the gazer is standing on a mountaintop of impossible heights. And he seems a part of that emptiness, his body the same texture and color as the haze suffusing mountain valleys. Finally, there is the suggestion that the image is somehow a rendering of the gazer’s mind, an interior landscape we may possibly share when looking attentively at the painting. Or perhaps that the gazer has returned to some kind of originary place where mountains are welling up into existence for the first time, alive and writhing with primeval energy? Perhaps both at the same time: an originary place indistinguishable from the gazer’s mind, and even indistinguishable from our own minds?”

While Romantic art can look a lot like Chinese Taoist art in many cases, the differences are significant and, I think, more interesting.  As defective as the Romantic vision is, the situation today  sadly lacks even its stronger points, and we have succumbed to an incredible blindness  .  Now nature is more of a resource available for our exploitation, as a money-maker, or simply as another “toy” we play with, a stage setting for our “cultural selfies.”  As for the Chinese Taoist vision, we are so far from it that it almost seems incomprehensible to most people today.

A More Reasonable Discussion

A few weeks ago Pope Francis came down hard on the traditional Latin Mass in the pre-Vatican II mode.  This caused a flurry of reactions from all sides of the issue.  There were quite a few so-called liberal Catholics who hailed the move, saying it was about time the Vatican put an end to this “crypto-separatist” movement that questioned the authority of Pope Francis.  Of course these are also the same voices often calling for more “diversity” in the Church and quite willing to challenge any pope on an issue they disagree, etc.  On the other side, there were the elements proclaiming an apocalyptic moment for the Church and western culture.  “The sky is falling!”  A more restrained but still negative evaluation was provided by Ross Douthat, an intelligent New York Times writer on matters of religion with whom I find myself disagreeing most of the time.  He has a way of seeming to explain things by framing the argument in terms of these labels: conservative vs. liberal, right vs. left.  Really this explains nothing, neither in religion nor in politics.  These labels are a kind of convenient shorthand, a code for a complex cluster of beliefs, opinions, views, self-understandings, etc., but in themselves they explain nothing.  The labels may be convenient, but you have to see beneath them to understand what is really going on.  In other words, you have to set your heart on the truth, no matter what label is attached to it.  Gandhi used this word in reference to his philosophy and his movement:  satyagraha, truth force, or holding on to the truth.   We see this lacking very much in both our politics and our religious culture.

A refreshing example of something much better is this recent op-ed piece in the National Catholic Reporter by Rebecca Bratten Weiss:

“The Traditional Latin Mass is not the Problem with the Traditionalist Communities”

https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/traditional-latin-mass-not-problem-traditionalist-communities

There is a very serious problem with the “traditionalist” communities, but it’s not the Latin liturgy.  Weiss is very good at rooting this out and illustrating how this brouhaha over the presence/absence of Latin and the traditional liturgy is a smokescreen that obfuscates the very real problems for both the liberals and conservatives in the Church.    She merely opens a little crack on this problem; there is so much more to see here. 

 An interesting historical sidelight:  two prominent icons of “liberal Catholicism,” had a love for the Latin liturgy….Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.   Merton, to his dying day prayed his Office in Latin.  He was totally conversant in Latin, and on the other hand he often lamented on the banality of the English translations.  Day strictly adhered to the protocols of the Roman Mass, and she would not allow the use of cupcakes or anything like that in her Catholic Worker community in New York, a practice  which was common among “liberal” Catholics in the late ‘60s.  The young people there chafed at her “authoritarian” stance in this regard!

What I see in the Pope’s Latin liturgy edict and in so many other moves and in our President’s actions in so many things is the very common seeking of a solution to a sensed problem but applying a “band aid” instead of dealing with the real cancer deep within.  Weiss catalogs the real symptoms (and Latin is not one of them), but even she doesn’t venture  to ask the hard questions:  WHY has the Church had so much sexual abuse in its priesthood?  WHY did it tolerate slavery?  WHY did it participate in a cultural genocide of Native Americans?   And WHY did it privilege the insights and language of western theology (something Abhishiktananda wondered about and at the end of his life had pretty much given up any hope of any real change in the Church’s blindness and narrowness)?   And so, so much more….

Woke

 Being “Woke”

Franz Kafka wrote a number of very strange and unsettling stories.  Probably the most surreal and best known is “The Metamorphosis.”  Written in 1915, at the start of World War I, here is the famous opening sentence:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.”  (better translation might be “monstrous vermin”)

This opening is just as disturbing as in Orwell’s  1984:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 

As one commentator put it:  “This line perfectly sets up the idea that everything is not quite as it seems and manages to plunge you into an alien world without any explanation.”

What is especially striking is Gregor’s reaction and his family’s reaction to this shocking and horrible change in his identity in its external condition.    Gregor at first thinks this is a temporary condition and he can wait it out for a change.  Then, when nothing happens, he begins attempts at “living with it.”  His family is perplexed and troubled;  but they also in a sense “negotiate” with the new condition and are finally relieved when Gregor dies of starvation.  It is hard to imagine a more surreal story!

To borrow a term from modern urban slang, Gregor is “woke” but he hardly seems capable of dealing with his situation to say the least.  The real nightmare begins as he awakens.  We come up against an unsettling paradox:  to be “woke” means to be aware of the “nightmare” one is living in.   The current situation in Afghanistan seems to be one of those moments.  

But the “nightmare” did not begin just now; it goes back over 30 years.  And it involves at least 5 presidents; both Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals in our political culture.  You might say it begins with President Carter (but really it goes so much further back!).  During the Carter Administration we began to secretly arm various Afghani tribes and clans so they could fight the invading Russians.  It was the Cold War, and we wanted to mess up the Russians without getting our hands dirty.  That part worked; the Russians fled Afghanistan just as we have, but the people whom we armed evolved into the present day Taliban.   Whenever you join hands with violence, the results are never a blessing.  Fast forward to 09/11, Bin Laden hiding out in Afghanistan achieves a catastrophic terrorist attack on us.  President Bush commences military actions against Afghanistan including a full scale invasion.  Instead of treating Bin Laden and cohorts as a criminal gang and getting an international coalition to hunt them down and bring them to justice, we launched this war, and then, incredibly enough, another war on Iraq which had never been involved in any attack on us, but the war was built on a total lie.  And almost every member of Congress supported this, both Dems and Republicans (not Bernie Sanders, who was an independent at the time).  Incidentally, the vast majority of the Islamic world was shocked at the act of Bin Laden in the name of Islam, and many were prepared to help the U.S. in bringing him to justice.  There was even a Guardian story, which I can’t verify, that the Taliban were willing to turn Bin Laden over to the International Court but not into U.S. hands.  (By the way, the destabilization of Iraq contributed greatly to the formation of ISIS and that nightmare.)

So the war continued and also the delusions and lies.  Obama, who is so often portrayed as a commendable president by the liberal establishment, had his own contributions to this nightmare.  This extended quote is from a Washington Post story about the history of our involvement in Afghanistan (Craig Whitlock):

“President Barack Obama had promised to end the war, so on Dec. 28, 2014, U.S. and NATO officials held a ceremony at their headquarters in Kabul to mark the occasion. A multinational color guard paraded around. Music played. A four-star general gave a speech and solemnly furled the green flag of the U.S.-led international force that had flown since the beginning of the conflict.

In a statement, Obama called the day ‘a milestone for our country’ and said the United States was safer and more secure after 13 years of war.

‘Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion,’ he declared.

But for such a historical day, the military ceremony seemed strange and underwhelming. Obama issued his statement from Hawaii while he relaxed on vacation. The event took place in a gymnasium, where several dozen people sat on folding chairs. There was little mention of the enemy, let alone an instrument of surrender. Nobody cheered.

In fact, the war was nowhere near a conclusion, “responsible” or otherwise, and U.S. troops would fight and die in combat in Afghanistan for many years to come. The baldfaced claims to the contrary ranked among the most egregious deceptions and lies that U.S. leaders spread during two decades of warfare.”

Then this morning I saw this op-ed piece in the NY Times:

I Was a Marine in Afghanistan. We Sacrificed Lives For a Lie.

Well, that is one “woke” Marine!  Unfortunately there are so many military, political, and intelligence folks who still believe we were somehow “protecting” America over there.  Well, trillions of dollars later (which could have paid for everyone’s health care during the last 20 years) and thousands of American soldiers dead or injured, the Taliban are still in control!

Chris Hedges, the ultimate “woke guy,” had, as usual,  predicted this long ago.   Just a few weeks ago he was writing this:

“The debacle in Afghanistan, which will unravel into chaos with lightning speed over the next few weeks and ensure the return of the Taliban to power, is one more signpost of the end of the American empire. The two decades of combat, the one trillion dollars we spent, the 100,000 troops deployed to subdue Afghanistan, the high-tech gadgets, artificial intelligence, cyberwarfare, Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs and the Global Hawk drones with high-resolution cameras, Special Operations Command composed of elite rangers, SEALs and air commandos, black sites, torture, electronic surveillance, satellites, attack aircraft, mercenary armies, infusions of millions of dollars to buy off and bribe the local elites and train an Afghan army of 350,000 that has never exhibited the will to fight, failed to defeat a guerrilla army of 60,000 that funded itself through opium production and extortion in one of the poorest countries on earth.

Like any empire in terminal decay, no one will be held accountable for the debacle or for the other debacles in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen or anywhere else. Not the generals. Not the politicians. Not the CIA and intelligence agencies. Not the diplomats. Not the obsequious courtiers in the press who serve as cheerleaders for war. Not the compliant academics and area specialists. Not the defense industry. Empires at the end are collective suicide machines. The military becomes in late empire unmanageable, unaccountable, and endlessly self-perpetuating, no matter how many fiascos, blunders and defeats it visits upon the carcass of the nation, or how much money it plunders, impoverishing the citizenry and leaving governing institutions and the physical infrastructure decayed. “

You can read the whole piece here:

https://scheerpost.com/2021/07/26/hedges-the-collective-suicide-machine/

And from the satirical website, The Onion, there was this headline:

Critics Warn Withdrawal From Afghanistan Paints Entirely Accurate Picture Of U.S. Government

And last, but not least, in my opinion, the most woke guy in the modern era: Gandhi.  And he knew how to respond to the nightmare.