Thursday, February 02, 2006

Transcending Extremes

I launched this blog almost one year ago and chose to carefully avoid divisive commentary on such contentious national issues as abortion, gay rights, or executive power; though privately, I embrace a steadfast commitment to my personal ideals. I admit to holding a liberal bias to just about any social issue facing our present age, and I also admit it’s not always easy to keep my mouth shut. Sometimes I look at the state of things today and I just want to scream.

I never wish to alienate anyone, and yet I notice my blog often lacks any real substance or depth because I tend to avoid dissension altogether. Perhaps the real issue has less to do with whether or not to engage controversial topics, and more to do with how to engage controversy in a respectful way toward those who may disagree with my views.

Extreme political ideology (liberal or conservative) tends to leave us with a nauseating diet of meaningless half truths, criticism for the sake of attack, and blind insult. In the so-called culture wars, morality and personal values occasionally become beating sticks by which to suppress anyone who holds an opposing view. For example, we sometimes hear liberals champion the cause of diversity and inclusion, but do they always respect the right of conservatives to hold contrary views on things like abortion or gay rights? Likewise, we often hear conservatives bemoan the decline of Christian values in America, while they denounce from their pulpits the very souls Christ sent them to save. I believe the words of my brother-in-law Mike Merchant when he says accusation of others always begins with self betrayal.

The question of tolerance and compassion became very real for me several months ago as I began to design a curriculum for Camp PEACE.

At first, Camp PEACE didn’t challenge my bias at all because the student group I facilitated in December shared many of my liberal viewpoints. For example, one young man talked about being harassed and beaten up on several occasions at school because he’s gay. Some of his attackers were Christian and told him he was going to hell. As he told his story, I felt tears well up in my eyes with a burning sense of righteous indignation. A young Buddhist girl shared a similar story of harassment where students at her local high school cornered her in the hall and told her she was a heathen and an atheist for accepting the Buddha and not Jesus Christ. She was humiliated and frightened by her fellow students’ apparent effort to “save” her. Yet another student broke down and sobbed as she talked about harassment she received when her fellow students found out she belongs to the Unitarian Church. She was told she was going to hell and that she was not a patriotic American because of her beliefs.

As I heard these accounts, I realized discrimination and bias still exert a powerful influence over our community, even as many conservatives I know personally try to minimize its validity. On the other hand, I felt deeply troubled because I know several others in the group felt overpowered by the liberal majority at our December encampment. They didn’t feel safe to express their views with the larger group.

As Kateri and I discussed the dynamics of the camp afterwards, I mentioned my observation and she agreed. I told her I would like all students to respect their peers regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc., and while I acknowledge a liberal bias, I would never want to be the one to make a student feel invalidated because he or she holds a conservative worldview. I want our kids to expand their perspective, but I would not want our parents to feel like I was pressuring their children to abandon their cherished values and beliefs.

This brings me to a very timely question: how can we get liberals to embrace tolerance and diversity, even if that means allowing conservatives to hold contrary views? Likewise, how can we get conservatives to embrace compassion and religious freedom, even if that means allowing liberals to hold unorthodox or alternative views about such touchy topics as God or human sexuality? In short, how can we create a world where everyone can truly live according to the dictates of his or her own conscience, and still hold the deepest honor and respect of those who disagree?

Perhaps we can start by rejecting simplistic notions regarding our opponents. Seriously, is it really true that liberals lack any real faith in God and are hell-bent on destroying Christianity, America, and the family? It’s ludicrous, but we hear this all the time. Likewise, is it really true conservatives oppose liberals because they secretly long for world domination or a one-religion state? No! Maybe a few outlying fringe groups really represent these views, but by and large, I believe most Americans really value faith, values, family, equality, and fairness.

I’m the first to admit just how deeply I struggle with this issue in my own life. It’s easy to criticize or even demonize our political and religious opponents. It’s harder to love those who reject our views. In this way, I think the words of Jesus really do speak to our times. How many of us truly love our enemies? And how many of us truly love our enemies, even if they hold extreme social, religious, or political views of a differing stripe? With a few notable exceptions, I believe most Americans generally miss the point.

Kindness is the only religion that matters, and when we fail to love our brother, do we address our own weaknesses first, or the do we accuse the weaknesses of others?

For my own part, I know I’m weak and all too often, I engage in the controversies embroiled about us, but in the end, I grow weary of political debate. Of course, civil discourse is essential to democracy, but only if it remains civil. When I stand true to my convictions regarding human dignity and worth, I realize I can remain true to my convictions without belittling the values or beliefs of others.

I wish to remind my readers of something I quoted several months ago. They say before Siddhartha Gautama gained enlightenment and became known as the Buddha, he first lived a life of luxury as a prince. Then he spent several years living in abject self-denial and poverty. One day he was meditating on the banks of a river when he overheard a conversation between a father and his son on a passing boat. They were adjusting the strings on a lyre, and the father said if the strings are too tight, they will break. If they’re too loose, the instrument cannot play musical notes. In that moment, Siddhartha realized that enlightenment cannot come through extremes of indulgence or abnegation, but rather arises naturally as we master the “middle way.” We miss the point if we become attached to extremes.

I believe enlightenment (or salvation, or whatever you want to call it) will happen when we let go of attachments to either extreme conservatism or liberalism. Rigid conservatism imprisons the soul, and excess liberalism corrupts good morals and common sense.

I believe also Jesus expressed this idea when he said the way to heaven is strait and narrow. Many people think the way is narrow because the moral standards are so exacting that only the chosen few show enough discipline to follow it. I reject this notion. I believe Jesus says the way is narrow because he knows most people never let go of attachment to extreme views. Time and again, Jesus promotes abundant living and good works, and yet he liberates us from the binding, legalistic rules of our conservative past. Jesus was a conservative when he upheld the timeless connection to spirit. He was a liberal when he overturned the social conventions of his day in favor of individual choice and worth. In real fact, he transcended both, just as the Buddha did 500 years before, and just as I hope to do today.

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