We have come to a time in history when religion is involved in killing more than since the Crusades.
According to the United States’ State Department, more than 70 per cent of world conflicts are fuelled by religion. Although most of these conflicts have dynamics that are fundamentally economic, environmental or political, and would have happened outside a religious context, religion is still partly to blame. The question all religious people need to agonise over is “How can religion become a bulwark against violence, injustice and oppression, instead of an ally?”
To religious people, some things matter deeply.
These convictions vary in substance and expression but, through their uniqueness, hold our communities together. Our religious imagination spurs us to proclaim our message to the world and work hard to make it happen. Yet our aspirations have not protected us from harming others. What can we do to withstand the destructive economic, environmental and political forces around us? More importantly, how can we protect the world from our own good intentions?
If all we want to do is tell others what we think they need to know, or change them into who we think they should be, we will inevitably stop treating people as subjects with whom we relate and begin to treat them as objects—no matter how noble our intentions. Some years ago, while pastoring a church in New York City, our cause was to reach people in the city and offer them what we have experienced as the best thing in life—God. One of the ways we did this was by organising a series of public meetings that would “convert” people.
In order to accomplish this, the church board would meet regularly to discuss the strategy. But meeting after meeting, I felt uneasy about talking of people as objects to be targeted. But such talk was so deeply rooted in some of the members’ psyche that none of my pleas against objectifying people came through. I decided to bring two of these “objects” to the next meeting.
“OK, let’s discuss how we are going to convert these people in their presence,”
I invited everybody. Some thought I was making a circus out of the meeting but I persisted. For several church board members, this was a difficult evening. The language changed.
The tone changed. The goals changed.
The methods changed. But for others, this experience was a door into new relationship—not only with people outside our religion but also with God.
For me, personally, everything changed. While Christ tells me to go out to the world and spread His teachings, He also teaches me to treat others the way I want to be treated (see Matthew 7:12). This command, which has come to be known as the Golden Rule, excludes making other people the object of my best intentions. I would not want to be objectified by their efforts to convert me, so they should not be my objects either.
To follow the Golden Rule, I need to learn compassion—meaning to “feel with.” As such, the Golden Rule turns the tables on many of our religious impulses. If we want them to attend our events, we must attend their events.
If we want them to be spiritually open to us, we must be spiritually open to them. If we want them to change, we must be ready to change. If we want them to read our Scriptures with trust and respect, we must read their sacred writings likewise.
This can be expanded to the national and international level. Imagine all Muslims treating converts to Christianity the way they want Christian converts to Islam to be treated. Imagine Christians reciprocating. Imagine faith leaders standing up to politicians saying, “Your enemies are not our enemies.
Any method you want to use on them, you will first have to use on us.”
If we want to convert people, we must be “convertible” first. Concerned believers would say that to live such “open Christianity” would first, undermine our Christian identity, then halt the spread of Christ’s teachings in the world. I passionately disagree. To respect others, to be interdependent, to receive as we give, to refuse to be in charge of God, to be humble and teachable by them, is to be our identity.
We do to others what we want them to do to us. In fact, as we go to the world with our message, to neglect the Golden Rule would be to betray the teachings of Christ from the start. I would say the following stands: “To be a Christian means, among other things, to seek God in the other as you want the other to seek God in you.”
The Golden Rule is deeply embedded in all major religions. Just imagine, as Karen Armstrong suggests, if we would interpret the whole of our Scriptures as a commentary on the Golden Rule, then read the whole of their Scriptures with Augustine’s rule of always seeking the most charitable interpretation of the text. This would reflect the best of our traditions and, paradoxically, work to preserve our own religion.
The Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism are a case in point. The Chinese government has built a train from Beijing to the small Tibetan holy city of Lhasa and has committed demographic aggression, not only by settling twice the number of Chinese in Tibet than there were Tibetans but by opening 238 dance halls and karaoke parlours on the main street, along with 658 brothels, turning Lhasa into an Asian Las Vegas.
To top it off, the sacred Potala Palace, which has been home to nine Dalai Lamas, is now mockingly surrounded by an amusement park.
And what was the response of the Dalai Lama? He refused to call the Chinese an “enemy.” In fact, to preserve the value of compassion at the heart of the Golden Rule, for the Dalai Lama it hardly matters whether the position of Dalai Lama, Tibet or even Buddhism continues to exist! As long as compassion survives.
And what is the result? In 1968, there were two Tibetan Buddhist centres in Western countries; today, there are 50 in New York City alone and 200 in Taiwan. More French people call themselves Buddhist than Protestant or Jew. This doesn’t count all the Chinese who are becoming Tibetan Buddhists.
The Dalai Lama said calling others your enemy and calling your own people friends would be as crazy as calling your right eye your ally and your left your adversary. It used to be that victory could be identified as destruction of your enemy but in today’s world, we increasingly have to see destruction of our enemy as destruction of ourselves.
The Golden Rule is not just a nice thing to practice—a mere virtue. It is a matter of survival, not only for the world at large but for every religion that has aspirations to thrive in the future. By respecting and loving the other, we are open to the influence of The Other. Going deeper in loving God now means nothing less than going deeper in loving all of humanity.