“When the world has more love than fear, things will right themselves.” That’s what Judith Lies, a student of Thich Nhat Hanh and director of the non-sectarian Buddhist Heartwood Mindfulness Center, said to me in an interview once.
Obviously, we’re a long ways from there. Fear is rampant in the world today and fear makes the world dangerous. In a perfect world there would be no fear. And if no one was afraid, fear would be unfounded because no one would be dangerous or even perceived as dangerous. If everyone’s survival was secured from birth, there would be no fear. There would be no oppression, no exploitation, no greed—all fear-based enterprises. If there did not exist disease and other forms of natural disasters, fear of those events would be eliminated. In a perfect world there would be no religious intolerance, religious prejudice, religious persecution, strife or conflict. Perhaps in a perfect world there would be no religion at all.
While there is a huge aspect of religion that has to do with survival (morality, justice and superstition), there is also the aspect that has to do with awe and wonder at the mystery of creation and the human aesthetic need for ritual and structure. In a perfect world, religion would take a different form. As my friend Joann says, maybe religion would consist of people getting together to ask questions about the nature of the universe or to invent endless words for love. (It goes without saying we can’t love someone we fear, except by the grace of a powerful love force.) She didn’t say anything about eating, but I’m sure people would get together to share food—and dance. This of course would suppose an endless and unimpeded supply of food and music.
Back to the real world. Since time immemorial, religious consciousness has developed into the bonding of groups of people into collective group consciousnesses. Religions have been named, and over time have become cultural, political and economic entities/identities. Individuals within these groups are all seen as representatives of the group. Stereotyping has always been a very natural process. In a perfect world people wouldn’t see other individuals as representatives of any particular group, but rather as simply one example of human life on earth that happens to be large, small, green, purple, square-headed, round-headed, a resident of “the beaches, the mountains, the desert,” funny, not funny, apt with numbers, inept with numbers, etc.
Even in our imperfect world I would contend that in general, as individuals anyway, Catholics don’t hate Protestants, Buddhists don’t hate Muslims, Sikhs don’t hate Hindus etc. The religious conflict depicted in the news is usually some other kind of conflict, based on fear of not having the resources different groups need to survive. The media rarely report the attempts to solve the conflict. There are numerous Jewish/Muslim peace groups working in Israel/Palestine, for example. When the Shia shrine was bombed in Iraq, there were Sunni/Shia groups marching in the streets calling for an end to the violence. Shia and Sunni were trying to protect each other from the rippling backlash. In Iraq there are Muslim Peacemaker Teams and Christian Peacemaker Teams working together.
In 2004 I attended the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, an international (and richly beautiful) group which since the late 1800s has brought together representatives of all the world’s religions to foster harmony and a working relationship amongst themselves. The program was equally divided between the mechanics and rituals of religion and religion’s part in social justice.
I don’t know if I agree entirely with the guy who said, “Good people do good things, evil people do evil things. Only religion can make good people do evil things.” I suppose there are snaky, “religious” justifications (about being right, or about “my fear is more important than your fear”) that make people able to do the unspeakable. Eric Hoffer says “It is when power is wedded to chronic fear that it becomes formidable.” Imagine why the Inquisitors in the 1500s thought they needed to carry out the Inquisition. Why did Hitler fear the Jews so much? What did the state church in Norway fear from the Quakers whom they drove to escape to the United States in the 1800s? Does the U.S. government believe it’s its Christian duty to weed out every last terrorist by any means necessary? The more afraid people become, the more dangerous they become, more capable of evil.
If fear reigns, we have religious persecution and intolerance. If God (God = Love and Love = God) reigns, there is no persecution or intolerance. Love is the power that transcends all things. Love permeating every nook and cranny of every soul would make for a perfect world. In the world as it is, to make this come about would require discipline as well as surrender to universal grace on the part of every living human. There would be an absolute commitment to a global win-win and boundless generosity. In a perfect world this hard work would not be necessary.
In the face of real fear of real danger, Tom Fox (the Christian Peacemaker Teams member killed in Iraq) required of himself the ultimate discipline described by Gandhi: “If an attacker inspires anger or fear in my heart, it means that I have not purged myself of violence. To realize nonviolence means to feel within you its strength—soul force—to know God. A person who has known God will be incapable of harboring anger or fear within him [or her], no matter how overpowering the cause for that anger or fear may be.”
I personally feel terrible hopelessness. At the same time, as one of Danish theologian Kierkegaard’s “knights of the infinite resignation,” I live as though I have hope. I’m on a sinking ship but I’ll keep playing in the string quartet as long as I can.