Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Fighting the good fight

If you are fighting the "good" fight, what is your opponent doing? Why is that at some sporting events both teams pray for God to "...grant them the victory", and what about the unspoken half of that prayer which is then implied ("God grant the other guys a defeat")? Taking that line of thought from sports to warfare, I (re-)call attention to an animation produced and published earlier this year of a short piece by Mark Twain called "The War Prayer". For those who cannot or choose not to view the video, the text is reproduced and the unspoken half of "Grant us the victory [in battle]" is highlighted in red. If we embrace all-encompassing compassion and recognize our fundamental interdependence, whether as Buddhist, Christians, Humanists, or by any other name or tradition, when if ever is it appropriate to take sides in a conflict?

I have sports teams I root for, which one could claim is taking sides. I will vote for specific candidates in upcoming elections, which one could also claim is taking sides. To say we cannot or should not ever have any preferences for anything would sound extreme. But do I wish the other team or other candidates harm? Do I feel free to mock or ridicule them? Will the results of the game or the election evoke from me distraction, unkindness, or violence? If I become fixated on one "side" winning, this could be so. But then what was the point of the activity or of being involved with it? Is sports really about entertainment, fitness, and good conduct or is it about having the best score or best record and rubbing other people's faces in it? Is politics about good government for all and supporting the parties and candidates that you feel will be most willing and able to achieve this end, or is it about fear, anger, and wanting the power to impose our will on others so we can feel safe and righteous/prosperous?

There are other angles to sports and politics to be sure, but the examples provided highlight the distinction between seeing all of the participants in such activities as having value and only seeing those who are on "our side" as worthy of our concern and support. In a sense, we are talking about what Christians refer to as the distinction of "Love the sinner, hate the sin." We can appreciate members of an opposing team or party as human beings deserving of our compassion even if we find what they stand for or how they try to achieve those goals to be deluded, damaging, or despicable. This lesson of early to middle childhood, symbolized by the seemingly ubiquitous sportsmanship line-up where two teams file past each other swatting hands and grunting "good game", suggests that you can support a process or activity (such as a game or an election) as being worthwhile despite the outcome as opposed to seeing such activities as valuable only in as much as it produces the outcome we prefer. It also reminds us to see "the other side" as individuals just as we are. And most importantly, at least in my estimation, it reaffirms a fundamental respect for those individuals.

Then we grow up and we are confronted with more extreme and more complex cases. In United States, suggestions of stolen elections and resulting damage to our freedoms, the environment our socio-economic mobility, and to our military and international reputation are pitted against claims of naively supporting legislation and actions favorable to terrorists, attempting to destroy a Christian heritage, and impose what are labeled as unfair restrictions on businesses. Foreign and economic policy are intertwined in an attempt to bolster leverage against other nations even when these policies encourage poverty, poor health, and war and lead to supporting governments based on convenience for corporate interests and fear of economic or nuclear reprisal. All the while issues such as the occupation of Tibet, the crackdowns in Burma, the horrors in the Sudan, as well as thousands of other lesser known sporadic as well as ongoing human rights violations continue.

It is appealing to suggest that the powerful are afflicting the powerless, who are also typically voiceless as well. Speaking up for the oppressed and speaking out against the political and corporate entities and systems involved in generating or perpetuating such oppression seems like a logical course of action for those who wish to make a difference and who are concerned about the proliferation of suffering that goes with such oppression. It is all too easy, to name one example, to see Dick Cheney, Haliburton, and the Republican Party collectively as "the Enemy". One could make a similar adversary out of Nancy Pelosi, the "anti-Christian/anti-American crowd" (the gay community, the secular community, entitled poor minorities/illegal aliens, etc), and the Democractic Party. For many of us the difference is that one of these characterization is correct and the other is not. Should Buddhists "pick a side" here? Should we take up the "good fight"?

In an article entitled "The New Holy War" published in Tikkun magazine, Professor David R. Loy reaffirms the challenge of non-discriminating compassion:
Compassion for those who are suffering is not quite the same as the pursuit of social justice, which takes up the cause of the oppressed against the oppressor...

...a Buddhist perspective does not necessarily imply that we should respond to oppressor and oppressed in the same way. It means that we do not identify with one while rejecting the other. Like it or not, we are nondual with both.

Are we presenting the case for our political choices and support as support for all people or only those with whom we agree? What is our compassionately informed response to those who we thing are harming the planet and causing immense suffering because of their greed, anger and fear? A compassionate response does not have to imply a whimper - compassion requires a great deal of strength - but deep down do we believe that such an approach will be seen as weak or be ignored by the powerful? And isn't it so much easier to empathize with the downtrodden? Is it a choice between the preferred and the practical, between idealism and realism? Or do we really believe (in) and practice what we preach?

edited to add:

This topic has been pretty popular lately, appearing in an article in Tricycle called "Above the Fray" (which was mentioned and discussed at WoodMoor Village) as well as in "Take This President...Somebody, Please!" by Paul Lewis and a reply to Lewis in Tikkun magazine.


  1. In my life (as a lawyer), it's pretty easy for me to see ways that a relatively effective justice system reduces suffering.

    Because of that, even though my natural instincts are usually with the accused, I try to stay aware that focusing solely on the suffering of the accused may lead me to delusive thinking. Yes, the accused suffer and we should act compassionately in deciding how to engage with them. But so, too, do victims of crime suffer. And so, too, do those suffer who would be deterred by an effective justice system, but who, without one, would succumb to grasping or aversion and take actions that will increase their own suffering. The answers to specific questions are often hard, for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, but we can apply principles of non-harming, compassion, and metta to devise more skillful ways of responding to them.

    I think that what justice systems teach us on a relatively micro level can illuminate decisions at larger levels, as well.

  2. Thanks for sharing your perspective greenfrog.

    As a lawyer, do you feel it is possible that what might be considered just(ice) under the law is not always the best option for the welfare of all parties? One could of course think that a law itself is unjust, but I guess what I am thinking about are situations in which the call for or need for justice spills over into behavior that is ultimately bad for everyone involved.

    In the extreme case, for example, you could have vigilanteism where due process is ignored, but then there is the case of the person who shot burglars on his neighbors property because he didn't want to let them "get away" with their crime. It is still unclear if he was within his legal rights to do so, but even if he was, in this case the desire for justice far outweighed the value of human life.

    Another way of framing it: Can there be justice without compassion?


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