I’m a Buddhist, but not an American?

Today really prompted a lot of contemplation and work with something that’s been bubbling underneath the surface. It was prompted by a status that one of my friends posted on Facebook (I won’t name him … but for some of you, you’ll know who it is). But so I’m clear, it’s not necessarily him that I’m worried about. It just maybe gave me the key to see a pattern that I thought needed addressing. So to that person, apologies if some of the remarks I make in this post are unskillful or hurt your feelings, because they were not intended to do so.

So, on to the status. He reported that he had spent two hours debating an Atheist about the existence of God, and he referred to it as a “battle”. This then is the jumping off point for my thoughts today. I’m a Buddhist, a Socialist, and I’m gay. In the evangelical Christian world, and in the conservative Republican world, I’m the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with America and that people like me are what is ruining this country for future generations. I don’t believe that Jesus died for our sins and I don’t think that everyone needs to believe that, I believe that capitalism is not sustainable and will eventually fail, I don’t believe that America (or for that matter any other country) is infallible and invincible, and I am romantically and physically attracted to men.

I see a pattern here, and yes, I’m about to point out the faults of some versions of evangelical Christianity, and I am about to name it as one of the root causes of much of the political and communal division that is now the identifying mark of American politics and civil society. Again, I don’t mean to be unskillful or to be hurtful, but there’s something that needs to be said here.

First, let me say, that at its mystical core, Christianity is a beautiful spiritual path. It is one that teachers its followers to be compassionate, to be loving, and to plumb the depths of existence for ultimate union with god. Christian spiritual teachings have inspired countless numbers of what I would call Bodhisattvas: St. Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, St. Benedict, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, among others. When they discovered their awakened, illumined hearts (or in Christianity described as Christ within), they showed boundless compassion towards the suffering beings of this universe. Jesus himself taught us that it is only through facing the negative, and being fully present and attentive to our pain and the pain of others that salvation can occur.

But, through various causes as the Reformation, the American Revivals among others, a corrupt, perverted Christianity has evolved. It’s one that rejects the innate goodness of humanity, the beauty of God’s creation and regards it as fallen. It regards the only way to salvation as the following of a rigid code of philosophical belief and reasoning and in some instances a rigid moral purity code. Its followers are sent out to give people the ultimatum: convert now or suffer eternally. Even in its softer “postmodernized” approaches, the goal is clear. You must become who we are, or you risk eternal damnation. In some parts of America it’s not uncommon in polite social conversation to be asked “are you saved?”

Beginning with the Puritans in the 17th century, onto the evangelicals of the 21st, our collective psyche has incorporated this thought of “evangelism”: we must convince people of the truth of our views, and its concurrent conclusion: if they don’t believe like we believe, they are not part of us. What’s more problematic is that in America, this is not restricted to the realm of religion, but that it has now become part of our civil and societal discourse.

Both parties are guilty of this kind of discourse, but the Right, being louder gets more of the attention. The right-wing has declared President Obama’s healthcare bill as “un-American”. This is the quintessential example of my point. If we disagree something, we call it “un-American”, and those who advocate it as “un-patriotic”. Let’s bring this back to its Christian roots. The Puritans taught that those who did not believe like they did were false Christians. A modern example of this can be found in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. It teaches that only its strictly Calvinistic brand of Christianity is the only valid one, and furthermore that it is the most ancient. America abounds with examples of this kind of Christianity (the Southern Baptist Convention, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the “Anglican” Church of North America, as examples).

As Americans, we may not acknowledge it, but we believe that there is some inherent defect in people who don’t believe like we do. We must work to “convert” the Atheist, because he’s missing something. We must work to convince that Liberal or Conservative that his view is wrong, and something must be wrong with him if he doesn’t believe us. Not only that, but staying true to our roots, we demonize those with whom we disagree. People with committed views about socialism and non-violence are portrayed as people who undermine America, and little more than rats who are gnawing at the fabric of American society. Liberals portray conservatives as money-hungry, racist, fascists who want to make sure that they get their dollar and no one else does. Christian publishers put out guides with “sure fire” arguments to win over those heathen pagan commie friends of yours to Ronald Reagan and Jesus. Liberals also put out their vitriol, portraying faithful people as dumb robots who eat too much and hoard money.

In the end, the reason we can’t have a reasonable discourse, is that we believe that there is something wrong with the people on the other side, and even deeper than that, sometimes, we don’t even consider them people. How can we expect to have a real, honest conversation, when from our side we consider it a battle? We cannot presume to have a civil society let alone a democracy when everyone is looking to “evangelize” the other. That’s not the way a democracy works. A democracy works only when we stop evangelizing, when we begin to share, honestly, openly, and equally, and when we regard all participants as people just like us.

As someone who has taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, I am forbidden from telling someone that they must become Buddhist or take a sectarian attitude. I am, however, asked to give refuge from fear, sadness, and hopelessness, and to give Dharma as an option, never out of condescension, but out of awakened compassion, on an eye-to-eye level.

You don’t need to take the refuge vows to do these things. If we could take small steps to looking eye-to-eye to our friends on the other side of wherever we are, we can make our lives, and indeed even our country better.

I’m a Buddhist, I’m a Socialist, I’m Gay. So what? I’m an American, and so are you.

Sarva Mangalam (may all beings benefit)

  1. Thank you for saying many things that I think. Very beautiful and compassionate.

    I’m a gay man, liberal/socialist, and progressive/mystical christian with input from and appreciation for all deep traditions.


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