This is the third part of a short series where I reflect on one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read, “The Raft is Not the Shore: Conversations Toward A Buddhist-Christian Awareness” by Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan.
Chapter 4: Priests and Prisoners
“One of the great tactics of prison authorities is to awaken and make more violent the racism of the prisoners so that they will go at one another’s throats.” – Berrigan
It is interesting to read quotes from a Catholic priest that could be attributed to a prison reform advocate or “social justice warrior”. My experience with Christianity rejected any sort of institutional issues, it was very much an American conservative Christianity which rejected social pressure, norms, or institutional racism or bigotry as having any blame or effects on individuals. It was very much an individualistic spirituality and seemed to have more in common with the Old Testament than Christ.
Chapter 5: Self-Immolation
I didn’t actually highlight any particular parts of this chapter, but I did find it to be an interesting discussion on an act that we would generally call suicide. It makes me think about what part intention plays in an act. If I jump on a hand grenade to try and save other soldiers then that is a noble act and wouldn’t be judged as suicide (even if it is an act that I voluntarily take that will result in my death), but if I take my life in order to bring attention to atrocities or end a war then that would likely be viewed as suicide. I think, in addition to intent, people judge intentional self-death by what other options are available. Jumping on a grenade may be the only option to save a life but self-immolation may be one of many options to end an injustice, and people view the preservation of life as sacred, only to be ended as the last resort. I’m not sure I agree, but that seems to be the cultural (and often religious) perspective.
It also raises questions about how we know other options exist and what the bar is for noble self-death versus a wrongful self-death. If I donate my heart to save a child, knowing I will die, is that noble? What about ending my life to prevent my family from going into debt and suffering? I think life is incredibly valuable and should be cherished, but I don’t think life is necessarily the most important thing above everything else.
Chapter 6: Government and Religion
“It is part of the wisdom, I think, of the religious tradition to always be skeptical of what the governments are doing.” – Berrigan
Wow, what a great first line to a chapter filled with them. I think that if I grew up in a spiritual tradition that was actually skeptical of worldly power then I may still be with that tradition. Too often religious leaders see the state as a potential ally, but they don’t realize that the state is always in competition with religion (and the state has guns). Religion can’t fight the state with violence or else it becomes the state itself.
“But, the idea that being informed leads to more humane decisions or more enlightened politics on the part of those in power, I think, is very questionable. Because the people can very easily, as in the United States, be lulled into a belief in ‘free press’ and ‘free television.’ After all, for twelve years we saw on our screens what we were doing to the Vietnamese people. It’s very questionable that that changed anything. – Berrigan
“Well it’s a problem which goes much deeper than the business of being what they call literate or informed. In fact, the impact of the media can quite possibly be in another direction. People can become so bewildered with the mass of information and news brought down on them that they’re unable to move, they’re paralyzed. So, the question of selecting, meditating, having some interior life of one’s own in the midst of this becomes quite important.” – Berrigan
It is rare that you hear anyone actually question whether having a free press is a good thing. I agree that in theory, a free press is a good thing, but like all rights there comes a certain responsibility and not everyone can (or will) exercise those rights responsibly. It is possible that many, or even most, people are so overwhelmed by the media that it actually causes a form of paralysis. Violence and rights violations on the part of our government become the norm and we are numb to them. We start to think that it is the natural state of things unless, as Berrigan recommends, we are able to select what we view and meditate. This is a synthesis of both Buddhism and Stoicism. The American people have known that we have been bombing, killing, and invading countries for over 16 years now and they really don’t seem to care. Both of the major political parties are pro-war and all the major candidates were hawks.
“Fear and anger are often used for political purposes. Anti-Communism has been very much used and fed, encouraging the fear that Communism will destroy freedom or worship. They stress that fear so that people will not see other aspects of the problem. Because when you consider Communism as the worst of evils, you forget the other evils that are closer to you, that are on the anti-Communist side.” – Nhat Hanh
Holy shit. Things really don’t change. Substitute “communism” with radical Islam, LGBT, immigrants, or even liberalism and you have the modern conservative playbook. If only The Who were right…
“Christians, wo are supposed to be able to cope with persecution, trials, jail, or any kind of human suffering, and still not despair. But it seems the spectre of Communism awakens the utmost despair, a kind of carte blanche to do anything in the name of anti-Communism.” – Berrigan
Yep. That hasn’t changed either.
“if you’re going to recommend speedy death for other people you ought to go and taste it yourself, maybe it wouldn’t appear so attractive.” – Berrigan
The world would be different if the politicians (and those who elected them) were required to serve on the front lines of combat. It is easy to command death from a couch, but to feel, taste, and smell violence first hand and to risk your own life is a very different thing.
“‘Whenever the prophet sits at the king’s table, both are corrupted.’… The priest doesn’t belong there. If he belongs anywhere in the palace precincts, he belongs in the king’s dungeons. He doesn’t belong at his table.” – Berrigan
I wonder if any religious leaders have been arrested for opposing the current wars. I know a lot of them have dined with Presidents.
“Well, it seems to me, it’s a sign of the decline of the whole religious community that priests take on the role of politicians. It’s a loss of a clear-cut sense of their priesthood… Every time priests played politics, there’s been a deleterious effect upon the priesthood, the community, and civil life as well.” – Berrigan
“Once drawn into politics you are caught.” – Nhat Hanh
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Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”