This is the fourth 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 7: Economics and Religion
"That is why unity can exist among the more liberal monks and the more conservative ones, because behind each monk, each community, there can be no big institutions." - Nhat Hanh
As institutions grow they become less personal and less interested in the individuals themselves. This is a great way to increase the efficiencies of markets, but it is a terrible way to practice spirituality. Large institutions get bogged down in rules and bureaucracy, there is no need to find consensus or understanding because someone at the top of the hierarchy can just make decisions without any strong ramifications (particularly in religion where many people believe they have a monopoly on truth... you can't "vote with your feet" by going to another religion if you believe that all others are false).
"In the States, a source of agony for us has been the immobility and neutrality of the churches facing the tragedy of the last decade. We are convinced that financial interests are at the heart of it. We sense a freedom of conscience in the Buddhist church - the fact that the Buddhists are able to see a moral issue and to follow through on it, even to death itself. Whearas in our country it is so rare to come upon this sense of things." - Berrigan
I don't know much about the financial situation of churches in the US but I wouldn't be surprised if some decisions are weighed in favor of money over morality. Even if it means not doing something because it is illegal or put a church's tax status at risk. When I read stories about people being arrested for giving shelter to the homeless or food to the poor the first thing I wonder is why aren't ALL the churches in that community doing that? Why don't they band together against cruelty from the state. Are Christians so afraid of an overnighter in jail that they will reject Christ's instructions to clothe and feed those in need? And shouldn't the church respond with a stronger voice in the face of stronger injustice?
"If you rely on rich people, then that's the end. But the monks rely on street merchants - people who sell fish and vegetables in the markets - and pedicab drivers. They are the most faithful people in the society. You can trust them; they stick to the struggle." - Nhat Hanh
Rich people and those in power will always support the status quo over revolution. They will always support force to keep things the way they are and they want others (churches, non-profits, politicians, etc.) to be dependent on them.
"I think we're learning that the West is in the last days of a system which has already proven itself antihuman and bankrupt, and this includes the last days of the church as we know it. The church has entirely meshed its destiny and method with that of capitalism and the military. Once you get beyond the religious talk, its institutions are no different. All are making money off the misery of people elsewhere in the world, and are helping weapons systems be created." - Berrigan
Alas, we weren't in the last days then and we aren't in the last days now. I'm afraid that collapse of this system isn't imminent. It would be great if Christians in America were to refuse to serve in the military or work jobs that brought death to innocents, they make up 70% of the population and if they did what was right the military-industrial complex would come to a standstill. But they won't because most aren't true followers of Christ, they are followers of American Jesus (TM) who has lept straight from a misattributed Sinclair Lewis' quote.
"This is part of the torment of younger people, I think, who have some relibious hpe, who would like to identify with the Catholic church or Judaism. But they find that they're being mobilized into a system which is part of the death system." - Berrigan
This seems true today. I think one of the reasons we see a rise in the "spiritual but not religious" and other similar categories among Millennials is that we want some sort of spiritual community but don't know where to find it. Most organized religions are nearly indistinguishable from government organizations, so why go for government light when you can get the whole thing? Churches have been in bed with the government for so long that they are no longer a moderating force or moral light on the hill. The cross has been drenched in the blood of innocent people.
"But I think in the United States there are places where you can just be quiet." - Nhat Hanh
"The war is not in our country; it's 'somewhere else'" - Berrigan
"It's too far away. It's like strange stories, very far away. A kind of isolation. We know that when we transformed our temple into a resistance stronghold, we could no longer merely meditate." - Nhat Hanh
It sure is easy to believe in the power of prayer instead of action when the blood-soaked soil is somewhere else. Vietnam is pretty similar to Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.
"But it seems that compassion, but in Buddhism and in Christianity, is so important, so basic, that you can be rich only when you can bear the sight of suffering. If you cannot bear that, you have to give your possessions away." - Nhat Hanh
Fuck. This applies to me, as well as people who follow Christ or the teachings of Buddha. The truth is, we can all bear the sight of suffering pretty easily. We dehumanize people, we justify why our $4 is better spent on a sugary coffee for us instead of a meal for a homeless person. We have extra bedrooms and cars and throw out food on a daily basis. I work to buy stuff I don't need instead of giving my labor and money to those who need it. I need to be better about this. My cost/benefit analysis should involve more than just me, it should involve my community.
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Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”