Once upon a time in a South American country (apologies for lack of details! I plead memory.) there were a lot of children getting sick with an illness that was preventable through immunisation (see above, re: details). The government, working with health organisations, came to the people with an immunisation program. But the people had homes to clean, meals to cook, jobs to do, and lives to live, so they were not interested. The government tried and tried, but only a few came for the program.
Then they sat back and thought, “How do we win the hearts of the people?” So they went to the Church. This being a Catholic country, there was a somewhat effective organisational structure. They met with the Bishops and other leaders and demonstrated the scientific value of the program. They asked the priests to say to their congregations, “Immunisation is as important as baptism”. And they did.
And the people started taking their children to be immunised. And the lives of millions of young children were saved.
This was one of the stories we heard on the second day of the Religions for Peace conference. It’s a beautiful tale, and it illustrates a crucial point: that religions, in much of the world, can have a powerful effect for good on the lives of the people. They retain a sense of moral authority that, for much of the world’s population, has never rested in government or in science. In the experience of all too many people, governments are reliably corrupt and brutal; and all they have seen of science is the poison in the river and the darkening of the skies. But the church has always been there; it has witnessed their birth, their growth, their marriage, and the death of their relatives. Churches are intertwined in the fabric of people’s lives like no other institution.
The question for much of the second day was, how do we shift from values to action? This played out in multiple spheres, and we could get an amazing sense for how suffering is truly universal. Delegates from Nigeria, Columbia, Myanmar, and many other countries spoke. Each time, while the details varied, we heard the same questions, the same underlying humanity. What people want is, for the most part, quite simple. Food, water, health care, a place to live, safety, education. We heard again and again of how these things were entirely doable. No-one is pushing any utopian visions. Just the basics. Yet the basics seem ever further out of reach.
In the previous post I quoted from the conference handbook some of the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals, including a reduction in global poverty. These blog posts are written quickly, and I didn’t check my facts: I should have. In one of the discussions on the second day, a delegate from South Africa talked about these, and said that the reports they had been hearing from governments all too often had no resemblance to what was happening on the ground. Her experience was not of decreasing, but of increasing poverty, and especially of increasing inequality.
So for every story of inspiration, we heard another of despair. The First Peoples from South America spoke of the interconnectedness of all creatures; from Kentucky we heard of vivid orange water flowing down from destroyed mountains into people’s taps; from Myanmar we heard of a Muslim leader and a Buddhist monk going to a torched village and rebuilding the school and health centre together; and from Senegal we saw laughing children living in chronically flooded villages, being taken with their priest to dry land, where they were taught how to plant trees.
One panel was devoted to the role of women in religion, and that was—predictably!—powerful and moving. Rape, domestic violence, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, maternal mortality: these are all-to-painful realities for many women; and meanwhile male-dominated religious morality obsesses about correct doctrine and stopping gays. The suffering of women is rarely featured in religious discourse, and as one of the delegates said, when it is mentioned it is tepid and equivocal. Yet, as those working in development know well, empowerment of women is the single most effective means of lifting countries out of poverty.
The lunch break on this day was intended as a space for the religions to gather and discuss among themselves. So we had a Buddhism section. Of course, since this is Buddhism, there was supposed to be a moderator, but they were nowhere to be seen. So after some casual chat, a few of us got up and had a short session. We heard about interfaith work in Hong Kong, which has been effective in the past several decades in maintaining harmony. I spoke of our concerns regarding increasing violence in our region between Buddhists and Muslims. A representative from the European Buddhist Union said that, while interfaith was essential, we needed to heal the rifts between the various Buddhist traditions.
Our final session discussed actions that we could take as religions to respond to our various challenges, including climate change. Some good ideas were floated; but I couldn’t help feeling a little depressed. For all the experience, enthusiasm and noble intentions, it seemed like so very little we could do. Skip a meal? I’ve been doing that for 20 years (as do thousands of other Buddhist monastics): I can’t see that it’s made a scrap of difference to the environment. The changes that are needed are so huge, and the responses so tiny.
And I had a growing sense that they seem to miss the point. For me, the potency of religion lies not in its social effectiveness, but in its depth. It points to the causes; but all we spoke of were symptoms. Underlying all this is greed, hatred, and delusion. The reason people are so obsessed with getting and having, with identifying as “consumers”, is because they are lacking something. What are they lacking? That is masked, hidden beneath delusion. And this delusion is actively fostered by the consumption industries. All advertisements say one thing: you are inadequate. To begin any kind of meaningful response, we need to start with the causes. We need to fill that space.
This is where religions should be the experts. But the sad truth is that we are not. Religions for the most part deal with semblances no less unreal than those of advertising. The semblance of holiness; the semblance of the sacred; the semblance of profundity. This semblance is the essence of all ritual, and of all religious doctrine. It is not an expression of meaning, but a substitute for it. It is the ashes of depth.
To re-awaken meaning we need to step out of the way. To have the guts to ask the hard questions, and let silence be an answer.