A recent opinion piece in the New York Times asks, “Why Are We Surprised When Buddhists Are Violent?”
The article refers to international criticism of events in Myanmar, where leadership is accused of looking the other way as attacks against minority Rohingya Muslims have led to a mass exodus of refugees and a humanitarian crisis.
Widely held Western beliefs that Buddhism is “a uniquely peaceful and tolerant religion” fail to take into account the point of Buddhism itself, the authors argue, which is to overcome “self-centered ways of being.” Without the nature of humanity, the authors say, Buddhism would not be necessary.
But the authors also blame British colonialism for the world’s simplified view of Buddhism and argue that Myanmar’s interest in becoming part of the contemporary world of nations means it is adopting globally held views of intolerance, including arguments that the Muslim minority are foreigners who threaten Myanmar’s integrity.
Q. Is it fair to blame supposedly intolerant Western views and historic colonialism on the contemporary violent acts in Myanmar? Or is it worth remembering, as the op-ed states, that “the histories of Buddhist societies are as checkered as most human history”? Do you see violence as an intractable problem of human nature?
Every human being is born with a human nature which the Bible refers to as “the flesh.” “The flesh” is fundamentally self-centered and hostile to God’s rule. The flesh may practice religion but ultimately it refuses to relinquish control to God. We have a fallen, sinful flesh nature because our first forefather, Adam, chose to rebel against God’s commandment. Notably, Adam blamed Eve for his sin, and this trend of blaming others for our sinful choices continues to this day. If people act in violent ways it’s because they have personally chosen to do so. When Adam sinned his nature changed to that of a sinner. Like begets like, sinners beget sinners, and so this sinful nature passes from generation to generation to this day. No one is exempt from this natural progression, including Buddhists. The Book of Galatians describes the kinds of actions the flesh does: “Now the deeds of the flesh are … immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Each of these is an intractable problem of human nature unless we opt for the one solution Jesus Christ offers: “You must be born again” (John 3:7). God gives us a new nature when we turn to him through faith in Jesus Christ’s death for us on the cross to pay for our sins, and when we repent of our fleshly ways to follow him. No, we don’t become perfect or sinless immediately, but we are given the capability to say no to the flesh and to say yes to the things God wants us to do, including the expressions of forgiveness and kindness to our enemies. Violence springs from the fallen human nature which dwells in each of us. Jesus Christ is our only hope to be delivered from it. “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by [God’s] Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).
Pastor Jon Barta
I am not an expert on the Myanmar situation, but I know that colonialism has had a lot of lingering negative effects, and anti-Muslim animus is all too prevalent worldwide. Tempting though it would be for an atheist like me to condemn the houses of faith for religious violence, I see instead that inter-ethnic and political conflicts, and struggles for scarce territory and resources are often played out in the guise of religion.
Much evidence of human cooperation abounds as well, and both strife and peace seem to occur throughout all societies. In fact, I don’t think there is such a thing as a human nature, but that our so-called natures are largely culturally determined.
While I have been pondering this question, science has marched on. A New York Times article on April 17 is headlined: “Wired to be Besties; Research reveals shared neural response patterns in our social networks.” Turns out in an experiment that the brains of close friends respond in very similar ways while they watched the same videos.
In fact the researchers found that they could use neural response patterns of two subjects to accurately predict whether they were close friends. They will now move on to measure incoming college students unknown to each other and then see if those with similar brain responses become friends.
Maybe someday we will discover that there is some biological basis to whether humans live together in peace or descend into violence.
In my attempt to answer these three questions, I want to start with the last, “Do I see violence as an intractable problem of human nature?” I do so as a way of addressing the other two, because you cannot separate the problems of human nature from religious practices and cultural influences. In looking up the adjective intractable, I see that this describes the problem of human nature as “not easily governed, managed or directed.” This has been my experience both inside and outside of the church. Violence is a serious problem, one that each generation wrestles with. Right now we have many forms of violence that grass-roots movements like Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March and student protests calling for gun reform are addressing. On the international scene there are calls for the end of violence in many places around the world. So, yes, violence is an intractable problem of human nature. Violence is not easily governed, managed or directed. Violence has been justified by those who are seeking power and control over others, rather than finding the common good for all.
I recently read a blog by a young man who wrote he is not religious because no matter what religion you study all have not managed or contained violence in their quest for religious war.
I would say the culture of violence is much greater than any one religious tradition. More than a Western influence, it is an evil that persists in the world because of the way violence is exploited by those who want power over others or benefit from groups at war with one another. Rather than finding ways of managing and addressing violence, we arm ourselves, we arm others, we lose patience with long term solutions, and we scapegoat others for our problems.
Each of us is capable of violence. It is a part of our nature, so the cure begins with us, can we find ways of being nonviolent, of caring for one another in the midst of life? I have heard so many stories of how families cannot talk to one another about those important topics of life, because when they do they end up screaming at each other, not talking at all with one another, and blaming one another for the problems of the world. We need to find ways to talk to one another.
Places people gather for worship and study can be safe places to exchange ideas, examine the problems our society faces and find creative solutions. The problems are far too big for any one solution, and for us to change the world’s tendency toward violence we need to find ways of working together. I think of a team who responds to a patient in the hospital whose heart stops beating: The call goes out, the team responds — doctors, nurses, chaplains, administrators — all to save a person’s life. No one is concerned about who is Jewish, or Catholic or Muslim or atheist, they are all there to save a life, to bring healing.
Can we find ways of working together so we can find ways of eliminating violence in the world? Can we act in ways that help eliminate violence in our communities and families? I have hope that we can. If we can see that violence only leads to more violence, and this circle needs to be broken, we can start practicing nonviolence, nurture what we have in common, be creative in our thinking, work hard to stand up to violence in all its forms. We can be peacemakers in the midst of violence.
So I would call us to resist violence in all its forms, in the places we find ourselves, to be part of the movement to build a better world.
Rev. Steve Poteete-Marshall
Crescenta Valley UMC
It is interesting how there’s this sort of peaceful perception of Buddhists, generally, but perhaps that’s because so many in the West have played pick-and-choose with some of the religion’s supposedly enlightened pathways or acceptable “truths,” and the reality of the religion’s success hasn’t been carefully considered. Maybe it’s because it comes across as a spiritual superhero kind of thing that so many of us picked up in childhood as we watched David Carradine travel across the cowboy West exhibiting nothing but humble love for everyone, that is, until he kicks and punches the crud out of all the bad guys. Isn’t it funny how “martial” arts are so connected with this peaceful faith, and also how often Buddhists find themselves embroiled in violent conflict?
Recently I spoke with a Christian missionary to a Buddhist country, and he told me that all the worrisome results of living badly were believed to be thwarted by a merit system. Prostitutes, for example, would decorate Buddhist temples early in the day, and earn enough spiritual merit to ply their salacious trade by night. One has to balance karma to one’s own benefit, right? And I recall the Dalai Lama on several occasions being asked if Buddhists believe in God, to which he answered that there is no god except one’s own mind. So, if a Buddhist is his own god, and god is doing just enough good to offset his bad, what divine end is actually achieved? And if a Buddhist monk somewhere is especially devout, he still carries within him a negative nature that necessitates his religious devotion in the first place. Why then should anyone be surprised that Buddhism can’t guarantee peace?
As a Christian, I pity those who try to pull themselves up by their own spiritual bootstraps while simultaneously denying the actual person of God. And violence is an intractable problem of human nature, since human nature is first and foremost sinful. Christ came to save us through our fallen nature and imbues us with a growing righteous nature that makes us more like God. We will never be God, but we can more reflect his image. If we do not believe in God, let alone his human incarnation as Jesus Christ, we will never see a day of complete peace, will never have enlightenment, never have Heaven, never be saved from damnation, and will never know our creator. What to do? “You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” (Act 10:36 NIV).
Rev. Bryan Griem