25 March 2015

On racists, ‘non-racists’, stone-throwing and humility

There was a time when anyone who said that the LTTE should be taken on militarily would be called an ‘extremist’ or a ‘war-monger’.  If the person happened to be a Sinhalese, he/she would be called ‘chauvinist’ and ‘racist’.  The name-callers would salivate in the Sinhalese who argued in this vein happened to be Buddhists as well.  

Now I believe that all communities have more or less the same percentage of bigots and that among the adherents to religious faiths, there are more or less the same percentage of fundamentalists and the same proportion of those who cannot tolerate religious others.  Even a cursory perusal of the island’s recent history would validate this hypothesis, but strangely, we rarely ever hear about Christians being ‘intolerant’ or being ‘fundamentalist’ or non-Sinhalese being racists or chauvinists. 

Indeed any criticism of anything that has even the most negligible blush of Christianity would provoke venom of unbelievable proportions from so-called defenders of the faith.

Do Christians, for example, believe that all Christians are ‘good’ or in the very least that even the worst Christian is better than the best Buddhist, I wonder.  Do Tamils and Moors think the same way?  Valentine Daniel, an Anthropologist teaching at Columbia University at the time, claimed about 14 years ago that Tamils would never kill on account of community.  Do all Tamils really believe this?  Do Christians who look down on Buddhists actually believe that everyone who pledges some form of allegiance to the Christian faith is necessarily a better human being? 

I think any sensible person would agree that ‘superiority’ claims are not just untenable in a practical sense, but indefensible in spiritualistic terms as well.  A human being can claim superiority over another human being only in a very limited sense.  For example, Nimal can say he can add faster than can Kamal, but Kamal could say he is better at taking things slower than Nimal.  No one is divine.  Even Jesus Christ, one notes, was not sure of his status regarding the human-divine divide; otherwise he would not have murmured the words ‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’ when nailed to the cross.  

Jesus Christ was ‘God’ according to Christians, or a manifestation of divinity; in the very least as ‘Son’ of ‘God’. I am an atheist and humanly frail, but in my frailty I would posit that Jesus Christ was a remarkable human being endowed with attributes that are extremely rare and indeed non present in anyone in flesh and blood I have met over the past 44 years.  I think that lesser ‘human beings’ of the Christian faith should be less presumptuous than they tend to be, if not for anything because there is a lesson in humility embedded in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘forgive our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us’.  I don’t know, but perhaps this is an important source of that virtue called ‘Christian charity’.  What is important is the degree to which that quality is nurtured, not just in theory but in practice. 

The same principle can be applied to Buddhists as well. The Buddha did not prescribe ‘good action’ on pain of punishment by a divine authority, merely pointing out that actions have consequences and that the nature of the action can determine the length and nature of sojourn in sanasara.  The Buddha spoke of the sathara brahma viharana; kindness, compassion, equanimity and the quality of rejoicing in the happiness of others.  Nowhere in the extensive archive of the Buddha’s teachings is anger, hatred, revenge etc advocated.  It is a doctrine, one can argue, about humility.  It is about quelling anger with compassion, not anger.  It is about the employment of wisdom or pragna as well as compassion or maithree in appropriate combinations, the appropriateness being determined by degree of understanding, comprehension, experience etc that make up one’s karma shakthiya.      
We have to conclude that Buddhists can be Buddhists only to the extent that they engage with the Dhamma and accept it as a way of life, a practical set of principles to conduct one’s affairs and a pathway to emancipation from sorrow.  So there are all kinds of Buddhists.  There are also all kinds of Christians.  And Hindus and Muslims too.

Perhaps I am taking things too far out of the world called here-and-now.  Let me bring things down from what could be perceived as abstract to what everyone will say ‘real’ (relatively).

I have heard a lot of people say a lot of nasty things about people like Prof. Nalin De Silva.  Most of these accusers are rabidly against anyone affirming a Sinhala or Sinhala Buddhist identity.  Some of them are fundamentalist Christians and defend a lot of stuff that many would call ‘unethical’ by saying ‘that’s just politics; people pushing a particular ideology, just like a politician would’.  They show very little Christian charity, have very little humility, don’t have a clue about what is meant by the dictum ‘Love thy neighbour like thyself’ and rather than forgiving trespasses against them, take ‘revenge’ as a legitimate option sanctioned by Jesus Christ.  Let me put all that aside in the way I believe Jesus would have done: ‘forgive them for they do not know what they do’.  But let me also try to put things in perspective.

Take Prof Nalin De Silva.  ‘Racist’, ‘Sinhala-Buddhist Chauvinist’ and ‘extremist’ are some of the wonderful titles he has been conferred with over the past twenty years.  How many are willing to acknowledge that Nalin, more than anyone else, was instrumental in countering Eelamist ideology and dissolving slowly but surely the notion that the LTTE could not be militarily defeated?  Would they say that they contributed anything even close to what Nalin did in the ideological sphere, in political practice or in any other way?  Indeed, is it not true that by supporting political parties and politicians Nalin was opposed to, they helped buttress Eelamism, the LTTE and terrorism, willingly or unwillingly? 

Would they even grudgingly admit that today if they are in any way happy that the LTTE is no more, Nalin De Silva is in some small way responsible for their happiness? Would they grudgingly acknowledge that they owe Nalin De Silva some small token of appreciation for the fact that they don’t have to worry about bombs going off?  Would they be big enough to admit that Ven. Athureliye Rathana played a key role by the brave stand he took in opposing the ‘joint-mechanism’ that international donors were about to thrust down our throats and which would have strengthened the LTTE even further (i.e. even more than they were strengthened ideologically and physically by the UNP regime of Ranil Wickremesinghe via the CFA)?  Would they acknowledge that the stand that Ven. Rathana took at Mavil Aru precipitated the response that turned things around and brought us this splendid LTTE-free political moment?  Would they acknowledge that they have done nothing, absolutely nothing, in comparison by way of contributing to create an LTTE-less Sri Lanka?  Prof. Nalin De Silva and Ven. Athureliye Rathana stood up and spoke when that was necessary. What have their detractors done?  Nothing, in comparison, I am willing to wager. 

Is it not the proper thing to do, to criticize whatever they want to criticize, but acknowledge in the same breath a) that those they criticize were in some aspects better human beings, and b) that it is important that those who criticize engage in a little self-criticism now and then? 

I think there is a reason why all religions teach us that humility is a virtue.  If we are humanly frail, on what ecclesiastical grounds or some principle that is larger than and beyond ‘church’ do we obtain the right to judge, to call people names, unless we are humble enough to admit our error and our bias, instead of hiding behind that timeless political lie, ‘neutral’? 

These are days of stone-throwing.  Solid, physical pebbles and rocks and metaphorical missiles are being cast.  The Catholic Bishops’ Conference has condemned a stone-throwing.  The Jathika Hela Urumaya and the Jathika Sangha Sabhava have also condemned the stone-throwing.  I am yet to hear any comment from Christian groups objecting to the insensitivity in the use of image and specificity of choreographing in the music video that caused the stone-throwing.  They have said nothing about ‘intolerance’ here.  I haven’t heard those who took issue with the Maharaja Organization and Sirasa TV protest the role of others, especially the Tourism Ministry, in organizing this show. 

There is intolerance all around. There is a manifest aversion to be self-critical. This is not what the Buddha taught. It is not what Jesus Christ taught. It is not what either of them advocated in word and deed. 

Where is the humility in the stone-throwers?

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation'.  You can write to him at msenevira@gmail.com. 
This was first published in the Sunday Island on March 28, 2011