Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tolerance and Respect

Recently, on FaceBook, there have been some interesting comments by friends that have gotten me thinking about how we view those whose beliefs are different from our own. I have seen atheists slamming anyone who professes a religion. Christians are attacking those who stand up for gay rights. And lest you think that I am only seeing this in "others", I have even seen Baha'is criticizing the Dalai Lama for espousing reincarnation, not to mention his appreciation of the friendly attitude that someone like George Bush had. In the last instance, the Dalai Lama was careful  to say that he thought the former president was a very friendly man, but that he disagreed with some of his policies, which I think is a fine example of looking at someone's good qualities, instead of the bad. It is, in my opinion, someone living according to the example of 'Abdu'l-Baha far more closely than I have ever done.

It's all fine and good to talk about free speech, or believing that all religions come from God, or that all people have the right to live according to their beliefs, but the question is what do we do when their beliefs seem to be in direct contradiction to our own? How we treat those who believe differently, especially when they are a minority, is the touchstone by which we can judge the sincerity of that intention.

Some would say that tolerance is what is needed. I have often said that tolerance is one of the most damning things I can imagine, for if my wife merely tolerated me, that would be a fine example of a living hell. But nevertheless, I have to admit that it is an important step to take when that tolerance is not there. While respect for the other may be the ideal, that is sometimes too large a leap for some to take, and tolerance may be a good beginning.

So where does all this come from?

Well, let's look a moment at history. For millennia, those in charge have often tried to force others to their particular perspective. And please note that I use the word "force". This is quite different from those few who have tried to educate others to a more coherent way of thinking. This forcing is indicative of a regime that is insecure in its power and feels threatened by any who espouses a different view than their own. We can look at the ancient Greeks who killed Socrates, or the Romans who tried to force their idols into the Jewish Temples. We can turn to modern-day Iran with its oppression of its religious minorities, or the United States with those Christians who feel threatened by the lifestyle choices of others. These examples are by no means comprehensive, for we can turn to just about any group in power at some point in history and find similar examples.

While I agree that it is inappropriate to pass laws that coerce others into living according to beliefs that are not their own, as with some of the laws currently being passed in the States regarding gay rights or science education, it is just as inappropriate to deride those who do that forcing, either through name-calling, mocking, or any other form of intellectual bullying. After all, what these people who are passing these laws are doing is exposing one of the inherent flaws in modern democracy: it allows the coercion of the entire community to live according to moral strictures of the majority. In other words, it is democracy in action. This does call to mind the importance of setting limits upon this democracy, or at least modifying the way in which it is practiced, which is far beyond my scope here.

But again, this sort of majority bullying has been going for a very long time, is found in virtually every culture, and has been done by nearly every religion or governing body. Some have suggested that Buddhism is the exception, but I am sad to have to point out that it is not. You only need to look at the history of the Bon-Po, or the back and forth persecutions between the Hindus and Buddhists in India. The whole concept of a Buddhist warrior may sound like a contradiction to us, and it is, just as the concept of a Christian warrior is also an oxymoron, and yet we still have the example of the Knight's Templar, and the Crusades, so there you go.

This is not to say that any of the different faiths are wrong, or bad, but just that they have all suffered under fundamentalist corruption at some point. To try and deny this would be a denial of history. It is, as the Universal House of Justice says so well, "a distortion of the human spirit".

Getting back to the main point, though, let's look again at what our response should be, according to our Faith, regardless of which Faith we espouse.

“To be attached to a certain view", it says in the Sutta Nipata of Buddhism, "and to look down upon other views as inferior-this the wise men call a fetter.” In the Qur'an, it says, "There is no compulsion in religion", and again, "Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe? No soul can believe, except by the Will of God."

We find the same thing in the Hindu Srimad Bhagavatam: "Truth has many aspects. Infinite truth has infinite expressions. Though the sages speak in diverse ways, they express one and the same Truth.`Ignorant is he who says, “What I say and know is true; others are wrong.” It is because of this attitude of the ignorant that there have been doubts and misunderstandings about God. This attitude [is what] causes dispute among men. But all doubts vanish when one gains self-control and attains tranquility by realizing the heart of Truth. Thereupon dispute, too, is at an end."

In that same Book, we also find a saying that we could well imagine seeing in the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha: "Like the bee, gathering honey from different flowers, the wise man accepts the essence of different scriptures and sees only the good in all religions."

"All the doctrines are right", it says in the Jainist Books, "in their own respective spheres-but if they encroach upon the province of other doctrines and try to refute their views, they are wrong."

In the Jewish Talmud, we are reminded that Jewish people are to "support the poor of the heathen along with the poor of Israel, visit the sick of the heathen along with the sick of Israel, and bury the [dead] poor of the heathen along with the dead of Israel, in the interests of peace."

And just in case we think that it is not found in the Christian Scriptures, there is that great story from the Book of Acts that reminds Christians to argue for "toleration of unconventional sects and opinions". This is the story, of course, where the Rabbi argued in defense of the Christians, asking the Council to " let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”

This theme is found in every religion, in all the sacred Books, and in the teachings of all the great Teachers.

An example of how we can do this can also be found throughout the teachings and Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha. He showed the greatest love and respect for all who crossed His path, and continually praised people for their understanding of the world. He never told anyone they were wrong, instead offering them an alternative view to consider. One of my favorite examples of this can be found when He responded to a question about reincarnation. He was not talking to someone who believed in reincarnation, and so His response is perhaps more straightforward than it would have been had He been talking to someone who did. But still, He began His response by saying, "The object of what we are about to say is to explain the reality -- not to deride the beliefs of other people; it is only to explain the facts; that is all. We do not oppose anyone's ideas, nor do we approve of criticism."

And that, to me, is the essence of how our attitude should be.

First, we should never deride the beliefs of others. They are, after all, their beliefs, and are, as such, very dear to their heart, and we must be so careful to never offend a heart.

Second, we should look at the facts, and not our interpretation of these facts. This is what He does when talking about reincarnation. He does not talk about interpretation, but the fact of the different understandings of what is meant by that term. Once He explains these, then He can address them, one at a time, with His interpretation to one who is seeking to understand the Baha'i belief in these matters.

Third, we should not oppose anyone's ideas. Opposition is always, and I do mean always, that first step towards war. We can seek to clarify, especially when we don't understand how someone gets from A to B, or we can offer another perspective on how to understand those facts, but those do not have to be in opposition.

Finally, we should never criticize, especially when it comes to matters of faith.

This is not easy, and will surely require much practice, especially from one such as myself, but I can think of no matter more important at this time. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the fate of the world depends on how we understand this issue, for things are coming to a boiling point around this, and our own carelessness in how we treat the beliefs of others could easily be that tipping point.

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