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Society and Politics

Dealing with Authority and its Abuse

Society and Politics

A chapter taken from the book Transforming our Terror by Christopher Titmuss.

In the name of God,
The compassionate and the merciful,
Sovereign of the day of judgment
You alone we worship,
And to you alone we turn for help.
Guide us to the straight path.
-- The Exordium from the Qur'an

The world is a small place in which it is all too easy to be aware of countless examples of abuse of authority. Governments, religious authorities, violent political groups, and powerful organizations impose their will on ordinary people, who struggle to stop the exploitation of their lives and their environment. It is hard to stand up to these various forces, which at times can seem so formidable.

Yet spiritual awareness calls upon us to bring a moral concern to these major arenas of life. We need to use all our strength and independence to examine the way the authoritarian shadow falls upon us. Like trying to see the lines of a hand very close to your face, it can be difficult to see the imposition of questionable authority on your life at home. You need to hold the hand away to see its lines properly.

The various ways in which authorities influence our lives are not always easy to pick out. But if, say, we felt that our government was manipulating public opinion to support its version of reality, what would be an appropriate way for us to respond? Sensing the misuse of power, we would have either to challenge the government's authority or remain passive.

If, however, we decided that we were not going to live as poor, downtrodden creatures, paying lip service to authority, we have the potential to express what is called in the spiritual tradition of the East the "original mind." Instead of blindly repeating what we have been told to believe, we experience and acknowledge our doubts, even if this proves to be uncomfortable. By doing this, we cultivate the original mind; and our moral authority is then revealed in our capacity to think for ourselves rather than acting like obedient children submitting to a powerful parent.

While our political leaders feed us selective information to communicate a certain position, the original mind is able to realise a deep intimacy with what lies behind all the slogans, labels, and images; and it feels a depth of love for all those who suffer and the need for commitment to constructive engagement to resolve great problems. Not surprisingly, this spiritually informed attitude is not something most heads of state care for in their concern to win over their citizens with their political rhetoric.

Yet, there is a place for wise authority in life. We need to be clear about its features so that we can distinguish it from an abusive form of authority driven by the need for power. A true authority expresses a wise and compassionate approach to human problems. It shows a genuinely sustainable, non-divisive view and it understands the deeper viewpoints of those who disagree violently with its position. A true authority is willing to be constructive with adversaries and speak openly about past and present misunderstandings, exploitation, and suffering; and it reveals a wise and mature response to events rather than a retaliatory one.

If we can recognize those qualities in an authority, we have the grounds to place our faith in it. Wise leadership has the inner power to acknowledge mistakes of the past in matters of policy and perception as well as in the determination not to repeat history. In spiritual terms, this means ending the old "karma" and creating causes and conditions for healing and wholeness.

This chapter examines the use and abuse of authority. It explores the ways in which authority manifests itself, primarily in the arenas of religion, war, and politics, and also how abuse operates in us at a personal level. And it suggests ways in which we can respond to abusive authority from a spiritual perspective.

Injustice in the name of religion

There have been countless wars and other conflicts throughout the history of mankind, and it is a sad truth that many of them have been fought under the banners of God and religion. To an impartial observer, it would seem that God's revelation includes massacres and despotic wars. Today, leaders of major religions continue to defend the so-called "just war" and give assurance that there is no sin in bombing, shooting, or attacking enemies. Priests, mullahs, and rabbis tell militants and soldiers that killing their enemies - including political targets, soldiers, and civilians - in war is different from murder. Having accepted the authority of their religious leaders, believers go off feeling assured that if they die for their cause, their souls will go heaven.

Going to war in the belief that it is the will of God is something common to most, if not all, religions and cultures in history. And it is easy to see that present-day conflicts and suffering clearly have parallels with those of the past. It has been said that if we do not learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. By studying the past we can see how war tends to arise in similar ways. For example, Jerusalem has seethed with conflict off and on for around a hundred generations, with claims and counterclaims by various peoples for control over the city. Today, there seems to be little hope in sight for reconciliation, because of the belligerence and demands of the opposing sides.

In fact we are left wondering whether any people in the region (or in more recent times the international community) has made any progress toward resolving these religious and political disputes, which have rumbled on since the Middle Ages and before. During the 11th century CE, the principal rulers in Europe no longer perceived the Vikings as a threat to their security and moved toward seeing the Muslims as the new force to be feared. This perception contributed to the Crusading movement, which lasted for about 200 years. To encourage the Christian soldiers and knights to undertake these military expeditions to the Holy Land against the Muslims, the Church promised them that penance due to sin would be remitted. Also, if they died in battle they would be rewarded with a martyr's crown, allowing them to go straight to heaven. So the Christian armies who set out for the Holy Land were bolstered by religious authority and the prospect of divine reward, just as Muslim suicide attackers are today. But using God as an excuse to kill enemies cannot be justified whatever the religion. God demands love, compassion, and justice from us, not slaughter.

Religious authority is conducted through hierarchical structures. It also receives crucial backing from sacred texts, which have a particularly significant place in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In fact it was because Jews and Christians were "people of the book" that Muslims treated those of them who lived in Islamic lands with a certain degree of respect and toleration-which was not reciprocated to Muslims in European lands.

Sacred texts, such as the Qur'an and the Bible, have been an extraordinary source of inspiration to us. For many deeply religious people, however, it is easy to see the great merit of their own scriptures and hard to accept the validity of those of other religions. Yet, as with other forms of authority, we have to use discerning judgment with sacred texts: we have to focus on those passages that uphold deep values, show love and compassion, and point to the presence of God or truth in the midst of things.

For if we are not careful, we can easily become selective in the way we read a holy book. For example, the issue of a respected New York Buddhist magazine that followed September 11th published Buddhist responses to the conflict. A prominent Buddhist writer picked out some passages from the Qur'an that he described as a "sobering experience." He said the "text keeps returning to the divisive and warlike language of "us" versus "them," and he referred to the book's "implicit incitement to violence." In the following issue of the same magazine, a lecturer in Arabic language at New York University described (rightly in my view) that the Buddhist writer had engaged in a "highly selective reading" of the Qur'an and thus did not do "justice to the complexity and richness of its message."

In the same way, it would be easy to take passages from the Bible that would also be a "sobering experience"-for example, the divine destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the killing of the first-born sons of Egypt before the exodus of the Israelites. We feel similar concern about apparently inflammatory statements in the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita, when the god Krishna encourages Arjuna to kill his enemies on the battlefield-since Krishna claims that those who die will be reborn. Yet if we dismissed the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Qur'an on the basis of difficult passages, we would be overlooking the complexity and richness of the deep spiritual teachings found among their pages.

We must not forget that words on paper lack inherent significance. They lack the power to force men and women to behave in any particular way. We attribute authority to a particular book, although it patently lacks it. The Qur'an and other sacred texts remind us to leave everything in the hands of God. We need to read passages from them that emphasize the importance of love, compassion, and justice. Our world would be a poorer place without sacred literature-despite the anomalies-that challenges our secular culture with discerning passages of wisdom and love from intolerance.

Awareness of religious authority

How aware are we of the extent religious authorities have played and continue to play in our lives? Do we feel at ease with them? Do we dare to challenge them? The following questions are intended to help us explore our relationship with God, religion, and the holy scriptures.

• Have we been brought up to believe in God and the holy scriptures being the ultimate authority?

Are our actions influenced by a religious authority and in what way?

How do we react to those whose religious authority differs from our own?

What happens to our state of mind when we read a sacred book? Do we appreciate that the mind alone takes words on paper and "reifies" them or makes them real?

Do we believe that we all belong to God or the expanse of Life?

Do we imagine that God favors one side over another in a conflict?

Have we ever witnessed people threaten others in the name of God? How did we react?

The Terror of War

Apart from other sensitivities about war, there are many religious people who question the assurance of heaven for those who die for a "just war." In the Buddhist tradition there is the story of a professional soldier who found himself engaged in intensive soul-searching. Deeply concerned about his involvement in killing and wounding others on the battlefield, he went off to talk to the Buddha. He confided in him that his religious leaders had told him that if he died in battle, he would go to heaven. However, he experienced doubts about their authority.

"What do you say about that?" he asked the Buddha. The Buddha seemed reluctant to answer him. The soldier must have sensed that what the Buddha was about to say would be painful to hear. Nevertheless, he insisted that the Buddha spoke and asked him the same question three times.

Looking at him directly, the Buddha said that those who strive in war already have a mind that is "low, depraved and misdirected." He then added that those who slaughter people show an utter misunderstanding of the way to heaven. "Upon dying in a battle, the soldier will find himself in hell," the Buddha added. The soldier burst into tears. The Buddha said he knew this would be very distressing to hear, which is why he had hesitated to say anything.

"I'm not crying because of what you said," replied the soldier, "but because I have been deceived for so long by other soldiers and religious leaders, who told me I would go to heaven if I died fighting." The Buddha stated emphatically that dealing in arms was utterly incompatible with the spiritual life.

According to the Buddha, from a spiritual perspective, war cannot be just. Every time we support decisions that inflict suffering on other people, we rob them of their intrinsic worth as human beings. Our stance not only tells us about the unresolved forces within us that condone naked aggression, but also reveals our lack of faith in dialogue, that remarkable feature of our species that enables resolution of terror through language. It is dialogue, the skillful use of words, which ensures a true encounter with others. For language seeks to meet others rather than destroy them. It is this capacity to describe what we feel and think in front of others that paves the way for the resolution of difficulties. We can discuss and negotiate agreements, and it is in our refusal to listen and support others that we sow the seeds for violence- a violence that can explode on the innocent.

Whether these acts of violence come from personal rage or from acting under the orders of others, their impact and consequences remain the same. It is the suffering they bring about that counts, as well as the factors that created them. We make war to impose our version of truth ruthlessly upon others, as if they had no right to dispute our view of reality. Both sides refer to each other as evil, believing they themselves are on the side of the good. Both sides refuse to examine the causes and conditions for conflict that have become obscured by these charged and destructive concepts.

Yet, we are faced with an imperative to examine the range of reasons for violence without justifying one set of conditions and refuting another. Through a balanced investigation, there is the potential for a meaningful exchange and the chance to transform suffering. The basis for this exchange is through understanding that others wish to live free from suffering as much as we do. By making this inner shift we are able to see beyond the loyalties and bias of the self and look with the eyes of God, with the eyes of mercy and compassion for everyone.

Few men and women engage in truly despotic acts of cruelty. This is true even of soldiers, who are trained to commit acts of violence-it would be unfair to categorize those in the armed services as living out psychotic impulses to kill and maim others. However, even if an army psychologist pronounced the minds of certain combat forces to be psychologically and emotionally healthy, it is the condition of the mind that obeys all orders that is of the greatest concern to those investigating the nature of freedom. The first rule in the armed services is unquestioning obedience to superiors. Trained in such a way, military personnel follow orders without examining the basis for them; and those who question their political leaders face severe retribution.

This issue of obeying orders unquestioningly was brought home to me during a public talk I recently gave in a synagogue in Tel Aviv, Israel. At one point I asked the audience to tell their fathers, brothers, sons, and uncles to put down their rifles and to refuse to drive tanks or fly helicopters in the occupied territories that belong to their neighbors, the Palestinians. Three men walked out when I made this appeal. To refuse to engage in threatening and intimidating action, let alone in killing people, is an act of inner freedom. Those brave enough to resist the orders of their superiors to cause suffering reveal a spiritual awareness and an attitude to authority that transcends the dominant view.

After the talk, a young man came up to me and said: "I am a combat soldier with the IDF (Israeli Defense Force). I realize we have no right to treat the Palestinian people in this way." Then he added: "More and more young Israelis are refusing conscription. I shall not step again into Palestine as a soldier. The authorities will probably send me to prison for a couple of months for disobeying orders. It is not easy. My wife is pregnant and is expecting a baby soon."

I believe young men like him are a credit to themselves, their families, and their country for refusing to make war on others. These soldiers have to put up with hardship and verbal abuse from their peers and seniors in refusing to surrender to the demands of the nation-state. It is in such confrontation that men and women test their mettle as to whether they can treat others as they wish to be treated. As a governing principle, this great ethic for human existence reveals a noble way of life.

Reflecting on Conflict

How do we feel personally about war and conflict? What would we ask ourselves if, for example, another or others attacked us in one form or another? Our questions might include:

1. What are their motives? Why are they very hostile toward us and seek to harm us? What is it they do not understand?
To start with, we have to look very carefully and honestly at the situation as we try to fathom as openly as possible what is going on.

2. What do they want? What do they hope to achieve through their words or actions?
It often becomes apparent to us that the means people use to get their way may bring about the complete opposite of what they really want. Spellbound in ignorance, the mind fails to see the painful karma it sows through lack of wisdom about means and ends.

3. Do I have any responsibilities, directly or indirectly, in this issue? What are they? Have I said or done anything that has triggered such a response?
We may have to take a good, long, hard look at ourselves to see if we have created difficulties or contributed to the suffering, either actively or through neglect.

4. Am I willing to try to resolve the problem?
In soul-searching, this is often one of the hardest questions to produce a positive response to. We may need to apologize, make amends, show love and compassion, and be willing to admit we have made mistakes or have ignored the anguish of others. We also need the courage to realize that this open attitude may mean having to defy an authority, but that it is necessary for our spiritual health.

Strife and Tradition

Many of the conflicts in the world, past and present, have been due to ethnic strife, when two races or communities, historically divided by culture, traditions, or religious beliefs, have fought each other with a determination hardened by time. Apart from the situation in the Middle East, we only have to think of the constant tensions and hostilities, sometimes sporadic, sometimes protracted, between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Indians and Pakistanis, Protestant Loyalists and Catholic Republicans in Northern Ireland, and Serbs, Croats, and Muslims in former Yugoslavia. What are the roots of these conflicts? What causes such deep and violent divisions between people? From a spiritual perspective the search for an answer begins with the self. Our ignorance of ourselves and tendency to build ourselves up at the expense of others are the building blocks on which larger conflicts are raised. To understand aggression between two sides, therefore, we need to first look the self.

In the Buddhist tradition, practitioners of awareness and self-understanding examine projections either onto themselves or others. These projections become layers covering basic reality. Buddhists have wisely stated that ignorance propels the tendencies to cause harm. Under the sway of ignorance, we think that ignorance belongs to others, as though we had exclusive rights to true knowledge and understanding. If a change is to take place in our relationships, we have to acknowledge our blind spots and our areas of ignorance before we project such failings onto others. We have to understand the force of history as well as contemporary pressures. By admitting ignorance we pave the way for humility and willingness to engage in those things that support the deeper interest of all.

For the self to inflict suffering in the name of a belief, it needs some kind of authority to substantiate what it does. This authority often takes strength from historical precedence for support. Without drawing on history and beliefs, the self would feel incapable of acting in destructive ways on its own. Since the essential nature of the self is empty of substance, it needs the force of the past, personal, and historical to inject itself with authority to support a cause greater that itself. In the eyes of the self, the nation, or the religion, beliefs give credence to the application of terror or the initiation of war. The self then appoints itself as the lord over life and death.

But when the self does not cling to its traditional authority in a dogmatic way and nurtures tolerance, it can promote a similarly relaxed outlook in others. This is illustrated by the following story told between Muslims and Jews. It reveals the goodwill that used to exist between the two communities. Centuries ago, the mullah in Damascus had a very sore throat, so he was unable to chant the opening words of the Qur'an from the top of his minaret to the faithful below. He knew that his neighbor, a rabbi, had a strong voice, so he asked him if he would kindly climb the steps of the minaret and chant the opening lines for him.

The rabbi agreed but did not call out the traditional Muslim words, "There is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet," as the mullah had asked. Instead he shouted out in his best Jewish voice: "There is only one God and Moses is his prophet." In the streets around the minaret, bemused Muslims looked up at the top of the minaret and, when they spotted the grinning rabbi looking down on them in the streets below, they burst into good-natured laughter, realizing that he was teasing them.

In today's political climate, it is impossible to imagine such an expression of religious tolerance. It will take a significant shift to expand our spiritual, religious, and political horizons to see beyond the insular views that shape our perceptions of events, both personal and international. We await the day when the mullah invites the rabbi to the top of the minaret.

Different peoples, one humanity

Sometimes it is easy to forget that the ethnic violence we read about happening abroad is reliant on personal attitudes that we can find close to home. The following suggestions, points, and questions can be used to focus on your prevailing attitudes toward others.

1. Take time to read about the history of your country. Was it founded as a result of warfare? What happened to the people who lived on the land before it was settled by outsiders?

2. Look at the composition of the society you live in. If it is multicultural, is this reflected by the distribution of different ethnic groups in positions of influence? If not, does this bother you?

3. If you read about an influx of immigrants into your country do you feel acceptance or resentment? If you are happy with the idea, would that change if a refugee camp were set up near your home?

4. Do you enjoy coming across the food, dress, language, and other aspects of the culture of an ethnic group other than your own?

5. Realize that beneath the color of skin and diversity of languages and customs, we are all human beings, all faced with life's problems, and that we all need each other.

Oppression and Freedom

How should we react when we are faced with political oppression in our own countries, states, or regions? In the Bible Jesus was once asked whether Jews should pay tax to the Romans. His reply was that we should "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and render unto God what is God's." By this view, we have to concentrate on developing our spiritual lives and obey our inner voices, measuring our actions against the words of love, compassion, and kindness toward others that the great spiritual figures of the past have proclaimed. This is not always easy and can involve visible, non-violent protest against political authority.

In September, 1997, I flew to Washington, DC, to support the Buddhist monk, Venerable Maha Ghosananda, patriarch of Cambodia and thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, in his campaign against antipersonnel mines. While I was there I met a Cambodian named Pracha in a Buddhist monastery outside the city. Pracha had been sent by the Cambodian government to study engineering at an American university in the early 1970s, shortly before the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, organized its campaign throughout Cambodia to exterminate the educated masses and terrorize the uneducated. (During this terrible period Venerable Ghosananda and I lived as Buddhist monks in a monastery, a 15-hour-drive south of Bangkok, Thailand. Venerable Ghosananda lost every member of his family-who were teachers, lawyers, diplomats.)

Pracha described to me a visit he made to his homeland sometime after the massacres had taken place. He told me: "More than one-third of the population of Cambodia were murdered. They arrested educated people and took them to the local schools. In the classrooms, they systematically tortured people, clubbed them, or shot them day after day. The people in the villages could hear the screaming and terror in the schools."

It was a Buddhist holocaust. Hundreds of thousands died from poverty, sickness, and malnutrition or were worked to death in the fields. The Khmer Rouge destroyed much of the cultural and religious life of Cambodia and inflicted ground zero on many of the cities and villages.

With tears in his eyes, Pracha added: "When I arrived in the country I went to the village where so many members of my family died unspeakably cruel deaths. In Cambodia, it is normal to ask guests or family members when they arrive back home questions such as, 'Where have you come from today?' or 'Are you thirsty or hungry?' Instead, the first questions put to me were: "How many relatives did you lose? How many relatives do you have left?"

I asked Pracha what he felt today about the terror of the mid-1970s. He replied: "As Buddhists, we learn two things. One is not to cling to the past, as it will only fuel bitterness and hatred. We must be in the present and practice loving kindness toward everybody, including Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. It is never easy but we must learn to forgive and move on."

On the steps of the Senate later that day, the United Nations launched an international campaign to stop the production of landmines. Venerable Ghosananda said to the reporters and camera crew that we have to uproot the antipersonnel mines that exist in our hearts as well the mines planted in the ground. His words brought silence to the posse of reporters armed with pens, paper, tape recorders, and cameras.

What the Khmer Rouge did to Cambodia shows what can happen when political authority, backed by overwhelming armed force, assumes total control over a country. And the same tyranny is enacted at a personal level when our hearts have become as landmines. This inner defensiveness, of booby-trapping the terrain we wish to preserve as our own, can be caused, at root, by our desire for freedom-by trying to obtain it or defend it at all costs.

As human beings, we have a special relationship to freedom, and we tend to do all in our power to protect it whenever circumstances threaten it. Our love of freedom runs deep in our being at the biological, social, and personal levels. History abounds with stories of quests for liberation, not only by individuals but by entire groups of people who felt oppressed by their situation-the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt being the paradigm. In our love of freedom, we do not submit or surrender to demands.

But if, as a species, we yearn for the opportunity to live our lives free from subjugation, we should remember that as individuals we can sacrifice our freedom by submitting to inner, unhealthy impulses and tendencies that make us unhappy, fearful, and intolerant. We can easily lose our freedom through bowing to the authority of others' demands or through conferring a misplaced sense of authority on our own problematic states of mind.

Our freedom also fades when we sell out through trying to satisfy our urges to get what we want as quickly as possible, even if it means walking over those who get in our way. At times, we give ourselves such self-importance that others want to keep away from us. And it is quite possible to drive ourselves crazy by pursuing the personal success on which our sense of self-worth hinges. This desire to feel important feeds our infatuation with celebrities, sports teams, charismatic leaders, and patriotic rallies. Through association, contact and loyalty, we experience the thrill of triumph over others. Our pleasure is bought at the expense of others.

So freedom, at heart, rests on our ability to think for ourselves, resisting pressures from our inner urges and desires as well as compulsion from outside, especially during a national emergency. For it often happens that if a group of people are threatened, they are forced to come together in solidarity with each other. Previously, they may have disregarded their leader; now they rally around his or her words because of threats to their security. In this collective need for self-protection, we may whittle down the hard-won freedom to think for ourselves in the belief that conforming to the aims of our leaders will offer us more protection. Freedom is a natural instinct, but we abuse it if we use it as a justification to terrorize others.

Countering Oppression

Political oppression is widespread over the world, more obvious and brutal in some places, more subtle and invidious in others. As individuals, what can we do to combat oppression both at national and at a personal level? The following points of this "People's Peace Treaty" may serve to bolster our thoughts and actions in a positive way against oppression or its threat.

1. I vow to dissociate myself completely from any destruction of life, including all acts of war, acts of terror, and executions. I will not support any declarations of war initiated by my country or any other that I support.

2. I vow not to attack or abuse other groups of people (nations, majorities, minorities or individuals.)

3. I vow to give support to organizations and groups working for peace, justice, political, economic and environmental rights.

4. I vow to work to end suffering perpetuated through violence, fear, corruption, phobias or greed.

5. I endeavor to persuade the military, arms manufacturers, and arms dealers to lay down their weapons and kill the hate inside themselves.

6. I vow to see people rather than the labels attached to people and to be aware of our common humanity.

7. I vow to work to end anger, aggression, or fear within myself as an expression of duty to humanity.

Meditation on Compassion

Use this "Prayer of the Heart" as a meditation to overcome negative thoughts toward others and to instill in yourself feelings of loving-kindness for family, friends, neighbors, and strangers and enemies, both at home and abroad. By doing so you can help loosen the bonds that hold unjust authority in place.

Prayer of the Heart

Let us keep our hearts focused.
Let me find kindness to negate resentment.
Let me show generosity to dissolve possessiveness.
Let me stand steady in the face of pain rather than live in fear.
Let me experience inquiry rather than reaction.
Let me be free from clinging and a narrow mind.
Let me express compassion rather than indifference.

So that my heart connects with the realities of others.
So that I stay true to an undying principle
Of treating others as I wish to be treated.
So awareness and respect pervade
My thoughts, words and actions.
So that I live in a way that brings dignity and nobility to life
And reveals true freedom of being.



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 Society and Politics
Christopher Titmuss, a former Buddhist monk, is co-founder of Gaia House, an international retreat centre in Devon, England.

A senior Dharma teacher in the West, he is the author of numerous books including Light on Enlightenment, An Awakened Life and Transforming Our Terror.

He lives in Totnes, Devon, England.
Transforming Our Terror
Transforming Our Terror: A Spiritual Approach to Making Sense of Senseless Tragedy
by Christopher Titmuss

Following in the wake of acts of terror on September 11, 2001, the UK and US publishers invited the author to explore a spiritual approach to making sense of senseless situations.

The book examines grief, despair, rage, violence and war adopting a spiritual perspective.

The author points to skilful ways to transform desire for vengeance, practices to cope with personal terror and to make sense of pain and death.

He offers a variety of practical exercises to transform intense suffering as well as inquiring into such areas as stereotypes, power, personal and international conflict.

More info