Occupation, Compassion, and Justice: Part 1 of 2

My advisor and mentor (whether he wants that title or not, too bad!) Paul Knitter often tells a story of working with a multi-faith group in Chiapas, Mexico, which was comprised of Christian social activists and Buddhists. In the process of drafting a document that called for a cessation of violence, the group got stuck on one word. It’s a word that doesn’t translate well between Christian and Buddhist thought: justice. The Christians wanted a prophetic call for justice on the part of the oppressed. The Buddhists did not want to write oppositional language into the document.

This impasse is indicative of a great stumbling block in social movements writ large. How can we demand justice for the subaltern without demonizing and dehumanizing the privileged? Do we even need to be concerned with the feelings of the so-called 1%, or can we leave them to their own guilt/regret/indignant anger?

My questions are basically these, which I will engage in turn over two postings:

  1. Is oppositional language necessary to social progress?
  2. What lessons can the Christian/Buddhist dialogue teach the 99%/#Occupy movements and conversely, what lessons do those movements have for the comparative theologian?
  3. Should we privilege prophetic “justice” language over universal compassion?

Is Oppositional Language Necessary to Social Progress?
The history of people’s liberation movements is rife with the “Us Against Them” division. This seems to be an entirely natural category: one group has power or privilege while another does not. Certainly, instances of both overt and covert colonization make this distinction almost irrevocably clear. What happens in internal divisions, though?

The present #Occupy movements are not movements for political sovereignty as such (though where the goals overlap, they have been sympathetic with those movements). The #Occupy movements internal to the United States share goals more in line with the Civil Rights or Women’s Suffrage movements. This complicates matters; there are no longer political borders (fictitious though they may be) separating “colonizer” and “colonized” or “oppressor” and “oppressed.” This is, rather, a struggle about the meaningful content of the term “citizen”: who is one and what rights does that title entail? In other words, what unites the 99% with the 1% and what divides these two groups?

There have been several notable instances of 1%-ers declaring solidarity with 99%-ers. One of these is Farhad Ebrahimi, who has dedicated an inherited wealth to social progress. (In the interest of disclosure, I should mention that Farhad is a friend of mine, though I believe that my approval of his engagement with his good fortune would stand if I had never met him.) Ebrahimi set up a charitable foundation with his inheritance, which is dedicated to environmental education and stewardship. His stated goal is to spend down his inheritance through this foundation while simultaneously seeking funds to keep the foundation solvent past the exhaustion of his resources. While he will eventually be economically in “the 99%,” he presently is not. Granted, his is an exceptional response to good fortune, but Ebrahimi is not unique. There are others in the 1% who are in active and committed solidarity.

What use is oppositional rhetoric when your “opponents” stand by your side? Perhaps, we could redefine our opposition to be against those who do not use their economic advantages and wealth for productive purposes, but that doesn’t make for catchy signs. Ultimately, neither the 1% nor the 99% is whole without the other, just as U.S. society was not and can not be whole without extending the franchise to all citizens regardless of racial background or genital sex.

Examples like Ebrahimi need to remind us that in the midst of a prophetic call to action, we are not self-contained entities. Because we are interrelated, we are incomplete without each other. Certainly there is room to call the 1% to attend to the sins they have committed upon the 99%, but we must remember that this call also makes demands of the 99%. That is to say, we are all a part of the larger 100%.

What Lessons Can Buddhist/Christian Dialogue Teach To and Learn From #Occupy?
I have marveled at the ability of #Occupy to present a plural message to the American public. While this is often characterized by the news media as “muddled” or “incoherent,” the fact is that it is a deeper reflection of contemporary epistemology than a clear and single-minded platform statement. We are so deeply enmeshed in the Postmodern era that the old Aristotelean bugaboo of logical consistency seems, frankly, outmoded. We can hold multiple claims as true without cognitive dissonance by an inherent recognition of the contingency of all claims to truth. The words of Jeff Bridges as The Dude seem apt here: “That’s just, like, your OPINION, man.” The #Occupy movement’s pluralistic manifesto serves as a concrete reminder that our truths need not be in winner-take-all competition. This is indeed a valuable lesson for the practice of comparative theology!

In turn, Buddhist/Christian dialogue and comparative theology have a record of reaching compromise and consensus. While the daily General Assemblies of #Occupy groups across the nation illustrate the ability of a group to reach consensus internally, the dialogue between competing religious truth claims can show a (hopefully) positive example of reaching external consensus with another group.

It is imperative in comparative theology to speak of the Other in terms that the Other recognizes as valid. It will not do to have Christians speaking of Buddhism in a manner that Buddhists will not recognize as authentic to their experience. By process of analogy, it will not be nearly as fruitful a conversation if the 1% can never recognize themselves in the characterization of The 99%.

Please come back next time for a further look at the lessons these two apparently distinct entities can share with each other and an engagement with the question of whether “justice” language, “compassion” language, both, or neither are needed in these moments.

Peter Herman is a PhD student in the Theological and Religious Studies program at Georgetown University, where his work focuses on Buddhist and Christian theological responses to and rationales for violence and warfare and the comparative theology of Buddhism and Christianity.

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  1. [...] mentioned in Part 1 of this article, there is still one major question left to answer. It is in many ways the most difficult of the [...]

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