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Religion as a force for good: As Burmese rebellion shows, often faithful inspired to do great things

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DeepModem Mom Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Sep-29-07 12:57 PM
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Religion as a force for good: As Burmese rebellion shows, often faithful inspired to do great things
LAT: Religion as a force for good
As the Burmese rebellion shows, it's often the faithful who are inspired to do great things.
By Ian Buruma
September 29, 2007

It has become fashionable in certain smart circles to regard atheism as a sign of superior education, of highly evolved civilization, of enlightenment. Recent bestsellers by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others suggest that religious faith is a sign of backwardness, the mark of primitives stuck in the Dark Ages who have not caught up with scientific reason. Religion, we are told, is responsible for violence, oppression, poverty and many other ills. It is not difficult to find examples to back up this assertion. But what about the opposite? Can religion also be a force for good? Are there cases in which religious faith comes to the rescue even of those who don't have it?

I have never personally had either the benefits nor misfortunes of adhering to any religion, but watching Burmese monks on television defying the security forces of one of the world's most oppressive regimes, it is hard not to see some merit in religious belief. Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a deeply religious country, where most men spend some time as Buddhist monks. Even the thuggish Burmese junta hesitated before unleashing lethal force on men dressed in the maroon and saffron robes of their faith.

The monks, and nuns in pink robes, were soon joined by students, actors and others who want to be rid of the junta. But the monks and nuns took the first step; they dared to protest when most others had given up. And they did so with the moral authority of their Buddhist faith. Romantics might say that Buddhism is unlike other religions, more a philosophy than a faith. But this would be untrue. It has been a religion in different parts of Asia for many centuries, and can be used to justify violent acts as much as any other belief. For evidence, one need only look at Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is lashed onto ethnic chauvinism in the civil war between Buddhist Singhalese and Hindu Tamils.

Just as the Buddhists risked their lives to stand up for democracy in Myanmar, Christians have done so in other countries. The Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines was doomed in the mid-1980s from the moment the Catholic Church turned against it. Thousands of ordinary citizens defied the tanks when Marcos threatened to crush "People Power" with force, but the presence of priests and nuns gave the rebellion its moral authority. Many political dissidents in South Korea were inspired by their Christian beliefs, and the same is true in China. And no one can deny the religious authority of Pope John Paul II as a spur to Poland's rebellion against communist dictatorship in the 1980s....

(Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of "Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance." He is a professor at Bard College and a contributing editor to The Times' opinion pages.)
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Warpy Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Sep-29-07 01:40 PM
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1. The conflict in Sri Lanka is more an ethnic one than
a religious one. Buddhism has its roots in Hinduism, after all. The conflict is more friction between a large population and a smaller population squabbling over resources, not religion.

Also, I doubt the Buddhist monks in Myanmar were standing up for democracy as much as they were standing against cruelty and repression by the junta.
What form a government takes is far less important than how it treats its people to Buddhist practitioners.

However, yes, a culture's holy men have often shamed governments into reforming or disappearing entirely. This is religion at its best.

Religion at its worst is what we have here in the US, a series of businesses that have been co opted by the government by faith based taxpayer handouts.
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DeepModem Mom Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Sep-29-07 02:06 PM
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2. Thanks for your thoughtful post, Warpy! nt
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Vidar Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Sep-29-07 04:15 PM
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3. Powerful and thoughtful article, DeepModem Mom. I would add Martin Luther
King and Gandhi to the author's list of heroic religious leaders that vastly improved the world.
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DeepModem Mom Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Sep-29-07 04:40 PM
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4. Yes, indeed! nt
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Lydia Leftcoast Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Sep-29-07 05:29 PM
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5. Also the many clergy, black and white, who worked for the civil rights
movement, and religious people like the Berrigan brothers and William Sloane Coffin, who were at the forefront of opposition to the Vietnam War.

Remember the huge participation by Catholic and Protestant churches in the movement to stop Reagan's interventions in Central America, the churches that provided sanctuary to refugees who were in danger of being deported, and the clergy and nuns who have been imprisoned for damaging missile installations and protesting at the School of the Americas.

There are now religious groups such as Witness for Peace, who go into areas of conflict unarmed and provide humanitarian aid for victims of civil wars. I know one man in his eighties who has traveled to both Chiapas and Colombia.

Meanwhile, in our own country, the churches have stepped in to fill the gap left by the uncaring Bush administration and major non-profits (e.g. the Red Cross) to offer no-strings-attached assistance to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina all along the Gulf Coast. The Episcopal-Lutheran organization that I volunteered for in January 2006 has shifted its focus to construction and repair and has built or repaired homes for 350 households, a drop in the bucket, but that's 350 families that don't have to live in FEMA trailers or tents or cars anymore.
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Vidar Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Sep-30-07 09:03 AM
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6. There's no question that the almost perennial good works of
the more mainstream liberal clergy, both Protestant & Catholic, continue to be overlooked in favor of wacko fundies, who make better headlines for the grocery store tabloids.
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