Martyrs, minorities and micro-inequities

It seems to me that our society at large but also our community at Luther College has a hard time accommodating diversity of beliefs and opinions. More often than not, we hear the call for consensus. And while some consensus is important for the cohesiveness of a community, its "dark" side is intolerance towards dissent. This is very interesting since both our society at large but also many religious ideologies value freedom of speech and steadfastness to one's beliefs, respectively.

In fact, most contemporary religious positions as well as ideologies in general claim to value steadfastness especially in the face of opposition and interpret it as an indication of conviction, commitment and maturity. But how can we reconcile the call to community, and freedom of religion and speech? What is the place of minorities and those who feel silenced by the majority? In this blog, I would like to examine how selected religious texts address the situation of the minority and disenfranchised.

For example, in Psalm 6, we read "I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes." This kind of experiences and texts are, of course, not the monopoly of the Biblical traditions. Chapter 20 of the Lotus Sūtra, one of the main Buddhist scriptures, recounts the story of a monk who suffers insults and harassment from others including members of his own community because he was unwavering in his practice. The Lotus Sūtra narrates: "There were some who grew irate, those with impure minds who reviled him with foul mouths … For many years he was scolded and reviled. But he never got angry. He always said, 'You shall become Buddhas.' When he said that, those people would beat him with sticks or throw stones at him. He would run off, stand at a distance, and shout out, 'I dare not slight you, for you shall all become Buddhas!' Because of that monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen of overweening pride gave him the name 'Never-Disparaging.'"

I think even without an in-depth explanation of the context and message of the Lotus Sūtra in general or an explanation of all the Buddhist terms and concepts in this text, the point of this passage is rather obvious. The monk "Never–Disparaging" was insulted, beaten and persecuted because of his beliefs and practice. However, he did not resist or fight the abusers but suffered the insults, held fast to his belief and practice, and responded to the insult and violence with what we would call forgiveness. While the text does not explicate how the monk experienced this abuse, one can surely imagine that he did feel the despair and hurt the psalmist wrote about.

Both texts describe cases in which a person is persecuted for his or her convictions and lifestyle. In both instances, the persons who suffer oppression and discrimination belong to a minority; actually, it seems that the two protagonists are alone, surrounded by people with a negative, if not aggressive, disposition towards their convictions, lifestyles and existence. In both cases, their refusal to give into the harassment they experience constitutes not primarily a plea for their beliefs and practices but, most of all, a struggle for their right to remain faithful to who they are, what they do, and what they believe in. They are standing up for their individuality as well as their freedom of speech and religion and, by implication, for the rights and freedoms of everyone else. The very term "integrity" means most of all to remain true to oneself regardless of the pressure from the outside. The principle of individuality, if applied universally of course, implies a plurality of individuals and thus a diversity of "ways of life," cultures, and religions. Ultimately, the refusal of our two protagonists to give in, their effort to maintain their integrity, constitutes a plea for diversity of cultures and religions.

These are of course values central to our culture and our community. However, practicing integrity is not as glamorous and easy as it sounds: First of all, most of these instances of standing up for one's beliefs and the refusal to compromise one's identity do not occur on the obvious battlefields for religious freedom, freedom of speech, or human rights but in everyday situations that are neither glamorous nor apparent as challenge to our principles of individuality and diversity. For example, we have all experienced times when we do not want to be the only one who does not laugh at a "joke" that belittles a constituency that is barely if at all represented at said get-together. I use quotation marks here for "joke" since, to me, comments that belittle or dehumanize individuals and communities à bloc are not funny and thus do not qualify as jokes. Or times when peer pressure lures us into violating our moral beliefs; times, when we do not dare to say what we think because we fear repercussions for voicing our opinion; times when the representative of the mainstream signals his or her disapproval through body language such as rolling their eyes or disparaging comments designed to ridicule; times when the rhetoric of community, consensus and nationhood is used to silence dissent and to erase any possibility of disagreement, difference and individuality; times when those who do not conform to mainstream ideology or lifestyle have to jump through extra hoops; or gatherings at which the wave of emotion makes participants switch off their brains and shout out or do things they would not have done if they had thought about it, and end up regretting later. And so the list goes on.

Second, in the few instances when we actually resist the demand, if not tyranny, of the majority and draw its wrath even when the members of the mainstream do not "beat us with sticks or throw stones" but simply "scold(s) and revile(s)" us, it does not feel good to stand up for what we believe. Why is it that taking a stand for our convictions and the right for everyone to have their beliefs is not satisfying? Why does it not give us the glorious feeling for standing up for freedom of speech and democracy? Why, to the contrary, do we feel as the psalmist says "weary with moaning; every night and flood our bed with tears; why do we drench our couch with weeping?" It is because disagreeing with the majority is not easy: it creates self-doubt, destroys self-confidence, and drains one's energy and will. In addition, the insults, the rejection and the discrimination hurt perhaps as much as "sticks and stones." One's integrity is shaken, one's existence undermined.

Finally, from the perspective of the majority, those who stand up for their beliefs are "trouble-makers," lack solidarity or collegiality, and destroy the spirit of the community. They are seen as selfish since they do not subordinate their opinion to that of the majority, since they obstruct the common good, since they do not conform to the mainstream. And it is true, in the same sense in which truthfulness to oneself reflects individuality and diversity, conformity evokes the principles of community and group identity. While the former emphasizes the right of the individual, the latter puts to the forefront the sake of the community.

So what are we to do? Do we have to choose one principle over the other? Can we be true to ourselves without undermining the community? Is it not good to stand up for one's beliefs and convictions? Contrary to what some philosophers have argued, I do believe that the principles of individuality and communality can be reconciled. As the Japanese philosopher Risaku Mutai has said, every community has to struggle with two seemingly opposite demands, justice and peace. Justice is embodied in the advocacy for the individual, peace in the demand of the community. But while both principles are equally important, in the practical situation the attention they require is not the same. There is one huge difference between the majority and the minority, mainstream and marginalized, the ups and the downs, haves and have-nots - and that is power! By definition, the majority is in possession of power, the isolated individual and minority are not. It is the existence of this power differential that the ups and haves love to deny and that the downs and have-nots cannot but experience painfully every single day. In addition, the minority cannot but consider the demands of the mainstream while, especially in a democracy, the majority has the luxury of ignoring everyone and everything that is considered "different." In the interest of peace, it is then necessary for those in power to become sensitive to and incorporate the needs of those who are marginalized.

Like Risaku Mutai, I believe it is possible to reconcile justice and peace, individuality/diversity on one side and unity/society on the other because every community is comprised of a multiplicity of individuals each of whom is not independent from but existentially tied to a larger group identity. In other words, individuality and unity, distinctiveness as well as sameness, are not mutually exclusive terms but the one polarity necessitates the other.

This brings us back to the two narratives mentioned above. Even though I sympathize with the psalmist much more than I care to admit, I think the Lotus Sūtra provides us with the key to solve our dilemma. While the psalmist draws a clear cut line between him/herself and the enemies, indicating that s/he is right and the enemies are wrong, the monk never-disparaging is rather hesitant to do so. To the contrary, he exclaims "I dare not slight you, for you shall all become Buddhas!" Or as the Beastie Boys sing, "It Only Makes Sense To Thank Our Enemies Despite Their Intent.”

Translated into our language, the monk "Never Disparaging" does not attack those who disparage him, be it in words, thoughts or in deeds, because they share the same commonality: Even though we are all different in culture, practice and language to some degree, we do share a planet, the challenges of our times and a common humanity. This is a difficult path and requires that at least a majority if not all respect our commonality. But when we recognize this unity in diversity as well as the diversity in unity, we can together work towards a community and a society that recognizes and encourages diversity of culture, religion and lifestyle.

Gereon Kopf

Gereon Kopf

Gereon Kopf is professor of religion at Luther College. Kopf is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Buddhist Philosophy. He is also the author of Beyond Personal Identity and the co-editor of Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism. He publishes in the areas of Japanese Buddhism, comparative philosophy and intercultural understanding. At Luther College, he is the coordinator of the Asian Studies Program, organizes the student meditation group and teaches study abroad courses in Japan, Hong Kong and China.

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  • May 9 2014 at 11:30 am
    Jennifer Folstad

    "Justice is embodied in the advocacy for the individual, peace in the demand of the community. . . In the interest of peace, it is then necessary for those in power to become sensitive to and incorporate the needs of those who are marginalized."

     . . . which would (hopefully) also result in justice.  Wonderfully said!  I am sharing this because this framework for social justice and community is superb.  Thank you.

  • May 30 2014 at 8:46 pm
    Gereon Kopf
    thanks for your comment and your work towards a community affirmative of individuals.