Archive for » March, 2013 «


Each of us can be placed fairly accurately at a point on a spectrum that extends from being paralyzingly shy to unstoppably gregarious.  Another gradation runs from kind to cruel extreme. A very different kind of continuum extends from wanting to see (at one end) a society in which ‘the less fortunate’ are completely secure and cared for, to wanting to see (at the other end) a world that only rewards efforts at enrichment, instead of being distracted by the plight of lazy or unfortunate failures. Some aspects of this are captured in the polarization between social justice and individuality. Jesus Christ probably fell close to the extreme in the desire for social justice.

Are we born with traits mostly fixed at a point on each of a million possible dichotomies? Or do culture and circumstance mould us strongly? Are you prone to give a small gift to a poor woman who begs, or rather to ignore her? Some who ignore may still support state action to spread wealth more equitably.  Many who give that tiny gift may be dismayed by proposals to tax the rich to make poor lives less bitter. All of these folks will provide strong arguments to support the position they take. And they’d equally strongly deem their logic unquestionable. Beneath these is the outlook fixed by where they stand on the spectrum.

Religions in one voice proclaim the need to succour the poor. But each has its preferred way of setting about it. The favoured strategy of each faith should reflect the approach taken by the founder.

Gauthama Buddha opted for persuasion and the development of individual insight. The wealthy must see the folly of their ways and give away their assets. Gifting freely is first among the virtues suggested for the ordinary lay person as well as for those aspiring for the highest levels of attainment. But all is individual, voluntary and a result of proper insight.

My understanding of the life of Jesus may be wrong. But it appears to me that it exemplifies struggle to create change society-wide, not only individual.  No surprise he had to be murdered before too much damage was done. The Buddha, on the other hand, was allowed to live for four score years and die a natural death. Mother Theresa was tame enough to run no risk of being removed like Jesus Christ was. (And as were other clergy of the same Church, further west – not to mention assorted heads of state both west and east. None of them are yet on route to sainthood for following those footsteps, in Easter lip-service exalted. The recently elevated admirer of good Saint Francis may still surprise us all.)

It appears to me this Easter Saturday that the assorted ‘Christian’ churches (and the likes of Mother Theresa) have abandoned the ways exemplified in the founder’s life – and quietly opted for something like the Buddha’s way. They appear to have dropped Christ’s struggle for social change – preferring to leave that to tamed politicians – and chosen instead to work selflessly among the poor; victims of the existing order. They probably hope, and no doubt pray, that those whom Jesus railed against will some day be moved – maybe to disburse more than just a tithe. At the same time though, they do reassure the boldly covetous here that the gates of heaven are wide enough to let in untroubled a camel, or the heftiest elephant that chooses lazily to amble in.

What lessons then from the life of Jesus, this Easter? Mainly that people who want social justice to prevail had better rely on creating it in the hereafter.


The Elected Pope

I wonder how many of us escape daily having at least to glance at propaganda created and spread by one interest group or another. I mean those that come in the form of ‘group forwarded’ emails, public comments posted to stories in the media, SMSs, tweets and the like. Maybe even lyrics of songs and fleeting images among various visuals.

Some stereotypes are readily recognizable among the spreaders of shared messages. Those extolling Buddhism, and concerned about preserving Buddhism in this country, constitute such a group. A second is the ‘Tamil rights’ collective. Third are people apparently dismayed or outraged that freedom of expression in this country is being throttled or that the state is stunningly inept or sickeningly corrupt – and here is yet another story to prove it.

Over 90% of forwarded messages directed at me are of this last (third) kind – an indication of how vigorous members of the third group are in ‘forwarding’ (or of the kind of people who have my address). People belonging to this persistent sect generally forwarded messages about sundry events in Sri Lanka, interpreted as evidence of how bad the economy or governance had become, of late. Never had they shown an interest in matters of the church. It was with some puzzlement then, that I read a recent ‘forward’ by a member of this clan – extolling the virtues of the new Pope.

Why was a non-Christian member of the third group agitating on behalf of the new Pope’s piety? Puzzling indeed. Maybe he, like I, was taken by the newly-appointed Pontiff’s quip to the cardinals who chose him, ‘May God forgive you for what you have done’. (What a breath of fresh air!)

But the advertisement I got did not mention this invigorating line. It was instead like a prepared paean sent to a ready brigade of forwarders (globally?).  The new Pope was held up as a true friend of the poor (Was this a backhanded insult to the predecessors?). He had chosen as Archbishop, we were told, to live outside the designated Buenos Aires palace and cook his own food. What more could you ask for, in these days of an accelerating global gush of wealth upwards, than a Pope who’d try to create the promised trickle downward?

Surprise turned to shock when a second member of the same clan sent me a similar message about good old young Pope Francis. Here was I, already happy to read of a Man who could say things like, ‘May God forgive you for what you have done’ to his cardinals and choose to travel in the same bus as them despite newly granted eligibility to ride the Papal limousine, suddenly being assailed by canned Good News about the former Archbishop Jorge. And that too, transmitted by non-Christians who had previously showed no religious inclination – only political. (Their party, if I may try to give it a name, being OHE SL – or ‘Oh how embarrassing to be Sri Lankan’ .)

Why were Sri Lankan campaigners of the third kind (not pious at all, upper middle class or higher and mostly Buddhists and ‘non-RC’ Christians) hurriedly spreading messages in praise of the former Jorge Bergoglio? I now worry about who Pope Francis may reveal himself to be, despite my initial warmth to the Man. Why are those who had never shown an interest in reducing inequities among us (if not actively opposed to reducing them), so keen to portray Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio as having been a champion of the poor?  Do they have reason to worry that the image may soon be threatened? Even so, why does it concern people in this particular ‘demographic’?  Are they instructed by some authority as to what they must tirelessly disseminate? God only knows.

There is hope though.  Even if candidate Bergoglio, like the Obama of 2008, had all along been hiding in sheep’s vestments he will likely receive more enlightening post-elevation guidance than did Obama. Poor Obama had to rely on creatures of the calibre of that Hilary. Impeachable, even by association. We can pray that the newly incarnated Pope Francis’ source of guidance will live up to its unimpeachable credentials.

But then what can a Pope (or Mahanayake) really achieve – compared, say, to an Ayatollah?