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[Note: This article was written in October 2007.] I’ve followed with great interest reports on what has been called the “Saffron Revolution” in Myanmar (Burma). In a country that has been ruled by repressive military governments since 1962, tens of thousands of Buddhist monks have been peacefully demonstrating against the current regime, standing up for an alternative vision powerfully expressed in a banner some of them carried: “Love and kindness must win over everything.” This has led me to reflect anew on something that I’ve pondered many times over the years: Is sociopolitical activism of this nature in accord with the principles of A Course in Miracles?
Myanmar is a country of strange bedfellows: It is ruled by the military, yet the moral authority in the country is held by Buddhist monks, whose numbers are as great as those of the soldiers. The government appeals to the Buddhist hierarchy for legitimacy, and claims to rule in its name. The monks have engaged in protests against rulers in the past, but for the most part haven’t taken an active role in the country’s political affairs in recent times. That began to change in August, when monks marched with the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) for the first time.
Since then, the monks have expressed opposition to the government in a number of ways. Tens of thousands of monks (and nuns) have marched the streets, joined by sympathizers among the people. They have engaged in sit-ins outside of government offices. They have refused to accept alms from the ruling generals and their associates, a powerful expression of disapproval in a Buddhist country. On September 22, monks were let through barbed-wire barricades to pray with the democratic activist and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for twelve of the past eighteen years. The government has responded by forcefully clamping down: It has humiliated, arrested, beaten, and even killed monks. Soldiers are surrounding monasteries to prevent further demonstrations.
On a nuts-and-bolts level, the monks are marching for democracy. But according to Scott Flipse, a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, democracy is not an end in itself for them, but rather a means to a more fundamental goal. Flipse says that the monks’ demonstrations are a statement that, in their eyes, the government does not exemplify Buddhist values such as “minimizing sorrow, maximizing happiness, supporting the poor,…generosity and compassion.” In short, they are saying that by Buddhist standards, the government is not legitimate. In a country whose government depends on the approval of Buddhist monks for legitimacy, this is a revolutionary statement.
A number of students of A Course in Miracles would say that activism of this nature is totally incompatible with the Course. In their eyes, the Course is solely about changing the mind rather than behavior; demonstrations aimed at changing governments are thus just one more way in which the ego attempts to “make the error real.” Yet, as I have discussed at length elsewhere, the Course actually gives a significant role to behavior—so significant that in a comment that was later edited out, Jesus says, “This course is a guide to behavior.” In its view, though behavior cannot in and of itself change the mind, it is the primary way of communicating a change of mind to others. Thus, behavior that is truly motivated by love is a powerful tool for extending love to other minds, “for all behavior teaches the beliefs that motivate it” (T-6.I.16:6).
Does that include behavior like the monks’ activism? I see no reason to exclude it. If such activism is motivated at least to a certain degree by real love (a big “if” in many situations, of course), I think it can be a powerful communicator of a “better way.” And though the Course itself says nothing about social and political activism (just as it says nothing about most specific behaviors), several factors lead me to conclude that the Course’s author would smile on such activity if it is properly motivated.
First, a growing number of historical Jesus scholars are coming to believe that the “kingdom of God” that Jesus proclaimed was a bold new social vision of radical inclusion, rooted in his experience of an indiscriminately loving and generous God, exemplified in the words “Be compassionate in the way your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36, Scholars Version). Some also believe that his advocacy of that social vision included instances of nonviolent protest against the repressive regime of his day: the “domination system” of Rome and the Jerusalem elites who collaborated with Rome.
For instance, scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan believe that Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem was a counterdemonstration against the Roman legions who were entering the city (likely on the same day) through another gate, and the Temple incident was a planned protest against the Temple authorities who worked with Rome and oppressed the people in doing so. While these theories are certainly arguable, Borg points out that any theory about Jesus’ mission needs to take into account the fact that he was killed by the Roman authorities through crucifixion: a public punishment reserved for disobedient slaves and rebels against the state. If it is true that some form of sociopolitical activism was part of the mission of the historical Jesus, it’s hard for me to believe that as author of the Course, he would rule out such activism now.
Second, as Robert Perry points out, the Course has a well-developed social vision of its own, one strikingly similar to that of the historical Jesus (see his article on this topic on the Circle’s website). It too is a vision of radical inclusion rooted in an indiscriminately loving and generous God. This vision is set into motion when two or more people set aside their conventional self-centered way of life and truly join with each other. This creates a kind of oasis in the midst of the desert of our world, an oasis of love and joining to which everyone is invited. As more and more people come to this oasis, it expands until it eventually encompasses the entire world. This is the kingdom of God on earth, or what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “beloved community.” Indeed, King and the civil rights movement he led are powerful examples of the process the Course depicts: a loving vision of human community that started with a few people grew until it transformed an entire society.
Finally, in material later altered by the Course’s editors, the Course uses the imagery of political activism to describe its own program of training miracle workers:
Having been restored to your original state, you naturally become part of the Atonement yourself. You now share my inability to tolerate the lack of love in yourself and in everyone else, and must join the Great Crusade to correct it. The slogan for this Crusade is “Listen, Learn, and Do.”
This means Listen to My Voice, Learn to undo the error, and do something to correct it.
The first two are not enough. The real members of my party are active workers.
The imagery here is clearly that of a political campaign: You have members of a particular “party” who are “active workers” in a “Great Crusade” that has a “slogan.” Now, the political campaign imagery here is clearly a metaphor. But the literal phenomenon it points to is essentially a way of manifesting Jesus’ social vision: He’s calling us to join his movement, to actively go out into the world and correct the error of “lack of love” through working miracles. And the campaign imagery is telling; its use suggests that sociopolitical activism is at least one form that miracle working can possibly take. It seems unlikely that Jesus would use an activity he doesn’t approve of at all as a metaphor for something he really wants us to do. It would be like using a suggestive sexual metaphor to promote chastity.
Therefore, I think the author of the Course would smile on what the Myanmar monks are doing. For it seems to me that their movement is, at its heart, a campaign to bring about a version of the Course’s social vision: in their case, one rooted in the core Buddhist values of love, generosity, and compassion. Now, I’m not saying that everything they’ve done lives up to this standard; in fact, some monks have torched government leaders’ cars, which doesn’t sound particularly loving to me. But it does seem to me that this movement as a whole has love at its heart. And it appears to have the potential to truly transform the society they live in. Flipse describes the events in Myanmar as “a start of a revolution of the spirit”; reporter Seth Mydans of the New York Times believes that the monks’ actions have “changed the dynamics of Burmese society in ways that had only begun to play out.” I pray that the “Saffron Revolution” will help hasten the day when love and kindness will truly win over everything.