Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Snake and I (a fantastical metaphorical respite)

A large snake wrapped around me from my feet to chin. He told me that if I did everything he said, he would release me and let me be for a few weeks. I believed him. I listened to him for hours and obeyed his every command. After a day of unceasing, obedient labor, however, I realized that with each task that I performed his grip only grew tighter. I still believed that he would release me when I accomplished everything he required, but I needed a moment of respite before I reached the final push, when the snake's constricting muscles would create such crushing force that if I were not flexible, my bones would shatter and my lungs would burst. So I set out to acquire a bit of flexibility.

I could not remove the snake from my body, and he would not budge until I finished all of his tasks. And so, with still the serpent still around me, I surrendered to my imagination, where I found an adequate supply of fresh air and hope, enough to make a person quite happy and calm--the kind of calm that allows one to be flexible when a large snake is squeezing you to the point of shattering your bones and bursting your lungs. Then I returned to my tasks. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

India, 1947 and Today

How can I promote peace in the world? How can I spread love and kindness?

I recently finished reading a book called Freedom at Midnight, which tells the tumultuous history of India in 1947. This year saw the end of the British imperialism in India, which began in 1612 with the arrival of the East India Company and culminated in the magnificent British raj. After three-hundred years of occupation and one-hundred years of political control, the fate of 400 million people, comprising 1/5 of humanity, was finally turned over to the Indian people.

I do not want to attempt a synopsis of the history here. For my purposes, I will simply say that the British could not simply hand over the keys and leave without consequence. Ethnic and religious tensions simmered just below their boiling points during this time, and Muslim leaders demanded that India be divided into two nations: India and Pakistan. India would be a Hindu nation, and Pakistan would be Muslim. Although British and Indian leaders did not want India to be divided, they believed that division was the only practical solution that would not result in mass anarchy and genocide.

The most ardent critic of division was the immortal “dejected sparrow,” Mohandas Gandhi. Numerous times, Gandhi begged the British viceroy to simply withdraw, leaving India to God. Gandhi believed that massive bloodshed and anarchy was preferable to dividing India, fearing that division would only increase intolerance and violence and inhibit peaceful coexistence. Despite his emotional appeals, the British, Hindu and Muslim leadership chose to divide the nation.

At midnight on August 15th, 1947, the British raj ended and India and Pakistan became independent nations. Huge celebrations took place all across the subcontinent, including a flag-raising ceremony in Delhi that attracted half a million people. Despite the joy of the people, however, the leaders that orchestrated the momentous transfer were all but happy. Jawaharlal Nehru, who became India's first prime minister, said he passed the day “with no joy in my heart.” Gandhi felt similarly; he passed the midnight hour sleeping, and the next day he kept a somber mood. What the jubilant masses in Delhi did not know was that in the borderlands between India and Pakistan, mass slaughter was beginning in a scale unprecedented in the subcontinent. In the coming days, hundreds of thousands of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus would be ruthlessly hunted, raped and massacred by their former neighbors. Blood would literally flow through the streets.

Far from Punjab where the border riots were taking place, Gandhi spent the days following the 15th in the city of Calcutta, historically known as one of the most violent cities in India. Just a year prior, Muslim zealots rampaged through the slums, killing Hindu men, women and children indiscriminately. Now, Indian leaders, fearing an uncontrollable outbreak of violence, pleaded Gandhi to come and pacify the people of Calcutta. In one of the most miraculous displays of human love and persuasion, the Mahatma accomplished in Calcutta what 55,000 soldiers in Punjab could not do: he conquered and pacified the hearts of his angry brothers. While Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in Punjab slit each others throats, brothers in Calcutta embraced and adorned one another with roses and marigolds. Although a few violent acts erupted, in short time the perpetrators came to Gandhi to throw down their weapons and beg forgiveness. He promptly embraced and forgive them.

Stepping aside from the narrative, what are we to think about the division of India? Should we condemn the actions of the British, Hindu and Muslim leaders that worked so hard to create a workable plan? Does the violence in Punjab and other areas prove that Gandhi was right? Regarding condemnation, my answer is a definite no. Regarding Gandhi, my answer is 'sort of.'

Both Gandhi's plan and the plan to divide India would inevitably result in bloodshed. Everyone knew this. What made the division plan more attractive to India's leaders was the hope that by appeasing both Muslim and Hindus would result in a quick return to stability. Gandhi recognized that an immediate British withdrawal would lead to a bloody and indeterminate anarchy, but he welcomed it nonetheless. The Indian leaders were not willing to take that risk. In the end, no matter of legislation could protect the people from themselves.

Where Gandhi was absolutely correct was in his method. Gandhi knew that he could not enforce nonviolence any more than a communist dictator could enforce a lasting, cooperative utopia. He knew that he was trying to turn hearts and change the nature of selfish men, and such a task could not be accomplished by imperial decree. Love and conversion, he knew, could only come in response to love and kindness. He lived and applied the old adage, “love begets love.” Although he probably did not know of Brigham Young, he probably would agree that truth is obeyed “when truth is loved.” Since his days in South Africa when he renounced wealth and material pleasure, Gandhi spent his life in humble circumstances, quietly traveling from troubled soul to troubled soul. His life of nonviolence and love truly was his message.

In this modern age, where good deeds are most often credited to benevolent organizations or outstanding individuals with great power, the message of the Mahatma rings loud and true. Salvation, peace, love—these are the fruits of personal labors. The transformation of a people does not come by decree, but by one conversion at a time.

Some people might object to such a claim, and with some merit. After all, what of the abolition of slavery, suffrage and the civil rights movements of the 1960's? Were those transformations not located in the realm of law? Were they not organizational affairs? Yes, it is true that our constitution has several amendments which guarantee certain rights, but a law in itself guarantees nothing. The U.S. has an executive branch with power to enforce legislation, but the power of the gun is limited, and it pales in comparison to the power of love and conversion. In short, these laws could not be upheld without the sustaining of the people. The enduring transformation of a people can only be wrought through a process of conversion, a process which, against everything we wish to believe in this age, is unavoidably personal.

I now return to the questions posed at the beginning. How can I promote peace in the world? How can I spread love and understanding? The example of India shows us that it cannot be legislated. No kind of legislation could prevent the terrible bloodshed that erupted in India in 1947. The example of Gandhi gives us the answer: lasting peace and love is only achievable through loving, personal ministry.

Many of us belong to one organization or another that has some kind of humanitarian mission. I happen to belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In recent times, the LDS church as an institution has been scrutinized in the public spotlight. Investigative journalists have explored the depths of the church's history, scoured for financial records and analyzed and compared membership statistics. Some have extolled the church, while others have condemned it. As a Latter-day Saint myself, I have followed with curiosity these reports, as have many of my peers. Curiously, the messages of our own leaders emphasize a very different image of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Rather than focusing on the church a global institution, many Latter-day Saint leaders, most notably the First Presidency, have repeatedly emphasized the critical role of individual members in personal service and love. Not a conference passes when we do not hear the miraculous stories of President Monson: “President Monson visited so-and-so on her deathbed as she prayed for his visit; President Monson visited a friend just as he was about to commit suicide. President Monson gave his coat to poor a man in the cold.” I use President Monson as an example here, but all throughout Latter-day Saint conferences we hear stories of small, personal acts of love and kindness selflessly given and received by Mormons from all walks of life. What is the meaning of all this? Are these stories just manifestations of the LDS Church trying to boast its virtues and display a shiny image? I tremble at the thought!

We do not tell and contemplate the stories of Gandhi, Jesus, Mother Teresa and our own contemporaries because they are merely entertaining, nor do we remember them because we want to improve the image of our own organizations. Rather, in receiving of these stories, we have the opportunity to see a vision of ourselves. We see, in them, what we can become if we truly reach out and love our neighbor. We are inspired by their love, and we desire to spread that love to others. When we receive the life-messages of these shining beacons of human love, we understand that love is the result of love, not domination. Love begets love. Love is not domination, but personal conversion. We ourselves are converted, and then, armed with our love, we proceed into the vast world of human souls, with the conviction to love one person at a time.

Amid the scores of world religions, we may wonder if there is anything that we of different religions can claim in common. To that question, I would humbly suggest that all religions, if they have any truth in them, must espouse at least one common mission: enduring, human love. We may spiritedly disagree over points of doctrine or beliefs concerning deity, but any religious observer who claims any degree of piety must share at least one thing in common with his brother of another faith, that being love for one another.

In this election year, when we are told that so much depends on institutional arrangements, we would be wise to remember the life and message of the humble Mahatma, who showed us that enduring peace begins with a single, caring person. Institutions provide stability and institutions empower, but no amount of legislation can guarantee peace and kindness. The kind of joy we desperately seek can only earned with our love.

Friday, November 2, 2012