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THE POLITICS OF GOD
While one may be surprised to see an article on religion on a website about spirituality, I will only say in my defense that while the "higher" aspects of spiritualitythings like the nature of God, human evil, enlightenment and suchare important elements in understanding how spirituality works, we also need to consider how spirituality works in regard to the more mundane aspects of the human experience as well and how we might interpret them in our own lives.
By mundane, however, I don't mean unimportant. Mundane simply means ordinary or commonplace. In fact, being spiritual doesn't mean becoming disengaged from the things of the world. It simply means putting those things in their proper place, spiritually speaking. With that understanding firmly in place, then, it could be arguedrather successfully I thinkthat few aspects of the mundane affects us on a day-to-day basis as much as does politicsespecially during an election cycle. It is a part of nearly everything we do, from getting our car registered to ensuring that the snow is removed from city streets after each storm. It affects how much money we get to take home in each check, what additives are in our drinking water, and how fast we can drive on the freeway. It even has repercussions on things like how much national debt we are prepared to saddle our grandchildren with, who's going to take care of the indigent, and whether we are going to go to war with another country, making it--even though mundane--far from unimportant. In fact, the government can kill you (as it did Jesus), so we would be remiss not to consider how it impacts our spiritual journey as well.
I know that some people who are engaged in a spiritual journey find such things more of a distraction from the "higher things" of spirituality, I submit it is important to recognize that one really can't separate the things of the world from things of the flesh, as much as we'd like to try to do so. While it is true that we are spiritual beings having a physical adventure and that the world of flesh and blood we currently reside in is temporal, transitory, and largely illusory, it is the stage on which this great adventure is played out. As such, no matter how "spiritual" one wishes to think of themselves as being, it is in the world that one manifests that spirituality, otherwise one is merely engaging in a bit of play acting dressed up as enlightenment. Spirituality induces us to be "in the world" but not "of the world," but that's not the same as disengaging from the world or ignore it as one would an eight hundred pound gorilla. That would be simply unwise.
Additionally, politics can have a profound impact on one's spiritual journey, as was demonstrated repeatedly during the twentieth century by the Stalinists and the Nazis. Many an enlightened being has been put to death or forced into exile and many a spiritually enlightening movement short-changed by a change in political leadership, so not only is ignoring politics unwise, but potentially deadly to spiritual progress. That's not to say that spiritual progress can't be made even within the context of an "unenlightened" society or that it can't eventually change darkness into light, only that it is better, I believe, to avoid such pitfalls whenever possible so as to encourage an environment in which spiritual ideas can flow freely and so bring enlightenment to as many people as possible. Considering the vast nuclear and biological arsenals at our disposal, such enlightenment can't happen soon enough.
That out of the way, then, what is the spiritual "take" on government in general and politics specifically?
When I was young, I remember hearing adults say that there were two things one shouldn't discuss over a mealat least, not if they wanted to maintain peace around the dinner tableand those were religion and politics. At the time I didn't understand why those subjects were considered inappropriate dinner fare, but as I grew older I came to see why; there is almost nothing more likely to illicit strong emotionsboth pro and conthan is a robust discussion about either, especially when the debaters live on opposite ends of the political and religious spectrums. In fact, friendships have been sacrificed on the altar of political correctness and religious tolerance, making this an especially touchy subject for many people and, as such, one especially ripe for investigation.
Before proceeding, however, it's important to remind ourselves that no one person-myself included-possesses the "truth" when it comes to how spirituality should play itself out in our lives, making these merely opinions I offer only for consideration. Additionally, I have found over the course of time that as one moves farther down the spiritual path, perceptions and, with them, opinions, invariably change (or, more correctly "evolve.") Just as I hold to different ideas today than I did a decade ago-and very different opinions compared to those I maintained twenty years ago-a decade from now my understanding of many things may take a fresh turn, rendering much of what follows obsolete or, at best, incomplete. As such, what follows is merely a snapshot of my present level of understanding in regards to some of the issues relevant to our age and nothing more. I would also invite the reader to explore these issues from within the context of your own heart, not in an effort to see if you'll agree with me, but as an element of your own growth process.
Second, I intend to steer clear of political personalities and parties in the process of this discussion. I have chosen to do this because of the nature of political dialogue today; whereas it once revolved around issues like taxes or national defense or whether the government should add fluoride to the water supply, today they're more likely to revolve around which personalities one loathes more than another, producing an atmosphere more appropriate to reality TV shows than anything approaching true political dialogue. As such, and for the purpose of this discussion, I intend to stay as far away from commenting on a particular politician or political position as I can and will instead try to maintain a more dispassionate perspective as I offer a few observations in regards to what I see as being the problems with government in general from a spiritual standpoint. With all disclaimers now firmly in place, let's start by confronting one of the most contentious elements of life we confront on a near daily basis-that multi-headed dragon known as politics.
It is necessary to acknowledge that we need some form of government to maintain order in society-at least at our present level of consciousness. We simply can't avoid that it plays a role in our lives and is going to the rest of our lives. What's important to remember, however, is that politics, like religion, is a man-made mechanism humanity has invented as a collective means of maintaining a degree of order. Whereas religion is the organizing principle in regards to human morality, government is the organizing principle in regards to laws and ethics. In fact, one can't help but notice the parallels between the two: religion and government are both usually hieratical in nature, with progressive levels of leadership. With government, this upward progression works its way up from the local and state levels towards the federal and finally the executive branches of government, with multiple agencies and various layers of bureaucracy all designed to maintain the inner workings of that hierarchy. This is true of autocratic governments and even dictatorships as well, whose requirements for a substantial infrastructure to keep it all together is no less pronounced and, in many cases, even more substantial. In much the same way, then, religion also works its way up from the local denominational level upwards to state, regional and even national levels of leadership (and, in the case of Catholicism, even international levels), also with multiple agencies and layers of bureaucracy designed to keep it fully functional. Additionally, all Western religions-and many Eastern ones as well-have their leaders, functionaries, and advisors all designed to keep the whole thing afloat, lest it dissolve into competing and, frequently, warring, camps.
This complexity and multiple layers of control and authority is the fingerprint of human endeavor, which is how one can tell it has only the most superficial relationship to the Divine. (Of course, one might maintain that such a degree of complexity is necessary to maintain order, both within a government and within a congregation, and I don't argue that point. The problem comes in when we begin to imagine thatespecially in regards to religioncomplexity is ordained by God when in fact it is merely mistaken for the Divine.)
So where does spirituality fit in amongst all this bureaucracy? Clearly it is our civic duty to support our government by participating in the voting process and paying our taxes, just as it is our moral responsibility to support our house of worship. Where the problem lies, however, is in giving either too much authority or control over our lives, which we sometimes do without realizing it. When that happens in a religious context, we end up shaping our perceptions and beliefs to match those of our church leadership so as not to appear to be in rebellion or, in extreme cases, of being an "apostate." In a political context, however, the tendency is to see government as a reflection of our spiritual beliefs which, I suspect, it is something it often is not at all. In effect, we end up seeing government as an extension of spirituality designed to promulgate the common good, which is why it so frequently disappoints us in that regard.
The problem is that when we do that, we often end up with a very skewed sense of what government can and should do-as well as what it's theoretically even capable of doing. In reality, it's merely a mechanism for bringing order (despite all outwards signs that it does just the opposite) and should never be seen as a substitute for the work of Spirit. Unfortunately, in wanting it to be all things to all people, not only do we sometimes turn it into an invasive multi-headed monster of enormous proportions, but we begin to see it as a type of massive charitable organization whose task it is to feed and clothe the huddled masses and redistribute wealth as it sees fit. While government programs designed to help the poor are a noble gesture, of course, they frequently lack the means to provide either efficiently or effectivelyespecially when compared to the private sectorand can even end up producing disincentive to work one out of their own financial dilemmas. This not only makes for an oversized and frequently intrusive entity, but gives it the potential to become a dangerous and controlling one as wellas history has demonstrated numerous times.
An even greater danger with seeing government as an arm of the Divine is in deciding that God possesses particular opinions and has a specific agenda in regards to what form of government is best or which political party or leader he has ordained to lead us. This beliefsometimes subtle but often blatant as wellis why in America, at least, most people tend to perceive God as either a conservative who upholds traditional family values or as a liberal who tirelessly champions for the poor and the downtrodden. A few might imagine him above politics, but then they still tend to vote the way they imagine God would "want them to" when it comes right down to it. It's simple human nature.
The problem has always been that it's impossible to imagine that God wouldn't want us to take a stand when it comes to issues like slavery or civil rights or providing for the poor, making it hard to understand how the Divineand, by extension, uscouldn't be involved in the political process. For that matter, despite the fact that the separation of church and state is enshrined in our constitution, it's difficult to see how the two could really be kept apart, especially seeing as how one is often heavily influenced and, in some cases, even a historical offshoot of the other. In many countriesespecially in the Arab worldgovernment and religion are largely inseparable, with the one seen as being the guiding force behind the other. This is doubtlessly why politics and religion remain taboo subjects among most people to this day: precisely because they are, in many ways, so much alike. Whether we want to admit it or not, they are "kindred spirits'so to speakwhich is what makes them so important to our lives and, as such, a source for such passion and heated rhetoric.
But what does acknowledging the Divine mean when it comes to casting a ballot, or does it mean anything at all? And for that matter, what role should government play in our lives and how does it affect our spiritual journeyor does it?
The first step is in putting government and politics in their proper place. Government, like all things that exist around us, is a part of the illusion-the maya as the Buddhists call it-and just as temporal. Great nations rise and fall all the time, and history is replete with their magnificent but crumbling ruins to remind us of the fact. All governments are a work in progress, with all the setbacks and false starts that entails. As such, to place too much stock in any specific political philosophy, party or leader is to not only set one up for disappointment, but an effort to find the answer in all the wrong places. All political systemslike all religious systemsultimately fail because they are based on the false premise that they are the controlling mechanism in the universe, whereas in reality they are merely man-made appendages required by the still primordial level of our spiritual development. In a truly enlightened world-one that understood the oneness of all and the ubiquity of the Divine-humans would have no use for either religion or government. It is only as long as we live in the darkness of separation that we require the rule of law and the rule of god. We need government to keep us from ignoring one another, and we need religion to keep us from destroying each other (though they frequently end up failing to do either). Both have their roles, then, though it is important to recognize that neither is more than just a necessary but very temporary mechanism of our spiritual adventure. One day we will outgrow the need for both and put them aside, at which point we will no longer fear for the future but embrace it for the gift that it is.
But what of the here and now? What of the many problems our planet faces today in terms of war, terrorism, nuclear weapons, pollution, and a host of other natural and man-made disasters? And what of economic collapse, the environment, civil unrest, and all the rest of the fears humanity collectively faces as we move unsteadily into a new century? Recognizing the temporal nature of our planet may work on an abstract level, but we need real answers to the many issues facing us today-not some "don't worry, be happy" philosophy that absolves us of taking responsibility for the shape things are in.
I don't disagree with this sentiment, and spirituality is certainly not about hiding one's head in the sand or seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. It recognizes human shortcomings, cruelty, selfishness, and greed. In fact, spirituality is what points these things out to us and is what separates us from the animals of the jungle. I doubt that if it weren't for the presence of the Divine showing us how far we have fallen, we wouldn't even realize the inequities we see all around us.
The problem is not that we don't see these things or that we shouldn't take action when we become aware of them; it's that we mustn't make the mistake of seeing government or religion as being the whole answer to these problems. They have a role to play to be sure, but the greater answer lies not in which political party assumes power or what man or woman we elect to be president or prime minister, but in how we perceive each other. It is as we come to understand that Divinity resides even in those with whom we disagree most vehemently that we get close to understanding the nature of the Divine. It is difficult to imagine, but the Divine is in residence within the most ambitious politician or the greediest industrialist as well as is an integral part of every despot and criminal, and it is in recognizing this that we find salvationnot from the sins of the world but from being sucked into the morass of hatred and anger that seems to animate so much of the world. It is in our attitudes towards those we disagree with that we see the clearest picture of who we are spiritually and how far we have yet to go.
That doesn't mean we can't have a political perspective or shouldn't be politically active. In fact, it is almost impossible not to have a world view that naturally shapes ones political leanings and views. The point is that we must never allow our political views to determine what we consider "spiritual." It is only as we come to understand that our political perspectives are often taught to us at an early age, or are a byproduct of our religious upbringing, or are even little more than a gut reaction to something toward which we have invested little by way of careful thought, that we can begin to see past them. It is only when we can recognize that our political views are a byproduct of our environment that we can begin to step outside the political process and see it for what it isas a necessary but temporal part of what it is to be human. Only then can we apply spirituality to our decision making process and choose a wise course for our nation. Of course, we will always argue on what the "spiritual" thing is to do, but that too is a part of the process of growth. It is a part of God discovering himself alongand throughthe rest of us.
Perhaps it is best to demonstrate what I'm getting at her in regards to government institutions by making use of yet another parable. They're always more fun than staid political discourse anyway, and make the point so much better.
Once there was a small and peaceful village whose inhabitants lived in harmony with each other. It wasn't a perfect village, for like all gatherings of human beings, it had its share of disputes, disagreements, and resentments, but for the most part it worked well as the residents looked out for each other, jointly took responsibility for the sick and infirm, saw to it that no one went hungry, and generally lived their lives as best they knew how.
One day the tribal elders got together, however, and decided that to make the village more efficient, they would form a government. It was thought essential that each resident's rights be clearly articulated and enforced, that basic services and goods be mandated, and that a security force be instituted to both ensure the laws are carried out to the letter and to protect the people from potential enemies. But what type of government would be best, they asked themselves?
"A monarchy would be most efficient," the chief said. "Having a king make all the decisions would prevent the people from endless arguments over what the best course of action is. Centralizing authority in that way would ensure that everything flows smoothly."
"But what if the king makes a poor decision, or decides to lord his power over the people?" they asked. "What recourse do we have if he is the sole and absolute authority?"
"But surely such a man would never ascend to the throne," the chief replied. "The king would be selected based upon his compassion and fairness."
"Yes, but what guarantee do we have that his successor, the prince, would be equally as wise?" one of the elders shot back. "And what if there were a number of heirs to the throne who fought amongst themselves as to whom would be the next king? It could cause great trouble and even lead to violence! No, a monarchy would never work!"
"Then we should have a democracy," another suggested. "That way all the people could decide by popular vote what is best for them. We wouldn't even need a leader, then. Merely put every important issue up to a vote of the people and let the majority decide."
"That won't work," another of the elders said. "What if a majority of the people voted for something that would adversely impact others in the group?"
"What do you mean?" the chief asked.
"Suppose a majority voted to deny specific rights to another, smaller group? It would be a type of dictatorship that would eventually result in various minorities being denied opportunities, consideration, or even basic rights. No, a democracy would never work."
"A republic is what we need, then," another of the old elders said. "The people can vote for their representatives and have them decide on the best course of action, with each group being given the same degree of representation so no one block being able to hold too much power over another. That would ensure each decision is fair."
"But the representatives could be pressured to vote a particular way, either out of fear of losing their exalted status or for personal gain," still another of the elders chimed in. "They could even vote against the will of the people if those pressuring them were powerful enough."
"Or choose not to make a decision at all," the chief added. "If they are worried they might lose their place of leadership if they vote a certain way, they might put off making important decisions indefinitely, resulting in endless stalemates and a government that's unable to get anything done!"
"And besides, what's to prevent these representatives from staying in power through bribes or trickery?" still another man asked. "And wouldn't it result in each election being reduced to little more than charges and counter-charges being hurled at each other by the candidates and their supporters?"
"Then how about a socialist system?" another sage asked. "If we gave the government more control over things, we could more efficiently determine who gets what. In fact, that way we could regulate every aspect of the village and so ensure that every citizen has everything they need because we would dictate what is produced, how much of it is to be made, and set prices at a level that everyone could afford so no one could take unfair advantage of the poor."
"But what of incentive?" one of the village farmers, who had been up to that point listening with only mild interest, asked. "If the government determines what I can produce and what price I can charge for my crops, what incentive is there for me to work so hard? I must make a profit each year so I have the resources I need to purchase the other things I need."
"That's selfish thinking," the sage replied. "You should produce things and give it away to others because that's the right thing to do. If everyone thought the way you do, those who couldn't afford to buy your grain would starve. We must do what is best for all the people."
"But how does the government know what's best for all the people?" the farmer persisted. "I have sold my crop for a profit for years and never has anyone starved in our village. I set a fair price that ensures that everyone can afford my wheat; if they couldn't, I would be forced to lower my price or be left with fields of unsold wheat."
"Obviously," the chief interjected, "for this to work, there can be no private ownership of any kind. Everything must be owned by the government. Communism is the only means of providing fairness to all."
The farmer was shocked at the chief's suggestion. "No private ownership? But this land has been in my family for three generations. We're the ones who cleared it and made it fruitful and you would take that away from me?"
"For the public good," the chief replied, nodding eagerly. "You would still get your fair share, but no more. Clearly that is the best way."
"Nonsense," shouted the priest. "Such a system would be against the will of God. Clearly a theocracy would be the best form of government, for then instead of flawed and self-serving men making all the decisions, all the important ones would be made by God himself, who knows what's best for all."
"But how would we determine what God's will is?" one of the more doubtful advisors asked. "After all, he's an invisible spirit who lives far above us."
"The religious leaders would pray about each decision that needs to be made and through this determine God's perfect will," the priest replied. "And since God is perfect, his decisions would be precisely what we need to survive."
"Unless the priests only presume to know God's will and make decisions based more on their own desires and greed," the chief countered. "How do we know we can trust that the religious leaders won't be corrupted by such power and use it for their own selfish purposes?"
"Are you accusing me of dishonesty?" the priest shouted. "Because if you are, I can guarantee that God will smite you with-"
"Gentlemen, this is foolish," one of the stronger men, finding his voice at last, said as he rose to his feet. "The people need a strong hand to lead them. Otherwise, they will go off in a thousand different directions and all semblance of order will vanish. A dictatorship is the best course of action, for it is right that only the strongest amongst us is worthy to lead. It is nature's way."
The elders were soon deadlocked and the arguments continued well into the night, with each camp championing their own version of which form of government would be best. Eventually the debate became heated and fights broke out among the elders. So serious were the insults hurled at each other in fact that the violence quickly spread throughout the village as everyone took sides against one another, burning and destroying each other's homes in a battle for dominance. Finally, after several days of fighting, all the citizens were dead and the village was burned to the ground.
Many decades went by and what was left of the village was reclaimed by the jungle, leaving not a clue that a community had ever stood there. Eventually, however, a group of wandering nomads came across the clearing in which the village had once stood and, noticing the soil was good for farming and the river that ran through the land was sweet and cool, they started building huts. Eventually, the collection of huts grew into a great village, whose inhabitants learned to live in harmony with each other.
It wasn't a perfect village, of course, for like all gatherings of human beings, it had its share of disputes, disagreements, and resentments, but for the most part it worked well as the residents looked out for each other, jointly took responsibility for the sick and infirm, saw to it that no one went hungry, and generally lived their lives as best they knew how.
Then one day the tribal elders got together and decided that to make the village more efficient, they would form a government....
The point of this little story, in case you failed to catch it, is that there is no ideal form of government, nor can any type of political system ever guarantee fairness for all. They simply aren't capable of it, as we repeatedly remind ourselves every election cycle.
No government ever will or is even capable of delivering on their promises because they are based not on sound spiritual principles but on the perspectives of those who live in darkness, fear, and anger. Until we collectively realize that, it is hard to see how we will ever rise above the level of fear we live in today.
However, I prefer to be an optimist and believe that governments can and do evolve towards greater enlightenment. This is why we have laws against things like slavery, child labor, dishonest business practices, and other such things that didn't exist a couple of centuries ago. That's why we have things like women's and minorities' rights, social safety nets, and civilian-controlled militaries-again, things that were lacking just a century ago in most nations. It is progress of a sort, but only the first tentative steps in forging a truly spiritual world, the realization of which may not be realized in our lifetimes, or even those of our grandchildren, but is, pending some unforeseen global catastrophe or shortsightedness by a handful of very dangerous people, inevitable.
Now that's what
I call "faith."
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