Sunday, January 16, 2011

GANDHI & KING: COMMON GROUND?

On the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I reflect on the common ground he and Gandhi shared

COMMON GROUND. Over the holidays, I again viewed the movie “Gandhi.”  The movie made a significant impact on me when I first saw it, but I’d forgotten several critical points in his story. For instance, Gandhi’s upbringing assumed the compatibility of diverse religious and ethnic groups with the belief that they all ultimately served the same God. This childhood vision and local reality served Gandhi well in his later years when tensions between Hindu and Muslim factions erupted into violence, nearly turning the dream of independence into a nightmare of chaos. 

COMMON PURPOSE. While much could be said of their differences, in this regard Martin Luther King, Jr. had a similar upbringing as Mohandas K. Gandhi. In contrast to the chaotic background of Malcolm X, King was able to articulate his dream against the backdrop of a childhood in which he was taught that there was one God who willed diverse people to overcome their oppression, prejudices, and sins. King, like Gandhi, believed in such a transcendent and self-evident common ground. As an emerging leader, King appealed to all--oppressed and oppressor alike--to move resolutely and non-violently toward the common ground revealed in one God. Like Gandhi, King held to this vision, formed in childhood, when violence and factions in the civil rights movement threatened to undermine it. 

COMMON GOD? Apparently, neither grass-roots leader succumbed to the “principalities and powers” represented in the authorities and institutions that they so boldly challenged. Instead, they were both killed by out-of-focus people who not only did not share a belief in one God but who were, on the contrary, convinced that the very idea of a common dream in which all shared a part was at the heart of the social problem. It is instructive by association, I think, to consider the backdrop against which our current national and international conflicts are being waged. To the point: do we believe that there is common ground to be found in a Source whom we all, ultimately, believe is One and who wills us to move toward peace?

MISSING LEADERS. One of the critically missing pieces in human rights struggles, so-called “culture wars,” and international conflicts today is the conviction that, behind all the specific names and attributions and aspirations of diverse religious expression, is the one God who wills peace for all and among all.  It's hard to find a religious or political leader these days who believes--and acts in the conviction--that, ultimately, we are all calling upon the same God and that this same God wills us to find and live on the common ground that lies beneath our specifically-defined domains, claims, assertions, suspicions, notions, and/or “rights.”

BELIEVING IS SEEING. Whether or not this common God can be proven or this proposition embraced by any particular religion or political influence group acting the name of a particular religion is not the point. The point is that great progress toward justice and peace in specific culturally-divided, politically-explosive settings was made under Gandhi’s and King’s influence. And at least these two spiritual and social leaders believed that common ground was possible because a common God existed and willed it. By and large, today’s leaders cannot lead toward common ground because they do not believe it exists and they do not believe it exists because they cannot believe or see beyond their own conceptions of God.

DRYING UP TERRORISM. I find it interesting that conceptions of God are closely intertwined with civil, cultural, political, and international conflicts. Denial or ignorance of this is, I am convinced, critical to America's war on terrorism. Since 9/11, American leadership--across the board--has mis-framed the sources and motivations of Islamic terrorism and they have taken an approach to fighting terrorism that continues to fan its flames. I contend that intentional and unintentional religious offenses by the West are fueling resentment and hatred. The West has failed to take Islamic fundamentalism seriously, or refused to accept its claims on its terms (we’re too modern for that!). As we continue to make a secular assessment and take a non-religious approach to address terrorism, we foment it. Today’s most significant conflicts are religiously-based. When American leadership comes to deeply understand, truly respect, and act with high regard for the religion of Islam, Islamic fundamentalist-sourced terrorism will begin to be dried up. Gandhi and King, I believe, would have articulated this.

A CALL TO COMMON GROUND. Please note: I am not unitarian. I am not universalist. I am, in fact, a Christian standing squarely within the Arminian, Wesleyan, and American Holiness traditions. And from this very specific faith, theological orientation, and somewhat paradoxical perspective, I reach out in hope to challenge people of all beliefs and backgrounds to search your hearts deeply to find the common ground upon which we all stand and where we can all meet and dwell as diverse and respectful neighbors upon this fragile earth.

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