Burmese monks, religion and liberation

By Paul Richardson, Religious Intelligence, December 12, 2007

London, UK -- All the indications are that the Buddhist monks of Burma intend to continue their campaign against the military regime.
Only a few have sought sanctuary in neighbouring Thailand. Instead of fleeing the country, the monks are lying low and looking for new ways to undermine the government.

At the end of October over 100 of them walked around Pakokhu, a centre of Buddhist learning with over 80 monasteries, in an act of defiance directed against the on-looking soldiers.

Burma is home to between 300,000 and 500,000 monks. Some young men are monks for only a few years but an estimated 15 per cent remain monks all their lives. They are held in great respect by the Burmese people. When students began the protest against the regime they were easily squashed. It has been much more difficult for the government to silence the monks. Informed observers estimate that 200 people have lost their lives in the current disturbances and 3,000 have been imprisoned. These figures include many monks.

U Gambira, a pseudonym of a leader of the All-Burma Monks’ alliance, has claimed in an op-ed in the Washington Post that what is being called the ‘saffron revolution’ is only just beginning. He praised the US for imposing travel and financial restrictions on the Burmese regime and called on Europe to do the same.

In modern times Buddhist monks in Tibet and other Asian nations have been ready to join in political campaigns. In India, monks are demonstrating against their government’s failure to challenge the Burmese military. Viewed in historical perspective this development might seem surprising. In past centuries monks were understood as people who withdrew from the world to seek freedom from suffering caused by anxiety, rage, shame, jealousy or resentment. Their spiritual path was very much in inner journey.

But even in past centuries, the spiritual struggles of the monks were seen as benefiting those they left behind in the world. On reason why they are so respected is because it is believed that their good karma can help their relatives. When they are engaged in meditation, Buddhist monks are thought to radiate goodwill on people everywhere. As in other religious traditions, Buddhist monks have always tried to help the poor.

As a result, the seeds of political action were always present in the monastic vocation. What has brought them to flower has been a new understanding of what is sometimes termed ‘structural evil’. Developments in political and social thought, some of them flowing from Marxism, have made the followers of all religions more aware of the role of political systems in oppressing people and fostering injustice. In Christianity this understanding led to the growth of Liberation Theology and encouraged church leaders in North America to become prominent in the campaign for Civil Rights.

Religions can still be hijacked by secular creeds based on narrow and intolerant nationalism. We saw this in Northern Ireland. Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have not always been ready to recognise the rights of the Tamil community while in the US there is now some heart-searching among evangelicals about the way in which their movement has allowed itself to be used by the Republican Party.

But in many parts of the world religion has become a force for liberation and change. In some ways this is threatening to people in the West, many of whom are only too aware of the role religion can also play in promoting terrorism to contemplate its resurgence as a political force with equanimity. Moreover, as Mark Lilla has recently reminded us in his book, The Stillborn God, we are heirs in Britain and America to a tradition going back to Hobbes that has sought to take appeals to religious revelation out of politics.

Lilla is stimulating writer and at the end of his book he issues an important warning. Anglo-Saxons may have chosen to limit politics to protecting individuals, securing fundamental liberties, and providing for basic welfare, while leaving religious belief to personal choice, but we cannot expect every part of the world to make the same decision.

One reason we cannot expect this to happen is because many nations still need the encouragement and strength to struggle for justice and liberation that only religious hope can provide. In a fascinating section of his book, Lilla comes close to blaming the rise of Hitler on Barth, claiming that he helped to unleash forces of Messianic Utopianism that led people to look for a saviour figure.

But at the heart of Barth’s message was the affirmation that only God can bring in the kingdom. He took a lead in opposing the Nazis precisely because he rejected Hitler’s quasi-religious pretensions. This provides another reason why religions are called upon to undertake a political role. As in Burma today it is very often only religious organisations that have both the popular base and the ideological independence to lead the struggle against tyranny and oppression.

It is precisely because religious belief is so powerful that it can be force for evil or good. As Lilla warns, it can unleash Messianic hopes that become fixed on human saviours. But it can also rally people against earthly tyrants.

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