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In dealing with the current American controversies around police brutality, prejudice and race, I’ve found the teachings of religion profoundly beneficial. I’m not talking about displays of ritual or belief in miracles. I’m talking about the essentials of capital R Religion: the Golden Rule, the commandment to seek knowledge (especially self-knowledge), the exhortation to work hard at being truly human.
Gautama Buddha taught:
This indeed is the Way—there is no other—for the purification of one’s vision. …I have taught you the Way… Making the effort is your affair.” — Dhammapada, v. 274-276.
Likewise, Christ counsels His audience:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets… Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. …Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. …But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” — Jesus Christ, Matthew 7:12, 21-26
Be united in counsel, be one in thought. Let each morn be better than its eve and each morrow richer than its yesterday. Man’s merit lieth in service and virtue and not in the pageantry of wealth and riches. Take heed that your words be purged from idle fancies and worldly desires and your deeds be cleansed from craftiness and suspicion. … Guard against idleness and sloth, and cling unto that which profiteth mankind, whether young or old, whether high or low. Beware lest ye sow tares of dissension among men or plant thorns of doubt in pure and radiant hearts. – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 138.
Baha’u’llah’s son, Abdu’l-Baha, expanding on this theme, said in a talk given in Evanston, Illinois in 1912:
We must strive with energies of heart, soul and mind to develop and manifest the perfections and virtues latent within the realities of the phenomenal world, for the human reality may be compared to a seed. If we sow the seed, a mighty tree appears from it. …All these virtues were hidden and potential in the seed. Through the blessing and bounty of cultivation these virtues became apparent. Similarly, the merciful God, our Creator, has deposited within human realities certain latent and potential virtues. Through education and culture these virtues deposited by the loving God will become apparent in the human reality, even as the unfoldment of the tree from within the germinating seed. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 91.
This collective wisdom reminds us that we are, to a large extent, in control of our own destinies and responsible for the cultivation of our own individual (and hence, our collective) virtues.
This uncomfortable reality makes us culpable for our own ignorance, our unreasoning rage and fear, our own hurt and hurtfulness, our biases, our prejudices, our sometimes irrational expectations of ourselves and others. When we tell ourselves that simple human nature causes us to behave in a particular way—violently, carelessly, defensively, prejudicially etc.—we lie.
This may seem like a venial, inconsequential lie, but it is not. It is a profoundly devastating lie because it strikes at the very core of what it means to be human. It tells us that we are merely powerless victims of biology, physics, and animal nature. If we choose to believe this lie in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we buy into the greatest, most debilitating lie of all: that this is the way we are, that we will always be this way, that nothing can be done, that things will never change or improve.
Artful dodging, that. But it is a dodge that is discredited, again, by the essential tenets of religion. All of the world’s great Faiths call on us to live into a more noble existence, to work at developing our spiritual selves, to transcend our lower natures. We can overcome the prejudices in our hearts and in our cultures if we will make the effort to turn toward our higher attributes:
Whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth is a direct evidence of the revelation within it of the attributes and names of God, inasmuch as within every atom are enshrined the signs that bear eloquent testimony to the revelation of that Most Great Light. …To a supreme degree is this true of man, who, among all created things, hath been invested with the robe of such gifts, and hath been singled out for the glory of such distinction. For in him are potentially revealed all the attributes and names of God to a degree that no other created being hath excelled or surpassed. All these names and attributes are applicable to him. … Even as He hath revealed: “We will surely show them Our signs in the world and within themselves.” Again He saith: “And also in your own selves: will ye not, then, behold the signs of God?” …In this connection, He Who is the eternal King—may the souls of all that dwell within the mystic Tabernacle be a sacrifice unto Him—hath spoken: “He hath known God who hath known himself.” – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 177.