Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Meditations on Institutional Dilemmas

Religion is all about promoting ethical action. Government is all about promoting justice.

Or are they?

Senior clerics in Iran criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for consoling Hugo Chavez’s mother with a light embrace at the state funeral for the deceased leader; physical contact between unrelated men and women considered sinful according to current Islamic codes of behavior.

Prominent Cardinals are now in Vatican City participating in the conclave that will select a new Pope. Several of these Cardinals have been implicated in covering up child abuse scandals, or financial or other improprieties—yet they do not recuse themselves from participation in the conclave that will select the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Westboro Baptist Church, of Topeka, Kansas, has actively protested against homosexuality, abortion, Judaisim and Islam, and Roman Catholicism, and hosts of other things. Protest is one thing; hate-filled vitriol being poured out as free speech is another.

Here’s the thing: Religion is intended to guide people toward ethical interaction. Government is supposed to insure justice. What is all too apparent is that the humans who lead these institutions are not always following the intent that has been laid out in the scriptures or laws they are supposed to be stewarding.

This leads the average person to confront a huge moral dilemma: Follow institutional interdiction just because someone at the head office says so, or do what is right and just despite the interdiction.

The real-world results of this dilemma create a huge psychological mess, not to mention a whole lot of civil litigation. We are all riding two horses, at various times. It is a world-class case of cognitive dissonance of crowds!

Hillel the Elder is quoted in the Talmud as having said “What is hateful to you, do not do to another”, and likewise, the second century Rabbi Akiva cites Leviticus 19:18 as the greatest commandment in Jewish doctrine: "'Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”  The Christian Gospel message of Jesus is “Love thy Neighbor as thyself.” The Quran clearly defines moral standards in Chapter 17:22-37, and Islamic jurists of the Middle Ages introduced many modern seeming civil rights concepts and freedoms, even for women, that have appeared in constitutional law during the past two hundred years.

That rights and freedoms are restricted, that “neighbors” are infringed upon and excluded, that civil rights are not being upheld for all individuals, such are amoral and unethical actions, and yet is so transparently visible among those who have been assigned moral authority.

When the institutions have been hollowed out by immoral and unethical authoritarians, who act contrary to the standards they are meant to uphold, what is the “believer” to do?

The case of the Pussy Riot punk rock group and its public political protest against the cult of Vladimir Putin and his governmental repression on Russia, particularly from the standpoint of women’s issues, from within the sanctuary of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow is very interesting. The Putin regime has been befriended and supported by the Russian Orthodox Church. In support of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Putin regime has suppressed and restricted Protestants, despite the fact that the post-Communist Russian constitution allows freedom of religion. Protestant churches have been closed, with charges of spying or money laundering or other impropriety; Protestant denominations have been labeled “cults” and have been spoken against by church leaders in media. Democracy is not being demonstrated in such actions, and neither is Christian charity. Good old-fashioned authoritarianism is apparently alive and well in Russia, but not only in Russia.

What is an ethical person to do when the authorities are corrupt? Does corruption irreparably taint the institution? What happens when good people follow bad leaders and false precepts?

I do not have an answer for you. If I had an answer for you, I would not want you to follow it.

You must follow what your own heart and mind tell you, what your connection to the Divine speaks in you or your sense of what is right tells you.

I can tell you that I long ago answered that question for myself, and the answer is illustrated by the following story from the Buddhist tradition.

Once there were two monks traveling when they arrived at a river. At the river they discovered a woman struggling to get across. Without a second thought, the older of the two monks asked the woman if she needed help, then swiftly picked her up and carried her across to the other bank.

For Buddhist monks, especially in ancient times, any contact with the opposite sex would be strongly frowned upon, if not forbidden. The actions of the older monk greatly troubled the younger monk, who allowed his feelings to fester for several miles, as they continued their journey.

Finally, the younger monk confronted the older monk, "How could you have done such a thing? We are not even supposed to be in a woman's presence, but you touched her, carried her even!"

The older monk calmly replied, "I put that woman down miles ago, back at the river. But you are still carrying her."

The younger monk realized the older monk was indeed correct and they continued on their journey.