Whether we like it or not, admit it or not, religion (or some philosophical variant thereof) plays a role in political participation. At an extreme are social conservatives who have made it their mission to dictate our lives by infecting every branch of government with agents that would change and override our laws. Another extreme are those who would have nothing to do at all with politics.
At a dinner party during the week of the Democratic Convention, conversation predictably turned into commentary and debate. A heated discussion over Clinton and Obama ensued among those at the table, except for a guest who quietly chewed on his specially prepared vegetarian fare. The host, not hearing a peep from the man, asked him what he thought.
“I don’t get involved in politics,” he proclaimed, “it distresses me.” A self-taught Buddhist, he was making a point about how he transcended it all. A bit familiar with Buddhism myself, I reminded him about a central tenet of the philosophy that we are all interconnected and hence have a responsibility to each other. Gautama himself, after reaching enlightenment, chose to live among his ignorant contemporaries that they might be enlightened. As such, while political engagement might disturb his precious peace, there is a moral imperative to act and get involved – policies affect our daily lives.
“I don’t need people,” he coolly replied. When I pointed out that he would not be relishing the organic mozzarella, tomato and basil sprinkled with extra virgin olive oil sandwich nor the spinach and pea soup before him were it not for the farmers, bakers, truckers, and shopkeepers, he confidently announced that “I will survive without people, I will find something to eat, I am sure of this.”
At this point, the host interjected, wanting to save the self-contained and -sustained man from himself. She rightfully argued that there are many ways of being involved and tried to remember a quotation about how there has to be peaceful people in order to have true peace in the world. While I agreed with her, I countered that prayer or enlightenment ought to lead to action. Sure, Jesus retreated on occasion but he always returned to preach, heal, turn over the moneychangers’ tables and get crucified. Boddhisatvas, enlightened beings or Buddhas, choose to stay or return to our world to help all beings. Prophets of the old testament worshipped Yahweh while being gadflies to kings. Muhammad preached compassion and mercy.
Unperturbed, the man reiterated that he doesn’t care. “Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t affect me.” Easy to say for a government scientist who lives in Georgetown. Another guest then said, okay, but what about other people who are adversely affected by policies instituted by Republican and Democrats?
“I don’t care … if someone was dying next to me, it wouldn’t affect me … would I give my life for another person? Frankly, no. I don’t care.” Clearly.
Now that is extreme.
Image of Buddhist monks protesting (Myanmar).