Freedom From What?
The current controversy about the sculptural presentation of the Ten Commandments displayed in an Alabama Courthouse should concern all religious persons in the United States, regardless of creed.
On the surface, the issue is whether the placement of the Ten Commandments in a state courthouse violates the Constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state. The sculpture is said to be a religious icon, one that is peculiar to the Judaic-Christian tradition and that by displaying it, the state is promoting religion. But the deeper and more relevant issue is the definition that separates a work of art that has a religious theme from a work which is a religious icon. This is no slight difference. We also have to consider who it is who makes the distinction.
We see clear differences between natural or erotic art and pornography. We don't have to know anything about art to know which is which. A straightforward artwork of a nude reclining or lovers embracing that's created to celebrate the human condition is appreciated in accordance with the artist's rendition of these universal themes. A pornographic work is created with another purpose, to sexually arouse the viewer, usually in the most base of ways.
Religious icons also have a purpose. It is to inspire the believer, to lift him up or comfort him, to bring the presence of his personal deity into the very forefront of his mind, to reinforce his belief in his religion. It doesn't matter whether his god is worshiped by only a few people or by an entire nation. The depiction of his god or of an object associated with his god is as specific to him as it is to the other members of his faith. This specificity is vital to the decision regarding intent. If the Alabama statehouse were to give an honored place to such art it would clearly violate separation standards.
Art that simply has a religious theme is different. If a replica of the Venus de Milo stood in a public park would we demand that it be removed because the state was fostering the worship of a Roman goddess? No, because the beauty of the piece serves another purpose, an esthetic one.
The question is whether the sculpture of the Ten Commandments is a religious icon or whether it is art with a religious theme, the purpose of which is other than the promotion of a specific religion.
Regardless of the inflamed rhetoric, promoting religion is not the purpose of the courthouse artwork. The Ten Commandments, however much they mean to the particular Christians who are guarding the granite artwork, serve another purpose besides fostering religion. The Venus de Milo is the statue of a god; the Ten Commandments are the ethical rules laid down by one god that happen to be common to all religions.
Recently I participated in a discussion of the issue. One speaker calmly said the sculpture clearly violated the principle of church and state separation, while another insisted - with a fanatical gleam in his eye - that the issue was the failure of the Christian Church to maintain its fundamental supremacy - that other religions have infected spirituality in America. The cure, as he saw it, required a great fundamentalist revival in which Americans would return to Christianity and away from all those "pagan" creeds.
Everybody looked at me. For a moment, I stood on the side which considered the sculpture's presence in a courthouse a violation of the separation of church and state. I thought how terrible it would be for our government to dictate a national religion. I found myself falling into the trap of "finger pointing Zen." I was studying the hands that were pointing to the moon and because I admired the well manicured finger of the calm gentleman, I tended to side with him - just as I found the religious fanatic's hand a bit too much of a fist in my face. But then the thought came to me that the real fanaticism in this particular case was firmly in the minds of those who opposed the statuary's presence, that they were forcing their views upon us just as much as if we had been pressed into a state religion against our will. The Christian gentleman's zeal was out of place. Christianity did not "own" the principles contained in the Ten Commandments. These principles are reasonable, universal rules of civilized behavior.
I considered what would happen if a State prevented us from exercising true freedom of religion by substituting for the Bible, the Koran or the Sutras, some non-religious text such as Chairman Mao's Little Red Book or Hitler's Mein Kampf and forced us to worship such beliefs as if they were divine revelation, or forced us to adopt a creedless atheism. We'd have to worship 'underground.' I imagined religious folks using secret handshakes and signals. Totalitarianism starts with retractions of freedoms.
There was a time, not too many years ago, that atheists like Madalyn Murray O'Hare demanded that prayer be forbidden in public schools. It was common practice to read a Biblical passage as each day began, in assembly or first period class. The passage was usually from a book in the Old Testament, most often the Psalms. Did the Old Testament offend Muslims or Jews? Hardly, since both religions hold the Old Testament in great reverence. There were few Buddhists or Hindus in the U.S. at the time and they weren't complaining. Atheists complained and succeeded in having the practice of reading even a Psalm from the Bible regarded as a violation of Constitutional guarantees of Freedom of Religion. O'Hare and other atheists didn't like the word "God" appearing on our currency - O'Hare went so far to suggest that the legend be "In Dog We Trust," dog being god spelled backwards.
In the school I attended students would bring a Bible with them every day. Some of us would meet after school for small prayer meetings. Before we knew what was happening, religious gatherings of students on school campuses were outlawed. Nobody really understood how the Bible could cause such a fuss.
I recall that one day my history teacher - who until being emboldened by Murray-O'hare had not revealed his atheism - became angry over seeing my Bible sitting on top of the pile of books on my desk. He had just led the class in a discussion of the separation of church and state and was all fired-up by the rhetoric. "This," he shouted, waving his arm to indicate the entire building, "is public property. It is secular and separate because it is public property. And this," he fumed, picking up my Bible, "has no place in this building!" He hurled the book across the room. It slammed against the wall and fell to the floor, its spine broken. A boy sitting near where it lay picked it up, pushed some loosened pages back into it, and handed it to the student sitting next to him who in turn passed it on until it was back with me. Huge tears welled up in my eyes, but I said nothing. Fortunately the bell rang, ending the class. I stood up to leave and as I approached the door, the teacher yelled, "And don't bring that book with you again!"
To this day I am disturbed by that memory. More and more, science tells us that the brain's frontal lobe area - the area that gives us moral guidance and self-awareness with respect to ethics, is slow to develop; and most teenagers simply are incapable of making ethical choices. They do things and are not exactly sure of why they do what they do. They respond to emotional charges, not rational considerations. Somehow the Bible helped us to make better decisions.
And the more I think about the day that my teacher hurled my Bible across the room, the more I am saddened by his ignorance because I knew even then - though I could not articulate it - that any moral guidance to a teenager is better than no moral guidance.
I appreciate the desire of Christians to live in a Christian world as much as I understand that Buddhists would like a Buddhist world, Muslims would like an Islamic world, Jews would like a Jewish world, and so on. Fundamentalists of every one of these religions deny the possibility of goodness and righteousness in all the others, but the average believer knows that all these paths lead to the same Supreme Being. For so long as the Precepts or the Yamas and Niyamas promote integrity and law and order in a community, the words are true no matter where they are found and from which culture they derive.
A recent American poll found that 86% of us believe in a Supreme Being, a 'something' that we can't define, but which we know is greater than ourselves. We have different names for 'It', but the object of our spiritual seeking is identical. To quote G. B. Shaw, "There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it."
The pendulum swings now in favor of those whose 'religious function', as Jung called it, is in dysfunction. Aside from religious fanatics who tip the scales away from sanity, it is the atheists who pose the greatest threat to religious freedom, they and their unwitting confederates - those people who cannot tell the difference between a religious icon and an artwork that has a religious theme.
Someone in the discussion turned to me and asked if I, a Buddhist, supported the principle of separation between church and state. I said, "Of course, I do. But we don't have to throw the baby out with the bath. There are such considerations as intent and purpose, not to mention degree. I don't think the purpose of the monument was to sponsor Christianity, I think it was to remind people that we are a nation of laws and quite simply that our laws are based upon an old and workable ethical code."
The man who supported separation made me his personal adversary. "A Buddhist? And you don't have any problem with 'I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have any other God before me?'"
"No, I don't," I said. "It doesn't say, 'I am the Lord thy Fundamentalist Southern Baptist God and you will worship no other version of me.' Buddhist Precepts are no different from the Ten Commandments. No lying, stealing, murdering... but...that's also the civil code, too, isn't it?"
"That's only a coincidence," he said. "Religious objects do not belong in public buildings!"
"What about the opposite? Should religious buildings be used for civil purposes?" I asked.
"Definitely not," he said.
I began to laugh, remembering the Longfellow poem we memorized at school. I recited the opening (which is still all I can remember):
"'Listen my children and you shall hear
He said to his friend, "If the British march
Everyone laughed. "Now," I said, "If you had your way about it, his friend would have had to find another building or else we might all still be a bunch of colonials."
The Christian chimed in. "This country was founded on Christian principles!"
Again, I disagreed. "No, this country was founded by people who were being persecuted for following a version of Christianity that other Christians found objectionable.
"A hundred years before the Revolution, William Penn led the Quakers to Pennsylvania. He was a hero of tolerance in this country. Philadelphia, the hub of independent thought and a colonial capital, meant 'the City of Brotherly Love' and Penn preached tolerance, love and integrity. He respected people and never tried to force his views on others the way that others had tried to force their views on him - I think he had been imprisoned four times in England for his beliefs. He didn't proselytize, he accepted a man's views, asking only that those views be honorable. He made a treaty with the local Indians, sealed by a simple handshake. Voltaire said that it was, 'the only treaty never written and never broken.'"
Another woman in the group offered support for my assertion. "I was always taught that Christianity, as a religion, was not all that influential in the Founder's minds. Weren't many of our Founding Fathers occultists who belonged to the Freemasons? All you have to do is look at our money... you can still see all the occult symbols on it... the pyramid, the eye, none of those has anything to do with Christianity. They're all Cabalist or Rosicrucian or Freemason symbols. Those men considered themselves 'free-thinkers.'"
Religious texts constitute the most accessible and the most uplifting literature in the world. That every Great World religion's sacred writings are guides for good behavior and civilized conduct is something we need to consider especially when the moral impoverishment of our children is at stake.
A friend once told me a story about reading a Biblical passage at a funeral. After the service a young woman came up to him and asked what was the source of the beautiful passage. "It's from the Bible," he said, sadly. The young woman didn't know because she had come of age in a time when reading the Bible in school was a criminal offense.
In Buddhism we have a story that teaches us to be circumspect in our quickness to judge, to not become dictatorial and force our will upon others, to be respectful of all. The story works at many levels and I urge everyone, especially Buddhists, to explore those levels:
There once was a monk named Tozan Oshu, who was particularly good and kind and devoted to Guan Yin. He shared all that he had with others, never imposing conditions, never reserving his kindnesses for only his fellow Buddhists. Naturally, such purity of heart and mind can make a man famous; and his fame traveled all the way to Heaven. God heard about him and wondered, "Who is this Tozan Oshu I keep hearing about?" So God took a trip to Earth, to the monk's monastery. But Tozan Oshu was so pure in heart and mind, so merciful and unstained by ego, that God could not see him since Tozan was made of the same unstained, pure egoless stuff as God. As the eye cannot see itself, God simply could not see Tozan Oshu.
Not wanting to have come so far for nothing, God formed a plan. After the sun went down and Tozan went to bed, God went into the grain bin and took a bushel of grain and scattered it all over the monastery courtyard. And then He waited.
In the morning when Tozan awoke and came outside and saw the waste, he angrily exclaimed, "Who could have done such a terrible thing?"
And in that instant, God got a look at Tozan Oshu.
And the pity is that nobody can teach this story in a public school.
Last modified: November 22, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts