Religion and Politics in Tibet

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on March 31, 2008. 

“Religion and politics don’t mix.”

This is an American mantra that has been reinforced by the Jeremiads of Rev. Wright God-damning America on the Left and by countless mega church power brokers on the Right God-damning just about anyone who isn’t a straight, Republican, Protestant Evangelical.

Then we look across the ocean and our determination grows. In Northern Ireland, Presbyterians like me are filled with hatred for their Catholic neighbors; the Catholics respond in kind and with bombs. In Kosovo Orthodox Christians and Muslims are poised to resume the age-old practice of killing one another. In the Holy Land religion is used by Jewish Israelis to justify the appropriation of Palestinian and to deprive peaceful Palestinian civilians of human rights. Palestinians—both Muslims and Christians—are inspired by religion to attack Israeli civilians.

Lord have mercy. Osama bin Laden is condemning the entire European Union because of Danish cartoons. Radical Hindus are calling for the expulsion of Muslims from India. Buddhists are killing Hindus in Sri Lanka. The officially atheist Chinese government is killing  Buddhists in the Himalayas.

This brings us to Tibet.

In Tibet, religion and politics are mixing, and the blend works. Both in exile and in their homeland, religious Tibetans are managing to do what secular activists and politicians have failed to do so far: they are focusing the world’s attention upon China’s abysmal record on human rights. This has been a strong suit for Buddhist monks recently. For a brief moment last year Buddhist monks in Burma brought the repressions of Myanmar’s military junta into the limelight.

These are very religious people—they live in monasteries for crying out loud—yet as far as I know no one outside of the halls of power in Beijing and Rangoon ever sees the bravery and dedication of Buddhist monks and suggests that religion and politics don’t mix.

It may be the robes. I wish it were that easy. I’d like to think that a peaceful and eloquent gathering of Presbyterian ministers garbed in pulpit gowns could draw the world’s attention to the just cause of Scottish Nationalism, but I doubt it.

Over breakfast on Saturday, in a rare moment of calm in our house, my wife and I talked about Tibet and the mix of religion and politics. “The problem isn’t religion,” she told me. “The problem is idiots.”

I think we need to trust the Pastor’s Wife on this one. The world is in trouble not when religion and politics mix, the world is in trouble when politics is conjoined to idiocy. And make no mistake: the religious nuts that fall from the trees of every faith and creed are idiots. This does not mean, however, that all religious people are idiots, nor is it true that all idiots are persons of faith.

People of good conscience should forget about religion and should be dedicated to keeping politics free of idiots.

Meanwhile, I am thankful for the Tibetan monks’ witness to the viability of religious politics. And I am keeping them in my prayers. May their voices be strong, may they soon live free in the land of their ancestors, and may their religion never loose its political edge.

3 thoughts on “Religion and Politics in Tibet

  1. Gutsy, ben. I’m not sure I would have phrased it that way myself, but your piece is interesting.
    look forward to seeing you at the presbytery meeting this week.

  2. The pastor’s wife is right on!

    I thought TIME (March 31) presented a good piece on “The Dalai Lama’s Journey” and religion and politics in Tibet.

  3. Interesting column, Ben. I don’t know enough about either religion or politics in Tibet to comment coherently. I do know that the People’s Liberation Army unilaterally marched in and annexed Tibet in 1951 or so. Issues around that aside, anyone or anything who challenged the cult of personality around Mao had to go. So the Dalai Lama went.

    I’d speculate that at this point it’s a matter of saving face for China, so they likely aren’t going to back down at all. Curious thing is, the Dalai Lama, in an interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose earlier this year, said that all he really wants — aside from being allowed to return home — is a status for Tibet like that of Hong Kong. In other words, reasonably autonomous, but still within the Chinese orbit. Other Tibetans might have other aims and goals, but I would guess the Dalai Lama’s opinion would carry a huge amount of clout.

    Bill

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