Seven deadly sins - a Gandhi series by Sandra Winton
True religion leads us never to violence, often to self-sacrifice, always to compassion:
such was Gandhi’s teaching in word and action
Worship without Sacrifice
As I write this, news has just broken that a suicide bomber has destroyed himself after killing the Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto. As has become sadly familiar, this young man left his house that day with the intention of murdering someone, then blowing up himself and, indiscriminately, any number of others. Motivated by political or ideological beliefs, perhaps fired by seeing poverty, suffering, repression and powerlessness, a young man like this is also likely to have been driven by religion. His religion tells him he is a martyr, a saint. He is sacrificing his life.
By way of contrast, earlier this year I saw the film Amazing Grace. It depicted the struggle of another young man, William Wilberforce, and his largely Quaker supporters to achieve the abolition of slavery in Britain and its empire. William sacrificed standing, reputation, health when, year after year, he stood before parliament to be jeered at, ridiculed and mocked as he re-presented his bill. Like the young man depicted above, he also was sustained and inspired by religion.
From where we sit, it seems easy to see one of these young men as tragically misguided and the other as a hero and prophet. But it would be simplistic to attribute the difference to Islam on the one hand and Christianity on the other. There are Muslims who are devoted to peace, as there were Christians who vehemently supported slavery as being part of the divine plan. Whatever its expression, worship or religion (and I will use the two terms interchangeably as both appear in versions of Gandhi’s sins) has enormous potential for good and for evil. It can be a source of life – or death. This is the meaning of a ‘deadly sin’ in the Christian tradition, a sin which is a root sin, one which leads on to other sins.
When Gandhi named worship without sacrifice as a deadly sin he was, I believe, acknowledging that religion by itself, no matter how devotedly adhered to, is not the final arbiter of human conduct. “As soon as we lose the moral basis,” he said, “we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion overriding morality. Man [sic] for instance cannot be untruthful, cruel and incontinent and claim to have God on his side.” His words sit well with the life of Jesus who healed on the Sabbath, forgave sinners and placed compassion above law.
For both Jesus and Gandhi the regulations of religion and the rules of religious leaders are insufficient guides to human behaviour. After all, the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, the Crusades, and the bombers flying over Dresden and Hiroshima were blessed by certain religious authorities, as are the terrorists, suicide bombers and invading armies of today. Religion can be serving of personal, political and ideological interests just as much as commerce and politics can be. Gandhi himself said, “Millions have taken the name of God and in His [sic] name have committed nameless atrocities.”
Compassion, not self-flagellation
To say that worship or religion requires sacrifice to keep it honest is not the same thing as calling for the kind of self-denial that for a period of history governed much Christian living especially in the English speaking world, including New Zealand. When my Scottish Presbyterian ancestors built their main church hall in Dunedin with a sloping floor to discourage any possible temptation to dance, they were life-denying in a way that makes little sense today.
When my Catholic forbears told young people that they were committing a mortal sin to ‘entertain’ even a sexual thought or desire they were walking in the same territory. Young people of today will find it hard to believe that this was ever seriously taught and practised. Modern spirituality seeks God in the joys and beauties of life as much as in its sorrows and sufferings. It is right to do so. The sacrifice that Gandhi considered essential to ensure the truth of worship, or “worship in truth” as Jesus put it, was not a dour denial of human pleasure but a pursuit of goals that required sacrifice for their attainment.
For Gandhi, no less than for Jesus, true worship always involved compassionate action for human beings. When we go beyond our prejudices of age, race, language and religion, then the suffering of any human being will move us and impel us. The battered child in New Zealand no less than the starving child in Africa; the victims of war, Muslim, Christian Hindu or of any faith; those who suffer from injustice, poverty, fear and powerlessness will matter to us. We may not be able to attend to all these needs but those that touch our hearts will call us to action.
On October 6, 2002, three American Dominican Sisters aged in their 50s and 60s left their homes knowing that that day they would be in prison. They had spent years of their lives studying the meaning and impact of the United States’ nuclear build-up and its policies of war. They were impelled by the injustice of the staggering sums spent on military weapons, in light of the desperate poverty within the United States and beyond it. They had previous convictions because of their protest actions.
On an early autumn morning, wearing white chemical suits labelled Citizens Weapons Inspection Team they broke through the fence around a military installation to protest for peace and nuclear disarmament. They sang religious songs, prayed for peace, and symbolically poured their own blood onto the metal cover of an underground nuclear missile silo. “We wanted to shed our own blood rather than see others’ blood poured out for war,” said one of them, Sr Carol Gilbert. “If you follow Jesus, he gave his blood for all of us on the cross. As Christians we are called to sacrifice ourselves for others.”
Gandhi and non-violence
As a root virtue of Christian life, worship or giving one’s life over to God can be the source of the highest virtue, as I believe it was with these Sisters. It can also be a source of cruelty, murder and the deepest injustice. What guides do we have? Gandhi taught compassion for the least, justice for the many, restraint with regards to possessions, non-violence as a principle of action, means that are as just as the ends they seek.
These guides will not tell us at once if an action is right or not; nothing frees us from the inevitable struggle to sift through shades of grey. They will not give us certainty; many circumstances of life do not allow it. But they would have stopped the suicide bomber. And they inevitably involve sacrifice. They cannot be practised without it. That is why Gandhi led a very ascetical life himself and taught his followers to do the same.
A school pupil who refuses to participate in bullying, physical or verbal, knows he will sacrifice popularity with some. A parent who holds in her anger and does not hit her child must exercise self-control. The business person who asks how his investment choices and business decisions will affect workers and the ecology of the planet may sacrifice some wealth. The politician who acts with conscience may lose votes. The scientist who asks how her research will affect human lives may not pursue certain lines of investigation. There are people who make these choices.
A lesson in humility
There was a particular verse of a Hindu scripture, the Ishopanishad, that held great meaning and comfort for Gandhi. It said to him that “all there is in this universe, great or small, including the tiniest atom, is pervaded by God”. If I were to become more fully aware of this truth I would care about my actions in so far as they affect not only others in the world but the created world itself. A belief that human beings are at the centre of the universe, free to use it in any way they wish, for their own profit, pleasure and satisfaction, is a part of the deadliness of religious sin; it is the antithesis of worship. Inspired by a false interpretation of the Biblical creation story that sees humans as masters of all, this belief is leading us rapidly into destruction of the planet’s water, its potential to feed its children and its very air. Were it not for greed for oil, how much war and suffering might have been averted in recent years?
True worship reminds humans that we are not the ultimate gods of all. We are here to serve life, that of humanity and the whole created world. All of us and our church communities are invited to this highest way of life. This is a fully religious calling. It involves outer action and inner transformation. It requires both sacrifice and hope. I finish with Gandhi’s words:
Let me explain what I mean by religion. It is not the Hindu religion which I certainly prize above all other religions, but the religion which transcends Hinduism, which changes one’s very nature, which binds one indissoluble to the truths within and which ever purifies. It is the permanent element in human nature which counts no cost too great in order to find full expression and which leaves the soul utterly restless until it has found itself, known its Maker and appreciated the true correspondence between the Maker and itself.
Possible questions for discussion:
• What are some ways in which you see religion used to support self-interest, internationally and personally?
• How would you like to see religious leaders encouraging governments and people to pursue a more just and peaceful world? What might they risk in the process?
• Can you think of situations in everyday life where you might be called to act on principle and where this might involve some cost or sacrifice for you?
• What do you imagine it would be like to be called up to fight in a war you did not believe was right? What do you think you would feel and do?