Archive for the ‘India’ Tag

now he belongs to the ages

It’s Martin Luther King Jr Day back in the States, and there seems to be a current of urgency in the online news services and among my friends and contacts. I’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of tributes and reflections on his legacy compared to recent years. King is one of my true heroes; I take inspiration from his life and words all the time, so trust me, I notice these things. Why the extra interest this year?

Is there an increasing sense of emergency on planet Earth? The economic slump grinds on; the endless war grinds on. Judges and little girls shot in the street. Injustice, poverty and violence haunt the entire world. Globalization seems to bless and curse us at once. Terror and hope live with all of us daily.

Do these teachings still hold weight? Can this man’s absolute commitment to peace and the power of nonviolence still apply in practical terms? Do you really have to ask?

Yeah, I think King’s message, like a seed that germinated slowly and is only now pushing above ground, is actually gaining in importance as we go on, as the world gets eerily small. We can’t escape the reality that this planet has become a community. We’re now involved whether we like it or not with what’s happening everywhere else, from drowning polar bears to mass protests in the streets.

King was there ahead of us. It’s only been in the last few years that I realized the extent of his global vision – that I understood how his push for peace and unity on a large scale were embedded in his teachings from quite early on.

Motivated by keen interest in the satyagraha teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta visited India in 1959. All agree that the experience of this trip had a profound influence on his career and ministry. On this post from last January on pan-Indian blog Sepia Mutiny, I found a recently-discovered recording of King speaking on the radio in India. (Note that the writer of the blog post admits he doesn’t think nonviolence necessarily applies to India in the global age. I don’t agree with him, but his argument is thoughtful, and he makes a connection between King’s work and the problems of modern-day Palestine, Sri Lanka and Iraq. This is the kind of discourse we need.) Here’s an excerpt from the speech:

Many years ago, when Abraham Lincoln was shot – and incidentally, he was shot for the same reason that Mahatma Gandhi was shot for; namely, for committing the crime of wanting to heal the wounds of a divided nation. And when he was shot, Secretary Stanton stood by the dead body of the great leader and said these words: “Now he belongs to the ages.” And in a real sense, we can say the same thing about Mahatma Gandhi, and even in stronger terms: now he belongs to the ages.

And if this age is to survive, it must follow the way of love and nonviolence that he so nobly illustrated in his life. Mahatma Gandhi may well be God’s appeal to this generation, a generation drifting again to its doom. And this eternal appeal is in the form of a warning: they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword.

We must come to see in the world today that what he taught, and his method throughout, reveals to us that there is an alternative to violence, and that if we fail to follow this we will perish in our individual and in our collective lives. For in a day when Sputniks and Explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war.

Today we no longer have a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or nonexistence.

King draws a parallel between Lincoln and Gandhi, who were both shot and killed, saying they belong to the ages. It’s sad to remember he met the same fate. And belongs to the ages, aye.

Think about all of this for a second. This was 1959. His work in Alabama and Georgia had barely begun. He didn’t even have full civil and human rights under his own government. The situation of his people – the poverty, the social and political forces arrayed against their advancement – was desperate. And yet, there he was in India, talking about interfaith concepts of nonviolence and world peace. Many Americans of the day would not have been able to find India on a map or tell you one thing about it. Yet King was already trying to lift their eyes up, point them away from focusing only on their own problems. To me it’s an illustration of the yogic teaching that we do not apprehend knowledge, we are all born with it instilled within; and we realize it at different rates according to our willingness. I think King was realizing his true nature quite early. He was already a world spiritual leader, but most couldn’t see it yet.

Notice, too, that even then he was speaking out against the nuclear arms race and the potentially deadly paranoia of the Cold War. This would have been a very unpopular and even dangerous stance for the time; I’m sure it contributed to President Kennedy’s authorizing the FBI to spy on King. (In case you need a reminder that Kennedy wasn’t some great champion of the people.)

In a 1963 speech at Western Michigan University, King expounded more on his experiences in India:

Some time ago, it was our good fortune to journey to that great country known as India. I never will forget the experience. I never will forget the marvelous experiences that came to Mrs King and I as we met and talked with the great leaders of India, met and talked with hundreds and thousands of people all over the cities and villages of that vast country. These experiences will remain dear to me as long as the chords of memories shall linger.

But I must also say that there were those depressing moments, for how can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people sleeping on the sidewalks at night, no beds to sleep in, no houses to go in? How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India’s population – more than 400,000,000 people – some 380,000,000 earn less than $90 a year? Most of these people have never seen a doctor or dentist.

As I notice these conditions, something within me cried out, Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned? Then an answer came, “Oh no – because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation.” I started thinking about the fact that we spend millions of dollars a day to store surplus food. I said to myself, I know where we can store that food free of charge – the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children that go to bed hungry at night.

All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be, until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be, until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

I just want to highlight a couple of things here. First of all – again – the enormous sympathy for the poor and needy living overseas felt by this man who wasn’t treated as an equal at home. The insight in connecting their struggles to his, and to the economy and well-being of his own nation and the rest of the world. And the advanced and holistic philosophy presented in terms that anyone can understand.

King was an intellectual giant and did not hide it; his practice of weaving his speeches with strands from a number of traditions and schools of thought is on display here. Elsewhere in this same speech he quotes or refers to Lincoln, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, John Donne, Machiavelli, former British prime minister Harold McMillan, the Dred Scott and Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court decisions, Margaret Mead, Aristotle, Plato, Bob Hope and Edgar Allan Poe. He explains the Greek concepts of eros, philia and agape, talks about Ghanian independence and the pan-African movement against colonialism and, of course, makes numerous and complex Biblical references. You could spend months reading history, philosophy and theology just to catch up with this one speech.

Sure MLK was one of a kind, but doesn’t this makes you wonder about how stupid our national dialogue has become? Last year, in another manufactured controversy, President Obama was decried for using terminology that was too complex for average people. Are you kidding? What would his accusers think of this speech? But King wasn’t playing politics; he was arming his listeners against injustice. It’s a basic principle of human relations and leadership: if you respect people’s intelligence, no matter how humble they are, they will pay attention to you. King’s mastery of the rare ability to impart knowledge in a natural and dynamic way of speaking is a key reason he became a hero.

But much more than just an inventory of higher learning, the speech is remarkable for the way it ties it all together, the way it reaches out to the poor of Asia and Africa and the rest of the world, expounds on the interrelated nature of all things – even touching on relativity – and reminds Christians of their duty to the poor and their commitment to peace. King’s philosophy had rock-solid foundations – the kind that don’t age – but real vision for the future. He really was on a mountaintop.

If you still have any doubts whether this message has urgency today, any relevance for a global society, listen to this famous speech from 1967. It’s all here. He identifies war, racism and economic injustice as a three-headed monster working to ravage lives all over the world – with America shouldering much of the responsibility. He affirms that his faith is what compels him to stand up and fight. And he calls for a multinational “radical revolution of values.” It’s breathtaking, and as fresh as the day it was spoken. It’s not just a dream.


a friendly country

Wipe away your tears

This will be my second account of how reading something concerning Australia nearly made me cry. Some may start to wonder if there’s something wrong with me. Those who know me well can shake their heads at how sentimental I can be.

I wear my heart on my sleeve, and don’t mind what people think. But it also pisses me off if I slip and come across as naïve. There’s a difference between being open and positive, and being foolish. In fact I think it might be one of the most important boundaries we negotiate in this world.

In this case I wonder if someone might read about my emotional reaction to Life in Australia, a government pamphlet about immigration, and assume I am completely ignorant of some of the difficult issues facing this country.

It’s been a bad few months here on that front, with a series of violent assaults on Indians actually provoking a diplomatic situation between India and Australia. The Indian media and government have portrayed Australia as a dangerous place for its citizens. Indian officials have gone so far as to issue a travel alert — as if this were a terrorist state.

It’s been bitterly ironic and dispiriting to have this go on as I settle into a new life in a country I find so friendly and welcoming. I’ve boasted to friends about how nice it is to roam Sydney and meet folks from literally everywhere, all with charming Aussie accents, and observe how they’ve integrated into a peaceful society in a beautiful place. It’s maddening that hate and misunderstanding have damned this vision in the eyes of many.

I can’t deny a lot of Aussies have attitude problems about immigrants. Just last week an otherwise affable used car salesman made a very sharp and disagreeable comment about foreigners to me and my wife. He must have somehow thought it wouldn’t bother us at all. (I wonder how he comes across to his many immigrant customers?) It was a dreary moment; and not the first time it’s happened to me.

You get this in America too, of course; and lately the French and Swiss have been at it. People are naturally suspicious of others, naturally tense about perceived threats to their ways of life. It’s important to work on changing this, but I don’t think it automatically equates to violence. Especially in a place as stable and prosperous as Oz.

I’ve been angry about the attacks, but also angry at the idea that Australians have a fundamental or unusual problem with foreigners. I would like to think the Indian media is overreacting. (And I’ve talked to at least a couple of Indians here, guys I met at my new job, who agree with me.) I think the intense media coverage, both Indian and Australian, could even be pouring gasoline on the fire. Just two days ago there were more “attacks” in Brisbane, though they may have just been muggings. What is taking place? Is it random? Is it copycat crime? Is it really somehow condoned by the society at large? Meanwhile the Australian cricket team was threatened with reprisals on its upcoming tour by an Indian nationalist party.

Sometimes it seems there’s a sinister connection between the paranoia and the violence.

I refuse to recognize either, and will stand by my vision. Australia is self-evidently one of the most progressive and, yes, friendly places on earth, and Aussies of all backgrounds should be proud of that. They’ve worked hard for it. We shouldn’t let a couple of mindless lowlives dictate the perception of life here. But of course it’s less likely to make the news when people get along.

Anyway, this is personal for me because Indian culture and philosophy have had a profound impact on my life, and I’ve found Indian friends and communities wherever I’ve been. So I guess my wife and I and our friends will be steadily counteracting the confusion and intolerance, just by being ourselves. If a few people can cause a problem, a few people can help fix it. Love is stronger than hate, or so we are taught.

Indian film composer and superstar A.R. Rahman played a concert here last Saturday to promote peace between Indians and Australians. Many thousands attended. That is a beautiful thing — you gotta love Rahman, I think Richard Horowitz was right, he is some kind of musical messenger — and it made me happy to hear about it. But, really? Promoting peace? This is not Belfast, nor Kashmir. Do India and Australia need some great reconciliation? Aren’t there much worse problems in the world right now?

Or maybe Australia’s detractors are right to take the attacks so seriously. Maybe they are symptomatic of all the war and hate we’re dealing with, and peacemaking really is necessary.

If so, a tremendous example any Aussie should take to heart was given in 1934 by the Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic. It concerns the battle of Gallipoli, which took place on Turkish soil twenty years before. Many Americans are not aware of what took place there, especially if they’ve not seen Peter Weir’s heartrending Gallipoli, which captures as well as any film the nightmare of that “great” war: the grinding horror of young men made to charge into fields of raining metal, slaughtered like insects, as battle lines were fixed in place for months. The anonymous writer of Life in Australia provides a good recap.

World War I had a severe impact on Australia. In 1914 the total population of Australia was approximately 4.5 million; yet 417,000 Australian men volunteered to fight in the war and more than 330,000 did so. Around 60,000 died and more than 152,000 were wounded by the time the war ended in 1918.

Out of this experience emerged one of Australia’s most enduring values: the Anzac ethos of courage, spirit, and ‘mateship.’

Every year on 25 April, Australia commemorates a brave but ultimately failed battle which was fought in 1915 by the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps — known as the Anzacs — and other allied troops at Gallipoli, in Turkey.

The Anzacs (together with British, French and Indian troops) landed at Gallipoli with the aim of defeating Turkey by forcing a passage through the Dardanelles and bombarding Constantinople. However, the rugged, steep coastline and the staunch defence by Turkish soldiers held them back and the Anzacs withdrew on 20 December 1915. The campaign, which lasted eight months, resulted in the deaths of an estimated 8,700 Australians who were killed in action or died of wounds or diseases.

To get an idea of the scope of this bloodshed on the Australian psyche, imagine six million Americans died in just four years of war — and nearly a million in one campaign.

Note that allied Indians were there at Gallipoli too.

The Atatürk, known then as Mustafa Kemal, was the charismatic leader of the Turkish troops the Anzacs faced in that miserable conflict. Famously he told them, “Men, I do not ask you to fight — I ask you to die.” So they did, in shocking numbers, but eventually prevailed.

Years later, as president, he wrote a tribute to the Anzacs who died in Turkey. I saw it for the first time on my friend Charlotte’s facebook page a few months ago, around the time my Australian visa was approved.

Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries: wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

I believe this text is pretty basic stuff for most Aussies, but I had never read nor even heard of it before, so it hit me all at once. Yep, sure enough, there I was, reading facebook, with tears welling up in my eyes. (Was I just tired, after working on the film festival for six weeks straight?) You go about your daily business, you live and breathe, and everything might be fine; and then once in a while something comes along to remind you of how different things could be, how much better this world could actually be.

Since I was raised by a soldier, I instinctively recognize in these words a soldier’s outlook, a deep respect for those who willingly gave up their lives — for their country, but maybe also for something that’s harder to explain. It’s a sense of brotherhood that transcends national boundaries, can even be felt for opponents in battle, so long as it’s not polluted by zealotry.

I believe this way even if I’m against the war in question. The Great War was a great exercise in stupidity, ultimately meaningless mass murder. But something important is paid forward by that kind of sacrifice (a potent, and accurate, term for the transaction). That’s why the Anzacs are so revered to this day. The fact that Gallipoli was a failure doesn’t enter the picture.

But there’s something bigger at work here. These words are officially memorialized in Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey. There are statues of the Atatürk in places of honor in Canberra and Wellington, while the beachhead at Gallipoli was renamed Anzac Cove by the Turkish government. These are small but extraordinary instances of reconciliation. I can’t think of others like it. None of King George’s generals or admirals have such tributes in America. Nowhere in the northern States is that great enemy Lee enshrined, decent and noble as he was. Nor can I think of a place in Mexico or Vietnam named for invading US troops.

It must mean a lot to the 150,000 or so Turkish Australians. (Maybe one of these days I’ll get round to asking the guys at the pizza place what they think.)

Can we imagine having a memorial in our country to the bravery and spirit of the Ho Chi Minh, or the Taliban? Maybe we should try imagining this for the future? Maybe this kind of thinking is the only way forward?

We live in a dark time. Americans are supposed to be paranoid about foreigners with bombs. Australians are supposed to be filled with all kinds of hate. Sometimes it seems like our governments and our media are fine with this state of things. Peace, love, and understanding ain’t cool anymore. It’s with redemptive examples like this that I can sometimes see out of this mess we’re in. It’s a concrete demonstration of what “peace” actually entails beyond just putting the guns down — what generosity, forgiveness, and regard for the suffering of others, are required to maintain it. It’s a blueprint.