Morality Isn't Bland, It's Urgent

Some people are motivated by political impulses, which is a shame. When politics is your modus operandi, you say things for strategic reasons. You are more likely to lie.

I realized recently what my motivation is: to help end suffering as much as I can. I understand suffering may always be with us. But I have these religious feelings, you see, very separate from a political impulse to conform to a sordid reality. And I usually get these feelings around the holidays. These religious feelings compel me to think about our great religious teachers: prophets like Jesus and Buddha. I thought a lot about the similarity between these two leaders, who lived about 500 years apart.

I was wondering why I sometimes consider myself a Christian and Buddhist, on alternating weekends. Jesus and Buddha both knew this: your suffering is my suffering. Buddha was concerned with the suffering the mind brings on. I think Jesus's example shows me that it is my job––personally, not some amorphous “they,” as in “their job”––to ease others’ pain or perhaps to prevent it. To suffer with them if I can’t.

From Jesus’ time on the cross, I get the sense that Jesus' suffering was a way to teach that pain is real and we must do our best to ease the pain of others. Jesus’ experience was like a cry through the centuries, saying, “If you love me so much and you realize that no one stopped them from killing me, you too must intercede to stop violence.”

There is also a strong impulse to intercede to stop violence in other religions, including Judaism. God intercedes as an example to Abraham not to commit violence to Isaac no matter how devoted he was to God. Judaism also teaches that we must not look away or fear that God has hidden his face from us due to the wreckage and violence in the world. King David lamented, “Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.”

Even when my brain takes over and convinces me that there is nothing new under the sun, I remember that the only reason change doesn’t happen is because we choose to allow differences in religion and identity to make politics supreme instead of morality. And once you realize you have a choice, you can see the vibrancy of morality. It is no longer a bland commandment list. It’s not about legislating prudishness or reciting dogma. It is an active calling toward action, toward intercession. If you begin to see you have more options than the way you have been thinking and feeling, you realize that the moral cry of our time is loud and urgent. If even staunch conservatives at the National Review can recognize the necessity of animal rights––and their moral antecedents––then we can see the exigency of the crisis of violence and suffering.

While some would take the comfort of the optimism narrative, that things are generally getting better and the world is getting less violent, I think this makes us complacent. I would rather have the energy of the radical Jesus, who stopped the trading of birds in the temple for animal sacrifice. I would rather have the moral clarity of Buddha, who led a vegetarian lifestyle and preached compassion for all beings. When push comes to shove, I admire people like these more than politicians. And I know I’m not alone.

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