Towards a kind and just society
God wills for humanity to strive for a balance; social, spiritual, biological, physical, moral and environmental. When this elusive equilibrium is achieved, where no one is afraid of the other, oppression becomes a story, exploitation fades away, and goodwill becomes the norm of the society. Religion has achieved its goal; indeed, God is all about peace and equilibrium – Mike Ghouse
Authorship of the following article to be added.
Interfaith dialogue and understanding of the human spirit can serve as powerful tools to remedy social injustice
A woman was arrested on a charge of stealing baby powder milk from a supermarket. According to the law, she had to be sent to jail to serve for her petty crime.
Yet, justice has not been served, according to Fr Vichai Phoktavi, Jesuit priest and founder of Santiwana retreat centre in Bangkok. "Justice is not an issue of law. It is intrinsically a spiritual issue of human heart and living," said Vichai, who has been working with human rights issues for hill-tribe people in the north of Thailand.
"The key question we need to ask in this case, for instance, is why the woman has no milk to feed her baby whereas there is plenty of milk on the market shelves," he raised, "Is this fair and just?
"Touch the issue with your heart, you will find the answers. When we start doing something to really solve the problem, then it is the dawn of justice in society," he said in the recent seminar on "Religions and Restoring Social Justice", organised by the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB).
The seminar was a prologue to the upcoming event "Engaged Buddhist Festival of Peace and Social Transformation", to be held in Chiang Mai (see sidebar). The event is deemed to promote social engagement among religious practitioners and the public.
"Religious practices are not about individual salvation. The spirit of loving kindness, compassion and non-harm is emphasized in all religions. These principles guide us towards creating a peaceful, loving and just society in this world and beyond," said Tianchai Wongchaisuwan, columnist and globalisation critic under the pseudonym Yook Sri Ariya.
Buddhist's precepts, for instance, are guidelines towards non-harming and harmonious co-existing.
"Social justice is the core virtue of religions. All of us yearn for justice. It is one of our basic needs," he pointed out.
But the spirits that cherish a loving and just society have been robbed. Our world today evolves around money, Tianchai commented. Consumerism and materialism have taken over religious and spiritual virtues.
He mentioned reports of the assets of multibillionaires that exceed the total GDP of 40 third-world countries combined; or cases of health-care services and medicines that are in the hands of profit-making multinational corporatists; and global underground networks of human trafficking, drugs and arms.
"Social injustice and violence have become more severe and subtle than what mankind has experienced in the past," commented Tianchai. "For money, we sold our spirit and sacrificed our environment and peaceful livelihood," he said.
There have been polls that show many urban middle class youngsters and adults think corruption and cheating are acceptable if you are efficient and work smart. Some respondents even confessed that they might be part of this corrupted circle as "anyone is in".
"Human consciousness is weakened and impoverished; as a result, injustice proliferates on a wider and deeper scale," said Vichai.
The antidote to social injustice, therefore, is not law or force, but work on the human spirit.
"Every problem in society stems from the root cause, which is the human spirit. If we don't heal this - human consciousness - how can we hope for justice and a better society? Religious practices should be brought back to and in our life. We need to bring justice back into human hearts. Only a just mind can bring justice to society."
For years, if not centuries, religions and spiritual traditions have been separated from the profane world, commented historian Tianchai. The role of religions is restricted to temples and certain rituals.
Histories of religions, such as Buddhism, are interpreted to be the story of extraordinary individuals, who were born specifically for a noble cause, commented Tianchai.
Yet, religions are never about individuals. Nor can they be detached from society.
"When we study religions, we cannot separate our Great Teachers and Prophets from the historical contexts they were born into and lived in."
Prince Siddhartha, for instance, was born in a Brahmanism-dominated society. His teachings challenged the strict social caste system of his time, and helped the untouchables and women attain not only spiritual but also social liberation.
Also, in his time, there were instances when the Buddha called for kingdoms to cease wars. "Who says that religion should not be involved in politics?" he raised. "Politics must be guided by dharma. Politics without dharma is disastrous."
The histories of Islam and Christianity are concerned with social justice and collective salvation, added Sarawuth Sriwanyot, chairman of the Council of Muslim Organisations of Thailand.
"In times of social chaos, messiahs would be sent into the world to save people's souls and spirits. Their messages influenced people for the betterment of this world and the world beyond," said Sarawuth.
For Islam, the Prophet Mohammed brought a revolution to the fate of the nomadic Arabs.
Throughout his life, Jesus Christ stood up for deprived and oppressed people, said Vichai.
"God is the embodiment of justice. God saves human beings from corrupt society and suggests ways towards a society of love, justice and joy."
In the Bible, those with authority and power have to serve powerless people, especially the impoverished, such as orphans and widows.
"Jesus Christ denounced corrupt authorities who abused their power for personal gain or for the benefit of their cronies. These people are condemned to hell," said Vichai.
Given the aggravating social ills and injustice, he added that we need to have more people with ethical courage.
"For example, when we see injured people after a road accident, will we stop to help? Some may say 'no' as they fear being accused as the culprit.
"But will anyone insist on helping the injured even if he or she may risk being wrongly accused?"
He added that Jesus Christ chose to stand for what was right and just to the end. He was turned down by his own disciples and died a lonely death.
"A person may die but the virtue he or she dies for will be passed on to the next generations. And this - unconditional courage, is how we can help restore social justice."
Despite social and environmental crises and spiritual degradation, we can still be hopeful, believes Sarawuth, chairman of the Council of Muslim Organisations in Thailand.
Good people still outnumber the not-so-good ones, he said; however, they need to be more actively engaged in society.
"Promoting good deeds in society is not enough. We also need to stop malicious deeds, such as corruption, and murder from happening. Evil deeds, with the aid of money and power, proliferate at a high speed these days.
"The way to impede social ills, according to Islamic guidelines, can be done through actions, words and prayers. Yet it is not through violence," said Sarawuth.
Christ and Mohammed showed us the way to tackle violence and injustice, he pointed out. They showed us the virtue of forgiveness.
"To his enemies who killed his relatives, Mohammad said 'Forgive them for they do not know,' and Christ said the same thing too."
Sarawuth said that if we learn more about the religions of our friends, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, for instance, we will see more similarities than differences. Tianchai added that interfaith dialogue and understanding can serve as a powerful tool to remedy social injustice.
"If all religions join forces and people of all spiritual traditions join hands to tackle social ills and environmental crisis, we will have great power to tackle injustice in society. And this powerful source can save us from the critical point of social and environmental crisis that threatens the survival of humanity," said Tianchai.
Above all, Vichai said, social injustice starts from each and every one of us. "Live a just and fair life. Engage in spiritual and religious teachings and practices in our daily living."
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