Last Sunday I wrote about God’s response in the book of Job, a book at its core about human suffering. Yet In a week full of suffering locally (the Berkeley balcony collapse) and nationally (the white supremacist terrorist attack in Charleston), my own response to scripture followed an intellectual interest instead of addressing real suffering in the world. As a follow-up post this week I choose to sit with and consider the suffering caused by the atrocity in Charleston.
Why is there suffering? How can we alleviate it? These are two basic questions at the core of many religious traditions, Christianity and Buddhism being no different. The primary Christian response to the “why” question has been the doctrine of original sin. There have been many different Christian ways to alleviate suffering, which include taking care of one another as Jesus commanded and also the promise of an eternal life without suffering. Buddhism addresses the “why” and “what to do” questions of suffering in the four noble truths. The first two truths say that “life is suffering, and this suffering is caused by attachment.” The Buddhist path out of suffering, simply put, is that we reduce suffering by releasing attachments.
While there are benefits to both the Christian and Buddhist approaches, this week I am drawn to the Buddhist approach and its focus on attachment. Jesus also taught about giving up attachments, for instance in Mark 10:17-22 where he advises a wealthy man to sell all his possessions. While this advice has been taken seriously by many Christians throughout history, in general this is not a Christian focus in late consumer capitalism or mainline Protestantism. The more I sit with Buddhism, however, the more I wish to recover this vein of Christianity in my tradition. Most importantly, I find an approach to suffering rooted in attachment helps me understand what happened in Charleston.
The atrocity in Charleston and the sorrow in its wake are a direct result of deep attachments. White people attached to the lie of their supremacy or the privileges of racism have caused ceaseless suffering for people of color across the globe for generations. Holding onto the cherished ‘right to bear arms’ in a two-hundred year old document, along with the culture of guns and international arms sales it informs and perpetuates, has caused death and destruction across America. Elected officials holding onto power, access, and money have perpetuated all of this by maintaining the status quo in our racist, gun soaked culture. These attachments are very real, and they cause very real suffering.
This suffering is completely avoidable. It could be eliminated if the people under the thrall of these attachments could release them. Until we who benefit from racism address our attachment to its privileges, until our country gives up its addiction to guns and the lucrative international arms trade, and until representatives in Congress agree to put down the keys to power and their campaign coffers, we will continue to witness this kind of violence. And each time violence like this erupts, those of us with these attachments will be morally culpable.
What are the next steps? Practicing letting go, each and every day. My steps are as follows: first, give up my attachment to free time to attend protests and and write letters to my national, state, and local elected officials demanding specific change. Second, give up my attachment to my own opinions, and instead listen deeply to the voices of people who teach me how the society which benefits me violates the humanity of others. Third, give up my attachment to my emotional comfort zone and continue to engage in uncomfortable conversations with other white people about racism.
Do you have attachments which perpetuates this system? Are you ready to look at them? What are your next steps?