Burma’s Monks: Ethics is not confined to Books and Temples
By Farish A Noor
By now the international community is fully aware of the recent developments in Burma, a country that has been under military rule and isolated from the rest of the globe since 1963. The images of Burmese Buddhist monks taking to the streets and defying the armed might of the Burmese junta and its security apparatus reminds us of familiar scenes dating back to the 1980s, and echo the democratic revolutions we have seen elsewhere in Asia, including China, since then.
While the fate of Burma and her people hang in the balance, the protest of the monks – many of whom happen to come from ordinary Burmese families with scant political protection themselves – teaches us a vital lesson and is a model for many progressive theologians and religious activists to follow. It is sometimes said that in the post-Enlightenment age we live in there is little concern for religion and that religion has no place in society. Worst still, the political instrumentalisation of religion for clearly divisive and sectarian ends has further added scepticism for many who believe that religion is best kept out of politics and the public domain, where it has often been abused. (A view that many would concur with). Unfortunately today any talk of religious ethics is often met with images of Bible-thumping evangelists talking of holy wars and moral crusades, angry bearded fanatics burning books and nosey neighbours spying on what the people next door are doing. Are religion and ethics destined to remain forever trapped in the nonsensical and pointless debate over who is holier and who wears his or her religion on the sleeves? Has religion nothing to say on pressing issues of the day such as fundamental political rights and liberties, democracy and rule of law?
The problem faced by many progressive theologians today is having to translate ethics and morality into modern public life without falling into the numerous pitfalls that lie before it: More often than not when morality makes an appearance in the public political domain it is at the behest of right-wing conservatives who merely wish to use ethics and morality as yet another means of domesticating society and controlling the masses. Then there are the political elites who have turned religious ethics into a mere ideology, fit only for vote-winning and the demonisation of other communities deemed ‘deviant’, ‘infidels’ and ‘Others’. What is needed now is a new vocabulary of religious ethics that takes ethics into the public domain of the present, addressing issues of today and speaking the language of ordinary people living in the 21st century.
Religion, if it is to be real and relevant, cannot be trapped in the myth of some pristine golden age of the past. The morality of religion is not to be found in temples, mosques or churches; or in books and tomes that have been left to rot in libraries of monasteries. One does not find God’s ethics in outdated rituals and empty religious praxis, any more than in the length of beards, the size of turbans and the cut of one’s holy robes…
As the South African theologian Prof. Farid Esack once wrote, the real mission of religion and faith today is to be a living, dynamic force of social change and transformation, with the capacity of making the world a better, safer and more equal place for all. This is what he refers to as the ‘Prophetic mission’ of all divine ideas, and it has to be remembered that Prophets were seldom Kings or Presidents, but themselves marginal figures who stood on the margins to represent the downtrodden, disempowered and voiceless. Religious ethics, Prof Esack argues, does not and should not be an appendage to power, but must rather speak up to power and its abuses. By speaking up for the people of Burma who have suffered so much under military rule for so long, the monks of Burma are doing precisely that: living up to the Prophetic mission of Buddhism and showing that ethics and morals are out there in the streets and in demonstrations.
For all who profess to be progressive theologians, the events in Burma are of common concern and importance. What is happening in Burma right now is not just important for the country, but it is also important for Buddhism, and all other religions by extension. It proves that religion can have a meaningful impact when its ethics are translated into a real-life context and ethics is something acted out in the public domain, rather than discussed in an abstract manner. One is not good simply because one thinks so, but to be good, to be moral and ethical, requires moral and ethical action as well. The monks of Burma are not prepared to kill for anything or anyone, but they seem willing to die at least for a cause that resonates with the people of the country as a whole. The simple gesture of taking to the streets and standing their ground before the bayonets and tanks of the military junta sends out a clear message to the regime installed in Burma today: Namely that while the army has the guns and tanks it is the people who now command the moral high ground.
With little save the threat of violence to stand on, the army in Burma must realise that it has lost all credibility not only in the eyes of the world but more crucially for their own people as well. And by taking the stand that they have and keeping to it, the monks of Burma have shown us that religion can also be a living dynamic force that has relevance in the here-and-now, and that ethics is not something to be confined to books and locked in the sacred precinct of temples.
Dr. Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site http://www.othermalaysia.org