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  • Overcoming Greed:Buddhists and Christians in Consumerist Society
  • Paul F. Knitter

As I understand my assignment, I don't find it an easy one. I've been instructed to carry on a lopsided dialogue. Generally, what generates productive dialogue is a proper balance of learning and questioning. My assigned job in this exchange is to question more than learn—to offer some Christian queries about how Buddhists think we can overcome greed and find a path out of the consumerist jungle that surrounds us. Actually, I'd prefer it the other way around, for I'm convinced that we Christians have some very important, if not absolutely vital, things to learn from Buddhists in our own efforts to deal with the jungle. And I will mention some of them. But, following instructions, my main focus in what follows will be on areas where I suspect that Buddhists can learn something, maybe something very helpful, in our shared efforts to deal with greed and the havoc it is working on people and planet.

I need to specify my Christian voice in this conversation—or, as they say, where I'm coming from within the many and diverse neighborhoods that make up the Christian community. I'll be reflecting and speaking out of my knowledge of and experience with Christian liberation theology, especially as it has been born, developed, and taken new shapes among the poor and suffering of Latin America. The voices and concerns you will hear in my own remarks are originally those of Christian thinkers and activists such as Jon Sobrino, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff.

In order to bring some order into the swarm of insights and questions that these extremely rich presentations have stirred up in me, I'll gather my comments around two broad topics.

The Inner and the Outer: Enlightenment and the Reign of God

My first general area of conversation is a familiar one not just for the Buddhist-Christian conversation but also for all activists who call themselves religious: the need for, but the difficulty of, holding together the "inner and the outer"—action and [End Page 65] contemplation, personal and social transformation, or what I will term Buddha's enlightenment and Jesus' vision of the Reign of God.

What Christian Liberation Theologians Need to Hear from Buddhists

First, let me simply list, and hold back from delving into, some crucial lessons that we Christians not only can but drastically need to learn.

First, what Jesus and his followers call the Reign of God will be built on sand unless it is grounded in the personal, inner conversion of those who are trying to build it. The church will be only a empty building—or worse, a den of thieves—if its members, and that includes its leaders, are not transformed by the Spirit. Or, in Judith Simmer-Brown's words, "No fundamental transformation can take place anywhere without the joining of inner change and outer change" (emphasis mine). Or, in Ken Barnhill's words (quoted by Brown), "Social work entails inner work. . . . social change and inner change are inseparable." Or, in the powerful and widely quoted admonition of Thich Nhat Hanh: We have to be peace if we want to make peace. Christians know this, and they talk about it. But in my own life and in what I see in my church, how often we forget it in our efforts to get things done, in our concern for the institution, in our determination to bring about political change.

Second, I both cringed and nodded approvingly when I read about Judith Simmer-Brown speaking about "idiot compassion." In opposing wealthy landowners in El Salvador, or in a business-controlled city council in Cincinnati, how often I have felt but perhaps not identified in myself and in my fellow Christian activists "...unskillful acts...the impulsive response based on insufficient knowledge [that] can quickly become ineffective, causing personal burnout." Such idiocy, grounded in goodwill, derives, again, from an insufficient balancing of the inner and the outer.

Third, and more sharply focused on the suffering caused by greed, Judith offers a hope, or deep belief, that is often not clearly present among liberation theologians since...