- Through the Eyes of Auschwitz and the Killing Fields:Mutual Learning between Engaged Buddhism and Liberation Theology
For some years, I have been pondering the differences between Engaged Buddhist and Liberation Christian engagement with social and political issues. A key point in my thinking has been a contrast: liberation theology strongly insists upon social and political justice, whereas Engaged Buddhists in general have little or nothing to say about justice—that is, they do not use justice language.1 I have long wondered whether this constituted a fundamental difference between the two forms of social engagement.
Most of the content of the concern for justice is present in Engaged Buddhism as well as in liberation theology: Engaged Buddhism has extensive concern with the poor, as is clear in the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement of Sri Lanka, which is at base a self-help development movement among the rural poor of Sri Lanka, and in the Tzu Chi movement of Taiwan, which began as a movement to bring health care to the poor. The Dalai Lama voices strong concern about poverty; for example, hearing that the number of billionaires in the United States was growing, he said, “This I consider to be completely immoral. . . . While millions do not even have the basic necessities of life—adequate food, shelter, education, and medical facilities—the inequity of wealth distribution is a scandal.”2 Engaged Buddhism has shown great concern about suffering and violence, as has been amply demonstrated in nonviolent Buddhist efforts to respond actively, creatively, and effectively to the overwhelming violence of war in Vietnam, state oppression in Myanmar, and invasion and occupation in Tibet. Whether or not Engaged Buddhists concern themselves with the institutionalized structures of poverty and powerlessness is an issue; I can only say that as Asia modernizes, these factors are better and better understood by Engaged Buddhists, and as they are understood, they become part of the concern of Engaged Buddhism. I do not believe this is a fundamental difference between Engaged Buddhism and liberation theology. [End Page 55]
The difference between Engaged Buddhism and liberation theology in the area we call “justice” also does not come down, I believe, to the presence of “righteous moral anger” in the prophetic voice calling for justice on the Christian side and its absence on the Buddhist side. Anger is an important issue and deserves more attention than I will give it. But in my search for fundamental differences, I have concluded that righteous anger is a side-effect of the prophetic voice that is present only in some individuals and by no means all, and thus it cannot be seen as a fundamental difference between the two types of engagement.
I have long thought of justice and love in Christianity as antinomies. I am certainly not alone in this; it is apparently difficult for many to understand how God can be both perfectly loving and perfectly just. Looked at in this way, it would seem that Buddhism would be fairly compatible with the Christian voice of love but much less compatible with the Christian prophetic voice. So in pondering the similarities and differences between Buddhist and Christian social engagement, it was extremely helpful for me when I discovered those liberation theologians who make it clear that justice is a function of love. For example, looking back at his lifetime of theological work, German theologian Johann Baptist Metz writes,
[T]hrough the years an increasing sensitivity to theodicy runs through my theological work, that is, there is a growing awareness that to speak of the God of the biblical traditions is to speak in the face of the abysmal history of suffering in the world—in God’s world. How can one, in the face of this history of suffering, blithely ask only about one’s own salvation?... At the root of Christian theology there always lies a matter of justice, the question of justice for those who suffer, of unjust and innocent suffering. Deus caritas est—Deus iustitia est.”3
“God is love” and “God is justice”; clearly, justice here is aligned with love, rather than in tension with it. Justice is continuous with love; it is not...