Sunday, July 01, 2007

"We hold these truths to be self-evident . . ."

We're creeping up on America's Independence Day.

My friend Perry Marshall just got back from a trip to India. He wrote something about supposedly self-evident truths (the phrase, of course, comes from the preamble to "The unanimous Declaration of the united States of America" [yes, capitalized like that] made "In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776"):
Hinduism teaches the concept of reincarnation and that depending on the Karma of a past life, some people are born into different castes - some are destined to have lives of privilege, some to be working class, and some to be "untouchable." So untouchable, in fact, that one need not even help the poorest of the poor because, after all, they are only getting what they deserve anyway.

Babies die of starvaton. Families live in filth. Children break rocks with hammers for 25 cents a day.

I know this will offend some people but I'm going to say it anyway: This belief is nothing more than a lie that has victimized untold millions of people. Hundreds of millions of people have nothing, have no ability to do business with other people, and are cut off from the rest of the world because of this false belief.

I would like to detour for a bit of a history lesson so that I can make an important point.

The United States Declaration of Independence makes a world-shattering declaration that transformed the modern world:

"We hold these [truths] to be self-evident, that all men are created equal[, that they are] endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, [that] among [these] are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

In his book "Democracy in America" (1835) Alexis de Tocqueville traces this statement and its idea of equality backward through history and lands at Galatians 3:28, the words of St. Paul: "In Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. All are equal in Christ Jesus."

Before Paul said this, NO ONE had ever made such a bold and sweeping statement. No one. Not the Jews, not the Babylonians, not the Egyptians, not the Greeks, not the Chinese. The concept of equality came first from Paul.

This idea got planted in western civilization and began to grow and develop, little by little dismantling slave trade, sowing the seeds for democracy and spurring technological and political progress.

If you live in a democracy and you're thankful for the ability to vote, if you're thankful that people generally consider you and themselves to be just as good as anybody else, then thank Paul.

Because despite what the Declaration says, equality really is NOT self evident. At least it wasn't to any of the ancient world prior to 2000 years ago. On the surface, we're all different. Some are stronger. Some are smarter. Some have more money. Some are politically connected. Some are more savvy.

And some people get the scraps.

But when Paul said this, he was declaring that there is an underlying *spiritual* reality, that yours and my true identity doesn't come from accomplishments or money or power but from our Heavenly Father. That once we know that true identity we're no longer slaves to money and power and accomplishments and the 'natural' order of things.
I would like to note concerning Untouchables that, according to my understanding, it is untrue "that one need not even help the poorest of the poor"; under Hinduism one must not help the poorest of the poor, because they are not merely "getting what they deserve"; they are, if you will, "working out their own . . . [ahem] . . . 'salvation'" through myriad reincarnations. And if one "helps" the low-caste person too much, s/he will be condemned, potentially, to have to come back in even worse condition than s/he finds him- or herself today: perhaps as a bug or a cow. . . .

In a subsequent post, Perry (who writes to a broad range of business people) noted,
Some people told me that this class system allows very poor people to be content with their lot in life and that this is a good thing. A number of people sharply criticized me for saying the caste system is bad - that it's not OK for me to judge peoples' religious beliefs.

Well, I don't know how you can have any system of human rights at all without making those very kinds of judgments. A person who criticizes me for speaking up is, after all, judging my beliefs, are they not? There is a large segement of Western society in which it's politically incorrect to speak up about such things, to make negative comparisons between various belief systems, but I think that political incorrectness is hypocritical and really just chooses to arbitrarily judge some people and not judge others. Truth is, it's not possible to have a conscience and not make judgments about such things.
I am reminded of Mark Steyn's comment in America Alone:
In a culturally confident age, the British in India were faced with the practice of 'suttee"--the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. General Sir Charles Napier was impeccably multicultural: "You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very Well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."

India today is better off without suttee. If you don't agree with that, . . . if you think you genuinely believe that suttee is just an example of the rich, vibrant tapestry of indigenous cultures, you ought to consider what your pleasant suburb would be like if 25, 30, 48 percent of the people around you really believed in it too.

--America Alone, 193-194

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