Crucifixion, Liberation, and the Depression

April 10, 2009

Good Friday. Christians everywhere are commemorating the execution of an ancient Middle Eastern sect leader by an imperial power. History is just so strange. I love wandering into old churches. Often the weirdest part of the experience is coming across a painted effigy of Christ, covered with blood, perforated with gaping wounds, and exuding a kind of patient agony. Its certainly tempting to conclude that an iconography of such sadism is the sign of some disease gripping the mind.

However, there is an interesting link here with more thoughtful world views, such as Buddhism. The link is the liberation from suffering. Both Christianity and Buddhism start from the assumption that the default state of humanity is one of suffering and struggle – the suffering of poverty and starvation, the struggle to protect your family against war and theft, the fear of illness and death, the pain of loss. As I understand it, Christ suffers for us; we get swallowed up in his love, and he swallows up our pain and suffering. In Buddhism, the point is to somehow see past these things – there is no self no suffer, and suffering is caused by grasping too hard at the world. Buddhism is not primarily a set of beliefs, but rather a path of liberation. (For the sake of argument, please ignore the bizarre magical side of Tibetan Buddhism…)

It always seemed to me that Buddhism ought to be a more natural religion for America than Christianity. In Christianity, we are rescued by a magical being in whom we must trust. In Buddhism, we must rescue ourselves, by insight.

Of course in the modern oil rich affluent world, there is simply much less suffering. (Although it doesn’t look that way in Gaza or Mumbai..) I have always assumed that increasing affluence was the reason why religion is gradually decaying, at least in Europe. But if capitalism collapses around us, watch out for millions of suffering people looking for ways to escape from misery..