The time has come to think more wisely, hasn’t it?
— Tenzin Gyatso, The 14th Dalai Lama
I did not make it out to see the Dalai Lama at either of his public appearances in Birmingham this past weekend. To a person, those few with whom I have shared this information up to now have expressed surprise at it.
This response frankly perplexes me, as I am not sure how to interpret the assumption that I would be in attendance at one, the other or both events on Sunday. Is it a nod to the newsman in me, the presence of the Dalai Lama in Birmingham, Alabama, being news in and of itself? Is it a suggestion that perhaps I need all the proximity I can get to one who is a stone-solid messenger of peace, love and understanding? Or is it just the blessed assurance that if everybody else in town was going to be there with His Holiness, it follows that I, too, would want to be there — or else, one supposes, be square?
Who is to say? Not I, certainly. My preferred approach has been to shrug it off with a kind of half-joke — to which, I might add, the reaction has been decidedly mixed — to the effect that I never saw Billy Graham or William Jennings Bryan either. Among the reasons that I find this amusing is that both of those magnificent stemwinders were motivated at the core by the same essential message the Dalai Lama brings today — that the social and economic inequities that bedevil our ever-shrinking world are a disease, eating away at the mind, body and spirit of humanity.
At least that was true of both Bryan and Graham before each plunged respectively into the rabbit hole of fundamentalism. After that, after getting caught up in the always-fatal conflation of government and religion, they became caricatures of their former selves, no longer voices of hope and love and unity, but prophets of the doom that awaits those who stray too far from the long and narrow way that leads to eternal redemption and untold rewards. They became accusatory rather than encouraging, their central appeal to fear rather than faith.
But that is a topic for another day. Before the digression, I was talking about missing — or, rather, not making the effort to see — the Dalai Lama. I don’t have much of an excuse for it, other than my natural aversions to large crowds (excluding at baseball games), to engaging in mass rituals (this one also excludes baseball games) and to doing things simply because they might be expected of me for one reason or another (excluding matters of personal responsibility).
Anyhow, in my own defense, I spent a good deal of my Sunday thinking about poverty — specifically, I was working on the cover story for this issue, the latest installment in Weld’s “Poverty in Birmingham” series, this one focused on the link between poverty and employment. I mention this because poverty is one of the Dalai Lama’s favorite topics, judging by comments he has made at many and various times and places. Among these:
Wherever it occurs, poverty is a significant contributor to social disharmony, ill health, suffering, and armed conflict. If we continue along our present path, the situation could become irreparable. This constantly increasing gap between the haves and have-nots creates suffering for everyone….
We need to address the issue of the gap between the rich and poor….This inequality, with some sections of the human community having abundance and others on the same planet going hungry or even dying of starvation, is not only morally wrong, but practically also a source of problems….
Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where the people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free….
This seems pretty clear to me, the stance of the Dalai Lama — and every other man or woman of faith who is worth their salt — on the subject of poverty and what we are obligated to do about it as citizens of our city, our state, our nation, our world. Forgive me for saying so, but this stance strikes me as being at odds with the way we think about — and talk about, and even act on — the issue of poverty in Birmingham.
That Birmingham is one of the most generous communities in the country in terms of charitable giving is well documented. We clothe the naked, feed the hungry, minister to the sick and the addicted and the shut-in with the very best of them. But these ills are only symptoms of the disease that has had Birmingham in its crippling, killing grip for generations — the disease of poverty.
Can we end poverty in Birmingham? I believe that we can — as do others who are infinitely closer than I to the front lines of the battle. But to do so will require systemic change in all aspects of our civic life, including politics and government. Perhaps above all, we need a change in mindset, away from the corruption and divisiveness that preempts consensus on key issues and perpetuates the cycle of poverty, and in the direction of a broad-based civic agenda that revolves around the greater good.
Can Birmingham accomplish that? I’m only surmising here, but I think the Dalai Lama’s answer would be that Birmingham has to accomplish it. Otherwise, we’re just going to keep fighting — and losing — the same battles that made so many in our community so poor to begin with.