On my first day of my first full-time job, my supervising attorney herded us new hires into a windowless room that housed three ancient-looking FAX machines and was littered with reams of paper, ink toner cartridges, and assorted office supplies. The room was tight, but remarkably accommodated the five or six of us standing around in a semi-circle. And this, the supervisor informed us, was very much the point. This glorified supply closet was meant to be the place where casual social interactions and banter about current events was to take place between co-workers. In deference to that all-American colloquial shorthand, it had been long ago dubbed “the Water Cooler room” – despite the fact that it lacked anything remotely resembling water. “Oh, just one piece of advice,” the supervisor said as she herded us back to our cubicles, “Stay away from discussing sports, politics, and religion.”
That was, of course, many moons ago. Today a big chunk of my job is to stand around water coolers everywhere and, on behalf of ISKCON, to talk about stuff—mainly religion with a good deal of politics thrown in.
That can get tricky, especially when someone tosses me the inevitable “So, what do you guys think about _____” type of question. Fill in the blank with the hot topic du jour – immigration, Iraq, the environment, same-sex marriage – and suddenly”¦ is it me, or did it just get a bit hotter in here?
There is no easy answer, except that honesty truly is the best policy and taking the VTE Communications Course is a close second. If we don’t know enough about an issue, it’s always better to admit it than to hazard a guess. And even when we are familiar with the topic at hand, the best answers are usually ones that acknowledge the complexity of the issue, and own up to the fact that Hare Krishna devotees – like followers of most faith traditions – may not all share the same interpretation. It might be tempting to simply conclude “ISKCON is for this,” or “all devotees of Krishna must be against that,” but it is much wiser to resist that temptation and instead focus on the principles that help devotees deal with the grey areas.
This sounds, I know, terribly vague and maybe a bit too “PC.” It doesn’t have to be though. Here’s a real-life recent example, from my answer to a reporter’s question on ISKCON’s views on stem-cell research:
While we have not adopted an official position on the issue of stem cell research,our adherence to a consistent life ethic leads us to be very concerned about several ethical issues that embryonic stem cell research raises.
First and foremost, any research that uses or harvests embryos, whether from aborted fetuses or "left over" embryos created for in vitro fertilization, would greatly devalue human life. One of the core beliefs of our faith is the sanctity of life; our tradition informs us that wherever there is life (i.e. consciousness), there is the presence of the soul. Vaishnavas believe that life begins at conception. We extend this reverence for life beyond just the human species, and generally oppose the exploitation or slaughter of animals; we thus practice vegetarianism, as well.
Secondly, we strongly feel that alternative options (such as adult stem cell and umbilical cord blood stem cell research) must be thoroughly explored before valuable time and resources are dedicated to embryonic stem cell research. Embryonic stem cell research should be approached, if at all, as a last resort.
Thirdly, we are concerned that despite many promises and much expenditure, there is a glaring lack of actual results from embryonic stem cell research. We find this particularly troubling, especially since evidence also suggests that using embryonic stem cells has resulted in failed reintegration and possibly the creation of tumors.
Finally, we are deeply troubled by the connections between embryonic stem cell research and economic disparity. This is especially true of such research in India, the country where our tradition finds its roots. As Indian journalist Pankaj Mishra noted in a New York Times article in August 2005, stem cell research is glaringly expensive. and in India is likely to benefit the rich, at the expense of the poor who may find themselves used as "guinea pigs... ideal subjects for genetic and clinical research." Some critics foresee, with horror, the likely possibility that India, and other nations, could develop a small (and unregulated) industry dedicated to the creation of human embryos for such research.
Our faith values the noble goals of medicine to save human life and cure illness. We also value the responsible use of science and technology to serve and benefit God's creation. We recognize resources, including the human intellect, as gifts from God to be used in His service. However, such gifts must be used to minimize violence and suffering, and preserve the sanctity of life.
We therefore encourage the exploration of alternatives to embryonic stem cell research.
Devotees may feel strongly about what the Krishna conscious viewpoint is, but this is not the same as a religious organization issuing or endorsing an official statement. Still, even in the absence of such a statement, I think that if we can intelligently articulate our principles, we may still engage in meaningful discourse on a relevant and timely subject. True, it is not the service for everyone; for some devotees, it may be best to skip the hot-button issues and just speak on what we feel comfortable discussing. Either way, if we want to be true to our parampara (tradition), we must do so honestly, humbly, and tactfully.
Oh, and a final bit of advice I’ve picked up over the years: even if you do end up discussing politics and religion, just steer clear of sharing your opinion on sports. Now that would just be asking for trouble.
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