on moses and jesus and the purpose of religion


“at the beginning it was the encounter…all real life is dialogue” – martin buber

will social transformation be a consequence of enlightenment, or is enlightenment a consequence of social transformation? i will argue that both are one and the same practice. richard rohr said “we do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”

the religion of moses was conceived as a three step process. it started with social liberation, followed with spiritual liberation, and concluded with the integration of both as one life-practice. the first step was moses’ fully committed activism in the struggle for the radical social transformation of the society of hebrews living in bondage within a foreign land. the second was his engagement in the revelation of the torah which was aimed at completing with inner transformation the process of liberation that had started when the social conditions of the people were previously radically altered. the last step was for moses to bring the people to the promised land in which to create a “torah” society, or as buddhists refer to it a “dhammic society”, or as i rather call it, a dialogical-community.

moses did not reveal the torah of inner transformation while the people were still in captivity in the land of egypt. he did not believe that enlightenment of the mind and heart would naturally prompt an oppressed people to seek out their freedoms. for moses, his understanding was similar to what buddhists call “skillful means”: social change precedes inner change, and it fully depends on it. the process by which a person becomes enlightened begins with the pursuit of concrete liberation from within the structure of an oppressive society. the desire for freedom is, for all intents and purposes, enough of a spiritual enlightenment to serve as a spark or a starting point.

the practical goal of moses’s struggle for freedom was to get the people to that place and time when inner enlightenment could begin to be actualized. this was not a metaphorical place or a “spiritual” place. it was a concrete physical space made out of sand and rocks, of milk, honey and thorns. mount sinai was the immediate goal of the exodus, but the means to get there required the antecedent social transformation of the real-life conditions of the people. only a free people can pursue enlightenment, and therefore the first step in the process of inner liberation is to achieve outer liberation.

for moses, one does not become free through enlightenment, one becomes enlightened through freedom. and for that reason, once freedom from slavery was achieved, the subsequent torah revelation, with all its extraordinary significance, did not become the final step in moses’ strategy for salvation. once the torah has been revealed the next goal is to enter the land where the social and inner promises of the torah must be integrated and actualized.

it is the circle of life: from freedom to enlightenment to freedom. and we should know that this is what entering a promised land truly means. in the promised land enlightenment and freedom cease to be two separate categories of being, they become one and the same life-practice.

ultimately, freedom is of the whole being, the mind and body, the individual and the social, and therefore inner and outer freedoms are one and the same, and they cannot be separated from one other without causing the demise of both in the process. in a very real sense, the pursuit of social freedom is, in itself, the pursuit of torah, there is no difference. clearly, the message of moses was that freedom will never be complete if not pursued at both the outer and inner realms of existence. but clearly as well, for moses the pursuit of inner peace begins at the time when the struggle for outer peace begins, and can be attained only after the social transformation has been achieved. in a very deep sense, we must conclude that the pursuit of inner peace is nothing other than the actual engagement in the struggle for outer peace.

the pursuit of inner peace is first and foremost a deed one does. it should not be confused with what is sometimes referred to as “altered states of consciousness” nor just with emotional contents one experiences in the heart. the heart of course must be there, and it will feel the intensity of the deed, but only if the deed is done. the heart can never lead, nor can it follow, it can only hold our hand and walk together with us.


jesus of nazareth also focused his attention on the deeds of peace as deeds of precedence. for jesus too the deed comes first, then inner transformation may follow. turn the other cheek jesus said. share your wealth, love one another, the makers of peace are the blessed ones he said. it is “making” of peace, like the “making” of love, it is the whole-being deed of body and soul. so we need to actualize the reality of peace through a deed, which for jesus meant the pacifist deed of turning the other cheek, his own cheek. and in that he was a messiah. for jesus there was a good cause to die for but never one to kill for. it was his own cheek he offered the enemy, not ours, and in that deed, he became a messiah.

for jesus peace is a deed we do, and the point is not just to hope for it, or to be emotionally committed to it, or to engage in heartfelt prayers for it, or demanding one to be “spiritually” prepared for it beforehand. moses prayed with his feet and jesus prayed with his own cheeks. both sons-of man actualized the presence of god in the between of our lives with each other.

doing the deed is the key to heaven as the deed itself is the inner transformation we seek. jesus went to the cross because he chose the deed of turning his own other cheek to the oppressors of his people and his land. he cried on the cross perhaps because he was not emotionally ready just yet to the suffering and pain of his cruel death. but jesus knew that there is no optimal time of readiness to do the deed. jesus knew that his deed must be done right now and right here, for the sake of attaining his own inner peace and the peace for all beings he had devoted his short life to.


in essence, there is no inner-outer dualistic distinction, as doing is being and being is doing. the very deed of peace we do, is itself all the inner peace we could ever hope to attain. and it is for that reason that the pursuit of social transformation is the primary function of the religions of moses and jesus. religion is not to help us adapt to the conditions of our lives as they might presently be, or to help us see the circumstances of our lives in a different light. the function moses and jesus conceived for religion was not to adapt but to transform, not to see differently but to make that which we see different. religion is meant to set us free, inner and outer, whole-being redemption

we therefore pursue dialogical relationships as both the means and the end of whole-being transformation. a dialogical relationship does not end, not it needs to start, with personal kindness towards each other. kindness is essential, but in the way that the dalai lama said that his was the religion of kindness. kindness means social transformation it it is to mean anything at all. i-thou relationships must be placed and implemented within the wider context of the social-economic-political realm of human relationships. it is important to be kind and considerate of others, but it is of little consequence if we, at the same time, acquiesce to live in a social-economic-political system in which the relationships between each-other are manifested in the manner of i-it. it is within the social-economic plane of relationships that we live our lives in community, and it is that realm that needs to be transformed if we are to ever be able to live a dialogical life.

the same principle of social transformation applies to all religions. the religions of “nothingness” or “emptiness”, or unperturbed “clear minds” risk offering a most poignant sense of irrelevance to the lives of those of us who live outside of a monastic context. for those of us living and toiling within the social context of a market economy, “no-self” or “true-nature” are concepts devoid of any existential significance unless actualized as concrete social relations. living within the context of a market economy, not only we cannot “drop body and mind” as dogen called for, we must actually raise, nourish, preserve and strengthen our “egos” jut to be able to survive. this much maligned “ego” is both the method and the purpose of market economies. to the extent that “no-ego” religions continue to press their case, their only path to true relevance is for them to become advocates and organizers for a radical non-market oriented social transformation. this is what martin buber called religious socialism, or buddhadasa bikkhu called dhammic socialism, or father gustavo gutierrez called liberation theology. we must reconstruct religion as social spirituality.

therefore the point of religion is to bring religious concepts and practices back to their most basic concrete manifestations in the realm of social life. since real life, as buber wrote, is the encounter between i and thou, it needs to be there, in the realm of human dialogue, where religions must issue and answer their call. if they do not, i have no personal interest in them. and this is precisely the central point: sunyata is an ethical project, not an ontological argument, or even a mystical practice. one must discard the “it-ego” with all it’s negative traits, and release thereby the “i-thou-self”. since the self is dialogical by nature, social transformation will flow naturally from our own deeds and hearts. dialogue creates freedom and only within freedom dialogue can exist.

by Hune Margulies

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