Religion and Power, the never ending dance
August 23, 2012 § 5 Comments
this originally appeared on the Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader
Many are of the opinion that religion has no place in politics. This is an understandable position to take considering the abuses that have been committed in the name of religion, whether it be Islam, Judaism or Christianity. We are too aware of how the Bible was used to justify racism right here in South Africa. None of us are blind to the atrocities that have been committed in the name of religion, especially that of Christianity. However there needs to be a distinction between religion and those who use it to attain power.
I will try (poorly) to defend religion from its very unflattering past. It is best that I use Christianity as an example since I am more familiar with it. In the interests of full disclosure, I must reveal that I am a practising Christian. I am not unmindful of the fact that this revelation may open me up to some derision. It’s almost unkosher to “come out” and admit this. Perhaps a few years from now we will have closet Christians “coming out” and making public declarations of their long held beliefs. Who knows, we might even have Christian Pride Parades along with the gays. (Is it even politically correct to say “gays” these days?) But I digress.
I submit that it is unfair to incriminate religion itself for any wrongs that have been and are being committed in its name. It would be incorrect to blame Islam for the September 11 attacks, just as it would be to level accusations at Christianity for the Spanish Inquisition. There is a vast difference between a religion and its deliberate distortion. People don’t seem to see a distinction between religion and its intentional corruption by power hungry egomaniacs that use it as a means to an end. That end is very often to achieve political power and dominion over people. Religion itself is always blameless — those who abused its teachings for personal gain are not.
We can no more blame Christianity than we can blame capitalism for the factory owners in China who force children to labour in their factories hour upon hour like slaves. In the instance of the factory owner we can blame greed, not capitalism. Just like we cannot point fingers at Stalin’s atheism or communism for his brutality. Only the lusts for power, greed or just good old madness are to blame.
I am by no means suggesting that a theocracy is the solution to our radar-less leadership. That would be last thing we need. Theocracies often end up being oppressive regimes in their noble but misguided intentions of providing some sort of moral compass for citizens. Simply stated, morality cannot be legislated, only one’s heart can do that. We can put laws against certain basic moral laws like murder and theft, but can we really put one in prison for telling a lie or for having sex before marriage? Obviously not.
If our leaders followed the precepts of the good books, I doubt our land would be in the state it is in. Of course I expect comments that will say what about the verses that call on us to stone sinners, since that too is a religious command. I would say that is the Old Testament. But this is not what I am writing about.
The laws that we put in place, including our highly regarded constitution, which was put in place by some of the brightest legal minds in our country, have no control over conscience — the conscience is the domain of the divine. It is that thing that causes us sleepless nights when we know we have done wrong, even if the written laws claim otherwise. Running away from one’s conscience is virtually impossible. This is where the moral code comes in.
Not to say that it is impossible to be moral while not practicing religion. I will be the first to admit that some areligious people are extremely moral, as some religious are not. In fact, one of my very best friends calls himself an atheist and he is nicer than I am. Much nicer.
Religion, if practiced as it ought to be, without selfish motivation, will mould better civil servants, leaders and by large a more humane society. The Bible warns against “them that make wicked laws: and when they write, write injustice; to rob the needy of justice, and to take what is right from the poor of my people, that widows maybe their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless.” Isaiah 10:1. Where there is corruption this is precisely what happens. It robs from the poor, the widows and the fatherless.
I am sure all major religions share the same basic tenets. In fact, these are the basic teachings of Ubuntu. If one believes that what one is doing is a higher calling than self-enrichment, then they will serve the people, not just a political party or a position. When their conscience calls them to speak out against an injustice they will, regardless of whom speaking out may offend. It is far better to offend a powerful person than it is to go against one’s conscience.
Recently, we have seen on the news that South Africa is suffering something of a moral crisis. This is where religion comes in. People don’t have faith in their leaders anymore; there is a general feeling that there is a moral deficit amongst our leaders. Our leaders lead by example. As much as we would like to think that we are not sheep, unfortunately the vast majority of people are, for it is far safer to follow without question.
The need to distance our politics from religion by any means necessary has created a chasm between governing and the morality of our leaders.
Many of our great leaders were motivated and sustained by their religious faith in their fight against injustice. The great late president of the African National Congress, Chief Albert Luthuli, was a man of the cloth, and I quote from the ANC website, “As a practising Christian, Chief Luthuli genuinely and sincerely believed in the well-being, happiness and dignity of all human beings. Because of his convictions, he sacrificed all prospects of personal gains and comforts and dedicated his life to the cause and service of his fellowmen.”
Oliver Tambo too was a religious man. He did not leave his religion at the door when he fought for his people. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr amongst others were never shy to use religious language to argue the justness of their cause. Of course there are people who corrupt religious language to justify ill intent.
Gandhi too was a religious man, a Hindi that was also deeply influenced by the words of Christ.
A missionary who went by the name E. Stanley Jones once met with Gandhi and asked, “Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?”
Ghandi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
This is the problem with our politics also. So many of our leaders proclaim to fight for a just and prosperous South Africa, but what we see instead are the very same leaders become prosperous while the rest of our countrymen become poorer.
Perhaps, before we can cry out for better leaders, we ought to become better citizens. And that means we must abhor corruption where we see it, speak out against injustice, reject leaders that lead us astray for if we follow them we go over the cliff. The sad reality is that they never go off the cliff, the rest of do.
Let us be great citizens, only then will we get great leaders.
I will end off with this quote from India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, “If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country.”