Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Why The Real Left Is the Religious Left: Your Provocative Idea For Tuesday

This is a thank you letter to the black liberation theologians who I've turned to, over and over again to get through this past two year of horrible events in my life.  Time and time again I've looked to them and the other liberation theologians, Latin American and even white mainstream protestant to get me out of myself and on track.   If I were a more conspiracy minded guy, I'd think that the neo atheism was part of a plan to distract the left from what is, beyond measure, the most radically liberal movement around today, a means of motivation to action.

I have always been a wall of separation absolutist when it comes to official governmental actions, though the perpetual brawl over manger scenes and those stupid Cecil B. DeMille PR "Ten Commandment" gravestones is nothing more than a mere detraction.  I'm still a wall of separation absolutist but one who can see that there are priorities in what issues are worth going to the mat for and, frankly, those aren't them.

Any thing that is really important about the separation of church and state survived the years and decades of those kinds of things going unnoticed.  If I had to tolerate a manger scene or some granite grave marker tables of economically abbreviated "Law"  being erected on some unnoticed spit of public land so we could muster a majority to elect a better congress, it would be more than a bargain for us.  So this is going to ignore that kind of way, way of to the side issue issue and similar click bait friendly topics.   There were manger scenes on city hall land and "Ten Commandment" rocks too as the Civil Rights Act, and all of the last major laws banning oppression were passed.  How that could have happened with those things, considered evil fetishes to the pseudo-left, around is something to consider.

This is about the growing insistence that people "keep their religion out of the public forum" and why that is such a stupid idea for anyone who wants to make things better.

The thing we call "religion" is an artificial category invented to include some extremely dissimilar ideas and practices.  Including ideas and practices that are directly opposed to each other.  A lot of the neo-atheist attempt at critique of "religion" is based on that flaw in categorization mixed with the refusal to admit that the results of different religions are as different in real life as the differences in political ideology.   I would assert, far more so.  When you are talking about the scope of religion, it goes a lot deeper than political ideology, you are talking about a level of experience about as deep as people can get.  At least among those who take the officially detestable monotheistic religions in the Jewish tradition seriously.  Especially true in the United States and Europe, the one I'm most familiar with, the religion that is supposed to take what Jesus said seriously.

The imperial religion of Rome was quite different and not the same kind of  thing which is the Jewish religion and its offspring, Christianity. They are hardly the same "thing" as Odinic paganism, what is imagined of Druidism and various other religions, the let's-pretend, late 19th century romantic substitute of which is supposed to be better than Christianity.   In its forms that take Jesus's words seriously,  it is not the same thing as most if not all tribal, city or national cults, in which religion is tied to the  social-political power structure.  I think that when Christianity has been tied to civic power, as it so often is in the Orthodox churches, the actual practice of Christianity, following the teachings of Jesus and the prophets, has been demoted to an inferior status When, as in Roman Catholicism, the Pope has established a kingdom of this world, the results have been a scandal and a moral atrocity.

The mixing of temporal, political power and religious authority is very dangerous, it has been in just about every instance in which that happened in history, the story of Ashoka, in the period after his terrible war of conquest and his attempt to adopt Buddhism as a principle of government, is hardly typical and I wonder what a more objective account of that period would show in terms of his success in Buddhist terms, though, from what we know, in political terms and in terms of human rights, it was better than the alternative.  It is almost impossible to imagine a political entity that could strictly adhere to the principles set forth by Jesus and the prophets.   The original relationship between the kings of Israel and the temple authority produced results bad enough - mixed in with foreign occupations - so as to produce the great prophetic tradition which was a severe, even savage, critique and protest against it.  It had to leave the official religious establishment, set itself up in opposition to it and its corrupted embrace of political power in order to be true to religious inspiration.

Religion, in short, can be the greatest and most important and effective force to counter corrupt power and authority.   If you don't have religion, there is nothing else which human culture has produced that can serve that vital purpose.  A country without an effective religious force to oppose that will, inevitably, become a dictatorship.  Which is why dictators have either brought the church to heel or it has attempted to destroy religion.  The great criminal regimes of the 20th century show that when they have modern methods of organizations and science and engineering, dictators and dictatorial classes the very lives of The People requires real and effective religious belief for even their basic protection FROM THE STATE.

I think that the foremost reason that the doctrine of the separation of church and state arose was that it is a necessity to have a countering force with other priorities, justice, moral obligations and others, which override even the more innocuous aspects of government, such as the desire for efficiency,   Justice, equality and the obligation to respect those must be seen as superior to even the expressed will of a majority.

As The Reverend Jeremiah Wright said, in conversation with Bill Moyers;

BILL MOYERS: When I hear the word "black liberation theology" being the interpretation of scripture from the oppressed, I think well, that's the Jewish story--

REVEREND WRIGHT: Exactly, exactly. From Genesis to Revelation. These are people who wrote the word of God that we honor and love under Egyptian oppression, Syrian oppression, Babylonian oppression, Persian oppression, Greek oppression, Roman oppression. So that their understanding of what God is saying is very different from the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians. And that's what prophetic theology of the African-American church is.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. But talk a little bit about that. The prophets loved Israel. But they hated the waywardness of Israel. And they were calling Israel out of love back to justice, not damning--


BILL MOYERS: Not damning Israel. Right?

REVEREND WRIGHT: Right. They were saying that God was-- in fact, if you look at the damning, condemning, if you look at Deuteronomy, it talks about blessings and curses, how God doesn't bless everything. God does not bless gang-bangers. God does not bless dope dealers. God does not bless young thugs that hit old women upside the head and snatch their purse. God does not bless that. God does not bless the killing of babies. God does not bless the killing of enemies. And when you look at blessings and curses out of that Hebrew tradition from the book of Deuteronomy, that's what the prophets were saying, that God is not blessing this. God does not bless it- bless us. And when we're calling them, the prophets call them to repentance and to come back to God. If my people who are called by my name, God says to Solomon, will humble themselves and pray, seek my faith and turn from their wicked ways. God says that wicked ways, not Jeremiah Wright, then will I hear from heaven.

The fact is, large swaths of the Jewish scriptures and the entirety of the Second Testament are critical of the power of the state, even the Jewish state and even the established Temple and its power holders.  Which is at least not the usual state of affairs in the relationship of religions, especially national religions such as that described in Israel.

But opposition to the state is not enough, you have to oppose it for reasons better than the reasons to obey the state.

As a means of making life better, opposition works only if you begin and end in ACTING from the basis of a respect for justice, equality and moral obligations to other people, even those you don't like.  It is necessary to be opposed to government WHEN IT IS THE SOURCE OF EVIL, when it does injustice, when it is a mechanism for the rich to steal and hoard the common wealth and the wealth of those who are not rich, when it goes on wars of conquest and enslavement on behalf of the rich and powerful and even of generals who want an opportunity to rise up and make their name.  It makes all the difference in the world, when what you are doing is firmly based in justice as opposed to injustice.

It is necessary to insist that governments practice justice and fulfill moral obligations.  That is the difference between breaking the law, disrespecting the government and even the will of the majority in order to pursue justice and equality and doing what the skin heads and white supremacists and the various fascist militias do.   Their "christianity" is, as Chris Hedges put it, a heresy, a negation of the gospel of Jesus, turning him and the rest of the Jewish tradition into a cartoon lie, putting ideas in his mouth that are ideas he rejected, even as they use him as a trademark and a false front.  This is a good candidate for what John the Divine called the anti-Christ.

The American "civic religion" that includes imperial militarism and occupation, subjugation and even gladiatorial games such as American football, mixed-martial arts,  the American version of temple prostitutes, cheer leaders and strippers, a tax and economic system which, as the Imperial Roman one did rob the poor for the rich,  is not Christian in any honest sense of the word,  It is, in both its "christian" and it's "secular" manifestations, a reproduction of the corruption of Roman imperialism, even as the British imperial system was and, in fact, any system of governance not governed by the specifically Jewish notion of justice, equality and moral obligations will be.  The local variations may give some appearance of difference but the category of imperial government is far less varied than the category "religion" is.  It always resorts to the same practices and ideas.

As The Reverend Jeremiah Wright also said, in full,  instead of in the FOX soundbite which turns it into a lie by omission:

Where governments lie, God does not lie. Where governments change, God does not change. And I'm through now. But let me leave you with one more thing. Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontius Pilate - the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from East to West. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonized Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Hong Kong. Her navies ruled the seven seas all the way down to the tip of Argentina in the Falklands, but the British government failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing God bless America? No, no, no. Not God bless America; God damn America! That's in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizen as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!

Which is a more powerful statement of  opposition to imperial government than anything I've ever encountered from any anti-religious or even non-religious opponents of the American imperial system which has been such a total and absolute disaster for the world and for THE AMERICAN PEOPLE.  As severe and at times unfair a critic of religion as Mark Twain said it, you can have an empire or you can have democracy, you can't have both.  We have been sold the empire and our democracy is a sham.  As Chris Hedges also pointed out,  Phillip Berrigan said that if voting were really going to change things it would be made illegal.   Anyone who votes expecting it is more than capable of making more than marginal change or preventing more evil is bound to be disappointed, risking giving up or becoming cynical.  Vote but do so with your eyes wide open.

In the past fifty years, especially since the rise of Ronald Reagan, the Bush clan, the Clinton and Obama presidencies, the American imperial system has festered into the corrupt system we see today.  It is a corrupt system that first became obvious during the Nixon presidency and which has become so rotutine and institutionalized that it's not even objected to in the media.  Only, under the vaunted American Constitution, that corruption has been the norm, not the exception we enjoyed for a while, ending about fifty years ago.

The corruption we suffer with now has historical precedence in the anti-bellum period of stinking corruption, imperial wars, genocidal policies of conquest, slavery, oppression of women, and a myriad of other forces the resurgence of which comprise the teetering pile of garbage we live in today.

The forces of opposition to that system were almost exclusively Christian, especially based in the hon-hierarchical protestant religious tradition* but also within others.  No matter what you will read online and in atheist propaganda, the literature of all of the great reform movements of the 19th century were seriously founded in the kind of reading of the scriptures that The Reverend Wright gives them.  They were not based in the "civic religion" of the constitution which has not merely permitted those evils but enshrined them and gave them legal bases on which to protect their criminal rackets.  Without the religious obligation of doing justice, of promoting justice, even the empty assertion that rights are real will do nothing to make people make their exercise in real life a reality.

With the punctuation of the Civil War, that imperial system restarted and began to find its footing again in the gilded age.   The progressive period tried to tame it even as it preserved its basis, only interrupted by The Great Depression and WWII when it seemed to be down with the great reforms which Franklin Roosevelt instituted, only to see those progressively destroyed in the name of constitutional originalism and what is so ironically called "federalism".   It is no coincidence that the same people who use The Constitution in that way and those who champion the pseudo-Christian imperial religion are the same.

American history proves that the only force that has succeeded in making any headway against that corruption is religion, religion which holds the absolute reality of rights, equality and moral obligations, with an absolute obligation to make those real in our own life and the life of the country.  If we had held to those instead of the false alternatives of libertarianism we may have actually been the envy of the world instead of an object lesson in either how foreign oligarchs can corrupt governments or what not to do.   I have read that those countries which copy our method of government have a far higher chance of producing dictators than those which adopt parliamentary systems.

Not only is the secular liberal faith in The Constitution insufficient, it is misplaced.  The original constitution was originally written to include the slave power, the powers of genocide against the native inhabitants of the continent and the incredible corruption in the financial powers that produced the stinking, rotting fish that is the history of American government and power in the 19th century.  It took the Civil War which is a direct product of that Constitution to get rid of official slavery, while keeping the rest of the corrupt product from The Founders in effect, to even more powerful theft of wealth by the rich, ever more vicious genocide and the unoffical slavery of Jim Crow and the putridly cynical lie of separate but equal.   The scant reform of that system has proven to be insufficient and easily overturned in the reaction to the reforms of the Roosevelt administration and the Johnson administration.   That it was a period in which religion became really uncool is not unrelated.

As it took the religiously based reform movements of the 19th century to counter the constitutionally allowed corruption it opposed, it will take religious opposition today.   That is the real story, the most significant and essential story of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  That is the real story of the real Americanism that took truths to be self evident even as stated by those such as Jefferson who proved by their lives that they were just words to them.  Putting your faith in men will produce the corruption we live with today.   It takes a lot more than that to produce The Beloved Community.  People can't do that all by themselves.

* I am coming to be more convinced that Marilynne Robinson is right, that the American liberal tradition is a development from those most unfashionable Calvinists and Puritans, who she points out were rather remarkable in their citation of the Jewish justice tradition in the First Testament.   I would note that since Vatican II, the Catholic church has included more of that tradition in the liturgy and I think it has been the better for that.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I can get this all in with one comment.

    Wall of separation absolutist: agreed. Government should not interfere with religion, and religion should not become allied to government. So no faith test to hold office, and no approval by the state of what the church can, or cannot, do. But keeping religion out of politics is another matter. I don't like the politics of the fundamentalists and evangelicals, but they have as much right to voice their concerns as do the Berrigan Brothers or MLK, Jr.

    Funny how many people ignore the fact MLK was a pastor.

    Thank you for the long excerpt from Rev. Wright's infamous sermon. It is of a piece with your analysis of the message of the prophets and the call to justice that fills the scriptures, even as atheist know-nothings focus on "violence" and "contradictions," as if scriptures are not holy unless they fulfill some weird definition of perfection and purity, which is never stated but always implied.

    I find those atheists particularly tedious.

    We were asked in seminary, quite reasonably, who Jesus was and why we should proclaim him important. If he was not divine, who cared? If he was, what did that mean? Were we proclaiming the salvation of the atonement theory (accept Jesus or burn in hell)? If not, what did we have to offer? Wisdom? Nice thoughts? Kumbaya? The teachers didn't doubt and seek reassurance from us; they wanted us to reach conclusions we could live by (ministry is hard; it is damned hard. Hardest thing I've ever done, and apparently I was not worthy.).

    The simple but complex idea that religion is essential to human life is a compelling answer. The absolute why may still escape my Hellenistic analysis, but the truth of it is quite compelling. Seems Kierkegaard was on to something, eh?

    And here I just thought he was a hopeless Romantic.....