(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
In the US, after the systematic elimination of the Native Americans, one can consider Christianity to be the de-facto “official” religion, since most people would consider themselves to be good Christians and the political leadership repeatedly invokes religious piety and symbolism.
If, as is sometimes argued, the presence of Christians in the abolitionist movement is a sign that Christianity is benevolent, then why did Christians condone and benefit from slavery for so long before that? We now assume it is an unspeakable abomination to treat human beings as objects that can be bought and sold. Why was this not obvious to the religious leaders of that time, if religion is basically against oppression? Why could not the theologians and clergy and laity in those times realize what seems obvious to anyone now? Surely it is because they considered Christianity to be compatible with slavery.
If you are going to applaud the role of religious people in (say) combating slavery, then you have to allow that many more religious people were among those who created, condoned, and profited from the slave trade for a long time. Where was the Christian church when slavery was flourishing for over centuries in Europe and North America? Where was the Christian church in America when the Native Americans were being systematically slaughtered? Where was the Christian church of Belgium when Christian Emperor Leopold was unleashing unbelievably barbaric terror on the people of the Congo? The dominant group in all these situations were people who would have considered themselves good Christians. Why were these things allowed to occur?
If the involvement of clergy in the civil rights movement was a good Christian thing to do, why was this not recognized a century earlier and during Jim Crow, since Christianity was still the dominant religion? Why did it have to take a few people like Martin Luther King to get some people to realize this? And even then, we are fooling ourselves if we think that once their eyes were opened to the fact that discrimination against black people was bad thing, that Christian institutions immediately hitched themselves to the cause. Those clergy and laity that did so were a small minority. One has only to read King’s famous 1963 letter from Birmingham jail to his fellow clergy to feel his keen sense of disappointment that more of them were not supporting him in what seemed to him to be an obviously righteous and moral cause. We agree with King now. Why did not most Christians agree with him then?
In fact, King in his letter (although religious himself) nails with deadly accuracy the reason why religion has been a negative force, and that is because although individuals might have noble intentions and want to do good, religious institutions drag them in the opposite direction. So when individuals and small groups of religious people try to work for social justice, they are usually fighting their own religious institutions as well. He said (boldface emphasis is mine):
Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
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I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.
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I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. . .But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church.
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I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, on Biblical [sic] distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
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Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom, They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers.
As King points out, what institutionalized religion tells people is: “Wait”, which really means: “Never”. And when it is not telling them that directly, it is telling them indirectly, by saying: “Pray.” And what has basically lain behind that call to pray is the promise that if you wait, you will be rewarded in heaven. So the role of religion is not to mobilize people to fight oppression but to ask them to not act but to hope for god to intervene.
Just as much as the true measure of a politician is not what they promise when they are campaigning but what policies they put their energies into when they are in office and in a position to actually achieve something, the way to judge a religion it is not by what a few on the fringes try to do but what religious people and institutions do when they are in a position to influence things.
George Bush thinks that starting wars and killing people on large scale are the actions of a good Christian. The people who flew planes into the twin towers thought they were good Muslims. The Jews who call for the forcible removal of all Palestinians from the occupied territories and claiming their land for god think they are being good Jews. The Brahmins who refuse to even touch the people of the scheduled castes think they are being good Hindus. Assuming that we think their actions were bad, on what basis can we say that any of them are mistaken in their beliefs?
Next: All prayer, all the time
POST SCRIPT: Those cheeky Aussies
The Australian comedy show The Chasers does some really funny stuff. (I earlier showed a clip of them in an item about The Secret.) Their latest prank is to have someone dressed up as Osama bin Laden manage to get within 10 meters of George Bush’s hotel in Sydney when he was there for the recent APEC meeting.
In another prank, they go photographing high security sites dressed in different ways.