Monday, 12 March 2012

There is liturgy and there is life and often the two do not mix

Photo: A witch-hunt in Africa where Christian teachings encourage a belief in a war against Satan, and 'witches', often children or old women, are seen as they were centuries ago, as being in league with the Devil.
The conversations continue with my Mormon friend but as time goes on I find that it just serves to re-inforce the reasons why I left religion behind long ago. From talking about why sexism is wrong in religion I moved on to why racism is wrong and then found myself thinking about the impact which Christian teachings about Satan are having on Africans today - immersed as they are in the most fundamentalist of Christian teachings preached by the hordes of missionaries, mostly American, who come here to live for a time to construct churches and converts.

Africa's tragedy, far removed from something as simple as a discussion about religious belief, is that the Christians have not brought God to this benighted land as much as they have brought Satan!

Apart from the fact that fundamentalist religions of all kinds demand high levels of non-thinking from their followers - faith must be absolute and questions are the work of the Devil - I cannot help but think that surely someone, sometime either pondered the impact of Satanic teachings on people who implicitly believe in witches, demons and Devils of their own making, or has since reflected on the impact such teachings have on the belief in witchcraft. But probably not. And so the cries go out from pulpits around Africa, including Malawi, putting the fear of Satan and of God into people and fuelling an increase in atrocities committed against those unfortunate enough to be 'identified' as witches.

The atrocities committed in the name of Christianity's war against Satan continue today, in Africa - a continent which has seen so much suffering at the hands of foreign meddlers that it does not deserve more. Certainly, Africans are more than capable of contributing to their own suffering but why could they not have had a gentler, less paranoid and vengeful form of religion imposed upon them? For it is imposed - the missionaries work hand in wallet with government officials to do their work and they always have.

And while funds come from many countries, it is Americans, goodly Christians in the main, who dig deep into their pockets to mostly fund this 'work' - believing as they do that they are doing good and remaining unaware or perhaps uninterested, as to what the outcome of all this 'goodness' is. There is a saying that, 'no good deed goes unpunished' and that was never more true than of missionaries in Africa. The tragedy is that it is not the missionaries who are punished, it is their congregations.

But beyond the miseries which religion brings to Africa, it also reminds me why I wish religions could reform themselves so that they could be constructive and functional in a modern world because there is no doubt many people seek, need, desire and benefit from the best that religion has to offer. The problem is that mixed in with the best is a lot of 'worst' as I am constantly reminded living in Africa.

I don't actually care if a historical Jesus existed or not and nor do I care if there is history in the Bible - what I care about is what impact these religious beliefs have on individuals, societies, cultures and nations. None of the goodness matters if the end result is the opposite of that which is good, as in, constructive, compassionate, healthy and enlightened.

No amount of theological dogma or religious liturgy can make up for religions which are destructive in impact. I find that the religious response is to quote liturgy written or concocted hundreds or thousands of years ago and to ignore the reality of the day: the effect that these teachings have, by ommission or commision, on how people think and act.

Too much religion is at odds with itself where 'do as I say' translates into the very opposite when it comes to doing.

My friend wrote:
Here is a brief review which I wrote a few years ago. If the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be it is 'absolute proof ' of the reality of Jesus Christ both as an historical personage and as a contemporary resurrected personage with power to accomplish his purposes.
         To me The Book of Mormon is the greatest miracle of modern times. I have marvelled repeatedly at the power of the teachings of Jesus and his servants (such as Abinadi,Alma,Lehi,Nephi,Mormon himself and many others) to help me find peace and healing in the midst of life's struggles. I know this book is true and thank God for providing it so miraculously as a witness of His love for all His children. I've read this book many times and read many comments by authors both pro and con.

I can, in a measure, understand why this book bores or even antagonises some readers who don't share its world view. On the other hand, many who ignore it for any of many reasons might be surprised were they to carefully examine its actual content. This book has had more influence than any of us realise! Scoffed at for its 'plagiarism' of the Bible, it is often very independent in the very readings of Isaiah and others which it transmits. One of my favourite examples of this is Isaiah 14:2 which says that Israel will make their oppressors their possessions - servants and handmaids. Whether this passage was used to justify slavery in antebellum America or not, the 2 Nephi version allows no such construction: "And they shall return to their lands of promise. And the house of Israel shall possess them [lands not people:] and the land of the Lord shall be for servants and handmaids... etc.

I really don't know if this variant text had anything to do with motivating the proslavery Missourian mobs who drove the Mormons from their homes and farms in 1833, but I like to think it might have.

Certain it is that Mormons disbelieve in slavery or any other form of oppression, whether paternalistic, priestly, bureaucratic or otherwise. Christ said " ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." I invite anyone to prayerfully consider the stories, sermons, psalms and prophecies of this powerful book and ask him or herself whether it does not strengthen faith in God and desire to love and serve mankind.

I can only think that if the religion can oppose slavery in a literal sense and it was prepared to remove racism towards men with black skin then why cannot it oppose slavery in the sense that women endure it within religious systems which demand a penis before you can be a preacher or more importantly, be an equal participant at every level of the religious system?

And I replied:

        Don't get me wrong, I do believe that there are elements of inspiration in all spiritual writings it is just that I have found they are woven in amongst many things which clearly cannot be spiritually inspired but speak more of the minds of men.

        I am sure you would appreciate that as a woman, coming from a First World country and one where what I would call fundamentalist religious beliefs are rare, that as a woman who was born believing that gender equality was a must, not an option, that I am going to 'see' things in writings which a man may not. Or rather, things are going to resonate with me in a negative sense in a way they are not likely to do so in a woman who has been brought up in a religion which teaches the superiority of men, at least within the religious structure, nor with a man brought up in the same environment and who, because he is a man will not perceive sexism when it appears.

        In the same way that you are unlikely to understand racism unless you have black skin or belong to a group defined as inferior by the greater and dominant community, as indigenous peoples have been during the early days of colonisation of your country and mine, and as Palestinians are still treated today by the Israeli occupiers and colonisers and as Tibetans are by the Chinese and West Papuans by the Indonesians, to name just a few - I feel that few men really understand what it is like to be confronted with sexism. Yes, we are all discriminated against at times but sexism and racism are the worst kinds of bigotry because one cannot escape – you are marked as inferior for all time, if not for all eternity in some religions.

        Such injustices have gone to extreme levels in the past within Christianity and still do so today in some religions. Living in India I was horrified, but not surprised to learn, that Hinduism teaches that if you are born a woman it means you were evil in your last life; if you are born crippled it means you were evil in your last life and it also teaches that the blacker your skin the more evil you were in your last life. A crippled woman with very black skin, of which there are many in India, did not have a chance. And because black skin is considered inferior in India still, the marriage columns of the newspapers would specify variations on acceptable skin colour for women – ‘wheatish’ being a common term. Now, because women are evil anyway and more evil with black skin what you rarely see is a wife who is as dark-skinned or darker than her husband – she will always have paler skin – that no doubt negating some of the evil which the husband by necessity draws into his life.

        And no, Christianity at its worst is not this bad in the First World but it once was and it still contains teachings which bring suffering. What saddens me is that it still discriminates against women and I don’t care how ‘small’ that discrimination may appear to a man or a church dominated by men, to a thinking, feeling, modern woman that discrimination is enormous. And it can never ever be justified.

        What also saddens me and sometimes angers me is that this form of Christianity – and there are even worse versions than Mormonism or Evangelicals – is what has been exported to Africa; a country where patriarchy reigns anyway and where now, Christianity just re-inforces and intensifies that injustice. African cultures like Indian culture are more than happy to subjugate and beat their wives and when I see the Christian God intensifying that I just wish that all the missionaries would go home and leave Africa alone. And yes, I know the teaching is 'don't beat your wife,' but this is Africa - of course they will demonstrate their power over an inferior whether it is a woman, a child, a dog or someone from another tribe!

        Another impact of Christianity of the fundamental kind on Africa, and you may not know this, is that it teaches a war against Satan – which fits ever so neatly, cruelly and bloodily into the endemic African beliefs in witchcraft. Rather than diluting witchcraft, the kind of Christianity which sees us pitted in a war against Satan, empowers and fuels it and atrocities committed against ‘witches’ – mostly children and old women and some old men – are increasing all the time. Malawi is no exception to the damage done to people in the name of an evangelical war against Satan and demons!

        While it is one thing to sit safely in your home in the First World and to discuss rationally, theological dogma about Satan (to me a ridiculous concept because it is so simplistic) and a battle between 'good and evil,' it is quite another thing to impose such beliefs on a radically different culture and one sourced in a belief in such 'wars' anyway, where Satan is more than an ephemeral figure, but seen in human beings - women mostly, but also those who are disabled, different, mentally dysfunctional and even worse, most often in children.

        I am not saying this is something Mormonism does although if you have missionaries in Africa and given the beliefs in Satan, there is no doubt it will have this impact whether intended or not. Understanding how someone else thinks, feels and functions is crucial to any true understanding. Whether Africans in general or women in particular.

        My husband and I have a marriage and relationship of equals and we always have and he is one of the most balanced and decent human beings I have ever met, but when I become passionate, as I have and still do, about how far women have to go to be treated as equals, I remind him that he is a member of a privileged group in the world: he is male, he is white and he is also an only child. I would add that he is also highly intelligent and very successful, so, as sensitive and aware and compassionate as he is, he still has no idea how it feels to be a woman (or a black) and he never will.

        As the saying goes: 'You must walk a mile in the others shoes to really understand' and no man can ever truly understand what it is to be a woman and subjected to sexism and misogyny, however small or great it may be and however it manifests - just as neither of us can know what it is to be discriminated against because we have black skin or belong to a group deemed inferior.

        I would argue though that a woman will always have more of a capacity to understand how it feels to be subjected to racism because we have felt the force of discrimination for millenia and even in the developed world, where much has improved, we feel it still.

        So, what I am really saying is that having read dozens of religious tracts from most religions I have an awareness of the sexism and misogny inherent in all of them which quite simply annoys me and that distracts me. Therefore I prefer to find my spiritual teachings either in religious writings which have been edited and had sexism removed or in spiritual writings which are not and were not sexist in the first place.

        However, having said that I do believe that we are all different in this world and we are all meant to be different and that may way is right for me and your way is right for you. I don't think God cares what path we walk or what we believe, only how we live our lives and our own truth and how we treat others.

        When Mormonism removes from its teachings sexism in the same way that it removed racism in the late seventies, then I shall be more than happy to explore in greater detail, it's version of spiritual 'truth.' And I shall have a more open mind to Christianity when it gives up its Satan teachings - or matures enough to interpret them metaphorically not literally.

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