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Religion for Good or Bad - Dave Andrews

My Ambivalence Towards Religion


Dave Andrews

A couple of years ago I visited Afghanistan again. Driving through the Khyber Pass, I thought of the last time I had passed that way.

It was May 1973, and my wife and I were making a hasty retreat in the middle of a revolution. We were able to flee the jets that we saw flying menacingly over our heads; and the tanks, that we had heard encircling the city of Kabul, were left far behind us.

But, for the people of Afghanistan, there was no such escape. They were about to face a quarter of a century of horrifying civil war. It is impossible for any of us who were not there to comprehend the agony of that civil war.

Statistics don't laugh. And statistics don't cry. But the figures do give us the bare bones of the tragedy that has befallen the people of Afghanistan.

The population of Afghanistan ' some 17'18 million people ' have seen the nightmare of 1.5 million of their brothers and sisters being slaughtered before their very eyes; heard the moans of 2.5 million of their neighbours laying wounded on the battle' field after the fighting was over; and known the despair that comes with some 6 million of their country men and women fleeing their country in fear of their lives. The once proud capital of Kabul has been pounded into rubble. The traditional social infrastructure of Afghanistan has been almost completely destroyed. And the only industries that thrive, like gun running, drug dealing and the recycling of the bones of dead comrades to sell as cooking oil, feed on the entrails of the broken body of the political economy like vultures.

When I got back from my trip I told lots of people in Australia about the devastation I had seen in Afghanistan. I remember clearly a person in one group I was speaking to say ' "It's only because they are Muslims. If they had been Christians, it would have been a different story."

Would it? Christians would like to think so. Would like to think it would have made things better ' but, maybe, it would have only made things worse.

In 1976 an American group called Gospel Outreach travelled to Gautemala to do relief work. While they were there they converted a man by the name of Efrain Rios Montt to their cause.

In 1982, as a result of a military coup, Rios Montt, an army general, was asked to take power. After consulting with his advisors at Gospel Outreach, Rios Montt accepted the proposal. And so became the first "born again" President of Gautemala.

U.S. evangelicals were ecstatic. In June 1982 Rios Montt's aide met with US evangelical leaders, including Loren Cunningham, the Director of Youth With A Mission (also in Thailand working with the Akha), to rally some more support for the regime. At one point, a battalion of missionary volunteers, and aid of a billion dollars, were promised to support "God's miracle" in Gautemala.

The first act of the first "born again" President of Gautemala was to suspend the constitution. His next act was to unleash a campaign of genocidal terror against the native population of Gautemala.

According to Garrison Gautemala, "entire Indian villages were erased from the map." The Americas Watch, human rights report records: "the army does not waste it's bullets on women and children. We were repeatedly told of women being raped before being killed, and of children being picked up by the feet and having their heads smashed against walls..."

A Pastor of Gospel Outreach's Verbo Church explained the actions of their charge, by saying, "We hold Brother Efrain Rios Montt like King David in the Old Testament. He is the King of the New Testament. The army doesn't massacre the Indians. It massacres demons, and the Indians are demon possessed. They are communists."

Now you may say that the Gautemalen example is an exception. . I don't think it is. But you say it is. Alright, so let's take another example that it is more typical, more archetypal. Take Rwanda for example.

I can remember growing up on stories of the "Great East African Revival", an evangelical renewal movement that swept through Rwanda a generation ago, that Christian pundits at the time predicted would 'bring the light of Christ to the dark continent of Africa.'

I don't know what effect the "Great East African Revival" had, but I do know that barely a generation later, after the evangelical renewal had come and gone, in early April 1994, the country of Rwanda was engulfed in a frenzy of tribal violence, that erupted into the worst case of tribal warfare in Africa's history!

Over half of the entire population of Rwanda were forced to flee for their lives! And one million people - men, women, and children, ' who could neither run, nor hide' were pitilessly put to death!

While many Christians - particularly the Quakers, and the Seventh Day Adventists "acted heroicly", trying to save people who were being attacked - and were, themselves, hacked to death, along with the neighbours they sought to protect - both Catholics and Protestants had "key leaders" who, not only "did not speak out against the killings", they actually, "promoted the genocide", for their own purposes!

Reverend Tokenboh Adeyemo, the Director of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa, says that "homogeneous church growth" resulted in the growth of ethnic churches. And the growth of ethnic churches only served to fan the flame of tribal rivalry, and contribute to the final tribal conflagration!

In fact, the most recent research, by Doctor John Steward, seems to indicate "much to the shame of the Christian community"' that it was "the Muslims who came out of the genocide "cleaner" than the Christians!" Muslims, it seems, unlike the Christians, "are said to have not participated in the killings!"

These brief reflections do not discount the countless acts of charity done by caring Christians through the towards brutality that runs like a thick blood red thread, through the tapestry of the history of religion in general and Christianity in particular.

The Problem With Religion'

"It Can Turn Entire Civilizations Into Cemetaries."

Saul Alinsky, the great community activist, whom Jaques Maratain considered one of the few great men of our century, wrote in the preface of his infamous Reveille for Radicals, that, as far as he was concerned, the main job of the community organiser was "organising people so that they will have the power to realise those values of equality, justice, freedom, and the preciousness of human life " that he identifies with "Judeo-Christianity".

For many people Judeo-Christianity is the "gospel" and, for them, what Saul Alinsky says is "good news". However, for many of us, who have suffered at the hands of fundamentalists, what Saul Alinsky says is "bad news". I can almost hear the agony in the voice of Joachim Kahl, echoing in the groans of many people in my neighbourhood, when he cries out, in The Misery of Christianity, "What to me is (Christianity)... but the sadomasochistic glorification of pain!"

Many studies in psychology and sociology would justify Kahl's complaint. They prove that many religious people are actually often less humanitarian, rather than more humanitarian, than their non-religious neighbours. Allport and Kramer have demonstrated that many religious people are more ethnocentric. Rokeach has demonstrated that many religious people are more dogmatic. Wright has demonstrated that many religious people are more judgmental. Stouffer has demonstrated that many religious people are less tolerant of political dissent. And Kilpatrick has demonstrated that many religious people are less charitable towards disreputable minorities.

Richard Stellaway contends that "religious belief has more frequently accommodated, rather than transformed society." Take your average church, (temple, mosque, synagogue or mandir), for example. "A congregation may tolerate a minister's stand against injustice only for as long as the issue does not affect them personally. The more popular the congregation is, the less likely it is to advocate unpopular causes. The more established a congregation is, the less likely it is to advocate change. The more a congregation is seeking to establish itself in a community (through recruiting members, raising funds, and building facilities) the less likely it is to take on issues in the community that require the advocacy of change."

Jaques Ellul has pointed out that "When ever the church has been in a position of power it has regarded freedom as an enemy." He explains, "If one turns to history, it is surely apparent that Christians have more often imposed restraints than championed liberty. Freedom finds little place in the church's history.... It has been a veritable catastrophe."

Take the history of the church in Australia for example. "The history for evangelical Christians in welfare (in Australia) has been conservative in most ways... The recipients of aid have been treated (as) recipients of aid, probably with a load of opprobrium thrown in, combined with a dash of social control."

The brilliant Australian commentator, Phillip Adams, speaks for many cynical Australians in his acerbic critique of religion, appropriately entitled Adams Verses God. According to Adams, "All religions are just a psychological projection of an external father figure... They are bedtime stories to ward off the darkness, to soothe us in our fear of death."

He finds a certain ambiguity in his attitude towards religion. "I can understand, and even respect, the yearnings that produce religion, the troubled turbulent doubts that people call faith. What I do find loathsome are the internicence wars. The faction fighting that turns church into a charnal house. At its best, religion has lifted spirits and raised spires. At its worst it has turned entire civilizations into cemeteries."

It is his contention that "Religion is not the "opiate of the people". Opium suggests something soporific, numbing, dulling. Too often religion has been the aphrodisiac of horror, a benzedrin for brutality."

Of all religious groups, Adams considers the fundamentalists the worst, and he holds them accountable for the worst atrocities done in the name of religion. He says, "fundamentalists are a humourless bunch... They see God as a grumpy old bugger..."

He contends that their churches are nothing but "small totalilarian societies with a library of just one book." The missionaries these churches send out practise "a scorched earth policy" in their proselytisation, "a cultural uprooting of local faiths from which many societies have never recovered."

He concludes, by saying, rather whimsically, but perhaps rather wistfully too, "If there was a God, I think he would dislike fundamentalists as much as I do."

The Potential Of Religion'

"It Is A Means Of Either Enslavement Or Emancipation."

Aloysius Pieres, says in his Theology Of Liberation, that: "Every religion, Christianity included, is at once a sign and a countersign of the kingdom of God; that the revolutionary impetus launching a religion into existence is both fettered and fostered by the need for an ideological formulation; that its institutionalisation both constrains and conserves its liberative force; that religion, tberefore, is a potential means of either enslavement or emancipation."

Many studies in psychology and sociology exemplify the point that Pieres is trying to make. They prove that while some religious people are actually often less humanitarian than their non-religious neighbours, because of their religion, some religious people are actually often more humanitarian than their non-religious neighbours, because of their religion.

Peter Glew'Crouch, has shown in a recent study, that the relationship between religious beliefs and humanitarian behaviour is not a simple linear one, but a more complicated curvilinear one, which, no doubt when drawn, would take the form of a bell graph. His study demonstrates that people who don't get into the ideology of an institutionalised religion are less likely to be prejudiced, for example, than those who do. But, his study also demonstrates, that people who get beyond the ideology of an institutionalised religion, are less likely to be prejudiced than either of their religious, or their non-religious, neighbours.

A review of the contemporary research on "voluntarism", by David Gerard, demonstrates that the most significant difference between those who are prepared to give themselves, freely, to work with others in the community, and those who aren't, is a degree of religious devotion to the Other that transcends their egocentricity.

A review of the contemporary research on "altruism", by Craig Seaton, demonstrates that the most significant difference between those who are prepared to give their lives, sacrificially, to save the lives of others in the community, and those who aren't, is a degree of religious devotion to the Other that transcends their ethnocentricity.

Scott Peck suggests that there are four distinct stages of growth in religion. The first stage is antisocial "confusion". The second stage is institutional "conformity". The third stage is individual "nonconformity". And the fourth stage is communal "spirituality". For people who have been "confused", no doubt the clarity of religious "conformity", of one kind or another, can be quite helpful. But if people do not grow beyond acceptance of "conformity", to a respect for "nonconformity", they can get stuck at a stage of religious development, where they get so locked into their dogma, that they simply can't relate to an Other, and community development becomes a sheer impossibility. However, if people grow towards a stage of "spirituality", where they acquire the maturity to be able to facilitate unity and diversity with an Other, regardless of dogma, religion can play a very creative role in community development.

According to a survey conducted by S.J.Samartha, this type of spirituality is actually playing a vital part in much of the community development taking place in many of the new movements happening around the world today. "One emphasis, in all new movements," Samartha says,"is a more satisfying human life here and now. Another emphasis is the search for new forms of community, partly as a protest against traditional, petrified forms of community that stifled freedom, and partly because of the pressures of modern life that demand new groupings and new relationships."

"Seeking renewal," Samartha says, "movements of innovation go back to the spiritual core...back to their original discover a framework of meaning in which the person has a vocation to discover community."

"The true role of religion is to enable people to transcend the dominant ideologies of tbe day, and to encourage the people, so empowered, to criticise the status quo, catalyse change in the system, and create communities in which they can overcome the evil with good."

The Role For Religion'

" To Create Communities Which Overcome Evil With Good."

I think I learnt most about the role that religion can play in the development of communities when I lived in India. Ange and I lived for many years in a multifaith community known as Aashiana. Aashiana was a small group of some 20 to 30 young people who had got together, from various religious backgrounds, to try to discern what it might mean to practice the compassion of God, exemplified in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, in New Delhi.

At the heart of our spirituality was...

The Process Of Prayer

Prayer, in Aashiana, was the process of "developing an awareness of, and availability to, the Other". It involved a conscious "waiting upon the Other" and a "willingness to yield to the Other". It was essentially a "creative response to life in the light of the love of the Other".

The Place Of Prayer

Prayer had an important place in the life we shared together. It was considered to be the centre of the community and the catalyst for community development. The "still point" around which "the life of the community revolved". The "point of integration" where "the conflicts in the community were resolved". The "starting point" at which "people began to live again". And the "point of departure" from which "people began to experiment and explore another way of living".

We emphasized the importance of prayer because we believed that "community begins and ends with the Other", and, in prayer, we could "meet the Other who is the beginning and the end of the community development process".

It was in encounter with the Other that we believed that "all that is good could be defined and affirmed, and all that is evil could be exposed and opposed, and our task for the future outlined".

It was in encounter with the Other that we believed "a vision of justice could be revealed and an infusion of grace could be realized".

It was in encounter with the Other that we believed we could "develop discernment in the midst of disorientation, energy when we had exhausted our ability, and endurance where we would have otherwise withdrawn".

It was in prayer, therefore, that we felt we could begin to "engage, with the Other, in the struggle for the salvation of the world".

The Inspiration of Prayer

It was in prayer that a vision for justice emerged:

"It was a vision of equality, in which all the resources of the earth would be shared equally between all the people on earth regardless of nationality, colour, caste, class or creed.

It was a vision of equity, in which even the most disadvantaged people would be able to meet their basic needs for good water, adequate food, sufficient clothing, and secure accommodation, with dignity.

It was a vision of a great society of small communities interdependently cooperating to practise political, socio-economic and personal righteousness and peace in every locality."

And it was in prayer that we began to feel the inflow of an infusion of grace to enable us to realise our vision for justice. "An infusion of grace that enabled us to begin to deal with the reality of our limitations and contradictions. An infusion of grace that enabled us to move beyond angry reactions to just actions that transcended those limitations and resolved those contradictions. An infusion of grace that enabled us to respond, if not always with courage, at least with conviction, compassionately, constructively, and productively."

We knew that there were many who pray but do not act and many who act but do not pray. But it seemed to us that such people had misunderstood the meaning of both prayer and action. Prayer, for us, was the inspiration for action. "When we prayed, we came into the presence of a Love so profound that it challenged all our plans, opinions and prejudices, and called us to a cause of pure compassion. In the presence of that Love we had to act with love. Because to do anything else seemed utterly absurd. In the presence of that Love we were set free from a preoccupation with meeting our needs for a vocation of seeking peace on the basis of justice for all."

Thus it was, through prayer, we developed a concern for the people in our city. And it was, through prayer, we developed a commitment to the people in the slums. And it was, through prayer, we developed contact with the Kanjars, the so-called "Unclean Ones", that lived across the road.

The Kanjars were a tribe of a thousand people who migrated to the city in search of food during a time of famine, and ended up eking out an existence ever since in one of the city's slums. It was a very precarious existence. They lived in 200 little huts with thatch roofs, supported by bamboo poles, that consistently failed to keep out inclement weather- the cold in winter, the heat in summer, or the rain in monsoon.

Each hut housed a family of five, or more, a grand parent, a couple of parents, and two or three children in the space of a tent fit for two in a tight squeeze. Around the huts the dusty ground was covered with bits of trash, different kinds of refuse and faeces. Pigs rooted through the rubbish, searching for tit bits of excrement to snaffle.

The only water was a smelly, stagnant pool nearby that bred mosquitoes carrying malaria round the settlement. There wasn't a single tap or pump that supplied any drinking water. If people wanted a drink, they had to beg for it.

They tried to survive on a diet of rotten fruit and vegetables that they scavenged from the waste bins in the neighbourhood. Disease was rampant. Death stalked the encampment. It seemed like someone died in the slum every week.

They lived with tremendous dignity. But behind the smiles, there were always tears. The joke was always on them. They were outcaste, illiterate, illegal squatters, always being hassled by the public, and harassed by the police.

We were determined to join them in their struggle for justice.

The Pattern Of Prayer

In our struggle with the Kanjars, we began to see that prayer was not just a means of doing justice, but that it was the model for doing justice.

To do justice to them, the process of community development needed to not only conform to the pattern of prayer, but actually become a form of prayer itself.

"Community development is usually a form of intervention. In any intervention we tend to take on the concerns of others as our own. And we tend to depend on ourselves, and our capacity to help, to facilitate the resolution of the problems in the community. This means we will only tend to work with people we think we can help, and we will only work with them as long as our help is facilitating the resolution of the problems in the community.

If we had approached the Kanjars on these terms we probably would have never started at all. But, if by some strange turn of events we had, we certainly would not have stayed with the process very long. Because, as far as we were concerned, the situation was simply impossible.

It was only as our notion of community development was transformed, in prayer, into a form of prayer, from an act of intervention, which depended on the expertise we had, into an act of intercession, which depended on the power God had, to do something about the situation that we obviously could not do, that we were able to begin to engage in the struggle for justice alongside the Kanjars.

Right from the start we realised that to do justice to them as people we would need to act with more regard for the process, and less regard for the outcome. We realised that if we acted with an eye on the outcome we would tend to only select actions that were potentially successful, and would tend to only concentrate on activities that would make us successful. Which seemed fair enough, till we realised, that, in the process of focusing on success, we were most likely to exclude people from the project who were least likely to be successful, and we were most likely to try to control the project, and the people in the project, for the sake of our success.

So, in order to avoid adding insult to injury, we tried to approach the process of community development with the Kanjars as we would approach prayer, that is, in a spirit of openness and responsiveness, being willing to do our bit, without any expectation of ever controlling the outcome.

When we began to visit the Kanjars they were very suspicious. They had no visitors who were friends. No one who just wanted to spend time with them, relate to them, talk with them, listen to them, or struggle with their concerns in an open ended manner. The only visitors that ever made their way to the slums were politicians, who came looking for votes to collect at election time, or proselytizers, who came looking for souls to convert to their particular sect. So they were very suspicious of visitors who said they wanted to be their friends.

However, over innumerable cups of tea in the ensuing months we were able to develop reciprocal relationships with real mutual regard. They were able to put us to the test, find us more or less trustworthy, and transcend, if not suspend, their suspicions enough, to be able to relate to us with a remarkable degree of vulnerability, which we did our best to reciprocate. So before the year was out we were able to start to share our aspirations with one another.

The Power Of Prayer

Hope of justice, for people without any hope of justice, like the Kanjars, could not possibly develop on the basis of their experience. Their experience, characterised by a continual litany of one injustice after another, may make hope imperative, but it also makes it impossible.

We all knew there was no quick fix for the Kanjars. The only hope they had was in the construction of an alternative future that would be in total contrast to their present situation and a total contradiction of their past history.

But to be able to even begin to try to construct an alternative future, the people needed to discover the power to act against their conditioning, while the personal, social, cultural and political circumstances in which they were conditioned, were still the dominant and dominating realities, that circumscribed their lives.

And that, they felt, was quite literally, beyond them. So, the only hope of any hope for the Kanjars depended on their capacity to access a power beyond themselves.

"We were aware that there was a power that could be released in prayer that could be explained in terms of psychology and sociology. "A self-therapy takes place", Jacques Ellul explains. "There is the giving up of anger and aggressiveness, a validation through responsibility and meditation, a recovery of balance through the rearranging of facts on successive levels as seen from a fresh outlook."

But we were also aware that there was a power that could be released in prayer that was beyond the capacity of contemporary psychology and sociology to explain. Ellul calls it 'the effectual, immediate presence of the wholly Other, the Transcendent, the Living One'.

We knew that if we were to access enough power to break the bondage of our conditioning, so that we would be free to think, and talk, and work towards an alternative future with the community, we not only needed as much "self-therapy" as we could get, but we also needed something "wholly Other" than anything we had ever tried before.

It was in the early days of our involvement with the Kanjars when it happened...

The people were still quite nervous about any innovations. But, more out of desperation than anything else, they had decided to go ahead with a primary health programme. They built a hut for a clinic, and a medical student volunteered to help the people with sanitation, nutrition and basic health care.

For a while it seemed as if the programme might not only empower the community to deal with their dysentery, but also with their despair. But at a critical stage in the development of this programme, a child fell seriously ill. She was brought to the clinic for help. But there was nothing that either the medical student or the other doctors she consulted could do to help. The diagnosis was: "tetanus". The prognosis was: "death".

We sensed that if this child were to die, with it would die, not only the hopes of the parents, but also the hopes of all the other parents, who had hoped against hope that, at long last, their lives might be different. So we did the only 'Other' thing we could do at the time we called the community together for prayer.

Even though we all prayed for the child to live, I think all of us expected it to die. But it didn't. And that made all the difference. Because it proved beyond doubt that things could be different. And that belief, that things could be different, unleashed the latent confidence in people, that they could be different, in spite of their conditioning. And that confidence, that they could be different, became the foundation of all the work that the Kanjars have done to develop the community since that day.

I remember talking to Ramu, a Kanjar leader, before I left India. I asked him what he thought were the most significant changes that had taken place in the Kanjar community. I shall never forget what he said.

He said: "We have changed in many ways, Daud bhai. We believe God is for us. Not against us.

Though we are little people, we are no longer afraid of big people. We are prepared to stand up for what is right. Like the time we marched to the Office of the Lieutenant Governor of New Delhi to demand hamara land and pukkha houses.

We work things out better now in the community council. We do not have as many fights. Remember the fights we used to have, when we used to throw those big bricks at one another? These days us men spend less time taking drugs and getting stoned. We work in the garbage recycling co-op we have set up. We are able to bring in enough money - two or three times more than we used to get before - to meet more needs at home. Our wives are happier. Our children are healthier. And not so many of us die so young anymore.

Not everything is good. Many things are still bad. But, it's a whole lot better than it was before."

(Is It?)

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