|by Jay Kinney|
A "base community" of the poor in rural El Salvador meets together for prayer and reflection in the light of liberation theology and decides to lend support to the Marxist-Leninist FMLN in their war against the El Salvador government.
A Shi'a sect in Lebanon looks to their Sheikh, a fanatical supporter of the Iranian Islamic revolution, for guidance and shows its devotion to Allah through car bombs, kidnap-pings, and bazooka attacks on Western targets.
A "pro-life" anti-abortion group of evangelical Christians in Pennsylvania is led, through scriptural study and "prophetic" leadership, to stage demonstrations blocking a Planned Parenthood center's entrance in an effort to "stop the murder of the unborn."
The Social Justice Committee of a Catholic parish in California, in cooperation with an environ-mental organization, provides leadership and liturgy for an Earth Day Sunday Mass and encourages parishioners to boycott General Electric products to protest their defense contracting.
Wherever we look these days we find groups of religious people committed to political actions based on their interpretation of their religion's scriptures and teachings. Some of these groups may strike us as admirable and others as deplorable, but they all share a common trait: their conviction that God calls them to act in certain ways in order to change the world for the better.
This is also the case among more loosely organized spiritual groupings, such as New Age circles, where broadly shared values lead to a consensus in favor of, say, a stronger United Nations or abolishing nuclear power. No matter what the political position, either left or right, North or South, there is probably someone who advocates it based on his or her particular religious beliefs.
For some time now I've been trying to figure out exactly why this phenomenon bothers me. After all, if I champion certain political values, shouldn't I be pleased that someone's interpretation of their religion leads them to join my camp or vice versa? During the Vietnam War wasn't I delighted that the Berrigan brothers, as Catholic priests, felt called to vehemently protest the war by courageous acts of civil disobedience? And more recently, haven't I admired Thich Nhat Hanh's simple message of peace and compassion as a real-world expression of Buddhist awareness? What exactly, then, is my problem?
As far as I can trace it, my "problem" stems from my observation of my own political and spiritual evolution. Though my beliefs have changed over the years I have always held true to my own gut-level sense of the truth. At times, as new experiences have come and gone and as I've exposed myself to new ideas, that inkling of what's true has changed. Over the last two and a half decades I've found myself feeling wholeheartedly sympathetic to (in order of their appearance) liberal, yippie, socialist, anarchist, left-libertarian, populist, and conservative perspectives. Sometimes I've entertained elements of two or more of those ideologies at the same time. True believers may call me fickle, while outright skeptics might say I'm merely confused, but my faith in my own sense of what's true - as transitory as that might be - has been a constant companion as I've explored the political maze.
Now it probably goes without saying that one can't consume and spit out that many ideologies without concluding that all political positions are both relative and provisional. Each has had strong points which I've loved and weak points which I've deplored. And no political ideology has won me over as the best permanent strategy to a better tomorrow. Yet, throughout the course of my enthusiasms and disillusionments, at any given moment I was firm in my conviction that I was serving my highest spiritual values by being true to myself. To put it vulgarly, I sensed that "God was on my side." No matter what value was primary in my ideology of the moment, I was sure that it was spiritually appropriate to work to that end. Yet, objectively speaking, in the course of a few years I might hold totally opposite opinions.
This presented a personal conundrum. Were I to create a seamless garment of my political perspectives of the moment interwoven with my religious beliefs, each change of political opinion would logically entail a revision of my spiritual beliefs as well. But, by the same token, it would be too schizoid to simultaneously entertain political and religious convictions that contradicted each other. My way out of this trap was to gradually see that (1) while one's spiritual faith might mold one's values and (2) one's own sense of political right and wrong might flow from those values, that (3) someone else (or oneself farther along in time) is quite capable of sharing the same values which, nevertheless, might lead them to an entirely different interpretation of political right and wrong. In other words, if "God was on my side" by dint of my attempt to be true to my gut-level sense of appropriate action, then it was just as likely that God was also on the side of any opponents who were answering their own inner calls.
This is fine as far as it goes, but once one steps outside of the subjective realm of inner calls and gut-level senses, one comes up against political and religious beliefs as social systems in conflict or alliance, systems that are larger than any one individual. Here one is faced with the prospect of a murderous conflict where each side is convinced of its honest devotion to higher ideals and justifies its own violence as a defense of the good against the other side's aggression. Thus the phenomenon of holy wars.
A recent example still fresh in everyone's minds is the Iraq War, where Saddam Hussein invoked the rationale of a jihad against the West and Bush characterized the U.S.-led allied forces as fighting a just war against someone akin to Hitler. It is hard not to see this as opportunism of the first order: Saddam had just spent eight years, with Western aid no less, trying to beat Khomeini's Iran, which had declared its own battle with Saddam to be a jihad. Caught with his fingers in the cookie jar, Saddam suddenly found religion and claimed to be at the forefront of the fight against the materialist West. Few were convinced.
The allied forces, which included such veteran colonial powers as Britain and France who had originally carved up the Middle East into its present artificial boundaries, and thus had set the stage for present conflicts there, were primarily interested in keeping the region from destabilizing into a fratricidal civil war which would disrupt the smooth flow of oil. An understandable goal - but hardly "just war" material.
However, my concern in this article is with situations of more spiritual-political credibility, where the religious individual, by identifying with his fellow believers (e.g. the Church, the Ummah, etc.) is commonly obliged, by the leadership of that body, to support or oppose certain political positions. This phenomenon arises repeatedly, both in the context of a holy war and even more often outside of it. The phenomenon is a familiar one for anyone who has had any contact with mainstream religion in twentieth-century America.
For instance, a "call to action" issued by a Christian ecumenical "Work, Theology and Action Conference" held in 1983 included statements such as:
Such sentiments, which amount to Christian liberation theology in a nutshell (and which are mirrored in Islamic revolutionary theology, as we shall see), are noble enough. If nothing else, the hunger for justice is always noble. But the assumptions upon which such sentiments rest are so taken for granted that it is difficult to disentangle them from the "call to action" and examine them.
For instance, in the passage of Isaiah quoted above by the Conference as justification for its "call to action," Yahweh is addressing Israel in the context of their covenant with Him. This passage reads more fully:
I, Yahweh, have called you to serve the cause of right;
What goes unasked in the contemporary use of this verse is whether Christians in the late twentieth century are to assume that Yahweh's call to Israel then is equivalent to His call to Christians now. If it is, why should devout Christians heed this passage in Isaiah and not passages in Leviticus calling for orthodox practices regarding food, menstruation, etc.? Isn't this a highly selective reading of the Bible?
By the same token, if one turns to Isaiah 43:14-15 one reads:
Thus says Yahweh,
What is to stop one from interpreting this as a prophecy in support of the recent war with Iraq (Babylon)? Yet I have no doubt that the members of the Conference who interpreted Isaiah 42:6 as setting their agenda for social change including full employment, conversion of military industries, worker participation, and so on, would shudder at such an interpretation of Isaiah 43:14-15. Clearly one is likely to bring to "theological reflection" one set of political and economic assumptions and not another.
Similarly, while the Conference "call to action" quoted above led the assembled American liberals to an interpretation of justice in line with a moderate socialist ideology, it is probable that the exact same call to "help the oppressed, to side with the victims, to love those in need" might lead Soviet Christians in Latvia or the Ukraine to work against socialism and for the free market! Or it might lead members of the Catholic Worker movement to work towards a Christian anarchism.
Perhaps this is all well and good. Perhaps God calls different people to "serve the cause of right" by taking opposite ideological stands. But if so, one would do well to remember the fact and consider the possibility that one is pursuing a path of action towards which one was already inclined and not by dint of a single correct interpretation embedded in scriptural verse. Or, perhaps, that a divine call for justice may legitimately be read as encouraging moves toward left, right, or center, depending on the needs of the particular time and place.
In any event, such musings have left me suspicious of any and all weddings of ideology and theology, no matter how seemingly benign. That includes the current crop of New Age philosophies that mix together Goddess religion, the Gaia hypothesis, Creation Spirituality, Green politics, paradigm shifts, bioregionalism, and World Federalism. I understand the impulse to have one's affinity group, coven, and political party all rolled into one extraordinary unit - such dreams are no doubt the externalized equivalent of a well-integrated psyche. But I still distrust the result. The better melded the combination, the more likely that one will forget its contingency.
Islam provides a particular challenge to our understanding in this respect because it doesn't recognize the split between religion and politics (or Church and State) that is a cornerstone of the modern West. Islam's central revelation, the Qur'an, and the Sharia, the body of laws and customs that have developed over the centuries, prescribe a way of life for not only the individual but society as a whole. As the noted modern Islamic reformer, S. Abul A'la Maududi, notes:
The struggle to follow and defend Islam on a social scale is jihad, and despite the Islamic unity of religion and politics, there are, in practice, many different notions of what jihad entails and what kind of ideal society should be worked towards. Some reformers such as Maududi envision sweeping reforms brought about by the spread of personal piety and democratic methods. Others, such as the Al Jihad Organization in Egypt, whose members were responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1982, or Islamic Jihad in Lebanon, who claimed responsibility for bombing American and French barracks in 1983, consider murder and guerrilla warfare as valid means to greater ends.4 Thus even here, with a religion that clearly spells out preferred behavior, the fight for "the good" is at the mercy of contradictory interpretations and strategies.
This then is our nightmare. Lurking beneath the surface of the beguiling dream of a world transformed to the good is the dark angel plaguing all utopias: totalitarianism. Even were we to all agree that Islam or liberation theology or Green spirituality were the best wedding of spirit and ideology with which to organize world society, I'm enough of a pessimist to assert that the whole venture would fall prey to self-centered distortion courtesy of whatever leadership were in place (including some ultra-utopian version of mass direct democracy). And the more the world was unified under an overarching spiritual vision, the more suffocating it would be as things inevitably went askew. Ironically, sometimes the only guarantor of making the right moral choice is having the option to make the wrong choice as well.
Frankly, I think we would be doing God a favor by taking a solemn vow to keep Him or Her or It out of our public rationales for wars and our efforts toward an ever-elusive justice. To advocate this is not a call for amorality or a plug for secular humanism. On the contrary, the more people who are in touch with the indwelling Divine the better. From such attunement may well come appropriate behavior. If an individual or a church concludes that God calls them to a course of action, so be it. Indeed, I don't rule out the possibility that such appropriate behavior might include being a warrior defending one's family or the innocent. One's highest Self doesn't always counsel quietism.
However, it seems self-evident to me that a political or social course of action should be defensible on its own terms - i.e. because it will lead to a social good which others, whether religious or not, might agree is desirable. Murder or robbery are condemned by communities not because such actions violate the Ten Commandments, but because they violate concepts of justice and right behavior that transcend any single religion or scripture.
To wave a Bible or Qur'an as you gallop forth, or to spout scriptural quotations to justify yourself, is likely to persuade no one who doesn't already agree with you. It is thus largely an exercise in self-congratulation, a public parading of one's piety. Ultimately, such behavior only muddies the waters. In the end, perhaps the best way to "keep the faith" may be to keep our mind open and our trap shut, all the better to hear the still small voice within.
1. "Call for Justice in Economic Life," The Witness, Vol. 66, No. 10, (Oct. 1983), pp. 15-16.
2. Isaiah 42:6-7. Biblical quotations are taken from The Jerusalem Bible.
3. S. Abul A'la Maududi, Jihad in Islam (Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic Publications Ltd., 1976), pp. 16-17.
4. Dilip Hiro, Holy Wars: The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism (New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 224.(c) copyright 1991 by Jay Kinney