Thursday, April 14, 2005

Why I distrust the idea of a "religious left"

So for anyone who hasn't yet figured this out, I am an Orthodox Christian who lives and writes from a socially liberal perspective. One of the first people to stumble across this blog, Alana at morningcoffee, pegged me as a "Sojourner Magazine" type, by which I suppose she meant a lefty in the nicest possible way. The fact is, however, that although I have read an issue or two of Sojourner Magazine, and have even gone to hear Jim Wallis speak, I am profoundly uneasy about the whole emerging "Christian Left" movement with which Sojourners has recently become associated.

I suppose my reservations go, at least in part, to the track record of the religious right in this regard. The religious right, in my view, has been cynically commodified by the pro-business, big corporate lobby. People of deep faith, many from lower income brackets, are having their genuine religious impulses exploited for the gain of others who care little for their values. They are being encouraged to vote against their own economic interests by politicians who talk blithely about "morality," "the family," and the "sanctity of life," as if they were really concerned about these issues (although anyone who looks at their way of life would quickly conclude otherwise). The reality is that their true consituents are the ones who get invited to the gala banquets and white tie fund-raisers: the rich, big business moguls. This harnessing of religion to political expediency is an incredibly ugly thing, and I don't think it gets any prettier if it is done by people on the left.

And yet there is another, deeper reason that I am wary of this "Christian Left" rhetoric: I think it has a profound tendency to degenerate into a kind of "liberal chic." It is far too easy to become a "Rolex liberal," to set oneself up as an "outsider," while still reaping all the benefits of being on the inside. We can be quite well off financially, have nice homes and nice cars, take far more than our share of the world's resources, all the while protesting that we support fair trade, that we opposed the war in Iraq, that we really are good people after all. Isn't that great? We get all the benefits of an oppressive structure, all the bonuses of the three Ws (wealthy, white, western) with none of the guilt! We can have our cake and eat it too! As for those others, well, let them eat cake too!

Just not our cake.

In this abusive system of relationships of which we are a part, no one can claim to be an outsider, no one can claim to be innocent. We are all responsible, every last one of us. Maybe we don't own the sweatshops, maybe we didn't exploit the workers ourselves, but we were all too happy to take advantage of the bargain prices while ignoring the surcharge of human misery. Maybe we didn't drop the bombs or pull the triggers, but we paid others, kids from poor Southern ghettos and bankrupt Midwestern farms, to do it for us.

"Oh," some part of me says, "but I am a pacifist. I opposed the war." Did I tear my clothes into pieces and run naked and screaming through the streets crying "Stop it! Stop it!" like the prophet Jeremiah? Did I do anything at all?

No. I shook my head and clucked my tongue, and turned to the comics.

Dr. Paul Farmer, an MD working in Haiti who speaks to issues of global inequity from a liberation theology perspective, once said that the problem with "WLs" ("White Liberals") is that we believe that we can have it all, that we can create a better world without giving up the privileges to which we have become accustomed. We don't understand that there is a place for sacrifice, and even for shame.

I was reflecting this morning on the fact that, in the Psalms, shame is part of the cycle of violence: first we defeat our enemies and "cover them with shame," then they rout us and put us to shame, so we pray that God will give us strength to put them to shame again, and on and on it goes. Shame waters the seeds of violence that lie dormant within us. But is there a place for shame in creating a more compassionate structure of relationships? Put in another way, have we become so shameless, so utterly brazen, that we can "take almost everything, and then come back for the rest," as one Ani DiFranco song puts it, while still believing ourselves to be liberal, progressive, and perhaps even morally superior?


Anonymous said...

I have not read Sojourners Magazine, but your comments in “Why I distrust the idea of a religious left” have convinced me that I will find its contents interesting. However, other of your thoughts in Why leave me wondering what you would have one (one who is WWW) do? I live and write from the proud perspective of a 60’s radical. Those of us who were white, male and middle class (WMM) were often derided for our involvement in such issues as the civil rights movements, the women’s equality movement and the farm workers movement. Many people within those movements believed that, because I was not like them, my involvement was tantamount to an insult to the cause. A professor of mine, a white male who was active in all kinds of social issue in the 60’s, once told me about his being present when Angela Davis was giving an interview just before going to prison. He asked her what she would do once she got out and she said she was going to get a machine gun and kill him and every other white mother…… that she could. But, from a perspective of time, his and my involvement in the civil rights movement had a positive effect—there was no definitive victory for black Americans, but there were a lot of changes brought about.

In my opinion, we WMM’s made a difference. We did change our life style to some degree, attempting to show solidarity with those less fortunate. We helped bring about changes in civil rights, in women’s rights, in farm workers rights. We helped in many other things, in environmental issues and issues of peace before war, in gay rights, on and on. But, like Siddhartha, who became stone and was the air and the bird and the heavens, most of us eventually came back to being who we are, mere men and women struggling against fate. Look at the good that a Ted Kennedy, rich, obese, alcoholic, a philanderer, has done for the poor and undereducated. There are exceptions of course, gods and saints have sacrificed everything—but still we struggle against the old enemies.

I do not believe we can make a better world without giving up something of our (WL’s) privileges. I am in favor of globalization because it helps divide up the cake. I am for no borders, I am willing to give up my car when everybody else does. I have taken and will continue to accept responsibility for being part of the problem. But we should work, and work hard, toward the goal of raising the oppressed up to our level because giving up all we have will not be the cure—the cure lies in what we can do with what we have, with who we are. I am a proud WMM, 60’s whacko, radical. I believe in a religious left as a tool—not only a tool to counter the religious right, but a tool that helps cleave and divide, so that there is no One Way, and so that reality and visions of hope move one notch closer together. With leaders such as yourself guiding such a movement, the possibility of exploitation for personal gain can be minimized. It will be frustrating—you (we) will be scorned—you (we) will not win. Lets do it anyway!


Sampson said...

Dear fosh,

I've been mulling over your comments, and each time I come back to them I'm not quite sure what to write, so I keep deciding to think about it more and write later. But let me give it a try.

I suppose that, at some level, I am a bit frustrated by the fact that no resistance comparable to what happened in the 1960's has arisen to counter the war movement in my generation. Frustrated by the fact that getting piercings and working at Starbuck's seems to pass for countercultural these days. Frustrated that "protests" have no focus, like we are protesting just to be against something, rebels without a clue.

One of my favorite books ever is "Ishmael," a story of a telepathic gorilla who is a teacher/guru. In the book, a new student comes to Ishmael and asks him the question, "What do you teach?" Ishmael replies, "I was born and raised in captivity. Captivity is all I've ever known. So I teach captivity." He then goes on to explain to his unimpressed student, "If you want to escape from captivity, the first thing you need to do is find the bars of the cage. The protests of the sixties and seventies changed very little; why? Not because the people didn't have good intentions. It's because they did not succeed in finding the bars of the cage."

If that is true, I think we are further than ever from finding them today.