Thursday, July 22, 2010

A vision of faith and hope

Some words of wisdom from another occasional reader of this blog, UK Green Party activist Derek Wall. From Morning Star, 7/21/2010:

Religion is something of a quandary for the left. Ever since Karl Marx talked about it being "the opium of the people," socialism has seemed to equal secularism.

However, religion is as often associated with liberation as it is with oppression.

Muslim religious dress is in the news at the moment with the French ban of the burqa. Shockingly Green, Socialist and Communist Party members of the French parliament abstained on the vote. And in Britain a right-wing Conservative MP wants to push through a similar ban.

Islamophobia is to a large extent simply a refuge for racists and the ignorant, but is it possible to argue that religion generally fuels oppression, hatred and is based on irrational authority.

However, even as a firm non-believer, I think religion can be a source of real good.

An excellent illustration of this is the story of Father Paul McAuley, a man who serves his god by working with a poor community deep in the Amazon rainforest.

The Peruvian government accused McAuley of being an agitator and interfering in the politics of the country.

After much public pressure, including from Lib Dem peer Lord Avebury and Green MP Caroline Lucas, the Peruvian government has been forced to cancel an expulsion order.

As usual in Peru it's all about oil. There is a huge struggle continuing across the Amazon between the government, which is attempting to auction the rainforest to oil companies, and the people living in the Amazon, who would rather not have their environment destroyed.

In the very remote part of the country where McAuley is based the conflict is particularly strong.

Together with local people he has set up the Loretena Environmental Network which campaigns and educates on natural resource management.

When indigenous people have been attacked by the paramilitary forces McAuley has helped to gain legal support and, through video interviews, he has let the world know about the oppression local people face.

He is one of at least five rainforest priests in the country doing such work and similar stories can be told right across the world. For example, in Honduras, Father Andres Jose Tamayo leads a movement to stop loggers taking land from his parishioners. For doing so he has received numerous death threats.

Tamayo has also been a strong opponent of the coup which has seen indigenous people and trade unionists murdered in the country.

Let's not forget that at the heart of the Latin American struggles that are bringing social change lie not traditional left-wing political parties but liberation theology.

The idea that Jesus stood for the poor and oppressed is core to Hugo Chavez's work for socialism.

Of course such visions of social justice are not just confined to Catholicism - one thinks of radical Protestant groups like the Hutterites who hold their property in common, arguing that Christianity is a religion based on communism.

The original Hutterites in the 16th century launched a huge rebellion in Saxony to create a utopian socialist society.

Friedrich Engels wrote about them at length and Marx used to quote Thomas Muntzer - perhaps the best-known Anabaptist.

Islam, so derided and attacked, has social justice at its very heart. Mohammed was a great reformer who challenged what he saw as backward attitudes and, more than any other monotheistic prophet, he drew wisdom from contemporary women, especially his wife Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, a powerful businesswoman.

The fact that, if she was alive today, the Saudi authorities would ban her from driving and enjoying equality reflects on a regressive fundamentalist society rather than Islam and its prophet.

For every bin Laden there is a Rumi - the great Persian mystic poet who preached tolerance. For every Inquisition, there is a group of Quakers calling for a non-violent struggle for justice.

Two of the most inspiring leaders I have come across - Britain's Salma Yaqoob of Respect and the Brazilian Green Party presidential candidate Marina Silva - are both attacked by their opponents because of their respective religions.

Yaqoob is Muslim, Silva is from an evangelical Protestant background. Both are powerful voices for the liberation of women and against neoliberal attacks on society.

However religion, like everything else, must be treated critically. For example, there can be no room for the sex obsessives who seek to police our relationships in the name of God. Religion can risk being authoritarian - but so can politics.

Religion is based on faith, which might be called superstition - but so too is much that pretends to be "scientific," such as free-market economics.

At its best religion does two important things. It calls for justice and it asks big questions about the relationship of humanity to the rest of the universe, including the non-human natural world.

Religion has been used to serve the most reactionary forms of politics, from the Saudi regime to the US far-right tea party. These groups share a common background in the most backward extreme and bigoted versions of Christianity and Islam.

One also thinks of the Hindu nationalist party the BJP, which has done so much damage in India.

There are also examples of religion being used overtly as a colonial tool. Interestingly, perhaps the best example also comes from Peru.

The innocently named Summer Institute of Linguistics has sought out the remote indigenous communities in the world since the 1950s to record their languages.

While this sounds like a laudable project, SIL International (as it is now known) is formed of Protestant missionaries who seek to evangelise such communities with the Bible and have been strongly linked to oil companies seeking to weaken indigenous resistance to capitalism.

They have been kicked out of several countries, including Ecuador and Mexico, accused of damaging indigenous peoples.

However in Peru there has been a surprising side-effect. By teaching indigenous communities to speak Spanish, SIL unintentionally helped indigenous resistance to big oil - over 40 different ethnic groups can now communicate with each other easily.

A project aimed at destroying indigenous resistance to the exploitation of the Amazon has paradoxically allowed indigenous people to unite and build the political network Aidesep to fight assaults on their communities.

Indeed the indigenous peoples, many of whom adhere to traditional beliefs, some of whom are Christians and others who mix faiths, show a critical and rational approach to religion by taking what they need and challenging what is aimed to repress them.

McAuley too seems to have a respect for what is good and sacred in the Amazon religions. Three times he has taken "ayahuasca," known as the "rope of death," which is said to provide a mystical journey into the future.

I hope the vision of MacAuley and others like him continues to bring advances for the Latin American left based on respect for nature, social justice and real change for marginalised communities.

I have heard Tony Benn describe how the prophets in the Bible would tell the truth about injustice and be persecuted by the rich and powerful for doing so.

We need prophetic voices more than ever in a world dominated by corporations. There is reason in faith and compassion in religion.

Both Marx and the Buddha adhered to the same phrase - "doubt everything." I think it is one we should continue to practise, but it should not blind us to what can be good about religion.


  1. An excellent article!

    Greetings. Jordi.

  2. This comment is for Derek, since I know you will eventually look to see what people have written and since you read Spanish. You should check out "Reflexiones Pastorales sobre nuestro trabajo en la Amazonía" by Mons. Alberto Campos, OFM: I may get around to translating it eventually but I have some other projects pending.

  3. Thanks for posting this, I had a nice email back from Fr Paul MacAuley from the Peruvian Amazon, who you know about and inspired the article.