Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Citizenship and the secular state: reflections on current Brazilian times

by Ivone Gebara (English translation by Rebel Girl)
July 2013

It makes me uneasy inside when groups in the name of their religious faith or the need for a secular state demand laws for or against women and other groups. Even when religious groups on behalf of their faith want to interfere in the laws of the state. Although the positions might be socially and politically different, these groups are using the same currency and the same words, justifying often opposite arguments.

When Catholics speak in the name of their Catholic faith to demand that the state approve laws in favor of women or not, they are in some way affirming the opposite of a secular state. When evangelical churches rush to demonstrate publicly against any law of the state in the name of their religious faith, they are also denying the existence of a secular state. Could it be that our citizenship is not enough? Will we always need the support or use of religious arguments interpreted according to our interests? The problem is very complex and we have no clear answers for it.

In my opinion, a secular state should not be guided by religious pressures, but by the popular will expressed from the various levels of representation, popular demonstrations of various sorts, including plebiscites and the social media.

For example, when Catholic or Protestant women ask their denominations for a change in theology or legislation regarding certain issues that touch the lives of the faithful, things are different. We are still in the realm of the faith community and the same ethical-religious tradition, despite the multiplicity of interpretations and conflicts. But even within that environment, the freedom of conscience that should drive decision-making is always there. However, it should be clearly stated that in daily life, the decisions I make are not always in line with the religious faith I profess or the church I belong to. I often make decisions against my conscience or against what I deem to be my convictions since in that instance I need to "save" my life. Here "my life" seems to be worth more than individual faith stances taken at other times, though it might not always be possible to be clear about this delicate subject. Everything depends on people and situations. Everything depends on the moment, on whether the suffering is bearable or not, psychological instability, pressures of all kinds, fears that affect my life at that moment.

Situations, circumstances can change behaviors that I imagined to be a stable acquisition, almost an ethical tradition in me. Therefore, the principles are guiding lines, but do not necessarily work in practice when "saving life" becomes imperative as a primary concern. Here, I think that it's my life as the closest reality to me -- as I myself -- that makes or sets the immediate rules of the game.

It is difficult to judge when one is out of the clash of lethal tensions, away from the battlefield, out of the prisons, out of the pressures of time and institutions. The exceptional people who manage to hold firm convictions can not be taken as absolute examples to follow, considering that there are many things we don't know about the motivations that led them to make that decision.

The lives of those people serve as an ideal and as a theoretical ethical reference point. Their importance is recognized, but that importance is not decisive in many moments of life. So somehow the precious statements of the Gospels -- "judge not" and "cast not the first stone"-- prevail here. Every life is a life even though we live in a society and need each other mutually to give continuity to the vital breath we have in common.

Several issues are on the agenda at the current political and religious juncture. I will list only three. The first has to do with a kind of control and legislating of private life by the state, an expression of the wishes of some religious groups. The second has to do with the new understanding of the relationship between what's public and private in our society. And the third, with the intrusion of religious beliefs in the policies of a secular and pluralistic state.

Private life is the life of each individual in its multiple relationships with self and others. It's much more than domestic life, as it encompasses something of the interiority of each person, the intimacy we have with ourselves. In these complex relationships there's what we call an internal forum which is where, in the final analysis, the individual's will becomes sovereign even though the latter threatens his/her life or the lives of others. Will, choice, freedom can no longer be considered concepts that are free of negativity, exempt from the contradiction and mix inherent in life itself. Often, laws, social impositions, religious beliefs act only at the external level and only have some efficacy as long as a situation that threatens my life doesn't present itself.

When the unforeseen/foreseen event happens, it comes to guide our behavior so that our individual well-being and integrity are safeguarded at a minimum. In this instance, educational processes starting in early childhood and social processes of respect for the life of the community and of each individual, are essential but can not always avoid unexpected things and pitfalls of life.

It's in the realm of the inner life that the individual is sovereign, that is, his sovereignty is pragmatic in the sense of being moved by the event of the moment or the urgency he must face. Respect for self and others should definitely continue as a social ideal, although we know that, in practice, a society in which everyone respects everyone is impossible, at least at this point in our shared history. We go on with our daily dose of cruelty, injustice and falsehood though we speak of love and justice. In this sense, wanting to legislate on the inner life, to give clear rules to subjectivity seems an enterprise that is doomed to failure today.

The innumerable attempts of some denominations to propose "cures for gayness", ban gay marriage, ban abortion and say no to condom use, seem like a powerful guardianship that ends up disrespecting individuals.

The institutions that think they're doing good and stand up [as a rule] in the name of good, end up harming the individual and social life of many people the same way. Their teachings can cause many people guilt, but it doesn't help them advance along the line of personal growth.

The relationships between what's public and private deserve to be thought about and reflected upon according to the new situations of current history. There is an intimate relationship in them between public and private in their current relationship with the state. The state is a means that allows collective management of common vital needs,that promotes the sharing of services, that guarantees the rights and safety of citizens. In the modern state, private concerns have migrated into public space and often we run the risk of establishing legislation without discussion and without the participation of citizens, especially of the most interested ones. The great mass of the ignorant or conformists ends up being manipulated by the ruses of those who have more power over the rest.

The issue today is that many times the laws impose on citizens behavior that is standardized from situations totally removed from the reality experienced, so their possibility of implementation becomes problematic and almost impracticable. This is also true in the field of religious prescriptions regarding sexual life and other behaviors. In this line, we must consider the simultaneously private and public nature of religious practice. The public or the public expression of a religious faith, is different from the political public, though they often touch and intersect. Therefore, a more careful reflection about the relationship between what we call private and public is necessary.

Religious beliefs in public political spaces are a growing phenomenon in our time and in our environment. They invade public spaces even in a state that is constitutionally defined as secular. Representatives, senators, councilors, judges elected or chosen to serve the common good do not get to be exempt from their religious beliefs. Their beliefs become political banners, so we continue to be victims of a religious state that is constitutionally affirmed and recognized as secular. This paradox can be observed in the many religious demonstrations we have witnessed in recent years interfering in public policies, especially those that deal with human sexuality. It's worth noting, in this instance, the misuse of religious texts to justify political positions through impressing rhetoric used to convince the public. I think this is a crime that violates the Constitution and should be addressed by all citizens in many different ways.

The question is how to bracket religious beliefs out of consideration for the common good. Or, how does one grow in awareness in regard to the diversity of situations in a world as complex as ours? How does one educate oneself for a pluralistic society where my religious and political beliefs aren't valid for the whole society? Moreover, it's about teaching oneself to discern between the need for laws for all and my personal choice. Just because there's legalization of abortion or gay marriage doesn't mean that I have to experience them or believe that people will be less moral or less responsible if a new law is passed. In other words, I'm not going to get married because there is homosexual or heterosexual marriage, nor am I going to have an abortion because abortion is permitted by law.

The many controversies of our time will not get anywhere if we don't accept the reality of pluralism of our nation and our world. Pluralism means diversity and diversity means that some laws should be valid for all citizens and others may be an option for each one according to his or her own conscience and contingent on how he or she is living. It also means not blocking the way and the decisions of other people who live and think differently than I do.

In this context, we must relativize many solutions, that is, understand them from the diversity and particularity of situations. For example, some solutions argue the need for prohibitive laws around sexuality and back rigid legislation that has a punitive effect on the offenders. Others choose permissive legislation that calls attention to individual and collective responsibility versus sexuality issues. There are still others that put forward educational measures with different proposals. And in this universe of observations, there is also a large majority of the population left out of the debate and the search for solutions. They are in a position of social and political disinformation, waiting for an individual problem to erupt and come to motivate their immediate search for solutions.

At this juncture, we are called to a discernment and reflection that is able to see the many nuances of the same situation. There is no place for absolute positions, for immutable principles, based on an image of God that is easily manipulated by different groups. The lack of interest in thinking is something that surprises us. Critical thinking is reduced to individual or partisan interests without reflecting the pluralistic human race that makes up the Brazilian nation and all other nations in the world. We need a critical, non-sectarian understanding of our problems and the search for viable solutions. This understanding should be broad to be compatible with the different views of what is considered a just life and right living.

But where do we find it? I think the only way is dialogue incessantly restarted by the different groups, a dialogue in which, even though having our convictions, we are willing to listen to others  from the start. Listening is the big issue, because in reality we have forgotten how to listen in a society dominated by the noise of machines, of many sounds, of many human screams that are so loud they can't be distinguished by another's ears. Lowering our voices, perhaps even becoming silent ourselves to listen to the melody of the music of others, to learn from other sounds that are also notes of human musicality and the symphony of the universe. Lowering one's voice to learn to think, to listen to our inner voice. And only then, taking some steps together knowing that we are all on the way, with the inevitable possibilities of stumbling and and losing our way, but we're together in the extraordinary human adventure.

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