Saturday, May 18, 2013

Religion and Politics

Bosom Buddies? Or a Deadly Mix?

             I recently read The First Muslim, a Norfolk Public Library book on the life of Mohammed. The author, Lesley Hazleton, is a mid-eastern religions scholar and a self-described agnostic Jew. As I read her book, though, I guessed wrongly that she must be Muslim. Her writing seems to glow warmly around the Prophet in his life-long struggles and accomplishments.
            Orphaned at a young age, he made his way as a camel boy, tending to the beasts of burden in caravans of merchants who traded in goods across the prosperous, seventh-century Mideast. He learned a lot about the ways of the world from that experience.
            Later, he had a life-altering encounter with God, and he became a prophet, soon gathering followers while also making enemies of those who feared or scorned his message. Yet despite the many insults, rebuffs, and persecutions that came his way, he practiced non-violence and expected his followers to do the same.
            As his reputation as a prophet grew, his followers became the majority in the area around the city of Medina, and Mohammed rose from among them as a political leader in a culture where religion and politics were not separate. As his influence grew, he abandoned his earlier non-violent philosophy and became the commander-in-chief of a tribal-like body which engaged in wars with neighboring tribal powers.
            I always thought it was uninformed hearsay that Mohammed’s Muslim armies killed their defeated enemies if they refused to convert. But apparently, with Mohammed’s blessing, it did happen on a few occasions.
            I’m not used to thinking of religious founders in that way. My own spiritual heroes—Jesus and Buddha but also Yogananda, Baba Ji, and others—teach pacifism in the highest sense of that word. They avoid getting involved in politics, despite the temptation to do so.
            This made me think about religion as a form of politics. It’s been that way, of course, for most of history, but it’s not supposed to be that way in the United States. With church and state separate, non-violence and other spiritual behaviors can become competing ideas in society. But if church and state are joined, there’s a danger that there will be no moral check on power, and with unchecked power comes oppression, at least according to the history I remember from school. Forcing another to confess belief in your religion or face ostracism, persecution, or even death is a definite form of oppression.
            I then began to wonder if it often happens that people lose their idealism, if not even their spiritual direction, when they gain or attempt to gain power of a political kind. The most renowned spiritual teachers tell us the world is just a dream. Why do so many, including spiritual leaders, tend to get lost in the politics of it?
            I think they yield to the siren song of power, which is linked to a number of human vanities but stands by itself as the most dangerous because it encompasses them all. In our world with its dominant paradigm of violence, knowing how to exert power with wisdom, justice, and mercy is a blessed attribute rarely found or taught.
            Perhaps we’re meant to discover it for ourselves.




At 11:50 PM , Blogger Tom Ellis said...

An insightful reflection on the baleful effect of political power on spiritual pursuits. Even though Jesus was a profound and radical pacifist ("Love your enemies") his followers, starting with Constantine and running through the Crusades, the persecution of "heretics," and the holy wars between East and West, and later, in the West, between Catholics and Protestants--were anything but! In fact, "holy war" is the worst of all possible wars, because both sides see their enemies not simply as rivals for power, but as enemies of God, who must therefore be either converted or annihilated. This is the trap that Muhammad fell into, but he was not alone: Paul, though not violent himself, nevertheless established the pattern for this kind of religious bigotry, hatred, and intolerance among Christians down to this day, with his rigid, fanatical "My way or no way" ideology. As someone (I forget who) once said, "religion makes good people better and bad people worse." And what makes people "good" or "bad" is simply whether or not they clearly understand that wisdom (the love of God) and compassion (the love of neighbor) are inseparable...Jesus and the Buddha understood this point clearly, but I don't think Paul or Muhammad ever quite got there.

At 12:15 AM , Blogger Delaney said...

Couldn't agree more, Tom, thanks for your expansion. That quote about religion really cracked me up!

At 9:20 PM , Anonymous Elizabeth Fuller said...

The key, to me, is in the verb -- exerting power, or radiating power. One pushes down and climbs on top, the other radiates outward and enlarges the circle. I have never understood the former to be beneficial in any way, nor the latter to be harmful in any way.


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