|A New Kind of Liberation Theology: Liberating Religions From Their Institutions
Cedric Mayson is the Director of the Commission for Religious Affairs of the African National Congress and a frequent contributor to these pages. He comes through for us once again in the following article, with a challenge to institutionalised religion as well as its adherents, from an African perspective that is well worth hearing and heeding.
We need liberating from colonial religion. We are free of colonial politics. We are stamping our feet into globalised economics. But we are still trapped in imported religions. Millions reject them by voting with their bums: on the beach, in bed, in the shopsbut not on the pews. We live in a post-religious age.
The heady days of Liberation Theology, the Kairos Document, and the Inter-faith potential have been forgotten. The church has done no theology since liberation said Bishop Mvume Dandala.
It was hoped that President Mandelas initiative leading to the establishment of the National Religious Leaders Forum would encourage South Africa to discover an inter-faith theology of transformation. It has not happened. Most religions seem stuck in the formalities of mutual politeness. There is little vision of a God in the secular world who makes all things new enabling us to become a spiritual powerhouse of new development in the secular world. Religions look backward not forward.
Prophets arose before religions were invented, when the world was still in isolated chunks of geography and history. They realised that communities needed ethical behaviour: love, care, honesty, truth, justice and humility. People must love one another or they would kill one another, live in harmony or die in enmity. From the early Hindus to Jesus, and Moses to Muhammad, the prophets envisaged what is good for people and produced their own variations of the Golden Rule. The values came before the religions.
When religious institutions were invented the focus often moved to what is good for emperors, priests, the wealthy and the powerful. Many religions became power hungry, imperialist, and oppressive. The prophets emphasis on ethics to protect people was replaced by gods to protect kings. Religious institutions were infested by superstitions, divisions, power ploys, and oppressive attitudes.
That corruption often continues. Many say we should love our neighboursbut only after the demands of the wealth market, patriotism, or retribution. If you want your neighbour's oil, slaves, cheap labour, farm subsidies, jobs, or environment you can kill people in the name of your God. This is the terrorist doctrine from Washington, London, Tel Aviv, and the caves of Afghanistan.
Jesus, Isaiah, Amos, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Muhammad were prophets of peace and harmony, service and compassion. They have often been usurped by corrupt, power hungry followers with violent political and economic aims. Oppressive anti-human teachings lurk behind many main line religions, behind the theological bankruptcy of many evangelicals, behind the delusions of al Qaeda and militant Zionism, and often behind the self-centered cop-outs of modern mystics. We need to recover the values of the prophets.
Religions have a major positive role in society, but no prophet suggests religious institutions will save the world. The prophets were not priests. Transforming the political, economic and spiritual evolution of Earthlings to a higher plane was the business of fishermen and camel drivers, tent makers and housewives, politicians and business men, civil servants and a carpenters son. Lay people were the ministers putting spiritual guts into secular affairs.
Africa has a vital insight on Secular Spirituality. African Traditional Religion (ATR), like all primal human spirituality, is based on people values. It is holistic, not separating the spiritual from the rest of life. It has no religious structures, no priests, no estates, no churches, no competitive denominations, but it points to ethical values and a power greater than ourselves.
Like all religions, ATR needs liberating: from the inadequacies of its past; from the contemptuous caricatures of some imported religions; and from the snare of those who seek to manipulate it for their own benefit. Primal religion needs prophetic insight, but it has much to offer.
We need to liberate religion into a new secular spirituality which drives away superstition and fear, and empowers millions of agnostics and believers who are seeking a spirituality not wrapped in colonial religions. It means a new evangelism, a unity in diversity of people seeking values which change society, a new prophetic context which sees politics and economics as godly spheres.
Whatever our religious inheritance the winds of change are blowing over us. We need a rethink of religion to move liberation forward.
God is incognito: behind the scenes. Those who claim the only hot line to God are fooling themselves.
When the first Parliament of World Religions was held in Chicago in 1893 the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to go. He said: the Christian religion is the one religion and would not concede the equality of other intended members and the parity of their position and claims. Many Christ-ians still echo his views. But others raise questions.
Most of us grew up with the idea of a God in Heaven, up in the sky, but when sailors and scientists proved the Earth was round, where was up? Where was God?
Others think God is a sort of Father Christmas, but the recent tsunami waves threw that idea out of the water. The tsunami was real hard fact about the unfolding life we live. We are Earthlings. We are part of an evolving and developing world, in which body mind and spirit grow as we face and conquer tsunamis together. God writes a shopping list of reality, not a wish list of if-onlys.
Many false ideas of God came from religious institutions seeking to glorify themselves or their political and economic masters. It is well illustrated in the wretched history of Christ-ianity, which rejected Jesus proclamation of a loving compassionate Father, and invested God with the attributes of the Roman Emperor: the almighty, all powerful, omniscient, death dealing ruler of humanity.
Others conceived similar gods in their own image: demanding obedience under threat of deadly punishment, fearsomely masculine, warlike. It drove both Muslims and Christ-ians in the Crusades. It corrupted many Hindus, Jews and other religions from China to the Andes. The imperialist blood thirsty God ruled from the Vikings to the Incas, Queen Victoria, and P.W. Botha.
Many of us inherited this false colonial concept of an imperialist God, under threat of going to hell if we got it wrong. Like the Bushes, Blairs and al Qaedas, many worship this divine caricature, claiming Gods blessing to destroy their enemies. In our hearts we all know that such a god cannot solve the problems of humanity. Militarism perpetuates terrorism; guns bring oppression not liberation; economic systems that make poverty do not make peace. Those modeling God on emperors and dictators are in desperate need of liberation.
It was the missionaries false conception of God that shocked Bishop Colenso of Natal, a century ago: This country is already saturated with a corruption of Christianity, and the natives (sic) have acquired such a view of the character of God and of the Gospel as keeps them back from desiring to have a much closer acquaintance with it.
But the prophets, without exception, give a totally different picture. Evil is removed by goodness. Amos, Isaiah, the Buddha, Confucius, and Zoroaster all demonstrate that human victory comes through love, compassion and self sacrifice. Muhammad called for peace, mercy, forgiveness and care for the poor. Hinduism gave us the Rig Vega and Gandhi.
Jesus God pictures were of the Good Samaritan, the father welcoming the prodigal, the support of workers, the friend of sinners, healing poverty and disease. He was compassionate, caring, understanding, self-sacrificing, humble, and friends with women and children. The godly way to conquer the problems of life was through self-sacrifice.
Rediscovering the loving servant god of the prophets is the only model which will liberate us from the imperial god of oppressors, and save humanity from self-destruction. To be generous and compassionate is to be strong in the power that makes life. Those with faith energy based on a God working through love and peace-making have the clue to godly human-hood.
In the struggle against apartheid many sought unity with one another not power over others; they sought peace not war; campaigns of peaceful defiance not killing fields; the Kairos Document not the Inquisition; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission not Nuremberg Trials; to be enriched by diversity not destroyed by it.
In our country there is a growing realisation amongst thoughtful peopleand a gut feeling amongst millionsthat God must be liberated from colonial corruptions. Our theology must be brewed in African pots says Bishop Ivan Abrahams.
Liberating Jesus From Christ-ianity
Jesus was not a Christ-ian. He did not say he was the Christ (Messiah) and his followers were not called Christ-ians until long after him. He made no claim to be God. He did not write the Gospels. He knew nothing of the creeds. He did not found a religion. He devised no rituals about a threatening, imperialist, almighty God demanding blood sacrifice for sin. So Jesus was wonderful, but we must differentiate between Jesus of Nazareth and later Christ-ian denominations.
Jesus fascinating group of followers included women, men, manual workers, administrators, civil servants, old and young. But no priests. After the Romans killed him for sedition, and amid highly conflicting stories that he had come back to life, his disciples formed a commune in Jerusalem. They pooled possessions, lived together, and continued to proclaim his message. People flocked to them, and the community spread.
The convert Paul preached throughout the Roman Empire to Jews and Gentiles, developed his own theological reflections about the Christ, and founded many churches. But his letters say little about Jesus whom he never knew. John wrote his inspiring book not to tell the story, but to claim that Jesus was the son of God. Both men had different agendas from Jesus.
Believers multiplied; church structures, priests and bishops were invented; writings were edited and distributed. Three hundred years after Jesus, the Roman emperor Constantine hijacked the churches, and changed the shape of Christ-ianity. He dressed its clergy in gorgeous robes like the priests of pagan gods, killed the bishops who criticized him, invested God with the attributes of the Roman emperor, approved creeds which speculated on who Jesus was but ignored what he taught, and re-focused religion on the life of souls after death. The Savior of the world became the Savior from the world, and Constantine ruled on Earth. Politics took precedence and the message was perverted.
Christ-ianity spread everywhere, following armies and trade, shaped by national, economic and theological demands, until in 1948 they tried to pull it together in the World Council of Churches, based not on Jesus of Nazareth, but on the Christ of Constantine.
So what did Jesus teach? The records used in the first three Gospels provide the most accurate picture of Jesus. A book of his sayings (now lost, but called Q by scholars) and the Gospel of Mark, are followed closely by Luke and Matthew. Read them yourself!
In a world of militarism, corrupt business, lifeless religion and hopeless people Jesus proclaimed the Good News of a God working within them. The ruling principles of life were love, compassion, healing, understanding, forgiveness, humility and hope. People believed him with an energy of faith that was like being born again from contemporary ideas. Still is.
Success and happiness came through love and serving other people, not brute force and greed. The breadth of Jesus vision (like all the prophets) has opened new vistas to people throughout history. His message survives because it is truly how humanity works.
Jesus teaching has frequently been trampled underfoot by Christ-ianity, but it constantly re-emerges. Jesus revealed the true building blocks of human community, and the Way for human society to continue. Darwin demonstrated that physical evolution came through the survival of the fittest: Jesus showed the spiritual growth of human community comes through care for the weakest.
And today? In our world-come-of-age, people are no longer satisfied with a replay of colonial rituals. The globalised world wants a religious philosophy capable of providing an adequate motivational framework for life, writes Professor J.S. Kruger.
The struggle for liberation re-discovered many principles of Jesus: good overcoming evil; the quest for unity not power; the strength of unity in diversity; the role of compassion and self-sacrifice; faith-energy within us. The natural heartbeat of the struggle in ordinary people often reflects the human insight and holistic thrust of Jesus vision.
Jesus saw faith as living and forward-looking so there is no permanence in it. It constantly moves on to new issues like a renaissance of Africa, the unity of diverse races, religions and cultures, ecology, emancipating women, wider education, banishing poverty, and a world of secular spirituality. The enjoyment is in the movement.
Faith energy fires the evolutionary process of humanity, bursting the old colonial bonds. Freedom is a creative ambiguous space for a country and continent moving forward, step by step, not knowing where and when we shall arrive, but sure we will. Fun, isnt it!