Friday, February 19, 2010

Action on behalf of justice

Action on behalf of justice
By The Post
Fri 19 Feb. 2010, 04:00 CAT

THE concerns and observations made by Islamic religious leaders in Kitwe this week deserve deep meditation.

Islamic Council of Zambia chief priest Sheikh Issa Bonomali raised concern that our leaders are not doing anything for the poor Zambians. He said there was need for Zambians to usher into office in 2011 a leader that is going to deliver development, emphasising:
“ we are saying let’s see a leader who is going to work for the people. We need action, not just talking always. At the moment, our leaders are not there to deliver.

As a clergy, we are closer to the communities because we see how our people are suffering, how they are failing to send their children to school and how they are not having enough to eat. A responsible leadership should take time to solve people’s problems…”

And president general of the global men’s Deenil Haqqi Islamiya, Nasir Mumpansha Kashiba, observes that religious conflicts happening in some parts of the world are a result of bad leadership on the part of religious leaders. He says there is no religion that permits killings and explains: “In Christianity, they say ‘love your neighbour’, and in Islam, we say ‘love and value mankind’.”

As we have stated before, we need religious institutions to continue to be the conscience of society, a moral custodian and a fearless champion of the interest of the weak and downtrodden. Whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew or a Hindu, religion is a great force and it can help one have command of one’s morality, one’s own behaviour and one’s own attitude.

All religions preach love as their core teaching; yet we find people belonging to different religions fighting against one another. Not only do they fight as individuals but as organised groups as well, and that in the name of religion!

We also find people who are apparently very religious and faithful to their religious practices and at the same time, very selfish and difficult to live with. We find among them those who don’t have any qualms of conscience about their selfish behaviours like taking bribes, cheating in business and politics, being corrupt, intolerant and vengeful, and so on and so forth. These people may even go to church, temple or mosque on their way to do evil. We find this phenomenon all over the world and down the centuries.

When religion degenerates into religiosity either at the individual or the organisational level, religious practices and structures tend to replace religious values. Religion, then, instead of becoming a liberative force, becomes a means of exploitation, abuse and degradation, or as Karl Marx would say, opium, both of individuals and of religious groups.

There is need for us to focus on the core values that are the common heritage of all religions. These values, according to Spiritual Masters, are Love, Wisdom and Inner Freedom. We need to go back to the core values of which the rituals and practices are to be but the external expressions. The rituals and practices have validity only insofar as they help the followers of any religion to imbibe and put into practice these values.

Why is it that religion that is supposed to preach justice, peace and brotherhood becomes a source of injustice, hatred and violence? To understand this paradox we need to make a distinction between spirituality and religiosity. Spirituality is a vision of life with a system of values, ideas and goals that orient and guide one’s life. It is the result of an experience of God, of the human and of the world. Founders of all major religions had such an experience. Religiosity, on the other hand, is excessive adherence to the external practices of religion.

The spiritual experience is basically the same for all, since it is the experience of the same God, of the same human and of the same world. God being by nature unknowable, each one’s experience of God will emphasise one or other aspect of Godhead, depending on the cultural, geographic and socio-economic situations in which one lives.

In Christ we see the mercy of God highlighted; in Prophet Mohamed we hear the call for social justice for the children of God; and in the Rishis of India we see the imminent presence of God in all beings. All these experiences are mutually complimentary and interrelated, being experiences of the same Godhead. Yet, what has just been said does not in any way deny the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

The basic experience of all spiritual leaders being the same, the core teaching of all of them would also be the same. As the Vatican II puts it: “God the Father is the origin and purpose of all men. We are all called to be brothers. Therefore…we can and we should work together without violence and deceit in order to build up the world in genuine peace.”

Hence, Jesus Christ would teach: “as you wish what men would do to you, do so to them”; Prophet Mohamed: “Until you desire for others what you will desire for yourself, you will not become true believers”; and the Rishis: “One who sees everything in himself and himself in everything, does not hate anything or anyone.”

The original experience of the spiritual master cannot be transmitted as such to the disciples, since this experience is a very personal one. It is through religion that spiritual experiences are transmitted to others. Religion is the expression in symbols of this experience in time and space. The symbols will necessarily be different, depending on the culture and social setup in which the Master lived.

Thus Jesus Christ, in order to emphasise the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man chose the symbol of the Eucharist with bread and wine to represent His body and blood. This symbolism is based on the Jewish culture and social setup of which He and His disciples were heirs.

He would have chosen different symbols to express His God experience if He had been born in a different culture. Religious symbols are meant to reveal the Master’s spiritual experience. Yet, because they are symbols, followers of a different period and culture could very well miss their original meaning.

It is actually in the four areas of creed, code, cult and community that the original experience of the Master takes shape in religion, through symbols. Thus, Christians have their creed, commandments of the Church, liturgy and organisational structure.

The role of the priests of each religion is to protect this structure with its beliefs, norms, cults and social setup as a means to hold the believers together and help them participate in the spiritual experience of the Master. Unfortunately what often happens is that the priestly class grows stronger and stronger.

The temple becomes the centre of religious life, making external rituals all-important. Slowly the original spiritual experience and its values are either lost or pushed to the background. Thus, Christians may fight over the details of Eucharistic celebration, forgetting that Christ chose the symbol of Eucharist to tell His disciples that they are not to fight but to live in peace and harmony.

Unfortunately a particular symbol, for example the mosque or the temple, has become more important than the core message.

So what happens is that the priests in their over-eagerness to preserve the identity of the religious group, gradually forget the original experience of the Master and give more importance to the external symbols. Then preservation of the religious group and the symbols that bind it together become almost the only goal! That benefits the priestly class, for the more the people are tied down to symbols and rituals, the more will the priests be in demand.

There are other reasons why religiosity tends to replace true religion. It is far easier to observe some external practices, even harsh ones, than to follow in one’s daily life the values of religion like love, compassion, forgiveness and so on and so forth.

A third reason could be that religious practices are within our control but not grace. Human beings are crippled to a lesser or greater degree, by the fear of the evil spirits, of the future, of death and of life, life after death. So they want to hold on to something tangible that would, as it were, free them from the powers of evil and make their salvation assured.

External religious practices appear to do that, or at least are the nearest one can come up with. This type of religiosity is magic or superstition. Grace is a free gift and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that human beings can do that would guarantee grace.

Now we can understand why the prophets of the Old Testament condemned vehemently the elaborate sacrifices people were offering to God through the priests. People, and more so priests, had forgotten to live the spiritual values these sacrifices represented.

Such a religion and such sacrifices had, indeed become the opium of the people: “What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet clams from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me” (Jeremiah 6:20); “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6);

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.

Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24).

Sacrifices which were to represent the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all people had become mainly a means of money-making for priests, and for people, and escape from the guilt of their unloving lives. The temple and the sacrifices had thus become a means of exploitation and enslavement rather than of liberation and brotherhood.

When creed became more important than universal brotherhood, Inquisition was the result. When a particular community became more important than the spirit, Crusades, slave trade and right to the possession of a country through conquest were justified. It is said that

“he who loves Christianity more than Christ will go on to love his denomination more than Christianity. And he who loves his denomination more than Christianity will go on to love himself more than his denomination”. Translated into categories applicable to all religions, it would read as follows: “He who loves his religion more than his God, will go on to love himself more than his religion.

” And we can be sure of this: “He who loves himself more than his God will commit any crime – but all in the name of religion.” One is reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi said of a certain religious fanatic: “The religion of Mohasi is to commit in the name of religion what is forbidden by religion.”

Indeed, once the moral values have been set aside, there is no limit to which one will not go to obtain one’s selfish ends. Dishonesty and duplicity gain respectability for they are committed in the name of religion. For the new rule will be that “The end justifies the means”.

There is always an axe to grind in following this principle. One can get so blinded by selfish motives, but one can be completely ignorant of the motives of one’s own actions.

The only and necessary test to determine if a belief or an act is truly religious is simply to ask the question: “Does it foster the integral growth of all concerned and promote brotherhood among people?” Any belief or religious act that contradicts this universal value is wrong even if one can find justification for it even in the scriptures.

There is a story of a proposal being made at the United Nations that the scriptures of every religion be revised: everything in them that leads to intolerance or cruelty should be deleted; everything that damages human dignity should be destroyed.

When it was discovered that it was Jesus Christ who made the proposal, people asked for His explanation. He said: “The scriptures, like the Sabbath, are for the good of human beings and not human beings for the scriptures.” The founders of every religion would surely echo these sentiments.

Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constituent dimension of preaching the gospel. Religious practices and beliefs, properly understood and practiced, can lead one to genuine spirituality. In fact, these are the normal means that lead ordinary people to genuine spirituality.

Clearly, new ideas to prepare the people for the future are needed. Beginning today, we must start building awareness – a new awareness. It is not that the world lacks awareness today; but such a new and complex era as this one requires principles more than ever.

It requires a lot more awareness, and that awareness will be built, by adding together, the awareness of what is happening and the awareness of what is going to happen.

It has to be built by adding together more than just one outlook or thought and the best ethical and humane ideas or more than one religion, of all authentic religions – we are not thinking of sects, which of course are created for political ends and for the purpose of creating confusion and division – the sum total of the preaching of many political thinkers, of many schools and of many religions.

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