When I was in college, I had the privilege of doing an internship in Los Angeles that was connected to a vibrant inner-city church. While I was there, I was introduced to some of the most radical leftist politics I’ve ever known. It was in this setting that I saw vibrant programs for the working class and for youth being implemented by Black churches. It is also where I learned about Liberation Theology, a Christian movement that was transforming communities all over Latin America at the time as a direct challenge to capitalism and American imperialism.
During my time there, we gave sanctuary to several refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The people I encountered astounded me in their simple, but profoundly loving commitment to both God and to defeating social and economic injustice. These were the victims of Ronald Reagan’s (and then later Bush Sr. and Jr. and Bill Clinton’s) war against “communism” in Central America. Thanks to US-supported violent juntas, death squads and economic policies that carved up entire nations for corporate profit, they were forced to flee their land and come to the very empire that was the source of their misery.
And through all this torment and brutality, they maintained a grace and countenance that seemed otherworldly. I had the opportunity to talk with several of them for hours about their lives, their faith and the hopes they had for their families. I was struck by how they seamlessly they blended Catholicism and Indigenous Mayan spirituality and how it informed the way they held reverence for the earth and how they conducted their lives. Justice and solidarity appeared to be something that came from their spirituality. It was paramount to all of them. And this spirituality was interwoven into the very fabric of their day to day interactions.
Years later, I found myself at a leftist conference in Boston where most of the attendees happened to be white, middle-class and male. I was in shock as one after another felt it was their duty to disparage people who held any kind of religious faith or spirituality. One speaker said people who held spiritual beliefs suffered from a delusional disorder and magical thinking. Another said religion should be banned. And yet another stood out in his disdain for leftists who believed in God. “There is no room for superstitious people in this movement.” When I objected in a respectful manner, I received stony silence and a couple jeers from the audience. But after the conference a few people came to me and expressed gratitude for expressing what they secretly agreed with. Over the years I have found this same disdain for people who hold spiritual beliefs among other leftist or progressive people and groups. Unsurprisingly, most of them have been white and of Western background.
What can be said of any political movement that is exclusionary simply based on whether a person holds religious or spiritual beliefs or not? Without a doubt, there is a grave danger posed by fundamentalist or extremist religious ideologies throughout the world. In the States, that danger is apparent in the evangelical war on science, women’s reproductive freedom and LGBTQ rights. And the same can be said of other nations where religious authoritarianism has joined with far right or even fascist elements. We should be critical of religious or spiritual ideas, especially when those ideas pose a direct threat to a certain community or group of people in society, when they are at odds with public health, or when they deny things that are scientifically proven like climate change. This is what a vibrant democracy does. But to lump all religious or spiritual people into that close minded or repressive segment of society is intellectually lazy and lacking in any curiosity, interest or respect for the lived lives of billions of people.
That so many white, atheist leftists of the Global North want to build solidarity with a Global South where most hold religious or spiritual beliefs is telling. This is not to say that it cannot happen. It can. There are many instances of secular people joining with religious people in a common cause. But it requires a measure of mutual respect. If it is stuck in a kind of superior attitude it is destined to fail. Like so many European and American Christian missionaries in the last few centuries, many of these leftists feel it is their duty to enlighten and evangelize the supposed “primitive tribes” with the glory of Western atheism. It is a goal dripping with conceit and the bloody remnants of cultural imperialism.
It is time to jettison this kind of arrogance and recognize that many religious or spiritually minded people have been at the forefront of movements against war, poverty, capitalism, racism, misogyny, ecocide and a host of other societal injustices. Father Daniel Berrigan, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, Sister Megan Rice, Thich Nhất Hạnh, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Bishop Desmond Tutu, there have been countless voices among people of faith decrying and struggling against oppression in all its forms.
Today they continue to be on the frontline of mass movements that have all too often been abandoned by secular Westerners. In the Amazon and in Wet’suwet’en, Indigenous people are drawing on their cultural and spiritual traditions to fight the ruthless war being waged on the biosphere by despotic governments and soulless corporations. They believe that the earth is alive with the spirits of our ancestors and that the earth itself is a living being. In the Middle east, Muslims are reclaiming the message of Islam from those who have twisted it for oppressive purposes. Across the States, in defiance of xenophobic policies, churches continue to provide sanctuary for undocumented people. In Israel/Palestine, Rabbis are planting olive trees and trying to protect Palestinian homes from demolition by Israeli forces.
As we enter what looks like a very dark age for humanity, with climate catastrophes mounting, poverty and economic disparity growing and endless war rampaging throughout the Global South, the time for exclusivity is outdated and dangerous. Spirituality and religion are part of the human story. As history demonstrates, they can be used to advance evil. But they can also be powerful tools for solidarity and for reconnecting with an ever besieged biosphere. In this vital and existential struggle against brutality, economic oppression, war and ecocide, there is room in the tent for everyone, religious and not, spiritual and secular alike.
Kenn Orphan, January 2022
*Image is “Cristo de la Liberacion” (Christ of the Liberation) by Maximino Cerezo Barredo
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