Monday, 29 September 2008

Religion and Politics

Archbishop Oscar Romero, the assassinated Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador, once observed that when he attempted to feed the poor he was called a saint but when he started asking why people were poor he was called a communist.

Religious motivation informed by belief in a God of love and in human dignity and equality can lead people to actions which others think as political, especially when the "immediate relief" option is passed over in favour of the "change the system" option.  Any individual who is motivated by faith to do something will have to make choices based on opportunity, resources, and temperament -- this might mean, for example, trying to educate oppressors and their community; trying to educate the oppressed and their community; trying to meet immediate urgent needs;  trying to change the rules and structures that create/perpetuate an injustice; or, for those who believe that prayer can be effective, to withdraw from the world and try to pray effectively -- just to list a few options.

Unitarian and Universalists are not alone in seeing a strong bond between religious ideals and human rights, but we are one group which has seen the struggle for the expansion of human rights as a religious struggle.  In Britain, Unitarian use of the toast, "to civil and religious liberty the world over" goes back at least as far as the French Revolution.  In the United States, Unitarians and Universalists (still largely 'white' skinned in an increasingly mixed society) were not just sympathetic to the struggle for 'black' empowerment and freedom, they were active in marches, sit-ins, political action, publicity, and many other areas of sometimes dangerous personal and community witness.  The UUA continues to witness to the religious and political values of the human equality of women and gay people in society and in their churches.

A recent report from Sri Lanka is merely one report out of many in our current world --  so many, in fact, that these reports often do not get any publicity outside their own communities.  The UU Association of Sri Lanka has called attention to its government's recent regulations requiring ethnic Tamils in the North to register (again) but not requiring ethnic Singhalese to do so.  The UUASL points out that this bears uncomfortable resemblance to the Nazi registration of Jews in territories it ruled, preparing the ground for isolation and control, possibly leading to systematic destruction.  This is obviously a political issue but at the same time a religious issue.

So while the Western media are focused just now on the economic turmoil caused by unregulated and under-regulated financial speculation; on wars and refugee hardships; on natural disasters; and on political debate (Kenyan and Zimbabwean election followup, both the USA and Canada national elections in the next several weeks, South Africa and Israel in the next few months); countries like Chad and Myanmar slip down the list of editorial priorities, while Sri Lanka and Chechnya appear only in regional media until the next atrocity grabs a headline.

One of the interesting issues grabbing some headlines in the USA just now is the decision by a group of clergy (mostly theologically and politically conservative) to challenge a law which forbids churches recommending particular candidates in elections.  These churches/ ministers want to assert the right of the church to witness to its values without interference from the secular authorities; the law wants to maintain a distinction between political action and religious witness.   It will be fascinating to see how this resolves in the US courts.  


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