God’s new warriors
Josef Stalin, the 20th century’s monument to irreligion, once expressed his disdain for the power of God in a single-sentence sneer. “The Pope,” he spat, “how many divisions has he got?” At the time—1935, and the height of his power—the Soviet dictator’s words seemed callous but strangely appropriate. No longer.
During the past year an astounded world has awakened to a strikingly different conclusion. Believers everywhere are suddenly leaving their incense-heavy sanctuaries for the street. The armies of the righteous are at the gates of governments. Throughout the spring, Afghan Mojaheddin grabbed their rusting rifles and rallied joyfully to the banner of the crescent—and to holy war against the godless Soviet Union. At Russia’s other border, Polish trade unionists, fresh from communion before the cross, struck and marched in open defiance. Then in the name of the Prophet, Islamic fanatics attacked the Pope and killed Anwar el-Sadat. In the name of another God, He of the Old Testament, Orthodox Jews defied the Israeli government and stood firm on “holy land” belonging to Egypt. Says Louis Greenspan, professor of religion at Hamilton’s McMaster University: “The big swing in all traditional religions is back to gaining political power and using it.”
The forces of faith, tradition, community—and sometimes zealotry—are changing the contours of politics. Scripture’s soldiers are redrawing international boundaries in the Golan Heights. In Latin America, liberation theology priests, nuns and lay workers rally the opposition to military governments. Moslem fundamentalists, stirring throughout the Middle East, have just attempted to overthrow the governI ment of the Gulf state of Bahrain. Poland’s clergy are the I government’s last hope for domestic calm; Nicaragua’s soutaned diplomats are the big hope for
more international support. Religion can no longer be counted on as the establishment’s reliable ally, “ready,” as Karl Marx once said, “in case of need to defend the oppression of the proletariat.” Changing the rules has changed the nature of religion. No longer the opiate of the people, it has in fact become one of their most potent stimulants.
The new religious activists offer a dizzying mix of martyrdom, humanistic concerns and outright fanaticism. They may be young idealists ready to die for the socialist fundamentalist ideals of the Moslem Brotherhood, free enterprise Moral Majority fighting for the right-to-life or nuns teaching peasants birth control. They are the first to deny that they have anything in common with one another. But though their political prescriptions are a babel, their underlying messages voice the same spiritual concerns. “Ideologies aside,” says Rev. Tom Anthony, the Anglican Church of Canada’s director of World Outreach, “they are all talking about their notions of justice and the preservation of community.” Dr. Asrar Ahmad, a Pakistani Islamic scholar, echoes the warnings from all sides of “materialistic moral values.” Adds Toronto’s Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jordan Pearlson: “What’s common is the concern to preserve little people from the abuses of power.”
The resurgent religious power in the secular world has led to soul-searching among the believers themselves. When religion and politics mix, it is religion that loses its credibility. The exiled Iranian Ayatollah Mehdi Rohaini, for example, charges that his country’s stern revolutionary theocracy has gone blasphemously wrong. “It is tarnishing the image of Islam,” he moans. Everywhere Jewish communities, synagogues, and even families, are torn apart over Israel’s Bible-backed claim to occupied lands—or “Samaria I and Judea,” as the areas now must be called on state media.
For Catholics, perhaps the most important question is whether the activities of lay workers
helping guerrilla organizations or fighting for contraceptives and divorce will irrevocably undermine the Pope’s authority and the structure of the church. Voicing Christianity’s general concern, Anglican Bishop Reginald Hollis of Montreal asks, “While I counsel my parishioners to take social justice stands as individuals, should the church take a stand as a church?”
What is most surprising is that these ancient church-state debates should be recurring at the end of the 20th century. After all, this is the century in which leaders of Third World liberation movements—Russia’s Lenin, Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk, China’s Mao Tse-tung—banished sanctity and scripture from courts, hospitals and schools in the belief that they were among the chief causes of the backwardness of their people. To Third World leaders bent on modernization, the secret of the West’s success was its hard-won separation of church and state.
That separation is virtually unique in humanity’s long history of divinity-ordained obedience. While religious states were often totalitarian, democracy was born among the agnostic Greeks. It was reborn amid the 13th-century quarrels of popes, kings and Holy Roman emperors when Europeans had to make genuine political choices according to conscience or self-interest. European man also struggled to separate scripture from scientific inquiry to clear the way for his magnificent leaps of empirical and technological knowledge. The growing alliance of science and secularism had spurred the West to achieve the highest standards of living and learning in world history.
By the middle of the 20th century, the retreat of traditional religion was almost complete. Trade and colonization had spread the West’s gospel of secularism everywhere. Islam, always a political force, had been subordinated by leaders such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Indonesia’s Sukarno to nationalism and socialism. In Europe and North America, attendance in churches, synagogues and divinity schools declined. “God is dead,” the theologians volunteered. And John Kennedy brought an audience of Houston clergy cheering to its feet with the promise, “I believe in an America where no religious body seeks to impose its beliefs on the people or the actions of its political officers.”
Today, traditional religions have been militantly resur-
rected. The Western secular model has lost its appeal, even in the West. John Coleman, professor of religion and society at the University of California at Berkeley gives one reason: “The phenomenon is because of the failure of modernization, the moral bankruptcy of the American model.” Last month, the Catholic hierarchy of the U.S. unanimously condemned atomic war and joined Protestant and Jewish leaders in damning Reaganomics. After 30 years of passivity, Eastern Europe’s “Church of Silence” has raised its voice—not only in Poland but in neighboring Lithuania. Just weeks after the accession of the Polish Pope, Lithuanian priests took the unprecedented step of calling a Moscow press conference to say they had decided “to defend our church’s sacred rights.”
A decade ago, Koranic law was applied literally in only a few sheikdoms and kingdoms in the Arabian peninsula. Today, more than 120 million additional believers—Pakistanis, Iranians, Libyans—are restrained by threat of amputation of the hand for theft, stoning alive for adultery, and trial for these offences before a purely religious court. In Guatemala, El Salvador and the Philippines, individual clergy have joined the guerrillas. Clergy now hold political office in Zimbabwe (where Methodist Rev. Canaan Banana is president) and Nicaragua, where the ministries of education, culture, welfare and foreign affairs are now headed by priests.
Even the extrication of scripture from science is now back for a critical re-examination under the microscope. “Valuefree” science is taking the rap for everything from pollution to the hideous concentration camp experiments of Nazi doctors. Islamic scholar Dr. Asrar Ahmad states the larger disillusionment: “The shallowness of Western civilization—its suspension of judgment, its materialism—has been clearly brought out by two disastrous world wars. Joe Holland of the Center of Concern, the Washington, D.C.-based Catholic think tank, exults, “The religion of secularity is being swamped by revived religious consciousness.”
That religious consciousness—the faith of millions—is what makes religion a political force today. Across North America, enrolment in theological schools is now at an alltime high. In Africa alone there are 16,000 new Christians a day. As Christianity’s ranks swell throughout Africa and Asia, Islam grows faster. Twenty-five years ago, one African
in four was Moslem. Today, it is one in two. And now, with a world total of 939,177,000 Moslems, the Prophet’s followers almost outstrip Christ’s by 947,500,000.
The people with the greatest appetite for the new spiritual stimulant are the previously sedated. The brilliant zealot Ayatollah Khomeini recognized them as his constituency when he named his political party “The Party of God, The Party of the Disinherited.” The Iranian revolution was backed by jobless youth, uprooted villagers, the jobless flotsam on the edge of the modern cities, and the “Bazaar” class of small retailers and craftsmen threatened by the shah’s grandiose technocratic plans. Youth, and the poor, were also the constituency of clergy-backed dissent in Egypt, the Far East and Latin America.
Any day outside the churches of downtown San Salvador there are hundreds of unemployed campesinos milling around. Once landless and starving in the countryside, those who have not already joined the guerrillas are now angry and starving in the city. Through the churches such people have found a voice, and their masses make it a strong voice.
Even in North America, the churches speak for those who consider themselves otherwise politically powerless. Gregory Baum, visiting professor of theology at the Université de Montréal, believes that the combined effects of centralized media, big business and the entrance of minorities and women into competition for jobs have robbed small-town middle America of its sense of status. As a result, smalltown North America turns to the Moral Majority, with its condemnation of New York intellectuals and Washington technocrats and its promise of power on earth as well as in the hereafter.
In some totalitarian countries, religion offers the only opposition. The London-based Institute for Policy Studies noted in a recent report on Iran, “The mullahs alone were able to continually distribute information and offer dissenting criticism of the regime.” In Poland, despite gunfire in the streets, the church stands firm and almost alone in opposing military suppression of Solidarity. In the Philippines today, all media is censored under martial law. Instead, “blackboard newspapers” chalked up by the local priest have become the most credible information network in the islands. Here, too, the church performs the same grisly documentation function that it does in South Korea and Central America: keeping a tally of torture victims, the “disappeared” and violations of human rights. There is simply no one else to do the job.
At the same time that religion began to give voice to the previously silenced, it also learned how to use the power of technology to boost its message. Cassette tapes were the medium used by Khomeini’s followers to spread their leader’s call to spiritual rearmament within Iran. In El Salvador, the archbishop’s private radio station was so successful in undermining the elite that there were three bomb attacks against it.
But communications technology only enhances the historic power of institutional religion—its internationalism, its catholicity and its sense of community. The international religious conspiracy so darkly hinted at by angry occupants of the comfortable pew is in a sense accurate. Two weeks ago, for instance, representatives of Islamic opposition movements from West Africa to the Philippines jetted to London to discuss a common strategy for the first time.
Zimbabwe’s prime minister, former guerrilla leader Robert Mugabe, has always gratefully acknowledged the support the churches gave his 11-year-long struggle with the white supremacist government. “The churches internationalized our grievance,” says Mugabe. When the Canadian interchurch activist group GATT-Fly was writing background papers for the Berger commission, it turned to its fellow religious activists in Brazil for material on the negative effects of massive resource extraction development in the
Amazon River Basin on the local native population.
Adding to the potency of this international alliance is the fact that people trust the message religion is giving to them. Clearest proof is the way most secular revolutionaries of the postwar world—such as Iran’s Tudeh Communist party or Ché Guevara—failed to ignite the poor when later religiously allied struggles succeeded. In El Salvador, it was the Catholic literacy and co-operatives projects of the early 1970s that galvanized the people. The peasants believed revolution was necessary when it came from the lips of blackrobed priests. Wherever priests took up the cause of the left, the left inherited the grassroots contacts that had hitherto eluded it. In Nicaragua, the left-wing government asked its literacy campaign workers, for their own safety, to wear large crosses when visiting villages. At least seven workers, mostly Cubans, had been murdered by peasants who thought they were spreading communism.
Clearly religion has emerged as a third force, a reaction against the Cold War games of both East and West. “Both systems are affronts to the dignity of the human being,” states a document of the historic Medellin Conference of Latin American Catholicism of 1968. “Both are creeds of Satan,” stated Khomeini 10 years later. Certainly both East and West blocs have shown equally antagonistic faces to religious activists, imprisoning them in Siberian camps and torturing them in Argentina.
But perhaps the most powerful weapons in the hands of the troops of the faithful are simple religious symbols—symbols that resonate with people’s deepest yearnings, griefs and joys, sacraments that are the outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. As the Danish religious philosopher Sdren Kierkegaard said, “The tyrant dies and his rule ends, the martyr dies and his rule begins.” Religious images of faith are moving mountains. In Gdansk stand three towering iron crosses outside the shipyard to commemorate the death of 40 strikers in 1970. On Jewish Defense League banners, a clenched fist bursts through the Star of David and the motto NEVER AGAIN commemorates the Holocaust’s six million. On Tehran walls the scribbled graffiti TWELFTH IMAM WE ARE WAITING FOR YOU testifies to the fervent belief of the masses that the ayatollah may be his incarnation.
Faced with that kind of power, it is no wonder that politicians seek the imprimatur of religion. “Religion makes things legitimate,” says University of Toronto sociology professor Irving Zeitlin. “You can see a religio-political justification of West Bank settlers’ rights. In Pakistan, General Zia invokes tradition to establish his junta’s legitimacy.”
The symbols that resonate with peoples' deepest yearnings, griefs and joys are the most powerful weapons
Even those regimes at odds with sectors of their countries’ church hierarchies need their ideological backing. For instance, at the height of its suppression of Chile’s Catholics, General Pinochet’s junta turned to Lutherans and Pentecostals to do the anniversary mass for the government. But, says John Foster, the United Church of Canada’s director of research and coalition: “Eventually they had to arrive at some settlement with the [Catholic] church. After all, they claimed to be defenders of Western Christianity.”
It is precisely the profound power of religion to legitimize government, make revolution righteous and dissent a duty or heresy, that renders present trends potentially terrifying. Thoughtful believers of all the great religions today are split by fear of the effects of political involvements. Will the new power lead to Jonestown or the City of God, the demonic or the divine? Gregory Baum worries aloud, “Given mankind’s propensity to wage religious wars, the danger of future wars of intolerance may increase.” The dangers are especially real when a creed is monolithic—for when there is only one divine truth, dissent must be heresy.
Certainly not all modern politicized religious men and women champion such creeds. Last year marked the first meeting of Canadian Moslems and Jews to discuss common interests of human rights and education. As the New York-based Rabbi Wolfe Kelman says, “Pluralism— the notion of God’s many covenants—is the great theological breakthrough of the 20th century.” Nor do all activists seek the re-establishment of theocracy, or even executive political power. Their position is best summed up by an Iranian ayatollah, Shariat-Madari. “Guiding the people,” he stated, “is far more important work than holding any government position.”
Nonetheless, worrying questions strike deep into each of the great religions. Moslems agonize over whether the 7thcentury Koranic law can be applied literally to 20th-century social relations, economies and the administration of justice. Iysa Ade Bello, Canadian representative of the Federation of Muslim Students, believes it can. “That is the religious injunction, and I believe in its totality,” he says. But Mohammed al-Nowaihi, one of Cairo’s leading Islamic scholars, considers the code obsolete. “Today, embezzlement is not done by the hand, but by the brain,” he says ironically, “so logically you should not cut off the hand but the brain.” The quarrel between literalists and modernists has moved to the streets, where this fall Cairo police tear-gassed Moslem fundamentalist rioters, arresting thousands.
Jews are reluctant to admit how deep the rifts of their religious disputes have cut. But in the narrow streets of Mea
Shearim, Jerusalem’s Orthodox quarter, liberal Jews may be stoned for riding bicycles on the Sabbath, while at the same time soldiers under fire on Israel’s ragged frontiers curse the ultra Orthodox, who not only refuse military service but who have been known to state that Syrians and Egyptians are the sword of an angry God. Some observant Jews cite scripture to show that God wants the Israeli people to keep occupied lands; others find proof that He wants peace. Toronto’s Rabbi Jordan Pearlson sighs, “There are passages to justify all points of view.”
The Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” is revered by Judaism, Islam and Christianity alike. But the question of nonviolence remains the most thorny for Christians who believe in a compassionate Prince of Peace. Just two years ago, El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down for taking the position that violence by Christians can be justified when a dictatorship seriously violates human rights and cuts off all channels for change. Dr. Clarke MacDonald, deputy secretary of the United Church of Canada’s division of missions, sighs: “It’s a problem. It’s a paradox. My hero is Martin Luther King, who asked all his supporters
to expiate the spirit of revenge. But I cannot condemn those who after years of trying take up arms. Christian love is not namby-pamby. It has a rib of steel running through it.”
And for all the great faiths, there is the threat that political involvement poses to religion’s very nature—to its transcendant perspective, its offer to refresh man’s soul, its promise of loving community and brotherhood. Fundamentally, the priorities of politics must be different, and, eventually, government must be compromised or pragmatism must contaminate the worship and mystery of the divine. Yet the fact that religion is resurgent as a political force cannot be changed, and it is a force that all politicians must reckon with. Where religion will take politics is still an open question. It may guide it into the realm of ethics and brotherhood or abet it in bigotry and zealotry. But there is no questioning the fact that the divisions of the divinity are already in the field.
With files from Terry Brodie, David Halpin-Byrne, Brendan Keenan,, Sue Masterman, Anne Nelson, Peter Niesewand, Eric Silver, Emma Soarnes, Richard Vokey and Robin Wright.