Thursday, September 27, 2007


The answer to the age-old question about whether religious engagement in politics is a good or bad thing is inevitably, "well, it depends what kind of religion involved in what kind of politics you are talking about". Collaborative action to model alternatives or to stand up for justice and peace through civil society and the political process is one thing; sectarian, Christendom or fundamentalist attempts to manipulate governance for self-interest is quite another. Not that everything can be neatly tidyed into those two baskets, of course. But much discourse at the moment nevertheless seems to suppose that it is simply a matter of choosing between domineering religion or privatized religion - which is pretty silly, when you look at the complex reality and consider different frameworks.

For this reason, many people (and not just 'religious people') will welcome Madeleine Bunting's balanced comments in The Guardian today (sadly and instantly dismissed as 'cynical opportunism' by the angry brigade at the National Secular Society). Her piece is entitled An enlightened politics, and references the role of monks in the attempt at nonviolent resistance to dictatorship in Burma.

"[On]ne cannot help but wonder quite how the batch of critics of religion will interpret the role of the Buddhist monks. Christopher Hitchens has recently argued that religion poisons everything and goes on to insist that no progressive political movement has had any religious influence. He insists that a figure like Martin Luther King Jr was in no real sense a Christian. How will he explain the Burmese monks? Will Richard Dawkins accuse these monks of child abuse for encouraging young boys to join their monasteries? It would be sophistry to argue that Buddhism does not talk of a God and that it is not a "real" religion (an old and tired debate).

"It's not that we should regard Buddhism as having a uniquely positive contribution to make to politics. Things aren't so clear cut - it plays a positive role in some places, and not others. Burma's Buddhist traditions are closely linked to those of Sri Lanka. Both are Theravada, but in Sri Lanka, the sangha have played a reprehensible role in Sinhalese nationalism.

"The point is that you cannot generalise about the role of religion in politics [my emphasis]. At some points in human history it has been a malign and terrible influence, at others, it has been critical to the development of progress and challenging injustice, as Tristram Hunt wrote on this site recently. In recent years, we have seen a lot of the former which is what makes these images of monks and nuns so powerful. They are reminding us all that faith can inspire great courage, dignity and compassion."

They key question of course, is what makes the difference. This is something we are constantly working on at Ekklesia.

Incidentally, the claim that MLK wasn't really a Christian beggars belief - if you'll forgive the pun - and shows astonishing disregard for the evidence. Which is really very depressing. Whether we are Christians, atheists or people of other life-convictions and stances, we need a much better encounter/dialogue between those of faith and those of no faith (or "good faith", as Peter Challen well puts it). The fine (humanist) people at The O Project are among those trying to promote this - and to highlight the positive social justice work done by non-believers; something that is as equally lost on the institutionally religious as the inspiration of faith is to Hitchens et al.

Pic: Madeleine Bunting

1 comment:

Jeff Chambers said...

Good piece and nice blog. The Ecclesia stuff looks interesting. Thanks. I'm an atheist, but I agree that a lot of the stuff coming out from secularist groups (well some of them) is very negative and rather sectarian at the moment. Daft, because thats what we're supposed to be against. My upbringing had a really bad effect on me. But I'm glad I've met some good religious people in recent times through campaigning groups.