Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Reason 4 - Abuse of Power

This is the last of these reasons and perhaps you're sighing with relief that there's an end in sight for all this negativity.  The good news will follow!  In the meantime, I've saved the biggie for last - joylessness, hypocrisy and shallowness pale into insignificance.

I thought of this one (not for the first time by a long shot) while listening to The World Turned Upside Down, a much-covered song by Leon Rosselson made famous by Billy Bragg.  It celebrates a 17th century act of rebellion by a group called "the Diggers" who set up a commune on land owned by wealthy landowners (guilty of "the sin of property") with predictable results.  Their thoughts on the Church:

They make the laws
To chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven
Or they damn us into hell
We will not worship
The God they serve
The God of greed who feeds the rich
While poor folk starve

There's more than a little of Mr Brocklehurst in this, but there's so much more.  The church in 17th century Britain was completely bound up in the structures of power.  Its bishops were appointed by the King and sat in the House of Lords, chosen for their political loyalty.  Local church livings were in the gift of the local landowners who endowed them and paid much of their expenses. 

This means that rebels like the Diggers saw the church not as their refuge and salvation, but as their oppressor, the agent and religious bulwark of the establishment.  Is it any wonder that they rejected the church?  Or that later the leaders of the French revolution and later still the Bolsheviks in Russia saw the suppression of religion as part of their revolutionary mandate?

Although the political power of the church has long since waned, many of our bad habits are still with us.  I've previously commented on the way the churches respond to allegations of sexual abuse.  It's tragic that such abuse takes place, but criminal when the church as an institution  hushes it up and protects the perpetrators.  Similarly, here in Australia the church's often well-intentioned but misguided involvement in Aboriginal Affairs has left a legacy of hurt and anger in the Aboriginal community.

When I think of things like this, I always think of Jesus' "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem.  This is one of his amazingly insightful pieces of public theatre, this time a parody of the Roman Triumph where the emperor or general rides fully armed in a chariot, surrounded by his victorious troops, accompanied by plunder and captives.  Jesus, by contrast, rides a donkey, accompanied by ordinary peasants and workers who lay palm leaves at his feet.  It's no armed revolution, but nor is he in the entourage of the rulers of the world.  His power can be snuffed out by the smallest show of force, as indeed it was, but in handling things this way he let loose a different kind of power which has not been suppressed to this day.


Pykle said...

So where does religion lose sight of these lofty ideals? Or is it really that the lofty ideals are what propell humanity from the jungle towards the freedom civility promises, and religion is a perversion of it, a freeloader on those virtues in the few who show us the way, which bring tears to our eyes and warmth to our hearts?

Jon said...

Perhaps its just humans taking the line of least resistance, caught between the monster and the saint, as Richard Holloway says. Religion has motivated so much of our progress as well as impeding it - religious people argued both for and against slavery, for and against the emancipation of women. Does this tell you something about the faith, or about its fallible followers?