September 12, 2007

The problem with religion-2: Religion in racism and colonialism

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the US, after the systematic elimination of the Native Americans, one can consider Christianity to be the de-facto "official" religion, since most people would consider themselves to be good Christians and the political leadership repeatedly invokes religious piety and symbolism.

If, as is sometimes argued, the presence of Christians in the abolitionist movement is a sign that Christianity is benevolent, then why did Christians condone and benefit from slavery for so long before that? We now assume it is an unspeakable abomination to treat human beings as objects that can be bought and sold. Why was this not obvious to the religious leaders of that time, if religion is basically against oppression? Why could not the theologians and clergy and laity in those times realize what seems obvious to anyone now? Surely it is because they considered Christianity to be compatible with slavery.

If you are going to applaud the role of religious people in (say) combating slavery, then you have to allow that many more religious people were among those who created, condoned, and profited from the slave trade for a long time. Where was the Christian church when slavery was flourishing for over centuries in Europe and North America? Where was the Christian church in America when the Native Americans were being systematically slaughtered? Where was the Christian church of Belgium when Christian Emperor Leopold was unleashing unbelievably barbaric terror on the people of the Congo? The dominant group in all these situations were people who would have considered themselves good Christians. Why were these things allowed to occur?

If the involvement of clergy in the civil rights movement was a good Christian thing to do, why was this not recognized a century earlier and during Jim Crow, since Christianity was still the dominant religion? Why did it have to take a few people like Martin Luther King to get some people to realize this? And even then, we are fooling ourselves if we think that once their eyes were opened to the fact that discrimination against black people was bad thing, that Christian institutions immediately hitched themselves to the cause. Those clergy and laity that did so were a small minority. One has only to read King's famous 1963 letter from Birmingham jail to his fellow clergy to feel his keen sense of disappointment that more of them were not supporting him in what seemed to him to be an obviously righteous and moral cause. We agree with King now. Why did not most Christians agree with him then?

In fact, King in his letter (although religious himself) nails with deadly accuracy the reason why religion has been a negative force, and that is because although individuals might have noble intentions and want to do good, religious institutions drag them in the opposite direction. So when individuals and small groups of religious people try to work for social justice, they are usually fighting their own religious institutions as well. He said (boldface emphasis is mine):

Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
. . .
I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.
. . .
I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. . .But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church.
. . .
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, on Biblical [sic] distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
. . .
Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom, They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers.

As King points out, what institutionalized religion tells people is: "Wait", which really means: "Never". And when it is not telling them that directly, it is telling them indirectly, by saying: "Pray." And what has basically lain behind that call to pray is the promise that if you wait, you will be rewarded in heaven. So the role of religion is not to mobilize people to fight oppression but to ask them to not act but to hope for god to intervene.

Just as much as the true measure of a politician is not what they promise when they are campaigning but what policies they put their energies into when they are in office and in a position to actually achieve something, the way to judge a religion it is not by what a few on the fringes try to do but what religious people and institutions do when they are in a position to influence things.

George Bush thinks that starting wars and killing people on large scale are the actions of a good Christian. The people who flew planes into the twin towers thought they were good Muslims. The Jews who call for the forcible removal of all Palestinians from the occupied territories and claiming their land for god think they are being good Jews. The Brahmins who refuse to even touch the people of the scheduled castes think they are being good Hindus. Assuming that we think their actions were bad, on what basis can we say that any of them are mistaken in their beliefs?

Next: All prayer, all the time

POST SCRIPT: Those cheeky Aussies

The Australian comedy show The Chasers does some really funny stuff. (I earlier showed a clip of them in an item about The Secret.) Their latest prank is to have someone dressed up as Osama bin Laden manage to get within 10 meters of George Bush's hotel in Sydney when he was there for the recent APEC meeting.

In another prank, they go photographing high security sites dressed in different ways.

(Thanks to Crooks and Liars.)


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I agree with you, Mano, that institutions tend toward policies that protect and perpetuate themselves. So, though most doctors and nurses are caring people, large institutions like the Cleveland Clinic or big HMO's often seem not to care about individual patients. While most teachers are sincere and hard-working, our schools perpetuate class divisions and often run roughshod over individual student needs. (I really admired your address re The Working Poor.)

Insitutionalized religion, too, allies itself with power. Institutions often oppress people. I don't equate religious people with religious institutions, just as I don't equate my doctor with the cold, bottom-line policies of the institution he works for.

Im thinking of another analogy as well. Most of us subscribe to the ideals of the US...but think how many "good Americans" opposed giving women the vote and resisted civil rights for African-Americans and supported unjust wars that you and I oppose. Does that mean that the principles of the Bill of Rights are worthless? And, because people disagree on how the Constitution is to be the document itself worthless?

Posted by Kathy on September 12, 2007 10:47 AM


While I agree with most of what you post, I was extremely disheartened to see a common fallacy. The writings you discuss, and quote, were not by the Reverend Martin Luther King. They were by his son, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Regardless, the fact that the institution, the policy, and the people are all disparate is important. But it is also important to note that both change-requestors & change-resistors have problems at all three levels as well.

The over-simplified model of change, current action, or projected action is a common problem in most walks of life. Sometimes this is due to a desire for easier discussion and speech-making. It is especially apparent in political & commercial speeches now, and in journalism / analysis.

Posted by Michael on September 12, 2007 12:56 PM


It was not a mistake. I know that MLK's father had the same name but I think by now when people refer to "Martin Luther King", the default assumption is that it is the more famous son. Otherwise they speak of "Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr."

It is kind of like Gandhi. When people refer to that name, it is assumed that they are speaking of Mohandas and not Indra or anyone else.

Posted by Mano on September 12, 2007 06:02 PM


While I can understand your assumption, I cannot agree with it. By naming Gandhi, you have underspecified the person, and the most famous may be assumed, or further data requested. By saying Martin Luther King, you are seeming to give a full designation, and yet a false one. By no means do I think a name is a unique identifier. However, I do think that if you give what would appear to be a reasonable identifier, it should lead to a best fit with the identified object, in this case a person.

Posted by Michael on September 12, 2007 06:39 PM

Hi Mano,

You make a spirited and eloquent defense of your views here. However,
there are a number of points that you make here that I find somewhat
less than compelling. Let me just focus on one issue for now....

It seems to me that historically, several of the most important social
changes, the abolitionist movement and the the civil rights movement
which we have been discussing, for example, have evolved from what
started as fringe religious perspectives. But ultimately these
perspectives resulted in having significant social value on society at
large. In other words, the value came from the fringe, not the
center, from where things are going, not from where they have been in
the past.

Indeed, there is a thread put forth by liberal religious scholars and
theologians that history shows us that moral values are not
particularly actualized more humanely by religious people than anyone
else, and that religious people have a obligation to frequently
re-examine whether moral viewpoints of the past need to be changed
when moving into the future.

Furthermore, it has been argued that historically this kind of
self-examination does not occur naturally, but that it is generally
only brought on by individuals and small group of reformers that
testify to injustice and protests old patterns. These protesters call
for taking a new direction in the future. This concept of religious
ideas as evolving, self-reflecting, and self-critiquing is very much
counter to a characterization of religious perspectives as dogmatic
and unchanging. And an important aspect of this is that the engines
for change, the motivators for a new perspective, are those that are,
by construction, on the fringe.

Certainly there is great resistance to change, and certainly the
change is frustratingly slow. And certainly it seems you could argue
that the fringe groups would have no significance benefit because they
are so small and scattered and seem to have no power or influence.
They are just individuals, or marginalized groups, after all.

But we find in history, that often during those times when social
change does come about, usually rather painfully and incompletely, it
comes about when those on the fringe have found a method or a
circumstance that allows them to present their case, organize their
efforts, and show themselves as models for change.

Yes, the majority of white church people and church leaders failed
miserably to respond to Martin Luther Kings call for social justice.
And certainly those particular religious institutions and leaders
should be held to account, both for their failure to respond and for
their use of religion to defend their failures and delay change.

But when you ask the question, how was it that progress was made in
the civil rights movement? What arguments were used by the
abolitionists that brought an increasing number of people to believe
that slavery was immoral? What kinds of people and what kinds of
groups contributed directly to the effort? It is not surprising that
Martin Luther King, Jr. writing from a jail cell in 1963 would be
disheartened by the lack of response up to that point. But as time
went on, King's arguments and the associated movement gained further
momentum and further acceptance in society at large. As bad as things
were in 1963, King kept going, and some things began to change for the
better. And today, for many people, Martin Luther Kings message
continues to persuade, and continues to motivate an effort for greater
change and more justice. So how did we get from there to here?

Yes, there were both religious and secular arguments made, and both
secular and religious organizations collaborated to make things
happen. but I think a strong case can be that that religious moral
arguments -- the ones promoted by these fringe groups -- were
significantly important in changing a substantial number of peoples'
minds about the issue to the point that society began to change in
certain ways for the better.

So -- if you judge religion altogether based on what religious people
have done when their religion has been the "dominant group in a
society" as you put it -- though this is a somewhat ill-structured
concept -- then I agree that by that standard religion fails.

But when you dismiss the value of religious perspectives that motivate
social change in individuals, and when you dismiss the value of these
individuals and "small religious institutions" to organize to promote
these changes that ultimately bring about positive social impact, an
impact that might ultimately be felt in the larger society, then you
miss the value that these religious perspectives can ultimately bring
to the table.

No one is arguing here that a religious perspective is required to
argue forcefully for a just society, and no one is arguing that only
religious people can change the world for the better.

But when you look at the individuals and groups who have made a
significant positive difference in history -- those who started in the
minority -- and then kept pushing until some impact was made -- these
individuals and groups will include a substantial number who were
motivated by their religious perspectives and who were making what
were effectively persuasive religious moral arguments for speaking
out, taking action, and calling for change.

In other words, the religious fringe has a track record for
effectively motivating and supporting positive social change. And this
suggest that the fringe may still continue to have a significant
positive social impact in the future. Not because of major religious
institutions, but perhaps in spite of them.

The old Margaret Mead quote applies:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can
change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Posted by Corbin on September 13, 2007 04:39 AM

Mano you say, "If you are going to applaud the role of religious people in (say) combating slavery, then you have to allow that many more religious people were among those who created, condoned, and profited from the slave trade for a long time."

Using this logic would you agree with this statement:

If you are going to applaud the role of scientific people in (say) improving the quality of life, then you have to allow that many more scientific people were among those who created, condoned, and profited from technology that destroys life.

Posted by bob on September 13, 2007 08:37 AM


I would absolutely agree. Scientists have to accept responsibility for the role they have played in creating destructive technologies. In fact, I posted an item to this effect about this two years ago. It was called Scientists' Achilles Heel.

Posted by Mano on September 13, 2007 09:09 AM

I'd like to respond to Corbin's post on the dismissing the people who disagreed with slavery and Jim Crow laws because these people's religious views lead them to disagree with these social structures. Those who disagreed with slavery from only an interpretation of the Christian religious literature were 1) in a minority, and 2) wrong. The bible is quite clear that slavery is ok. For a fantastic example, see Ephesians 6:5-9. It can be accurately argued from scripture that the slavery system of the American south was run poorly, but it is very difficult to argue from scripture alone that slavery should have been banned entirely. To argue abolition requires a leap of logic that is hard to nearly impossible.

Because the scripture accepts slavery, the people who argued against it were demonstrating an urge to treat other men well despite scripture sanctioning mistreatment. I agree that the abolitionists were heroes arguing good ethics against a thousand year old system of horror, but they were quite often arguing poor theology.

Posted by Greg on September 13, 2007 02:24 PM


I guess I would take issue with your notion that
the abolitionist applied "poor theology" here.

Theology can be defined within its own terms
as a methods of inquiry into the nature of
God. In the abstract, a theology, particularly
a "systematic" theology is judged
as "bad" if it results of reasoning within a
given framework of assumptions about the nature
of god lead to inconsistent results.

Certainly, it is plausible to assert that
biblical inerrancy is a fundametical axiom of
some given theology. But there are many
Christian theologies that do not do this.
If biblical inerrency is not one of you primary
axioms for a given theology, then coming to
conclusions that appear to be in contradiction
with some biblical texts, examples, or admonitions
does not automatically qualify a given theology
as "bad".

Indeed, in my opinion it is impossible to support
an argument for biblical inerrancy with
intellectual integrity. The biblical texts
are filled with historical and factual errors,
(my favorite is the passage that demonstrates
that pi is equal to three). The idea
that the Bible is not to be interpretted as
literal truth is quite old, and the Quakers and
other religious traditions held that the testement
of experience, of the "god within" and the wisdom
of one's peers was at least as important an idea
as the "guidance" that one receives in reading
traditional texts.

However, given that biblical documents are
self-contradictory, and are to be interpretted
metaphorically and not literally or historically,
does not automatically mean that compelling
moral religious arguments that are "biblical" cannot be made. For example, my understanding
of the Quaker abolitionist history
(sorry, I am not an expert!) is that much of the
moral argument is based on what is often called
the Jesus' primary commandment to his followers: to love god and
to love your neighbor as yourself. The
Quakers argued that this admonition was central
and essential to the Christian faith and that
two nearly inescapable conclusions that would
be drawn from such an admonition were the
immorality of both warfare and slavery. Thus
the Quakers (Friends) were (are) pacifists and
abolitionists. This is obviously a rather
simplified sketch, but I believe it gets at the

So if your "theology" is that these
particular admonishments of Jesus are of
primary importance over all other issues,
then you can defend the abolitionists as
not only having a good theology, one that
arguably did a better job at living than
some other relgious groups.

Posted by Corbin on September 16, 2007 03:16 PM