21 January 2008

Defending the faith?

Beth M in Brethrenville asked me to write something for the BVS newsletter. This is what I came up with in my few spare moments. I posted it on my blog and Rachel requested it be posted on this blog. I would be interested to hear if anyone else has had similiar experiences thus far at their sites.

I walked away from work yesterday with two big questions running through my mind: How does one stand up and defend a faith that has been all too malicious and destructive in the past? Even more importantly, now does one talk about your personal faith when your own understanding of faith is in constant flux? Yesterday, I spent the afternoon interviewing Marija, a colleague of mine. Another NGO had sent us a survey to fill out on fundamentalism, and I wanted her assistance in answering the questions. I spent almost two hours asking her questions about the current relationship between religion and the Serbian government. Serbia suffers from a lack of religious diversity. The main church is the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC); this church is closely associated with the nationalist government. It also had a very controversial role in the Balkan wars; many soldiers were blessed by the SPC before being sent out to commit genocide. It’s not exactly the model of Christian love. Therefore, most of the activists in the Women in Black office have a very negative view of religion. Most of the activists are adamant atheists.

Towards the end of the survey the questions asked what we thought would be the perfect relationship between a state and the religious communities. Marija’s answer was that she couldn’t accurately answer that question because she was a radical Marxist and wishes religion didn’t exist. She believes that the belief in a higher power denies one the ability to have true ethical morals. In her mind, there can’t be true freedom while you believe in a higher power; a belief in a higher power means that all of one’s actions are motivated by a notion of that higher power’s ethical morals, and by feelings guilt. Marija talked about in how in her experience she had encountered two types of Christians. The first type used their religion as a motivator for oppression and violence. The second type found their hope in the knowledge that a better world is coming (the afterlife), but this hope allowed them to sit idly by as injustice, poverty, and suffering occurred. These Christians may be pacifists and believe in justice, but they are not activists.

I talked to her about the third type of Christians that I know, the ones who maintain a belief in God and are also activists. She conceded that there were many Christians in the United States who lived lives of activism, but it was a type of activism she couldn’t support. Activists who would deny her friends rights based upon their sexual orientation or their reproductive choices. They were activists fighting against the very values of Women in Black – human rights and women’s rights. I responded that among the third type of Christians that I know there are those who actively work for peace and justice here and now. She said that Rachel, the previous BVSer, was the first Christian she had met (or even heard of) that was an activist of this type. She pointed out that Rachel’s church is very small. At this point, I couldn’t really argue with her; the number of Christians in the United States subscribing to a life of peace and justice activism does seem small. I didn’t know how to defend Christians for being so apathetic and so myopic. As I sat there thinking about how I could respond to her comments, I realized that I don’t know. I don’t have an adequate response. As much as I wish it were different, I doubt the next two years will bring the answers to those questions, or the many other doubts and questions I have regarding Christianity. The one thing I am sure of is that my understanding of faith will continue to be challenged and changed. And for now, I’m okay with that.


Katie said...

Katie, thanks for your post. It's a great reminder to seriously consider our call as people struggling with faith in an unjust world, and it's an encouragement to act on what we believe.

I have to say though, that I found Marija's comments to be less thought-provoking than ignorant and intolerant of difference.

She ignores examples of Christian activism (Mother Teresa? Martin Luther King Jr.? the Catholic worker movement? L'Arche communities???) and also doesn't address terrible crimes committed in the name of atheism, for example under the regimes of Stalin and Mao and currently under Kim Jung Il. Pol Pot, Suharto and Enver Hoxha weren't Christians either, come to think of it. In my own life, I could name a dozen Christians who are activists and a dozen atheists who are not.

BVS itself is a direct challenge to her ignorant statements. Where does she think the money is coming from that supports you to be an activist at WiB, free of cost to them? And the money for Rachel, Dana, etc? It comes from the church.

It's one thing to make a personal choice to be an atheist and to live out your convictions with that as a basis for your ethics. It's another to state that you can't/won't even imagine a positive way for political and religious structures to interact because you think religion shouldn't exist. That is extreme intolerance, and it's the same kind of intolerance that is being expressed by the people that she is claiming to be opposing, just in a different form. This kind of atheistic intolerance is what makes oppressive atheistic regimes
possible and it's not any less wrong than religious intolerance.

How can things possibly change in Serbia if activists like Marija insist on remaining ignorant and intolerant? How could a religious Serb (the very kind of person who needs to protest for change in Serbia) possibly be comfortable in such an environment??

katie h (mostar katie) said...

After I posted my last comment, I felt bad because I realized that it wasn’t a very Christian or loving response, even if some of the points were true.

Marija is pointing out that Christians are sinners, who fail to do all that they ought to do and also do things that are in fact wrong. This is true, and is in fact a basic statement of the Christian faith-- that we struggle to do good, that we need God's forgiveness for what we've done wrong and we need his help to change.

Jesus died for us-- even if we are rock-throwing Serbs or apathetic American couch potatoes or people who post belligerent blog comments. We accept God's forgivness and love, learning in the process what love is, so that we can become people who love.

So, Marija, I'm sorry. I confess I haven't done what I ought. I will try to do better. I hope that I can learn more about activism and how to work for social change from you and from activists like you, that we can work together even though we have different ideas about the metaphysical structure of reality. I think that we can.