“The general population doesn’t know what’s happening. And it doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know.” -Noam Chomsky
My politicization began roughly a decade ago and has steadily developed since then. When I moved from rural Alberta to Edmonton, I knew little to nothing about the world and how it operated. I didn’t have a political affiliation and was clueless about the fundamental differences between the Conservative and Liberal parties, whether federal or provincial. To complicate the matter, Canadian politics consists of three levels of jurisdiction:
federal (national, based in Ottawa); provincial/territorial; and local. Growing up in 1990s Alberta meant growing up under a provincial Conservative party that ruled since 1971. I’m sure this lack of political change prevented possible discussions on the current state of affairs and alternative. I didn’t even know that one of the former ruling provincial parties was the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA); as a teenager, I only knew UFA as the place to get fuel.
Similarly, as a young adult, I knew little to nothing about how business worked. I grew up on a family farm, so my parents ran their own business and I was in contact with small businesses in our nearby towns, but I was mostly unaware of how corporations and the global market worked. It took me a long time to become aware of economics and how capitalism eventually came to rule the modern world.
During this same time, I had a number of revelations when it came to my religious beliefs. I grew up Ukrainian Orthodox Christian. I sometimes attended church but didn’t speak Ukrainian so didn’t understand the sermons. And I did attend a few summer bible camps. Despite this relatively mild version of faith, I identified as Christian, just as every relative I knew did. I then began questioning the stories I always had known as “facts”. Did Jesus produce miracles? Did the world start with Adam and Eve, after a weeks’ creation? Asking these questions through a scientific lens produced little reassurance. My religious identity slowly drifted away.
Like many other young adults, the most memorable political event growing up was the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. I remember hearing the news updates on my morning bus ride to school, then spending the day watching reports on TV. This event was then followed by the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” leading to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which shaped the decade and continues to have serious consequences. It’s hard to ignore the religious overtones of American foreign policy during and since the Bush years, with a predominantly Christian country attacking predominantly Muslim countries, even trying to convert people.
Later in the decade, in 2008, the most important economic change occurred. This was the start of the financial crisis known as “the Great Recession”. Again, the world changed forever thanks to decisions made in the United States. The housing market crashed. The stock market followed. Ripples spread throughout the world and affected markets and people everywhere.
I highlight these events because they connect to a singular, overriding theme: the use and abuse of power. Governments and businesses, as well as organised religions, hold massive amounts of power over people. Governments control us through visible (police) to invisible (nationalism) forms of power. The consequences of corporate greed occur at both local (homelessness) and international (food prices) levels. The decision-making spaces of all three institutions are often closed to the public. You’re probably asking: So what?
Two social movements–with very different agendas–formed in the United States in the years that followed: Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. Both sides are fighting for a noble cause, even if they disagree with the other.
OWS protested the power of corporations to profit from the financial crisis and the government bailouts that followed. They went to the core of the problem: Corporations have too much power.
Despite connections to big corporations, there is an underlying truth to the Tea Party protests: Governments have too much power.
These two very different movements actually addressed the same issue (power) from two different angles: one political, the other economic.
These two groups are often labelled. By splitting groups into opposing binary views whether it’s left/right or liberal/conservative distracts people from debates on core issue. And, fundamentally, the issue is people.
How do people interact with the governments they vote for and who govern them, politically?
How do people interact with the businesses they work for and interact with, economically?
Governments and business (big and small) are powerful authorities. They also hold ideologies (dogmas) that result in real-world consequences for voters and workers. Their authority and ideology should (and must) be questioned regularly. It’s a matter of exercising our freedoms.
Left vs. Right
To understand the current state of left-wing vs. right-wing politics, you need to go back to when these terms originate, to go back to pre-1789 France. France under the Ancien Régime (before the French Revolution) divided society into three estates:
- the First Estate (clergy);
- the Second Estate (nobility); and
- the Third Estate (commoners).
The clergy enjoyed enormous wealth and privilege; owned about 10% of land, collected tithes, and paid no taxes; and provided some social services. The nobility owned land but had little money income and feared losing traditional privilege, especially exemption from taxes. The bourgeoisie and peasants were 90% of the French population but were solely responsible for taxes, while earning miserable wages and facing hunger and even starvation.
The allegiances of these groups is shown by who they support, which is tied to where they sat. Liberal deputies of the Third Estate generally sat to the left of the president’s chair, a custom that began in the Estates General of 1789. The nobility, members of the Second Estate, generally sat to the right. In the successive legislative assemblies, monarchists who supported the Old Regime were commonly called rightists because they sat on the right side. Throughout the 19th century, the main line dividing Left and Right in France was between supporters of the republic (often secularists) and supporters of the monarchy (often Catholics).
So, left-wing politics, with its support for social equality and egalitarianism, was for all people. Right-wing politics, with its social hierarchy and social inequality, stood for some people–the monarchy, the clergy and the nobles–and against the majority of society. This is the historical context that needs to be understand in light of political, economic and religious decisions made today. One group wants liberty for all. Another group wants control for themselves.
Roger Eatwell and Neal O’Sullivan divide the right into five types: reactionary, moderate, radical, extreme and new. The Right has gone through five distinct historical stages:
- the reactionary right sought a return to aristocracy and established religion;
- the moderate right distrusted intellectuals and sought limited government;
- the radical right favored a romantic and aggressive nationalism;
- the extreme right proposed anti-immigration policies and implicit racism; and
- the neo-liberal right sought to combine a market economy and economic deregulation with the traditional Right-wing beliefs in patriotism, elitism and law and order.
Although the French Revolution took place two centuries ago, the struggle for freedom continues today. Groups of people (usually those wielded extreme power and privilege) continue to fight for their own interests and not the interests of all. We continue to hear debates from the Right who push for “limited government”, nationalism and anti-immigration. They find allies in aristocracy and established religion, just as pre-Revolutionary nobles did.
We now exist in the fifth historical stage, where the privileged fight to protect the political economy based on a free market economy supported by state powers using patriotism and the law to protect the few.
The left-right political spectrum and the political parties that reinforce this dichotomy don’t work. Low voter turnout in democratic countries is a big clue. When people do work up the courage to vote, they often feel like they’re voting for the “lesser of two evils”. How is that a sign of a functioning democracy?!
This left/right illusion is shown in the American and British government votes for the invasion of Iraq and consequential decade-long war. Despite domestic and international protests by millions of people, the governments of these two superpowers, while facing no real or imagined threat, banded together to vote for war.
In the United States, Republican “conservatives” and Democratic “liberals” voted together in both houses of Congress for war. In the United Kingdom, members of both the Conservative and Labour parties voted together to invade Iraq.
It seems that something else dictating politics, in place of a left/right divide.
Although it’s nearly half a century old, the 1970 speech, “Government of the Future”, by Noam Chomsky (audio here) is as relevant today as it was then in explaining our political economy. In this speech, Chomsky sets up as a framework for discussing four somewhat idealized positions with regard to the role of the state in an advanced industrial society:
- Classical Liberal (analogous to Libertarian Capitalism)
- Libertarian Socialism
- State Socialism
- State Capitalism
If we sort these four positions on a two-dimensional political economy matrix, we can start to see some patterns. Ideology now rests with how power is given to the state vs. the citizens in society; this is the difference between political (state) control and political freedom (libertarian). Ideology also rests with how much power is given to the free market vs. the workers in society; this is the difference between economic control (capitalism) and economic freedom (socialism).
Political power can range from a controlling state to a democratic populace. The control of the state is made up of a number of factors including the level of democracy and accountability the citizen’s experience. A controlling state can take many forms including a dictatorship, an absolute monarchy, a military junta or a representative government. Ultimately, it’s a question of how people’s needs and wants are being met vs. the needs and wants of a small minority. Like the rule of King Louis XVI in France, the worst form of state control is a plutocracy: a state or society governed by the wealthy. Sadly, most countries today, whether democratic or otherwise, are plutocracies.
State control is to politics as capitalism is to economics. Going back to the example of the Iraq War, the left-right spectrum in both the US and UK is a fiction. Both sides of politics exist in the realm of State Capitalism. The parties that alternate control of their respective governments both support centralised control (in Washington DC or London) and both support the interests of Big Business, such as the interest of military contractors. Capitalism is fundamentally about the exploitation of people and the planet for profit. Inequality is built into the profit motive. This is where socialism comes in as an alternative. Unions might reform business practices, but cooperative systems can replace the current model with local, democratic economic systems.
Ultimately, it’s a case of giving political and economic control back to people (voters and workers), rather than big institutions of state/government and business/corporations. Democracy is the tool to achieve both forms of liberation.
It’s important to say something about the other two positions. Libertarian Capitalism (linked to Anarcho-Capitalism) is the view that many people in the modern Tea Party support. It’s a view that Big Government is bad, while Big Business is good. It’s the idea that government should be reduced (rather than improved) to the benefit of corporations and the elite. This is Trumpism in its purest form. It’s also Reagonomics and Thatcherism from the 1980s. This is the core ideology of the Libertarian Party in the United States and many other industrialized nations. So, it’s important to notice the difference between a big-L “Libertarian” who supports freedom only for the elites, and little-L “libertarians” who support freedom for all people.
The other imbalanced position is State Socialism. Basically, this is the Soviet Union. Socialism through the iron fist of state control. Following World War II, the world spent four decades in a Cold War between the two reigning superpowers and their ideologies: American capitalism and Russian communism. More than a century before the Cold War, thinkers like Mikhail Bakunin saw the interplay between politics and economics. One can take his famous quote and see the false options provided during the Cold War.
USA, built on liberty without socialism, is a nation founded by a privileged minority (rich, white male landowners) who continue to hoard their wealth at the expense of the middle and lower classes, producing the inequality we see today.
On the other hand, Stalin’s Soviet Union (and other “big-C” Communist nations), enact socialism without liberty, where slavery could be found in the Gulag and brutality could be found everywhere else.
Neither of these two options provided real liberty, nor real socialism. For four decades, these superpowers pointed the finger at each other, while people and the world suffered.
Another options is needed. Luckily, it’s available.
Chomsky thinks that the Libertarian Socialist (linked to Anarcho-Syndicalism) concepts are fundamentally correct and that they are the proper and natural extension of classical liberalism into the era of advanced industrial society. I agree.
State Capitalism (the violent control of both government and business by elites) is the polar opposite of Libertarian Socialism (the democratic control of both government and business by the people). This is what Chomsky means when he talks about anarchism.
Anarchism is a social movement that seeks liberation from oppressive systems of control including but not limited to the state, capitalism, racism, sexism, speciesism, and religion. Anarchists advocate a self-managed, classless, stateless society without borders, bosses, or rulers where everyone takes collective responsibility for the health and prosperity of themselves and the environment.
Now that we looked at political and economic control/freedom, we can move to a third metric: religion. If politics can be seen as a spectrum from control to freedom via the state and economics can be seen as a spectrum from control to freedom via the market, then religion, too, can be seen as a spectrum from control to freedom via a place of worship. Whether it’s a church, mosque, synagogue or temple, organised religion holds tremendous power over its adherents (and even those who don’t identify). Historically, religious power has always been close to political and economic power. So, it’s impossible to talk about true freedom without addressing religion. This is why socialists and anarchists often use the motto of “no gods, no masters” in their protests.
I’ll try to explain why I believe in libertarian socialism and how it connects to my religious beliefs in the next three expanded sections.
The People vs. The State
The most important event, arguably, in any nations history is its founding. For many nations, this starts with a revolution.
At the end of the 18th century, the United States gained its independence from the British empire and Haiti gained its independence from the French empire. A century later, war changed the power structures of Europe. By the end of 1918, the Romanov dynasty in Russia, the German empire under Wilhelm II, the he Austria-Hungary empire and Ottoman empire all fell. By the mid-20th century, Africa experienced wide decolonisation of European powers. Recently, the world saw democratic change through the Arab Spring. Sadly, many authoritarian systems and dictatorships remain around the world.
Even in democracies, like Canada, we are ruled by a foreign monarch. As a Canadian, it saddens me to think that my country has never elected a head of state. Our government is subservient to a monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who has ruled for 65 years and whose qualification for the role was her birth parents. This is the exact opposite of a meritocracy. As someone who believes in democracy, I long for the day when Canada joins the other nations of the world with a say in their leader.
But, even countries without a monarchy or a dictatorship have histories of oppression. The 1990s saw the Soviet Union dissolve; the U.S. had “won” the Cold War and became the single superpower in the world. But, is the U.S. the bastion of democracy and freedom that it espouses?
One of the books that opened my eyes to the real history of our modern world was Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer. The book’s subtitle says it all: “America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq”. Kinzer’s examples include mini-histories of the U.S.-supported or encouraged coups d’état in Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Honduras, Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, Chile, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Noam Chomsky’s books helped me learn about American imperialism. Other authors, like Eduardo Galeano, helped me to tie this history into the wider history of Western colonialism and aggression.
The Iraq War, which started in 2003 and shaped much of the decade that followed, was fundamentally an act of mass violence by the United States against the Iraq people. War and violence are fundamental tools of power used by the state to control its citizens and other people the state views as enemies. This control also happens domestically, as evidenced by the spying programs in Europe and North America exposed by Snowden.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 was so successful because the revolutionaries (farmers and factory workers) convinced soldiers in the military to side with them against their common enemy: the oppressive state. Lenin wrote:
“our aim is to achieve a socialist system of society, which, by eliminating the division of mankind into classes, by eliminating all exploitation of man by man and nation by nation, will inevitably eliminate the very possibility of war.”
Another form of violence exhibited by the state is opposition to the fundamental freedoms of speech and assembly–to protest. This is regularly done by a military force at home but it also common through a police service and a criminal justice systems.
In all every instance, one side saw people standing up for their rights and the other side saw police standing in their way, ready to unleash state-sanctioned violence. Who do they really “protect and serve”?
Beyond the visible violence of soldiers and police, the government uses hidden and invisible forms of power. One example often brought up is taxation, which is usually followed closely by the slogan “taxation is theft”. Fundamentally, taxation is an agreement by a group of people to pay for certain services, such as education, health care, roads, mail delivery or security. The idea of taxation as a “social contract” is best described by this famous Elizabeth Warren quote:
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
I have yet to be compelled by arguments against taxation. State Capitalists and especially Libertarian Capitalists will speak about “small government” but what they mean is government small enough for them to control and for business to profit off everything that goes unfunded by taxation.
To understand what a political system would look like if Big Business was able to destroy Big Government, we only need to travel back to 1980 America and look at the Libertarian Party’s Policy Platform. David H. Koch was the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1980. Today, David Koch is the 8th richest person on Earth. (His brother Charles is 9th.) Together, the Koch brothers have become the most effective lobbyists in American history. Rather than running for office, they have used their massive wealth to influence politics to through a number of front groups that advocate for “freedom” and “prosperity” but actually support plutocracy.
The same notions of “limited government” through “deregulation” and “privatisation” are home in the American Republican party, the British Conservative party, the Canadian Conservative party and many other political parties that look to State Capitalism or Libertarian Capitalism as the only two positions they seek to create. They use government power for themselves and their businesses only. Poor people be damned!!
We need to push for active citizenship and active democracy. Our political leaders need to act in accordance with the wishes of the people.
Eugene Victor Debs, explained at the opening of his 1904 presidential campaign on the Socialist Party ticket, a powerful threat to old orders.
“Ignorance alone stands in the way of socialist success. The capitalist parties understand this and use their resources to prevent the workers from seeing the light. Intellectual darkness is essential to industrial slavery,” declared Debs, adding: “The very moment a workingman begins to do his own thinking he understands the paramount issue, parts company with the capitalist politician and falls in line with his own class on the political battlefield.”
The People vs. The Free Market
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” -Ursula Le Guin.
In my self-education, understanding politics and religion came before my understanding of economics and the global hegemony of capitalism.
Although we live in a world controlled by markets, we rarely questions the origins of our market places. The economies of the United States, Canada and Australia were built on stolen indigenous lands. The United States later added the importation of African slaves to work in their fields against their will. Europe colonized the rest of the world, importing materials from Africa, Asia and the Americas. That wealth built cathedrals, corporations and massive amounts of wealth. Karl Marx, while analyzed this history, saw capitalism as the stage after the feudalism: holding of land in exchange for service or labour. He predicted that socialism would be the stage to follow capitalism, when workers freed themselves and took back the means of production: their labour and property.
It wasn’t until I started studying poverty that I began to question the authority of the modern system of capitalism, the modern faith in the “free” market. Although global industrial capitalism has a history of more than two centuries, it really expanded in the past few decades.
With or without government assistance, capitalism and the free market exist in a fantasy world. This is best illustrated by Libertarian Capitalism in America, as described in the Libertarian Delusion:
The free market doesn’t live up to its billing because of several contradictions between what libertarians contend and the way the real world actually works. Fundamentally, the free-market model assumes away inconvenient facts. Libertarians presume no disparities of information between buyer and seller, no serious externalities, no public goods that markets can’t properly price, and above all no disparities of power. But in today’s substantially deregulated economy, bankers have far more knowledge and power than bank customers (witness the subprime deception); corporations have far more power than employees; insurers have more power than citizens seeking health insurance. Labor markets can’t compensate for disparities of power.
Even before global issues like climate change, citizens fought to protect their local environments from pollution. Instead of listening to the people seeking change, state governments prefer to protect oil and gas corporations and the wealth they generate at the expense of public health and environmental safety. It’s about power.
Another example of the power private businesses wield is in relation to policing. Similar to how states use force to quiet dissents, businesses have for decades used police to their economic goals and to maintain their hold on profits. When workers try to advocate for themselves, through trade unions, business owners use police or unofficial means to “bust” unions through various forms of anti-union violence. Violence against unions may be isolated, or may occur as part of a campaign that includes spying, intimidation, impersonation, disinformation, and sabotage.
Alternatives to capitalism–namely, socialism–are not discussed widely in society. People are told to be afraid of it, even though they’re never really told what socialism is. The era of McCarthyism and the continuation of Red Scares was a major success in quieting opposing views.
Socialists are not opposed to working or being compelled to work by nature; they’re opposed to being compelled to work under the direction and rule of a dominant and exploitative class. In capitalist societies, that dominant and exploitative class is the capitalist class. By privately owning the means of production, the capitalist class exploits our need to work for survival for their own benefit, to ensure that we’re compelled to work for them. Rather than have workers labour for the benefit of the wealthy, socialism seeks to liberate workers so that they can work under their own rule, through democracy, so that the full value of their labour benefits themselves, their loved ones, their communities, and society as a whole. We all have to work to survive. We do this best when we work together, and we all live better when we work to fulfill the needs of every person.
Socialism is about putting power in the hands of workers, making them the shareholders. Capitalism is about putting power in the hands of elites, the shareholders (especially investors) that make decisions about workers but don’t actually work.
In the last two years, I’ve read a number of socialist and anti-capitalist books to get a different perspective than the one I was raised on. Reading these texts not only gave me the ability to question the current economic system that rules global exchange, it also allowed me to consider alternatives to capitalism. Reading the debate between Hahnel and Wright was a great example of this.
Fundamentally, the question is: Who should dictate the freedom of the people? Workers themselves? Or the capitalists who rent and profit from their labour?
The philosophy of the “free” trade is what drive institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Foundation (IMF). Not only is “free” trade a myth, as thoroughly illustrated in Ha-Joon Chang’s book Bad Samaritans, but it is also the leading reason for economic stagnation and theft from developing nations. Western colonialism of the past has been replaced by 1980s Western structural adjustment and neoliberalism, which continue through today.
The challenge in starting to consider alternatives to capitalism is to first understand if it should be changed. It’s a matter of question whether the current system of a rich few is the best type of society we can create. To change this, we first need to change the way the majority of people view the rich.
“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” -John Steinbeck
The 2008 financial crisis started this discussion but people realising that the top 1% of society controls a ridiculous amount of wealth. Unfortunately, the last decade has seen a slow decline in people’s attention to the issue.
Studying poverty forced me to see inequality in terms of wealth. It forced me to understand the poverty is a product of capitalism. It’s built into the model. How can one man have $100 billion (Jeff Bezos) while his workers go hungry?! We can do better than this.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (a technological revolution and not a social revolution), the capitalist class has profited from the labour of the people. The factory owners controlled all aspects of life for the workers and, therefore, controlled the power. The modern Labour movement was able to make a number of reforms, but ultimately these didn’t change the system of ownership and control. Reforms include:
- The weekend
- Overtime pay
- 8-hour workday
- Minimum wage
- Paid holiday
- Sick days
- Safety standards
- Child labour laws
- Health benefits
- Retirement security
- Unemployment insurance
It isn’t a matter of simply being against corporations. Small businesses are also problematic, even if they’re smaller than corporations. Small businesses pay lower wages, provide worse benefits, are often exempt from important worker protections, and are incompatible with the way unionization works in the US.
So, it’s important to expose the fundamental problems of capitalism, oppose those who are against the needs of the people, and propose alternative systems that increase people’s freedom over their own labour.
It’s important to notice when the capitalist class convinces people to attack each other rather than banding to fight their common oppressor. Once you reveal the workings of income inequality, it’s impossible to ignore the racial and gender inequality that comes with it. For example, the gender pay gap results from a patriarchal system of capitalism. Elite men (and the people who support them) stand in the way of equity.
It should surprise no one to know that slavery can easily exist in a capitalist society. The centuries of Western prosperity were thanks to having a workforce that earned no income other than the food and shelter it took to keep slaves from dying. Dead slaves weren’t bad because the person dies, they were bad because slave-owners would lose their property. That’s how slave-owners viewed slaves: as property, not as humans. As Paul Farmer has said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”
Valuing the lives of the rich while devaluing the lives of workers is fundamental to capitalism. We need to create a world where all lives matter and where all workers are free to choose the life that’s best for them.
It’s no longer a matter of left/right politics. It’s a matter of fighting for workers or fighting for rich elites at the expense of all of us.
The People vs. The Dominant Religion
After questioning the fundamental myths of the Old and New Testaments, I move from disbelieving in Jesus to disbelieving God. I got swept up in the New Atheist movement after reading books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. Although I still appreciate that these texts gave me the ability to question my Christianity and theology more widely, they don’t provide a basis for morals and one’s own ethics. These things are more ingrained than religious belief.
My childhood involved living and working on my parent’s farm. This often involved helping our neighbours during harvest time. Helping others without the assurance of return is the purest form of volunteerism and builds great community unity. Combined with my later volunteer work, I was drawn to the ideology of humanism: a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. It has framed not only my philosophical beliefs, but also my political and economic views. I can simplify this down to a single quote by Thomas Paine:
“The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren and to do good is my religion.”
In terms of religion, I believe two fundamental ideas:
- Humans have the power to solve their problems, through collective and cooperative action.
- All people should have the freedom to believe in whatever they wish.
The first idea is my humanist belief. The second idea is my belief in secularism.
This is why I call myself a secular humanist.
Despite the political and economic changes that have taken place in recent centuries, the legacy of religion stretches back much further. This means that religious differences are much more ingrained into different societies. The dominance of religion across different nations can be most easily seen in flags. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions are proudly displayed by their respective governments.
Each nation has its own dominant religion. Many have a state religion. The unfortunate consequence is that other religions and non-believers are susceptible to religious persecution, unless protected by law. However, it’s more common that the state uses religious differences as a way to maintain power.
Violence is something that religious nations have used against other nations and regions for as long as religion has existed. Religious wars have taken place on every continent.
The Crusades between Christians and Muslims is a prime example. But modern examples in Sudan continue this legacy. Wars have been fought by adherents of different versions of the same religion, such as Protestants/Catholics in Ireland or Sunni/Shia Muslims across the Middle East.
Religious persecution also takes place at the individual level. Antisemitism in Europe led to the Holocaust and continues around the world to this day. Islamophobia has become a common platform for many Western nationalist political parties. The caste system in India is used to divide Hindus. Sunni and Shia Islam differences prolong war in the Middle East.
Atheists and non-believers have been discriminated against in many countries including recently in Egypt. However, atheist states have also been oppressors. The Kim family and North Korea’s cult of personality is one example.
In times of peace, powerful leaders often ally themselves with the dominant religion. In Russia, Putin has allied with the Russian Orthodox Church. In the UK, the Queen is the Head of the Church of England. This is most extreme in a theocracy: a form of government in which a deity is the source from which all authority derives. This is the case in places like Iran and the Vatican.
So far, the only example of religious tolerance exists in secular society, where all faiths are given equal status. If we treat each others beliefs as equal, then we can see each other as equal. Otherwise, we return to the wars and violence of the past.
Recently, religious groups have been exposed for their unethical behavior towards their own believers. In addition to multiple sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, there have been similar scandals inside the Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness churches. It’s gotten so bad that a group calling themselves FaithLeaks had to be created to handle all of the current and future leaks on religious impropriety.
Like the cases of political and economic control, religious institutions wield unbelievable power over their adherents. They literally control the fates of people’s souls.
I don’t believe it’s productive to attack the beliefs of others. But one thing we should all be united in attacking is abuses of power. In the cases of the scandals noted above, the sexual predators had the backing of their respective gods.
We could all benefit from questioning leaders of religions and their claims of supernatural knowledge. We are all human. We are all flawed. No one has all the answers.
We determine our own morality. This cartoon does a great job of illustrating the contradictions of religious morality, as well as how politics and economics mix with faith:
Recently, I’ve started exploring liberation theology, which is an interpretation of Christian theology that emphasizes a concern for the liberation of the oppressed. The best-known examples of liberation theology come from the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s: Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru, Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay, and Jon Sobrino of Spain. Gutiérrez emphasized practice (or, more technically, “praxis“) over doctrine.
Liberation theology proposes to fight poverty by addressing its alleged source, sin. In so doing, it explores the relationship between Christian theology (especially Roman Catholic) and political activism, especially in relation to social justice, poverty, and human rights. The principal methodological innovation is seeing theology from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed.
Liberation theology strove to be a bottom-up movement in practice, with biblical interpretation and liturgical practice designed by lay practitioners themselves, rather than by the orthodox Church hierarchy. In this context, sacred text interpretation is understood as “praxis”. Liberation theology seeks to interpret the actions of the Catholic Church and the teachings of Jesus Christ from the perspective of the poor and disadvantaged. In Latin America, liberation theologians specifically target the severe disparities between rich and poor in the existing social and economic orders within the nations’ political and corporate structures. It is a strong critique of the various economic and social structures, such as an oppressive government, dependence upon First World countries and the traditional hierarchical Church, that allow some to be extremely rich while others are unable to even have safe drinking water.
Theologies of liberation have developed in other parts of the world such as Black theology in the United States and South Africa, Palestinian liberation theology, Dalit theology in India, and Minjung theology in South Korea.
Seeing Jesus Christ as a revolutionary figure who fought against the power of Rome make Christianity a very different type of religion. As Reza Aslan describes:
“The historical Jesus took on the powers that be on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed, the outcast and the marginalized; he sacrificed himself for a group that most Romans—and the Jewish elite—didn’t consider to be real people, much less people worthy of salvation.”
Adherents to Jesus’ teachings can continue his legacy by speaking truth to power, whether it’s towards religious leaders, political leaders or economic leaders.
We should not look to the heavens for our salvation but to every man, woman and child. Religious differences are less important than our fundamental humanity. If religion is used as a tool of hate and violence, it is not worth following.
All belief systems need to unite to achieve peace on Earth and freedom for all people.
Freeing the Mind, Body and Soul
To close, I want to unite all of the thoughts into a simple take-away:
- Mind: political liberation; to question the state, its leaders and their practices; to think free of state propaganda
- Body: economic liberation; to decide how your labour is used; the ability to question your employer and fight for change
- Soul: religious liberation; the ability to question religious leaders and orthodoxy; the freedom to have different beliefs or to disbelieve
These three dimensions of freedom–political mind, economic body and religious soul–directly connect to power and how institutions wield power over us. The power of countries, corporations and churches is often in opposition to the desires of the people they are supposed to serve. The first step to changing a situation is to recognize that it exists.
As I’ve tried to show above, each sphere of society has powerful leaders who wield their power to maintain the status quo.
In every case, we need to question if an institution is working to increase people’s freedom, or are they seeking to control people. Together, we can shape society to maximize the political, economic and religious freedom of all people.
Voters can work together through active democracy to overcome state control.
Workers can unite to overcome corporate control and build alternatives to exploitative capitalist systems.
Believers and non-believers can connect and fight for collective understanding of each other.
Together, we can create a better world. As a society, we can increase our own political, economic and religious freedom, as well as the freedom of everyone else.
We can start working together and against those institutions that seek to divide us. We need to shake off the fictional left/right divide and realize that alternatives to the status quo are out there. A better world is possible.