Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sacred totalitarianism

The Bible talks about love and tolerance, but its followers often lose sight of how those values apply in real life

Amid chants and ululations (“she-de-ba-ba-ba, she-de-ba-ba-ba…”), the pastor approaches what Taiwanese refer to as the gongma — the Buddhist ancestral shrine often found in households in this part of the world — grabs a few relics and drops them into a cardboard box. He then unsheathes a machete, retrieves a wooden statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Life and Mercy, also puts her in the box, and proceeds to saw off her head and deface her with his blade.

It was all caught on film, and even as a nonreligious person, it sends shivers up my spine, knowing as I do how important Buddhism is in Taiwan.

According to the video, the ceremony was held by the Bread of Life Church, one of the largest Christian congregations in Taiwan. I’ve written about that Church before, mostly in the context of its role in the movement against the legalization of same-sex unions in Taiwan and its associations with extremist Christian organizations for the U.S., such as the cultish International House of Prayer.

After I posted the video online yesterday, a friend, who is a member of the Bread of Life Church, kindly provided clarifications about what he says is known as “idol removal,” a ceremony that is held after a person — in this case a Buddhist — has converted to Christianity. My friend quickly pointed out that while the ritual is commonplace, the destruction of idols, such as the one that occurs in the video, is a departure from the “norm,” which misrepresents the spirit of the act and risks giving the Church a bad reputation.

Fair enough, and I’m glad to hear that. Still, I have issues with the Christian notion that other religions are nothing more than idolatry, or the worship of “false gods” that misleads people away from the “real” God. The Bible is full of references to sanctions against worshipping other gods, among them “Do not worship any other god, for the lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14).

Granted, most such references are to be found in the Old Testament, a book that has much in common with excesses that are usually associated with the Taliban or the Saudi Wahhabism that inspired upstanding human beings like Osama bin Laden. But Christian intolerance for other religions is alive and well today, especially among Dominionist movements that seek to spread the word of God, and belief in a direct relationship with Jesus, to every corner of the world — including here in Taiwan.

The incident seen in the video is not isolated; other pastors have made similar remarks during sermons in Taiwan.

The problem with this form of Christianity is that it is zero-sum and does not regard other religions as coequal. Instead, anyone who does not believe in God lives in sin and can only be redeemed through conversion. To support its actions, the Church echoes the sayings of the “jealous God” by depicting other religions as a lesser form of religious activity — hence the reference to Guanyin and other Buddhist deities as mere idols. Put that in the context of Christianity emerging at a time when it was competing with other religions, and we can quickly surmise why the authors of the texts would encourage institutional and systematic intolerance towards other forms of veneration. (Would an employee at Burger King encourage a customer to go to McDonald’s, where the burgers are better? Of course not; business is a zero-sum affair, a race for the maximization of profit at the expense of the competition.)

Religious intolerance for other views, and the conviction that their religious beliefs are the only Truth and their god the only god, has all the hallmarks of totalitarianism. And we know from history what such a worldview usually does to those who stand in its way.

I agree that most Christians do not actively seek to convert others, but the conviction — which is taught them over years of man-made indoctrination — that only they know the Truth nevertheless contains the dangerous seeds of intolerance, and helps creates the conditions that are necessary for abuse, should religious leaders decide to go down that path, as we saw in the events surrounding the Nov. 30 protest in Taipei against legislative amendments allowing same-sex marriage.

Not too long ago (on a planetary timescale, that is), people in the West firmly believed in Greek and Roman and Norse gods, truly, utterly convinced that those entities were the only “real gods” in whose name it was perfectly permissible to inflict atrocities upon non-believers, or believers in other gods. Today, nobody believes in those gods, and their appeal is to be found only in the mythical literature, history books, and anthropological studies that make them their subject. Thousands of years later, we regard those believers with something close to derision, and wonder how people could ever have thought that gods expressed their anger by raising thunderstorms or visiting devastating earthquakes upon sinners down on earth (extremist Christians in the U.S. still believe in such punishments, though, with preachers blaming natural catastrophes, or the 9/11 attacks, on such “sins” as homosexuality). How can today’s Christians (and their analogues in other equally intolerant religions) be certain that their beliefs will not go down the same route, to be regarded as delusion a thousand years from now?

I’m not making the case against religion per se, though I would argue that the world would be a much better — and safer — place without it. What I take issue with is the intolerance, the totalitarianism, at the root of world religions and the belief that its adherents have the primacy on Truth and Morality, which often translates into condescension and, worse, intrusive abuse of others. Defenders can claim that excesses are not taught in the Bible, the Koran, and other sacred texts, but all do teach their followers that other religions are wrongs that need remediation and, if ultimately, excision.

Sacred texts purport to teach love and tolerance. Somehow the institutions often forget to apply those principles in their interactions with the real world. (Photo by the author)

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