Making bitter sweet, and sweet, bitter

Is religious faith compatible with social justice work?

This question is intriguing and jarring, at least for me, because it has no easy answer. The answer is shaded gray in a political moment riveted by age-old issues of Black or White.

This moment in U.S. socio-cultural and political history is shaped by a backlash from the 2008 Obama victory. His presidency, the passage of health insurance reform, of financial reform, and the ongoing civil war within the Republican Party are galvanizing conservatives to fight for their ideological lives.

The backward-looking-piety-of-Beck is succeeding where political ideology is failing. Big corporate interests conflate with religious Right interests in clear defense of ‘traditional values’ (to be read traditional Judeo-Christian and pre-1965 cultural values). We see them mount a spirited support for conservative candidates, no matter their credentials or fitness for office.

While walking the thin line between free speech and political endorsement taboo for nonprofit organizations, faith-based groups are emboldening conservatives to stand up as values voters and as ‘kingdom voters’.

The sermon I heard this past Sunday urged parishioners to ‘raise the Righteous up, and pull the wicked down’ and as the flock followed the instructions to chant it, the pastor damned those in cahoots with ‘the Gay, pro-Choice and Obama-Pelosi’ agenda. The pastor made sure he acknowledged that his speech is biblical, not partisan, and that “the friendliest people I know are liberals, and the meanest people I know are Christians.”

This sends shivers down my spine still for I imagine myself transported to a backward time, to a time when fundamentalist religious thought governed public life and constrained the freedom of ‘Others’ and derided ‘Otherness’; it was upsetting having to sit through that entire sermon, hearing the loud clapping and full-throated affirmation of many in the crowd.

The pastor claims he spoke out of conscience as a biblical leader-scholar, parsing the difference between prejudice and discernment. But I don’t buy it. It is dishonest. A sham! Bigotry by another name is still bigotry.

What tastes bitter will never taste sweet.

And all of this would not mean so much to me if it were not for the history of my people in the U.S. and under Spanish rule checkered by the violence and evil of bigotry.

Fundamentalist religious thought underpinned the victimization of Filipinos; it fueled it, it sanitized it. To hear it in full blast and in multimedia, and to be in the same building as those who find spiritual sustenance from this kind of thinking is crushing.

I grant that organized religion does do a great deal of good; even fundamentalist churches figure visibly in rescue efforts in Haiti and in many other places, I’m sure.

But the horns of my dilemma remain: if being a good Christian means knowing the true word of God, and doing so requires a spirituality that is Bible-based, is religion compatible with social justice when it makes a habit of turning bigotry into something sweet?

Regardless of the ultimate answer, those of us working for social justice, no matter our ethnic background, need to mount an equally spirited voter turn-out on November 2. Casting our vote this year is a political and practical act against bigotry.


POINT OF INTEREST: Check out an Oct 22, 2010 article on The Washington Post on the true role of Christianity in U.S. history here. Thanks, Gem Daus.


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