By Kumar David –
The miracle of Christmas is the sparkle in the eyes of a child. I suspect I was born an agnostic because I cannot recall, even at the earliest, taking religious instruction, faith in the Almighty, prayer, chapel, or the exertions of my mother, grandmother and Father Bowyer Yin, as anything but chores to be quickly got out of the way. There were more exciting things to run off and do. At 15 when I stumbled on Marx’s Manifesto and few simpler writings, they fell on fertile soil. Often religion was amusement. Communion service, which was once a month when we lived in Mannar, I impiously christened at the age of 10, to my mother’s bemused protestations, as “Brandy Sunday”.
I must not discount my mother’s influence; she was a choir singing, church going Christian; I still have a maybe 100-year-old Bible annotated by my mother and grandmother. But it was not her formal religiosity, not ‘Churchianity’ that rubbed off. I comprehended later, as an adult, that it was her goodness, caring for others, and concern for waifs and strays in our neighbourhood that must gave coloured me sublimely. I think it lubricated an interest in social fairness, socialism and suspicion of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. If you get what I am driving at, you get it; if you don’t, you won’t.
Call me heathen, nonbeliever, infidel or what you will, but I have always been besotted with Christmas. In childhood it filled me with joy and anticipation; in later life, and still, I adore carols and carol service (I am willing to put up with the sermon and keep awake unless it’s too long); I wallow in family reunions and their warmth, smiles and company. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bombast, eating, drinking and getting slightly pissed. There’s more to it than that, much more, but at the same time it’s not religious fellowship – for others it is. Though I am not religious, Christmas was never Ebenezer’s “humbug” to me. Again, if you get what I am driving at, you get it; I am not poet enough to put it any better. Christmas is the light in the eyes of a child, but “the child is father of the man” quipped Wordsworth. Now do you get it?
The formula Christmas “past”, “present” and future are, of course, pinched from Dickens. A Christmas Carol does not compete for the accolade of his greatest work – that spot belongs to Great Expectations – nor is it his bestselling, which is A Tale of Two Cities. At 200 million copies it is the second bestselling novel of all time – only Don Quixote, which has never been out of print has sold more – but A Christmas Carol with its soft undertones of Tiny Tim’s life-threatening illness, Marley’s ghost and its sentimental ending, is many people’s favourite Dickens.
So far, I’ve said a word or two about Christmas past and present. That was a feint to steer you to where I want, Christmas future; or to be honest the future of religious movements as social forces. Religious movements, genuine or fake, have always been drivers of social and global change. In the Seventh Century, Islam swept out of the Arabian Peninsula to make, within 100 years, the swiftest territorial conquests seen till then. Three hundred years later Pope Urban II fired off the first crusade to recover the Holy Land and unearth the Holy Grail – the chalice of the Last Supper – and sank Europe and the Near East in two hundred years of chaos and misery with nothing to show at the end. The intellectual stimulus of Luther and the Church of England was indispensable nourishment for the rise of capitalism in the Sixteenth Century. (Henry VIII’s concupiscence was a footnote). And of course, Cortez and Pizzaro led the way into the heart of central and south America with Bible laden men of the cloth in tow in an endeavour which eliminated 200 million people.
Still, I suggest that the impact of religion on social and global affairs is at a peak now. My reason for making this claim is that not one but five religious epidemics are in full flood. The starkest, in modern times, is Islamic jihadism, fundamentalism, ISIS, Taliban, Al Qaeda and cohorts of such forces, dominant from The Maghreb to Kabul to Indonesia. This assortment constitutes the most powerful politico-religious wave today. But there are two localised virulent religious outbreaks as well; Buddhist extremism in Burma and India’s Hindutva mobs. They may be localised to a country but their destructive effects are execrable.
There are two more religious influences gathering momentum. Evangelical Christianity is growing swiftly worldwide and frightening the pants (cassocks) off established churches in many places. Brazil was Catholicism’s reserved patch; now about a quarter of its Christians are card-carrying evangelicals. In South Korea only 40% admit to having a religion, but a half of these are Evangelicals and Born-Agains.
Finally, there is the huge impact of Pope Francis. Readers are familiar with the different way from his recent predecessors that this Pope functions and the special esteem in which he is held within and outside the Church. His is earned, not endowed moral stature. For the purposes of this essay it is sufficient to say that his too is a religious tendency with global impact. (Bishop of Rome my foot!). To sum up, I am canvassing the point that there is a strong up-thrust of faith based influences in society and politics, globally, in the last two or three decades.
Let us note the differences in reaction among Christians to DJT shifting his embassy, and explicitly or implicitly, recognising undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In the US it was overwhelmingly welcome by Christians – Born-Agains and Evangelicals were ecstatic. The move had bipartisan support; the Jewish Lobby has great influence in the Democratic Party. American Jews were over the moon. But elsewhere in the world Christians disapproved of DJT’s Jerusalem gambit and the Pope expressed his reservations. Jerusalem has a long, complex and unique history associated with overlapping faiths; hence it is common sense to resolve the issue in line with a pluralist multi-faith formula. But instead DJT is playing to America’s backward religious-political culture and toying with bipartisan opportunism.
Paradoxically, a small Jewish community has American Christians by the balls for reasons too long to explain here. But one example: Nowhere in the US will a department store, school or hotel display, or for that matter no seasonal meeting between people exchange, “Happy Christmas” or “Merry Christmas” greetings. It has to be an inane “Happy Holidays”. Why? Christmas, for Jews, is a time of mourning when this chap Jesus turned up and “divided the people”. Not my problem what Jews choose to believe about Turks, Tatars or Christians, but for gentiles to meekly cave-in is ironic. Imagine if Muslims took exception to Vesak and Buddhists docilely switched off Vesak lights to take account of these complaints! Complicated, erratic, inter-religious games are the outcome of the political power of faiths.
It then behoves us to ask on this Christmas Eve why this resurgence of religious influences of different complexions with antagonistic moral, cultural, social and political orientations? It is also a good way to pass Christmas Day tomorrow wondering where it is all leading – my parody of Dickens’ Stave 4: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. First look at the political culture of Sri Lanka as a little petri-dish. In Lanka the decline of the left and the increase of influence of religion and reaction (in the correct sense of being anti-modern) coincided; two sides of the same coin.
Now think global. The explosion of fundamentalisms of the religious variety had a spurt after the demise of the Soviet Union. I find it difficult to concede that it was coincidental, that there was no correlation. In the Middle East, Southern Africa and Indo China there was much going on during the Cold War but known as liberation wars. It was couched in terms such as anti-imperialism and national liberation. The cup overflowed with struggle, but religion and fundamentalism did not have a deep stake or dovetailed as liberation-theology. In the lands of the Middle East the Sunni-Shia kettle simmered but did not boil; in Brazil and South Korea alienation did exit but opposition took the form of peasants or workers movements, despair did not drive millions to evangelical escapism.
The leg irons that shackled Jacob Marley’s ghost was his life of cold-hearted insensitivity to his fellow men. Today hundreds of millions are alienated, despised and dispossessed all over the world but their cry does not find an outlet as political radicalism, liberation fire, or class warfare. Lamenting this, Bernie Sanders put it bluntly in an interview with the Guardian on 15 December. When asked about the new tax bill he responded: “This is an effort to make the very rich richer. It is a fraudulent theory of trickle-down economics that never worked, never will work. It is a double blow to working people in that the big increase in the deficit due to tax cuts for the rich will subsequently be used by Republicans to justify an assault on welfare benefits. Paul Ryan, the GOP Speaker of the House, has announced that he intends to trim healthcare and anti-poverty programs next year to reduce spending”.
Narrow extremism and intolerance are the devils which takes possession of the masses when they are alienated in daily life. Liberalism will not exorcise the possessed; the message of goodness, compassion, tolerance and fraternity which it shares with religion has not sold. New Ebenezer was a changed man not only in human caring, but in his material efforts to save the life of Tiny Tim and succour his poor, underpaid, overworked father, clerk Bob Crachit. Hope for Christmases yet-to-come depends on comprehending this allegory and then practicing it in social policy; it will not depend on sloppy sentimentality.