Religion as activism…


Christian protecting muslems2

I have been thinking about our (often hysterical) response to the growth of Islamic extremism/militancy/activism/fundamentalism. Religion (particularly the religion of the other) as always portrayed as a force for bad, a force for evil even. It is impossible to envisage a militant Islam that sweeps into an area an brings good things. I am afraid I can not comment in any detail about the degree to which this might or might not be true now, but I do think we would do well to consider our own history…

A good place to start might be to look back towards Wat Tyler and in particular, John Ball, key figures both in what came to be known as The Peasants Revolt. There is a great programme by Melvin Bragg dealing with this period available on the I player.

The Key thing about the Peasants Revolt all the way back in 1381 is that the ideology that brought about a mass consciousness towards change was simply this- Christianity. It ended in dreadful persecution, mass hangings and a re-assertion of the power of Kings and Bishops and Lords, but it also changed the political landscape for ever.

What we know about John Ball is mostly told from the perspective of those Kings, Bishops and Lords that survived the Peasants revolt, but there is no doubt that for him, Christianity had only one logical outcome- something that we might recognise as an egalitarian state of equality re-envisioned by Marx. Rather than the opium of the people, religion was like gun cotton. This was the cry of ordinary people; When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?

Here is an excerpt from one of John Ball’s sermons, used to convict him of sedition;

‘Ah, ye good people, the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall not do till everything be common, and that there be no villains nor gentlemen, but that we may be all united together, and that the lords be no greater masters than we be. What have we deserved, or why should we be kept thus in servage? We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve: whereby can they say or shew that they be greater lords than we be, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend? They are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth: they have their wines, spices and good bread, and we have the drawing out of the chaff and drink water: they dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields; and by that that cometh of our labours they keep and maintain their estates: we be called their bondmen, and without we do readily them service, we be beaten; and we have no sovereign to whom we may complain, nor that will hear us nor do us right.’
John Ball, in J Froissart, Froissart’s Chronicles (1385) translated by GC Macaulay (1895)

Ideas are dangerous- religious ideas are perhaps more dangerous than most. But when faced with such manifest injustice and inequality, how we need dangerous ideas. How we need troublesome priests and prophets who will challenge us to take another look at ourselves.

There is a famous song about John Ball, written by English songwriter Sydney Carter, who also wrote other Christian standards such as ‘The Lord of the dance’, ‘When I needed a neighbour’ and ‘One more step along the world I go’. Here is one of my favourite (and avowedly atheist) musicians singing it;

Or by way of poignant contrast;

3 thoughts on “Religion as activism…

  1. Your post is relevant to something I have sensed in the past month regarding responses to the Israeli attack on the Gaza prison in Occupied Palestine; that many of those who seem to support Israel and who are intelligent, aware, educated, decent people taking a position absolutely counter to that which they would normally take are doing so, not so much because they support Israel and its barbarities but because they fear Islam and hate Muslims and won’t or can’t admit to their bigotry.

    And of course fundamentalist Islam is awful but so is every fundamentalist religion. The problem is when the religion manifests or is made into fundamentalist fanaticism and all of them are capable as of much evil as we saw in centuries past with Christianity and as we see today in Israeli.

    Orthodox Islam is as narrow-minded and repressive, particularly or women as orthodox Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity or Buddhism for that matter and again, it is the nature of the religious manifestation rather than the religion itself which is the issue.

    Muslims are the new Jews of the modern age where suspicion, hysteria, propaganda and irrational fears and hatreds fuel a general loathing of Muslims in many and a distrust in most, and, in the doing, allow decent and intelligent people to tolerate and support, by omission if not commission, the worst of atrocities.

    The tragic and depressing irony is that the attitude to Muslims today which allows Israel to get away with its war crimes against the Palestinians was exactly the same as that which allowed the Germans to get away with their war crimes against members of Judaism and the Romany people.

    • Well said Roslyn…

      In this instance however, I wonder whether the issue is fundamentalism itself (surely this depends on which fundaments you emphasise?) but rather our reaction to it, and whose benefits are served by the ‘war on terror’.

      As in the Peasants revolt, for a religious idea to combine into violence, there have to be other factors that push people to mass action. In the 14th C this was a poll tax, heaped already on people who were little more than slaves. Injustice, poverty, state sponsored and policed inequality; these are rather familiar ingredients in the world we live in now, and tend to be fertile soil for religious and political extremism.

      Thanks for your thoughts- particularly on the Israel angle to all this.


      • Yes, I agree and fanaticism of any kind does not develop in a vacuum. My sense, having spent so long in the Third World, is that fundamentalist religion, as in absolute, lots of rules and fundamental beliefs, is more readily accepted when people feel they have little power or choice. And the more fundamental a religion the less choice there is but the greatest sense that there is a power beyond which will take care of things and so they do not have to be responsible and therefore encounter time and again, their powerlessness.

        And the relationship becomes symbiotic and systems drive behaviour. So when and here a religion can gather followers because of its fundamentalism it is likely to become more fundamentalist and not less.

        I am not quite sure how one can explain the prevalence of extremist Christianity in the US but it is a peculiar and particular culture anyway and one immersed in such fear that ‘absolute answers’ and ‘power’ in the hands of some ‘father-type’ God, no doubt has more appeal.

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