I am sitting outside in the sun without a coat. The air is cool, but relieving relative to what came before. Whatever else this time of year may be, it is not winter.
For those of us who identify Christian, it is Eastertide, roughly, which corresponds roughly to what no one can deny is spring: more comfortable temperatures, new leaves and grass, the beginning of a new cycle. I am glad to be comfortable outdoors again, comfortable and in a frame of mind to think loosely about the future but without the neurotic compulsion of putting unreasonable demands on it.
I am having a spring reverie on a theme that comes out of Africa blows through the middle east and Afghanistan then returns home to Canada and to Quebec and Montreal. It is about democracy and alternatives and the beginnings of new cycles, mundane and not so mundane.
What comes before the beginning of my reverie is not so pleasant. In Zimbabwe, the leader of the political opposition, was detained recently by the police and beaten. He has opposed the corrupt government of President Robert Mugabe whose policies have led the country to economic ruin. The issues causing unrest are common ones: corruption, distribution of food and wealth, education etc.
While the opposition leader is beaten and should probably be fearing an imminent assassination, the Roman Catholic Arch-Bishop, Pius Ncube, has been permitted to criticize the government, even going so far as to promote a revolution to remove Mugabe, with impunity.
A similar situation many will remember existed in South Africa where the Anglican Arch-Bishop, Desmond Tutu, criticized his government’s policy of Apartheid both within the country and effectively around the world while the future president of post-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was rotting in jail.
The juxtaposition of reactions to secular or religious opposition is not cut and dry and I am not trying to suggest that it is. History provides innumerable accounts of violent and bureaucratic suppression of religious opposition to power. All I am trying to point to is that some individuals have been able to parlay their spiritual authority into a limited form of free speech. You may kill a priest, but you should think twice about the consequences of killing a “holy” person.
Historically, religion has often played a role in creating space for opposition, harbouring alternatives to the current status quo which may lead to reforms or revolutions. The full implications of any specific instantiation of religious opposition can be viewed as good or bad. The spectrum of political impulses protected by the church in different places at different times and by different religious sects, mocks the attempt to classify them universally as simply right or left wing. Religion can also be turned to amplify the contemporary power structure though it always retains the potential to transform into a vehicle for change –independently about how you or I may feel about those changes. Religious institutions are far less immutable than they may frequently pretend and people are, I believe, generally promiscuous about who delivers solutions to worldly challenges such poverty, education, or access to medical treatment.
I am religious, but don’t ask me to defend all religious views. I am generally in agreement with the opposition of arch-bishops Desmond Tutu and Pius Ncube to the their respective governments, although this may mask other opinions these men may hold that may be unacceptable to me as a Western moderate, such as misogyny, homophobia or virulent anti-Semitism. The overriding issue of providing an alternative to the status quo in their respective countries in a sense temporarily hides these other issues. A case where I personally disagree with specific aspects of religious opposition to the status quo is in the Middle East. Variants of the Muslim faith, turned to the task of opposing the political status quo, harbour political impulses that I do not support at all. I will talk about that in my next post: Eastertide Reveries, part Two. It will build on the point that I have tried to make here that, for good or ill, religious institutions are able to, maybe even prone to, protect and structure nascent political movements especially in the face of oppressive regimes.