Race, religion, and imperialism

In the past couple of years there has been a resurgence of interest in the connections between racism, religion, and imperialism. But these connections have been a topic of conversation for over half a century. Today, were more likely to talk about colonialism, but the connections are the same. Here’s theologian Benjamin E. May in 1954:

“Race and color did not count in the early existence of the Protestant church. It was when modern Western imperialism began to explore and exploit the colored peoples of Africa, Asia, and America that the beginning of segregation and discrimination based on color was intitiated. It was then that color was associated with ‘inferiority’ and white with ‘superiority.'”

— address by Benjamin E. Mays, Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, Ill., August 21, 1954; quoted in Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950, p. 427

Protest songs

At the end of August, “The Ongoing History of Protest Music” website had a blog post titled “A Month of Protest.” The first song they featured was “Black AF,” by Crystal Axis, an Afropunk band from Kenya. (Before you crank up the sound be aware that, like a lot of punk rock, “Black AF” is Not Safe For Work.)

I didn’t even know that leftist punk rock still existed. But Crystal Axis are keeping the tradition alive with some really hard-hitting songs. As I started listening to their music, I was particularly struck by their 2017 song “Leopold,” an anti-colonialist song about King Leopold of Belgium. Leopold led Belgium in the brutal exploitation of the Congo, and Crystal Axis’s lyrics provide a concise summary of the king’s self-justification:

“I’m the king and it’s all mine
Under Force Publique and Christ
Your hands are mine tonight
Fingers up one time!”

Leopold was especially notorious for ordering the amputation of the hands of workers if work quotas were not met. Theologically he, like other Western colonial rulers, used the Christian religion both as a cover and as a justification for his crimes against humanity.

“Take the Throne,” a song they released last year, also has some leftist theological comment. First, the lyrics call out the injustice caused by gross economic inequality, where the rich are literally starving the rest of the world:

“You eat, we watch; a revolution’s born
We’ll tear down the walls and then we’ll take the throne”

Now comes their theological commentary:

“The voice of the people is the voice of God
Too many lies, deities we can’t applaud”

This is a theology in direct opposition to King Leopold’s theology. Leopold claimed his God gave him the power to do what he liked to those who had less power, less wealth, those who were not white. By contrast, Crystal Axis are saying that God is in the voice of ordinary people — which is pretty much what Jesus said when he pointed out how difficult it would be for rich people to get into heaven. This is also a theology that’s consistent with an African ethics that privileges the social over the individualistic.

As someone who loves punk rock, I really enjoyed hearing leftist theology in the context of topnotch music. For more, visit their website or their Facebook page.

Don’t call it the “Axial Age,” please

If you’ve ever referred to the “Axial Age,” Jack Tsonis, lecturer at the Graduate REsearch School, Western Sydney Univ., suggests you might want to stop. “Axial Age” is a term coined by Karl Jaspers to describe a time about two and a half millennia ago when several key religio-philosophic texts emerged: the Dao de Jing, the Bhagavad Gita, the writings of Plato, the Lun Yu (Analects), the books of Jeremiah and Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible, etc. The “Axial Age” is typically represented as a time when religion and philosophy emerged, as it were, into the light from the darkness of “primitive” thinking. This would imply that, for example, Christianity is somehow better or more advanced than Lakota religion and spirituality. Tsonis says:

“We need a full-scale acknowledgement of just how problematic this whole ‘Axial Age’ story is. So my big thing, I suppose, is that we’ve got to just stop using this term. The ‘Axial Age’ should not have credibility. It’s like ‘world religions.’ You shouldn’t use the term ‘world religions’ if you’re analytically responsible and politically responsible…. I don’t even care how we describe the first millennium B.C.E., I’m not going to use the term world religions, I’m not going to use the term Axial Age, because they’re bankrupt [and] founded in racial ideologies [Editor: and colonial ideologies]. But if you keep using them, even if you’re not aware of this stuff, you feed that discourse. We just need to starve those terms of oxygen.” Link to the Religious Studies Podcast where he makes this comment

Another way of putting this: Using the term “Axial Age” (or the term “world religions”) promulgates a theological position that sets up a hierarchy where indigenous religious traditions are ranked lower. It’s not what you’d call respectful.

“Whitened Buddhism” and the opiate of the masses

Carolyn Chen, a UC Berkeley sociologist who studies religion, spent the last few years studying religion in Silicon Valley. She’s especially interested in the way work has become a religion for the tech workers of Silicon Valley — and in the way tech companies use religion to keep their workers in line.

Not surprisingly, given the stark realities of Silicon Valley, Chen finds that White supremacy is alive and well in this toxic mix of work, religion, and corporate control. In her book Work Pray Code, Chen writes about how tech companies co-opt Buddhism in service of making workers compliant and more productive:

“Most White Westerners don’t realize that the Buddhism they know is a particular brand of Buddhism that has been repeatedly altered and adapted to appeal to them…. This brand of ‘nonreligious’ Buddhism, however, has racial implications. It associated Asian Buddhism’s ‘rituals, robes, and chanting’ with ‘the complications of religious tradition.’ It dismisses the religious reality of most Buddhists who are Asian and is therefore a form of White supremacy….”

For this last insight, Chen cites Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation by Joseph Cheah (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011); looks like I’ll have to add that book to my reading list. Chen then goes on to detail the ways in which Whitened Buddhism ignore the religious realities of Asians:

“For the vast majority of Buddhists who reside in Asia, Buddhism is a devotional faith that involves the veneration of deities and beliefs in the supernatural. For example, in Chinese, the phrase that describes practicing Buddhism, ‘bai Buddha,’ translates to ‘worship Buddha.’ Most lay Buddhists in Asia orient their devotional practices — offerings of incense and fruit, ritual chanting, praying, bowing, donating money to temples and monasteries — to the attainment of merit or a favorable rebirth….”

Of course, for Silicon Valley tech companies enamored of Buddhism, what Buddhism is really all about is things like meditation. And meditation is supposedly a value-neutral “technology,” not a religious practice. Whitened Buddhism focuses on things, like meditation, that can increase worker productivity and worker compliance. Whereas non-White Buddhism is deliberately ignored:

“Whitened Buddhism tends to protray the ‘religious’ Buddhism of Asians and Asian Americans as burdened by unnecessary accoutrements — ‘complications,’ ‘culture,’ ‘folklore,’ ethnicity,’ baggage’ — that distract from the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. For example, Mandy Stephens, whose company runs a meditation app for corporate clients, explains that they distill medication to ‘the fundamentals,’ ‘the part that isn’t religious or spiritual.’ Her company gets to ‘the fundamentals’ by getting rid of teachers who are ‘zany gurus’ [i.e., non-White] and replacing them with ‘strait-laced [White] trainers’ in [Western] business casual clothes. The chanting at the local Asian temple is ‘folklore,’ says former tech executive Pierre Beaumont, irrelevant to ‘what’s good for me in meditation.’ Mandy and Pierre dismiss the very elements of Buddhism that tens of millions of Asians hold most dear.” [my comments in brackets]

Because if you’re White, it’s apparently OK to co-opt whatever you want out of other religious traditions, and use it for whatever you feel like. And then you can say it’s not even really religion: “This Whitened Buddhism becomes a ‘universal philosophy’ and ‘science.’ It become ‘White’ — floating above context, invisible, and normal….” [Chen, excerpts from pp. 165-167]

I find the entire Silicone Vally Religion of Work to be repellent. But I find this especially repellent: co-opting a non-White religious tradition, perverting it from its original purpose to stop the endless cycle of rebirth, and instead using broken bits of it to control workers.

Indeed, as Chen notes elsewhere in her book, when tech companies offer things like meditation and mindfulness training to help tech workers deal with the overwhelming demands of Silicon Valley overwork, these companies are merely offering “therapeutic interventions, Band-Aids lovingly applied to deep and gaping wounds. Their programs might not be too distant from the ‘opiate of the masses’ that [Karl] Marx wrote about.” [Chen, p. 85]

Coloniality and gender

I seem to have very little time these days, as the Omicron surge winds down, and as our congregation opens up again (or maybe re-opens up? — or is it re-re-opens up?). Nevertheless, I’m slowly making my way through some essays by Maria Lugones, and I’m currently reading “The Coloniality of Gender.” In this essay, she critiques Anibal Quijano’s theoretical work on global capitalism for his “complicity with the gender system.” In other words, many males who write about colonialism ignore how women are dominated.

But Lugones is also laying out another way to analyze gender, a model which she calls “the modern colonial/gender system”:

“In Quijano’s model of global capitalist Eurocentered power, ‘capitalism’ refers to the ‘structural articulation of all historically known forms of control of labor or exploitation, slavery, servitude, small independent mercantile production, wage labor, and reciprocity under the hegemony of the capital-wage labor relation.’ (‘Colonialidad del Poder y Clasificacion Social,’ Festschrift for Immanuel Wallerstein, part I, Journal of World Systems Research, V. xi, #2, summer/fall 2000). In this sense, the structuring of the disputes over control of labor are discontinuous: not all labor relations under global, Eurocentered capitalism fall under the capital/wage relation model, though this is the hegemonic model. It is important in beginning to see the reach of the coloniality of power that wage labor has been reserved almost exclusively for white Europeans. The division of labor is thoroughly ‘racialized’ as well as geographically differentiated. Here we see the coloniality of labor as a thorough meshing of labor and ‘race.’”

Lugones connects colonialism, capitalism, gender, and race. This has some interesting implications for the way we Unitarian Universalists think about anti-oppression work.

Westerners misappropriating non-Western religious imagery

A broad-based interfaith coalition, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, and Jews, has targeted a nightclub chain that uses Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain statues for interior decoration. As reported by Religion News Service, the “Foundation Room” night clubs operated by Live Nation Entertainment in U.S. cities including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, and New Orleans uses the following religious imagery as decor: statues of Buddha (Buddhism); statues of Ganesha, Hanuman, Shiva, and Rama (Hinduism); statues of Mahavira and Parshvanatha (Jainism).

Live Nation said in a statement that the Foundation Room clubs are (according to them) all about “promoting unity, peace, and harmony.” Before you cynically respond “Bullshit!” — it may be that Live Nation’s management really did see the misappropriation of these religious images as promoting unity. Since they’re based in the U.S., we can assume that they — consciously or unconsciously — see the “Judeo-Christian tradition” as normative; and while “Judeo” is merely a modifier of “Christian” in this formulation, Judaism is still seen as somehow normative. Since Christianity and Judaism are part of mainstream U.S. culture, Live Nation’s management would never think of putting up a cross or star of David in one of their nightclubs.

Why then is it OK to use religious images from Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism? Well, part of the answer might well be that “religion” as a concept is a Western concept that only dates back to the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, the West did not have a concept that corresponds to our current notion of “religion.” And “religion” as a concept was developed in part as a way to bolster Western colonialist ambitions: “religion” was defined in such a way that only Christianity (and perhaps Judaism, in a debased way) fit the definition; this allowed Western powers to justify domination of non-Western cultures on the grounds Christianizing them. (For more on the link between “religion” and colonialism, see e.g. Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies [Oxford Univ. Press, 2000]; William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict [Oxford Univ. Press, 2009]).

Not surprisingly, colonized peoples are accorded less respect than the colonizers. This might make more sense if I put this in racial terms, since so many of us are thinking about race these days: in the Western worldview, Christianity is seen as the property of the West, which means it’s a white religion; while Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism are generally seen as having adherents who are people of color; while you wouldn’t use white people’s religious symbol in a night club, it would be OK to use the religious symbol belonging to people of color.

However, while colonialism and racism are strongly linked, I find it more helpful to view this dispute over religious imagery in nightclubs as a legacy of colonialism. After all, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism do have white adherents, and there are strong traditions of black and Latinx Christianity. But non-Christian religions are still seen as somehow “primitive” or less advanced than Christianity, and thus may be accorded less respect; and just as in the past, this viewpoint still allows Western nations to see non-Western nations as suitable for colonial domination through both economics and military action.

Maybe I’m making too much out of this. But I do want to explain why Live Nation Entertainment didn’t put crosses or statues of Jesus Christ in their nightclubs; why does Jesus Christ get their respect, but not the Buddha?

What is religion

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been intensively writing a curriculum on world religions for middle elementary grades. Most of my time has been spent in developing activities for children to get inside the stories that are the basis of the curriculum — so my home office, and my office at work, became workshops where I was making prototypes of paper bag puppets, mobiles, board games, masks, and so on. And the rest of my time was devoted to writing up those activities. Yet all the while I was producing material aimed at second and third graders, and their volunteer teachers, I was thinking about what religion is. Because when you’re trying to make something clear to second and third graders, you first have to make it clear to yourself.

Here, then, are some of my thoughts on religion:

First of all, it is widely accepted among current religious studies scholars that religion is not a thing; that is, there is not a “thing” out there that you can point to and say, “That’s religion.” Some religious studies scholars will say that religion is at most a social construct. Other scholars argue that there really is no such thing as religion; that what we call “religion” is actually the West trying to impose the characteristics of Western Christianity — belief in a transcendent being, hierarchy and clergy, weekly meetings, exclusive adherence to one religious group, etc. — on other societies. Still other scholars point out that religion is a valid category within Western jurisprudence, because the West holds dear something we call “religious freedom”; but that defining what constitutes a religion which can receive the legal protection under laws pertaining to religious freedom is often problematic (e.g., Scientology is defined as a religion in the United States, but not in some Western European countries; Mormonism was allowed to become a religion in the United States in the legal sense only after it renounced the tenet of plural marriage; etc.). Finally, still other scholars argue that “religion” is really merely a tool of colonialism; this may be seen, for example, when the British Empire took over the Indian subcontinent, and, for ease in colonial control, defined something called “Hinduism” that didn’t exist before; though then some newly-created “Hindus” figured out that the Western concept of religious freedom could give them some autonomy in which to resist colonial oppression, making everything far more complicated than it might appear at first.

In short, religion is at best a social construct; at another extreme, it might not even exist at all.

More importantly, when talking about “religion,” we must be very careful to avoid imposing Western definitions and criteria. This means that talking about “faith communities” is problematic: “faith” implies that Western-style belief in a transcendent being is the central feature of a religious group; but many Therevada Buddhists simply don’t have a transcendent being; certain strands of Judaism emphasize correct action (orthopraxy) over correct belief (orthodoxy); etc. Indeed, talking about “communities” is problematic, because it assumes Western-style voluntary associations called “congregations”; but many strands of Daoism in China have nothing that remotely resembles a congregation; the Buddhist sangha, usually conceptualized in the West as a congregation, in other parts of the world is a small grouping more like what we in the West would think of as monks.

Nor should we talk about “adherents,” a common term in the United States to designate persons who are associated with a religious group. The word “adherent” carries connotations of Western-style Christianity, where you get to choose which religious group you want to adhere to; but in many parts of the world, you are born into a “religion” and it’s not a choice, such that religious affiliation is closer to ethnic identity. We wouldn’t say that someone born in Ireland who emigrated to the United States is an “adherent” of Irish-Americanism; the same is true for many religious affiliations.

Even as a social construct, religion — considered carefully — challenges many of our preconceptions. We are accustomed to making broad, sweeping generalizations about a given religion: for example, all Christians believe in God. But that simply isn’t true: there are today a good many Christian atheists in the United States, people who embrace many of the teachings of Christianity, but who simply don’t believe in God. When I have pointed this out to some non-Christians, they become offended, because they “know” that all Christians believe in God, and therefore they didactically proclaim that a Christian who doesn’t believe in God isn’t a “real Christian.” But this kind of statement cannot be accepted: how can a non-Christian presume to dogmatically declare who is and who isn’t a Christian? — indeed, this kind of statement helps us understand how “religion” was used as a tool of colonial control: an outsider proclaims that what a colonized person is doing is religion, and therefore that colonized person has to do it a certain way, or else…. If we remember that religion is a social construct, and specific religions cannot be defined by broad sweeping generalizations, we can save ourselves from attempting to control other people in this way.

Along these lines, we can also remember to let religions speak for themselves, rather than trying to speak for religions. As I was looking at older world religions curriculums, I was struck by how often the curriculum writer was willing to take a religious story and turn it to their own ends. This most often happens when a curriculum writer takes a story, removes some specific religious content, and repurposes the story as a moral tale. A common example of this is the way curriculum writers (and children’s book authors) use Buddhist Jataka tales. Most Jataka tales take the form of a story-within-a-story: the framing story is an incident happens within the community of monks surrounding Gotama Buddha; next the Buddha tells the story-within-the-story, an incident from one of his previous incarnations; finally, we return to the framing story where Buddha and the monks talk over which of them was which character in the story-within-the-story. But curriculum writers (children’s book authors) tend to strip away the framing story, rewriting the story-within-the-story as a simple folk tale; but this imposes an outside (probably non-Buddhist, probably Western) interpretation on the Jataka tale.

When we let religions speak for themselves, we also have to remember the internal diversity within religions. One Christian cannot speak for all Christians; not even if he’s the Pope, for the Pope only speaks for Roman Catholics (and maybe not for all Roman Catholics, as we seem to be seeing in the resistance of conservative Catholics to the current pope’s reform efforts). When you look at the internal diversity of the “religion” of Christianity, it boggles the mind. How are silent meeting Quakers the same religion as Eritrean Orthodox Christians? How is the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints the same religion as the Church of the Lord (Aladura)? It is true that they all share a reverence for Jesus; but there are Muslims and Hindus and Baha’is who also share some kind of reverence for Jesus (perhaps a lesser reverence, but how can we measure that?). It is true that the wildly diverse groups refer to some of the same books as a shared religious scripture, but these books are translated and interpreted differently, and some groups add other books, or leave out parts of some books. Moving beyond Christians, what about the internal diversity of Hinduism: what do Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism have in common, aside from all being rooted in the culture of the Indian subcontinent, and aside from all being grouped together by British colonial rule? In today’s political climate in India, it might be said that Hindusim has become more like a politicized ethnic identity; but where does that leave the large Hindu community in Bali?

We must also consider how religions vary over time. Today we thinking of all evangelical Christians in the United States as wanting to outlaw abortion; yet there was a time, not so long ago, when many or even most evangelical Christians supported the right to abortion. The Sikhs at the time of Guru Nanak’s death did not have the “five Ks”; yet they were nevertheless Sikhs. Mormons didn’t practice plural marriage, then did practice plural marriage, then didn’t practice plural marriage (except for a few small splinter groups); yet who am I, a non-Mormon, to say who was and who wasn’t a Mormon?

To recap, here are some of the things I had to wrestle with as I was writing this curriculum:
— “Religion” is at most a social construct, and may not even exist;
— We have to be careful not to use the social construct of “religion” to impose our will on others;
— “Religions” are internally diverse, sometimes wildly so;
— “Religions” vary over time.

Trying to embed these concepts in a curriculum such that middle elementary children can get some sense of them was challenging. Trying to embed these concepts in a curriculum so that adult teachers would challenge their own (Western, colonial) preconceptions seems almost impossible….

Religious freedom and colonialism

The latest Religious Studies Podcast is a very interesting interview with Tisa Wenger, author of a new book, “Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal.” (If you’re like me and prefer reading to listening, there’s also a full transcript to read.) In the interview, Wenger explains how Native American people redefined what they did as religion in order to use U.S. guarantees of religious freedom to protect indigenous traditions:

“[In the United States] you see U.S. government officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) delegitimizing indigenous traditions by categorizing them as superstitious, heathenish, pagan. And indigenous people, who in their own languages and ways of structuring — they had their own ways of structuring their societies — but those ways of structuring their societies didn’t really include anything equivalent to the category of religion as Americans understood it at the time. But they [Native Americans] start to conceive of those traditions as religion in order to argue back against the categorization of themselves as heathen, savage, pagan, etc. So this is why I title my first book ‘We Have a Religion’: this was a quote from a Pueblo Indian petition to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, saying, ‘We also have a religion … And you can’t ban it, because of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.'”

Wenger also touches briefly on how something similar happened in British India, as Hinduism came to be defined as a religion:

“The construction of Hinduism as a ‘world religion’ is happening in conjunction with [British] colonial history. Both by Indian intellectuals and by British, for somewhat different ends. But it serves both of their interests to construct Hinduism as a world religion.”

I’ve been thinking recently about the interaction between the concept of religious freedom on the one hand, and religion on the other hand. I’m one of those who doesn’t see religion as a thing that can be easily defined; instead, I’m one of those who sees religion as a social construction with definitions that vary over time. Wenger’s research helps me better understand how a colonial power like the United States used religion in varying ways to help dominate Native American peoples; and, conversely, how Native Americans in turn used religion to maintain their own cultural autonomy.

Clearly, Wenger’s work also looks at the interactions between race and religion. In a response to the interview with Wenger, “The Politics of Religious Freedom and the Criminalization of Blackness,” Alexander Rocklin examines the way Afro-Caribbean religions have been stigmatized, and defined as not being religions so that religious freedom does not apply to them (in much the same way that certain Native American religions have been defined as not being religions so that they can be outlawed). Rocklin writes:

“The denial of the status of religion became a dehumanizing justification for the enslavement, colonization, and repression of peoples of African descent around the globe, a denial that still haunts the category of religion.”

The link between the category of religion and colonialism is well known, but what’s new here is the detail these two scholars offer about specific religious traditions and their battle for religious freedom with colonial powers. Fascinating reading.