The Christmas season, referred to as the season of goodwill, will see Guyanese of all religious persuasions seizing the opportunity of participating in all that the season has to offer. They delight in the exchange of gifts, pamper the children and enjoy family gatherings. Some try to bring cheer to the less fortunate. Many Christians take the opportunity of reaffirming their faith, to give thanks and to celebrate the life and work of Jesus Christ. All participate in the fanfare of welcoming the New Year. Some consume too much alcohol and drive recklessly.
In this period religion plays an important, sometimes a dominant, role in the lives of many people in Guyana and around the world. Christians engage in religious observances and reflect on the lessons that Jesus in His short time on earth left with us. Different people are moved or motivated by particular aspects of the teachings of Jesus, depending on their special interests. Jesus’s clear, outspoken and uninhibited partisanship towards the poor, oppressed, disadvantaged and sick are what appeal most to me.
Even though serious academics have questioned the existence of Jesus Christ and thrashed the quality of scholarship that ‘proves’ his existence, Christians are in no doubt about His soujourn on earth and its purpose, the story of His birth and life, the lessons He gave and the miracles He performed, the manner of His death and Resurrection, and His being the Son of God. Others have criticized Christianity, the religion that His ministry gave birth to, as advocating the acceptance of oppression on earth in return for everlasting life in heaven, if the praises of the Lord are sounded clearly and loudly enough.
Trenchant criticisms of religion, particularly Christianity, have been made by Karl Marx. He explained that religion is like any other social institution in that it reflects the economic structures of society and the real and changing world, but that it induced servility and acceptance of the status quo. He believed religion took humankind’s highest ideals, alienated them from us and projected them unto a non-existent God. He famously characterized religion as ‘the opium of the people.’
At the time he wrote, and for centuries before, the Church had been one of the most powerful pillars in support of the aristocracy’s most reprehensible and degrading oppression of the poor. He pointed out that even though Martin Luther and Protestantism, in their struggle against the granting of God’s forgiveness through a self-appointed agent and not directly by God, reflecting the ‘progressive’ developments relating to capitalism’s emergence out of feudalism, Luther sided with the aristocracy against the peasants in the Peasants’ War in 1524-5 and urged that the peasants be murderously suppressed.
Many have pointed out that the substance of Jesus’s work was a revolutionary struggle against Roman oppression. In resisting Roman rule, He urged that there was a higher power over temporal authority, which was against exploitation and oppression. He fought against these. His exemplary life in this respect at least has inspirational lessons, even for those who are not Christians. It teaches that we can struggle and succeed in ending oppression and achieving a better life on earth. This implied that the oppressed does not have to wait for the Heavenly embrace to enjoy the fruits of success on earth.
Notwithstanding Jesus’s teaching captured in that memorable metaphor of the capacity of an elephant passing through a needle’s eye that for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, Christianity and its Church grew and became deeply associated with state power after Emperor Constantine (306-337 AD) ceased the persecution of Christians and became a patron of the Church. As the State Church for the Roman Empire from AD 380 and other states thereafter, churches inevitably became historical apologists for the excesses of states and ruling groups. Their political identification with oppressors and accumulation of wealth were accompanied by the spilling of much blood.
This gave way to the justification of slavery in the colonial era and the ‘pacification’ of slaves by promoting only those aspects of Jesus’s teachings that emphasized everlasting life and a glorious existence in Heaven if the authority of God and His chosen servants, the slave owners, are accepted. Many will argue today that much of this continues in less obvious ways.
Many revolutionaries of the left, relying on the famous dictum of Karl Marx, quoted above, threw out Christianity and all religion along with the churches, the baby with the bath water, because of their identification with oppressive policies of rulers. Revolutionaries may well have been unable to sustain their revolutions if the power of the churches had remained intact. The bitter struggles and nature of the revolutionary changes of the first half of the twentieth century, except for India, did not provide the possibility to convince the oppressed to reject the Church’s entrenched and reactionary influence over their lives. After all, even Stalin was a theology student in a seminary. Suppression was the less difficult choice. As history has shown, it hasn’t worked. It never does.
The life and those lessons of Jesus, which are relevant to modern conditions, remain today a bright and shining star in the firmament of universal truth, universal values and moral standards.
I take this opportunity to wish readers a Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.