by Savi Hensman, community worker, author of “Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness” and LGBTI+ equality activist
Sometimes religion is twisted to serve the ends of those ruthlessly seeking power. Yet others live out their faith through commitment to justice and equality, risking themselves for others.
One of example of this is what we have witnessed in South Asia over the last few weeks where people of various faiths and none have risked their own safety to defend their neighbours and values they regard as important, including secularism. There have been moving scenes of caring and courage across India in resistance to a law that would harm a vulnerable religious minority. Women students in Delhi have bravely protected a male friend from further beating and slum-dwellers in Mumbai (Bombay) have marched in their thousands against discrimination.
Often ‘secularists’ are thought of as being opposed to faith or at least its influence on public life. But for many in South Asia and beyond, opposing the idea that the state should favour just one religion, so treating people with other beliefs as if they were of lesser worth, is seen as a way of showing love and promoting justice.
Avoiding division, cruelty and inequality
According to its constitution, India is a ‘secular democratic republic’ with ‘equality of status and of opportunity’ in which state discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste or sex is banned. This has often not been put into practice, but as the 70th anniversary of the original constitution approaches later this month we are reminded that the ideals still remain. For instance, gay sex was only decriminalised last year. This happened in part because the ban was ruled unconstitutional, as was shoddy treatment of the ancient transgender community, though on this matter the law remains unsatisfactory.
However, in recent years a government has been in charge which has distorted Hinduism in its quest for power – despite the protests of some devout Hindus. As Religion News reported last October, Muslims have been lynched and Christians, Dalits and dissidents persecuted. Economic bungling has worsened the plight of the poorest. The seizure of Kashmir in 2019 and isolation of its residents (in ways now ruled unlawful) was a further step towards ditching the ideals which energised the independence movement. A national register of citizens is now planned, where people will have to prove their status – which of course is extremely hard for those on low incomes, who often do not have birth certificates or other documents and cannot afford lawyers.
Many will be left stateless and most likely herded into camps, as has already happened in Assam. A Citizenship (Amendment) Act has also been passed which would allow most of those affected, if they are not Muslim, to eventually be declared ‘refugees’ and allowed to become citizens again. It seems clear that politicians appear to have intended to pick off minorities one by one.
But defying fear, protesters – many of them women – have gathered in India and overseas, with slogans such as ‘All Indians are brothers and sisters’, ‘Save humanity, save country’ and ‘Keep dividing, we will keep multiplying’.
A couple of weeks ago, 200+ Christian leaders from across India came together and stated: ‘The new law is deeply divisive, discriminatory and violative of human rights. In particular, this legislation discriminates against Muslim communities in India, who constitute over 14 per cent of the population of India, and therefore, it is totally unacceptable in a secular democratic republic of India.’ They appealed for lawmakers to scrap the legal changes and ‘stop the construction of detention/concentration camps at the earliest’.
The Archbishop of Bombay and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, has also spoken out, declaring ‘The Citizenship Amendment Act is a cause of great anxiety for all citizens and there is a danger that there could be a polarization of our peoples along religious lines, which is very harmful for the country…It is the responsibility of all to promote solidarity and respect for all in our country.’
Not watering down spirituality for worldly gain
I would therefore suggest that in such circumstances, secularism can in fact assist the deepening and spread of true religion.
This may seem a strange notion to some people of faith, especially given many Christians believe that belonging to an established Church helps to promote their message. I accept that links with the state, and with others with authority and wealth, can be helpful in sharing the Good News and serving the community. Yet ties which are too tight can in my opinion cause harm, especially if a Church is too afraid to defend the weak or the essence of faith is diluted to please powerful patrons.
Piety may in fact become a cover for corruption and the quest for power or status at others’ expense, a concern. This is something that the ancient Jewish prophets knew all too well about and to which Jesus also pointed. Worse still, a twisted religious fervour can be turned against women, minorities or others who are marginalised, hatred and contempt whipped up against ‘outsiders’, who may become scapegoats.
As one brave Hindu priest, Pujari Laldas, warned before he was murdered by fanatics of his own faith in 1993: ‘All the communal riots that have rocked India have been caused for financial and political gain.’
In contrast, kindness, generosity, wisdom and concern for peace with justice are at the heart of authentic faith.
This is not to say that those drawn to ‘religious’ movements which oppose human rights for everyone are always insincere. Some are just naïve and unaware of the human cost to their neighbours, especially those whose experience is very different from their own. Others may be seduced by charismatic leaders or slick publicity, especially if these tap into the insecurities or resentments which we all have. However Divine love offers a deeper and more lasting satisfaction.
Christians worship a God who, for love’s sake, abandoned power, privilege and security, instead being born as a helpless baby and condemned to death by the mighty and ‘holy’. Yet, through the cross, new life is offered in a world turned upside down, the hungry fed and divisions overcome. This hope helps to sustain many Christians, in India and beyond, who have put their own reputation and safety on the line for others.
Therefore, whilst I recognise that there are some secularists who are agnostic or atheist, I would suggest that passionate faith can, and often does, go hand in hand with commitment to religious equality and human rights for all.