“Election Issues 23 The politics and myths of Secular and Christian states” (version in Fiji Times, 9 Aug 2014)
The politics and myths of secular and Christian states
Professor Wadan Narsey (a version in The Fiji Times, 9 Aug 2014)
This election has thrown up an old issue- whether the state should be a “secular” state or a “Christian” State.
The Bainimarama Government has declared that under their constitution, Fiji is a “secular state” no particular religion or God will be held superior to another, and no one will be forced to practice another religion.
But one political party, whose manifesto states that it believes in Christian principles, has proclaimed that they will not pray to a “face-less” God.
“God” has now become a political football in this forthcoming elections, for at least two political parties.
Does it matter at all to God what political parties say about how they want Him to be worshipped in their little corner of the universe? Does it matter to the ordinary people?
The myth of a secular state
The “secular state” is part of the 2013 Constitution created and currently being enforced by the Bainimarama government.
The Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) has asserted that the military will enforce the constitution, and presumably the “secular state” bit as well.
The RFMF itself is supposed to be a “secular” organization, without any allegiance to any religion BUT the paradox is that in all its own church services, the prayers are to the Christian god, Jesus Christ, and not to any of the Hindu gods, or the Muslim Allah, or any other “faceless gods”.
In virtually all government department functions, both before and after the 2013 Constitution was promulgated, the “Grace” prayers before a meal are nearly always asking Jesus Christ to bless the meal and the hands that prepared it.
Even our so-called radical Christian priests who are committed to multi-racialism and respect other religions, will still offer prayers to Jesus Christ, even when people of other religions are present at that gathering as they often are.
I know of very few Christian priests or even Christians who acknowledge mixed company by giving a secular prayer to “God” (one exception was the late Father John Bonato of USP).
But also to my knowledge, no one believing in any other religion has particularly cared that the prayers were to Jesus Christ and not to their own God.
So why might SODELPA be raising the issue of a “Christian state” just before this elections, when the practice of the Bainimarama Government and the stated objectives of SODELPA are not too far apart at all.
The argument put forward by SODELPA is that Fiji should be a “Christian” state, as recognition of the religion which brought indigenous Fijians out of their precolonial supposedly heathen and savage “pagan” state.
But this issue had pretty well gone away after the promulgation of the 1997 Constitution when the secular state was accepted without any great fuss, so why would SODELPA resuscitate it again now?
I suggest that it is probably a reaction to Bainimarama Government’s history of discriminatory restrictions on the Methodist Church (such as limitations on their annual conferences in the last few years) when no such restrictions were applied to any other religions.
Sadly, none of these other religious organizations (Catholics, Hindus or Muslims), protested at the discrimination against their sister religious organization, thereby losing a great opportunity to reduce Fiji’s cycles of religious intolerance.
Perhaps some SODELPA elections strategists feel that pushing for a Christian state might win them some votes with Methodists, just as Fiji First Party thinks that declaration of a “secular” state will win them some Hindu and Muslim votes (many remember the temples and mosques desecrated in 1987 and 2000).
Of course, some SODELPA strategists may genuinely believe that the Fijian “state” should be Christian with “Christian values”. When I once complained about bloggers repeating that Jesus would come to the rescue of democracy and “fix up” the “evil” blokes and mildly suggested that surely, “God helps those who help themselves”, one Christian stalwart of the party asked me contemptuously “Wadan, who is your God”?
Well, on a USP panel discussion about social justice, somewhat dominated by clerics, I had diffidently mentioned that I was an atheist, or more correctly an agnostic, but I was promptly reassured by the Head of one Christian church on the panel, “Don’t worry Wadan, I know you have Christian principles”.
So this agnostic seems to have an insurance policy when he kicks the bucket and if the Archbishop’s “God” is sitting in judgment on the other side (if there is one), I may get the nod to go upstairs to a cool and pleasant Nirvana rather than downstairs to a slightly warmer place.
Which God is the “true” One?
Many philosophers have tried to rationalize the historical reality that virtually all human societies spread the wide world over, and for thousands of years, have “envisaged” some “God” to pray to.
It is very reassuring to ordinary mortals to think that there is a source of all life and creation, Who gives meaning to our lives and deaths, Who is there to reward the good and punish the evil, and Who hands down a set of rules to encourage the “moral” behavior of the adherents, usually, but not always, resulting in a more peaceful community.
One only has to be part of any community praying together over births, marriages, or deaths, to understand that “God” provides a strength to that community, that is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
You can also read the more sophisticated philosophical views of Swami Vivekananda (born 1863, died 1902) recorded in eight volumes comprising one million words) but condensed into a more readable book What Religion Is.
While I personally do not believe in all of Vivekananda’s views, I find refreshing his belief in and rationalization of the validity of ALL religions.
Vivekananda (and all religious philosophers) distinguish between the ultimate supreme “God” of a religion, and the religious institution, the “formal organization of men and women” that espouse that particular religion, and who are usually the source of alleged differences and competition between religions.
Vivekananda argued that religions and sects are not competing but are complementary to each other, with each one being born in the context of particular social conditions of time and place.
Religions are therefore perpetually evolving, as the social conditions and human needs change over time. Where the parent body is unable to change to accommodate some group’s concerns, a new sect can be born and thrive, or people change religions, sometimes with the encouragement of “missionaries”.
Indeed, there has never been so much “religious choice” available to humans, not just between religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, etc), but also different sects within each major religion, but all believing in some supreme entity at the core of their beliefs.
Some religions have male gods only, some have female gods, and some animal gods; some have “castes” and elite classes, some don’t; some treat women as inferior and to be restricted in some way or another, some don’t’; some believe in heaven, hell and limbo after death, some believe in reincarnation; some have elaborate rituals, some don’t; some have glorious churches or temples or mosques for the priests, while the ordinary people live in hovels; some have the opposite; some have dietary restrictions, some don’t.
Some religions existed five thousand years ago (like Hinduism), some started two thousand years ago (like Christianity and Buddhism), and some started in the last few hundred years.
Vivekananda saw all religions as evolving towards some “universal religion”, with none being “superior” to any other.
Vivekananda and most religious philosophers have been dismayed that so many human practitioners of religions felt that their religion was superior to others, and used this prejudice to justify their violence against the “non-believers”, as has happened for centuries and continue today.
Does God have a “face”?
It is also natural that most ordinary people cannot imagine a “face-less” or indefinable God, but need a human “face” to relate to, and the “faces” have quite interesting if debatable physical features.
Many Christians today see Jesus Christ as a golden haired European with blue eyes when historically he was a brown-skinned, black-haired Jew born two thousand years ago in Palestine.
The Hindus have innumerable “faces” for God, imagined in statues or paintings, which some other religions contemptuously refer to as “sinful” “idols”.
Islam does not have a “face” for God, although there may be depictions of his prophet, Mohammed, an actual historical figure.
The Buddhists have thousands images of Buddha, in all kinds of shapes and sizes, although Buddha is not considered God.
I suspect that the God of All Creation could not care less whether He is given a “face” or not.
The “face of God” prayed to certainly makes no difference to the kind of life that each person lives, whether “good” or “bad”, which is what all that religions demand of people at the core.
Every religion has “parables” which illustrate that “non-believers” with good actions (the Samaritan) are preferred by God to priests who profess to be religious but whose actions indicate a lack of love for their fellow human being.
State and Religion
Religion is a deeply personal matter between the individual and his or her God.
It is meaningless to talk about a “secular state” or a “Christian state”.
For all religions, no God is ever going to sit in judgment on any “government” or “state” but only on individuals.
Conversely, individuals within a Christian or Islamic or Buddhist or Hindu state are not going to be judged by God by the nature or designation of their state, but only by their own individual deeds and thoughts.
Neither does the State judge individuals by the principles of any religion, but by the laws which the people of the state have accepted, even if the body of laws may have elements from certain religions.
I suggest that voters need not worry their heads at all about whether the state is declared to be “secular” or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim.
No parliamentarian will ever be able to influence God’s view about any individual voter, candidate, party or government.
Why waste energy on this non-issue?
Perhaps some clerics who use amplifiers to blast their sermons and prayers to all in the neighborhood, regardless of their faith or lack of it, need to ask if God is deaf.