Lost in the Secular World

Why Americans love faith institutions

However much it may disgruntle the devoutly secular, all culture is steeped in institutional faith. Easy to forget sometimes, especially in the Bay Area and on the west coast in general, but most of the country and world is deeply influenced by religion. To work intelligently we have to acknowledge that reality and let it influence our own actions. Once we get to know faith institutions better, it’s possible to explore another question: what strategies are desirable for secular, politically left radicals, knowing what institutional faith offers people?

People join faith communities for many reasons. The first European settlements in the U.S. were so religiously homogenous that it was dangerous to not participate. Non-churchgoers were seen as witches and devil-possessed, and were castigated from the struggling towns to survive on their own. Religion in relation to society doesn’t overtly carry the same weight today. Instead, people seek out faith communities seemingly of their free will. The social and geographic context encourages us, however, to pledge allegiance to one or another religious organization. There has always been a strong rhetoric advocating secularism in the U.S. Separation of Church and State is written into the Constitution but all the presidents and powerful positions were filled by Protestant men for over half this country’s history; a majority of them still are. Church and State remain essentially joined, as the top political individuals belong to only a few, very similar, institutions of faith.

Breaking out of religion became more possible when geographic communities became culturally more diverse. People from all over the world, with their own religious practices, found themselves living up next to each other in the explosion of urban industrial America in the 19th century. In an unofficially Protestant nation, there were two potential results. Either there would be explicit repression and the rise of a religious state, or government would have to extract itself from the influence of religion. It did some of both.

Living as we do several generations after religious tensions tested this country so overtly (remember that the very first confrontation was with the American indigenous, and that was resolved through genocide), new forces have driven people back to religion, and in particular, religiously informed politics. In North America we have the unique distinction of living in places that were built to break up walkable communities. Much of present urban America was shaped in the 1960s or after, when living, working, and playing in one place became passé. In rural areas, cities, and neighborhoods that orbit around cars, a vacuum of isolation now bars us from strong community connections. Those connections would provide a sense of self, social identity, and political purpose. In the absence of cultural (i.e. immigrant and ethnic) or geographic (i.e. neighborhood) community, most people go searching for a placebo. They frequently land on churches, mosques, synagogues and the like. This is not random.

Faith communities or more accurately, faith institutions, replicate hierarchy and patriarchy, maintaining the existing order of society. They offer guidance in overwhelming, chaotic surroundings, often in the form of authoritarian orders. Unlike in secular society, however, they are presented in a paternal manner that feels familial (based on the patriarchal model children learn at home). Folded into teachings of love, justice, and morality (concepts open to wide interpretation), the rituals and tenets of faith almost always replicate leadership from above and dominance by male figures. The paternal hierarchy of religious order answers a strong yearning for close knit community. Even though hierarchy, patriarchy, and capitalism threaten and destabilize us, many people associate them with the need for safety and comfort. This is pure reflex. We were all raised amidst these oppressive structures. We know what to expect and how to respond. On a certain level, we respond positively to these systems. Realizing this can inform the culture of radical propaganda and groups. We’re good at critiquing hierarchy, patriarchy, and capitalism. We might go further, and start to acknowledge and compensate for how appealing these institutions are, because they are etched deeply on our psyches. The simple fact of feeling familiar draws millions of people to prefer this social arrangement to anything different.

As radicals of social, anarchist, non-hierarchical, feminist inclinations, it’s vital to recognize this genuine human need for feeling comfortable, oriented, and safe. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, these impulses rank directly under physical demands of food, water, warmth, and rest. Political struggle is much less urgent to our survival instinct.

Many people would rather be told what to do because it’s familiar than endure the struggles of learning new, less oppressive, ways of existing. The lessons that faith institutions teach are very puzzling. They contradict themselves. Despite the teachings of all the holy books, which command (or suggest as morally imperative) sharing with others and living through acts of compassion and love toward humanity, the deeply ingrained dream of independence, bootstraps, and superhero I-did-it-all-by-myself success perseveres. While preaching compassion, community, and generosity, faith institutions frequently act out individuality, criticism, and disregard for the social welfare of humanity. Why don’t people want a community that allows them to decide what they believe, who they love, what they do with their bodies and whether or not their children die in crusades? Why do they prefer the insularity of a conformist “in” group to compassion for everyone? An inclusive perspective of who deserves survival and justice allows people the freedom to be different from one another. The “in” group (which radical communities also easily replicate) demands unnecessary and repressive conformity.

Why do people go for this? Often it’s a question of family. In the words of a radical who was raised in an Apostolic Christian church, “How could you quit it? It’s the only thing you have.” She recalls being told that people outside the church were “morally inept.” There was no way to know any different because everybody she knew was in the church. It was a community in isolation. She explains that “people dropped it, but [they] came back because they wanted their families,” who completely rejected individuals who left the church.

A radical leftist movement can’t replicate right wing institutions that harbor one’s entire childhood community and family. But maybe it can compete. Some radical communities are doing this quite well. People recreate family, build new structures of support, safety, and familiarity. They do it consciously, well aware that we need these elements in our lives, more than we need to develop sharp political analyses and win campaigns (though they don’t need to be mutually exclusive).

Another thing that faith communities offer people, which nothing else in U.S. culture does, is the permission to be ethical or moral in the world. Ethics is a formal, deductively logical system of deciding right and wrong; morality is a set of codes based on cultural agreement of a people, for determining the same. In a nation where intellectual discussion of politics is shunned and religion is dogmatically if artificially banned, there is little room for ethics or morality to play an overt role. (However, if you want to sway people to totalitarian or capitalist policy, you can use the façade of morality as propaganda.) This is an important lesson for lefty radicals. Humans want to incorporate their intuitive sense of right and wrong into their intellectual grasp of politics and social vision. Again, it’s up to us to string the words together that do this. We certainly have examples from our history. Emma Goldm
an swayed crowds with her passionate claims for anti-war and anarchist beliefs on the basis of ethics. In Living My Life, she recounts a hostile audience in England, which she turns to her favor. On the topic of war, she deplores: “Who is there who would supinely sit by when what is best and highest in a people is being throttled before his very eyes?” More recently, the decentralized model of acting and speaking not as a leader but as a participant of radical social movements has yielded many anonymous voices that dissolve hierarchy and patriarchy and result in a less oppressed society. Madjiguène Cissé of the Sans-Papiers (a grassroots organization of African immigrants living in France) writes in We Are Everywhere (Verso 2004), “If we had not taken our autonomy, we would not be here today…Many organizations [told] us we could never win…We had to learn democracy…women have played an extremely important role in this struggle.”

Faith communities also possess the strength of longevity. Show up at city hall with your synagogue and people won’t say, “Jews? Never heard of ‘em.” To hook up with a faith community is to tap into a several century, even multi-millennial, history that works as credibility—or to a lesser degree, notoriety—in the broader world. Faith communities have a reputation for being honest and moral, despite the historical record. In reality some people are and some people aren’t honest and moral, as everywhere in societies. But the perception makes it easier accomplish things, as faith institutions can solicit broad support based on general trust.

In other times and places in history, revolutionary, secular movements were able to gain broad popularity (early 20th century Spain, currently in Afghanistan). Those movements were popular as a result of the complete control and overt repression of the faith institutions (Catholicism and fundamental Islam, in those cases). We do not live in such a place and time. Religion has a heavy influence on society around the globe, but here in the U.S. we aren’t living under its total control. And if we don’t want to wait around for the “moral majority” to create such blatant disaster, we need to understand where our own radical communities fall short and that faith communities fill some of those gaps. The opposite is also true; faith communities often obstruct revolutionary change. But what they do provide is a little higher on the hierarchy of needs, so we need to cultivate those same phenomena with our social and political critiques.

International Solidarity Movement in Palestine

In early May 2002, after months of observing the Palestinian struggle, 24 internationals made a food run into Bethlehem’s besieged Church of the Nativity. Eleven internationals made it inside. The other thirteen were arrested and detained in an illegal Israeli prison in Hebron, Palestine. To protest their impending deportation, some of the activists went on a hunger strike, demanding that they be allowed to freely return instead of being barred from the state of Israel for 10 years.

Here, a friend of one of the activists reflects on the broader implications of their hunger strike. .

Massacre, so easily mind-numbing, takes on a whole new meaning when it involves people you know. Which is probably why the US government was in no hurry for the US prisoners of the Israeli Occupational Forces (IOF) to come home. These internationals were there when young Israeli soldiers rolled through Jenin, showering everyone with a wall of lead and blood. They were there to watch the desperate rummaging through rubble for belongings and family, intact or not. They were there on April 2 when, seeking refuge, around 200 Palestinians ran to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and they were there to watch them slowly starve and suffer as their food and water dwindled and expired. Exactly one month later, as supporters in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), 24 internationals made a food run into the church, using their unjust but real higher status of foreign citizenship to protect the trapped Palestinians. It was their second attempt, and it succeeded. Eleven internationals made it inside. The other thirteen were arrested and detained in an illegal Israeli prison in Hebron, Palestine.

The thirteen broke no law. They were delivering humanitarian relief. Furthermore, their captors had (and have) no legal jurisdiction over Bethlehem, nor anywhere else in the West Bank. It was illegal for them to arrest internationals, it was illegal for them to fire on the Church of the Nativity, it was illegal for them to be armed, murdering, occupying. It has been illegal since they first set foot in the West Bank. This is the reason internationals are in Palestine.

And this is why a number of them refused to be deported. Having broken no laws, and having not been charged with any crime, they wanted free return to Palestine. They wanted to continue the work that not enough people are doing, support of a people under attack by the one of the most powerful military and political forces in the world. But they cannot simply say “please”. The Israeli government and US embassy will not listen to them; they are prisoners.

In prison, power takes completely different form. Thirteen internationals do not have the power to walk away, to act on their convictions by bringing material aid and vigilant eyes to the centers of massacre and devastation. They cannot directly help, so a new power emerges.

They stop eating, and then, as the US embassy and media and Israel’s Minister of the Interior do nothing, they stop drinking water. They can’t send their stories through email anymore, so they speak with the fragility of their personal, particular bodies.

They say, “If the U.S. government won’t look at Camp Jenin, at the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) as the IOF, won’t even take sides with UN observers trying to see what the hell has happened here during the media blackout in the last six weeks, then look at us, your family, friends, lovers, mentors, neighbors. Look at us and then once you’re looking, listen to what we’re saying, what we did, and then open your eyes a little wider and see why we came here in the first place. We’re starving ourselves not to be martyrs, but because it’s the only thing we can do to make you look.”

Their power is literally the sum of our empathy. The power of personal connection, of friends, family, acquaintances-this is the power that brought these individuals to Palestine, and filled them with love and determination to sustain their solidarity. Of course this power already existed. Close friends and family of ISM internationals thought about them every day as they made their way through the occupied zones of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Camp Jenin. But the friends of friends, the extended family, those who know of them, the friends of their mothers; for them perhaps the hunger strike put Palestine on the map.

If you called the embassy in mid-May, you know that the hunger strikers “are fine,” in fact, “only one of them is hunger striking.” Also it is a “rumor” that one of them passed out after 9 days without food and a few days without water. You know too that the US Embassy “can’t tell the Israeli government what to do,” even though the US has been financing them to do what they do since 1949. Members of the embassy have no interest in the political reason for the imprisonment, because they are “diplomats,” not politicians.

“But you are in a land where people are committing genocide,” I say to the faceless voice in Tel Aviv, “genocide. Is this not of personal concern to you?” The agitated, rapid-speaking man at the other end of the line does not answer this question. Because this genocide does not involve anyone that the embassy officials know.

We who know these individuals are caught between the Free __________ (first name of prisoner here) Campaign and the other reason for this hunger strike. The acts of these people are tethered to us by our knowledge of their smiles, their poetry, their fierce convictions. They hover in our hearts as we eat breakfast, as we wake at the first light of day wondering if they can feel our love and worry across the time zones and the convoluted versions of truth we struggle to navigate through.

But we also realize that our friends have refused to eat because, as Trevor Baumgartner, one of the detainees, writes from Israeli prison in Ramle on May 9, “we know that this struggle is more than about individual fates.” It is a struggle against decades of human rights violations, and a struggle for international attention to those atrocities. In Palestine, the Zionist entity (Israel) is engaged in a calculated and systematic demolition of the Palestinian people that is both material and psychological. IOF soldiers call this a “purification”. They are not interested only in occupying this land. They wage a battle of cultural annihilation, in which soldiers enter apartments, sweep the room with their eyes, select the photo of a loved one, smash it out of its frame, tear it to bits, and flush it down the toilet (Ramallah- March 2002).

This is not only about land. This is about people and how they weave their humanity together into survival. A people who hold freedom and justice and love as carefully and hopefully and determinedly in their hands as you do. They send their stories to their friends on the outside, who are our mothers and friends and teachers and lovers, who are you and me. They are talking to us. Our friends on hunger strike in Israel are using their delicate bodies and strong spirits as megaphones for the voices of their Palestinian friends, who are eleven years old, sixty years old, thirty-five years old and who are as varied as the personalities and dreams in your neighborhood. Listen to us, listen to our friends, they say.

Hunger strikes seem to be heroic acts. They set up their strikers as martyrs. But this is only because so often we who are moved by humans inflicting suffering upon themselves for a deep conviction, don’t look beyond the individual to the context of the strike. In the case of the ISM prisoners, many of them planned to return to their home countries to speak and write about what they’d witnessed and experienced. They wanted to inspire others to actively join the struggle for Palestinian human rights and autonomy.

It was not in their interest to just shut up and get out of prison to safety ASAP, because their interests are not only individual. Fighting the fact of their arrest and imprisonment is in their own interests and simul
taneously in the interest of “the greater cause” they are engaged in. For this reason, after several days on hunger strike, the US detainees decided to go home, whether freely or by deportation (which would ban them from entering Israel for at least 10 years). There is work to be done outside Palestine. Their words need to be heard. The stories of their friends in Palestine need to be known in the world. We need them here to cut through the media blackout and government lies.

We are living in a time of intense and righteous dissent. As the despots of the US create more insidious foreign and domestic policy disasters, I struggle, as many do, to develop a sense of power and action that feels effective. I try not to get paralyzed with overwhelming dread while watching imbeciles blunder at the helm of this country.

As humans struggling to live meaningful lives in whatever circumstances, our most powerful tool is human connection. The people we ally ourselves with, whom we teach, learn from, and love are our sources of strength and growth. Real and personal connection is how we lend strength to people across the world.

At the time of this writing, at least 5 of the internationals from the Church of the Nativity action remain imprisoned in Israel. If and when they do all go home, will the massive personal support people gave them in phone calls, faxes, media campaigns, and conversations fade? That support transferred through those internationals to their Palestinian friends who haven’t gone home, who are home, and whose fact of homeland is the source of their torture and massacre by the Israeli government. Their struggle and need is not fading.

Our friends may cease to provide the easy, urgent connection to the Palestinian struggle, but the power of our empathy remains. There are things to do for those friends of your friends in Palestine. Those who’ve been there will not hesitate to make suggestions.

I don’t personally know somebody everywhere. Do you? Do you know somebody who knows somebody? Maybe you make it your business to make some new friends. So that when atrocities fill the news and flood our minds to the point of tempting paralysis and ambivalence, we are able to defy the attack on our power and actively support Palestinians and people all over who need support.

The media can inundate our minds with lies. But if we insist on opening ourselves to people who bring stories direct from the source, then the strength of human solidarity can challenge and even halt massacre, in Palestine and everywhere.