September 6, 2018

Religious defiance and historical denial

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 3:51 pm by chavisory

religious meme[Image is a peaceful scene of stones forming a path across a waterway, flanked by bamboo and hanging lanterns. Text reads “A religious person will do what he is told…no matter what is right…whereas a spiritual person will do what is right…no matter what he is told…”]

Y’all know by now I basically live to rip facile nonsense like this to shreds, right?

This post is derived from a debate I had a little bit ago with a Facebook friend on the subject of this meme. I have, ad nauseam, pointed out the categorical falsehoods being committed by witticisms like this and the basic bigotries that they represent. It’s virtually a reflex. There are things I would so much rather be doing with my time, but I have a really hard time letting misrepresentations like this stand without comment.

Believe it or not, I am actually starting to feel like me doing that has, possibly, reached the limit of its utility.

But something else strikes me about this meme, which is its erasure of the role that religious communities have historically played in supporting and participating in civil disobedience, most memorably as far as American history goes in the Civil Rights Movement, but also in the abolitionist movement and in the Resistance to the Nazis in WWII in Europe. MLK, Jr. was a pastor. A Lutheran pastor in Germany led an assassination attempt on Hitler. A whole plethora of religiously-based organizations have been active in the fight for marriage equality, including pastors defying the rules of their own churches to perform marriages they could be defrocked for.

And, it being the case that we are currently reckoning with a situation in which Russian troll farms turn out to have massively infiltrated and manipulated internet leftist/social justice/activist networks with some devilishly clever misinformation campaigns…I do not take it for granted that that erasure is either coincidental or accidental.

When a basically source-less piece of internet jetsam seems to serve the purpose of alienating progressive communities from each other, even to the point of denying each other’s existence and of decades/centuries of calculated disobedience on the part of religious people…I would really question where it’s coming from, and who wants you to believe it and why.

Something we learned in biology classes, over and over again, was “form follows function.”

What’s the possible function of something like this? To reassure a certain number of people of their pre-existing convictions and prejudices, sure, but also to obscure the undeniable existence of religious disobedience to people who might not have knowledge of that history, for whatever reason.

A few months ago, there was, briefly, an occupation of an ICE facility here in Manhattan. And I wasn’t close to the planning or the groups leading the action, but I followed along on Twitter from the moment I heard of the occupation–about three days after it had apparently started–and went down to drop off snacks at one point and found a scant two dozen people there. Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon and the building was closed for the weekend so it wasn’t a time of high likelihood of clashes with ICE personnel, police, or vehicles. Attendance looked to be higher at other times, judging from social media, but never even remotely reached the proportions of the Portland occupation, though NYC is a far larger city with no lack of activist-minded populace who turned out en masse for the airport protests in the wake of the first attempted travel ban and revelations that separated immigrant kids were being flown into LGA in the dead of night.

And I was confused to find there seemed to have been virtually no involvement of local progressive religious groups, which was incredibly odd in light of the fact that immigration justice is among the signature issues of several of them.

Why wouldn’t they have reached out to local religious communities who prominently work on this issue for signal boosting and support? Did they simply not know that those groups are involved in that work? Or that they even exist? Are they operating too much in an ideological cul-de-sac in other regards so that the possibility was rejected or never came up at all?

I don’t know; I’m speculating somewhat. Regardless, I don’t think it’s a mistake the Resistance can afford to keep making. It is possibly more crucial now than it has ever been in some of our remembered lifetimes that we use all of the moral solidarity and strength in numbers that we have available.

Here’s another example: A Tumblr blog, now known to have been an IRA-linked propaganda blog, commented on a tweet about three female medical students from India, Japan, and Syria, who completed their training as doctors in Philadelphia in 1885, to the effect that because they were women of color, we know nothing about them.

But we do. To the extent that these ladies were the subjects of the doctoral dissertation of someone who I actually know. The knowledge of their lives and accomplishments was actually being hidden from us by a purported leftist activist blog.

And I think there’s a real danger, too, in assuming that anyone who is simply wrong on the internet, or with whom we disagree about strategy, is a Russian bot. I don’t assume that this particular meme was the product of a Russian troll farm rather than just a regular internet denizen rebranding their own self-satisfied ignorance as enlightenment. Quite possibly the author of this little piece of misinformation meant nothing but to take a swipe at what they perceive as the purposeless dutifulness of religious folk. But when the primary function of a piece of rhetoric seems to be fracturing or inhibiting the formation of coalitions of progressive communities…

To deny the very existence of acts of defiance by religious people and the presence of religious people in movements of civil disobedience…

To deny the provenance of some of the most effective tactics of civil disobedience ever known…

To deny younger idealistic people the knowledge of who many of those who took part in those actions were, where to find them, and how to talk to them…

To specifically deny the agency of religious communities of color in moral decision-making in resisting oppression…

Then I also no longer assume innocent wrongheadedness over its being designed to do so.

[Updated to add: This is a great article about how personal faith informs even secular social justice organizing that I ran across after originally publishing this post.]

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