Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Religion, Hierarchy, and Civil Disobedience! Oh My.

Today in class we examined the intersection of religion and social justice. Andy and our guest speakers, Reverend Dr. Gilmore and the chaplain of UPenn, Reverend Charles, began class with a group discussion about the role of religion in past and present struggles for social justice. Andy spoke briefly about the role of religion in the peasant revolt of 1381, and then Reverend Gilmore and Charles both spoke about their personal experiences of religion both as young people and in conjunction with social justice. From there, we moved on to talking about how struggles for social justice seek to change society from a hierarchical model to one based on equality. However, according to Andy, every social justice movement, or liberation struggle brings contradictions with it so it is necessary to continue to work towards improving society. Andy compared the idea that progress is always possible and that society can be improved but it requires perpetual vigilance with  opposing world views, including Pangloss's utopian optimism in Candide, Margaret Thatcher's statement that "There is no alternative [to capitalism]"  and Francis Fukuyama's theory about the end of history. (According to the intellectual camp which Francis Fukuyama and Margaret Thatcher belonged to, western-style democracy and free market capitalism represent the zenith of human society and no rival political or economic systems can compete.) Personally, I reject the later theory and believe that the struggle for social justice is a cycle that must be continued in each generation.

Next, Andy talked about religion's role in social organizations. There two distinct manners of organizing society; it can either be hierarchical, as in divine right monarchy, or egalitarian. Andy said that the fundamental debate is over which model of society we should implement, and in every religious tradition this debate is going on. What you believe is not important, what matters is whether you are part of the liberation struggle or not, i.e. whether you support a hierarchical system or an egalitarian one. This was really interesting to think about in respect to the peasant revolt of 1381, where religion was used to support both the established power system and the movement that challenged it. While christian theology provided the backbone of the feudal system, much of the revolt's leadership came from radical priests like John Ball and John Wycliffe and the peasants also used religion to promote their vision of society. The majority of the peasant's rhetoric was grounded in religion -- their maxim, "when Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?" is rooted in a biblical basis for equality.

Afterwards, one of our teaching fellows, Eliana, gave a brief talk about equality in Jewish tradition and the Book of Ruth, which is part of the old testament. We also discussed the archetype of the stranger and land rights. There are two prevailing theories about land ownership. There is the religious interpretation, which holds that god created the earth and as such he owns the land, and there is the atheist interpretation, in which no one made the land. This poses the question "What is humanity's relationship with the land?" This is a question that has caused a lot of strife throughout history; all classical rebellions were about land redistribution or getting out of debt.

After finishing the discussion of land ownership we moved on to the subject of liberation theology, and learned about several religious groups that have been active in the struggle for social justice recently. In particular Charles told us about a group based in Philadelphia called Heeding God's Call, which is dedicated to ending gun violence, and an activist from Occupy Wall Street, Francisco "Pancho" Ramos, who used non-violent civil disobedience to protest injustice and was nearly deported.

Our last activity in class was to break up into discussion groups and exchange our views about what we learned in class.

After dinner, we returned to class for a special session. Tonight we had guest speakers from the dalit caste in Hinduism, often referred to as untouchables, who spoke to us about their experiences of oppression. One of the speakers talked about her experience being denied housing because of her caste, and another explained how it is impossible to escape the caste system, even by converting to another religion. They told us about B. R. Ambedkar, who was a born into the dalit caste and wrote the Indian constitution. Ambedkar led the dalit rights movement in India and is considered by dalits to be the true father of India rather than Ghandi because Gandhi supported the caste system and opposed Ambedkar. Our guest speakers also told us about the resistance to the dalit rights movement and I learned that privatization in India has set back the dalit's meagre socioeconomic opportunities even farther because in state-controlled institutions there is a form of affirmative action that protects minorities like the dalits, but there are no such laws for private companies. I am incredibly grateful to our guest speakers today. Hearing about their experiences was incredible and thought-provoking. The Hindu caste system is a glaringly evident manifestation of religion being used to support a hierarchical society.

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