Sunday, July 20, 2014

In Defense of African Religious Traditions: Brazil, Haiti, & USA

Religious intolerance is something that we all have an awareness of these days. Between the Islamic fanatics in the Mid-East and Africa, to our own homegrown Evangelical Fanatics in Texas (and too often in political office), we've seen the worst that can result from an excess of narrow-minded devotion to an over-testosterone driven deity.

We notice plenty of outcry against religious intolerance, at least when its directed at a mainstream religion, and in the US, that means only one thing - Protestant Christianity.

Mind you, I have nothing really against Protestant Christianity, well, almost nothing. I hate religious proselytization of any kind, regardless of the questionable claim that your god wants you to spread the "good" word, it's just plain tacky. Like the recent FB meme put it, which compared religion to a specific part of the male anatomy, "it's fine if you have one, just don't pull it out and wave it in my face."

What absolutely nobody seems to object to, is disrespecting religions of African origin. It seems that after they floated the idea that America had become post-racial, it started taking on water almost immediately, and sunk while nobody was looking. Unfortunately, the USA, famous for being a nation of immigrants (except for latinos, please) isn't the only place where African derived faiths face a great deal of hostility.

A while back I posted about some hopeful steps forward that took place in Brazil, when Umbanda was declared an intangible cultural heritage by the City of São Paulo. Unfortunately, there tends to be more bad news than good, and lest any reader feel satisfied that the trouble is in Brazil, although I suspect some may secretly and not so secretly opine that oppression of African faiths is a good thing, there's plenty of it going on in the US, as well.

In spite of the hand of friendship the new Pope is extending, a newly appointed Cardinal in Haiti has recycled the old discourse that Vodou, the national religion of Haiti which is of African origin, is a bad thing for Haitians. It doesn't matter that he's black and Haitian, the mindset is of the worst sort, and unbecoming a supposed "man of god." At this stage of our evolution we should be able to recognize that all faiths lead to deity, because all deities are simply human attempts to apprehend the divine. Nobody's faith gets it better than anyone else's.

In Brazil, even as São Paulo declared Umbanda part of the city's cultural heritage, institutionalized bias elsewhere allowed that cultural heritage to take second fiddle to a sports complex.

And while construction workers destroyed historical sites to build a sports club, Evangelical Christians are egged on often by their pastors and on TV, to attack Umbanda and Candomblé temples. In more than one case, they have even murdered the priests. Of course, the church leadership always back peddles when that happens, and tries to claim that the individual was mentally ill.

Even in the US, African religions are constantly subjected to discrimination. For decades, police departments have systematically attempted to criminalize the practice of African derived faiths, and the fact that most practitioners are members of minorities, are poor, and in many cases speak English as a second language, makes them easy victims of institutionalized racism. The former New York City Mayor, Rudy Guliani, that bastion of privilege and obnoxiousness, even harassed Afro-Cuban drummers. 

As these religions continue to grow, society has to learn to behave with tolerance toward other religions. It's a well documented truth that if you are not tolerant toward others, you can expect none to be shown to yourself. 

One may wonder why such intolerance exists. Apart from the obvious answer that while Jesus didn't teach intolerance, most Christian institutions have over the last two millennia. It's easy to point to some of the practices within African faiths which make modern first world people uncomfortable. In the US, most people don't witness the preparation of the animal protein they consume, and they want it that way. Also, Christianity's God generally has become (although for some of its history this was not the case) a Dios Otioso - a distant god. Christianity has gradually intellectualized deity into an invisible one, whose presence exists only in metaphor. As Western society has generally moved away from direct contact with spiritual forces, it has generally become afraid of such experience, and as a result has tried, under the mantle of "science" (which despite being a methodology of research has become a catch word for materialism that has never lived up to its claims of objectivity) has attempted to variously criminalize, ridicule, and turn religious imminence into psychosis. Thomas Szasz summed up Western society's hostility to imminent religion succinctly when he said that "If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; If you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic."

Since African derived faiths deal with the direct interaction of the living with the realm of spirit, most commonly through spirit possession, modern Western materialist society is variously fascinated, appalled, and what is probably at the heart of Western society's hostility toward such faiths, envious.

In this day and age, we need to be working to insist on more tolerance for all, and that most certainly includes African derived faiths. They are after all, the inheritors of humanity's earliest engagement with spirituality.

Below you will find links to a number of articles dealing with these issues.

Ebony: Haiti doesn't have a Vodou problem, it has a Christianity problem!

Marchers in São Paulo protest Religious Descrimination

Evangelicals spread intolerance toward African Religions

Attacks on Afro-Brazilian Religious Practitioners, Temples!

The Temple that started Umbanda razed despite attempts to halt its demolition.

Eminent Domain used in Brazil to shut down Afro-Brazilian Temples, but not Christian Churches!

Candomblé Priestess and family members murdered by Evangelical

Fighting back against institutionalized racist public policy in USA

How Mayor Guliani targeted Afro-Cuban drummers

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