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Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg)
November 16, 2001

Religious Freedom Demands Religious Liberation Spirit Level

Cedric Mayson

A coven of Western witches exists in South Africa, complete with white pancake make-up, straggly hair and bangles. We have entranced people who walk through fire; men who dress in the vestments of the European middle ages, others in skins and beads, women who wear hats or dance on beaches, and children by the pew full chanting their instructions in unison and the 26 languages listed in the Constitution.

Every religion from main line to side line seems to have its adherents in South Africa. We also have traditional African spirituality whose genius is not to be a religion at all, thousands of traditional healers in their scarlet cloaks and percussive anklets, more thousands of constantly dividing indigenous churches and Pentecostal sects, a special slant on the New Age and a healthier bunch of evangelistic agnostics than T H Huxley could ever have imagined.

This is religious freedom. We have the constitutional right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion, and freedom to express everything except incitement to war, violence, hatred or harm.

Many think they alone are right, including the agnostics. Most claim direct links to God, excluding the agnostics. These are sincere convictions for which people will live and die.

From Afrikaners to Zionists, and Bambata to bishops, people have linked their political opinions to their religious convictions, claiming a divine mandate for their manifestos or, in the case of the prosperity sects, for their balance sheets. There's nothing like a smooth injection of religious rectitude to put some clout into secular pursuits: ask people in Northern Ireland or the Klu Klux Klan.

Religious freedom is thus a heavenly opportunity that can have some hellish results. God must sometimes wish that people could have been spiritual without inventing religions.

There are five steps in using religious freedom to liberate ourselves from religious oppression.

Rejection is where most start: everyone else is wrong. The pope is the whore of Babylon. Muslims are anti-Christian and oppress women. Methodists are emotional freaks. Jews are out for a quick buck. Pray for my daughter who's married a Hindu and will go to hell. Up with Ray McCauley! Down with Njongonkulu Ndungane! You can't expect anything from Thabo Mbeki unless he gives his heart to Jesus! Religions are the cause of all the trouble in the world! Step one is to liberate ourselves from this rejection.

Tolerance is step two: the live-and-let-live syndrome. I will do what God has given me to do, and the others can do their own thing so long as they don't interfere.

Respect is a much more acceptable step three. Many people spend their lives locked inside their own religious circle and condemn others out of ignorance. Respect comes through meeting people from other religions, hearing their story, reading their scriptures, going to their holy places, knowing them as people beyond the propaganda.

Small groups of people and families have broken the barriers and learnt to respect other people of faith. It was a common occurrence during struggle funerals, and some have continued in ecumenical inter-faith unity but it needs a major push by religious institutions. If religious leaders are too busy doing their own thing to share in someone else's thing, our religions will never be liberated. And because we are too busy, it needs a definite commitment to break out of the mould.

Cooperation is the next step forward. Transforming South Africa from a backward apartheid state to the powerhouse of a liberated continent demands that all sectors of society cooperate if any are to survive. A major lever of power is switched on when people of faith work together.

An inter-faith involvement drives the movement for moral regeneration; there are ecumenical commitments to overcome the problem of the rich and the poor; and some religious people are addressing HIV/Aids together. Peace organisations such as Gun Free South Africa and Ceasefire are driven by people from all backgrounds.

Family life is becoming a major concern for all. Youth groups anxious to emancipate their parents from the intolerances of previous generations, are reaching out to people from other groups.

Cooperation with the government is developing as the National Religious Leaders Forum meets regularly with the president and ministers, and links are forged with provinces, metro cities and municipalities. Our country experiences far more religious cooperation than many others.

Religious liberation comes when people who are strong in their own beliefs walk out into the open and join hands with others enjoying the same sunshine. Christian and Muslim, Buddhist and Jew, Hindu, Bahai and African traditional, recognise in one another the same spiritual convictions, the common good objectives for the transformation of society, and the different ways of worshipping the Spirit who lives in us all. This is not a new religion. It is a liberating experience bringing new life to the one we already had.

This does not mean we must all walk through fire, wear a bangle or yarmulka or give up our teaching and history and rituals. Religious liberation, like political liberation, means we can enjoy the positives without the negatives.

©Copyright 2001, Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg)

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