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Christianity, Fundamentalism And Human Rights


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Guest Glaswegian

Christianity's record of human rights violations over the last two thousand years is second to none and a mere glance at this record shows that one is spoiled for choice in the matter. Here I want to focus on just two pernicious effects of this religion: namely, its oppression and calumny (slander) of women.

 

Kahl (1971, p. 77) writes: 'Many of the Church Fathers are characterised by an attitude of deep hostility to women which is quite obscene.' Thus, Tertullian calls woman 'the gate through which the devil enters' (ibid., p. 77); and Jerome the Vulgate declares: 'Woman is the gate of the devil, the way of evil, the sting of the scorpion, in a word, a dangerous thing' (ibid., p. 77).

 

Throughout the centuries many Christians have sought to rationalize their fear and resentment of women by finding support for these feelings in biblical texts. They have not had to look very far. For example, here is how Jesus speaks to his own mother: 'Woman, what have I to do with thee?' (John 2: 4); while Paul writes to the Corinthians: 'Only man, not woman, is the image and glory of God - woman is only the glory of man' (1 Corinthians 11: 7); and then to Timothy: 'Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.' (1 Timothy 2: 11-14). And here is the most catastrophic biblical text for females to date - 'You shall not allow a witch to live' (Exodus 22: 18). Legions of innocent females - old women, young women, and little girls - were degraded, mutilated, tortured, and burned alive on the basis of this last injunction (Sagan, 1997 p.120).

 

Biblical texts of this sort were obviously produced by cultural milieus utterly removed in time and outlook from our own: so removed, in fact, that we experience the texts as embarrassing. But this is not the view of the Christian fundamentalist woman-hating oppressor who is very much alive today. For this individual, such texts are as binding now as they were long, long ago: more than this, they are manna from heaven - food and drink, that is, in secular parlance.

 

Calumny is one weapon that has been deployed by the Christian religion to oppress women. But this religion has also resorted to using nice definitions of women for the same end. For example, the velvet-tongued spokesmen of the Church depicted women as the 'angel of the house', as beings of 'purity', 'fine' and 'superior' in virtue to men. However, such definitions are only ostensibly flattering and ennobling for they operate subtly to actually constrain and undermine women. Thus, women were too fine and delicate for the 'jungle' of the workplace and too pure and virtuous to seek after money and the independence that it brings. To proclaim the superior virtue of the oppressed, then, is often a mask for controlling them and keeping them subjugated. As Mumm (2002, p. 121) observes: 'Lip service to "superiority" can be oppressive, because it can box individuals or groups into romanticised roles that limit their human choices. While declaring a group "inferior" is obviously oppressive, casting others as "superior"...can, especially if the categorised group acquiesces in this stereotyping, be as disabling and limiting as assumptions of inferiority.'

 

Christian fundamentalists, like their Islamic counterparts, view religious texts as literally and eternally true - as being objective, final, complete. In doing so, fundamentalists deliberately ignore two important facts about these texts: 1. that the cultural milieu and needs of the texts' authors influenced their writing of them; 2. that the cultural milieu and needs of the texts' readers influence their interpretation of them. Therefore, to hold that religious texts are the objective, literal truth is to pretend to oneself and others that one is unbiased about them; that not only are they the unmediated (i.e., unadulterated) stuff of God but that one's interpretation of this stuff is also unmediated (i.e., neutral). Concerning the latter point, Mumm (2001, p. 140) writes: 'We cannot read neutrally; we read as individuals with unique understandings and interpret uniquely: thus there is no single "true" reading of a religious text.'

 

Therefore, the meaning of a religious text is never fixed, final and complete but is always in flux and subject to change because its interpretation depends on what an individual brings to it in terms of his own character, motivation, experience, needs, hopes and fears. In other words, what an individual reads out of a religious text is himself at a given moment in time and not 'God' or anything else which is 'eternally' and 'supernaturally' true. As Jeanrond (1994, p. 1) writes: 'Text understanding always demands our active participation in recreating the text in question. It demands that we lend of our reality to the text so that it can become real for us.'

 

Now, the religious fundamentalist's reality - both internal and external - is felt by him to be so hideous and painful that it must be fled at any cost. For the fundamentalist, escape from fear and doubt and turmoil - from the hell that is within and without - can only be found in something potent, infallible and enduring: the 'Word of God'. From this haven, the fundamentalist can despise every table of law that is not the Assured one, and reserve a special contempt for those which are unashamedly human in origin. This is what gives the true believer the 'right' to ignore the requirements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and to commit every enormity imaginable - from the murder of abortion workers to the September 11 World Trade Center massacre.

 

One of the problems confronting the UDHR relates to its ethical basis. Religious critics can argue that the UDHR rests on nothing more than human conventions, on what mere mortals have agreed amongst themselves are the proper rules of conduct for living, and that what they have agreed upon is simply a matter of taste. This is what makes the UDHR vulnerable against the appeal of religious fundamentalism. In contrast with the former, fundamentalism proclaims that religious rules of conduct are not human but divine in origin. In the eyes of this creed, whatever is human is equated with what is inferior, objectionable and unworthy. Sadly, there is no shortage of true believers who are ready to accede to this view for direct confirmation of it can be had at any time just by looking inside themselves.

 

Regards

 

James

 

References:

 

Jeanrond, W. G. (1994) Theological Hermeneutics, London: SCM

 

Kahl, J. (1971) The Misery of Christianity, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books

 

Mumm, S. (2001) 'What it meant and what it means: feminism, religion and interpretation' in Religion and Social Transformation (ed. by D. Herbert), Aldershot: Ashgate Publishers

 

Mumm, S. (2002) 'Aspirational Indians: North American indigenous religions and the New Age' in Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age (ed. by Joanne Pearson), Aldershot: Ashgate Publishers

 

Sagan, C. (1997) The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, New York: Ballantine Books

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