Saturday, May 22, 2010

Trimming the Hedges

Last week I read this piece by Chris Hedges, someone who has done some great investigative work in the past exposing the incestuous ties between Christianity and extreme right wing politics in the US (American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America is a particularly good one). It's really too bad to see a usually critical observer bump up against the wide flank of his own sacred cow, and that's just what's occurring here. Hedges thinks that as religion loses its (still very dominant) place in the world, we'll be left with a nihilistic, scientistic, deeply unequal and needless to say brutal culture. Despite all the social and political evils justified by religions even to this day, many of which Hedges himself has uncovered, he maintains

There remain, in spite of the leaders of these institutions, religiously motivated people toiling in the inner city and the slums of the developing world. They remain true to the core religious and moral values ignored by these institutions. The essential teachings of the monotheistic traditions are now lost in the muck of church dogma, hollow creeds and the banal bureaucracy of institutional religion.

His first sentence neatly sidesteps the question of how much of this trumpeted religious charity work really accomplishes versus the forcible conversions, encouragement of homophobic violence and perpetuation of sexual ignorance by missionaries worldwide. Leaving those aside, to think that the “true core” values of the monotheistic traditions are social justice concerns about the world's many vicious inequalities has to be a sick joke. It reminds me of a diehard Leninist who blames the horrors of the USSR's state capitalism solely on Stalin's authoritarian personality while trying desperately not to see the deeply anti-democratic and anti-revolutionary form of the Bolshevik party itself. If at the very core of these religious knowledge structures is a moral concern with alleviating suffering due to inequalities and injustice we should see that concern permeating their most fundamental texts- these are, after all, the founding documents without which any later interpretations wouldn't even exist. When the ancient Hebrews wrote out God's words concerning how much you can beat your slave, when Jesus stated that his apocalyptic Jewish cult was only for “the lost sheep of Israel”, when Mohammed ordered his minions to execute doubters....yes, that refined moral excellence is so wonderfully inclusive!!

The really funny thing is that Hedges, like all well-meaning progressive believers, thinks that somehow he can personally discern the "real" Christianity from the false. How does he propose to do this? If the nasty and intolerant pronouncements in the Bible are to be dismissed in favor of cherry-picking the ones which jibe with our modern sense of decency and human rights, why is anything in these texts to be believed at all?

I'm sure he feels “in his heart” that his loving, socially just Jesus couldn't have really meant to condemn much of the world's population to eternal torture simply for not aknowledging him as their dictator. The problem there is, of course, that the average functionary in the Nazi Shultzstaffen truly felt sure, “in their heart”, that they were making the right interpretation of German national and racial history. Let's not go by hearts, but rather by facts- and the historically accumulated facts of the “monotheistic traditions” show that Hedges' hopes of a (well-hidden) progressive core are baseless daydreams.