Thursday, September 23, 2010
Conflict Theory as it relates to Religion
This is the text of a presentation I gave today in my Theories of Social Change class. We have started by examining classical conflict theory, which has its roots in the Marx/Engels tradition. The idea of oppression and oppressor being the overriding themes. Max Weber is also a prominent figure in this tradition. I thought this may be of interest to some of you, and would welcome your comments.
THE CHRISTIAN WEST VERSUS THE ISLAMIC WORLD
I want to start by taking this back to the beginning of our study of the conflict theory of the classical tradition in Sociology (Marx/Engels), because this will relate to what I intend to talk about. What are some of the main reasons that we have conflict, and therefore, conflict theory? (Ultimately power, but it can be in the form of status, money or any of a number of instruments of oppression)
All of these answers relate to one thing: At the very basis of conflict theory is the idea of the “other”…or someone we’re trying to control. Conflict represents the very opposite of love, unity. Unfortunately, this is true in the realm of religion as we are all too aware. What I intend to do is focus on how false consciousness, not religious principles has created a conflict both between and also inside religious traditions that theoretically are supposed to be universal. To do this, we have started with a macro or large scale example. My total of 3 contexts within religion will progress towards the micro. In each of these as well, we will show who controls the mental means of production. Our media incorporates control of the mental means of production by a certain side…that of the “Christianized West” in the form of the more religious far right.
The threat of status inconsistency (the shifting of the class or power balance) is INCORPORATED into the false consciousness (that of a class perceiving itself to have more or less power than it actually does).
This false consciousness implies an enemy…that of Islam. We are told not to approach them as an equal, but to see them as the “other”, theoretically against us and out to destroy us. We have failed to separate those on the other side of the fence who are also co-opting religion for political purposes. Most in this country view Islam as the evil, not power USING Islam. Unfortunately, power structures on both sides of the debate have used this false consciousness in what has become a power struggle. Power in conflict theory works best out of the fear motive.
THE AMERICAN CONSTANTINIAN CHURCH & THE PROPHETIC CHURCH
Cornel West was the first I’ve heard to use this description of American Christianity. To West, the Constantinian church is similar to the one in the Roman Empire that went along with everything the state put forward. The two were inseparable, and the Constantinian Christians believed the Roman Empire to have its own form of divinity. Do you see the parallel between the modern day United States? West goes on to say that Jesus was NOT a Constantinian. He opposed establishment, and was out to establish a new system on the earth…one that did not relate to the power struggles of empire. This is where prophetic Christianity comes in. Those that are willing to speak out against injustice rather than acquiesce to unconditional nationalism.
For example, who would comprise the Constantinian church in America? How would you say that the Constantinian church has been co-opted by our government? Who holds the real power in this situation?
Now I see elements of false consciousness at play here, but I also see a certain degree of status inconsistency. First, the Christian right believes they hold the power over the government, when they don’t realize that the government has co-opted the message of Jesus to stifle dissent among what we might call evangelical or Constantinian Christians. America is viewed by many on this side of the spectrum as the divinely mandated, Christian founded and ordained nation to carry out righteousness upon the earth, so God, country and Christianity are all inter-connected. The respect of nationalism is used to suppress questioning of domestic and foreign policy. All this really began in the late 70’s after the Civil Rights Movement. The prophetic church/religious tradition that came out of MLK and even Malcolm X obtained a populace power for a while by uniting and organizing the angst of the oppressed. This was a prophetic exodus call…a call of the proletariat in this situation to rise up and get results, which they did. The government was shocked. They realized the power that could be harnessed by religious affiliation. So the power struggle reversed itself by the government co-opting the more conservative side of the religion by emphasizing patriotism and the founding fathers and a “return to the traditional values of the nation”. This was already instilled in Western Christian traditions, but had not been used for political agendas until the late 70’s. Then these prophetic Christians…mostly of the Civil Rights movement…were viewed as radicals, opposing war and going against the calling of a divine nation to enact its policies upon the earth.
In both of these first two examples, we can see the control of the mental means of production and false consciousness (both closely connected) by the government.
AT THE COMMUNITY LEVEL: LOCAL EQUALITY ISSUES
There is no doubt that there has been a historical false consciousness imposed upon the women of religion. This is true of the Abrahamic tradition as well as those of Eastern religions. It is true today in those of the literalist tradition, or who use the Bible, Qur’an, Torah, etc… to justify subjugation of women. Those literalists miss the point when reading scripture in this way. What they fail to take into account is the societies in which these Scriptures were written. My God image is one of equality, tolerance and unity. God to me is more than just a name…God is in the universals…love, peace, justice, unity, equality in all areas of life. This is what I’ve been trying to show has been LACKING in human nature and has in turn created these conflicts that we’ve been talking about. There are many issues of inequality within a particular church congregation, but I have chosen the issue of women as I believe it to be the most important issue along with that of gays in the church. The false consciousness imposed upon the female gender has been created by a misinterpretation of scripture. God’s love trumps any argument of inequality that anyone could present to me. God’s love is the ultimate status equalizer. The equal love of God is incompatible with a subjugated gender, sexual orientation, race or religion. The injustice that we see in conflict theory is not compatible with this God.
Whenever we have divisiveness due to conflict situations, it is because of a perceived status differential. It is a refusal to look at all as equals. With women in the church, it becomes subtle. The patriarchy of the Christian tradition over the years has been extended to society at large, as we live in a Western culture influenced by classical Christian patriarchy (although the religious right seems to have no issue with a potential female candidate for President…odd perhaps?). However, the male dominance in the church is now being questioned very openly, and males (or females) who accept this patriarchy are forced to at least consider and acknowledge the arguments involved. They try to do this in a subtle way so as to hang onto their dominant role…because they can see the status inconsistency coming. To do this, they use the same word that we have heard in reference to the more macro examples I gave…a dangerous word: PRUDENCE. It would be PRUDENT if the Muslims didn’t build a mosque at Ground Zero. It would be PRUDENT if Rosa Parks didn’t stay in her seat on the bus…it would be PRUDENT if these negroes would move their march somewhere else. It would be PRUDENT if women wouldn’t try to take positions of leadership in the church. We acknowledge your right to do all these things, we just don’t think it’s prudent. Translation: We really don’t accept you, and are intolerant of what you are trying to do, because we want to maintain our class/power position. The common language we hear and have heard is that all these groups vying for voice are “insensitive”. They are only insensitive…in these examples…in the respect that they are striving for an equal voice and an equal status in society. I have heard this language in my own home…as my mother and father represent the polar opposites of the Mennonite Church. My mother graduated from AMBS seminary (a liberal Mennonite seminary supporting women leadership in the church) to the great opposition of my father. Dad is quite patriarchal, and it has made it very difficult on my mother. My mother has heard the word “prudent” over and over again in regards to her discontinuation of leadership activities in the church I grew of my youth. It eventually led to her leaving the church. Now, is this an example of a loving situation? When someone is forced to leave a church for a different reading of God’s love?
Conflict struggles have no place amongst people who claim God as the driving force in their lives. God is love and acceptance not intolerance…which is why I’m proud to be at a Mennonite school that’s primary mission is the resolution of conflict situations and the restoration of acceptance, peace and equality. Love and unity are the primary focus at Eastern Mennonite, and I’m proud to say this school focuses on inclusion, not exclusion. All faiths (or lack of faith) are welcome here, and there is no state agenda. That's more than I can say for the prestigious schools that claim to be non-biased on any issue...(you'll often find establishment agenda behind things). Thank you for your time today, and many blessings to you.