Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died shortly before the 2012 Meskel festival, the Finding of the True Cross—one of the major festivals of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Its public centerpiece is the burning of a great bonfire in Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square, which takes its name from the occasion. State television broadcasts the ceremony every year, and the 2012 broadcast (2005 by the Ethiopian calendar) can be found on YouTube. The festival revolves around the bonfire, recalling the smoke that led Constantine’s mother Saint Helena to the recovery of Christ’s cross. On this occasion a kitsch re-enactment of the story precedes the lighting of the fire, as Helena and her entourage parade the cross, decked with fairy lights, on a carnival float [4:50-5:20]. Overlooking the whole event, and clearly visible as the fire burns, are several billboards depicting the recently deceased Prime Minister. One reads: “We will keep our word and fulfill your vision.” The religious connotations of the Ge’ez word ra’iy, “vision,” are presumably intentional.
Posts Tagged ‘church and state’
On April 3rd, 2014, The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld (by overturning the judgment of a lower court) the decision of the New York City Board of Education to exclude groups (in this case, churches) from using school facilities outside of school hours “for the purpose of holding religious worship services.”
The efflorescence of religious life in China over the past thirty-some years has been truly amazing. In the rural areas and small towns of Wenzhou, on the country’s southeastern coast, where I have conducted fieldwork for the past twenty years, one can find periodic religious festivals celebrated in the streets and see people hold their annual ancestor sacrificial rituals. New and restored deity temples, ancestor halls, Daoist and Buddhist temples, and Protestant and Catholic churches have sprung up at a similarly frantic pace. Yi Jing (易经, “Book of Changes”) diviners, fortune-tellers, geomantic fengshui masters, and spirit mediums all enjoy a prosperous business. Even in mega-cities like Shanghai, where most of the population is firmly secular, one still finds much religious activity. In 2012, I found the main City God Temple in Shanghai gleaming with new interior décor, funded by wealthy families who spend hundreds of thousands of yuan hiring Daoist priests to conduct rituals to ensure family health and prosperity. Furthermore, the growing field of religious studies in China no longer feels the need to restrict research to the safety of the historical past. A new generation of younger scholars conducts fieldwork on the rich and diverse religious life found in all corners of the country today.
How will the relationship between the state and religion in China evolve in the next decade, presumably under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping? To make any sensible predictions about the future development of the state-religion relationship in China, we have to go back in time. Two reference points are especially important: 1979 and 1966.
In 1979, after thirteen years of failed attempts to eradicate religion from the entire society, the ban on religion was lifted. A limited number of churches, temples, and mosques began to reopen for religious worship services. It is important to know that this new policy stemmed from pragmatic considerations rather than from doctrinal change: its purpose was to rally people from all walks of life, including religious believers, for the central task of economic development under the new leadership of the CCP.
Everyone in China knows that official religious policy has only a nominal relationship to religious practice. The complaint comes from temple managers who are unable to register their temples, from Christian pastors tired of running their churches underground, and just as loudly from the atheist state itself and the Communist Party officials charged with enforcing the policy. Why does China continue to promote religious policies that do not fit reality and that satisfy no one?
In contrast to its religious policy, China has not been frozen at all in other policy realms. In the economy, for example, the past few decades have seen the rapid move from the agricultural responsibility system, a spurt in collective township and village enterprises followed by a general privatization, and the successful resolution of the government’s fiscal crisis in the 1990s. There are arguments about whether policy makers were leading or only following these developments, but either way they have shown a nimble ability to adapt—”to cross the river by feeling their way from stone to stone,” to borrow a phrase that Deng Xiaoping was fond of using. In the river of religion, however, they are still searching for the next stone.
A recent Gallup poll found that almost half of China’s people (47 percent) say that they are “convinced atheists”—the highest rate of atheism in the world. However, surveys conducted by Fenggang Yang and others show high levels of religious practice—as much as 85 percent of the population carry out rituals to honor ancestors, seek out good fortune, ward off evil, celebrate festivals, and accumulate merit for a good afterlife. Ethnographers have also documented the construction of many churches and temples, elaborate festivals, rituals for healing, and the cultivation of the mystical forces of qi. How, then, can we reconcile reports of widespread atheism with those of widespread religious practice?
This short essay sketches out the different views that may be identified within the Chinese Communist Party as we look at the recent actions of the party on religious affairs—actions that seem to end in contradictory directions. On the one hand, the promotion of international Buddhist and Taoist forums and the liberalization of regulations concerning the social activities religious organizations are allowed to perform, and, on the other hand, the continued harassment of some religious minorities. Debates about the involvement of religion in contemporary global politics have for the last four decades often overlooked China, an oversight rooted in two misconceptions widely held both in the West and among Chinese leaders themselves.
Earlier this summer, The Immanent Frame published an off the cuff exchange about the State Department’s new initiative to engage religious communities in US diplomacy. Conversation and critiques are still going strong; Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, an original contributor to “Engaging religion at the Department of State,” has penned a commentary for Al Jazeera America in which she critiques US faith-based engagement abroad as a violation of the separation of church and state.
Recent years have seen the resurgence of “metahistories” that seek to provide a single complex narrative of seemingly disparate events and developments. Among the most prominent contemporary accounts are Marcel Gauchet’s La condition historique (2005), Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) and Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution (2011). In different ways, all three offer an overarching story of how the distant past—whether the emergence of the modern state or the rise of secular unbelief as a default position or cultural capacities driving religious development—continues to shape the present. Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is another such ambitious attempt, charting the way in which Protestantism unwittingly invented the capitalism and secular liberalism that together constitute our current condition.