[Photo of National Spiritual Assembly] "Swazi Baha'is at a conference for the headquarters of the Baha'i Faith in the middle east. Yesterday they celebrated an important day on world peace."
by Dr Joshua MZIZI
THE National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'i
Faith in Swaziland yesterday celebrated a very important day in the
contemporary history of the nations of the world.
The theme of the celebration was religious tolerance in our global village. This is a very deep and involved theme.
First, the world cannot rid itself of religion and religions. Religions are here to stay. They cannot be wished away. They are no longer matters of past-time hobby like any sport or social club.
Rather, they now as ever before determine our lives and social relationships. These relationships are always very fragile, thus leading to religious wars within nation states or even across national boundaries.
Secondly, the inbuilt mechanism in each religion to always take itself as containing the absolute truth is problematic, if not potentially explosive. Truth is a very elusive concept.
Just when you think you have it, bouts of doubt hit you like a sledge hammer.
In short, every thinking human being always searching for the truth. Only those who are dead can be excused from this search.
But then some who are living content themselves with whatever pieces of truth they may be holding onto and then make the mistake of universalizing these pieces.
In other words, it is either the world is defined through the these pieces or there is no definition that may be attempted elsewhere and otherwise. This leads to unnecessary tensions and infightings.
The Law and Religion division of Emory University in Atlanta Georgia has just finished one of the most important worldwide surveys on matters of religious conflicts and human rights abuses as a result of religious intolerance.
The study was manned by over 200 scholars of one stripe or another from across the world. It took Emory a total of three years to complete it.
The theme was "Soul Wars: The Problem of Proselytism in the New World Order." There will be massive publications that will result from that project. The results of the study do not paint a good picture at all.
Religious intolerance is the single most enemy number one affecting many communities nations the world over. I am sure that readers have been following the recent bashing of Muslims in our local newspapers.
The bashing is promoted by certain Christian Pastors who suffer from an obsession with the pieces of scattered truth at their disposal They label Moslems as pagans and without the light of Christ.
The claim here is that all religious truth is found in Christianity and nowhere else. Of course, that is rubbish to people who have reasoned that all truth is relative.
Professor John Witte Jr. who directed the Emory project recently commented as follows in his executive summary: "This exercise has required us to open difficult theoretical issues and to explore them in various cultural and religious contexts.
"In Christian theological terms, the dialectic is between the Great Commission and the Golden Rule: how does a person or community abide simultaneously with the callings to 'Go forth into the world and make disciples of all nations,' and to 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'."
The matter Prof. Witte is raising is taken for granted by religious propagaters. The position is that if my religion as perceived by myself tells me that it is privy to truth, then all others are false religions.
It is therefore my God-ordained duty to forcefully oppose them, even up to the point of barberically murdering their adherents.
Sharia Law for example, sentences to death anyone who dares insult the prophet Muhammed and Allah. Whoever can kill the author of Satanic Verses would have done a righteous and noble act.
But seriously, does the dialectic between the Great Commission and the Golden Rule not also hinge on the notion of rights?
Individuals and communities have the right to practice, propagate, and celebrate their religion.
This right is recognised Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
In other words, as John Witte asks, how does a community balance its own right to expand the faith, and another's person's or community's right to be left alone. It is interesting to note that Swaziland's independence Constitution gave a detailed account of what freedom of conscience entails.
Chapter II, Section 11 states that freedom of conscience includes freedom of thought and religion, freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others, and both in public and in private to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching practice and observance.
In the Christian religion conversion is not compulsory. And backsliding is not prohibited. One can move in and out of the faith as he or she wishes.
In Judaism conversion is difficult in and out. It is difficult and rigorous to convert into Judaism, let alone to recant the faith.
Islam has an easy conversion into the faith, but it allows for no conversion out of it. A recent example of the latter is what is taking place right now in Iran.
Members of the Baha'i faith are constantly tortured and persecuted. Even the Baha'i Open University in Iran is being threatened with closure.
The classical case is that of two Baha'is who were sentenced to hang this week for converting a Muslim woman to the Baha'i faith. The Islamic Court of Iran exercises Sharia Law which allows for such judicial action against what it considers as infidels.
What the state of Iran and many others in the Islamic world is doing is infringing on the rights of individuals and communities to believe in whatever they want to believe in.
Another interesting story is what took place in Ghana prior to the independence celebrations of 1994. There was controversy over whether the traditional rite of whether libation could be poured at the celebrations.
The churches protested to the proposal to pour libation. They boycotted the occasion. Clearly this has been the stand of many missionary churches which saw African belief systems as satanic.
By adapting this stance, the churches of Ghana blinded themselves to the reality that Ghana is a religiously plural nation. Traditional religionists should be respected on the same footing as any other adherents particular faiths.
An older issue in Ghana, which is going to be a thorn in flesh for us here in Swaziland as well, concerns the role of education and the right of the churches to run schools and hospitals.
Kwame Nkrumah had taken the position that the education of the people was part and parcel of the struggle against colonialism and neo-colonialism.
The churches were uncomfortable with this position. They held that Dr Nkrumah was introducing Leninist socialism using the platform of the church.
When the Nkrumah government attempted to take over the mission schools, there was much conternation in Ghana. The charge was that the government was in a ploy to dispossess the churches their right to spread the faith through social services and humanitarian engagement.
Swaziland is yet to agree on a Bill of Rights. Controversies on religious rights for all citizens are bound to escalate, and judging from the outcome of the Emory global project, tensions will rise and soul enemies will abound.
The question is: Is all this necessary? Is life not too short to carry unnecessary grudges? Why should the Themba Nhlekos of this world break the golden rule at the expence of religious harmony in Swaziland? Why should they be allowed to do so?
The fact of the matter is that freedom of religions carries within itself the responsibility to respect other religions. But perhaps we must start here: accept others as you would that they accept you.
Affirm their convictions despite the fact that yours are different.
To me, or even to great thinkers like Freud and Jung, religious tolerance is the highest level of spiritual development any religious individual can reach. It is not an ideal. It is a state which can be reached. It is spirituality at its highest level. Those that have not reached it are central in the religious conflicts of our time.
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