Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies, and the "Persecution" of Christians in India

Over the coming weeks and months expect a steady drumbeat of stories claiming that a wave of violent persecution of Christians is sweeping India. The online fundamentalist mouthpiece the Christian Post was very pleased to announce today that India has been placed on the "watch list" maintained by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The USCIRF is an official government agency established by an act of congress in 1998.

You see, Christians like nothing better than to play the martyr. For example, historians now recognize that the so-called "persecution" of Christians in the Pagan Roman Empire was in large part intentionally provoked by Christian fanatics who longed for martyrdom. These fanatics committed acts of criminal violence directed at Pagan holy places and even at individual Pagans including priests, priestesses and even government officials. One of the world's leading scholars of the phenomenon of Christian "martyrdom", G.E.M. de Ste Croix devoted a whole chapter to what he calls Voluntary Martyrdom in his 2006 book Christian Persecution, Martyrdom, and Orthodoxy, in which he wrote that "voluntary martyrdom"
was a great deal more common among the orthodox than the Christian apologists have cared to admit. In all probability quite a substantial proportion of the 'noble army of martyrs' of the first three centuries consisted of volunteers .... It is impossible to doubt that the prevalence of voluntary martyrdom was a factor which both contributed towards the outbreak of persecution and tended to intensify it when it was already in progress.
[p. 153]
Now fast forward 2000 years. Christians today are clamoring about "persecution" in India. Exhibit A is inevitably the claim that Christians were the victims of "religious violence" in the province of Orissa last year. What Christians don't like to mention is that the violence only started after a group of Christians assassinated an 80 year old Hindu holy man along with four other Hindus - all of them unarmed. They also don't like to mention the fact that Christians in Orissa province are known to work together with Maoist guerillas against their common enemy: Hindus. If you look hard enough you'll even find that some Christians have been willing to publicly acknowledge this "problem". Their are now even people in Orissa who consider themselves to be "Christian Maoists"!

Christians also forget to mention that before Swami Lakshmanananda was killed there had been over half a dozen attempts on his life. The Swami had provided police with evidence of death threats against him by Christians just prior to his assassination. And they also neglect to point out that both Christians and Hindus died and lost their homes during the violence that ensued after the Swami's murder.

Here are some other things that get overlooked when the cry of "Christian persecution in India" is heard:

(1) Christians have lived in India for almost 2000 years. Jews have lived in India for even longer.

(2) India is a place of refuge for religious groups that face persecution elsewhere. This is true for Jews, Zoroastrians and Tibetan Buddhists.

(3) Christians have been the perpetrators of large scale religious violence in India for over 500 years. The Catholic Church set up a branch office of the Inquisition in India in the year 1600. Catholics, using artillery, destroyed Hindu Temples in the India and Buddhist Temples in Sri Lanka during the 16th century.

(4) Christians were accused of systematically using coercion and financial inducements in their "missionary work" by Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders of the movement that eventually brought independence to India, who strongly supported tight restrictions on the activities of foreign funded Christian missionaries in India.

(5) The great Indian Rebellion of 1857 began as a response to aggressive Christian missionary activity that was being supported directly by the British East India Company. Many Indians today see the ongoing activities of western funded Christian missionaries in their country as a seamless continuation of European colonialism.

(6) India has a long history of religious tolerance, which Indians are justifiably proud of. King Asoka, who ruled most of India over 2000 years ago, made religious tolerance a basic part of his vision for India in his famous Rock Edicts. By contrast, the Catholic Church did not explicitly embrace the principle of religious tolerance until the second half of the 20th century.

Orissa has been especially targeted by western funded foreign missionaries for decades. This means that Sarah Palin types from the US take their "vacations" in Orissa to "spread the Gospel". For example, follow this link for a 2007 church newsletter from Minneapolis inviting people to go to Orissa to "learn about Indian culture" the old fashioned way - by destroying it!

Here is a list of targeted villages in Orissa - complete with latitude and longitude, and the acronyms for which missionary groups are assigned to each village:

And here is a list of foreign funds received by NGO's operating in Orissa - compiled by the Orissa government:

Finally, for further reading check out a fascinating four part series of articles from the Boston Globe (in 2006) on the insidious nexus of right-wing American groups, Christian missionaries and US government agencies involved in "foreign aid". Below is an excerpt from Part 1: Bush Brings Faith to Foreign Aid (scroll down below the excerpt for links to parts 2, 3 and 4):
A Globe survey of more than 52,000 awards of contracts, grants, and cooperative agreements from the US Agency for International Development -- which distributes taxpayer-funded assistance overseas -- provides the first comprehensive assessment of the impact of Bush's policies on foreign aid.

The survey of prime contractors and grantees, based on records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, shows a sharp increase in money going to faith-based groups between fiscal 2001, the last budget of the Clinton administration, and fiscal 2005, the last year for which complete figures were available. Faith-based groups accounted for 10.5 percent of USAID dollars to nongovernmental aid organizations in fiscal 2001, and 19.9 percent in 2005.

The prime beneficiaries have been large groups including Catholic Relief Services and evangelical organizations such as World Vision -- the former employer of Bush's longtime USAID director Andrew Natsios -- and Samaritan's Purse, which is led by evangelist Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, who guided Bush to his own religious rebirth.
Part 2: Religious right wields clout
Part 3: Together, but worlds apart
Part 4: Healing the body to reach the soul

Plato for Pagans: An overview

I am re-starting one of my perennial writing projects: Plato for Pagans. Let's see how far I get this time!!

The immodest goal of this endeavor is to provide a basic introduction to the writings of Plato for modern readers with little or no background in ancient philosophy. There is no shortage of books on Plato and ancient philosophy, but there is a near total absence of such books written from a perspective that treats Plato as a Pagan philosopher, which is what he was.

The format will be a series of commentaries on 17 of Plato's dialogues:

Volume I:
Socratic Philosophy as a Way of Life and Death

The Life of Socrates
The Death of Socrates
The Teachings of Socrates

Volume II:
The Ascent of the Soul


What follows is the beginnings of an explanation for what I have in mind for the first section of the first volume on The Life of Socrates.

The Charmides, Laches and Lysis are generally considered to be "early", "Socratic" dialogues. As such they are accepted by modern scholars as closely reflecting the teachings of Socrates. They are also shorter and more accessible than many of the dialogues that will come later in the series.

Plato's dialogues often raise a very specific question of the form "what is X?", and the three dialogues I have chosen to begin with are no exception:
The Charmides asks, what is temperance (sophrosyne)?
The Laches asks, what is courage (andreia)?
The Lysis asks, what is friendship (philia)?

In addition to having, at least on the surface, easily identifiable subjects, the first two dialogs also have a very straightforward relationship to important events in Socrates' life (and in the history of Athens). The Charmides occurs just after the Battle of Potidaea in 432. The city-state of Potidaea had attempted to revolt against Athenian rule, but they were soundly defeated by the Athenians. Socrates, then aged 37, fought heroically in this battle and his exploits are even recorded in the famous account of the battle by Thucydides. The Laches occurs just after the Battle of Delium, in the year 324, when Socrates was now 45. Once again Socrates fought with distinction and bravery, but the battle itself was a significant defeat for Athens. This is also very close to the time of the birth of Plato.

Like many of Plato's dialogues, the "dramatic date" of the Lysis is much less certain than that of the Charmides and Laches. The Lysis highlights the intense love and devotion that Socrates enjoyed among many of Athens' youths. This is also one of Plato's more maddeningly (some have even said perversely) aporetic dialogues: one concept of friendship after another is taken up, analyzed, and then rejected, so that at the end Socrates himself declares that even though they are all good friends (Socrates, Lysis and the other youths) "as yet we have not been able to discover what a friend is!"

This final declaration of the Lysis highlights one of the central themes of Platonic philosophy: surrounded by friendship we are yet unable to understand what friendship is. The same is true for temperance, courage and all of the others X's that Plato presents in the form of "what is X?": beauty (Phaedrus), love (Symposium), justice (Republic), piety (Euthyphro), death (Phaedo), knowledge (Theaetetus), pleasure (Philebus), and so forth. Sometimes the question is a bit more subtle, such as "can virture be taught?", the question of both the Meno and the Protagoras. In general, though, the method is the same, especially for the earlier dialogues: one by one various answers to the question at hand are at first presented with some optimism, but then inevitably found wanting until at last a state of aporia is achieved.

Aporia means far more than mere "puzzlement". Socrates' intention is always to show us that we do not truly know what we think we know. With his disarmingly intimate style of philosophizing, he draws out of his interlocutors their theories and assumptions about everything from love to death, and in the end shows that whatever knowledge we might have thought we possessed was false. This, in Socratic philosophy, is the beginning of genuine wisdom.