Of late, the deep state has been the least of my worries. It has not kept me awake at night since the doldrums of the post 2015 revolution – fiasco though that has turned out to be. But it is deeper states of mind – to do with faith and philosophy – that concern me today. Also you, if you are (like Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith) a son of the soil and presumably have Sri Lanka’s best interests at heart. So much so – the human heart being what it is, full of deceit and a labyrinth of self and outer deception – that we (he or you and I) might deceive ourselves into believing that we mean what we say.
His Eminence has not been the darling of the liberal brigade. His stand – no pun intended – on homosexuality and abortion, among other matters close to the heart and mind – has not endeared him to the ‘new religionists’. His own understanding of those who see sexual orientation, practice and preference as human rights is to label their laissez-faire approach as a ‘religion’.
But laissez passer. To each his own, at least outside the confines of the cloistered and compromised confessional of contemporary (and dare I say it) historical Catholicism. I, too, am a man of little faith and less philosophy. And I know for a fact, after a jubilee of studying the Good Book – the same one His Grace might build his biblical praxis on – that human rights may have been codified by the like of Hammurabi. But (by God!) they find their modern origins in the prophetic voice of the likes of Amos among other Old Testament champions of the right to life, liberty under heaven, and the pursuit of godliness. That, however, is a matter for another forum – an ecclesiastical court that has little to do, if the Cardinal’s praxis is anything to go by – in the real world of those who would abuse nuns and choirboys with impunity; or defend the indefensible in more secular politically savvy courts of earthly kings.
A more immediate concern for us all are the recent statements that the most powerful prelate in Sri Lankan Christendom has made with regard to two matters.
First, he says that in the West, human rights has become a new religion.
I refer to the media report of last week which asserted that “Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith says that Western nations are attempting to teach lessons on human rights to a country like Sri Lanka which has been inclined towards religion for centuries.” While it is true that the US in particular and a panoply of European countries are utterly selective in overlooking their own abysmal track record in history written plain, one wonders in which centuries exactly Lanka has been the liberal paragon of the prelate’s fond imagining? The rape of indigenous people and their way of life by waves of subcontinental invaders? That splendidly civilised Reign of Terror known as the History of Sri Lankan Kings bar a few noble exemplars of the Buddha’s way of life? After Independence when we shed the blood of several lost generations of innocents and the martyrdom of our own natives in the name of an ethno-nationalist exceptionalism?
The media also reported His Grace as saying that the field of human rights has become the latest religion of the Western world. True, o king! In many cases, the myopia and meanness of the very lobbies whose mandate is to liberate people from millennia of blindness to the human condition beggars belief. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in the philosophies of those Western – and dare I essay it, Middle Eastern – religions that preach the social gospel but forget the rapine and plunder of the exploratory age; the ongoing indiscriminate terror visited on economic rivals in the name of American political evangelicalism and Euro-Brit complicity; and the hypocrisy of the lobbies as countenanced in INGOs that are democrats at home and tyrants abroad.
However, we would do better to reflect on both what militant Buddhism has done to a peaceful islander way of life and how Catholic sycophancy has once or twice propped up authoritarian antidemocratic regimes. To quote the charismatic Carpenter the Christ-touring Cardinal follows: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
“There is no need to teach human rights to Sri Lanka where we have had religious inclination since centuries ago,” the Cardinal is also reported to have said. A sense of proportion is called for, perhaps, in examining where these religious inclinations and philosophical proclivities have led us as an island race that remains riven because of pseudo-religious inclinations and faux-political philosophies. Pogroms? Check. Ethnic cleansing? Alleged. Ethno-nationalist chauvinism? Get that T shirt.
However, I might agree with Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith that “we should not be deceived by these tricks and should act wisely.” So be it, your eminence. The people you safeguard would do well to consider themselves warned against the false shepherds who devour the flock.
Then again, he says that “people who had been shaped by Buddhist civilisation do not violate human rights”. He adds that “a society which attempts to make human rights a religion could safeguard human rights effectively through Buddhist teaching”.
A master of making the obvious exceptional, His Grace says there are “threats posed on religions at present” and added that “Buddhism was the backbone of this country and it was a religion which had been followed by the people in this land for a long time.”
Not sensing that he might lose his Catholic audience and compromise our political masters’ customary reliance on the corresponding voter bloc, he added: “The rights of all people in this country are safeguarded when Buddhist culture is safeguarded. Anti-religious ideologies are being filtered into the society today. We have to put them aside and safeguard religions.”
Full metal jacket: “Since we have inherited a great culture over the years, there is no need to think about human rights in a special way. Religions are not followed in some countries. Human rights are safeguarded in our country much more than what is prescribed by the UN in Sri Lanka because of the Buddhist environment.”
Now there is much truth in what His Lordship grinds out ex cathedra, so to speak. But his arguments hold true only in that ethereal place where imagination can conjure ghosts of a glory that has passed away from the earth and give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. And by that I simply mean that if all the cardinal virtues he held dear were actually practised by the dearest people he holds dearer still, we’d all be able to take that cassock off and reach for the cup that cheers.
For the sake of balance, I’d like to reflect what some of his detractors save myself have essayed in response to the Cardinal’s “broadsides”. To wit:
- That the clarity of his communication is a consummation to be desired: first, he says something that is at odds with the Catholic Church’s doctrine (e.g. his proclamation on the desirability of capital punishment); but then backtracks using equivocation and semiotics when the papal teaching contrary to his position (viz. the humility and humaneness of Francis I) goes public.
- His mockery of the western liberal democrat’s secularism
- An appeal to inchoate nationalism
- A lionising of local values in the form of cheap one upmanship
- Irony that his primary allegiance is not to the Sri Lankan state or the people of this democratic republic but a plutocratic conservative Western capital at the centre of the ongoing European imperial project
I would agree with Dylan Perera on all of these as well as His Grace’s deliberate use of populist rhetoric to amplify patriotic pride. But stop short of saying it is at odds with the universalist message of Christ. Sorry. There must be giving the devil his due for all manner of mendicants as much as the mendacious followed that Man among men.
Not much of a doubt there will be sundry Defenders of the Faith who will spring to an apologia (plus, possibly, personal attacks against those who dare raise clenched fists at the hot seat or high chair) for their man of God. And I have no truck with them. I, too, bow the knee to a Higher Power and will look forward with fear and trembling to the Great White Throne Judgment. But even princes of the new world order to come must search their consciences diligently after having embraced the princes and potentates of this world for their own reasons and raisons d’etres.
For though I sense a deeply convoluted Hitch-22 in the anticlerical fulminations of the late great Christopher Hitchens, I’m beginning to see what he meant when he suggested in no uncertain terms that religion poisons everything. No doubt atheism is capable of equally great atrocities. But for simpleminded absurdities it’s hard to beat politically tainted pseudo-religious faux-political asininity.
Cardinal escape hatch
Now to me. For peccavi: I have sinned! A closer examination of self will reveal without a shadow of doubt the fallenness and the farness of the fall of those such as I who are honest to God. And mea culpa, mea maxima culpa; for I have no good to save me from myself but saving grace that saves me and any other who will have It. But you won’t find me on my knees in a compromised confessional where the most fundamental of human rights have been violated by not defenders, but desecrators of the faith.
A son of a small island (like His Grace) and a scion of a larger destiny (perhaps unlike His Eminence, mercy and peace be upon him), I would have a true separation of church and state, of faith and political philosophy. No doubt any religionist – even and especially the traders and truckers of that unbelief ‘neoliberalism’ – may critically engage the powers that be. But render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. And you know the rest.
So who will rid us of these troublesome priests? For town hall and market square are squalid enough places with the haggling and bargaining of princes and merchants without some well-meaning ill-intentioned or savvy Machiavelli sticking their toffee-nosed nonsense into the public discourse. Private words in a president’s ear are one thing. Perhaps it is now incumbent on the free media to refrain from giving the Cardinal’s “outbursts” the column inches they barely deserve.
(Journalist | Editor-at-large of LMD | Writer #SpeakingTruthToPower)