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Religious tolerance

Peter W. Wickham

Religious tolerance

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SOME WEEKS AGO an association of Christians hosted a visiting televangelist who drew the ire of the more conventional Christian community here. The objections to his visit have ranged from concerns over the opulence of such a visit in these depressed economic times, to a genuine belief that the televangelist might be a religious version of the ancient “snake oil salesman”.
It is well known that I do not identify with any religious grouping and, moreover, am generally suspicious of all organised religions. I am nonetheless a member of this society and reserve the right to comment on the legitimacy of those who objected to the visit of this televangelist.
Concerns relating to the cost and opulence are rooted in a suggestion that the organisers could have found better uses for this money and are worthy of consideration. There is no question that we are under tremendous financial pressure, the likes of which we have not known for a long time. At the same time, however, a logical point was made regarding the cost of this “production”, which does not differ significantly from the cost of mounting one of the larger Kadooment bands and there is no suggestion that the latter should be cancelled.
Answers to questions of this type are influenced by priorities, which are personal and should rightly be so. As such, the staging of this event was to my mind akin to the second Rihanna, show which was highly imprudent. In a small society like ours, however, neither I nor any other individual has the “right” to determine national priorities.
These are best assessed using the market mechanism as an indicator; therefore, if any event is a priority, the market will automatically generate sufficient resources and interest to sustain such an event. The fact that the second Rihanna show did not come off and this religious event did demonstrates clearly that there is a market for the latter type of entertainment. If a market exists, it is therefore not for me to argue against the “right” of those wishing to consume this spiritual product, in much the same way that it should not be their right to prevent Rihanna’s second show, if there was sufficient interest to sustain it.
The other aspect of this issue is slightly more delicate, since several opponents of the event doubted the sincerity of the central character and believed that he was the biblical equivalent of a “false prophet”. These matters are also quite easy for me to assess since non-believers such as me have difficulty taking the promises of traditional “prophets” seriously and it gets considerably harder as one moves along the continuum towards the more fundamentalist and charismatic. My challenge here, however, is the contradiction inherent in the attitude of some members of the traditional Christian community. This attitude was proudly displayed on call-in programmes and across social media and provides a good opportunity for introspection. It is surprising that the traditional Christian community, which constantly reminds us about the need for tolerance, demonstrates intolerance by its condemnation of this televangelist.
One of the central concerns has been his claim to what is commonly referred to as “faith healing” which many see as fraudulent. Such issues are (again) quite easy for me since I go to the doctor when ill and have “faith” in his training, skill and the treatment he administers. Alternative “healing” is, however, as much a central tenet of Christianity as is the Virgin birth, which is to my mind equally implausible. In the same way that Christ was said to have healed the leper as is told in the Gospel of Matthew, “prophets” have claimed similar “healings” which one assumes is integral to the claim of “prophethood”.
Lest we forget, ever single pope is said to have performed similar miracles and a woman recently claimed the beatified Mother Teresa cured her of cancer. Here in Barbados, one church has regular “faith healing” services and several claim to “cast out demons”, which one minister believes in. Just two years ago, a distinguished church group, with the blessing of this Government, played host to another televangelist who claims to have “raised the dead” and one of that group’s leaders claimed that he spoke directly to God and was promised that our late Prime Minister would live. In these instances, we seem not to have challenged the legitimacy, sincerity or sanity of any of these prophets so it seems somewhat hypocritical to challenge this most recent one.
This religious event was an important teaching moment for believers in Barbados who seem inclined to think that the likes of this televangelist are “not good” for us. Such persons should be reminded that the core element of all religions is “faith”, which of necessity requires some amount of subscription to what would otherwise be “unbelievable”. It is therefore good that believers understand the many configurations of belief structures and moreover appreciate the need to respect the approach of others as much as they would wish their approach to be respected.
• Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).