Religion:  Voice of the Oppressed or Vehicle for Oppression?

An Interview with OMNIA President Shanta Premawardhana by John Kenyon, Founder & Director of the Institute for Global Church Studies

On July 6 OMNIA’s President Dr. Shanta Premawardhana sat down with John Kenyon, founder and director of The Institute for Global Church Studies (IGCS), an online forum started in 2007 for better understanding the impact of globalization on worldwide Christianity.  They focused on the dynamic tension that exists when religion is used both as a liberating force and “righteous governance.” 

The IGCS seeks to learn about fifteen major global issues impacting the Church in all two hundred or so nations of the world.  The conversation starter is religious news.  One of the primary interests is hearing first from the churches in each nation, and inviting their voices to dialogue with Christians throughout the world.  Here is their conversation, presented on IGCS’s Facebook page:

John Kenyon, IGCS—North America THE INSTITUTE FOR GLOBAL CHURCH STUDIES:
Good morning Shanta Premawardhana:. It is a pleasure to have you with the Institute for Global Church Studies (IGCS) this morning.

Shanta Premawardhana, President of the OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership:
Thank you, John, I appreciate the opportunity.

John:
Students of the history of Christianity and worldwide Christianity see the dynamic tension of the Gospel as both a liberating socio-political force AND a force for righteous governance. Apart from this, history is nothing but the oppressed becoming the oppressor. As Omnia is a bottom-up program for empowering the oppressed, my ten questions are designed to explore how Omnia deals with this dynamic tension. Is your seat belt fastened? 

Shanta: 
We're cool. And yes, OMNIA works from the bottom-up!  I think of the Gospel as a liberating force. Too often, and throughout history, there Christianity and religions in general have been instrumentalized by governments and corporations to legitimize their oppressive agendas. The Gospel, therefore offers a powerful critique to religion, and governments when they subvert its liberating agenda.

The bottom-up agenda comes from such colonial misuse of religion. At OMNIA, we call this "received" theologies. These are top-down theologies that come from a different time and different place, and address questions that arise from those contexts. Bottom-up means that all of us religious communities must address the real questions that arise from the daily struggles of people in our communities.

Bottom up theologies are about agitating people to take their own future in their hands. It seeks to release the power that is innate to them, that they themselves can access by building deep relationships and coalitions between races and religions. We don't usually use the word "empowering" because it connotes the idea that I can come in to a community and "give power" to someone else. What we do is, releasing the power that is already in and within all our communities.

John:
The IGCS loves to post stories of inter-religious harmony. How does Omni work to create these stories? How do the religious become a force for peace rather than conflict?

Shanta: 
OMNIA has lots of stories of inter-religious harmony. In our work in Northeastern Nigeria, for example, where Boko Haram is active, we have trained over 600 Muslim and Christian leaders to work together. This, in an area where Christians and Muslims have long-held animosities. It is to that space that Boko Haram has stepped in, to recruit young people. Here are a couple:

Two Christian women started a sewing shop, sewing those beautiful African dresses. They have now determined that as the shop progresses they will hire Muslim women to assist them. This is unheard of.

Two Muslim young men who ran away from Boko Haram started a barber shop, and are hiring Christian young men to assist them. At a recent training, in Dec. 2017 a Christian woman and a Muslim woman decided that when they go back to the village they are going to get Christian and Muslim women to pair up and build deep relationships. When I was there in March 2018, some 20 women came to meet with me to think about what they can do together and Christians and Muslims to bring development to their community.

The answer your question: The way OMNIA knows to do this, is to deconstruct colonial theologies that lead to extremism -- theologies that have attributes of exclusivity and superiority, and to highlight theological impulses in all our traditions that lead to pluralistic understanding. It is also to give people practical tools about how to build power so that they can act collaboratively and effectively. In Nigeria, we expect that we will soon see the space for Boko Haram recruitment shrinking.

John:
 Define “empire” for us. A.k.a. the “evil empire”. When working in Asia and using the term “empire”, what does it mean contextually? China? India? Radical Islamists or Buddhists? Something else? Or do you define “empire” in a global context? Meaning the United Nations, and/or the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, The International Monetary Fund, et al?

Shanta
I use the word empire to include hegemonic powers. These can be governments or groups that subject other people to various oppressions, dominations and violence. Empire is not just militaristic. It is also hegemonic ideas.

Empires, of course, have existed since the ancient Egyptian empire of the Pharoahs, to Romans of Jesus' day. The colonial movements that went out from Europe, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British were hegemonic powers bent on world domination. They were aided and abetted by the church and its theologies. The Doctrine of Discovery from 1452 was one of those church-sanctioned theologies that legitimized 500 years of empire-building.

Ideas are another way of empire building. Today, in the US, corporate media spreads ideas across the country and around the world that foster oppression, domination and violence. Greed is the primary motivator of these ideas. Unless religious people are very careful, we get swept in that current.

All the institutions you mention, have some level of oppression, domination and violence built into them. That list should include governments, including our own (whichever country you are from). The role of religion must be to be highly critical and work against them as powerfully as possible, when they contravene the primary religious values, such as human liberation.

John: 
Omnia, as you said, does important work in Nigeria where Boko Haram is an Islamic terrorist organization destabilizing the government. In the Middle East, do you consider Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists or freedom fighters?

Shanta
To add one more word to the previous response: religions, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and even Buddhism can have hegemonic, oppressive features. So, we have radical Muslims, and even radical Buddhists who use violence.

OMNIA does not have a presence in the Middle East --at least not yet. We have many friends in Israel and Palestine, both in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. Hamas and Hezbollah are different organizations. One Sunni, and the other Shia. They are also located in different countries. Hamas won a democratic victory in Gaza back in 2006, I believe. This is primarily because they run many humanitarian agencies in what has become an open air prison.

I, personally, don't like people who use violence to achieve their ends. This includes the Israeli government which is terrorizing Palestinians, most recently in the March of Return in Gaza. I have learned to distrust many media reports about that situation, relying on friends from the area to give more authentic accounts. I don't buy the argument that Hamas orchestrated the March of Return. It was a lot of groups, organizations and ordinary people who participated non-violently to protest the utter oppression that they are facing.

John: 
Omnia’s cause of fighting religious extremism resonates clearly with religious freedom as an international cause. Were you glad to see religious freedom put on the front burner of United States foreign policy? Or does President Trump by definition have a sinister, hidden agenda behind this new policy?

Shanta
Religious Freedom, and its accompanying freedom of conscience and freedom of speech and press, is, of course, a critically important freedom. I celebrate that in the US we have a separation of church and state that cements religious freedom. When government either supports or discriminates against religion, both religion and government (the people) suffer. We need to vigilant to safeguard against threats to religious freedom at all times.

However, in the US, we need to be careful that religious freedom does not get construed as Christian Freedom. The worry I have of President Trump's emphasis that it can easily become Christian Freedom. The recent Muslim ban is a case in point. If people are prevented from coming to the US because they are Muslims, or if Muslims do not have the opportunity to have full privileges of citizenship, there is no religious freedom. This is also true for minority religious groups within the US. Although small in number, there are many religious groups that are practicing their religions, all the way from Caribbean religions to Wiccans!

John: 
Are American Evangelicals, with notable exceptions, religious extremists in Omnia’s view?

Shanta: Of course not. Most Evangelicals want to sincerely follow Jesus' teachings and example. They value the opportunity to witness to their faith so that others may too follow his teachings and example. Most Evangelicals seek to be authentically Christian, in that sense.

Here's my worry though. The Evangelical movement has set itself apart from mainline Christianity in a way that is unhealthy. There was a time when Evangelical meant pertaining to the Gospel, because Gospel, of course, is the Evangel. In doing so, much of the Evangelical movement and particularly its leaders, built an unhealthy alliance with a particular political party. That 81% of White Evangelicals voted for Trump is a serious problem. In a recent Pew poll only 25% of Evangelicals said that they think allowing refugees to come to the US is important. The deep worry have is that too many Evangelicals may be following Ann Rynd than Jesus Christ. If that is a wrong perception, I would love to be corrected. And if that is the case I will be the first to grieve that loss.

John:
In Chicago, how does Omnia address the issue of black-on black violence, unwed mothers, fatherless homes, and the roughly 40,000 abortions each year in the state of Illinois? How does it promote economic prosperity (jobs) as a tool for the poor? Does it support political choice? Or demonize the Republican Party?

Shanta
In Chicago, OMNIA engages with marginalized communities. Chicago is a segregated city, not only racially, but economically. This didn't automatically happen. Concentrated poverty was created by economic policies and state law. Black-on-black violence is as real as white-on-white violence. Both are terrible. I think the term came from African American leaders themselves who wanted to hold miscreants from their own communities accountable. But since then it has become a part of "dog-whistle" politics. The questions of unwed mothers and fatherless homes and abortions are terrible social evils that are problematic across the country. If young people have adequate sex education and access to contraceptives we will see a dramatic reduction of unwed mothers and abortions. The question of fatherless homes have to do with the dramatic rise of divorces, which often result (I think) from stresses that are primarily economic in nature.

OMNIA works with entrepreneurial groups, an affordable housing agency to promote economic development in local communities. We work primarily with religious congregations. However, all the work we would do is inadequate unless economic policy is changed from its greed-base to an economy that values Jesus' commandment to Love your Neighbor as Yourself.

John: 
When in Charlotte, NC, did Omnia reject the growing violence of far left groups such as Antifa with the same vigor it rejects the marginalized KKK?

Shanta
We worked with some religious leaders of Charlotte, but didn't do as much as we had hoped. The problems of Charlotte are not that different from those in Chicago. It has a very rich center-city and very poor neighborhoods. Charlotte is among 50 or so cities studied in terms of opportunity for young people growing up in economically depressed neighborhoods and came out in at the bottom.

I am not sure how one can call KKK marginalized. It is one of the more privileged groups in the US today, particularly in the Trump-era. Antifa or Anti-fascist has a long history to the era of WW2 Europe. Their stance is to stand against creeping fascisms. Some in the Antifa groups have embraced violence as a way stand against the violence of White Nationalist or racist groups like the KKK. Cornel West famously commented after the Charlottesville debacle that if not for Antifa they, the clergy and religious leaders who marched would have been decimated.

To the extent that any group will use violence, I believe, OMNIA will distance itself from them. Non-violence social change is a core value for us.

John:
Are all or most white people racists? Must white people suffer corporate guilt for the sins of some of their fathers and mothers? Why should America remember the sin of slavery but discount the purging of the Civil War? Why should it remember the sin of segregation/apartheid but discount the purging of the Civil Rights movement?

Shanta
Most white people are privileged. Its not their fault. They were born that way. To the extent that they don't acknowledge their privilege and work with others who are marginalized they run the risk of being racists. Racism is not just prejudice, but prejudice + power. Power comes from privilege. White people today are recipients of the privileges they received as a legacy of slavery, and the decimation of Native populations.

Most of us to some extent or the other have privilege. Perhaps all of us fit somewhere in a continuum between marginality and privilege. White people who are poor may find themselves more marginal than African Americans who are rich. But we need to find our place in that continuum and acknowledge our marginality and privilege. This is a very important value for OMNIA

John:
How should a nation deal with its corporate sins? When does justice cease condemning and begin forgiving and reconciliation?

Shanta
A good example is South Africa. Remember it was Archbishop Tutu's intervention that created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Whatever its shortcomings were, it attempt to give people an opportunity to face the truth, consider how to create opportunities for restorative justice. Until the truth is squarely faced, until the offense acknowledged, and restitution provided it is too early for forgiveness and reconciliation. This is in the case of corporate sin, rather than individual, which has to dealt with similarly, but with different dynamics.

John: 
Final question. If you were President of the United States, name your top three priorities. Or…what should be the top 3 priorities of Washington DC?

Shanta: 
I won't be. But its fun to imagine!
1. I think the country has a big problem with greed. It is a sin. Jesus said so. You cannot serve two masters. You will either serve God or money. Greed is institutionalized. Not only in events like bailing out "too big to fail banks" but in corporations' ability to give unlimited money to electoral candidates. Since it is a sin, let me suggest that religious communities are the only ones capable of addressing it forthrightly. But the President and the government must set the pace.

 2. I think Climate Change is the huge threat to the world. Roll back of Obama era regulations by the Trump administration and the pulling out of the Paris accords are a huge mistake. They have to be corrected and the US must be a global leader in green technologies.

3. I think the immigration question must be addressed, both humanely and justly. The US must revel in its diversity not fight against it. Diversity is its greatest strength. To say that we are a country of immigrants, to affirm with Emma Lazarus "Give me your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free" is a core value for the nation. Therefore we must invite people from other nations to help us become the best we can be.

John:
Thank you for being with us this morning. It has been a pleasure. Let's chat again.

Shanta:
Thank you for the opportunity, John. I sincerely appreciate your efforts with IGCS.

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Vince Isner