Thursday, October 27, 2005

Religion and Politics

By Fikru Helebo

Have you come across some friends or family members who gave you a cold shoulder when you attempted to strike a conversation that is political in nature? If you did, you are not alone. It has been my experience that in some southern circles politics is treated as though it is an anathema to the religious belief that some of us hold dear. This is more true among some sects of protestant Christians than in others.

I have found this phenomenon to be particularly bothersome since, as a protestant Christian, I do not find my religious belief to be in contradiction with political activism. I do believe that religious people can play a constructive role in politics and should be in the forefront of the struggle for social justice. In the Ethiopian south, where protestant groups make up a plurarity of the population, it is imperative that protestant communities embrace politics as a tool to help rid their region of injustices and misrule by successive central governments.

The history of protestantism is replete with political activism of groups and individuals whose religious beliefs guided them into action on behalf of those who were oppressed and disadvantaged in their societies. The Quakers are a prime example of such activist protestantism. Back in the mid 1800s, the Quakers were instrumental in the formation of the "
Underground Railroad" that facilitated the freedom of thousands of slaves from the southern states to the north. In recent years, the clergy of the various protestant groups in South Africa have played key roles in leading the movement in the struggle to get rid of the apartheid system when the African National Congress was forced to go underground. Of course, there is the example of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Baptist preacher who gave his life in the struggle for the civil rights of our African-American brothers and sisters, rights that some of us, Ethiopians, have the privilege of enjoying in the United States today.

These examples above are just the tip of the iceburg. Unfortunately, in the case of Ethiopia, I have a hard time coming up with a religious figure or group, protestant or otherwise, that has made contributions towards the struggle for social justice. Why is that? Is the injustice suffered by Ethiopians any less significant? Obviously not! I think it is about time that we heed the advice of Martin Luther King Jr. who was once quoted as saying: "The greatest sin of our time is not the few who have destroyed but the vast majority who've sat idly by." It is wrong to assume or pretend that religion and politics are mutually exclusive.

Those of us who are religious and give our religious convictions as a reason for not participating in the political process are doing a great disservice to our people and this has got to change. The current stalemate between the EPRDF government and the opposition in the wake of the disputed May 15th elections and the specter of another war with the belligerent government of Eritrea are clear reasons why people of faith should step in and try to bring about national reconciliation and provide hope for the Horn of Africa region. I do believe that southern Ethiopian protestants, along with other people of faith, can play an important role in national reconciliation since they do not have the baggage of association with past or present Ethiopian governments.

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