The Opium Habit
issue 188 - October 1988
The opium habit
The New Right tries to claim Christianity as its ally. So does part of the Left.
Debbie Taylor looks at what Christ himself might have said to both sides.
'Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?' The cry has come from sovereigns, presidents and prime ministers over the centuries, each driven distracted by the stubborn and contradictory steadfastness of a religious leader. And there have been murders in cathedrals, the blood of celebrants spattered on the very altars of sacrifice.
What irritates the rulers so much is that these turbulent priests - from Thomas à-Becket to Desmond Tutu, Thomas More to Oscar Romero - dare to cross the boundary between public and private morality and force a new dimension of accountability on their rulers. More important still, they appeal to such self-evident moral principles that they carry the hearts and minds of the people with them, encouraging everyone to ask the awkward question 'why?'.
Fortunately for the world's rulers, the majority of religious leaders are not turbulent rockers-of-the-boat, but steady hands on the tiller of status quo. Most accept without question the separation of prayer from politics and quail at the suggestion that they should be allied to one political policy or another.
These church leaders are the true purveyors of Marx's famous 'opium of the people': the kind of soporific religion that keeps people working hard, doing their duty (as defined by the State), behaving in a law-abiding manner, and generally putting up with every kind of pain in the present in the hope of a just reward in the hereafter.
I can't help suspecting that Jesus - who allied himself with the poor, halted the stoning of adulterers, drank with whores and tax-collectors, was friend to publicans and sinners - would have treated such clergy to the same 'whited sepulchre' speech to which he subjected the religious leaders of his time, accusing them of hypocrisy, of propounding one rule for the rich and another for the poor.
Historian R H Tawney dates the emergence of these religious opium-peddlers to the time of the rise of capitalism. At that time the Church was enormously influential and voluntary virtuous poverty was one of the basic tenets of its teachings. Now this did not suit the fledgling capitalists at all. And, according to Tawney, it was this fundamental incongruence - between church and capitalism on the virtues of getting rich - that led to the separation of public from private morality.
'Compromise is impossible between the Church of Christ and the idolatry of wealth, which is the practical religion of capitalist societies,' he wrote. More recently Father Gustavo Guttierez of Lima said that the prayer of most world leaders is 'Our Father, who art in heaven - please stay there'.
And if there should be any doubt that such a separation - between secular politics and religion - has occurred, this quote from the Pope castigating Father Arrupe of El Salvador should make it abundantly clear. In 1982 he warned this latter-day turbulent priest against what he termed 'progressivism', by which he meant 'the identification of the Church with a political struggle to improve the lot of the poor and oppressed by pulling down the mighty from their seats'.
The Pope might well have had a similar disagreement with that most turbulent of priests, Jesus of Nazareth. Because Jesus had a lot to say about wealth and greed and justice. And what he said made uncomfortable listening for the early Christians - just as it does for many people who call themselves Christians today. One of the hardest things for them to swallow, for instance, was Jesus' insistence that it was not so much the misuse of wealth that he abhorred, but wealth in and of itself.
An earnest young man in expensive clothes came to speak to him one hot and dusty afternoon. 'I spend hours in prayer every day,' he said. 'And I give money to the poor - far more than other rich people. Is there anything else I can do?'
Jesus looked at him - so smooth-skinned and soft-spoken, the epitome of Thatcher's or Reagan's virtuous capitalist. 'Get rid of everything,' he said abruptly. 'Your fine linen shirts and sheets, your clear red wines and your servants, everything.'
The young man was crestfallen. 'Everything?'
Jesus shrugged: 'It's your choice. Do you want to find heaven or not? It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to find heaven'.
Four centuries later his successors were still berating the rich: 'Tell me, then, whence art thou rich?' asked John Chrysostum of Constantinople. 'From whom didst thou receive it? The root and origin of it must have been injustice.' Over 600 years after that Thomas Aquinas was saying the same thing: 'Whatever exceeds the consumer's requirements is held violently,' he insisted. And today's liberation theologians echo those thoughts: 'The Gospel is war to the death against the motive of acquisition,' says Jose Miranda bluntly.
Strong stuff. The stuff of revolution. And it should be, literally, a godsend to the opponents of right-wing regimes today.
It should be. But it isn't. Though the Right blenches whenever the turbulent priests threaten its 'I'm-alright-Jack' moral hegemony, the Left has been slow to take advantage by pointing out to voters the obvious parallels between socialist and Christian principles. This is in part due to a quite reasonable suspicion of the opium-peddling about which Marx was so scathing. But, as Helder Camara says: 'Marx failed to distinguish between the essence of Christianity and the weakness of Christians'.
There is a more important reason for the inability of the Left to associate itself with the worry and disgust that Christians feel about the morality of the New Right. Though the Right may be morally bankrupt, the Left is spiritually bankrupt. From a spiritual point of view the only difference between the Left and the Right is the way they propose to slice up the economic cake. That the cake itself is all that matters is one thing about which they are in complete agreement.
It is this fundamental materialism that divides many socialists from Christians - and from religious people everywhere. And if Jesus was clear about his attitude to wealth, he was even clearer about his approach to materialism. 'Why are you always scrabbling after wealth and possessions? If you hoard more than you can use it will just grow rusty and mouldy in your store-rooms and thieves will break in and steal it from you. You should be storing up spiritual wealth, not material wealth. What good will it do you to own everything in the world if you have lost your heart and your soul?'
Imagine the New Right and the Old Left as two enormous ships sailing the oceans of the world. The Right's ship is like the QE2: festooned with fairy-lights, serving champagne and caviar at the captain's table - and not much of anything elsewhere. The music is playing so loudly that no-one hears the cries of those who fall overboard. In any case this ship does not carry lifeboats or lifebelts. The ship of the Left looks very similar, except that there is cheap Asti Spumante for all and you can hardly move about on the deck at all because of the lifeboats tethered there.
The trouble is that both boats are sailing in the same direction - towards a horizon emblazoned with the word 'more'. Both the crews - and many of the passengers - have 'ceased to ask what was the purpose of this vast mass of production', as Anglican Archbishop William Temple put it. 'It has tended,' he said, 'to become an end in itself.
But others are asking that key question, saying they are not sure they wanted a ticket to this particular cruise in the first place. They - the Christians, the Greens and the feminists - have noticed another kind of opium in the wine glasses: the belief that material things alone can make you happy. And they don't like the taste.
Perhaps they have heard stories about some of capitalism's most successful entrepreneurs: Howard Hughes, the legendary billionaire recluse who had a lonely death as a miserable paranoid hypochondriac; or Michael Jackson, bathing in Perrier, sleeping in an oxygen tent, trusting no-one but a chimpanzee, who seems to be sailing towards the same unhappy horizon. What better proof could there be that we cannot live by bread - or even cake - alone?
Debbie Taylor, formerly an NI co-editor, is now a freelance writer.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.