Many gods, one Caesar
Letter to the editor | Sunday, September 25, 2005
Thursday’s First Annual Notre Dame forum gives us great insight into how the Jenkins administration will likely manage conflicts and challenges from students, faculty, staff, community members and critics of Notre Dame in the coming years. The Observer’s Friday coverage of the panel (“Panelists discuss the global role of religion”) as well as the protest outside gives us ample evidence to believe that the Jenkins administration is pursuing a new-age management strategy prevalent at many liberal colleges and universities, namely engineered interfaith dialog from above. When important global conflicts such as the anti-colonial revolt in Palestine, resistance to the war in Iraq or the dissent of laity in the Church make themselves felt on campuses, administrators often rush to have a polite “dialogue” about it, very narrowly defining the terms of engagement along lines suitable to protecting their own authority. Thus they blunt the edges of meaningful alternatives and shut out voices which they label to be “extremist,” “self-righteous” or “overly disruptive.”
Notre Dame Professor Lawrence Sullivan is right in saying that “tolerance is based on ‘let’s all get along, let’s not bring up anything serious.'” When religious challenges emerge to the authority of campus administrators or the authority of the U.S. Empire and ruling class that they serve, administrators often run to throw together a panel of representatives of “diverse” religious groups who can manage the tension better than the white guys in charge here. The meaningful diversity of these hand-picked leaders is bombastically emphasized, yet in reality they all have one thing in common. They share a general political fidelity to status-quo values like “the American way of life” (read: the racist colonization of the Middle East) or “prosperity and freedom” (read: the unrestrained exploitation of the poor) or even “helping the poor” (read: the planned exploitation of the poor justified as an act on their behalf).
Sullivan reminds us that “People in their guts live on serious issues,” but at the forum some of the most serious issues were left glaringly untouched. For instance, nobody challenged Naomi Chazan when she claimed that Israel is a “democratic state with a Jewish majority.” Nobody pointed out that this white, European majority was artificially created through a process of colonial settlement, ethnic cleansing and apartheid, predicated on the “transfer” of hundreds of thousands of indigenous Palestinians from their homes. Nobody pointed out that Israel is hardly a democracy since Arabs are second-class citizens within it. Nobody challenged the right of Israel to exist as a state based on the supremacy of one ethnicity, race and religion at the expense of another. The Intifada, the noble attempt of Palestinians to seek dignity and self- government, was portrayed as a problem and a threat to dialogue. Yet despite all of this talk of pluralism, nobody suggested that we fight for an actual democratic government in Palestine where Jews, Arabs, Muslims and Christians can live side by side as equals, something that would, pragmatically, require the overthrow of the Zionist state as currently constituted.
I know there are some conservative people on this campus who would like to seize on these comments and say “look, it’s the fault of the Jews, the Jews are behind all of this!” To counter such anti-Semitism, allow me to draw attention to the fact that Israel is not the only example of a beautiful religion warped and twisted to become a bureaucratic state. So is Vatican City. The Catholic hierarchy itself is known to repress meaningful challenges to its authority. Yet these challenges abound, and it was telling that only a few of them were mentioned in the panel, in a cautious and almost anemic way. Again, polite dialog: “Let all voices be heard, especially voices that aren’t saying anything.” Meanwhile, outside, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) protested the fact that the Catholic representative on the panel, Cardinal Rodriguez, had denied the reality of the abuse of children by claiming the scandal was engineered by a media “more reminiscent of Stalin and Hitler.” Sure, Catholics have historically been oppressed by U.S. official society, but we are also oppressed by our own leaders; SNAP pointed out that “We are the faithful Catholic sons and daughters who were raped and sodomized by priests that our parents trusted.” With classic administrative finesse, the director of the Kroc Institute moved in with the claim that Rodriguez’s comments on the scandal “did not pertain to the forum’s topic.” Again, Interfaith Dialogue allows no room for meaningful challenges to the authority of those hand-picked from above to represent our communities. The representatives of each faith are chosen through loyalty oath: they must pledge to manage dissent from within their own peoples, in the name of peace and tolerance. This, in addition to being straight, seems to be one of the “professional” qualifications Rodriquez advocated in screening future leaders of the Catholic Church.
Is this Dialogue? Diversity? Democracy? Or is it more reminiscent of the civil religion of Rome where everyone was allowed to worship whichever God they chose as long as they also put a pinch of incense on the altar of Caesar? Is Notre Dame a democracy, or is it a Roman colony, a city-state governed by this kind of “tolerant” oligarchy? To celebrate his inauguration, Father Jenkins invited people of many faiths to ask “Why God?” But is he expecting us at the same time to pay homage and burnt offerings to other revered symbols? The Notre Dame logo? Police and security? Irishness (read: whiteness?) The American flag? Needless to say, the fundamentalists are not the only ones who may refuse this new-age liturgy in the years to come.