October 20, 2014
by Gerald Kraak
For friendship, such an unrequited longing
(Text engraved into the marble of the Gay Monument in Amsterdam, from a poem by Jacob Israel de Haan)
This article is a contribution to a slim, but emerging body of work in gay South African historiography – the hidden, largely unacknowledged role played by gay men and lesbians in opposition politics and in the anti-apartheid and liberation movements.
Mark Gevisser, in particular, has sought to chronicle the lives of such people, initially as co-editor of the seminal Defiant Desire in which there are partial biographies of political activists, such as Zackie Achmat, Ivan Thoms and Derrick Fine, later in his film documentary The man who drove Mandela. The documentary is a biography of Cecil Williams, a member of the proscribed Communist Party and a contemporary of Mandela and others, later indicted in the Rivonia Treason Trial of 1963. Gevisser’s posthumous outing of Williams and his account of the way he straddled the spheres of anti-apartheid politics and the homosexual underworld of 1950s Johannesburg, is a history rich in contradiction. Like Williams many gay men and lesbians hid their, homosexuality not only from the authorities, but also from their comrades, for fear of marginalisation or oppression, even while committed to the liberation of others.
The experience of progressive gay men and lesbians in South Africa is not unique in this respect. The link between the agendas of the progressive political movements in the US and Europe and gay liberation over the last decade and a half belies a longer, more enduring tradition in the left. Notwithstanding some brief epochs where groups and governments, such as the early Bolsheviks, tolerated a degree of emancipation, historically the left has proved as homophobic as the right. So for example in the socialist countries of the Soviet bloc, homosexuals were persecuted, even as centre-right governments in the West decriminalised same-sex behaviour.
History, is an interpretive discipline and inevitably subjective when it involves autobiography, as this interpolation into the work of Gevisser and others, does. Like Gevisser, I am still struck with awe at the quantum leap from the antediluvian criminalisation of homosexuality under apartheid, to the full citizenship of gays and lesbians under the government of the African National Congress (ANC). The awe derives from an apparent lack of connection, the absence of a historically-explicable discourse linking the past to the present, so that the change has the quality of miracle. Returning to South Africa in 1993 after 13 years in exile I was struck not only by the contrast between the repression of homosexuality of the country I had left in 1979 and the pre-election debate on the indivisibility of human rights, but also by contradiction between my sometimes, negative experiences as a gay man in the ranks of the exiled liberation movement and the ANC’s latter-day support for an emancipatory agenda.
There’s a gap, that seeks explanation. Gevisser has tried to provide one
The primary reason why the notion of gay equality passed so smoothly into the constitution is most likely that the ANC elite has a utopian social progressive ideology, influenced largely by the social–democratic movements in the countries that supported it during its struggle: Sweden, Holland, Britain, Canada, Australia. In exile in these countries key South African leaders came to understand and accept – and in the case of women, benefit from – the sexual liberation movement. Foremost among these were Frene Ginwala, now Speaker of Parliament, Albie Sachs, now a judge on the Constitutional Court; Kader Asmal, now minister of education and Thabo Mbeki himself, South Africa’s second democratically-elected President (2000:118)
This exposition of the ANC’s encounter with homosexuality needs further interrogation. While Gevisser’s tribute to some of the more libertarian and open-minded members of the movement may be valid, he discounts two other strong ideological traditions which competed with social democracy in the ANC – those of Africanism and Stalinism, both hostile to the variants of gender politics framed by Western feminism and the proponents of gay liberation.
As a closeted political activist inside South Africa and later, as a member of the ANC in exile, there was more of a resonance and a continuum of experience in these latter traditions, than in the ANC’s late embrace of social democracy and full citizenship of gays and lesbians.
After my own, late, coming out it was something of a revelation to discover how many of my fellow activists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were gay and had led lives of partial subterfuge keeping their sexual identities secret in their political lives. It has even led me to speculate that assuming the resolutely political identities required by the style of anti-apartheid politics amounted to a sublimation of sexual identity and the deferral of coming out, that was a subtle form of internalised homophobia. Or even that the subterfuge of the political underground allowed for a parallel secret sexual life, otherwise difficult to express.
Mystic crystal revelation: The student movement and the counter-culture
I was active in the left-wing National Union of South African Students from 1975, taking up the post of National Media Officer in 1978. Many of my predecessors in the Union’s executive were gay. Yet this was never disclosed. Ironically the NUSAS of the mid-1970s aped the counter-cultural revisionism of its European contemporaries – the era of “free love”, expressed in a flowering of (heterosexual) promiscuity, long hair, flowing batiked clothing, rock festivals, cannabis use, nascent feminism and other challenges to social mores, on the campuses. The cultural wing of NUSAS was even dubbed Aquarius – after the signature tune of the musical Hair.
Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation
(Rado J and Radni G.1969)
Thankfully these cheesy sentiments were mitigated by a more realistic and hard-nosed leftism in the ranks of NUSAS, but neither allowed for the homosexuality celebrated in another track from Hair
Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty.
Father, why do these words sound so nasty?
Masturbation can be fun
Join the holy orgy
Kama Sutra Everyone!!
(Rado J and Radni G. 1969)
Homosexuality was so deeply buried in the movement that the notorious Schlebusch Commission established in 1973 to investigate the threat posed by NUSAS to the state – the Prime Minster at the time had called it a “cancer in society” to be rooted out – failed to discover or note that the NUSAS President and three of its executive members were gay men or lesbians.
The Commission highlighted – and condemned – the promiscuity of its heterosexual office bearers and the fact that they lived in communes!! These and other such moral digressions were sensationalised by the media at the time and were used as partial justification for the Calvinist government’s subsequent restrictions on NUSAS .
Neville Curtis the President was banned, later went into exile and played a prominent role in the Australian Anti-Apartheid Movement. Shiela Lapinsky, a member of the executive, also served with a banning order after the Schlebusch Commission issued its report, re-emerged as a United Democratic Front (UDF) activist in the 1980s. Another executive committee member went into exile and helped found the South African war resisters movement. Yet others, whose political involvement began with NUSAS, helped establish the nascent trade union movement or became involved in the ANC underground.
In the 1980s NUSAS abandoned the excesses of the counter culture and embraced the more sober conventions of anti-apartheid politics of the day, seeking alliances with the emergent trade union movement and black students and scholars. Yet the implicit homophobia persisted.
James Barrett a student at the University of the Witwatersrand was a founding member of the Wits Alternative Service Group, that challenged compulsory military conscription and questioned the role of the South African Defence Force(SADF) in the repression of anti-apartheid opposition.
There were about eight of us. I was the only gay man. It was quite a schizophrenic experience. I had this sense of needing to split my gay identity from my work against racism. Politically, at a gut passionate level it felt right to be involved, but the meetings, dominated by straight socially-conservative couples, were uncomfortable. (Interview with author: July 2001)
Barret’s experience mirrored those of a contemporary, Rupert Smith (a pseudonym) studying at Natal University, later a founder member of the Committee on South African War Resistance based in London.
I think my sexuality has always held me back in some ways, because of a general fear that being “out there” politically, making things happen, all opens you up to scrutiny of who you are and what you do in your spare time. (Interview with author, May 2001)
I have given this absence of a discourse about sexuality in the student movement a great deal of thought, confounded by its progressivism on every other front while failing to mirror its western contemporaries, which allowed space for the emergence of gay liberation. This lacuna bears further exploration. It could not have been the Africanist denial of homosexuality expressed more strongly in the late 1980’s by spokespeople of the liberation movements – the student movement’s links with these were tenuous and clandestine until well into the second half of the decade.
Perhaps the homophobia had two sources – the student movement’s developing embrace of Western Marxism, which in its more derivative aspects derided homosexuality as “bourgeois deviance”, inimical to a robust working class culture of hardy men supported by dutiful women.
Or perhaps it lay in that most debilitating aspect of “being gay” – the internalised homophobia of gay and lesbian student activists themselves. Their terror of discovery delayed the student movement’s coming to terms with homosexuality, in contrast, say, to the way that separatist feminists challenged the sexism of the male leadership in 1978 and forced the movement to adopt more progressive policies on gender.
And there was crucially too, the absence of a meeting point between the open expression of gay identity – in the early 1980s confined almost entirely to the white, gay male club scene – and anti-apartheid politics. James Barrett incisively captures the schizophrenia of gay anti-apartheid activists in this period.
I really struggled. I endured homophobic jokes and remarks in my political work and then went to gay clubs in Hillbrow where there was the most grotesque racism. I had a one- night stand with someone, in fact my one sexual encounter in two odd years. We finished having sex and this guy talked about what a terrible time he was having at work. He said that he was treated worse than the “kaffir girls”. It was just dismal. You had a sense that the few black men that were allowed in the clubs were only there because they were with much older white men. (Interview with author, July 2001)
Barrett’s experience reflects that of many gay and lesbian activists of the time – the sense of a life half-lived, of sublimated identity, the truncation of a discourse on the relationship between class, race and sexual oppression, that was implicit, but never realised in the notion of struggle.
The white gay community was racist. There was very little sense of a black gay community. So for white gay political activists the spheres of political and gay identities just did not come together, as they might have in a Western country. (Interview with author, July 2001).
I left South Africa in 1979 to avoid military conscription and lived in Europe for 13 years. So did Rupert Smith and James Barrett – after his flat was raided by police and other members of the Alternative Service Group were detained. Some were later charged with membership of the banned ANC and treason.
Exile proved no different. Exile politics in the United Kingdom of the 1980s was shaped by the London structures of the ANC and by the solidarity campaigns of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). In both there was again, a curious silence on the issue of homosexuality, the more marked because in British society there had been an upsurge in progressive mobilisation against the policies of the Conservative Party government of Magaret Thatcher. These included further restrictions on gay men and lesbians.
Path-breaking alliances were being struck between the conventional, socially conservative formations of the Left, such as the trade unions and gay and lesbians organisations. According to James Barrett:
Lesbians and gays were supportive of the miners strike – there was extraordinary coalition politics; gay and lesbian groups raised funds for the miners. The 1983 Gay Pride March was led by a colliery band belting out Tom Robinson’s anthem Glad to be gay. (Interview with author, July 2001)
Although the ANC and AA structures were closely allied to the Labour Party and other left-wing groups, which were at least nominally libertarian, the exile community seemed hermetically sealed against outside influences. Why was this? Was it a typical exile response, a fear of integration, the loosening of the bonds with home, a cultural regrouping around essential identities? Or did the homophobia have roots elsewhere?
We found little evidence of the exposure of “the ANC elite to a utopian social progressive ideology, influenced largely by the social–democratic movements in the countries that supported it during its struggle”, cited by Gevisser.
Rather we encountered a certain defensiveness; that in adopting or opening up to issues other than the racism of apartheid, the movement would be deflected, led astray. The notion of oppressed groups other than blacks, expressing themselves, or organising separately somehow constituted a betrayal of the imperative of national liberation.
The stronger influences here were the ANC’s – always latent – Africanism and the extreme social conservatism of Stalinism that its alliance with the South African Communist Party brought to the movement. As I have written elsewhere
[The ANC] rejected feminism as a western unAfrican concept…….feminist debate may not have been openly suppressed, but it was sublimated to the intrinsic logic of the strategy for liberation: the first struggle was for liberation of the nation; the second for the liberation of the working class, and at best third down the line might come the struggle for the liberation of women (Kraak(b),1998: 7)
The more conservative women’s sections of the liberation movement [even] held that it was the primary task of women to provide support to the front ranks of the struggle – the men – and to care for their children…. (Kraak (a), 1998:viii) …
In the pubs of London
In the many discussion with “comrades” in the ANC’s leadership and membership structures, in the pubs of London, inhibitions loosened by pints of beer, the responses were always the same, when the issue of homosexuality was raised.
Most often the subject elicited revulsion, ridicule or discomfort. More intellectually or ideologically-considered responses held that homosexuality was decadent, a bourgeois deviation of Western capitalism that would disappear under socialism. Or that while homosexuality might well occur in the white community it was alien to African culture. Where homosexual practices existed in African communities it was by contamination, or as a consequence of apartheid institutions such as the migrant hostels which broke up families and confined men in urban barracks. An explicit project of the anti-apartheid struggle was to restore the sanctity of family life.
For others still homosexuals posed a risk to the movement – they could be blackmailed or compromised by the regime and for this reason could not be trusted as comrades.
In the absence of more rigorous research what I am recounting can only be anecdotal and risks stereotyping. But there is other more compelling substantiation that these views were prevalent among the membership. The assertion of the unAfricaness of homosexuality, or of homosexuality as contamination, struck other chords. Activists from inside South Africa, passing through London at the time recounted that at least some of the victims of the notorious necklacing phenomenon of the 1980s, were homosexuals, rejected by their communities.
Gevisser in his compelling account of the inclusion of the equality clause in the constitution cites a debate on whether the ANC government ought to recognise gay partnerships that took place in the Cabinet in 1998 which confirms the homophobia abroad in the ANC even in the late 1980’s He cites Sbu Ndebele, currently the leader of the ANC in Kwa Zulu/Natal and
a former political prisoner with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, [who] declared that it was outrageous for the ANC to support homosexual activity. He reminded his comrades that anybody caught doing this on “The Island” was automatically expelled from the party.” (2000: 120)
This squares with the experiences of Indres Pillay (a pseudonym), sentenced to imprisonment on Robben Island for activities in Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s armed wing, in the late 1980s. One of the prisoners’ hard-won concessions was that that authorities allowed them to watch videos on weekends. After screenings of 9 ½ weeks (in which there is a brief lesbian scene) and Kiss of the Spiderwoman (an account of the relationship between straight political prisoner sharing a cell with a transvestite in an unnamed Latin American dictatorship) the leadership group on the island issued an edict that videos with gay scenes not be shown. Prisoners also had to agree to a code of conduct that disallowed anti-social behaviour. Pillay learnt to his cost that this included homosexuality. He was later ostracised by his fellow prisoners. (Luirink, 2000:38 – 9)
Gevisser also cites Dumisane Makhaye an ex-MK combatant, present at the same Cabinet meeting who is reputed to have said that MK cadres discovered to be homosexuals were shot. (2000:120)
There is nothing to suggest that such executions took place, but it resonates with a chilling encounter I had with a comrade in the late 1980s – let’s call him “Jack”.
Jack joined MK and was part of a group that smuggled arms into the country and had begun to plan acts of sabotage against military targets when they were betrayed and arrested. Jack recounted later that in the course of an operation, the group needed a car for a reconnoitring operation, that they might later abandon. Jack had a certain rugged, blonde attractiveness and the group hit upon the idea that he could pick someone up in a gay bar, go home with him, kill him and take his car. For reasons I can’t recall the operation was aborted – but the homophobia and the hostility to homosexuals as dispensable solely on account of their sexual orientation that the group’s strategy displayed was deeply alienating and accelerated my own coming-out to my political peers.
The anti-apartheid movement, an organisation of predominantly British people and rooted in the politics of the British left, seemed no more open. A prominent member of the movement recounts that
A march had been organised by the AAM to mark the Soweto uprising. I had taken part and was acutely disappointed with the turn out bearing in mind the nature of the occasion being commemorated. On the same day Gay Pride had organised a huge demonstration. It was obvious that the two events had competed for support. I was subsequently in the AAM office and stressed the importance of establishing links with the gay community. Though one person in that office agreed with me, others agreed with the ANC VIP who was there, who insisted that being gay was not a natural thing. That in any case it didn’t occur in South Africa. Somebody else suggested it was a result of the public school system in the UK. It was also pointed out that women would be the sufferers if this gayness were accepted (Interview with author, June 2001)
A poverty of debate, a dissection of identities
That was the poverty of the debate, on the issue of homosexuality in the discourse of national liberation
This placed those of us who were white, gay and anti-apartheid activists in the uncomfortable position of living a sometimes conflicting dissection of identities, racial ( in relation to our black comrades), sexual (in relation to our straight contemporaries) and political (in relation to the overwhelmingly politically-conservative communities from which we had come).
This was perhaps most vividly expressed in the internal politics of the Committee on South African War Resistance (COSAWR) – an organisation of exiled conscientious objectors, draft dodgers and military deserters, established to undermine the SADF, by encouraging internal resistance to the draft and international isolation of the apartheid regime.
The ANC and COSAWR developed a close political relationship, the ANC included the work of COSAWR in its broader strategy to undermine the South African military. Some of the COSAWR leadership participated in the ANC’s clandestine structures exploring ways of infiltrating the military and police, broadening the campaign against conscription and undermining the morale of the white community.
An army of lovers?
At least a third of the executive membership of COSAWR were gay, as was a much larger proportion of the broader war resister community – perhaps because in addition to our moral and political objections to military service many of use feared participating in, as avowedly homophobic an institution as, the military.
For many of us who had come into exile in this way, our primary social, political and sexual relationships were with fellow war resisters. And yet even within the confines of the organisation our common homosexuality was never an explicit part of the discourse, even where our brief might have dictated otherwise – in particular the treatment of gay men in the military.
Rupert Smith, a founder member of COSAWR said that being gay in the organisation
It was possible but it wasn’t welcomed. I’ve always been pretty discrete/straight acting/fucking boring and closeted, so I wasn’t a threat cos I toed the party line. But a friend of mine who was much more out was definitely seen as being a bit…..what’s the right word? Just not quite the right image really. COSAWR was never overtly homophobic, but the liberation struggle was never really about sexual politics, not even feminist politics! Basically pretty heteronormative. (Interview with author, May 2001)
James Barrett struggled with exile:
I felt screwed up, messed up, not finding a niche to think about my gay identity. I found the general spirit in the war resister community destructive – many of the South African refugees were very depressed, living in bad conditions, really struggling with their loss of comfort. I gradually drifted away. I got involved in the London Gay Workshop, a group of gay men who got together to discuss political issues. It had a broad left-wing agenda and was trying to reach out and establish coalitions with other groups and draw gay men into political activity. This was formative for me and drew me away from anti-apartheid work and into the field of HIV/AIDS.
Ultimately I was put off the closetedness of some of the leading members of COSAWR who saw being gay as a shameful thing that might be used against COSAWR – you know, fags who were to wussy to do military service. (Interview with author, July 2001)
Terry Shott, also a founder member of COSAWR echoes Barrett’s response, but chose a different course of action. As a student in London in the mid-1970s, Shott was drawn into Okhela, a clandestine group loosely associated with the ANC, that sought to infiltrate South Africa, recruit additional members and carry out sabotage, but was quickly rounded up, making it impossible for Shott to return to South Africa.
An “out” gay man, Shott found the homophobia of the ANC and the AAM alienating and chose instead to become involved in groups which welcomed gay members – initially the Southern African Liberation Support Committee and later the Namibia Support Committee. He also helped establish the End Loans to South Africa Campaign
I chose to work in these groups. I sought out groups that I thought would be sympathetic to my sexual orientation and a broader politics that embraced gay rights, women’s rights and so on. In the ANC and the Anti-Apartheid Movement these issues were seen as a distraction. (Interview with author, May 2002)
Shot confirms, that as in NUSAS, an insidious form of internalised homophobia prevailed – not only that our homosexuality would alienate us from our comrades in the movement, leading to our marginalisation,
but that it would somehow confirm the propaganda of the regime, that in fleeing military service we were cowards, not real men. (Shott, interviewed by author, May 2002)
Always the link with home
In the mid- to late- 1980s there was something of a cultural and politic shift. These were dictated from inside South Africa where the rise of the UDF, which although closely allied to the ANC was not characterised by the same ideological rigidity of its exiled counterpart, and allowed a broader debate.
But it was the courage and actions of Simon Nkoli that broke open the silence around homosexuality in the liberation movement. Simon Nkoli, an African gay man was a UDF activist on the East Rand near Johannesburg. He was arrested and put on trial for treason, part of a dragnet that included some the UDF’s most prominent leaders. With extraordinary personal courage, Nkoli came out to his colleagues in prison, at first inspiring opprobrium and later through sheer persistence, respect.
One of them the trailists Patrick Lekota, now the ANC National chairman and South Africa’s defence minister, speaking at Nkoli’s funeral in 2000 said that
all of us acknowledged that [Simon’s coming out] was an important learning experience …. His presence made it possible for more information to be discussed, and it broadened our vision, helping us to see that society was composed of so many people whose orientations were not the same, and that one must be able to live with it. And so when it came to writing the constitutions how could we say that men and women like Simon who had put their shoulders to the wheel to end apartheid, how could we say that they should now be discriminated against? (Gevisser, 2000:119)
Nkoli’s actions not only challenged the notion that homosexuality was unAfrican, but demonstrated the presence of gay men and lesbians in the anti-apartheid movement. Nkoli’s arrest and trial came at a point where the scale of the uprising against apartheid and its brutal repression by the security forces had captured world-wide attention and sparked a revival of anti-apartheid solidarity in the west. Gay groups in the US and Europe took up Nkoli’s cause demanding his release and brought the issue of gay and lesbian identity into the foreground of anti-apartheid politics.
Nkoli emboldened gays and lesbians in other formations of the anti-apartheid and liberation movements, including a group of gay men in COSAWR, who launched a campaign in solidarity with imprisoned conscientious objector Ivan Thoms. Thoms was a prominent member of the End Conscription Campaign and of the Western Cape branch of the UDF. A medical doctor who tended to the victims of police brutality and shootings in the squatter camps and townships of Cape Town, he spoke with particular authority about the consequences of the state of emergency. Clandestine elements of the security forces tried to discredit him by pointing to his homosexuality in pamphlets and posters circulated in Cape Town.
Thoms, who had until then remained silent on his homosexuality in his public life, became increasingly open, pointing to the similarity of experience of oppression shared by homosexuals and black people. Thom’s coming out was a signal for the gay membership of COSAWR. When Thoms was jailed for refusing to obey his military call-up, COSAWR organised a campaign of solidarity with him, specifically profiling Thoms as a gay activist targeted at and winning support from gay groups in the UK
The Dutch connection
There were other shifts.
Bart Luirink and other openly-gay executive members of the Dutch anti-apartheid movement, were disconcerted by the absence of a discourse on homosexuality in the liberation movement and with some of their colleagues began to raise the issue with the senior leadership ANC. Some of executive members of the Dutch movement were uneasy about this stance. The Dutch movement, had very close, ties with the ANC, was one its mainstays of support in Western Europe and could not be easily discounted.
This invisible debate, a samidzat discourse, that went on behind closed doors, between senior leaders of the ANC and gays in implicitly trusted anti-apartheid movements was brought to a head in 1987, when the gay London weekly Capital Gay interviewed senior representatives of the ANC in London on the movement’s position of gays and lesbians.
The publication was responding – in part – to the assurances which had been given to a delegation of students who had sought contact with the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia. This was part of the dialogue that was opening up between internal groups and the exiled movement that presaged full-blown negotiations three years later. The ANC stated that while the ANC had no policy on gay and lesbians, it was “open minded on the issue “
ANC policy grows as it confronts social questions that need to be addressed. A democratic state should restructure and accommodate issues related to oppression…. “ (Capital Gay, 18 Sept 1987)
But Solly Smith the ANC’s representative in London responded to Capital Gay’s question thus
We cannot be diverted from our struggle by these issues. We believe in the majority being equal. These people (lesbians and gays) are in the minority. The majority must rule (Capital Gay, 18 September 1987).
An executive member of the ANC, Ruth Mompati, went on to say
I cannot even begin to understand why people want gay and lesbian rights. The gays have no problems. They have nice houses and plenty to eat. I don’t see them suffering. No one is persecuting them. We haven’t heard about this problem in South Africa until recently. It seems to be fashionable in the West….. They are not doing the liberation struggle a favour by organising separately and campaigning for their rights. The (Gay) issue is being brought up to take attention away from the main struggle against apartheid…. They are red herrings. We don’t have a policy on gays and lesbians. We don’t have a policy on flower sellers either (Capital Gay, September 1987)
Mompati’s views betray the much wider thinking in the ANC at the time – that all gays were white. This says a great deal about the visibility of black gays in the liberation movement, a subject to which I will return.
What if 1990 hadn’t happened?
How far this process of discussion and opening up on the issue of sexuality in the ANC would have gone had the events of the late 1980s and early 1990s not transpired, is open to question. But the focus of debate on the future of gays and lesbians shifted to the halls of the constitutional negotiations at the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park where a group of gay UDF activists pressed for the inclusion of the clause on sexual orientation in the constitution. The rest is part of a remarkable and unprecedented story which others have covered in detail.
What then to make of the role of gay men and lesbians in the liberation movement and the contradictory experience of commitment to an apparently emancipatory project that took no note of their oppression. In this their most critical endeavour, the one that is likely to have shaped them, they led half- lives.
Of course most cadres in the movement also did, sacrificing their youth, sacrificing the possibility of sustained relationships and many also their lives. Women in particular endured the suffocating patriarchy of the ANC’s exiled structures, and have been vindicated by the explosion of an indigenous feminism in post-apartheid SA. We have all gone on to claim full citizenship of a democratic country.
But for gays and lesbians specifically it might so easily have been different. Where it not for the “miracle”, for the actions of a few brave individuals who had the foresight to seize the historical moment of the negotiations, South African gay men and lesbians might endure the oppression of those in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Uganda, where Africanism has held sway.
At the same time this has of necessity been a white history, a story about some white gay political activists. Emerging historiography has now established that the notion that homosexuality is un African is a fallacy, called into question not only by the flowering of black gay and lesbian organisation, but by the rich emergent histories of gay life in black communities. Yet we can count on the fingers of one hand the out black gay political activists in the history of the struggle. This very lack of the visibility of gay and lesbians cadres in the movement, points surely to the persistence of homophobia in the political community, which colours the memory of the struggle. What was the experience of black gays and lesbians in the formations of the liberation movement and its armed formations, in the trade unions and the affiliates of the UDF? We need to know to be able to reclaim our pasts.
This brief history of some gay men and lesbians who worked in anti-apartheid structures and in the liberation movements tries to do that. It seeks to add to the complexity of our experience. It tries to pose critical questions about how we arrived in this safe haven, so that our history is not appropriated into some bland notion of rainbow nation in which the needs of all have been accommodated and the real difficulties, pain and alienation of reaching this point are air-brushed into the rosy-hued background.
In as much as truth and reconciliation are motifs of the post-apartheid society, we need to look back and proselytise the union of the political and personal, so that the politics of the future embraces all those who seek a role. The indivisibility of the human rights of all is a standard that should never again questioned, compromised or contoured to fit ideology.
Gevisser, M. 2000: Mandela’s stepchildren: homosexual identity in post-apartheid South Africa. In Drucker,P (ed): Different rainbows. London: Gay Men’s Press
Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical lyrics by James Rado & Gerome Ragni music by Galt MacDermot
Luirink, B. 2000: Moffies. Gay Life in Southern Africa. Johannesburg:David Phillip
Kraak,G. 1998: Class, race, nationalism and the politics of identity: a perspective from the South. In Development Update, Vol 2, No 2, 1998
Kraak G and Simpson G. 1998: The illusions of sanctuary and the weight of the past: notes on violence and gender in South Africa. In Development Update, Vol 2, No 2, 1998
October 19, 2014
October 18, 2014
this interview first published here: http://www.litnet.co.za/Article/onderhoud-met-stephanus-muller
October 17, 2014
Published on Nov 19, 2013
‘Zonnebloem renamed’ is a site-specific artwork by Haroon Gunn-Salie.
Executed on Sunday 17 August 2013, ‘Zonnebloem renamed’ marks the centenary of the 1913 Natives Land Act in South Africa. This short film forms part of the artist’s ongoing collaborative exhibition with District Six residents titled WITNESS.
WITNESS was conducted between 2011 and 2013 and deals with still unresolved issues of forced removals and land compensation in District Six and South Africa. District Six was a closely-knit, vibrant and multi-cultural community, forcibly removed by apartheid decree during the 1970′s from Cape Town city centre, when the area was declared ‘whites only’ under the Group Areas Act in 1968. During this time, District Six was officially renamed by the apartheid government as Zonnebloem. This renaming further erased the history of the area and people from maps and public spaces.
This film shows Gunn-Salie executing series a temporary artworks by changing the ‘Zonnebloem’ roadsigns in central Cape Town to read ‘District Six’.
The artwork is self-reflexive piece with deep political intent. ‘Zonnebloem renamed’ is a brazen attempt by Gunn-Salie to change apartheid and colonial heritage that dominates peoples popular memory in Cape Town and South Africa, through artwork, social action and intervention.
Artwork and film by Haroon Gunn-Salie
“Calypso Minor” by Abdullah Ibrahim & DJ Explicit (iTunes)
October 16, 2014
October 15, 2014
South African documentary filmmaker Francois Verster’s long-awaited new film THE DREAM OF SHAHRAZAD has been selected for the prestigious Masters programme of the 2014 edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). The highly regarded documentary festival describes this section as “present[ing] the cream of the crop of new films by renowned documentary auteurs such as Frederick Wiseman, Victor Kossakovsky and Kim Longinotto.” This year, Verster’s film will be shown alongside new works by Wim Wenders, Albert Maysles, Les Blank, Julien Temple, Nick Broomfield, Joshua Oppenheimer and Frederick Wiseman. It is the first time that a South African filmmaker has been included in the section.
THE DREAM OF SHAHRAZAD, described by early viewers as a documentary masterpiece and already hailed in Egypt as one of the best films about the country’s past few years, looks at recent political events in Egypt and Turkey through the lens of the famous story collection known as THE 1001 NIGHTS. At once observational documentary, concert film and political essay, it uses the metaphor of Shahrazad (the princess who saves lives by telling stories) to explore how creativity and political articulation coincide in response to oppression. A Turkish youth orchestra conductor uses Rimsky-Korsakov’s SCHEHERAZADE suite as a tool for political education. A young Lebanese actress reconciles her past by becoming an internet activist in Egypt. An older visual artist finds his “dream of Shahrazad” in the appearance of a beautiful young storyteller. An Alexandrian storyteller meets with the mothers of martyrs of the Revolution and turns their testimonies into new storytelling performances.
Development on the film began in 2006 already, and filming took place over two years between 2010 and 2012 – before, during and after the so-called “Arab Spring”. Says Verster: “This has been the film that has taken the most time and has been most difficult to complete – the challenge was not only to film in three foreign countries where I did not at first speak any of the language, but also to construct a film around a specific piece of music, where documentary reality had to be fitted to a predetermined form. The film started with very little means, but we made amazing contacts as we went along and the film grew organically into its final form. We kept returning to Egypt over the year following the January 2011 revolution, and being able to explore all the immense changes happening through friends and subjects there was one of the most fascinating and enriching experience of my life.”
While the film was largely self-funded, further funding contributions came from the South African National Film & Video Foundation, the IDFA/Bertha Fund, the Sundance Documentary Fund, Spier Films, the CBA Worldview Fund, the Netherlands Film Fund and the European Union.
The film is produced by Verster and Shameela Seedat of Undercurrent Film and Television, Wael Omar of Middlewest Films and Neil Brandt of Fireworx Media, and coproduced by Fleur Knopperts and Denis Vaslin of Volya Films (Netherlands), Lucas Rosant of Melia Films (France), and Serene Huleileh and Reem Abu Kishek of the Hakaya Regional Network (Jordan). Verster best known previous films include A LION’S TRAIL, WHEN THE WAR IS OVER, THE MOTHERS’ HOUSE and SEA POINT DAYS.
For further information please contact:
Shameela Seedat – email@example.com
Alaa Karkouti – firstname.lastname@example.org
Abdallah Al Shami – email@example.com
For further information on the IDFA Masters section, see
Heather Millard – firstname.lastname@example.org
October 14, 2014
keep reading this interview here: http://www.filmsense.eu/farewell-to-the-moon-an-interview-with-dick-tuinder-comedy-cluj/
first published here: http://passengerfilms.wordpress.com/2014/10/13/passengerfilms-news-autumn-2014/
October 13, 2014
first published here: http://allafrica.com/stories/201410132037.html
Introductory note: Russell delivered this lecture on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall. Published in pamphlet form in that same year, the essay subsequently achieved new fame with Paul Edwards’ edition of Russell’s book, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays … (1957).
As your Chairman has told you, the subject about which I am going to speak to you tonight is “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Perhaps it would be as well, first of all, to try to make out what one means by the word Christian. It is used these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life. In that sense I suppose there would be Christians in all sects and creeds; but I do not think that that is the proper sense of the word, if only because it would imply that all the people who are not Christians — all the Buddhists, Confucians, Mohammedans, and so on — are not trying to live a good life. I do not mean by a Christian any person who tries to live decently according to his lights. I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions.
What Is a Christian?
Nowadays it is not quite that. We have to be a little more vague in our meaning of Christianity. I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anybody calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature — namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ. The Mohammedans, for instance, also believe in God and in immortality, and yet they would not call themselves Christians. I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not think you have any right to call yourself a Christian. Of course, there is another sense, which you find in Whitaker’s Almanack and in geography books, where the population of the world is said to be divided into Christians, Mohammedans, Buddhists, fetish worshipers, and so on; and in that sense we are all Christians. The geography books count us all in, but that is a purely geographical sense, which I suppose we can ignore.Therefore I take it that when I tell you why I am not a Christian I have to tell you two different things: first, why I do not believe in God and in immortality; and, secondly, why I do not think that Christ was the best and wisest of men, although I grant him a very high degree of moral goodness.
But for the successful efforts of unbelievers in the past, I could not take so elastic a definition of Christianity as that. As I said before, in olden days it had a much more full-blooded sense. For instance, it included he belief in hell. Belief in eternal hell-fire was an essential item of Christian belief until pretty recent times. In this country, as you know, it ceased to be an essential item because of a decision of the Privy Council, and from that decision the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York dissented; but in this country our religion is settled by Act of Parliament, and therefore the Privy Council was able to override their Graces and hell was no longer necessary to a Christian. Consequently I shall not insist that a Christian must believe in hell.
The Existence of God
To come to this question of the existence of God: it is a large and serious question, and if I were to attempt to deal with it in any adequate manner I should have to keep you here until Kingdom Come, so that you will have to excuse me if I deal with it in a somewhat summary fashion. You know, of course, that the Catholic Church has laid it down as a dogma that the existence of God can be proved by the unaided reason. That is a somewhat curious dogma, but it is one of their dogmas. They had to introduce it because at one time the freethinkers adopted the habit of saying that there were such and such arguments which mere reason might urge against the existence of God, but of course they knew as a matter of faith that God did exist. The arguments and the reasons were set out at great length, and the Catholic Church felt that they must stop it. Therefore they laid it down that the existence of God can be proved by the unaided reason and they had to set up what they considered were arguments to prove it. There are, of course, a number of them, but I shall take only a few.
The First-cause Argument
Perhaps the simplest and easiest to understand is the argument of the First Cause. (It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God.) That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have; but, apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. I may say that when I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?’” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.” The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause.
The Natural-law Argument
Then there is a very common argument from natural law. That was a favorite argument all through the eighteenth century, especially under the influence of Sir Isaac Newton and his cosmogony. People observed the planets going around the sun according to the law of gravitation, and they thought that God had given a behest to these planets to move in that particular fashion, and that was why they did so. That was, of course, a convenient and simple explanation that saved them the trouble of looking any further for explanations of the law of gravitation. Nowadays we explain the law of gravitation in a somewhat complicated fashion that Einstein has introduced. I do not propose to give you a lecture on the law of gravitation, as interpreted by Einstein, because that again would take some time; at any rate, you no longer have the sort of natural law that you had in the Newtonian system, where, for some reason that nobody could understand, nature behaved in a uniform fashion. We now find that a great many things we thought were natural laws are really human conventions. You know that even in the remotest depths of stellar space there are still three feet to a yard. That is, no doubt, a very remarkable fact, but you would hardly call it a law of nature. And a great many things that have been regarded as laws of nature are of that kind. On the other hand, where you can get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you will find they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance. There is, as we all know, a law that if you throw dice you will get double sixes only about once in thirty-six times, and we do not regard that as evidence that the fall of the dice is regulated by design; on the contrary, if the double sixes came every time we should think that there was design. The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance; and that makes this whole business of natural law much less impressive than it formerly was. Quite apart from that, which represents the momentary state of science that may change tomorrow, the whole idea that natural laws imply a lawgiver is due to a confusion between natural and human laws. Human laws are behests commanding you to behave a certain way, in which you may choose to behave, or you may choose not to behave; but natural laws are a description of how things do in fact behave, and being a mere description of what they in fact do, you cannot argue that there must be somebody who told them to do that, because even supposing that there were, you are then faced with the question “Why did God issue just those natural laws and no others?” If you say that he did it simply from his own good pleasure, and without any reason, you then find that there is something which is not subject to law, and so your train of natural law is interrupted. If you say, as more orthodox theologians do, that in all the laws which God issues he had a reason for giving those laws rather than others — the reason, of course, being to create the best universe, although you would never think it to look at it — if there were a reason for the laws which God gave, then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary. You really have a law outside and anterior to the divine edicts, and God does not serve your purpose, because he is not the ultimate lawgiver. In short, this whole argument about natural law no longer has anything like the strength that it used to have. I am traveling on in time in my review of the arguments. The arguments that are used for the existence of God change their character as time goes on. They were at first hard intellectual arguments embodying certain quite definite fallacies. As we come to modern times they become less respectable intellectually and more and more affected by a kind of moralizing vagueness.
The Argument from Design
The next step in the process brings us to the argument from design. You all know the argument from design: everything in the world is made just so that we can manage to live in the world, and if the world was ever so little different, we could not manage to live in it. That is the argument from design. It sometimes takes a rather curious form; for instance, it is argued that rabbits have white tails in order to be easy to shoot. I do not know how rabbits would view that application. It is an easy argument to parody. You all know Voltaire’s remark, that obviously the nose was designed to be such as to fit spectacles. That sort of parody has turned out to be not nearly so wide of the mark as it might have seemed in the eighteenth century, because since the time of Darwin we understand much better why living creatures are adapted to their environment. It is not that their environment was made to be suitable to them but that they grew to be suitable to it, and that is the basis of adaptation. There is no evidence of design about it.
When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists? Moreover, if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is a stage in the decay of the solar system; at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions of temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system. You see in the moon the sort of thing to which the earth is tending — something dead, cold, and lifeless.
I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that, they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries about much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out — at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation — it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.
The Moral Arguments for Deity
Now we reach one stage further in what I shall call the intellectual descent that the Theists have made in their argumentations, and we come to what are called the moral arguments for the existence of God. You all know, of course, that there used to be in the old days three intellectual arguments for the existence of God, all of which were disposed of by Immanuel Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason; but no sooner had he disposed of those arguments than he invented a new one, a moral argument, and that quite convinced him. He was like many people: in intellectual matters he was skeptical, but in moral matters he believed implicitly in the maxims that he had imbibed at his mother’s knee. That illustrates what the psychoanalysts so much emphasize — the immensely stronger hold upon us that our very early associations have than those of later times.
Kant, as I say, invented a new moral argument for the existence of God, and that in varying forms was extremely popular during the nineteenth century. It has all sorts of forms. One form is to say there would be no right or wrong unless God existed. I am not for the moment concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or whether there is not: that is another question. The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are in this situation: Is that difference due to God’s fiat or is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God. You could, of course, if you liked, say that there was a superior deity who gave orders to the God that made this world, or could take up the line that some of the gnostics took up — a line which I often thought was a very plausible one — that as a matter of fact this world that we know was made by the devil at a moment when God was not looking. There is a good deal to be said for that, and I am not concerned to refute it.
The Argument for the Remedying of Injustice
Then there is another very curious form of moral argument, which is this: they say that the existence of God is required in order to bring justice into the world. In the part of this universe that we know there is great injustice, and often the good suffer, and often the wicked prosper, and one hardly knows which of those is the more annoying; but if you are going to have justice in the universe as a whole you have to suppose a future life to redress the balance of life here on earth. So they say that there must be a God, and there must be Heaven and Hell in order that in the long run there may be justice. That is a very curious argument. If you looked at the matter from a scientific point of view, you would say, “After all, I only know this world. I do not know about the rest of the universe, but so far as one can argue at all on probabilities one would say that probably this world is a fair sample, and if there is injustice here the odds are that there is injustice elsewhere also.” Supposing you got a crate of oranges that you opened, and you found all the top layer of oranges bad, you would not argue, “The underneath ones must be good, so as to redress the balance.” You would say, “Probably the whole lot is a bad consignment”; and that is really what a scientific person would argue about the universe. He would say, “Here we find in this world a great deal of injustice, and so far as that goes that is a reason for supposing that justice does not rule in the world; and therefore so far as it goes it affords a moral argument against deity and not in favor of one.” Of course I know that the sort of intellectual arguments that I have been talking to you about are not what really moves people. What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it, and that is the main reason.
Then I think that the next most powerful reason is the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you. That plays a very profound part in influencing people’s desire for a belief in God.
The Character of Christ
I now want to say a few words upon a topic which I often think is not quite sufficiently dealt with by Rationalists, and that is the question whether Christ was the best and the wisest of men. It is generally taken for granted that we should all agree that that was so. I do not myself. I think that there are a good many points upon which I agree with Christ a great deal more than the professing Christians do. I do not know that I could go with Him all the way, but I could go with Him much further than most professing Christians can. You will remember that He said, “Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” That is not a new precept or a new principle. It was used by Lao-tse and Buddha some 500 or 600 years before Christ, but it is not a principle which as a matter of fact Christians accept. I have no doubt that the present prime minister [Stanley Baldwin], for instance, is a most sincere Christian, but I should not advise any of you to go and smite him on one cheek. I think you might find that he thought this text was intended in a figurative sense.
Then there is another point which I consider excellent. You will remember that Christ said, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” That principle I do not think you would find was popular in the law courts of Christian countries. I have known in my time quite a number of judges who were very earnest Christians, and none of them felt that they were acting contrary to Christian principles in what they did. Then Christ says, “Give to him that asketh of thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” That is a very good principle. Your Chairman has reminded you that we are not here to talk politics, but I cannot help observing that the last general election was fought on the question of how desirable it was to turn away from him that would borrow of thee, so that one must assume that the Liberals and Conservatives of this country are composed of people who do not agree with the teaching of Christ, because they certainly did very emphatically turn away on that occasion.
Then there is one other maxim of Christ which I think has a great deal in it, but I do not find that it is very popular among some of our Christian friends. He says, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor.” That is a very excellent maxim, but, as I say, it is not much practised. All these, I think, are good maxims, although they are a little difficult to live up to. I do not profess to live up to them myself; but then, after all, it is not quite the same thing as for a Christian.
Defects in Christ’s Teaching
Having granted the excellence of these maxims, I come to certain points in which I do not believe that one can grant either the superlative wisdom or the superlative goodness of Christ as depicted in the Gospels; and here I may say that one is not concerned with the historical question. Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one. I am concerned with Christ as He appears in the Gospels, taking the Gospel narrative as it stands, and there one does find some things that do not seem to be very wise. For one thing, he certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that. He says, for instance, “Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of Man be come.” Then he says, “There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom”; and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His second coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching. When He said, “Take no thought for the morrow,” and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count. I have, as a matter of fact, known some Christians who did believe that the second coming was imminent. I knew a parson who frightened his congregation terribly by telling them that the second coming was very imminent indeed, but they were much consoled when they found that he was planting trees in his garden. The early Christians did really believe it, and they did abstain from such things as planting trees in their gardens, because they did accept from Christ the belief that the second coming was imminent. In that respect, clearly He was not so wise as some other people have been, and He was certainly not superlatively wise.
The Moral Problem
Then you come to moral questions. There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching — an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance find that attitude in Socrates. You find him quite bland and urbane toward the people who would not listen to him; and it is, to my mind, far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation. You probably all remember the sorts of things that Socrates was saying when he was dying, and the sort of things that he generally did say to people who did not agree with him.
You will find that in the Gospels Christ said, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Hell.” That was said to people who did not like His preaching. It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about Hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: “Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this World nor in the world to come.” That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world.
Then Christ says, “The Son of Man shall send forth his His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire; there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth”; and He goes on about the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It comes in one verse after another, and it is quite manifest to the reader that there is a certain pleasure in contemplating wailing and gnashing of teeth, or else it would not occur so often. Then you all, of course, remember about the sheep and the goats; how at the second coming He is going to divide the sheep from the goats, and He is going to say to the goats, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.” He continues, “And these shall go away into everlasting fire.” Then He says again, “If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.” He repeats that again and again also. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him asHis chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.
There are other things of less importance. There is the instance of the Gadarene swine, where it certainly was not very kind to the pigs to put the devils into them and make them rush down the hill into the sea. You must remember that He was omnipotent, and He could have made the devils simply go away; but He chose to send them into the pigs. Then there is the curious story of the fig tree, which always rather puzzled me. You remember what happened about the fig tree. “He was hungry; and seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, He came if haply He might find anything thereon; and when He came to it He found nothing but leaves, for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it: ‘No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever’ . . . and Peter . . . saith unto Him: ‘Master, behold the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.’” This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.
The Emotional Factor
As I said before, I do not think that the real reason why people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds. One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it. You know, of course, the parody of that argument in Samuel Butler’s book, Erewhon Revisited. You will remember that in Erewhon there is a certain Higgs who arrives in a remote country, and after spending some time there he escapes from that country in a balloon. Twenty years later he comes back to that country and finds a new religion in which he is worshiped under the name of the “Sun Child,” and it is said that he ascended into heaven. He finds that the Feast of the Ascension is about to be celebrated, and he hears Professors Hanky and Panky say to each other that they never set eyes on the man Higgs, and they hope they never will; but they are the high priests of the religion of the Sun Child. He is very indignant, and he comes up to them, and he says, “I am going to expose all this humbug and tell the people of Erewhon that it was only I, the man Higgs, and I went up in a balloon.” He was told, “You must not do that, because all the morals of this country are bound round this myth, and if they once know that you did not ascend into Heaven they will all become wicked”; and so he is persuaded of that and he goes quietly away.
That is the idea — that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked. You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with all its tortures; there were millions of unfortunate women burned as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty practiced upon all sorts of people in the name of religion.
You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.
How the Churches Have Retarded Progress
You may think that I am going too far when I say that that is still so. I do not think that I am. Take one fact. You will bear with me if I mention it. It is not a pleasant fact, but the churches compel one to mention facts that are not pleasant. Supposing that in this world that we live in today an inexperienced girl is married to a syphilitic man; in that case the Catholic Church says, “This is an indissoluble sacrament. You must endure celibacy or stay together. And if you stay together, you must not use birth control to prevent the birth of syphilitic children.” Nobody whose natural sympathies have not been warped by dogma, or whose moral nature was not absolutely dead to all sense of suffering, could maintain that it is right and proper that that state of things should continue.
That is only an example. There are a great many ways in which, at the present moment, the church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering. And of course, as we know, it is in its major part an opponent still of progress and improvement in all the ways that diminish suffering in the world, because it has chosen to label as morality a certain narrow set of rules of conduct which have nothing to do with human happiness; and when you say that this or that ought to be done because it would make for human happiness, they think that has nothing to do with the matter at all. “What has human happiness to do with morals? The object of morals is not to make people happy.”
Fear, the Foundation of Religion
Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things. In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.
What We Must Do
We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world — its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.