A crisis is like a wind. It separates the chaff from the grain. Till then, they seem similar. The need to separate them is keenest with regard to sowing. The key difference between chaff and grain is that the former is irrelevant to human needs.
My attention was drawn the other day to the ‘feet-washing ceremony’ conducted in a church in Kerala, commemorating what Jesus did at the Last Supper. He washed the feet of his disciples to cure them of disease endemic in humans: a vainglorious obsession with hierarchy. Jesus washed their feet, not because their feet were stinking, but because something was rotting in their souls. It was anything but a ritual. It was a spiritual surgery. But priests are at home only in rituals. So, for centuries this soul-surgery of feet-washing had been degraded into a priestly ritual, not only emptying it of its ethical significance but also contaminating it with priestly hypocrisy. Feet-washing is the last thing a bishop or priest would do, if he can help it.
All the same, it has become a priestly addiction. But its indulgence this year is upstaged by the virus. Human feet are not available to be washed. Never mind, a way out can be found: wash the feet of dolls! Once meaning is drained out of a ritual, only its mechanism remains. It makes little difference if the feet washed is organic or plastic. On Maundy Thursday, a certain number of feet must be washed. They have been. Ask the dolls, if you can’t believe this.
I would have overlooked this as an isolated instance of priestly stupidity, but for the massive unmaking of religion happening through the present pandemic. Maulana Saad of Tablighi Jamaat, who exhorted his followers to defy pandemic-related regulations and assemble in Delhi, represents not a lunatic fringe of religion, but its priestly mainstream. The difference between him and his counterparts in Islam and other religions is the degree of impudence. The Maulana vanished promptly to avoid unpleasantness to himself. But for the fear of consequences, it is very likely, as some Christian priests have proved in the US, that many more religious bigots would advocate something similar.
Whether it be the laughable feet-washing of dolls in Kerala, or the suicidal advocacy of religious recklessness in Tablighi Markaz in Delhi, or the fraudulent claims of religious godmen that they had received divine revelations about the pandemic way back in 2018, the common denominator of
present-day religiosity is the redundancy that its stockists and retailers face. They find themselves all of a sudden in a situation of specific needs. A world of fear and suffering has opened up. A golden opportunity has come calling to silence cynics and mockers of religion. But the salesmen and CEOs of the multi-national religious industry are nowhere to be seen. The pandemic is proving a furnace in which the chaff of religious fraud is being incinerated.
When the virus reached the US, I was excited; for the most potent godman—certainly, the richest—of our times live there. He goes by the name of Benny Hinn and has visited India also to showcase his supernatural powers. With a single swish of his hand, he causes hundreds of people to fall unconscious. They come up healed of everything! What is a fragile virus before such a mighty man, rippling with the power of God? But curiously, he has gone into hiding when he is needed most. Not a single faith-healer is in sight anywhere in India, the land of religions. Only poorly paid priests are in business, belabouring dead horses of rituals that have been drained of spiritual vitality and experiential truth a long time ago. They are doing their best to edify and fortify the faithful.
Now compare them with health workers in this country and elsewhere. They are the heroes of our times. They risk their life for others, undeterred even by sporadic eruptions of ingratitude from the very people they serve. This is nothing new. Albert Camus, to take a random example, has structured The Plague on this contrast.
In that novel, at the outbreak of the Plague in Oran, Dr. Rieux gives himself wholeheartedly to the service of the suffering people. In contrast, Father Paneloux, the scholarly priest who represents the best that ritual-laden religion could offer in the context, gives a fire and brimstone sermon. He grabs the outbreak of the Plague as the opportunity of a lifetime to preach repentance and to kindle in the religiously lukewarm people a new fervour for the church. He portrays the Plague as the outworking of God’s wrath upon the city for its irreligion. He claims to have seen in vision angels of retribution hovering over homes to strike them with death for their immorality.
What does Fr. Paneloux contribute to the life of the people? He aggravates their anxiety and drives quite a few over the edge. “The people felt that they had been sentenced, for an unknown crime, for an indeterminate period of punishment … They became aware that they were undergoing a sort of incarceration under the blue dome of sky.” The irony that Albert Camus underlines is strikingly relevant to our context. The venerable priest, for all his religious resourcefulness, is ridiculously irrelevant to the given context. Loving religion to the point of becoming callous towards fellow humans, custodians of religion prove an added pestilence. It was this aberration that made Jesus say to the priests of his day, “Physicians, heal yourselves.”
Former principal of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi