YOUR president is chosen by God. That would sum up the White House press secretary’s TV interview statement last month that “God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times, and I think that He wanted Donald Trump to become president and that’s why he’s there.” Here in Malaysia, we also had a lawmaker declaring at a political party general assembly in 2015 that God had picked Datuk Seri Najib Razak to helm the nation.
Across the world in many a country, political endorsement from God helps candidates win votes from people of faith. Weaknesses don’t matter, as Trump backers in America’s rural heartland often say of their hero despite his failings: “God chose him for a reason”.
In case you believe that God is doing a new thing stepping into 21st century ballot stations, this practice of claiming divine endorsement is actually 7,000 years old. For 300,000 years, primeval human societies were just small hunter-gatherer clans. But an earlier climate change some 12,000 years ago pushed clans to merge and form tribes. Still larger group integration was needed to improve the chances of survival, and tribes became super-tribes that amalgamated into confederations.
Cities were built (civilisation means “living in cities”) and by 5000 BCE kingdoms had arisen that united a broad spectrum of ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse tribes. Obviously, a human gene for cooperation made such integration possible. But how did kings acquire popular consensus to govern huge masses of people? The solution lay in claiming divine endorsement or getting the mandate of heaven. Some, like the pharaohs and caesars, boldly claimed to be god or the son of god.
However, the belief that God intervenes in governance has a dark side to it. Fifteen months ago at a political party delegates conference, a senior speaker declared that the floods then hitting Penang were a sign from God who had brought disaster on those who thumped their chest claiming that the state was free from floods. A bit of judo can easily turn the argument around with a counter-claim that floods are a test from God to strengthen the people’s faith.
Crediting God with heaping disaster on people we intensely dislike raises the question whether schools are teaching religion correctly. Last October, more than 380 people died when a tsunami triggered by an earthquake hit the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Religious conservatives quickly avowed that God was punishing the island out of wrath over sins committed by deviants. It is from this warped understanding that natural disasters are labelled as non-preventable “acts of God” (a term expropriated by insurance companies).
When a murderer is sentenced to hang, should his village be wiped out as well? Yet the conservatives are willing to believe that angry God would do just that. Is the new climate change which we are now experiencing the work of angry God or horrible humans? In the waters off Tanjung Aru in Sabah, a whale shark was found dead three weeks ago. It died because a huge plastic bag got stuck in its tummy. Surely the work of horrible humans.
Today’s climate change may become as deadly as it was 12,000 years ago. Back then, our primeval ancestors brought into play the human gene for cooperation to integrate diverse tribes for survival. However, today we are doing the opposite by exploiting differences and the fear of angry God to create a new form of tribalism that we call the vote bank.
In such a toxic polarised atmosphere, all religions need to establish connections with one another to dispel harmful notions of God. The image of angry God destroying our enemies is wartime morale boosting, and these stories are best kept in the battlefield archives. Today’s need is for a grand unity transcending archaic differences whether ethnic, cultural, or religious.
Confine “acts of God” to the insurers, and instead let us make it an act of faith to take full human responsibility for the wellbeing of our nation and world. Horrible humans wreaking havoc on the natural environment are easily more destructive than angry God.
The writer, a former journalist, champions interfaith harmony. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org