Leave the Ethiopian God alone (Dimetros Birku)

January 25,2011

This was a response to a discussion on facebook

In light of the experience of France and other European countries, a major change, (I am avoiding to use the terminology revolution as there is a lot of stigma attached to it,) is preceded by a period of intellectual discourse. The discourse is meant to understand the kind of change needed and explore impediments to effect those changes. I salute you for taking the initiative to trigger discussion on this matter. Indeed it is high time to question as to what stands between the need for freedom and the apparent success of dictatorship to avert change in Ethiopia.

For me,the problem has a lot to do with consciousness (in its social and political form). Yet, you were bold enough to throw the cross on the “Ethiopian God” and the Ethiopian church as major factors affecting change – change towards Freedom. If I capture you correctly, your premise runs something like “Ethiopia has been in prison for thousands of years” and you advanced the argument that “ Ethiopia’s true imprisoner [captor] is her own creation, her own God.” And you concluded by suggesting creation of a new God.

To begin with I don’t agree with the assertion that “Ethiopia has been in prison for thousands of years.” What exactly is prison? It sounds that by prison you are making reference to Ethiopian Christianity. Christianity is not a faith that Ethiopia created. Rather Ethiopia took Christianity very seriously. Do you know of any society that is not influenced by this or that form of faith/religion? Are you asserting Ethiopia’s imprisonment on the basis of modern political thinking? If that is the case, which empire and/or nation in the world could be free from this allegation? Which country was not in “prison” for millennium? The politics of the past –especially that of thousands of yearscould/should not be analyzed on the basis of “modern” political thinking. Pre-modern Europe was conservative, monarchical and Christian too. The Manchu China and the pre-Manchu China was in the same fashion in “prison”, based on your assertion. The Meiji and pre-Meiji Japan was a prisoner in the same fashion. The Turks, the Romans, the Greeks and all these were in prison based you line of argument.

Political development, if there is such a thing in the real sense of the term, is a function of historical experiences and a function of time as well. The empires and nations I mentioned above had feudal and pre-feudal forms of government. Faith/religion provided moral legitimacy in such a society. As such monarchs were projected as ambassadors of God on earth. This applies to the Manchu monarchs, the Meiji monarchs, the caliphates (in the muslim case) and the old Christian Europe. Arms length relation between religion and state is not something peculiar to Ethiopia. Historically speaking, there were two or three occasions when church-state relation was strained in Ethiopia to the extent that monarchs were either rejected or resisted. Merid Wolde Aregay asserted and demonstrated, convincingly, that Ethiopian emperors were not at all times dominant over Church or religion. A very good example of that is the 16th century resistance against Susnyos. My point is that church was not just a passive legitimizing entity for emperors. It was active.

The cause of Ethiopian Church, which you referred as “Ethiopian God” I think,was and continues to be, apparently the faith Christianity and Ethiopia – and whenever monarchs endanger that – their legitimacy is in jeopardy. The implication is that Church was relatively free and Church’s freedom was, apparently, meant for upholding the Church cause.

The fact that the form and purpose of freedom is in the old time is different from the purpose and form of freedom in the contemporary world does not mean that there was not freedom. Freedom was conceived as freedom from alien rule and Ethiopian church stands tall in that regard since it has profound contribution to the survival of Ethiopian freedom – call it independence. Needless to say, the Ethiopian society was not less Christian in the past. Yet, the Ethiopian society had a clear conception of the then form of freedom. If the “Ethiopian God” was at odds with freedom, Ethiopia would not have been free in the face of formidable challenges. Freedom was collective. Society was more cohesive.

From political trajectory, in a feudal society, power relation was not democratic, so to speak. There was no such thing as individual or group right. There was no such thing as “self-determination.” Just like freedom, the conception of “self” was different in the old time. The concept and international principle of “self-determination” , as we know it in the contemporary world, is a 20th century phenomenon. The basis of power relation was consent. It was power and political marriage (even in Europe). There were times when both did not work out in Ethiopia. I would go to the extent of asserting that absolutism in Europe, as is the case elsewhere, is nothing but the gift of religion. The fact that there were times when the moral authority of monarchs (consequently their political authority) was challenged by the Ethiopian church and “the Ethiopian God” indicates as to where centers of power were in the past. Even emperorTewodros, whom I consider as a revolutionary by any measure of the time, was a product of the “Ethiopian God.” And he never attempted challenged the “Ethiopian God.” Nor embracing “Ethiopian God” prevented him from envisaging a new Ethiopia and revolutionizing the way power was assumed. So what stands between freedom and un-freedom in our time is not the “Ethiopian God.”

I would rather say, deities hypnotizing the youth from pursuing and attaining freedom are “modernity” , hedonism,and corrupted ,misinterpreted and sometimes over-interpreted political concepts like “self-determination.” For some, “freedom” is perceived as setting “self” apart from society and rebellion against society. If we are to transcend the sociological notion of ‘modernity’ and embark on critical political and philosophical analysis of “modernity”, there emerges a picture that depicts “modernity” as a purely capitalist enterprise. And it manifests itself in political, economic and cultural forms.To think that “modernity” represents freedom is virtually to forget the brutes of capitalism. ‘Freedom’ is promoted in a way not to challenge exploitation and profit maximizing capital.

Much more than the “Ethiopian God,” the Ethiopian Youth is corrupted by “modernity.” How many of us are aware that the European soccer teams are capitalist enterprises with the objective to maximize profit? At the same time they are also cultural tools to conquer the minds of young people. I have not done a statistical analysis but from what I observe it is not hard to imagine that millions of Ethiopians think about European soccer at least on a weekly basis, if not daily. On the other hand, how many Ethiopians think in terms of being free, as a society, from dictatorship? If any how seriously and how often?

The HolyWood world is another deity in itself. What is projected in the movies most often are lone adventurers who try to establish themselves as individual against all odds. The hero is an individual adventurer either rebelling on society or creating his own, fame fortune and world. And this came to define the meaning of life for many young minds including in Ethiopia. Service to the society and dying for country and for society came to be equated as, unofficially, something foolish. Discussing politics and discussing about the future of a country seem to have been left to “fools” or idiots.

USA is another deity. Many look up to the USA as the ideal society. Very little people seem to be aware that the US was worse than Ethiopia in some respects. It was a country, until very recently, where institutionalized inequality is practiced. People were condemned not to attend a particular school, use a particular café or restaurant because of their colour. What Martin Luther King spoke of as a “dream” for which millions admire him was only because he thought of a time when government would do away with institutionalised segregation,people of different colour would forget their colour complexion and people won’t be discriminated on the basis of their complexion. Imagine this was happening in an allegedly “liberal society” with a modern “modern constitution” and there was their own version of “God.” And you think Ethiopia was imprisoned for thousands of years?

To encapsulate,the problem has nothing to do with “Ethiopian God” the problems are “modernity” and mistaking hedonism for “freedom” and “modernity.” These are corrupting the youth and making the youth embrace a conventional and materialistic meaning of life. The fact that the projected ‘freedom’ is more like illusion is not noted at all.

As far as opposition groups are concerned, the notion of “self-determination” has obstructed the creation of a formidable opposition group by way of making ethnic politics appear more democratic,functional and desirable for many. Yet, the concept of “self” which is espoused by these entities sounds rather exotic in all its forms and with no profound historical plausibility. They are embracing exclusivity. The alleged ground to embrace this exotic concept is made to appear as if it was the down sides of feudal politics more than a century ago rather than power struggle.

I suggest that deconstruction and construction project should be some where else in the area of perception of “modernity”, “political development” and hedonism. And I like that you mentioned somewhere that modernity from within is possible. You better leave the “Ethiopian God” alone.

Writer could be reached at dbirku@hotmai.com
follow writer on twitter: @dimetros

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