When Authorities Clash

Clashes between religious authorities are common. One type of clash is that between completely different religions, for example, the contemporary hostility between Islam and Hinduism on the Indian subcontinent. In such cases, differences in worldview are so great that the only resolution is some accord permitting coexistence. A more common clash of religious authorities occurs within traditions, when some individuals argue very strongly for one way of practicing or interpreting the religion and another group argues just as strongly for a different method. Denominations within one religion or the formation of a new, closely related religion often are the result of disagreements between religious leaders, all of whom claim authority. In these cases, both leaders claim to revere that tradition's ultimate religious authority, but also claim that responsibility to care for and interpret that religion has fallen into the wrong hands. At least three major kinds of protest have arisen repeatedly.

First, individuals or groups protest that the wrong people have been put in authority or that they have too much power. The major division between the Sunni and Shi'ite branches within Islam arose from controversy over who was the legitimate successor to the Prophet Mohammed, meant to rule over a unified Islam. While the Protestant movement is complex, one major initial cause certainly was German Reformation leader Martin Luther's (1483-1546) defiance of papal authority. According to Luther, the pope had usurped the authority that should reside directly in the Bible and believers should form their faith directly on the Bible rather than relying on the decisions of a human intermediary. Luther's protests were only the first of many movements claiming to abandon various human institutions to return to the sacred text as ultimate and final authority. Today, numerous individuals and movements within Christianity claim to have found that unmediated text, but each claim is contested by another contender.

Second, individuals or groups often claim that those with formal authority have lost contact with the spiritual sources of the tradition and no longer can speak for the deity or interpret texts accurately. Claims of corruption on the part of established authorities are also common, found in every religion. Protestors often claim direct contact with the spiritual sources of the tradition, which they say is more authoritative than the mere rote learning or heredity power of those with formal authority. Usually they do not wish to form a separate group but long for a more vibrant, ecstatic spiritual experience within their tradition. Sometimes these movements can be incorporated into the larger tradition, as happened with many monastic movements in European Christianity and with many of the great Christian mystics. The Sufi movement within Islam also sought and provides more direct religious experience. The medieval mystical branch of Judaism, the Kabbalah, became quite popular, though it is not well-known or frequently practiced today. Some groups break away from their parent body, as did the English Quakers who believe that clergy are not necessary because deity can speak to anyone who waits in silence, only to become established groups themselves. Variations on this theme are infinite, as spirit-filled individuals and groups, dissatisfied with what they experience as dead and rigid ways of those with formal authority, refuse to remain silent.

Third, countless movements of social protest and reform have arisen when groups of believers claim that, while the religion dictates charity and concern for the poor and underprivileged, the religious authorities have sided with the rich and powerful. Many of the great reform movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—abolition, the civil rights movement, feminism, war protest, environmental activism and anti-colonial movements—have been fueled in part by the inspiration that their religion authorizes social protestors to act against religious authorities who have lost their mandate because they ignored an important part of the sacred heritage.

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