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Don’t turn Christmas into opium of the poor

By Elias Mokua | December 23rd 2020

One of Karl Marx’s most quoted statements is that religion is the opium of the poor. Often, this dictum is taken for truth. Many oppositionists to religion anchor their arguments on this aphorism to discredit faith, especially painting religious leaders as oppressors of the poor.

Of course, this view is largely taken out of the context in which Karl Marx, a lawyer and philosopher, intellectualised it. The rich, who owned the means of production, exploited the poor, and Marx could not see religion as the solace of the poor when they had nowhere else to turn to.

Marx argued that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of the soulless conditions”, concluding that because of these social indicators, “it is the opium of the poor”. With the benefit of history now, nearly 200 years later, it is apparent that politics is in fact the opium of the poor.

What does opium do to the consumer? As an addictive narcotic drug, opium does many things to the consumer. Like other cases of drug abuse, the consumer is elated to some form of apparent ecstasy. It lifts the person to an imaginary world far away from the current pain in life. In this utopia space, the opium consumer momentarily forgets suffering, be it psychological or physical, and purports to enjoy the “serenity and peace in the world-away”.

People who take opium rest long in their quiet sleep. When they return to the world from which they had “escaped”, they find nothing much has changed. It is the same relatives, friends, music, food, house, cars, roads, chaos and so forth. Reality hasn’t changed. If anything, they are part of everything whose sum total is the environment around them from which they want an escape route.  

Most political actors are smart enough to turn the poor against each other. Conflicts in the Horn of Africa, for example, tell a story of who is feeding people with opium.

In one country, it is intense infighting between tribes, ethnicities or clans. In another, it is politically instigated conflicts in which people lose their lives and property, while others are internally displaced. Yet in another country, it is clinging to power. As if it is not enough to be in power, some leadership muzzles people’s freedom to speak and associate.

Someone smoked opium in the US and passed it on to the masses. The country that we look up to for best practices in democracy is smarting from narratives of identity crises and a divisive leadership. Americans took to the streets to demonstrate against each other. Was religion the main actor in providing opium to the Americans?

This week, we celebrate Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ. The central message of Christmas is indeed for people of goodwill to be the “heart of the heartless world”. Following the nativity narratives in the gospels, we learn that poor Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, could only settle in a manger as a maternity hospital.

Our doctors and nurses have taken to the streets to protest against poor work conditions and low remuneration. The poor of this country find themselves in great difficulties in seeking medical services. But even when all doctors and nurses are at work, service delivery is wanting, other than in the bourgeoisie hospitals – a class that Marx loathed for its selfish hoarding of wealth in a class society of inequalities. The proletariat hospitals offer poor services and heartlessly cannibalise patients.

In the spirit of Christmas, the way to address inequalities in society is by focusing on institutional reforms. Tokens, political fundraisers, patronage and all forms of controlling the masses that don’t focus on enabling the proletariat to fish for themselves are indicators of who is providing opium to the masses.

Great leaders of all time, including Mahtma Gandhi, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela, never stood up to make donations to people as a means to sustainable development. They become the “soul of the foundation on which conditions” of justice, peace and true escape from poverty grow.

Sustainable development places more emphasis on people’s empowerment through institutional strengthening and reform. Institutions should deliver people out of poverty. The only space for generous hearts is within humanitarian interventions. The sick need help today not tomorrow.

We Kenyans are suffering from political opium. That is precisely why Christmas makes sense. It reminds us that religion will deliver us from political oppression. Religion, for example, ensures mothers have safe and accessible maternities. Jesus Christ was born in a cowshed – what a shame!

- Dr Mokua is executive director, Loyola Centre for Media and Communications.

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