Karl Marx and the Halaal hot cross bun debacle

I was amused at the outrage with which some Christians swallowed the news that their Easter treats carried Halaal certification. It made me think about how manically we defend our religious practices.

Most people know that Karl Marx declared that “religion … is the opium of the people.” However, few realise either the full extent of this quote or that the context of his statement was a critical discourse on the nature of society rather than a denouncement of religion. The relevant sentences are:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843)

Even in context, these often-repeated words aptly describe how some cling to religious faith to make sense of their existence. And they do seem to enter an altered state when defending their religious beliefs or practices.  Righteous indignation in particular causes otherwise rational people to justify their offense in most irrational ways.

In the same text Marx also called religion the world’s “universal basis of consolation and justification”. I would love to read the late philosopher’s take on the recent bun fight between Woolworths and those Christians who took umbrage at their Halaal hot cross buns.

The hot cross bun fight and the spineless apology

If any of you are unfamiliar with this recent debacle, some Christians lambasted Woolies for placing a Moslem sign (certification as Halaal) on food associated with the Christian festival of Easter. You can read a fairly impartial summary here, although I warn you that the comments are anything but.

In a statement, Woolworths said: “We apologise and assure our customers that no offence was intended. Our next Easter offer will have both non-Halaal certified hot cross buns and Halaal-certified spiced buns.” (I’ll ignore the first – misplaced – hyphen, however tempting it is to go off on a tangent about the implications of certifying food as non-Halaal.)

Now I understand they may still be licking their wounds after their recent technical knockout in the media ring (by Frankie’s for those of you with short term memory issues). But surely this doesn’t mean they have to apologise publicly every time an irate customer publicises their dissatisfaction?

What next?

If I start a social media campaign alleging discrimination against Jewish customers, will they promise to make kosher hot cross buns, too? And would it be too much expect that next year they should also have a separate Kosher for Passover range of the stodgy treats?

Righteous indignation rears its ugly head

In researching this piece I came across some startling columns and comments. True to Marx’s theory, many of them used religion to justify their outrage. True to my interpretation of Marx’s famous maxim, they did so in a manner that reveals the similarity between the rhetoric of some religious fundamentalism and the incoherence of drug-induced ramblings.

The first sentence of a column by Afrika Mhlophe on Christian news portal Gateway News is deliberately emotive: “South African retailer Woolworths’ decision to lure Muslims customers to the tradition of consuming hot cross buns has sparked a furore amongst some Christians.”

I would love to ask Mr Mhlophe to explain just how this luring happens. Surely, if someone is scrutinising the back of a product to check if it is Halaal-certified, they have already been lured by the product? Does he really believe the marketing gurus at Woolies have evolved so far since removing the Frankie’s rip offs from their shelves that they can now convince  Moslem customers to buy hot cross buns simply by making them Halaal?

Surprisingly, after this rabble-rousing start, from what I can make out Mhlophe argues that because hot cross buns are not a symbol of Christian faith, the uproar is misplaced. However, his restrained stance alters somewhat in his replies to some of the comments on his column. Read the strings if you have the stomach.  You have been warned.

Words are the ammunition of the people

What Marx did not say, or at least not that I have read, was how language can be abused to fuel fanaticism and just how destructive a weapon it can be. Read the comments I’ve alluded to above if you need convincing.

I’ll leave it there, mindful of Marx’s feelings on rambling:

“Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.”  

* Sorry, Karl, I have to say one more thing. After writing this column, but before its publication, I came across an article about the application by a Christian group to have religious certification on food declared unconstitutional. The hallucinogenic effect of the opium has clearly taken hold now.