Our multi-religious, multi-cultural society

One of the most intriguing aspects of Guyanese life is the evolution of the practices of the various cultures and religions into new forms that are accepted by each other without any compulsion and in the process creating a most unique “Guyanese Culture”. Easter exemplifies this synergistic melange as much as any of the other forms.
Brought to these shores by the European colonists, especially the English who were the last to rule Guyana, Easter is a Christian observance that was transmitted first to the African slaves, several waves of Indentured servants – Indian, Chinese and African, and West Indian – and in an ironic inversion, lastly to the Indigenous Peoples. The Catholic Portuguese from Madeira brought their own Easter traditions.
While at its core, Easter is the commemoration of the rise and ascension of Jesus who had been crucified three days earlier (now called “Good Friday”) it illustrates the anthropological truism that all practices are culturally embedded. Jesus, for instance, was from a culture that was completely different from those into which it spread, and even in these, historians can trace the changes absorbed or imposed by the various cultures.
Saul, who became Paul, first sallied among the Greeks and the earliest language in which “Christianity” was spread – and the New Testament was written – was Greek. Even today, some of these early Greek words have to be analysed for ideas that may have been ‘lost in translation’. After the Roman Emperors became Christians and spread Christianity in “pagan” Europe at the point of the sword, the form of religious organisation adopted the imperial structure of the Roman Empire – with the Pope replacing the emperor at the apex and Cardinals, Bishops and priests, the lower echelons of the hierarchy.
Most pertinently for our discussion, several European “pagan” traditions were adopted and enculturated into Christian practices such as Christmas and Easter. The word “Easter” itself is from this source, as are hot cross buns, Easter eggs, and Easter bunnies. The Easter hat parade would have come later from the English. Accordingly, our kite flying, Bartica Regatta and Rupununi Rodeo are merely continuing a long tradition of change.
For a multi-religious society such as Guyana, this process of cultural cross-pollination and diffusion is important in creating a national ethos. The important caution is that the process should include all the religious practices and not privilege any along the lines Christianity was, for most of Guyana’s history. Hindus recently commemorated Phagwah, and Muslims are in the midst of Ramadan and now Christians commemorate Easter. Each festival has acquired peculiarly “Guyanese” characteristics around the core “religious” commemoration and it is a mark of our progressive maturity as a nation that we should not allow this process to be short-circuited.
There are some in our sociality who insist they are religious, but preach in a language that spreads hate and exclusion to almost everything and everyone outside their narrow belief system. This goes against the grain of our multi-religious tradition. While some speak of “tolerance”, there are growing signs that the new Guyanese standard of religious practice is outright acceptance of the right of the “other” to practise the tenets of their religion without condemnation and hate.
On Sunday, Christian Guyanese attended their churches to express their faith and belief in why Jesus was born and what was the meaning of his death and resurrection. On Monday, most Guyanese were flying their kites with their children in parks and open spaces and enjoying their snacks and goodies, picnic-style, in a manner that brings the family closer together. We would like to believe this is in consonance with the wider message of Easter.
Unfortunately, the somewhat less-than-salubrious practice of heavy alcohol consumption and all its negative effects have also crept into the Easter commemorations – as they have into every other holiday. We ask that Guyanese abjure this aspect of our “culture”.