Outdated Commandments

Recently, according to an ABC story a friend sent me, some self-righteous Catholics stole indigenous statues from the Amazon from a location in Rome.  The statues had been a gift to the Pope and placed outside the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina.  Like mass shooters these days, the Christians responsible filmed themselves doing this and shared it on social media.  I’ve experienced a lot of religious intolerance in my life.  I lost my job and my childhood to it, among other things.  Stories like this are beyond sad because religion really does have the capacity to bring people together rather than to tear them into warring factions.  Unfortunately it tends to draw in the hateful looking for excuses for their violence.

Not unrelatedly, I attended a church program on gun violence.  Before this gets immediately blown up into “anti-gun,” please note—the program was about violence, not guns.  During the Q&A after the presentation someone asked who the panelists were trying to reach, “preaching to the choir.”  After that he admitted to being a gun owner and felt that his position was unfairly represented.  Tension mounted.  One of the panelists, the one who’d witnessed his first murder at age 11, and who’d spent time in jail himself, broke in and said “This is about violence, let’s not make it about guns.”  I was struck by his focus and control.  He’d told us earlier that if a gang member could be convinced to wait 24 hours before getting his gun after an insult or injury a shooting almost never took place.  Violence is often a spur of the moment thing.

What’s so troubling about those who smirk as they film themselves doing violence, like stealing statues outside a church, is that this is not an impulse act.  This is planned, hateful violence.  It wears the mask of religion, often titled “orthodoxy” or “conservatism” but it is in reality simply a way of excusing your hatred.  Ironically, the Jesus they claim to be following said, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.”  I guess we’ve got quite a few sinless conservatives out there, although I have to wonder if filming yourself might not count as pride.  It used to be called a deadly sin, but who’s counting?  Self-righteousness isn’t quite the same thing as vanity, although they sleep in the same bed.  But let’s not get lust involved, once that happens there’ll be no telling one sin from another.

Pope Springs Eternal

All channels lead to Rome. In a world where Christians lament their public influence, we can’t seem to get enough of the pageantry, the mystery, and the stylish drama of electing a pope. The secrecy is key. If cardinal debates were held in an open forum, by cardinals in business suits, the media would have trouble covering its yawns. In a conclave deep within the classical architecture of Rome, privileged men in expensive gowns meet and whisper in hushed tones until a puff of smoke rises though a sacred chimney and the world either hitches its collective breath or sighs in deep contentment. No wonder the election of a pope is such a big deal for Protestant and Catholic alike.

We would be mistaken, however, to limit such docu-drama to Rome. Religions, from the earliest institutionalization of their practices, used drama and showmanship to add to the draw of the sacred. Ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians kept statues of deities hidden away in the deepest recesses of temples, and brought them out periodically to great public fanfare. The laity would watch in astonishment as an actual god was paraded among them—the popemobile had yet to be invented—and lapse back into ordinary time as the sacred statue was swallowed once again in the darkness of its great house. Even the aniconic Israelites maintained ceremony and mystery, for they had an invisible god who raised all kinds of questions in the naturally curious human mind.

The papacy is, after all, a recognized authority structure. Some nations recognize the Vatican as a sovereign state, a little bit of the City of God among the Rome of Humanity. For the time being at least, the Roman Catholics outnumber any other branch of Christianity. It is the most successful trader in the marketplace of religious commodities among Christian consumers. Its draw has always been tied closely to a sense of mystery and awe. There is a magic to the mass that the televangelist sermon splashed on the big screen somehow lacks. It is old and arcane. Few believe in its literal transubstantiation, and yet it stands as the outward and visible sign of a deeply occluded reality that takes place behind closed doors. Men in red, debating on the virtues of a new CEO for the vicar of Christ. No wonder all channels are tuned to Rome.

From presidencia.gov.ar, via Wikimedia Commons

From presidencia.gov.ar, via Wikimedia Commons

The Ides of March

In the days of ancient Rome, politicians as well as plebeians feared the interference of the gods. Auspicious days were ignored, even by emperors, at their own peril. In my Mythology class the concept of hubris frequently emerges. Generally thought to be excessive pride, hubris can take many forms. Whenever a mere mortal strives for godhood, however innocently, it must be punished. Julius Caesar, declaring himself emperor, had to face the wrath of the gods. The ides of March kept in check the ambitions of the powerful. In a world where the political become too powerful, the very phases of the moon step in to restore balance.

The ides seem to have their origin in the date of the full moon. The month of March, named after the god Mars, featured a military parade on the ides. Then, as now, political power is simply the form of government backed by the military. The history of human unrest, especially notable since the American and French revolutions when the common people shouted, “Enough!”, is where might is shown not to equal right. Pontiffs and presidents, enamored of firepower and its blandishments, appear like Caesar before their populaces, confident in their wealth and military backing.

The concept of hubris might once again be meaningful to a culture under siege. As pundits and politicians make bids for places of abusive power, confident that there is no one above them, ethics are reformed in their own images. Have they not become their own gods? We the people bow to their vision of what should be. How many political leaders retire to uncertain futures because their own pensions have been slashed and healthcare diminished? Those who care for them in their dotage are the very children whose educational funds they’ve slashed. Hubris? It behooves all of us to beware the ides of March. Most, like Caesar, will ignore the warning and don the purple. Those who read, however, will not anger the gods.

Et tu, Brutus?

For God and For Gold

The Associated Press today released a story about an Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard discovered in England this summer. The trove, which likely contains at least 1500 items, many of silver and gold, is calculated to cause substantial reassessment of Dark Age England. Leslie Webster, a former curator at the British Museum, suggested that given the nature of the artifacts, new light could be cast on the relationship between warfare and Christianity.

Apart from the obvious deliria of daydreams of wealth that such finds always drag in their cloaks, this treasure once again underscores the connections between religion and violence. The Anglo-Saxons, Germanic invaders of England following the decline of the Roman Empire, had been early converts to Christianity. Even Alaric the Goth was a good Christian, although he had little patience with the oversight of Rome. The recently uncovered hoard contains mostly military trophies, but among the finds was a gold strip reading “Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face” (Numbers 10.35). Already bloggers are drawing comparison with Jules’ quote from the fabricated Ezekiel 25.17 in Pulp Fiction, but the connection of Christianity and conquest is much more intimate than that. Once Christianity became the official Roman religion under Constantine, the imperial imperative took over. It became a religion of conquest. A similar phenomenon occurred after the advent of Islam. The zeal of the converted should never be underestimated.

I'm trying really hard to be the shepherd

I'm trying really hard to be the shepherd

So, what are we to make of this scriptural quote among sword knobs and doom sticks? Is it simply more evidence that religions, like the Roman Empire (according to Octavius) “must grow or die”? Those who believe carry a deep-seated fear that their religion might be proven false. On it ride serious (and often eternal) consequences. One way to ensure the quelling of that fear is to silence the heretics who decry the one true faith: take up your swords and nukes and threaten the infidel. The road less traveled, however, is to rise above our insecurities and simply enjoy the ride.