Random Thoughts on God and Country

Let me see if I can do something I haven’t done in a long time: finish one of these essays in one sitting so that I have time tomorrow to go out and celebrate Valentine’s Day properly. For that purpose I’ll just open up the mental taps and let it flow. I’ve been thinking a bit about Valentine’s Day itself, about Whitney Houston’s death over the weekend, about the various problems of missionary identity and about the US innovation of keeping religion and politics separate. Let’s see what comes of such a stew here.

Valentine… now there’s a mysterious character. Who was he, where did he come from, and why did Chaucer apparently decide that he was one who’s celebration would help usher in the spring mating rights for Christians? I tried looking it up to tie together the snippets of legend I’d heard over the years and discovered that historians know less than I thought I knew about the subject. For starters Valentine was as common a name back in the third and fourth centuries of our calendar as David is today, and it seems that the pre-Constantinian Romans creatively dispatched a diaper-load of Valentines (as in men of that name). There are a few guesses as to which it would have been that later was considered worthy of mention of February 14th; the most common being that it was one of the two guys of that name who were buried north of Rome along the road to Rimini. A couple hundred years ago one of the popes had what were believed to be the bones of one of these guys dug up and given as a gift to a church in Dublin so that the Irish could experiment with their magical powers.

The strongest legend seems to be that “the” Valentine was an underground priest in Rome and the surrounding area during the reign of Emperor Claudius the Second, predecessor to Diocletian, who really got Christian-killing going in earnest. Whereas Diocletian found Christians politically useful as all-purpose enemies of the state to get everyone together in hating –– sort of like Hitler used Jews, like McCarthyites used Communists and like “Tea Partiers” use Muslims –– it seems that before his time the Caesars didn’t take Christians all that seriously. From the famous correspondence between Trajan and Pliny the Younger (on line at http://community.middlebury.edu/~harris/Classics/plinytrajan.html) we can gather that Roman authorities thought of Christians sort of the way I think of Cape Town’s cockroaches: sort of gross in a mildly amusing sort of way, worth killing if they make a nuisance of themselves, but mostly harmless and not worth going on a big hunt for. So somehow this Valentine didn’t manage to stay below the radar and the emperor personally became aware of him and had him imprisoned. According to one part of the legend one of Valentine’s crimes was to secretly perform marriage ceremonies for young couples according to the Christian liturgical practice that was taking shape at the time. In any case, it is said that Claudius found this priest to be rather interesting and amusing, and might have kept him in a cage as part of a menagerie of strange specimens, but Valentine kept trying to convince the emperor himself to become a Christian and so finally Claudius just decided to have him killed.

None of the Valentines promised us a rose garden...

But legends of the story of Valentine are as diverse and as difficult to authenticate as the legends of the Flying Dutchman here on the east side of the Cape Peninsula. All of the stories tell of a ship captained by a cranky old Dutchman who for his sins is caught in a storm and cursed never to have a home on land ever again. Sightings of this legendary ghost ship then apparently continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, right up to the time of World War 2 even. Yet nobody seems to know for sure who the original Dutch seaman in question was, or what year his ship was lost, or even what exactly he did to bring the curse upon himself. The variety we find within such legends is part of what makes them interesting.

Getting back to Valentine though, whoever he was, I can’t imagine him being anything other than amused at the marketing of greeting cards and chocolates and flowers in his name more than 1700 years later. His primary concern would most likely have been one of Christians being allowed to have their own socially accepted rituals to worship together and start families without being hunted down for it. He was hoping for the state not to bother the church so much. That was not to come about for a very long time. As I said, the emperor after the one who had him killed made a big number out of hunting down Christians and making as dramatic a show as possible out of killing them. The emperor after that in turn flipped the whole system on its head and made Christianity the religion of power within the Roman Empire. Another 50 years after him came a fellow who said that to be a Roman you have to be a Christian, and no form of “pagan” education should be allowed in Rome any longer. This officially began what came to be known as the Dark Ages. A crass but not entirely inaccurate way of putting it would be that the teachings of Christianity were raped by the power structures of the empire, and as a result gave birth to the medieval Roman Catholic Church.

Fast forward 800 years: a new religion called Islam has arisen in the Middle East and north Africa, and they are claiming that God has given them the right to be in charge of the area where Christianity and Judaism first began. That sucks because doing pilgrimages down there is a big thing for some of the richer Christians. So eventually the Popes proclaim that God wants them to put together a Christian fighting force to regain dominance of Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Thus begins the farce known as the Crusades. But out of that experience Europeans come to discover some of the learning that had been happening on their continent before the Dark Ages, because the North African Muslims had hung onto quite a bit of it and even built further on it. Eventually this “new” knowledge convinced a guy named Thomas from a little Italian town called Aquino to convince the Catholic Church to let people start thinking more freely for themselves again, and to start universities teaching more than just church doctrines. From there it only took about 200 years before the church started to lose its controlling grip on European culture. This was known as the Renaissance.

After the Renaissance the Catholic Church progressively lost the vast majority of its political power. It remains true today that a third of the world’s population call themselves Christians, and over half of those call themselves Catholics, but within that group those who are afraid that the pope could cut off their access to the sacraments and send them all to hell if their rulers don’t behave themselves, or even who hold to the “every sperm is sacred” teaching, are a very small minority.

It really started with their failure to execute Luther like they had all of the previous dissenters. Soon after that there were two major European kings –– Henry in England and Gustav in Sweden –– who made excuses to “nationalize” there countries’ churches so as to be able to sell off church property to pay for the little wars of expansion that they had going at the time. And before you knew it, even the papal territories within Italy were being reduced to the size of a minor suburb. But all of these moves towards “secularization” didn’t take the final step that we might imagine Valentine would have wanted: allowing the church and state to operate entirely separately from each other. Within each country it was assumed that there would be a particular religious organization that would teach people that God wanted them to obey their rulers, and which would in turn receive the endorsement and support of the rulers as the “true church” for that country. The first country to definitively break with that principle was the United States.

It’s surprising how many people today still don’t understand the essence of this basic principle of what separation of church and state is supposed to mean in the US, and how freedom of religion has come to operate in places where there are still remains of the medieval ecclesiastical power structure still in place, such as Finland, or Turkey. In these countries where well over ¾ of the population identify themselves rather passively with one particular religious brand, and where that brand has had a hand in legitimizing governments for hundreds of years, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the government still takes what the clergy says seriously in terms of shaping state policy. Nor does it mean that those who believe differently from the mainstream religious structure are likely to meet Valentine’s fate. (In Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia they might, but those are separate problems unto themselves.) It basically means that official state church –– or whatever this majority supported religious organization chooses to call itself –– tries to hold onto whatever power it can by claiming to represent the spiritual conscience of the people. This is effectively the same as what most of the last round of Republican presidential candidates in the US have been claiming for themselves, and what Bush the younger was trying to implement by degrees in US law. This sort of movement hasn’t been seen in US history since former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan –– darling of the rural religious voters, and a Democrat from before the time when the major parties swapped roles (with FDR) –– humiliated himself at the Scopes trial. But ever since Ronald Reagan told evangelicals, “You cannot endorse me but I endorse you,” America’s religious right has been salivating over the possibility of ever greater government endorsement, regardless of what their beloved constitution has to say about the subject.

The opposite perspective is that which John Kennedy stated as a Catholic running for president: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

This subject has come up again this past week because President Obama, in his on-going efforts to bring the US into the twenty-first century with regards to health care as a basic right for all citizens, has run into trouble with the Catholic Church; and the religious right, looking for any possible excuse to ridicule this president, has chosen to attack the requirements the president’s commission wants to put on Catholic organizations as employers. Basically it comes down to this: even if the church continues to teach that every sperm is sacred, every employer will still be required to provide medical coverage for its female employees that provides them with means of not making babies with those sacred sperm if they chose not to. The president’s struggle has been to provide that basic legal and medical protection for women without forcing Catholic organizations to actively commit spermicide. And for this the southern Baptist farm boys and their political allies are up in arms about the president going too far in telling churches what to do. Some have gone as far as to opine that the president is getting “all Henry VIII” on the churches. Go figure.

This debate also relates to whether a cultural outsider can ever be seen as having a legitimate role in attempting to shape a country’s values. I mean, I don’t think its coincidence that the same fringe elements who are complaining about Obama’s power struggles with Catholic employers are the ones who were working long and hard to cast doubt on his status as a native born American. Is there a difference between “indigenous ideas” and “invasive species of thought”? Should each country or culture have its own “natural” values and spiritual identity, protected from foreign influences that would corrupt the natural balance of things? This is an underlying assumption of many conservatives: that they need to protect the ideas they have grown used to from too much outside influence. At the same time they want to provide missionary aid of various sorts to other cultures, to enable those others to reach their own superior level of spirituality. Nor is this approach by any means limited to just particular types of Christians. This is why “missionary” has become a curse word in so many places. So if someone wants to come in from a different culture to spread new ideas that they believe could help in the new context, fierce opposition is more the rule than the exception, whether or not there is an official state church system to deal with. There are always those with a vested interest in only letting “insiders” spread values within their territory. Yet on the other side of the coin we have Jesus’ astute observation that no prophet finds domestic acceptance either. Maybe the point is just to prevent anyone from trying to change anything…

So then what does all of this have to do with Whitney Houston? Admittedly not much, other than the fact that she happened to die at a time when all of this was up in the air (between my ears). But Whitney, like her godmother Aretha Franklin, had a rare and powerful voice that could bring chills to anyone, regardless of their normal taste in music. Yet still there are those who can’t appreciate the tragedy of losing such an immense talent without looking for torrid details to judge her by. It’s as though they need a handy moral excuse to shield themselves from the tragedy that we inevitably face in life at times. Is that part and parcel of the system of trying to maintain control over what is particularly valued, and over how our values work? I don’t know. Probably a bit of a stretch. In any case I am saddened to see the loss of such beauty in the world this month. I hope her soul is at peace. I hope the same for all of the other fascinating celebrities who have died over the past year with questions of self-destructive behavior hanging over their heads, from Amy Winehouse to Christopher Hitchens, but I especially hope this for Whitney. I hope that somehow what she has left the world with gives more people the courage to open up their hearts and dare to love, regardless of its inherent dangers.

So now, in spite of all of these troubled and skeptical ideas running through my mind, I’m off to get myself ready to spend tomorrow (and the rest of the week) chasing after the rainbow of romance in a way that lives up to the abstract expectations for the holiday. I leave it to the reader to sift through these musings and see if you find any points that help you to better consider your own social adjustments and deeper values. But regardless of whether you found anything above to agree with or not, remember and believe this: hugs make you healthier, so whatever else you do this Valentine’s week remember to go out and get yourself some extra hugs. So what are you waiting for? Get up and go hug somebody!






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Filed under Death, Love, Politics, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity

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