Posted by Thomas J. Hubschman
How is it we, especially we in the modern West and especially we in the USA, look upon monarchic and other authoritative systems of government with disdain but accept unelected, hierarchical and highly authoritarian versions of governance in other areas of our lives, such as in our religions?
We wouldn’t dream of allowing politicians to appoint themselves and then appoint each other to offices we consider critical to our civic well being. True, those political officers do appoint judges and other officials, but we like to think we maintain ultimate control over our destiny by reserving the right to elect the appointers themselves. But, however much Roman Catholics complain about Rome’s intransigent policy on birth control, the Anglicans’ haggling among themselves about making homosexuals bishops or Orthodox Jews refusing to allow female rabbis…to name just a few of the issues that get decided not by popular vote but by men, mostly men in funny skirts and hats, I have rarely if ever heard any believer say, What do we need a hierarchy for anyhow? Who gave them the last word — or the first, for that matter?
Well, of course, they gave it to themselves, didn’t they. The Christian churches gave themselves that authority in the name of their God (as all clergy always have), though the earliest Christians managed to do without a clergy quite nicely, thank you, and the best versions of modern Christianity (“best” in terms of their track record, not just what they preach) seem to be groups like the Quakers, who have the least ecclesiastical structure.
Rabbis gave themselves the power to decide who was in and who was out when they assumed that right for themselves after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. As a result Judaism, however much altered, survived. The church did much the same thing for Christianity after it became apparent that the Messiah was not going to return to earth any time soon. Roman adoption of Christianity as the state religion in the early fourth century sealed the deal (relegating the much more popular Jewish religion to the precarious margins).
But those were the days of kings and emperors, also divinely appointed. We don’t hold with that idea anymore. The British and Dutch seem fond of their monarchs but give them little or no say in their lives. Protestants claim to be free of Roman authoritarianism, but I note they excommunicate and defrock their own clerical miscreants and are not shy about telling their flocks what God wants them to think and do without first asking for their votes.
And, why is it we get warm and fuzzy when we hear that word “flock”? What is it a flock of? Well, the keeper of the flock is a pastor, and that’s a shepherd, so the flock must be sheep, or goats. What happens to sheep who have been tenderly cared for by caring shepherds/pastors? The last time I checked they ended up as Sunday dinner. Or are they only tended so lovingly for their wool?
So, what we have become is flocks of sheep (usually considered among the dumbest of animals) tended by unelected clerics presumably for our own good — that “good” being determined by, you guessed it, those same clerics and their superiors.
Why do we not only tolerate this situation, with some agitation for the relaxation of one stricture or another but without questioning, never mind demanding, a democratic process in the very structure of our religions that includes every member, not just clergy? Is this an example of the compartmentalization that atheists accuse believers of engaging in so their rational mind does not intrude upon the precincts of their religious mind? Or do we actually like having the security of a shepherd to protect us from the wolves of this world and the next?
Dostoevsky aired this out about as well as anyone in “The Grand Inquisitor.” People don’t want freedom, is the conclusion there, not even the freedom Jesus offered them. Freedom makes them anxious. They want mystery, miracles and authority — and, of course, bread. It’s a scary piece of writing, one of the high points of Western literature, though as far as I can tell Dostoevsky himself was very much a believer, at least in his own version of Christianity.
We complain about the oppressiveness of Rome or the pre-medieval strictures of Talmudic and Sharia law, but aren’t they petty stuff compared with what organized religion combined with state power can get up to? Is there any doubt that Rome would behave with even more authoritarianism if it had the kind of power it had in the past? And, isn’t it obvious what fundamentalist Judaism and Islam are like if we look in parts of the world where those religions have significant political power?
When religions have to operate without that kind of authority they make do with what they have, enforcing their wills on the faithful within the walls, so to speak, if not in the wider community generally. They even take on a friendly aspect, try to appear reasonable, amenable to science and other modern ideas, within limits. But when not operating with limitations they revert to type — think what the church was like in Ireland until recent decades, what sort of laws the ultra-Orthodox impose in Israel or the way things are run in Saudi Arabia. To think otherwise is to put your faith in human nature in a way we would never dream of doing so if the system in question were not religious.
Of course, religions aren’t the only entities we allow to operate outside the bounds of democratic participation. Our work place is just as undemocratic, even medieval in its structure and just as cold-blooded in its punishments for flouting authority. To say, well, religion is one thing, an area we enter into voluntarily, but work, our job, is necessary to our physical survival and so another matter — we don’t have any meaningful say in whether we get a job or keep it or the conditions under which we do our work, by and large. But is that true?
We don’t work in democratic environments because we accept the system as it is, basically the way it was run back when there was a lord of the manor and his flunkies whose job it was to see that the rest of his human capital were productive for his benefit. You don’t have to be a Marxist to realize that we hold our jobs, whether as janitor or senior vice-president, at the pleasure of whoever owns the operation, and not a moment longer. We may not have to give up our brides to him on our wedding night the way serfs did back in the old days, but we do have to give up our right to determine our destiny and the quality of our lives in a critical area of our existence — critical not just to ourselves but to the wider community we live in. And we do so for the most part unthinkingly. We even prepare ourselves with lengthy and expensive schooling in order to be able to please our masters and gain favor in the form of promotion and greater compensation. Some of us dream of becoming our own bosses, some of us do, but how many of these new lords of the manor behave any less authoritatively toward their own employees?
Most people admire the rich and want to be like them, even if that means keeping in place an unfair, undemocratic system that relegates them to economic chains. It’s the same mentality that keeps some of us playing the lottery in the belief we are just as likely to win as the next guy. Few consider replacing the current system with one that allows them ownership and control of their workplace. Even fewer actually try to accomplish these goals, though there are many instances, thousands it’s said in the US alone, of companies that are run cooperatively, along with plenty in other nations, some of them as large as the largest traditionally owned corporations.
But that’s socialism, isn’t it? I have no idea what it is, nor do I care. It makes sense, and that’s all that matters as far as I’m concerned. Call it anything you like. For a start, though, call it democracy, what we Americans seem to think we have because we cast a ballot for a candidate who has usually been carefully vetted, approved and funded by the same people we give our sweat to every day in return for whatever they see fit to pay us. And then on the sabbath we entrust our souls to a God also carefully vetted and approved by religions run by men we never chose who consider the very idea of such choice diabolical.
That’s not the behavior or freedom-loving human beings. That’s the behavior of sheep.