Secular or Sacred? A Pandemic Conflict

The pandemic has brought the conflict between the sacred and the secular to the surface. 

The Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, led a recent protest against Covid-19 restrictions.  He claimed that restrictions on worship violate the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.  He said, “when government asserts authority over the church’s very right to worship, it crosses a line. Our fundamental rights do not come from the state… they come from God.”  He also suggested that “secular elites” lack compassion for religious people and do not understand the pain caused by restricting worship.

The Archbishop did not deny the need for reasonable restrictions on religious liberty.  The problem is that we disagree about what is reasonable.  In fact, we always have. 

150 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Mormon polygamy (Reynolds v. U.S.), arguing that the state can restrict religious liberty.  The Court said that religious belief is not “superior to the law of the land” and that religious liberty does not “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

The worry is that religious liberty can open the door to a kind of anarchy, as each sect claims an exception to the law.  The Mormon polygamists of the 19th Century did not think that polygamy meant anarchy.  Nor is the Archbishop prescribing general lawlessness in the face of the pandemic.  But it is difficult to figure out where to draw the line in disputes between the secular and the sacred. 

Furthermore, the Archbishop suggests that some values transcend the law of the land.  He says that our rights come from God—not from the state.  This may mean that we have a right (or even an obligation) to violate the law of the land in the name of a higher law. This is what happens in cases of civil disobedience and conscientious refusal. 

Public health and the common good would seem to call for restrictions on worship. But do religious people have a right to refuse?

A significant problem is that terms such as “public health” and “the common good” are subject to interpretation.  A religious person may think that spiritual well-being is part of public health.  And some religious communities think that communal worship is essential for the common good.

The Archbishop suggests that secular people often don’t understand the powerful role that ritual and communal worship play in the lives of religious folk.  There is some truth to this.  The idea of the sacred opens a realm of transcendent value, which has no parallel in non-religious life. 

The secular world is “disenchanted,” as Max Weber put it a hundred years ago.  Philosopher Charles Taylor said something similar: “The modern identity and outlook flattens the world, leaves no place for the spiritual, the higher, for mystery.”  Speaking as secular person, I think they are right.  The sacred, the transcendent, and the holy are indeed flattened in the secular world.

There is much to argue about here in terms of ethics, theology, and the meaning of life.  But let’s leave these existential arguments aside and return to the problem of the pandemic.  The present situation is this.  Some religious people live in a world of mystery and enchantment that requires communal celebration of shared rituals.  These communal practices appear to violate the public health rules created by a secular political system, which views the world as disenchanted and flat. 

This conflict becomes more complicated when the source of political and legal authority is called into question.  Are the laws a human creation, the result of a social contract?  Or are these laws reflective of something deeper, more mysterious and sacred? 

The present crisis prompts these deep questions.  To answer them we need the help of political philosophers and theologians.  But there will be no unanimous consensus about how to answer these questions. 

This gives us clue to finding common ground.  The fact that we disagree shows us the need for liberty.  The Courts are going to have to draw lines. These judgments will not be satisfactory to everyone.  But let’s agree, at least, that we should be free to ask these questions and to disagree about the source of the law and the meaning of life.

Curing Viciousness by Climbing the Moral Ladder

Fresno Bee, September 20, 2020

At a recent rally in Reno, President Trump said, “Now I can be really vicious.” “I don’t have to be nice anymore.” Trump said, “the Republican party doesn’t play it rough and tough.” “We play it so nice,” he said. “In the end it’s not right.”

Trump’s viciousness can be seen in the way the president applauded the killing of Michael Reinoehl by U.S. Marshals. Reinoehl was suspected of killing a right-wing protester in Portland, Ore. After the marshals killed him, the president said, “that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution.” Of course, in the U.S., police are not justified in delivering retribution.

We are on a slippery slope lubricated by viciousness. To avoid that slope we need to hold fast to what I call the moral ladder. The rungs of the ladder tell us to be nice and kind, to seek justice, to limit power, and to develop mercy.

Morality begins with niceness. Parents tell kids, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” We quote Aesop’s fables and teach children that “Kindness is never wasted.” These nuggets of proverbial wisdom create a foundation for morality.

Niceness is about manners. Manners provide a psychological and social root for moral development. In learning to be nice, children develop decorum and self-control. Niceness can be superficial and deceptive. A con-man can be nice while he picks your pocket. But that behavior is an exception. Niceness is the first rung on the moral ladder.

Kindness is also essential. Kindness is empathy and benevolence. Sometimes this can be phony or done for show. But genuine kindness opens the heart. It is the source of charity and compassion. The next rung on the moral ladder involves extending kindness to friends and even to strangers.

Beyond this, ethical maturity requires that we develop a sense of justice and responsibility. The Roman philosopher Cicero said that kindness is optional but justice is necessary. Kindness is a gift. If you withhold charity, no one would blame you or be angry. It is not nice to be unkind, but it is not evil.

Justice, on the other hand, is required. If you fail to be just, you are blameworthy. Failures of justice— from lying and promise-breaking to outright violations of human rights — create outrage and righteous indignation. Injustice is not simply unkind. It is evil. Justice is another step on the moral ladder.

Here is where retribution is found, offering payback that holds criminals responsible for their misdeeds. A traditional scheme requires eye for eye, life for life. But a complex system has developed in order to administer justice. Among the most important features of our system is the presumption of innocence.

Accused criminals in the United States have a right to defend themselves in a court of law. American police are not authorized to deliver retribution. The state’s power to punish is awesome. That’s why we limit it and make certain that those we punish are actually guilty. Recognition of the necessary limitation of the state’s power to punish takes us higher up the ladder. This is the vantage point of democratic political theory, which is committed to basic human rights and the rule of law.

It is possible to climb still higher. Many moral systems teach that forgiveness and mercy are higher than retribution. Mercy asks us to be kind, even to those who deserve punishment. The last rung on the ladder takes us beyond law toward something transcendent.

This moral ladder represents the basic common sense of our civilization. Common sense teaches that when viciousness is praised, virtue gets trampled. When niceness is kicked aside, kindness becomes impossible. When police take retribution into their own hands, democracy is in danger.

It’s time to get off of this slippery slope and climb back up the moral ladder. We do that by adhering to justice and the rule of law. We do that by teaching our children to be nice and kind, fair and forgiving. Our children are watching. They will eventually take control of this vicious country. If we teach them well, they may be kind enough to show a little mercy on us.

Fire Wisdom

Smokey Sunset

The Sierra Nevada is blazing.  Smoke chokes our lungs here in the shadow of these burning mountains.  Yesterday we learned that a friend’s house burned down, another victim of the Creek Fire near Shaver Lake.

What wisdom can we learn from fire and smoke?  Fire is a terrifying force of nature.  It is also a metaphor. Pandemics burn.  Violence flares up in the streets.  Some warn that the bridges of democracy are being torched.  Each day brings a new conflagration. 

The ancients saw fire as a primal force.  Fire cults gave birth to religion. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush. Ancient worship included burnt offerings and smoking incense.

The Greek sage Heraclitus gave voice to a fire philosophy.  He said the cosmos is an “ever-living fire.”  Everything changes.  The eternal fire burns all things.  This fiery wisdom reveals the cold, dark truth of mortality. 

The Greek word for fire (πῦρ or pyr) is the root of our word “pyre.”  The funeral pyre purges and purifies, returning ashes to ashes.  Fire transforms mortal flesh into smoke and wind.

Fire destroys. But it also gives birth. Fire is essential to the forest’s life.  It clears the undergrowth and fertilizes the soil.  The seeds of the mighty sequoia only germinate after a fire.  The bark of the sequoia bears the marks of prehistoric flames.

Climate change accelerates this cycle.  The ponderosa pines have been destroyed by the tiny bark beetle.  Drought and death have reduced these forests to kindling.  The hot winds of a feverish climate fan the flames.

Wind is another metaphor and element. Wind is breath. But wind is duplicitous. It can blow flames out or encourage their growth. The same is true of breath. Breath is life and laughter. But breath gives voice to angry words and hateful curses.

Wisdom teaches us to control the breath and to inhale clear air from above the fuming haze. Watching your breath teaches patience and tenacity. Someday the winds will change.

Someday these ashes will give birth to new growth. Fire wisdom takes the long view.  The life cycle of a sequoia is measured in centuries.  Forests span millennia. 

The big picture offers some consolation.  But what about today?  Wisdom teaches us to tend the fires that nourish us.  Fire can be a friend.  As darkness falls and the cold settles in, a campfire reassures. The hearth provides a place to gather and dwell.  There is comfort in keeping the home fires burning. 

But an errant spark can burn down the house. Fire is dangerous when it blazes out of control.  That is why we protect our fires from the wind. Fire explodes when the wind blows uncontrolled.  This is also a metaphor.

The Buddha said everything is burning.  The senses are on fire, he said, as is the mind.  Suffering arises when the flames of the spirit are fanned by ragged hyperventilating and breathless passion.  Negative emotions burn the soul and fuel terrible explosions.

Anger and resentment grow along with violence and fear.  These flames are scorching our social world today. We need to moderate our breathing and keep the sparks of hate away from the powder kegs.

These Sierra fires are flashing a warning.  We have grown too fast.  We live too furiously.  We burn too brightly.  Our breathing is shallow and feverish. Life is out of balance.  The world is on fire. 

The solution is containment and prevention.  A forest fire cannot be quenched.  It can only be contained.  The same is true of pandemics and of violence.  Control the burn.  Keep kindling and flame safely apart. Breathe from the belly.

This is a simple lesson taught by ancient sages.  Control the negative emotions that incinerate the spirit.  Watch your breath. Conserve your fuel.  And tend your hearth.

We should also discover the cooling balm of compassion.  This fiery world contains too much mourning.  Let’s comfort the grieving. And hold fast to patient hope.  The winds will shift. The rains will come.  The smoke will clear.  And someday these ashes will give birth. 

Malevolent Hope and The Desire To Burn Things Down

Anger

Fresno Bee, September 6, 2020

This is a season of malevolent hope. Hope is usually positive. So this may seem strange. But the desire to see enemies suffer is common, as is the urge to burn things down in pursuit of power.

We see malevolent hope when Republicans imagine benefiting from civil unrest. Kellyanne Conway said last week that “chaos and anarchy” are good for Trump’s re-election.

Another example showed up this week when the president told his supporters to vote twice to test the electoral system. If the system is broken, Trump gets extra votes. But if chaos ensues, after Trump voters are charged with the crime of voting twice, this reinforces Trump’s claims about a broken system.

Democrats may have their own form of malevolent hope, perhaps secretly hoping that a vaccine does not appear until after the election. Republicans are already accusing Democrats of wanting to block the vaccine. Conservative columnist Betsy McCaughey claims that the Democrats “wish failure” on every COVID-19 breakthrough.

It is obviously wrong to wish for the worst as a bridge to the better. It’s cruel to desire more disease. It’s evil to cultivate chaos. It’s perverse to encourage criminality and felonious voting.

But malevolent hope is as common as greed and envy. When a relationship sours, you hope your former lover suffers. When a rival is winning, you wish he would fail.

Good people realize this is wrong. Such thoughts ought to be repressed. Wicked wishes can give birth to evil deeds.

Politics often slips down this devilish slope. Terrorists actively seek to make things worse. They attack in order to provoke a backlash. Once the backlash occurs, they say, “see, I told you—those guys are oppressive.” A different example comes from Germany in the 1930s. The Reichstag was burned. The Nazis blamed the Communists and soon seized power.

Malevolent hope often includes a story about a savior. The jilted lover imagines himself swooping in and consoling his miserable former love. Political partisans believe that when things get bad enough, their candidate will save the day.

This narrative also appears in apocalyptical faith. Plagues, pestilence, and war are signs of the end times. Does this mean that the faithful should hope for these horrors? That question is a recipe for theological heartburn.

Malevolent hope is connected to gloating. To gloat is to take joy in your enemy’s misfortune. Ancient warrior cultures encouraged gloating. It’s not enough to kill your enemy. The warrior also disfigures his enemy’s corpse and dances on his grave.

Some ancient sources condemn this. The Bible’s book of Proverbs warns against envy, pride, and gloating. One verse says “don’t gloat when your enemy falls and don’t rejoice when he stumbles.” Jesus went even further. He told us to love our enemies.

That may be too much to ask. A basic concern for the common good would suffice. To hope that things get worse actively encourages pain and misery. We should want our rivals to succeed in business, politics, and even in love because we want happiness to spread.

To the jilted lover we say that if you really loved her, you should hope she finds joy in her new relationship. And patriots should want peace, justice, and prosperity regardless of who is in the White House.

But we are jealous and greedy. And we tend to fight evil with evil, violence with violence. Malevolent hope grows out of selfish pride and a zero-sum view of the world.

This is corrupt and self-defeating. It is simply wrong to wish harm upon others. Peace and prosperity require cooperation, solidarity, and concern for the common good.

It is difficult to remember this lesson of common decency in a world that has grown ugly and angry. But common sense tells us that if we hope things will get worse, they probably will. It is easy for things to fall apart. Holding them together is difficult. Creating something better is harder still.

For things to improve, we need positive hope. Benevolent hope affirms human creativity. It keeps open the possibility of enemies becoming friends. This is the kind of hope that grows from love and wants joy to spread. It is a hope that builds instead of burns.

Susan B. Anthony and The Revolution

President Trump pardoned Susan B. Anthony for the crime of voting, commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Historians have argued that Anthony would have rejected the pardon. She was more interested in voting rights, sex education, and social justice than in the pomp of a presidential pardon.

Anthony is closer in spirit to AOC than to the GOP. She demanded respect for women. She defended voting rights. She practiced civil disobedience. And she had unconventional views of religion.

Anthony was not simply the sweet little old lady we see posing politely in sepia-toned photos. She was a revolutionary and a radical.

Susan B. Anthony

The newspaper she published was called “The Revolution.” Its first issue, from 1868, stated that it would focus on equality for women as well as a revolution in society and in religion. With regard to religion, it advocated for “deeper thought.” It called for “science not superstition,” and “facts not fiction.”

Like Thoreau, she broke the law to make her case. When she was arrested for voting in 1872, Anthony claimed the law punishing her was unjust. She vowed to never pay the fine. She declared in court, “I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim, that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

The motto was a favorite of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. That revolutionary idea places God on the side of liberation. This theology motivated those who called for the abolition of slavery. In fact, Anthony began her career an abolitionist. Her calls for social justice and equality for women continued on the theological path of the anti-slavery movement.

Religious reform was central to the movement for women’s equality. As we reconsider flags and monuments today, it is worth recalling how early suffragettes symbolically rewrote the Declaration of Independence. At the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, they proclaimed, “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” To support the idea that men and women were equal, a radical religious claim was introduced: “That woman is man’s equal, was intended to be so by the Creator.”

Anthony’s friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton went so far as to revise the Bible. The “Woman’s Bible” began by declaring that Christianity falsely teaches that “woman was made after man, of man, and for man, an inferior being, subject to man.”

As might be predicted, this effort at religious revolution provoked a backlash in the movement. And although Anthony did not participate in creating the Woman’s Bible, she defended Stanton’s effort. Anthony viewed the Bible merely as a historical document. She said “I think women have just as good a right to interpret and twist the Bible to their own advantage as men always have twisted and turned it to theirs.”

Anthony also connected the suffrage movement to broader movements for social justice. She advocated for labor rights, for fair pay, and for a living wage for women. She pointed out hypocrisy in the lofty moral language of the Founding Fathers, while the U.S. was “founded upon the blood and bones of half a million beings, bought and sold as chattels in the market.”

Despite her work as an abolitionist and her calls for social revolution, Anthony’s work has been criticized by those who think she was not radical enough. Anthony was not as progressive on racial issues as she might have been. She was friendly with Frederick Douglass — who publicly advocated for women’s suffrage. But Angela Davis complains that Anthony “pushed Douglass aside for the sake of recruiting Southern women into the movement for woman’s suffrage.”

This reminds us that no one is perfect. History will judge our failures. But we must do the best we can.

It helps to have the kind of courage, tenacity, and faith of someone like Susan B. Anthony. She understood that the world won’t change unless we demand that it change. She inspires us to think critically about the social and religious conventions of the day. And she reminds us to look beyond petty politics and consider whether God is on the side of oppression or liberation.