Sunday, August 17, 2008


It’s Sunday morning and all over the Xian world, people are preaching sermons. But not about the same subject at all, though they might think they are. Some are angry, some are ecstatic, some are reassuring, some are boring. The trouble with religions is that they are ineffable. They just can’t be pinned down, nor can their morality.

Some examples:

A woman called me yesterday. I like her and she likes me. She’s older and is remarrying a widower. They have every indication of a successful marriage and want me to be the “officiant” because I was an ordained Unitarian minister. I said no. I no longer do weddings. I suggested that since one of their close friends in a geologist, they get HIM to be an officiant because “cleanliness is not next to godliness, but geology is almost theology.” (This is the title of one of my favorite sermons as well as one of my most sincere guides to life.) You can register the governmental legalities at the county seat before or after. The law just wants to know who’s going to own what and who will be responsible for the children. The law wants order, not spirituality.

Most people are paying no attention to the law’s wishes these days, even though the laws were written by “most people.” Some people are asking why the state should use religious authorities (assuming you think a minister has any authority at all) to enforce a legal requirement. (My guess is that the state simply can’t enforce their law and wish to rub that off onto religion.) But the idea that lingers from theocratic states that colonized this continent is that a “real” or “proper” marriage has to be authorized by a church. (I’m going to have to use a lot of quotation marks. In a more formal context, I’d have to supply definitions for these words.)

This morning in the GF Tribune there is a description of a symposium called “A Return to Indigenous Beliefs” which was organized by “Long Standing Bear Chief.” (Harold Gray.) Included were Xian, Celtic and Buddhist people (self-identified), though none with formal credentials from institutions so far as I know. Probably the main crediential was a checkbook. LSBC comes from a family of boxing promoters, a connection he doesn’t wish to emphasize which is why he uses his Cree "Indian" name. I don’t criticize his religious beliefs, because I am cynical about what they are and admit it, but I think anyone would doubt his business methods. I hear complaints best taken to the Better Business Bureau.

Using the words “indigenous” or “autochthonous” are ways of escaping the theocracies of the world, which are quite properly seen as colonizers. If it’s “indigenous” it’s seen as “free,” because Xian authorities never even saw such beliefs as “real.” Small atypical and iconoclastic religious groups -- even or maybe especially the ones that tout vague concepts like “peace” or “unity” -- often draw in “seekers” from someplace else who have little or no grasp of that group’s legitimacy or practices. Not only religious groups but also “non-profits” that claim to be saving the environment or little children or -- a recent phone scam here -- the police chiefs of Montana, fall into this pattern of inventing something semi-real that is profitable to someone, usually the organizer. Even an institution as venerable as the Unitarian Universalist Association or Amnesty International or the Humane Society of the United States has a hard time defending money used to sustain leaders and offices in a privileged manner rather than financing the actual work.

A Blackfeet leader, a person I like and respect and would defend, presented me with a moral conundrum this week. It didn’t involve money and my opinion was the only thing asked, though the person didn’t like the answer. The situation was that someone much respected and “old-timey” was diagnosed with cancer by the Indian Health Services hospital. The family responded with prayer, smudges, ceremonies of blessing, and reconciliation of old quarrels. Then the cancer diagnostee was sent to a specialist who would do surgery if necessary. But tests showed that he didn’t have cancer after all. The leader would like this to be interpreted as the actions of the family actually curing the cancer. I strongly reacted against that, but have had to backtrack to understand why.

Part of it is that to my mind this is endorsing “magic,” but magic IS a big part of traditional Blackfeet beliefs. Part of it is that the leader felt that this family “deserves” the feeling of empowerment since they are sometimes criticized by Xians as useless, so the idea may used to promote conflict. Part of it is that I know, I KNOW, that someone will claim this cure and use it to empower themselves, not a family or the tribe. The potential for scams when offering to heal others is pretty high, esp. if the others have a fat checkbook.

My own training is ALWAYS to look past institutions and purported events to as much reality as can be achieved. (Not a lot, I’m afraid.) But also to look at the dynamics released by an specific event like a “miracle.” Often they are used to justify hope, but also they are soon turned to the uses of power. Nothing is more seductive than this combination, esp. in a place where people don’t have a lot of money and very little connection to the world at large. They don’t read. They pay no attention to anything outside their small reservation world unless it comes along and waylays them. Their educations don’t include critical thinking.

One of the recent “waylayers” has been Scientology, a huge movement with giant financial resources and very little global credibility. When I tell people away from here that Scientology has gotten to the Blackfeet, they are aghast. “Oh, tell me it’s not so!” they beg. Scientology is known for twisting and victimizing people, using showbiz celebrities as fronts. It sure works on some Blackfeet, esp. since the entering wedge comes through drug rehab groups on the rez, where people have already established that they’re not exactly hard-headed realists. I mean, drugs aren’t even a good business opportunity since one’s customer-base constantly self-destructs. Drug users are dancing with the devil and not just the Xian one.

Going back to the beginning, which is my frequent strategy when preaching, I know a lot of ministers of many denominations who make a nice little bit of money off performing marriages, often for people who are not even of the minister’s faith but who want their wedding in a “pretty” church because they want the ceremony to be “perfect,” like the cake and the bride’s gown. The more dubious the actual marriage, the more money one can make. Parallel, many people want to somehow participate in the Blackfeet tribe because of the scenery (“so beautiful!” they say and they don’t mean downtown Browning) and the “perfect” experience of seeing themselves as friends or even adoptees of the Blackfeet. They’re buying charisma and prestige. I don’t think it should be for sale.


Anonymous said...

Marriage is simply a contract witnessed and partially enforced by government, the religious congregation, or both-- or none (if a couple privately chooses to make a union). The parties vow to uphold the contract, usually before witnesses. There's no mystery in it and its roots go deep into cultural tradition. It is not complicated. To the extent that we have free will, and can choose our destinies, we can forge a contract. In societies where people cannot choose their destinies, where there are arranged marriages and often property involved, the marriage is not contractual in the sense of being a freely-arrived-at agreement between the future husband and wife. Contract is what lies at the heart of most European-culture marriages these days. It is difficult to discuss marriage without discussing contractual understandings.

Richard Wheeler

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with what you say about the way people use religion. They love its useful name, to borrow a phrase from MacLeish.

But the fact that there are many poseurs and profiteers doesn't establish that there is not also something genuinely divine and soul-making at work in some places.

As Solzhenitsyn once observed, the fact that a criminal wears the clothing of his victim should not lead us to think the criminal is who he pretends to be. There are religious individuals and communities that do not put sacred things up for sale and where the miraculous is a way of life.

Similarly, the fact that some marriages are primarily contractual arrangements does not establish that none are quite mysteriously and profoundly about other realities.