Saturday, April 07, 2012


One might think it would be a little difficult to commodify a crucifixion, but never underestimate religious institutions. Enough bits of the old rugged cross have been sold to build a respectable house -- if you don’t mind a lot of different kinds of wood. At least so far no one claims to have Jesus’ skull stashed somewhere, but we don’t lack for replicas of the man in agony on the cross. I think the Mexican ones, dripping with blood, are the most truthful ones, though the real cause of death is shock and suffocation. (You can’t breathe while you’re hanging from your arms.) There are plenty of empty crosses, of course.

Commodification is one of the chief sins of religions everywhere. (Some might call it fetishization, but that won’t make you rich necessarily. In fact, get too obsessed and you’ll go broke.) Always something to sell, even if it’s indulgences. Indulge your family for Easter, buy’em a few days out of Hell. (Oh, right. Jesus was crucified to take on all our sins, but surely someone has been naughty since then.) But people might not like such gruesome stuff -- Calvinism is a hard sell -- so what has happened is the co-optation of a pagan celebration of Easter via Disney (Rites of Spring) and the fetishization of Easter eggs. That means decorating them, jeweling them, remarking on their pastel symbolism along with the chicks and bunnies, and getting the churches organized to present Easter egg hunts. (Valier’s town hunt, which is non-denominational, is today. Yesterday’s snow swirl has about melted.) It’s kind of mysterious how all this got translated into the idea that you had to have an Easter bonnet.

But maybe selling gimcracks and symbolic jewelry is not the worst thing that happens through religious institutions. I’ve been thinking about the proliferation of rules in our society. In fact, I’m thinking that the terrifying gridlock among our leaders is because they are playing by different sets of rules but BOTH ARE INSISTING ON RULES instead of principles. “Mother May I” and “Simon says” are both rule games. Many arguments about whose turn it is, what you did and what you didn’t do.

Barry McWilliams, the popular cartoonist, let fly with a rant against the rules about what you can’t do while driving. “It began with ‘No drinking while driving’ — which made sense, given the carnage wrought by drunk drivers. The collateral casualties to this being, of course, those who loved to sip a beer en route home from work. Not drunk, just relaxing — and easing the potential for road rage considerably.

“Then it became, "No open containers either." Made less sense, since many a pot-lucker would be risking arrest for simply bringing home a partially consumed, dutifully corked, bottle of their personal vintage.

“Now, it's ‘No Cellphoning or Texting.’ As with the boozing, it makes some sense — given the highly publicized tragic consequences of certain cellphoners & texters who were a bit too engaged with their smart phones, too little with their driving smarts. . . .

“Soon it'll become "No hand-held communication devices in the vehicle." Like open containers, making much less sense — but much simpler for police to ticket, courts to punish, prisons to sequester.”

The final cartoon has a little tootsie assuring her passenger that she never texted while driving because that’s when she put on her morning makeup. This is secular rule-making. But Barry had an objection from a reader almost immediately. The one that REALLY kicked up a fuss is at the top of this post. Some newspapers refused to print it. That puts Barry up there with Gary Trudeau, who draws Doonesbury. You know you've got a live one when they come at you screaming.

There’s no question that a person needs rules and that religious bodies ought to think about what the rules ought to be, but institutions have a tendency to make idols of rules as well as gestures, substances, rote recitations, tithing, what is a sacrament and what is not -- all dictated. In order to preserve the authority of the religious institution, the “authorities” try to prevent change, to make sure the rules DO NOT change because they are from GOD. But life itself changes. (That's what life IS.) The rules of Leviticus don’t make sense anymore. (Some of them make you wonder whether they ever did.) But the principles of Jesus still work -- always will.

In pondering this problem of religious rule kudzu, I ran across a fascinating article: “Oh, Gods!” by Toby Lester. The Atlantic, February, 2002. It’s an account of the constant evolution of religious groups, new groups appearing and then dissolving. Even old majority groups diminish and disperse. Why? They start up because their rules are good, helpful, and appropriate. They help people survive, help them protect and support each other, find friends -- and then gradually the rules don’t work. Friends drift away. Everything is different. If they were finches in the Galapagos, we would call this evolution, which is as much about losing as gaining.

My movie this evening was “The Stoning of Soraya M.”, more shocking than a crucifixion and still practiced today -- by the hundreds, almost always women who are stoned. The movie is about an unjust stoning, rules bent and corrupted so that the woman’s husband could have a new wife. NPR news had a story about Budapest where there are an increasing number of homeless. The solution? Passing a law against it. If you are sleeping in the street, you must be arrested or pay a fine -- no matter that you were there because you had no money. (So far they haven’t arrested anyone since it dawned on them that they would have to provide food and shelter for them.) Maybe that seems crazy, but in the US we criminalize with our laws and rules all the time. This week in Great Falls a judge released a young man who had been bullying classmates in the shower by “power gobbling” -- lifting them off their feet with his fist. It was claimed that his thumb was where it should not have been. The judge released him because he had been charged in a way that would have forced the judge to give him years in jail. He will be re-charged with something lesser and, no doubt, sentenced.

The big problem with rules is that the punishment gets out of proportion to the crime. It’s because we don’t want to deal with the causes. We don’t want to think about horrible stuff and it’s too hard to figure out individual cases, so we just legislate rules. The liberals are just as guilty as the conservatives. When I first came to Valier, I had a job where I was not experienced. One of the supervising women said, “Either you stop making mistakes or I’m going to beat your butt.” That has become the attitude of the whole country. We think we are not just human institutions but God himself. This will take more than one post to work through.

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