For years now I’ve been insisting that the extreme right wing is practicing Old Testament Christianity. That is, they ignore the message of Jesus in the Gospels and mix Paul the Church Builder with the old despots of the Walled Cities. In the end they are Manicheists, those Devil Ghosts of monotheists. This idea keeps intruding into my thinking about spirituality as a human experience of harmony and joy, so I’ll separate the devil out and deal with it formally -- confine it, wall it out, which is a technique that Manicheists should recognize. It is simplistic, resolves nothing, but sneaks into innocent continuums that ought to be rhythms instead of prescriptions. I want to be clear.
Founded by a prophet named “Mani,” Manichaeism was quickly successful and spread far through the Aramaic Syriac speaking regions, which means Iran and Syria. (Aha!) It thrived between the third and seventh centuries, and at its height was one of the most widespread religions in the world. Manichaean churches and scriptures existed as far east as China and as far west as the Roman Empire. It was briefly the main rival to Christianity. (I’m getting this from the anonymous person who wrote the entry in Wikipedia.)
My larger seminary was a place of high education, a certain kind of liberal thought that is complex, friendly to Tillich and Eliade -- but only up to a point. No one was a champion of Mani. My smaller seminary mentioned Manicheism only to shrug and sneer -- a dead end. Everyone knew the world was shades of gray. (Isn’t that a book title??)
Manicheism is a dualistic system with light standing for good and dark standing for bad. The metaphor is still everywhere in the Western world. It resists the idea of any kind of blending, light-in-dark or dark-in-light, or alternative system (green?). They cannot tolerate Obama because he is neither white nor black, neither one culture nor another, with affinities for both African and Asian contexts, a synthesis that is stronger for it, synergistic. He is the modern world, but Manicheism could not really be an intelligent option after the 14th century when science began to gain strength. Manicheists despise the possibility of being wrong, which is what science embraces -- because there are no mistakes, only research. To know something doesn’t work is still to know something. And to ask why without blaming and punishing is to learn.
If a monotheist insists on one God who is perfect and all-powerful, then when thinking of evil in dualistic terms, there must be a Devil, an Anti-God. That is, to create boundaries is to split the world into this side and that side, so then there ARE boundaries. When one is invested in boundaries, like walls or nations, then there is “in” and “out.” (The Garden of Eden) What was one is now two. Ethics and morality become a matter of sorting: this is good, that is bad. No discussion, no dissection. “A Game of Thrones.”
As soon as walled boundaries are created, institutions are bound to follow -- governments, regulations, hierarchies, watchtowers and patrols. Manicheism preached hierarchies. Jesus did not. Jesus was a Universalist. He made the world One. And he preceded Mani by two centuries. Manicheism sees the world as engaged in war -- one side absolutely right and the other side absolutely wrong, demonized. No room for compromise.
In thinking about ordeals and how they can press a person into a spiritual state, I began to consider how often we think of ordeals as religious, not in the spiritual sense but rather as a test of morality. The Inquisition justified horrendous torture; witch-hunts took extreme measures against old women with the idea that God would save the righteous, even as Man set about killing them. Today many people undertake marathon walks and other feats as a way of expressing a moral point of view, to save a category of people, to show how determined they are and therefore how virtuous and Right they must be. Our politics are built on the ordeals of campaign, election, hearings, and indictment for trial.
There’s a Catch-22 built into this, something like the Barry Beach parole verdict. Though there is serious doubt about his original conviction for murder, the parole board will not release him until he is “rehabilitated” which means he must admit his crime and repent. But if he truly didn’t commit the crime, how can he repent? It’s a gauntlet with a dead end, a blind corral. Heads you’re bad, tails you’re bad and I’m so good -- if you’ll admit I’m right -- that I’ll stop punishing you. Submit and be spared.
My suspicion is that some of this comes from the idea that a dark, male, overwhelming demon (the shadow of virtue) kills innocent women but that a group of women could never do such a thing. (This is the alternate theory of who killed Beach's supposed victim -- other girls.) They are not powerful. This neglects the Greek mythological figures of the Furies and the Bacchae, who tore the nonconforming into pieces. It is also contradicted by the recent case where two girls stabbed their friend, but the judgmental are comforted by the idea that they were controlled by “Slender Man,” a mythical character quite like Charles Manson -- who is real.
All this has nothing to do with spirituality, everything to do with control, hierarchy, boundaries, and power. Therefore, it is the concern of those held down, ghettoized, disempowered, impoverished. They can become terrorists or they can be more subtle, using the power their hegemony has given them over the children, the very old, the dirty, the crazed, the addicted, the ill, the quotidian boring ordinary, so that their desire for freedom and understanding eventually topples the dictators from the bottom up. Dominators never look down. Like the Hitchcock character in the mystery series, that resentful abused woman who used a frozen leg of lamb as a blunt instrument to beat her abuser husband to death, then cooked and served the meat to the cops, the weapon is not always obvious. Sometimes even the lowly will spare the lamb -- settle for bread and wine. Vegetarian vengeance.
Spared lambs become rams. Oppression creates solidarity. Solidarity means the overturning of domination as surely as El Nino turns over surface ocean water to bring up new life from the depths. And we’re off to the Game of Thrones.
But I don’t want to think about all this stuff except that it’s entertaining to watch it acted out in Unitarian Universalist circles where even the innocent clergy -- though there are some who are deeply spiritual and protective in Jesus’ model -- fall victim to ambition, jealousy, and -- often -- the Furies. The president of Harvard, which is a kind of liberal throne, was deposed by feminists in an unthinkable coup. At the moment a tangle of forces is complicating lives at Starr King School of the Ministry. (Meadville has withdrawn to a glass tower.)
I’m happy to have left formal denominational ministry in 1988 -- or actually the next year since I was the Methodist pulpit supply on the Blackfeet reservation until Spring, '89. Except that I only left the title, not the education and obligations I assumed when ordained. I am involuntarily tenacious, a bell that cannot be unrung. But I deeply oppose a Manichean world view and am wary of institutions of every kind, even small town infrastructures and schools. Certainly congregations. I’m grateful that others can tolerate them and are even skillful at managing them in benign ways, but I see how often they impose ordeals one way or another, and often infuse them with the Manichean morality of black and white. I am attentive to the UUA, but also hopefully watching Pope Francis and even reservation Pentecostal forces or the recovery of pre-contact tribal values.