Monday, February 17, 2014

The Sacred Offices of State Religion

     As we discuss various elements of religion found throughout the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, all the categories of the sacred are on regular and prominent display. The sacred elements such as:
  • sacred times
  • sacred space
  • sacred offices
  • sacred objects
  • sacred rites
are all present, and demonstrate just how minded the authors are to instill in the readers normative religion both at the official and popular levels. Even the "sacred myths" ("myth" is well recognized in literary analysis to denote the importance of the story to the culture; not to deny it's factuality.) all are told with an emphasis on the theology to be derived from the structure and details of the tale (e.g. for all the similarities with other creation stories of the ancient Near East, Genesis 1 stands in stark contrast to them for its clear monotheism.). In every way, the aspects of religion that are all part of the natural human condition are on clear display.

     Among the sacred offices we find exercised in the Bible, three are on display in the Old Testament that find similar expression even outside of ancient Israelite culture: the prophet, the priest and the king. Each of these serves a particular function in religious culture, and all of them are sacred in that they perform some service of the Divine will.

     The prophet brings the message of God. Through various means, they hear, receive, intuit, witness, convey or perform the "word of the LORD" to the people. Without this office, no Divine revelation will be forthcoming; no divine direction in collective decisions, no divine judgment in matter of great dispute, and no vital cultural critique in which the divine perspective on the people (their attitudes and behaviors) is given. Where there is no prophetic vision, the people descend into self-destructive chaos (Prov 29:18).

     The priest brings the presence of God. Through conducting sacred rites (i.e. sacrifices, invocations and offerings), the priests facilitate conditions wherein deity and laity are brought near. This benefits not just the supplicant, but has a radiating effect outward to the rest of the culture as well. Sacrifices are often offered on behalf of entire regional populations or cultural demographics since not all who should benefit from this can spatial be fit into the sacred precinct.

     The king brings the order of God. Through careful and wise administration, the king is charged to see to it that the order of the world is maintained. The Egyptians referred to this order as "Ma'at," or "the ways things ought to go." In Genesis 1, the first male and female are said to bear the image of God "so that they may rule" over creation, thus keeping it running right. From that time on, the competing themes of order and chaos run through the Biblical narrative. The expulsion from the Garden represents an ejection from "sacred space" that immediately begins the effects of chaos on the world. The first murder shortly thereafter and the descent into complete societal disarray results in the Noah flood story. Order is seen as good when achieved in a manner in line with divine will. Order that opposes divine will has been attempted (e.g. the Tower of Babel), but that is no "order" at all because only that order in accord with divine will is seen as legitimate. The Christian tradition argues, from the New Testament scriptures, that Jesus of Nazareth embodies all of these sacred offices in one person (Prophet, Priest and King). Nevertheless, these various functions are observable in other religions as well. In any culture where the religion has developed beyond animism, these functions are observable.

     In the Christian tradition, the "prophetic" function is carried out primarily in the expounding of the sacred text. Considering it "the Word of the LORD" already, no higher speech supposedly can be given than to pronounce "the Bible says..." or "that is Biblical." Do all that invoke such authority faithfully expound its true meaning? No. But at least in a text based religion, the hierarchy of "prophetic" speech sees messages having authority to the degree they are, if not exposition of, at least in agreement with, the Holy Scriptures. The "priestly" function is performed, in a Christian context, through a variety of means involving sacred rites as well. Weddings, funerals, invocations at gatherings or even the rites performed in official, communal worship services, a "holy man" is required. Some Christian traditions even use the title "priest," in keeping continuity with Old Testament norms, while others (typically stressing a post-Catholic, Protestant heritage) prefer terms such as "pastor" or even "chaplain" (in a para-church ministry context). Regardless of the titles, it's all the performing of sacred rites by those designated to do so after the manner of authorization within that sub-tradition. The "kingly" function is reserved for the Lord Jesus Christ, whom all Christian traditions venerate as "king" over all, though earthly administrations much be navigated until such time as "thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven."

     As we said above, these elements are observable wherever religion has developed into complexity beyond mere animism. In like manner, where these elements are all present, one can be confident they are dealing with organized religion. It therefore can be reasonably observed that the "religion of the State" (Statism) has developed sufficient complexity to find these elements all present also. We find the Biblical antecedent for Statism in the Tower of Babel story of Genesis 11:1-9. Collectively, the people form their own order - quite apart from divine will - with humanistic goals ("'Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heaven so that we may make a name for ourselves.'" 11:4a). In this instance, the collective "we" replaces God as the "will" driving the pursuit of order. It is the first recording in the Bible of replacing God with the State (the "state" being the collective will of the people). One could say that, in making the will of the State their "divine" mandate, they are - in essence - worshiping themselves, but it's unlikely they would have thought of it that way. People like to select an exterior source of authority to appeal to that trumps personal opinion. Statism offers people a "god" to follow - without God; a "religion" - without religion.

     Those attempts to be non-religious fail though, for inevitably, Statism - like all developed religions, flesh out their sacred offices. It has "prophets" (those that convey to the people the will of the State), "priests" (those bureaucratic functionaries that facilitate interaction with the State) and "kings" (those that order society according to the will of the State). Statist societies all have developed these offices to their benefit, much like any other religious culture has. From Nazi Germany to Stalin's Soviet Union, the rulers order society according to the State's elevation to comprehensive "deity" that will not tolerate any competing "gods." The propagandists convey the will of the State in classic "prophetic" fashion, so that those listening only to those voices are quite persuaded in their devotion to the State. Lastly, the people approach those "priestly" functionaries, holding bureaucratic positions, to entreat the deity (the nebulous, but all powerful government) for mercy on their behalf regarding matters of guilt or need (taxes, fines, regulation or benevolent assistance).

     A culture can be trained, over time, to adopt Statism as its national religion, though not realizing they have so thoroughly accepted it. Statism is a curious paradigm in that its devotees bare all the identical characteristics of the religiously pious, though quite convinced they are minus any religion at all. For this reason, even some in the Christian tradition are unwilling to acknowledge the degree to which they have syncretized the two competing religions into a strange hybrid. In the current political climate of the U.S., the religion of Statism is on grand display on a daily basis. Its sacred offices are being executed flawlessly, and the result is a population of the devout that are as dependent on the State as ancient Hebrews were upon the Lord.

     The "prophets" on NBC, ABC and CBS conduct their broadcasts so as to venerate the need for the State in everyone's life, and the will of the State being paramount. As messengers of Statism, they cannot report in such a manner that casts a negative light on the theoretically benevolent government that is the source of all good. Some try to attach a clear link between the propagandists of the State and the State rulers themselves, but no such tangible link need exist. Ideology demands that the State is venerated by those charged with persuading the population of the benevolence of the State. Whatever journalism of yesteryear used to be, it is now most certainly a vocational ministry of declaring the glories of America's new god.

     The "priests" of the State serve in the various offices of the government bureaucracy. They are the ones who determine the worthiness of your sacrifice (taxes, fines and paperwork), or the approval of your pleas for assistance (welfare, healthcare, disaster relief, etc.). Because of the ability to defer to a disembodied higher authority above them, the futility of questioning their decision is obvious to any without the wealth to "buy" access to higher bureaucrats. They perform the sacred rites (in triplicate), and render a judgment whether the sacrifice was received or if one must do penance. Through the bureaucrat, the omnipotence of the State is demonstrated in the life of the citizen/supplicant.

     The "kings" of the State are those who reign is achieved and maintained by means of the State religion. Their behavior is self-evident in how they view themselves ruling by "divine right," outside of the confines of a 'sacred text' for some other philosophy (e.g. the U.S. Constitution). They are no more bound by the Constitution than is a Christian bound by the mandates of the Qur'an (or vice versa). Some may charge that the current President is acting as though he sees himself as "kingly," but this is shortsighted. He is merely a devout Statist. It is na├»ve to assume that any other that shares his philosophy would not act similarly in the same position. In fact, Barak Obama's behavior is echoed rather well in others throughout government that share in his Statist devotion (i.e. Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Eric Holder, et al.).

     For this reason, all the elements of religion are evident in Statism both at the official and popular level. Critique the President to a Statist that voted for him, and witness the impassioned defense of their "king" not unlike how an Israelite would defend King David as "a man after God's own heart." Critique Obama to a bureaucrat functionary and observe the spontaneous difficulties that arise on getting a building code or tax-exempt status approved. Critique Obama on the news arena and witness the "prophets" battle for the hearts and minds of the people in a manner reminiscent of Elijah on Mount Carmel. No "separation of Church and State" exists. The "Church" (specific denominations of the Christian tradition popular in the Colonies when the 1st Amendment was penned) has been replaced with the "church" of the State (a religion, though thoroughly religions, has been effective at convincing it's followers they are irreligious in doing so).

     It can be discussed later those other elements of religion that Statism wields. It indeed has sacred times (Tax Day, days related to war memories, Independence Day), sacred space (monuments, political structures, military bases), sacred objects (flags, statues) and sacred rites (inaugurations, parades, fireworks) as well, and not all of these are necessarily sinister in their expression. Yet they all form the network of conveying something as comprehensive to the human experience as religion typically is supposed to do. There is not space here to go into detail regarding those. It was enough that the "sacred offices" of Statism were examined further, for in the current national religion of the U.S., those of faith in things greater than the State (e.g. I, myself, am a Christian) will find it (1) tempting to syncretize Statism with your own religion, or (2) puzzling why the commandment "you will have no others gods before me" is suddenly being used against you.