Monday, October 09, 2006

Thoughts on rendering unto Caesar and turning the other cheek

Today's post will be a bit haphazard, as I'm still a bit freaked out by those tremors from that North Korean nuclear test which I felt earlier. There is, though, I promise, a coherent (if frayed) thread connecting the two main topics which follow - roughly, religion and non-violence - which I hope will become clear by the end. Oddly enough, though, these points will intersect in the Middle Ages.

At the New York Times (where, don't forget, free registration is required), Diana B. Henriques has a great, in-depth series on the increasingly accommodating relationship between church and state in America. Good stuff: I recommend going over there and printing it out before it becomes pay-only.

Part One, for example, looks at the growing number of regulatory exemptions being enjoyed by religious groups:

In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide “war on religion” that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations — from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples — enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.

Some of the exceptions have existed for much of the nation’s history, originally devised for Christian churches but expanded to other faiths as the nation has become more religiously diverse. But many have been granted in just the last 15 years — sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized “earmarks” benefiting other special interests.

An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.

The special breaks amount to “a sort of religious affirmative action program,” said John Witte Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at the Emory University law school.

Professor Witte added: “Separation of church and state was certainly part of American law when many of today’s public opinion makers were in school. But separation of church and state is no longer the law of the land.”

Part Two considers the erosion of employee rights for those who work in religious organisations. One of those rights is....unionisation, which is being interpreted by some faith-based entities as contrary to their 'freedom of religion'. This is odd, to say the least, as I don't really recall collective bargaining as ever coming up in the Bible; but, then again, it's been a while since I checked.

Parts Three and Four will be appearing, I presume, soon.

Then, moving on to non-violence (and nicely timed to follow my recent post about George Orwell and his criticism of pacifism), there is a review over at Reason by Katherine Mangu-Ward which takes a brief (and rather dismissive) look at a new book by Mark Kurlansky entitled Nonviolence: 25 Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea. I haven't read the book, though it admittedly sounds like a curious one, since, judging from Mangu-Ward's summary, it seems as if it makes a strong case that strict forms of pacifism have not been, historically, the most successful strategies.
But none of these interesting factoids can cover up the fact that Nonviolence consists mostly of revisionist history forced into thematic categories. "Lessons" like "violence is a virus that infects and takes over" and "warfare produces peace activists. A group of veterans is a likely place to find peace activists" feel like hasty attempts to generalize what specific anecdotes have already taken care of, without allowing for the subtleties that anecdotal storytelling permits. And none of the 25 lessons seem to offer much guidance about how to avoid joining the thousands upon thousands of corpses of the nonviolent which litter the pages of the book.
Thus, non-violence may indeed be a 'dangerous idea', particularly for its adherents.

The Dalai Lama wrote the foreword for Kurlansky's book. This is interesting, as there have been arguments suggesting that his (I mean Mr. Lama's) relationship to violence is, shall we say, somewhat more nuanced than many people imagine: topically enough - though I suppose the threat of atomic annihilation is evergreen - it is even claimed that he has a less than absolutely negative position on nuclear weapons. (Counterarguments against this interpretation of his views were made here.) Another perspective has agreed that, while indeed a pacifist, his commitment to non-aggression has morphed into a strange passivity which prevents him from offending his powerful (and sometimes unwisely violent) friends.

With regard to non-violence, then, one perspective says he's hypocritical and the other merely a fool. I leave you to decide. For myself, in any case, I have little interest in the message of people who claim to be divinely ordained, reincarnated or messengers for supreme beings, whatever it is they might say.

Suggesting, though, that there may indeed be nothing new under the sun, my copy of the Orwell book I cited earlier is still sitting on my desk, and I can't resist another relevant quote. In a response to pacifist criticism of his pro-war stance (World War II, remember) Orwell briefly discussed another international icon of non-violence:
As an ex-Indian civil servant, it always makes me shout with laughter to hear, for instance, Gandhi named as an example of the success of non-violence. As long as twenty years ago it was synically admitted in Anglo-Indian circles that Gandhi was very useful to the British Government. So will he be to the Japanese if they get there. Despotic governments can stand 'moral force' till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force. (p.262)
(This is not an argument that physical force is always better - though with fascists, this is usually the case - just one that the absolute rejection of using force is naive and a recipe for ensuring that your tribe, movement, nation or people, whatever its goals, will be short-lived. The unwise use of force, as I mentioned in my previous post, is, of course, also a problem.)

I may actually want to read Mr. Kurlansky's book (especially if his publisher sends me a free copy: hint, hint), as violence is a particular interest of mine as well. I wonder whether Ms. Mangu-Ward's review does him justice.

I'm also curious to see more of what he has to say about the Cathars - who are referred to briefly in the Reason review - a heterodox religious movement wiped out in the 13th and 14th centuries by means of a horrendously violent crusade. (Ah, religion, that great vehicle of tolerance and non-violence...) I have had the good fortune of visiting (on a couple of occasions) some of the spectacular Cathar fortifications in southwestern France; a photo of one of them, Queribus, adorns the opening of this post (further pictures available here). These are truly magnificent places, and worth seeing. (And the roads you have to drive to get to them - think 'twisting', 'winding' and 'sheer drop' - are their own kind of good time.)

A religious organisation, which wanted nothing from the state but to be left alone and whose pacifism may have proved their undoing.

A sad story.

But one which at least allows me to meet (though somewhat vaguely) my promise that this post would have a coherent central thought behind it.

Well, you get what you pay for.

1 comment:

rjmorgan said...

Hello John,

I'm reading your paper on Criminal Violence in Modern Britian. Very good by the way. It is working my brain and I've just read 5 pages. Now about "Thoughts on rendering unto Caesar" A wise man said the following "The distinctions I have noted between studying violence as a concrete event with a quantifiable pattern (its social history) and as a collection of shifting, largely narrative discourses around a particular set of events (its cultural history) are significant insofar as they designate important differences in method and assumptions". It seems the above mentioned quote works well when trying to explain the non-violence crowd. In Mississippi talk, it is easy to tell someone to turn the other cheek if it is not your cheek that has been hit. I believe what you stated about "concrete and particular events" due play a role in the pacifist movement. I'm sure it is a small number who can suffer much and take that approach. Jesus, and maybe on a more human level Ken Saro Wiwa,