We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Religion and Power

In his preface to the "Tenth Anniversary Revised Edition" of The Rise of Western Christendom, Princeton historian Peter Brown observes that the actual physical and cultural boundary between the Roman Empire and the "barbarians" of northern Europe was not nearly as absolute as the Romans themselves claimed.  The world on either side of the boundary, that is, was strikingly similar in many significant ways.  Drawing on the work of another historian, John Drinkwater, Brown argues that, "the emperor, military, and civilian populations alike needed the idea of a 'barbarian threat' to justify their own existence." (p. xiv)  He goes on to state that, "Altogether the Roman government had a way of rendering absolute boundaries that were, in reality, extremely permeable." He refers to those boundaries as "an ideological Iron Curtain." (p. xv)  The boundaries we draw on a map, in sum, are about power and control, which are fundamental factors in human social organization.  Boundaries are artifacts of our minds that are "socially constructed realities."

And many of the boundaries that we "draw" have nothing to do with maps at all.  They invariably do have a great deal to do with power and control.  Religious doctrines comprise often function as boundary markers.  Believers in a particular set of doctrines stand on one side of a boundary and unbelievers and doubters on the other side.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been suffering through a prolonged debate over the boundaries between those who consider homosexuality a sin and those who do not.  We have fought other fights, notably over the nature of the Bible.  In these battles, we engage a very human practice, the describing of boundaries between us, which boundaries are as much about power and control as anything else.  If that were not the case, the constant ecclesiastical splits that have taken place among Protestants since the earliest days of the Reformation make no sense at all.  Once we reach a crucial boundary such as the redefinition of marriage, we refuse to be bound by the authority of those on the other side of the boundary.  We migrate to new institutions and loyalties.

This is all well and good.  It is the way we humans do things.  What is worth noting, however, is the ways in which all of us seek to fit God into our boundaries and make Jesus the lord of our territory alone.  All of us do this.  And it is right here that our human instinct for social control and power fails us for what we call "God" is rendered merely a god of our own making, and we turn our search for the ultimate into a debate over who is right, who is wrong, and who has power and authority.  We erect Roman boundaries to divide a territory that actually isn't all that different on either side of the line however much we convince ourselves otherwise.  It's worth a thought.