By Paul Connelly
Last week, Rosemary asked whether monotheism fostered extremism or even fanaticism. I was interested that a Christian (an “insider,” so to speak) was asking this question, since I have noticed many atheists seem to level this charge when they criticize religion from the outside.
Two weeks ago, Joy mentioned the concept of “myth,” in the very wide sense of the stories we tell ourselves and each other to interpret and understand our world. Rosemary picked up on this idea and used the novel Jezebel to ask if the bible account didn’t over-simplify – and therefore falsify – our picture of reality by misrepresenting cultures of Israel’s neighbours. Moreover, did the account seek to justify a kind of extremism that offends our modern sensibilities?
I’m no bible scholar, but I understand that the book of Kings (where the story of Jezebel appears) and the Pentateuch (including the creation account in Genesis) were written during a period of exile for the Jewish people. It seems natural that the literature of that time would try to explain how that sorry state came about. In other words, even though they are stories about an earlier time they would also be about the situation of the day.
One thing and not another
I was intrigued by the idea that Kings and Genesis were written around the same time, especially since it draws in Hamish’s contribution recently about the Genesis account. It seems very credible to me that the author/editor/compiler of the Pentateuch and Kings would have a strong narrative to relate. God created the world, gave everyone and everything a fixed identity and place in that world and told people to conform to the plan. As Hamish noted a little while ago, “the stress in the whole of the creation story is on SEPARATION into fixed categories and types (light, darkness, sea below, clouds above, the very ticking of the ‘days’ of creation itself, trees giving seeds according to their kinds, the naming of the animals, the separation of the sexes).” So, if you go along with the plan, even if Eden has been lost, you’ll be in tune with God (or reality, if we want to use one of Rosemary’s categories). But, if you fall away – through polytheism, for example – you’re doomed and damned. So, simplicity (in the sense of lack of complexity or lack of mixture or mongrelizing) is good, whereas complexity (what Rosemary calls sophistication) is bad. And that seems to play out in some of the other religious edicts. The “ideal type” of the domestic animal has a round hoof. The cloven hoof (i.e. the pig) is unclean. Males and females are beings that by their nature have sex with the opposite. So homosexuality blurs the notion of identity, of being “one thing and not another,” or undermines what Hamish would call the notion of separation into fixed categories.
I’m willing to accept that while Kings is closer to what we call “history” than the story of Genesis, its purpose was primarily the same as Genesis: namely, to tell a story that explains why things the way they are. (That is, God ordered the world a certain way, humanity fell away from that way, God chose one particular people to be an example to the rest and made a covenant with that one race, the land was won through fidelity to the commandments that Moses brought down from the mountain but was subsequently lost because people fell away from the Law.)
From exile to identity politics
And now, for me at least, it gets really interesting because the story leaps across the centuries to the modern era. Because the dynamic I see at work here is what we nowadays call “identity politics.” For the Jewish author of the books we’re discussing, reclaiming the sense of identity is key to getting out of exile. For me, identity politics is what’s poisoning much of our public life today.
The combined notions of “the group” and “the group under threat” have great emotional power over us. I sometimes wonder if that power is lodged right in our DNA, an evolutionary survival tool. This, I think, is partly why the exile narratives (including not just Kings but also Genesis) have such pull. They say the nation is lost and in exile because it has fallen away from the beliefs and behaviours that identified the group as the chosen people. So falling away has provoked punishment from God.
Rosemary asked if extremist notions of punishing differences (or more accurately, refusing to tolerate diversity) are at the core of what she calls the Judeo-Christian path. Her reference to bin Laden implies Islam should also be questioned.
But it is clear to me that monotheistic religions are not the problem. Or, at least, they are not the cause of extremism. “Identity politics” breaks out whenever the social order is being questioned and the so-called “dominant” ideology suffers from a loss of confidence or is being challenged by another worldview. When the social world is under upheaval, then people will gravitate to their “group,” even if they had not previously self-identified with that group or even believed that group was important.
For example, when the former Yugoslavia (a quasi-atheist country) broke up, neighbours whose families had lived together for generations suddenly decided “the other” was “the enemy.” In the aftermath of World War I, the Nazis (another atheist regime) suddenly decided the cause of their country’s problems was the Jews. India has suffered from spasmodic violence from extremist Hindu groups that attack Sikhs and Muslims. Burma’s Buddhist regime has cracked down on Christian dissenters. Apparently, the problem isn’t monotheism, as some critics claim.
I’m not going to discuss examples within monotheistic cultures or try to excuse them. My point is a different one, that the problem of “identity politics” is neither a creation of monotheism nor confined to it. In fact, it’s not even religion that’s the driver of the search for differences. Look at the Toronto election and the notion that immigrants are somehow a problem. Or bicyclists. To me the driving force is that some people feel under threat and feel the need for a quick, simple theory about what – or more often, who – is causing the problem. Simplistic theories and facile “solutions” are often very attractive to people who feel their identity is under attack.
The way of Jesus
Which brings me to Jesus. Jesus called on us to overcome the notion of sectarianism, to stop placing higher importance on the people most like us while treating the people less like us with hostility. He was insistent that “my brother” is the one who acts that way, not one who can claim any sort of kinship.
He said, don’t be concerned about how people look. Focus on how they behave. And behave towards them they way you want them to treat you. Don’t confine your good wishes to your own group; “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Notice that he is calling rebuking his listeners pointing out if they behaved that way they were just like two groups that “respectable” Jews would revile.)
He healed the blind man instead of accepting the normal practice of shunning him as a sinner or son of sinners. He cured lepers instead of leaving them to rot on the outskirts of towns. He did not recoil from contact with the hemorrhaging woman, even though some would think she was ritually unclean. He shared water and intelligent conversation with the woman at the well instead of accepting that the Jew/Samaritan division was eternal.
Identity politics can be frustrating because it fosters feelings of exceptionalism, promotes the nurturing of grievances, and makes the rationalization of wrongdoing (by me or my group, not the other guys) much easier. It can be corrosive in civic life, in our relationships with each other and even among nations.
I wonder what we can do about it. What do you think?