Who and where is the enemy?

I was looking at some books on the ancient world. A few of the books were on Rome, specifically the changes that happened after Christianization.

People often talk about the Barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome. But the fact of the matter is that the German tribes that ‘invaded’ were already there living in the empire. They had been mercenaries for generations and were trained by the Romans. They weren’t really ‘Barbarians’, in the sense of being a foreign pagan population that showed up from the wildlands beyond the Roman frontier.

These Germans were even already converted to Christianity, but it was at a time when Christianity was splintered in diverse traditions and beliefs. It’s quite likely that those in power feared the Germans because they adhered to heretical forms of Christianity. As far as that goes, most early Christians would be labeled as heretics by the heresiologists. That was fine until the heresiologists attempted to oppress and kill all competing Christian adherents. Maybe the German Christians took that personally and decided to fight for not just their sovereignty but also their religious freedom.

So, it was really just one population of Christians in Rome deciding to take power from or simply overthrow another population of Christians in Rome. Those Romanized and Christianized Germans would become the great monarchies and empires of Europe, such as the French Normans that turned much of Britain into England. And it was the Norman-descended Cavaliers who reinstated the monarchy after the English Civil War, creating modern England.

All that was meant in the ancient world by someone being Barbarian was that they were of a different ethnicity. It literally meant someone outside of one’s door, which is to say outside of one’s community. And in the Roman Empire, many ethnicities maintained separate communities. The Jews were Barbarians as well and the Romans feared them as well, although their earlier revolt failed.

It is interesting to think about those early German Christians that helped topple the Roman Empire. Maybe they were practicing for the later Protestant Reformation.

The original Lutherans, Anabaptists, Pietists, Moravians, Mennonites, Amish, etc were Germans. Calvin’s father came from the northern borderlands of the Roman Empire, in a town established by Romanized Gauls, and after Calvin escaped France Calvinism took hold in Switzerland. Huguenots also lived in the border regions of what once was the Roman Empire. The population out of which Puritanism arose, influenced by some of these German Christians, was of German descent. The English Midlands where the Scandinavians settled gave birth to Quakers and other dissenter traditions.

German Christians, along with other Northern European and British Christians, were constantly causing trouble. This challenging of religious authority lasted for more than a millennia. And to a lesser degree it continues. In the majority Germanic Midwest of the United States, this struggle over Christianity continues with much challenge and competition. The Midwestern Methodist church where my Germanic grandfather was once minister ended when some in the congregation challenged central church authority.

Christian authority is on the wane these days, though. American fundamentalists like to think of the United States as the last great bastion of Christian authority, like the Christianized Roman Empire once was. But if Washington is to fall as did Rome, it will likely be from an invading army of non-believers, of secularists, agnostics, and atheists. Maybe similar to those Germanic mercenaries but minus the Christianity, the defense contract mercenaries will grow so powerful that in their Godless capitalism they will turn against their weakened American rulers. Corporatism will be our new religion, as the American empire collapses and disintegrates into corporate fiefdoms. Some would argue that corporatism is already our new religion.

Anyway, if history is to be repeated, the so-called barbarians at the gates are already here. And they have been here for a while. They won’t need to invade, as they were welcomed in long ago and were enculturated into our society. The mercenaries of our society, whether taken literally or metaphorically, might turn out to be a fifth column. The enemy within might be those we perceive as protecting us, until it’s too late. Mercenaries aren’t always known for their loyalty. So, who are the mercenaries in our society, the guns-for-hire? And who is the real enemy in this situation? The mercenaries of our society would answer that question differently, as did the German mercenaries living in the Roman Empire.

Winter Season and Holiday Spirit

The Carnival season has ended and Lent is upon us. But Christmas has still been on my mind for some reason. There is something about the winter holiday season in general. I’m not a big fan of Christmas. It hasn’t excited me much since childhood. Even as a kid, all that Christmas meant was lots of presents on a particular day. Christmas follows directly after my birthday and so nothing about Christmas itself stood out to me.

I do somewhat get into the winter holiday mood because, as holidays go, Christmas sure is hard to ignore. My mother has always gone to great lengths to decorate. And we usually get together as a family. It helps having my nieces and nephew around on Christmas morning. It’s not the same without little children to get excited about gifts under the tree. All of that is nice, if only to see family. It’s just there isn’t much Christmas tradition in my family. The closest we get to that is decorating the Christmas tree, as we all have our own ornaments. And we do eat potato soup as a family meal, typically on Christmas Eve. But we don’t sing Christmas carols together or anything. Christmas simply happens, with family convening and then dispersing soon after.

This came to mind when I heard “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen“. It’s the version done by Annie Lennox. The style of the song and the imagery of the video make for an enjoyable combo, capturing a sense of old time mystery and touching on the pagan origins of the holiday season. It’s one of the oldest carols in the English tradition, although the present lyrics were not fully written down until recent centuries. There are multiple versions of the carol. The origins are obscure and the original version is unknown. The tune itself is much older, apparently going back to France and Germany. It very well might predate the spread of Christianity in Europe or else was a product of the surviving pagan wassailing tradition. Other songs are sung to the same tune, such as the “Sussex Sugar Wassail” and “Chestnut or Jack Doves Figary”.

All of that is fascinating. There is a long cultural and religious history behind winter holiday traditions and celebrations. It seems to have always been an important time of year. Somewhere between fall and spring equinoxes, one year is considered to have ended and another to have begun, the precise month and day differing between calendrical systems, but generally it corresponds to the period between harvest and planting. The central theme is that of transition and a loosening of boundaries between not just years and seasons but between this world and another, along with a loosening of the bounds of the social order. Things are brought closer together. Spirits, ghosts, gods, and Santa Claus are let loose to roam the human world.

This is why the custom of wearing masks was common from Halloween to Mardi Gras, including a masking tradition around Christmastime. Masks served many purposes. It hid your identity from those non-human beings, to protect you from harm. But sometimes the masks were to represent those very same beings, even one’s own ancestors. In general, masking and guising give one a new identity. Individuals could temporarily be someone else, of a different class or social role, and so act in ways not otherwise allowed.

With this revelry and reversal follows, along with licentiousness and transgression, drunkenness and bawdiness, fun and games, song and dance, feasting and festival. It is a time for celebration of this year’s harvest and blessing of next year’s harvest. Bounty and community. Death and rebirth. The old year must be brought to a close and the new year welcomed. This is the period when gods, ancestors, spirits, and demons must be solicited, honored, appeased, or driven out. The noise of song, gunfire, and such serves many purposes.

In the heart of winter, some of the most important religious events took place. This includes Christmas, of course, but also the various celebrations around the same time. A particular winter festival season that began on All Hallows Eve (i.e., Halloween) ended with the Twelfth Night. This included carnival-like revelry and a Lord of Misrule. There was also the tradition of going house to house, of singing and pranks, of demanding treats/gifts and threats if they weren’t forthcoming. It was a time of community and sharing, and those who didn’t willingly participate might be punished. Winter, a harsh time of need, was when the group took precedence.

This is when Jesus was born to a virgin, not to mention the birth of many other salvific gods and resurrection godmen. Jesus’ coming into the world was humble and with him came a message of hope but also of inversion, the powerful brought down low and the meek lifted up. Christianity inherited much from other religions that also placed great importance on the solstice, the greatest darkness before the return of the light, the liminal moment of time stopping and the sun reversing its course.

Two examples of virgin born godmen are Mithras and Attis. Like Santa Claus, both wore a Phrygian cap, sometimes referred to as the liberty cap because of conflation with the Roman pileus that was worn by emancipated slaves (the pileus was worn during Saturnalia, a solstice celebration). An important detail is that St. Paul came from Tarsus, the place of origin for Mithras worship that arose to prominence in the century before his birth, and so he certainly would have recognized the similarities to Christianity. Mithraism had been the most widespread religion in Europe before Christianity came to dominate under Constantine.

By the way, there is also an intriguing theory about the psychedelic mushroom known as the fly agaric, similar to the liberty cap. It grows under pine trees, is eaten by reindeer that then leap around, and is supposedly used by Siberian shamans who it was thought entered dwellings through the smoke hole. Some consider this to be the origin of much of the Christmas imagery.

Besides this, trees in general play a central role. Along with Christmas trees, there is the tradition of wassailing to the elder tree in an orchard where it was considered a spirit dwelled. Trees, of course, are an ancient symbol of the axis mundi, upon which the world turned, along with close association to the death and resurrection of gods and godmen. Also, the liberty pole became a central symbol of revolution, including during the American Revolution, and sometimes would have a Phrygian cap or pileus on top of it. The word ‘revolution’ came from astrology and referred to cycles, a returning. It’s interesting to note that the Boston Tea Party involved masking and occurred on the eve of Saturnalia.

I’m also reminded of the Santa Claus as St. Nick. This invokes an image of jollity and generosity. And this connects to wintertime as period of community needs and interdependence, of sharing and gifting, of hospitality and kindness. This includes enforcement of social norms which easily could transform into the challenging of social norms.

It’s maybe in this context we should think of the masked vigilantes participating in the Boston Tea Party. Like carnival, there had developed a tradition of politics out-of-doors, often occurring on the town commons. And on those town commons, large trees became identified as liberty trees — under which people gathered, upon which notices were nailed, and sometimes where effigies were hung. This was an old tradition that originated in Northern Europe, where a tree was the center of a community, the place of law-giving and community decision-making. In Europe, the commons had become the place of festivals and celebrations, such as carnival. And so the commons came to be the site of revolutionary fervor as well.

The most famous Liberty Tree was a great elm near the Boston common. It was there that many consider the birth of the American Revolution, as it was the site of early acts of defiance. This is where the Sons of Liberty met, organized, and protested. This would eventually lead to that even greater act of defiance on Saturnalia eve, the Boston Tea Party. One of the participants in the Boston Tea Party and later in the Revolutionary War, Samuel Sprague, is buried in the Boston Common.

There is something many don’t understand about the American Revolution. It wasn’t so much a fight against oppression in general and certainly not about mere taxation in particular. What angered those Bostonians and many other colonists was that they had become accustomed to community-centered self-governance and this was being challenged. The tea tax wasn’t just an imposition of imperial power but also colonial corporatism. The East India Company was not acting as a moral member of the community, in its taking advantage by monopolizing trade. Winter had long been the time of year when bad actors in the community would be punished. Selfishness was not to be tolerated.

Those Boston Tea Partiers were simply teaching a lesson about the Christmas spirit. And in the festival tradition, they chose the guise of Native Americans which to their minds would have symbolized freedom and an inversion of power. What revolution meant to them was a demand for return of what was taken from them, making the world right again. It was revelry with a purpose.

* * *

Trickster Makes This World:
Mischief, Myth and Art
by Lewis Hyde
pp. 188-189

Where we value the old world, carnival’s conservative function is one of its virtues, of course. The dirt ritual protects us against our own exclusions, like a kind of vaccination, and in that manner offers a stability that is lively and not particularly violent. After all, it is not just night-crowing cocks who end up dead when violence is the only way for the dominant order to protect itself. Beware the social system that cannot laugh at itself, that responds to those who do not know their place by building a string of prisons.

Where change is not in order, then, ritual dirt-work offers the virtue of non-violent stability. But where change is in order, dirt-work also has a role to play, for it simply isn’t true that these rituals are always conservative. Dirt rituals may stabilize things for years on end, but when the order is in fundamental crisis these rituals can become the focal points for change, catalytic moments for dirt’s revaluation and true structural shifts. Every so often Fat Tuesday does leak over into Lean Wednesday, and into the rest of the year as well. Regular dirt rituals are like nodes on a shoot of bamboo, repeating year after year to strengthen the growing stalk, but then, when conditions demand it, splitting open to produce new growth.

Historians have recently provided us with a number of specific cases that demonstrate this general model. It now seems clear, for example, that carnival’s ritual debasing of the Pope played a key role in the Reformation in Germany. The ritual container broke, the pollution leaked out, and the Church itself was fundamentally altered. It seems clear also that play with gender roles has sometimes leapt the fences of ritual. The historian Natalie Zemon Davis has argued that the gender reversals of various early modern European festivals served to “undermine as well as reinforce” prevailing social structures. The carnival image of unruly women, normally the object of joking and play, sometimes turned out “to sanction riot and political disobedience for both men and women in a society that allowed the lower orders few formal means of protest.” Davis is well aware that letting carnival’s “woman-on-top” have power during the holidays usually served to keep women on the bottom when the holidays were over, but once such an image exists it is hard to control, and this one sometimes also “promoted resistance,” “kept open an alternate way of conceiving family structure,” and served as “a resource for feminist reflection on women’s capacities.”

I assume that trickster tales serve an analogous double role; usually they bring harmless release, but occasionally they authorize moments of radical change. The tales themselves, at least, declare the latter point: the character who can freely play with dirt, they say, is also the culture hero who brings fundamental change.

Dancing in the Streets:
A History of Collective Joy
by Barbara Ehrenreich
pp. 89-90

The widespread occurrence of mocking rituals would almost suggest some human, or at least plebeian, instinct to playfully overthrow the existing order—whether as a way of harmlessly letting off steam or, at some level of consciousness, rehearsing for the real thing. Many of the mocking rituals associated with European carnival centered on a king of fools, a costumed character who probably first appeared in the Church-sanctioned Feast of Fools. If anything illustrates the ambivalence of the Church toward festive behavior, it was this event, which was initiated by the lower-level clergy—deacons, subdeacons, and priests—who comprised the Church’s internal lower class. This feast, described by Chambers as “largely an ebullition of the natural lout beneath the cassock,” originally took place inside churches between Christmas and New Year’s. The participating clergy dressed absurdly—in women’s clothes or their own clothes worn inside out—and performed a noisy burlesque of the mass, with sausages replacing the priest’s censer, or with “stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes” instead of incense, and “wanton songs” and gibberish substituting for the usual Latin incantations.23 As one disapproving contemporary described the scene: “They run and leap through the church, without a blush at their own shame. Finally they drive about the town … and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste.”

pp. 101-102

Protestantism, serving as the ideological handmaiden of the new capitalism, “descended like a frost on the life of ‘Merrie Old England,’” as Weber put it, destroying in its icy grip the usual Christmas festivities, the maypole, the games, and all traditional forms of group pleasure.13 But this account downplays the importance of festivities as a point of contention in their own right, quite apart from their perceived economic effects. Without question, industrial capitalism and Protestantism played a central role in motivating the destruction of carnival and other festivities. There was another factor, though, usually neglected in the economic-based accounts: To elites, the problem with festivities lay not only in what people were not doing—that is, working—but in what they were doing, that is, in the nature of the revelry itself. In the sixteenth century, European authorities (secular and ecclesiastical, Catholic as well as Protestant) were coming to fear and disdain the public festivities that they themselves had once played starring roles in—to see them as vulgar and, more important, dangerous.

p. 103

There is probably no general and universal answer, though, to the question of whether carnival functioned as a school for revolution or as a means of social control. We do not know how the people themselves construed their festive mockeries of kings and priests, for example—as good-natured mischief or as a kind of threat. But it is safe to say that carnival increasingly gains a political edge, in the modern sense, after the Middle Ages, from the sixteenth century on, in what is known today as the early modern period. It is then that large numbers of people begin to use the masks and noises of their traditional festivities as a cover for armed rebellion, and to see, perhaps for the first time, the possibility of inverting hierarchy on a permanent basis, and not just for a few festive hours.

p. 165

Let us begin with carnival and other, somewhat secular festivities brought by Europeans to the Americas. These celebrations, which Europeans expected to carry on as vigorously—if not more vigorously—in the “new” world as in the old, posed an immediate problem in the colonial setting: What about the slaves? When Europeans caroused or simply feasted, there were always dark faces watching, waiting for some particle of generosity to come their way, or waiting perhaps for some moment of weakness to present an opportunity for revolt. In Protestant settings, such as Jamaica and the southern United States, where Christmas was the highlight of the social calendar, slaves used it as an opening to establish their own, probably African-derived festivity: Jonkonnu. As early as 1688, Jamaican slaves were celebrating Jonkonnu with costuming and dancing with “Rattles ty’d to their Legs and Wrists.”38 A little over a century later, they had won a measure of white respect for Jonkonnu, with whites agreeing to do their own chores during this brief period of black celebration. A white contemporary reported that during the holidays “the distance between [masters and slaves] appears to be annihilated for the moment, like the familiar footing on which the Roman slaves were with their masters at the feast of the Saturnalia, to which a West Indian Christmas may be compared.” 39 In the Carolinas, where Jonkonnu had spread by the nineteenth century, slaves marched to the big house, where they danced and demanded money and drinks from their masters. Thus a moment of white weakness—Christmas—was transformed into a black opportunity.

p. 168

In another striking parallel to the European festive tradition, Caribbean slaves and freed blacks put carnival to service as an occasion for armed uprisings. The historian Elizabeth Fenn reports that 35 percent of all known slave plots and rebellions in the British Caribbean were planned for the Christmas period, noting that “in this regard the slaves of the Americas differed little from the French peasants and laborers studied by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Natalie Zemon Davis.”

Inventing the People:
The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America
by Edmund S. Morgan
pp. 202-203

There were other parallels in contemporary English country life, in the fairs, “wakes,” and local festivals that punctuated the seasons, where sexual restraints were loosened and class barriers briefly broken in a “rough and ready social equality.” 82 But these were simply milder versions of what may be the most instructive parallel to an eighteenth-century election, namely the carnival— not the travelling amusement park familiar in America, but the festivities that preceded Lent in Catholic countries. The pre-Lenten carnival still survives in many places and still occupies an important place in community life, but it has assumed quite different functions from the earlier festivals. 83 It is the older carnivals, before the nineteenth century, that will bear comparison with eighteenth-century elections.

The carnival of the medieval or early modern period elicited from a community far more outrageous behavior and detailed ritual than did the elections that concern us. 84 But the carnival’s embellishments emphasize rather than obscure the fact that make-believe was the carnival’s basic characteristic and that carnival make-believe, like election make-believe, involved role reversal by the participants.

pp. 205-207

Where social tensions ran too high the carnival might become the occasion for putting a real scare into the cats and wolves of the community. There was always a cutting edge to the reversal of roles and to the seemingly frivolous competition. And when a society was ripe for revolt, the carnival activated it, as Le Roy Ladurie has shown in his account of the carnival at Romans in 1580. But normally a community went its way with the structure of power reinforced by its survival of the carnival’s make-believe challenge.

To put this idea in another way, one might say that the carnival provided society with a means of renewing consent to government, of annually legitimizing (in a loose sense of the word) the existing structure of power. Those who enacted the reversal of roles, by terminating the act accepted the validity of the order that they had ritually defied. By not carrying the make-believe forward into rebellion, they demonstrated their consent. By defying the social order only ritually they endorsed it. […]

The underlying similitude of an eighteenth-century election to a carnival is by now apparent. The two resembled each other not only in obvious outward manifestations— in the reversal of roles, in the make-believe quality of the contests, in the extravagance of the partisanship of artificial causes, in the outrageous behavior and language, in the drunkenness, the mob violence, even in the loosening of sexual restraints— not only in all these external attributes but also in an identity of social function. An election too was a safety valve, an interlude when the humble could feel a power otherwise denied them, a power that was only half illusory. And it was also a legitimizing ritual, a rite by which the populace renewed their consent to an oligarchical power structure.

Hence the insistence that the candidate himself or someone of the same rank solicit the votes of the humble. The election would not fully serve its purpose unless the truly great became for a time humble. Nor would it serve its purpose if the humble did not for a time put on a show of greatness, not giving their votes automatically to those who would ordinarily command their deference. Hence too the involvement of the whole populace in one way or another, if not in the voting or soliciting of votes, then in the tumults and riots, in the drinking and feasting, in the music and morris dancing.

It would be too much to say that the election was a substitute for a carnival. It will not do to push the analogy too far. The carnival was embedded deeply in folk culture, and its functions were probably more magical and religious than, overtly at least, political. An election, on had no the other hand, was almost exclusively a political affair, magical overtones; it was not connected with any religious calendar. 90 Nor did it always exhibit the wild excesses of a carnival; and when it did, it was surely not because the local oligarchy felt that this would renew their authority. They would generally have preferred to preserve “the peace of the country” by avoiding the contests that engaged them so hotly and cost them so much when they occurred. Moreover, the reversal of roles did not go anywhere near as far as in a carnival. In an election, along with the fraternization and condescension, there could be a great deal of direct pressure brought by the mighty on those who stood below them, with no pretense of reversing roles.

The resemblance to a carnival nevertheless remains striking. Is it wholly coincidence that there were no carnivals in Protestant England and her colonies where these carnival-like elections took place, and that in countries where carnivals did prevail elections were moribund or nonexistent? Is it too much to say that the important part of an eighteenth-century election contest in England and in the southern colonies and states was the contest itself, not the outcome of it? Is it too much to say that the temporary engagement of the population in a ritual, half-serious, half-comic battle was a mode of consent to government that filled a deeper popular need than the selection of one candidate over another by a process that in many ways denied voters the free choice ostensibly offered to them? Is it too much to say that the choice the voters made was not so much a choice of candidates as it was a choice to participate in the charade and act out the fiction of their own power, renewing their submission by accepting the ritual homage of those who sought their votes?

The Romance between Greece and the East
ed. by  Tim Whitmarsh & Stuart Thomson
“The Greek novel Ninus and Semiramis: Its background in Assyrian and Seleucid history and monuments”
by Stephanie Dalley
Kindle Locations 3943-3958

More likely, in my view, is a relationship of some romances to carnivals: a festival of Aphrodite for Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe where the lovers first meet, and a festival of Artemis for the setting of the beginning and end of the story in Habrocomes and Antheia. The Hebrew Book of Esther is integrally linked to the carnival-type feast of Purim. A festival based upon a Babylonian or Assyrian version of the traditional New Year Festival was celebrated at Palmyra, where a fine frieze showed the triumph (in Roman dress) over the sea of chaos, 47 and probably also at Hierapolis-Membidj. 48 But I doubt that one can claim a carnival connection for all the compositions.

The stories with a vaguely Assyrian historical background mainly have no particular love interest of the boy-meets-girl kind. This is not because such a theme was taboo in Assyrian literature: there are very explicitly erotic Love Lyrics, which were recited in rites of Ishtar of Babylon. 49 I would like to make a suggestion as to why the erotic element was introduced into the genre (if we can call it that). The carnival element involves dressing up, pretending to be another person or disguising one’s true nature, often behaving ‘badly’ in a theatrical way. Tomas Hägg suggested that the mosaics found near Antioch and at Alexandretta may have illustrated a theatrical performance, 50 and one might invoke a similar connection for the wall-painting depicting a scene from the story of Esther at Dura Europus, because we know that rude theatrical events were often a part of Purim celebrations.

Jesus Mythicism:
An Introduction
by Minas Papageorgiou
Kindle Locations 3094-3113

It should not surprise us that our people maintained or restored some of these elements throughout the centuries. A good example would be the so-called “Dodecameric,” the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany. The customs observed during that period reminds us of a series of Dionysian celebrations related to fertility that took place at the same time of the year in ancient times. For example, “Aloa” was a festival in honor of Demeter and Persephone, the “Rural Dionysia” was a joyful celebration, and “Lenaia” was a festival with a dramatic competition.

Thus, in the village of Volakas, in Drama, the feast of “Arapides,” masked men with faces painted with soot, takes place every year on January 7. The next day the “Bears” appear in the village. These are men covered in goatskin who make phallic dance movements, swear and strike with their sticks whomever they meet for good luck. These celebrations go back in time. “We are dressing up as ‘Arapides’ for good luck, for the good of our crops. This is how we found it, and so we keep it going,” say the disguised locals. Similarly, on the Epiphany (January 6), in another village in Drama, Kali Vrisi, another celebration takes place that lasts until the eighth day. It is the feast of “Babougera.” People are disguised as animals wearing masks and hang in their waist heavy bells. They dance and chase endlessly and cheerfully the people on the street. When the time for the ritual wedding comes, as part of the celebration, the disguised men grab the “bride,” who is basically a man dressed up as a woman.

All these elements, of course, are reminiscent of the traditional customs of Carnival. Strangely enough, at the same time when the ancient Athenians celebrated Carnival another celebration was taking place in honor of Dionysus, the Anthesteria festival. This included, among other things, the sacred marriage between the god and the “basilinna,” wife of the archon basileus (king), who represented the city. It is highly possible that modern carnival celebrations, such as the Vlach wedding in Thrace, have their roots in these ancient customs.

Dionysian elements can also be found in some phallic customs as part of the carnival celebrations, for example in Tyrnavos in Thessalia and Agia Anna in Evia. Besides, one of the main characteristics of the Rural Dionysia and the City Dionysia was the procession of men carrying phalloi, known as phallophoroi. In the center of the procession was a large wooden phallus, usually from a fig tree. People were also singing several “phallic” songs. Comedy, characterized by strong sexual and obscene language, derives from this tradition, as Aristotle informs us.

Religion in Human Evolution:
From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age
by Robert N. Bellah
Kindle Locations 5260-5286

It is part of the myth of Dionysus that he was an outsider, that he came from abroad, from Thrace or Phrygia, in historic times. Modern scholars as well as ancient Greeks tended to accept this part of the story as historically true, until the name of Dionysus appeared several times among the gods of the Mycenaeans in Linear B texts. So Dionysus is a very ancient Greek god, but he is “always” coming from abroad. He was very important in Athens, where a number of festivals, some of them very early, were dedicated to him. Robert Connor has seen the growth of Dionysiac worship in sixth-century Athens as a kind of religious preparation for the emergence of Greek democracy racy in the reforms of Cleisthenes beginning in 508-507.” Connor discusses the Dionysiac thiasotai (confraternities) as among the many forms of voluntary association that made up something like “civil society” in sixth-century Athens-associations that were to some degree self-governing and that fostered the practice of group discussion and group decision making. It was the combination of the social practice nurtured in such associations with the spirit of Dionysiac religion that Connor sees as an important foundation for the democratic reforms, reforms that Cleisthenes nurtured but could not have created.

The structural reforms undertaken by Cleisthenes, or by the people of Athens under his leadership, are too complex for us to describe in detail. Suffice it to say that these reforms overcame some of the divisiveness that characterized Athens in earlier times and extended the participation of the common people in the government of the polis. What is significant for us is the fact that these political changes were accompanied by, were one aspect of, a general change that was religious as much as political. It is this religious side of the change that Connor characterizes as the increasing importance of Dionysiac religion.

The myth of Dionysus is complex and ambiguous, indeed ambivalent, with a dark side as well as a joyous one, but one of its foci is that of the outsider god who comes into a city and turns it upside down, leading to the destruction of those who oppose him but to a new solidarity among those who accept him. He is transgressive, to use a term common in current discourse, a boundary-crosser crosser to be sure, but also integrative, the symbol of new community.72 Connor nor believes that Dionysiac worship in the sixth century “is best understood as the first imaginings of a new type of community.” More specifically, he writes:

Dionysiac worship tumbles into carnival and carnival inverts, temporarily, the norms and practices of aristocratic society. While these inversions may provide a temporary venting mechanism and thereby help stabilize repressive regimes, in the longer run they can have quite a different effect. They make it possible to think about an alternative community, one open to all, where status differentiations can be limited or eliminated, and where speech can be truly free. It is a society that can imagine Dionysiac equality and freedom.73

Connor gives the example of features institutionalized in the political realm “that probably originated in religious practice, for example, ‘outspokenness,’ parrhesia, and isegoria, `equality of speech.”’74 Given the importance of Dionysiac cult groups and the spirit of Dionysiac religion, Connor finds it “not surprising” that the newly established Athenian democracy would express itself in a new festival, the City Dionysia, or festival of Dionysus Eleuthereus (that is, the Dionysus who came from the border city of Eleutheria, but also with the etymological implication of freedom). He argues that the City Dionysia was founded not under the Pisistratids but under Cleisthenes or shortly thereafter and so was a kind of “freedom festival” celebrating the fall of the tyranny.75 Other specialists on Greek religion believe that the City Dionysia was founded under the Pisistratids, but that it underwent went significant reform and enhancement at the time of Cleisthenes.76 In that case, Connor’s argument would still be applicable.

What from our point of view is most interesting is that religious practice not only made possible the idea of a different social reality than the one existing, but helped to actualize it as well. Although the capacity to imagine alternative social realities is part of what we have described as the axial transition, it is interesting that in this case it does not involve anything explicitly theoretical. Indeed, Connor writes: “The festival helps us understand why our texts contain no elaborate statement of Athenian democratic theory … The ancient Greeks did not write theory; they enacted it. They enacted it in particular through the City Dionysia.”77

Circles and Lines:
The Shape of Life in Early America
by John Demos
pp. 11-13

Virtually everywhere, harvest was a peak time-a crisis even-when all hands, including those of women and children, were turned to getting the crops safely in. But there were slack times, too, especially in winter, when things slowed way down for days or weeks at a stretch.

The same agricultural rhythm meant changes also in food availability. People experienced dramatic seasonal differences in everyday diet-moving, say, from the summertime, with lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, to the special bounty of harvest, traditionally celebrated with a feast of freshly slaughtered animals (the antecedent of our own Thanksgiving), giving), and then to winter, when the dietary range would narrow to dried foods like peas and turnips and a dwindling supply of salted meats.”

A different (though not unrelated) kind of seasonal variance involved health and illness and marriage and reproduction. The evidence for this lies mostly below the surface and must be pried out through laborious demographic analysis, but its impact was certainly large. For example, marriage-making—weddings—showed making-weddings-showed a striking seasonal distribution. The headline is that weddings happened in hugely disproportionate proportionate numbers during the late fall.’2 And, going a bit further, one finds a distinct up-and-down annual “curve” for weddings (see Figure i), with much regularity from one year and one community to the next. Moreover, the distance between top and bottom was very wide; there were roughly three times as many weddings in November, for example, ample, as during the midsummer low. This particular curve was not so directly tied to Nature’s rhythms as, for instance, all the activity around farming. It could even be seen as culturally determined-since people might well have chosen differently about when to marry. Still, the link to harvest seems too obvious to ignore. When that was over, there was suddenly more time available, and more energy; there was also a feeling of release, and expansiveness, and good cheer. The impulse to celebrate might then lead not just to a Thanksgiving feast but to a wedding as well.

And there was more. This next had no aspect of cultural preference but was entirely controlled by Nature—in fact, by deep (and not fully understood) elements of human biology. It’s what demographers call the “conception cycle”; and it reflects the way pregnancies were unevenly, but very consistently, distributed throughout the calendar year. The evidence of copious local and family records yields another annual curve-in fact, a pair of curves, one reflecting births, the second, times of conception (see Figure z). Of course, the dynamic element here was always conception; once that had taken place, birth would (barring mishap) occur about nine months later. In fact, the curve shows two peaks in conception, the tallest coming in late spring, with corresponding valleys (and a difference between them approaching too percent).13

What this meant, in terms of actual experience, was many more babies born in late winter than at other times of the year. In fact, demographers have found the same rhythm in premodern communities throughout the northern hemisphere. sphere. Moreover, they have also found it in the southern hemisphere—except that there the months, though not the seasons, are directly reversed. The southern conception peak comes in November-December, which, of course, is their spring; so the pattern is actually the same. We might just note, as a final gloss on all this, that the conception cycle flattens out and virtually disappears in the modern period. The reason is obvious: as soon as contraception enters the picture—that is, planned fertility control-the timing of pregnancy is determined by innumerable individual choices; and those choices, when aggregated, spread evenly throughout the year.

pp. 45-47

We can zero in on that link by considering the word revolution and its own history of change. In fact, its not too much to say that the word moved from an originally circular to an eventually linear meaning, over the span of several centuries. Other scholarly hands have been into this history—of the word—in some detail.” Their conclusions deserve serve a careful summary. Revolution was, during the late Middle Ages and on into the early modern period, used to refer to things that turned, that rotated-circular and cyclical cal things. (In this it followed the sense of its Latin root.) Most especially was it used by astronomers to describe the orbital movement of the stars—for example, in the landmark work of Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. Then bit by bit it was brought down from the heavens and applied to more earthly matters-as a metaphor for revolving tendencies of all sorts. Then, in the seventeenth century, it became a specifically political term, but still with the underlying sense of movement around and back to pre-established positions. This was especially true of its widespread application to political events in England from mid-century onward: the Puritan Revolution (which, from the perspective of many, represented a turning back toward older and better ways), and also the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (which was widely understood as a restoration of monarchical cal power to its appropriate form and context).

And that was where the meaning of the term remained for quite a while longer—indeed, until the last part of the eighteenth century. The American Revolution, as we’ve already ready remarked, was begun in a spirit of restoration, of reengaging engaging principles and structures supposedly forgotten (or abandoned, or subverted). Thus the word, in its traditional usage, was initially a good fit. But when the political context changed—when the historical actors began to acknowledge, and even to embrace, the novelty of what they were about—the the word changed, too. This is the truly remarkable thing: events reversed a meaning that had endured for several hundred years. From now on, revolution would signify not a turning back into old paths but the creation of entirely new ones. (This result was solidified, just a few years further ahead, with the start of the French Revolution. There, too—though perhaps a bit more ambiguously—one sees a movement away from restorative conceptions toward openly innovative ones.)

* * *

Christmas carol
Apple Wassail
Wait (musician)
Mummers Parade
Mummers play
Carols, Wassailers, Waits and Mummers
Why do Christmas carols make the church feel nervous?
Wassailing with Wenceslas – Christmas Carol Origins
Here We Come A-Wassailing; The Roots of a Christmas Tradition
Here We Go a Wassailing
Wassailing through History
Apple Tree Wassails
Oh Apple Tree, we Wassail Thee
Wassailing! Notes On The Songs And Traditions
When Thanksgiving Tradition Included Halloween-Like Masquerading
Celebrating Hallowmas
Samhain (Historic customs)
Halloween, a faraway origin feast
Winter solstice
Christmas: The Birthday of Sun Gods

Happy Birthday Mithras!
Paul & Mithraism
St Paul – History, Biblical Epistles, Gnosticism and Mithraism
Mithraism and Early Christianity
Mithra: The Pagan Christ
Attis: Born of a Virgin on December 25th, Crucified and Resurrected after Three Days
Christmas and holiday season
The History of Christmas

Christmas controversies (Pre-Christian influence)
A Roman Christmas

Christmas’ Pagan Origins
Boxing Day
Feast of Fools & Lord of Misrule
Twelve Days of Christmas
Twelfth Night (holiday)
Solar origins of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ and Christianity.

Christmas, Yule and the Winter Solstice
Festive ecology (Christmas)
Christmas tree
O, Tannenbaum: the Origin of the Christmas Tree
List of Christmas and winter gift-bringers by country
The History and Origins of Santa Claus
Santa is a Wildman!
SinterklaasZwarte Piet
Magic Mushrooms May Explain Santa & His ‘Flying’ Reindeer
Psychedelic Santa And Christmas Mushrooms
Saturnalia, Sigillaria, & Opiconsivia
The Roman Saturnalia parties and Christmas
Io Saturnalia! The Reason for the Season?
Saturnalia—A Roman Solstice Romp
The Puritan War on Christmas
Slaves Received Gift Of Role Reversal
The Carnaval Celebration that became Christmas & New Year’S Eve
Carnival, A People’s Uprising at Romans
Carnival, Processions and Parades – Interview Claire Tancons
Carnival, an upside down world
Revolution as Carnival
In Theory Bakhtin: Carnival against Capital, Carnival against Power
Occupy Wall Street: Carnival Against Capital? Carnivalesque as Protest Sensibility
Carnival to Commons: Pussy Riot, Punk Protest, and the Exercise of Democratic Culture
The Lord of Misrule
Tactical frivolity
Phrygian cap
Pileus (hat)
The History of Marianne’s Cap
Liberty pole
The Maypole’s Revolutionary Heritage
Roots of the Liberty Tree
Merry Mount and May Poles
Démos, The People
Revolution and Apocalypse
Music and Dance on the Mind
Beating the bounds

Christians Dancing

In Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich writes that (p.58):

From a Roman perspective, Christianity was at first just another “oriental” religion coming out of the east, and, like others of similar provenance, attractive to women and the poor. It offered direct communion with the deity, with the promise of eternal life, but so did many of the other imported religions that so vexed the Roman authorities. In fact, there is reason to think that early Christianity was itself an ecstatic religion, overlapping the cult of Dionysus.

The Roman Empire looked east, to the “Orient”. Almost everything of significance was came from that direction where most of the other great empires, societies, and cities were to be found: Persia, Greece, Alexandria, etc. Jews and early Christians, to the Roman mind, were perceived as Easterners. A practice like circumcision made Jews stand out in Rome, but in the East there were other religions and ethnic groups that did the same thing.

Jews and Christians, along with Stoics and the worshippers of Dionysus, Isis, and many others — they were all hard to tell apart. Before the Romans came to power, the Greeks developed a worldview of everyone who wasn’t Greek was therefore a Barabarian. In the ancient world, it was only the ruling authorities of the empires that eventually became concerned about sorting people into the proper box and labeling them accordingly.

So, if you vaguely looked like or did anything approximating the behavior of some known group, that is who you’d get lumped with. Simply refusing to eat Pork because you were a vegetarian could get you accused of being a Jew. At times, being Jewish had great advantages and so large numbers converted to Judaism. And at other times, some other identity was preferable. Ancient people were often taken at their word. If you claimed to be a member of a particular religion, ethnicity or nationality, you’d likely be treated as such.

It wasn’t usually a matter of deception, though. Most ancient people had fluid and overlapping identities. The distinction between one group and another was often rather fuzzy. The various populations were constantly intermingling, borrowing traditions from each other, incorporating foreign elements into their religions, and otherwise shifting their identities and cultures as social and political conditions changed.

Ancient people didn’t think in modern terms. But there was beginning to be changes. With the rise of colonial and expansionist empires during the Axial Age, the greater contact put greater emphasis on identity. This can be sensed most clearly in the late Axial Age when religions like Christianity arose. If you were in the growing Roman Empire, how a group defined themselves and were perceived became increasingly important. This is why, “The obvious parallel between the Christ story and that of pagan victim gods was a source of great chagrin to second-century Church fathers” (p. 58). Paul, as a Roman citizen, was particularly concerned about making Christianity respectable to the Roman authorities and within Roman society.

This was a challenge. It was obvious to everyone involved that Christianity had borrowed heavily from diverse religious and philosophical traditions. There was nothing unique about early Christianity. There were thousands of small cults like it. The worst part about it, from a Roman perspective, is the stark similarities and connections to Eastern groups. And how could it be denied. The first Christians were themselves Jews who were from the East.

The Jews had spent centuries mixing up various oral traditions with elements of nearby religions before writing any of it down. Then the Jews became heavily enmeshed in Greek culture. In the centuries immediately prior to Christianity, many Jews were worshipping pagan deities, including the ancient practice of conflating deities. Yahweh, for many Jews and non-Jews alike, had become identified with Zeus and/or Dionysus, the relation between those two Greek gods laying the ground work for the relationship between Yahweh and Jesus. Ehrenreich briefly quotes from Robert M. Price’s “Christianty, Diaspora Judaism, and Roman Crisis” and here is the passage she quoted from:

What about the challenges of Diaspora assimilationism? There surely was such a thing as Jews taking attractive features of Gentile faiths and mixing them with their own. My caveat is just to say that wildly diverse Judaism already existed back in the Holy Land. And I would say the mythemes later assimilated from Hellenistic Mystery Religions were able to gain entry because they answered to elements already present in Judaism, perhaps all the more attractive once they had become forbidden fruit in the wake of Javneh. In other words, when the family next door celebrated the death and resurrection of Osiris or Adonis this might appeal to a Jew who was dimly aware that his grandfathers had celebrated pretty much the same rites in honor of Baal, Tammuz, or even Isaac, years before.17 2 Maccabees 6:7 tells us that Antiochus converted large numbers of Jews to the worship of Dionysus. One suspects it was no arduous task, given that some Greek writers already considered Jehovah simply another local variant of Dionysus anyway. The Sabazius religion of Phrygia is plainly an example of worshipping Jehovah as Dionysus. The Phrygian Attis was another version of Adam, his mother and lover Cybele a cognate form of Eve. No wonder the Naasene Document identifies the resurrected Jesus with both Attis and Adam. No wonder we have Jewish sarcophagi from this period depicting both the menorah and the symbol of the resurrected Attis.18

The temptations and challenges of the Diaspora only served to increase the diversity of ancient Judaism, a diversity directly reflected in emerging Christianity, which demonstrably partakes of Jewish Gnosticism,19 Zoroastrianism,20 the Mystery Cults, etc. As Rodney Stark has shown, Diaspora Jews remained a major and continuous source of new Christian converts on into the fifth century.21 Christianity would have been, Stark very plausibly surmises, the ideal assimilation vehicle, since the “new” faith allowed one to retain the cherished ethical monotheism of Judaism yet without keeping up the walls of purity rules that separated one (arbitrarily, as it seemed, and as it would seem again to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Reform Jews) from one’s neighbors. It seems to me that adherence to Christianity (the “true Israel”) would also have been the natural way of clinging to traditional elements of popular Judaism upon which Orthodoxy had frowned but which, as Barker shows, had never died out. I suspect that such Christian-leaning Jews eyed emergent Rabbinic Javneh Judaism as a modern product and viewed it as most pious non-Pharisaic Jews had always viewed the stricter party of the Pharisees (and the Essenes). It would have been entirely natural for Christianizing Jews, hanging on to cherished “underground” mythemes, etc., to have viewed themselves as the real Judaism, the old-time religion. We have, again, been too eager to take the Rabbinic claims to pedigree and originality at face value. Perhaps one more piece of evidence that this is a proper way to view matters is the otherwise odd fact that many Christians continued to attend synagogue for centuries, alongside church, often to the great consternation of their bishops. This implies that the synagogue-attenders viewed the defining label for their religiosity as Judaism, not as a new, split-off religion. Their Christianity was Judaism in their eyes, even if Christian bishops (like Chrysostom) and Jewish Rabbis alike bemoaned the fact.

That fascinates me endlessly. It was such a different world. Monotheism had yet to become monolithic because monotheism itself was a rather fuzzy concept. Sure, you could believe there is one true god, but which god and how many forms could he take. In practical terms, there is no absolute distinction between monotheism and polytheism. Even the Jews often referred to their god using a word that was plural, Elohim. There was a polytheism within Judaism that was very much within living memory of many ancient Jews. And it seems a cultural memory of this continued into the early centuries of Christianity, which maybe explains why there came to be so many violent purges by the heresiologists who gained power. In order to make Christianity into a new religion, they had to annihilate the last remnants of the old time religion. They were never entirely successful, but not for a lack of trying.

An area of struggle was the ecstatic tradition of Christianity. That is part of Ehrenreich’s focus in her book. What has dancing and related practices meant to humans over the millennia. We modern Westerners, especially Americans, don’t associate dancing with the Christian tradition. But there has been a long struggle about this within Christianity itself. And this struggle has taken many forms. One site of struggle has been the dancing so typical of carnivals and festivals. These ecstatic forms of religiosity have sometimes been included within Christianity, at other times they were merely tolerated, and at yet other times they were forbidden. There is evidence that in early Christianity dance was considered by many as a normal expression of worship and devotion. But it isn’t entirely clear what kind of dance it was. Ehrenreich discusses this in great detail (pp. 65-66):

Most of what Christians of the first and second centuries actually did together—whether they even possessed a standardized form of worship, for example—is unknown to us today, but the general scholarly view is that “church services were noisy, charismatic affairs, quite different from a tasteful evensong today at the parish church.”20 They met in people’s homes, where their central ritual was a shared meal that was no doubt washed down with Jesus’ favorite beverage, wine.21 There is reason to think they sang too, and that the songs were sometimes accompanied by instrumental music. 22 Justin Martyr, a gentile convert who died at the hands of the Romans in 165 CE, once wrote that children should sing together, “just as in the same way one enjoys songs and similar music in church.”23 Very likely, Christians also danced; at least this is how the historian Louis Backman interpreted various statements of the second-century Church fathers. Clement of Alexandria (150-216 CE), for example, instructed the faithful to “dance in a ring, together with the angels, around Him who is without beginning or end,” suggesting that the Christian initiation rite included a ringdance around the altar. At another point Clement wrote that in order to invoke the “zest and delight of the spirit,” Christians “raise our heads and our hands to heaven and move our feet just at the end of the prayer—pedes excitamus,” where, according to Backman, pedes excitamus is “a technical term for dancing.”24

So Christians sang and possibly danced, but did they dance ecstatically, as did members of the old Dionysian cults? The evidence for ecstatic dancing, such as it is, hinges on Paul’s instruction, in his letter to the Corinthian congregation, that women should keep their heads covered in church (1 Cor. 11:5). This may represent nothing more than a concern that Christianity remain within the normal pagan and Jewish bounds of gender decorum. After all, Paul did not want women prophesying or even speaking in church, despite the fact that he worked with women as fellow proselytizers and had at one point proclaimed that “male and female are one in Christ.” An alternative explanation for the head-covering rule, proposed by the theologian E. S. Fiorenza, is that the women of Corinth were becoming a little too exuberant for Paul’s tastes.

It seems that during their ecstatic-pneumatic worship celebrations some of the Corinthian women prophets and liturgists unbound their hair, letting it flow freely rather than keeping it in its fashionable coiffure, which often was quite elaborate and enhanced with jewelry, ribbons and veils. Such a sight of disheveled hair would have been quite common in the ecstatic worship of oriental deities.25

Roman women spent hours on their tight coiffures, leaving the long, unbound look to the worshippers of Dionysus, Cybele, and Isis. If we know one thing about Paul, it is that he was greatly concerned about making Christianity respectable to the Romans, and hence as little like the other “oriental” religions—with their disorderly dancing women—as possible.

This may seem like a rather tenuous inference, but the association between hair-tossing and ecstatic practice is widespread and was well established in the ancient world.

All that we know of early Christianity, along with most other early religions, is a fading memory of what came before. It was that fading memory that was written down and typically written down by those who were attempting to eliminate the traces of that memory. All that we can be certain of is that modern Christianity probably has little if any resemblance to early Christianity, in either substance or form.


* * *

Dance of the Savior

The Round Dance–text and commentary
by Michael Howard

Singing with the Savior: Reconstructing the Ritual Ring-dance in the Gospel of the Savior
by Erik Yinglin

The Evolution of Sacred Dance in the JudeoChristian Tradition
by Jade Luerssen

Greek Dance: An Ancient Link — A Living Heritage
by Athan Karras

Jesus as Lord of the Dance
From early Christianity to medieval Nubia

by Paul Dilley

American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues

I broke my policy and wrote a comment on an Atlantic article, Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church by Emma Green. I’ve tried to stop commenting outside of a few select places on the internet because it usually ends up feeling pointless. Some of the responses were unworthy in this case, but it turned out not to be that bad of a discussion, relatively speaking.

Despite the frustration often involved, part of me enjoys the challenge of formulating an informative comment that actually adds to public debate. Plus, it got me thinking about one of my ancestors, a country abortion doctor who operated when abortion was technically illegal in Indiana and yet the law apparently wasn’t enforced at the time.

That was a different world, when communities decided which laws they did and did not care about, no matter what distant governments declared. Most people were fine with abortions, just as during Prohibition most people were fine with drinking. Laws are only meaningful when they can be enforced and the US political system has often left much of the power of enforcement at the local level, which is how so many bootleggers avoided prosecution as their neighbors were the jury of their peers.

The following are my comments, my original comment first and then two following comments. I had several other comments in the discussion, but those below are the most significant.

* * *

Sertorius wrote: “These liberal Christian denominations have experienced a massive drop in membership. Example: the Presbyterian Church (USA) had more than 3 million members 30 years ago. It now has half of that.

“This is unsurprising. Why would people go to a church which doesn’t take the Bible seriously? What is the point? How is it different than the local meeting of the Democratic Party?”

Most young Christians, including most Evangelicals and Catholics, identity as progressive or liberal. Most young Christians also support gay marriage and pro-choice. They do so because they read the Bible for themselves, instead of trusting the words of fundamentalist preachers.

Thomas R wrote: “Do you have a source for this odd assertion? I believe a good part of why millennials come out so socially liberals is they are less Christian than other generations.”

I always find it odd when I’m asked a question like this on the internet. If you really wanted to know, you could find such info in a few minutes of doing web searches. Maybe a bit more time, if you were really curious.

I’m sure you believe all kinds of things. But your beliefs, if uninformed, are irrelevant. Many other Christians would also believe that you are less Christian. BTW, if you go back some generations to the early 1900s, many Christians were progressives and the religious left was a powerful force. This kind of thing tends to go in cycles. But there is always a split. Even as the religious right became loud and demanding, a large swath of silenced Evangelicals remained liberal/progressive.

Belief is a funny thing. Surveys have found that the atheists on average know more about the Bible than do Christians on average. So, if Christian belief for so many self-proclaimed Christians isn’t based on knowledge of the Bible, what is it based on? Does God speak to Christians personally and tell them what to believe? Or are most Christians simply following false prophet preachers? Since these preachers are false prophets, should they be killed as the Bible commands?

If you look below at my response to rsabharw, you’ll see how little fundamentalists actually know about the Bible. The irony of their literalism is how non-literal or even anti-literal it is. Literalism simply becomes a codeword for ignorant bigotry and dogmatic politics.

Anyway, most Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.

It should be noted that, on the issue of abortion, Millennials are in agreement with Americans in general and so it isn’t a generational gap. Young Evangelicals have always had high rates of premarital sex, going back to the largely Scots-Irish Evangelicals of Appalachia and the Upper South. Millennial teen sex rates now are as low as they were more than a half century ago (drug use and violent crime rates among the young also are low right now). Sexuality hasn’t really changed over time, even as rates slightly shift up and down in cycles. Even in early America, most marriages followed pregnancy and hence premarital sex. No matter what a belief states, humans remain human.

It’s similar to other issues, although often with more of a generational gap. Consider guns, a supposedly divisive issue but where the majority of Americans simultaneously supports strong protection of gun rights and the need for stronger regulation (and enforcement) of guns. Even liberal Americans state having high rates of a guns in the home. There is no contradiction between someone being for both gun rights and gun regulations, both being liberal positions, one classical liberal and the other progressive liberal.

In general, most Americans are fairly liberal, progressive, and economic populist on most major issues. But this political leftism cuts deep into the part of the population that outwardly identifies as conservatives. So, even conservatism in the US is rather liberal.

Public opinion, across the generations, has been moving left. But it is most clearly seen in the younger generation. Still, even the oldest living generation seems liberal compared to the generations that were alive before them. The Lost Generation (i.e., WWI vets and 1920s libertines) were judged in their youth by older generations just the same as young people today. This would be obvious, if so many Americans weren’t historically ignorant.

The greatest differences in opinion aren’t necessarily between generations. Nor even between Christians and atheists. The growing divides in the US are often seen most clearly within Christianity, between: Catholics and Protestants, Mainline Christians and Fundamentalists, white Christians and minority Christians, etc. But that has always been true, going back centuries. The entire Protestant Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and religious wars including the English Civil War) were about Christians struggling over who would get to define Christianity for others and who would be free to define Christianity for themselves.

Many of these are old issues. Catholics, for example, genocidally wiped out the Christian Cathars for practicing gay sex. Many denominations that exist today were created by congregations being split over social and political issues. That will continue. Rifts are developing within churches, such as the Catholic Church that is equally divided between the two major parties. The small town Midwestern church my grandfather preached in was shut down over conflict between the local congregation that was fine with a gay music director and the national church organization that was against it. In place of churches like that, new churches will form.

Thomas R wrote: “The rules on abortion and homosexuality are part of the faith. Both are found in the writings of the Early Christians and in the Catechism. (See Cyprian, Ambrosiaster, St. John Chrysostom (c. 349 – 407), Severian, the Didache, Clement of Alexandria, St. Basil, Canon 1398) As well as the statements of Popes.

“At the very least abortion after the first trimester is consistently considered wrong by the faith.”

Even most pro-choicers treat third trimester abortions differently. There is also a reason why pro-choicers like me are more concerned about preventing abortions entirely than are most supposedly pro-lifers, it being a question of prioritizing either moral outcomes or ideological dogmatism.

Your knowledge of Christian history is obviously incomplete. That is problematic.

Among early Christians, there were different views about life, ensoulment, abortion, and murder. There was no unanimous Christian belief about such things, something you would know if you knew Christian history. There is no scholarly consensus that most early Christians treated abortion as a crime. It was often a standard sin, like most other sex-related sins. As far as that goes, sex itself was considered a sin.

It’s hard to know what early Christians believed. When they spoke of abortion, they had specific ideas in mind based in a cultural context of meaning. That depended on when one considered the fetus or baby to gain a soul. Not all early Christians thought life, much less ensoulment, began at conception and so early endings of pregnancies weren’t necessarily considered abortions. That is a main point that many pro-choicers make.

None of the New Testament or Old Testament writings clearly and directly discuss abortion, infanticide, and exposure. It apparently wasn’t considered important enough issue even to be mentioned specifically, much less condemned. It was only in the following centuries that Christians made statements about it. So, if Christianity isn’t directly based on Jesus’ teachings and the Bible, then what is Christianity? What kind of Christian tradition isn’t based on the earliest known Christianity that formed by Jesus’ first followers?

Aborton didn’t become much of a legal and political issue until modern Christianity. Plus, beyond decrees in the following centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion, there is no evidence that early Christians were ever any less likely to have abortions than non-Christians, as decrees imply something is common in persisting and so requires condemnation. So, is Christian tradition based on what church elites decree or on what Christians practice?

If the former, then all of Protestantism is false Christianity, since it was founded on defying the church elite of the time (even the Catholic heresiologists were defying the Christians in the church that came before them, such as Valentinus and Marcion). But if Protestants are correct about individual conscience of the Christian, then what Christians do has more validity than what church elites decree.

This is no minor point with profound theological and moral significance, especially considering most American Catholics seem fine with not absolutely following Vatican declarations. This is further complicated since the various church elites over the centuries have disagreed with one another on fundamental moral issues, including on abortion.

Anyway, shouldn’t Scripture supersede the personal opinions of church elites, no matter how authoritative they like to pretend to be? No one speaks for God but God. The fact that church elites disagreed and argued with one another proves they are far from infallible. Even the Vatican didn’t consider church positions on abortion to be infallible teachings.

However individuals wish to interpret all of this, there is the issue of one’s response as a Christian. Since only liberal policies have proven to decrease unwanted pregnancies that lead to abortions, it would be the religious duty of any pro-life Christian to support liberal policies. Yet they don’t and instead promote policies that either increase the number of abortions or don’t decrease them. Those Christians are committing sin, in placing their political ideology above their faith.

When someone acts in such a way that inevitably promotes a sin, what should the Christian response?

My Take: When evangelicals were pro-choice


“There is scholarly disagreement on how early Christians felt about abortion. Some scholars have concluded that early Christians took a nuanced stance on what is now called abortion, and that at different and in separate places early Christians have taken different stances. Other scholars have concluded that early Christians considered abortion a sin at all stages; though there is disagreement over their thoughts on what type of sin it was and how grave a sin it was held to be. Some early Christians believed that the embryo did not have a soul from conception, and consequently opinion was divided as to whether early abortion was murder or ethically equivalent to murder.”


“Neither the Old nor New Testament of the Bible make any specific mention of abortion, though Numbers 5:11-31 refers to a ritual known as the “ordeal of the bitter water”, which will test if a woman has been faithful to her husband by giving her a special potion concocted by a priest, possibly an abortifacient. If the woman was unfaithful, this will cause her “thigh” (a biblical euphemism for the woman’s reproductive organs, as well as any embryo contained within) to “swell and fall away” (some texts use the term “rupture” instead of “fall away”), which is a likely reference to miscarriage. Because of the Bible’s authors being so fond of euphemisms, it is a matter of debate whether this text is an endorsement for abortion when the woman is impregnated by someone who is not her husband (euphemistic interpretation) or simply a ritual that would presumably kill the wife for her adultery (literal interpretation).[13] The actual views of Christian society and the Church can definitively be gathered only via other extra-Biblical writings on theology and ethics.

“During the first and second century CE, abortion, intentional or forced miscarriages, and infanticide, were all commonplace, as families faced serious limitations on the number of people they could support. Though legal and ethical texts seem to suggest that this was somehow sinful, it did not take on any serious move to create or enforce a prohibition against abortion or infanticide. Scholars[14] have suggested that in the very early parts of the 1st and 2nd centuries, discussions about abortion and infanticide were effectively the same issue.

“By the mid-2nd century however, Christians separated themselves from the pagan Romans and proclaimed that the theological and legal issues with abortion had nothing to do with the father’s rights, but with God’s view of the sanctity of life itself. It was as bad a sin as any other sexual sin, including contraception and intentional sterilization, which suggested that a central issue was the giving of one’s body to God and being open for procreation as much as it was the inherent value of the unborn’s life. The issue of when the soul enters the body, and if that should affect the ethics of abortion, remained unresolved, though Augustine of Hippo offered his opinion that it did not enter until the third or sixth month, depending on the sex (the latter for girls). However, while he did not view abortion as murder until that point, it was still a sin in his view.”


“Then, in 1869, completely ignoring earlier teachings, Pope Pius IX wrote in Apostolicae Sedis that excommunication is the required penalty for abortion at any stage of pregnancy. He further stated that all abortion was homicide. This was an implicit endorsement – the church’s first – of ensoulment at conception.”


“Most people believe that the Roman Catholic church’s position on abortion has remained unchanged for two thousand years. Not true. Church teaching on abortion has varied continually over the course of its history. There has been no unanimous opinion on abortion at any time. While there has been constant general agreement that abortion is almost always evil and sinful, the church has had difficulty in defining the nature of that evil. Members of the Catholic hierarchy have opposed abortion consistently as evidence of sexual sin, but they have not always seen early abortion as homicide. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the “right-to-life” argument is a relatively recent development in church teaching. The debate continues today.

“Also contrary to popular belief, no pope has proclaimed the prohibition of abortion an “infallible” teaching. This fact leaves much more room for discussion on abortion than is usually thought, with opinions among theologians and the laity differing widely. In any case, Catholic theology tells individuals to follow their personal conscience in moral matters, even when their conscience is in conflict with hierarchical views.

“The campaign by Pope John Paul II to make his position on abortion the defining one at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 was just one leg of a long journey of shifting views within the Catholic church. In the fifth century a.d., St. Augustine expressed the mainstream view that early abortion required penance only for sexual sin. Eight centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas agreed, saying abortion was not homicide unless the fetus was “ensouled,” and ensoulment, he was sure, occurred well after conception. The position that abortion is a serious sin akin to murder and is grounds for excommunication only became established 150 years ago.”

‘An Intercultural Perspective on Human Embryonic Cell Research’ by Leroy Walters
Stem Cells, Human Embryos and Ethics: Interdisciplinary Perspectives
edited by Lars Østnor
p. 106

“”In the early centuries of Christianity there was diversity of opinion on the question of abortion. In a Roman Empire where abortion was widely practiced, some Christian theologians argued that every abortion was a homicide (Noonan 1970: 7-14). On the other hand, the ‘formed-unformed’ distinction came to prevail in the mainstream, or most authoritative, Christian theological and penitential traditions. Augustine presaged the predominant view when he argued that an unformed fetus had no soul and no sentience (Noonan 1970: 15-16). His view was accepted by Thomas Aquinas and by most theologians through at least the 18th century (Noonan 1970: 34-36). There is a nuance here that I do not want to obscure. Both the abortion of an unformed (that is, unensouled) fetus and of a formed (ensouled) fetus were considered to be sins. However, terminating the life of an unformed fetus was morally equivalent to the sin of contraception. In contrast, the terminating the life of a formed fetus was considered to be (unjustified) homicide (Noonan 1970: 15-18).

“The predominant Christian view was increasingly called into question in the 18th and 19th centuries. Finally, in 1869, the authoritative Roman Catholic view came to be that it was morally safer to assume that ensoulment occurs at the time of fertilization.”

Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood
by Kristin Luker
pp. 11-14

“SURPRISING As it may seem, the view that abortion is murder is a relatively recent belief in American history. To be sure, there has always been a school of thought, extending back at least to the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece, that holds that abortion is wrong because the embryo is the moral equivalent of the child it will become. Equally ancient however is the belief articulated by the Stoics: that although embryos have some of the rights of already-born children (and these rights may increase over the course of the pregnancy) , embryos are of a different moral order, and thus to end their existence by an abortion is not tantamount to murder.

“Perhaps the most interesting thing about these two perspectives (which have coexisted over the last two thousand years) is the fact more ancient and the more prevalent one. Their success in this effort is the product of an unusual set of events that occurred in the nineteenth century, events I call the first “right-to-life” movement. […]

“Similarly, although early Christians were actively pro-natalist and their rhetoric denounced abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and castration as all being morally equivalent to murder, the legal and moral treatment of these acts—and particularly the treatment of abortion—was never consistent with the rhetoric. 4 For instance, induced abortion is ignored in the most central Judeo-Christian writings: it is not mentioned in the Christian or the Jewish Bible, or in the Jewish Mishnah or Talmud.* Abortion, it is true, was denounced in early Christian writings such as the Didache and by early Christian authors such as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and St. Basil. But church councils, such as those of Elvira and Ancyra, which were called to specify the legal groundwork for did not agree on the penalties for abortion or on whether early abortion is wrong.

(“* Opponents of abortion sometimes argue that the Bible does express disapproval of abortion in Exodus 21:22-23. In fact, what is mentioned there is accidental miscarriage. The text says that when two men are fighting and they strike a pregnant woman, “causing the fruit of her womb to depart,” they may be liable for a capital offense, depending on whether “mischief” has occurred. It is not clear what is meant by “mischief”; the Hebrew word it stands for (“ason”) occurs only one other time in the Bible. Nor is induced abortion covered in the Talmud; for information on abortion in Jewish law, see David Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law, p. 255. The only related text in the Mishnah says that during a difficult delivery, an embryo may be dismembered until “the greater part” of it is born; only when the “greater part” has been born does Jewish law hold that the embryo is a person, and “we do not set aside one life for another”; see Immanuel Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics , p. 184.”)

“In the year 1100 A.d., this debate was clarified, but hardly in the direction of making abortion at all times unequivocally murder. Ivo of Chartres, a prominent church scholar, condemned abortion but held that abortion of the “unformed” embryo was not homicide, and his work was the beginning of a new consensus. Fifty years later Gratian, in a work which became the basis of canon law for the next seven hundred years, reiterated this stand. 6

“The “formation” of an embryo (sometimes known as “animation” or “vivification”) was held to happen at forty days for a male embryo and at eighty days for a female embryo; the canonist Roger Huser argues that in questions of ambiguity the embryo was considered female. In this connection it is important to remember law—which were, in effect, the moral and legal standard for the Western world until the coming of the Reformation and secular courts—did not treat what we would now call first trimester abortions as murder. 8 (And given the difficulty in ascertaining when pregnancy actually began, in practice this toleration must have included later abortions as well.)

“Nineteenth-century America, therefore, did not inherit an unqualified opposition to abortion, which John Noonan has called an “almost absolute value in history.” 9 On the contrary, American legal and moral practice at the beginning of the nineteenth century was quite consistent with the preceding Catholic canon law: early abortions were legally ignored and only late abortions could be prosecuted. (In fact, there is some disagreement as to whether or not even late abortions were ever prosecuted under the common law tradition.) 10

“Ironically, then, the much-maligned 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion, Roe v. Wade, which divided the legal regulation of abortion by trimesters, was much more in line with the traditional treatment of abortion than most Americans appreciate. But that in itself is an interesting fact. The brief history moral equivalent of murder.”

* * *

rsabharw wrote: “Where does it say in the bible that sodomy and child-killing are good things?”

Your question indicates why it is so important to have knowledge.

The Old Testament is one of the most violent holy texts in the world. God commands and sometimes commits all kinds of atrocities. Priests and prophets also made decrees that were, by today’s standards, quite horrific. And, yes, this did include child-killing (along with much worse, such as genocide and what is akin to eugenics).

Let me give an example from the prophet Zechariah. I find it fascinating because of the worldview it represents. This seems to imply that any Christian child who speaks in tongues or some similar act should be put to death.

“And it shall come to pass, that when any shall yet prophesy, then his father and his mother that begat him shall say unto him, Thou shalt not live; for thou speakest lies in the name of the LORD: and his father and his mother that begat him shall thrust him through when he prophesieth.”

That kind of thing is from uncommon in the Old Testament. I could make an extremely long comment just by quoting the Bible. Yet that kind of thing only involves children after they are born. The Bible is clear that a fetus isn’t treated as a full human and that death of a fetus isn’t considered murder.

For most of history, this was a non-issue for Christians. It was even a non-issue for most Americans until the culture wars. Earlier in the 20th century and before, the average doctor regularly did abortions, as it was considered part of their job. I have an ancestor who was a country doctor in Indiana, from the late 1800s to early 1900s, and he was also the local abortion provider.

As for homosexuality, the Bible has no clear and consistent position. Besides, no Christian follows all the rules and regulations, decrees and commandments described in the Old Testament. Even Jesus didn’t seem to have believed that his new message of love superseded the old Jewish legalisms.

If Christians are to literally interpret and follow the Old Testament, that means Christians can’t eat pork, shellfish, and black pudding; can’t get tatoos, cut the hair on the side of their heads, wearing of blended fabrics, charging interest on loans; et cetera. Plus, Christians would have to marry their brother’s widow, adulterers instead of being forgiven if they repent must be killed. and those with disabilities are to be treated as unclean like pigs. But slavery, genocide, and child murder are fine.

Yet if we are to simply go by Jesus’ words, we are limited to having no opinion on homosexuality and abortion. The best a fundy literalist could do is to cite Paul, but he never met Jesus and the evidence points to him having been a Gnostic (the heretical Valentinus and Marcion were among the earliest followers of the Pauline tradition, prior to Paul being incorporated as part of the Catholic canon).

So, if Christians don’t prioritize the teachings of Jesus over all else, what is the point of their even calling themselves Christians?

rsabharw wrote: “Abortion was illegal in Indiana in the 1800s. Therefore, your ancestor was not a doctor, but, rather, a criminal. The Hippocratic Oath specifically bans abortion. Any doctor who performs one is breaking that most sacred oath, and thus cannot call him or herself a doctor any longer.”

Studies show that banning abortions either doesn’t decrease or actually increases the abortion rate. It’s common sense that laws don’t always have much to do with actual human behavior. Even Christianity has been outlawed at different times and places, but it didn’t stop Christians from practicing.

Anyway, when did rural people ever worry about what political elite in far away big cities decided to tell the lower classes what to do? My ancestors in rural Indiana, besides including a country doctor who was an abortion provider, were also bootleggers. Screw you paternalistic, authoritarian a**holes! That is what my Kentuckiana ancestors would have told you. And I agree with them, on this issue.

We will make our own decisions and live as free patriots. Despite the laws, it’s obvious that the other rural people living around my country doctor ancestor were fine with what he did, for he was never prosecuted. These were his people, the place where he was born and raised. It was a typical community for the time. Few abortion cases were ever brought to court, despite it being extremely common at the time.


“History shows that women have always tried to terminate unwanted pregnancies. When safe medical procedures are banned by law, they have resorted to dangerous–sometimes deadly–“back-alley” abortions.”


“The court also said that because many of the state abortion laws dating tothe 1800s explicitly protect pregnant women from prosecution, it was a stretch to believe that lawmakers intended for the feticide law to be used against pregnant women who attempt to terminate a pregnancy.”


“In the early nineteenth century abortion simply did not elicit as much comment or controversy as today. Though not openly encouraged – and condemned in some circles – it was not necessarily dismissed out of hand if done early enough into the pregnancy. Abortion before “quickening,” the first signs of fetal movement, usually during the second trimester, was generally considered acceptable. “Most forms of abortion were not illegal and those women who wished to practice it did so.” As there were no laws specifically addressing abortion in the America of 1800, the only source for guidance was, again, English common law, which recognized quickening. […]

“These earliest abortion laws must be viewed contextually to be properly understood. In the main, they were not promulgated out of any fervor over the “morality” of abortion. As mentioned, quickening was generally accepted by both the courts and the public as the pivotal issue in abortion. Abortion was not generally considered immoral or illegal if performed prior to fetal movement. Because this was so widely accepted most American women did not have to “face seriously the moral agonies so characteristic of the twentieth century.” That Indiana’s law did not specifically mention quickening should not be seen as a step away from the doctrine. Instead, it is likely further evidence that quickening was so ingrained that it need not be especially written into the statute. […]

“Whatever the reasons, Indiana had an “anti-abortion” measure on the books after 1835. It seems to have been a law little regarded and little enforced. It also seems unlikely that it prevented many women who wished an abortion from obtaining one. Chemical or natural agents for producing abortions were readily available if a woman knew where to look – and most knew exactly where to fix their gaze. Mid-wives knew all the secrets; druggists advertised appropriate potions; medical texts provided answers.

“To judge the relative importance lawmakers attached to abortion, one need only compare the penalties involved. Assisting in an abortion, or performing a self-abortion, was punishable by a maximum fine of $500.00 and a year in the county jail. Burglary’s penalty was fourteen years in the state prison; murder (analogous in some modern minds with abortion) was a capital offense. Clearly, the state of Indiana did not equate abortion with murder, or even stealing your neighbor’s silver service.”


“As the above indicates, abortion, like birth control information, became more available between 1830 and 1850. That period saw a mail order and retail abortifacient drug trade flourish. A woman could send away for certain pills or discreetly purchase them at a store. Surgical methods were “available, but dangerous.” This openness and commercial availability was mainly a feature of northern urban areas. Like much other technological and cultural change, it was later in its arrival in the midwest, and the average midwestern woman likely had a more difficult time in obtaining an abortion than her eastern, urban counterpart if she desired one.

“It was not, however, impossible. Such information and abortifacients were within reach of a woman if she grasped hard enough. Herbal abortifacients were the most widely utilized in rural, nineteenth century America. Again, networking and word-of-mouth broadcast specious methods. Women who relied on such information sometimes resorted to rubbing gunpowder on their breasts or drinking a “tea” brewed with rusty nail water. Other suggestions included “bleeding from the foot, hot baths, and cathartics.” Midwives were thought reliable informants and were wont to prescribe seneca, snakeroot, or cohosh, the favored method of Native American women. Thomsonians claimed the preferred “remedy” was a mixture of tansy syrup and rum.

“More reliable sources of information were the ever popular home medical books. If a woman knew where to look the information was easily gleaned. One book, Samuel Jennings’ The Married Ladies Companion, was meant especially to be used by rural women. It offered frank advice for women who “took a common cold,” the period colloquialism for missing a period. It urged using cathartics like aloe and calomel, and bleeding to restore menstruation. Abortion information was usually available in two sections of home medical books: how to “release obstructed menses” and “dangers” to avoid during pregnancy.

“The latter section was a sort of how-to in reverse that could be effectively put to use by the reader. The most widely consulted work, Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, advised emetics and a mixture of prepared steel, powdered myrrh, and aloe to “restore menstrual flow.” Under causes of abortion to be avoided, it listed violent exercise, jumping too high, blows to the belly, and lifting great weights. Clearly, any woman wishing badly enough to abort could find a solution to her dilemma, without relying on outside aid. If she wished to rely on herbal remedies, they could be easily obtained. Aloes, one of the most widely urged and effective abortifacient, were regularly advertised in newspapers as being available in local stores.

“Of course, the number of women who availed themselves of the abortion option cannot be properly approximated. It is enough to say that abortion was feasible, available, and used option; it was a likely contributor to the birth rate falling by mid-century.”

Depths of Darkness, Glimmers of Hope

If you keep track of the religious right, you’ve heard of Christian Reconstructionism. It’s a subset of Dominion theology and advocates a particular kind of theocracy, what is known as theonomy.

Dominion theology is far from uncommon, although most support a milder form of it, not going as far as theocracy. Instead, the most popular variety is Christian nationalism. Dominionism is based on the belief that the American founders were Christian and so intended Christianity to dominate or at least define all aspects of society, maybe even the government itself (presumedly until the End Times; and, once the good Christians ascend bodily into Heaven, the Pagans would likely be allowed to takeover what is left of the world). Some Dominionists see the Constitution as a Christian document with the Bill of Rights as akin to an extension of the Biblical Ten Commandments.

They take this seriously. And they don’t see the claim of the Constitution being a slave document as being a criticism, per se. Nor that this contradicts it also being a Christian document. They do see racialized slavery as unbiblical, but not slavery itself. In fact, some of them argue for Biblical slavery.

According to the Old Testament, slavery is allowed under certain conditions. The intended audience, of course, were ancient Israelis; but that is a minor detail to the Fundamentalist mind. Anything and everything from the Bible must be applied to modern Christianity, except the parts that are inconvenient and problematic. The religious right believes they inherited the Jewish tradition and so the Israeli label. Also, in this framework, Pagan translates as non-Christian.

It is stated that Israelis aren’t as a general rule allowed to enslave other Israelis, but there are exceptions. As such, according to Christian Reconstructionism, it logically follows that Christians can enslave other Christians under precise circumstances, as long as it is voluntary servitude, except for criminals or enemies captured in battle who can be forced into servitude.

This is vague about whether a Christian captured in battle can be treated this way. In the ancient world, an Israeli was simply one who lived in Israel, as a Jew originally was one who lived in Judea (although over time such terms came to have other meanings), which leaves uncertain the labeling and treatment of various populations (such as Jews who weren’t Israelis or Judeans along with Israelis and Judeans who weren’t Jews); as another example, ancient Samaritans also used the same Holy Bible but weren’t considered Jews as they lived in Samaria, what was once the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Not that the fundamentalist mind cares about such complications. Anyway, none of this applies to Pagans (i.e., non-Christians) who can be enslaved involuntarily and permanently by their Christian overlords.

A number of things are disturbing about this. First of all, it is shocking to see slavery being discussed in this manner. Even among those who advocate Biblical slavery, there is disagreement about details, about who is allowed to be enslaved and in what way. But it’s messed up that this is discussed at all, as if moral laws and social norms in a modern pluralistic democracy is to be determined through legalistic minutiae decreed by priests of an ancient religion.

Even worst, this isn’t being discussed just by right-wing loons. Or rather right-wing loons have made major inroads into the mainstream. Many politicians and political candidates have been aligned with this Dominionism and related worldviews, including several recent candidates such as Ted Cruz.

Even Donald Trump, despite lacking any evidence of being a Christian or caring about Christianity, has won majority support of white Evangelicals and their leadership (prone, as they are, to Dominionist rhetoric that resonates with Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”). But to be fair he wasn’t their first choice. The Tea Party was taken over by this hardcore religious right, by way of the influence of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, and that is the movement that Trump rode to the Republican nomination. It was Beck, in particular, who brought the Tea Party into alignment with the old religious right, the paranoid reactionaries and Christian nationalists (e.g, the Mormon W. Cleon Skousen). It matters little that Beck now fears this monster he has helped to create.

It’s not just the fringe Evangelicals. I know some local Christians who read Stephen McDowell’s Monumental in their Bible study group (by the way, they used to regularly watch Glenn Beck). Living in the same respectable liberal college town as I do, they go to a mainline church with a liberal minister who recently began promoting gay acceptance. Their Bible study group is a mix of people, mostly moderate and mainstream as is found in a middle class Midwestern town — unlikely any Reconstructionist theocrats among them. Yet they were reading this text that comes out of the right-wing Dominionist movement, a text written by a guy who has advocated for Biblical slavery.

If someone like McDowell gets discussed in a Bible study group from fairly liberal church in a very liberal town, imagine where else in the country this gets a foothold. It’s not that these local Christians are going to seek to enslave me and my Pagan friends. But the Dominionist theology has many aspects that are as disturbing or simply problematic. The very premise of Dominionism is the opposite of a free democratic society. Still, you don’t need to go as far as Biblical slavery to see the dangers of reactionary politics, right-wing authoritarianism, and historical revisionism.

It makes one wonder how close we could easily come to the world portrayed by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale. This doesn’t require the majority of the population to be right-wing Evangelicals, much less ranting apocalyptic theocrats. Most authoritarian governments don’t come to power through majority support. The conditions just have to be right and the population has to be in a great enough state of fear, distress, and uncertainty. Some divide and conquer could help, along with perceived enemies to scapegoat, foreign and internal. Even the slow creep of authoritarianism is bad enough, as we’ve seen in recent decades. The stage has been set for a full authoritarian takeover.

It’s happened many times before in many countries. The United States isn’t immune to authoritarianism. And as it has been said, “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Or as religious right leader, Russell Moore, recently put it, “The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.”

I didn’t want to end on that note, though. I don’t feel like countering fear with fear. My motivation was more simple curiosity. It can be surprising to see what ideas make their way into the mainstream. If you look closely, you can see many possible futures we are facing. Ideas are seeds. They may or may not grow. But once planted it is unsurprising to see them sprout, as has happened with the growing power of the religious right over the past half century.

Still, there are other seeds that have been planted. If tended, those other seeds could grow. There is nothing inevitable about the path we’ve been on. The world could shift in any number of directions. Trump may be doing us a favor by giving voice to one specter of authoritarianism, his fascist-and-fundamentalist-tinged proclamations of making America great again. But that leaves other varieties that might be even more threatening.

Sometimes it’s the fears we don’t see coming that get us. While we worry about the religious right’s support of Israel, as part of their Apocalyptic aspirations of bringing on the End Times, we can forget that the mainstream political left has its own designs for Israel that may lead us to an apocalyptic World War III (or simply an ever more destabilized, violent world). Pick your apocalypse. Or maybe it’s the same apocalypse, with different rhetoric.

We create the future we imagine. Peering into the American psyche at the moment, one can see dark visions. The few glimmers on the surface of the dark depths only offer the smallest of hope. Still, there may be real reason for hope, however tentative, so it seems when looking at demographic shifts.

Among white evangelicals, the young have never been fond of bigotry and intolerance. The same goes for young Catholics. There is a generational divide that cuts across all religions. Also, because of revelations, white women Evangelicals are abandoning Trump. All that the Trump has left are older white male Evangelicals, but old white male Christians in general have always been stalwart Republicans, no matter how far right crazy the party gets.

I doubt the religious right was ever the “moral majority” in this country, at least not in living memory. But United States has a long history of political and economic power being held by various minority groups. Even WASPs have never been a majority. Looking back to early America, it wasn’t just a minority of rich white male landowners that controlled government; also, the federal government was initially dominated by the Southern states, some of which were majority black. How did this plutocracy that was a minority even in their own communities manage to take over political power of a vast country? Never doubt the power a minority can wield.

For this reason, it’s good to see these fractures forming among the religious right. And it is good to see younger Christians turn toward a kinder vision. Still, we are far from being safe from the threat of authoritarianism. Entire societies can turn authoritarian quite quickly when fear comes to rule people’s minds. And there are many fears looming on the horizon.

In the end, my own motivation is more that of curiosity. I don’t have it in me to sit around worrying about theocracy or whatever. But I am always fascinated by society and what is to be found, when one goes looking. It’s simply strange to see these kinds of ideas floating around in the main currents of thought, like any other idea.

What most interests me is the fantasies that play out around these ideas. The human imagination is a powerful thing. And those seeking power realize this. But imagination has a way of taking on a life of its own. It’s not easily controlled or predicted. We can try to force imagination to serve our ideology or we can allow our ideology to be guided by imagination, the former is rhetoric and the latter makes possible the visionary.

The best antidote is to imagine other visions, to explore other possibilities. And to do so with humility. The future will become what it will, no matter what we may wish. But in coming to term with our own imaginings, we can find meaning. The one thing that can overcome fear is a sense of meaning. Christianity, at its best, also offers that vision.

* * *

What is Dominionism? Palin, The Christian Right And Theocracy
by Chip Berlet

by Frederick Clarkson

by Julie Ingersoll

by Julie Ingersoll

Cruz Super PAC Head Promotes ‘Biblical’ Slavery for Non-Christians
by Bruce Wilson

Mike Pence on the “American Heartland” and the Holy Land
by Shalom Goldman

Cruz Super PAC Head Promotes ‘Biblical’ Slavery for Non-Christians
by Bruce Wilson

“Biblical Slavery” For Non-Christians? Yes, Suggests Website of Mike Huckabee’s Favorite Historian David Barton
by Bruce Wilson

David Barton’s Plan for Biblical Slavery for America
by Hrafnkell Haraldsson

* * *

Books about Culture by Christians

Avatar: Imagination & Culture

Psychology of Politics, Development of Society

Why not?

Hearing voices. We all hear voices, both in and outside our heads. But obviously not all voice-hearing is the same.

Some people hear voices that others don’t hear. Children talk to imaginary friends who talk back to them. Schizophrenics hear all kinds of voices, from disembodied beings to the thoughts in other people’s heads. Even ordinary people, during periods of grief and stress, hear voices that can’t be explained (the Third Man Factor popularized by John Geiger). Studies show this is a lot more common than people realize, because few people talk about the voices they hear for fear of being called crazy.

These voices are as real to those hearing them as the voice of a physical person speaking before their eyes. According Julian Jaynes, entire ancient societies were based on this kind of experience, and he proposed that visual hallucinations often accompanied them. As such, it would have been the only reality the bicameral mind knew. Our sense of reality is nothing more than what we and those around us experience.

Some people dismiss Jaynes’ speculations. He hasn’t always been respectable, quite the opposite, although his intellectual currency has been rising. Over time, more and more people have taken him seriously, even when uncertain what to make of his theory. It’s such an intriguing possibility based on evidence that typically gets ignored and dismissed. But bicameralism or not, the evidence remains to be explained.

Indeed, it is challenging to make sense of it. As Tanya Lurhman, a Stanford anthropologist trained in psychology, simply stated it: “Julian Jaynes blew my mind.” It didn’t just blow her mind for it also set the course of her professional career. Research that she has done follows from the possibility that Jaynes first presented. In her work, she has looked at different cultures in how they relate to voice-hearing. She has compared cultural experiences and also religious experience, both among schizophrenics and the mentally healthy.

Her book on Evangelicals hearing God’s voice is what got my attention. I liked her approach. She treats her subjects with respect and tries to understand them on their own terms. It reminded me of Jaynes’ own approach to ancient people, to take them at their word and consider the possibility that they actually meant what they said.

What if we took all people seriously, not just those who confirm our biases? What if we tried to understand their stated experience, instead of rationalizing it away according to present social norms? Why not?

* * *

When God Talks Back
by T.M. Luhrmann

Our Most Troubling Madness
edited by T.M. Luhrmann & Jocelyn Marrow

Is That God Talking?
T. M. Luhrmann

My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy
by T.M. Luhrmann

Living With Voices
by T. M. Luhrmann

Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind
by T. M. Luhrmann

Cognitive Science, Learning, and ‘Theory of Mind’
by Ann Taves

Hallucinatory ‘voices’ shaped by local culture, Stanford anthropologist says
by Clifton B. Parker

The voices heard by people with schizophrenia are friendlier in India and Africa, than in the US
by Christian Jarrett

Tanya Luhrmann, hearing voices in Accra and Chenai
by Greg Downey

Hallucinated voices’ attitudes vary with culture
by Bruce Bower

Psychotic Voices In Your Head Depend On Culture You’re From: Friendly In Ghana, Evil In America
by Chris Weller

More Evidence for Vestigial Bicamerality
by Gary Williams

Different Republican Responses to Changing Times

I know a number of Republicans who hate Trump. They are refusing to vote Republican because of this. Some are considering the Libertarian candidate or else not voting at all. I suspect some might even vote for Hillary Clinton, God forbid!

One Republican I know well is really struggling with what to do. He has voted Republican for nearly every election in his in adult life and, as far as I know, he always votes. He is an old school mainstream conservative.

I overheard a conversation he had with his brother. Like him, his brother is a lifelong Republican. But his brother has a different bent, such as his having defended social liberal positions. I guess he might be a Rockefeller Republican or something like that, although probably not as far left as a Theodore Roosevelt Bull Moose Republican. Both of them are more conservative on economic issues. They can agree on much, despite key differences.

The brother is even more put off by Trump. It sounds like he is going to register as a Democrat. I know the brother fairly well. He is on the city council in the small town he lives in, and he ran as a Republican. If he does switch to Democrat, that could upset many people who voted for him and that likely would be a big deal in a small town.

Trump isn’t just temporarily turning some away from voting Republican. He may be permanently driving away quite a few. The GOP will likely never be the same again. Goldwater eliminated most of the moderate and liberal Republicans. Now the few remaining will be gone. It will leave nothing but the authoritarian extremists, the hardcore partisans, and I suppose the establishment politicians who have nowhere else to go. I’m not sure what kind of Republican party that will be (or what kind of Democratic party as well, once all those former Republicans join).

I heard the first guy I mentioned above talk to another Republican, a Trump supporter. It was interesting. I could feel the tension of worldviews. The two of them have been acquaintances for decades, but they never were the same kind of Republican. Still, I couldn’t tell if even this supposed Trump supporter actually took Trump’s campaign seriously, as he seemed amused by the whole thing. I guess he is for Trump simply because he is entertaining and because he isn’t a Democrat.

All three of these Republicans are Christians (and all older white males). Yet they are of entirely different varieties. The Republican-turning-Democrat is a socially liberal Christian. The Trump supporter is more of a fundamentalist, unsurprisingly. The Republican who knows both of these other two is more centrist in his Christianity, a moderate conservative, although moreso in the family values camp.

In talking to the Trump supporter, this moderate conservative ended up defending the morally relativistic position that scripture can be interpreted differently in terms of views about such things as homosexuality. It was interesting to hear a conservative Christian make such an argument in opposition to a fundamentalist. Maybe the socially liberal brother has influenced his views.

Strange times. Even old white males and conservative Republicans aren’t immune to change.

Who Are the American Religious?

I was looking at polling data for the religious. Just minor curiosity, on this Sunday morning.

Like the rest of the population, the overall US trend is toward progressivism and liberalism (I wonder what the trend is in other countries and across the world). One poll from Beliefnet was done in 2008.

Beliefnet Poll: Evangelicals Still Conservative, But Defy Issue Stereotypes

It’s probably a little out of date, as the results of demographic shifts are quickly changing and becoming more apparent. In the intervening years, progressives have increased among Evangelicals, although many others have left Evangelicalism. More broadly, religious progressives now outnumber religious conservatives.

Anyway, what interested me was the following section from the above link:

“In some ways, the survey reveals evangelicals to be quite conservative: 41-percent said they were Republican compared to 30-percent who were Democrats; 47-percent said they were conservative versus 14-percent who said they were liberal. Almost 80-percent said they attended church weekly or more than weekly and 84% said the Bible is the “inerrant word of God.”

“Generally speaking, however, evangelicals ranked traditionally progressive or Democratic causes as more important than traditionally conservative or Republican ones. Twenty three percent said their views had become less positive about Republicans, twice the number who said they’d soured on Democrats, though half of respondents said they had become less positive about both parties. Almost 60-percent said they favored a more progressive evangelical agenda focused more on protecting the environment, tackling HIV/AIDs, and alleviating poverty and less on abortion and homosexuality.”

That mirrors the same confusion of labeling confusion as found in the general population. This weird phenomenon creates problems in interpretation. It is rare to see the self-identification data clearly compared and contrasted with public opinion data.

Still, this is far from an unknown social reality, as far as it concerns academic researchers.

Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinities
by John T. Jost, Christopher M. Federico, & Jaime L. Napier

“Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”

It interested me to see this same type of thing in the religious polling. But it isn’t surprising. Confusion abounds, especially when it comes to politics on the left.

By the way, the following are links to some of the data on changes in the religious demographic(s), especially among the younger generations. I’ve seen much of this data over the years. There is a shift that has been happening for a long time. It’s nothing new, but it’s good to keep in mind.

Survey | Generations at Odds: The Millennial Generation and the Future of Gay and Lesbian Rights

Young Evangelicals in the 2012 Elections
by Sojourners

Are Millennials Killing Off the Religious Right?
by Amanda Marcotte

More than half of evangelicals oppose cutting government funds for poor, survey shows
by Electa Draper

Survey shows diversity in political opinion among mainline Protestant clergy
by Mary Frances Schjonberg

Evangelicals Are Changing Their Minds on Gay Marriage
And the Bible isn’t getting in their way.
by Jim Hinch

Young U.S. Catholics overwhelmingly accepting of homosexuality
by Michael Lipka

Millennial Christians Are More Socially Progressive Than You Might Expect, Shattering Some Conservative Stereotypes
by Emma Cueto

Why Pope Francis is Polling The World’s Catholics
by Jack Jenkins

If Vatican conservatives are so afraid of gay rights, young Catholics aren’t going to wait around
by Zach Stafford

Young Christians Are Fleeing Evangelicalism—And Here’s Why
by Eleanor J. Bader

Politico: Catholic Republicans Have a Pope Problem
by Courtney Coren

Poll: Americans Prefer Gay President To Evangelical Christian
by Alan

How evangelicals won a war and lost a generation
by CNN


A Conflict of the Conservative Vision

There is one popular framework of politics that I often think about. It is the basis of a book by Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions. I was introduced to it by my conservative father.

Sowell theorizes that the political right and left are defined by two distinct visions. Conservatives and right-wingers are supposedly adherents of a constrained vision. Whereas liberals and left-wingers are supposedly adherents of an unconstrained vision.

For some reason, this popped back into my mind on my walk this morning. Two thoughts occurred to me.

First, I’m not sure how accurate it is. I always feel the need to clarify that conservatism and liberalism are not necessarily the same thing as conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. This is one of those cases where that is an important distinction to keep in mind.

Sowell is most directly talking about psychological predispositions here. But he seems to be assuming that they are the same as ideological labels as expressed through ideological movements. I have severe doubts that this is the case, not to dismiss the strong correlation. I just think something gets missed in too simplistic of categories.

When I consider conservative politics, I don’t see a constrained vision at work.

Plutocratic paternalism is not a constrained vision. Neoliberal laissez-faire globalization is not a constrained vision. Neoconservative nation-building and neo-imperialism is not a constrained vision. Corporatist progressivism that dismisses the precautionary principle is not a constrained vision. Theocratic nationalism is not a constrained vision. A large militarized police/security state with heavily guarded borders is not a constrained vision.

Yet all of these things define the political right.

Sowell doesn’t really mean a constrained vision. I think even he knows that this is the case. What he actually argues for is constrained empathy, compassion, and morality. It is an attitude of me and my own, but me and my own can be quite unconstrained. A me and my own attitude would only be constrained, if it respected everyone else’s me and my own attitude. Obviously, that isn’t the case with the American political right.

The extreme version of the constrained live-and-let-live worldview are the anarcho-libertarians. And they tend to be left-wingers.

Conservatives don’t want to constrain their vision, their power over others, or their ability to act in large ways. What they want to constrain is having to concern themselves about the consequences and the externalized costs. They choose to constrain their sense of moral responsibility and social responsibility. So, in their worldview, a corporation should have the right to act unconstrained, which is to say they shouldn’t be constrained to the rights of workers, protection of the environment, etc. Instead, everyone and everything else should be constrained to their agenda.

This angle of responsibility brings me the second thought.

When I consider Jesus’ teachings, I can’t help but feel that whatever he was preaching it for damn sure wasn’t the ideology of the political right. I’m not saying it was liberalism either, just certainly not conservatism and even more certainly not right-wing libertarianism.

Jesus’ vision was as unconstrained as one could imagine. He was preaching about an unconstrained attitude of compassion and care. It was universal love for all of humanity. No limitations. No questions asked. Just help the needy and defend the weak. It wasn’t an overtly political vision, but in psychological terms it was the opposite of conservative-minded.

The only times Jesus spoke of constraint was when people sought to act without genuine moral concern for their fellow humans. In those instances, he would say such things as,  “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” But all this was saying was that people should constrain their hatred, bigotry, and judgment in favor of an unconstrained vision of love.

I’m forced to conclude that Sowell’s conflict of visions is something other than what it is portrayed as.

* * * *

Some additional thoughts:

The ideas of constraint and unconstraint aren’t objective categories. It depends on what they are being defined according to.

What kind of constraint or unconstraint and for what purpose? Who is implementing, controlling, and enforcing the constraint or unconstraint? Who is being constrained or unconstrained? Who is benefiting and who is being harmed? What are the costs, especially externalized costs, and who is paying for them?

To be fair, all of the confusion involved can’t just be blamed on conservatives. I only focused on conservatives because it is a way of framing politics that is particularly popular among conservatives.

In reality, liberals are no more consistently unconstrained in a principled fashion than are conservatives consistently constrained in a principled fashion. Many liberals might like to think of themselves as being more unconstrained than they actually are, but liberals aren’t anarchists or anything close to it. There are more things liberals seek to constrain than unconstrain.

I personally fall more on the side of unconstraint, but not the careless and mindless unrestraint that is prevalent in our society, especially as seen among the extreme defenders of laissez-faire capitalism. I’m certainly not critical of conservatism because of Sowell’s claim of it being an constrained vision, at least not when compared to my own principles and ideals. I wish conservatives were more constrained and supportive of constraint.

I’m all the time advocating for the precautionary principle. That has to be the single greatest expression of genuine conservative-minded constraint. Yet it is political liberals who hold it up as a central value and standard, a guidepost of wise and responsible decision-making. If conservatives really gave a shit about constraint, they’d start with the precautionary principle.

I have an overall unconstrained vision, but certain conditions are necessary in order to have an actual functioning society that is as unconstrained as possible. Those conditions, in a very basic sense, are themselves constraints. The whole issue isn’t as binary as a conservative like Sowell would like it to be. The conflict of constrained versus unconstrained only exists in Sowell’s brain and in the brain of anyone who shares his view.

Many conservatives would consider me utopian in my desired unconstraint. I’m very much a leftist in my belief in human potential as being preferably unrestrained (as much as is possible), something conservatives tend to fear. I’m not seeking perfection, as conservatives suspect. I don’t even know what perfection means. That seems like another projection of the conservative mind.

What conservatives too often mean by constrained is that they don’t want to question their own assumptions. They want to take their beliefs as reality, and so constrain all of politics to their narrow view and all of society to their simplistic understanding. They want a rigid social order that constrains others to their worldview.

This connects back to my last post. Howard Schwartz, an author on liberty in American society, commented on that post. He pointed out that this kind of person is seeking stable essences for the purposes of psychological security. As I’d put it, they are constraining their own minds in order to lessen the stress and anxiety they feel when confronting cognitive dissonance.

My oft repeated position is that the world is complex. This is true, whether or not we like it. Constraining one’s beliefs about reality doesn’t constrain reality itself. I favor an unconstrained vision simply because only it can encompass that complexity. I also favor it because, as long as we have globalization, we better have a vision of social and moral responsibility that can match its scope.

Oddly, it is for this very reason I can simultaneously defend certain practical constraints to an even greater degree than is seen in mainstream American conservatism. I’m a cautious-minded progressive, a wary optimist.

Game Theory and the Truce of the Ruling Elites

If you’re in the mood for a dark view of the world and of humanity, then boy oh boy I have the article for you: The Clash of the Civilizations. Some are content with mere pessimism. That isn’t enough for the author, W. Ben Hunt. He aims for the apogee of cynicism.

“Lots of quotes this week, particularly from my two favorite war criminals – Sam Huntington and Henry Kissinger.”

Such casual disregard about war crime and those who commit it. I’m impressed right from the start.

I’m not a Christian, but I find myself automatically putting something like this into a Christian context. I don’t just mean the mention of war crime. I’m talking about the entire article that follows it. The war crime comment just sets the tone. There are a number of reasons for my thinking of Christianity, both in terms of morality and history.

First and foremost, what brought Christianity to mind was the simple fact that the person who recommended the article to me is a practicing Christian. That person isn’t just any Christian. He is my father who not only raised me in Christianity but raised me to take Christian values seriously. I don’t know how my father would square Hunt’s views with Jesus’ teachings, assuming he would even want to try. I do know my father deeply struggles with his faith and how it applies to the larger world, but in the end my father is in the impossible position of any other conservative Christian. Simply put, Jesus wasn’t a conservative, not to say Jesus was a liberal, but he certainly wasn’t conservative in any sense of the word (politically, socially, or attitudinally).

My own values have a Christian tinge. I don’t care one way or another if Jesus ever actually existed, but the radicalism of the message itself has stood out to me for a long time (far more radical than can be allowed for by either mainstream conservatism or liberalism). Jesus was always on the side of the powerless, not the powerful (on side of the victims of such things as war crimes, not the purveyors of it). I was thinking about this lately in context of the Ferguson protests and, more importantly, in the context of the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

You can agree or disagree with someone like MLK, but what is clear is that his view is in line with a Christian worldview. He was a Christian preacher, after all. Hunt’s philosophy, on the other hand, is just as clearly not in line with a Christian worldview. Hunt is advocating for something that is un-Christian or even anti-Christian.

I wanted to note that upfront. Hunt, as with those he quotes, seeks to defend Western society. But his interest seems to be more a desire to protect a particular power structure and social order, rather than any substance of the culture itself. Huntington and Kissinger were both advocates of American imperialism where mass violence was used to enforce the will of the American ruling elite (e.g., the Vietnam War). He is invoking American imperialism by relying on two major figures who have been the focus of serious accusations of war crimes, as he acknowledges.

Hunt shows no concern for Christian values, except maybe as they offer a contrast with non-Christian societies. He is not making a moral argument, at least not in the straightforward sense, or rather the morality he is proposing not of an inspiring variety. It’s more in line with might makes right, rather than love thy neighbor.

“Everyone has heard of Kissinger, fewer of Huntington, who may have been even more of a hawk and law-and-order fetishist than Kissinger”

I might point out that the Pharisees and Pontius Pilate were also law-and-order fetishists. They were likely hawks as well.

“But Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” argument is not just provocative, curmudgeonly, and hawkish. It is, I think, demonstrably more useful in making sense of the world than any competing theory, which is the highest praise any academic work can receive. Supplement Huntington’s work with a healthy dose of Kissinger’s writings on “the character of nations” and you’ve got a cogent and predictive intellectual framework for understanding the Big Picture of international politics.”

Basically, the author is arguing that the best way to understand the world is by listening to those who advocate for cynical realpolitik. Huntington and Kissinger are favorite thinkers of those in power. They speak for power and justify power. They are giving voice to those who rule the world. So, of course, they best explain the actual way the world is being presently ruled or at least how that rule is being rationalized in the minds of the ruling elite, whether or not the rationalization explains much of anything.

Hunt is going even further, though. He thinks that Huntington and Kissinger were speaking for reality itself. It is a cynicism so deep that it blinds him to genuine alternatives. It isn’t just the way the world is because how those in power have made it to be. He is going far beyond that. The claim is that it could be no other way.

“Huntington and Kissinger were both realists (in the Thucydides and Bismarck sense of the word), as opposed to liberals (in the John Stuart Mill and Woodrow Wilson sense of the word),”

By admiring them as realists, he is advocating realism. There is capitalist realism that has been dissected by others (e.g., Mark Fisher). The criticisms of capitalist realism parallel the criticisms of communist realism. But the view here isn’t using the Cold War rhetoric of either the freedom of markets or the freedom of workers. And it denies liberalism as being valid, liberalism both as progressivism and neo-liberalism. This is pure neo-conservatism. Ruthless power as its own justification.

That is the ‘reality’ Hunt lives in, and so it is the ‘reality’ he would like to enforce on all of the world. He can’t imagine the world any other way.

At the beginning of the article, the author included this quote:

“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion … but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”
– Samuel P. Huntington (1927 – 2008)

Many people would interpret a statement like that as an admonishment of Western imperialism. But one gets the sense that Huntington and Hunt takes that as a point of pride. We are the winners! Bow down and submit!

The above was the second quote. It immediately followed this:

“In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.”
– Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1996)

Combining those two quotes, what is implied is twofold.

First, the West is intrinsically unique and fundamentally different from all the rest of humanity. We are the pinnacle of civilization, at least for now (and, for many hereditarian reactionaries, we are also the pinnacle of human evolution).

Second, what keeps us at the pinnacle is nothing more than being better at maintaining power through “organized violence” (i.e., brute oppression and military imperialism). This is to say we are better at keeping everyone else down and in their place where they can’t challenge us. And by saying ‘we’ and ‘us’, I mean the Western ruling elite, specifically those who aspire toward an authoritarian oligarchy or paternalistic plutocracy. Actually, their aspiration is greater still, as is made clear in this article. They want to be part of a transnational ruling elite, not just in the US or even the West but across the entire globe.

To continue with what the author was saying about Huntington and Kissinger, he stated this,

“basically just means that they saw human political history as essentially cyclical and the human experience as essentially constant.”

Right there, that is what I zeroed in on. I just happened to be reading a book that I’ve had for some years, but only now got around to looking at in detail. It is Circle and Lines by John Demos. The subtitle is “The Shape of Life in Early America”.

There was a cultural transition and psychological transformation that had been going on. Demos sees it as a centuries-long shift, but I would identify it’s having begun much earlier with the breakdown of the bicameral mind and the ensuing developments during the Axial Age, during which linear theologies came to dominance (temporal existence as a one-way trip, a cosmic narrative with a conclusive and final ending; the prime example in the West being Christianity which is from the late Axial Age, having been built on preceding expressions and influenced by concurrent expressions of the Axial Age such as Alexandrian Judaism, neo-Pythagoreanismm, Greco-Roman Mystery Schools, Egyptian Isis worship, etc).

One might point out as an example, specifically a Christian example, MLK’s preaching that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This arc extends from the past into the future, as progress toward something. It is not a pagan cycle of return that repeats endlessly, ever coming back to what is, has been, and always will be.

The linear style of thinking had particularly taken hold in the West because of the Hellenistic tradition that was spread through the joint effort of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. It was reintroduced during the Renaissance, became a real force during the Enlightenment, and then violently disrupted the social order during the early modern revolutionary era. It was a slow process over millennia for it to take hold. It still hasn’t fully taken hold, as is shown by the ease of Hunt’s dismissing it out of hand. Hunt, instead, harkens back to an ancient cyclical view of humanity and the world, not only still fightng againt the Enlightenment Age thinkers but also the Axial Age prophets.

“Life is fundamentally “nasty, brutish, and short”, to quote Thomas Hobbes, and people band together in tribes, societies, and nation-states to do something about that.”

It is unsurprising that the author seeks support from a pre-Enlightenment thinker. But I doubt Hunt would accept Hobbes’ belief that all humans are equal, for the very reason that death makes life “nasty, brutish, and short” (any person could kill any other person). I’m also not sure how the cyclical view could be fit into Hobbes’ ideas about society (in Hobbes and Human Nature, Arnold Green argues that, “In short, stasis was the goal. Cyclical theories do not deny development, as Hobbes essentially did.”), since Hunt doesn’t seem to be denying development in his own cyclical theorizing, just denying progress as a fundamental force of transformation and improvement. Anyway, Hobbes is a weak foundation upon which to base a post-Enlightenment modern view of global society and cross-cultural social order (see Beyond Liberty Alone by Howard Schwartz).

“As such, we are constantly competing with other tribes, societies, and nation-states, and the patterns of that competition – patterns with names like “balance of power” and “empire” and “hegemony” – never really change across the centuries or from one continent to another. Sure, technology might provide some “progress” in creature comforts and quality of life (thank goodness for modern dentistry!), but basically technology just provides mechanisms for these political patterns to occur faster and with more devastating effect than before.”

In a nutshell: Competition between powers is the only constant. Nothing fundamentally ever changes or can change. There is no such thing as improvement. That is a stark worldview.

Besides moral criticisms, a main problem I have with it is that it doesn’t fit the evidence. Humanity has vastly changed over the centuries and millennia. The neighboring towns around where I live are not separate competing tribes or city-states that are in constant battle with my town. I can travel in most places in the world with relative ease and relatively little fear. For an increasing number of people, life no longer is “nasty, brutish, and short”.

These changes aren’t superficial, but have fundamentally altered how human nature has been expressed (possibly even at a genetic level to some degree, as research shows evolutionary changes can happen over shorter periods of time). John Demos speaks of this psychological level of change at the heart of social change, but even more profoundly it has been analyzed by the likes of Julian Jaynes and the Jaynesian theorists.

“The central point of “Clash of Civilizations” is that it’s far more useful to think of the human world as divided into 9 great cultures (Huntington calls them civilizations, but I’ll use the words interchangeably here) rather than as 200 or so sovereign nations.”

I agree that cultures are important, but this view lacks much depth. If you look very far into this topic, you quickly realize that dividing populations up into clearly delineated and broadly sweeping ethno-cultural categories is about as meaningful as doing the same with races, which is to say not particularly meaningful. These cultures are fluid and constantly shifting. They have porous borders and syncretistic pasts.

Democracy has become associated with the West, but it originated at a time when Greeks had more culturally in common with other Mediterranean people (including Near Easterners and North Africans) than with what we today think of as Westerners. Many of the major building blocks of Western Civilization originated from elsewhere. There was nothing inherently democratic, imperialistic, and colonial about Western cultures prior to these ideological systems having been introduced into the West. The West was utterly and quickly transformed in its process of becoming what it is today. Hunt is being plain ignorant in ignoring this fact.

“Marxism and liberalism are inherently optimistic visions of human society. Things are always getting better … or they will be better just as soon as people wake up and recognize their enlightened self-interest … as ideas of proletariat empowerment (Marxism) or individual rights as instantiated by free markets and free elections (liberalism) inexorably spread throughout the world.”

My sense is that Hunt is missing something centrally important. I’ve wondered if optimism isn’t actually the defining feature of liberalism and leftism. Maybe optimism at best is just a side result of a particular worldview. Liberals and leftists don’t necessarily see everything as progress. Rather, they primarily see it as irreversible, both the good and the bad. Not just irreversible, but also unstoppable. Hunt wants the world to stop so that he can get off. That just isn’t possible.

“For realists like Huntington and Kissinger, on the other hand, this is nonsense. Free markets and free elections are good things (as is proletariat empowerment, frankly), but these central concepts of liberalism only mean what we Westerners think they mean if they exist within the entire context of Western culture.”

These aren’t Western ideas in the first place. They evolved over a complex history that extends way beyond the West. The narrowness and superficiality of Hunt’s view is staggering.

“The West may very well want to impose the practices and institutions of free markets and free elections for its own self-interest, and China may want to adopt the practices and institutions of free markets (but not free elections) for its own self-interest, but the logic of self-interest is a VERY different thing than the triumphalist claim that the liberal ideas of Western free markets and free elections are “naturally” spreading throughout the world.”

I have no desire to impose anything on anyone. But if I did want to impose my own version of Western values on particular people, I’d begin with those who agree with Huntington and Kissinger. I would argue that it is Hunt who is dismissing Western tradition, not just as it might apply to non-Western societies but more importantly as it applies to the West. A linear view of change has become a central tenet of Western thought at this point. He wants to defend some abstract notion of the West by cutting out its beating heart.

Many liberals and leftists are the opposite of triumphalist about Western cultural imperialism. In fact, it is Hunt and those like him who are trying to create a new kind of Western cultural imperialism. He doesn’t actually mind imposing his ideas onto the rest of the world. What he fears is that the influence might be two-way. He wants near total Western dominance where we can protect the West with some utopian hope of cultural isolation.

Even his understanding of game theory is Western. He never explains why non-Westerners would want to submit to his game theory model of a truce among ruling elites. If non-Westerners refuse his desire that they play by Western rules as they inevitably would, what does he advise? No doubt, he would agree with Huntington and Kissinger in their advocacy of military force. Despite the rhetoric, it will always come back to violent power.

“A brief aside here on the distinction between personal beliefs and useful models. I’m not saying that I believe that authoritarian regimes and jihadist despots have some sort of moral equivalence to liberal governments, or that human rights don’t matter, or any of the other tired bromides used to tar realists. On the contrary, I personally believe that everyone in the non-Western world would be better off … MUCH better off … if their governing regimes gave a damn about individual rights and liberties in the same way that ANY governing regime in the West does.”

If that were true, Hunt better get up to speed. His ignorance of world history and world events is massive. The non-Western world is the way it is largely because of Western actions: wars, invasions, occupations, assassinations, coup d’etats, arming and training militant groups, alliances with authoritarian regimes (dictatorships, theocracies, etc), promoting fascism, military-imposed resource extraction, total control of trade routes, and on and on. If we don’t like the world we have helped to create, maybe Western governments need to start acting differently.

“But what a realist recognizes is that our personal vision of how we would like the world to be is not an accurate representation of The World As It Is, and – as Huntington wrote – it’s false, immoral, and dangerous to pretend otherwise.”

A genuine realist would acknowledge our social and moral responsibility for the world we helped create. Hunt is arguing for a vision of a Western society that doesn’t exist, except in his mind and in the propaganda of imperialists.

“Is a realist happy about any of this? Is a realist satisfied to shrug his shoulders and retreat into some isolationist shell? No, of course not. But a realist does not assume that there are solutions to these problems. Certainly a realist does not assume that there are universal principles like “free and fair elections” that can or should be applied as solutions to these problems. Some problems are intractable because they have been around for hundreds or thousands of years and are part and parcel of the Clash of Civilizations.”

Does this guy know anything about history?

The original Clash of Civilizations in Europe was between Greco-Roman culture and the tribal indigenous cultures. The memory of that clash was still so fresh that Thomas Jefferson could cite the pre-Norman English as an inspiration for American liberty (Normans having been the first serious introduction of Roman culture into Enlgand). Jefferson saw a free American society having its roots in the Germanic-Celtic people, not the imperial Roman tradition. There is no and never has been a singular unified Western culture.

“I think the crucial issue here (as it is with so many things in life) is to call things by their proper name.We’ve mistaken the self-interested imposition and adoption of so many Western artifices – the borders between Syria and Iraq are a perfect example, but you can substitute “democracy in Afghanistan” if you like, or “capital markets in China” if you want something a bit more contentious – for the inevitable and righteous spread of Western ideals on their own merits. This is a problem for one simple reason: if you think Something happened because of Reason A (ideals spreading “naturally” and “inevitably” within an environment of growing global cooperation), but it really happened because of Reason B (practices imposed or adopted out of regime self-interest within an environment of constant global competition), then you will fail to anticipate or react appropriately when that Something changes.”

I would agree with one basic component of that assessment. We should be clear in what we speak about. The failure of Hunt is that he lacks genuine understanding. Someone like Noam Chomsky would make mincemeat of his pathetic attempt at international analysis.

“And here’s the kicker: change is coming… It’s going to get worse.”

Sure. Liberals and leftists would be the first to say that. The difference is whether one accepts change or fights against it and tries to deny it. Hunt wants to defend the West against all change, to make sure all change is externalized along with all the costs.

Following that, Hunt goes on for quite a while about economics. That demonstrates the superficiality of his understanding.

There is a certain kind of person that sees everything as economics. To this thinking, all of the social order, all power, all culture comes down to economics. This is unsurprising for someone like Hunt. His career is in finance. That is his hammer by which all the world looks like a bunch of nails. Because of this, he is unable to look deeper into the historical and social forces that have made and are still making the world we live in.

This is an inevitable outcome of his worldview. He sees all change as superficial, which is to say nothing fundamentally changes. His attempt is to understand the change going on in the world. But since all change to his mind is superficial, it forces him to offer a surface level analysis. Economics are just the chips in the poker game, to be won or lost, but the players play on. There is only one game in town and that is the game of power.

The following is part of what interested my father:

“No, the existential risk is that the great civilizations of the world will be “hollowed out” internally, so that the process of managing the ten thousand year old competition between civilizations devolves into an unstable game of pandering to domestic crowds rather than a stable equilibrium of balance of power.”

Hunt supports his view with a quote from Kissinger. In that quote,

“Side by side with the limitless possibilities opened up by the new technologies, reflection about international order must include the internal dangers of societies driven by mass consensus, deprived of the context and foresight needed on terms compatible with their historical character. As diplomacy is transformed into gestures geared toward passions, the search for equilibrium risks giving way to a testing of limits. …

“Because information is so accessible and communication instantaneous, there is a diminution of focus on its significance, or even on the definition of what is significant. This dynamic may encourage policymakers to wait for an issue to arise rather than anticipate it, and to regard moments of decision as a series of isolated events rather than part of a historical continuum. When this happens, manipulation of information replaces reflection as the principal policy tool.”
– Henry Kissinger, “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” (2014)

Hunt wants a ruling elite who will paternalisticaly manage Western civilization and will manage the balance of power with the ruling elites of non-Western civilizations. This is a natural worldview for Hunt, as he manages a financial company.

He wants the world managed in the way a transnational corporation is managed. This relates to why he doesn’t think the center of power should be in nation-states. He envisions a transnational ruling elite that would somehow have greater power and influence than even the elected officials of governments.

This would also be an element that resonates with my father. He was a business manager for many years and then taught business management. My father’s entire worldview is steeped in the experience and attitude of the management model of solving problems.

Unlike Hunt and my father, I actually want a functioning democracy, not just in form but also in substance, a culture of democracy and an entire democratization of every aspect of life and governance. What they want is in reality an increasingly privatized technocracy, with maybe some outward forms of democracy by way of a paternalistic ruling elite that would use superficial rhetoric to make claims of representing the people (no different than any other ruling elite in all of history, as even kings claimed to represent the people). Hunt would also want that technocracy to be transnationalized. My father has a slight libertarian tendency and would be more wary of such transnationalization, but still not wary enough for my taste.

Here is where the author goes into detail about game theory.

“I’ll just introduce two key game theoretic concepts at the core of Kissinger’s warning.

“First, the proliferation of the most dangerous game of all – Chicken. […] Chicken is such a dangerous game because it has no equilibrium, no outcome where all parties prefer where they are to where they might be. […]

“Second, the dumbing-down of all political games into their most unstable form – the single-play game.When Kissinger writes about how political leaders come to see “moments of decision as a series of isolated events”, he’s talking about the elimination of repeated-play games and shrinking the shadow of the future. Most games seem really daunting at first glance. For example, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is famous for having a very stable equilibrium where everyone is worse off than they easily could have been with some very basic cooperation. But there’s a secret to solving the Prisoner’s Dilemma – play it lots of times with the same players. Cooperation and mutually advantageous equilibria are far easier to achieve within a repeated-play game because reputation matters. The shadow of the future looms large if you’re thinking not only about this iteration of the game and the moves ahead, but also about the next time you have to play the game, perhaps for larger stakes, and the next, and the next.”

The author is seeking a stable and unchanging balance of power. He doesn’t want a shared human society nor does he want progress, for free democratic societies are inherently unstable and constantly changing. He wants to create or return the world to some ideal holding pattern between superpowers. The game he speaks of is between elites. He doesn’t care about the rest of us. Democracy and freedom are of secondary concern to him, at best. What he is focused on is stability at all costs, a repeating game between the same players with the same results, an agreement among the powerful to keep the game of power going, a mutual understanding and respect among the world’s ruling elites.

I want to end by noting that, while in the middle of writing this piece, I did talk to my father about the article. He, of course, saw it through a different lens. All that I noticed didn’t occur to him.

He focused on the game theory aspect, apparently to the exclusion of all else (I doubt Hunt’s war crime comment even registered in his awareness to any great extent or, if it did, he probably just took it as humor). The likely reason for this is that my father shares many of the same assumptions and biases as Hunt, specifically the right-wing reactionary mistrust of “the people” along with a desire for an enlightened, meritocratic, and paternalistic ruling elite. The premises of Hunt’s argument didn’t stand out to my father as something to question and doubt. His offering the article to me was just a passing thought, just an expression of mild curiosity about how game theory might apply to international politics. The worldview itself was just background.

For me, game theory seemed like a small part of the argument, and the argument seemed like a small part of a larger worldview. Game theory was more just supporting evidence than the heart of the matter. My attention was caught by how it was being framed.

What to my father just seemed a bit pessimistic to me felt outright cynical. That is because Hunt and my father are conservatives, as contrasted with the liberalism that I espouse and they criticize. Much of conservatism, to my mind, has a disturbingly cynical bent and a fatalistic tendency, but to conservatives it is just being ‘realistic’. That is a ‘reality’ I’d rather avoid.

Let me wrap up with a couple of things about Hunt’s use of game theory.

First, game theory is inherently amoral. What I mean is that it can be applied to and used to justify various moral and immoral purposes. I’m not entirely sure about the universal applicability of game theory. To return to Christianity, I don’t see Jesus as advocating a game theory worldview. I’m thinking that game theory leaves a lot out, at least in a simplistic interpretation as Hunt is using it. However, if we weren’t to interpret it simplistically, how might game theory apply toward morality, rather than just toward self-interest of power and profit?

Second, Hunt is applying game theory only to the ruling elite. He is assuming that the ‘masses’ of the general public won’t be allowed to play, as long as people like him can control the playing field and the rules of play. But if Hunt were to be honest, he would have to confront this inconsistency. He claims that game theory fits human nature the best. In that case, why doesn’t it also apply to all humans, not just the ruling elite? Why not apply game theory to democracy, to freedom and liberty, to social responsibility and public accountability, to moral hazard and externalizations?

Hunt assumes that he is writing to an audience that either is part of the ruling elite, who aspires to be part of the ruling elite, or who sees their interests in line with the ruling elite. The related assumption he is making is that the rest of the population is too stupid, too indifferent, and too powerless to care or be able to do anything about it. Why does he make these assumptions? What if the average person refuses to play by the rules of the ruling elite? Should we expect that the violence committed against foreigners, as neocons recommend, will also be turned against us, the local citizenry?

What does game theory tell us will happen when the ruling elite gets too oppressive?