"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, February 24, 2018

On The March–Flying The Banner Of Belief From The Crusades To The Washington Mall

There has always been a compelling nature to collective action.  The Crusades were not just armies of the West marching to Jerusalem to rid the Holy City of its Muslim infidel; but a militant statement of the power, glory, and rightful place of Christianity in the world.  They were different from the marauding armies of Genghis Khan who rode out of the steppes with a hundred thousand horsemen, laid waste to and then conquered the world from Europe to Asia.  They were the instruments of God’s will, and as such they would be unstoppable.  Over a period of two hundred years, three Crusades marched out of Europe to the East, each to be the final one, the scattering of Islam and the establishment of the one true church.  While the Crusades ultimately failed in their military objective (the last Christian outpost in Palestine fell in 1291), they accomplished much, much more.

Image result for images crusades

Of course the Crusades were of more than religious purpose.  The popes were as territorial and power-driven as any secular leader, and the agenda of the Crusades was as least as much geopolitical as spiritual.  Nevertheless, the Middle Ages was a profoundly religious period, as close to the imperial church and Constantine as England is to the Norman Conquest, far enough removed to engineer a new, historical Church, but close enough not to have lost missionary zeal.  The Crusades were at once cultural expressions, political and military expeditions, and the consolidation of papal power. Yet they consolidated the collective identity of the Latin Church under papal leadership; and constituted a replenishable source  for accounts of heroism, chivalry, and piety that galvanized medieval romance, philosophy, and literature.  Most wars are fought by conscripts, and the Crusades were certainly no different, but in an age of militant Christianity and unquestioned belief they were just as certainly led by true believers.

The Crusades seem particularly relevant to today’s secular America.  The Washington Mall has seen the largest, most passionate, and most militant expressions of civil unity in the protests against the Vietnam War and for Civil Rights; and the most dissolved demands for the environment, women’s rights, and racial justice.  While the protests of the Sixties had very specific, concrete goals in mind – the end to the Vietnam War, passage of legislation to outlaw discrimination and to prosecute racial violence – the demonstrations today are displays of solidarity, expressions of grievance and outrage; and perhaps more than anything, statements of collective identity.  The protests, and demonstrations feel like the Crusades to the marchers who see themselves as more than just social activists out to reset the course of American democracy, but evangelists for whom the environment, women and minorities, and the promotion of secular, progressive values have a righteous, spiritual nature.  They are demanding not only a change in social perceptions; not even for a structural change in national priorities and investments; but a moral revolution.  Their vision of equality goes far beyond the French and American Revolutions, Locke and Rousseau; far even beyond Plato’s Republic and its principles of value.  It brushes up against God’s Law – a supreme value, one of permanent, unquestioned non-relative value.

Image result for images mlk march on mall

It is hard to deny the importance of collective identity in the Middle Ages.  In Medieval Europe the life expectancy was barely over thirty, life for most was brutal and inescapable, and the social hierarchy was permanent, authoritarian, and unavoidable.  Collectivities – villages, regions – were little more than regulated entities of serfdom.  Families were little more than productive units for the prosperity of the court.   Religion provided support, hope, solace, and expectations of a better life in the hereafter; and joining a movement of likeminded believers would hasten the establishment of God’s rule on earth and guarantee through conviction and martyrdom a place in heaven.

Today’s American populace suffers from much of the same abjection of the Middle Ages. Although offered the hope of opportunity and a rise in fortune, few benefit from the American dream much more than a few wage hikes and minimal benefits.  The organizations which fought for large collectivities – e.g. the working man – have been disbanded. Nothing has replaced them and the progressive dismantling of a unified national ethos has further left individuals less protected, more alone, and with a more fragile future than in years past.  Worse, the ethos of identity has replaced that of Jeffersonian individualism.  Whereas Jefferson believed in individualism only as it was exercised within the context of community welfare and prosperity, today such a belief in a universal, absolute moral philosophy has eroded by the new belief in the primacy of narrow, secular demands. 

Image result for images medieval serf village

Marches whether for Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, Women’s Rights, Earth Day, or gender inclusivity have become increasingly necessary but distracting.  Thornton Wilder’s Our Town no longer exists.  There are fewer such small communities whose values are shared by all others and who are free to consider their lives within a broader, more philosophical perspective. Marches today have become angry and isolating; and while they serve the purpose of social and personal solidarity, they have served to divide the nation more than save it. 

Pilgrimages – religious marches or processions to a place of reverence – have always been a part of religious expression.  Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism all have important, historical holy sites, and each year they are visited by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. The Kumbh Mela is a religious event that occurs every 12 years at various holy sites in India, the most important of which is Allahabad.  When the Mela is held there, tens of millions of Hindus make the pilgrimage to worship.  In 2007 over 70 million people attended the 45-day ceremony.  Every year the haj or pilgrimage to Mecca draws nearly 2.5 million people.  The sites where the Virgin Mary was supposed to have appeared (e.g. Lourdes, Fatima) receive thousands of pilgrims per year.  In 2008 there were nearly 1.5 million pilgrims at Lourdes.

Image result for images kumbh mela allahabad

The pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela dates from the 9th and 10th centuries – the same approximate time period of the Crusades.  Since that time millions of pilgrims have walked the ‘Camino’ for spiritual indulgence, penance, and grace.

El Camino de Santiago came to being due to the belief that the apostle Saint James was buried in the land of Galicia, in the northwest of Spain after years of preaching the Gospels in the Iberian Peninsula. After his return to Jerusalem he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa in the year 44 AD, thus becoming one of the first Christian martyrs. Following the saint’s death, it was said that St. James’ disciples put his body in a stone boat that, lead by angels, sailed across the Mediterranean Sea, went through the Pillars of Hercules in the Strait of Gibraltar to finally arrive at the coast of Galicia, where a massive rock closed around his relics. These were later removed to Compostela.

Image result for images santiago de compostela

Even for the marginally-faithful the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela is as much of a ritual as a way of seeing Spain. Accounts of personal spiritual meditation are not uncommon among marchers.  Clearly the march is still a pilgrimage.

Today’s demonstrations, then, are a modern configuration of both the Crusades and Holy Pilgrimage.  They are concerned with higher values, are both militant and deeply personal, confer a social legitimacy through a show of faith and commitment, and offer final, non-secular rewards.

This phenomenon should be of no surprise.  Environmentalism, for example, has become a secular religion and little different from the millennialism of the past.  Sins against the Earth must be atoned for, and our fate will be brutal, and punishing.  Salvation for ourselves and the Earth is however possible through prayer and good works. These warnings, chastisements, and admonitions re no different than the Christian lessons taught from the pulpit every Sunday.  America is a profoundly religious culture; and no matter how seemingly secular our actions and aspirations may be, spiritual faith is never far away.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.