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

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Burnt Offerings–Marches, Demonstrations, And Protests

The Kumbh Mela is a religious pilgrimage which occurs at one of  India’s four holiest sites - Al­la­habad, Harid­war, Uj­jain and Nashik - every 12 years.  The most important is that held in Allahabad, and over 70 million pilgrims made the journey in 2006. 

It is the power of faith that can part a river, move mountains, and endure the hardships that come bundled up for being an integral part of Kumbh Mela, a congregation of millions, gathered together to be freed from the vicious earthly cycle of life and death and move towards a heavenly realm, which knows no suffering or pain. It's the mythological history of India and the sacred religious texts that bind us to an eternal hope. "An eternal life free of sins" is the promise that comes attached with the Kumbh Mela.

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The hajj to Mecca is made by over 2 million pilgrims every year. For Muslims the Hajj has a spiritual merit that provides the worshipper with an opportunity of self-renewal; and which serves as a reminder of the Day of Judgment when all will stand before God.

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The pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, 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.

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El Camino de Santiago was an expression of 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.

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.

The Zapotecs lived in a world of natural, immanent power.  Spiritual forces were in the lightning and thunder, the violent storms, predatory animals, and in the rising and setting of the moon and sun.  They were brooding in the massive mountains or in the night sky.  They were everywhere, frighteningly real.  There was no distinction between human life, nature, and the gods.  This religion was not a tame animism. In the Oaxaca valley under a brillian sun and surrounded by mountains, there was no escaping the temperamental and eruptive forces of Nature and the gods. 

Human sacrifice, attended by thousands who had come from the farthest reaches of tribal territories and Zapotec society who had come to worship at the sacrificial mount, surrounded by what they believed were the living gods of mountains, sun, wind, and the apotheosis of paganism.

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While all pilgrimages and sacrificial worship are meant for the spiritual transformation of the individual, they are also very communal events.  The pilgrim’s faith is made even more pronounced, felt even more deeply and passionately when he is surrounded by thousands of others who share the same belief and especially the same ecstatic devotion.  The energy and shared passion of the crowd increase a sense of individual faith, purpose, and devotion.

The Crusades were both a military expedition and spiritual pilgrimage.  Marching to the Holy Land to free it from the Muslim invader was both a Christian and national duty.  Those marching together were bound by an absolute belief in Jesus Christ and the righteousness of Christianity and their obedience to the Pope.  At the same time they would see Jerusalem, dreamed of by many but visited by very few.  They would be walking the same paths of Jesus, visiting Golgotha, Bethlehem, and the Judean desert.  They would do it together, a congregation of true believers, a troupe of conquerors and worshippers.

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Collective worship is common.  Most Americans attend church or temple regularly.  Each has collective ceremonies – the singing of hymns, the procession to the altar to receive holy communion, or the collective recitation of prayers; but these ceremonies are nothing compared to those of Mecca or Allahabad.  Except for certain charismatic Pentecostal ceremonies, they are devoid of passion.  They are reflective, meditative, and respectful services which strengthen the solidarity of the faithful, maintain a link with God, and carry out religious obligations; but they are quiet, and while they may be satisfying because of their spiritual proximity, they are contained, inner services.

Given the history of spiritual pilgrimages, ecstatic worship, and mass, passionate expressions of belief, it is no wonder that in the secularization of religion today, in the tame, politically and socially conscious services, and in the focus on the non-spiritual, indirect expressions of faith – compassion, tolerance, love, and brotherhood – it is no wonder that mass protests, demonstrations, and marches are not only common but increasing in number and passion.  The National Mall is the venue for mass demonstrations against climate change, the abuse of women, the continued marginalization and prejudicial treatment of African Americans, the predatory practices of Wall Street, the irreverence of Donald Trump; or for the environment, women’s rights, the inclusion of gays, lesbians, and transgenders; or international peace. 

The demonstrations are often peaceful but never quiet – nor are they meant to be.  They are opportunities to be loud, intemperate, and intolerant – to express passionately-held beliefs without considering the other side.  There can be no other side when it comes to the final liberation of the black man, the complete and absolute expression of all sexualities, the downfall of predatory capitalism and the establishment of a more moral and just economic system.   If demonstrations become hysterical, so be it.  “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”, said Barry Goldwater, a slogan which referred to conservative patriotism and military strength, but could be just as easily applied to demonstrations demanding immediate if not revolutionary reform.

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However unlike the marches of the Sixties where demonstrations had a specific, well-defined objective – e.g. a Civil Rights Act or the end of the Vietnam War – today’s marches are only celebratory.  ‘End racism!’ when everyone is against it is too general a commitment and too vague a purpose.  ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a cry for recognition but without targeting anything more general than ‘white privilege’.  ‘Gun control’ is more specific in its demand for more restrictions on firearms, but more an integral part of a social reform movement - one that is more tolerant, less violent, and more communal.

As with the great religious pilgrimages to Mecca, Allahabad, and Jerusalem, marchers on Washington gather as much for a feeling of solidarity – a legitimization of political commitment annealed and enhanced by the collective and passionate expression of others.  In fact, the reason for the marches may well be less for stated purpose than the expression of that purpose.  It makes no difference whether or not the demonstrations will have any demonstrable impact.  In fact demonstrators often admit that their purpose is simply ‘to raise awareness’.

The purpose may be to raise awareness in others, but more importantly – in the spirit of pilgrimages and sacrificial ceremonies throughout history – to share that awareness, that ‘wokeness’ with others and increase and enhance a sentiment of belonging and personal purpose. 

It is also not surprising to see so many secular pilgrimages today.  Prosperity and a booming economy has given Americans more leisure time than they ever dreamed of in the early days of the Republic.  At the same, a complex social and economic system the Founding Fathers could never have envisioned, has increased the need for loud expressions of identity -  without which minority groups, now subdivided again and again, would be lost. 

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Last but not least, such a complex, divided, secularized society has made personal worth problematic.  Without religion to console, without the firm belief in a unique spiritual identity (a divine soul), and without an automatic subscription to universal values and the institutions which incorporated them (home, family, church, school, community, and law), it is not surprising that so many Americans seek belonging in mass political movements regardless of their likely effect.

There are only two conclusions to make and both are obvious.  First, everyone needs a sense of personal value and worth; and if that value no longer comes institutionally packaged, it is still necessary, but just harder to confirm.  Second, crowd allegiance and mutually expressed faith, belief, and commitment, seems to be the best, easiest, and most readily available to help the confirmation.

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