Concluding Thoughts on the Sacred

Looking at the grand scope of our human existence, I believe, as Martin Luther King Jr. did, that we have a sacred duty to look after our neighbors.  As he wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[1]  It isn’t simply enough to be concerned only with one’s own wellbeing, assuming that each person will be able to take care of him or herself and each has a support network sufficient to his or her needs. 

The idea of this kind of interconnectedness is a thought echoed throughout Albert Camus’ The Plague.  For example, after Cottard attempted to hang himself, Rieux suggested that “somebody should watch Cottard tonight” to which Grand volunteered saying that “I can’t say that I really know him, but one’s got to help a neighbor, hasn’t one?”[2] Later in the work, the narrator continues this thought remarking that “They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”[3]  It is important to note here that he isn’t saying that freedom is absent when one is suffering from illness or if one’s house is afflicted but rather it is a call that a plague anywhere, whether it impacts us directly or not, is a threat to everyone as it has the potential to disrupt and destroy the entire fabric of humanity.

Continuing with The Plague, the author makes some important statements regarding organized religion.  While the plague ravages the city of Oran, many people who are not normally churchgoing folks turn to religion in the hopes that doing so might provide some relief for their condition.[4]  While in attendance, they find Father Paneloux who makes the claim that “Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and my brethren, you deserved it.”[5]  The priest’s line of thinking is similar to what one can find in the book of Proverbs.  As wisdom declares in Proverbs 1:30, “They rejected my advice and paid no attention when I corrected them.  That is why they must eat the bitter fruit of living their own way.  They must experience the full terror of the path they have chosen.”[6]  We can find a similar pronouncement in Ezekiel 18:20, “Righteous people will be rewarded for their own goodness, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness.”[7]  However, interest in religion faded as, the author tells us, “once these people realized their instant peril, they gave their thoughts to pleasure.”[8] 

As the plague continued to ravage the city, Paneloux had a change of heart, urging his fellow citizens not to attempt to flee or surrender to the plague, but that each had a duty to fight for the betterment of all.  “Each one of us must be the one who stays!”[9]  Nevertheless, the priest continued in many of his old ways, refusing to see a doctor despite growing increasingly ill.  While Father Paneloux lay dying in the hospital, Doctor Rieux offered to stay with him to which the priest replied, “Thanks.  But priests can have no friends.”[10]  When the priest was found dead the next morning, based upon his earlier proclamations should the other characters have declared that the priest got what was coming to him?  That his death was good, a just punishment for his sins, in the same way that the priest once thought the plague was a punishment for the people of the city?  I should hope not.

If a person is suffering does that necessarily mean he or she deserves it, that he or she is experiencing a kind of divine karmic retribution?  To answer this question, I believe it is important to turn to the Book of Job.  Yes, it is possible that, like the destruction of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah[11], the plague came to punish the people for their sins, but it is difficult to make such a claim definitively.  Job’s friends tell Job that he ought to repent of his sins, but as God says in Job 1:8, “‘Have you noticed my servant Job?  He is the finest man in all the earth-a man of complete integrity.  He fears God and will have nothing to do with evil.’”[12]  Did Job deserve all of the calamity heaped upon him?  The Bible indicates that he did not.  From Job 42:7, “After the LORD had finished speaking to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘I am angry with you and with your two friends, for you have not been right in what you said about me, as my servant Job was.’”[13]  Moving to the New Testament, we find Jesus reject this line of thinking that suffering necessarily must be a sign of punishment for one’s sins.  From John 9:1-3, “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth.  ‘Teacher,’ his disciples asked him, ‘why was this man born blind?  Was it a result of his own sins or those of his parents?’  ‘It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,’ Jesus answered.  ‘He was born blind so the power of God could be seen in him.’”[14]

I believe it is nearly impossible for us to know if a person’s suffering is a result of his or her sins or rather an injustice inflicted upon him or her.  Furthermore, returning to the idea of helping those beside one’s friends, we must reject the argument of Polemarchus when, in Plato’s Republic, he declares that justice consists of helping our friends and hurting our enemies.[15] Instead, we ought to think like Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he wrote that Jesus “comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help.  He confronts you in every person that you meet.”[16]  Whether we like it or not, we have “a collective destiny”.[17]  Therefore, we ought to strive to erase injustice, regardless of whether it impacts us directly and whether it is for the sake of our friends or strangers.  That calling is part of our sacred duty and although it promises to be a never-ending struggle, it is a battle worth fighting.

…the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory.  It could be only the record of what had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.[18]

[1] King, Martin Luther. Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]. (December 13, 2019).

[2] Camus, Albert. 1991. The Plague. New York, NY: Vintage International. 20.

[3] Ibid. 37.

[4] Ibid. 93.

[5] Ibid. 94.

[6] Holy Bible: New Living Translation. 1996. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers. 662.

[7] Ibid 836.

[8] Camus, Albert. 1991. The Plague. New York, NY: Vintage International. 121.

[9] Ibid. 227.

[10] Ibid. 233.

[11] Holy Bible: New Living Translation. 1996. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers. 18-19.

[12] Ibid.  539.

[13] Ibid. 564.

[14] Ibid. 1077.

[15] Jeffrey, Andrew. 1979. “Polemarchus and Socrates on Justice and Harm.” Phronesis 24(1): 56.

[16]  Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 2012. God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. 2.

[17] Camus, Albert. 1991. The Plague. New York, NY: Vintage International. 167.

[18] Ibid. 308.

The Sacred Revisited

In a previous essay, I explored the idea of what is sacred to me and my world.  In that work, I listed a multitude of tangible and intangible things that I consider sacred including religious texts and places of worship as well as concepts such as honor and duty.  Since that time, I have examined a number of political theologians and, based upon some of their thoughts, they have provided additional resources to expand upon my earlier writing. 

First, although quite a few others in class mentioned the idea of the sacred nature of friends and family, I’d like to take a moment to comment on the concept.  I intentionally excluded family because I have found that other than serving as a blood tie, a relative does not necessarily imply any sort of special relationship.  For example, when I ran for city council back in 2014, I erroneously assumed that many of my relatives would provide some sort of assistance to my campaign.  As it turns out, despite a direct plea at a family reunion, only my parents, one uncle, and a single cousin answered my call.  I had much better luck in seeking assistance from my friends, but even then, it was a bitter moment when I stumbled upon one of my friends who was campaigning for one of my opponents.  If a person wants to know what others actually think of him, running for office is a way to achieve this outcome.  Nevertheless, I would argue that quality relationships whether familial or those of friendship as Simone Weil mentions are critical to the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of every individual.  While studying at West Virginia University, I helped forge and enjoyed a strong network among my fellow graduate students and professors.  Leaving those bonds of kinship was the only difficult aspect of saying goodbye to Morgantown.  I assumed that I would find a similar situation while at Louisiana State University, but it was not the case.  Most students kept to themselves, especially those in the upper classes and as my incoming cohort was only half of the size of those at West Virginia University, there were far fewer opportunities to build these critical social bonds.  I only ended up with close ties to one student, a fellow named Phillip who somewhat surprisingly accepted my invitation to church and joined me at services every other Sunday.  I found that being removed from this web of interactions makes daily life far more stressful and I am looking forward to seeing my compatriots again when I return to Morgantown for a few days in about a week’s time.

Never having read Catholic writings, I found the ideas presented in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum to be particularly interesting and I agree with much of the theology found within.  We as a society have begun to view our relationships, especially as it relates to employment solely in terms of economic transactions.  Now it should be obvious that the main purpose of employment is to earn a wage so that the laborer can provide for him or herself as well as those within his or her care.  “When a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive for his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own.”[1] Nevertheless, the laborer should not be viewed as a replaceable cog in the machinery of the business, used heavily until he or she has become worn out, with the management replacing him or her with another fresh piece so that the cycle might continue.  But, at the same time, the employee ought to maintain a certain pride in his or her labor, no matter the work performed. 

To draw upon my recent employment at the Manship Research Facility, I confess that I did not enjoy my work.  I felt deceived as I was under the impression that I would be working as a teaching assistant for one or more professors in the political science department as I had done at WVU, work that would help prepare me for the time when I would teach classes of my own.  “Such men feel in most cases that they have been fooled by empty promises and deceived by false pretexts.”[2] Although I started my work with a level of resentment, I nevertheless felt it was my duty to perform the tasks that my employers requested.  That means showing up on time, prepared the best one can, doing quality work, and trying to display a positive attitude.  Even though it was not one of my listed duties, what I felt was my most important task was to provide encouragement and support for the callers at the facility.  Harkening back to my own experiences, shortly after graduating, I worked for a year as a political pollster. Although the work itself was demoralizing, the fact that some supervisors treated the employees with a level of disdain and contempt made the situation far more difficult.  Therefore, I strove while employed as a polling supervisor, in whatever way I could to try and boost the morale of the workers.  As Pope Leo XIII stated, “to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers – that is truly shameful and inhuman.”[3]

American politics are not in a healthy state and seem to be growing ever more troubled as party polarization continues to expand.  What, therefore, is one’s sacred duty to the state?  Some Christians point to the book of Romans for an answer.  “Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there.  All governments have been placed in power by God.  So those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow.”[4]  But, should we support the government even when it is conducting wicked acts?  After all, returning to the Bible we find that the prophet Elijah did not obey King Ahab when the ruler went against the faith and David did not unquestioningly obey Saul even though Saul was God’s anointed leader.  So how should we respond when a state violates our moral foundations?  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “there are thus three possibilities for action that the church can take vis-á-vis the state: first…questioning the state as to the legitimate state character of its actions…second is service to the victims of the state’s actions…the third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself”.[5]  I was surprised to discover that John Calvin agreed with Bonhoeffer, that there are indeed times in which citizens ought to disobey their government.  As he wrote, “for earthly princes lay aside all their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy of being reckoned in the number of mankind.  We ought rather utterly to defy than to obey them whenever they are so restive and wish to spoil God of his rights, and, as it were, to seize upon his throne and draw him down from heaven.”[6]  It is curious to compare what the Franklin Graham said several days ago, calling the effort to remove the President of the United States as being led by an “almost a demonic power”.[7]  I believe that we have a duty to speak out against our government when it violates morality regardless of which party in power is committing these acts.  The outrages include drone strikes against innocent civilians, separating families and caging people at the border, and indefinitely detaining individuals without a trial or even legal representation.

As evidenced by this essay and the earlier one on the same topic, the concept of the sacred is an important facet of my person both in terms of physical items and concepts.   It is not simply enough to live an honest life, but also to strive for honest, meaningful relationships, promote a strong work ethic, and to be mindful of avoiding applying the sacred to states or political leaders.   Yes, it is more to avoid doing the wrong thing, but as the Book of James reminds us, “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it.”[8] Defending that which we consider sacred isn’t always comfortable, and can lead us into danger, but it is imperative for us to do so in order to promote the just and moral world we wish to leave to future generations.

[1] Leo XIII “Rerum Novarum.” The Holy See, 15 May 1891. Section 5.

[2] Ibid. Section 61.

[3] Ibid. Section 20.

[4] Holy Bible: New Living Translation. 1996. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers. 1149.

[5] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich et al. 2009. Berlin 1932-1933. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 365.

[6] Calvin, John. 1853. Commentaries On The Book Of The Prophet Daniel. Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society. 382.

[7] Parker, Alex. 2019. “Reverend Franklin Graham: The Democrats’ Drive to Impeach the President Is ‘Demonic’.” RedState. (November 24, 2019).

[8] Holy Bible: New Living Translation. 1996. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers. 1246.