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. http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html

[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. https://www.redstate.com/alexparker/2019/11/22/reverend-franklin-graham-democrats-drive-impeach-president-demonic/ (November 24, 2019).

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

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