What is Sacred to Me and My World?

There are quite a few things that I consider sacred.  For example, every Sunday, with the occasional exceptions where I misplace it, I bring my copy of the Bible, a gift with a by now well-worn cover which was given to me as a high school graduation gift, to whatever church I happen to be attending on any given Sunday.  Although I cannot recall when this ritual began, it is a practice that I have continued for as long as I can remember.  I do so even when I attend a church that I know does not include scripture reading as part of their service.  In such cases, I choose to superimpose a portion of text from this book, as much or as little as I desire.  In addition, I own copies of holy books from other faiths, such as the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Apocrypha, and the various texts from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  I reserve a space for them on my bookshelf (or I would do so if I had a bookshelf in my present apartment).  Even though I do not practice these religious traditions, I still treat these texts with reverence out of respect for those who do consider them sacred.  In the same way, I view houses of worship of any religious affiliation as a sacred space.  As such, I believe that there is a certain level of decorum that ought to be observed in these sanctuaries which include: refraining from profane speech, a level of dress appropriate for the situation, and otherwise not dishonoring those who believe these places have a special connection to their god or gods.  As in the case with The Eumenides with the Temples of Apollo and Athena, whether a god is present in this place (or if he or she even exists), one ought to treat them with a level of respect comparable to those who actually follow these religious traditions.

           However, I do not consider other, non-religious objects to be sacred.  For example, some people hold a flag to be a sacred object and desire to enact laws that punish those who defile them.  I oppose anti-desecration laws for flags and even for the sacred texts as mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Although I would not engage in this kind of defilement, I believe in a concept of freedom that allows individuals to do whatever they wish with their personal property.  Though when it comes to national symbols, such as flags and pledges of allegiance to a flag, these objects are clearly man-made.  Treating them as sacred demonstrates a level of devotion to a state which I feel overlaps the state and religion; I believe this behavior is dangerous in terms of promoting liberty and is the replacement of the divine (or potentially divine) with something which is clearly of our own creation, a desire to make ourselves, our history, and/or our confederations into something of far greater significance than what ought to be considered proper.  Following this line of thought, I suppose I would argue that the concept of freedom and liberty holds a certain sacred space for me as well.

            If freedom and liberty are sacred, then we shouldn’t limit our concept of what is sacred to mere physical objects.  There is also a code of behavior which I consider sacred.  Two of the most important dimensions of this thinking are a sense of honor and duty.  To borrow a reference from popular culture, I am reminded of the motto of House Tully from HBO and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones where Bran Stark recites it as “Family, Duty, Honor” [1].  Now, this kind of honor is not that which is bestowed by one person upon another, such as the kind Simonides and Hiero discuss in On Tyranny [2], but rather a personal code of ethics which compels a person to moderate his or her behavior.  To draw a personal connection, I have worked on a multitude of political campaigns each with the ultimate goal of electing or reelecting a politician.  From time to time, during the course of my employment, some candidates or fellow campaign workers have suggested performing certain acts which, although may be of benefit to the overall success of the campaign, create a stain upon one’s personal honor.  One example that springs to mind took place while I was employed with the Republican Party of Virginia.  Toward the mid-point of the campaign season, the staff of then Representative Thelma Drake came into conflict with one of my co-workers and for some reason took it upon themselves to raid the office of this co-worker while he was away.  Although warned not to tell others of what transpired, I felt it would be unethical if I did not report what I observed to my supervisors in Richmond.  Silence would equate with complicity in a dishonorable act.  Shortly thereafter, I lost my position with the party.  When I inquired as to why I was fired, I was told it was personally requested by Representative Drake and the party would not deny a request from a Congresswoman.  Although I lost my employment, I retained my sense of honor, which I felt was far more important than some minor post.

            Although it has been a long time since my undergraduate days, if I remember my studies of Hinduism correctly, my sacred sense of duty overlaps with their concept of dharma.  In the Bhagavad Gita, the main character Arjuna is concerned with the consequences of war though he ultimately engages in conflict when Krishna reminds him of his duty or dharma.  Similarly, the Furies are compelled to avenge matricide in The Eumendies saying, “and yet we have our duty-to do what we have done”[3].  Another example of sacred duty comes from the history of Islam.  Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, did not wish to fight the forces of Muhammad’s widow Aisha in the Battle of the Camel, as killing fellow Muslims is forbidden according to the teachings of the Quran, and attempted to negotiate a peace.  Nevertheless, once the battle began he did not retreat because he realized that if he withdrew from the conflict then he would never be able to claim his rightful place as Commander of the Faithful which, in his mind, was his sacred duty to his religion.[4] 

            The demands of honor and those of duty can come in conflict, as demonstrated by the lamentation of Orestes after he killed Clyaemestra.  Although Apollo commanded him to commit the murder, once he did so, he realized how slaying his mother would impact his honor.  “Now I can praise him, now I can stand by to mourn and speak before this web that killed my father; yet I grieve for the thing done, the death, and all our race.  I have won; but my victory is polluted, and has no pride.” [5] Similarly, returning to the history of Islam, when Ali’s men sought to defeat the wicked and rebellious governor of Syria, they ceased to fight once their outnumbered opponents began to stick pages of the Quran on their lances.  Perhaps seen as a tragic character flaw that could be exploited by the unscrupulous, their sense of honor to respect their holy book outweighed their sense of duty to defeat their enemy. [6]

            At this stage in my life there a quite a few things, both tangible and intangible, which I hold sacred.  Holy texts, places, liberty, honor, and duty are all important aspects of the sacred.  As mentioned, trying to hold all of these things and ideas as sacred can result in conflict from time to time and thus one has to weigh their competing demands to determine the best way to maintain a proper balance and desirable course of action.  Whether any individual or society as a whole agrees with my list, or that anything can be sacred in the modern world, is irrelevant.  My concept of the sacred does not depend on the outcome of a popular vote or require approval from anyone else.   

[1] “The Wolf and the Lion.” 2011. Game of Thrones 1(5).

[2] Strauss, Leo, Michael S. Roth, and Victor Gourevitch. 2000. On Tyranny: Rev. and Expanded Edition, Including the Strauus-Kojeve Correspondence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 13-14.

[3] Aeschylus. 2013. Aeschylus II: the Oresteia. University of Chicago Press. 131.

[4] Hazleton, Lesley. 2010. After the Prophet: the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam. New York: Anchor Books. 99-126.

[5] Aeschylus. 2013. Aeschylus II: the Oresteia. University of Chicago Press. 120.

[6] Hazleton, Lesley. 2010. After the Prophet: the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam. New York: Anchor Books. 138-139.

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