Thursday, September 11, 2014

Rites of Desecration

Suicide, Sacrilege and the Crossroads Burial


Although suicide has always been considered to be the most personal of acts, it has a complex social and cultural history in the Western world – one that has been shaped by three-thousand years of shifting moralities, public opinions, popular superstitions, religious beliefs, medical interpretations and philosophical debates.

In ancient Greek and Roman societies, “self-death” was generally treated with a sense of ambivalence. Philosophers pondered the subject with an open mind, balancing notions of morality and free will, and ultimately believing it better to depart in peace rather than live a life of misery. Elite s
oldiers were expected to follow a hero's code, where death by one's own hand was embraced over surrender and battlefield disgrace. Medical practitioners routinely assisted in mercy killings, providing poisons to patients who wished to end prolonged sickness or suffering. Even members of the nobility, when faced with criminal charges and public shame, considered suicide to be a dignified means for salvaging one's personal legacy from total disgrace.

This relatively tolerant attitude would change dramatically with the rise of Christianity. The early Christian sects themselves gave little value to life in this world. Following the example of their executed messiah, they celebrated the acts of martyrs who embraced death rather than renounce their faith. But as the religion became institutionalized by the fifth-century this outlook would change.
Suicide was unequivocally declared a moral abomination, a sinful act of violence against God directed by the Devil himself, “which shall not be forgiven... neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”
1

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Great Dying

New England's Coastal Plague, 1616-1619

[How] strangely they have decreased by the Hand of God... and it hath generally been observed that where the English come to settle, a Divine Hand makes way for them.” – Daniel Denton (early American colonist)

The popular Pilgrim myth involves a persecuted group of Christian reformers who fled England in order to worship freely in the New World. In a narrative that finds parallels with the Israelite exodus from Egypt, these chosen people were guided by God in a perilous journey across the Atlantic in search of what would later be described by Puritan leader John Winthrop as “a beacon of religious light, a model of spiritual promise, a city upon a hill."1 Through heroic struggle and an unshakable commitment to their faith, they were able to conquer the vast New England wilderness, tame the hostile natives and expand the glory and dominion of the Christian God in these new lands.2

In reality, the promised land wasn't exactly a Canaan that needed to be conquered. The area that would become Plymouth Colony was essentially a ghost town by the time that the Pilgrims stepped foot off the Mayflower. Deserted villages and untended fields dotted the landscape, with caches of crops, tools and other supplies hastily left behind... along with the skeletal remains of the former inhabitants. A few years prior, the entire coastal region had been ravaged by a mysterious disease that wiped out most of the native Wampanoag and neighboring Massachusetts, Pennacook, Nauset, Permaquid and Abenaki populations.

For the English settlers, this was all part of a divine plan. Providence had taken the form of a "miraculous pestilence" that had swept the land clean so a new Christian society could be established. Thomas Morton, an early colonial merchant, praised the epidemic that had recently depopulated the land, leaving it
“much the more fit for the English Nation to inhabit in, and erect in it Temples to the glory of God.”
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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

No Gods, No Masters

Blasphemy and Anticlerical Violence During the Spanish Civil War

"If God existed, only in one way could he serve human liberty by ceasing to exist."  – Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State

Claimed as “the greatest clerical bloodletting Europe has ever seen,”1 the early days of the Spanish Civil War saw nearly 7,000 members of the Catholic clergy systematically executed as hundreds of churches, convents and monasteries were burnt to the ground. Religious icons were profaned, the tombs of saints desecrated, and "public acts of unspeakable blasphemy” were performed to the approval of jubilant crowds.

While much of the outside world was shocked by the anti-religious “red terror” that swept over the country, in reality these iconoclastic acts were the culmination of nearly five hundred years of popular resent. By the 20th century, the Catholic Church was seen by many as a fundamentally corrupt institution, which served the interests of the rich and powerful while keeping the poor in moral servitude. Militant anticlericalism became widespread,
2 and with the revolutionary floodgates opened by civil war there was no holding back the popular fervor to “reclaim the soul of Spain" from this centuries-old theocratic grip.