Profaning the Sacred

This week, dear reader, I want to respond to my dear friend Ben Dyer’s critique of my post of what happened with Harvard’s black mass.You can read my original post here. You can read Ben’s response here.  Here’s Ben’s summary of what happened:

The short version is that the Church of Satan and a Harvard student club decided to reenact a “Black Mass” on Harvard’s grounds, but they voluntarily withdrew and ended up cancelling the event after pressure from local Catholic groups stirred up Harvard’s administration and the local community against it. Though Jonathan sees the church’s campaign against the event to be a lost opportunity to enter nuanced dialogue with the event’s organizers and participants, I think he’s missed something here.

What’s missing is the thing that happens when you tear down something venerated or sacred. Beyond merely expressing an opinion about it, you profane the sacred.

Ben thinks I’ve not taken into account what happens when iconoclasts publicly profane our deepest religious symbols. If I understand him correctly, there is a kind of moral standing in society that should not simply ignore sentiments of disdain and hatred (which is what the Black mass does intimate). The Catholics at Harvard and every Christian are right to use social pressure to prevent this sort of profanity from being public. We (Christians) have a duty to stand up to such profanation. Ben goes on:

. . . [W]hen others intentionally profane what we hold most dear, we may not scourge them as Jesus did the money-changers, but we lack judgment (and possibly culpably as well) if we regard them as Jesus did the tax collectors and prostitutes. We should always be ready to engage and embrace the socially marginalized, but Jesus never asked us to reward blasphemy with warmth or to be complicit in the destruction of what he has called sacred.

Ben thinks what the Catholics at Harvard did was neither scourging nor ministering. If I understand him, one might say that while individuals who participated in the Black mass are suitable and indeed need ministering, the organization itself should be denounced, however. I have know Ben for many years and I know that he would take every opportunity to extend grace and supplication to any one who would accept a cup of cold water in the name of Christ. What is at issue here is not should the Church offer its hand of fellowship to all. What is at issue is how should the Church respond to  groups who disdains the very foundation of what we hold dear.  Ben claims that Christians who do not denounce and use social (not legal) pressures in the wake of profaning the sacred lack judgment and are possibly culpable. Let’s call this response that Ben suggests the “Dissent Response” since the idea is social pressure is permissible if someone is profaning the sacred and we ought to prevent that from happening by any fair means of social pressure. Call my response the  “Proclamation Response” since it eschews social pressure in favor of a stance of merely proclaiming our love for those who disdain our beliefs.  (I am not wed to these titles. If one seems derogatory, I will happily entertain alternatives.)

The main disagreement between Ben and I is how Christians sit in relation to modern America. I have argued here and here that I now see the Church as no longer a moral majority but rather a prophetic minority. Our place in society has changed. We are no longer the dominant ideology in society. Rather we are a Christian colony surrounded by a foreign power (or powers to be more accurate). I think this shift is the result of several causes. A major one is the way Christians have spent our social capital when we were in the majority. Another one is that human being are not basically good, they are basically warped and Christianity has always known that, as Jesus promised, the world would hate us for his name sake. Whatever the reason, this shift means that though the Gospel mandate has not changed, how we discharge the Great Commission has. Our minority status requires us to interact in different ways with the culture. This is not dhimmitude as is prevalent in Islamic countries:

Bat Ye’or defined dhimmitude as the condition and experience of those who are subject to dhimma, and thus not synonymous to, but rather a subset of the dhimma phenomenon: “dhimmitude […] represents a behavior dictated by fear (terrorism), pacifism when aggressed, rather than resistance, servility because of cowardice and vulnerability. […] By their peaceful surrender to the Islamic army, they obtained the security for their life, belongings and religion, but they had to accept a condition of inferiority, spoliation and humiliation. As they were forbidden to possess weapons and give testimony against a Muslim, they were put in a position of vulnerability and humility.”

It is rather an abandoning of some tactics in favor of others using discernment and prayer. As I have said, it is not a retreat but it is a surrender, a laying down of arms, social tactics we have misused in the past and that have actually distracted from our main task which is proclaiming the Gospel.

I suspect Ben might agree with the description of our besieged state but would not be quite willing to accept my admittedly inchoate missional shift.

Ben charges those who agree with me of lacking judgment.

I take Ben to mean by “lack judgment” that proclamation position errs because we think we should not bring social pressure to bear on iconoclasts. He hedges but he thinks any headway these iconoclasts gain in society might be blamed (to some extent) on the proclamationists choice of tactics. Let me respond to both of these.

I do not think we lack judgment. I feel the call to protest. I really do. I have defended and will defend our right to protest those who profane our sacred beliefs. However, I am advocating a conscious shift in tactics because of what I see as a profound shift in our standing in society. My reasons for this are partly virtue driven and partly pragmatic. To put it bluntly I worry that Christians grow fond of the battle for cultural standing. One cannot stay in battle mode without being changed. I worry that Tony Perkins’ hyperbolic worries about gays putting Christians in re-education camps is a symptom of profound PTSD from the front lines of the culture war. We are scared of our eroding place in society. We are angry out the double standards and the incremental tyranny both social and legal. My point is that we must reassess how to war against principalities and powers. We are clearly in a battle, I’m worried that we have begun to think we have to conquer. Pragmatically, dissent tactics don’t seem to be winning others to the Gospel.

As for culpability, I wonder with all due respect, what are we guilty of if we do not apply social pressure to defend our Christian standing? Giving up the fight? Fight for what? our standing in society? Civil virtues like respect for religion? Perhaps we would be guilty of not defending and advocating for a common moral ecology–what conservative thinkers like George Orwell and Edmund Burk and classical liberals J.S. Mill have called “civilization.” This is an transcendent idea of shared community that is eroded by religious iconoclasts. It is both valuable and vital to social stability and flourishing. On this, proclamationists would beg forgiveness because we might have been important for a moral majority is now a luxury of a prophetic minority. It is a luxury which we plead with the Church to abandon in these times because our primary mandate is to become all things, even ex-soldiers in the culture war, if by these means we might win some through perhaps the most shocking kind of iconoclasm: tearing down the image of Christians as social activists.

As always I invite your criticisms, questions, and comments.


Comments

Profaning the Sacred — 2 Comments

  1. Jonathan

    When you quoted Ben: “What’s missing is the thing that happens when you tear down something venerated or sacred. Beyond merely expressing an opinion about it, you profane the sacred.”

    This thought came to mind. I wonder how many Roman Catholics said the same thing when Martin Luther married Katherine von Bora.

    Luther’s old buddy and close friend Philipp Melanchthon opposed the marriage and refused to attend the ceremonies.

    Luther’s home was known as the Black Cloister.

    My point is, you’re right, it cuts BOTH ways.

  2. Jon! Interesting response, and I think it’s interesting to discuss what you’re calling the proclamationist position, but I think the social aspects sidetracked you a little. Maybe it’s could be clearer in my last post, but the idea is that there’s a certain kind of moral response to someone who profanes something you hold sacred, and I think that the rightness of that response doesn’t vary with the extent to which others share your commitments in the culture at large.

    In fact, thinking about people like Elijah and Elisha (proclamationists both by your definition), that response may be even more important when one’s views are in the social margins (Mt. Carmel or bears, your choice). I’m curious about how you might complete this analogy:

    Beneficence:Gratitude::Profane iconoclasm:___?

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