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Posted by on Sep 11, 2008

Theocracy or Secular Society – Reflections

Theocracy or Secular Society – Reflections

September 11 used to be just another day in the ninth month of the year. But the acts of terrorism which were committed on this date in 2001 in the United States changed that reality. Now, in most countries of the world, September 11 is a day to remember and mark with speeches, prayers, visits to “sacred sites” and news reports. For some few, it is a day remembered as a great victory against the most powerful representative of secular society in the world. For most, it is seen as a great tragedy, in which lives of innocent people were lost, personal freedoms were threatened, and excuses provided for nations to go to war.

Believing with George Santayana that “Those who do cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” I add that those who do not understand the fundamental concepts underlying social systems are also condemned to repeat history. Accordingly, I offer some reflections as an anthropologist on structures and realities that shape societies and social interaction.

In a Nutshell

For those with only a few moments to spare, here are my thoughts in a nutshell.

We’re dealing with a clash of cultures, specifically in terms of family structures and political systems. The “corporate family” and “theocratic” political system that was the norm for most cultures throughout most of human history has been challenged by an upstart system. In this new system, it’s the “nuclear family,” with its focus on the individual and personal choice, as well as its “secular” political structure, that are the ideal.

Some of the first cracks in the old system began to appear around 2000 years ago, with the teachings of Jesus and His early followers. More followed as Christians began caring for the sick and teaching children (including girls) and insisting that women had rights in marriage. Still more appeared towards the end of the religious wars that followed the Reformation, as religious dissidents began to move to the New World. With the ratification of the Bill of Rights as part of the American Constitution, the secular society as a political system was born.

Today we’re dealing with a side-effect of that event. Secular societies offer the opportunity for people of all faiths to work together to their fullest potential, to make this world a better place for all. Unfortunately, not all human choices are made for the common good, under any social or political system, so we also see people doing things that are very wrong. Sometimes religious people get frightened by that and think we should just go back to religious law – theirs, of course. Splinter groups of them may turn to violence and terror, killing innocent people in an attempt to change a political system. That’s what the events of September 11 and other terrorist activities of the past century have been about – political systems and family structure. Often disguised as defense of religious beliefs – but at base a question of political systems and family structure.

A violent response cannot stop violence of this type. In dealing with the problems that breed discontent and lead to social upheaval (unemployment, hunger, lack of safety, etc.), economic solutions are more often effective. Education, employment opportunities, health care, housing – all contribute to social stability and take the wind out of the sails of the terrorists. That’s the response we should be offering to the world!

Now, for those who have a little more time.

Definitions and More Details

Begining at the begining – a few definitions and clarifications are in order.

Nuclear Family – The nuclear family is one that includes adults – generally but not exclusively a man and a woman – and their children, whether naturally born or adopted. It does not include grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents or other friends.

In the nuclear family, the individual tends to be seen as having intrinsic value. Having an individual opinion and making personal choices is valued. Individuals are allowed to decide and act for themselves and it is expected that at a certain age and maturity, the individual will leave the nuclear family and live his or her own life. Many will enter into committed relationships, legally recognized by the society, and start new nuclear families of their own. The family in which they were raised is called the “family of origin” and is distinct from the family created upon reaching adulthood and entering into their own newly formed nuclear families. In American society, the nuclear family is the type of family structure that is the norm.

Corporate Family – A corporate family is like a business. It includes many more people than a nuclear family. It is multi-generational. It has an identity and existence of its own, apart from that of any individual member of the family. The continuation of the family takes precedence over the desires or even the sheer survival of the individual. Issues of honor are seen in terms of the larger family and individual lives may be sacrificed to maintain family honor. Marriage is a matter of alliances between corporate families – not something for two individuals to choose for themselves. One’s sexuality belongs to the family and one’s duty is to provide children for the continuance of the family. Individual opinions and preferences are not of deciding importance. In fact, the mere possibility of having an individual opinion may not enter the mind of a member of a culture in which the corporate family is (or has been) the rule.

Corporate families can take a variety of forms, depending on rules of inheritance and identification. In some, identity and property are passed through the male line (patrilineal) and in others through the female line (matrilineal). Somewhat more rarely, identity and inheritance can come from both lines. (This is more common in nuclear families, however.)

The vast majority of world societies take the corporate family model as the preferred model. It is only relatively recently that the nuclear family has arisen on the social scene of the world – and that in relatively few cultures. Nevertheless, with the spread of Western culture through the media, exposure to the nuclear family and the type of culture that accompanies it is increasing.

Theocracy – A form of political organization in which the legal foundations of the society are the laws of the dominant, governing religion or religious body. Theocracies have a long history in the world. Any culture, ancient or modern, in which religious rules are the ones by which disputes are resolved and individual or group actions judged as a matter of law is a theocracy.

Secular Society – A form of political organization in which the legal foundations of the society are distinct from the laws of religious organizations or groups of believers. The laws of secular societies may be, and generally are, based on certain principles drawn from the religious beliefs of their members, but religious law is distinct and carefully separate from the law governing the wider society. Secular societies have emerged relatively recently in the history of the world.

Freedom – The concept of freedom I will use is that which states that an individual can act or behave according to his or her conscience, to the mutual benefit of both the individual and other persons who will be affected by the action. In cases in which what benefits one does not benefit others, the one may not have the right to act or behave in the manner he or she desires. Sometimes the greater good or the rights of other people take precedence. Freedom does not mean license to behave however I choose and the rest be damned! Freedom entails a great responsibility to act for the common good, trusting that the larger good will also benefit the individual in the long run. In this, the concept of freedom draws much from the corporate family tradition, but it recognizes the rights of the individual to choose, apart from the interests of the corporate family, and to look at his or her own interests and those of the larger community.

So what does all this have to do with us today?

Corporate family structure and theocracy as a basis for political organization have been the dominant forms of organization during much of the history of human culture. Some of the first cracks in the system that we see historically resulted from the teachings of Jesus. When Jesus told the rich young man to sell everything he had, give the money to the poor, and come follow him, (Mt 19:21) that was demanding a major break from the corporate family. When Jesus told another young man to let the dead bury the dead, in response to his request for permission to bury his father before becoming a disciple, (Mt 8:22) that was an even greater break. 

The early church continued the process of separation. In the Acts of the Apostles, ( Acts 2:42-47) we see a community of believers who have sold all, combined their resources, and share all things in common. They have left their ancestral corporate families and joined into a new form of family – family still being needed for mutual support and protection. We know that not all went smoothly. There were disputes between Jews and Greeks, concerns over whether all resources had been contributed or not, complaints about fair distribution of resources, etc. The first persecution of the church in Jerusalem broke up the communal experiment and the Followers of the Way were dispersed, taking the Good News of the freedom of God’s children with them into the Roman Empire.( Acts 4-8)

In each community where the Gospel took root, communities formed. Christian community became a new social unit and each person’s gifts were seen as contributing to build up “the Body of Christ.” (Eph 4: 1-16) Individuals became important because the gifts they received built up the whole community. We’re still not to a nuclear family model yet in this understanding, but birth families were not primary in this scheme of things.

When religions become State sponsored or mandated, when religious law becomes the law of the land and all are required to become members of that religion (or at least live by its rules), some common patterns emerge. We see forced conversions, wars over definitions of points of belief, torture of those who do not believe “correctly,” and State sponsored executions of non-believers or heretics (those with beliefs deemed to be untrue). This pattern held true with the legalization of Christianity and its establishment as the religion of the Roman Empire. 

On large scale, we see destabilization of entire societies resulting from the persecution of non-conforming religious communities. In Spain, for example, both during the time of the Visigoths and the time of the reunification of the kingdoms under Ferdinand and Isabella, there was an attempt to enforce unity in religion, political governance, and military might. In both cases, the society was ultimately destabilized by the creation of persecuted minorities. During the Visigothic period, those minorities welcomed the invading Muslim forces which overthrew the Visigothic kings. (Ironically, Muslim rule itself was undermined in Spain by the 12th century as the result of a turn towards fundamentalism.) During the 15th and 16th centuries, the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain resulted in the loss of large numbers of people with valuable skills and professions – banking, medicine, science – not fields a successful nation can manage without. The Inquisition, which did not originally begin in Spain but was a force there for far too long, was a terrible example of what can happen when religious beliefs become the legal norm.

The religious wars that accompanied and followed the Reformation finally were resolved with a great compromise. The religion of the ruler of a nation would be the religion of all his or her subjects. So, any time the religion of the ruler changed, everyone had to change religions. It sounded good on paper, but if one truly believes that one’s faith is the one, true, unchanging faith, one can’t just change it because a new ruler has come into power! Fortunately, a New World had been discovered, and dissidents could go there and have their own colonies, with their own religious beliefs. And so it happened.

The English colonies in North America did not begin as places with freedom of religion. That developed much later. In a couple of colonies there was tolerance of different beliefs. One colony was set up as a refuge for Catholics. But by the time of the American Revolution, Catholics were not allowed to vote in any colony. In fact, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was not a voting “citizen” of his own colony until the mid-1770s when the laws excluding Catholics were repealed. It was only with the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791 that the separation of Church and State in the United States was enshrined as the law of the land. A secular society was born.

So what does all this have to do with September 11 and the acts of terrorism in the United States?  I’d like to say it’s simple, but it’s not. The actions of those who planned and carried out the attacks were those of terrorists, acting out of misguided religious beliefs perhaps, but still terrorists. Their goals were not religious conversion. They were from a group that promotes theocracy as the preferred political structure, specifically Islamic fundamentalist theocracy. (This is not to be mistaken for a mainstream Islamic faith.) The United States, as the largest and most powerful secular society in the world, was a natural target in an essentially political battle.

Terrorism is not an act of religion. It is a political act, whether seen in Northern Ireland, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, New York City, Sudan, or in the bombing of abortion clinics or the homes of scientists engaged in animal research studies. It is an act of political violence. So the question becomes, how do we respond to political violence? One school goes back to the old, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (revenge).  Another says, “give them a little bit and maybe they’ll go away happy” (appeasement). Another says, political issues must be resolved with social solutions and tools. Look at the core issues – economics, healthcare, education, jobs, security for families, safety from violence. The Peace Corps initiative of the Kennedy administration is an example of this approach, which has resulted in much positive change in the world.

The response to the events of September 11, the military invasions of two countries claimed to have been responsible in some form for the actions of the terrorists, has not been a success. It will not be easy to undo all the harm that has resulted from those actions. But as we go forward, as Americans, as Christians, as people of good will in an increasingly tiny world, it is critical to be aware of the past, of the differences between societies based on corporate families and those based on nuclear families, of the danger of placing religious law as the law of the land, of the great protection members of all faiths receive from living in a secular society, and of the resulting freedom to work for the betterment of social conditions and life for people throughout the world. Secular societies can be welcoming places for people of all faiths. Together, protected by freedom of religion, we can do great things.

For related information, see:

God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215, by David Levering Lewis 

The Voice, The Word, The Books: The Sacred Scripture of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, by F.E. Peters

A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, by David Fromkin

Secularity and the Gospel: Being Missionaries to our Children, by Ronald Rolheiser, OMI

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time, by Greg Mortensen

Post edited and revised Sept. 26, 2008 by the author.

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