Sackcloth and ashes were used as very public displays of one’s sins and a sign of contrition—a promise not to sin again once the time of repentance was finished. Perhaps we should consider bringing back the practice. And do so on a very public scale.
The Covid 19 pandemic has unmasked a number of deep-seated issues festering within us all. On the surface some seem selfish and even infantile. Such as the suggestion that wearing a mask impinges on our freedom.
Others appeal more fundamentally to the Constitution, with the suggestion that restricting religious services somehow violates the First Amendment. That position is sometimes coupled with the absurdity that God will protect worshippers from falling ill to the power of the virus. In reality, a number of ministers who claimed that protection and continued to lead worship services have themselves died from Covid 19. Not intending to sound insensitive, there might be some poetic justice in that.
One would hope that a rational Supreme Court would see through the fallacy of that First Amendment argument to the more fundamental principle of life. But that hope was dashed by Justices who are less rational than we thought. What is most disconcerting, from a Christian point of view, is the twisted logic that religious freedom supersedes the government’s power to protect its citizens during a pandemic. Take Washington, D.C.
I have long been an admirer of Archbishop Wilton Gregory. When Pope Francis appointed him to head the Archdiocese I thought it was an excellent choice, as was the decision to elevate Gregory to the College of Cardinals. This is a man whom I have always considered to be a faithful advocate of the Gospel, both in word and deed.
However, he recently joined the chorus of misguided religious leaders by filing a lawsuit against the District of Columbia’s restrictions on houses of worship. He even argued his case in an op-ed piece printed in the Washington Post. Others have already demonstrated the weaknesses of the Cardinal’s position, particularly his comparison of religious services to retail establishments and liquor stores. Shoppers do not gather together for an hour shouting and singing God’s praises as they select their bread and wine.
Indeed Cardinal Gregory is correct to emphasize the importance of worship to believers, as well as the significance of the Christmas season. Yet Easter, being the core of the Christian Kerygma, is far more important. Yet the church survived the restrictions in place last spring. Still, there is a deeper concern at issue here. And it is to be found in the Gospel itself.
In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46) we are presented with the measurement of one’s worthiness to enter into the Kingdom. It has nothing to do with church attendance or, for that matter, with prayer. The sole criteria is how we treat one another, specifically those in need. Don’t get me wrong. Worship is important. But when it jeopardizes the health of the community—especially during a pandemic—it takes a back seat to restrictions. Does anyone really believe that God cares more about us worshipping him than he does about us protecting each other? The passage cited above would suggest exactly the opposite: “What you did to the least of these you did to me.” Cardinal Gregory would never suggest, in word, that we expose each other to Covid 19. But his lawsuit does exactly that—in deed.
There is an obvious contingency at work here. It is known as a super spreader event. Gathering people together during a pandemic, inside a closed building, to sing and pray aloud, exposes not only the worshippers, but the broader community to Covid 19. Couple that with what Jesus says, and we can conclude that the contingency is clearly sinful.
Perhaps the Cardinal would consider another way to proclaim the Good News. More powerful than lawsuits or op-ed articles in the local paper, would be acknowledging super spreader events and the sinfulness of encouraging them. A week or ten days of wearing sackcloth and ashes in the nation’s capitol might awaken in all Catholics a commitment to the Good News. Who knows? It might even even have an effect on Congress.
“Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!”
Perhaps I should retitle this post “Unraveling the Web”. There is a duality of treachery and naiveté at work in our world. That has, of course, always been the case. But today a new veil seems to have descended over nations, clouding the judgment of the innocent; its opaqueness obscuring the deception and intent of the deceivers. We must not allow ourselves to be so hoodwinked that we are left to repeat the phrase of failure: “Wow! I didn’t see that coming.” Nor can we take refuge in the hubristic assertion: “It will never happen here.” For even in the United States, unwitting citizens have fallen victim to intentional malevolence.
Only by exposing the first thread we can hope to avoid being ensnarled in an intricate web that paralyzes not only the body, but also the mind. And to understand the depth of insidiousness, the true nature of this deceit, we might begin in the Middle East with ISIS and the name of God.
For all its propaganda, the so-called Islamic State has nothing to do with God. It is not about submission, as the word Islam means. It is not about faith. If anything the Islamic State is an insult to true Islam, for rather than calling for submission to the one God, it demands obedience to itself and its own narrow construct of religion. ISIS is an insult to every faith. Much more evil though, is that at its core ISIS is an insult to Allah.
Along with submission, Islam also means peace and purity. But these ideals, like freedom and justice, cannot exist in a society where the beliefs and self-described “truths” of some—a singular interpretation of revelation—are determined to be the only interpretation, and consequently forced on everyone. This remains the case whether those “truths” are held by a majority or a minority; whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim truths. In other words, peace, purity, freedom and justice cannot exist in a society that is ruled by religion. Any religion. But then ISIS is as uninterested in those virtues as it is in truth. As uninterested in truth as it is in faith.
The Islamic State was woven from a seemingly simple thread that seduced the innocent: Submit your lives to God. But as that thread pivoted from point to point, and the web began to take shape, the idea of the divine was lost in a complex and convoluted design. God faded into mere illusion. The twisting and tangling fibers serve oppression and megalomania in pursuit of world domination, or what the ISIS rebels euphemistically call a worldwide caliphate.
The first Arabs to be ensnarled by ISIS did not recognize its deceitful use of religion. They did not realize the extent to which someone else was about to determine the meaning of submission to God. “Wow! They didn’t see it coming.” The effect was too swift. The entire Middle East, and by extension the rest of the world, quickly became entangled, stuck to the silk. Violence is now both the attraction to this web and the only way out—unless we can find a way to unravel the net of ISIS, expose its true purpose, disengage its hold on people and emasculate the ideology. That requires the whole world to remain on alert.
In the West it was initially easy to be critical. Distance from the fighting, combined with ignorance of Islam, lead some westerners to sit smugly in judgment. After all, “It will never happen here.” But reality is far more complex and unsettling, because Muslims are not the only ones to fall prey to religious treachery and twisted faith.
A quote often attributed to Sinclair Lewis (he never wrote it, but it does reflect his thought) reads: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.” Such a statement twins two worlds—politics and religion. It speaks to the advancement of corporations over people; to a government by the corporate elite, for the corporate elite. It also suggests the inability of US citizens to recognize when they are being manipulated and their faith and patriotism distorted for someone else’s design and gain.
All across the South and creeping up through the Midwest, state after state has duplicated deceptive and misleading legislation all designed to sow division and enshrine bigotry. From voter ID, to welfare, to immigration to marriage equality, Americans are being conned by clever, reckless, and yes, duplicitous, politicians. These wholly unnecessary and ostensibly simple laws are being codified for one reason only—to dominate and control.
But most cunning for their disingenuousness are the legislators invoking religious freedom. The problem is, this concept of religion does not represent freedom. It is a new kind of slavery. Not unlike ISIS in Iraq, in Syria and beyond, these American politicians have decided what true religion is, how to live it, and how to shun and exclude anyone who is different. These politicians are no closer to true Christianity than ISIS is to true Islam. But then, like their counterparts in the Middle East, they are not interested in truth, either.
ISIS is coming to America. In fact, it is already here. We have yet to determine its nomenclature. But make no mistake: It is the same beast. A different name; a different religion. The same kind of leaders; the same result. And when it is too late, when these purveyors of false truth have successfully duped and misled the country, the average American citizen will be left with only one reply, “Wow! I didn’t see that coming.”