Friday, June 20, 2008

Martyrdom: Secular and Religious

Religion, Martyrdom and Evolution of Modern Society- part one

I WAS recently involved in a long and fruitful discussion on issues of religious faith, secular institutions versus faith-based institutions, questions of martyrdom and human freedom, etc.

Here is the edited version of this debate:

N P Chekkutty: Listening to the critics of the Communist parties all over the world, I have always wondered how far it is true that the Church and the Communist party have the same organizational structure and belief systems. After all they belonged to two distinct periods in human history and both institutions came up in response to totally different social and economic pressures.

Then two years ago came the revelations about the Gospel According to Judas, a text that has been widely discussed after it was released by National Geographic. I have not seen the text itself, but the review in New York Review of Books was very interesting as it revealed how for two thousand years this crucial text was kept under the carpet by the Church leadership, until it was recovered from a cave somewhere in Egypt. It was a study of how an organized establishment could manipulate history, ideas and even human destiny.

Now a recent book by two scholars, Elaine Pagels and Karen King, reviewed in NY Books this week, takes it forward and tells us how Ireaneus, a second century bishop and other Church leaders, managed this wonderful feat in undermining history. It seems they made Judas into a devil and banished all those who thought he was more of a human who was, perhaps, led astray. Like the Communist aparatchik managing their states, they too divided the Church into two, the bishops and priests on the one hand and the laity on the other. Like our own totalitarian system, the laity had no voice and the ordinary citizen had no vote.

So there seems to be a lot of similarities and parallelisms that make the Communist party the true inheritor of the legacy of Comrade Ireaneus!

K Satchidanandan (Poet and thinker, Delhi):Bertrand Russell had long ago pointed out the resemblance: the hierarchy, salvation in dying for the cause, martyrs, heretics, (they are called either revisionists or extremists according to convenience), concealment and distortion of facts, the dream of a classless heaven. Violence? Hasn't religion been a major source of violence on earth? The language of the Manifesto comes straight from the Holy Book. But that is what makes it so powerful. And the structure of fascism is no different either. What worries us is not the similitude; but the fact that the heaven seems either getting split asunder or moving farther away and the martyrs have reasons to weep over their wasted lives, we may have now to settle for something lesser: a benevolent capitalism. A simulated equality. A democracy that fears itself.

KP Aravindan (Health activist, Government Medical College, Kozhikode):
Why only the Catholic Church and the Communist parties? Why not the
Islamist theologians and power structures? What about Brahminical
priesthood? And ever so many others?

Santhakumar V (Economist, Center for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram):
I am struck by the recent tendency of the Pope and also the head of the Anglican Church (incidentally both of them are renowned scholars) to say sorry publicly for the many misdeeds of the Church in the past - including Pope's decision to meet with those who were sexually harassed by the clergy in US. I think this is a nice positive gesture, that Communists, and other priesthoods can learn and practice! Imagine an Advani saying sorry for what happened in Ayodhya, Hu Jintao for Tianenmen Square, etc.

NP Chekkutty:As to Dr Aravindan's poser why not discuss other streams of orthodoxy, I have no objection to such a wider debate though my post was mainly on the basis of the new insights into the early Church after the discovery of these second century texts known as Nag Hammadi texts.

They are important in many ways, and I think what Santhakumar pointed out, the issues that forced Pope to apologize including the sexual abuse of kids by the Church leadership, should be seen in the way the institution evolved in the early years.

Two points are of extreme interest: The obsession of the early Church with the concept of martyrdom and the fetish for homosexual escapades. It would appear that the organized Church came up on the foundation of martyrs, and the Church leaders actively promoted this offering them with heaven. The second aspect was unusual sexual practices. The Gospel of Judas seems to have been critical of these totalitarian tendencies, and its views were suppressed with force. From what we see, the followers of these ideas were more heterogeneous and democratic.

These similarities and historical parallels are very important. It would also help us to think aloud about how far such systems are good/bad for the society, and how a more heterogeneous and open society may prevent these fundamentalist tendencies. The early Church and its experiences could give important lessons for us today, when we see such tendencies raising their heads in every sphere and in every religion.

M P Chandrasekharan (Educationist, engineer):I think religions in general, and Catholic Church in particular, do share a common characteristic with Communist Party: "Intolerance of the opposite point of view, and a pathological aversion to dissent".

John Samuel (International aid activist, Bangkok):I was very amused by the reception that Pope Benedict got in the USA. This visit has much symbolic significance. The papal media management too tried to project him as a Green Pope.

Here, some views on the institutionalization of Church:
1. The institutionalization of Church (as an institution of power) began with the co-option of Christianity (in fact a denominational formation came out of the Nazarene Movement among Jews- which began as a sectarian Jewish movement- drawing from the Essene tradition) began with co-option of Christianity as a convenient ideology by Constantine. Even the very compilation and editing of Bible was a political process. The 27 books of New Testament were not finalized till 367, more than three hundred years after the death of Jesus.
2. The Edict of Tolerance (of Milan) in 313 and the declaration of Christianity as the official religion of Roman Empire by Emperor Theodosius in 381, transformed a sect into a religion and ideology of an Empire and co-opting an eastern mystical tradition as the powerful manifestation of the Roman and Western Civilization. By 391, all the pagan practices were declared illegal and temples closed.
3. Apart from Paul, the most important intellectual influence in shaping the Church as an Institution of Power was Augustin of Hippo (St Augustin). His Confessions (400), Trinity and The City of God (423) shaped the politics and ethics of Church as a powerful institution. The City of God may be one of the most influential works in shaping the nation of political order and the so-called Christian civilization (as distinct from the City of Man).
4) The entire medieval church history (from sixth to fourteenth century) show how Emperors tried to dominate the Church (from the time the so-called Holy Roman Emperor) and how the Church sought to dominate the State. The history of the Church from the tenth century to the fifteenth century (through four crusades and inquisitions), under the rule of Popes like Innocent and Pope Lucius III( 1184), show the degeneration of power and how the ideals of Jesus got violated every single day by a politically unaccountable and corrupt institution.
5) The paradigm shift of the organizing principle of the Church happened with the Clunic Reforms from 910 onwards. The model of organizing adopted by the monastery established in Cluny in 919, influenced not only Catholic Church, but the entire international organizational models, including that of colonialism, communist party, MNCs and INGOs. Cluny monastery for the first time in the world conceptualized operationally autonomous subsidiaries and institutions, with abbots as the head, but driven by a single vision and ideology and answerable and accountable to a Central command. At first Catholic Church used this organizing principle to build a loose institutional network as well as a strong cadre based hierarchy, answerable and accountable to the Central command. Later on this was adopted by secular institutions. So while Catholic Church has a central command of cardinals headed by the Pope, Communist parties have got a politburo.
5) However, Church learned its lesson after the Reformation and Renaissance, and tried to redefine itself so as to make itself relevant. The first Vatican Council in 1869 was in the context of the Church losing its political power, when the Kingdom of Italy captured the Papal estate. While First Vatican was in a denial mode when confronted with Enlightenment rationalism and modern political power, the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 65) signifies the reconciliation of the Church with Modernism. In fact, Liberation Theology and mystical traditions (including Charismatics) got recognition after that.
In many ways Catholic Church is the mother of most modern political, economic, educational and social institutions. This history of Catholic Church also shows the good, bad and ugly aspects of institutionalization of power.

NP Chekkutty:Thanks John for your very informed input on the history of the Catholic Church.That, however, does not answer my point about the role of the concept of martyrdom in the formation of the Church and how this doctrine gets itself ingrained in any social system. I raise this question mainly because I find 'martyrs' are always a problem for any civilized society. Are they good, bad or just a bottleneck for social progress?

I know it would be sacrilege to say this, but I feel martyrs are a big hurdle for any normal society's progress. The concept needs to be seriously questioned and challenged, because in almost all cases the concept of martyrs is used by a vested group with an eye to keeping a deadly stranglehold on the new forces with the help of the dead chaps who in any case would not be able to deny what is attributed to them. Even Christ failed here, and what to say about our ordinary mortal 'immortals' like Che Guevara? Martyrs helped develop an ossified and highly regimented organizational structure that is too bad for any normal growth.

John Samuel:I will postpone my considered response about the relationship between the Church and Communism and Communist Party. Because this requires a bit more detailed analysis, historicizing communism as well as the multiple political ideologies that shaped the Church.

My sense (this is more of an informed guess) is that the notion of martyrdom came from the practice of the ritualistic "sacrifices". The Old Testament is full of this. In fact Old Testament starts with a murder (of Cain killing Abel). When God asked Cain about Abel, Cain replied that he was not the "keeper" or security guard of Abel. Then the response of God is very interesting: " The blood of your brother is screaming from the earth". This "screaming blood" could be a primordial signifier of " Martyrdom". Then you also find ritualistic sacrifice in the case of Isaac, Abraham ready to "sacrifice" Isaac (his one and only beloved son) for a large cause of God (to prove his obedience). In fact, there are number of examples to point out to the notion of "sacrifice" for cause transforming to "Martyrdom". In fact, all Semitic religions have notions of "sacrifice" and the corollary political-theological notion of martyrdom).
This was also very much there in many other religions. But Christianity became the most powerful and organized political religion in the world as an ideology of the Imperial Romans.
The very beginning of the work of Christ starts after the "beheading" of John the Baptist (who in many ways is a primordial activist). This too can be considered as "martyrdom". However, with Hellenization of the Church (under the leadership of Paul) and politicization of the Church (under Constantine and Theodosius), many of the Judaic practices were transformed in to powerful political tools. So "martyrdom" became a very important and powerful political tool. In fact, during the first Crusade, the Church assured heaven to Martyrs (very similar to the stand of Jehadis) who gets killed for the cause. And those who do not get killed in the Crusade had the option of keeping the "captured" land with him.
In fact we also know the story of Joan of Arc and many others!
Later on many of the practices and assumptions of the Church influenced many Institutions, including the Communist Party.

Santhakumar:Your question on martyrdom is interesting: I had a hypothesis which I presented somewhere else. Martyrdom (or showing serious sacrifice even if alive) was a necessary tool in all societies in the past -- I would argue that it was an epistemological tool and signal. It is a signal of non-self-interest. In all societies we need moments of collective action and leadership; but this can be coordinated in traditional societies only through signals of ‘avoiding self-interest'. That served a useful role. But this has a cost. Such non-self-interest symbols or messages cannot be rejected easily when society moves ahead even if the objective situation warrants such a rejection. But there is a source of optimism -- societies need not reject the symbol but change the content. Such opportunistic use of martyrdom is not uncommon.

N P Chekkutty:That could be true. Sacrifice or lack of self-interest for collective benefit is a fine idea. Perhaps it did serve some useful purpose too in the past, especially since societies needed to be more vigilant to keep its interests safe.

Now the question is whether this concept holds true today? Do we need such people who lay down their lives for the sake of something, while often what they think is the interest of the collective is, actually, their own sweet choice? Is it not true that these martyrs are more harmful than of any good?

I try to raise this question with a view to thinking of a new way of democratic politics and organizational structure for our parties with plenty of martyrs, like the Communist Party. It is also taking serious proportions when each and every college, each and every village in some parts of our state, seems to own at least one martyr today. I think in the past 20-30 years, since the camps murders became a normal practice, we must have produced a few dozens of them.

K P Aravindan:Dear Santhakumar, your hypothesis is interesting. I think you may be able to develop it
further by incorporating or borrowing from some of the popular
theories in evolutionary biology, namely Kin selection theory,
signaling theory and sexual selection theory. Links to Wikipedia
articles on the same

Santhakumar:Dear Chekkutty, there are a number of writings recently within mainstream economics and in other disciplines on the role of, and the perceptions on, suicide bombers in Islamist societies. Probably one can find some parallels here.

N P Chekkutty:Santhakumar and John have come up with some very interesting hypotheses on martyrdom and social life which are of extreme interest.

First, let us examine this link between martyrdom and sacrifice. What actually is the meaning of sacrifice in a religious/political sense? Historically it would appear that this practice started from the need for propitiating gods and super-natural elements. So sacrifice and, ipso facto, self-sacrifice are literally not an expression of non-self interest as Santhakumar argues, but the ultimate form of self-interest.

If you take an example from futures trading, the sacrificer-self sacrificer is investing in future returns and it could come in the form of a berth in heaven, close proximity to the heavenly power center -- I think Christ sits next to God as per the protocol in heaven-- and more closer to earth, they are ensured a major stake in political and economic power. Perhaps that explains the close relationship between priesthood, kings and elaborate rituals throughout history. Perhaps it also explains the religious/political basis of elaborate ritualistic practices in offerings to martyrs even in non-religious establishments, as we see in floral tributes at the communist party congresses, and the gains garnered through state power. Here, my point is that religions and our secular political establishments are one and the same if you look at their historical role and social relevance. So how do we think of a way to keep out religion from politics, as Lenin wanted? Replace one with the other, and get the same result?

But what change that would bring to the world?

Santhakumar:What you said is right that the martyrs may expect some post-life rewards. However, if society views the ‘sacrifice' of those as solely driven by self-interest, then martyrs will not have an imposing role in society. Somebody may try to climb Everest with a 50 per cent chance of death for self esteem or publicity. But his death has no overhang on society. When a suicide bomber kills the leader for the `freedom' of his ethnic group, there is a problem of overhang.

(To be continued. Courtesy:

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