Thursday, August 30, 2012

Catholic Relics Trade on Superstitions


Centuries ago, people actually believed that the bones of some dead religious figure could somehow work miracles.  The corpses and body parts were paraded during the Black Death and other calamities in hopes of evoking some kind of divine protection.

The rescued blood of John Paul II
Amazingly, such relics still abound in the Roman Catholic faith where a drop of the blood of Pope John Paul II carries special significance.  The “precious” reminder of the popular leader was stolen recently and then quickly recovered from some reeds and grass near the railway station in the seaside town of Marina di Cerveteri, Italy.  The container had been tossed there by the thieves who planned to come back and retrieve it.

The whole episode exposed the macabre side of the Catholic world, a portion increasingly being exploited on the internet and e-bay, where relics are being bought and sold on a regular basis.  Most are forgeries, but that’s has never deterred the gullible faithful.

Cyril
The whole idea of relics having some special power comes from a Biblical account of ill people being cured by visiting the grave of the famed prophet Elisha.   It was encapsulated into Catholic thinking by such leaders as Cyril, of Jerusalem, who wrote in the fourth century that “a certain power dwelt in the body of the saint, even when the soul had departed from it; just as it was the instrument of the soul during life, so the power passed permanently into it.”

Writing some 900 years later, Thomas Aquinas said relics should be venerated because “since we venerate the saints, we must also show reverence for their relics.” 

Although Protestants rejected relics, the Roman Catholic Church countered with the belief that “God grants many benefits to mankind through the sacred bodies of the martyrs.” Relics are actually graded: first class, which refers to such as a part of a holy person’s body, such as bone, skin, blood and hair); second class, which includes items closely associated with the saint, such as his or her clothing, other personal effects); and third class, which refers to objects he or she has touched or held.

Catholics continue to venerate relics because they supposedly perform miracles and serve as a reminder of the sainted person’s life.  They also link the living to the death, at least in the mind of the faithful.

A relic of St. Roch, which supposedly heals plague victims
A more recent apologist said on line that the efficacy of relics proved that humans have a special aura so far undetected by medical science.  If true, then do the bones work on nonbelievers, like Buddhists and Hindus?  If so, why are pharmacies stocked with various medicines a piece of cherished bone would provide a cure?  If false, then bones are nothing more than placebos with all the success of a sugar pill.

The mere idea that relics have power guarantees abuses.  During the sack of Constantinople, for example, crusading knights uncovered enough heads of John the Baptist to create an army along with milk from the Virgin Mary that sustained Jesus, the feather of an angel and the like.  Even today, towns in Europe compete for sacred relics as if possession of a "holy" item somehow would induce a deity to do anything.

Seton
The whole concept is both disturbing and nauseating.

I was introduced to the relic business when attending a conference.  Two colleagues and I stumbled into the shrine of Elizabeth Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland.  Seton, the first American saint, died in 1821 after founding American Sisters of Charity, the initial American sisterhood.

In the gift shop, we found snippets of Seton’s finger bones for sale.  We left immediately.  Even the Roman Catholic man with us was appalled.

Coming face to face with enduring superstition can be shocking.

Yet, it remains an integral part of faith.  Every Catholic Church contains the bone of a saint.  It is usually placed in the altar, a reminder of the origins of the church when dead bodies where kept on the altar and, amazing as its sounds, actually “fed” during services.

Manseau
Author Peter Manseau examined the role of relics in his 2011 book Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead

"Relics have been there, more or less, since the beginning," he wrote in the introduction. "Though they have become embarrassing reminders of the dark ages of faith to many progressive believers, the fact is that no religion, no matter how forward thinking its members consider themselves today, has been untouched by some sort of relic veneration in its past."

Unfortunately, not one of the bones, drops of blood or miraculously preserved robes of Jesus have any value anyway.

As one skeptic noted back in the 1500s to pilgrims on their way to the Shrine of Thomas Becket, the martyred archbishop of Canterbury, “if a bone was so powerful, why not his dung?”

Actually, it’s all superstitious crap; some of it, like the vial of Pope John Paul's blood, is simply worth more on the open market.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1










Monday, August 27, 2012

Conventional Political Hypocrisy Getting Underway


The Republican National Convention is scheduled to open Tuesday in Tampa after a brief pause to let Hurricane Isaac go by.  The Democrats will mass a week later in Charlotte.  Often, these gatherings are riveting as representatives of each state vote on their favorite candidate as the public watches the tally.  The results can be surprising or even comical.  Anyone remember “Ohio passes” at one convention? 

Speeches are rarely memorable, but, on occasion, someone like William Jennings Bryan or Rep. Shirley Chisholm can electrify the audience.  Bryan won the 1896 Democratic nomination with his “Cross of Gold” speech, while Chisholm made herself a viable national candidate with her 1972 speech to the Democratic convention that year.

Harding
This year should be reasonably boring since the party candidates are already in place: Mitt Romney for the Republicans; Barack Obama for the Democrats.  No “smoke-filled room” of the kind that ended up with Republican Warren G. Harding in 1920 or seemingly endless ballots like the kind that finally allowed John Davis to win the 1924 Democratic Party bid.

No dark horses either, like James K. Polk back in 1844.

Instead, the public will be subjected the traditional rhetoric filled with unsustainable promises and intense criticism of opponents.  All of it will be partisan; much of it will be hypocritical nonsense, something both major parties are guilty of.

Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly shifted positions enough over the years to cause a disk jockey to get dizzy trying to follow the spinning logic.
  
No field has been left untouched by the sordid slime of hypocrisy.  Let’s start with the budget.
Clinton
The Republicans are pushing for fiscal responsibility and reduction of the national debt.  However, the two presidents who oversaw the largest expansion of government and the greatest national debt were both Republican – Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.  The last president to balance a budget was a Democrat, Bill Clinton.  Before that, Republican Dwight Eisenhower balanced the budget.

Vice President Joe Biden, when a senator, voted against increasing the national debt ceiling.  Today, he favors it.  President Obama has also been on both sides of the issue.

How about Civil Rights?

The Republicans started in 1854 in opposition to slavery.  That was the sole reason for the party.  They lost the presidential election two years later, but came back in 1860 to win with Abraham Lincoln.  The election of the Great Emancipator, considered one of this country’s finest presidents, precipitated the Civil War.  South Carolina seceded, convinced that, with an anti-slavery advocate in office, it could not retain its distinct culture.  Ten other states joined suit, launching the Civil War.

For many years after the War, the South was controlled by Democrats, who cheerfully supported racist policies.  In time, however, the conservative South eventually turned solidly Republican, opposing the so-called liberals of the Democratic Party who were seen as pro-Civil Rights only following the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.  Today, in complete opposition to its origins, the Republican Party contains relatively few Black members and is seen as the party of rich, white conservatives. 

Byrd
Democrats hardly have anything to crow about.  Founded in the 1790s, the party was led by Thomas Jefferson, who was to become another highly ranked president and was committed to civil liberties.  Yet, Democrats were the primary proponents of racist policies in the 1950s, led by Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia.  Civil Rights laws proposed by Democratic President Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, changed the ground rules, this time against Republican opposition.

Religion?

The political candidate who started today’s emphasis on religious faith was Jimmy Carter, who, in 1976, promoted his Southern Baptist roots.  He is a Democrat.  In contrast, political icons Democrat Jefferson and Republican Lincoln were at best deists.  Neither was openly religious.  Lincoln did not belong to a church and rarely went to religious service.  His religious feelings were private and intense.

Today, however, Lincoln’s party has become the bastion of religious conservatives while Democrats are seen as comparably irreligious. Both Romney and Obama have touted their beliefs and values in an effort to court pious voters.

In addition, Republicans started as outsiders, the upstarts who were pushing for the abolishment of slavery.  Naturally, once getting into power, they began to attract wealthy supporters.  The same thing happened to Catholic orders like the Franciscans, which preached poverty and accumulated vast fortunes.
Roosevelt

In time, with only one Democratic President (Grover Cleveland) between 1860 and 1912, the Republicans evolved into the party of establish wealth.  However, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt pushed through the anti-monopoly laws as well as laws improving conditions for workers and food safety, all ideas originally proposed by Socialists. 

World Policy?

Republicans often have spoken out in opposition to international treaties.  Republican isolationists, for example, headed opposition to the League of Nations. However, prior to that, Republican Teddy Roosevelt started America on the road to being the international leader in 1907 by sending our navy around the world to broadcast our “power and prestige.”  Naturally, by showing off such force, Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Democrats led opposition to the Civil War.  They were labeled Copperheads by their opponents and were thought of as pacifists.  However, presidents during World I and II were Democrats, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt respectively.  Democrats were also presidents during most of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.  A Republican served as commander in chief for the war with Iraq and the start of current conflicts in the Middle East.

The list goes on.  Early Democrats supported strict reading of the Constitution – today a Republican theme song – and states’ rights.  The latter issue was a key element in the Civil War.  Today, the Democrats favor a strong national government at the expense of states.

Bush
Scandals have undermined the credibility of both parties, who can also equally claim some of the worst American presidents:  Democrat James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce; Republicans Ulysses S. Grant, Warren Harding and George W. Bush. 

Fortunately, leaders in both parties can rely on historical ignorance that runs rampant in this country.  People simply don’t recall that their chosen party has shifted and changed its message more than any halfback running through a broken field.

It's not a new situation either.  In the 1950s musical L'il Abner, lyricist Johnny Mercer penned these words for a song, The Country's in the Very Best of Hands:

L'il Abner
“Them GOP's and Democrats,
Each hates the other one.
They's always criticizing
How the country should be run,
But neither tells the public
What the others gone and done.
As long as no one knows
Where no one stands,
The country's in the very best of hands.”



It’s not going to change, not as long as people don’t remember what our politicians said in a convention contradicts what they claim the following day.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus usually writes about religion and religious history, but did his doctoral work in American Studies.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1



Thursday, August 23, 2012

Imposing Prayer Creates Problems


The folks in Missouri have decided to confront nonreligious residents head on.  They voted this month to approve an amendment to the state constitution that would allow public prayer.  Of course, that ignores the reality that public prayer is perfectly legal nationwide provided that no one is forced to participate.

River baptism
Just look at the number of people openly being baptized in rivers and shores every Sunday. There are also open-air churches and related public events.  Let’s not forget prayers before civic meetings and NASCAR races, among other activities.  Then there’s the Pledge of Allegiance’s “under God” and the line “in God we trust” on our money.

We’re really saturated with prayer.

The real concern behind such attempts to change the law has to do with the effort to impose fundamental Christian views on everyone else.  They want the “right” kind of prayers.  All they will do is continuing to drive a wedge between different faiths, which has already led to the shooting in a Sikh temple, the attempts to block a Muslim mosque from opening and the continual hatred spewed by religious bigots of all faiths.

Six people died in the Sikh Temple shooting.
Supporters may want to consider the flip side to their efforts:  Christians aren’t the majority in every country.  In fact, only about 2 in every 7 people in the world believe in Jesus.  As a minority, fundamentalists might also want to note a recent State Department report showing that smaller religions continue “to suffer loss of their rights across the globe with a rise in blasphemy laws and restrictions on faith practices.”

The 2011 International Religious Freedom Report found that almost half of the world's governments "either abuse religious minorities or did not intervene in cases of societal abuse."

The most discriminated people include Christians in Egypt, Tibetan Buddhists in China and Baha'is in Iran. In Indonesia, for example, a Christian was sentenced to prison for five years for distributing books.

It’s all legal.  Laws passed in those counties open the door to discrimination.  The Missouri vote does the same thing.  You can bet fundamentalist Christians will use the law to inflict their religious views on everyone within earshot and attempt to drown out anyone with a different religious preference up to and including quiet meditation.

Fortunately, there are courts outside the “Show Me” state who will likely show residents there why such a law violates the U.S. Constitution, which clearly states that government can pass no law regarding religion – prayer included.

There’s another point fundamentalists might want to think about.  The State Department report won praise from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, but chair Katrina Lantos Swett said the department still must convince policymakers that religious freedom should be a “moral imperative" in this country and abroad.

Good luck with that idea, especially among fundamentalists convinced they alone have the “true” faith.

Young Christian missionaries at the Olympics
Fundamentalists might also consider the multiple missionaries at the recent Olympics in London.  There, Christians, Muslims, vegans and their counterparts cheerfully mingle with the thousands of visitors and distribute flyers and brochures supporting their views. 

That’s what happens in a free society.

The State Department report didn’t overlook at obvious point: “… countries whose constitution, laws, policies, and practices protect religious freedom and human rights (are) the most vibrant and stable.”

That’s true in every state of the Union, too.


Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1