Blind obedience disables conscience
Of course, God reigns supreme – for those who believe there is a God.
I do. And the God I believe in is the God my parents introduced me to, my school taught me about, and life convinced me to love and obey.
While the Old Testament did tell stories of a God to be feared, it did seem to be in a context of the times – the way people understood life and responded to the challenges of their circumstances. In the history of the areas where Abraham and Moses lived, it was less the holiness of the people of God that was highlighted but the environment of war and violence. And it surely does seem that this environment of conflict was sustained over generations, even centuries or millennia.
A greater backdrop would be the recorded human history of the continent of Europe, the powerful neighbor of the Middle East. That history indicates that there were more wars than years as one year could witness several wars going on in the same period. That same history points to about 3,000 years where war was a constant reality and peace a rare occurrence, more a respite from war or a preparation for the next one. It is easier to understand the context of war than the context of God. I conclude that even the face of God or who people imagined God to be was very much colored by the reality of war in people’s lives.
When the backdrop of societies over thousands of years is violent conflict, a God to be relevant has to be intimate to the fears and hopes of people engaged with warfare as a primordial societal activity. In this context, the God of the Old Testament dealt consistently with war and death more than love and forgiveness. And definitely, that God insisted on obedience of the military kind – instant and unquestioning. It was the only kind of obedience that people could understand because a military-centric life was what dominated society.
Of course, there must have been exceptions. Of course, there were wise men and prophets. But the messages they absorbed and understood were not for themselves but for the greater public they were instructed to relay the messages to. They may have been able to relay the messages, but not transfer their wisdom. The messages, therefore, were delivered in a language for laymen, not saints or prophets. Eventually, these messages to God’s chosen mouthpieces, as delivered to their intended audiences, became the verses that the Old Testament reported.
Christianity is about the New Testament. Yet, those who taught and propagated Christianity, especially to Europe, were met with the same war-oriented societies. When Christianity was first a mere movement by believers of Jesus, the disciples bore witness to love and forgiveness as the preferred mode of life as espoused by their Master. But over time, when advocacy was overtaken by bureaucracy, it sure looked like that position and authority resumed dominance over a fledgling concept of loving one’s enemies, of giving the other cheek after the first one has been slapped.
The reality of rank, of authority, of power, is a powerful one that is almost next to impossible to transcend by those who find themselves in that milieu. Instead of religious overtones, the most famous image of power is contained in the phrase, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For a movement that had mutated to become an institution, and a most powerful one at that, capable of influencing emperors and kings, often through their empresses and queens, the Catholic Church ruled side by side with the State for over a thousand years in the continent that had dominion over most of the known world. This partnership indicates a parallel perspective, even a harmony of values and ways than otherwise.
Since Europe all this time, which means almost all of the last two thousand years, was consistently engaged in warfare, the religion of love and forgive remained intuitively attractive but impractical in application. There is a long list of saints in these eras, but a few thousand in a backdrop of billions cannot be considered a lifestyle, only exceptions. However, religion institutionalized is part and parcel of a lifestyle, even more so when the Church is as dominant as the State. A lifestyle forced to adapt quickly and intimately with warfare as the primordial societal concern and activity is expected to accept obedience, the military kind which requires it to be instant and unquestioning.
Obedience may have been sold as a virtue, but in contrast to other virtues, took on a dimension which made it less than a virtue and, in fact, dangerous and inane. The virtue has too often been popularized by a mutant called “blind obedience.” The danger and inanity of blind obedience is measured by the destruction it can cause, so much so that simple human law had to come out with counter-measures, such as the dictum, “Do not obey illegal orders.”
Unfortunately, the temptation to succumb to power remains whatever the era we are in, including peace time. The Catholic Church is subject to that as a Church, and its hierarchy is many times more besieged by the lure of power. The Church does not have the force of arms but it can invoke the force of superstition, the kind that says a disobedient member can rot in hell. Without an army, the Church can invoke God, the God armies pray to for victory over their enemies. Obedience, therefore, is the main tool for the Church to whip its flock into submission, with excommunication as its most fearsome retribution.
I wonder what place in hell is reserved for those who mock one of the most special gifts of God to the human being, the gift of conscience. The Church gives the Sacraments of Penance and Communion based on an operative conscience, to children in their tender years. That honors God’s gift. Conscience qualifies children receiving the sacraments. But, for adults, conscience is dishonored if that conscience is shoved aside under pressure from religious leaders who demand unquestioning obedience.
How sad, even perverse, when obedience disables conscience.
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