Jul/Aug 2020  •   Salon

Silence of the Lambs

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Artwork and photo by Baird Stiefel

Artwork and photo by Baird Stiefel

How is it we, especially we in the modern West and especially we in the USA, look upon monarchic and other authoritative systems of government with disdain but accept unelected, hierarchical, and highly authoritarian versions of governance in other areas of our lives, such as in our religions and our workplaces?

We wouldn't dream of allowing politicians to appoint themselves and then appoint each other to offices we consider critical to our civic well being. True, those political officers do appoint judges and other officials, but we like to think we maintain ultimate control over our destiny by reserving the right to elect the appointers themselves. But however much Roman Catholics complain about Rome's intransigent policy on birth control or the Anglicans' haggle about making homosexuals bishops or Orthodox Jews balk at allowing women to become rabbis—to name just a few of the issues that get decided not by popular vote but by men, mostly men in funny skirts and hats—I have rarely if ever heard any believer say, "What do we need a hierarchy for anyhow? Who gave them the last word—or the first, for that matter?"

They gave it to themselves. The Christian churches gave themselves that authority in the name of their God (as all clergy always have), though the earliest Christians managed to do without a clergy quite nicely, thank you, and the best versions of modern Christianity ("best" in terms of their track record, not what they preach) seem to be groups like the Quakers, who have the least ecclesiastical structure.

Rabbis gave themselves the power to decide who was in and who was out when they assumed that privilege for themselves after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. As a result, Judaism, however much altered, survived. The church did much the same thing for Christianity after it became apparent the Messiah was not going to return to earth any time soon. Roman adoption of Christianity as the state religion in the fourth century sealed the deal (relegating the popular Jewish religion to the precarious margins).

But those were the days of kings and emperors, also divinely appointed. We don't hold with that systen anymore. The British and Dutch still seem fond of their monarchs but give them little or no say in their lives. Protestants claim to be free of Roman authoritarianism, but I note they excommunicate and defrock their own clerical miscreants and are not shy about telling their flocks what God wants them to think and do without first asking for votes.

And why is it we get warm and fuzzy when we hear that word "flock"? What is a flock? The keeper of a one is a pastor, and "pastor" means shepherd, so the flock must be sheep, or goats. What happens to sheep who have been tenderly cared for by caring shepherds/pastors? The last time I checked, they ended up as Sunday dinner. Or are they tended so lovingly only for their wool?

What we have become are flocks of sheep (usually considered among the dumbest of animals) tended by unelected clerics presumably for our own good—that "good" being determined by those same clerics and their superiors.

Why do we not only tolerate this situation, sometimes along with agitating for the relaxation of one stricture or another but still without question, never mind demand a democratic process in the structure of our religions that would include every member in the process, not just clergy? Is this an example of the compartmentalization atheists accuse believers of engaging in so their rational mind does not intrude upon the precincts of their magical thinking? Or do we actually like having a carnivorous shepherd to protect us from the wolves of this world and the next?

Dostoevsky aired this out about as well as anyone in "The Grand Inquisitor," the fourth chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. People don't want freedom, is the conclusion there by brother Ivan, not even the freedom Jesus offered. Freedom makes us anxious. We want mystery, miracles, and authority—and, of course, bread. "The Grand Inquisitor" is a scary piece of writing, albeit one of the high points of Western literature, though as far as I can tell, Dostoevsky himself remained a believer, at least in his own version of Christianity.

We complain about the oppressiveness of Rome or the medieval strictures of Talmudic and Sharia law, but aren't they petty stuff compared with what organized religion combined with state power can get up to? Is there any doubt that Rome would behave with even more authoritarianism if it had the kind of clout it had in the past? And isn't it obvious what fundamentalist Judaism and Islam are like when we look at parts of the world where those religions have political power?

When religions have to operate without such authority, they make do with what they have, enforcing their wills on the faithful "within the walls," if not in the wider community. They even take on a friendly aspect, try to appear reasonable, amenable to science and other modern ideas. But when operating without limitations, they revert to type—think what the church was like in Ireland until recent decades, what sort of laws the ultra-Orthodox impose in Israel, or the way things are run in Saudi Arabia. To believe those religions would act otherwise is to put your faith in human nature in a way you would never dream of doing if the system in question were not "faith-based."

But Religions aren't the only entities we allow to operate outside the bounds of democratic participation. Our workplace is just as undemocratic, is even feudal in its structure, and just as cold-blooded in its punishments for flouting authority. We say, well, religion is one thing, an area we enter into voluntarily, but work, our job, is necessary to our physical survival and another matter entirely. We don't have any meaningful say in whether we get a job or keep it or the conditions under which we work, by and large. But is that true?

We don't work in democratic environments because we accept the system as it is, basically the way it was run back when there was a lord of the manor/factory and his flunkies whose job it was to see the rest of his human capital were productive for his benefit. You don't have to be a Marxist to realize that we hold our jobs, whether as janitor or senior vice-president, at the pleasure of whoever owns the operation and not a moment longer. We may not have to give up our brides to him on our wedding night the way serfs did, but we do have to relinquish our right to determine our own destinies and the quality of our lives in a critical area of our existence—critical not just to ourselves but to the wider community we live in. And we give that up for the most part unthinkingly. We even prepare ourselves with lengthy and expensive schooling in order to please our prospective masters and then gain favor in the form of promotion and the highest compensation possible. Some of us dream of becoming our own bosses, some of us do so, but how many of these new lords behave any less authoritatively toward their employees?

Most people admire the rich and want to be like them even if that means keeping in place an unfair, undemocratic system that relegates themselves and their offspring to economic chains. It's the same mentality that keeps us playing the lottery in the belief we are just as likely to win as the next guy. Few of us consider replacing the current system with one that allows workers ownership and control of the workplace. Even fewer try to accomplish these goals, though there are many instances, thousands in the US alone, of companies that are run cooperatively, along with plenty more in other nations, some of them as large as the largest privately owned corporations.

But that's socialism, isn't it? I have no idea what it is, nor do I care. It makes sense, and that's all that matters as far as I'm concerned. Call it what you like. For a start, though, call it democracy, what we Americans seem to think we have because we cast a ballot for a candidate who has been carefully vetted and funded by the same people we give our sweat to every day in return for whatever they see fit to pay us. And then on the Sabbath we entrust our souls to a God also carefully vetted and approved by religions run by men we never chose who consider the very idea of such choice diabolical.

That's not the behavior of freedom-loving human beings. That's the behavior of sheep.