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  • Wednesday, June 29, 2005

    Mistaking symbol for reality and government for God

    So once again, Congress is considering a Constitutional amendment to protect the flag, while the US Supreme Court reviews decisions regarding the appropriateness of public displays of the Ten Commandments.

    Alan Watts had the last word on flag burning in 1968:

    “Not long ago Congress voted, with much patriotic rhetoric, for the imposition of severe penalties upon anyone presuming to burn the flag of the United States. Yet the very Congressmen who passed this law are responsible, by acts of commission or omission, for burning, polluting, and plundering the territory that the flag is supposed to represent. Therein, they exemplified the peculiar and perhaps fatal fallacy of civilization: the confusion of symbol with reality.”

    That passage is from the essay “Wealth versus Money,” anthologized in Watts’ book, Does It Matter?

    As for the Decalogue, its Commandments fall into two categories. The first four relate to the individual’s relationship to God, and the final six relate to the individual’s relationship to society.

    Regarding those final six, there are some modern zealots who believe that humanity is so debased and morally stupid that it could never have figured out, without divine intervention, that lying, cheating, stealing and murdering were generally bad ideas. But that is the subject of another blog entry. The first four Commandments are the ones that interest me here.

    When any commandments such as the first four issue forth from a theocratic entity (as the Commandments originally did), the explicit message is that one should be unwaveringly dedicated to one’s God, while the implicit message is that the government is God. When a modern government endorses the public display of the Ten Commandments, it is implicitly demanding a degree of respect that no government ever can deserve.

    To the best of my knowledge, there is no statement to that effect in the dicta of any court decision.


    Anonymous jeb said...

    Interesting post.

    I recently had a conversation with a Christian fundamentalist who argued that the ten commandments were the basis of our whole legal system. I pointed out to him, that except for murder and stealing, it wasn't illegal at all to break the other commandments. In fact many respected members of American society broke most of the others frequently. He walked away from the conversation muttering a bit.

    I think there is a fundamental difference between morality and legality - between government and God - that most people simply want to block out. Incredibly, many of these same people I know argued against civil rights legislation because you "can't legislate morality or love."

    Part of the problem is that some people long deeply for a simple world where symbol and reality are the same - where Christ's cross was golden, sparkling, shiny, and inspiring rather than blood drenched - where a set of 10 simple rules tastefully displayed takes care of Columbines and all of the other harsh, difficult-to-solve problems of the day. The symbols become magical touchstones clutched tightly in people's hands as they hurry to catch up with Dorothy to ask the Wizard of Oz to solve their problems too.

    Thu Jul 28, 03:41:00 PM PDT  
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