Sunday, April 6, 2008

It's beneath you

In the penultimate book of The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus, with the aid of the goddess Athena, removes his disguise in front of the suitors. He had been gone for twenty years, and in the meantime, the suitors had courted his wife, eaten his food, and even plotted the death of his son, Telemachus. After killing the ringleader, the others plead with him to spare their lives.

Odysseus responds that not one of them will escape with their lives, and along with his son, a few faithful servants, and the goddess, he slaughters them all. It's a bloody sight. Melanthius, a goatherd who mocked the King (to be fair, the king was disguised as an old beggar - but any Ancient Greek will tell you that you're supposed to treat old beggars with hospitality) has his ears and nose chopped off. In addition, his genitals are removed and fed to the dogs.

As for the maids who slept around with the suitors and basically turned the palace into a brothel, they were forced to clean up all the blood. After that, they were taken outside and hung.

It's quite a thrilling story, and it's probably my favorite part of the poem. There's a certain part of me that can relate to wanting revenge when somebody's been disrespectful in my house. Of course, by today's standards, that reaction is just a tad extreme. If somebody behaved this way, they'd be thrown in jail. While you may have the right to shoot an intruder, you don't have the right to massacre a crowd because they've been rude in your house. Don't even get me started on the Melanthius thing.

Wouldn't it be crazy if somebody tried to hold up The Odyssey as the moral standard of how we should live our lives in the modern world? That would be totally insane, wouldn't it? Thrilling mythology? Yes! Moral compass? A big NO!

Yet in many Muslim countries, (Saudi Arabia, our "allies", for instance) law is based on the Koran. While not as old as The Odyssey, it is still quite old. It also doesn't really attempt to tell any kind of a story, so it lacks an entertainment factor (unless you really like hearing about how disbelievers are going to hell over and over again). However, it does stress values that may have been perfectly acceptable in another time that are very much out-of-step with modern times. The thing is, when Osama bin Laden quotes the Koran to justify his mass killings, he's not just making stuff up. It's all there. You can play the "out of context" game all you want, but in what context are things like that applicable to a modern society that's based on the rule of law (not to mention basic tolerance and decency)?

Supposedly, there are a lot of nice passages in the Koran as well - passages that ask for tolerance (but from what I understand, not so much for polytheists) and passages that demand that followers look after the poor. People point to passages like that when they (rightfully) argue that most of the world's Muslims are peaceful and do not engage in terrorism.

I don't buy it. I think that most Muslims are peaceful not because of their religion. I think that they're basically just too decent to actually follow some of the more odious commandments of their holy book. For some reason, they ignore the awful stuff and focus on the good. I imagine that many of them probably don't give it too much thought - mainly because thinking about it forces them to deal with the fact that what they supposedly believe is holy doesn't actually represent their values at all.

I find this very easy to believe because I know that it's the same thing with Christians. Many of them point to The Bible as their guide to morality, but most Christians would cringe if some of the laws of The Bible were suggested as being good rules for us to follow nowadays (like having to marry your rapist if you're a virgin). Of course, there are those Christians who assert that our laws are based on Biblical values. I'm not sure where the heck they're getting that from. The laws that we have that correspond with The Bible are laws that are basic human values that are pretty universal. (You know, the whole no killing thing.)

Of course, there are some Christians who argue that all of the cruelty comes from The Old Testament, and Jesus went about creating a new covenant that can be applied to a modern society. I have a few responses to that. First of all, then why do we have all those rules in the Old Testament at all? Why not cut them out and just leave in the stories? (You know, like how Lot offers his virgin daughters to the crowd so they can rape them. Apparently, the angels needed his protection. On second thought, let's get rid of that one too.) Also, which rules of those rules "no longer count"? It's not very clear, and from what Jesus says, all of them still count, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew, Chapter 5). Seems like it all still counts, folks!

Even if we forget all that (but why should we?) the New Testament is still horribly out of touch with the values of a modern society. Jesus sure doesn't seem very pro-family values when he says, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children,and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke, Chapter 14). And I don't think you have to be a feminist to find the following objectionable: "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence" (1 Timothy 2). I mean, is this much worse than what the fundamentalist Muslims have to say of their women? Seems to me that if we followed that law to the letter, our women here wouldn't have it much better than the ones in Saudi Arabia.

I've heard some Christians say that it's because of Christianity's dominance in this country that we have freedom, including the freedom to believe what we want. I've even heard it said that the reason why Jews have been successful here is because of that. I'm sorry, but that doesn't make a shit's worth of sense to me. After all, the Jews are made to blame for the death of Jesus (in John, anyway - it's "the crowd" and the church leaders in the earlier Gospels). How much anti-Semitism has spread over the years using The New Testament as its justification? I'd argue that it's our secular government that is to thank, and freedom has flourished in spite of the predominance of Christianity.

Why don't more Christians want these strict laws that come right out The Bible? For the same reasons why most Muslims don't want the strict laws from The Koran. They're too decent for that. The only problem is that they all feel the need to keep on asserting that these are good books - even though these books are completely beneath them. What also happens is pointless arguments about whose holy book is worse. Who cares? (A lot, I know, but that should be the reaction.)

I've heard Christians criticize Mohammed because he supposedly married a nine-year old girl (might be younger, I'm not sure.) I've read Muslim explanations for that, explaining that he married her, but he clearly did not have sex with her, which would make him a pedophile if he did. Personally, I don't care if Mohammed was a pedophile anymore than I care if Odysseus is a murderer.

Of course, if Christians take this tactic, where they point out that The Koran is a book from an ancient culture that should be prized as an historial artifact rather than a guide to life, they leave The Bible open up to the same criticism. The truth hurts, doesn't it?

I once used to think that we should choose our kings by having women who lived in lakes pass out swords to those who were worthy. Dennis set me straight when he said, "Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony. " He's right. We shouldn't look to myths for how we rule ourselves today.

And if you don't get the reference, here is the corresponding scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

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