By Judith Gayle | Political Waves
Truth is leaking out all over, revelations of the salacious, myth-busting kind. Of all the fascinating, eye-popping and gut-twisting developments out there, the one that intrigues and encourages me most is that "authority" -- the kind that once called the shots now and forever -- is faltering. Ultimately, public trust, a good PR firm and a cadre of true believers can't compete with cold hard facts. One by one, icons of a fading age face their own version of Waterloo and unexpectedly find themselves on the defense.
The public airing of racy sexting between Tiger Woods and his stable of women has impeded his return to family and corporate sponsorships. Bad Boy Jesse James broke the heart of our latest mythical 'girl next door,' Sandra Bullock, when his various mistresses came forward to reveal their tattoos and lovemaking details. Both men thus prove possession of a penis, a sexual appetite that transcends their marriage bed, and a general lack of discrimination, but revelations of their personal lives don't impact us. Neither sought the public trust like John Edwards, who ran for president while leading a secret sex life, but their behavior belies standard mythologies such as "money will make you happy" and "marriage is forever."
Paramahamsa Nithyananda, a Hindu holy man with an international following of over two million, recently resigned after a videotape was aired on television showing him in bed with two women. Where did he go wrong? One too many partners? Two? Or the taping itself? Our expectations of 'holiness' don't include multiple sex partners, secret lives, or cover-ups. Nithyananda's credibility is shattered. The Swami has given up his many ashrams and spiritual centers, announcing that he will "live a life of spiritual seclusion, for some indefinite time." A hundred years from now, we might all laugh it off, but today I think the holy man showed a bit of class, folding his tent and slipping away.
Not so the former Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, believed by traditional Catholics to be the incarnation of St. Peter. He is accused of covering up decades of sexual abuse of children while protecting their abusers within the confines of Canon Law. His supporters insist that no one feels the pain of the victims -- hundreds of deaf children in Wisconsin, for instance, over which Benedict had direct responsibility -- as much as this pope, while others say he should step down as Papal leader. This prospect is unthinkable to believers, despite a growing flood of accusations from Italy, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, the U.S. and Switzerland. With reports of tens of thousands of sexually abused children in Ireland alone, the number of those victimized worldwide by the priesthood is as staggering as the silence of the church.
Over the last decade, the Vatican ignored early warnings of our own nation's scandals, dismissed by the church as an example of American liberalism. Now, the magnitude of global scandals challenges the authority of the Papal See itself. The pope finds himself between the proverbial rock that represents his faith and the hard spot formed by centuries of institutionalized Catholicism. Bill Donohue, strident mouthpiece for the Catholic League, attempts to defend the pope by asserting the problem to be homosexuality, rather than pedophilia. Tell that to the little girl who was molested by a priest who was also her own father, who had assaulted her mother as a teen. It's very difficult not to see this epidemic as totalitarian abuse of authority, preying upon the weakest members of the faithful.
Not limited to sexual themes, disturbing reports of internal religious violence are also coming to light. While reports of Scientology Chairman David Miscavige's beating, kidnapping and enslavement of teens exhibit manifestly cultish behavior, what of German Bishop Walter Mixa, conservative ally of the pope, who has been accused of brutally beating orphaned girls in the '70s and '80s? And those who read about the brutal treatment of girls in Ireland's Magdalene Laundries won't question the details.
Theological absolutism spreads a big tent of authority that is self-protective, too often condoning bad behavior while ignoring its extremes. By promoting a higher standard, proclaiming moral certitude, and speaking for the Almighty, religious power has given itself a long way to fall. You can hear it screaming now, clinging to the crumbling edge of its institutionalized power base.
In America, religion is playing defense. No longer afraid of heaven or hell, we're beginning to understand that when we glorify suffering as proof of faith, promote denial of human sexuality, and embrace a literal interpretation of stories written in antiquity, pain and violence will follow. As will zealots.
A case in point is the Hutaree Militia of Michigan, a.k.a. the Christian Warriors of the Apocalypse, arrested by the Feds this week for plotting an attack on police as minions of godless government. This small Christian militia planned their attack in preparation for the antichrist, in order to trigger “the end time battles to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ alive." Their intent to activate the rapture resembles Charlie Manson's attempt to kick-start apocalyptic race war by writing incendiary messages in the blood of his victims. It also echoes the homegrown jihad of domestic terrorist, Tim McVeigh, in the Oklahoma City bombing.
While the press is loath to call this domestic terror, we all know it when we see it. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports a startling 244% increase this year in hate groups and militias, considered the paramilitary arm of the Patriot movement. Many of these groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, operate under the guise of Christian organizations, disdaining any restraint by government or laws. Underscoring the magnitude of the social disconnect between mainstream citizens and the polarized right-wing, Tea Baggers consider the SPLC itself a left-wing hate group, targeting its members and spying on its activities. Can we assume that if the FBI keeps track of the Quakers' peace activities, they will also keep an eye on the SPLC's list of potentially violent extremists?
We're asking a lot of questions these days, and some highly-placed people are speaking truth to power as well. It isn't just religious patriarchy that's wobbling: the intention and authority of Israel are being questioned for the first time in decades; the unfettered power of bankers, corporations and political parties is not only scrutinized but condemned. We've come to question not only the tone of the PR that engulfs us, but the behavior of those who pay for it. We've finally connected the dots between what we're told and what these powerful entities do. The absolute authority of our unquestioned mythologies cannot withstand the barrage of potent questions aimed at them now. These questions and the resulting conversation they provoke would have been unthinkable ten years ago, or even five.
Our most important service to ourselves and our nation is to question what we see around us. I offer three links to articles written by women who ask such questions about the church: one is Maureen Dowd
discussing the spin we're hearing from the Vatican, another is Sinead O'Connor
questioning the pope's apology to Ireland, and the last is Sister Joan Chittister
regarding the wisdom of blind obedience.
Like these outspoken women, we must challenge unquestioned authority wherever we find it.