Western Civilization, there is no greater sacred religious ritual
than the burning of heretics at the stake. A communal affair,
the site of the ceremony was the public square. True believers
considered it quite an honor that they might contribute faggots
to be consumed on this most holy of occasions. The bundles of
sticks were blessed by the highest ranking member of the clergy
available so the heretics might be consumed by holy flames on
this most holy of days. But not just any holy day where evil would
be denounced and good would triumph but a festive holy day where
everyone would take off from work and celebrate the righteousness
of their beliefs as a community of the faithful.
be fair and just, (and capital punishment must always be seen
as fair and just to be tolerated), the heretics would be given
an opportunity to repent of their evil ways and die begging forgiveness.
Such a decent death was said to make a difference for them in
the afterlife but would not stop the show in this life. For the
roasting would go on. Indeed, the show had to go on! How else
to teach the lesson of what happens to those who stray too far
or seek too much change or who are simply too different? Forgive
the sin but burn the sinner! And a good time would be had by all,
excepting, of course, the poor and unlucky soul whose presence
was the “reason for the season,” to coin a phrase. On such an
occasion, who could resist a full-throated singing of a verse
or two of “Onward Christian Soldiers”?
most recent example of this modern attempt to cleanse the community
of heretics is Proposition 8 and whether the state should perform
did we get worked up into this frenzied madness - this modern
burning at the stake? Blame Henry the Eighth, the King of England,
who wanted a divorce (really an annulment) from one of his several
serial wives but could not obtain permission from the Catholic
Church who ruled over all religious rituals. So in 1534, Henry,
not to be frustrated in his kingly proclivities, proclaimed himself
the Head of the (new) Church of England, and had its Chief of
Ritual Protocol, the Archbishop of Canterbury, grant him an annulment.
And thus Henry the Eighth put the state in the marriage business.
In reaction to this merger of state and church came the political
belief enshrined in the First Amendment that the State and the
Church should remain separate.
Americans, enlightened practitioners of the separation of church
and state as set forth in our constitution, no longer literally
burn heretics at the stake.1
Yet, we Americans are not deterred by the separation of church
and state from trying to do something to the heretics among us.
The history of the “citizen” ballot initiative can be read as
a popular mechanism to attack heretics of one stripe or another.
(It can also be read as a form of class warfare where the rich
and propertied impose their will on the poor and penniless. But
that reading doesn’t detract from what is being said here.)
8 is a good example of how asking the wrong question doesn’t help
in getting the right answer. Here’s the problem. When you go after
heretics, you assume that the faithful are on the one true path
and the heretic has strayed from the walkway of righteousness.
But there are at least two other distinct possibilities, one of
which, in all the debate about proposition 8, did not get much
consideration. Hence, the need for this intervention.
possibility is that the faithful are off on an ecclesiastical
frolic and detour and the heretic, though not within the body
of the faithful, nevertheless, treads the true path. This position
is easily recognized as the position of the martyr. No less a
person than Joan of Arc was burned at the stake at Rouen, France
in 1431 and would die claiming the righteousness of her beliefs;
and no less a person than Pope Benedict XV in 1920 would canonize
Joan of Arc a Saint of God. My how times did change when you recall
that Joan of Arc had been sent to the stake by good Roman Catholic
true believers. It turns out they were wrong. Joan of Arc was
on the one true path and those who burned her were on some other
path - most likely the good-intentioned path of we-know-what-God-wants.
Joan of Arc, of course, got her reward in heaven. And some among
us, for reasons known only to God, would consider that a poor
consolation prize, given that she had to give up her life to win
it. But the Christian version of the Price of Belief is Right
has always been a high stakes game. The wager is eternity and
behind one door is heaven and behind the other door is hell. And
according to the rules of religious eschatology, you cannot “not
is the trouble with asking the wrong question. It forces you to
debate about equally wrong answers, only one of which is “right”
according to the true believers on each side of the issue. But
there is a third possibility.
possibility agrees with all those “sexuals” - both hetero and
homo - who believe that marriage is a sacred religious ritual
in which two people are united as one in the eyes of God. This
“third alternative” is that the State will no longer be in the
marriage business but instead will only be in the civil union
business. It is the position that the Supreme Court of California
should adopt as a way of getting us out this Stygian quagmire
in which we are drowning, if not burning. (The Styx, of course,
is poisonous and corrosive but does not burn; that distinction
belongs to the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, Patron River of the Modern
you want to be married in the eyes of your faith tradition (name
your own poison), you must be married by the designated practitioner
of that rite. And the blessings of the denominational gods will
be upon you. But if you want to be united in the eyes of the State,
which does not and cannot recognize a one true religious tradition,
then you must have a civil union. In the civil union, two people
are united in the eyes of the State and thereby get all of the
perquisites which go with that civil union, including joint tax
returns, family health care coverage, probate espousal determinations,
et cetera. And the biggest of prize of them all - the civil divorce
- which is not possible in some religious traditions.
is time for the California Supreme Court to cut the Gordian knot
of Henry the Eighth’s convenient merger of church and state. The
Supreme Court of California can return us all to that blissful
state, envisioned by our forebears, wherein the state and its
civil rituals are separated from the church and its religious
practices. All can agree that marriage is a religious ritual.
All should agree that the State has no business performing
religious rituals. (If you think otherwise, then why should the
state not perform baptisms or better yet circumcisions, a practice
commonly occurring in all the Abrahamic religious traditions -
Jewish, Christian, and Muslim?) “How dare, you say. Blasphemy,
you say!” Such an unkind cut! Then you must surely agree the State
should perform only civil ceremonies - such as civil unions.
California Supreme Court should rule that from henceforth the
state will only recognize civil unions. Every citizen would have
a choice: they could be married and not have a civil union (in
which case no recognition of their marriage by the state); they
could have a civil union and no marriage (in which case no recognition
by a faith tradition); or they could have both a marriage (if
their religion permits) and a civil union in which case they would
secure the blessings of life, liberty, and, the erstwhile pursuit
of happiness on themselves and their posterity by God and country.
How American is that!
would be an entirely Christian thing for the Court to do. In effect,
the California Supreme Court would render to Caesar the things
that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. And then
we can all begin debating the next burning topic. In the Christian
biblical tradition of the New Testament, divorce after marriage
is not permitted - “let no one put asunder what God has joined
annulment is possible and then under circumstances so strict -
ask Henry the Eighth - as to make it virtually impossible. So
here’s the question: Should married, Bible-believing, Christians,
who divorce rather than seek annulment for reasons of fraud, imbecility,
or the inability to have children, (typical grounds for annulment),
be burned at the stake for the heretics that they are? Now there’s
an interesting question worthy of a ballot initiative. How say
you? Oh what a slippery slope we slide when first we practice
Commentator, Wesley Profit, is an LA-based writer and satirist.
Click here to contact Mr. Profit.