Damnatio ad Bestias

There’s a joke about an older Jewish woman who goes to see one of those gladiator movies that were popular during the mid-twentieth century.

During the requisite Colosseum scene the lady rises from her seat and begins screaming, “Doity filthy pik-chah. Stop this pik-chah!” An usher comes running down the aisle and asks her what’s troubling her. “The lions are eating the Jews,” she exclaims.

“No, no lady, those aren’t Jews, they’re Christians.” Placated, the lady resumes her seat only to rise up again in a few moments. “Doity, filthy pik-chah. Stop this pik-chah!” Back runs the usher and says, “Lady, I told you these are Christians, not Jews.”

“I know,” says the woman, “but that lion isn’t eating.”

The Supreme Court will hear a case this summer concerning a football coach who claims he negotiated a binding contract with God, fully notarized by Jesus and witnessed by the Holy Spirit, I presume. It compels him to kneel on the 50 yard line and pray after his high school gladiators have provided bread and puppets to the masses. His prayer set off a rush of spectators to join him that resulted in more injuries than had occurred in the game itself.

In accordance with school rules, based on a Supreme Court precedent, the “establishment clause,” the guy was suspended. The “establishment clause” prohibits school employees from engaging in or encouraging religious activities while serving in their official capacity lest students feel coerced to participate in order to maintain good standing with their superiors.

This guy could have legally done has praying somewhere out of sight, but, hey, what fun is praying to Jesus when he’s the only one listening? The tenets of devout Christianity compel believers to impose their particular brand of superstition on the whole world. This they do by, among other bothersome means, making a public spectacle of their prayers while demanding that those they offend, annoy and belittle pay silent homage.

[Google my op-ed published in the Albany Times Union several years ago titled “Silence is a Form of Reverence” to get more insight into why I resent being unwillingly subjected to public prayers.]

Now get this. The coach claims this was “private” worship protected by the first amendment.

Private? To me it seems as private as walking downtown naked and taking a dip in the fountain that graces the center of my town, but the Court has already signaled it will rule in his favor.

Another case making its way to the Court concerns officials in a Texas town who dissolved the board of the public library, fired the librarian and stacked the board with Christian activists who claimed the library disseminated “filth” to readers. They proceeded to remove the offending tomes, block access to all e-books and to close their meetings to the public.

What was this “filth?”

Books that mention LGTBQ issues, provide factual sex-ed information or contain any themes, passages or scenes that include sexual thoughts or behavior. Additionally, books that promote racial equality or accurately portray the book burners’ “good” Christian ancestors as slave owners whose racist legacy is ongoing, the same devout forebears who, with God’s blessing of course, systematically carried out genocide on our indigenous population.

While I am not amused by these hypocrites, I certainly don’t condone throwing anyone to lions. As I have repeatedly stressed, I bear no ill will toward the vast majority of Christians, those in the mainstream, who don’t conflate their faith with politics.

Until Christianity became Rome’s official state religion, Christians were considered criminals because they met secretly at night. (Not unlike the new library board?) Under Roman law, that was a form of unlawful assembly tantamount to terrorist activity.

Though the grisly games in the Colosseum actually did not feature beasts dining on Christians, it is true that execution by beasts, damnatio ad bestias, was one of several forms of capital punishment Rome administered to all sorts of criminals. Including Christians.

In his book, “Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” biblical scholar Reza Aslan claims the Gospels’ version of Jesus was highly fictionalized to portray him as merely a peaceful spiritual leader when he was actually a revolutionary.

It is, then, no coincidence that the publication of the first Gospel, 30-some years after Jesus’ death, coincided with the quashing of Judea’s briefly successful rebellion against their Roman oppressors.

In the eyes of Rome, Jesus was a traitor who agitated for just such a rebellion. Accordingly, he was executed. Once it took back control, Rome conducted a strict crackdown on Christians whom they viewed as enemies of the State. In an effort to evade the Empire’s wrath, the Christians concocted a version of history that portrayed Jesus as the peaceable “lamb” of God with no intentions other than to guide followers along a righteous path toward their heavenly reward.

Today, the ranks of the ultra-conservative are swollen by ultra-religious Christians. Some historians contend that the Christians of Rome hastened its fall. Ours, through their politicians of choice, are clearly accelerating the fall of our own empire. They abuse and undermine the Constitution in pursuit of maintaining Christianity as the de-facto official state religion and bolstering their position at the top of our social caste system. To quote Jesus, they are gaining the world and losing their souls.

The culture war they have unleashed has produced a distracted electorate who cannot see the forest for the trees. This has resulted in a Congress that ignores substantive issues and is unresponsive to the needs of its citizens. They have given us a Supreme Court packed with Justices who shamelessly dispense bald favoritism toward ultra-conservative causes and orthodox Christian priorities. They continue to endorse and promote the authoritarianism of the Trump administration that, if allowed to continue unchecked, will greatly weaken our democratic system and undermine our pre-eminent position on the world stage.

The curious cases of the coach and the library board are bookends in an ongoing saga. Our political system is being taken over by bigots who twist the truth and the Constitution in favor of their priorities.

In the case of the coach, they claim he has an absolute First Amendment right to free speech regardless of rational laws that limit where and how it is to be exercised.

In the case of the library they completely dismiss the Amendment because they do not like what those who diverge from their definition of “filth” are using their freedom of speech to express.

Like our moviegoer, they aren’t troubled by throwing people to the lions. What matters is which people get thrown.

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