Post Theocracy

April 17, 2009

Holy Thursday evokes a spirit of contemplation and renewal in Ireland.  In particular, the contemplative realization that, ye god, the pubs and off-licenses are closed tomorrow (one of only two days in the year on which they are closed) and a renewal of the home alcohol stocks in an evening rush of panic buying.  A day without drinking.  This shall not be.

Officially, Easter in Ireland is spiritual.  The national radio stations (a good chunk of radio and television programming in Ireland is government-run) play solemn music on Good Friday and celebratory music on Easter Sunday.  Theologians and philosophers contribute thoughtful meditations on the day.  But unofficially it's a four-day bank holiday where everyone heads to the beach, the pub and the track.  It's a family holiday, a spring holiday, a nationalist celebration (the Easter Rising in 1916 sparked events leading to Irish independence) and a chocolate festival.  It's a happy holiday.  And a mainly secular one.

Easter is not a national holiday in the U.S., because we don't have national religious holidays in the U.S. (aside from Christmas, which presumably snuck through because of its overwhelming consumerist appeal).  It's celebrated on the Sunday only, in families, churches and communities.  It's hard to imagine Americans rushing out to stock up on alcohol for Easter.  In my Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, where you could walk past a church of some kind every 100 yards or so, Easter was a great day for new dresses, snappy suits, amazing hats, joyful singing and thunderous sermons that could be heard on the street, with the call and response.  It was a day for religious worship.  It was spiritual.

Not too long ago, Ireland was a theocracy, with no real separation between church and state.  The politicians consulted the bishops before major legislative undertakings and the priests ruled their parish dominions, from Dublin to the tiniest western seacoast village, with no dissent permitted on anything from sex (famously nonexistant in Ireland before television) to the Sabbath. Those were the days.  I wonder what Easter was like then?  Lamentations and wailing on Good Friday, with comfortable lashings of guilt to last through Sunday?  A head count in the parish church with deacons dispatched to round up the laggards?

Or maybe not.  The Irish, having been subject to numerous long-term oppressions from church and state, are masters at subtle resistance.  They have a way of looking you directly in the eye and agreeing with everything you say while somehow letting you know you're an eejit.  Oh how much fun that must have been with the British.  A bit more dangerous with priests, perhaps, as the British could only torment you here while the priests could torment you here and after. 

Now the theocracy has shattered.  Irish bishops have no credibility.  Their public statements are parsed and scrutinized (and increasingly those statements are apologies for abuses still unfolding); their resignations demanded when they're found wanting (imagine the Irish laity of the 1980s calling for the resignation of a bishop).  The clergy intrude on politics delicately if at all.  That colossal monolith of oppression that was the Irish Catholic Church has crumbled.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., religion is everywhere.  Prayer breakfasts on Capitol Hill, mega-churches (even in New England!), mini-churches, the born again, the saved, uncountable Christian denominations, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Zoroastrians, Whirling Dervishes–every religion on the planet.  People speak freely of their religious convictions and have no qualms questioning you about yours (once my hairdresser asked me if I'd been saved–while my hair was wet and she was wielding the scissors. I did a quick mental castabout and said I was a Taoist.  Pause one beat. "Do they accept Jesus Christ as their Savior?"  I had to admit, no.  She did not take it out on my head).

So the secular society is religious and the former theocracy is thoroughly secular.  What does it mean?  Perhaps that people of faith who want faith to flourish should consider the separation of church and state to be their very best friend, Thomas Jefferson their official hero.  Where religion is compelled by the state, as it was in Ireland, and much of Europe, it can only be resisted.  Forcing what should be the deepest, most private convictions of one's heart through intimidation, shame and violence can  gain a temporary compliance.  But when the force is removed, so is the conviction.

We had a lovely, unexpectedly sunny, four-day Easter holiday in Ireland this year.  The sun shone on the sea at Inch Beach, near my house.  Children played in the shallow water and surfers coasted and spun on the breaking waves farther out.  Boy racers sped up the beach oblivious to the incoming tide while the dangling black figures of the parasailors  hovered uncertainly over their heads.  I sat in the cafe with friends, more of whom kept arriving.  We took a short walk up the strand.  I couldn't stop looking at the evening light on the sea.

This is secular Ireland, free from guilt and coercion, returned to the natural world, to Eastre, the goddess of spring and fertility, the original pagan celebration.  A different aspect of the spirit, but a realm of the spirit after all.