While reading Livy (59BCE – 17CE) on the history of Rome, specifically his section railing against the Bacchanalia, I came across a great passage.
When the will of the gods is used as a screen for criminal activities, one is overtaken by fear that in punishing human wrongdoings we may be violating some divine law fused into them. (39.16)
I immediately thought of this scene from Kingdom of Heaven:
“There must be war; God wills it.” If God wills it, then whatever human wrongdoing may be involved is of no concern – we are doing the will of the divine, after all, human laws and human ‘morals’ be damned.
A cry of the same tenor rings from many corners of our country these days. The cry may not be for a literal war (though, sadly, it often is). It may not be for the killing of enemies (though, again, sadly, it often is). Instead, the cries are for the rightness of one’s cause, the righteousness of one’s cause, over against that of every one else.
What Livy understood was that the fear of divine punishment is a strong motivating factor and when the divine is brought in to the conversation human wrongdoings often go unchecked because we are busy doing the will of the divine – or so we think. Far too often the will of one’s god is a screen for human wrongdoing, for discrimination, for hate crimes, for blowing up abortion clinics, for disregarding the lives of innocent civilians who happen to be Muslims living in another part of the world, for thinking only of ourselves while countless others suffer.
As Leigh Teabing tells Sophie Neveu in The Da Vinci Code, “As long as there has been one true God, there has been killing in his name.”
Livy, through the speech of the consul, has touched on a particularly stinging critique of religion in all its forms. Too many, I am afraid, are too worried about “violating some divine law,” as Livy put it, to care about their fellow human beings. It is this attitude, this understanding of God that allows one to call his God just when he orders and sanctions genocide (see the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua). It is this way of thinking about God that causes one to not associate with certain people for fear of what others will think, what God will think. This is the same fear that Jesus pushes against when he time and again heals on the Sabbath – he is more concerned with helping others, with human welldoing than he is afraid that he may go against God’s laws regarding the Sabbath.
Then, with no amount of irony, the consul giving the speech in Livy’s History of Rome just a paragraph later is able to say with full confidence,
All that we shall do will have the sanction and endorsement of the gods.
Like most of us, the consul is able to recognize the worst in others and to critique their understanding of the divine while entertaining not a shred of doubt in his own.