Theocracies Then and Now, Here and There

Ideas and Issues Organizers Forum Organizing Personal Writings

            New Orleans      Recently, I was somewhat horrified to read about actions taken unanimously by the Indonesian Parliament.  The Organizers’ Forum had taken a delegation there in 2005, and met with amazing groups organizing among the urban poor and lower-income workers.  We were especially impressed that so many of the organizations were directed by young women in this country with the largest Islamic population in the world at the time.  Now the Parliament has revised the penal code by criminalizing sex outside of marriage for citizens as well as foreigners, prohibiting the promotion of contraception and banning defamation of the president and state institutions. The new code also expands an existing blasphemy law and maintains a five-year prison term for deviations from the central tenets of Indonesia’s six recognized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

My immediate reaction was to recoil at how draconian these measures were.  Certainly, we see the extremes of theocratically aligned governments in Iran, Israel, and the Middle East, some being met with extensive protests now.  These divisions rend the fabric of the United States as well, pitting state against state on everything from abortion to women’s rights to the interest of some on the rightwing in arguing that we need to declare ourselves a Christian nation, and a driven majority on the Supreme Court that seems to want to impose a similar will on the nation.  Our kneejerk reaction though is always, “Ok, all that is terrible, and we’ve got problems, but at least we’d never go that far.”

Wrong!  We’ve been that far, and we were for quite a long time.  I was caught short as I read a recent book, The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World, by Malcom Gaskill.  I’m not a witch-guy, but I’d noticed that this bit of history was centered around Springfield, Massachusetts.  Having been a welfare rights organizer there in 1969-70, it caught my eye, and what the heck, I’ll read it on my Kindle flying up and back to Canada.  The book was around the founding years of Springfield and what became the neighboring towns of Longmeadow and Holyoke, all places I knew well.  Yes, a lot of the book is about how ultra-religious people were, even though Springfield was not settled by the Puritans, but as part of economic expansion west.  Nonetheless, the laws were part and parcel to Indonesia.  Adultery was a capital offense in Massachusetts, and the state killed people for it.  Church attendance was pretty much mandatory.  Almost any misfortune from crop failure, too much rain, a dead cow, bad milk, or deaths in the family could be blamed on neighbors as ungodly or being possessed and acting as witches, man or woman, but mainly women.

Gaskill doesn’t take his foot off the pedal either.  This went on for more than a minute from the mid-1600’s until the 1730s.  Many more were accused than convicted and killed, but even the accusation in a theocracy could be fatal to families and their future.  In the epilogue, Gaskill, visiting the archives, walks through modern Springfield looking to find the plot lines of the properties of the city’s founder and those accused, and although he tries to modify his disregard, what he sees now is often less than pretty.

Maybe even as we are quick to judge, we might be in a better position to make our case by admitting that, we’ve also been there and done that, and it didn’t work out so well.  We’re definitely not in any position to act holier than thou.