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“Pagan Symbolism, As Ancient As Imperialism”: Religious Symbols, The Original Cultural Appropriation

I have a theory about Donald Trump’s success. I think that one reason he manages to survive the terrible things he says and does is that he gives liberals too much material. With so much insensitivity, racism, and misogyny pouring out of his campaign, it’s hard to focus on one thing. Complimenting Saddam Hussein? Racist slurs about Mexicans? Misogyny? It’s like being at Ikea—I feel overstimulated and exhausted.

The notorious Star of David Hillary graphic, however, seems to be holding people’s attention. After tweeting the image of Clinton accompanied by a six-pointed star over a pile of money with the words “most corrupt candidate ever,” Trump denied that he intended to imply anything anti-Semitic. It was, he says, a simple sheriff’s star; he never meant to invoke anti-Semitic tropes that link Jews to corruption and money. The country western explanation was rejected not only by media commentators but also by David Duke, former Grand High Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan—and he should know anti-Semitism when he sees it.

While this particular invocation of the Star of David invokes dangerous anti-Semitic caricatures, Trump is hardly the first person to appropriate the religious symbols of another group. Religious appropriation has a longer history and is more prevalent than you might think.

Syncretism, appropriation, cultural mingling—call it what you want, religious appropriation is as ancient as imperialism. The Romans, in a magnanimous display of noblesse oblige, allowed conquered subject peoples to continue to worship their own deities and imported those religions to Rome. The cult of the Persian god Mithras proved exceptionally popular among soldiers, as did the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis. In the cafeteria of ancient paganism, people enjoyed sampling the full length of the buffet.

The first Christians, too, appropriated the religious imagery of their predecessors. In the catacombs of Rome, some of the earliest visual images of Jesus portray him as a shepherd with a sheep slung over his shoulders. The idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is well known to any readers of the New Testament, but the image was based almost entirely on depictions of the Greek god Hermes. Other images show him in the guise of Orpheus, the romantic poet of Greek mythology, who descended into the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice, or as Helios, the sun God.

The reason for this adaptation is two-fold: in the first decades of the Christian Era artisans were skilled in carving Orpheus and Helios. Assimilating Jesus to mythological figures was pragmatic. At the same time, the assimilation was communicative: both Jesus and Orpheus were believed to have descended into the underworld. Both Jesus and Helios were believed to be deities with power over the order of the universe. Appropriating pagan symbolism allowed the fledgling religious movement to communicate something about their beliefs in a way that would be broadly intelligible to their contemporary audience.

But today and in recent history religious appropriation has a different kind of history. The most blindingly horrific example of appropriation must be the lifting of the Hindu symbol of auspiciousness or good fortune—the svastika—to make the Nazi swastika. But Nazi fondness for the symbol didn’t emerge out of vacuum: as Steven Heller showed in his book The Swastika: Beyond Redemption?, the beginning of the twentieth century saw a huge fad in which everyone from Coca-Cola to the Girl Scouts to the British and American military adopted the symbol.

Children of the 80s will remember the sacrilegious imagery of Madonna videos and the frequent juxtaposition of the rosary in her attire. The trend of ironically wearing Catholic “jewelry” as an act of subversion or mockery is prevalent to this day. Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim symbols are also favorite accessories for Westerners, but there’s something a little less sacrilegious in their application. In the case of the latter there is usually aesthetic appreciation that accompanies the blissful ignorance about a symbol’s origins. As many have pointed out, there’s no merit to be had in appreciating the beauty of a culture if you don’t also want to understand its history and suffering.

In many cases religious appropriation is well-intentioned and shrouded in blissful ignorance. There is a fierce debate over whether or not the Western practice of yoga and meditation is inherently colonialist. Full disclosure: I am exactly the kind of Lululemon-wearing yoga practitioner you might accuse of this. I have none of the knowledge of my sensitive and well-informed yoga teacher Lauren Harris, and it’s convenient for me to follow this argument about why yoga isn’t cultural appropriation. But colonialist or not, good intentions don’t obscure the fact that very few of us aspiring yogis could name the elephant-headed god in the room. (Wikipedia tells me that it’s Ganesh.)

Interestingly, religious appropriation is generally more accepted than other aspects of cultural appropriation. The pushback against appropriating Native American dress receives less attention than the appropriation of Native American spirituality at sweat lodges or on Oprah. This is in part because of the commodification of religion in general and in part because of our cultural commitment to the process of conversion. Sometimes the line between cavalier accessorizing and sincere religious practice is hard to discern.

What’s the difference between adaptation and appropriation? Two things: knowledge and power. The ill-informed appropriation of a marginalized and/or oppressed religious group’s heritage by members of the dominant group is more problematic than the ironic critique of mainstream religious power. Madonna’s use of Catholic religious imagery in her music videos may have been in poor taste, but it was better informed than her appropriation of “vogue-ing” from Latino and African-American dancers.

At the end of day, whether or not it’s your body or your propaganda, accessorizing with religious symbols matters, especially when those symbols belong to someone else.

 

By: Candida Moss, The Daily Beast, July 10, 2016

July 11, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Religious Symbols | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Let’s Make The Confederate Flag A Hate Crime”: It Is The American Swastika And We Should Recoil From It In Horror

Early Thursday morning, the State House of South Carolina voted to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State Capitol. Gov. Nikki Haley has pledged to sign the bill immediately, and the flag may come down as soon as today.

Frederick Douglass, the former slave who escaped to freedom, and became a major abolitionist and civil rights leader a century and a half ago, foresaw this day.  But he foresaw, too, that it would be a long time coming.

Speaking in Boston just days before the South surrendered at the end of the Civil War, Douglass warned that the North’s victory would not mean that that war had truly ended: “That enmity will not die out in a year, will not die out in an age,” he predicted.

As a former southerner himself, Douglass knew just how deep allegiance to the Southern slave-holding culture went. He declared:

“I believe that when the tall heads of this Rebellion shall have been swept down, you will see those traitors, handing down, from sire to son, the same malignant spirit which they have manifested, and which they are now exhibiting, with malicious hearts, broad blades, and bloody hands in the field, against our sons and brothers.”

Six years later, in 1871, Douglass wrote that,  “A rebellion is upon our hands today far more difficult to deal with than that suppressed, but not annihilated, in 1865.” He was speaking of the rising wave of mob violence and terrorism directed against African Americans all across the region. Like a “pestilence,” Douglass observed, “this last form of the rebellion – covert, insidious, secret, striking in the darkness of night, while assuming spotless robes of loyalty in the day – is far more difficult to deal with than an open foe.”

Has the age of “enmity” finally ended? Has the “malignant spirit” finally died away? Has the “pestilence” finally abated?

The answer to all of these questions is “no.” The hateful actions of Dylann Roof remind us of that. So do the white supremacist websites Roof found appealing. So do the many Confederate flags displayed in places across the South — and beyond — today, emblazoning T-shirts, affixed to car bumpers, and worn as lapel pins in business suits.

The heritage these flags stand for was a bloody war initiated by the South. Those Southerners who fired the first shots to attack U.S. troops at Fort Sumter – just a mile or two from the church where Roof gunned down nine black worshippers – aimed not only to “defend” slavery, but to promote slavery’s spread across the nation, especially in the West.  The defeat of the South was the defeat of the slavery system.

That defeat is still mourned by many sympathizers with the Confederate cause across the nation, who have somehow forgotten that the Lost Cause was the cause of slavery. To them, the Confederate flag is an innocent symbol, a symbol that honors the Confederate dead and preserves the memory of their gallantry and fighting spirit.

To black Americans, meanwhile, these flags send a clear, painful, and frightening message:You don’t belong here. By being here, you are in danger. This nation is not for you.  It was no coincidence that those who opposed the civil rights movement for desegregation and integration across America began to resurrect the use of the flag in the 1950s and 1960s.

Americans who refuse to acknowledge the connection between the Confederate flag and the horrors of slavery and white supremacy are still in the grip of a “malignant spirit” handed down from generation to generation from 1865 to this day.

It is a fine thing that the Confederate flag will no longer fly above the South Carolina state capitol. But displaying the Confederate flag anywhere is, at bottom, an act of hate. It should be recognized as such, and punished as a hate crime.

Given the millions who suffered under the whip of slave masters, and all the families separated as slave traders sold sons and daughters away from their parents, and wives away from their husbands, All Americans should recoil from the Confederate flag with the same horror we feel for the Nazi swastika.

That, I feel confident, is what Frederick Douglass would think.

 

By: Nick Bromell, Salon, July 11, 2015

July 12, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, Confederacy, Confederate Flag, Slavery | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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