You are here

the sacredness of the body and the sacrilege of the state

This time of year, as I go through the great American ritual of paying for civilization (and/or letting the military industrial complex bleed me, choose your own interpretation) I often think of the advice that the great rabbi Jeshua ben Joseph gave when some critics tried to trip him up with a question about taxes. Perhaps it's also the nearness of the Easter season that puts me in mind of the fellow, who's better known by the Greek version of his name, "Jesus". But according to the Gospel of Matthew (22:15-22, King James Version, just because it was Hunter S. Thompson's favorite):

Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

(You may feel free to marvel at me quoting the gospel, and to joke about how the devil can cite Scripture to his purpose.)

The question of how to be a spiritual person in the social and political world is a tough one. Most folks skip the dilemma by, lets face it, not being spiritual in any significant degree. It's still true that the mass of people lead unexamined lives, lives of quiet desperation rather than loud inquiry. It's sure easier that way...in the short term, at least.

Others skip it by leaving the social word, retreating to monasteries or convents or withdrawing into their own custom forms of isolation. And that has its appeal; some say it was the final temptation of the Buddha, to just sit under that tree in enlightened bliss and not bother with the mass of suffering sentient beings. This sort of "leaving the world" is considered noble by many, but we have to understand it as a dodge, a cheap way out. It's relatively easy for a monk to sit in mediation in some temple on an isolated mountain where every aspect of daily life is designed to re-enforce his practice, but what's the use of a such a fragile practice?

And speaking of temptations, I suppose we ought to consider a third solution offered in one of the legendary temptations of poor old Jeshua: to take power in the social world, to become a king, and thus able to bend the social order to one's spiritual desires. It's not a practical option for most of us to even attempt, and history suggests that it generally doesn't end well for those who do.

But if we decide to stay in the world, if we don't take any of these dodges, then what? If rather than retreating to the mountain temples, or going off into isolation in the desert, we choose the path of sitting zazen and then getting off our cushion to deal with the mundane, with the workday or taking care of the kids or fighting for social justice, what then? How shall we deal with the everyday challenges of right speech, right action, and right livelihood in an honorable fashion?

It seems that according to Jeshua, part of the answer is that we have to make a division between that which is Caesar's and that which is God's.

In less theistic terms, some things belong to the social order, and we deal with them as citizens, through social and political processes. As Jeshua noted, money is a creation of the state, a thing of Caesar. This is true for property in general. It's not central to the teachings of the Buddha or the Christ or any spiritual teacher.

That doesn't mean that we can avoid the necessity of being good citizens, of working politically for a state that meets the needs of all human beings. It is spiritual teachings that tell us why we should give a damn about those other human beings in the first place, and if we have that in place the political end of things will eventually work itself out. If not, then Thoreau's words from Civil Disobedience apply: "A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the State with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated by it as enemies."

But that sort of resistance is still part of the political process, the realm of Caesar. Jeshua tells us that there are things outside that realm, things that are not Caesar's, that must always be taken as beyond the authority of kings and legislatures and the voting public. Even in the best possible utopian state, there are things that we deal with not as citizens but as seekers, shamans, kosmos and prophets en masse, priests unto ourselves.

Some things are, in word, sacred. And if those sacred things are violated, Jeshua had a plan for how to deal with that: as he demonstrated when some unsavory types set up shop in the temple, it involved the application of a whip to the defilers. (John 2:14-16)

One of these sacred things, perhaps the most important one, is the human body.

To be sure, there's a lot of confusion on this point. Saul of Tarsus* famously wrote "What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God...?" (1 Corinthians 6:19) But that passage is buried in a screed about the dangers of fornication. Still, while poor screwed-up Saul was infected with misogyny and fear of sex, he couldn't deny the divinity of the human body.

(* Also known as Paul...I try to use these folks' original names to emphasize the historical rather than the mythological.)

And there's the bit in the gospel of Matthew where Jeshua supposedly talked about people who "have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake" (Matthew 19:12), which would seem to be serious body-denying asceticism. But given that it appears only in one gospel, that it fits well with the teachings of Saul/Paul, and that at least some early Christians believed Jeshua was married (which would seem to make it hypocritical for him to advocate eunuchhood), my guess is that the attribution isn't genuine but a later addition by Pauline Christians.

(Also, there's a good chance that "eunuch" was meant metaphorically, as a chaste person, rather than as someone who'd had their testes amputated. As I discuss in Why Buddha Touched the Earth, before the development of reliable birth control having sex meant having babies, and either taking up the responsibilities of a householder or abandoning your baby's mama, either of which would introduce complications into the spiritual life. Chastity was part of skipping out on the social world.)

There's a reason that Jeshua went around healing people, after all: he was tending to sacred things. The Buddha also tended to the sick, though (as far as I know) without miracle stories about it. And the great Zen teacher Ikkyu saw nothing profane about the body: "my dying teacher could not wipe himself unlike you disciples / who use bamboo I cleaned his lovely ass with my bare hands".

I'm reminded of the words of Uncle Walt, America's poet and prophet: "I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart". Why was that? Because, he said, "I sing the body electric...If any thing is sacred the human body is sacred... / O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you, / I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are the soul,)..."

It's unfortunate that a trend of hatred and denigration of the body, and of the physical world in general, has persisted in the Western philosophical tradition at least Plato. And some teachers in the East have fallen into the same trap. Recall that the Buddha nearly died from extreme flesh-denying asceticism, before he learned better. On the other hand, Taoist masters were wise enough to seek physical immortality: not some airy-fairy disembodied spiritual thing, but the preservation of the flesh.

If there is anything in this world that is holy, it is the human being. More holy than any book, than any idea, than any building or creed or relic. And the human being is not a pure and immaterial and immortal soul somehow temporarily linked to a corrupt and rotting chunk of meat. A human being is an act performed by a body, the result of a body, generated by a body. That which we call "soul" or "spirit" is nothing but that dance considered in the most abstract and mystical sense.

And yet how is this sacred and holy body treated by the state? The bodies of men (and now of women too, but still mostly of men) are but the gambling chips of war, wagered by the state in hopes of gaining some territory or power. The bodies of women are to be controlled, their role as wombs for the next generation of soldiers and laborers and taxpayers to service the state is to be paramount.

The state claims the power to seize the very living flesh of citizens. We are to render unto Caesar blood and skin, for drug testing and DNA analysis.

No, I say. The sovereignty of the state ends at my skin.

If I play the game of property, where the state takes the naturally free and open world and privatizes it, I can't complain overmuch at the idea of that same state taking from me some of the property it created and that I controlled for a while. As Jeshua said, render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. Okay.

And If I want to call upon the state to protect me and my community from those who would do violence, I can't complain overmuch at the idea of it possibly detaining those who behave badly. If you're going to have police, you're going to have arrests. Okay.

I'm not thrilled at the idea of taxation and imprisonment, and we must act as citizens to see that they are applied wisely; but until we reach Universal Enlightenment and the state can be abolished, until men are prepared for that best government, which governs not at all, the state will exist; and taxation and coercion are its nature. So long as taxation is fair and with representation, and coercion is done with due process of law and respect for human rights, I shall not object overmuch.

But when the state seeks to extend its power into my body or the bodies of my fellow citizens, that is another matter. That is not merely bad politics.

It is sacrilege, the violation of the sacred.

And from trans-vaginal ultrasounds to DNA collection to random roadsize testing of driver's breath, blood, and saliva, it seems to be increasing.

It needs to be pointed out that nothing that happens inside the skin of one citizen can directly affect another. So absent pure authoritarianism, there is no compelling state interest in any of these measures. Women and their doctors are quite capable of deciding on appropriate medical procedures. If the state has a DNA sample of a rapist or other attacker and wants to check it against a suspect, a search (with probable cause and a warrant!) of that suspect's home will turn up a number of skin flakes and bits of hair that can be tested. And impairment testing and laws against reckless driving in itself are far more relevant to intoxicated driving than any chemical screen.

The only reason for the state to claim such authority of the bodies of its citizens seems to be because it can.

When the body is not sacred then nothing is sacred, there is nothing outside Caesar's realm. "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's," but when Caesar is made a god, unlimited in power, what then?

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Note: comments will be held for moderation, and may be deleted or edited to remove spam links; comments whose only purpose is link farming will not be published.

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.

User login

LCD