02 April 2010

Death, de Nile, and Denial

This week presents us a rather bizarre confluence of death that — mostly — expresses relief at, and perhaps even celebrates, mythological deaths of others. And one death that this year falls on a sadly ironic day.

The elder Abrahamic religion is spending the whole week denying itself leavening, overcooking tasty lamb, staying in after dark, and celebrating the death of the first-born sons of Egypt... except for their own, since (according to the legend) they were living in Egypt at the time. It's also an excuse to slow down work and payment if anyone in a given department is Jewish, although that's more a Western imposition of cultural constructs. Every bloody year, at this time of year, publishers refuse to make payments that are otherwise (over)due until after Passover if even one person in the accounting department is Jewish. And meanwhile, it's all schadenfreude: That no matter how bad their lot, others are dead (or merely dying of starvation after the tax authorities locusts destroy the harvest). On the whole, this isn't a very endearing holiday.

Neither is Easter. Although it doesn't always overlap so directly with Passover, Easter (and the timing of Easter) involves slaying someone else who isn't "us": A rabbinical figure who was purportedly the son of Jehovah (YSMV1). Then, too, "Good Friday" is the day that the "human version" was killed; it seems to me that would be "Bad Friday," but what do I know? Worst of all, though, the religion(s)2 — with the possible, but not entirely consistent, exception of some of the less-literal Mennonites — worship a centuries-later compilation of noncontemporaneous, incomplete, politically oriented and motivated anecdotes about the central character... and then further twist things. (It's as if Justice Scalia's disdain for legislative history was a central tenet of theology.3 Wait a minute: I think that's where he got it!)

In any event, things get really bizarre when considering the date of Easter this year: April 4. And that brings up the greatest martyr-figure in twentieth-century American history, whose very name is a reference to incredible religious corruption and bloodshed. Only if April 4 had been Good Friday could things have been more... interesting; but that happens considerably less often. But this year, Dr King's death falls on the celebrated date of a resurrection, at a time of increasing racial tension here in the US (caused/led by currently disfavored political "leaders" jockeying for positions of secular power who seek to portray themselves as entirely marginalized).

A bizarre few days however it's calculated here in the West. I won't even try to note that it's just as bad, if not worse, in other cultural contexts; as the census forms make clear, we're not supposed to acknowledge that anyway. The forms have no way to indicate "mixed race" (a social, not biological, construct), and require anyone whose ethnicity comes from the Fertile Crescent/Eastern Mediterranean to choose between "African" and "Asian." I'm sure that's immensely comforting to Egyptian Arabs, Persians, and Armenians. Given the current sociopolitical problems in that region, and the increasingly discredited "orientalist" meme (which still has a few insights to offer, so long as they're kept in context), this seems a pretty dumb decision... and feeds right back into the particular chain of deaths celebrated this week and snarkily referenced in this post.

  1. Your spelling may vary.
  2. I'm not entirely certain whether, given such demonstrations as the First Thirty Years' War and the treatment of Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, etc. by the so-called "mainstream," it makes sense to group all JC-worshippers as a single religion, or multiple ones. Now throw in subordinate worship of/respect for "saints," "prophets," and hierarchs (past and present) and it gets really interesting from a structuralist perspective.
  3. One of my favorite examples is the imprecation that one must be prepared to forgive those who have sinned against one not once, but "seventy times seven" times (Matthew 18:22). One need not be a Kabbalist to decipher this: Just looking at what "seventy" means in the rest of the text — and applying a little understanding of figurative language — is enough to reject the extremist interpretations. This "legislative history" of seventy is also confirmed by other, non-Biblical documents of the three centuries each side of the numerical divide (0bc): It's a reference to "a lifetime." And yes, this is relevant in the next paragraph...