Class Warfare Blog

June 3, 2010

The Divine Right of Citizens

The existence of the phrase “the divine right of kings” tells you almost everything you need to know of human politics. Tens of thousands of years ago, when we were still separated into small tribes of hunter-gatherers, there were dangers to be faced: dangers from wolves, lions, tigers, and other large predators. (Contrary to the beliefs of some benighted Christians who show dioramas including dinosaurs entering Noah’s ark, the dinosaurs were long dead before even the remotest ancestor of human beings appeared, so we didn’t fear Velociraptors and T-Rexs because none were around to give us nightmares.) And large predators were enough to need a defense for, so the biggest and strongest members of a tribe would try to fend them off with a stick or by throwing rocks. There were also dangers from other humans, too. Because the biggest and strongest often took injuries in defense of the tribe, some deference came their way from the others. It seems obvious where the “job” of warrior came from. It was a natural mate to the job of hunter as both involved weapons, be they so humble as a thrown stone or a sharpened stick.

Some members of the tribe couldn’t compete for status as a warrior because they either didn’t have the physical strength or the skill with weapons to be a “leader of the pack.” If these tribal members were possessed of some cunning, though, they might use knowledge they acquired to create status for themselves. Women generally had the bulk of the gathering of plants and eggs and such, so they had cornered the knowledge base of what was edible and what was not, so the wily males “explained” events in the sky: such as falling stars, eclipses, the ever changing shape of the moon, predicting the seasons and weather, etc. Such men provided some security to the group, even if it were only peace of mind, and logically became shamans, etc.

When we became more social and more sedentary, group size exceeded that of small family groups and supergroups were created: groups of hunters hunting collaboratively, groups of fishers fishing collaboratively, etc. Rituals for burial and other significant punctuating events of group society required teams of officials to perform the rites. Leadership in such groups soon proved to be desirable, simply from the evidence that when someone led a group, it was more successful. Successful group leaders acquired even more status in the larger community.

From these situations our ideas of kings and priests have come. And relatively recently it became apparent to these two groups that they were stronger together than apart. Apart, they may end up contending with one another. Together they reinforced each other’s status and power.

The divine right of kings evolved from the competition of these two groups to dominate the other. Once invented, the divine right of kings meant kings were able to give orders, which if anyone challenged, they could say, “Because God gave me that right.” and the priests would back them up. And the priests would be able to count on the support of the kings because the kings needed “sacred” authority to back up their armed might. Both groups gained power together.

Of course, things got carried away. In medieval Europe and elsewhere people became the property of the warrior class (kings, dukes, barons, etc.) and could be mistreated or even killed with no repercussions. On the other hand, anyone who challenged the religious orders could be arrested and/or tortured, and even killed by the church with the complicity of the ruling class. Popes even sent many thousands of warriors to foreign countries on spiritual tasks (crusades, holy wars, etc.).

I must say it worked out well for the kings and priests, but isn’t it time we reconsidered this system?

Why do we give so much power to our “kings” and “priests?” Granted, we still need protection from enemies, so it seems to do away with the warrior class just yet. And, we seem to have the warrior class under control of civilian authority. And yet, some right-wing commenters still want our “king,” the President, to have the powers of a king, by allowing the government, for example, to take away the power of being a citizen to secure our safety. (And just when we serfs felt we had gotten out from under the heavy hand of a ruling class, these “commentators” are trying to argue that we get put back under!)

An Irish pub keeper was recently asked what to do with Catholic priests who had sexually molested children. He replied, “Take ‘em outside and hang ‘em.” Arguably a sentiment many share. Such an utterance 500 years ago would have gotten that man a noose of his own, so progress is being made. But, still, organized religion of all stripes has way too much power (and wealth) after having outlived much of its usefulness. (If you don’t think religion has much power any more, try running an atheist for President. And recently a group of Republicans wanted to amend the party platform for the state of Maine to include the phrase “freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion” which harkens back about 200 years where not attending church could get you executed in this country.)

Isn’t it time we re-examined the deals we have brokered with our warrior class and our shamans and ask if they are really doing useful tasks for us? Is it really necessary for the U.S. to have troops stationed in over 100 other countries? Is it really necessary to give tax exemptions to wealthy churches which exist merely to aggrandize their own power?

Isn’t it time we looked into the “divine rights of the citizenry?”

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