In Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, the shipwrecked sailor Trinculo looks upon the mysterious island creature Caliban and says “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” From this, we also get the idiom “Politics makes for strange bedfellows.” Both of these expressions flashed to the forefront of my mind when I read the headline “The Pope Just Handed Kim Davis a Huge Win.” The Obstinate Clerk and The Bishop of Rome. Strange bedfellows indeed. So strange as not to be believed.
At the tail end of his much hyped visit, The Pontiff inadvertently waded directly into the cesspool of American culture wars. Of course, it is implied that the Pope was talking about embattled Kentucky government employee Kim Davis – he never actually mentioned Davis directly – when he said that government officials have a “human right” to refuse to discharge a duty if they feel it violates their conscience. The story that was given out was that the Pope’s people arranged a clandestine meeting with Davis inside the Vatican embassy where Davis’s attorney alleges that the Pope told her to “stay strong” in her ongoing fight to deny other people their Constitutional rights.
In one of my classes, we just finished reading Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Antigone play called The Burial at Thebes. For those of you who may not remember, Antigone is the tale of Oedipus’s daughter who is sentenced by her uncle, Creon, to death for burying the body of a traitor. The traitor happened to be her brother, Polynices, who brought an army against Antigone’s home city of Thebes, igniting a civil war that led to the death of Polynices and his brother Eteocles as well. As Greek plays often are, it is a hot mess for everyone involved. And it doesn’t end well for anyone.
Antigone’s dilemma is that she feels compelled to bury her brother because it is what she believed the gods wanted. She knew it was against the law of Thebes, but she just felt that it was the right thing for her to do. On the other hand, Creon created a law for the city to restore the unity of Thebes. He wanted to send a message that it was important for citizens to obey the law because law is a social contract that ensures the protection and safety of everyone. Antigone is aware that citizens have a duty to the law – citizenship was extremely important to the Greeks. But for Antigone it is a deep matter of faith to ignore this particular law. But here’s the rub: Antigone knew there were legal consequences to her actions even though she felt she had a moral duty that was higher than any mortal duty that might exist. Her deontological worldview commanded her to obey that moral law even though the consequences would be bad for her. In fact, she viewed the consequences as beyond her control and even as part of the bargain for standing up for her choice, and there is honor in that choice. My students could not help but note the similarities between Antigone and Davis; however, these same students also believe it would be wrong to equate the two women. As we discussed this play in this contemporary context, the students pointed out that Antigone’s actions impacted her whereas Kim Davis’s actions impact others. In their opinion, that’s where things go over the line. Kim Davis denies the rights of others in choosing to ignore the law. In ignoring the law, Davis is free to obey what she feels is a moral duty, but she must face the consequences.
But wait, there’s more to the story. Contrary to how it was initially reported, it seems that the meeting didn’t go as Davis claims it did. The Vatican is pumping the brakes and saying that, while Davis was in the room with Pope Francis, she was hardly alone and was part of a group of people arranged in a receiving line that the Pope spoke to briefly. His Holiness had no desire to comment on how we ought to conduct our business, and that is a good thing, because religion and politics are a toxic mix. It is a bedrock belief that in the United States of America, people may live free of the restrictions of religion – see the Pilgrims – but they may not live free of the requirements of the law. The law is part of our social contract. In the First Amendment, it states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” In simplest terms, this means that we may not impose a particular religious worldview on others. We are free to believe what we want. Others are free to believe what they want. Both perspectives are protected under the law and law is independent of religion. This is in fact what the Pope was speaking of – freedom of religion as a human right.
I sympathize with Davis – it’s a tough spot. I don’t doubt her religious conviction, green as it is, but this is an outright lie to make more of this meeting with the Pope than there actually was. It feels particularly wrong to manipulate him in this way, and sadly, this is not the first time her supporters have tried to pull something like this. Still, my sympathy for her comes from the way she is being exploited by her deranged lawyer and presidential pretender Mike Huckabee. She is the one who has to face actual repercussions for these choices while these politically religious opportunists scramble to take photos with her as “Eye of the Tiger” blares in the background. There is really only one way to get through this with any honor now: she should embrace God’s love and God’s word as a reason to do her job. She should embrace some actual scriptures such as the ones where we turn the other cheek or Matthew 7:12 that exhorts us to treat others as we want to be treated – in other words, equality.
This argument does not need to be won on religious grounds because ultimately it is not and must not be a religious argument. But if you insist that it must be a religious argument, then fine. James 2:8 & Galatians 5:14 both invoke Jesus’s words that we should “Love [our] neighbor as [our]self” which implies that we should extend love and courtesy and respect to one another. But the last word on this really comes from Romans 13:10 – “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Loving others is the fulfillment of the law. The law is changing as we change culturally, and this is a good thing. It means we are more tolerant, more inclusive, more like Jesus wishes us to be. Welcome to the brave new world.
© 2015 Ryna May