Monday, 6 February 2017

The impotence of the Church in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible"

Over the weekend I attended the opening night of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible at The Young Peoples Theatre Newcastle. The direction, by a very young Nick Thoroughgood, emphasised fear and aloneness. But the aspect of the play that struck me anew was the way religion was co-opted by an agenda of power and subsequently made impotent.

Do you recall the general plot? Set amidst the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, the play follows a group of young girls who claim divine/demonic knowledge in their accusation that many people in their rural village are in league with Satan. The fate of one man, John Proctor, unfolds … from his affair with one of the young girls, through the struggles of forgiveness with his wife, his attempt to disclose the girls' pretence in court and a moral dilemma that leads to his hanging.

The play begins in the house of the local preacher, the Rev. Samuel Parris, a man cautious of his own reputation, who hopes to avoid the scandal of being associated with witchcraft. He calls for help from another cleric, the Rev. John Hale, who is acknowledged as an expert in such matters. Between them they promote the church's authority to uncover and prosecute "the other" -- in this case the vile offenders who, apparently, have sold their soul to the devil.

As has been widely noted, the play has wider application than simply being a historic comment on seventeenth century Puritan superstition. That the message is universal is made clear by the Nick Thoroughgood's decision to re-dress the actors in pure black and white for Acts 3 and 4. In the cultural context of 1953, when it was published, the play challenged the extreme pressure in the USA to denounce Communists, but it does not matter whether the accusation is witchcraft or Communism, nor whether the accusation is true or false. What is really on trial beyond the fourth wall is the process of "othering" -- the human propensity to accuse and exclude; the futility of fear-driven victimisation.

At the beginning of this victimisation is religion. Religion spreads a cloak of morality over the fear and suspicion. Religion gives permission to exclude, and adds divine authority to the denunciation of the "other". Neither Parris nor Hale initially accused anyone of witchcraft. Parris was motivated by pride and the protection of his own social standing. Hale wished to be led by the evidence towards the truth. But both were coerced by social pressure, mislead by pride, and beguiled by the taste of power. Neither was immune to the growing hysteria, but instead fanned its flames and were swept along by its ineluctable fury.

In Act 4, both Parris and Hale show the compassion and mercy that is more true to their calling. They realise the girls' pretence. They understand the emptiness of admissions made under the threat of death. They plea for leniency. But it is too late. The fire has burnt beyond their control. Having served their own demonic purpose, Parris and Hale are side-lined and impotent. Having ignited fear and judgement, religion has ceased to be authoritative or even relevant.

Is this not a pattern we have all seen repeated? Isn’t this what has happened within Islam -- where terrorists claim religious motivation regardless of how strongly Islamic leaders denounce them? Isn't it what is happening in Australia as religious voices accuse and damn homosexuals? Isn't it clear from the conservative Christian support of Donald Trump and his obvious contempt of their support?

Religion is often co-opted by causes that are deeply irreligious … but religion allows itself to be so used.

The Christian church has been side-lined in the Western world and hopelessly compromised, as it has been by every regime and culture since Constantine. It is too late to reclaim any respect. The church is compromised by sex abuse scandals, paternalism, patriarchy and violence. But that is not the root. As The Crucible demonstrates, the essence of the church's inability to sway public sentiment away from hysteria towards justice and mercy is that, having been instrumental in starting the fire, she is no longer needed. Once the flames of fear, judgement and damnation have been ignited, the "powers and principalities" -- whether political or spiritual -- can fuel them independently, with or without religious endorsement.

The only way out is to never buy into the devilish deal in the first place. If we deliberately and explicitly recant our allegiance to every source of power, to every social movement, to every nation and culture, then we might have the integrity to be heard. The role to which the church is called is to subvert every "power and principality". Like Christ, who didn't think that the power of heaven was something to be grasped, the church is called to forsake all power. Rather than seek power only to become impotent, the way of the gospel is to join the powerless from beginning to end.

If the Reverends Parris and Hale had followed that example -- if they had stood with the girls instead of condemning their youthful follies, and if they had stood with those accused of witchcraft instead of pandering to the later accusations of those same girls -- then two things would have happened differently. The fire of hysteria and fear would not have enough oxygen to take hold. And if the crunch time still came about when justice was on the brink of failure, then the voice of true religion, of compassion, would have retained the credibility to be heard.

May we yet learn to forsake power and to stand in solidarity with the accused.

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