Monday, October 26, 2015

Antigone and the Law of Gods

The ancient Greek drama Antigone has just finished its short run at the Kennedy Center after shows in  Luxembourg, London, Ann Arbor, New York and elsewhere. The performance featuring Oscar-winning French actress Juliette Binoche in the title role, staged by Dutch director Ivo van Hove, and newly translated by Canadian poet Anne Carson, is a modern take on the 2500- year-old play by Sophocles. As every great classic, it resonates with any new generation because even though technology moves forward, human nature does not.

Juliette Binoche as Antigone 
Antigone is doomed to die a slow death, still young and virginal, because she dared to disobey civil law. Her king and uncle Creon has decreed that one of her two brothers who have killed each other in a civil war is to be left unburied as food for vultures and dogs, while the other is to be interred with honors due any great patriot.  (For details, please re-read the drama or check Wikipedia.)

Defying the king's order, Antigone performs the last rites for the unfortunate Polyneices (who in my opinion was only fighting for his rights), and when Creon calls her on the carpet, she argues that the king's orders do not have "the power to override those unwritten and immutable laws decreed by the gods." And, therefore, she continues: "How could I be afraid to disobey laws decreed by any man when I know that I’d have to answer to the gods below if I had disobeyed the laws written by the gods, after I died?"

Well, the girl raises an important question, one that is as relevant today as it was around 440 BC, when the drama was written, except that today perhaps we would talk about one God above and none below.  People oppose or support things claiming God wants this or that, and leaders from ancient Greeks to the medieval Crusaders to George W. Bush have claimed to act in the name of God.

Sometime in the early 1990s, I attended a Christmas service at a Serbian church in London. The priest sermonized that the newly-born Jesus stood behind the Serbs in their just fight against the enemy - Bosnian Muslims, Kosovo's Albanians, Croats ?  Years before that, I heard a Croatian priest in Yugoslavia preaching that God supported the Croats' struggle for independence. God's will has been invoked by fanatics such as Japan's Shoko Asakara, Uganda's Credonia Mwerinde and California Marshall Applewhite - just the three of them causing hundreds of deaths.  Today, we are witnessing beheadings, bombings, shootings and various other atrocities committed in the name of God.

King Creon, the mythical leader of the ancient Thebes, acted on his own conscience when he issued his offensive decrees, arguing that he must insist on discipline to run an orderly state.

"There’s no worse evil than anarchy.
Anarchy destroys nations, my son.
Anarchy destroys homes.
Anarchy turns the spears of allies into fleeing cowards.
Those men left standing, the survivors, have been saved by discipline
", he said.

Van Hove's Antigone: Haemon Trying to Reason With Father 
Creon's son Haemon warned him in return that "Gods give man his most important possession, his brain," and therefore, he said, Thebans can see that their king is acting against the laws of a civilized society. That did not sway Creon. Only when the city's elders determined that his decrees must be revoked because they are contradicting divine laws and that "the punishments of the gods have swift feet and do whatever evil they wish," he hastened to undo his brutal deeds. Alas, too late!

Like Creon, a secular leader today can be questioned and warned to mend his ways. But whoever would dare question God? And so those who want to lead people into committing death, destruction and other despicable deeds, resort to claiming "God's will" to seal the potentially disobedient lips.  Threats of death and eternal life in hell can be added for good measure.

We need a Haemon today to remind us that God gave us brain for a purpose. Personally, I am convinced that God does not mind being questioned. For example, I have never believed that He ordered Abraham to kill his son Isaac as a proof that the devout man loves God more than his own son. No wise man would ever ask such a thing of a parent and the Almighty is surely wiser than the wisest of men.

If I happen to meet God after my death (hardly likely because I am too much of a sinner) and if He confirms that the story revered by the Christians, Jews and Muslims alike is true, I will ask: "How could you? I trusted you!"

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