The Leviticus:8 Project
So, too, the priest who offers a man’s burnt offering shall keep the skin of the burnt offering that he offered. Leviticus 7:8
Every business has a vested interest in keeping need alive. It is something of an irony for almost every endeavor. There are obvious needs that require little cultivation – hunger, for example – less-critical needs that nonetheless sustain themselves – fashion comes to mind – and other needs which have been invented to create a market – professional sports qualifies.
And then there are needs that have been addressed and eradicated. What does the successful endeavor do when it has met the need and eliminated it?
Hardly anyone remembers the origin of the March of Dimes. When President Franklin Roosevelt’s polio became general knowledge, neighborhoods organized around his call to find a cure for the disease that afflicted millions. Mostly mothers marched from neighbor to neighbor collecting dimes to support research. It worked. The causes of polio were discovered. A vaccine was developed. And incidents of polio became few and far between.
But in the meantime, an organization had been formed. And never mind that the disease had been eradicated. And never mind that collecting and processing a dime cost more than ten cents. The charity reinvented itself – many times. Today, the March of Dimes is devoted to preventing premature birth.
Compare that approach to the organization called Freedom to Marry. It was formed to promote marriage equality for gays and lesbians. Formally chartered in 2002, though initiated in 1993, the ability of two people of the same sex to marry was a matter of settled law thanks too a Supreme Court decision in 2015.
At that point, having achieved its goal, Freedom to Marry dissolved. It still has a web site to tell its story, and its founder, Evan Wolfson, puts the lessons in social change he learned to use for other causes, but the need was met and so the business closed down.
I am a member of the demographic that watches the evening news. As such, I know what ailments I am expected to have, almost every one a condition I never heard of until a drug was developed to cure it. I don’t doubt that these are real medical conditions, but the commercials make me nervously set up an office visit every time my leg is restless, I have momentary trouble taking a deep breath, or I can’t remember what that drug developed from an ingredient originally discovered in jellyfish is supposed to treat.
It’s not just older people who face this dilemma, and it’s not just physical needs that are being cultivated by people who want to offer a remediation. In technology, transportation, education, home maintenance, finance and even entertainment, every age cohort is facing a roster of needs defined for them by others who want them to secure the cure. If I sound a little cynical, I am.
My jaundiced eye is not yellowed by contemporary marketing alone. There is a guilt industry that has been operating for thousands of years, originated by the foundational documents of faith traditions. The basic premise of almost every such tradition, including my own, is that human beings have betrayed their potential for goodness and fallen out of favor with God. Ritual behaviors are prescribed to mend the rift – sacrifices, professions of shortcomings, pilgrimages, prostrations, submissions, self-denial.
I won’t argue that, left to our own devices, humanity would rise to the occasion and create a wonderful world. We have thousands of years of evidence to the contrary. But I will argue that religions have a vested interest in making the case for guiltiness. Some argue that we are all sinners. Some contend that goodness is attained by fasting and prayer. Some demand a denial of the pleasures of this world. Some require a recitation of shortcomings even if we are not currently culpable.
But who benefits from these demands? In the verse above, it is the priest. He gets to keep the skin (in addition to a share of the meat) left over from a guilt sacrifice which only a priest may offer. Two thousand years after the sacrifices came to an end, it is clergy of every kind who have taken the role of the priest. We are employed to make the case for being a better person by making the case that everyone needs a savior, a month-long fast, a daily confession or some other inorganic practice to be in right relationship with God. And no one ever reaches that level of right-ness for very long.
I look forward to the day promised in every faith tradition when the mission is accomplished and there is no longer a need for guilt. I hope when that moment comes – may it happen soon – our faith traditions will have the wisdom to declare victory and follow the example of Freedom to Marry. I worry, though, that the guilt industry is so good that we won’t let an effective organization go to waste.