Up in Alaska this summer I heard a talk from a musher who repeatedly claimed that her sled dogs were happy to be harnessed. They were bred and born, she said, to compete in races like the Iditarod, and they felt blue if not chosen for harnessing.
There is doubtless some truth to this. Dogs – and horses as well – that are trained to run seem to get into the competitive spirit and enjoy the attention and care of their masters. Wild horses, however, are notoriously hard to harness, and wolves are not easily turned into sled dogs.
The musher’s claim made me uneasy because it reminded me of the old pro-slavery argument that slaves enjoyed the yoke of slavery, and of the view that housewives enjoyed spending their lives washing their husbands’ clothes and of the notorious statement by a former governor of Washington that Mexican Americans were suited to toil in the soil all day long because their short stature put them close to the ground.
We are all harnessed to something
I remember, too, when years ago while teaching in China I remarked to a Chinese friend that I admired the collectives of peasants and workers. “Don’t romanticize poverty,” warned my friend. He relished the opportunity that finally came his way to unharness himself from his collective and achieve physical and economic mobility.
It could be argued, though, that we all are all harnessed to something. Historically, religions have harnessed people worldwide to the teachings, rituals and practices of elders and other spiritual guides. Ideally, religion binds (“-ligion”) devotees back (“re-”) to traditions that endow life with meaning and harnesses people together, creating caring communities.
Sometimes, however, the harnesses, or yokes, are deemed to be imprisoning and too heavy a burden to bear. Religious yokes become emblematic of slavery. For centuries the laws of the Torah have bound the Jewish people together in a life of deep meaning and high purpose.
Christianity’s Apostle Paul taught followers an “easy” yoke, but was this yoke “easy” for Jesus?
Yet, the Apostle Paul, though raised a devout Jew, urged his Gentile audience not to enslave themselves under the “yoke” of these old Jewish laws but to liberate themselves through Jesus the Messiah, the Christ: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
Jesus, according to Matthew’s gospel, offered his audience an “easy” religious yoke: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). What his followers would learn would be the core of the Torah, to love God and love one’s neighbor as oneself. How easy was this yoke for Jesus himself? It led to the cross.
Like other religions as they grew (Buddhism and Islam come to mind), Christianity was not happy with an easy yoke and added many constraining straps to harness people to the “One True Faith.” For a fair number of centuries the straps held pretty well, with occasional loosening, occasional tightening.
Secularism’s yoke is rising today
Currently, however, in many countries, including supposedly God-trusting America, secularism is in ascendency.
So, now we are harnessed to what secularism has to offer. Perhaps consumerism, work, sports, humanism, science, social media, democracy, nationalism, Trump? As Bob Dylan sang, you “gotta serve somebody.”
Let’s not kid ourselves, however, that our fellow creatures, including dogs, are necessarily happy in the harnesses with which we bind them to our service. And let’s choose harnesses for ourselves that serve the common good.
In my experience, and judging from FāVS columns, many religious organizations, though with numbers in decline, still bind people together to care for others locally and globally. Happily they offer worthy harnesses.
Walter Hesford was a professor of English at the University of Idaho, where he taught American Literature, World Literature and the Bible as Literature. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group, and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow.