Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Sacred Trust

Sacred trust is one of the most fundamental elements of religion, and yet it’s rarely talked about explicitly. Religious belief of any kind is built on relationshipsrelationships between the divine and the human, between the community and the human, between powerful humans and humans without power, and between humans of equal footing. All of these relationships are based on trust. Most religious people have some kind of trust that their God(s) won’t abandon them in this life or the next. We trust our communities to give us support when we’re in need (spiritually or materially) and we honor our obligation as a member of the community to help others. It doesn’t matter if that community is found in a one-room chapel, a megachurch stadium, or an internet forum. Religious people trust their leaders, who have been given the authority and ability to act (essentially, power), to lead their communities in responsible ways consonant with their belief system’s moral codes. We trust they won’t just make things up as they go along or abuse their power for their own gain, we trust they’ll use their education and experience and wisdom to guide others rightly. And we trust our equals to help us in the day to day lived practice of our faiths.

But what happens when that trust is broken? It’s a vehicle for compelling storytelling.

Spoilers for Game of ThronesFirefly, and Serenity after the jump.

bread and salt gotIn A Song of Ice and Fire (and Game of Thrones on HBO), the land of Westeros has few things uniting it, from House to House, highborn to lowborn, Old Gods or the New. One of those things is the guest right. It’s an ancient law of hospitality that binds absolutely everyone. The guest right is a sacred trust between the host and the guest: neither will harm each other during the guest’s stay. Practically, it usually means neither will kill the other if the guest has eaten some of the host’s bread and salt. Old Nan tells Bran Stark the legend of Rat Cook, who cooked a king’s son into a pie and fed the pie to the king. The cook was seeking retribution for something the king did to him, but that doesn’t matter.

Old Nan: “It was not for murder that the gods cursed him, nor for serving the Andal king his son in a pie. A man has a right to vengeance. But he slew a guest beneath his roof, and that the gods cannot forgive.” (A Storm of Swords, Bran IV)

The story goes that the gods punished the cook by turning him into a rat who was only able to eat his own children. It’s a rather gruesome fairy tale for children, but it shows how seriously the people of Westeros take their guest right. It’s a sacred trust between two individuals, understood and honored by the whole community, that transcends religious difference. In some ways it’s an even more fundamental religious belief than which set of gods one honors. For the citizens of Westeros, breaking that trust is unfathomable.

Mance Rayder, to Jon Snow: “Once I had eaten at his board I was protected by guest right. The laws of hospitality are as old as the First Men, and sacred as a heart tree … Here you are the guest, and safe from harm at my hands … this night, at least.” (A Storm of Swords, Jon I)

However, throughout the series the guest right is violated multiple times until it’s completely shattered. In A Game of Thrones, Jaime Lannister violates the right when he attempts to kill his host’s son, Bran Stark. But Bran survives and few suspect Jaime. A Storm of Swords gives us the mutiny at Craster’s Keep. The men of the Night’s Watch are hurting in numbers and morale, and venture beyond the great Wall to scout the wild territory. Then they retreat to Craster’s keep for food and shelter and time to regroup. Craster, a craven elderly man with many “wives” (many of whom are his own daughters) offers the men some food, but hints that more is hidden in his secret larder to feed his own household. The men of the Watch mutiny against their Lord Commander, killing both him and Craster, then avail themselves of Craster’s goods. It’s clearly a violation of the guest right, and before he’s slain, Lord Commander Mormont exclaims:

The gods will curse us … There is no crime so foul as for a guest to bring murder into a man’s hall. By all the laws of the hearth, we” (A Storm of Swords, Samwell II)

But the men don’t listen: one comments that there are no gods beyond the Wall to punish them. This isn’t just a tradition that grows out of a fairy tale. Grown men clearly believe the gods will actually curse anyone who violates the guest right. Both the Old Gods and the Faith of the Seven insist on this. Sure, you may not get turned into a rat, but it’s serious business, and the citizens believe there will be divine consequences.

Later on in A Storm of Swords, the Red Wedding becomes the moment when the guest right loses its sanctity. Having already offended Walder Frey by breaking off his betrothal to one of his daughters, Robb Stark must go to the Freys’ to attend the wedding of one of Frey’s daughters to one of his kinsmen, Edmure Tully. When he and his army arrive at the House, Robb apologizes and his mother Catelyn asks for bread and salt to seal the guest right. The Freys oblige. At the wedding feast, Frey gets Robb’s men too drunk to fight. Soon Frey’s men and their allies totally slaughter the northern soldiers, including Robb and Catelyn Stark. The attack not only ends the northern rebellion, but leaves a permanent stain on the guest right.

Jeyne Heddle to Brienne: “Guest right don’t mean so much as it used to. Not since m’lady come back from the wedding… Death and guest right. They don’t mean so much as they used to, neither one.” (A Feast for Crows, Brienne VIII)

Part of the sanctity of the guest right is the fact that no one had ever yet flagrantly violated it, even if some had technically (or questionably) broken it in the past. No one wanted to be the first, and there was a certain fear of the gods that helped encourage people to keep it sacred. The community trust is tarnished beyond repair, even though many people still abide by the sacred trust of guest right. We don’t get to see any explicit divinely-sourced consequences for House Frey, but what little respect they had from other Houses is gone, and if you tally up the body count, more people from House Frey die as a consequence to the Red Wedding than in the great War of Five Kings. 

The guest right shows us how sacred trust in other people is related to both one’s relationship with the community and with the divine. Citizens of Westeros really believe all of the gods care about how they treat one another, at least in the limited context of host and guest. How the gods would punish violators of this sacred trust is mostly left up to one’s imagination. But even if the gods don’t manifest themselves and strike you down with their own hand, the community will certainly ostracize you. The actions of House Frey as masterminds of the Red Wedding reverberate through all the other individual relationships throughout the community. No one can truly be sure that a strange castle doesn’t house death, even if you eat their bread and salt.

The tragically short-lived Firefly series centers around similar themes of belief and trust. Our series opens with Captain Malcolm Reynolds at the Battle of Serenity Valley. He’s a spirited leader who truly believes the Independents still have a chance to defeat the powerful Alliance, and encourages his soldiers when all hope seems lost:

[to his men, after an explosion knocks half of them down] Just focus! The Alliance said they were gonna waltz through Serenity Valley. And we choked ’em with those words. We’ve done the impossible, and that makes us mighty. Just a little while longer. Our angels are gonna be soaring overhead, raining fire on those arrogant Khags. So you hold.

And later:

We’re not gonna die. We can’t die, Bendis. And you know why? Because we are so… very… pretty. We are just too pretty for God to let us die. Huh? Look at that chiseled jaw, huh? Come on!

At first glance this doesn’t seem very religious. He’s talking about aeroplanes, not actual angels, and there’s no way he actually thinks God will save them because they’re pretty; he’s trying to get Bendis to focus and laugh away the fear. But the easy way Mal uses religious language makes it pretty clear that he’s a religious man, of some kind of Christian persuasion.

The fact that he kisses a cross is a pretty big sign, too.

The fact that he kisses a cross is a pretty big sign, too.

The Old Testament is just littered with stories about God favoring small armies against more powerful forces, and the favor of God being a deciding factor in battles and other conflicts. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to say that Mal trusts that God will deliver him and his forces, because they are the righteous ones in their cause. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.

If you look closely you can pinpoint the moment his heart breaks.

If you look closely you can pinpoint the moment his heart breaks.

Out of the 2000 members of his own company (let alone the rest of the forces), Mal is one of only 150 survivors. The Battle of Serenity Valley turns out to be the decisive loss for the rebels in the Unification War. Mal’s defeat is totally crushing, and he loses all faith in God. In the next episode, we see he’s done a complete 180 when it comes to religion:

Mal: Well, what about you, Shepherd? How come you’re flying about with us brigands? I mean, shouldn’t you be off bringing religiosity to the fuzzy-wuzzies or some such?

Book: Oh, I got heathens aplenty right here.

Mal: If I’m your mission, Shepherd, best give it up. You’re welcome on my boat. God ain’t.

Mal’s sacred trust in God is totally shattered. He’s gone from throwing around religious language to being downright hostile to anyone else openly practicing religion in his presence. He doesn’t trust Shepherd Book, a religious leader of some form of Christian faith. We don’t see him show much hostility to Inara, a practicing Buddhist, but she also mostly keeps her practices and beliefs to herself. Late in the series, when the crew goes to defend a brothel against an abusive kingpin, Mal remarks, “Nothing worse than a monster who thinks he’s right with God.” Mal knows that trust in God makes a person unstoppable, because he used to be a believer. When he says “we’ve done the impossible, and that makes us mighty” it’s fueled by his trust in divine deliverance.

Over the course of the series, Mal learns to trust Shepherd Book, and it’s his trust in Book that helps (partially) restore his trust in God. In the Serenity movie, as Book lies dying in Mal’s arms (injuries sustained in an Alliance-sponsored attack, of course), he exhorts Mal, “I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.” Later, Mal confronts the man sent to stop him by any means necessary.

Mal: I know the secret. The truth that burned up River Tam’s brain. Rest of the ‘verse is going to know it too. ‘Cause they need to.

The Operative: Do you really believe that?

Mal: I do.

The Operative: You willing to die for that belief?

Mal: I am.

Mal may not have fully reignited his trust in God, but his trust in Book gives him enough impetus to face death in order to share the truth about the Alliance’s evil actions with the world. Over the whole course of the story we see Mal grapple with his loss of sacred trust in God, religious authorities, and most people to learning to trust others again. Even though Mal is never able to recover the same kind of trust he once had, what he gains is a new kind of trust that can withstand a serious challenge. It’s that hard-won trust that allows him to fight for what is right.

The reality is many (or most) people of faith, who have held their faith for a significant amount of time, have had to grapple with some kind of violation of sacred trust. We hear all the time about religious leaders committing all kinds of heinous crimes, from funneling thousands of dollars into their own pockets to violating children. How can people who have freely chosen to be held to a higher standard commit such acts of evil? What happens when we find out we’re the only one of our peers who bothers to take the practical demands of our faith seriously, whether it be keeping kosher, going to Sunday Mass, abstaining from sex, fasting during Ramadan, or following the Five Precepts. Or even more fundamentally, what do we do when we have crises of faith, when we feel our deities have abandoned us? So it’s only natural that these questions would be the source of struggle in many of our geeky stories. When at their best, fantasy and science fiction highlight and question the most fundamental parts of our humanity. Grappling with these questions in fiction not only allows us to see ourselves in these characters, but arms us with tools we might take into the real world to face our own experiences with sacred trust.

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1 thought on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Sacred Trust

  1. Interestingly, “faith,” “belief,” and “trust” are all meanings of a particular Latin verb, credo, which also gives us the English words “creed,” “credit,” “credulous,” “incredible,” and so forth. The two concepts are intimately tied together, and thus losing the trust of a religious functionary and losing faith/no longer believing in one’s Deities are, essentially, subspecies of the same beast.

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