The violence claiming a religious justification that continues to dominate our headlines surprises and shocks the secular cultures of the West. Though it was very secular politics that provided the means and justifications for the last century’s two world wars, the largest conflicts in human history, somehow the explicit religious justifications in the current incidents make them seem just that much more barbaric to us. After centuries of bloody religious wars the European continent grew weary of paying their costs in lives and treasure. To have a Jihad bombing in Paris causes an atavistic reaction for many in the West. We rightly fear the dark nationalism that can arise in response.
One does not need to read far into the holy book of the West to encounter a record of similar murderous fanaticism. The people of the book, as the Jewish people were known, systematically put one city after the other under the “ban.” On orders from God they left no stone unturned and killed every man, woman and child in these populations that were condemned. Their sin was to be following different Gods.
Now we need to be careful here. What I just presented is a bald reading of what the holy books report themselves. Archaeologists have combed the holy lands and found the number of places affected by the Jewish expansion into the “promised land” were fewer, and that in many cases the destruction was far less, than what the written records that have been passed down to us claim. Telling the story of a people’s origin these documents are as much political as they are religious. Exaggerations are understandable. Apologists also make a point worth mentioning in light of our previous conversations around the abuse of children. It seems just possible that the sources of the ancient records are from a time in which human sacrifice was a widespread religious practice. Offering a child to Moloch entailed that child’s death. Such a perversion demanded justice from the ‘real God,’ or so these apologists claim.
The same message is found in the story of Abraham which is said to come from the time of the patriarchs, a time even earlier than the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Abraham is going to sacrifice his son Isaac to God when the ‘real God’ intervenes, stopping his hand as the sacrificial knife is about to strike. Abraham sacrifices an animal instead of Isaac, the first scapegoat. The Jewish civilization will go on to develop around a temple cult run by a priestly caste that would perform the obligatory animal sacrifices.
The role of the scapegoat takes center stage in the anthropological study of human evil undertaken by Rene Girard. His attempt to discover the genesis of all tragic myths and the origin of religious rituals leads him to conclude there is an intimate bond between, as the title of his most well known work has it, Violence and the Sacred. Perhaps a future post will provide an opportunity to explore his provocative ideas but I mention it here to underscore the point that it is not at all uncommon for religions to have an element of violence entangled in their histories, rites and enthusiasms. Girard argues they need to if they are going to effectively serve their role in human societies which, in his view, is to renew support for and rejuvenate the social order that keeps chaos and barbarism at bay. That societies most powerfully unify themselves in the act of collective murder of the other, the scapegoat, is what makes our circumstances tragic.
Though it is easy to find parallels between today’s headlines and the “ban”, our project of exploring our Western roots is aiming at a deeper analysis. Before we became these secular societies, we too could have been called a people of the book of sorts. These stories of Abraham and the ram, the conquest of Canaan and the “ban” we’re familiar to every educated person. They were the common currency by which we exchanged ideas in theology, poetry, literature and politics. Of all these stories none would pervade our collective consciousness like the one about how the Jewish people came to be conquering Canaan in the first place; the story of Moses and the great Exodus from the fleshpots of Egypt.
Again archaeologists and Egyptologists point out there is no evidence that a large number of slaves ever revolted and escaped from an Egyptian empire. What, if any, actual events transpired we will never know but our ignorance about the facts and figures in this case leaves the importance of the tale as told undiminished.
Following Oswald Spengler I have characterized the modern world as a Faustian culture. There are a number of reasons I agree with this characterization; one of which comes from my reading of the tale of Moses in Pharaoh’s court. Though the giving of the Ten Commandments is the central encounter of man and God in the holy book pre-Christian, we will respectfully not treat it here and focus instead on this battle of magics. It is the ten plagues of Egypt that make the liberation possible.
Moses has entered Pharaoh’s court and demanded release of the Jewish people so that they can go into the desert to properly worship the ‘real God.’ This sets the stage for a contest between this God and all the Gods of Egypt. It will take place as a battle of supernatural powers between Moses and the court magicians and resident God, the Pharaoh. Though many tales of the ancient world took the form of ‘my magic is stronger than yours’ this is the one that has played a formative role in shaping our Western sensibilities.
Oppressed people over the millennia have found comfort and solace in the biblical tale of the Exodus. A people living in slavery and bondage are lead to freedom; the underdog wins even though they are a rag-tag assembly of the poor daring to defy the most powerful empire on earth. They win because God is on their side. No wonder so many people suffering injustices at the hands of their governments have found the ancient tale to be a source of strength and at times, political dynamite.
Casting about for examples in more recent centuries the inspiration the black church of the American south drew from the story of the Exodus comes to mind. What a soulful power still resonates in the gospel songs of that era… More recently throughout Central and South America liberation theology among the peasants drew its motivating inspiration, as well as its name, from the story of the Exodus.
Liberation theology appeared at a time when the United States was training and funding, often covertly and against the explicit direction of the congress, far right elements within a number of countries to the south of us. Death squads ran rampant. In places like El Salvador the Catholic Church was made a target and soon priests and nuns were ‘disappeared’ alongside the poor they worked with. Archbishop Romero’s murder was one of the few incidents that broke through the general media apathy at the time. Nothing I know of more clearly states the power and importance of the stories we tell and the actions they can inspire than this chapter in the history of Latin America. The events, teachings, torture techniques and death squad politics are all laid out in Penny Lenoux’ Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America – The Catholic Church in Conflict with US Policy. The Library Journal commented at the time, “A stunning blow to North American consciousness… should be required reading for all U.S. citizens.” I agree, it should still be required reading but be forewarned, dealing with the reported atrocities made me physically ill.
Another point: as mentioned last week it is not necessary to know all the details of suffering for compassion to arise but I do believe there is a need to educate ourselves about the reality of suffering. As citizens we should be particularly willing to learn about the actions that have taken place in our name, both the good and the evil we and our ancestors have done. These are the reasons a work like Cry of the People can have such profound and life changing effects. Other people and other generations will find their own sources for the same maturation. What is important is not the content, which changes with the headlines, but the context in which power is abused, corruption rules and the breakdown of law and order follows.
While liberation theology is Christian and the resurrection of Jesus plays a central role in its teachings, I was struck during these studies by how meaningful and powerful the people’s found the story of the Exodus to be. People struggling to live with the most brutal manifestations of man’s inhumanity to man in their own lives and the lives of their families were able to do so in part by seeing their lives as participating in the long struggle of God in history, working for the liberation of the poor and the oppressed. It should go without saying these are not the cute cliches of a story for children in Sunday school. Even all the pomp and special effects Hollywood has brought to the telling of the tale are incapable of capturing or obscuring this core meaning which is capable of giving strength to people who are standing up to the face of evil.
Poorer parts of the world have often paid dearly for mistakes made in richer parts of the world.
Speaking of special effects… How does Moses convince Pharaoh to “let my people go”? Through the ten plagues of Egypt; the miraculous displays of Moses God’s power over the God-Pharaoh’s power. The list of plagues reads like a hellish shopping list; let’s see, rivers of blood, swarms of locusts, rains of frogs, and death of all the firstborn children throughout the land. There is more but the point has already been made – these are all acts of death and destruction.
When the contest begins Moses’ companion Aaron performs the first wonder, yet the Pharaoh is unimpressed because his court magicians are able to do something equally marvelous. They turn a staff of wood into a living snake. Here is the point I think explains a lot about Western culture and Western religious ideas. Aaron and the magicians of the court use magic to bring forth life, animal life from vegetative life. In common parlance today we would say it is an act of white magic. As things proceed however we see that Moses’ God performs the blackest of black magic, that which is designed only to bring about death and destruction.
Though of course it is not really black magic because it is God’s doing. To put it bluntly, it is presented as a case in which the end justifies the means. These terrible plagues are the only way God can get Pharaoh to change his hard heart, nothing less will do. We know this because the story mentions Pharaoh’s hard heart time and again… “and God hardened Pharaoh’s heart against him.”
This ambiguity around magic and miracles will continue to haunt Western thought right up to our own day. Should we storm the gates of heaven or wait patiently on the lord? We will pick this up next week when we look at the Jewish mysticism that developed as people reflected on these stories.