Saturday, April 9, 2016

God weeps

I found this inexplicable stained glass at
the church conference in Atlanta.
As far as I can tell, it is a
sword with a Christmas wreath.
Forgive me, Dear Readers, and Rabbi Sacks, if I quote rather extensively from Rabbi Sacks' book, Not in God’s Name. I recommend the book.  It attempts to explain religious violence, but also has bearing, I think, on the current US political discourse.

These quotes below are from the first part of the book. Later on, he has a fascinating interpretation of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, and discussion of the stories of siblings in Genesis.

The book discusses things from a Western Abrahamic-religion point of view, connecting it with psychology and sociology.  It would be interesting to know what someone with knowledge of Eastern religions and philosophy thinks of his argument. 

The bold emphasis in the quotes below is added by me; the italics is Sacks' emphasis.  The spelling is deliciously British.  This may not be evident in the quotes, but sadly, Rabbi Sacks' beliefs do not extend to the Oxford comma.

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Quotes from Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Unlike the Nazis, who took fastidious care to hide their crimes from the world, today’s terrorists take equal care to advertise them to the world using professionally produced videos and the latest social media technology.  Their lack of conscience in committing what leading Islamic jurists and theologians have deemed forbidden, sinful and contrary to the Qu’ran is breathtaking.     We need a term to describe this deadly phenomenon that can turn ordinary non-psychopathic people into cold-blooded murderers of schoolchildren, aid workers, journalists and people at prayer.  It is, to give it a name, altruistic evil: evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals. (p 9-10)

Why has this happened now? Because the world is changing faster than at any time in history, and since change disorients, it leads to a sense of loss and fear that can turn rapidly into hate.  Our world is awash with hate.  The Internet, alongside its many blessings, can make it contagious.  … Nor has it ever been easier to demonise whole populations so effectively. (p 21-22)

We are potentially violent because, as social animals we form groups to compete for resources and survive against other groups. (p 31)

Violence has nothing to do with religion as such.  It has to do with identity and life in groups. (p 39)

We cannot bear the absence of public meanings and collective moral identity.  Faced with the prospect, vulnerable individuals will choose death rather than life.  … a variant of this is happening in our time. It is the reason why seemingly normal, well-educated and adjusted people with careers and families ahead of them become jihadists and suicide bombers, choosing death rather than life.  …  Individuals join radical movements to alleviate the isolation of the lonely crowd, and become, however briefly, part of an intense community engaged in the pursuit of something larger than the self. (p 41-42)

[Dualism is a belief that the power governing the universe is split in two, one all-good force, and the other an all-evil force.]

Dualism is a dangerous idea, and the mainstream Church and the Synagogue were right to reject it. Pathological dualism, though, is far more serious and appears as a social phenomenon only rarely and under extreme circumstances.  It is a form of cognitive breakdown, an inability to face the complexities of the world, the ambivalences of human character, the caprices of history and the ultimate unknowability of God.       Pathological dualism does three things. It makes you dehumanize and demonise your enemies.  It leads you to see yourself as a victim.  And it allows you to commit altruistic evil, killing in the name of the God of life, hating in the name of the God of love and practicing cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.  (p 53-54)

To remoralise a nation, leaders often revive memories of former glory.  Vamik Volkan, who has applied concepts of splitting and projection to international conflict, emphasizes the corollary: the chosen trauma, an event that ‘has caused a large group to face drastic common losses, to feel helpless and victimized by another group and to share a humiliating injury’.  (page 56)

Once you can identify an enemy, reactivate a chosen trauma and unite all factions in fear and hate of a common threat, you activate the most primitive part of the brain, the amygdala with its instant and overwhelming defensive reactions, and render a culture susceptible to a pure and powerful dualism in which you are the innocent party and violence becomes both a justified revenge and the necessary protection of your group.  The threefold defeat of morality then follows. (page 56-57)
The first stage is dehumanization.  (page 57)

The second stage is establishing victimhood.  Just as it is necessary to rob your enemies of their humanity, so you have to find a way of relinquishing responsibility for the evil you are about to commit.  You must define yourself as a victim.  It follows that you, in committing murder, even genocide, are merely acting in self-defence.  (page 58)

When dehumanization and demonization are combined with a sense of victimhood, the third stage becomes possible: the commission of evil in an altruistic cause. (page 61)

Pathological dualism creates a self-contained world which becomes self-confirming. (page 63)

 [In chapter 2 we saw that] we are naturally inclined to favour members of our group and fear members of another group.  One result is that in almost any group, the greater the threat from the outside, the stronger the sense of cohesion within. … Our most primal instincts of bonding within the group occur when it confronts an external enemy.
            That is why ruthless politicians, threatened by internal discord, focus on and sometimes even invent external enemies [that is, the scapegoat].  Paranoia is the most powerful means yet devised for sustaining tyranny and repression. 

The trouble with the use of scapegoats is that it is a solution that compounds the problem.  It makes internal tension bearable by turning the question ‘Why has this happened?’ into the question ‘Who did this to me?’ If it is someone else’s fault, not mine, I can preserve my self-respect intact. … So powerful is the rapid-response emotional brain that, under stress, it can entirely overwhelm the slower-moving prefrontal cortex, the distinction- and decision-making mind, turning otherwise ordinary human beings into Crusaders in one age, perpetrators of genocide in another, and suicide bombers and jihadists in a third.

            And when the violence is over, the problems remain, since the scapegoat never was the cause of the problem in the first place.  So people die.  Hope is destroyed.  Hate claims more sacrificial victims. And God weeps. (page 85)

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Conjectures about the stained glass window:
- the sword guarding the entrance to Eden? (Gen 3:24)
- the sword of God's wrath, used to bring righteousness? (Psalm 7:11-12)
- Ezekiel's razor, for shaving off his beard? (Ezekiel 5:1)
- a sword waiting to be beaten into a plowshare? (Micah 4:3)
- a former plowshare, beaten into a sword?  (Joel 3:10)
- the sword that Jesus brings (Matthew 10:34-35) 
- or the one he tells his disciple to put away? (Matthew 26:51-52)
- the sword of the spirit? (Ephesians 6:17)
- the tongue of the one like a son of man? (Revelation 1:16) 


Jenny Hart Boren said...

Thank you for your very topical post; it's as if Rabbi Sacks wrote it last week. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as my mother used to say. I so enjoy your blog!

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

I am nodding my head in agreement. Dehumanization and this nugget -- Pathological dualism creates a self-contained world which becomes self-confirming. (page 63) -- seem to have spiraled greatly in today's world.

As for the stained glass picture, I'm going with the first choice, from Genesis 3.

Patience_Crabstick said...

We are in such a mess right now. Thanks for this timely post.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

That is breathtaking. And it occurs to me as I reread the conclusion that PRIDE, human pride, is at the base of this mentality. I need to read the rest of this book, thank you for bringing it to my attention.
I confess that most stained glass windows leave me clueless.