Category Archives: Violence

The Gospel as a Takedown of Celebrity

Mind you tell no one anything! said Jesus to the man he had just cured of leprosy in the very first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. (Mark 1: 44)

Repeated many times in this Gospel, this warning by Jesus has puzzled commentators for centuries. As Jesus had already begun his public ministry at the river Jordan, and already signed up the earliest apostles for his mission of declaring the Kingdom of God, why did he then repeatedly warn against what our world calls ‘publicity’?

Almost always the explanation given by scripture commentators is that it wasn’t yet time for him to be ‘raised up’ on the cross in Jerusalem, to become celebrated by the sensation of his Resurrection within three days.

It follows that the glorious culmination of the Christian story is almost always misunderstood as a return of the visible individual person, Jesus Christ. Until then, despite the power of the Holy Spirit, it seems we must think there is something profoundly lacking on earth – because the King of Kings is not here, visibly, to take charge.

Many Christians even seem to believe that in the interim the power of evil must be stronger than the power of grace and that the world is headed for some kind of cataclysm in which God the Father finally loses patience and empowers some Christian leader to do what Jesus refused to do: knock all other human heads together to create a single global Christian kingdom, with Jesus then enthroned in Jerusalem as global monarch.

That Jesus must always have wanted to be celebrated in the twenty-first century sense – i.e. to be sometime a single visible personality and a focus of endless fascination for a global TV audience – is a key component of this typical misunderstanding of the Second Coming of the Lord – because of course then, it is supposed, he will indeed reign from some earthly place as King of the World, and even of the Universe.

The Failure of Christian Monarchy

That Jesus might have seen celebrity itself – the making of any living individual human an object of fascination and ‘crowd sensation’ – as hugely problematic and even disastrous – and might have come to warn against it, is not considered. In my own church the arrival of Pope John Paul II in 1978 to media stardom was seen for decades as beneficial for the cause of the Gospel. That too has become problematic – in light of the known internal abuses of power by Catholic clergy that John Paul II knew of from at least as early as 1984 – and did too little to resolve1See, e.g., https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/shame-john-paul-ii-how-sex-abuse-scandal-stained-his-papacy/. Thankfully a successor pope has set out from the start of his term of office in 2013 to demystify himself, and to point to the need for ‘walking together’ as equals to renew the church.

To continue to misunderstand the Gospel in this way is to fail to notice what history itself – and especially recent history – reveals about the problem of celebrity and the impossibility of a single global centre of government, or living individual, ever bringing about the kingdom of God. It is also to ignore the power of the Holy Spirit of God to move multiple human beings simultaneously in service to one another – directed not by some living super-person but simply by the needs of their neighbours and the wisdom gifts of the Trinity.

In the coronavirus pandemic of 2019-22 what purpose was served by the cult of celebrity when the direst need of so many was the compassion of their nearest neighbours, and no single global master plan could have made a difference in time? In multiple locations celebrated political individuals failed dismally to lead effectively, and more often became serious obstacles to the resolving of the surrounding crisis. Everywhere the elderly found themselves dependent upon the persons nearest to them – often people they had underestimated, at the very base of the social and economic pyramid.

Celebrity is essentially a mistaken fixation with individuals who become the focus of media attention for as long as it takes disappointment to set in. No wonder we hear so much now of ‘imposter syndrome’ – the latest celebrity’s inevitable fear of being shamed by some very different revelation, in tomorrow’s press.

This ‘take’ on where human history is heading – based upon the assumption that God could have no objection to celebrity as such – ignores everything that has been learned about the dangers of celebrity, and the cult of celebrity, in the global TV era. It also ignores the warning that the Gospel story itself gives us in its dramatic essence: we humans raise people up in expectation of endless sensation, and then, if they disappoint us, to exult in tearing them down. A celebrity is always a person from whom far more is expected than can be delivered – and therefore also a scapegoat in waiting, the person whom everyone will all too often agree to shame and vilify.

The Caesars Were Celebrities

The Caesars – the emperors of Rome – were the greatest celebrities of the ancient world, their power attained and maintained by the most ruthless use of force. Beginning with their founding ‘God’ – Julius Caesar (who envied Alexander the Great) – they were expanding the Roman empire to its greatest extent in the reign of Augustus Caesar (27 BCE – 14 CE) and the first century of the Christian era. It was during the reign of Augustus that Jesus was born, but from 312 CE until our own time Christians have tended also to look to Christian ‘strong men’ to protect the faith and the church – despite endless disappointment.

However, no Christian king in history has come close to realising the kingdom that Jesus spoke of – the Kingdom of God. Just as the story of Julius Caesar reveals the huge danger of murderous jealousy that arises out of the successful ambition of one man, the Gospel reveals the problem of rivalry that arises when any one living individual is identified as ‘it’ by their followers – the jostling for preference and promotion. Commonly called ‘palace rivalry and intrigue’ it happens even in the Vatican, where, above all, we should expect to see strict observance of the Petrine and Catholic principle that ‘God has no favourites’ (Acts 10: 34-48).

Jesus reveals, by his death as well as his verbal teachings, that it was never the intent of the Trinity to reign over us. Instead their kingdom can be realised only within and among us – when we turn to the ever-present source of all truth, wisdom and love.

This kingdom is always both close to us and distant from us – close because the gifts of the Holy Spirit are equally accessible by everyone through mindful prayer; distant because mindful prayer is almost always postponed until every other means of satisfying our needs and desires is exhausted. Too often these desires are unwise, causing greater suffering – and this endless delaying of wisdom is the cause of the sufferings of the least powerful people on the planet.

These futile desires are also, now, the root of a planetary crisis. Utter disaster looms unless we all soon ‘wise up’. The Gospel warns us not to look to celebrity, or to celebrities, to save ourselves. By far the greatest figure in all human history, Jesus of Nazareth is waiting always for our attention to turn to the Good News of the Gospel: the kingdom of God is still on offer, to everyone. We simply need to ‘think again’ about where we are going, and why equality is always a mirage.

From the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) the prideful search for celebrity, for the admiration of ‘the world’, has lain at the root of all inequality and violence – including the violation of the Earth itself. That is why Jesus overcame the world by allowing it to crucify him: we are here to love and to serve, not to be objects of envy and fascination. There never was any other way of saving us humans from ourselves – and of saving our world as well.

Only when we have realised the promise of the first Pentecost, that there is to be a second Pentecost – a complete realisation of the power of the Holy Spirit to make us wise – could there be a second visible coming of the Lord. Only then will we be ready, realising that it is the same Lord who has been with us, through the same Holy Spirit, all along.

Notes

  1. See, e.g., https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/shame-john-paul-ii-how-sex-abuse-scandal-stained-his-papacy/

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What do we mean by the Kingdom of God?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life April 2002

Christian orthodoxy has always seen Christ as king as well as prophet and priest – a king who will personally and visibly reign some day, following the second coming. In the meantime there is ‘the kingdom of God’ which Vatican 2 identifies with the church, understood as ‘the people of God’.

When Jesus said ‘the kingdom of God is within’ and ‘at hand’ and that we should ‘seek’ it we can link this idea to the second birth that comes with baptism by the Holy Spirit. That is to say, a Christian spirituality can build a kingdom within us where Christ reigns as Lord, one that can gradually change also our outward cultural and social reality, moving the church and human society gradually towards a second visible coming of Christ.

But how do we envisage Christ reigning then? ‘Kingdom’ now seems a very archaic concept – especially in a context where the mystique of royalty has been totally destroyed by media intrusion into the all-too human frailties of the Windsors. No advanced country in the world is now ruled by a hereditary monarchy with real executive power – and this seems sensible. And so the ‘kingdom’ language of the Bible is one of those aspects of Christianity that make it seem fusty and culturally antiquated – the doomed intellectual property of a backward looking patriarchy. Must we Christians believe that God is stuck in an ancient and medieval mindset that will insist upon returning us some day to something like the kingdom of David or Solomon or Charlemagne, only more magnificent and triumphant, with Christ holding court in some fixed, earthly location and directing a centralised governmental system?

I believe not. I believe that if we read and ponder holistically the Biblical accounts of the kingdom of Israel, as well as the Gospel references to the kingdom of God, we find a dynamic that is actually predictive of a modern global egalitarian society – but one that lacks the imperfections of the most advanced we now have.

First, God did not impose an earthly kingdom upon Israel – but granted it reluctantly and apparently with the intention of letting Israel learn from the experience. The first book of Samuel tells us:

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” 1 Sam 8:4,5

Notice ‘such as all the other nations have’. This tells us something of crucial importance – that the earthly kingdom of Israel arose out of mimetic desire, or covetousness – the desire to possess that which is possessed by others – because they possess it. The perceived greater power of the surrounding monarchical systems – especially that of the Philistines – led Israel to envy them, to suppose that it was these systems that gave them this greater power, and to undervalue the system they already had – one in which prophets and judges ruled in a relationship of equality and familiarity rather than hierarchy and splendour.

The text goes on to tell us that Samuel was displeased by that request, but that the Lord told him:

“Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”

So, according to the text, the kingdom of Israel essentially involved the rejection of an earlier ‘kingdom of God’ over which the Lord ‘reigned’ through the prophet Samuel, but without placing Samuel on some sacred plane above other men – a ‘kingdom’ that God preferred, and one without a palace or court. The word ‘kingdom’ in that context obviously has the widest possible connotation: that over which there is some kind of rule or dominion. We ought not, therefore, when attempting to conceptualise the kingdom of God, begin with, say, the military kingdom of David or Solomon – for these were inferior to the original kingdom of God.

The essence of that inferiority was their origin in an inferior spirituality – mimetic desire – and this is confirmed by the accounts of the central flaws of the three great kings – Saul, David and Solomon. David’s victory over Goliath made him the hero of the women of Israel, who accorded less glory to Saul – and he became murderously jealous. In other words he entered into mimetic rivalry with David for esteem – as did Absalom later, with equally tragic consequences. But David disgraced himself also by committing murder in order to possess Bathsheba – the wife of a subject. The fact that she was already married meant that David’s essential weakness also was associated with mimetic desire.

As for Solomon, he became renowned for his wisdom and, according to the text, ultimately preferred this renown to fidelity to the God who had given him this gift. Renown is simply wider esteem. The need of the man of eminence to be esteemed by other humans had again become his undoing. And this same weakness was the root source of the brutality of the Herods in Jesus’s time.

Sacred kingship essentially turned a mere human being into a mystical being upon whom an exaggerated dignity and military expectation was then conferred – with the consequence that the individual so honoured usually became virtually obsessed with his own reputation or ‘glory’. Another consequence was the inevitable withdrawal of dignity from those subjects who could never expect to come close to this semi-sacred being. Here again the book of Samuel is highly specific:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 1 Sam 8:11-18

What is being described here is subjection: a loss of dignity and freedom. The sons who ran in front of the chariot would be the first to die in battle – for the glory of the person they served. Samuel’s critique of ancient kingship could have served perfectly the antimonarchist causes of revolutionary America and republican France nearly three millennia later.

If an inability to overcome the compulsion of mimetic desire was always associated with the visible kingdoms of Israel, then the original invisible kingdom had never been surpassed. It is against this background that we need to observe Jesus’ dealings with kingship – especially his rejection of the option of building such a visible kingdom in the only way that was feasible in the ancient world: by conquest.

This decision began with the second temptation in the desert, and was finally decisively rejected at Gethsemane. Jesus’ reply to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” can thus be interpreted as “That over which I rule is not one of those earthly kingdoms which arise out of mimetic desire and conflict”. And this means it cannot be like the kingdom of David either. It is the same ‘kingdom’ that Israel had abandoned in the time of Samuel, with Jesus in the Samuel, i.e. the prophetic, role. That is to say, it is really an anti-kingdom – one that contradicted the pattern whereby the subject would die for the glory of the king.

We must not make the mistake of supposing that an earthly kingdom ruled by a visible Jesus must necessarily be free of mimetic desire and envy – i.e. of imperfection – for the Gospel tells us otherwise. “Which of us is the greatest?” the apostles repeatedly ask of him, with the sons of Zebedee aiming at a heavenly elevation also. If the kingdom of God is to be free of mimetic desire, there simply cannot be a human pyramid of esteem with Jesus at its summit – for no matter how perfect the king, people would then jealously compete for closeness to him, supposing their own dignity rested upon that, as humans have throughout history. Earthly kingship creates inevitably a pyramid of dignity, in which a ‘wannabe’ fixation deprives everyone else of a sense of her/his own dignity (the source of all those English dreams of tea with the Queen).

The only ‘kingdom’ that can be free of mimetic desire is one in which all accept their own equal dignity. It will therefore be unlike any earthly kingdom of the past, and superior – in terms of egalitarianism – to the most advanced democratic societies today. It is a future society in which dignity is equally distributed – far superior to the ‘meritocracy’ aimed at by our current political elites, for mimetic desire is rampant there also. It follows that power also will be distributed rather than concentrated as in all absolute monarchies.

This is part of the meaning of the passion and death of Christ: he is bringing down the pyramid of esteem, establishing a relationship between humans that is based upon equal mutual respect – the meaning of the washing of the feet. The continual eucharistic division of the body of Christ means that wherever the ‘subject’ is, there is Jesus also. Each of us is equally close, so none lacks dignity.

With globalisation our perception of human space is shifting. In the ancient world people supposed they lived upon a planar disc with real physical boundaries. There had to be a boundary out there, an ‘edge’, encircling human space. This is why Alexander set out to travel to that boundary – the end of the earth – conquering as he went. The human idea of kingship was therefore linked to the notion of a bounded planar surface, over which human heroes fought for arch dominion. The notion that Jerusalem lay at the centre of that surface persisted into the late Middle Ages in Europe.

The idea of earthly kingship was also linked to that of a vertical hierarchy of heavenly dignity, in which the earthly king’s elevation ‘above’ his subjects reflected the even greater dignity of God in the perfection of heaven.

If we interpret the Genesis story of ‘the fall’ as related to human mimetic envy of God in Heaven (‘you shall be as Gods’), we can then interpret the story of Jesus as a revelation whose central teaching is that God is not to be envied – because he is prepared to accept the humiliation of the world. And this in turn means that our conception of Christ as King must be one that rejects the typical earthly kingly pyramid. Somehow he will always be equidistant from us all, so that all are equally honoured.

The Eucharist achieves this, of course, by allowing within sacred space a perfect equality of contact with the king. The Ascension we can see then not so much as a departure, but as a necessary step towards a sacramental banquet in which all Christians are equally admitted to the divine presence, which can also, through the Eucharist and the Spirit, reign within. In this way God raises all into his being equally – undermining the power of mimetic desire.

Now conscious human space has no fixed boundaries, for we know the surface upon which we live is spherical, always returning to meet itself. Thus, the surface of the earth can have no centre, so that no location upon it is more privileged and prestigious than any other.

Furthermore we now look out upon an enfolding heavenly space so vast that the notion of human dominion there is ludicrous. And so we can envisage also a global – and even extra-terrestrial – human society in which, with the continual breaking of bread and body, there is a perfect equality of dignity, and therefore no need for conflict or concentrations of military power.

It is profoundly mysterious that there should be in texts that were written in the ancient planar world a clear revelation of a divine preference for a ‘kingdom’ that would look beyond any existing in that world, to provide what the global human family now needs, and will always need. That is, a Lordship that claims authority first and last in the human heart, that excludes no-one, and that promises freedom and equal dignity to all.

In an earthly community of this kind, people would not notice someone who came by, gently, seeking their company rather than their obeisance, their freedom rather than their subjection. He would not be challenged – for all people would be in the habit of accepting strangers this way.

Here is an early Irish poem that dreams of the future kingdom of Heaven:

CREATION OF HEAVEN

King, you created heaven according to your delight,
a place that is safe and pure, its air filled with the songs of angels.
It is like a strong mighty city, which no enemy can invade,
with walls as high as mountains.
It is like an open window, in which all can move freely,
with people arriving from earth but never leaving.
It is huge, ten times the size of earth,
so that every creature ever born can find a place.
It is small, no bigger than a village,
where all are friends, and none is a stranger.
In the centre is a palace, its walls made of emerald
and its gates of amethyst; and on each gate is hung a golden cross.
The roof is ruby, and at each pinnacle stands an eagle
covered in gold, its eyes of sapphire.
Inside the palace it is always daylight, and the air cool, neither hot nor cold; and there is a perfect green lawn, with a blue stream running across it.
At the edge of this lawn are trees and shrubs, always in blossom,
white, pink and purple, spreading a sweet fragrance everywhere.
Round the lawn walks a King, not dressed in fine robes,
but in a simple white tunic, smiling, and embracing those he meets.
And people from outside are constantly entering the palace,
mingling one with another, and then leaving.
Everyone in heaven is free to come to the palace,
and then to take with them its perfect peaceful joy;
and in this way the whole of heaven is infused with the joy of the palace.

(Celtic Prayers, R Van de Weyer, Abingdon Press)

It’s clear that the unknown author of this poem was someone within whom the Lord reigned already spiritually, and who understood that a perfect equality and lack of rivalry would eventually characterise his people. The word ‘subjects’ is out of place to describe these, for there is no subjection, only liberation. With such a ‘kingdom’ the most radical egalitarian and democrat could find no fault.

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‘The Chain That Binds the Earth’ – Novel now on sale

This project preoccupied me for months:  the experiment of a novel that would test the power of Girardian mimetic theory to explain to young people a wide range of modern ills – from the global threat to the environment to violence of all kinds – including school bullying.

The project arose out of a realisation that were I still in the classroom I would be proposing that we do often unconsciously absorb the desires of others  – as a tool to explain such events as the assassination of Julius Caesar, the burning of Joan of Arc, the World Wars of the 20th century, the Cold War – and the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

Would it have been feasible to do so?  Do young people already notice ‘unconscious copying’ as a dominant feature of human behaviour, and even as a potential source of conflict?

The second crucial factor heading me in the direction of fiction was the simple fact that my classroom days are over.  Now in my seventies I am retired from formal teaching – but very much committed still to what lies behind all teaching:  the task of maintaining a living tradition of insight into so much of what ails us, and especially of passing that insight on to young people concerned for the future of the planet.

So could I write a story that would have eleven-year-olds stumble upon the significance of our human weakness for adopting the desires of others, and then have them argue their case in their own school context?

I have tried to do that, in any case.  It is for young people themselves to tell me if I have succeeded.  My very first young readers of a late draft have been enthusiastic, but I have no way of knowing how representative they are.

As I was obliged to self-publish this story, the initial retail cost of the paperback version on Amazon is too high.    I am setting out to make copies available soon at what they cost me, ordered in quantities at a discount.  I will update this page to log progress in this attempt.

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Jesus and Violence: The importance of René Girard II

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword . For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.” Matt 10:34-36

Could this be the most troubling text in the whole of the Gospels? Certainly it seems to contradict entirely the Christmas promise of Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” How can these passages be reconciled, if at all?

Usually the attempt to explain Matt 10:34-36 is most successful when it points out that many Jewish families must have become deeply divided about Jesus himself, during and just after his three-year ministry  – and this is certainly effective as far as it goes.

However, the Catholic academic René Girard takes a very different tack – centred on his belief that what the Gospel is doing above all is revealing a universal human process of scapegoating: the projection of all of the potential violence in an archaic community onto an individual, as a means of limiting its violent impact on the community as a whole.

It is this process, Girard argues, that we are witnessing in multiple ‘all-against-one’ episodes throughout the Bible:  for example, in the stories of Joseph and his brothers, and of Susannah and the Elders. Both speak of mimetic desire – covetousness – the conflictual wanting of something that cannot be shared. In the case of the story of Joseph, this is the supreme favour of the patriarch, Jacob – symbolised by Joseph’s coat of many colours. In the story of Susannah it is Susannah herself – lusted after by two elders. In both cases, an individual suffers innocently at the hands of multiple others. Frustrated by Susanna’s refusal to comply with their lust, the elders together accuse her of adultery.  She is found guilty and about to be stoned to death – when her plea of innocence rouses the Paraclete – the advocate for the defence – through the young Daniel.  (Why this most beautiful story has never been filmed I cannot imagine.)

For Girard, our competitive desires must inevitably build up social tensions of this kind. Inevitably, in any society lacking an effective policing system and judicial process, they will boil over – and that, he argues,  was the virtually incessant condition of societies in the ancient world.

Thus, for Girard, when we read of the ‘suffering servant’ in Isaiah, or the episode of the ‘woman taken in adultery’ in John 8:3, we are witnessing the very same process, repeated again and again in ancient times. The social tensions arising out of mimetic desire were always supremely dangerous, because our inherent capacity for imitation can lead inexorably to a ‘struggle of all against all’.  At some point in the escalation of this tension of imitative violence, Girard believes, someone, or some group, would come to identify some isolated individual as the real cause of the contagion. This, for Girard, is the significance of John 11: 49-50.

‘And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.”‘

For Girard, therefore, this scapegoating process in ancient society was equivalent to a lightning conductor: it ‘saved’ the greater part of a community by sacrificing a lesser.

In the case of the ‘woman taken in adultery’, how many internal tensions might have been resolved within a given family by pointing at, and stoning to death, this single individual? She may well have been guilty of adultery, but was everyone else there innocent? Jesus’ response points to exactly what was going on.

If Girard is correct in seeing the story of the passion of Jesus in this way, he must also surely be correct in pointing out that the Bible is constantly directing our attention to the injustice of this scapegoating process. Joseph, Susannah – and Jesus above all – were entirely innocent – and the story of Jesus has revealed the wrongness of scapegoating for all time. It is simply wrong to target any  individual to deflect and discharge the collected aggression of an entire community.

But how then is this tension to be released? For Girard there are only two possibilities: in repentance and forgiveness on the one hand – or in the random conflicts between individuals and groups that will otherwise be inevitable.

So, Girard believes, in warning us that he comes to bring a sword and not peace, Jesus is not saying that internal family feuding must happen, but that it will happen – because many will refuse the options of repentance and forgiveness. Jesus has removed from us the option of a familial violence targeted outward against a scapegoat, so – unless we repent and forgive one another – that violence must result in internal family feuds.

I find this in the end a complete explanation of Matthew 10: 34-36, in a way that does not require us to believe that Jesus’ intention is violence. In fact it is quite consistent with a belief that he seeks to lead us to a deeper peace that will never rest on the victimisation of anyone.  That is where we are historically still as a species – unable to opt decisively for repentance and forgiveness, also unable to justify scapegoating – and therefore subject to a violence that can erupt anywhere, anytime.

 

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The crisis in secular society offers an opportunity for the church

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Nov 2011

The recovery of the Catholic church in Ireland will occur just as soon as its leaders realise that they need to share responsibility with lay people for evangelising secular culture.

The summer months of 2011 saw an intensification of the crisis of the Catholic Church in Ireland.  The Cloyne report showed how the powers exercised by Catholic bishops could be used to frustrate even the church’s own child protection guidelines as late as 2008.  Once again, despite the warning provided by previous scandals,  an Irish bishop had totally mishandled this issue – to the detriment of victims of abuse, and to the disgrace of his church.  With other dioceses now undergoing investigation, we wonder how Irish Catholic bishops can ever regain the trust and confidence of their people.

Soon after, something entirely different happened in a neighbouring society.  London, Birmingham and other major British cities were convulsed by terrifying riots that saw wide scale looting and destruction.  In the aftermath over 1,300 rioters were brought before emergency courts – and media commentators agonised over this unexpected event.  Many spoke of the alienation of too many young men from modern society, but none saw any easy solution.   The most honest pundits confessed to total bewilderment.

How would the Irish Catholic church react if similar events were to take place in Irish cities?  There is no precedent for the emergency that would then present itself, and no precedent for the calling together of the Irish faithful to respond to such a secular crisis.  And that encapsulates the problem of the Irish Catholic church today.  With no reason to believe that what happened in Britain could not happen here, our Irish church occupies itself entirely with internal diversionary matters – for example, ‘World Youth Day’ and the Eucharistic Congress scheduled for 2012.

It is a state of affairs that cannot continue.  Sometime soon Ireland will reach a tipping point – a severe and immediate crisis that will precipitate a realisation on the part of church leadership that the division of the church into clerical insiders and non-clerical outsiders simply cannot and must not be maintained.   We are sleepwalking at present on the edge of a cliff, maintaining a model of church that prevents us from doing something basic to the health of every social entity –  communicating with one another over a host of vital issues.

We obviously need to communicate, for example, about the desperation of so many young people, and about the vulnerability of the family – and the role of adult males in mentoring and providing role models for young men.  We need to acknowledge also that the fragile forces that prevent the collapse of any society into chaos are in need of support from every concerned citizen.  We need to talk about the relevance of Catholic social teaching to the vast disillusionment that has overtaken Irish society in recent years.  We need to discuss how we are to counter the dangerous negativity that threatens to overwhelm Irish life, and to replace it with a soundly-based optimism. In a climate of deep cynicism created by so many failures of leadership, we need to restore confidence in the possibility of unselfish public service.

We need to develop together also a deeper understanding of the perils of consumerism and the relevance of the Gospels.  It simply will not do to go on moralising about ‘materialism’ from the pulpit when it is absolutely clear that we humans are entirely uninterested in ‘matter’ for its own sake.  What drives consumerism is the search for social status, the status that is supposedly conferred by possession of advanced technology and expensively ‘styled’ possessions of all kinds.  Churchmen need to become aware that the search for status is a problem they also have – it is actually the root cause of their aloofness, their preference for the company of their peers and their distance from their people.

This ‘Status Anxiety’ is also the trigger for ‘contagious greed’ – the infectious manias that drove, for example, the Irish property bubble, and even, partially, the craze for ‘designer drugs’.  At a more benign level ‘contagious greed’ even maintains the higher consumer spending that economists tell us we need to revitalise the global economy.  We really need an opportunity to discuss all of this – because unbridled contagious greed is also obviously the trigger for looting.

How many Irish priests and bishops are able to connect in their homilies these obvious phenomena of Status Anxiety and infectious greed with Jesus warnings against seeking status and against coveting a neighbour’s possessions?

Is it too dangerous to ‘go there’, perhaps?   Is Status Anxiety also the root problem of the Irish church, the source of clerical aloofness – the basic reason that Catholic clergy – and especially Catholic bishops – are afraid to make open discussion the weekly diet of a church in deep crisis?  Was it also the underlying reason for the cover-up of clerical child abuse? Are clergy basically fearful of losing their status in the church if they lose control?  Is clerical Status Anxiety the root cause of the widespread weakness of preaching at Mass these times?

Preaching would be far stronger also if clergy could confidently assert that it is possible to overcome status anxiet’.  That is in essence what Jesus did – and what Francis of Assisi and every other great saint of the church did.  They lost the fear of descending to the base of society because they were already secure in the love of God.  When secular commentators ponder the nature of ‘strength of character’ we all need to be ready to point out, confidently, the source of the greatest strength. Spirituality is not just for monks – it is the soundest basis of moral character and of civic responsibility.

If the seeking of status is the root source of the growing secular crisis, how is the church to say so if it cannot criticise and dismantle its own status pyramid?  How many humiliations must the church experience before it chooses the path of humility willingly?

It will choose that path soon enough in any case – there will be no alternative.  With austerity set to intensify in Ireland in the months ahead the scene is set for a tipping point that will get us all talking at last – and using the Gospel as a source of salvation.

That cannot happen soon enough, but why do we need to wait?  The relevance of the Gospel to every major problem threatening us is clear enough.  It is only our absurd church structures that prevent us from sharing our understanding of that, and from bringing far better news to a secular society desperately in need of hope.

Views: 125

Does Religion Cause Violence?

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Oct 2005

Since the horror of 9/11 in 2001, our news has been dominated by acts of terrorism. Now in Iraq we find young American males pitted against young Arab males. The former are often ‘born again’ Christians who believe their God wants them to support the state of Israel and fight a ‘crusade’ against Islamic aggression. Their opponents are usually Islamic fundamentalists who believe that their God wants them to replace western secular culture with a global Islamic state.

In July 2005 this war of terror came uncomfortably close. At least two young Irish people were murdered by bombs in London and Turkey. Those of a secularist mindset in Ireland felt confirmed in their faith. One letter writer to the Irish Times wrote:

“Can there be any doubt the greatest curse afflicting humanity is religion of all denominations?”

Is religion – either Christian or Islamic – the root cause of the horrors of the present moment – and should we all therefore become atheists preaching a total secularism and an end to all religious belief?

Certainly the UK’s National Secular Society thinks so. Throughout its website it refers to Northern Ireland as conclusive proof of the violence caused by religious belief, and advocates the end of state support for church schools. It is committed to pushing religious belief out of the public square. If this programme succeeds, Christian faith will be hidden away in our homes, almost stigmatised.

Catholics in Ireland will need to think hard if they are to meet these arguments, and prevent a further weakening of religious belief here.

They could begin by reflecting on the truth of Northern Ireland violence. It never did have a primarily religious origin. It was, in fact, primarily driven by political ideologies based upon secular values – specifically the ideologies of British imperialism and Irish nationalism.

To prove this it is necessary only to point out that throughout the period 1969-1994 there never was a theological debate between those who took up the gun and the bomb in Northern Ireland. Those who led Unionist and Loyalist reaction against the civil rights movement did so on the grounds that it was a front for an Irish nationalist movement to create a United Ireland. The movement that caused most nationalist violence, the PIRA, never had a religious programme or objective either: its ideology was based upon the supposed inevitability of a thirty-two county Irish Republic.

The fact that Unionism used the Protestant identity of the NI majority as a binding force originated simply in the fact that English political regimes from Henry VIII onward had combined church and state, making the former serve the latter. This was, from the beginning, the exploitation of religious belief for purely secular ends. Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic monasteries, for example, purely for dynastic reasons. Their lands would become state property, to be used to buy the support of the British upper classes for the Tudor regime. If you were a ‘good Protestant’ the argument went, you had to be a British political loyalist also – and self-interest delivered the same message.

This meant in Ireland that to be on the contrary an Irish nationalist you should reject not merely the monarch as head of state, but as a religious head also. Irish separatism became politically Catholic – but this never meant that Irish separatists were motivated primarily by any form of Christianity. Their goal was a state defined simply in negative terms: it would be non-British.

Far from being enthusiastically Catholic in any religious sense, PIRA and Sinn Fein were often hostile to a church leadership that from the beginning opposed their campaign of violence. Not even John Paul II in 1979 could make any impression on their commitment to violence in pursuit of an entirely secular goal.

It is ironic, and deeply dishonest, that the prostitution of religion for secular ends in these islands should now be exploited by secularists as a reason for getting rid of religion altogether.

However, to find the best argument against the scapegoating of religion for violence we merely need to remember the record of the most completely secularised political movements of the 20th century – especially Communism. Because they were the most thorough attempt to suppress religious belief altogether, secularists should be able to point to Communist regimes as the pinnacle of human civilisation – oases of peace.

In fact we now know that they were murderous on a scale that defies comprehension. Lenin, the great secularising hero of the Soviet Union, was murderous from the beginning – arguing that richer peasants who opposed the state seizure of their crops should be strung up as an example. His fiendish successor Stalin, decided to murder them all – and was equally brutal with all his political rivals. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 it was known that at least twenty million people had been murdered under Stalin alone.

And earlier this year the first thorough and independent biography of Mao Zedong – the Chinese Communist hero – reported that he had been at least equally violent. In China too as many as 20 million peasants may have perished as a result of an absurd secular ideology and personality cult of the great leader. To arguments that peasants were dying of famine in unprecedented numbers, Mao once responded that their bones would fertilise the soil.

In North Korea still today, a secular ‘God’ – Kim Jung Il – uses the same appalling terror to maintain his regime. Western secularists turn a completely blind eye. They ignore all the evidence that secularist superheroes have consistently gotten rid of God in order to become Gods themselves.

That was true of Adolf Hitler also. The fact that he had been baptised a Catholic – like most Austrians – is often used to pillory Catholicism. Those who do so always ignore the fact that he rejected the faith he had inherited, and espoused the beliefs of the fanatically anti-Christian German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. This thinker insisted that the Christian ethic of service and humility was unworthy of man’s potential for decisive and domineering action. It was this secular ‘superman’ ideology, not any variety of Christianity, that grounded the faith of the worst of all twentieth century mass-murderers.

All violence flows from a simple human flaw – the tendency of our species to be self-regarding and to compete for superiority. From the beginning the core of western religious belief has been a perception of this flaw, and a discernment of a higher value system that could take us beyond violence. That is why vanity and covetousness top the list of sins perceived by western Christianity – just as the Chinese Tao asks ‘why do we desire what others desire’, in a lament over the causes of war.

It is not enough for Christians to make this argument verbally however. It is high time for Christians of all traditions to go beyond verbal Christianity and to combine in reaching out to the more pacific strands and tendencies of moderate Islam.

Already we can discern the background of some of those who killed over fifty people in London in July. Sharing the predicament of young NI Catholics in the 1960s, many young Islamic males are well educated but alienated from British culture by a concealed but pervasive racial bias there. This makes them all-too-easy recruits for Islamist fanatics who want to overthrow western secular culture altogether.

As the former Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out also, people of deep Islamic faith are far less offended by western Christianity than they are by the vulgar sexualisation of much of western secular culture – the ethic of pleasure at all costs, of substance-abuse and seduction.

Like us Christians, they wonder why, if secularism brings peace, there is a horrific escalation in violence among young people in the UK – even in the classroom. Those who have studied this discover a clear pattern – these young people are invariably afflicted with very low self-esteem due to fractured parental relationships, or even abuse within the home. Deprived of proper parenting, and the self-esteem that flows from that, they seek a violent reputation in gang culture instead.

Prioritising the importance of marital fidelity and parental responsibility, the churches have always been a bulwark against family breakdown. The ‘whatever’ sexual ethic of modern secularism is, on the contrary, a very definite source of major youth violence in western society today.

Westernised Muslims can often see this more clearly, but they can also come to appreciate the more positive aspects of western culture. They have in many cases come to appreciate the principle of a separation of church and state, and many Muslim young women in particular are far from convinced of the need for the spreading of Muslim Sharia law across the globe.

It is vitally necessary that all of those committed to peace, and with a deep religious faith, should be talking to one another and combining their efforts to meet the current challenge.

Catholic leaders in Ireland should not be complacent either. Their failure to empower and encourage their lay members in this regard could well reap a tragic fruit in the future, as Ireland’s culture and population becomes more varied. Our national talent for making friendly contact with people of a different culture needs to be harnessed to the cause of making our faith a vibrant force for community harmony.

And secularists who seek to scapegoat religion for violence should re-read Animal Farm, expand their focus, and recognise the pacific core and purpose of all the great faiths. This is no time for the opportunist politics of the latest atrocity.

Views: 20

The Lost Sin

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2003

As part of his ‘progressive’ assault on the Old Testament, the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, J S Spong, inquires scornfully “Who nowadays covets his neighbour’s ox or donkey?”

But if we are to believe the French Catholic anthropologist René Girard* the whole of Christian revelation pivots on covetousness, whose full meaning we have almost lost.

According to Girard covetousness is not simply what the Catechism describes as a disordered desire for possessions per se – the desire for more – but a desire acquired specifically from our neighbour, a desire to possess what he possesses because  he possesses it.  So, a covetable ox would be one that belonged to someone able to afford a better one than we could.  And the car we will covet is the one that belongs to the corporate high flyer who can afford the model that we cannot.  In this interpretation, covetousness is the root of the very modern vice described as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.

To re-establish this understanding of covetousness Girard gives it the more descriptive name mimetic desire – desire that unconsciously mimics that of someone else.   One of these days a new wave of adolescent mimetic desire will begin as streaming video cell phones make all previous models obsolete.

As the modern global economy is centred on this human weakness, this understanding of covetousness has radical implications for Christian thought on – for example – the future of the human environment.  The accepted Christian explanation for over-consumption is materialism – an intellectual bias.  But no car manufacturer makes a selling point of the chemical elements that constitute its products.  Instead we are invited to believe that the car will enhance our status or give us access to a more exclusive lifestyle – and this is what mimetic desire is all about.

Even more provocative, however, is Girard’s insistence that covetousness is the root source of all human violence, and that this is central to biblical revelation.  The archetypal biblical act of violence – that committed by Cain – had to do with Cain’s desire for the divine preference that had apparently been given to Abel.  Similarly, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because Jacob favoured Joseph above them.  Saul hated David because the women of Israel preferred the boy hero – dispossessing Saul of this privilege.  Absalom’s fate too had to do with rivalry – mimetic desire for the status that belonged to his father’s role as king.  And so on.

In the ancient world, Girard argues, the internal social tensions and resentments provoked by mimetic desire were the original source of sacrificial religion.   Not having the judicial and policing systems characteristic of modern societies, primitive societies were in real danger of collapsing into an orgy of reciprocal (i.e. mimetic) violence.  In such a crisis the universal cultural mechanism that came into play was scapegoating violence – the accusation that a given marginal individual, a stranger or cripple, say, was the source of the crisis or contagion.  Such an accusation would focus the aggression of all upon someone whose death or expulsion would end the cycle, because he or she had no connections who would retaliate.

This, Girard believes, was the real origin of human, and later animal, sacrifice – which was simply the ritualization of scapegoating murder as a means of containing violence.  He sees the four Gospels as texts that uniquely reveal the scapegoating process in all of its essential injustice.  Caiaphas’ assertion that the death of Jesus would ‘save the nation’ was the archetypal formula that justified the scapegoating of an individual to restore communal peace.

In this analysis, the episode of the ‘woman taken in adultery’ assumes a new significance.  In suggesting that the one without sin could cast the first stone Jesus was identifying and confronting the real purpose of the accusation – to make the woman bear the punishment due to all for their sins.  And this in turn makes perfectly comprehensible the traditional Christian understanding of the meaning of the crucifixion – as an acceptance by Jesus of the role of punishment-bearer for all humanity.

More important, it suggests a Christology centred upon Jesus’s freedom from – and exposure of – mimetic desire.  Far from coveting the role of High Priest, Jesus had stepped down into the Jordan with the sinners.  Then in the desert he had resisted the temptations to political and religious supremacy.  Afterwards he had scandalized the religious establishment by associating with the dregs of Galilean society, assaulted the ‘for show’ aspects of much religion, and then made an assault upon the Temple system by freely forgiving sins without sacrifice.  Supposing Jesus to be a rival, Caiaphas had focused the scapegoating mechanism on him.  Had covetousness been Jesus’s motivation, he would have attempted to reverse this process, focusing contempt upon Caiaphas.  The fact that he didn’t reveals instead not only Caiaphas’s hidden thoughts – but also ‘things hidden since the foundation of the world’ (Matt 13:35) – this for Girard is the scapegoating process itself.

It is the Bible’s stark revelation of the origins of violence in mimetic desire that makes it, for Girard, supreme in ancient literatures.  The Greeks, by contrast, could not confront the reality of scapegoating – in, for example, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia in the Greeks’ mimetic pursuit of Helen, or in the tale of Oedipus.  ‘Plague’ for Girard is the standard historical metaphor for contagious internal violence – used for example to justify Christian scapegoating pogroms of Jews in the middle ages – so the real reason for Oedipus’s expulsion from Thebes is revealed by the fact that Oedipus was both a cripple and a stranger.  He was the perfect victim of the scapegoating process intended to focus and expel that plague.  Even in the era of the great Greek playwrights, Greek religion included the ritual assassination of the pharmakos, a lowly victim selected for this precise purpose – but neither Greek drama nor classical Greek philosophy dared to confront this injustice directly.

And this understanding of the Christ event gives it the uniqueness that modern relativism threatens to strip away completely.  None of the other great religions both exposes mimetic desire as the major source of violence, and confronts its effects in the scapegoating process.

Even if we don’t swallow Girard whole, his exposure of the theme of mimetic desire in the Bible, and of the origins of much human conflict in competing mimetic desires, is extraordinarily suggestive in the context of our modern predicament about sin in general.  The Augustinian analysis of sin as centred upon concupiscence, inherited through sexual generation, is clearly a dead end that discredits orthodox Christianity – especially in the context of the current clerical sex abuse scandals.  Meanwhile all around us – and even in the church – we can see the appalling effects of human competitive self-advancement.  This fault alone threatens to make the planet uninhabitable.

So an understanding of Jesus as the one person who completely overcame covetousness, and exposed it as the source of social injustice and victimisation generally, is extraordinarily timely.  It suggests that Christian revelation is centrally about exposing the source of the greatest modern evils – runaway consumption,  environmental crisis, and violence – in a way that can be understood in completely secular terms.  Nothing could be more pervasive in modern society than mimetic desire, or more dangerous to humankind.

In the Jubilee year the ‘artist’ known as Madonna declared her intention to become better known than God.   Remembering that celebrity was indeed a distinctive possession of ancient Gods we can interpret even original sin in mimetic terms – the desire to possess what Gods possess  (‘You shall be as Gods’ – Gen 3:5) – and to see the mimetic pursuit of celebrity, now rampant globally, as evidence of this universal flaw.

But this in turn has radical implications for the role of the papacy – which went out of its way to create a global personality cult centred upon John Paul II.  The logic behind this seemed secure enough – that the better known the Pope became, the more pervasive would be Christian principles.  But Time magazine made John Paul II man of the year twice, while demolishing creedal Christianity in a series of feature articles.   And John Paul has himself recently wondered why the western church generally has rejected so much of the church’s official teaching on sexuality.   The pope’s failure to convert the west on the issue of abortion speaks for itself.  Celebrity as such is patently no guarantee of moral impact – while the pursuit of it is clearly a very modern pathology.

Moreover, it appears to be connected to some of the most outrageous acts of violence committed in the west in recent years.  David Copeland, the bomber who devastated gay bars in London in April 1999 declared:  “If no-one knows who you are, you never existed.”  Eric Harris, one of the duo responsible for the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, was fascinated by Hitler’s celebrity and complained about his own failure to climb the school pyramid of esteem (his family had to move home frequently to follow his serviceman father).  More recently Robert Steinhaeuser told a friend that he too would be famous some day – shortly before shooting sixteen in a school in Bavaria when he was prevented from sitting final exams.

All of this suggests that the contrast between rampant media celebrity and the lack of attention received by many young people today due to adult careerism is a deadly combination that is simply not addressed by any of the Church’s most cherished ethical causes.  Could the reason for this again be a Christian failure to perceive the lost sin of covetousness, and its impact upon modernity?

As someone who has lived through 32 years of violence in Northern Ireland I judge mimetic desire to be an essential component of that also.  It fuelled the initial civil rights movement by arguing, with much justice, that the Unionist political monopoly was the source of greater Protestant prosperity.  This meant that educated Catholic ambition came to have a political, and destabilising, focus.  Mimetic desire was always present in Irish separatist nationalism – a desire for exclusive ownership of the island.  (Just as it was always a component of the European imperialism that had brought English power to Ireland in the first place.)  It also explains the protestant paramilitary backlash – a bid to wrest media attention from the exclusive possession of the NI minority.  And nothing could be more mimetic than the stone and bomb throwing along Belfast interfaces these days.  To paraphrase Girard, nothing could be more like a Catholic republican youth throwing a stone than a Protestant loyalist youth picking up the same stone and throwing it back.

Mimetic desire is also clearly a component of the present global ‘war on terrorism’, as the Islamic world surveys the enormous economic and military supremacy of the west.  And the Kashmir issue is a classic instance of mimetic rivalry.

But all of this in turn raises the question of how such an obvious human flaw could ever have been overlooked by the Church’s episcopal magisterium.  Could the reason be simply its acceptance of social elevation in the period after Constantine the Great?  What bishop could then have described Constantine’s military ascent as driven by covetousness?  And bishops who now enjoyed the wealth and social eminence of the pagan priesthood  would scarcely want to be made aware of ecclesiastical ambition as a spiritual flaw.  Nor would the younger sons of the landed nobility of the ancien regime who dominated the episcopacy at the dawn of modernity.  Nor would those bishops whose careerism Cardinal Gantin deplored as recently as 1999.

Indeed the present humiliations of many western bishops suggests that we may now be close to the end of an arc of episcopal social ascent, then descent, stretching through the whole ‘Christendom’ era, and affecting the Catholic episcopacy generally.  Perhaps we must wait for the descent of all bishops to the ground the rest of us occupy before we can expect a Catholic revival.  Especially if we can then make our faith relevant to the aspirations, as well as the problems, of the young.

There is much to be said for the recovery of the full meaning of covetousness as mimetic desire – but how will the hierarchical church respond to the possibility that it has been editing the Decalogue, to the detriment of the faith, for over sixteen centuries?

(*René  Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Orbis Books, NY, 2001)

Views: 15

Northern Ireland: Christians in Conflict?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Sep 2003

This simple equation has been one of the clichés of western journalism for most of my lifetime. If anyone wanted proof that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was socially divisive and a source of violence, look there, to the six counties of Ireland’s north-east.

Although we in Ireland have always known that politics was a more potent source of Irish violence, there has always been even here a certain pandering to the secular myth that religion and violence are bedfellows. We will point to Ian Paisley as the exemplar of the violent bigot who, while steering personally clear of activities that would have landed him in the H Blocs, steered others in that direction. And we will say things like: sure isn’t republicanism a kind of religion too.

Never mind that virtually all the men of violence clearly had an entirely secular axe to grind: republicans in their belief that the Pearsite tradition had forever made sacred the ideal of a thirty-two county state; loyalists in their addiction to Protestant domination as a political cause. No-one has ever argued, in my recollection, that the secular myths that sustained Irish violence raised serious questions about the beneficence of secularism per se. Via Irish secularist intellectuals like Eamonn McCann, secularism became the holy cause that would bring peace everywhere, especially in this “priest ridden”country.

It is time we looked with far more jaundiced eyes at the non-violent claims of secularism. The arms race, and the arms industry, were, and are, entirely secular activities. So is politics, the source of virtually all twentieth century wars. The violence of the Soviet Union, of communist China, and of fascist Italy and Germany, stemmed entirely from secular ideologies, and made a target of the spiritualities that underlay the greatest opponents of violence – the churches.

It is time especially to do this in Ireland, where the churches are still being targeted by secular ideologues as the major obstacle to peace. Isn’t the Orange Order, a religious organisation, at the root of the Drumcree conflict? And isn’t it the Catholic desire for a separatist educational system, and the reactionary Protestant bigotry that results, at the root of the Holy Cross scandal?

It takes only the slightest element of religiosity in any Irish conflict to get the secularists going about the baneful influence of religion – but no-one ever points to the violence inherent in all secular utopian dreams. Or to the obvious fact that the drive for power in human affairs – an entirely secular preoccupation – lies at the root of virtually all violence.

This summer in Northern Ireland my wife and I took a holiday in County Fermanagh. My wife Patricia has wanted for many years to visit the Marble Arch caves in South Fermanagh, close to the border with Monaghan.

On our route from Coleraine lies Omagh, and specifically the Ulster-American folk park lying just south of that city. For many years this complex has been a splendid resource for all those seriously grappling with the problem of educating young people in the North to the importance of mutual respect for differing traditions.

It divides the young person’s experience into Old World and New World. The old world is the nineteenth century peasant world of the region – Protestant and Catholic. A Presbyterian meeting house lies close to a Catholic primary school – and the visiting pupil will experience both as part of a single Old World order in Ireland – as well as the atmosphere of a forge, where the farmers of both traditions would have met and mingled.

The New World is the world of the American homesteader, of the log cabin, the Conestoga Wagon, the snake fence, the long rifle and the general store. The latter is fully fitted with all of the stock in trade of the store in, say, the movie Shane.

In between lies the experience of the emigrant ship – and all children must pass through this to reach the New World. There is no way in which a Protestant child could fail to associate much Irish emigration with famine and despoliation – while Catholic children will learn about the kinship ties that often bound Ulster and New England non-conformists.

We history teachers are worried these times about the failure of experiences of this kind to make much impact upon children from interface areas who have been schooled in tribal loyalties, and in the historiography that goes with them. We cannot measure their impact upon thousands of other children making up their own minds on such issues, and looking for consolidation of their inclinations towards peace. It is the home that has first, and longest, impact upon all children – but all NI schools in my experience have tried hard – especially in the history classroom – to gain some kind of purchase upon the bigotry that would otherwise have overwhelmed them.

As a consequence, NI schools generally remained oases of calm in the most violent times, even in interface areas – and this has been acknowledged by psychiatrists treating the child victims of violence. The Holy Cross nightmare was terrifying precisely because it was the first of its kind – and it remains a unique reminder of what might have happened elsewhere if schools, and the churches that support them, had pitched into the conflict in the way the myth of religious violence suggests they should.

This summer, the Ulster-American Folk park in Omagh was host to families from all backgrounds in Northern Ireland. We found them there, sampling Ulster drop scones and wheaten bread along with New England candle-making.

We found them also in Enniskillen, visiting the pre-reformation Christian remains on White island and Devenish island. Tired of the endless tendency of politicians to claim their allegiance to tired secular myths, many in Ulster are looking for the historical truth, and making excellent use of the resources available to them.

And they are doing this in the context of a miraculous calm. This summer there was no serious violence accompanying Orange celebrations. It seems that the shame of Drumcree has had its impact now – and the Holy Cross issue no longer dominates urban headlines.

Suddenly Limerick and Tallaght are more dangerous places to be than Derry or Belfast. Will the secularists notice this, or will they look for religious influences over Limerick stabbings or Dublin shootings? It is time they woke up and realised that it is the supposed peacefulness of secularism that is the greater myth.

What might southerners do to consolidate this new peace in the north? Realise what an exciting place it is just now – especially for a holiday. Please come north now, you southern Christians and tell us what we need to hear – the simple truth. All of Ireland is free at last – and nationalist and unionist as well.

It is fitting that this message should come from the churches – because they have performed unacknowledged marvels of restraint to bring it about.

Views: 26

Licensed to Kill

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

Nothing could be more formulaic than a James Bond film – unless we descend still further to the Popeye cartoon.  As it is the Popeye plot that provides the basic framework for this whole style of Hollywood entertainment, let’s look at that plot for a moment.

Always (despite what happened the day before), our hero Popeye and his beloved, Olive Oyl, have no thought of violence as they set out upon their daily idyll – a visit to the beach or mountain perhaps.  Yet out of nowhere appears the enormous Bluto, who beats Popeye senseless and heads off with the protesting female.

At this juncture, an entirely coincidental saving event occurs – contact between Popeye’s failing digestive system and the contents of a can of spinach.  Immediately our hero is restored to redemptive health and strength.  He heads off to rescue Olive, and in the process sends Bluto in a cathartic parabola towards the horizon.  The End.

Only for today, of course.  The success of the formula dictates that Bluto must be even more mysteriously restored for the sequel that will always follow.

Bluto’s epic size and malevolence are essential to the plot – for otherwise Popeye would have no excuse for the violence he must eventually use.  Similarly, Popeye cannot begin the day with a breakfast of spinach – as this would prevent him from suffering victimhood and even imply calculation and foreknowledge (especially if Olive Oyl had cooked it for him).  Everything must be rigged to create the complete moral imbalance that will give Popeye his licence to use maximum force.  He doesn’t even work out at the gym.  He is entirely innocent, and Bluto is entirely guilty.  Otherwise there can be no supremely cathartic, violent climax.

Bond films follow essentially the same logic.  A master criminal with global ambitions usually begins the film by dropping a failing henchman into a tank full of piranha fish, sharks, or crocodiles.  This establishes his Bluto credentials – and so does the unleashing of a world-threatening enterprise that will trigger the involvement of our hero, James Bond.  The latter, virtually on his own, will soon encounter the master criminal, as well as some supremely nubile and vulnerable female.  Both will suffer various trials and torments, until some gadget allows Bond to turn the tables (the spinach factor).  For some unaccountable reason the master criminal will never kill Bond at the first opportunity – but suavely entrust him to a stupid henchman or a lock-up with a large air-vent.

The films end always in a vast investment in stuntmen, catapulted corpses and explosions – and subsequent pneumatic bliss for Bond.  Our master criminal may either be annihilated or saved to conspire another day.  It matters little.  Master criminals are bankable resources – so hack Hollywood writers will work like hospital casualty teams to bring this Bluto, or another, back another day.

Clearly, the Bluto theory of life is commercially viable – as the Bond films have reaped more than $8 billion since the first one, Doctor No, in 1962.  The hugely profitable Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series are also basically Popeye films – as is the ‘Alien’ series in the Science Fiction genre, and Independence Day.  Mass entertainment is hugely indebted to the simple notion that world-threatening, (and female-threatening), malevolence is always out there somewhere – so we must logically be licensed to kill.

Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers has brilliantly pointed out that the Popeye plot predates Hollywood by many centuries.  It is in fact the core of the Enuma Elish – the Babylonian creation myth.  In this, Tiamat, mother of the Gods, sets out to kill her children, the supposedly lesser Gods.  One of these, Marduk, is licensed by the others to prevent this.  He kills and dismembers her – and she becomes the various parts of the material universe.

The essence of the tale is the overwhelming justification for Marduk’s violence – which is wholly just and necessary.  He too, although supremely violent, is innocent.  As he was the Christ figure for the Babylonians, he justified the rapacity of ancient Babylon itself – which included, of course, the enslavement of the people of Israel.

Their Genesis story may well have been written in response to the Enuma Elish.  Its account of the origins of human violence is wholly different: far from originating with creation itself it lies in competing human desire for the same object – the Cain and Abel story.  The geo-politics of the ancient world centred around competition for the fertile river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Those of today centre around oil, in the very same region.  Otherwise little has changed

How far is George Bush from an appreciation of the difference in the Babylonian and Biblical accounts of the origins of violence? On November 3rd a US-owned Predator drone in Yemen fired a deadly missile, destroying a car and six occupants – one of whom was supposedly a high-ranking Al Q’aeda member.  As the US mid-term congressional elections proved the same day, ‘9/11’ has most potently revitalised the Popeye plot as a text for the restoration of the Bush dynasty, with Bin Laden & Saddam Hussein alternating in the Bluto role.  The handlers of the younger Bush have exploited that opportunity to the hilt.  Hollywood keeps in step by giving us yet another Bond film.

Only three years ago, the Bond formula appeared to have been played out.  Media wits suggested in 1999 that the next Bond film should be entitled ‘Enough is Enough’.  Now Al Q’aeda has dusted off the Marduk legend – and the elevation of the Irish actor Pierce Brosnan to megastar status in the years ahead seems likely.  If we in Ireland take the same innocent pleasure in this that we did when John Ford made The Quiet Man, we will have wasted much time (half a century exactly) in learning nothing about the world.

Meanwhile of course, Bin Laden tells exactly the same Popeye-Bond yarn to the Arab world, but casting America in the master-criminal role, and himself as James Bond (or the medieval Islamic equivalent, Saladin).  If he has indeed survived Afghanistan we are only midway through the film – and haven’t seen anything yet in the way of explosions and cartwheeling bodies.

Is George Bush a good or an evil man?  The pundits argue endlessly, when the answer is obviously: Yes.  George Bush is a good and an evil man.  He is endowed with impregnable innocence by the Christian fundamentalism that has incorporated the essence of the Marduk legend into mainstream US Christian thought (we must have, and we alone can be trusted with, a license to kill).  He is also evil in being so deliberately enveloped in self-righteousness that he cannot step into the shoes of a Palestinian or Egyptian or Saudi or Chechen idealist and see how easily he and America become therefore, in their stupefying lack of empathic intelligence and awesome military power, the Bluto of someone else’s nightmare.

The truth is that Genesis is absolutely right.  We humans compete – and it is out of this competition that violence arises, because the elevation of the winner is always, and simultaneously, the abasement of the loser.  The Marduk legend was concocted, and is endlessly retold, merely to justify the violence and the victory of the stronger.  US emergence as sole superpower in 1989 was for many Islamic people their abasement, as it signalled not only the defeat of the Palestinian cause but a single globalised economic system with them, usually, and probably forever, on the outside.

As a durable global peace depends not upon the always unsuccessful expulsion of Bluto, but upon the exposure of the Tiamat/Bluto lie, it follows that Christian education must rapidly understand the application of ancient myth to modern culture and global politics.  It simply isn’t good enough that Christian children in Ireland may well exalt Pierce Brosnan as a role model, when he personifies and exalts a deadly ethic – one that now grips the world in a vice – to buttress a basically commercial and militaristic agenda, and an unjust world.

As long as we humans insist upon having a licence to kill we will go on narrating history as the Marduk legend in Popeye/Bondian terms – interminably rigging the story to justify our own murderous intent (‘republicans’ and ‘loyalists’ please note).  So long as the ‘Christian’ west cannot separate itself clearly from that intent, and that myth, so long will it continue to misinterpret its own basic texts and to betray the humble and pacific God it hypocritically exalts.

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The Day the World Changed – 11/09/2001

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality 2001

For most of my lifetime I’ve been teaching history and current affairs, and in that lifetime already there have been days of special significance.

The night in 1962 when JFK told us about Soviet missiles on Cuba; that other awful night in 1963 we learned he had been assassinated; the day of the first serious violence in Northern Ireland in August 1969; the day in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down.

Yet none hit me with so much force as Tuesday 11th September 2001 – the day over 3000 people died in deliberate air crashes in New York and Washington. On my screen as I write there is a shot of Flight 175 about to pass through the enormous glazed wall of the World Trade Centre south building. I keep it there as a memento of an era that is about to pass away, a reminder that we are now in a different time. And that we owe to those dying and about to die at that moment – and to those they left behind – a monument that will do justice to their loss.

That image perfectly expresses the vulnerability of the US, at that moment the world’s only superpower.  Its terrifying nuclear missile shield, its strategic bomber force, its air and army and naval bases throughout the world, its nuclear submarines, its dozen floating airports, its huge external and internal intelligence services the CIA and FBI – all had been powerless to protect its most vulnerable citizens as they began their innocent day.

Superpower?

All of which raises a critical question: Is the concept of the superpower itself a dangerous illusion when only one superpower is left to become a target of a terrorism that it cannot directly engage with superpower arms?superpower Is the vastness of its strategic military strength, and the global nature of that power, now an invitation to the murder of its own citizens from within, and to a global religious war?

The concept of the superpower emerged in the period after 1945. Two powers had contributed most to the defeat of the axis powers – the  USA and the USSR. Only one as yet possessed a nuclear capability, but by 1962 this inequality had disappeared and the world stood poised on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The superpowers were already competing also in space, and it was the US decision to build a defensive satellite shield against nuclear missiles that finally broke the USSR’s capability to compete in the late 1980s. The collapse of the soviet empire from 1989 left one superpower only, with an apparently global dominance.

But global dominance – the aspiration of conquerors from Alexander to Hitler – is a dangerous position to be in. In fighting the Cold War US support for Israel was a potent source of alienation of Islamic peoples who sided with the Palestinians who were being squeezed out. Geared for nuclear warfare, or conventional warfare with forces prepared to engage in pitched battles, the US now faced a new and subtle enemy whose strength was anti-western fanaticism and an ability to improvise.

“They have woken a mighty giant,”  President Bush has now assured us, paraphrasing the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto after Pearl Harbour. But Yamamoto had actually said ‘sleeping giant’ – and this seems far more appropriate as a comment on September 11th. There is a sense in which the entire political and military leadership of the US was indeed asleep on that morning, and was then woken out of a complacency of catastrophic proportions.

As all the ingredients for the disaster were already known to be present, future historians will set their students the task of explaining why the disaster was allowed to happen. Fanatical middle eastern suicide bombers had attacked US targets before, and had recently killed hundreds of Israelis and severely damaged a US warship; hundreds of men from middle eastern lands deeply alienated from the US were known to be in the US; US flying schools did not require security clearance for their pupils; US internal air security was known not to prevent the carrying on board of potentially deadly weapons; the flight decks of these aircraft were known to be accessible to armed passengers.

Nothing more was required to allow the most appalling internal disaster ever to befall the US at the hands of its enemies – and these facts all lay before those charged with the defence of US citizens during the years this plan was meticulously prepared.

To argue that no one could foresee this is specious: these terrorists had foreseen it, probably as early as five years before. Specific US politicians and military and security and intelligence personnel had the task of outguessing the nation’s enemies, of thinking the unthinkable in order to prevent it, during that time. They either failed to do so, or were discouraged from pursuing the issue Scapegoating of individuals is pointless: there was a national failure of leadership at the summit, affecting the previous Democratic presidency of Fulbright scholar Bill Clinton as much as that of the Republican George Bush, and Congress also under both administrations. No-one at the summit wanted to think the unthinkable, although that is precisely what terrorists do.

Now that the US is attempting to build an alliance against terrorism it needs to avoid words and actions that must prevent that alliance ever becoming effectual. Words like ‘Crusade’ – for the Islamic world this has the same overtones as ‘Jihad’ for the west. The Crusades were Christian military expeditions against the Islamic rulers of the Holy Lands in the Middle Ages, called initially – and inexcusably – by the Papacy. An estimated 40 – 70,000 Jews and Arabs perished in the rape of Jerusalem by western ‘Christian’ knights in 1099 CE. The fact that George Bush did not apparently know this, and did not employ an adviser who could tell him, shows clearly the absence of a due respect for Islam at the summit of government at this critical moment.

The alliance must also avoid the indiscriminate use of force anywhere in the world. As I write, US military strikes of some kind against Afghanistan seem a possibility – with consequences that could include the alienation of much of the Islamic world from any anti-terrorist alliance. Since the bin Laden argument is that the US is bent upon global domination, unilateralist action by the US against any Islamic nation can only strengthen the bin Ladens and enhance their reputation.

US after 9-11What is needed above all is for the US to rethink its role and posture in the world. Is it bent upon economic and cultural as well as military dominance, or is it the big brother that guards the freedoms and dignity, and cultural identity of others as determinedly as its own?

At a critical moment in the development of the Irish peace process the London government found it useful to say simply that it had no longer any strategic interest in retaining control of Northern Ireland. This allowed most republicans to stack, if not yet to relinquish, their arms and bring us peace of a kind. Something similar is required from the US to clarify its intentions, especially with regard to the Islamic world and Israel. This could also strengthen its relations with the western powers.

When those who devised the US constitution wondered how to express the essential equality of the states that belonged to it, they decided that the US Senate would each have just two members from each state. This reassured those who argued that states with smaller populations would be always outvoted and ignored. The nearest thing we have to a world congress, the UN, gives greater power to the permanent superpower members of the Security Council. It must surely be obvious that when the list of superpowers is reduced to one, the credibility of the UN as an impartial body must be weakened. The time has come to re-examine its constitution – and here also the US must play a crucial role.

Having climbed to the summit of world power, the US has now to decide how that power is to be used within a framework of mutual international respect. Respect is only possible within a framework of equality. Equality was the original program of those who framed the US Declaration of Independence of 1776, and makes a perfectly respectable program now for a new world order. Is the administration of George Bush up to this – or will the US go on defending a supremacy that must remain a target for all the ‘young guns’ that must emerge to challenge it – with heaven knows what consequences for its own citizens, as well as the rest of the world?

What is power?

As I watched the aftermath of this shocking catastrophe in New York I had as a guest in my home a Dutch naval officer, one of a group of eight Christians visiting Coleraine from the Hague. “What is power?” Rudolph Francis asked at one point.

The question is so appropriate. These hijackers had armed themselves with nothing more than information, basic flying skills and knives. The information allowed them to co-ordinate the seizure of four planes that had left three different airports within fifteen minutes of one another. Knives and piloting skills allowed them to turn three of these into flying bombs of great destructive power, aimed at the political and economic capitals of the world’s only superpower. The factor that stunned the US – their willingness to give their lives for this enterprise – has undoubtedly helped to shape the history of the next century. It is equivalent to the assassination by Serbs of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary in 1914. The consequences of that action included the Great War and the downfall of that empire, with consequences that still reverberate in eastern Europe.

What will be the consequences of September 11th, 2001? One possibility, which must at all costs be avoided, is another ‘clash of civilisations’ between the West and Islam. To avoid it we must all become far more aware of the multitude of different cultures, beliefs and attitudes to be found among the world’s one billion Muslims. Islam is at least as diverse as the Christian world. The fanaticism of the suicide hijackers is fuelled by a perception of the west, led by the US, as a purveyor of a corrupt globalisation, threatening to Islamic faith and culture. The best way for the west to undermine that perception is to rediscover the Gospels, which threaten no-one.

Our own church could begin by acknowledging – in a substantial document – the disastrous error of the Crusades, called initially by Pope Urban II in an address that was not recorded verbatim. One version of it has him asking:

“Can anyone tolerate that we do not even share equally with the Moslems the inhabited Earth?”

As this ‘take’ on the papacy’s attitude to Islam would align it with a possible tide of anti-Islamism today, it is all the more necessary that the church distance itself from this discreditable era of its history. This beautiful Earth is not a western or Christian domain but a dear heritage of all its children. Our Bible – some of which we share with Islam – records that we are one family, from the beginning, and our gospels insist that we are destined to be at peace. Most Islamic scholars share this vision, so the earth need not become a battlefield between any two or more great faiths.

And this vision of a world enjoying a secure diversity is perfectly compatible with the greatest traditions of the USA. To protect its citizens it reconciles in its constitution the principle of the separation of the three different elements of state power, with the other vital principle of national unity against external aggression. It can now lead the world to a permanent peace by placing equal emphasis upon both principles in a genuine new world order. The world’s peoples and faiths can unite as one world against fanatical violence, in defence of the freedom of all to be themselves.

And the idea of a New World Order was, of course first floated by the first President Bush. It is time for us all to begin thinking about what the phrase might mean.

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