The use of violent language and the Presence of God
Monday 11th May 2020 @ 3:06 pm
I apologise. I cannot write this in brief. But if you want it in one sentence …
Words create worlds. And the worlds they create direct the choices we make.
If you want the college length essay, go on. Feel no obligation to agree.
I have been challenged (positively) by the push–back to my observations expressing concern with the language of warcraft by Boris Johnston and Donald Trump in relation to coronavirus pandemic. It is good for me to be forced to follow through – because this I do believe is important.
Language of enemy and victory is always language of Othering and brutality, and is therefore language of power. The Gospel I follow bids me into the difficult questions of power and authority, who holds it and why, and what my response to powers and dominions should be.
Trump was the first I noticed doing it in extreme. The massive international challenge of coronavirus was immediately put into the language of war. ‘We will defeat this enemy,’ ‘we will not be crushed,’ ‘we will fight and win’ are paraphrases of many such statements. Boris has done it too, using the emotive language of the ‘invisible killer’ and promising ‘victory over this enemy.’
I have legitimate concerns. I admit that these concerns dive below the surface to probe the cultural framework of the world created by violent and vitriolic language.
1. Making the virus an enemy solidifies opposition against it – which is reasonable. This is a well–worn tool in terms of galvanizing a population against a popular enemy from outside. Name the enemy as the one who is doing immense harm to the standard operating procedures of normal life ‘here’,and see that enemy as from ‘there’(remember Trump calling it the ‘Chinese virus’ even suggesting it was manufactured in a lab) inculcating, contaminating and bringing impurity. (See Richard Beck, ‘Unclean.’) In this instance the ‘other’ is claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the globe. Genuinely bringing suffering to millions. To have swift joined–up action is vital and important. However, to do this by scapegoating misses the point that scapegoats are innocent. They are the external mechanism by which you and I can hang our failure and fear, to ostracize the scapegoat to death. (René Girard). It is completely understandable to use this tactic. Yet it also begs the observation, ‘eh, isn’t this is what humans do to each other?’ Every group of people who have suffered as a minority know this to be true – women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ community, Christian pastors in countries where Christian faith is banned, transgender people, and many others. The last century saw history’s most vile scapegoating carried out against an entire people. The holocaust saw some 17 million people murdered (some estimate more), with over 6 million of them Jews whose crime was being Jewish. The antisemitism that led to the attempt of annihilating an entire people was no more clearly seen than through the language used against them – they were called parasites, a virus, a disease, a sickness. The language used about them created a lens to see the Jews as sub–human – not only ‘other,’ but less than human. Othering the Jews was done using words. Words create worlds.
2. Speaking of the virus in ways that gives the virus human attributes negates reality. If the virus is devilish, we are left to be the divine conquers. To anthropomorphize the virus is to give the virus human tendencies, explain it in relation to character traits and actions of which we ourselves are capable – hence making it comprehensible to us. This is at least psychologically understandable. In order to make sense of the world around us we as humans see everything in relation to what we can understand. Us. From the dawn of human communication we have given rocks, trees, stars, and other material things of existence, figurative elements of understanding which place them in categories we can realize. Nothing was more important in this than deities. God–figures. Giving ‘otherness’ characteristics that we could understand. Before my life ends I would love to visit ‘Three–brothers’ caves in France (Arièges) to see the etchings in stone of what scholars (e.g., Reza Aslan) think is the earliest surviving carving of a divine figure. It’s a sketch on the wall known as ‘The Sorcerer’ and is maybe the earliest attempt of humans to put the divine into pictorial form. It is made up of human–torso and animal elements, and is usually referenced as a sort of demi–animal–deity. The caves drawings are estimated to be around 15k years old. Come forward eight or nine centuries to the Greeks, and you find the deities of the Greek world cavorting in all sorts of humanistic behavior – read Stephen Fry’s ‘Mythos’ or ‘Heroes’ and you see the capricious nature of how humanity gave the unknowns of the universe human attributes. The Romans followed closely after the Greeks – giving different names, but similar traits to things divine/unknown. What is interesting, is that next Judaism and Christianity make, arguably, the single biggest contribution to world history in the arrival of the One God. (It is of course debatable as to whether monotheism was in evidence pre–Judaism, but I am happy to go with Sacks and his arguments in ‘Not in God’s Name’ and ‘Morality’ that monotheism came through Judaism).
The most fascinating thing about monotheism in the Bible is the absolute prohibition of making any sort of idol – representation – of the Divine. To carve, create, give character to the Divine, was to put the Divine in your pocket. Idolizing in wood, stone or anything else gives you the divine you want – which of course makes the divine very small indeed, reductionist in extreme, and under your control. To note how seriously a Judeo–Christian worldview takes this prohibition of creating representations of the Divine, note how the Commandments begin (depending on whether you are Jewish / Orthodox Christian / Reformed Christian these are ether the first, first two or first three statements) ‘I am the Lord, your God, You shall have no God’s before me, You Shall not make an image of me.’ Trying to put understandings of Otherness, of God, into a box created by humans has been a prohibition from the beginning of the Judeo–Christian ethic.
To put it succinctly, humanity has from it’s inception taken things we know are beyond us and given them traits characteristics and form in order to make them understandable and relatable to us.
This is meaning–making.
3. We make the meaning of things by giving words, images, traits, and character to them. The wider our language, the wider our world, the wider our existence. The opposite is also true, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” (Wittgenstein) The strong Judeo–Christian prohibition to not create idolatrous images is because (at scholars’ best guess) those things of Divine nature should remain mysterious and beyond us, they should invite a stretch toward heaven rather than a capture of heaven. Note this is why the divinity of Jesus is one of the most central, unique, and contentious talking points when in dialogue with other faiths. (Islam is even more rigorous on the need for absence of graphic representation of the divine).To repeat – this meaning–making has a long deep history within our psychology and our sociology. It has played a major part in how we understand ourselves and how we organise our world. The words we give things beyond us matter deeply.
Words create worlds.
4. Another aspect of meaning–making in religion is that we take the characters and traits we give to Otherness, and use them to ‘bind and blind’ (see Jonathan Haidt, ‘The Righteous Mind’) ourselves to it. Binding ourselves to belief (usually the creeds of the tribe/family/nation that we have inherited) and blinding ourselves to that which lies outside those beliefs. The language we use confirms our own certainties and helps to ostracize everything / everyone who sits outside the world we have created using our words. (For much more on this see Girard’s development of Scapegoating in early human religious behavior in “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World‘ and note how the scapegoat was the sacrificed common enemy bringing peace to previously warring tribes/families).
When I visit Palestine and Israel, I meet with Israeli peace activists who share stories of the military mindset fostered within their country. Most disturbing for me is the primary school worksheet I have seen with numeracy tasks given in military paraphernalia – ‘how many tanks are in this row?’ ‘how many guns’ etc. The ‘pink tank’ I have seen several times sits for decoration at a roundabout in a small village in northern Israel – I used to think it quaint and amusing, but it now begs the question ‘what world are we making with these symbols?’ What worlds are created when the words used in primary school numeracy tests use tanks and guns and fighter planes for examples, what words and messages fill the mind when tanks sit at the local roundabout? You don’t have to go to Israel to see a tank sitting for decoration in the village. Go to Carrickfergus.
5. A tough theological question for the reformed Christian tradition in validating the use of violent language (‘we will not be defeated’, ‘we will be victorious against this silent killer’ etc) is where does God sit in the midst of the language used? My own faith and understanding in the person of Jesus does not countenance my use of any language that distances or diminishes anyone/anything from the purview of God. To call the virus devilish is to give it attributes it has not earned. It is not capable of thought, of decision–making, of language, of malicious intent. Those who call it devilish will usually do so in order to placate a own sense of fear and trial. Hence the language used is about us and our understanding rather than the virus and its properties. I choose to own my language and be uncomfortable with the legitimizing of the language of violence, because I choose not to use the language of violence about any group or thing. My language says more about me than it does the thing I am talking about. “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” (Anais Nin) I cannot use the language of violence and devilment against a virus, because I want to see the Kingdom Come through all things – the Kingdom of Peace, with the Prince of Peace as it’s centre. While I completely understand intellectually, not emotionally, why people will talk about life’s deepest challenges as ‘fights’ (you cannot be a pastor and not hurl to the depths with people over matters of death, cancer, fear, suicide, and on those depths find an appreciation of how some people will find comfort in the language of fight), nonetheless I cannot help but remember some of the calmest and most Holy of people I have met, who have been in great suffering yet who refuse the language of violence (a fight, a battle, a struggle) and instead choose the language of presence. In the midst of suffering, they have spoken not of fighting, but of finding. Discovering the presence of something ‘more’ than them, sustaining and sitting with them. I owe these people part of my life – they have inspired me to go more ‘inner,’ rather than ‘outer.’
6. For the Reformed Christian tradition, God made the world, and humans brought sin into it. That’s how that tradition gets around, ‘Did God make a world with evil in it?’ They can answer, ‘No, we brought evil. You did it.’ The follow up question becomes trickier for that branch of faith, “Could God not have made the world in a way we did not sin?”
“Yes, but God chose to give you free choice, free will, it’s God’s greatest gift to us.”
“God gave us the choice to screw it all up, and then let us destroy the earth and each other?”
“Doesn’t sound very loving?”
“Well, it is.”
“And so the virus is our fault? For breaking the world?”
This logic has not helped me in life, it takes me in circles. Two choices that evolve from the logic both seem inadequate. Either God made the world and gave humanity the ability to break it, therefore it’s God fault for being negligent. Or this is humanity’s fault for ruining God’s good creation and God was powerless to do anything about it. Original sin (where the entire brokenness of creation – cancer, illness, viruses – is passed on through humanity to humanity), to me is a horrific disposition, not fully articulated until over 1000 years after Jesus walked the earth (save Augustine whose early work on it was picked 800 years later to really nail it down). Wesleyans (Methodists) have a different way of seeing the world. Not everything is as dark, broken, and totally depraved as Reformed theology dictates. God is not so pure as to be absent from his creation. God is present in it, present to it, and if you like a more Franciscan way of looking at things, present through it. All of it. Richard Roher writes, ?“The proof that you are a Christian is that you can see Christ everywhere else.” He goes on to pertinently state, ?“From the first moment of the Big Bang, nature was revealing the glory and goodness of the Divine Presence; it must be seen as a gratuitous gift and not a necessity. Jesus came to live in its midst, and enjoy life in all its natural variations, and thus be our model and exemplar … ? … once we become aware of the generous, creative Presence that exists in all things natural, we can receive it as the inner Source of all dignity and worthiness. Dignity is not doled out to the worthy. It grounds the inherent worthiness of things in their very nature and existence.” God has given his creation freedom, and the dignity of that remains God’s most precious gift. God does not disappear to watch this world from a distance, God breathes and blows, emanates and evokes the best of All there Is – most amazingly done once in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, but continuously done now through you. Yes, you. This is what makes this world, and it’s language and it’s creation, Holy.? This is the Presence of the ultimate Otherness within it. What Methodists might call a spark of the Divine, what Judaism recognizes as ‘hidden presence.’
“The holy is that segment of time and space God has reserved for His presence. Creation involves concealment. The word ‘olam,’ (universe), is semantically linked to the word ne’elam, “hidden.” To give mankind some of His own creative powers – the use of language to think, communicate, understand, imagine alternative futures, and choose between them – God must do more than create Homo sapiens. He must efface Himself to create space for human action. No single act more profoundly indicates the love and generosity implicit in creation. God as we encounter Him in the Torah is like a parent who knows He must hold back, let go, refrain from intervening, if His children are to become responsible and mature. But there is a limit. To efface Himself entirely would be equivalent to abandoning the world, deserting His own children. That, God may not and will not do.” (Jonathan Sacks, ‘Essays on Ethics’) The virus is a naturally occurring phenomenon in this remarkable world, and is one of many things in creation which have the capacity to cause destruction and pain – none of these things in creation however, come in any way close to the capability humanity shows for doing the same.
Words create worlds – and that’s the world I want to live in.
I want to live and love in a broad, generous, loving world where the words spoken reflect the hiddenness/holiness of God in all things and through all things. The best of All things and the most painful of All things. I want to see a world where the words used by leaders are words of challenge and inspiration, not violence and fear, demonizing and ostracising. I choose to believe I live in a world where humanity sits humbly with what it does not know, without needing an explanation for everything from dirt to the Divine. A world where the choices we make show by our words, that we are a non–violent, Presence seeking, peace–loving people, delving into the mysteries of life without diminishing the struggles of existence. These days are tough enough without culturally appropriating language that champions superiority and power. I choose to use language of comfort and empathy, and I choose to desire that the leaders in our world would do the same.
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