Thursday, January 04, 2007

"Exterminate all the brutes."

I'd have to re-read "Heart of Darkness" at this point, but this is a pretty good summing up of the book, and it leads me to an observation, based on a few days contemplating the ignorance and foolishness of people like Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. If religion is the chief evil of human society, what did religion have to do with 19th century colonial Europe?

In that novel, if you remember, Kurtz, the main character, goes to Africa in order to bring light and illumination to the Dark Continent. "By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded," Kurtz postulates. One of his cohorts affirms, "Each station should be ... a beacon on the road towards better things, a center of trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing." Conrad informs us, "All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz." Kurtz's idealism was so infectious that he was entrusted by the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs to write a document recording his observations. The report begins optimistically: The conquest of the earth is redeemed by the ideal -- doing good, carrying the torch of piety and progress, bringing civilization to people whose skin is a different color....

Conrad's narrator, Marlow, barely sets foot on the continent to discover what has happened to Kurtz's grand design before he encounters massive death.

"Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all attitudes of pain, abandonment and despair," Marlow, an early embedded reporter, observes. "They were dying slowly -- it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation ..." Kurtz and his well-intended cohorts have not brought light to Africa but death.
Lest we misunderstand, too, Charles R. puts the story in historical context:

Granted, when Conrad published his novel in 1902, most readers did not interpret the text as we do today, as a condemnation of colonialism, but rather as a warning: "Look out, Whitey, or you may regress to the savagery of the black continent." They were comfortable with their assumptions of superiority and absolutely certain that what they were doing was right, if not ordained by their faith. It was simply that Kurtz had gone a little too far, fallen into the alleged depravity of the people whose lives he was supposed to improve. At the conclusion of the manuscript intended for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, Kurtz appended four words: "Exterminate all the brutes."
There, as the article says, goes the US in Iraq. Except, of course, no one in America is supporting that premise any longer, if we ever did. The Administration did, to be sure. The warden of Guantanamo Bay still speaks in terms of savages and brutes: "There are no medium security terrorists," he likes to say. In the Salon article Seymour Hersh quotes a government official: " 'We're not going to read more people than necessary into our heart of darkness. The rules are "Grab whom you must. Do what you want." ' "

There is, of course, some excuse made about the horrors of Islam, but the reasoning now simply boils down to this: "One thing's for certain - the more resolute we are, the less killing there will be." As ever, in the name of suppressing savagery, we must employ savagery. But this is an attitude of Western civilization that predates Paul or Constantine by centuries. Indeed, it predates the encounter of the Greeks and the Hebrews by centuries. And it, not Christianity, not "just war doctrine" or "manifest destiny" or "white man's burden," is the true hallmark of the way we organize our societies in the West, in the enlightened culture based on the logos of the Greeks and the stability of the Romans. We are all about, and have ever been about, the suppression of savagery. Which means we have to have an order imposed on others, and an "other" we can call 'savage.'

For the Hebrews it was the "Gentiles," which meant anyone not a child of Abraham. But their law (and perhaps the humbling experience of the Exile) taught them to treat the alien as they should widows and orphans.

for the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and terrible God. He is no respecter of persons; he is not to be bribed; he secures justice for the fatherless and the widow, and he shows love towards the alien who lives among you, giving him food and clothing. You too must show love towards the alien, for you once lived as aliens in Egypt.
Deuteronomy 10:17-19, REB

The Romans learned from the Greeks to call all non-Romans "barbarians," a word with a much harsher connotation in our tongue than the, well, gentler "Gentiles." The latter just sounds like an obscure racial designation, perhaps; the former lumps together all other groupings of humanity in the category of "savages." Which is exactly what the Greeks, and the Romans after them, meant. After all, it was the Greeks in all their enlightened reason who executed Socrates because he was such a provacateur. The arguments of a Dawkins, a Dennett, a Harris, sound remarkably like those in The Apology, defending a status quo which never existed, never will, and never should. So all the caterwauling about how the Hebrews treated non-Hebrews as "barbarians," although there is certainly a grain of truth in it (and a record of what we can only call barbarism in the battles for "our land" in the Hebrew Scriptures), is really a matter of reading their story back through the lenses given us by the Romans and the Greeks. Because the Greeks of Socrates' Athens certainly had no problem subjugating people who were NOK, including women and children (who weren't "barbarians," but also weren't citizens), and the Romans certainly had no trouble wiping out pesky peoples who refused to bear Rome's civilized yoke gladly (the city of Jerusalem was put to the sword in 70 CE, and the city closed to Jews in 132 CE). If we speak now of the "other," it is a legacy not of humanity, or of the Hebrews v. Gentiles, so much as it is truly the legacy of the "civilization" imposed upon people by military conquest as taught by Athens and Rome.

Which clearly brings us very quickly back around to the "heart of darkness" and Iraq today. Certainly religion has been a handmaid in that story ("Kill them all, God will know his own" is attributed to Arnaud-Amaury, then Abbot of Citeaux and Papal Legate to the Crusaders), but it has seldom been the instigator. Christianity calls us to care for each other in this world ("Lord, when did we see you?"). But whether we do so, or not, is our responsibility.

We still cling to the idea of the 'other,' and certainly it is a helpful notion to think of God was Wholly Other ("for the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and terrible God. He is no respecter of persons; he is not to be bribed"). That may be a disturbing image to us, who have been raised since the Romantic movement to expect that part of our purpose in life is self-fulfillment:

WE BELIEVE…as children of God, we are overcomers and more than conquerors and God intends for each of us to experience the abundant life He has in store for us.
But as Deuteronomy reminds us: "[God] secures justice for the fatherless and the widow, and he shows love towards the alien who lives among you, giving him food and clothing," and so we are obligated to do the same. That way, indeed, lies the abundant life, and keeping God Wholly Other keeps us from turning God into the benevolent benefactor who wants only to make us rich and therefore happy ("We believe in you!").

Of course, God as Wholly Other comes into direct conflict with God incarnate as a baby in a manger. But then, that's precisely the nature of the Absolute Paradox ("the something which thought itself cannot think"): to keep us from being sure we can know God wholly, while allowing us the reassurance that we can know God through caring for each other. After all, whatever aid we offer the least of these, we offer to God. And if God is in the least as we account them, then there are no brutes, and no one we are allowed to exterminate.

Thanks be to God.

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