Death takes a holiday

Pica raises the question of violence and religion in the comments thread to yesterday’s post. Is violence at some level intrinsic to religion, or is it simply something that insinuates itself into the myths and/or ceremonies of cultures that are violent, or were violent in the past? To what extent might religion license and perpetuate violence? These are huge questions, and if I seem like a coward to dodge them (or pass them off onto my Dad, who is a peace scholar), so be it.

The journalist and longtime war correspondent Chris Hedge’s book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, offers a rare example of a completely unsparing portrayal of modern warfare. He examines, at great depth and with abundant examples from the classics, the hold that warfare has over our imagination – how exciting and addictive it can become to writers like himself. Hedges is a former seminary student, and as the title suggests, he does not shy away from critiquing the role of religion or religious-seeming behavior. With good reason: the language of sacrifice is still used heavily by those who seek to give large-scale, organized butchery an air of nobility. (Liberals have criticized Bush for not employing the language of collective national sacrifice often enough. His response to 9/11 was “Go shopping!”)

Whether or not we can say that most religions are built on a foundation of violence, I think it is almost axiomatic that nation-states are. Patriotism is a covert form of religion, in my opinion – covert in the sense that it is disguised simply as the bedrock of all civic virtue. In the U.S.A., patriotism is particularly virulent because of our lack of an official state religion. This only works as long as we are in denial about the true nature of the situation, given the First Amendment’s clear guarantee of a freedom from religion. There is almost no escape from patriotism, especially during times of war. In virtually no other country that is not a totalitarian regime can one observe national symbols displayed everywhere, including in homes and offices. Like any icon or fetish, the U.S. flag transcends mere symbolic value. It is not only highly charged and ambiguous, invested with multiple meanings (anthropologist Victor Turner’s definition of a symbol), but for many people, I believe, it actually is animated somehow by a mystical essence (America, Freedom). It requires regular feedings of blood to retain its power – or so I would conclude from the most commonly cited justification for banning flag desecration: that the flag is sacred because so many people have died for it.

To be opposed to violence as a legitimate way of accomplishing social ends is perhaps the most revolutionary stance you can take. People from all over the political spectrum react with horror, disgust or simply bemused condescension to such a position. “Of course we, who are grownups, understand that sometimes unpleasant tasks are necessary, the world being as it is.” In fact, it is rare that the proponents of violence do not immediately resort to essentialist arguments about “human nature” – which suggests to me a strong tendency toward avoidance of the specific dilemmas that peaceniks tend to annoy us with. It may not be an exaggeration to say that such discussions are in fact taboo. At any rate, this brings us back to one of the main themes of this weblog, which is, can we say anything meaningful about (human) nature at all?

The 16th-century Quiche Mayan text Popol Vuh (see the Dennis Tedlock translation published by Simon and Schuster) is full of violence – murder, cannibalism, you name it. Its story of the journey of the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, to the underworld of Xibalba to defeat the lords of death pivots on what I consider a profound insight into the nature of violence. The twins allow themselves to be killed and bring themselves back to life through their own power but – unlike Christ’s resurrection – that act alone does not constitute a complete victory over death. They use a combination of what we might call high and low magic – that is to say, transformations of both surface appearances and deeper identities – to compose a comic and enticing display. Traveling through Xibalba in the guise of ragamuffin acrobats and parlor magicians, they amaze all and sundry by their songs and dances, which include real sacrifices of one brother by the other, followed by his resurrection. News of this spectacle quickly reaches the ears of the rulers, who have them summoned to the palace.

The lords of death thus are enticed to become willing participants in their own destruction: their power is turned back upon them. “Sacrifice my dog, and bring him back to life again,” the chief lord says eagerly. They do so. “Set fire to my house.” The hall is engulfed in flames, but miraculously no one is injured – just like a Hollywood action-adventure flick! “Make a sacrifice without death!” Universal delight. “Do each other!” Pandemonium.

“And then the hearts of the lords were filled with longing, with yearning for the dance of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, so then came these words from One and Seven Death:

“‘Do it to us! Sacrifice us!'” they said. “‘Sacrifice both of us!'” said One and Seven Death to Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

“‘Very well. You ought to come back to life. After all, aren’t you Death? And aren’t we making you happy, along with the vassals of your domain?’ they told the lords.” (Tedlock, Popol Vuh, 153)

And of course they don’t come back to life. Caught up in violence-for-the-sake-of-violence, they fail to understand the higher import of the game.

One message I take from this is that comedy does triumph over tragedy in the end. Both may employ violence, but for completely different ends. If you look at the world in its tragic aspect, it will appear that violence is inevitable: are we not, after all, part of the food chain? Isn’t biology destiny? We carry our deaths within us; our appetites are without limit. Life is, as the Buddha observed, unsatisfactory. But – cruel as it seems – the very fact that death is no respecter of persons suggests the limitations of the tragic view, which cannot get beyond the perspective of the individual organism.

A friend of mine who is a Voudun initiate is ridden (“possessed”) by Ghede* during the spontaneous sacred dramas that are at the center of almost all Voudun convocations. Ghede is the orisha (“god”) of the crossroads and the graveyard, and acts as the master of ceremonies in these dramas because he is an intermediary between life and death. (As with many peasant religions, the main focus of Voudun is simply to commune with the ancestors.) Ghede is a quintessentially comic, Rabelaisian figure. He wears dark glasses, smokes a stogie, and drinks Bacardi 151 straight from the bottle with no apparent effect. (My friend says the effect does hit him after the orisha goes away, though not nearly as hard as it would if he had drunk an equivalent amount in a purely secular context. He knows from rum.) Ghede is extremely fond of dirty jokes and is certainly no respecter of persons, poking fun at everyone who crosses his path.

Ghede is subversive. There is a famous incident in which he simultaneously possessed hundreds of people in Port-au-Prince back during the days of the dictator Baby Doc Duvalier. (Keep in mind that Duvalier himself used Voudun to project an image as a lord of death, with his secret police acting as the dreaded Tonton Macoutes or bogeymen.) Picture a crowd of men wearing black suits, dark glasses and big, ear-splitting grins, striding jauntily along with the aid of white canes, making their unruly way (an anti-army!) up the broad avenue to the very gates of the palace while the dictator cowers inside. Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap go the canes upon the gate, an anarchic rhythm like a sudden hail of bullets. Ghede has a message for you: the doctor is in. “Nothing cures everything like death,” my friend is fond of intoning.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think that religion is fundamentally utopian, thus comic. At one level, the denial of death’s importance simply helps perpetuate violence and suffering. At a more advanced stage of awareness, the self that perishes is seen as extrinsic to the real self, part of the play of transformations in which death is a mediator rather than the final judge.
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*Also spelled Gede, Guede.

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