Friday, March 29, 2013

on Violence, Essay the 3rd

            Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.  Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Him.  But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs.  But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.  And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe.  For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, "Not one of His bones shall be broken."  And again another Scripture, "They shall look on Him whom they pierced."  (from the Passion according to St. John)

            For those who might not realize it, it is Good Friday today.  From the perspective of a Christian, this means that Christ is, in a very real sense, dead.
            There are many things that can be said about this reality for those of us who consider ourselves practicing Christians.  Many references to solemnity and repentance; and there are always The Reproaches, which inevitably lay me out when we get to the part about the Holocaust.
            But the more times I hear this story, the more I am struck by the necessity of the State to the crucifixion of Christ.  And this week, in Aristotle, I came across this passage from Politics:

            Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that. But things are defined by their working and power; and we ought not to say that they are the same when they no longer have their proper quality, but only that they have the same name. The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms, meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he have not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. But justice is the bond of men in states, for the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle of order in political society. . . .

            The polis had to seem like an absolute miracle, and I get that.  The things human beings accomplished when they formed states — and no matter how small by our standards, Athens, Thebes, Sparta, Corinth, Troy, all were states —these achievements must have seemed incredible.  In fact, they still do.  I remember, while traveling once, meeting a guy who hadn't yet seen much of the world when he went to Dubai.  He couldn't stop telling me how gigantic the buildings were, how shiny, how beautiful, how much luxury.  I don't doubt him; I've heard the stories about Dubai.  The surprising thing to me is how easily we still fall for it.
            It's Good Friday.  So I don't want to say much more.  The crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ has taken place, at our own hands.  We prepared a cross for him, gave him vinegar to drink, scourged, mocked, and beat him.  We often speak of it as though the Roman empire and the Jewish religious leaders felt they had to crucify Jesus of Nazareth because his kingdom was too revolutionary, too different.  But for clarity's sake, I think it's worth remembering that the State itself needs to define itself against.  The State will find reasons to go to war, to execute.  It needs this shit.  Western history itself begins with a war between states in the Iliad:

            That was an appropriate beginning, for the Greek city-states, from their first appearance as organized communities until the loss of their political independence, were almost uninterruptedly at war with one another.  The Greek polis, the city-state, was a community surrounded by potential enemies, who could turn into actual belligerents at the first sign of aggression or weakness.  The permanence of war is a theme echoed in Greek literature form Homer to Plato.  We Achaeans, says Odysseus in the Iliad, are
                        "the men whom Zeus decrees, from youth to old age,
                        must wind down our brutal wars to the bitter end
                        until we drop and die, down to the last man."               (Iliad, 14.105-7)
                                                     (from the Introduction to the Fagles translation, by Bernard Knox)

            We like to call Helen's "the face that launched a thousand ships."  It sounds romantic.  It sounds like two passionate men fighting over a woman they both adored and craved.  Like a bar fight gone a little too far.  Bullshit.  If Athens hadn't been fighting Troy at this particular moment, they'd have been fighting Thebes.  They already had fought Thebes.  They'd fought Sparta and almost every one of their neighbors because death is what states do.

            The nightmare of Good Friday is not that Jesus of Nazareth died.
            The nightmare is that the death has to continue, now, in Guantánamo Bay and in the air over the Korean peninsula.  In Yemen with children's brains getting blown out by drones, and in our very own Congress which belongs wholesale to corporate money.
            The nightmare is that Jesus of Nazareth is dead.

1 comment:

  1. The liturgical year (at least this part of it) moves too quickly for me. As I processed my Good Friday thoughts, we moved on to Easter and joy.

    But this isn't gone for me yet. I get stuck in Lent for a while, most years.

    I remember taking my one required psychology class in college, and having the professor define the two main purposes of a weapon.

    The first was no surprise to me at all: to inflict maximum damage on an enemy.

    The second, however, was news: to put as much distance as possible between you and your enemy, so you don't have to see what you've done.

    So, a long sword is better than a short knife. Arrow, or bullets, even better with their longer distances. Or better yet, just fly in an airplane and drop weapons on people you don't even see.

    Or (you can see where I'm going with this), don't even require anyone to be in the aircraft. Let it be flown remotely. Not even from the same country. Strike targets that were decided in a comfortable meeting room, with good coffee. Yes, that's where we are now, as hopes and dreams and limbs get ripped apart, and wedding parties turn to mass funerals.

    I can understand this detachment. This is one of my own flaws. I don't even like watching fictional gore in movies.

    I often tell my conservative friends that the government isn't some big monster, some Other. It's just us. Of the people, by the people, for the people, as Lincoln said. But the dark side to that is, state violence is also us. We want to look away, have the same detachment. But if I have a moral thread left in my comfortable corpus, I have to make the connection between what I do and what happens on the ground in places where looking away is not a choice.

    Bringing in your earlier post on vegetarianism, Leigh, I'm thinking of an essay by the comedian Dick Gregory called "If you had to kill your own hog." The upshot is, you probably wouldn't be able to do it. Not many people like bacon that much.

    There must be a way to cultivate that same awareness of our choices in this violent world. I have not achieved this yet. Maybe Voltaire's direction is best, eh? You are stimulating many thoughts...