Saturday, March 15, 2008

Naming Evil

In reading accounts of the history of genocide in Rwanda, I was struck first and foremost with the realization that there simply is no way to explain what happened. Nevertheless, one cannot help but search for some ways to comprehend it.

John Rucyahana and others have focused on the years of propaganda dehumanizing the Tutsi, propaganda that filled the airwaves in a country where radio was the primary means of mass communication and even, at times, found its way into church pulpits. Years of relentless, hate-filled speech and a government and society that officially identified people by ethnic origin (on government-issued identity cards, never mind intermarriage and living together side by side for so many generations that linguists cannot find evidence of the myth of Tutsi invasion from the north) all created a situation that blew up, and then only after arms and equipment and training were put together with terrorist squads all over the country, poised to strike in every city and village, backed by government militia and pits already dug to bury the dead.

But what could compel so many people to so brutally attack their friends and neighbors? Not just kill them but mercilessly torture them before and during the killing, forcing the victims to watch the horrific mutilation and deaths of others? No doubt there were many acting out of real fear that if they did not join in that they and their loved ones would be slaughtered as well. But what about all those who believed all the lies about the Tutsi, who, despite the fact that Tutsi were even then a numerical minority and had been out of political power for some time, why were they so fearful and disdainful of them to the point that they considered them evil personified?

I do not presume to have any answers to these questions. There are many who know far more and have written at length in attempts to answer them. But I cannot help but wonder about what there seems to be in human nature that takes offense and acts on real and imagined grudges in violent ways, not just in the context of fighting over limited resources, over religious differences, or over territorial boundaries, but even when two groups of people have so much in common, share the same language, the same social customs and traditions, and are overwhelmingly Christian. What fuels such irrational hatred, a desire to not only extinguish an entire group of people from the face of the earth but to make them suffer so while meeting their deaths?

In posing these questions to myself, I paused at the following passage concerning Herman Melville's Moby Dick, discussed by Andrew Delbanco in the wake of 9/11/01:
The extraordinary thing about that chapter is that it describes how a powerfully articulate, eloquent, charismatic man is able to make this diverse crew come around to seeing the world exactly the way he sees it, how he manages to make his pain their grudge. By the end of the chapter, they're lined up with him, he's fused his will to theirs, and they have become an instrument of his will. They have felt in his engagement, in his eloquence, an opportunity to become heroic, an opportunity to make a difference in the world, to strike back at the world.

I think Melville understood that Ahab's genius was his insight into the fact that all of them felt that they, too, had been wounded by the world. I think we all feel that we've in some way been mistreated or missed a chance or somebody else has gotten something that we deserved. Ahab taps into that feeling, and brings them around so that they become as intent on hunting down and killing that whale as he is. ...

... I'm drawn to one particular comment that Melville makes about the whale, in which he says in Moby Dick, "Ahab found evil visibly personified and made practically assailable." That is, in the whale, in the gigantic body of the white whale, Ahab found a target. He found something one could aim at, one could strike at, through which one could feel a sense of power responding to what the world had done to him.
Interview with Andrew Delbanco, PBS Frontlines: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.

This seems to be where we are all vulnerable, all tempted to project our notions of evil on others or find causes in which we can fight, sometimes believing that we are acting righteously on behalf of others only to be nursing our own private grievances, real or imagined. How do we know what is truly evil, how in naming it can we do anything but objectify it and, at times, personify it? I am not suggesting that evil is not real or that we cannot or should not conceptualize it or act against it, but what about the force of the emotions involved and how easily we can align our personal sense of being slighted and wronged with causes which we only understand to the extent we are informed by those already inflamed with a sense of righteousness, who have helped us "read" the world around us and the various actors in it, whether they be our friends and neighbors, political or religious leaders, principalities and powers?

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Ghosts of Rwanda

I have been reading about the 1994 Rwanda genocide in John Rucyahana's The Bishop of Rwanda and Hugh McCullum's The Angels Have Left Us: The Rwanda Tragedy and the Churches.

This is the principal reason why I have been silent of late. I knew about Rwanda, but I didn't know. The premediated, carefully orchestrated unleashing of the most horrific violence recorded in history -- a million people tortured, hacked to death, burned, women brutally raped and killed, babies and the unborn slashed both in front of parents and sometimes parents forced to kill their children, in their homes, in the churches, complicity at all levels of society and government, no places to hide, all done with lightning speed over the course of 100 days, and the reign of terror allowed to continue beyond in the refugee camps in other countries -- is without parallel and is simply beyond words. Yet people have written them, their testimonies and those of others, documentaries, museums, memorials -- many of the churches left with the remains of the dead, their bodies twisted in the pain and horror of their torture and deaths.

I had no formal Lenten discipline this year, but these readings have served that purpose. I, for one, cannot fall back on any kind of Western distancing -- imagining that there must be something radically different about Them that would never allow it to happen among Us. As a human being I must face that such horrific Evil is potentially within us all.

Maybe I can elaborate on this later. Maybe not. But for now let me offer this from Ann Ulanov, speaking of evil after 9/11/01:
From the psychological side, there are a whole lot of theories that say destructiveness comes from privation or deprivation. It isn’t something in itself; it’s from bad parenting or low self-esteem. What religion offers to that psychology is a recognition that evil is a force … a horrific force … a mysterious force … it’s like an undertow of an ocean…. There’s something you contact that’s much bigger than what you did to you or me or what I’m going to do to you. And you get caught in that; you’re in something that’s outside yourself. The personal explanation is not enough. It’s a power that catches you, and you are not enough by yourself to defeat it. It’s universal.
And, in further detail:
So I believe that evil, yes, you can get to it yourself. You can go to the place you've been hurt or threatened to be destroyed, or pieces of you have been destroyed, mangled, treated as if they are of no value. You can get to your outrage, your absolute determination to retaliate for vengeance, and you can understand how you feel that because of something done to you.

But deeper than that, it's like an undertow of the ocean. It's like an undertow current. There's something that you contact that's much bigger than what you did to me or what I'm going to do to you. And you get caught in that; you're in something that's outside yourself. The personal explanation is not enough. In the larger, psychological explanation -- archetypal pattern of energy, unconscious instincts of hate and cannibalism -- even that isn't enough. That's involved, too. It's as if one has a spell cast on one.

But you feel you're caught in what the New Testament calls principalities and powers. It's a power that catches you, and you are not enough by yourself to defeat it. It's universal. So we can say after Sept. 11, "Oh, bin Laden. He is the personification of evil." Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. But even if you say that, evil is bigger. So the question is, then what does one do in the face of evil? You respect that it's there, that it's bigger. You're not naïve enough to think that if you get the right analysis you get the right theology somehow, voila! Everything's going to be fine. It's not going to be fine.
From Interview with Ann Ulanov, PBS Frontlines: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. [Credit for form of quotation, with ellipses, in first paragraph to Tyron Inbody, The Faith of the Christian Church: An Introduction to Theology (2005) at p. 150]

Another Story:

Thanks to Boocat for the story of Immaculée Ilibagiza (links to text and videos at Her book is Left to Tell - Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.

[P.S. For those who follow Anglicana, I am not unmindful of the role Bishop Rucyahana and his Anglican colleagues in Rwanda have played in the Recent Unpleasantedness, appointing renegade U.S. priests as Rwandan bishops and supporting a formal split among Anglican churches worldwide. I may speak of that in due time, but I do not think such matters should eclipse the tragedy of the Rwanda genocide. I also am not unmindful of the fact that Rucycahana, who identifies as a Tutsi, the people who were the primary target of the genocide, is an unabashed, uncritical supporter of the RPA and the present government of Rwanda, and that this bias has been brought to his American evangelical supporters. See Bowing to Kigali and Rwandan Politics Intrudes on American Church. Nevertheless, I do not believe that this should discredit his witness to the suffering of all the Rwandan people, Tutsi and Hutu, and his efforts to reconcile all, including those who committed some of the worst violence. I can only hope and pray that someday he and other Rwandans can see that the Big Lie imposed on them -- the one that dehumanized and demonised the Tutsi, begun by the Belgians for the purposes of exploitation -- is cut of the same cloth as the lie of the Gay Agenda or Gay Conspiracy, which is being used by some Americans to exploit the Africans, never mind the bowing, to foment hate against GLBT's. ]


Been busy reading in all sorts of directions. Started out in pursuit of secularization with Habermas and Ratzinger's The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion. Fascinating, jam-packed, with more than a few parallels with recent talks and writings by Rowan Williams. But before I could get to Mark Lilla's The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (still in the bookbag), I stopped for Craig Hill's In God's Time on Christian eschatology, which, among other things, reminded me of how demonization of secular states (Rome) and sexualized demonology (whore of Babylon, etc.) have long been part of not only the Christian tradition but Western imagination.

From there I went on to what can only be described as real Evil -- the 1994 Rwanda genocide -- in John Rucyahana's The Bishop of Rwanda and Hugh McCullum's The Angels Have Left Us: The Rwanda Tragedy and the Churches.

More about Rwanda above. But these books led me to the following excellent articles on the nature of good and evil (or rather, evil and good):

Interview with Ann Ulanov, PBS Frontlines: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.

Interview with Andrew Delbanco, PBS Frontlines: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.

Glenn Tinker, Can We Be Good Without God (Atlantic Monthly December 1989)

And while I haven't read it (Amazon pricing not in my book budget -- as if I'd have time to read it anyway), thanks to a note by Martin Marty in a book review in Christian Century on Delbanco's and Tinker's books on hope, I've been alerted to the general thesis of A Nation of Agents: The American Path to a Modern Self and Society by James E. Block (which takes me back to J. Willard Hurst's analysis of American legal theory, law, the secular state, controlling human nature, and creating the conditions necessary for positive liberty) . It sounds like ample support of Hurst's "release of energy" view of American cultural and political history and a counter-argument to the obsession of Rowan Williams (maybe Pope Benedict and Habermas?) regarding negative liberty, especially with regard to American culture and its supposed total absorption with self and materialism, disregarding the strong currents, even today, of what Block calls "agency" derived from American Protestantism, reform movements, and early sense of commitment to society as a whole, not just the mindless pursuit of individualism.

See also Simon Barrow's excellent recent column at Ekklesia, Which citizenship? Whose Kingdom? (11 Mar 2008).