We are a Christian nation.
We say it; we believe it; we don’t think that much more about it. And all our un-Christ-like thoughts and impulses are denied, becoming daimonic.
Stephen Diamond (1996) posited that thoughts and feelings left untended can grow to dominate the personality. The angry person who denies their anger stops noticing they are angry but continues to behave that way, and increasingly so. This anger, unruled by the person, rules the person.
In 2001, the United States was attacked by a terrorist organization. This organization successfully took thousands of lives from US citizens as well as citizens of other nations gathered in the international community that was the World Trade Center. The reaction of our government and our citizens was quite violent. In our grief, our other untended feelings took over. Any American of Middle Eastern appearance became fair game for reprisal attacks from our civilians. Anti-Muslim extremism took hold of our hearts and minds. And we were all too happy to support war on the whole region, even Iraq, only very loosely tied to the attacks.
By telling ourselves we are Christians, we forgot to examine, breathe through, empathize with, and accept the parts of ourselves that are not very Christ-like. Jesus said we should love our enemies. Instead, we turned xenophobic. Even now, some American extremists think we are being infiltrated by Muslims intent on forcing Sharia law upon us. Jesus said if we are attacked, we should turn the other cheek. Instead, we have spent at least 3.7 trillion dollars and uncountable lives on both sides pursuing war. And our aggression makes it ever more urgent for countries like Iran to achieve nuclear capability, in turn making it ever more urgent for us to aggress against them.
We rejoiced in the death of Osama Bin Laden, waving flags and setting off fireworks. A member of the SEAL team that shot him has published a memoir of the event that is sure to be a bestseller. We celebrated the death of Muammar el-Qaddafi, probably one of the men behind the Lockerbie attack of 1988. Then, these deaths became political footballs rather than what each and every death really is: a great and inevitable tragedy.
I am not a Christian. And yet I propose a moment of prayer and reflection, a short time to reorient ourselves to the peaceful attitude Jesus offered us. A moment to try to love our enemies.
Perhaps the first way to love is to have empathy for. Imagine being one of the terrorists sent to attack our World Trade Center. Imagine being brainwashed by your elders or by your elders’ clerics. Imagine being taught to hate rather than to love. Imagine being raised to farm one season and kill the next. Now, imagine hearing that the most valuable thing you could offer in this life is your own death. That the most you can contribute is your absence.
Now, you are sent to train in America. You might have one or two handlers who keep you on the path with threats and flattery, whipping up your zeal. You receive indulgences: you don’t have to follow strict Muslim rules, as you are being sacrificed. More bribes to keep you intent on your own death. All the time you are learning to fly a plane, you are learning to kill, and deciding again and again to follow through with your suicide/mass homicide, because you have no other value.
Then the day comes and you, with several conspirators, put the plan into motion. Maybe most of you don’t want to. Maybe nobody wants to. But you are together now, and the public fervor of each drives the other. Nobody can back down now and lose face. Death before disgrace. So you see the other humans on the plane as animals. Their weeping amuses you, even if you secretly are moved by it. There is nothing left to your life but brutality.
And then a moment of brief conflagration and it is all over.
Except for us, the living, who have to live with what these people have done. So easy to hate as they hated, to be whipped into suicidal fervor as were they. So difficult to love and pity them: robbed of the chance to love and to love life. Made into human weapons, devoid of empathy, possibly our greatest gift. Children sent to die by cynical terrorists. I cry for them, the poor tortured, misguided souls.
And now, a look at us. We delude ourselves into thinking we hold up Christian values when really we are a violence-loving people. Chuck Norris is a prime example: he signed on to the movie The Expendables 2 with the caveat that all cursing be removed from the script. The producers agreed to this stipulation for reasons beyond my comprehension. The first movie was an orgy of violence from beginning to end. Is the second a G-rated relationship piece in which Chuck and the mercenary unit work out their differences in a mature and sensible manner? One rather doubts.
So gratuitous violence is acceptable, but a few four-letter-words are immoral and not to be tolerated. What a twisted sense of morality. And this hypocrisy is not the sole province of Chuck Norris. The ratings board has similarly twisted ethics: violent horror or action movies can earn a PG rating until there is nudity of any kind, which is an automatic R rating. The human body, therefore, is more offensive to us than violence between humans.
Moreover, 33 Americans a day die from homicide by firearms. Our murder rate is by far the highest of any “civilized” nation, as is our incarceration rate. We have more people in prison than any other country in absolute numbers, and when expressed as a ratio to population, our extravagance becomes absurd. And our attitude towards prisoners is disturbing at times. They are there to pay a debt to society, a debt of suffering. We tolerate prison violence, seek to restrict the civil rights of convicts long after their sentence is over, divert money from mental health and prevention into prison, and unevenly apply the law (a much higher percentage of death row inmates are black than the percentages among violent offenders would seem to support, for example, and the rate of death sentences both asked for and given to black defendants is much higher than for white).
At a Republican debate this year, an audience that largely identified as Christian cheered for a governor who bragged about his state’s execution rate. At a Democratic debate, people claiming the monopoly on diversity used racial slurs to describe the mostly white people at the Republican convention.
Is it any surprise that we as a people were manipulated into war with Iraq? Is it any surprise we have occupied Afghanistan in force with no real end in sight?
My inner voice is strident as I write these things about us. I feel panic and anger that we have strayed so far from the principles we claim guide us, that we are so violent, rageful, vindictive, and racist. At the same time, to avoid this trap of the daimonic, we need to have a long, calm look at ourselves—not just as people, but as a people, as a nation. We need to examine this tendency to violence, have empathy for it as it is surely part of us and serving us in some way. And then we need to make a calm, informed decision about how to act.
Ignoring all these ugly facts only gives them more power over us.
Diamond, S. (1996). Anger, madness and the daimonic: The psychological genesis of violence, evil and creativity. New York, NY: State University of New York Press.
— Jason Dias