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Monday, June 02, 2014

The Disease of Division [3]

Politics is a bloody battle, and most of its wars (and wars in general) throughout history have been about greed and power. Religion, or any ideology, is just the way of roping the majority in to fight the battles of the body politic. Using something you believe in to give purpose to your life is subverted to give a purpose to murder those who believe in something else.

There are some academics that would argue the Conquest of the Americas could be said to have been more about gold than Catholicism - although the explorers from that religion mass murdered countless tribes to extinction in the most horrific ways imaginable in the name of God.

Religion gave a moral basis for the killings. They were doing it in the name of a higher being, seeing themselves as civilised extensions hacking down heathens as so many weeds to pull out from His garden. Fired by this imagery, the word genocide doesn't adequately describe the Catholic treatment of the indigenous populations from a "newly discovered" continent.

A peaceful interpretation of their Christian beliefs, however, would have told them that violence profanes rather than honours the new testament of a religion meant to recalibrate it towards peace and forgiveness.

Alongside the fervour of extreme belief, it has been suggested by those defending the Conquistadors and Christopher Columbus that the natives were just as barbaric, and therefore, the explorers were justified in using violence against them. In actuality, what these invaders found were complex ancient civilisations, still very much alive, but long past their peak.

Penning a damning charge against the "civilised" savagery of the Conquistador, American freelance writer Greg Caggiano suggests that the explorers never bothered to understand the people they met. But would a thief be interested in understanding the person they steal from? Humanising the victim is not often done by the perpetrator, and the aim of these perpetrators wasn't to explore, but to conquer - breast-fed on the classics of an East-West divide, where on the other side of the line lay barbarians for these explorers to courageously tame.

Who are these great explorers that the children of America grow up learning about in school? The Conquistadors, as they will read in textbooks, draw pictures of, and sing songs and recite poems about, were gallant men, under sanction from the Spanish Crown, to explore a land in a far away and mystical place, one that would become known as the Americas. They are credited with colonizing a barren and savage expanse, establishing government, and thus, bringing actual civilization to a place full of untamed tribes and bloodthirsty civilizations of grandeur. These men, are celebrated and revered, and have even been given a holiday, in the form of Columbus Day, which we observe every October.

Will anyone tell you of the thousands of innocent men, women, and children murdered, tortured, and sold into slavery by Columbus? Civilizations were wiped off the face of the earth for eternity by Columbus, all in the name of the Spanish Crown and spirit of exploration."

For many the year 1492 (only 39 years after the holy war for the city of Constantinople - known by many as the second Rome of Christendom - which by comparison fell humanely to the Ottomans) marks the beginning of by far the greatest genocide in human history, and the inauguration of a global system of slavery. From Columbus to those that followed him, such as the likes of Francisco Pizarro, in American history the Spanish and Portuguese perpetrators of these crimes against humanity are magically transformed from conquerors to explorers, from murderers to adventurers, and from slave masters to patriots and founding fathers.

For my part, such revisionist thinking - positive or negative - fails to help us understand the milestones that mark our shared histories, and the lessons they impart. When we study the history of our ancestors, I don't believe it's useful to judge them according to the modern moral awareness of our times, or to somehow feel responsible for people and actions we had no part in, aside from the given bonds of consanguinity. Neither do I believe it helps to use it as rose-tinted nostalgic propaganda to puff up pride in a nation, race or creed. Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source.

True humility is the antidote to shame. The 13th Century poet Rumi, who espoused a doctrine of tolerance and compassion, is attributed as saying that when he searched for greatness, he found it in humility. But history taught via political or racial manipulations, written by the victors of bloodshed across the centuries, cast their long shadows over such greatness. Thus misguided pride or hurt in past defeats and achievements divert us from acquiring the real wisdom to step out from underneath the shadows of things we can't change, and look to those things we can.

Are We Solely Divided By Our Past?

This is not the argument that many white supremacists and blinded bigots use to defend the actions of their ancestors, i.e., "It's done so get over it". But to distinguish ourselves from the past, we have to judge it - if at all - according to its own times; theirs was a different world, one we would find difficulty in understanding. It's the fair treatment we shall expect under the historical scrutiny of future generations, who will (hopefully) be more enlightened than us when they see what a mess we've made of things. And because moralising history is not the job of an authentic historian; moralising is the job of the politician with a majority to woo.

Histories of morality are rarely written in order to inform the reader. And it's more complex than dividing events into moral tales of "right" or "wrong". Dumbing down history makes us dumb to our future. We need to assess the Conquistadors by the standards of the critics of their day, because the reality will be that not every single Christian would have been in agreement with their actions, either. It's easy for us to criticise the barbarity of the Conquistadors from the safety of our modern times, but those with real foresight (and courage) are the Christian groups who spoke out against the actions of the Conquistadors during their own time - the Dominican friars, for example.

When we stop judging the past, we'll discover that things were never all bad in Christendom. Having subconsciously invested so much in a divide amongst our species, we often forget there are Christians, Muslims and Jews on both sides of everything. There are reasons why so many Jews are secular today, because they know the bloodshed their orthodoxy shed in its dark past.

Religion has always had its moderate fringe, even in its most barbarous times. We never hear from them, as we seem to never hear from moderate Muslims today, because they don't make as much noise. It's arguably why today we have the modern misconception of religion as an evil that has caused the murder of billions.

Interestingly though, throughout history we see that it's these "tolerant" believers who deviate, not the remaining majority of fanatics, from the received wisdom and conventional beliefs of the time. Rumi was a deviant of sorts, one of those great thinkers who think outside of the box, as opposed to trying to put you into one. But as a minority he knew he had to make "noise", because great thinkers not only shoulder the moral right to judge the wrongs done in their time, they also judge themselves harshly over their own inaction. It shows a wisdom that sides with the saying evil will exist when the good do nothing.

Likewise we, as bystanders looking back with the luxury of hindsight, rather than picking on events back in a time we rarely understand to berate each other with, would find it more beneficial, I believe, to make some noise over the extremists at work in our times. We don't have to look very far to find a dangerous, ignorant, cohesive religious group in our own times; they are literally everywhere. They may today be perceived as the minority, but the pendulum can always swing the other way.

Take the Ku Klux Klan in holding to American values and Christian morality, murderous jihadists hijacking Islam, faith healing congregations who tell their members not to take their children to the hospital when they are dying of pneumonia, the Vatican covering up child rape, countries like Ireland and Chile preventing abortions even in serious cases such as familial sexual abuse, the hate preaching of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Our silence widens the divide the extremists want, it deepens the disease they spread when they preach hatred. Isn't it more productive to be morally angry that such religious groups exist in real life, instead of being offended or judging people today on the historical and religious actions of generations long gone?

A proper teaching of history will not only educate us as to why and how these hate groups came into their sordid existence (they were in the majority at one time), but it will also teach us that not everything is black or white, and that no single historical event, or group of people can represent the mass of their religion or ideology. The majority might be king in politics, but often it can skew the demographics of reality.

For as humans, we are not merely the sum of our beliefs - however much they may give us purpose in life. We are also the sum of our loves, desires and emotions that force us to concede to exceptions in even the most hardened heart of the believer.

It's why in times past a civilised Roman could fall in love with a barbarian, a Conquistador with an Inca, Jews with Muslims, Christians with atheists - because there is a place where the rule of the majority, or the pressure to side with the mob, doesn't work.

It lies somewhere in our hearts: a faraway body in which the disease of division can't reach our true, and mutually shared, nature of who we are and what it means to be human.

Main | Part one | Part two | End of Part three | Part four | Part five | Part six

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