Friday, April 22, 2016

A Bigger Death Machine


It's been a while.

I am just wrapping up edits on my book, which has absorbed all my writing energies these past few years. That's where I've been all this time.

But today I wrote something that I couldn't shove into one of the chapters. And I'm not about to start a new one. Spring is here. Time to put in full workdays outside, not at the keyboard.

This reflection comes from a question I have often asked myself. How did European civilization colonize this place so efficiently? To what degree is Christianity complicit as handmaiden of Empire?
How can we talk honestly about what is wonderful and what is terrible in our religious heritage? What follows comes out of my reading of Ivan Illich and Rene Girard, who have given me terms that help me name the goodness of my tradition, and the mystery of its evil:

We arrived here with a bigger death machine, a machine capable of pacifying a larger space with a monopoly of legitimate violence. Which is to say, we arrived here bearing both the Christ, and the Anti-Christ.

The European death machine was larger in part because Christian restraint of the passions had made it possible for larger numbers of Europeans to get along with one another without their frustrations boiling over into violent rifts. It was larger because Christianity had deconstructed smaller death machines. Witch hunts and other sacrificial cults that had successfully channelled internal tensions onto a single scapegoat had begun to look too much like the crucifixion, and had had to be abandoned. Any machine that would henceforth channel collective aggression had to look more official, make more sophisticated claims, purport to higher values. In 1492 Europeans could no longer happily burn to death an odd-looking old woman because of a local crop failure. But to invade a continent, project all their fantasies and fears onto its "savage" inhabitants, lay waste to their lands and cultures in a grand project of advancing Christianity and civilization - that they could do. It was of course a demonic inversion of the Gospel, but a perversion that would have been impossible without the Gospel's revelation in the first place.

For the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, whose aggressions and collectivities were still smaller and tribal, what we brought was catastrophic. The fact that the profound evil we visited upon them had been nested inside a profound goodness made it no less horrific. It made it more so. We stole lands and children from them, and tutored them to name our atrocities "salvation."
That so many First Nations people embraced Christ and continue to do so is miraculous to me. I believe that this is a testament, not ultimately to efficient colonization, but to the depth of spiritual sensitivity among indigenous peoples, who could to discern a holy presence, crowded about by so many evil spirits.