The Death Worshippers

Destruction is a tempting force for those who do not recognize the sanctity of life. Darkness pulls on individuals who have turned their backs on the light and have given their hearts over to the god of destruction. Evil worships death, and death worshippers commit evil acts.

When cold hearts and calculating minds release the hounds of hell upon innocents, society seeks a motive. But evil does not run on reason and logic, that’s what makes it evil. Typically, the action is not compulsive but a choice. What stuns us most is that someone would use the divine gift of free will not to glorify God and serve Creation but to end a precious life.

Psychologists and criminologists will offer their assessments, assigning labels such as criminal psychopathy, sociopathy, and narcissism. You think? We don’t need fancy terms where experience and common sense provide all the insight we require into human nature.

We’ve seen it all before: Caligula and Nero in antiquity, Hitler and Mussolini not so long ago. Pick a century and you will find them—sometimes on the world stage, sometimes on their own pathetic little soap boxes, raining anger (from whatever weapons are in the arsenal of their place and time) down upon an unsuspecting populace.

Evil cannot be eradicated, nor often prevented, but it can be predicted as a social phenomenon if we will only look through the lens of history. Societies that revel in destruction tend to devolve until they burn themselves out. Recall the blood-bath of the Roman circus on any day of the week; state-sponsored entertainment for all classes of citizens and a mark of Roman-ness exported even to the farthest reaches of the Empire.

In the Christian era, despite centuries of preaching about the God of love and forgiveness, the Inquisition yielded bonfire festivals of executions as authorities put an end to what they considered heretics. And after the so-called Age of Enlightenment, no brighter than the others as the French Revolution proved, Western civilization still descended to the unspeakable sorrows of the Holocaust.

The Ancient Romans used living humans and animals in deadly spectacles staged for the public. We, meanwhile, have the technology to create virtual reality and indulge in its mind-bending perversions in the privacy of our homes. The fact that we are ever so willing to use our God-given imagination to design, then worship at, altars to the god of death says all we need to know about the state of our own consciousness and the destiny of our culture. Like dying fireworks, such cultures ultimately plummet to the ground, empty shells devoid of either a light to be admired or the power that once sent them soaring for all to see.

Where, then, did the modern world begin to lose altitude? How and when did it submit to the god of destruction? As always in the human story, it was the moment it stopped serving life. Once it turned from gratitude to entitlement, from giving in charity to taking what it hadn’t earned, from creating to tearing down, its trajectory was set. It is a timeless recipe for cultural collapse repeated in every age.

How does a culture make a one-eighty and turn toward darkness—apparently without noticing since it does little to stop it? It is a feature of darkness that those who are in it cannot see where they are headed. Also, it happens by degree: by subtle shifts and the pushing back of the line between acceptable and depraved a few inches at a time.

It happens when we allow ourselves and those we choose to admire, our children and their teachers, and our intellectual and political leaders to settle for less and indulge more. We set the bar lower to make it easier for more people to jump it rather than teach the culture to jump higher. The lowest common denominator is something most can handle, the thinking goes, so why force people to stretch? Exercise, most will agree, is an unpleasant business. Some even rationalize their lack of self-discipline as kindness toward others: we wouldn’t want anyone to strain themselves.

Nothing keeps us from succeeding more than not even trying.

After an attack such as the recent one on the school in Newtown, Connecticut it is always clear that the perpetrator has reduced beings of flesh and spirit to props in his own play—not even a supporting cast but mere scenery. In such cases, people are simply things to be added or subtracted on his whim, like set pieces in his production. Or like virtual figures in a violent video game. In the real world, however, you can’t bring the characters back by restarting the program.

The conditions of the moment speak loudly about the way we apply our imagination and how we direct our attention. But that doesn’t mean we’re listening. Despite a growing body of studies to the contrary, we insist that our obsessions and indulgences have no significant effects on us or others. “Oh, but make-believe isn’t real,” we say, “so it causes no real harm.”

Hollywood nods vigorously in agreement as it rakes in hundreds of millions a year on carefully constructed and lavishly appointed cinematic altars—not so much to the human spirit or the art of creativity but to death and destruction. And there’s no chance hot-shot producers will turn down the volume on their war-games any time soon.

With unabashed hypocrisy Hollywood glorifies violence, desensitizes young minds, and wires brains of all ages for gun abuse even as it decries the Second Amendment and responsible gun use. Leave it to the glitterati, who have benefited more than most from The Constitution’s free speech and other freedoms, to seek to curtail the rights of their audience. Chutzpa doesn’t begin to cover it. But self-service might.

It may be true that “no humans were harmed in the making of this video game or movie.” But can the same be said for the weeks, months, and years that follow repeated watching? A daily regimen of de-sensitizing, de-valuing, and de-humanizing fare must eventually destroy a culture by stripping all dignity from the soul.

Playing with the forces of darkness leads to an inevitable end: it’s a game we can’t win. And we can ill afford the personal or social cost of cultural bankruptcy.

This is but one of many lessons for us to learn from such violation of human life and common decency as occurred in Newtown, and they will all be covered by boundless analysis and philosophical wrangling in the times ahead. School security and procedures, gun laws, how to train citizens to recognize warning signs, the mental health system, the quality and quantity of parenting, the lack of spiritual focus and guidance in an increasingly secular society, and many other subjects will crowd the airwaves and dig into bandwidth.

There will be plenty of time for all that and more; time must eventually be made for it, because we sorely need to address our culture’s broken spiritual compass. But for now, and certainly this week, we can only say, God bless.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

Divided We Fall

A CALL TO UNITY

It is now amply clear that a decade into the new millennium our culture is divided. Reminiscent of the two-faced Roman god Janus, looking both back and ahead, our dualistic character puts us at risk for tearing ourselves in two.

Our saving grace is that the country has not further fragmented into a European-style multi-party system dependent on coalitions, a format that produces unstable and short-lived administrations subject to pressures from an electorate which tends to change its mind with the seasons. The danger remains that we eventually succumb to the temptation to limit our allegiance to the lowest common denominator: the ancient tribal impulse to relate to “our people” in the most limited sense has returned in the 21st century.

In the early days of American life, a broader perception of unity allowed diverse colonies—English, Dutch, and German; Puritan, Quaker, Anglican, and Huguenot; North and South; merchants, tradesmen, and farmers—to band together in a supreme, and divinely guided, effort to form the first nation ever to be founded on the ideal of freedom.

That sense of unity held the fractured nation together through the Civil War even as other aspects of our national character were tested or overturned. World War II required people from coast to coast to set their own lives aside for the goal of protecting their hard-won liberty from the iron cross hounds of hell, once more reminding us of the need to fight for the wonders of the American experiment.

When the push for civil rights brought front and center the unresolved issues of past national tests—racial inequities beyond the reach of negotiation at the time of the founding, and the cultural and economic differences that separated northern and southern states—we worked it out. Time and again, we have faced our differences and reunited on the other side of a literal or figurative battlefield, and most of the time we have celebrated and benefited from our exceptionally richly textured culture.

The nation is now divided between the secular who place man at the pinnacle of the universe and the religious who look to a higher power; between those who seek to check out or tune in through drugs and those who trust in the divine to provide enlightenment; between the collectivists who think what’s yours is just as much theirs and the individualists who regard the right to their own thoughts, words, and property sacrosanct; and finally, between the statists who think the government is better equipped to make decisions for them than they themselves are and the self-reliant who believe that a nation is only as strong as its citizens are free.

As we know, water and oil do not mix. Or, at least, they do not blend harmoniously unless united by a stronger force. Something more powerful than the chemical or magnetic repulsion of the two opposing elements—either an internal impetus or an external threat—must be introduced to create a singular substance.

An emulsifier—in particularly the binding agents of love and goodwill—is the preferable ingredient. If that fails, however, nature has another way to fuse elements: intense pressure and heat from an external source. Even the most cursory glance at history will let us glimpse two facts about human nature: one, in every culture there is a period when the choice is offered, and two, if rising above internal strife to a minimal state of harmony is not achieved in time, just one option remains, and hardship follows.

Half of the nation holds to the conviction that the nation was inspired by a higher truth and guided by the hand of providence. It makes the American experiment—not intended as a pain-free realm with easy access to material goods but as a land of opportunity for individual liberty and self-responsibility—a precious gift to those who treasure their right to live according to their own conscience. They recognize that, if God gave humanity this rare chance at exercising free will at the highest levels, they are walking on holy ground.

The other half, less interested in religious ideas or higher principles and more concerned with feeling safe and provided for, are content to trade their personal freedom for free stuff like “universal” health “care”—read equal access to whatever treatment the state-run health bureaucracy allows, which is frequently too limited to provide good health and too little and too late to save lives.

This second group likewise has no problem exchanging the right to find their own way through life, which they see as a chore, for a micromanaging government that takes the hassle out of thinking about daily survival. Important decisions—anything more challenging than which Internet service provider or cellphone carrier to go with—are just so boring. Coping with 500 daily mouse clicks or finger pokes to choose Yes or No is sufficiently taxing that, at the end of a long day in the virtual world, facing the real world is just overwhelming. Consequently, this half of the country is, in essence, asking, Is there an app for that? The state is happy to text back a link to .gov.

Like the two-headed Janus looking in opposite directions, we must find a shared vision to occupy our attention or we will inexorably drift apart. This separation based on diverging views and objectives can be seen everywhere. Business offices are divided into two cultural camps. Churches come down on one side of the ideological line or the other, or they divide internally along the center aisle, like Congress. Professional organizations and charities lean one way or the other, serving different constituents.

Political philosophy, not unity, is the new organizing principle, ensuring a departure from the ideal of a single nation under God and a gradual arrival at the station of looking out for numero uno. Do as you please has replaced the will of God. Multiculturalism has devolved from making room for everyone at the table to the various factions fighting over the turkey. Contrary to Dr. King’s noble goal of a color-blind nation we have instead set up quotas that lead to downsides for all ethnic groups. An economy choking on redistributionist policies and regulations is putting equal strain on businesses and employees.

Listening and compromise, the way healthy families resolve their differences, have fallen by the wayside. With everyone pointing fingers at everyone else, trying to out-shout each other, there is no peace to be had. Calmer heads have no chance to prevail, so those endowed with common sense simply leave the table and go home.

Benjamin Franklin, the paragon of practical wisdom and writer of classic headlines, said about the Founders’ treasonous act at the signing of Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Some eighty years later, at another crossroads in American history, another man of wisdom spoke at the Republican State Convention of 1858. Abraham Lincoln, not to be outdone in the communications department, put the principle thusly: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

The effort to achieve unity seems to bog down over a fundamental misunderstanding of what unity is. It does not entail giving up one’s point of view or relinquishing cherished principles. In fact, differences can be so fundamental as to leave little on which to agree. What it takes to unite groups that don’t see eye to eye is not agreement on substance but an agreement to live together in peace even though they disagree on most things.

All it really takes to achieve unity is that intrinsic respect for the other outweighs any distaste for their values or lifestyle. The idea is simple: we don’t have to like each other, or even understand each other; we only have to respect each other’s right to be who we are. We don’t have to share much except a desire to remain the rich and varied tapestry that America has always been since the beginning.

If we won’t continue to create unity on our own, life will surely offer us a less palatable way to hold together. Under duress, structural weaknesses will emerge that threaten national cohesiveness, even as new bonds are formed under the pounding of the blacksmith’s hammer. Pain, both psychological and physical, is an effective teacher for those who refused the lesson under lighter terms. As we tell our children: to do it willingly now takes less time and energy than to do it later under parental coercion.

Those who balk at the hard work ahead should know that uniting by choice is the easy way; every other way forward comes at a greater cost. It is also the only choice, as divided we would indeed fall. To survive times of trouble we must come together, and to maintain for ourselves and our grandchildren the hard-won land of the free, we must stand united.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

Finding Common Ground

The light of God and the light of reason are not mutually exclusive, no matter how hard some in both camps try to reject the other. At the outer edges of these groups we find those who seek to advance their own cause not on its own merits but by denigrating, or outright denying the legitimacy of, the other. Thus, never the twain shall meet, nor shall harmony be found.

It’s a pity. If only they would have enough confidence in their own truths to let these face the world and be scrutinized in the light of day, chances are that they would discover that what brings enlightenment to one person is not materially different from what illumines the next. Across the spectrum, light is still light whatever the color of its particular frequency.

With that understanding, what previously seemed incompatible turns out to be just two sides of the same coin. That the two don’t overlap is not proof of irreconcilable differences but of the simple fact that this world is distracted by the limited perspective of duality.

Measurably present, yet intuitively false, duality catches us in an endless chase to resolve opposition between pros and cons, heart and mind, man and woman, past and future, left and right, young and old, or give and take.

The higher truth is that life, despite its diversity and divergent objectives, is held together by the greater force of unity. It is an innate principle in all life—from the leaves on a tree to the cells in our bodies—which seeks to hold reality together in a unified whole. This invisible magnetic force of unity attracts the particles of stuff and ideas alike and draws life toward the center of existence. Life is, it appears, either programmed or directed to aim for common ground.

Scientists would likely look to gravity, electromagnetism, dark matter, or the unified field theory for an explanation. The religious, meanwhile, call it the love of God. Whatever the label, this wondrous force works, and we’re here because of it, and that’s a good thing. So let’s leave our definitions at the door, enter the room in a spirit of cooperation, and share what we’re learning while we’re here.

Copyright 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.