Violence and Holy Ground

In my book Unclean I discuss how purity psychology regulates the divinity dimension. If you've not read Unclean, the psychologist Richard Shweder has suggested that three main moral codes regulate human experience. One of them is the divinity code which is experienced as movement along a vertical dimension. As we move higher on this dimension we experience sacredness and holiness. As we move lower on this dimension we experience degradation, spiritual pollution and defilement.

We need the divinity dimension to have an experience of the sacred. However, my worry in Unclean is when this experience is used to exclude or harm others. My analysis in the book is that Jesus addresses this situation by conflating the sacred with acts of inclusion. When Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners in Matthew 9 he says to the Pharisees, who are standing on the outside in an act of self-quarantine, that God desires "mercy, not sacrifice." The act of mercy and embrace becomes the sacred space. And the act of exclusion becomes the source of pollution and defilement.

I was thinking about the conflation of harm, violence, care and the sacred last week. I was in Oklahoma City for a conference. One morning I walked over to the Oklahoma City National Memorial that honors and remembers those killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Obviously, this is a sacred space. The grounds are high on the divinity dimension. People here are quiet and reflective. Being boisterous, littering or spitting on the ground would be highly insulting. This place is holy, set apart for special care and veneration.

As I pondered this, how various peoples set apart sacred spaces, it struck me how often these places are associated with violence. The memorial in Oklahoma City is holy because 168 people were tragically killed there. And beyond that violence the memorial and museum also honors the first responders and those who worked to recover the dead. These are acts of care.

To be sure, the sacred doesn't always overlap with locations of harm, violence and care. This is a point nicely made by Jonathan Haidt in his new book The Righteous Mind. However, reflecting in Oklahoma City last week I was struck by how often we converge upon Jesus's conflation. Places become holy when the ground becomes tragically blood-soaked. That violence moves us toward the demonic and we want, in response, to move in the opposite direction, to redeem the space and lift it toward the heavens.

We seek to embrace those who were satanically excluded to stand on holy ground.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

9 thoughts on “Violence and Holy Ground”

  1. I like the connection being drawn between suffering, the sacred, and redemption.

    Though I think of it a little bit differently than moving into that space to lift it and redeem it (whether "it" be a space, a time, or a person or group).

    For me, the importance of shared suffering cannot be overestimated in community; embrace of other.  *The* one thing that unites all of humanity is suffering.  This is the common ground of our human experience, more than any other aspect of our existence, imho.  So, by choosing to enter into another's suffering, we enter into their sacred space and honor them and God.

    Another aspect of this is that, in my experience, time and time again, it is in suffering that God's presence is most closely felt.

    Over the weekend, I watched 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.'  I was struck by the artful quality of the script and direction of the film.  Very touching and thought-provoking.  Embrace of other played a key role in healing.  ~Peace~

  2. This post is particularly poignant this week as the trial of Anders Breivik, the far right extremist who massacred 77 people last year begins in Norway.
    Norwegian sculptor Nico Widerberg has been set the task of creating memorials which, from the 22 July anniversary, will be sent out to more than 50 counties across Norway, to commemorate the day.On
    each of them, words have been carved from a poem of peace by the Norwegian
    writer Laes Saabye Christensen that was recited at the memorial concert
    for the victims.

  3. Hi Philomena, I was interested to read/hear the poem that you referenced, and a web search turned up a YouTube video of the reading by Aksel Hennie of "22 7 2011" at the Aug 21 National Memorial Ceremony in Oslo.

    I listened first without English subtitles.  Poetically and passionately eloquent.  I didn't understand a word, and yet "felt" the entirety of the poem, you know?  Then I turned on the CC.  :-)  So beautiful.  "Gather us together..."  Thank you.  ~Peace~

  4. Thanks so much Susan. This is really helpful and I agree that even without the English translation it was conveyed  with great weight and emotion.
    Blessings and Peace - we need it so very much ...

  5. I can't muster the evidence to support this at the moment, but I am fairly sure most of these sorts of memorial (ie. the military dead rather than military victory, and by extension other kinds of violent death) come out of the First World War. Specifically, they follow the Cenotaph in London, which was not originally planned to be permanent.

    In WWI, especially in Britain, the language frequently used to describe the civilian soldiers sent to die in France was the language of sacrifice. This was the first time such numbers of civilians were drafted to fight, and that so many people had to mourn the war dead (often mourning in advance of their sons' and lovers' actual deaths). So new rituals were developed to account for this new emotional need, and the government needed to justify and cleanse so many citizens' deaths. Thus, the heroic sacrifice of the brave soldier (which is a hugely problematic idea: in what way is this a meaningful sacrifice? whose sins are they expiating? where is the soldier's agency? you can be sure they were not willing sacrifices for the most part, and so on) became a popular trope. After the end of the war, then, the populace demanded some signification, particularly for those soldiers whose bodies did not return (or were never found). Thus the a temporary Cenotaph was built for a military parade, but by popular demand (and I mean demand) it was made permanent. This kind of war memorial, and a war memorial treated in this way (national rather than local, about the dead rather than victory, about suffering/sacrifice as much as or more than courage/prowess), became more popular as time went on, and has by this time become almost automatic. (When George W. Bush first heard about the 9/11 attacks in whatever elementary school that was, he made announcement--before he even left the school--that America would memorialize the dead. This is before all of them had even died.)

    My studies haven't focused on this (I'm drawing this from a World War One legacy class), but I strongly suspect that the Holocaust, and the Holocaust memorials of the 1960s (the Holocaust was not immediately memorialized; it took a lot of time before Britain, America, etc. moved from "We won! Nazis are evil losers!" to "Look what awful things happened...oh god."), provided a boost for this. Now we say that of course a tragedy involved great numbers of dead, in particular when those deaths were politically motivated (and therefore can be written into a national narrative), should be memorialized. But this practice may not actually be as old as we'd assume; even if it did happen before, it did not mean quite the same thing.

  6. Some good sources: Acton, Carol. "For Women Must Weep." Grief in Wartime: Private Pain, Public Discourse. Houndmills: Plagrave Macmillan, 2007.

    Edkins, Jenny. "War Memorials and Remembrance: the London Cenotaph and the Vietnam Wall." Trauma and the Memory of Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

    Winter, Jay. "The Setting: The Great War in the Memory Boom of the Twentieth Century." Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006.

  7. Unfortunately for all of this, I should be writing a paper on this topic right now. This makes me knit-picky. (Also, I'm a bit tl;dr.)

    When we say that our common experience of suffering is what allows us to embrace the other, we do a few things. First, we deny a difference between our suffering and another's suffering. This denies a real truth about suffering: some people will get more of it than others, and we will get different kinds of suffering. Second, we say that we need to find something in common with another person in order to stand with them, to honour them, to accept them as human. This means that in order to acknowledge another person, we cannot acknowledge them as as other; we need to make them somehow like-us in order to honour them. We erase their difference from us; we deny their otherness. If we really want community to mean something, it has to be across an admission of difference, not an erasure (or ignoring, or substitution) of it. Third, it defines humanity as suffering, and while I admit that suffering is a component of human existence, I would be hesitant to say that it is all that is human. Finally, we tend to be blind to some kinds of suffering, specifically the suffering of those different from us, suffering in ways that we haven't. (Though this is not a logical problem with what you've said; it's just a "pastoral concern".)

    This being said, I'm quite sympathetic to commiseration through the ubiquity of suffering. But I'm not sure we can so easily call it a "common ground," since there are different kinds and quantities of suffering that are not "common" to all, and because it can lead to an erasure of differences which need to be respected.

  8. That should have been, "unfortunately for all us," not "unfortunately for all of this." That's a really miserable typo; I come off as even more a jerk than I otherwise do.

    I want to add that I'm serious when I say that I'm sympathetic to what you've said. Until recently, I held your position. I still kind of do--I just think that it can be dangerous when held naively, as is any position which insists on the universality of humanity in some form or another.

Leave a Reply