Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What is the Inferno of peace?

On NPR this morning I heard another report about Christian militia reprisals against the Muslim minority that took control of the Central African Republic last year in a coup. About French peacekeepers looking on while a body is mutilated by a mob, cut into pieces. About Rwandan peacekeepers there under the auspices of the African Union, haunted by the knowledge of what happened in the marshes and village of their nation 20 years ago, in '94. The speaker is Emergency Director for Human Rights Watch, calling from the nation's capital, Bangui. He describes the situation as being out of Dante's Inferno.


This makes me think: we have ready literary models -- we might call them myths, or memes, with equal accuracy -- to describe horrific violence. Why don't we have models of justice, or of conditions so intolerable to the human spirit that justice and peace is brought about immediately, that are as ready to be called upon? We need to make people of vision and ethical motive have touchstones they can use to communicate an an urgent and cogent way about situations in need of immediate remedy. It says something about the level of our global civilization that Dante's Inferno would be a universally recognizable symbol for horror, but that we don't have a universally recognizable shorthand code for conditions of peace and civil harmony.

A Roman Catholic priest in CAR brought the entire Muslim population of his community, numbering in the hundreds, into the church, and declared that they are under the protection of God. This presumably stopped whatever revenge attacks might have been planned against them by their Christian neighbors.

What empowers the Rwanda soldiers -- what explains their capacity to bring about a more positive outcome? Memory of atrocity; a sense of obligation to prevent the recurrence of evitable history. Civic authority. What empowers the peacemakers? Cultural references that are universally accessible and uniquely motivating; a vision of peace that can be readily understood and shared among new stakeholders. Cultural authority. What empowers the priest? The respect afforded to, consolidated in, his special role as mediator between the mundane and the everlasting (which may be defined as contingently as one likes...). Moral authority.

I think about these matters as I try to imagine a society without theistic religion; as I endeavor to think through and look past the enormous privilege of my fortunate birth in a more or less intellectually and religiously free society, to think of the civic needs and human nature of societies where such freedom is reduced or absent entirely. There are different levels of freedom in different parts of the world, and the freedom of a society may change from year to year, as regimes and generations change and seasons pass and technology disrupts and transactional patterns evolve.

To skip a good deal of analysis and admit simply to what is on my mind: I see the need for, the potential usefulness of, a secular Bible. A tool that can be held up, tangible, in all its undeniable here-it-is-ness. A reference that can be returned to; a blueprint and a checklist that can be consulted time and again. A foundation plan for inhering civic, cultural, and moral authority in whomever wishes to act in accordance with the account of peace laid out therein.

We need stories other than Dante's beautiful awful intricate catholic Inferno. A civic humanistic canon, as widely accessible as possible without losing the haecceity peculiar to the material of myth. A textbook of emotional engineering. The Good Book compiled by Grayling is a gesture in the right direction, but we need more experimentation along these lines. Josiah, what do you think?

1 comment:

  1. I have become, not a sceptic about religion, but about belief generally. I have a sort of deflationary view of consciousness, belief, and self-report. In other words people don't do what they do for the reasons that they say. People don't know why they do things, they tell stories about themselves that are useful for future behavior.

    What this means in terms of a good book is two fold: first is that I think the lion's share of the attention in these arenas should be spent on the overall environment, not the belief system or tribal affiliations involved. If you take too many mammals and put them in too small a space with not enough food then they will start to kill each other; whether they are Hutus and Tutsis or chimps and gibbons. Starving tightly packed primates are super dangerous and paying over much attention to the narrative about the violence misses the point.

    Secondly any structure of beliefs with enough emotional power to sway people will contain flaws that will either show up like bugs in a program or can be exploited like security flaws in a network. (this includes the so-called rationality of atheists) I've often thought, what if I was omniscient and omnibenevolent and could write one book that everyone would know was written by an all knowing all forgiving AV-Tech? What would I, in principle, be able to write that would be both comprehensible and wouldn't lead to its own problems? Is it even possible for a good book to be good?

    I think we should focus our efforts on correcting and improving the world around us in incremental ways, with humility and the certain knowledge that we don't know for sure what will happen.