Monday, June 18, 2012

“God is not dead, He just smells funny” – Reflections on the Syrian Massacre of the Innocents

Jean-Hyppolite Flandrin - "Christ's Entry into Jerusalem"
Behold, your King is coming to you, Meek, and riding upon a tank…” This paradoxical paraphrase of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mt 21:5, Jn 12:15) went through my head when I tried to ‘digest’ the news about the latest UN report on the status of children in situations of armed conflict ( The report expressed special concern about the deteriorating situation in Syria, where a growing number of children are among the casualties of what is by now a very bloody civil war. Apparently, militia’s are killing indiscriminately, women and children no less than men. Children whose parents are suspected rebels are tortured or simply executed. Some children have been found with their heads caved in. Also there are reports about children being used as human shields, positioned on top of tanks in order to discourage enemy fire.

The need to rewrite Holy Scripture
It was this image of a child on top of a tank that reminded me of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem:
Behold, your King is coming to you, Meek, and riding upon a donkey […]. And most of the crowd spread their garments in the road; and others cut branches from the trees, and spread them in the road. And the crowds that went before him, and that followed, cried out, saying, ‘Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.’” (Mt 21:5-11)

Doesn’t the image of a child used as a ‘human shield’ on top of tank force us to rewrite Holy Scripture, as if Christ is again entering the city where his crucifixion will take place? Only this time that Holy City is not Jerusalem but the Syrian city of Hama. And the road is not strewn with garments and palm leaves but with enemy fire, with bullets singing: “Hosanna to the son or daughter of whomever!” And if we are thus rewriting Holy Scripture, we might as well rewrite the passage about the murder of the children under Herod, such that it is now not in Rama but in Hama where “a voice [was] heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted because they are not!” (Mt. 2:17-18; Jer. 31:15)

Giotto - "The Massacre of the Innocents"
“If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke”
This is what a father says about his son in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road (2006) – turned into a film by John Hillcoat. The narrative is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where due to some global disaster – whether natural, man-made or divinely ordained remains unclear – all civilization has crumbled and nature is dying. Those who are still alive are reduced to a sub-human existence of daily struggle for food and the realistic fear of cannibalism. In this world, where all hope and value is lost, this father has made it his sacred mission to protect his son: “the child was his warrant,” McCarthy writes. “What if I said that he's a god?” the father says about his boy to an old man who is amazed to see a child still being alive in the disaster zone the world has become: “When I saw that boy I thought that I had died […]. I never thought to see a child again.”

In this godforsaken world, where all faith has died, where God himself is “dead”, this father finds a superhuman faith through his son, who has for him become a divine being, indeed, Christ himself, the Incarnate Word of God. The grimness of McCarthy’s dystopian vision, however, is such that besides the father no one believes anymore. Not even the old man puts any faith in the divinity of the child: “Where men cant live gods fare no better. You'll see. It's better to be alone. So I hope that's not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it's not true. Things will be better when everybody's gone.” Even the living, walking and talking Word of God carries no weight anymore: the world of The Road is too far gone, too godforsaken for that. The father’s task to protect his child against rape, murder and cannibalism is indeed a superhuman task, a more or less impossible mission.

The Road
Optimistic dystopia?
In comparison the film Children of Men (2006) – based on the novel by P.D. James – offers an almost optimistic vision of post-apocalyptic dystopia. Here too the story revolves around the divinity of childhood in a seemingly godforsaken world. The premise is that due to some unknown cause – a virus or divine intervention? – mankind has become infertile and faces extinction in several decades. When the youngest person on the planet – celebrity Baby Diego, aged 18 – is killed by a disappointed fan over a refused autograph, people lose their last ounce of hope and give in to despair and nihilism, epitomized by the government-issued suicide drug Quietus. For why take care of the planet, indeed why take care of oneself if there is no future? The future after all is what a child is: the future beyond oneself. Then, miraculously, one black girl becomes pregnant, giving birth to a healthy baby amidst the brutal civil war into which the world is falling apart. Bullets are flying, bombs are exploding, people are dying on the spot, but when the mother and her newborn infant appear all falls silent, the fighting stops abruptly, people stand in awe, soldiers fall on their knees before this epiphany which can only be described as religious – underscored by correspondingly dramatic music. It’s a beautiful scene and arguably the high point of the film, far surpassing its dramatic ending when mother and baby are finally aboard the Tomorrow, the ship that will bring them to the utopian community of the Human Project.

Children of Men
“Everything of value is defenseless”
So where do we stand now, what is the status of our own world when children are used as ‘human shields’ on top of tanks? Are we closer to the ‘optimistic dystopia’ of Children of Men? Or are we in the truly hellish world of The Road where faith in the divinity of childhood has all but disappeared? Apparently we are right in between, since the sanctity of childhood is both recognized – for otherwise children would be worthless as ‘shields’ – and violated, since they are used as shields. As the Dutch poet Lucebert wrote: “Everything of value is defenseless.” The supreme value and defenselessness of the child is apparently also the supreme armor, not impenetrable for bullets, no not quite, but almost impenetrable for considerations that rationalize the killing of another human being. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas described the “Face of the Other” as that ultimate instance of vulnerability which calls the spontaneity of our violence into question. But what has become clear now is that this Face is first and foremost the face of a child. It is the ideal mask to hide behind. What has also become clear is that post-apocalyptic dystopia is not just a Hollywood genre, some entertaining vision of horrors predicated on the hypothetical question: “What if…?” No, dystopia is here and now: it is this-topia so to speak. The apocalypse is taking place again and again, each time an innocent child is brutally murdered, abused, raped. How can we believe in a God who lets such things happen? But then again, how can we stop believing in God if this means giving up the divinity of the child? We must have faith, then, simply for the sake of the children. This is the great strength of McCarthy’s line “If he is not the word of God God never spoke”. And therefore I say: Behold, your King is coming to you, Meek, and riding upon a tank…”

"After Auschwitz" – On regurgitating clichés
Obviously this ‘Christological’ reading of the Syrian ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ is meant to be abysmally cynical rather than as an expression of faith in the redeeming power of (forced) imitatio Christi. Confronted with such horrors, faith crumbles in despair. To repeat: How can one believe in a God who lets such things happen? This, of course, is an age old question, a powerless cliché nowadays, incapable of causing serious religious doubt. Why? Because we have already stopped believing in the goodness of God a long time ago. Auschwitz cured us of that, to use another cliché. This is the way the world is, we sigh, and then we look away and think about something else, lest we would have bad dreams at night. And we can’t have that, can we? No, we must be rested and fresh in the morning for another productive day.

But still… Doesn’t a feeling of sacrilege encroach on us when we hear the invocation of Auschwitz being reduced to a mere cliché? Who dares to say such a thing? True, some people – especially in academia – use it as a cliché when they unthinkingly repeat claims like “After Auschwitz there can be no more poetry” (Adorno) in order to please their professors and further a nice academic career. Such claims have become clichés all right, but they are all the more painful in light of the horrors of Auschwitz. And for Auschwitz we might as well substitute any of the other disasters that constitute the history of the modern world (as Joyce wrote in Ulysses: “History […] is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”). I won’t go into particulars – that is to say: I don’t want to ‘regurgitate more clichés’ – but just think about that child on top of a Syrian tank, that instance of supreme (in)vulnerability. Don’t we encounter here, despite all clichés, something sacred and divine? Something that suggests the image of Christ entering Jerusalem on a donkey and perhaps even requires the rewriting of Holy Scripture in the indicated way?

Christianity and transcendental violence
Levinas spoke of a metaphysical and even religious dimension coming to paradoxical presence in the anti-phenomenon of the Face of the Other, who questions us from beyond the sphere of being and makes us responsible to the Platonic “Good beyond being”. Levinas, of course, was a Jewish thinker, who took his lead from the dialogical nature of the Judaic relation to God, who speaks to the individual through the personality (the “Face”) of the other human being – hence Levinas’ fondness of the Jewish proverb “the other’s material needs are my spiritual needs”. Yet one wonders if the metaphysical dimension he discovered – the supreme ethical authority of supreme vulnerability – isn’t more amenable to a Christian interpretation rather than a Jewish one, given the apparent necessity of sacrifice in order to bring this dimension to manifestation.

Isn’t this the gist of Derrida’s essay “Violence and Metaphysics” where he criticizes Levinas for ignoring the fact that the otherness of the Other – and hence his ethical authority – can only become manifest through the violence perpetrated against her? Thus Derrida spoke of a transcendental and pre-ethical violence as the condition of possibility of the ethical relation to the Other:
“For this transcendental origin, as the irreducible violence of the relation to the other, is at the same time nonviolence, since it opens the relation to the other.” (Derrida 2002: 160) Hence the intimate relation – which is more than etymological – between sacrality and sacrifice: only through the violence of the latter is the former truly revealed. But this transcendental violence as the precondition for the sacred authority of the Other – isn’t this first and foremost the crucifixion, as the violence that reveals the divinity of Christ? Derrida himself does not investigate this suggestion, despite the fact that “Violence and Metaphysics” shows a strong Christian undercurrent in the reciprocity envisaged by Derrida between (the transcendental violence of) Greek logocentrism and (the ethical authority of) Jewish heteronomy. For isn’t it clear that Christianity is this reciprocity as a historical ‘synthesis’ of Hellenism and Hebraism? Derrida suggests as much when he writes: “Are we Jews? Are we Greeks? We live in the difference between the Jew and the Greek […].” (Idem: 191) For this, of course, is not just an allusion to Joyce’s Ulysses (“Jewgreek is greekjew. Extremes meet.”), but ultimately refers to St. Paul’s statement that “There is neither Jew nor Greek […], for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

The divine emptiness of God's grave
The presence of divine absence
Paul’s meaning, of course, is that such parochial distinctions are no longer relevant in light of the universality of the Christian revelation, which addresses humanity as such (see Badiou 1997). Yet we might also interpret his statement more creatively as pointing to the special nature of Christianity as being between Greek philosophy and Jewish religiosity: it is “neither Greek nor Jew” since it is both, as the impossible excluded middle between these contradictories. Christ as the incarnation of God is both ‘Greek’ insofar as He is the veracious presence of the divine logos, yet He is also ‘Jewish’ in that this presence manifests a constitutive absence of the divine, of God as “wholly Other” who as such cannot be made present – and the attempt to do so can only kill him. Hence the Incarnation of God is only truly fulfilled in the Crucifixion: the moment when God dies – that is the moment when He is truly present/absent, when his absolute authority is truly manifested in his absolute (in)vulnerability. As I said, Derrida doesn’t investigate these suggestions, although they are clearly implicit in “Violence and Metaphysics”. One wonders why he remained silent…

Be that as it may, the suggestion with which I want to end is that the Syrian child – put as a ‘human shield’ on top of a tank – manifests this Christological dimension of sacrifice. Doesn’t this child force us to rethink our (post-)modern disbelief vis-à-vis the divine? “God is dead,” we say following Nietzsche, and we say so especially “after Auschwitz”. But doesn’t God die again in that Syrian child? And how can He die again if He was already dead? Shouldn’t we say then that God is not (yet) dead but rather dying, continually dying in all the innocent victims of human violence? To paraphrase Zappa’s famous statement on the status of rock music: God isn’t dead, He just smells funny… And it would indeed almost be funny if it wouldn’t be so horrific.

-Alain Badiou (1997), Saint Paul et la foundation de l’universalisme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de Paris.

-Jacques Derrida (2002 [1964]), “Violence and metaphysics: An essay on the thought of Emmanuel Levinas”, in: Derrida, Writing and Difference. London and New York: Routledge, pp.97-192.

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