Killing Unveiled

In Japan, sacrificing a woman at a rushing river would placate the spirit who lived there, allowing for the construction of bridges and the safe passage of boats. In Greek myth, king Agamemnon kills his daughter in exchange for a favorable wind on the way to Troy. The Egyptians buried their pharaohs with dozens of servants when they died, ensuring they would be well served in the afterlife. Bodies entombed in bogs across Europe were probably slain as gifts for higher powers.[1] Hernán Cortés describes Aztec priests slicing open the chests of sacrificial victims so as to offer their still-beating hearts to the gods. A conquistador, Andrés de Tapia, describes two towers made entirely of thousands of human skulls. In 2015 and 2018, archeologists working at the Templo Mayor excavation site in Mexico City discovered the skull towers and skull racks that conquistadors had described in their accounts. Human sacrifice seems to have been a universal practice, yet modern warfare has outpaced every form of religious sacrifice leaping from deaths in the thousands to death in the hundreds of millions.

In the New Testament, mythos is exposed by truth – aletheia and the logos of the world is countered by the Logos of Christ. Aletheia comes from the root letho, which is the verb “to forget.” The prefix a is the negative, giving the literal meaning for the Greek word truth, “to stop forgetting.” It is the opposite of myth and it is the exposure, through the Logos of Christ, of the forgotten victims of myth and murder. Biblical truth is the exposure of killing and the history of killing, and this is the way Jesus describes his work – to expose the history of killing (Lk 11:51). Jesus’ teaching in Luke, as with his own death, is not focused on the tomb or on the dead, as this is declared empty, but it is on the killing. Jesus is indicating that it is the act of killing that produces guilt and which needs exposure.

The cross is an exposure of killing, as Christ life and death and his teaching lift the veil of myth surrounding murder. His was a murder carried out by the state in which it was presumed his death was necessary to save the nation, but at a very basic level his death exposes what is always obscured in killing. Killing, whether it is a sacrifice to the gods, a sacrifice in war, or simply a personal killing, tends to be obscured by religion, by the justifications of war, or through personal justification, so that the act itself remains hidden. Prior to the advent of Christianity religious myth was effective in scapegoating and then sacralizing the victim so that every victim somehow satisfied the gods. In the modern period, the rise of nationalism and the nation state have required nearly endless sacrifice, but I believe Christ also lifts the veil on the reality of every form of killing.

Colonel Dave Grossman has written the definitive work on killing in war and his conclusion, that of all the factors which go into causing long term psychiatric damage, it is not fear of being killed, it is not simply exposure to danger and death or even slaughter, but it is the act of killing which is psychologically unbearable for most humans. After examining the percentage of soldiers that were not actually firing their weapons in battle (75%-80% in WWII), indicating most would rather be killed than to kill (confirmed throughout history and in a series of studies), he concludes that the great overlooked factor of the battlefield and of human nature is the intense resistance the vast majority of humans have to killing.

Overcoming this resistance is possible but it is inevitably accompanied by severe psychological damage. Richard Gabriel maintains that “in every war in which American soldiers have fought in [the twentieth century], the chances of becoming a psychiatric casualty— of being debilitated for some period of time as a consequence of the stresses of military life— were greater than the chances of being killed by enemy fire.” In one study quoted by Grossman, it was determined in World War II that after sixty days of combat, 98 percent of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties and the two percent able to endure sustained combat showed a predisposition toward “aggressive psychopathic personalities.” While there have always been psychiatric casualties associated with war, war before the modern period was not a sustained period of combat, and it is only in the twentieth century that the logistical capability to sustain combat broke the capacity of the majority to endure it. As Grossman points out, psychiatric casualties were being discharged, at one point, faster than new recruits could be drafted in. “Looking another human being in the eye, making an independent decision to kill him, and watching as he dies due to your action combine to form one of the most basic, important, primal, and potentially traumatic occurrences of war.”[2]

 The effort that goes into creating those that will kill is nothing short of the creation of a national myth in which instinctive human values are overturned so as to create systems of honor, bravery, and value, as part of a narrative that goes against the fundamental human disposition. The truth about killing and what it means to one’s humanity is a fact that is hard to arrive at as it contradicts the ethos or logos our culture thrusts upon us. “If a professional soldier were to see through the fog of his own self-deception, and if he were to face the cold reality that he can’t do what he has dedicated his life to, or that many of his soldiers would rather die than do their duty, it would make his life a lie. Such a man would be apt to deny his weakness with all the energy he could muster.”[3]

Every effort is made to reshape the act of killing into something other than what it is. Soldiers do not simply kill, “instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up. The enemy is hosed, zapped, probed, and fired on. The enemy’s humanity is denied, and he becomes a strange beast called a Kraut, Jap, Reb, Yank, dink, slant, slope, or raghead. Even the weapons of war receive benign names— Puff the Magic Dragon, Walleye, TOW, Fat Boy, and Thin Man— and the killing weapon of the individual soldier becomes a piece or a hog, and a bullet becomes a round.” The language is full of denial and an attempt to depersonalize and separate oneself from reality. The soldier is shaped by a culture built upon the lie that killing is necessary to life, freedom, bravery, and nobility and this lie must be given a grammar so as to shape his mode of language and thought.[4]

The necessity of killing comes with the narrative weight of the national myth reinforced by countless forms of entertainment in which killing is glorified as the business of heroes. There is such resistance to ascertaining the truth about the impact of violence that, “Nowhere in the [psychiatric and psychological] literature is one allowed to glimpse what is actually occurring: the real horror of the war and its effect on those who fought it.”[5] Grossman quotes the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius to articulate a realization of many soldiers: “Every individual dispensation is one of the causes of the prosperity, success, and even survival of That which administers the universe. To break off any particle, no matter how small, from the continuous concatenation— whether of causes or of any other elements— is to injure the whole.” As one Vietnam veteran described it, he “came to see the young Vietnamese they had killed as allies in a bigger war of individual existence, as young men with whom they were united throughout their lives against the impersonal ‘thems’ of the world.” In other words, “in killing the grunts of North Vietnam, the grunts of America had killed a part of themselves.”  The recognition of the basic inhumanity required to overcome the resistance to killing brings home a deep sense of shame. As one World War II veteran put it, “I, too, belong to this species. I am ashamed not only of my own deeds, not only of my nation’s deeds, but of human deeds as well. I am ashamed to be a man.”[6]

It is this shame associated with killing, more than any other factor, which produces long term psychiatric effects. Those exposed to war time conditions, such as medics or civilians subjected to bombing raids, prisoners of war, sailors on board ship during combat, soldiers sent into the most dangerous situations behind enemy lines, and officers, who are not called upon to kill do not become psychiatric casualties. It was discovered that prisoners of war experienced a strange peace as they were not in a position to do anything about their situation, while their guards, who still had a capacity and responsibility to fight, suffered greater psychological harm – though they were all exposed to the same incoming artillery. As Grossman concludes, “In most circumstances in which nonkillers are faced with the threat of death and injury in war, the instances of psychiatric casualties are notably absent.”

During World War I, in which there was greater risk of becoming a psychiatric casualty than being killed by the enemy, it was assumed that civilians exposed to bombing would produce vast numbers of “gibbering lunatics.” This became part of the justification for attacking civilians as it was assumed this would prove demoralizing and it played a key role in Germans in World War II bombing Britain and the Allies doing the same to Germany.  The presumption was that there would be mass psychiatric casualties resulting from bombing civilians. In spite of the horrors visited on these populations the psychiatric casualties remained similar to that experienced in peacetime. The Rand Corporation study of the impact found “there was only a very slight increase in the “more or less long-term” psychological disorders as compared with peacetime rates.”[7]

Grossman’s conclusion: “The dead soldier takes his misery with him, but the man who killed him must forever live and die with him. The lesson becomes increasingly clear: Killing is what war is all about, and killing in combat, by its very nature, causes deep wounds of pain and guilt.”[8] For the guilt to be dealt with, for the sickness of killing to be addressed, it must be exposed for what it is.

To memorialize the dead, according to Jesus, runs the risk of hiding their killing: “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them. So you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers; because it was they who killed them, and you build their tombs” (Lk 11:47-48). Tomb building and memorializing the dead, whether those prophets killed by the Jews, those sacrificed to the gods, or those killed in war, can cover over the reality and futility of killing. In Jesus description, those who build the tombs shared in the guilt of those who do the killing, apparently because this memorializing obscures the reality. Jesus sees himself as the exposure of the reality of the blood “shed since the foundation of the world” (Lk 11:50). Blood guilt will now be charged from the generation that heard his teaching, presumably into the indefinite future, as the reality of killing is demythologized, unforgotten, disentombed.

Gil Bailie opens his book Violence Unveiled with a story told by Whittaker Chambers. Chambers tells of a conversation he had with the daughter of a former German diplomat in which she was trying to explain why her father had become disillusioned with Stalin’s regime. “She loved her father and the irrationality of his defection embarrassed her,” Chamberlain writes. She said, “He was immensely pro-Soviet – you will laugh at me – but you must not laugh at my father – and then – one night in Moscow – he heard screams.” That’s all, simply “one night he heard screams.” Chambers remarked: “She did not know at all that she had swept away the logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, the myth of the 20th century, with five annihilating words: one night she heard screams.”[9]

Christ has forever countered the logos or logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, and the myth that would hide the victims. Now we can hear the screams, the blood shed from the foundation of the world cries out and the guilt is now laid at our feet. But with that guilt comes the possibility of hearing the healing words meant for each of us, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

[1] See the article in the Washington Post, by Sarah Kaplan, “The ‘darker link’ between ancient human sacrifice and our modern world” (April 5th, 2016)

[2] Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (p. 55). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

[3] Ibid. 57

[4] Ibid. 104

[5] Psychologist Peter Marin quoted by Grossman, Ibid, 59.

[6] Ibid. 61-62

[7] Ibid. 74

[8] Ibid. 105

[9] Whitaker Chambers, Witness (New York: Random House, 1952) 14. Quoted in Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (New York: Crossroad, 1995) 35. Thank you Leigh for the recommendation.

Escaping Idolatrous Capitalism

To ask what comes after capitalism is on the order of asking what comes after idolatrous religion. [1] One might devote his life to defeating Baal worship only to have Baal replaced by Kali. Improvements may be made in the exchange but people will devote themselves to the gods of culture and these gods (even in their atheistic and Christian incarnation) will bear the image of their makers. Capitalism (or late capitalism in all of its incarnations) is the refinement of all that one would expect of a religious system: nothing is made an absolute something, excess/surplus value (not to be found in any actually existing entity) is the only true value, exponential desire set to consume the world (literally sacrificing the planet in poisoning and despoiling its resources) with no counter value (human survival, care for creation, care for those immediately being sacrificed) able to halt the slaughter. This new world religious order may be unsustainable but it appears all pervasive and irresistible. In the devolution of culture, the human disease – the compulsive attempt to extract life from death, has unified into a world religious economy of perfect plasticity in which the god cannot be satiated.

Equating love of money or a system which promotes love of money (greed) with idolatry (Col. 3:5; I Tim. 6:10) goes to the heart of the system and the apocalyptic nature of resistance.  It is important not to be blinded by extraneous elements – imagining that manipulating the economy, exposing the fallacies of the particular system, or reordering the religion is the answer. Capitalism reengineered or exchanged for something else might improve the lot of some: as in the joke that under communism everyone now drives a limo, the explanation comes that the party boss drives the people’s limo on their behalf whereas under capitalism the same man drove it only for himself. One might have tried to convince the ancient Aztecs that the gods did not need war or that the sun would still shine without offerings of human hearts and blood, but the underlying economy would still be at work. The gods are at the service of a very particular economy extracting life from death. One might as well try to convince Donald Trump to give up his wealth, health and wealth gospelers to give up their gospel, name-brand Christianity to sell its possessions, or evangelicals to trade in Dave Ramsey for Jesus’ admonitions against wealth and the wealthy. Only an apocalyptic reordering of the world permits the naming of the idol from the clearing of an alternative economy and kingdom.

Locating the love of money with idolatry means that this too is a nothing that can be treated accordingly. Capitalism is the same process of gaining symbolically (in the realm of the law or the gods) through a process of destruction as is found in every idolatrous sin system. As David Hart describes it, “It is a system of total consumption, not simply in the commercial sense, but in the sense also that its necessary logic is the purest nihilism, a commitment to the transformation of concrete material plenitude into immaterial absolute value.”[2] One is “morally bound to amorality,” greed is good, and the  “the lust of the eyes” is cultivated as, with idolatry, more is the goal. Just as idolatrous religion consumes the lives of its worshipers, so too capitalism is aimed at uninterrupted, planet despoiling, life destroying consumption that is destroying the planetary body for nothing. The living interchange of life becomes a death exchange in which relationship (to others, the planet, and God) is converted into an exchange value – a dead piece of paper.

The answer is not, as Hart claims, that the early Christians were communists. While those in Jerusalem may have willingly shared their possessions, others such as the Corinthians had to be coaxed into giving a respectable amount of money to aid the poor in Jerusalem. This gift reveals that the economy out of which it flows is not communism but something more pointed. The dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile is broken down in Christ, and the removal of this barrier is, for Paul, the archetype of salvation. Money shared by Gentiles and accepted by Jews is the token of its accomplishment. Specifically, the money stands in place of the wall of hostility as a bridge between two alien communities and religions. Judaism is unique in this, not because its law constitutes the only barrier, but because it is representative of all dividing walls between all peoples.

At this point in history it is easy to comprehend that capitalism and nationalism, like any religion, requires its walls. That the wall is also the killing field, and vice versa, is obvious in primitive religion as well as modern politics. For example, in Aztec cosmology the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli, was waging a constant war against darkness and to ward off the dark (and simultaneously ward off the Aztecs’ enemies), Huitzilopochtli required human hearts and blood (supplied, anthropologists now know, from among enemy combatants and peoples). The religion of human sacrifice is the barrier defining Aztecs and warding off their enemies. Paul once stood firm in the breach of the dividing wall of hostility, attempting as a good Pharisee to seal up the border. Christ was sacrificed by Israel to ward off Rome and to secure the Temple from Roman wrath (which eventually came anyway in 70 A.D.). Paul, as a Pharisee, was willing to make more human sacrifices to the cause.

In taking up this offering though, Paul has a very different explanation of Christ’s death: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9). This sacrifice transforms the economy of Israel, the sacrifice of the Temple, and the orientation to Gentiles. The new Israel and the true Jew will now worship in a Temple not made with hands but crafted from among all peoples in which the dividing wall of hostility is broken down. Christ’s purposeful impoverishment is to be imitated by his followers, enriched by his life which is then to be shared. “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (8:13-14).  Economies of lack, necessitating sacrifice of the Other are undone. Paul sees the death of Christ as ensuring their end through the koinonia.

This purposeful impoverishment and generosity is not a vocation for the few but, in Paul’s universal vision, embraces the world-wide (Jew/Gentile) koinonia which is to displace the god of the age. Idolatry and capitalism depend on disparity and human sacrifice: either outright slaughter or the wage-slavery which impoverishes the many for the few. In the koinonia-economy abundance is not for accumulation but for relief of the poor – an opportunity for balance on both sides. Capitalism, by legal definition, treats corporate entities as persons – persons that have a singular purpose – capital gain (accumulation of wealth). In Paul’s explanation, abundance is a sign of an imbalance that needs correcting, a gift that needs to be shared, an opportunity to give and to in turn become an opportunity for others to give. This economy is pointedly aimed at destroying the barrier of human religion and identity. It is not simply an alternative economy but is aggressively invasive in its generosity. If ever there were an anti-capitalist creed it is to be found in the koinonia of Christ.

 This purposeful poverty and dispossession explains why the New Testament does not qualify its condemnation of riches. Jesus good tidings are for the poor (Luke 4:18) and the prosperous and rich are disqualified as disciples: “every one of you who does not give up all that he himself possesses is incapable of being my disciple” (Luke 14:33). The choice is to be rich and suffer judgment (Matt. 5:42; Luke 16:25) or to store up heavenly treasure (Matt. 6:19-20). The choice is between mammon and God (Matt. 6:24), which gets at the truth that money can become a God-like power serving to center a religious-like identity where it is not sacrificially given away.

James depicts it as an absolute and unqualified choice: “You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you” (James 5:6). In his depiction, one is either with the dispossessed savior, the righteous man, or with the wealthy. Biblical Christianity is geared to expose idolatrous religion, but the idol must be named and its economy exposed. The Christian koinonia must be as dispossessively generous as her Lord, so as not to be found among those whose gold and silver “will consume your flesh like fire” (James 5:3).

[1] For Jonathan, Scott, and Matt and the special koinonia we share and for inspiring this blog.

[2] David Bentley Hart, “What Lies Beyond Capitalism? A Christian Exploration” Plough