Friday, November 27, 2009

Anesthetized War and Institutionalized Violence

The original Star Trek series specialized in allegory and moralizing. One of my favorites from the first season is A Taste Of Armageddon, where the crew finds a world executing a peculiar style of war. The wikipedia summary is:

On Eminiar VII, the Enterprise finds a civilization at war with its planetary neighbor. Unable to discern any signs of battle from orbit, Captain Kirk leads a landing party to the surface where he discovers the entire war is fought by computer. Even though the war is simulated, citizens who are listed as virtual casualties still report to termination booths to be killed for real. After the Enterpriseis destroyed in an attack simulation, Kirk must fight to keep his crew from death.

Here is the episode trailer (you can also watch the full episode at youtube):

Captain Kirk is horrified that a society would execute war in such an anesthetized way and that people would willingly report to termination booths. Kirk would argue that war ought to be ugly, painful, and devastating so that we realize its full costs and make efforts to avoid it.

I like the message of this episode. However, I would extend it even further than its writers would likely have intended. I share Kirk's horrors but not just with the institutionalized system of war he finds; I experience this same horror (from time to time) with the institutionalized violence of government itself.

In particular, I find the idea of a justice system, where we institute a cold, legalistic process for judging men and doling out punishments similar to that fictional war system. In both cases, violence is institutionalized in an attempt to do away with its negative effects, but in fact the system only serves to propagate violence further. We make violence clean, dress it up with rituals and icons, and tuck it away as out of sight as possible. The horror is that men view these systems as good and willingly participate in them.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Invite the Government and You Share Responsibility for its Actions

I recommend the Amish America blog for those interested in learning about the Amish and the issues they face. A recent entry regarding the case of Amish bishops failing to report a child abuser to the police, however, is one I must take issue with. In particular, I disagree with the blogger's assertion that "clearly there is no moral question that abuse of any kind is a criminal matter, and not one meant to be handled within the bounds of a local Ordnung."

It is saddening to think of a parent sexually abusing his children. The weakness and vulnerability of a child relative to his or her parent makes such sexual abuse particularly egregious and sad, and I agree that people who are close to the situation have a responsibility to address it as best they can.

However, I do not agree that addressing the situation necessarily means reporting the abuser to the government. Once reported to the government, the abuser will be submitted to a court and law enforcement system. This system is one in which the Amish refuse to participate in as judgers or law enforcers. Why should the Amish willingly turn people over into a system they refuse, on moral grounds, to participate in?

Before you ever call the police to report a law-breaker, you ought to think about the consequences of that call. By inviting the government to resolve the situation, you become partially responsible for its actions. The government does not operate through persuasion but through force. If the use of force in that situation is not one you would morally accept, then you ought not to invoke the government.

Even if you do accept the use of force in a situation, you ought to be careful when invoking the government. For example, I would not argue if you believe that a man who sexually abuses his children should likely face a harsher response than shunning. But yet you do not control the government, and its law enforcers or judges might not act as you would expect or wish. Are you prepared for the government law enforcers to escalate the situation and use lethal force if challenged? Are you prepared for a man to be locked in a cage for an indefinite amount of time? Are you prepared for the government to break up a family? These are all possibilities when you invite the government into a situation.

Sad, unexpected events may occur when you choose to escalate a situation with force through the government. Think very carefully before you do so, as you become morally complicit in how the government resolves the situation.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Illusion of Separateness

It seems to me that the cause of much moral and spiritual malaise is succumbing to the illusion of separateness. This illusion is that there exists a you that is a completely separate entity from everything else. Given this illusion, you view yourself as identical with your body, or at least with some parts of your body. You would then see your interaction with anything not-you as purely physical. That is, you receive input signals from the five bodily senses, you process them in your brain, and you respond by moving your body in some way.

The illusion of separateness arises from an abstraction that is made of the world that is useful for some purposes but should not be mistaken as the complete reality. This abstraction is that the world is comprised of completely separate objects (of which each person is one), and that they can only relate to each other through external, physical means. This abstraction seems to make a lot of sense to our experience. We look around us and see other objects, each with attributes. Meanwhile, the success of the physical sciences seems to confirm this view of reality.

However, while the abstraction of separateness works well in some areas, it fails in others. It cannot account for consciousness or even experience. It provides no guidance on moral questions and has nothing to say about the meaning of existence. These shortcomings are fine as long as we understand that the abstraction of separateness is useful for some things but not others. It's good at predicting where a ball I throw will land; it's not so good at answering why I should act well toward other people. It is when this abstraction is mistaken for a complete description of reality that we succumb to the illusion of separateness.

Given this illusion, there would seem to be no meaning to existence possible. Experience and consciousness remain mysteries, or even explained away as illusions themselves. The only justifications found for moral action are empty, utilitarian ones.

The illusion of separateness even affects many people who are religious. But for them, the idea of a God must be that of an external Being, and usually one that relates to them in an authoritarian manner, providing external rewards and punishments for good or bad behavior.

What sort of purpose in life can there be if the illusion of separateness is true?

An alternative exists to the illusion of separateness. It is to understand that the elements of reality are not vacuous things but rather lively experiences. Furthermore, each experience is a process of being influenced by other experiences, actualizing (i.e. combining these influences with an element of self-determination), and then subsequently becoming an influence in other experiences. However, one can think of the nature of this influence as actually becoming a part of, or ingression.

This shift in understanding of the world enables one to see past the illusion of separateness. The world is seen not as a pile of dead objects but as a rich web of experiences. Each experience ingresses upon all others in varying ways but also retains a degree of self-identity and self-determination.

There are many ways to describe this insight, that reality is defined by life that is all united in some way. Some people describe it by saying that we are all part of God. Others describe it by saying that the spirit of God is in everything. Some people may even discard the concept of God altogether and describe it in yet other terms (perhaps focusing on the Now, or present moment). And yet other people may just feel the truth of this insight without trying to formulate it in words.

The power of this insight with respect to moral and spiritual questions is two-fold. First, it washes away the misleading illusions that would obscure answers, or even the possibility of answers, to these questions. Secondly, this insight helps reveal the answers, but not by providing logical axioms to derive subsequent truth in words, but instead by pointing at the experience we all have that must ultimately serve as the basis of that truth. It is in that transcendent experience that we must ultimately find these answers.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Tolstoy on the Hypocrisy of Church

The following passage strikingly reveals the abominable nature of Church worship. It is lifted from Resurrection, the last long novel Tolstoy wrote after his religious awakening. While this passage refers to a service performed in a prison and refers to acts performed in the prison, much of it applies equally well to most churches.

Here is the passage:

And to not one of those present, from the priest and the superintendent down to Maslova, did it occur that this Jesus Whose name the priest repeated in wheezy tones such an endless number of times, praising Him with outlandish words, had expressly forbidden everything that was being done there; that He had not only prohibited the senseless chatter and the blasphemous incantation over the bread and wine but had also, in the most emphatic manner, forbidden men to call other men their master or to pray in temples, and had commanded each to pray in solitude; had forbidden temples themselves, saying that He came to destroy them and that one should not worship in temples but in spirit and in truth; and above everything else He had forbidden not only sitting in judgement on people and imprisoning, humiliating, torturing, and executing them, as was done here, but had prohibited any kind of violence, saying that He came to set at liberty those who were captive.

It did not occur to any one of those present that everything that was going on there was the greatest blasphemy, and a mockery of the same Christ in Whose name it was all being done. No one seemed to realize that the gilt cross with the enamel medallions at the ends, which the priest held out to the people to kiss, was nothing else but the emblem of the gallows on which Christ had been executed for denouncing the very things now being performed here in His name. It did not occur to anyone that the priests, who imagined they were eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, were indeed eating His body and drinking His blood - but not in little bits of bread and in the wine, but first by misleading 'those little ones' with whom Christ identified Himself and then by depriving them of their greatest blessing and subjecting them to the most cruel torments, by concealing for them the good things that He had brought them.