Friday, June 19, 2015


While I was in seminary, I had a little side-job preaching at a mental hospital.  One Sunday morning I arrived as scheduled, just after there had been a fight on the ward.  One of the patients was declaring there was no God and one of the attendants, black, was clear out of control on the subject, insisting that there was God and God is love.  In fact, he screamed at the patient,  “God is love, you sunnavabitch, and you’d better admit it or I’ll tear your head off!” 

I sent the attendant out for a cigarette break and, when he was gone, agreed with the patient.  It’s a funny story, but also begs for an explanation, since the attendant knew he was talking to a crazy man but was going crazy himself.  Everyone had had a medicinal chill pill except the attendant, but that still wasn’t enough to explain the violence vividly blooming on the attendant’s face, even though he was responsible for the care and protection of this atheist.  

Now I find an article in my fav online mag, Aeon, that is the first theory I find convincing as an explanation.  The article is derived from a book, “Virtuous Violence.”  Here are some quotes.

“Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By ‘moral’, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations. . . 

“At the same time, if violence is motivated by moral sentiments, what is it motivated toward? What are these perpetrators trying to achieve? The general pattern we found was that the violence was intended to regulate social relationships. . . 

“Across all cases, perpetrators are using violence to create, conduct, sustain, enhance, transform, honour, protect, redress, repair, end, and mourn valued relationships.

“Individuals and cultures certainly vary in the ways they do this and the contexts in which they think violence is an acceptable means of making things right, but the goal is the same. The purpose of violence is to sustain a moral order.”

The attendant was not trying to keep physical order or even control, since the atheist was sitting there not doing anything except insisting on his point of view.  The attendant was coming from a gut level, his identity and, indeed, his personal morality.  In the black community Christianity is a strong support for virtue in the face of stigma and actual danger from authorities.  For the attendant to lose the conviction that there was a God who loved him, was to face intolerable risk.  He didn't have enough objectivity in the moment to see that God cannot be erased or even threatened by a crazy man who needs to deny his existence.  That is, the belief in God belongs to the attendant and the denial of God belongs to the patient.  God is always moot.

“What, empirically speaking, happens when we stop thinking of moral values as objective facts that are true everywhere at all times, seeing them instead as subjective opinions that differ across cultures and history? Well, in the lab at least, it seems we lose our bearings.”

The attendant was no relativist.  God was to him the foundation of the world.  He was willing to threaten the use of force and might very well have used it, even at the cost of losing his job.
Valier, MT

This is close to what I’ve been watching here in Valier where the roots of the community are strong and conservative, divided between Catholic and Lutheran or secular versions of them.  That is to say, orderly, shared by the majority, self-defining as virtuous without any consciousness that there are alternatives.  I call it “one-celled,” or “high school rules” since things proceed on a community consensus rooted in the givens of popularity. Clean, conforming, performing one’s duty, consistent.  There are a few people in town who are not like that, usually “immigrants.”  They say, “People here don’t know there is any other world and they resist with all their might being told that there is.”  They resent state interference.

I run against them most often over food: they find pie sales and barbecue feeds to be great morale builders, definers of community, a throwback to the comfortable old homesteader cooperations. I'm diabetic.  If I attend, I have a hard time resisting the goodies and the consequences of eating them are bad.  The locals simply increase their insulin intake to compensate.  What I read tells me that BOTH sugar and insulin are hard on the body.  So I avoid, hoping to be seen as an eccentric rather than a challenge.

Alternatives, relativism, are at the heart of life in a multi-various, surprising and changing world, so these village one-reality people are disabled and sometimes feel it, which makes them angry and vulnerable, inclined to alcoholism.  The single little grocery store has an entire aisle of wine and an ample stock of refrigerated beer.  The gas station is also the state liquor store.  The TV news the locals like is the weirdo excessive stuff, which reinforces the idea that outsiders are crazy.

The town is only a few miles from the Blackfeet Reservation where alcoholism is also a problem, but for the opposite reason:  their world is so full of contradictions and exceptions, they get weary and lose their core.  Catholicism and Pentecostalism offer a new one with a strong conviction of virtue, being “saved.”  And there is a community, mostly centered on the tribal college, to recover and reinstate the old Siksika identity.  Of course, all addictions have a strong physical component that might not be addressed by a conviction of virtue.  More guilt and despair, but now a strong conviction that "treatment" is good, a place to take shelter.  

Ick's as shown in VICE

In the last fifty years I’ve seen the reinvention of the Blackfeet and other rez folks.  They hold events, give awards, make business plans.  Inch by inch the ground of the People is reclaimed because an inclusive group ethos is formed.  But still few are eager to include whites.

Morality is a big part of institutional religion as well as institutional government.  If everything in life agrees that these familiar community rules are what will save you, it will be very hard to break out of that, but it can be done.  Sometimes a boot camp or college degree or seminary education will be enough of a challenge.  Or the creation of a sub-group, whether it’s “more” virtuous (a nunnery) or “less” (an drug gang), can confer a new moral order, a new loyalty.  But it also makes a boundary that, if crossed, leads to violence or has standards the larger culture finds appalling.  (A recent Langweische article in “Vanity Fair” describes how soldiers form a little killing squad out of their feeling of virtuous power.)

Morality is formed, usually, by parents in the earliest years, which explains why it has so much to do with what to eat and wear and why excretion is always such an emotional issue.  The violent reaction of an angered person is not about the apparent nature of the object, but about the internal emotion of the violent person.  The man who beats his son for being gay is not just afraid of how people will treat that son, not just reacting to supposed “evil,” but also afraid that he himself will be put out of the community that defines and protects him.  This is not conscious, but installed in the brain at a deep animal level where the herd and species instincts are located.  It is literally animal behavior.

Spirituality is the opposite, an identification -- even fusion -- with "being" itself, inclusive, dissolving boundaries.  I think that it is not the product of thinking, language, nor even poetry.  Rather I think it is PRE-morality, the state of the undifferentiated infant in a blissful state.  Emotional, autonomic, limbic. It is also animal, located in the old brain, not the prefrontal cortex.

But “religion” -- some people say “organized religion,” recognizing the institutional and dogma-based nature of the organizations we see around us -- binds together morality and spirituality by providing safety and community, defining the boundaries with morality.  Inside the circle is virtue -- outside the circle is threat.  Violence against a threat is justified, esp. if it is approved by the institution.  The institution works the same way for the mafia as it does for nations and religions.  It is an in-group specified, with rules, formalized. 

Here’s the problem:  what is outside the moral border has a strange attraction -- what’s really out there?  Rejection can become ejection.  But a forbidden thing is automatically more valuable: scarce (rare), dangerous, only for the few privileged.  The boundary of morality creates IMmorality.  But spirituality has no boundary.  There is no “IMspirituality.”  But there is imitation spirituality -- magic, which is a closed system. Which is really a displaced immorality, a claim to high preciousness, privileged access to an Other place -- like Heaven or a brothel.  These are institutions.

If a community is threatened, worried, in danger, they tighten the boundary, look for scapegoats.  The noncompliant form their own groups, sometimes a group of one, plus websites where they pick up self-justifying symbolism.   So here we are with terrorists and righteous mass murderers.  More later.

No comments: