Our Violent Age

In a brilliant short story the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges attempts to get inside the head of a Nazi war criminal, Otto Dietrich zur Linde. The man awaits execution and is writing, not an apology, but an explanation of what led him to assist in the execution of Jews. He feels no contrition since he is convinced he is part of a historical movement that will bring the dawn of a new day — even after the defeat of Germany by the allies. He believes that he is dying for a great cause, much like the martyrs who died for Christianity. And that thought consoles him. “To die for a religion is simpler than living that religion fully. . .The battle and the glory are easy.” And Nazism was a religion, of sorts.

One of the Jews that zur Linde must “deal with” is a poet by the name of David Jerusalem who is brought before him, a man he greatly admires. Finding himself unable to condemn Jerusalem to the gas chambers, he gradually drives him mad until the man takes his own life. Still, zur Linde has no regrets. With Jerusalem, he tells us, whatever compassion he may have felt died.

The “new age” that zur Linde thinks is dawning and which makes these sacrifices worthwhile is an age of violence.

“Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age and are now its victims. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules.”

Now, aside from the fact that zur Linde is borrowing from Nietzsche, whose philosophy informed the thinking of many a Nazi and who condemned Christianity as the religion of the weak, we have here a profound and penetrating observation: we now live in an age of violence. All international disagreements are solved by killing. The Christian religion of love and forgiveness, if it ever truly blossomed, is no longer possible in this new age.

This is a bleak outlook, to say the least. And it would be easy to dismiss it as simply a novelist’s attempt to understand the tortured thinking of a condemned Nazi. It is all of that, and it is gruesome, to say the least. Evil is gruesome and most of us cannot stand to even think about it. Hanna Arendt, after studying the Nazi, Adolph Eichmann, concluded that evil is banal, more common than we can imagine. That, too, is a gruesome thought. But it is one we really ought to ponder, since it does appear that Christianity is no longer a force in our world — it does not course through the veins of the average Westerner as it did in the middle ages when, we are told, there were no atheists. Today we do not find a religion that demands sacrifices and appeals to the weak the least bit appealing, since we cannot imagine ourselves to be such a person. We are strong and life is not about sacrificing what we want. And we solve our problems with violence, not diplomacy and civil discourse.

I don’t know how much of Borges’ tale I buy into. But I find it worth pondering, since we do seem bent on shooting first and asking questions afterwards. “Make my day!” To be sure, men have been prone to violence throughout the ages. But while we regard the “Great War” as the war to end all wars, it “only” cost an estimated 20 million deaths, as contrasted with the Second World War which cost an estimated 60 to 85 million deaths. Joseph Stalin alone was supposed to have been responsible for 20 million deaths, in addition to the millions the Nazis killed. At the end of World War II England ordered the bombing of Dresden, which had no military objective whatever. And even ignoring the atom bomb, which may or may not have been justified by war standards, America, which is supposed to command the moral high ground, has recently condoned torture and sent drones into the far East to kill supposed terrorists, while also taking thousands of civilian deaths in what is callously referred to as “collateral damage.” Moreover, nine countries count 15,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals, any one of which would drarf the atomic bombs used in the Second World War.

We tend to think of strangers, such as the Syrian refugees, as a threat rather than as folks to be welcomed into our hearts and homes. We find it difficult to “live religion fully.” Instead, we pay lip service to religion and bend it to our preferred way of looking at the world. True religion makes demands on us and we are not comfortable with a doctrine that requires that we do our duty and love our neighbor. Perhaps we do live in a new age, one that rejects love and finds it much easier to hate.

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4 thoughts on “Our Violent Age

  1. Hugh, good post. From where I sit, I see the good parts of religion downplayed, while the strident views come to the forefront as supposedly noble causes. The quiet many do not speak out as their religion is kidnapped by these folks. Coupled with a demonization of the supposed enemy, this new righteousness of purpose can lead people to do things they would not normally do.

    I am reminded of the wonderful book and movie “The Book Thief” where the father reintroduces humanity to others as he defends a man who the Nazi’s have arrested. The narrator notes he makes the others embarrassed for the fear of intervening.

    Thanks for the thoughtful exercise. Keith

  2. My thanks to you, too, Hugh, for this very thoughtful piece. Organized or political violence so often seems to be a result of mass despair or continual frustration and alienation of the hopes of whole groups. And it never ultimately succeeds or, if it does, doesn’t prevail for long. I wish we could impart the latter notion more strongly in the minds of those who turn to violence. It’s up to us as a culture, a civilization to continue to address the former — the root causes of mass violence: poverty, discrimination, disenfranchisement. Not that those causes excuse the violence, certainly, nor the evil that we’ve seen in the Nazis, in Rwanda, in the Klan, etc.

    I read something over the weekend about the factors and personalities behind the Irish Easter Rising rebellion of 1916. Many of the young men — several in leadership positions — sounded pretty much like zur Linde. Fanatically convinced that violence, even their blood sacrifice, is necessary to bring about a new day in Ireland. Well, of course, they failed. So did eight more decades of violence.

    It’s important to always keep in mind that the leaders who brought about the larges and most enduring sociological and political change of the 20th century where those who did it through peaceful means: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Mandela (in his second incarnation, after imprisonment), Jane Addams and several child-labor reformers. Granted the end of the two world wars changed the map and, especially World War II, changed some cultures through violence. (Japan and Germany were bombed and burned to the ground, forced to start over. The U.S. became fixated on power — military and economic.) But the changes of WWI were unwisely drafted and imposed and either didn’t last long or sewed chaos we still feel today. World War II’s victorious violence was necessary, but it was also an anomaly: we had to respond as hard as we did not out of fanaticism or an initial intent to bring about a new day, but simply to put a stop to two evil nations. It was one of the few times when it was right to use such violent force. But almost right away afterward, the U.S. found itself in another war — of ideology and deluded fanaticism within our own ranks. The Cold War.

    We haven’t learned.

    Now, we have Republicans who like the leadership of a dictator like Putin. Good Lord. Now, we have Trump who advocates or says things that would agitate us toward violent response to almost any problem America has — immigrants, trade imbalances, Muslims, Syria. I’d bet dollars to donuts that most Trump supporters would think of MLK, Gandhi, Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and others like them as weaklings. In fact, of course, MLK, Gandhi, Bishop Tutu, the Dalai Lama, lived their faith so strongly, in ways the “religious” right can only pretend to say it does.

    (Sorry to be long-winded. Your blog provoked a lot of thoughts for me!)

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