Between Stockholm Syndrome and Lima Syndrome
Part 15: The Nadir of Barbarity
Somehow we have always rewarded blind followers mindlessly, while punished innovative pioneers harshly. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. Muhammad was chased away from Mecca to Medina. Martin Luther was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church. Astronomer Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the Inquisition. Both George Washington and Mahatma Gandhi were British empire's public enemies Number One. Martin Luther King Jr. was a villain during the Civil Rights Movement. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years by the South African apartheid regime. As pointed out by Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello quoted in Part 12 (What is God's Religion?), "religion as practiced today deals in punishments and rewards; thus breeds fear and greed—the two things most destructive of spirituality."
Coincidentally, Anglican-priest-turned-to-Eastern-philosopher Alan Watts (1915-1973) also had contemplated on the tyranny of words. He was a major proponent of contemplative meditation to temporarily cease the act of naming, labeling, and classifying. Words, according to Watts, can express no more than a tiny fragment of human knowledge, for what we can say and think is always immeasurably less than what we truly experience. "Fanatical believers in the Bible, the Koran and the Torah have fought one another for centuries without realizing that they belong to the same pestiferous club, that they have more in common than they have against one another," Watts asserted; "(a) committed believer in the Koran trots out the same arguments for his point of view as a Southern Baptist … and neither can listen to reason." Thus the over-reliance on words, under-reliance on reasoning, and a lack of critical thinking.
Too often "It's in the Koran!" or "It's in the Bible!" (always with exclamation marks) has been used as final mantras to justify any behavior. We tend to swallow whatever is literally stated in holy books without due diligence. Without context. Without perspective. Without insight. Without verification. Yet do we really know what "it" is actually all about? In Wisdom of the Idiots (1991), Sufi author Idries Shah illustrated this herd instinct or groupthink in the following Sufi parable about What is in the Koran:
A certain Bektashi dervish was respected for his piety and appearance of virtue.
Whenever anyone asked him how he had become so holy, he always answered, "I know
what is in the Koran." One day he had just given this reply to an enquirer in a
coffeehouse, when an imbecile asked, "Well, what is in the Koran?" "In the Koran," said
the dervish, "there are two pressed flowers and a letter from my friend Abdullah."
Two pressed flowers, a letter from Abdullah, perhaps a bookmarker. While we are trapped in debilitating groupthink and social proof, we are clinging to words—whether they are in the Koran, Bible, or somewhere else,—perhaps getting even more and more addicted to them. Say, if one scribbled the letters "g," "o," "l," and "d" next to each other on a piece of paper, will it turn the chemical properties of that paper into those of gold? If one sketched a dove on a piece of paper, will it fly by itself? If one drew a train station on a piece of paper, will trains go there? People in their right minds would emphatically answer 'hell no' to these silly questions. Yet how many times have the physical objects of holy books been confused for their contents by the very same people who explicitly condemn idolatry? The last time I checked, idolatry—the worship of an idol or physical object as a representation of a god—is still strongly forbidden in all Abrahamic religions.
In March 2015, for example, Farkhunda, a 27-year Afghani woman was beaten to death by a mob in Kabul, after being falsely accused of burning a Koran. She was then run over by a car and burned before being thrown into a river. Even if she did—once again, she was falsely accused—did the punishment fit the crime? But that's the nadir of barbarity when words turned into labels. Labels turned into mantras and mythologies. Mythologies turned into narratives. Narratives turned into holy books. Because they are 'holy', the principle of infallibility is summarily imposed by the powers that be. Then, in the course of time, rabid fanaticism, suicidal cults, violent sectarian conflicts and bloody religious wars become the unintended consequences—if not the norms altogether. As Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) eloquently illustrated the phenomenon: "Theology is a branch of fantastic literature." American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Thomas Stephen Szasz (1920-2012) completed the picture: "Among animals, it's eat or be eaten. Among humans, it's define or be defined."
Not only have we been mindlessly clinging to words without context and perspective, it seems that we have been quite selective in choosing what words we would like to believe. Still remember the perpetual Whence Cometh Evil question? As we know, Epicurus (341-270 BCE) had been searching for an answer ever since his famous riddle more than 2,200 years ago: Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
Where do we go from here? It seems that the answer had been conveniently forgotten and buried, under the mountains of other words, in one of the holy books. Those who read the Bible properly—and thoroughly—know too well about God's own admission stated in Isaiah 45:6-7 (King James Version): "That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the Lord, and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things" (emphasis added).
[To be continued.]
Johannes Tan, Indonesian Translator & Conference Interpreter