Here are two examples -- one Christian, the other Jewish -- of religion's staying power and influence over the entirety of Western culture. They're presented as reminders of why journalists need a working knowledge of religious history to fully connect the dots in today's bleeding world.
I came across the first example not long after the game-changing 9/11 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks. The second's an essay I read just recently.
Let's begin with journalist and author Robert D. Kaplan's "Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos." I consider Kaplan one of the more interesting journalistic minds working today.
His book struck me as fascinating, prescient (in hindsight) and disturbing.
My fascination stemmed from its emphasis on the enormous influence that bedrock religious concepts still exert today over critical societal actions. They're there, taken for granted but subliminally directing us. This is so even if we fail to consider, as individuals or even -- tsk, tsk -- as journalists, the importance of these civilizational building blocks.
It was prescient because of what it said that relates to the quagmire we face as a nation today in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It was disturbing because it challenged my liberal American impulses about the limits of ethical warfare.
Oh. And, yes, I agree. "Ethical warfare" may just be the ultimate oxymoron.
Kaplan concluded that to defeat non-state terror organizations that play only by their own brutal rules required a radical change in the military tactics of Western nations, by which he meant those historically and culturally Christian.
Particularly upsetting for me was his insistence that the West's Christian-lite approach (at least in theory and liberal political rhetoric, including at the United Nations) to ethical military action hampers its ability to fight terrorism. What is needed, he argued, is a willingness to adopt a pre-Christian, compassionless pagan outlook that puts aside, as needed, Christianity's basic humanitarian thrust.
"I am not an optimist or an idealist," Kaplan wrote, in a moment of stark understatement. "... In places where the rule of law does prevail, one is expected to suffer insults without resorting to violence. But in a lawless society, a willingness to suffer insults indicates weakness that, in turn, may invite attack."
Kaplan did not suggest the wholesale slaughter of enemy populations so prevalent in the ancient world. But he did warn against self-defeating applications of Christian pacifism -- summed up in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount admonition to turn-the-other-cheek (just what Jesus meant is a scholarly discourse beyond this blog post and my abilities), and even the Augustinian Just War Doctrine.
I'm not a Christian, (nor is Kaplan) but living in a culturally Christian nation I've absorbed these beliefs and so I struggle with Kaplan's argument that a bit of pagan-like military ruthlessness can go a long way. But I think I understand his point.
Kaplan's book came to mind while reading my second example, a recent essay in the Jewish-issue oriented web magazine Mosaic on the iffy future of our current global political system of nation-states.
Writer Yoram Hazony argues that multi-state bodies and agreements such as the European Union are ultimately unstable (think Britain's Brexit vote and presidential candidate Donald Trump's criticism of international trade agreements) because of our innate tribalism.
He notes the religious origin of the West's, and by its dominance now the international community's, preference for independent nation-states. He traces it to the Hebrew Bible.
Again, it's an example a long-ago conceived religious belief still holding sway over our modern impulses.
Here's a taste of what Hazony wrote (I urge you to click on the link above to read his entire piece; his argument is complex).
For centuries, the politics of Western nations have been characterized by a struggle between two antithetical visions of world order: an order of free and independent nations, each pursuing the political good in accordance with its own traditions and understanding; and an order of peoples united under a single regime of law, promulgated and maintained by a single supra-national authority. ...
The conflict between these two visions is as old as the West itself. The idea that the political order should be based on independent nations was an important feature of ancient Israelite thought as reflected in the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”). And although Western civilization, for most of its history, has been dominated by dreams of universal empire, the presence of the Bible at the heart of this civilization has ensured that the idea of the self-determining, independent nation would be revived time and again.
Why, Hazony continues, is the Hebrew Bible so concerned with Jewish national independence?
In a word, history, something that still plays a huge role in contemporary Jewish religious and political life (think Passover, Purim, and, of course, the Holocaust, for starters).
The world of Israel’s prophets was dominated by a succession of imperial powers: Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, and Persia, each giving way to the next. Despite their differences, each of these empires sought to impose a universal political order on mankind as a whole, the gods having sent them to suppress needless disputes among peoples and to create a unified international realm in which men could live together in peace and prosperity. ...
And yet, despite the obvious economic advantages of an Egyptian or Babylonian peace that would unify humanity, the Bible was born out of a deep-seated opposition to that very aim. To Israel’s prophets, Egypt was “the house of bondage,” and they spared no words in deploring the bloodshed and cruelty involved in imperial conquest and the imperial manner of governing, its recourse to slavery and murder and its expropriation of women and property. All of this, the Israelite prophets argued, stemmed from Egypt’s idolatry -- from its submission to gods who would justify any sacrifice so long as it advanced the extension of the imperial realm of peace and kept the production of grain running at maximum capacity. ...
The Bible thus puts a new political conception on the table: a state of a single people that is united, self-governing, and uninterested in bringing its neighbors under its own rule. This state is governed not by foreigners responsible to a ruler in a distant land but by kings and governors, priests and prophets, drawn from the ranks of the nation itself: elites that are, for just this reason, thought to be better able to stay in touch with the needs of their own people, their “brothers,” especially the less fortunate among them.
That's the nut of Hazony's piece. Again, it should be read in its entirety to fully grasp his argument. Here's the link again.
Not gonna do that?
Then at least keep in mind these words from the renowned scholar of comparative religion Huston Smith: "Transcendence takes the initiative at every turn; in creating the world, in instantiating itself in human beings, and in shaping civilizations through its revelations -- revelations that set civilizations in motion and establish their trajectories."
Agree? Disagree? Let me know below.
IMAGE: Western Christian painting of the Sermon on the Mount.