Usually when I write for HA!News, I have a single sort of inspiration and then find that the writing comes rather flowingly. This time, too, I have an inspiration, but I have been thinking for weeks now what it is that I want to say. So difficult! But let me try and engage it with you.
It started with the Paris attack. Joke and I were travelling in the States at the time and we had many conversations, daily news checks and feelings around it. Being in the States itself was an extension of this conversation as voices came to the fore of shutting down the country against refugees and voices of utter fear that the next attack would again be on US soils. Brussels, where Joke’s youngest sister lives, was virtually shut down for days with scenes of soldiers on the streets, reminiscent of the Second World War.
Much of our focus was (and still is) on what motivates humans to kill each other, just as much of our focus after being attacked in an armed robbery, was on the character and background to these humans behaving in such an extreme and inhuman way. Or is it a human way? Is it so much part of human history to kill, hate and destroy each other that we should accept it as normal human behaviour?
Of course, what always goes along with such atrocities, is the us-them paradigm where “they” are evil and “we” are the good ones. Not just on the side of the victims, but also on the side of the perpetrators. The “other” is so evil, they deserve to die, to suffer, to be regarded as less human than the “we.” And everything that goes along with it – their religion, their culture, the way they look and even where they live. All of that is off a lesser value than what “we” have and are.
It is one thing to compete for territory, to fight for survival, to struggle to get your basic needs met. All of life is doing that. Insects, animals kill each other for food, push and pull and cause suffering to mark out territory. It is part of life to develop a healthy dose of aggression and defense capabilities. In all of this, the basic drive is to preserve the whole, not only the whole of one’s own, but the whole of all – finding and maintaining one’s place under the sun, but also one’s orientation and interdependency regards all the others. In this dynamic, some individuals may indeed perish, sacrifice is needed from time to time. But in the story of humanity, something else entered: the drive for More, whatever the consequences. This More can sometimes mean that the “us” are out to not only defend or attack, but to annihilate; not only to balance oneself against another, but to conquer, defeat and oppress. Not just to assert oneself, but to dominate. Before this point in our story, one could still speak of us being part of an overall ecosystem, a family of living things, a sustainable web of relationships. After this point. a crude polarization enters, of human creature and beast, of rich and poor, of empire building and subjugation, of the divine ruler and slavery, of the colonial master and the oppressed, up to the current “first world” and “third world” dichotomy.
What was this certain point? It was the point where humans started to having More than what was necessary for their basic needs. That in itself seems innocent and happy enough. But a curious thing happens here: when I have more than enough (materially), in stead of wanting less, I start to feel that enough is not enough. In stead of restoring balance, I start to feel that my balance lies in getting even more of the More. Somehow, I lost my sense of the whole and am now looking in the direction of More to find that whole, which leads to an endless search that never satisfies. We call this addiction, we call this greed, we call this corruption, we call this the “sinful nature of human beings.” It sets us apart from the rest of life on earth. It makes us call for redemption. It put us on a path of destruction, not only of our environment, but increasingly of ourselves. We find ourselves being exasperated by our ability and need to become More and More on this planet, we hail this as our success, but we also wail on this as our impotence in controlling ourselves. We did not only recently come to Paris to witness our depravity in another horrendous killing spree, we also came to Paris just now to come together in an effort to STOP this hanking for More, collectively. We are desperate. We are fearful and hopeful. We look in the mirror and are amazed and aghast at the same time.
Historically, this point was the advent of agrarian societies – larger groups of people pinning their survival not on animal husbandry or hunting and gathering anymore, but on the cultivation of grains. We also call this the start of “civilization.” This point had a long build-up of course, and humans were already markedly more able to adapt and survive than most other living organisms on earth, but until 4000 years ago or so we still blended in quite closely with our environments, in ways that can still be seen with the last remnants of traditional tribal societies. We were still rather healthy. With mass agriculture came not only a host of diseases and bodily weaknesses, but also longer survival rates, as well as this very crucial thing: a surplus of food,, albeit not the best food. The division of society into a ruling class, a military and a working class set humans more apart than ever before, yet they all shared this one thing: they had More than they needed. The workers could have more babies, the soldiers could concentrate on fighting, free from the need to hunt for food, and the ruling class could spend their time strategizing expanding territory, knowledge, entertainment, imagination and pure indulgence.
Thus, with civilization came rapid population growth, extreme control of the environment, a flourishing of religion and the arts, sports, sciences, technology and laws. And wealth. The possession of more than what is needed for basic living. And with this, came power. And with power came war-making and empire building, as we entered the age of for-ever-More. Everything up to here went slowly. But since Sumer and Egypt, the human story went into overdrive, with the last 200 years being a mad sprint to the edge, as, on top of it all, we discovered all these black things we can make big fires with – especially oil and coal.
Two years ago, when I felt the cold steel of a loaded gun against my forehead, I came close to polarity lying at the heart of the human condition. Revolutions, terrorism and violent crime are the blind and desperate responses to the blind greed and power-mongering of those who happen to be ruling over others, those who happen to be the “haves.” At the core, these acts are all political, with religion and economics adding fuel to the fire, but not being the fire itself. This is important. ISIS is as much Islam than the Klux Klux Clan is Christian. Those ready to blow themselves up do so on inspiration of distorted elements of the Faith, yes, but would never have gone so far was it not for an existential hotbed of political grievances. And one cannot understand a murder in South Africa, where a life is taken for only a cell phone stolen, without acknowledging its political context. We, humanity as a whole, acquired an extreme edge since that point when we exchanged a lot of quality of life with quantity of life. The cynical hand that the West played in the Middle East since the late 19th century lies at the heart of the rise of modern day terrorism, just as white domination lies at the heart of the rise of the armed struggle in South Africa. This clash between the power-hungry and the depraved is as old as civilization itself and the trail of blood and horror stretches all the way from today back to Sumer, all through shooting sprees in the USA, the drug wars in Central America, the endless coups of post-colonial Africa, genocides and the brutal destruction brought on by secular regimes like Nazism and Communism, the terrible legacy of misery brought on by big corporations through “structural adjustments,” through the ripping of raw materials all over the world and through the shame of slavery, Europe’s wars upon wars upon wars, the horrors of the crusades, he whole orgy of empire building coming from all sides around the Mediterranean and also within the theatres of India and China, the marauding steppe “barbarians,” right back to the Old Testament epic murdering of woman and children.
I say that this dark and terrible side of the human story is all essentially political, not just because of the actions of politicians, or because of the failures of a certain political system, but because politics is us all coming together to take responsibility for our destiny. Politics, stripped of its abuses, is about us looking into the mirror, sensing our limitations and deciding on how do we relate to each other and the larger environment around us – relationships on all levels, including the spiritual, scientific and economic levels, from the small local communal circle, to towns, cities, districts, provinces, countries, regions, continents, the globe. When our coming together (our politics) is lacking, when we lose a sense of the whole, when the polis falls apart, that is where we lose it. But that is also exactly where and how we can heal. This is why Paris is so important. Just yesterday we DID come together, – all 195 nations, and actually AGREED on a way to curb our greed, on a way to take action on our limitations, on a way to ensure more equitable use of resources. This is not world government. This is humanity waking up from a nightmare.
For those who say that religion lies at the core of all of history’s violence, I say you are mistaken. Religion goes both ways – often starting out to bring love and peace and then end up being a motivator to annihilate the other – even if this is only done through the belief in hellfire. With all its exemplary representatives calling for non-violence and forgiveness in the past, no religion has been able to stop our madness. Nor has secular ideologies – also always starting out to bring justice, yet can end in genocide. Nor has science – also meaning things well to improve the human condition, but perfectly capable of killing our souls as well. Nor has wealth – money is no guarantee for the good as so often – again – those who have too much of it want even more. Nor has law-making, individual healing, great sports events, music and profound works of art, amazing philosophies, stunning technologies or economic ideologies. All these areas of human endeavor are important, but none can address the whole by itself. The whole is only properly addressed politically – and again, I am talking about the politics that goes beyond governments and the limits of democracy. The whole is only addressed by us all participating in a comprehensive and connective conversation, in educating ourselves as widely as possible and in facing up to our limitations.
The aim is not holiness and perfect peace. Flower power can only bring is so far. Nor is it to declare ourselves sinful by nature and in doing so, giving carte blanche to the forces of darkness. Nor is to wait for redemption from a power (or planet) beyond us. The aim, the challenge, the opportunity is to take responsibility for who we are and what we do. Religion and the arts can help us to show us how small we are. Science and technology can help us show us how powerful we can be. But it is only in coming to ourselves, that we can discover how human we can be. The Paris attacks showed us yet again how blind we can become – not only in those mad and lustful moments of pulling the trigger, but also how our actions and our cozy and consumptive lifestyles can impoverish and destabilize a whole region, creating the venom that will come back to bite us. Then again, the Paris Convention is showing us how we can come to our senses, and more importantly, come to our hearts, to struggle beyond our tendency to take a simple and extreme path, to one that is not easy, is complicated, but connects with real feeling and concrete realities.
Not that Paris has the final say. Politics is our daily living, is the many challenges still lying ahead, is the difficult conversations across chasms of differences, is the painstaking process of healing old and very deep wounds. Politics is the collective burden of the whole, politics is the circulation of blood, not the spilling of it. Politics is the beating heart that brings everyone together, not becoming the same, but together dancing a dance to music we all can hear. Politics is to speak up to the abuse of power, is to know how each of us are prone to that. Politics is to acknowledge that we are not alone. We are surrounded and sustained by other forms of life. We are rooted in the earth. We are nourished by the heavens. We are vulnerable. We are potent. Politics is not about escaping, nor about self-enrichment. It is the whole. It is community communicating and living the common grounds.
It is us who started the agrarian revolution. It is us who became civilized. It is us who are burning limited fuels and it is us who took this dangerous, ecstatic, but lonely path since 4000 years ago.
Therefore it is only us who can climb down the throne we created for ourselves. And it is now up to us to find a way of being civilized without wanting More than we need.