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To spiritualities of violence


In the upper portico of the palace of Cortes in Cuernavaca, Mexico, there is a mural by Diego Rivera depicting the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish. The mural runs the length of the portico with vivid images of the violent encounter of these two cultures. At the two ends of the portico are parallel images that depict the spirituality of violence of the two cultures. On one side, human sacrifice on the apex of the great temple in Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs; on the other side, humans burning to death in the fires of the Inquisition.

The practice of human sacrifice horrified the Spanish and confirmed their view that these “pagan” people epitomized the reign of the devil. The description of these practices of human sacrifice, the cutting of the breast of the victim to offer the palpitating heart to the gods, the flaying of victims so priests could ceremonially don their skin still causes shivers of horror for us. (I write this as I participate in the Goddess-GATE program in Mexico City, run by Franciscan sisters, which explores pre-Hispanic spirituality.)

But the violence brought to Mexico by the Spanish evoked horror in the Aztecs. They were shocked by the Spanish practice of war aimed at destroying as many of the “enemy” as possible, in contrast to the Aztec ceremonial “flower-war” intended to capture the finest warriors who were then treated as gods for a time before being sacrificed. The Spanish, by contrast, viewed the Aztec culture as the devil’s work to be purged and destroyed. In a few decades, they succeeded in destroying hundreds of temple complexes, burning entire cities and their artifacts of civilization, including the codices that enshrined the Mesoamerican worldview.

The Spanish also caused a vast genocide of the Indian people themselves, perhaps as much as 90 percent dying in half a century; partly through war and exploitation of labor, partly through diseases the Spanish brought with them to which the indigenous people lacked immunity. For the Indian people, the conquest was a physical and cultural disaster.

I suggest that these cultures embodied two contrasting spiritualities of violence, tragic violence versus righteous violence. Aztec human sacrifice represented an extreme version of a deeply embedded spirituality of Mesoamerican culture. The root of this spirituality was a sense of human life and the life of the cosmos as fragile, vulnerable and sustained only through an exchange of life forces between humans and the gods. In Aztec myth there had been a succession of creations, each one dying to be succeeded by the next. The present creation or “fifth sun” was created by two deities sacrificing their lives.

In the darkness before the creation of the present sun, the gods gathered at Teotihuacan, the great capital of the Mesoamerican culture that was in ruins when the Aztecs came into the valley of Mexico. There they debated who would give their life to create the fifth sun. One youthful god declared his willingness to do so, but then hung back in fear; then an elderly god threw himself into the fire, inspiring the young god to do so also. Only thus was the present sun and moon created.

To sustain this vulnerable sun, and the life of the planet that flowed from it, humans must continually give back the gift of life from their own bodies, by giving their blood. This is expressed by human sacrifice, practiced occasionally at critical moments in earlier Mesoamerican cultures, and taken to an extreme in the Aztec warrior culture. It is also expressed in voluntary bleeding. This was practiced, for example, by the kings and queens of the Mayan culture who bled themselves to sustain the life of the community.

In Aztec culture the sun was seen as entering a new cycle every 52 years. In the dark of the night of the last day of the old cycle, all the fires in the houses were extinguished. The priests processed to a mountain where they lit a ritual fire. All members of the society stood on their roofs in dread that the new sun might not rise. All cut their ears and flicked blood in the direction of the fire, giving their life blood to empower the sun to rise. When it rose, the light of the fire was then carried back to rekindle the fire in every home.

Mesoamerican culture was not without ambivalence toward human sacrifice. They remembered the priest-king Quezalcoatl who bled himself to sustain the life of all, but forbade human sacrifice, substituting offerings of flowers and butterflies. But he was defeated by rival priests who insisted on the necessity of sacrificing humans as the highest and best expression of life.

The Spanish, by contrast, brought with them a spirituality of righteous violence. For them, the cosmos was divided between two powers, God and Satan. The realm of God was sustained and extended by a constant war against the forces of Satan. Violence is to be directed against representatives of the realm of Satan. Destroying them was seen as righteous punishment of these evil “others” to defend and extend the realm of God. The Spanish saw themselves as agents of God in this work of punishing the minions of Satan and expanding the realm of God. God triumphs through destroying the works of Satan, sending Satan’s servants into eternal punishment. The sacrificed ones of Aztec society were seen by the Aztecs as ascending to the heavens, becoming gods. In contrast, the Spanish saw those they those killed as embodiments of evil to be sent down to hell.

I suggest that this spirituality of righteous violence still shapes the Christian world, and is embodied particularly in the attitude toward “enemies” in U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Our enemies, whether the leaders of communist states, or Saddam Hussein in Iraq, are always embodiments of Satan. We are the righteous ones waging war to defend the realm of God, democracy and the free market, against these minions of Satan. By righteous violence we destroy or at least suppress the expansion of this evil realm and punish its representatives. If large numbers of innocent civilians die or are injured in the process, this is “collateral damage.” In the words of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, commenting on the children dying in Iran as a result of the embargo, it is “worth the price.”

We view the perpetrators of domestic unrest with the same punitive suspicion. Our prisons are jammed with “criminals” who seldom escape from the “justice system” because their purpose is seen as punishment, not healing. Capital punishment is needed as the ultimate expression of this purging of unregenerate evildoers. The execution of Timothy McVeigh was a startling expression of this “righteous violence” that does “justice” through killing.

Here then are two spiritualities; the spirituality of giving life to sustain the life of the world, and the spirituality of punishing evil to vindicate God. Which is finally more dangerous? Which is finally more “redeemable”?

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001