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Violence Shadows Reverence

Jan 26, 1995 11:56 AM
by K. Paul Johnson

   Recent discussions on both Talisman and theos-l have inspired
   the following reflections.  It seems that violence, at least
   of a psychological sort, is the shadow of reverence.  In
   Jungian terms the shadow is the unconscious, unacknowledged
   side of ourselves.  Enantiodromia is the tendency of things to
   turn into their opposites; in this case conscious reverence
   becomes unconscious violence.  How does this happen?

   Reverence is a universal human response to our experience of
   the sacred.  Each person has the capacity to have the
   experience of awestruck contemplation and worshipful yearning
   towards the transcendent.  The encounter with the sacred and
   the reverent response can only happen within our souls; yet it
   is stimulated by external circumstances like "sacred" places,
   books, teachers, institutions.  IMHO these things are only
   sacred in that they stimulate our contact with the Unknowable
   Divine.  But the intensity of the reverence response causes us
   to project what is really our own sacredness onto
   environmental circumstances.  We make fetishes of books,
   places, etc.  through projection of what is noblest and most
   holy in the inner world onto outer objects.  Gurdjieff would
   call this "identification."

   This isn't blameworthy in itself, but it sets us up to behave
   in a blameworthy fashion.  Any criticism or irreverence by
   someone else directed toward the objects we have identified as
   sacred is taken by us as a personal attack, because we have
   projected our personal energies into it.  Perception of attack
   evokes a primitive reptilian-brain fight-or-flight response.
   The belief that "we cannot coexist" may become a stimulus to
   violent aggression justified as "self-defense" or to avoidance
   of the source of threat, or some combination of the two.  I
   vividly remember walking down a street minding my own business
   and being violently attacked by a Blue Jay because unknowingly
   I was approaching too close to the nest where his/her babies
   were.  The bird was totally identified with that nest and
   those chicks, caught up in the sacred cycle of life, and
   convinced (to anthropomorphize) that anyone treading on this
   sacred ground deserved violent punishment.  People do the same
   thing on a regular basis, and in our case religion is a major
   stimulus to violence.

   Khomeini's fatwa on Salman Rushdie was based on a sense that
   he had violated the sacredness of a book revered by Muslims.
   Reverence for the book transformed itself into violence
   against Rushdie.  Jim Jones and David Koresh believed that
   they had created sacred communities; their followers'
   reverence for them led to the murder of outsiders perceived as
   threats, and then to self-destruction.  The centuries-old
   mosque in Avodhya was destroyed last year by a Hindu mob,
   convinced that the sacred site of Rama's birth had been
   defiled by Muslim construction and that reverence for the site
   demanded violence toward the mosque.

   Violence isn't just physical.  Abusive language is a form of
   psychological violence, and it appears pretty regularly on
   religion-oriented newsgroups and mailing lists.  On Talisman,
   the violent shadow of reverence has shown itself most vividly
   when people close to the House of Justice (who had worked at
   the World Centre) reacted to criticism of that institution.
   My first reaction was to blame that body for fostering an
   atmosphere conducive to such behavior, but this seems unfair.
   On reflection, it seems likely that those who have worked
   there will have the highest degree of identification with the
   institution, will therefore interpret criticism of it as a
   personal attack, and are therefore most susceptible to the
   shadow-side of religious violence.  On theos-l, psychological
   violence has been evoked in response to criticism of
   historical persons revered by some participants and not

   A cross-post seems justified by the fact that Baha'i and
   Theosophy are both explicitly devoted to ending religious
   violence.  It seems that when we are most consumed by a
   conviction that we are defending God by attacking our fellow
   (wo)man, we are in fact at our most diabolical.  As
   Baha'u'llah wrote about Baha'is who murdered three Azalis, "My
   captivity cannot harm Me.  That which can harm Me is the
   conduct of those who love Me, who claim to be related to Me,
   and yet perpetrate what causeth My heart and My pen to
   groan...That which can make Me ashamed is the conduct of such
   of My followers as profess to love Me, yet in fact follow the
   Evil One." Talisman subscribers who either use or encourage
   abusive language in this newsgroup might well read the above
   passage another time or two.

   For Theosophists, HPB stated much the same argument when she
   wrote to the American TS weeks before her death: "Now I have
   marked with pain a tendency among quarrel over
   trifles, and to allow your very devotion to the cause of
   Theosophy to lead you into disunion...advantage is often taken
   by our ever-watchful enemies of your noblest qualities to
   betray and mislead you."

   Moral: Baha'is and Theosophists, if you ever think that your
   reverence for God or Masters etc.  is inspiring you to treat
   your fellows with abuse, be aware that the true inspiration
   for such behavior comes from a very shadowy place indeed.

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