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 you...to 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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