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The savagery of ISIS fouls the nightly news day after day


The savagery of ISIS bloodies the news day after day.

That savagery prompts a like response in me: to treat savagely the perpetrators.  With the decapitations in mind, we could devise a modern guillotine that would clang down its track stopping just short of the prisoner's neck, repeated two or three times to add the horror of anticipation to the penalty, and on the third and final fall doing its cleaving all the way.  Or we could lock several of them in a cage mounted over gas burners and let them fry to death.

A neck for a neck and a roast for a roast.  Something like that.  A very natural impulse.  Do it to me and I'll do it to you; and, if not shamed by the Law, I'll do it twice as bad to you. Sainted imaginations are not immune to the internal clamoring for retribution. "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino's retributive fantasy for African-American slaves, in which the owners are savaged, suggests the victims of the Old South harbored sentiments other than "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." I understand.

Thank God, not everything thought is done. 

There is a counter impulse abroad in humanity.  And I think I know where it originated: a couple of thousand years ago on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea in and around a small village of little account where a young man got it into his head that the brutal cycle of retribution should be stopped for  God's sake and ours.  The fellow in question was steeped in the Law of Moses, knew it by heart, and, better yet, knew in his heart the purposes of God. 

He taught, "If anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other also."  In those days they hadn't heard of "machismo," but they laughed nonetheless at the naiveté of the young carpenter from Galilee, wondering where on earth he came by that strange notion.  Then when he added, "Love your enemies"; and "Do good to those who treat you badly"; they put him in the company of those who were gently addled, but addled nonetheless.  Imagine, if you can (and I think you can) what his contemporaries would have thought when he taught the world to pray about being forgiven for our sins only as we are ready to forgive others theirs.

But it did not occur to those who knew a thing or two about the way the world really operates to honor Jesus' words as wisdom.  

We still don't.  We put them on a pedestal as idealistic, sure.  We think wistfully, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if it were true": of course.  But as a strategy for lancing the poisonous savagery of retribution?  Believe that and I've got a pistol to sell you that shoots magic bullets turning the raging bull into a little lamb. 

That that peripatetic carpenter rabbi meant what he said and thoroughly believed in the efficacy of forgiveness and self-sacrifice to change the world and the way we deal with each other... well, I also have a cross to show you.  On which Jesus, according to one of the faithfuls' most frequent refrains, died to save us from our sins. There on Golgotha, Christians are supposed to believe, he was the victor over sin, death, and evil, which evil includes the impulse to savagery.

A couple of millennia later Christians are hard pressed to provide evidence that the world has changed much because of that Jewish carpenter.  But I heard an acknowledgement of just that on a TV news program where one of the talking heads used the term "modernity," insisting that the Islamic world had yet to come to terms with the modern age.  I think he meant more than that savagery is or ought to be out of vogue.  I heard his comment as an echo of the words of the peripatetic rabbi referred to previously. I mean, where did it enter the consciousness of the human race that savagery is... well... savagery, something beyond which the human race should have grown?  When did we get to the point that beheadings and hangings and burnings at the stake are inhumane?  Meditate on that word, "inhumane."  And still more to the point, ask why they have become so.

You can easily guess my explanation.  We are reaping the fruition of two thousand years of the seminal thought of a young man on a mountainside preaching peace and, on another mount, dying for it.  




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