Monday, May 18, 2009

Picturing Hell



GQ Magazine recently published a story with accompanying photos regarding intelligence briefings originating from the Department of Defense and furnished to The White House. The cover-sheet photos of these reports showed triumphant images of US. Military actions in the Iraq War appearing beneath biblical quotations. Frequently, these reports were hand delivered to The White House by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield.


Having endured several years of Rumsfield pronouncements I was familiar with his self-righteous rhetoric; with the revelations of these bible verse laden reports it is apparent that what I had considered self-righteous, Mr. Rumsfield himself (and presumably other top officials in the Bush Administration) considered RIGHTEOUS.


Certainly, Rumsfield isn’t the first government representative to seek to ally The Almighty to military adventures. The Bible itself is full of armies putting the unbelievers to the sword. A central symbol of Christianity—the Cross itself—moved to representative prominence with the vision of the Roman Emperor Constantine who, it is said, was granted military victory by his embrace of Christianity and by emblazoning the shields of his soldiers with the Cross prior to battle. Prior to this peculiar alignment, the religion of Jesus represented itself with symbols of life—fish and bread. From Constantine on, however, Christianity became known by the Cross, an instrument of torture.


The critic George Steiner in his book “In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Toward the Redefinition of Culture” implicates monotheism in providing psychological wounds to human kind still being worked out in our civilizations. The graphic representations of hell-fire and damnation, prominent in our Western Tradition provide the “rough sketches” for Inquisitions, pogroms, Death camps, and the current idea of a “permanent state of war” waged on terrorism. In a linear conception of Time such as we understand History, all life moves toward a final reckoning, an Apocalypse, an End-Time.


The dangerous hubris of what the Rumsfield reports reveal is the identification of narrow national interest with complex symbology, manipulated for geo-political gain via the U.S. military. The military itself, having been evangelized, increasingly views itself as doing “God’s Will.” Theology these days comes form the barrel of a gun.


Religious language of any religious tradition is laden with metaphors, which, if taken literally, become dangerous realities of degradation and domination. Subtleties of language are ignored at great peril. Onward Christian Soldiers marching AS to war—a reference to spiritual battles, becomes in the zealot’s mouth justification for holy war.


As the poet and novelist Jim Harrison remarked, “There is no such thing as a free metaphor.” I fear we will be paying the price for the appropriation of these metaphors for generations.


anno said...

I appreciated the pointer to this article, as bewildered and horrified as it left me. Thanks for posting it.

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Interesting comments. I will certainly read the article, as well.

I love our "separation of Church and State" society.