Sacrificing the Aztecs

Teotihuacan9The sacrificial rites of the Aztecs at the time of their conquest give a rich example of the institutionalizing of sacrifice. The horrific quantity of children sacrificed to bring on rain with their tears, and the men whose hearts were cut out to keep the sun alive leads us to dismiss them as civilized human beings. But they were highly civilized. In the book Sacrifice and Modern thought, two stimulating articles help us understand Aztec sacrifice. Both Laura Rival and David Brown help us sympathize with the Aztecs as human beings. Rival points out that human sacrifice was modeled on the deities who threw themselves into the primordial fire to create the fifth sun and set it in motion. This myth points to a noble disposition behind the sacrifice. It is not hard, however, to see this as a typical myth that hides the collective violence that laid the foundations of their culture.

David Brown summarizes clearly the “flower wars” that were part of the sacrificial system. These wars had become as highly ritualized as the sacrifices performed on the top of the pyramids. The whole purpose of these wars was to capture sacrificial victims in fair fights. The initial chaos leading to the myths and sacrificial rites had led to a complex, highly restrained structure of warfare.

Brown quotes a moving statement by an Aztec leader who says that the Spaniards did not understand “how vital it is for us to give blood to the gods.” As selfless as the sacrifices were, and the Aztecs believed they were rewarded in the afterlife, they were convinced that if they failed to continue these sacrifices, the gods would become angry and turn away from them. Here we have it: as with so many other early cultures, the Aztecs were caught in a sacrificial system that allowed no escape. If the gods are subject to anger and capriciousness, one does not dare turn away from the only rites that had a chance of deflecting the divine wrath.

The structure and restraint of the Aztecs is a dramatic contrast to the chaotic overrunning of their country on the part of the Spanish Conquistadors. Cortes justified these measures out of repulsion at the sacrifices carried out by the conquered people, but in a cruel irony, the Spanish made a cruel holocaust of the sacrificers. A comparison with the lynching of blacks in the United States shows us the same chaotic mob violence. (See Selling Postcards of the Cross.) In The One by Whom Scandal Comes, René Girard contrasts the fundamental way Satan works in archaic cultures and in modern cultures where some awareness of the Gospel has occurred. Among the Aztecs, as with so many other peoples, Satan was the transcendent principal of order. But with Satan cast out of the sky during the ministry of the Hebrew prophet Jesus, Satan acts imminently within human cultures as a disrupter.

In my last post, I noted how killing twins became part of a package of maintaining a satanic social order. (See Twin Killings.) All twins can be thankful that this order has been dismantled. Likewise, we can be grateful that we don’t have pyramids where people’s hearts are torn out. We are free of the satanic order, but we are not free of the chaotic violence that has been unleashed on to the world unless we actively seek the freedom we gain from being grounded in the God of Love who has gathered all Aztec victims into the divine fire that fills us all with eternal life.

Twin Killings

220px-Rubens_Reconciliation_of_Jacob_and_EsauIn baseball a twin killing is a double play: two outs on one batted ball. “Two for the price of one,” as the great Detroit Tigers great sportscaster Ernie Harwell called it. Double plays are a legitimate part of baseball. But there is another kind of twin killing that has been a part of humanity until close to the present day that is not legitimate: the killing of twins.

Why was one, and sometimes, both twins been killed in early societies? René Girard suggests that it was the fear of what he called “mimetic doubles,” two people united through conflict. After the social chaos was resolved by collective violence, societies created structures to prevent the repeat of the chaos as much as possible. Twins, especially identical twins, were too much of an image of the indifferentiation that lead to conflict. They could not be allowed to live. During the time of chaos, indifferentiation was precisely the problem as differences between people melted in the heat of conflict. It is obvious to us now that these babies were innocent victims of society’s fear of mimetic doubles, but in today’s society where social differences are dissolving, perhaps we should fear, not twin babies, but mimetic doubles.

The authors of Genesis had no illusions about the danger of mimetic doubles. Brothers paired off against each other are the driving force of the book, culminating in Joseph’s brothers ganging up on him. Jacob and Esau were twins. The conflict that kept them apart for many years finally resolved in an uneasy reconciliation as Esau turned out to be more forgiving for the wrongs done him than Jacob ever believed possible.

Lois Lowry’s chilling dystopia The Giver also has a twin killing. The society is shown to be peaceful but colorless. (Literally so, as we learn when the protagonist, Matthew, begins to see colors.) It becomes apparent that everything is designed to prevent conflict. There is no courtship or sex; medication stifles the latter and babies are grown in test tubes, implanted in adolescent girls, and distributed to couples, each of whom gets one boy and one girl. Not surprisingly, the cost of this “peaceful” society is high. When Matthew is apprenticed to the Giver, he learns that it is his job to keep track of everything that is happening via TV monitors but to do nothing unless asked, as the job is consultative only. A day or two before Matthew makes his escape, he watches his own father “release” one of two twin babies with a lethal injection, the normal way of releasing somebody. (The elderly are so released at a certain age after a celebration of their lives.)

Much else is shown to be wrong with this society but the killing of a twin shows clearly enough that preserving the peace by squelching mimetic doubles inevitably institutionalizes violence, even if, as in Lowry’s society, it is kept invisible. René Girard would argue that one of many effects of the Cross and Resurrection is that we don’t kill twins and we have the freedom to build God’s kingdom where we actualize the freedom shown by Esau to forgive and then later by Joseph to his brothers. It is no longer possible for social structures to contain the potential violence of mimetic doubles in conflict. It is possible, and in our times, necessary to renounce conflict, even if it means forgiving the theft of a blessing. This renunciation leads to its own blessings. After all, Esau had done pretty well for himself while Jacob was away.

The Cross as a Crisis of Faith

crucifix1Rachel Held Evans recounts her spiritual journey from fundamentalist Christianity to a Christian stance with many more nuances and much more depth in her book Evolving in Monkey Town, the town being Dayton, TN where the famous Scopes Trial, or Monkey Trial, took place. One event made a particularly deep impression on me as it showed how a growing instinct for the Paschal Mystery broadened her vision of a terrible news story she witnessed on TV.

The story was shown in 2001, just before the US invasion of Afghanistan, obviously for the purpose of justifying the invasion on the grounds of the Taliban’s callous treatment of women. (Never mind that if every country that has people who commit atrocities towards women deserve to be invaded, then every country in the world would deserve it!) The video showed a woman named Zarmina, dressed in a burqa, being dragged into a soccer stadium during halftime where she was executed before the capacity crowd. She had been charged with murdering her abusive husband, although a confession extracted after two days torture is rather suspect.

It is very important to note that Rachel’s reaction had nothing to do with criticizing Islam as a religion. Rachel’s problem had to do with Christianity. She had been taught all her life that only those who consciously accept Jesus as savior can be saved. But seeing a woman suffering such an atrocity on TV made it very hard for her to believe that a woman who had suffered so badly should have her suffering compounded by spending eternity in hellish torment because she had died a Moslem. That Zarmina had said her Moslem prayers in the face of what her co-religionists were doing to her speaks strongly for the power of Islam as a source of deep spirituality.

It became very hard for Rachel to believe that a loving god would predestine a woman like this to hell. When she thought about the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the gassing of Iraqi Kurds and the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Anne Frank among them, it became harder than ever for Rachel to believe this of God who had sent his only begotten Son, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. She noted that in Sunday school, hell had been presented as a place for people like Hitler, but with no mention of his victims. Yet, all of Hitler’s victims who were Jewish were excluded from Heaven according to what she had been taught.

This event precipitated a crisis of faith that lasted several years. The irony is, this crisis was caused, not by a self-centered doubt about God, but by a deepening formation within her of the Paschal Mystery. If the risen and forgiving Jesus is the “living interpretive principle,” as James Alison says, then Jesus does not just interpret the scriptures, although obviously he does that, but Jesus interprets everything everywhere through the Paschal Mystery. So it is that all victims from Abel to the latest youth killed in urban gang warfare are brought into the Cross, and from there, raised to the life of the Resurrection. What Rachel had experienced as a crisis of faith was really a deepening of faith in the scope of the Paschal Mystery. So it is that Zarmina was surely gathered into deeper and greater life blossoming from the Moslem prayers she recited just before she died.