On Violence and Control
We live in a modern world, a world that has known the power of peace as well as the force of violence and war. A world that has known King and his dreams of the mountaintop. That witnessed Gandhi leading hundreds to the shore, stooping to gather the sea salt forbidden to them by law but offered freely and ceaselessly by something far greater and older than empire. And it is no less true for being trite: these days we have the capacity for obscene violence as well. This world we live in has seen the invention of atomic weapons by men cloistered away in sterile laboratories, and the use of those weapons to intimidate and threaten, to bring whole cities broken and poisoned to the ground. I share this world with you, and together we have watched our modern culture grow bloated and listless with propagandistic marketing trends and diet fast food. Yet alongside these we've felt a dawning common understanding that can no longer excuse violence against women and the marginalized, nor accept the callous mechanizations that would treat nature as fuel to burn for turning a profit. These times are unique, with their contradictions and global communications networks. There is no going back. We live in a world in tension, a culture brought precariously to the brink of tremendous violence again and again. How can we live, fully and freely, in such a world?
In modern society, war and advertising, factory-farming and imperial political bullying all share a common assumption about the nature of uncertainty and how we ought to respond. When equated with insecurity, our lack of certainty can be frightening, a fundamental threat to our survival; even at best, it is an inconvenience keeping our ambitions in check and jeopardizing our plans for the future. Society teaches us that the unknown should be excised, that mystery is dangerous and our uncertainty irresponsible. In its place, we strive for the security and efficiency of control. We fight back against the whims of weather and ecology by spraying down our genetically-modified monoculture crops with petrochemical fertilizers and insecticides. We ensure the success of our new plastic-cased microtechnology fad with the right marketing aimed at the most vulnerable demographics. We protect the borders of our nations through threat as well as force, seeking a dominant role in world politics so that we do not feel ourselves at the mercy of the unknown lurking behind foreign eyes. In the face of uncertainty, we lock down, prepared to exercise all our power to keep ourselves safe and whole.
This obsession with security and control which largely defines our modern society inevitably leads to wide-spread systemic violence on all levels of community life. The word "violence" comes from the Latin violentia, which translates as vehemence or impetuosity, both words that well describe our culture's brash, forceful pursuit of certainty and mastery. Related is the verb violare, which gives rise to the English "violate" and means "to treat with violence or irreverence, to dishonor." Violence is not merely an act of destruction or harm; it is a rejection or denial of the unique and meaningful individuality of another being, a violation of our sacred relationship with the other. Such rejection of the other is a fundamental characteristic of a cultural system based on a need to control, for to honor other-ness as meaningful we must acknowledge that others are greater than our attempts to explain and define them and, thus, they remain essentially beyond our control. The Other remains a mystery.
The irony is that, as systemic violence runs rampant on a large scale seeking to impose order on uncertainty, our daily lives have grown increasingly safe and predictable, with much of the degradation and harm occurring behind a veil of propriety and sanitized professionalism. This makes the violence of the modern world harder to identify and resist, but it also opens up a space of calm in which ordinary individuals can begin the work of living peacefully. In this cultural space, we have grown more receptive to the lessons of diversity and interconnection, giving birth to environmental and civil rights movements alike. Modern science and innovations in technology reveal a global ecology that is both biological and social in nature, and we cannot escape or ignore the growing awareness that what happens on the other side of the world has ramifications that reach all the way to our own doorsteps, and vice versa. Of course, this burgeoning ecological sense can itself be a source of uncertainty and stress, especially when we begin to perceive our own participation in systemic violence and experience the helplessness that often follows. Add to this the din and flashing lights of constant advertisement bombardment, and the fear-mongering of sensationalist media, and we may still find ourselves living in a state of artificially-inflated anxiety and insecurity despite our fairly mundane, domesticated lives.
Fear drives us to make excuses, for ourselves as well as for others. Rather than acknowledge the violence underlying a social philosophy of control, we excuse each instance of state or corporate violence as a forced hand that, with the proper knowledge and power in play, can surely be avoided in the future. Confronted with uncertainty in our own lives, we worry that we as individuals are not strong enough or capable of enough, that we will fall victim to chance or malice or our own impetuousness. We cite every lame, ineffectual excuse that comes to mind, rather than commit to a philosophy of engaged, creative peace-making. Not because we believe that violence is inherent or unavoidable; after all, most of us live every day without acting violently towards others, and examples of effective peaceful cooperation are literally everywhere, so ubiquitous that at times they are almost as invisible as water is to a fish. No, we reject pacifism, we turn away from an active commitment to peace, because we are afraid. We fear what such a commitment might demand of us, and we doubt our ability to live up to these standards. We worry that our commitment would leave us vulnerable, would ask us to give up our attempts to control others and instead respect them as sacred in the very difference and mystery that leaves us at the mercy of chance. We reject out-of-hand the notion that we might find peace and prosperity if we relinquish our hold. In short, we are afraid because ending our violence against others means that we must face the possibility of our own destruction.
But there is no going back. We have already consented to our own destruction, with the passing of time, with the changing seasons. To live is to face the risk of death, and today's Pagan, joyfully and reverently immersed in the cycles of change and revolution, knows this better than most. As Pagans, and as people, we cannot ignore the need for fearlessness in our modern world, a call that resounds off every hillside and parking garage. Faced with systemic violence, it is no longer enough to hunker down and concern ourselves with the private struggles so often seen as the realm of the religious life. Ours is a social path as well as an individual one, with a sense of community and shared ritual embedded at its very core. We look back to the spiritual ways of our ancestors, but we cannot pretend to live in a pre-modern world any more than we can stop another winter from coming on. We find this world of ours, here and now, saturated with violence and dishonor on many levels. We must find ways that we can respond meaningfully to this reality, or we risk acquiescing to and perpetuating a schizophrenic culture of insecurity and violence.
Peace in the Celtic Past
The world today demands an active commitment to peace and preservation, to creative pacifism in the face of systemic violence. Our spiritual lives take root in this world, in the reality of the here and now, but they dig deep, seeking out the sustenance of ancient wisdom, the myths and rituals of our ancestors. Modern Paganism often upholds the ideal of fierce and noble warriorship, with its mythic heroes and unfathomable gods shaping landscapes with their battles, bringing art and wisdom and life itself into being with each clash of their numinous power. On the other hand, Revival Druidry in particular sometimes evokes the image of stodgy old men of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries declaring peace to the four quarters while their own imperial government sought the false peace of "civilizing the savages" through colonization. But we no longer live in a world where tribal loyalties and blood oaths alone, nor the motives and methods of empire, can offer all the meaningful guidance we need. Our identities have expanded; we live now as members of a world community as well as of our families, local neighborhoods and nations. If Paganism is to remain a vibrant and relevant spiritual path, we need to begin the work of exploring our roots with a mind to peace. We must seek out the seeds of pacifism, a mythology of creative, engaged peace-making rather than of brute force and glorified war.
This is not to say that we should willfully re-imagine our past as idyllic, or else abandon it completely. We cannot learn from our ancestors and their struggles if we do not first seek to understand the complex cultures of the past in their own right, shaped by people who were responding to times of war and hardship as well as times of prosperity and tranquility. But this does not mean we should limit ourselves or attempt to restrict or deny a living engagement with our traditions. When we endeavor to take our heritage seriously, we approach its stories and art as people living in the modern world, drawing new meanings and understandings that may not have occurred to those who lived millennia ago. This is what it means to have a living tradition, a thriving practical spiritual heritage rather than merely an academic interest. We acknowledge and respect our ancestors when we live complex, meaningful lives of our own, engaged as they were in the very real daily struggles of honor and justice, love and gratitude.
The ancient Celtic past gives us many examples of war and warriorship in image and story. Some of the most well-known and widely-read myths of Ireland and Wales — the Book of Invasions and the Tain Bo Cuailnge, as well as the Second and Fourth Branches of the Mabinogion, to name just a few — center on great battles, sometimes between the gods, sometimes among leaders of local tribes over possession of some sacred object of power or status. Icons and idols of gods and goddesses of war, destruction and death were common enough, archeological research tells us, and often dwelt alongside deities of fertility, prosperity and healing. It can be difficult to see our way to the kind of philosophy of peace that the modern world compels us to adopt, when our roots soon reach the tough bedrock of individual glory in battle and petty disputes between kin over the trophies of war.
On the surface, this is the very character of sacred mythological texts and traditions from other ancient spiritual paths. In Hinduism, we find the Bhagavad-Gita, a story of the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, avatar of the god Vishnu, faced to battle Arjuna's kin in order to claim the throne. Yet within the Gita, Gandhi and others have found spiritual truths of fearlessness and self-discipline essential to the path of creative nonviolence (or satyagraha). Likewise, the Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa draws on the old Tibetan legend of the warrior-kings of Shambhala to seek out the rich and fruitful path of the sacred warrior living in the modern Western world. In both of these cases, the insights gained from such inherited wisdom are not restricted to literal interpretations of glorified violence and obedience to cultural hierarchies, but grow and evolve organically into a meaningful and powerful philosophy creative peace-making and practical loving-kindness. With these role models before us, we can set about the task of approaching the cultural traditions of our Celtic ancestry with a similar intent, teasing out themes of wisdom that can provide context and guidance for our modern lives.
To begin this work, we turn to the archeological evidence for the religious practices and institutions of the Celtic past, including the aesthetics of its religious art and architecture. Supplementing this research are the few texts preserved and passed on relating the mythology and folk traditions of the Celtic peoples, as well as modern reinterpretations and the work of historians to sift out authentic pre-Christian paganism from the glosses of later Christianity. With all of this information at our disposal — though much of it is controversial or obscure — the simplest approach can sometimes be the most effective. Three themes immediately present themselves as vital to the Celtic worldview when we approach our sources with an eye and heart attuned to peace: the themes of individuality, vulnerability and the interdependence of creation and destruction. These concepts are expressed time and again in both the mythology and the archeological evidence of ancient Celtic culture, through reverence for the head, depictions of warrior nakedness, and the iconography of the sky-warrior in particular.
This essay originally appeared in Sky Earth Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality, Winter 2009. Many thanks to my editors, Paige Varner and Bob Patrick, for their encouragement and feedback. The essay in its entirety now appears as a permanent page, and can be accessed at any time by clicking the Pagan Pacifism button just below the header of this blog.