16 08 2008

Is the belief in heaven and hell an internalised wish for revenge on those who do us wrong?

I was thinking today about the terrible accounts of survivors of Srebrinice which I watched on the television at the time, and on the dreadful liberties taken by the Russian troops in Georgia, a sovereign state, just this month.

My particular attention was focused on those doing such unspeakable things to innocent people, who had done them personally no harm whatsoever. What made them continue with the attacks on men, women and children past the point of torture?

A man described on British television news how he had been beaten, and his sister raped, in front of their father, who had to sit and watch and do nothing, on pain of death. For what? They were civilian, and children at that. 

Brian at The House of Inanna speaks on this subject with force and clarity today, and I commented; I remembered then that I had begun this post and it was saved in my drafts folder. I want to finish it now, because I believe we need to try and face these things and to talk about them, in every walk of society. Darfur? Is this beleaguered region in the news much? No. And if what’s happening there was happening in London, how different the story would be.

Where do humans get the ability to fundamentally ignore the evil happening a world away? Nowhere’s very far from anywhere now; isn’t that what we’re told? 

I try hard not to make this an issue about violence against women, but really, it is. We are perceived to be weak both on our own account and on the account of our children, and therefore a target for special cruelty. Beatrice, in Much Ado, when faced with the disgrace of her cousin, berates herself, saying, ‘Oh, if I were a man!’. I don’t want to be a man. I think most men might disassociate themselves from men like these.

I want men of violence to stop using their sexuality against women and children in war zones, and against their fellow men by extension. 

So when we consider the Christian embodiment of Hell, is it that we want such perpetrators to burn eternally? Perhaps. I don’t understand the mad corruption that comes over a person to cause them to act so atrociously. They are truly the furthest from grace in such a state. In any case, neo-pagans don’t have a hell to which to condemn the guilty; so what then do we do?

Perhaps we ought to act here, now, in this life. One innocent life saved must be worth it – or am I being unbelievably idealistic?




22 responses

17 08 2008

You rightly ask some difficult questions. I think that our ability to ignore the terrible things going on in our world is partly because in many ways we have not caught up with what our technology now enables.
We are so surrounded by an inescapable avalanche of terrible news we risk madness, so we numb ourselves, or escape into the latest inane celebrity gossip. (Don’t get me started on the tabloids… And is it just me or are there half-a-dozen blonde girls called Sienna around?)
We humans naturally congregate in small, local groups. In times past, we would have known the business of our neighbours, we formed real communities. Although there would have been feuding, we would also have protected each other.
I’m not trying to minimise the patriarchal side of our former more rural, more natural lives, nor to idealise them. But I do think that the scale on which we now live, and the impersonality, combined with the instant and personal transmission of news we would not otherwise in our entire lifetimes have heard, can cause us to shut down in self-defence.
And yes, military violence is being aimed at women and the weak. Any kind of honourable “code” that soldiers may once have tried (and often failed) to live by seems to have disappeared. We have all become brutalised, perpetrators and victims alike.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr speaks of the role Christians have played in upholding a patriarchy that allows this brutalisation in his book Simplicity, The Freedom of Letting Go. He says:
“We white males have been holding all the cards, naming all the questions, and providing all the answers for the entire Christian era – except for those few golden years when God took poor flesh in Jesus. He took twelve Jewish men and tried to show them how they could be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Males continued to build towers and operate as lords over others, and women stuff just didn’t fit in. That is the world and the Church that I was born into. It is preoccupied with domination and status-quo logic to this day…”
Rohr, for whom I have huge admiration, teaches a radical Christianity of the poor and the marginalised. He says that the Church has never lived by the actual teachings of Christ, and places the blame for much of what is going on in the world today on white male Christian shoulders. He says that in faith, and by extension in life, it is we women who will lead the world out of the quagmire of patriarchy.
Or else we won’t, I guess.

17 08 2008
The Green Witch

My dear Tess – I have heard you speak of Richard Rohr before; he sounds immensely humane and lucid. I must seek out his work – perhaps the book you reference would be a good one to begin with?

I’m in the process of doing some work on the dichotomy between nature and culture, and the way that nature, and by extension women, have been historically and systematically devalued. What interests me is the way in which destructive, aggressive behaviour is seen as more valuable in culture generally than creative, nurturing behaviour. More to come on this.

17 08 2008

I wonder if there’s such a thing as a “Rohr bore”… 😉 Yes, the book I mention is a good one. He’s unabashedly Christian, but in a way that – mostly – works for me at least.
Really looking forward to hearing what you describe in your second paragraph.

17 08 2008
The Green Witch

Rohr bore – I like that! 🙂

I’ve got no problems with someone who espouses their beliefs plainly and honestly. I want to hear what he has to say – it sounds as though he’s not afraid to speak his mind!

18 08 2008

I think that, in order to make sense of the world, some people need to believe in heaven and hell. When they look around and see good people suffering, they want to believe that those innocent people will be rewarded later, in some sort of afterlife. It’s the same when those people consider “evil” people, like murderers, rapists, and child abusers. They need to believe that there will be some sort of retribution…otherwise, it’s easy to give way to despair. I don’t think it’s a barbaric need for revenge, necessarily, but a need for peace of mind.

18 08 2008
The Green Witch

Sarah, I see what you mean. It seems to tie in with what Tess has outlined in her response – we have shut down part of our feeling sides in self-defence, lest we get overwhelmed and driven mad by the barbarity of it all.

Peace of mind is necessary. But, as Brian from House of Inanna said, we are members of the global elite, just by dint of living in the West and being moderately upwardly mobile. Can we allow ourselves the luxury of peace of mind? I’m beginning to wonder.

18 08 2008
Abdur Rahman

Peace Green Witch,

An interesting post. Thanks for the link to House of Innana. It looks like an interesting blog.

Is hell an internalised desire for revenge? There is probably a lot to what you say, though I don’t think it’s the whole story. Personally, as a Muslim and as an individual, such things belong to God – Who alone has the right/knowledge/power to inflict such punishment. That said, I do not believe that God is in any sense capricious, nor is God a torturer (a kind of violator/rapist writ large, as it were). The Quran presents the last judgement in all sorts of ways, one of the most important being in the form of a book. Every deed is written therein and nothing is left out, so it is said. In other words, perhaps it’s really about re-living the pain we cause through the eyes of the person wronged? Literally, being in their shoes, so to speak?

I don’t have all the answers by any means and I do struggle with the concept of hell, I will admit. That said, I think it is important that we strive to understand that the Divine (however conceived) is more than a mere projection of our own hopes, fears, ego-drives and so on. For me, God is Justice (one of God’s names in the Islamic tradition being, al-Adl – the Just – and al-Hakim – the Judge) – but God’s understanding is eternally greater than ours (because justice is connected to intention). al-Muntaqim is another of God’s names in the Quran, which means ‘The Avenger of Evil’.

An interesting Sufi tale, which I will paraphrase, has a man arrive in hell, surprised to find it ice cold. When asking one of the other inhabitants about it, he is told ‘Fire? Oh, you bring that with you yourself’!

I agree with Tess’ points about modern life, etc. What place faith/spirituality in all of this? Rohr’s comments resonate with me strongly. Religion, in this sense, should be about the questioning voice – is this right? Why?

18 08 2008
The Green Witch

Salaam, Abdur. How right you are. Questioning voices need to be raised. I have a sneaking suspicion that, for all sort sof reasons, neo-paganism is a place where people can come and be at peace from the world at large, and perhaps avoid thorny questions like this, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. However, all proponents of a spiritual life need to raise our voices and make the point that this sort of insane world order, where power and brutality do instead of reason and compassion, will not stand.

God is justice, and god’s understanding is greater than ours, immeasurably so. It is very hard for humans to remember this, and to work within the confines of the problem – so very hard. But it doesn’t mean, I think, that we need stand by and wait for revenge to be meted out by those who are empowered to bring it – the gods. Would you agree? I’d be very interested to hear your take on this.

I feel strongly that as the ones with the luxury and the time on hand to spend on spiritual pursuits, we ought to devote a tithe of our time to helping the poeple to whom the dream of a peace in which to think and just be is a faint and bitter memory.

I think it’s also worth noting that we are where we are though an accident of birth; our gods have placed us with no reference to us; we’ve been put here for a reason. We don’t know what that reason is, but again, your point about the questioning voice rings true – we can make an educated guess.

You can tell I have a bee in my bonnet over this! 🙂

Blessings! TGW

18 08 2008

When I walked the Christian path, I found I frequently had trouble with the concept of hell. The idea of eternal punishment was hard for me to reconcile with the loving God I was raised to believe in. As you mused in your response to Abdur Rahman’s comment, I have found in neo-paganism a certain kind of peace in this regard, but I do become rather troubled when I think about my hopes for my family far into the future. In many ways, I hope that the spiritual formation of my (as-of-now-hypothetical) grandchildren will be quite a bit less dogmatic than what my own children experienced–all were raised in the Catholic faith and educated in Catholic schools, and all of them have expressed grave doubts to me about that same faith to the point where one has renounced that faith completely and the two others I would describe as agnostic. And yet, all of them remain firmly grounded in terms of personal and social morality. How much of their moral grounding, I wonder, comes from years and years of Catholic education? And if future generations of my family are educated in more secular settings, will they develop the moral underpinnings necessary to act here and now, as you suggested in the closing lines of your post? How do we as pagan parents/grandparents/teachers, transmit a sense of right and wrong to children, while at the same time avoiding the rigidity that drove us away from the faith traditions in which we were raised?

Thanks so much for your post on revenge. It is good to know I am not alone in trying to tackle this dilemma.


18 08 2008
Brian Charles

Maybe I am jaded but i find that those who talk most of hell do not do so because of some personal wrong for which they seek revenge – that would be both understandable and forgiveable I know, as a single parent, that if anyone had hurt my son then i would probably have relished the idea of their eternal punishment.

What i see, however, is a discourse of hell being reserved for gays and for others who offend the sensibilities of those who consider themselves “saved”. “Devout” politicians order young people to visit fire on women, children and men from the safety of tanks, missiles and high altitude bombers and then talk, without any sense of irony, about the “evil” of suicide bombers and use that evil as a justification to send in more tanks, rain down more fire. And, of course, the suicide bombers are, by definition, beyond punishment , so the many corpses are oftenj, inevitably, “collateral damage”. And those politicians wrap themselves in the flags of their sanctity

Hell, as a concept, seems to me to have been mainly used to exert control through fear and then as a form of spiritual elitism – the “I am saved, but you are not” syndrome. There often appears to be a sort of glee expressed. Those people who, in all traditions, work for reconciliation, justice and healing do not seem to speak of hell. Perhaps because they see that too many people are already there.

19 08 2008
Abdur Rahman

Peace Green Witch,

Perhaps, for many (including myself at one time), ‘spirituality’ (in whatever form) is a way of running away from life’s difficulties. This is one of the dangers of an over-emphasis on world renunciation. I am always brought back to my senses by those close to me. I am also grounded by remembering that life is about relationship – relating to self and other. What I want for myself I should give to others. What I want for others I should give to myself. With regards to action, this means regarding the ‘other’ as an intimate, though hidden, element of my ‘self’.

There are some within the Islamic tradition (and in others too I suspect) that fall in to the fatalistic trap you describe. It is not one I subscribe to at all. God requires action. To paraphrase a verse from the Quran, ‘God does not change the condition of a people till they change what is in themselves’.

As for acts of injustice, they must be challenged here and now (which is the thought underlying Shariah law). That said, it must always be remembered that complete justice is impossible for human beings, because we are inherently limited in insight, knowledge and perspective.

To follow on from Sabrina’s point, since we had children, my wife and I have been faced with issues of injustice in a deeply personal manner, in ways that I had not expected. To take a recent example, British Gas’ unjust price rises/profiteering has made me far, far angrier than it would have before because I keep thinking that they are stealing from my children – and, if they are stealing from my children, they (and others like them) are stealing from everyone else’s children. Allah!

Blessed be

Abdur Rahman

19 08 2008

I wish I had answers for you. I too am baffled at how people behave during times of war or even during times of peace. The horrible acts against man period. But you’re right we need to start here and now and do what we can. Even in the small guestures like helping each other. No it’s not a big step and it’s not going to solve the issues, but it’s a start somewhere. Any little bit can help. Thank you for giving us something more to think of today.

19 08 2008
The Green Witch

Thank you Sabrina, Brian, Abdur, ScarletBegonia, for your wonderful comments. There’s a great deal to say and I want to do it justice – I will be posting again soon here.

My friends – your thoughtfulness on this has made me think very hard indeed!

Blessings x

19 08 2008

I grew up with the concept of hell. People often speak of the life of guilt that being raised Catholic brings, and indeed it can do, but never underestimate the burden that being raised in a fundamental Christian family can bring, it takes years to ‘wash’ ones mind free from the brainwashing.

I, like Brian, tend to see the concept of hell as one of means of control. I remember, after I had finished at Bible college and as my Christian faith was waning, saying to someone that being at Bible college (remember this was a fundamental college) was like being in a clone making factory. Everyone came in, unique, special, different, and went out all speaking the same, believing the same, acting the same, even dressing the same. All individuality had gone, such was the power of control.

The concept of hell is much the same, it reigns people it, it imprisons people in fear, it traps and restricts, and it pervades our society today. For years I heard from the pulpit that I was going to hell if I dared to love, because my love was an abomination. Hell justifies judgment, and judgment condemns people to hate and to fear, not just from the hands of those who hurl physical bombs, but those who hurl words of hate on our streets, because someone looks, dresses, speaks or acts differently. Hell condemns us to sameness and closes the door on the celebration of difference. It somehow justifies our own prejudices in this sense.

I’m not sure where all that came from, but this is what hell makes me think of. Not so much revenge, but something of a judgment call on those that claim to be the ‘moral majority’ passing judgment on those they claim to be ‘less than.’ This can’t help but make me angry!

20 08 2008
The Green Witch

Andy, what a story. The moral majority idea is not one I’d previously given the weight it deserved. Thank you for sharing this.

I’m thinking about all this as hard as my poor brain can trundle. Thoughts to follow!

21 08 2008
The Green Witch

Finally, I have the peace and the space to think clearly about these comments. Things are slightly turbulent chez TGW at the moment!

Sabrina, my dear; on the subject of the upbringing of children, it’s something that has clearly got resonances for me too. I have come to think of it like this. We can differentiate quite calmly between religion, spirituality and morals. All are connected, and all to an extent supportive of each other. For my part, Rowan will get the latter two segments of the pie – and not the former, in any explicit sense, unless he seeks it out or asks to be included in mine.

As we have seen so clearly here, with the differing faiths and paths represented, we can find common ground, if we discuss our spiritual beliefs as well as the dogma that supports them. When a child sees a good person and learns from them, I think that the religion held by the teacher is irrelevant. The child learns the lessons anyway. It is only when grown-ups insist on imposing a named brand of religion on children that the issue comes up. Perhaps?

Brian – I recognise that smug, gleeful attitude when one speaks of who is saved and who is not. How can people be so arrogant as to presume that they are not off to a hot place? What happened to ‘take the beam out of thine own eye…?’ Tess’s comments above regarding Richard Rohr interests me in this context – his attempts to preach a doctrine of marginalisation as the true spirit of Christianity; a direct antithesis to the white, rich, male, heterosexual (I think they’d like to think…) ‘Christians’ of the moral majority and the Christian Right in the States, particularly. These people make me feel ill; and uneasy, because there’s so many of them, and they’re so wrong. Churchill said that all that is needed for evil to flourish, is that good men do nothing. Is this where we are?

21 08 2008
The Green Witch

Blessed Be, Abdur. I am immensely interested by what you say and I concur with the view that our gods want and expect us to act independently to change things for the better. Adding on to the Churchill quotation I appended to my answer to Brian, I think that to do something in opposition to tyranny, oppression, violence is what is required here. Not an equal and opposite reaction, which would be god’s place. Just whatever we can do to assert our moral right to disagree vehemently with the actions of those we oppose. We need to stand firm in our moral assurance that these things are wrong, and be clear in our own minds that they are wrong. And as for the gas situation – ditto! I’m not quite shopping at Lidl yet but it’s looming.

21 08 2008
The Green Witch

ScarletBegonia – I think you cut right to the chase here, as you’ve seen from my other responses. Whatever we can do. No-one can do everything, but everyone can do something.

Andy – I do wonder how much guilt and so on I have accumulated from my upbringing. It must resonate. I don’t give it much thought, but the stain of it must infuse everything I write. Should we excise it completely? There’s some good in the bad, there must be.

The judgement that can only belong to God, that of saying who is lesser and who is more, is employed far too readily by us here on Earth. You don’t strike me as an ideal candidate for a fundamentalist Bible college, I’m glad you’re with us here! Love is rare and precious, the fact of human connection and attraction is mysterious and sacred in its own way. None of us has the right to judge it.

Eddie Izzard has it right – there’s no gay or straight, just points on a continuum between the two poles. Everyone’s on there somewhere; no-one’s in the same place as another. A beautiful mystery indeed.

21 08 2008
Abdur Rahman

Peace Green Witch,

This is a very interesting conversation, as are all the ones that get going here.

I can relate to some of Andy’s experiences. Although I wasn’t a student, I worked in a Muslim seminary for three years and, for all sorts of reasons, found it to be one of the great spiritual low-points of my life. Much of this was due to my own misapprehensions of things. However, much of it related to judgemental approach to life Andy mentions so forcefully – coupled with a number of very dubious ethical/social practices.

I have retained my faith mostly because I was always made aware that this kind of thing was a perversion, and not how it should be. That spurred me on to look for my own truth – and once I did that I soon came to realise that we all use different ‘languages’ to describe our own worlds – so I should suspend judgement until I learned to speak them all (by which I mean, judgement should always be provisional for I will never speak another’s ‘language’).

With regards to hell, such metaphysical worlds are God’s responsibility and, as I have learned, God is much better at discharging responsibilities that I am!

Abdur Rahman

22 08 2008

I haven’t anything of substance to add, just to say that revisiting this post after a couple of days, I am taking so much delight in the thoughtfulness and sense of community in all these comments from different paths.

22 08 2008
The Green Witch

Peace, Abdur; and what a principled and measured response. I really like what you said; it got me thinking for sure. Judgement should be provisional from Man’s side.

Tess – it astounds me afresh that we can all talk here and respect each other’s space and that it seems in certain walks of life it appears to be impossible. Where’s the logic there?

I’m just grateful for this forum; without it I would be bereft of all your excellent company and opinions!

31 08 2008
My Latest Catch of Pearls « Abdur Rahman’s Corner

[…] The Green Witch: Revenge […]

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