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A Quick 1: ISIS and Karbala

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- another quick one, this one concerned with "key religious and transportation hubs"-- ie pilgrimage routes ]
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BBC Karbala
Millions of Shiite pilgrims in the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala for the Ashura mourning rituals, 2012.

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Everyone should calm down.

That’s the message from Michael Knights in his Politico piece yesterday, Why the Islamic State Is Losing, subtitled The pundits have it wrong — the terrorists’ move toward Baghdad is a sign of desperation. Read the full article for his reasoning.

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Given my abiding interest in religion, and in the ritual commemoration of Husayn at Karbala, these two paras in particular caught my attention:

But most likely, ISIL is simply readying for its annual killing spree against Shia pilgrims during the Ashura and Arbaeen religious festivals. In the week before Ashura begins on Nov. 3, Baghdad will swell with millions of pilgrims making their way to Karbala, just southwest of the capital. Many of these pilgrims make the 50-mile walk from Baghdad to Karbala, which passes within seven miles of Jurf as-Sakr, a heavily-contested ISIL stronghold to the south of Baghdad. We can expect mortar attacks, car bombings and suicide-vest detonations inside the crowds.

This is the real meaning of ISIL being at the gates of Baghdad – that the movement is poised perilously close to key religious and transportation hubs, and may be intent on mounting sectarian outrages at the most sensitive moment of the year for the Shia.

Martyrdom is already one the minds of Shia pilgrims as they make their way to Karbala to memorialize the death of Husayn ibn Ali and his infant son, Abdullah ibn Husayn. If they risk their lives in this way, their dedication to the memory of the martyred Husayn may have much to do with it.

As an eyewitness quoted in Elias Canetti‘s Crowds and Power puts it:

No destiny is accounted more beautiful than to die on the feast-day of Ashura, when the gates of all eight paradises stand wide open for the saints, and everyone seeks to enter there.

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Of sacrament and torture, blasphemy and free speech

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- on torture as the inverse of sacrament: from Palin's joke to Cavanaugh's rich theology ]
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Soon-to-be-martyred Archbishop Romero celebrates Mass in San Salvador's Basilica of the Sacred Heart

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Sarah Palin:

Sarah Palin, speaking to the NRA the other day, said:

waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists

And I have to say that as someone brought up within Christianity with a sacramental view of the world, I found that distasteful.

But.

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Tha Haggadah:

In a sprawling online conversation just last week, a Jewish friend pointed me to the Two-Minute Haggadah – A Passover service for the impatient. The Haggadah is the liturgical book which gives the rubrics and prayers for a Passover meal, and is thus in some ways comparable to a Catholic Missal, which does the same for the Eucharist…

Here’s an excerpt:

Opening prayers:

Thanks, God, for creating wine. (Drink wine.)
Thanks for creating produce. (Eat parsley.)

Overview:

Once we were slaves in Egypt. Now we’re free. That’s why we’re doing this.

Four questions:

1. What’s up with the matzoh?
2. What’s the deal with horseradish?
3. What’s with the dipping of the herbs?
4. What’s this whole slouching at the table business?

Answers:

1. When we left Egypt, we were in a hurry. There was no time for making decent bread.
2. Life was bitter, like horseradish.
3. It’s called symbolism.
4. Free people get to slouch.

I’ll admit I was a little irritated by that one, too.

Passover is the most sacred meal of the year for Jews, the time when they remember their expulsion from Egypt and all the difficulties — scatterings, pogroms, the extermination ovens — that have followed, and I didn’t want to see the sacred sullied.

But the thing is, there’s wine at the seder — and not just a sip of it, reserved for the priestly caste — and although there are bitter memories and bitter herbs, the atmosphere is in some ways one of family and festival… and whereas Christianity often emphasizes right doctrine or orthodoxy, Judaism seems more interested in orthopraxy, right behavior — and encourages certainly questions, laughter, and hey, dance.

For the purposes of this post, I might put it this way: religion can sometimes take a joke, sometimes not so much.

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Responses to Palin:

In any case, Palin made that remark, it drew applause from the crowd, and since it went public, various branches of the conservative US Christian right have raised religious objections…

As I said, I didn’t like Sarah Palin’s remark, but since I’m not part of her natural constituency in any case, I was interested to see whether others might bring the topic up.

It was Gary DeMar‘s American Vision — a Christian Reconstructionist outfit — that sent me the first email, and their comment first quoted Palin’s key phrase –

Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.

— and then commented sharply:

Wow. No matter how bad Islam may be, what Christian would stoop so low as to cheapen and denigrate the faith in order to advocate torturing them?

Rod Dreher‘s piece in The American Conservative was titled The Sacrilegious Sarah Palin. In it, he commented:

OK, stop. Not only is this woman, putatively a Christian, praising torture, but she is comparing it to a holy sacrament of the Christian faith. It’s disgusting — but even more disgusting, those NRA members, many of whom are no doubt Christians, cheered wildly for her.

and:

Palin and all those who cheered her sacrilegious jibe ought to be ashamed of themselves. For us Christians, baptism is the entry into new life. Palin invoked it to celebrate torture. Even if you don’t believe that waterboarding is torture, surely you agree that it should not be compared to baptism, and that such a comparison should be laughed at. What does it say about the character of a person that they could make that joking comparison, and that so many people would cheer for it. Nothing good — and nothing that does honor to the cause of Jesus Christ.

If I thought that kind of hateful declaration and abuse of the Christian religion was what conservatism stood for, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a conservative. Some conservatives do stand for that. They’re wrong, and they should be called out on it — not because some liberal somewhere is going to be offended, but first and foremost because we Christians who identify as conservatives are appalled by it.

I think blasphemy rather than sacrilege is probably the better term for a verbal act, but the two are often and perhaps easily confused…

The Federalist carried the story under the headline, No, Sarah Palin, Baptism Isn’t A Good Punchline For A Terrorist Joke and dug a little deeper into Palin’s theology:

Is waterboarding how we baptize terrorists? However powerful waterboarding might be (and whether or not it is defensible, a good idea or achieves the goals of those who advocate its use), it doesn’t hold a candle to the power of the Christian baptism, as historically understood. Does it deliver those who are subjected to it from the devil, as Christian baptism does? Does it give them eternal life, as Christian baptism does? Is it voluntary, as Christian baptism is? It is none of these things.

Joking about baptism in the context of this aggressive action suggests that we don’t think baptism is as life-giving or important as it is.

and:

Now, it’s also true that Palin, from what we know of her congregational affiliations, is influenced by subsets of Christianity that take a different and far lower view of what baptism accomplishes. They say that it’s mere symbolism rather than means of God’s grace. In fact, that’s exactly what the web site of Wasilla Bible Church says. But I would hope that even these traditions wouldn’t take it so lightly as to joke about it in the context of waterboarding. Or even if it is considered OK to joke about waterboarding being baptism by these folks, I’d hope they recognize how blasphemous it sounds to the ears of Christians who retain the historic and high view of the sacrament.

The Gospel Coalition‘s comments under the title Is Waterboarding How We “Baptize Terrorists”? took a different tack:

Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles In Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, found that dehumanizing the enemy during the Vietnam war caused psychological damage to American troops:

Restoring honor to the enemy is an essential step in recovery from combat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). While other things are obviously needed as well, the veteran’s self-respect never fully recovers so long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy. In the words of one of our patients, a war against subhuman vermin “has no honor.” This in true even in victory; in defeat, the dishonoring makes life unendurable. (Achilles, pg. 115)

In our attempts to dehumanize our enemy we end up becoming less than human ourselves. It would be a Pyrrhic victory to save civilization and lose our humanity We must never hesitate to defend our culture, our future, and our lives against

Clearly I’m not alone in finding Palin’s words unortunate.

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William Cavanaugh:

I’d like to take this a little farther.

I can understand Palin making the joke, thinking it’s just a joke, and I can understand too that it’s difficult for individual members of a crowd that’s vigorously applauding a speaker to suddenly switch from applause to dismay. Having said that…

I mentioned William T Cavanaugh‘s book Torture and Eucharist in a post yesterday, and while it’s not treating of Baptism but of the Eucharist, it presents a view of the Church’s sacramental activity as the polar opposite of torture:

Techniques of torment taught by the master torturers place great emphasis on leaving no physical marks behind. And torture never surfaces, but does its work in the shadowy realm of the disappeared, in clandestine dungeons with no address and no escape. (p. 49)

Cavanaugh’s “case study” here is of Pinochet‘s Chile, the desaparecidos, and the church — and torture, in Cavanaugh’s analysis, by the hidden nature of its atrocities as well as the atrocities themselves, strips the individual of social presence, spirituality, mentality, activity, identity — of everything but pain.

By contrast, Cavanaugh sees the Eucharist as the affirmation of social presence, spirituality, mentality, activity, identity — through the creation of the body of Christ as ain inherently social organism, the Church:

… the Eucharist is much more than a ritual repetition of the past. It is rather a literal re-membering of Christ’s body, a knitting together of the body of Christ by the participation of many in His sacrifice. – (p. 229)

This brings us to how torture and sacrament relate to one another:

If we are to understand properly the workings of terror and the church’s response, however, we must see the strategies of disappearance and torture as ways to deny martyrs to the church. (p. 59)

Disappearance, in other words, removes individuals from society in a manner that denies others the possibility of being devotionally and socially encouraged by their death, by the sacrifice of their life. Thus:

It is not the heroism of the individual which is most significant, but rather the naming of the martyr by those who recognize Christ in the martyr’s life and death. Indeed, what makes martyrdom possible is the eschatological belief that nothing depends on the martyr’s continued life; if he dies, nothing is ultimately lost. (p. 64)

In sum:

Where torture is an anti-liturgy for the realization of the state’s power on the bodies of others, Eucharist is the liturgical realization of Chris’s suffering and redemptive body in the bodies of His followers. Torture creates fearful and isolated bodies, bodies docile to the purposes of the regime; the Eucharist effects the body of Christ, a body marked by resistance to worldly power. Torture creates victims; Eucharist creates witnesses, martyrs. Isolation is overcome in the Eucharist by the building of a communal body which resists the state’s attempts to disappear it. (p. 206)

This brings Cavanaugh to his practical ecclesiological conclusion:

If the church is to resist disappearance, then it must be publicly visible as the body of Christ in the present time, not secreted away in the souls of believers or relegated to the distant historical past or future. It becomes visible through its disciplined practices, but the church’s discipline must not simply mimic that of the state. – (p. 234)

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Archbishops Romero and Huddleston:

In the person of Archbishop Romero, pictured at the head of this post [photo via Super Martyrio's ROSARIUM: a reflection] — famous for broadcast sermons in which he named the names of the desaparecidos, shot and killed in 1980 while saying Mass, whose cause for beatification and sanctification has been approved by Pope Francis — the twin strands of our topic here, torture and sacrament, meet.

And I am reminded again of my own mentor, the [Anglican] Archbishop Trevor Huddleston‘s remark:

On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.

Whether we speak of baptism, as in the case of Palin’s utterance, or of the Eucharist, in Cavanaugh’s book, or the Maundy Thursday mandatum in Huddleston’s, the principle remains:

A sacramental view of man is entirely opposite in function to state-sponsored torture, and is thus both its refutation and its cure.

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Of literal and metaphorical readings

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- from "whistleblowers" via the interpretation of hadith to Aztec sacrifice and Christian Eucharist ]
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Whistleblowing in Thailand (upper panel, above), which I wrote about in my previous post, is a literal matter, and whistles have seen a huge surge in sales since the “whistleblower” campaign began. In the US practice and politics of leaks, on the other hand, whistleblowing is an activity that requires no physical whistle — just a “blower” with some form of access to media.

There’s nothing terribly metaphysically significant about the distinction in this case, but in other cases it can make a great deal of difference. It’s an issue I keep running into, as a poet and as an analyst of religious drivers in war and peace, and the image of Thai schoolkids blowing their (literal) whistles finally nudged me into writing about it.

I suspect the difference between literal and metaphorical readings maps closely to many of the major fissues in US and globe-wide society.

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One area where the distinction can be of vital importance is in the interpretation of scriptures. Thus Jonathan Brown, Georgetown professor and author of Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World, shows how the same authoritative text can be very differently interpreted:

When I tell you a hadith, this is in Sahih Bukhari and other books, where the Prophet says to Abu Dharr, his companion: Do you know where the sun goes after it sets, Oh Abu Dharr? and Abu Dharr says, God and His Prophet are more knowledgeable. Tell me, and the Prophet says The sun goes goes down and it prostrates before the throne of God… it prostrates before the throne of Ar Rahman and it asks His permission to rise again and one day it will rise from the West.

Now it’s very interesting, you see in the early twentieth century, Muslim scholars who were kind of modernist scholars start reacting very strongly to this hadith. They said it contradicts astronomy and this hadith contradicts the certainties of modern science because nowadays we know that the Earth actually goes around the Sun and not vice versa and classical Muslims didn’t know that and that’s why they accepted this hadith so we need to go back through the hadiths and analyze them to see which ones are scientifically impossible and which ones are acceptable. This was a big debate and we still have this debate today. Guess what? Classical muslim scholars, going back to the ten hundreds, said exactly the same thing.

Because if you’re a muslim scholar, one of the things you do before you had clocks on your phone and everything is to calculate prayer times and living in a place, I need to tell people what time the prayers are.

And what they found very quickly is that prayer times differ based on latitude, longitude..and they knew that the sun was always up in certain places. You can go to certain parts of the earth where the sun never sets.

So they looked at this hadith and they said how do we understand it then? Oh it must mean that the sun prostrates to God metaphorically like in Surah Rahman Najmu washajaru yas judaan.. the stars and the trees prostrate to God. It doesn’t mean literally the star is doing little sujood up in the sky. It means it’s surrendering to God’s will, it follows God’s will. So they had no problem, they just said this hadith is obviously figurative.

FWIW, the Neoplatonist Proclus, quoted by Henry Corbin in his treatise on Ibn Arabi, uses very similar language:

Just as in the dialectic of love we start from sensuous beauties to rise until we encounter the unique principle of all beauty and all ideas, so the adepts of hieratic science take as their starting point the things of appearance and the sympathies they manifest among themselves and with the invisible powers. Observing that all things form a whole, they laid the foundations of hieratic science, wondering at the first realities and admiring in them the latest comers as well as the very first among beings; in heaven, terrestrial things according both to a causal and to a celestial mode and on earth heavenly things in a terrestrial state….

What other reason can we give for the fact that the heliotrope follows in its movement the movement of the sun and the selenotrope the movement of the moon, forming a procession within the limits of their power, behind the torches of the universe? For, in truth, each thing prays according to the rank it occupies in nature, and sings the praises of the leader of the divine series to which it belongs, a spiritual or rational or physical or sensuous praise; for the heliotrope moves to the extent that it is free to move, and in its rotation, if we could hear the sound of the air buffeted by its movement, we should be aware that it is a hymn to its king, such as it is within the power of a plant to sing…

That’s either nonsense, taken literally — or poetry, taken in a metaphorical sense.

We would do well in reading scriptures of any tradition to bear both possibilities in mind — and remember that in the cultures of the writers, the distinction may be one that is less clear-cut than in our own.

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My second version of literal vs metaphorical readings of texts in this post — there have been and will be others — has to do with the overall genre of sacrificial liturgies, and specifically with Aztec and Catholic practices.

But first, some Judaic background. Leviticus 1-7 is concerned with sacrifice — and opens thus:

And the Lord called unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the Lord, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock.

If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the Lord. And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. And he shall kill the bullock before the Lord: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And he shall flay the burnt offering, and cut it into his pieces. And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire upon the altar, and lay the wood in order upon the fire: And the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat, in order upon the wood that is on the fire which is upon the altar: But his inwards and his legs shall he wash in water: and the priest shall burn all on the altar, to be a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord.

Blood sacrifice was indeed a central aspect of worship in the First and Second Temples — and those who would like to see the Temple again restored in our own times are busy training kohanim, preparing ritual vessels sand holding “practice” sacrifices so that once the Temple is rebuilt, the sacrificial liturgies can recommence…

The Psalmist, however, appears to be of the opinion that God takes no pleasure in blood sacrifices:

Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.

and:

For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

— so we also see from the time of the Second Temple what might be characterized as an inward-turning or metaphorical approach to sacrifice.

Eric Heaton, with whom I studied the prophets at Oxford, was easily distracted from whatever text I should have but hadn’t read by a quick reference to blood sacrifice — it would send him into a tirade sufficient to see us through to the end of my tutorial. I will have none of your blood sacrifices, saith the Lord, Dr Heaton would thunder…

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Early Christianity takes this a step further, heightening the sense of sacrifice in the Eucharist to the point where it transcends physical existence, and the “memorial” sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood in bread and wine at the Last Supper — prefigured by and embodied in the sacrifice of the paschal lamb of Judaism — along with the subsequent sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, and the continuing of that sacrifice in each successive Eucharist, are all portals within time to the “marriage supper of the lamb” or “heavenly eucharist” beyond time and space.

Thus the church historian JND Kelly writes that in the early days of Christianity:

the Eucharist was regarded as the distinctively Christian sacrifice. … Malachi’s prediction (1:10–11) that the Lord would reject Jewish sacrifices and instead would have “a pure offering” made to him by the Gentiles in every place was seized upon by Christians as a prophecy of the Eucharist. The Didache indeed actually applies the term thusia, or sacrifice, to the Eucharist.

I’ve quoted Dom Gregory Dix‘s long, profound and astoundingly beautiful paragraph “Was ever another command so obeyed?” in the Cadenza to my Said Symphony game, so I won’t repeat it here, but a poetic reaqding can be far more than metaphorical, it can be sacramental.

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And in the Catholic and Anglican liturgies, one phrase struck me with peculiar force. It is found in the opening of the Eucharistic prayers of consecration, the Anaphora. The Book of Common Prayer gives it as:

V. Lift up your hearts.
R. We lift them up unto the Lord.

— while the Latin of the Catholic missal has:

V. Sursum corda.
R. Habemus ad Dominum.

It is Sursum corda — literally, Hearts lifted — that I’m concerned with here, because it is a poetic or metaphorical usage, as we can see very simply by contrasting it with its literal equivalent as found in Aztec ceremonial.

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Hearts lifted – isn’t that precisely what is depicted here?

To the best of my knowledge, that’s an indigenous, post-conquistador image of Aztec ritual. And since the section of my library discussing such things is largely still in storage, not to mention under threat of auction, I’ll quote a crafts page on the history of obsidian to bring you a verbal description:

With sacrificial alters at the top of tall pyramids, built to be as close to the sun as possible, human offerings were often dispatched with the aid of an obsidian-bladed knife, their still pulsating hearts lifted high to the Sun.

How’s that for “hearts lifted” in a literal sense, ritually enacted?

It’s crucial (no pun intended) to note that there are significant differences between the various forms of sacrifice I have described here —

  • human vs animal sacrifice
  • the sacrifice of self vs the sacrifice of another
  • sacrifice by God vs sacrifice by humans (albeit commanded by God or the gods)
  • actual vs symbolic blood sacrifice
  • demonic inversion vs divine sacrament
  • etc..
  • — and yet they all fall under the general heading of ritual sacrifice. And although many Aztec ritual practices seemed to the early Catholics who first encountered them as demonic parodies of Christian rites, at some level they spring from the same archetypal soil and utilize the same archetypal imagery–

    — which has itself, thank God, been slowly transmuted from human sacrifice to sacramental symbolism across continents and centuries, a process for which we should be profoundly grateful.

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    For those of you interested in further readings in Eucharistic theology, I recomment particularly:

  • Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology
  • William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist

  • I shall have more to say on Torture and Eucharist in an upcoming post on Sarah Palin, baptism and waterboarding.

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    Jottings 11: self-immolators and suicide bombers?

    Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- on some aspects of religiously motivated suicide, and I'm not clear why I called this one a jotting, since it's quite long and detailed ]
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    I have been taking a couple of online courses on terrorism in recent months, and in one of them I ran across a Foreign Policy article titled Ultimate Sacrifice: What’s the difference between self-immolators and suicide bombers?

    … there is another form of deadly protest that has made a resurgence in recent years. Not only did Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s fiery suicide ignite the region and inspire subsequent self-immolations in Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco, but a growing number of Tibetans have also set themselves alight to protest Chinese rule in Tibetan region

    It’s an intriguing question, phrased by one of my fellow students as the question, “Can Tibetan Self-immolators be considered “terrorists”?

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    I did my “due diligence” research, and came up with some articles worth reading:

  • Tenzin Tharchen, 125 Self-Immonlations: why suicide by fire protests continue in Tibet
  • Tsering Shakya, Self-Immolation, the Changing Language of Protest in Tibet
  • Martin Kovan, Buddhist Self-immolation and Mahayanist Absolute Altruism
  • while my interlocutor offered this one:

  • Jose Cabezon, On The Ethics Of The Tibetan Self-Immolations
  • But you know, the mind has indirect back-channels as well as direct information freeways, and the question seems to have been percolating while I’ve been asleep.

    **

    Sonam Wangyal, Lama Sobha, was the first Tibetan lama to self-immolate, and left a cassette tape in which he explained his motives:

    I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them — each of whom has been our mother in the past and yet has been led by ignorance to commit immoral acts — to the Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light. My offering of light is for all living beings, even as insignificant as lice and nits, to dispel their pain and to guide them to the state of enlightenment. I offer this sacrifice as a token of long-life offering to our root guru His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other spiritual teachers and lamas.

    The full text of Lama Sobha’s message can be found at the bottom of an International Campaign for Tibet page titled Harrowing images and last message from Tibet of first lama to self-immolate — the “harrowing images” themselves are linked to, but not shown.

    **

    The Chinese come close to targeting Tibetan self-immolators as terrorists, using the terms “Splittist”– so often also used of the Dalai Lama — and calling their actions “intentional homicide”. This from the “>Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Tibet:

    Nonetheless, the response by the Chinese authorities to self-immolations by Tibetans has been extremely draconian, largely because of an assumption that all protest by Tibetans must be intrinsically “splittist” (that is, secessionist). In particular, it has involved the formulation of new laws that seem to target Tibetans specifically, and the imposition of collective punishments, and the application of the crime of “intentional homicide” to all those aiding, abetting, encouraging or even photographing self-immolations.

    **

    It occurs to me that sacrificing oneself for the benefit of other beings is symbolically enacted in the Tibetan Chöd ritual, in which one symbolically feeds the parts of one’s body to the pretas or hungry demons to satiate them and put them to sleep — and also in some of the Jataka Tales of the previous rebirths of the Shakyamuni Buddha.

    I’m thinking particularly of The Bodhisattva and the Hungry Tigress, and will quote here from Edward Conze‘s telling in Buddhist Scriptures, pp 24-26. On being told that self-sacrifice is difficult, Mahasattva (the future Buddha) replies:

    It is difficult for people like us, who are so fond of our lives and bodies, and who have so little intelligence. It is not difficult at all, however, for others, who are true men, intent on benefitting their fellow-creatures, and who long to sacrifice themselves. Holy men are born of pity and compassion. Whatever the bodies they may get, in heaven or on earth, a hundred times will they undo them, joyful in their hearts, so that the lives of others may be saved.

    His prayer before offering his own body and blood to feed an ailing tigress and her cubs is:

    For the weal of the world I wish to win enlightenment, incomparably wonderful. From deep compassion I now give away my body, so hard to quit, unshaken in my mind. That enlightenment I shall now gain, in which nothing hurts and nothing harms.

    Assuming the Jataka tales made it to Tibet, this one might be a potent influence on potential self-immolators.

    **

    A possible Tamil “comparable” — presumably Hindu rather than Buddhist, culturally if not religiously:

    When young Murugathasan Varnakulasingham (aged 26) committed self-immolation in front of the UN headquarters in Geneva on 19 February 2009 he was protesting against international failures of intervention in the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in northern Sri Lanka, where he believed that large bodies of Tamil people faced extinction by the Sri Lankan government. “The flames over my body will be a torch to guide you through the liberation path,” he wrote in his parting letter.

    There have been a few other protest suicides by Tamils in Tamilnadu and Malaysia, but Varnakulasingham’s altruistic act probably garnered the most attention.

    **

    Further thoughts:

    There’s always Samson, pulling down the pillars that upheld the roof of their temple on the Philistines, once he’d regrown his hair and strength…

    Then the lords of the Philistines gathered them together for to offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god, and to rejoice: for they said, Our god hath delivered Samson our enemy into our hand. And when the people saw him, they praised their god: for they said, Our god hath delivered into our hands our enemy, and the destroyer of our country, which slew many of us. And it came to pass, when their hearts were merry, that they said, Call for Samson, that he may make us sport. And they called for Samson out of the prison house; and he made them sport: and they set him between the pillars. And Samson said unto the lad that held him by the hand, Suffer me that I may feel the pillars whereupon the house standeth, that I may lean upon them. Now the house was full of men and women; and all the lords of the Philistines were there; and there were upon the roof about three thousand men and women, that beheld while Samson made sport. And Samson called unto the Lord, and said, O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes. And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.

    — Judges 16.23-30 — not quite self-immolation, not quite suicide bombing, but certainly suicidal warfare with a religious motive.

    Okay, When Christians quote John 15.13:

    Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

    surely they include in their understanding of that verse, those who throw their bodies on top of grenades to protect their comrades — which would seem in its own way to parallel the teaching of the Jataka Tale.

    **

    Likewise, when Muslims quote the hadith from Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 53, in which the Prophet says:

    Narrated Anas bin Malik:

    The Prophet said, “Nobody who dies and finds good from Allah (in the Hereafter) would wish to come back to this world even if he were given the whole world and whatever is in it, except the martyr who, on seeing the superiority of martyrdom, would like to come back to the world and get killed again (in Allah’s Cause).”

    and from Sahih Muslim, Chapter 28, Book 020, Number 4626:

    It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (may peace upon him) said:

    [ … ] By the Being in Whose Hand is Muhammad’s life, if it were not to be too hard upon the Muslims. I would not lag behind any expedition which is going to fight in the cause of Allah. But I do not have abundant means to provide them (the Mujahids) with riding beasts, nor have they (i.e. all of them) abundant means (to provide themselves with all the means of Jihad) so that they could he left behind. By the Being in Whose Hand is Muhammad’s life, I love to fight in the way of Allah and be killed, to fight and again be killed and to fight again and be killed.

    — how close are we to Nathan Hale:

    I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country

    — and behind that, to Joseph Addison:

    What a pity it is
    That we can die but once to serve our country.

    — that’s from Addison’s now obscure play, Cato, a Tragedy, Act IV, Scene 4

    **

    Of course, the way to stop self-immolations in Tibet is simple — put up a notice:

    See also New document sheds light on China’s campaign against self-immolations in Tibet

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    Every day is Ashura, every place is Kerbala

    Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- an Ayatollah's video take-down of the Grand Mufti ]
    .

    Today’s latest news from the Long War Journal is titled Egyptian jihadists call for attacks in Shiite countries and opens with the paragraph:

    Twenty Egyptian jihadists have issued a statement calling upon Sunnis to launch attacks in Shiite-led countries in response to the Assad regime’s offensive in Qusayr, a city in western Syria near Homs. The chief signatory on the statement is Mohammed al Zawahiri, the younger brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.

    **

    **

    I’ve been having some conversations on Twitter recently in which I’d been verifying my own sense that Hezbollah‘s ethos and imagery of martyrdom would presumably extend beyond the poppies and doves depicted here to include also the martyrdom of Husayn at Kerbala, and I’m grateful to Phillip Smyth for his confirmation and elaboration on that theme.

    Somehow in my wanderings, I came across this video, in which Ayatollah Sayed Hadi al Modarresi, a senior Shia cleric, bookends his even more senior Sunni counterpart the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, with his own commentary, speaking from the very heart of Shia passion — the shrine of Imam Husayn in Kerbala.

    The Ayatollah challenges the Grand Mufti’s assertion that Husayn erred in refusing his oath of obedience to Yazid, thus bringing his own death upon himself at the ensuing battle of Kerbala:

    **

    Things that impressed me:

    The simple but rhetorically effective use of one video quoted within another.

    The incredible passion of the crowd in Kerbala, which the poster called to our attention with a note saying:

    Keep watching to see the fury of the audience..

    The half-accusatory, half-conciliatory way in which the Grand Mufti expressed himself, with phrases that suggested Husayn — may God be pleased with him — was in error, while asking God to forgive him…

    and:

    and in response, the Ayatollah’s use of the imagery of the “red line”:

    **

    If the Long War Journal piece shows us an aspect of the current situation, this stunning video offers us a window into the passions such events are poised to arouse.

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