Friday, November 28, 2008

Attenborough's Lyre Bird and The Parable of the Good Samaritan

This outbreak of violence in Mumbai set me to thinking. What causes people to organize themselves into groups we now call "terrorists"?

All actions result from thoughts, and thoughts derive from beliefs. Beliefs, in turn, arise partly from experience, partly from teaching and partly from what for me is Divine revelation. So what is the belief system that results in terrorism? And how do we get a handle on it?

Gerard Vanderleun, whose genius as a writer has impressed me for years, advanced a drive-by shooting response along the lines of the Hama massacre 25 years ago. "The plagues of terrorism and piracy will prevail until the West plays by Hama Rules." As in the case of capital punishment, I have no argument. It is an undeniable fact that following every instance of capital punishment there is at least one identifiable individual which will no longer pose a threat to anyone. Whether or not I want to participate as a citizen in that person's elimination is another matter. I choose not to stand on that side, but history is not on my side (although recent years have seen a trend toward the elimination of capital punishment).

The bulk of this post (below) was written in July, 2007. It came up in yesterday's hits because someone did a search for "lyre bird flew away." As often happens, I didn't rememer my own reflections at the time, but as I looked them over they sounded pretty good. So I decided to recycle them for this morning's post.

Connecting another dot to those already on the page, I now refer the reader to a comment in last year's thread to the "Open Letter" post. Thinly disguised in that comment is an impulse not far distant from the drive-by approach to conflict resolution suggested by Vanderleun.

I've said enough. The thoughtful reader can take it from here.
I mean no disrespect for either the commenter or Gerard. I only use those links to illustrate that in the matter of conflict resolution the children of Abraham still have a lot to learn

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A few weeks ago I came across a reference to this extraordinary bird's ability to imitate sounds. All kinds of sounds, including those of man's creation...a police siren or a chain saw.
This morning I came across this YouTube record worth a few minutes of your time. (H/T Minervan Musings)

It is a sad counterpoint, this bird's recording of the destruction of its habitat. I'm plodding slowly through William Least Heat-Moon's Prairie Erth, absorbing in small doses his multitude of little collected tufts of research. Yesterday I came across this...

No living man will see again the long-grass prairie, where a sea of flowers lapped at the stirrups of the pioneer. We shall do well to find a forty here and there on which the prairie plants can be kept alive as species. There were a hundred such plants, many of exceptional beauty. Most of them are quite unknown to those who have inherited their domain.

Conservatism is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man.

►Aldo Leopold in A Sand Country Almanac (1949),
found in Prairie Erth, page 96




That phrase "Abrahamic concept of land" captures a universe of meaning in two or three words. In some way it embodies the core of most conflicts, not only the obvious endless fighting in the Levant among the children of Abraham...Jews, Muslims and Christians...but between their heirs throughout the world versus the non-Abrahamic tribal and familial traditions of the rest of the global community.

Populations carelessly referred to as savage or primitive regard the land on which they live as secondary to more fundamental challenges of their survival. Such people do not imagine that land is to be "owned" by anyone or any group, any more than claims can be made on the wind or sun. I wonder if there may even be an extension in our lifetime of Abrahamic claims to land on the moon!

The sound-bite wars regarding environment, environmental-ism, -ists, global warming and all that...They make me tired. Political stances seem to have a higher priority than any putative efforts to save anything else. Well-meaning groups and individuals imagine that though alliances, coalitions or some exercise of power they can make a difference in the future, not realizing that the best controls are intrinsic, not extrinsic.

Yesterday morning's reading from Deuteronomy 30 ("Prosperity After Turning to the LORD") recapitulated the ancient wisdom.
When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. [If you and your descendants follow the Lord's will] the LORD your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The LORD will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, if you obey the LORD your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Prosperity is the reward for doing God's will, and that prosperity stands firmly on the possession of land. Land is God's currency. Or so we are taught. It leaves me wondering how He rewards His children living for generations on islands.

Crocodile Dundee has a great line about two fleas arguing about which of them owns the dog.

That's my take this morning on environmentalism.

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One afterthought.

Last week I was contemplating some way to teach teamwork to a group of employees. An obvious pile of anti-slip floor mats were left out one evening to allow the freshly mopped floor to dry, conspicuously in the traffic pattern of everyone working in the place. Four mats were folded in a stack and it would have taken all of thirty seconds for anyone to pull them off the stack and replace them where they always lie. But half a dozen people reported to work the following morning and no one saw the need to do anything about the mats. They remained in the way (leaving the potential for slipping on the uncovered floor, incidentally) until the boss came and personally put them in place.

Motivating employees is pedestrian assignment by global standards but I remembered a story from a childhood book of fables called The Stone in the Road. I still have the book. It tells of a rich man looking for someone who was not lazy. He had a large rock placed on the road where travelers would have to go around it. It was a terrible inconvenience to travelers but everyone simply went around the barrier until one young man, tired as he was from working all day, pushed the stone out of the road because he saw what an inconvenience it was to everyone. He was pleased and surprised to find a pot of gold with a message on it: "This pot and the gold belong to the one who takes away the stone." The boy got the reward and the rich man was pleased to have found someone who was not lazy.

I brought back from Korea a children's book that tells a similar story. This one is not about a stone in the road but a very poor farmer who came across a bird with an injury that made it unable to fly. The farmer tenderly took the bird with him and together with his wife and family took care of it until it could be returned to the wild.

The bird returned with seeds to a gourd vine that they farmer planted which grew a crop of gourds, the largest of which they cut open to reveal a trove of valuable rewards....bolts of fabric, bales of rice, gold coins and other treasures...their reward for having helped the injured bird!

(In a tragic sequel, the story continues in case anyone missed the lesson. Another farmer, seeing the first farmer's reward, went out and found a bird, deliberately injured it, then released it into the wild. This bird also returned with a gourd seed, but when the gourd grown from that seed was cut open out flew a nasty bunch of snakes, frogs, centipedes and bats, followed by a couple of devil-looking figures that punished the man with bad judgement)

One doesn't have to read Korean to understand the narrative of the pictures.
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How do these children's books relate to teamwork in small groups? To community as a whole? What is the real challenge? And what is the remedy?
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The New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan supplies one answer. I have no intention of arguing religion or preaching in this blog, but in this case the reader is referred to his own resources, whatever they may be. I just looked at the Wikipedia article and it may be a good place to start.
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It is important to note that Samaritans were despised by the story's target audience, the Jews. The Samaritans were also largely taught by their interpretation of history to hate Jews. Thus the parable, as told originally, had a significant theme of non-discrimination and interracial harmony. But as the story reached those who were unaware of the status of Samaritans, this aspect of the parable became less and less discernible: fewer and fewer people ever heard of them in any context other than this one. To address this problem with the unfamiliar analogy, the story is often recast in a more recognizable modern setting where the people are ones in equivalent social groups known to not interact comfortably. For instance instead of a Jew being helped by a Samaritan one could place a Palestinian in that role, or even a
member of Hezbollah aided by an orthodox Jew. One could also have a racist helped by a member of another race, a sexist man helped by a woman, or a devoutly religious person helped by an atheist, or any reverse or combination thereof. The message's essential point is that humanity's bonds in brotherhood transcend social and cognitive segmentations which we adopt in our lives.

Thus cast appropriately, the parable regains its socially explosive message to modern listeners: namely, that an individual of a social group they disapprove of can exhibit moral behaviour that is superior to individuals of the groups they approve; it also means that not sharing the same faith is no excuse to behave poorly, as there is a universal moral law. Many Christians have used it as an example of Christianity against racial prejudice.
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That's what's been on my mind for a few days. I'm glad finally to have it organized.
Make today a good day.

2 comments:

newine said...

Hoots - I don't know why, in general, people organize to perform acts of mass murder... other than the conventional explanation that pertains to the less-organized version: sin. We/they are human and fallen.

In the case of the perpetrators of the Mumbai mayhem however, it is important to not be satisfied with broad-brush indictments of human nature and cut to the obvious: their religion commands them to do such things.

From its inception, islam has been all about the pursuit of an earthly 'kingdom' of conquest, involving not only the taking of land but point-of-the-sword forced 'conversion' and/or obeisance to outward modes of worship. The alternative is shame and second-class status, aka, dhimmitude.

Which is to say: the theologies animating Abraham's children not only can be differentiated from one another, the Bible makes clear that they must be. God loves all of his children but it is only logical that some of them must be wrong about Him if the law of non-contradiction is to hold up. (And God is rational.)

To bring it back down to earth...

Something I read recently conclusively ruled OUT the rational pursuit of political or economic outcomes as explanations for organized mass murder (aka, 'terrorism') in favor of a theory of social affinity (since, the numbers show, throughout history, that terrorism virtually never achieves its stated goals).

In other words, in addition to the motivation provided by a demonic idolatry, islamic mass murderers are motivated by the same thing that motivates common street gangs: social affinity and affirmation.

Finally, its worth noting that the boundaries between three things ('simple' murder, 'terrorism' and 'war') are becoming blurred. It could be argued that what just took place in Mumbai is in fact, an act of guerrilla warfare.

Re. the 'Sand... Almanac' quote, "Conservatism is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land."... Conservatism isn't supposed to get anywhere! :) (at least not fast)

It is, literally, a philosophy designed to conserve -- which of course begs the question: "conserve what exactly"? It's the mirror image of the complaint I have with the term 'progressive': "progressing to where/what, exactly"

Hope you had a great Thanksgiving! Thanks for stopping by my blog.

Hoots said...

I'm reminded of Bierce's definition of "Conservative." A Conservative is someone enamored of existing evils, as opposed to a Liberal, who wishes to replace them with new ones. Quite so.

More seriously, I read your comment a few times through and I think we're getting there. This is particularly insightful:

Finally, its worth noting that the boundaries between three things ('simple' murder, 'terrorism' and 'war') are becoming blurred. It could be argued that what just took place in Mumbai is in fact, an act of guerrilla warfare.

This morning (It's now Saturday, 11/29) C-SPAN's Washington Journal question was "Can terrorism be defeated?"

I only heard a short portion, but during that time the callers were all over the place with various points of view. One caller said that unless and until America comes to terms with it's own terrorist past we will never make progress. He cited what he called "armed robbery" in the case of taking North America from Native Americans, African slaves brought here against their will, thousands of deaths in Korea and Vietnam at the hands of Americans, saying that none of those victims were a threat to America. America, he said, was the world's leading terrorist country, and it is to that image that today's terrorism is lashing out. I don't agree with that oversimplification, incidentally.

Another caller said one source of terrorism was in the Talmud, the authority by which Ashkenazi Jews hold that all non-Jews were animals and were to be killed. He moved from that odd place to a conspiracy theory about the WTC attack coordinated, I suppose, by Jews.

Another caller advanced the idea that politics has less to do with terrorism than religion because terrorists were driven by belief systems, not politics. I thought of your comment here.

Someone noted a few years ago that the Irish Republican Army quit terrorism some time ago because Al Qaida was "giving terrorism a bad name"!

It is clear to me that the remedy cannot be killing all terrorists because what we call "collateral damage" only begets more recruits for their ranks.

It is also clear that terrorism will never be "defeated" but it can be minimized, in the same way that groups like the KKK, Branch Dravidians, FDLS, and a long list of other deviant American-born groups have been minimized in thier various manifestations.

It is equally clear that if Islamic extremists are to be marginalized it will never be accomplished by non-Muslims. Mathematically the overwhelming majority of Muslims are no more threatening than any other group. Just as nominal Christians are more likely to go over the edge for nationalism, racism, social discontent, even momey... the same human inclinations are true of other humans on the planet.

Hindus are famously peaceful in both belief and practice, but that did not quell sectarian violence and killing when the Raj was divided into India and teo Pakistans. In fact, I didn't know until lately that until the last few years there were more Muslims in India than in Pakistan! Many chose to remain when the country was divided, in the same way that a good many Arabs still live in Israel.

I don't think there are quick explanations of what's happening.

Thanks for visiting and commenting. Maybe someone reading what we have put here will be able to add something intelligent. I hope so.