War is fascinating. It gives us a rush. A warm thrill flows through our blood whenever we gather together to commit collective murder. It’s a sacred and ancient tribal communion we enjoy, in spite of our intellectual disgust. War binds us. It equalizes us. It dilutes our individual sin against each other into a larger crest of sinning. War is the shadow of our darkest parts cast out onto the world. Without our knowing, war is the ultimate sin.
What is it about our need to engage in sacrificial violence, no matter how distant and remote the conflict is from our hands? Why do we bundle tighter together when we face what we agree to call a mutual enemy? Why is it that the swiftest achievements in technology transpire during war? What’s in us that lusts so speedily to transform every work of technology into another extension of our murderous urges?
COPYCATS, ALL OF US
We have an inborn ability to imitate each other. We learn by imitation. It’s a powerful aspect of our brains: in it perhaps is the crux of our success as a species. The development of our infants depends almost exclusively on this single power. This imitative mechanism opens the door to our ability to imitate the good in each other. Being good can be infectious.
Our power to imitate also induces our susceptibility to copying the wrong kinds of behavior from each other. If someone transgresses against us, we long to imitate the gesture and return the favor. Revenge is a mirror. There was a reason the Greeks locked Narcissus’ gaze downward into eternal reflection. They may not have understood fully the nature of their own mythology, but they knew somehow that their own blood-lust was rooted in the power of imitation. We have much to learn still from those little stories.
Once we understand the awe-some power of imitation in our lives, we can see the way out of war. So long as we imitate the wrong in each other, we are forever enmeshed in a web of violence.
THE WAY OUT IS IN US
When war comes, put down the mirror. The mirror is a trap. When we look to each other and feel the resonance of our collective anger and fear, that’s when the binding agents of war take hold.
Whatever your belief system, it doesn’t take much convincing to realize we all sin. Whether that sin is against some Central Being of Purpose or against each other or ourselves, it’s a universal trait. Individual instances of sin happen all the time. They can usually be addressed through face-to-face meetings, where the transgressor asks the other for forgiveness and commits to the hard work of making things up.
War is ultimately different than all other sin. The sin of war is far greater than the sum of individual sins. War provides the condition in which we silently or loudly give ourselves permission to lie to ourselves, to order murder from a distance and to re-brand our murdering policies into national pride. War is a peculiar form of sinning that runs deep in our culture.
It’s easy to protest against the obvious sins of others. Pacifists too are subject to the invisible power of imitative anger. When we are the sinners, we don’t see things that way. We not only see ourselves as innocents but also as heroes. We idolize ourselves. What could be more sinful than that?
If we are to avoid war we are going to have to understand how deeply we imitate the good, the bad, the ugly and the fearlessnes in each other. Whether you know it or not, we are entering deeper into a new kind of war. It will happen with our consent. You and I are willing sinners in a cosmic battle against our own innocence.
If we keep getting into trouble because our imitative powers are stronger than our intellectual visions, then we are going to need to point our gaze somewhere else. We are becoming increasingly sibling in our social structure. We no longer look to our elders. We increasingly look to each other through technologies which give us the illusion of community. We are in big trouble.