In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God.
Go to any western liberal arts university class and you’ll hear the choir sing in refrain:
|Language constructs reality!|
|Language constructs reality!|
|Language constructs reality!|
Wait, why are secular academics in the 21st century echoing the Gospel of John?
It’s complicated. You see, a long time ago, according to John’s letter, God came to Earth as a man. But he didn’t show up as all socially-constructed religions had thus far imagined: instead of ruling with domination, violence, and vengeance, he offered unconditional mercy and forgiveness. Instead of gold thrones and decrees, he was born in a food trough and offered questions.
John uses the Greek word Logos for Word which means the cosmic or divine ordering principle of reality. He does this intentionally to bring into sharp relief the beginning of the end of darkness: all human cultures with some shades of variance had affirmed that the Logos—the ordering principle of reality—was dominance built on sacrificial violence against an Other. Some one or group, hopefully not you, needed to be sacrificed in order to maintain order. But why?
Human beings are master imitators. It’s how we devised technology and culture both of which were driven by our greatest tool, language. Our greatest strength—the ability to see each other so well we learn and develop beyond the capacity of any animal—is also our greatest weakness: when we copy each other’s desires for the same perceived scarce object or social position, we descend into brutal violence. In order to prevent this runaway deadly game of copycat, we stumbled upon a means of relieving pent up tension: kill or banish a person or group whose external differences made them stand out in a growing sea of undifferentiated rivals.
It’s almost like human competition turns us into an amorphous blob of sameness that takes on a collective life of its own that, if left unchecked, will devour itself. So the blob must feed on difference: the wart-nosed woman, the dwarf, the rich old chieftain whose worn out his privileged welcome, the albino, the disabled, the disturbed, the beggar, the loud-mouth, the social engineer whose machinations malfunction—anyone who in a flash crisis stands out as a bearer of difference whose misfit presence must be extinguished to allow everyone to turn their finger pointing from each other onto a single source of trouble.
Looney Tunes is profound on this point. When characters fight, they increasingly imitate each other’s tricks and slights until they become one amorphous moving dust cloud. Inside that cloud, the rivals perceive themselves as more different than ever, but to the outside observer—including Bugs Bunny who often cleverly slips out of the cloud unnoticed to wink at us—it looks like one maddening unified ball of futility. Ancient cultures found a way to end the fight cloud by all in the fight cascadingly noticing a one that stands out and uniting against it.
In our world history, myths and taboos developed as cover stories to explain why we needed to maintain boundaries and differences protected with controlled repetition of our original spontaneous lynchings. The pantheon of gods we created—our social ordering principle narratives—demanded the careful sacrifice of humans to provide a dose of catharsis to communities on the verge of social undifferentiated chaos. Pecking orders of social status, rules of dress, theft prevention all of these were guarded by human sacrifice of a common other.
Returning to the Gospel of John, we have a breakthrough insight: the use of Logos indicates a fresh new creation story that challenges the darkness of sacrificial religions. This story immediately winks at the audience to the social construction of reality: the Gospel indicates that God—Logos, Being, Existence itself—is both person and family, a trinity of self-giving reciprocal love. God makes creation in the likeness of this Logos: we humans are made to imitate this self-giving love to one another. And it is then demonstrated by God coming to Earth as a human, living a life of action that reflects this new social ordering principle, and then stepping into our sacrificial meat grinder machine and breaking it from within with his innocence and perfect refusal of revenge. Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.
Two thousand years of this story of Word with its art, songs, and communities of remembrance, and we still don’t know what we’re doing—but we’re working on it. The West has been culturally infected by the Cross so long that it’s transformed our common word for Sacrifice. In the past, sacrifice in default meant sacrifice of an other. Now it commonly connotes self-sacrifice for those weaker and more vulnerable: the ones in earlier times most prone to sacrificial victimization.
We don’t make choices based on individually-deduced facts but on socially-shaped feelings. The feelings we get when born in a culture with two thousand years of words and art, baked in the narrative of an innocent man crucified by an angry mob, deeply shape us—especially when the story is presented as the ordering principle of reality itself. These feelings led us to create hospitals embued with this story: no longer would we only treat members of our own in-crowd, anyone would be seen regardless of who they were. It led us to build homes for the orphaned, widowed, disabled, and disturbed rather than use them as easy fodder for sacrificial dominance.
The problem is we allowed our persistent vanity of the autonomous self—a freedom ironically unleashed by the Word’s aesthetic defense of the person against the violence of collectivist groups—to hold back the power of this cultural process. We stubbornly believe the Gospel of John is sharing another ideology, a set of facts we can master and place in our pocket as we create communities the way we prefer; yes, throw a little more dash of love and mercy in but retain a healthy dose of initiating aggression or vengeance when necessary to maintain peace and unity in our groups. We’re ever pricked by violence and social isolation but intuitively create more clever ways to hide it from ourselves. Sacrifice used to be our pleasure. Now it’s our guilty pleasure.
So as reflected in the modern western university, news media, and pop culture, we have become obsessed with words. Words have power: they are the symbolic vessels of cultural transmission. And whether we know it or not, the Gospel marinade has softened our cultural heart to use language in a way that does not isolate anyone because of an external difference: race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, disability, orientation, income. Anyone can be anything, we say, lest we repeat the mistakes of our ancestors and see differences to the point that misfits and the weak are sacrificed for order.
This is why we’ve become the Safe Space culture. We need a safe space to handle all the cognitive dissonance the cross triggers in our hearts when we see victims through its light but refuse to renounce violence. We are waging war against words—symbolic transmitters—rather than confront the full truth of our complicity with violence. We will destroy an elderly white grandmother (an easy symbolic scapegoat target for ancestral sins of sacrificial lynchings) like Paula Deen for racial language used in private decades ago much faster than we will utterly reject and repudiate our voting for bipartisan interventions that cause generations of senseless suffering in the Middle East.
We cannot look and see truly what we do because it would destroy the delicate artifice of modern sensitivity we all pretend to endow. So we go along with political plans to throw cash at mental health professionals to treat soldier PTSD and suicide epidemics clearly caused by the dissonance of being used as a sacrificial victims for the nation’s gloriously typical imperial grandeur.
We cannot see the obvious violence of maintaining a drug war that throws human beings into sacrificial cages to create ever deflating catharsis for the outside society. We cannot bother to see the insanity of sending armed men to force people to fix their taillight or carry insurance or catch up on child support payments. So we make it all about racial or gender self-flagellation in which the focus becomes policing thought and words out of the hearts of men. Yes, hate is akin to murder. But unless we refuse to have agents carry out such armed confrontations for victimless vices, we do all victims—blue, black, white—a disservice.
We want our political leaders to use clean speech, sensitive words, to sell us on their latest agendas for planning our lives with careful use of sacrificial violence against nonviolent people here and abroad. We can’t let go of violence so we sell it to ourselves under the banner of protecting victims. Laws are now created out of a mixture guilt and envy. Guilt for what we fear about ourselves in light of the cross. Envy for the untouchable spotlight we perceive The Crucified One to have.
Wecovet the victim status to gain social currency in a social order in which victims, real and perceived, jockey for footing atop the capstone of a pyramid built on sacrificing as victimizers the least-convincing self-identifying victims. That’s why a private tape of a public figure using the N-word engenders more visceral outrage and attention than the quiet, obfuscating schemes of state leaders using their office to pillage earthquake-devastated Haitians for their family members and friends. State plunder, with its sacred offices, is all too complicated to figure out and easily forgivable as long as the takers have built social equity through victim-garbed state violence that comforts us with fleeting bits of sacrificial catharsis through scoring vengeance on perceived beneficiaries of older sacrificial hiearchies. It’s what often fuels charges of privilege or heteronormativity.
Whenever a tragedy happens the ascendant knee-jerk fashion is to sacrifice maleness, whiteness, heterosexuality, monogamy, wealth, Christianity, any marker of power vestiges in western culture that would ostensibly make one less likely to be marginalized or sacrificed. Any aspect of the human being that keeps us out of the scene of Göbekli Tepe, the 12,000 year old, earliest human structure found in which evidence suggests ritual sacrifice was its purpose. What white privilege was in the cold, crimson sacrificial basin of Göbekli Tepe? The only privilege in this universal primordial crime scene was that of a unified crowd compelled to cast its guilt on an innocent victim.
The Word shines a light in the darkness of our universal murders we want to forget. It declares all of our victims—past, present, and future—innocent of the collective guilt we hurl onto them. It is finished.
We must let our speech to one another be leavened with humility and gratitude, not lifeless, guilt-racked tolerance. We must take joy in our differences and use that energy to unite lives around the refusal of all acts of collective aggression and vengeance.
In the end, the Word is a person we must be.