Sunday, June 8, 2008

Suicide Attacks and the Incarnation

I've been reading Twin Powers, Politics and the Sacred by Thomas Molnar. In the first chapter, Molnar discusses the differences between the sacred languages of Christianity and Islam:

"Islamic sacred language is different: it does not refer to an incarnate God at its spiritual center. Perhaps for this reason it is less intellectual, as the amorphous plan of the mosque also suggests. Burckhardt sees in the arabesque 'a surface transformed into a tissue of colors, a vibration of light and shadow' behind which there is a religious intention. The endless intertwining of the lines 'hinders the mind from fixing itself on any particular form, from saying 'I' as an image says 'I.' The center of an arabesque is everywhere and nowhere; each affirmation is followed by a negation.' In other words, while Christianity tolerates a great amount of anthropomorphism and calls attention to the self as the center of creation and as itself a creator as well as the locus of mediation, Islam humbles the self, melts it down, so to speak, in the rhythm and pulsation of the world as ordained by Allah."

This passage brought to mind the practice of Muslim suicide-bombing, and the question of why suicide attack is an occasional feature of non-Western warfare but is virtually unheard of as a tactic of Western war. Those of us raised in the allegedly "post-Christian" West, in fact, cannot but find something creepy, even unholy, in the idea of suicide attacks. Molnar, I think, gives us a clue to the spiritual origin of the Western taboo on suicide attacks. The Christian Incarnation, in which God became Man, grants a special dignity to the individual human being; individual man no longer finds his meaning and purpose solely in his place in the wider community of men, like a bee in the hive, but also in his own nature and his personal relationship with God. The individual man has become something holy in his nature, for in light of the Incarnation, God Himself shares his nature. To reduce the individual man to a pure instrument of the larger human community, then, is to commit an act of sacrilege. And this is what suicide attack demands in the starkest terms. It is a brutal expression of the nullity of the individual man before collective humanity.

Kierkegaard pointed out the paradoxical nature of Christian man. Man, Kierkegaard says, is the only animal for whom the individual is higher than the species. The bee exists for the hive, the bird for the flock, the fish for the school, but man does not exist for the city, at least in Christendom. The Christian city exists for man and his individual relationship with God; to demand, then, that the individual destroy himself for the sake of collective man is to contradict the very purpose of the Christian city and is, indeed, sacrilegious.

I am not talking about the merely rational calculation of self-interest. The Western tradition has regularly demanded military feats that offer only a small chance of survival. But it is part of that tradition that any military mission, no matter how dangerous, must offer some chance for survival, however small. To have as the goal of the mission the destruction of the self crosses a line that has always been clear in the West.

A good example of this is the Nazi Sonderkommando Elbe compared to Japanese Kamikaze. In a desperate attempt to stem the Allied bombing attacks at the end of WWII, the Germans called for volunteers to perform ramming attacks on Allied bombers. Pilots were to literally fly their planes into B-24s and B-17s. These attacks may seem very similar to kamikaze attacks, but there was a crucial difference. The German pilots wore parachutes, opened their cockpits, and either bailed out just before the collision or hoped the collision would throw them free of the cockpit. This was the "small chance of survival" demanded by the Western military tradition. In fact, a number of Sonderkommando Elbe volunteers survived their missions. Japanese kamikaze, in contrast, were not supposed to survive their missions. In fact, it was considered a disgrace if they did somehow survive. There were legitimate veterans of Sonderkommando Elbe attacks, but no legitimate kamikaze veterans. Now the Nazis were not Christians, but they were heirs to the Western military tradition, which was ultimately inspired by Christianity.

I agree with the thesis that the West is now "post-Christian." But post-Christian means that some Christian impulses linger on in the West... one of these impulses is the unease with which we view suicide attacks, although we can no longer name the source of this unease. When the day comes that we in the West no longer feel disturbed by suicide attacks, or even embrace them ourselves, then our post-Christian trajectory will be nearly complete.

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