Facing the Rising Barbarism

The rising barbarism we see all around us cannot be ignored, nor can we withhold the medicine to cure it.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a jackboot stamping upon a human face forever.”
              —George Orwell

It was during the early 1960s that the Mau Mau uprisings took place in Kenya, marked by widespread massacres of anyone, black or white, who got in their way. The end of European colonial rule was near at hand and, despite all the atrocities, hopes were running high among the usual liberal elites. Not everyone, however, was equally optimistic.

Conservative columnist William Buckley, for instance, when asked about the future of Africa, remained skeptical. Perhaps, he suggested, the newly emergent nations were not quite ready for self-government. “Well, when do you think they will be?” His answer: “When they stop eating each other.” 

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OK, so maybe cannibalism was not exactly le mot juste in describing the behavior of Mau Mau insurgents sixty years ago. They weren’t actually eating their political opponents. Any more than, say, our own insurgents have been dining out on human flesh while ravaging our cities and towns. How about the word barbarism then? 

Will that work to describe the mayhem and violence witnessed by more and more Americans these days? And not just witnessed—as if the burning and looting of whole cities were nothing more than distant images on a TV screen—but actually experienced as the victims of the rampaging mobs, on whom the mobs have been feasting. Are we not faced with our very own, homegrown, Mau Mau uprising?   

What is barbarism, and why should we fear it? More to the point, why do we tolerate it? The philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, whose prophetic work The Revolt of the Masses appeared around the time fascism was taking hold in Germany, described it as the absence or abdication of any civilized standard to which the innocent and the helpless may appeal. When criteria of good and evil, which have been acknowledged for centuries among civilized peoples, suddenly start to collapse, cancelled by the bullies for whom power has become their constant pursuit, then you have a situation of barbarism. 

We certainly have seen a lot of that lately. Indices of breakdown and disorder are everywhere, becoming so frequent and routine that it hardly seems necessary to rehearse the figures. Instead, we should be asking ourselves, Why do we put up with it? What are we waiting for? A total relapse into a new Dark Age? If so, it will be far more deadly than the last because it will have been midwifed by corporate media in collusion with corrupt government.

“When they came for the Jews,” declared Martin Niemöller, writing from a Nazi prison cell while awaiting death, “I was not a Jew, so I said nothing. When they came for the trade unionists, I was not a trade unionist, so I said nothing. When they came for the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, so I said nothing. When they came for me, there was no one left to say anything.” 

All right. Maybe it is a bit over-the-top. Maybe, like the Buckley quip, it does not exactly apply. Nevertheless, in order to make a point, as Chesterton would say, it may be necessary now and again to exaggerate. And certainly, in light of what is happening in our country today, I’d say the point survives the exaggeration. On nearly every front, therefore, we are facing civilizational collapse. The guttering is all about us, and it is clear that nothing of value will remain.

But let’s be clear about one thing. It is not anything new. It has been with us from the beginning, indeed, from that first moment in the garden when God stepped in and put Adam on notice, thus shutting the door on the lie that it is the place of the creature, and not the Creator, to set the criteria for truth and justice. “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden,” God told Adam; “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-18).

Wickedness works pretty fast, I’d say. Two chapters in from the creation of the universe and already Adam is poised to fall. So why the prohibition? Can’t God give us a little room to breathe here? Well, actually, he’s given us almost all the room in the world in which to disport and take delight. 

The Church Fathers would often, in their writings, dilate upon the myriad opportunities for human flourishing amid the limits set by God. It was only the one tree He declared off limits. And why was that? Because it signified that only God may determine what is good and evil, having created everything already. It is not the prerogative of the creature to define reality, to determine for himself the meaning of being; our job, which holds out the promise of an infinite joy and bliss, is to receive that meaning and so to rejoice and be glad forever. It is the sheer givenness of being that we need to respect, not trash an inheritance we did nothing to create.

Throw God under the bus, which is what we do when we co-opt the operations of the universe for ourselves alone, and everything ends up in a bloody ditch. It is not my freedom to revolt that confers meaning, or brings about fulfilment. Nietzsche’s “will to power” is not a recipe for a happy life. And, really, how freeing is it to imagine that thanks to gender fluidity I needn’t stay stuck in the body I was born into, knowing that castration is just another option?

The solution is to return to God, whom we have forgotten. It is to follow Christ in His perfect surrender to the Father, allowing His connection to become the defining truth of our lives. He is, after all, the world’s great Amen to God, who never did anything on His own but always in relation to the Other. We don’t have to initiate anything; we need only to respond to His initiative, receiving all from the All.

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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