The Common Good
March-April 1998

Original Vulnerability

by Dan Buchanan | March-April 1998

Violence in Barbara Ehrenreich's Blood Rites.

Conventional wisdom suggests that people kill people because people once had to kill animals in order to survive. The original sin of carnivorousness explains humans’ aggressive thirst for blood: War is coded in our genes.

In Blood Rites Barbara Ehrenreich turns that conventional wisdom upside-down. She traces both war itself and the "religion of war" to our archaic experience not as predators but as prey. The fear of becoming cat food taught early humans to band together, to cherish the "sacrifices" of individuals who succumbed, to emulate the hunting skills of predators, and ultimately to associate God with the lions, tigers, bears, and wolves that menaced them. And so people today respond to military threats by staging rituals of solidarity, seeking to make the "supreme sacrifice," and claiming to see God’s steady hand beneath all the gore.

The premise is maddeningly simple, but Ehrenreich skillfully develops it into a comprehensive history of war. In the beginning, she suggests, humans related to large predators in several ways. As prey, we feared the big cats and other natural hunters, while as scavengers we relied on them to share the meat they had killed. And so we developed rituals of sacrifice which re-enacted the trauma of predation and expressed gratitude to the god-like beasts.

Then, sometime in the Paleolithic Age, we rebelled against the beast by sharpening our own predatory talents. The price of this "decisive advance up the food chain" was unshakable guilt and anxiety. Had we betrayed our best selves by becoming predators? Might we become prey once again? Only by building an entire ritual system around sacrifice could we reassure ourselves of our new status.

War itself, Ehrenreich suggests, appeared several thousand years later. During the Mesolithic Era, humans’—particularly human males’—prestige as hunters was threatened by a dramatic decline in big game populations. Hunters became warriors to gain access to the livestock herds of others and to preserve their own elite status. Though the emerging war system benefited only a few men, it spread like a plague. Community after community embraced war as their only defense against the predations of others.

Eventually a significant protest against the new warrior elite was lodged by visionaries in many cultures—the Hebrew prophets, Gautama Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, Mohammed. But their post-sacrificial religions were co-opted when warriors (like Constantine) gave the new Gods credit for military triumphs. Again, the democratic revolutions of the 18th century briefly threatened to undo the war system—until Napoleon democratized war by including all citizens in the elite warrior lineage. War had become, Ehrenreich glumly concludes, an autonomous, "self-replicating entity" with a life of its own.

THIS IS A mythic history of war—not a false history, but one concerned more with ultimate meaning than with factual detail. Ehrenreich tells her story to help us understand why we bring such deep-seated passions to war and so often invest it with religious meaning.

Interestingly, her myth of sacred violence joins several others that have been proposed recently. René Girard’s myth, developed in Violence and the Sacred and other works, traces ritual sacrifice to a "mimetic desire" inherent in human nature. We want what others have, and this desire leads us into endless cycles of violence and retribution. Only through the victimization of isolated scapegoats can we channel our aggression and preserve the social order. In Throughout Your Generations Forever, the late Nancy Jay eschewed such notions of innate aggression and linked sacrifice to patrilineal systems of descent. Sacrifice emerged, according to Jay, as a "remedy for having been born of woman"—an impressively bloody substitute for biological birth.

All three myths can be read as suggestive counterpoints to the ancient Christian myth of original sin. By rooting violence deep in human nature, Girard implicitly endorses the orthodox doctrine. For him, only a supernatural savior can free us from our violent nature.

Jay, on the other hand, indicts notions of original sin for blinding us to the original blessing of maternal birth. For her, salvation from violence depends on our preservation of the divine spark implanted in each human soul at birth.

But Ehrenreich’s myth sidesteps the dichotomy of original sin and blessing altogether. Instead, she offers a vision of original vulnerability. In our infancy, each of us experiences anew the utter helplessness and dependence that haunted our infancy as a species. The memory of that vulnerability stays with us, fueling both our revulsion from violence and our devotion to it when it seems necessary for survival.

What then shall we do? Ehrenreich offers a few hints for those of us who are committed to putting rites of blood behind us. Evolutionary biology, she repeatedly insists, is not destiny. The roots of war may lie deep in our culture or even our genes, but actual wars are fought only when humans choose to fight them. Continuing William James’ quest for a "moral equivalent of war," Ehrenreich suggests that the passions of war can also be brought to the struggle against war. Indeed, peace activists have often experienced the esprit de corps and self-sacrificial ecstasy of warriors.

Unfortunately, this hopeful prospect is at best a minor theme in Ehrenreich’s book. Far more consistently she accents war’s durability and capacity to adapt itself to each new epoch. Again and again, she links war to intractable social evils—capitalism, male supremacy—only to conclude that it predates and will likely outlive them. This rhetorical strategy suggests that she has been partly dazzled by her own myth. Like our ancestors gazing at the tiger with sacred terror, she has trouble seeing beyond the stark choices of being predator or prey.

Yet humans are now and always have been many other things: gatherers and cultivators of food, creators of tools and art, nurturers of the young and the sick, passionate friends and lovers. All of these activities sustain us in the midst of danger, though none can eliminate vulnerability—or mortality—altogether. And even our vulnerability can draw us together and deepen the joy of our daily acts of care and survival. By counting such blessings and embracing our vulnerability, we may yet find the courage to resist the lure of the hunter.

DAN BUCHANAN is a doctoral candidate in American church history, living in Minneapolis.

Blood Rites. Barbara Ehrenreich. Henry Holt and Co., 1997. Now Available through Amazon.com.

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