On the Molochs of Modernity | Dr. Jose Yulo | September 14, 2006
"But of course the death of the community is not useful to the community -- only the death of some of its members. What is really meant is that the death of some men is useful to other men. That is very true. But on what ground are some men being asked to die for the benefit of others?" -- C. S. Lewis
There is much regarding the proxy war recently waged in Lebanon that is simply unfathomable to western eyes. How has the terrorist militia known as Hezbollah withstood the force of what is soldier for soldier, one of the world's most potent armies? Why, if Hezbollah is indeed a terrorist organization responsible not only for numerous Israeli, but also American deaths over the last two decades, has the United Nations and international community not resounded with condemnation for its wanton aggressions? What exactly is the rationale behind many in the West's tendencies to apply a moral equivalence between Hezbollah terrorists who launch crude rockets en masse into civilian Israeli towns, and Israeli soldiers who actually drop leaflets to allow Lebanese civilians (and, obviously many in Hezbollah) to leave cities before shelling begins?
The first query will unfortunately be debated at military colleges for the foreseeable near future; at least until a feasible response to urban guerilla tactics has been deduced. The second can and has regrettably been answered by the UN and international community's past history of taking Israeli violence to task, even as it gifts terrorist founders such as Yasser Arafat with accolades.
It is the third inquiry that directly has the most bearing and pertinence to citizens at large. Much of the general populace in the West is unschooled in military history, as evidenced by the relative scarcity attained by figures such as Thucydides and Polybius in today's book circles. Likewise, the Byzantine workings of the UN perplexes, if not leaves to the public much to be desired in the arena of world leadership. However, the fashionable moral relativism and equivalence espoused by many western social and academic elites, eventually trickles down in more diluted, but equally incoherent public permutations.
To address this quandary, in which the paradigm of aggressor and victim are replaced by (as Paul Johnson puts the term) "belligerents," one may find two tales from western civilization's past helpful. These two accounts at first may not appear to share much more than rough geography in common. However, there is more beneath the surface of the tales that inextricably bind them as a reminder of man's capacity for something less than greatness. The imposed dormancy of these accounts, in addition to the shared meanings between them, makes for a difficult lesson for today's mores, which are willing to ignore shared human standards of rectitude.
Genesis 22 recounts how God, after granting Abraham and Sarah their first son, calls on the patriarch to offer up his child as a form of sacrifice. Ascending a mountain, Abraham prepares to perform the unimaginable act. Just as he is about to complete the task, an angel descends to inform him of the Lord's satisfaction at Abraham's willingness to maintain loyal to His decrees.
On the surface, the lessons gleaned from this episode speak of a patriarch's fidelity to his Lord. Abraham is here willing to strike down that which he has craved most in his life as a measure of his unbreakable bond with his deity. Crucial in this -- and a glimmer of things to come -- is that Abraham does not have to carry out the grisly task at all. Aside from being a gauge of Abraham's loyalty, this tale doubly serves to relate the unique nature of God's dealings with His people.
History points to the land of Canaan, a land promised to Abraham, as practicing a variety of indigenous religious rituals. Sources from later on in the Old Testament will elucidate these rituals as particularly heinous, often involving human sacrifice. In the land known formerly as the Levant, the Phoenicians would extend and specialize these sacrifices. In localities such as Tyre and Sidon, areas heavily involved in today's conflicts, the Phoenicians would choose children as their sacrificial victims.
It may be deduced that Genesis 22, aside from testing the quality of Abraham, was an account that taught the patriarch of the distinct significance of following a faith other than those of the Canaanites. Aside from moral codes, which generations later shall be passed on to the Hebrew people under Moses, God provides a cardinal feature of His covenant with men. Being involved in any covenant with a divinity by itself elevates mankind from the servile position of forever attending upon gods; much as in the more ancient Sumerian religion. Coupled with this is the new message that although sacrifice may at times be called upon, it did not involve what mankind held most dear: its progeny.
This new feature of a godhead caringfor the very being of his followers serves as a moral milestone in the ancient world, particularly in the land of Canaan. As
St. Augustine would many centuries later speak of with regard to a morality and a free will, the very freedom of the will necessitates the knowledge of what the choices of the will are. Abraham is presented with the knowledge that though his and his people's moral paradigm opposes that of his co-inhabitants, it is the more true paradigm. It can be assumed that a divinity who required spiteful, slavish human sacrifice of his followers in a way needed something from them. The act in this case takes on the appearance of appeasement to either the god's vanity or caprice. In the very least, the potency, let alone the veracity, of this kind of divinity is suspect.
This being said, why does it seem that in this new value accrued to young human life, Abraham and his followers are in a minority in Canaan? What were the reasons driving man to offer up the most innocent of his own to the fires of Moloch? Here, knowledge taken from the Phoenicians direct descendants is of value.
A merchant-based civilization, Phoenicia colonized various outposts in the western Mediterranean for trade and military purposes. Among these were Spain and North Africa. Carthage, located in modern Tunis, eventually succeeded its motherland in terms of financial and political success. There is little surprise then in noting that historians ancient and modern described the Carthaginians practicing their inherited Phoenician ritual.
Sadly, it seemed that this sacrificial rite was especially widespread if and when the city of Carthage experienced periods of great duress. With its propensity for expansion and colonization, adversaries in the Mediterranean were abundant. The city would last long enough to contend with Greece and the Rome, yet would have its fate later sealed by the latter. The historian Adrian Goldsworthy noted that though substitution of animals for children sometimes occurred in these ceremonies, the likelihood of human victims increased over the years.
After two ruinous wars with Rome, Carthage would begin to view its end with the persistent exhortations of Marcus Cato the Elder. The great Roman censor, fearing Carthage's return to power, unabatedly called for the city's complete destruction. Of course, factors both economic and military played a part in Cato's efforts. The Carthaginians were surprisingly able to rebuild from the disastrous defeat at Zama. However, examining Cato's personality as portrayed by Plutarch, one can see a deep- seated reservation held against things the censor felt corrosive to Roman culture. Railing even against Greece for its perceived Eastern affectations, what could have been even more slavish than a nation who killed its own offspring to gain favor with the gods? In 146 BC, after a deadly siege, Punic Carthage was finally burnt to the ground.
Oddly enough, the Romans did perhaps too thorough a job eradicating an adversarial civilization. Generations passed and the grisly Phoenician religion became a thing little mentioned, if at all outside academic circles. Modern scholarship even attempts to rewrite the account, claiming Greek and Roman blood libel against a redoubtable foe. This when excavations in Tunis show mass remains of small skeletons collectively buried and sharing telltale signs of burning. The belief in sacrificing the most vulnerable in society, once predominant in Abrahamaic times, perished under Roman steel and fire. It is now obvious that mighty Carthage, as a city, perished with less resistance than its religion.
Today, there are no beaches at Normandy where groups like Hezbollah hunker down and await an allied landing. Groups of this mold are more than content to kidnap soldiers, refuse to give them up, use their own children to shield themselves, all in the effort of influencing Western opinion against Israel. To this can be included terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda and the recent London plotters. Apparently, a young mother with child held in the London investigation planned to use her baby as a decoy for smuggling explosives in a plane for a suicide attack. The smoke of Moloch seems to still pungently waft.
The new mystery though is the propensity for many in the West to rationalize this inhumanity of sacrifice because of a perceived socioeconomic disenfranchisement of the extremist. As the slipshod argument goes, these are the weapons of the poor man. Canaanites were the dominant race before Abraham came. Carthage was one of the wealthiest states in the ancient world. No, it would seem that rather than the actions of the poor man, these are those of the un-free, slavish man.
It is supremely ironic that it is predominantly free people, the inheritors of Greece and Rome, who use this rationalization. Could it be because in Western freedom some human beings are but organisms to be utilized for the benefit of others? Or perhaps freedom is seen as supreme over other inalienable rights, including one to simply live? After all, it is a peculiar Western argument that freedom extends to deciding the minutia of one's life, all the way down to a death that ameliorates one's loss of a certain "quality of life." As in Huxley, the preponderance of choices renders those most vital to humanity inconvenient and obsolete.
Earlier, it was mentioned that the struggle in Lebanon was a proxy war. Analysts will speak of Hezbollah fighting for a hegemonic Iran, as Israel acts for a reluctant, apathetic West. In this clash, however, can be seen older themes of human existence reigniting their age spanning struggle. Victory may hinge on man's rediscovery of the nature of false gods promising the comforts of freedom and deliverance.
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9/11 Revisited | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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Jose Yulo, Ed.D. teaches courses on philosophy, western civilization, United States history, and public speaking at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He has a Doctorate in Education from the University of San Francisco, with an emphasis on the philosophy of education. He also holds a Master's degree in political communication from Emerson College in Boston, as well as a Bachelor's degree in the classical liberal arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. Originally from Manila in the Philippines, his research interests lie in Greek philosophy, the histories of Greek and Roman politics and warfare, and the literature of J. R. R. Tolkien.
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