Bored Borders

I know very little about the great civilizations of Meso-America, so I was intrigued to at least skim through Tales of the Plumed Serpent: Aztec, Inca, and Mayan Myths.   I have long thought that the myths and folkore of a civilization form one of the best entry points for the novice.  Each of these cultures had remarkable achievements in nearly all marks of what we generally call “civilization.” Their architecture and engineering alone can rival that of Egypt and Rome.

Of course, studying these cultures comes with the big elephant in the room of human sacrifice.  We associate this primarily with the Aztecs, and they may have practiced this on a larger scale than other civilizations in the region.  But the Incas and Mayas both offered human victims on their altars. Some of their myths, as we might expect, help lay the foundation for such terrors.

I understand that any editor should have a light touch in such a collection.  One wants to let the stories speak for themselves. And yet, the extreme desire to stay “neutral” in itself reflects a certain worldview.  On page 87 the editor includes a section on human sacrifice, and writes,

Further to the south, the Incas practiced human sacrifice too.  One notable and particularly poignant custom was the rite of “capacocha,” in which the victims were usually children.  After going to Cuzco to be blessed by the Inca priests, the “capacochas” returned home in procession along straight routes called “ceques.”  Here they were either buried alive in subterranean tombs or killed with clubs and their bodies left on mountaintops.

The word “poignant” seems dramatically inappropriate for such a description.

True, the Spanish found much to admire about the religious zeal of the Aztecs, for example.  Perhaps some of the victims volunteered out of a genuine sense of zeal. But surely we should not assume that children “volunteered.” Surely we have not so lost our way that we cannot call children being buried alive “horrifying,” or at the very least, “tragic.”  

I can’t help but surmise that if the Greeks or Romans practiced this, different words would have been chosen to describe them. For Meso-American cultures suffered under European colonialism, and this seems to mean that, having been granted victim status, they can do no historical wrong.* But the situation has much more complexity than this.

NOVA’s documentary about the deciphering of the Mayan language called Cracking the Mayan Code has many things to recommend it. But it begins with the obligatory castigation of Spanish priests destroying the manuscripts of the Mayans, who clearly did so out of “ignorance” of the Mayans and contempt for their culture. At no point are we encouraged to consider whether or not Mayan culture should remain entirely entact. One can find things to admire about the ante-bellum South, for example, but slavery had to go, and removing slavery might mean altering other aspects of ante-bellum culture. However messy this might get, I would be surprised if many in academia object to the damage done to southern culture in the effort to destroy slavery.

The Spanish priests perhaps prescribed a stern remedy for the Mayans by destroying their manuscripts, but we should at least consider:

  • Did the priests believe that the foundations of human sacrifice needed eradicated?
  • Did the manuscripts provide a religious foundation for human sacrifice?
  • Should the missionaries attempt to end human sacrifice? If destroying the manuscripts helped accomplish this, should we see this as worth the cost of the loss of knowledge about Mayan language and history?
  • Did the priests see themselves as part of the “lineage” of the prophet Elijah, who proposed a contest with the prophets of Baal (whose worship also occasionally involved human sacrifice), or St. Boniface, who chopped down the oak of Thor? If so, was this connection justified?

We must at least entertain these questions, but on many campuses this would not be easy to do.

Acquiring such nimble minds would be entirely necessary for reading Henry of Livonia’s chronicle of Baltic Crusades in the 13th century. A brief synopsis of his account is almost impossible. Some converted under early missionary work, and the church sent other clergy to help establish churches in the area. Some fought against the church by attacking and murdering clergy and other Christians, others reneged on their conversions, making things even messier and more confusing. And so it went. The introduction to his text reveals that in the 19th century, German scholars revered Bishop Berthold for his tenacious will in establishing the church in the area. The editors rightly raise some eyebrows at this, for no one who reads the text would admire the bishop for his love, understanding, and perspicacious wisdom, whatever other qualities he possessed. And of course we know what the early 20th century had in store for Germany. But as one might imagine, today the editors see only the destruction of culture and cruelty, wildly swinging the pendulum of analysis. Even a cursory reading of Henry shows his appreciation for local cultures, but also the tension that comes when we encounter destructive pagan cultural practices. We should cultivate the boundaries of our minds so that we can make judgments without rushing to stark ideological conclusions that have no sympathy for one side or the other. When the introduction to Henry of Livonia reveals is that this is not a strictly modern problem, and that may be of some comfort.

As the center of our own culture erodes the our physical and mental boundaries inevitably become more porous. Douglas Murray tackles this in The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. Murray writes with conviction but this is not a screed. He at least appreciates the tension between maintaining a cohesive identity as a culture and helping those in desperate situations. If we cannot recognize this tension debating the issues will go nowhere.

The problem Europe experiences over these issues, however, runs deeper than the plight of the desperate. First of all, many of those who migrate appear not to be desperate refugees but young Moslem men looking for greater economic opportunity. That, of course, does not make them bad people by any definition, but it should alter the debate somewhat. Murray believes that European leadership has distanced itself from their people. Their willingness to allow more migrants significantly outdistances the desires of most voters. But to the extent that this is true, the problem can easily get fixed in subsequent elections.

The immigration issue exposes deeper rifts in beliefs about democratic practice. Those on the right and left both believe in democracy. Conservatives tend to see democracy as somewhat fragile. Democracy can work only with healthy institutions and an instinctive level of trust between people that comes from shared values and a shared culture. If your candidate loses the election, you can shrug your shoulders and try next time, knowing that, whatever your differences on tax policy or budget allocations, you know that nothing substantive about your life will change. The moment you stop believing this about other candidates from other political parties, fear may drive you to do more than simply shrug your shoulders

Many liberals these days** (so it seems to me–I am a conservative, so forgive and feel free to correct any misrepresentation), believe that democracy is primarily a powerful idea, not a complex practice or culture. Ideas can transfer easily, thoughts have no borders. So, democracy requires little more than belief in “freedom” or “equality,” and participation–“make sure you get out and vote”–to work successfully.

Conservatives might balk at the prospects of bringing in millions of mostly young men who neither share your religion, your cultural values, your shared democratic practice, and no history or context for understanding the issues. If recent immigration policies tell us much, liberals tend to believe that this poses no fundamental problem to continuing our democratic practice.

For Murray, the deeper problems involve a profound spiritual malaise, a great crisis of confidence Europeans feel about their own institutions and culture.

One can argue that civilizations should function much as individual people function, and have the capacity to exercise humility and repentance, though this is dicey and comes with many complications. But granting this and leaving the question aside, one could argue that western civilization has much to repent of, such as imperialism, slavery, etc. Of course western civilization is hardly alone in committing such sins, but we can only repent of our sins, and not those of others. But as St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, and St. Peter and Judas demonstrate, there is a godly sorrow that leads to life, and a sorrow that leads to death.

Much of Murray’s book indicates that large swaths of the political class of Europe may wish for something akin to an atoning annhiliation of their culture–akin to Van Gogh cutting off his ear. Recently an op-ed piece from Todd May in no less than the New York Times argued that for the good of the Earth, humanity as a whole should make itself extinct. But most on the far-left only desire this of western culture. Consider a very small smattering of examples:

  • Sweden’s PM Frederic Steinfeld stating that, “only barbarism is genuinely Swedish.”
  • The extreme reluctance of law enforcement agencies to publish the ethno-national information of the accused when they come from Moslem areas, lest they (so I suppose) seem racist.
  • In the aftermath of the coordinated sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany on New Years Eve 2015, the response of some was to give instructions to women on how they should behave around young migrant men. What makes this troubling to me is the assertion that Germans should adjust to the behviors and culture of their guests, and not vice-versa (no one would, or should, make the equal assertion that Germans abroad should expect their hosts to conform to German cultural norms).
  • The failure of states to aggressively try and curb the rise of anti-semitism in areas of high Moslem concentrations.

All of his examples illustrate Murray’s main theme of internal cultural immolation,^ a drastic diagnosis, but one that seems apt.

The problem of borders often raises its head often in history. On the one hand borders strike us as entirely artificial. Nothing in the nature of the universe would have it that America occupy a certain amount of space with a certain amount of prosperity. If borders be artificial, no good reason exists to prevent anyone from moving anywhere.

But, on the other hand, borders must exist, for without them we would have no way to order our lives politically or economically. Borders lack the legitimacy of natural law they have a relationship to natural law. I think national boundaries are akin to our relationship with food. There is nothing that says we must have either chicken, pizza, or salad, but we must eat some kind of food to survive. Some form of national and cultural boundaries, then, seems necessary to our existence.

The borders in our mind are more crucial. Maintaining distinctions in creation is one of the hallmarks of Genesis 1. Light is not darkness, morning is not evening, trees are not fish, and men are not women. As we review Incan mythology, we have to say that burying children alive is worse than being merely “poignant.” We must not assume that a pagan culture is by definition “oppressed” when they come into contact with the Christian west. We have to have conversations about emotionally difficult subjects like immigration. If the viral malaise that stymies this bores its way into other borders of our mind, eroding the entirety of our mental structure, so our cultural structures. will follow suit. And because chaos has no differentiation, the sameness of all things can get boring–as well as dangerous.


*Without excusing the subsequent actions of the Spanish and Portuguese in the least–actions that many contemporary Europeans themselves criticized–one must remember, for example, that Cortez had a great deal of help in bringing down the Aztecs. Many other local tribes rallied around him, and perhaps they did so at least in part because they wanted to protect themselves from the Aztecs sacrificing them on their altars.

**Some could also lump the neo-conservatives of the early 2000’s into this group, so perhaps this is not exclusively a liberal belief.^I will go on record as saying that I agree with Murray that Europe is a undergoing a kind of cultural suicide, but I don’t see this necessarily as a recent phenomena of the last 15-20 years. In other words, it’s not primarily the fault of too much immigration. Perhaps this is merely a symptom. Rather, Europe began this process many decades or perhaps centuries ago. Europe as we know it had its foundations with the Church, and has painstakingly eroded that foundation. Without this, the edifice built upon this now non-existent foundation will have to collapse.


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