Monday, November 15, 2004

Capital Punishment as Human Sacrifice

Capital Punishment as Human Sacrifice:
Using A Mythological Context

The moral arguments on both sides of the capital punishment debate generally revolve around its efficacy or its humanity. The institutionalized killing a member of a society, however, has some striking similarities in terms of the mythology to which the society adheres. My basic assertion is that capital punishment as a form of ritualized violence serves some of the same functions as human sacrifice has throughout human history.

Human sacrifice has existed in many forms from the very beginning of what we call “civilized life”.[i] The Aztecs perfected human sacrifice. In fact, the Aztec creation myth involves the sacrifice of the gods themselves, tearing out their own hearts to create the world.[ii] They believed the universe ran on energy called “tonally”. This energy was the animating force of the universe and it was believed to reside in human blood. Through the spilling of blood, the sacrifices kept the energy moving and, by default, kept the sun moving.[iii] Traditionally, in hunting cultures, “sacrifices were made as a gift or bribe to a deity that is being invited to do something for us or give us something.”[iv] In vegetal cultures, following the signs of nature, death was essential for rebirth. The idea of death as necessary in order for restoration of life was critical. It is this latter view which has a very strong resemblance to particular theories of human sacrifice as being “restorative” which I will discuss at greater depth a little later.

If we are to present evidence that capital punishment is a ritual enacting the secular mythology of its day, then some definitions are in order. What is ritual? What is myth? How are they related and how do they impact the mores of a culture? Rituals can be thought of as a kind of language,[v] which creates and affirms social interaction.[vi] They serve a collective need and serve as a tool of control on the part of those who held power as a justification to dominate others.[vii]

According to Joseph Campbell, myths serve four functions: a mystical function, a cosmological function, a sociological function, and pedagogical function. Campbell writes:
“The third function is the sociological one – supporting and validating a certain social order… It is this sociological function of myth that has taken over our world.[viii]

Claude Levi-Straus suggests that every culture has contradictions because every culture organizes knowledge into binary opposites – pairs of things – and these contradictions have to be reconciled logically[ix]. Myth functions in cultures to provide a logical model capable of overcoming such contradictions.[x] The relationship between myth and ritual becomes clear “when we take ritual for what it is; if we accept that the function is to dramatize the order of life… myth clarifies the order of life expressing itself in basic modes of behavior, especially aggression.”[xi] Levi-Straus believes that what gives myths an operational function is that the specific pattern described is timeless. It explains the present and the past as well as the future.[xii] Interestingly, Campbell’s description of myth as “an interior road map of experience, drawn by people who have traveled it”[xiii] seems to reinforce Levi-Straus’ view of the nature of myth.

Ritual and myth then are the spiritual language and roadmap a culture uses to define its own mores within the context of history and more importantly, within the context of its own perceptions of the universe and what it perceives as the “universal”.

What then is the modern mythology which is set as the backdrop for the modern day human sacrifice of capital punishment? What are the deities to whom the modern human sacrifices of these victims are made? If we broaden our understanding of myth, religion and ritual, if we presume that “the collective consciousness is the highest form of psychic life”[xiv] as Durkeim noted, then this modern mythology is not so hard to see. God, in Campbell’s words, is always culturally conditioned.[xv] As anthropologist Mary Douglas said long ago: “We shall not expect to understand religion if we confine ourselves to considering belief in spiritual beings however the formula may be defined.”[xvi] We must broaden our views of “deities”, “myth” and “ritual” if we wish to see examine such modern issues using an archetypal framework.

Take, for example, the early days of our nation. It has been suggested that Hamiltonian economic politics of its day had, as its aim, the “moral transformation of human beings”.[xvii] Abraham Lincoln argued that “blood sacrifice helped authenticate and give meaning to the institutions of the United States. To perpetuate institutions, Lincoln suggested that reverence for the law should become the ‘political religion’ of the nation, requiring that people ‘sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars’”.[xviii] The “religion” we are talking about here is not to be found only in institutions, but in the quality and tone of society. The mythology, the religion, the ritual to which human sacrifice is required may be understood as the complex representation of the social order, through which we learn transcendence.[xix] Seen in this way, it is the American “ethic” of liberty and justice to which we all owe allegiance, and to which we offer sacrifice to preserve the “order”. Such nationalization of civil society involves greater civic intolerance and possibly greater civic violence by those who challenge or fail to meet the criteria of membership and are likely to be disciplined and repressed.[xx] In the same way that sacrificial victims must meet the approval of the “deity” before being offered as a sacrifice, the judicial system appeals to theology as a guarantor of justice.[xxi]

As Durkeim wrote:
“What essential difference is there between an assembly of Christians celebrating the principal dates in the life of Christ, or of Jews remembering the Exodus from Egypt, or the promulgation of the Decalogue, and a reunion of citizens commemorating the promulgation of a new moral or legal system or some great event in the national life?”[xxii]

Consider the instances of lynchings of blacks in the south. Witnesses bear testimony that religion permeated such communal lynchings because the act occurred within the context of a sacred order, designed to sustain holiness. Ministers were often leaders of the lynch mobs, justifying the ritualistic hangings with the Bible and in the name of the honor of the South and the purity of southern women. In fact, there have been cases where organs from the hanged and burned victims were then passed around to bystanders to smell, or taste, not at all unlike the cases of cannibalism after ritualistic sacrifice found among the Aztecs and the Mayans.[xxiii]

This idea of a human sacrifice for the greater common good of the collective was illustrated in popular culture in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, arguably human history’s most famous human sacrifice. During the scene where the Jewish elders are trying to decide how to deal with the Jesus phenomenon, it is the head priest Caiaphus who sings, “We must crush him completely -So like John before him, this Jesus must die, For the sake of the nation this Jesus must die.”[xxiv] In Caiaphus’ view, the god Jesus was to be sacrificed to was that of the social order, to keep the Romans from further oppressing the occupied Jewish nation.

Freud wrote: “It is always possible to bind together a considerable number people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestation of their aggressiveness.”[xxv] Rene Girard’s scapegoat/restoration theory suggests that ritualized violence (human sacrifice), is essential in bonding the social order, much as Freud suggests. Girard’s basic premise is that such ritualized violence curtails reciprocal violence and imposes a structure on the community through the ritualized sacrifice of some surrogate victim.[xxvi] This theory suggests that ritual violence is intended to reproduce the original act of violence. Girard says there is nothing “mythic” about the original act of violence, but its ritual imitation includes mythic elements.[xxvii]

It was Durkeim who pointed out that it is “through common action that society becomes self aware. The collective feelings and ideas that determine unity and character must be maintained at regular intervals.”[xxviii] Human sacrifice, in Girard’s view, was the way society repaired its social fabric at a perceived low social cost. It’s purpose was to restore harmony to the community.[xxix] Proponents of capital punishment site this sort of restoration as a defense of the practice.

In essence, it can be said then, that a sense of community arises from collective aggression.[xxx] It has been suggested, in fact, that turning violence toward one expendable victim is what made human culture possible.[xxxi]

Trudier Harris in her work on the lynchings of blacks, refers to a “transfer of guilt from the community to the scapegoat.”[xxxii] In this view of human sacrifice, ritual plays a role in social anxiety avoidance, fleeing certain realities a community cannot accept and thus negates.[xxxiii] But we must ask what are those realities? What anxieties is society attempting to avoid? Girard suggests these are normal anxieties, tensions and rivalries which are pent up within the community.[xxxiv]

Historically, it is believed that human sacrifice served as “a form of psychotherapy whose goal (was) to relieve a population’s post traumatic stress after a phenomenally huge natural disaster, especially floods.”[xxxv] At the core of this view of human sacrifice, whether through sacrificial killing or legal punishment, is the problem to forestall a series of reprisals against the perpetrators of the original violence.[xxxvi] Perhaps, as Girard writes, it is as simple as there being just an “underlying anxiety about the continuation of life in the face of death”,[xxxvii] which links back to how early hunting and agricultural societies viewed death. In agricultural societies, death was integral to the “restoration” of the earth in giving her bounty. In hunting cultures, death was seen as necessary to prolong life. This is not the commoditized view of the food chain we see in today’s culture. On some psychic level, these needs are still present. “Blood will have blood…prosperity must be paid for, that all who live and thrive must live and thrive by the death of something else.”[xxxviii] When one considers the nature of the prison-industrial complex and how whole industries have been created around the support of executions in this country, this last statement has special import.

In Western society, movies often reflect the modern mythology under which a people operate. Perhaps the most chilling visual image that portrays human sacrifice as it applies to the idea of “restoration” is from the movie Dead Man Walking. During the penultimate scene of the movie, as the brutal crime of Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) is being replayed for the viewer, we see him strapped to the gurney and executed. The imagery is startling as we see the original violence re-enacted and the ritualized violence paralleling the original, brutal violence. Perhaps, as Girard writes, “civilized life endures only by giving a ritual form to the brute force that still lurks in men.”[xxxix]

There is little question that capital punishment in it’s purest form is designed to elicit control over certain members of its society who do not conform to it’s basic tenets. Public hangings, for example were designed as demonstrations of the power of government.[xl] Those who have the power and control myths believe they are, in fact, producing social harmony.[xli] It is important to note that the Aztecs too, engaged in human sacrifice as a method of controlling and dominating their enemies.[xlii]

The “custom” of having the condemned speak their “last words” was an early attempt to have the victims themselves and their sacrifice serve to elaborate on the problem of social disorder. It provided insights to the general public about the origin of crime and directed a warning to spectators at the gallows.[xliii] This need to bolster and support the social order is consistent with a modern mythology which holds law, justice and to the extent that capital punishment may be class biased (the subject of another study), even social status as the “deity” to which we offer these human sacrifices.

Theorists such as Rene Girard suggest that the fact that no known human society has existed without practicing some sort of ritualized killing indicates that there are benefits to a society reaps that offers these sacrifices. These “ritualistic killings” maintain a status quo and even increase the social bond between individuals.

To the extent that myth is the “song of the universe” as Campbell would say, and that it is the language we all use to explain the contradictions of human society, as Levi-Straus would say, then I would suggest the need for human sacrifice is one to appease the deity of the culture. In earlier times, these deities were supernatural and were unfathomable in human terms. As we entered into the age of reason and science, these deities and the mythology that went along with them, needed to change in order to seem more culturally acceptable. With reason, the rule of law, and the greater common good, the era of individualism and democracy was ushered in. Along with these things, however, we brought along our need – still deeply rooted – to feel connected to powers larger than ourselves.

Rene Girard’s “restoration/scapegoat” theory sounds very much like simple vengeance. It was Ghandi who pointed out that the cycle of violence ends when the blow stops with the one courageous enough to not seek this restoration. If Girard’s theory were accurate, then what of the theory of non-violence? Can a society exist at all without violence? Is restorative violence the only way one binds to another in a society? I don’t believe so. Schopenhauer talks of a metaphysical realization which arises under crises that all life is one. [xliv]

By looking at the mythology of a culture, I believe it is possible to make the spiritual and psychological connections to the root causes of human sacrifice. By using a mythological context, we see can capital punishment with new eyes and with these new views, add to the ongoing dialogue.

[i] “On Progress and Irony: With Particular Reference to the Abandonment of Human Sacrifice” by Carl Pfluger, Hudson Review, Spring 1995

[ii] Discovery Channel Aztecs: Inside the Hidden Empire, “The Science Channel”, http://science.discovery.com/schedule/episode.jsp?episode=1351191000

[iii] “Human Sacrifice at Tenochtitku: Comparative Studies in Society and History,” by John Ingam, 1984, pp379-460.

[iv] The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, 1988, Apostrophe S. Productions, p 133.

[v] Homo Necons: Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, by Walter Burkert, trans Peter Bing, University of California Press, p 29

[vi] Ibid. p. 23

[vii] “Ritual and Sacrifice”, http://aracology.la.asu.edu/tm/pages2/sala2.htm, Instituto Nacional de Andropologia e Historia, Seminaro #8, Cento Historico, Cuachtemmoc, Mexico, 1997

[viii] The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, 1988, Apostrophe S. Productions, p 33

[ix] Structural Anthropology by Claude Levi-Straus, New York: Basic Books 1963-1976, trans Claire Jacobson, Brooke Grundfest Schopf, p xx

[x] Ibid. p xx

[xi] Homo Necons: Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, by Walter Burkert, trans Peter Bing, University of California Press, p 33
[xii] Structural Anthropology by Claude Levi-Straus, New York: Basic Books 1963-1976, trans Claire Jacobson, Brooke Grundfest Schopf, p xx

[xiii] The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, 1988, Apostrophe S. Productions, Introduction p xvi
[xiv] The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, by Emile Durkeim, trans J.W. Swain, New York: The Free Press, 1954 p 444

[xv] The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, 1988, Apostrophe S. Productions, p 125

[xvi] “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice”, by Donald G. Mathews, University of North Carolina, http://www.jsr.as.wvu.edu/mathews.htm, Journal of Southern Religion

[xvii] The Good Society, by Robert Bellah, et al, 1991 New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

[xviii] The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln”, ed. Richard N. Current, Indianapolis: Bobs-Merill, 1967
[xix] “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice”, by Donald G. Mathews, University of North Carolina, http://www.jsr.as.wvu.edu/mathews.htm, Journal of Southern Religion

[xx] “On The Frontiers of Nation and Civil Society: War and the Character of Life”, by Kenneth G. Lawson, University of Washington, March 2000, http://www.poli-sci.utah.edu/~k13240/kglfiles/dissertation/chapter1.htm

[xxi] Violence And The Sacred, by Rene Girard, trans Patrick Gregory, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, p 23

[xxii] The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, by Emile Durkeim, trans J.W. Swain, New York: The Free Press, 1954 p 427

[xxiii] “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice”, by Donald G. Mathews, University of North Carolina, http://www.jsr.as.wvu.edu/mathews.htm, Journal of Southern Religion

[xxiv] “This Jesus Must Die”, Andrew Lloyd Weber from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, 1971

[xxv] Civilization and Its Discontents, by Sigmund Freud, trans James Strachey, New York: W.W. Norton, 1961, p 72

[xxvi] Violence And The Sacred, by Rene Girard, trans Patrick Gregory, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, p 4

[xxvii] Ibid p.249

[xxviii] The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, by Emile Durkeim, trans J.W. Swain, New York: The Free Press, 1954 p 598

[xxix] On The Frontiers of Nation and Civil Society: War and the Character of Life”, by Kenneth G. Lawson, University of Washington, March 2000, http://www.poli-sci.utah.edu/~k13240/kglfiles/dissertation/chapter1.htm

[xxx] Homo Necons: Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, by Walter Burkert, trans Peter Bing, University of California Press, p 35

[xxxi] “Violence and the Sacred: Rene Girard’s Insights into Christianity”, by G.L. Bailie, http://aislingmagazine.com/anu/articles/tam26/r.girard.html

[xxxii] “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice”, by Donald G. Mathews, University of North Carolina, http://www.jsr.as.wvu.edu/mathews.htm, Journal of Southern Religion
[xxxiii] Homo Necons: Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, by Walter Burkert, trans Peter Bing, University of California Press, p 25
[xxxiv] Violence And The Sacred, by Rene Girard, trans Patrick Gregory, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, p 7

[xxxv] “The Rise of Blood Sacrifice and Priest Kinship in Mesopotamia”, Religion, 1992 vol 22 pp109-134

[xxxvi] Violence And The Sacred, by Rene Girard, trans Patrick Gregory, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, p 25

[xxxvii] Ibid. p16

[xxxviii] “On Progress and Irony: With Particular Reference to the Abandonment of Human Sacrifice” by Carl Pfluger, Hudson Review, Spring 1995

[xxxix] Violence And The Sacred, by Rene Girard, trans Patrick Gregory, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, p 45

[xl]Ibid., p 27

[xli] On The Frontiers of Nation and Civil Society: War and the Character of Life”, by Kenneth G. Lawson, University of Washington, March 2000, http://www.poli-sci.utah.edu/~k13240/kglfiles/dissertation/chapter1.htm

[xlii] “Ritual and Sacrifice”, http://aracology.la.asu.edu/tm/pages2/sala2.htm, Instituto Nacional de Andropologia e Historia, Seminaro #8, Cento Historico, Cuachtemmoc, Mexico, 1997

[xliii] Rites of Execution: Captial Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, by Louis P. Masur, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, p 33

[xliv] The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, 1988, Apostrophe S. Productions, p 138

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