Speaking different languages

I'm rarely surprised anymore by the various ways different groups will use religious symbolism to get their points across, or the way responsible parties will use language to deflect their own guilt, but I was struck by two stories today I saw nearly back to back during the news roundup on Democracy Now this afternoon.

Here's the first. Greenpeace is building, on Mount Ararat, a new Noah's Ark to try to raise awareness of the potential dangers of climate change. It's an interesting idea, and while Greenpeace will no doubt be criticized by global warming deniers (who by this time deserve to be considered as stupid as Young-Earth Creationists), the decision to use this imagery is an inspired one. There's a flood myth in pretty much every culture, and the Noah story is not only a part of major religions, it's a warning story that the human actions have consequences. It was human wickedness, after all, that caused God to destroy the world the first time, according to the story, and it's our mistreatment of the environment that may well lead to our own destruction. A new report out claims that 1 billion people will be displaced by climate change by 2050. That's pretty freaking significant, and given the human penchant for having to step in our problems before we start to look for solutions, I'd say we can use all the symbolic motivation we can get to start the process a little earlier this time.

And then there's the Pope. Pope Benedict pissed off a lot of people in Latin America last week when he said the indigenous people there had been "silently longing" to be raped and murdered by Catholic soldiers converted to the Christian faith. So he apologized today. Sort of. The headline of this piece, originally in the NY Times, is a little misleading. The headline reads "Pope acknowledges 'injustices' by Christian colonizers of South America," but the Pope really didn't do that. He played the passive voice game.

ROME - Pope Benedict tried Wednesday to quell anger in South America over his recent comments on the conversion of native populations there, acknowledging that "unjustifiable crimes" were committed in the European conquest of the continent five centuries ago.

Speaking in Italian to a weekly audience in Rome, the pope said that it was "not possible to forget the suffering and the injustices inflicted by colonizers against the indigenous population, whose fundamental human rights were often trampled."

Notice what's missing--the perpetrators of those "unjustifiable crimes," the people who trampled the fundamental human rights of the indigenous population. It's an old trick, but it still works, and it's something I point out to my freshpeople in classes. It's the classic way a person can apologize without taking a large-scale hit, and it's become so common that most people don't even realize it's happening anymore. It's become so common, in fact, that when a politician apologizes for something and it's not in the passive voice, it seems shocking.

Remember when John Edwards, when beginning his current presidential run, wrote in the Washington Post apologizing for his Iraq War vote? Whether you believe his sincerity or not (and I think he's sincere, though he still showed bad judgment in the first place), you still have to acknowledge that he didn't chicken out and play the "mistakes were made" or the "if I knew then what I know now" game. He said "I was wrong," and that made headlines all across the blogosphere because it was so unusual. (None of this should be taken as an endorsement of John Edwards's candidacy.)

I guess what I find most interesting part about this conjunction of two stories is that Greenpeace, not known as an evangelical haven, is using a Biblical narrative to push a secularly driven movement, while the Pope is further harming the credibility of his church by refusing to accept that he said something stupid and that his church did some horrific things in the past. If secular groups can really learn to tap into the mythology of the past to motivate actions, and if churches continue to stay in this belief in their own infallibility, we might see some change in the way humans view the world around them.

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