God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion! ― D.T. Suzuki
Believe nothing. Entertain possibilities. – Caroline Casey
To the extent that it demonizes much of the psyche, religion prioritizes spirit and banishes soul. Mainstream faith simply serves the state, retaining the form without the content: convenient piety, Sunday church attendance and ceremonies of the status quo. And fundamentalism is content without form: emotional catharsis and anti-intellectualism that twists the longing for communitas into misogyny and racism. At their best, they comfort the lonely and provide a sense of community. At their worst, they legitimize existing power relations, re-affirm white privilege and demonize the Other.
By contrast, what we call radical ritual exhibits the three-part, unpredictable logic of the Hero’s initiatory journey: separation, liminality and re-incorporation. The community creates a relatively safe container through music, rhythm and invocation. However, once the spirits enter (as in Haitian Voudoun), they are in control, not humans. These rituals proceed on the assumption that problems in this world reflect imbalances in the other, and their intention is to restore that lost harmony.
Malidoma Somé writes that such reciprocity “cancels out the whole sense of hierarchy.” Successful ritual both requires and leads to a sense of community where diversity is respected and participants see exploitative or violent acts for what they are: the behavior of uninitiated people who never felt welcomed into the world.
Chapter Twelve of my book describes indigenous rituals of grief, closure, atonement, reconciliation and welcoming. What happened in New Zealand seems to have included all of these. True reconciliation (“to make friendly again”) requires two parties: the veteran or the perpetrator and his community. It acknowledges that at some level everyone involved has suffered. It assumes a sense of interconnectedness.
In southern Africa, this quality is known as ubuntu: “My humanity is bound up in yours. I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.” Knowing they are part of a greater whole, people who have ubuntu are not threatened by others’ good luck; indeed, they feel diminished when others suffer. Their values survive despite the dehumanizing effects of oppression. In short, they behave like initiated individuals. It was in this spirit of ubuntu that South Africa began its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the intention of achieving restorative justice, and it served as a model in other countries.
Tribal communities prefer healing to punishment. The Acholi people of Uganda resolve conflicts through the Mataput ritual (“drinking of the bitter root from a common cup.”) There are reconciliation and restorative justice traditions throughout Native America and Polynesia. In the Hawaiian Ho’oponopono tradition, the intention is simple and clear, yet profound:
Step 1: I Love You
Step 2: I’m Sorry
Step 3: Please Forgive Me
Step 4: Thank You
In American retributive or punitive justice, since the victim has suffered, so must the criminal. Offenders are accountable to the state, not to the victim. In restorative justice, however, crime is rooted in the human error of forgetting one’s purpose, rather than in sin or innate evil. So offenders are accountable to those they have harmed, rather than to an abstract concept such as the state. The first priority of the rebalancing process is healing the victim physically, emotionally and spiritually. But when everyone is interconnected, a relationship – or several – must be repaired. So the perpetrator apologizes, asks for forgiveness and demonstrates his intention to make restitution with the victim, the community and the spirits. To ritually cleanse his soul, he must face his victim, his ancestors and himself.
Creativity springs not from the center, but from the margins. Long efforts by Native Americans and Hawaiians culminated in a law that encouraged the repatriation of ancestral bones from museum shelves for final burial.
Some modern people understand. South-Central Los Angeles has suffered from generations of gang wars, with over fifteen thousand fatalities. One day in 1989, several members of one gang, heartsick at the meaningless carnage, donned the neutral color of black and marched unarmed into their rival’s territory, singing peace songs. The risk resulted in a truce that lasted several years and spread to forty cities. The gangs created their own rituals of reconciliation and agreed to cooperate for the greater goal of social justice.
Perhaps the ultimate form of reconciliation is with the ancestors and the spirits of the land. For many – such as descendants of both slaves and slave owners – this includes imaginatively healing relationships that go back through generations of epistemic trauma.
But the literal always points to the symbolic. Traditional Africans see the violence and trauma of modernity as a consequence of a broken relationship between the worlds. Spirits who haven’t been fed with grief and beauty feed on the bodies of the living. How else do we explain our fascination with the “undead” in horror movies? In this imagination, many ancestors who had helped perpetuate colonialism long ago desire forgiveness. They want their living descendants to take responsibility (not blame) for their crimes and atone for them. In America, this is complicated by the fact that most ancestors are buried very far away, and that countless people live far from their birthplaces. But, it is said, those spirits who witnessed our birth continue to watch, and attending to them can unleash vast forces of healing. Somé writes,
They know…what needs to be done. It’s up to us to tell them we’re open to receiving that knowledge so we can take the proper action, because we’re still caught in a human body…So, one way to heal the ancestors is to grieve them.
Let’s consider the story of Semele again. We remember that she was destroyed by Zeus’ thunderbolt. The descendants of Cadmus and Harmony (including Oedipus) experienced many adventures and tragedies, and those are stories for some other time. Dionysus, one of those descendants, is the most complicated of the gods, and I write in great detail about him in Chapters Two and Five.
But Semele’s narrative doesn’t end with her death. Her sisters had never believed her claim that she’d been Zeus’ lover. At the beginning of The Bacchae, Dionysus, now an adult, stands before the ruins of her tomb, still smoldering from Zeus’s lightning. Having transformed it into a shrine by causing vines to grow “copious and green” around it, he states, “I must defend my mother Semele and make people see that I am a god, born by her to Zeus”. Later, in another story, he descended to the underworld and convinced Hades to allow him to bring her to Olympus, where she took her place among the gods and where she still resides. (Yes, we alternate between past and present tenses, because this is myth, and as the Roman Sallustius wrote, “This never happened, but it always is”.)
How did Dionysus become an adult? Perhaps it was by making that initiatory descent, which would have been terrifying even to the gods, and in doing so served as a model for humans. Perhaps he stood before all the dead to grieve for never having known his mother. Perhaps he atoned for his father’s acts. It’s up to us to imagine because these stories, ultimately, are about us. I concluded my book in 2010 with this wish:
Imagine mass public rituals in which warriors and civilians, rich and poor, women and men, white and black, gay and straight, and mad and “normal” confront the impossible paradoxes and crimes of our history and suffer together. Imagine a president standing in this container, begging forgiveness from a descendent of a slave and a Native American. Imagine everyone grieving for all those who died as soldiers, victims and activists, for the extinct species and even for the forests that once covered the continent. Imagine the relief at having finally shed tears together as a mosaic of uncommon peoples, and the gratitude bordering on ecstasy with which an entire nation would dance the “second line” on its way back home.
Since then, politicians in several countries have made half-hearted gestures of apology to persecuted minorities, including Joe Biden’s designation of October 12th as “Indigenous People’s Day” (while keeping Columbus Day as a national holiday).
Until this August, however, no national leader had participated in a serious indigenous ritual or shown any genuine remorse, and that’s what New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did. The Pacific Islander community had lobbied the government to apologize for the racist, anti-immigrant “Dawn Raids” it had conducted against them in the 1970s. These, like colonial policies everywhere, were actions that had resulted in multi-generational trauma.
On August 1st Ardern traveled to the Maori-dominated North Island and, before 1,000 onlookers and national TV cameras, participated in a Samoan atonement ceremony, the Ifoga, in which the subject seeks forgiveness by exposing herself to a kind of public humiliation. Islanders who had been personally victimized by those raids covered her with a traditional woven mat as she sat in a posture of supplication. Then they raised the mat and forgave her – and symbolically perhaps, all white descendants of settler colonialism. In her following speech (“The government expresses its sorrow, remorse and regret that the dawn raids and random police checks occurred and that these actions were ever considered appropriate”), she backed up the apology by announcing financial grants and educational reforms and promising immigration reforms as well. Videos of the event show how emotional and meaningful it was for many of the attendees, as well as Ardern herself. Here are two videos of the event:
How can we distinguish between “half-hearted” and “symbolic”? After all, in 2012 Barack Obama famously wept on camera after the Sandy Hook massacre – while doing nothing to impact gun control, right-wing terrorism, police violence, the defense budget or drone assassinations.
But by the summer of 2021, indigenous and persecuted groups everywhere had been clamoring for an end to the mistreatment and the false narratives, for long-overdue respect: from the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements; to the movement for reparations over slavery; to the movement to identify the victims of Spanish Fascism; to immigration advocates; to the movement to remove Confederate monuments; to inclusion of People of Color in Hollywood; to the Water Protectors; to LGBT people; to the movement to abolish the Columbus Day holiday; and other racist cultural forms; to the descendants of Native American children who’d died in Canadian boarding schools.
Was that really a ritual, a mystery that Ardern participated in? Wasn’t her gesture merely the decent thing anyone ought to make? Perhaps it’s really that simple. As poet Howard Nelson writes (My Father Went to Funerals),
It is a mystery. Maybe
the decency itself is the mystery,
or maybe we cross from the one to the other
only on a bridge of grief.
Let’s imagine that one authentic gesture can have results that reverberate outwards. Less than two weeks after the ceremony in New Zealand, on the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, President Lopez Obrador asked the country’s indigenous Mexica peoples for forgiveness:
Today we remember the fall of the great Tenochtitlan and we apologize to the victims of the catastrophe caused by the Spanish military occupation of Mesoamerica and the territory of the current Mexican Republic…The conquest and colonization are signs of backwardness, not of civilization, less of justice.
Calasso explained our situation: indifference, and trouble:
To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories. And you could imagine that these dangerous invitations were in fact contrived by the gods themselves, because the gods get bored with men who have no stories.
Since we have forgotten the old ritual relationships with the gods, with the ancestors, with Nature herself, we have also forgotten ourselves. But not all of us. I prefer to think in that subjunctive mode: What if?
California’s Yana Indians were brought to extinction by starvation and settler violence in the 1850s.
The last speaker of their language – a Yahi man known as Ishi – died in 1916. But some of their old stories were recorded. This one is a bit more hopeful:
The gods have retreated to the volcanic recesses of Mt. Lassen, passing the time playing gambling games with magic sticks. They’re simply waiting for such a time when human beings will reform themselves and become ‘real people’ that spirits might want to associate with once again.