“A Document Of Barbarism”: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History VII


Consider the darkness and the great cold

In this vale which resounds with mysery [sic]. – Brecht, The Threepenny Opera

To historians who wish to relive an era, Fustel de Coulanges recommends that they blot out everything they know about the later course of history.  There is no better way of characterizing the method with which historical materilism has broken.  It is a process of empathy whose origin is the indolence of the heart, acedia which despairs of grasping and holding the genuine historical image as it flares up briefly.  Among medieval theologians it was regarded as the root cause of sadness.  Flaubert, who was familiar with it, wrote, “Few will be able to guess how sad one had to be in order to resuscitate Carthage.”  The nature of this sadness stands out more clearly if one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathise.  The answer is inevitable: with the victor.  And all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them.  Hence, empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers.  Historical materialists know what that means.  Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in tn which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate.  According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the processional  They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment.  For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror.  They owe their existence not only to the eff of artifacts orts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries.  There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.  And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owned to another.  A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible.  He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy of History”, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans by Harry Zohn, pp. 256-257

There are two places in which, when I find myself within them, a part of me desires never to leave: museums and cathedrals.  Both are, in a sense, monuments to human greatness, even as the cathedral’s greatness is masked as a dedication to God.  They are places filled with the living who file past the dead, sometimes in silence, sometimes in wonder, sometimes in apathy.  For example, as one walks up the side aisle in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Washington, DC (better known as the National Cathedral), one passes a stone tomb holding the remains of former Pres. Woodrow Wilson.  The first reaction of many, perhaps, is awe that one can find oneself so close to the burial ground of a person so important to the life of our nation.  A moment or two of thought, however, should turn that awe to disgust.  Here, in this sanctuary dedicated to the praise and worship of God, lies the remains of a small-minded, racist, dogmatic, war-monger who sent tens of thousands of his fellow Americans to their deaths for no reason that his own vainglorious dreams of rebuilding human civilization in his own image.  That he failed in this last dream is not necessarily his own fault; this vision was a fantasy born of megalomania rather than the carefully laid plans of the ruling classes who emerged victorious in 1918.  Here, on holy ground, lie entombed the carcass of a racist butcher of men and women, whose dream of a better world would have been a nightmare for far too many.

Our museums, despite their best efforts at cleaning up their origins, are still little more than depositories not only of theft, but of artifacts of death, the long sad record of human conquest and destruction.  Consider the National Archives, with its reproduction of the Magna Carta, a concession of power, but only so that others would be consulted in the construction of Feudal decisions and the making of the structure of power.  Both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were little more than the retention of power by those already entrenched.  African-American slaves were less than human; women had no legal rights at all, not even recognized as human at all, except for purposes of census in order for the powerful to gain perhaps even more power.  The Declaration of Independence counts among the “crimes” of the British the freeing of slaves in service to the Crown forces fighting the Colonial Army, an Army that could not pay its members, and who had the support, at best, of about a third of the then current population.

We can travel the world and find monuments at whose existence we marvel, while engaging in inhuman amnesia, forgetting the thousands of lives lost in the construction of the Pyramids or the Great Wall.  The Temples at Angkor Wat and the cathedrals of Europe may well be testimony to the faith of an age; they are a faith that considered the lives of those who built them and worshiped in them of so little worth that the deaths are not recorded.  According to Jean Delumeau, the sermons preached in those cathedrals were epics of horror, the story of a God who would send the souls of most of those there to hear the Good News to hell through a mysterious determination made before time itself was created.  In the Mayan ruins, we see evidence of games played with the heads of those defeated in battle.  Mexico City is built on an abattoir, with the daily sacrifice necessary to bring about the rising of the sun, as the living heart was cut from some “lucky” sacrificial victim whose body was unceremoniously tumbled down the steps.  The Aztecs kept small villages around their main city to ensure a ready supply of sacrificial victims.

It is the historical materialist qua historian who sees all this, knows it, and does not call it the rise of civilization.  He sees only the passage of power from one group to the next, one generation to the next.  Ours is a world ruled by those not who stand on the shoulders of giants, to quote Isaac Newton.  Rather, they stand upon the heaped corpses of those whose only worth was in their death.  Civilization is what the victor calls the blood stained artifacts that declare the victors right to rule.  The human detritus that fill the ground; the declarations of rights and freedom and nationhood are little more than the self-justification of those who rule by self-declared right.  The victims of the march of civilization would tell a different story, if their voices had not been silenced, their names forgotten.

It is precisely here the Christian critique of power meets the historical materialist and joins hands.  For our Savior was one of those victims of the powerful, railroaded to an ignominious death upon a Roman cross, a traitor and a rebel against the self-declared rulers of the world.  We stand in solidarity with those who would refuse to bow to worldly rulers who parade the facade of civilization as their self-justification.  We, as much as the historical materialist, see the blood that drips from these relics of past destructions and hear the voices of our brothers and sisters calling from the ground, demanding justice, demanding the truth be spoken.

In my first semester at Wesley Theological Seminary, taking a survey class in the history of Christianity from its Jewish roots to the Reformation, the professor preferred to offer it as a history of ideas.  Nothing more violates the memories of the 1500 blood-soaked years of that first part of our history than to ignore the dead, to relegate them to namelessness, and concentrate instead on “ideas”, ideas without context, ideas without a source in power, ideas without their victory over other ideas ruled heretical, the holders of those ideas declared anathema, worthy of the torturer, the garrote, and the flaming pillar.  When we Christians begin to gather around us not only those who provided the “ideas” we praise so highly, but the bones and names and lives and, yes, ideas, of the victims of the victors, only then will be begin to wipe away the Mark of Cain from our lives, having shown that we hear the blood of our siblings crying out from the ground, demanding justice, demanding remembrance.  Only when we can say, with Benjamin, that so much of what we hold dear is little more than the documents of barbarism, can we be worthy of recalling the names and lives of the faithful who have gone before us.


About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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